Orange County Register

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Our Utopian Liberal President

Conservative theory mocks those who think reason can overcome nationalism and religious fervor. Please, someone get a memo on this to George W. Bush.

Imagine if a handful of extra chads had ended up dangling in Al Gore's favor four years ago, and he had gone on to invade and occupy Iraq, for the same reasons President George W. Bush has given for undertaking those actions. The instinctive response to this hypothetical is to claim that because Gore is a liberal, he would never have engaged in something like the Iraq war.

The irony is that the administration's Iraq policy exemplifies what classic conservative political theorists have identified as the fundamental weaknesses of the liberal worldview. Specifically:

Conservative political theory recognizes that human reason is a far less powerful tool than shallowly optimistic liberal rationalists would have us believe. Grandiose claims about the ability of experts to predict and control the future are characteristic of liberal intellectual arrogance.

Conservative political theory has always emphasized that human cultures are by nature immensely complex things, and that each culture has its own organic logic and structure, which will be difficult for outsiders to understand. In particular, conservative thinkers deride the liberal delusion that imposing one culture's laws and institutions on another will automatically transform the latter into something that resembles the former.

Conservative thinkers have made particularly devastating criticisms of liberal thought by pointing out the extent to which liberalism has failed to grasp that religious belief and nationalist sentiment remain overwhelmingly powerful forces in human affairs.

Now consider how these insights apply to the Iraq war.

The architects of that war have a grand strategic vision: By replacing Saddam Hussein's brutal regime with a government friendly to Western values, the Middle East will be transformed eventually from a region governed by dysfunctional dictatorships and religious fanaticism into an area where democracy, free markets and the rule of law are welcomed rather than despised.

This is, to put it mildly, an ambitious scheme. Consider that the Western world's most knowledgeable Iraq experts were completely wrong about whether Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Yet the Bush administration claims it makes sense to continue to occupy Iraq on the basis of its views regarding an almost infinitely more complicated question: whether Iraq can be transformed into a democracy, and what effect such a transformation would have on the rest of the Middle East.

Now consider the means by which this transformation is supposed to take place: by holding the first real elections in the nation's history, less than two years after the overthrow of Saddam's regime, and while something resembling a civil war continues to be fought in Iraq itself.

Imagine if another nation's military overthrew the United States government, and its leaders announced that, within a year or two, America was going to be transformed into an Islamic republic. It doesn't require one of the great minds of conservative political thought to recognize the absurdity of such a plan. Yet how different is this from what the Bush administration proposes to do in Iraq?

The Iraq insurgency illustrates the extent to which diverse groups will put aside their desire to kill each other to fight against outsiders who trigger feelings of religious fervor and national pride. In particular, the suicide bomber - a figure that must remain incomprehensible to those who cling to the shallow rationalism characteristic of so much liberal thought - is someone who classic conservative thinkers would have understood perfectly well.

That the Iraq war is a reckless adventure in utopian internationalism, made possible by the naivete to which liberal thought has always been prone, would be obvious if it were not being prosecuted by administration that, in the face of all evidence, calls itself conservative.

Copyright 2004 The Orange County Register.