Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Utopian Folly of the Iraq War

Conservatism is founded on a realistic vision of human nature as imperfectible--of human beings as limited in their knowledge and virtue and of the human tendency to factional conflict driven by ambition, avarice, and fanaticism. By contrast, the Left is founded on a utopian vision of human nature as perfectible through rational social planning. Darwinian science supports conservatism by sustaining its realistic view of human nature.

The American war in Iraq violates such conservatism by assuming a utopian view of human nature. That explains why many American conservatives now realize that the neoconservative idealism of Bush's war in Iraq is not really rooted in conservative thought.

The American war in Iraq is foolishly utopian in at least two respects. First, it is utopian in the assumption that the institutions of ordered liberty can be nourished around the globe in every society by imperialistic wars. In his Second Inaugural Address, Bush self-consciously imitated Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. Bush proclaimed "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world" by using military force to overthrow tyrants and thus liberate all of mankind. "We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul." This is utopian because it ignores the fact that the achievement of ordered liberty requires more than just the longing of the soul for liberty. It requires customary traditions that evolve gradually and unpredictably in ways that cannot be managed by military rulers.

Bush actually acknowledges this in one passage of his speech: "Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own."

It should be evident by now that the "customs and traditions" of Iraq do not support national unity under the rule of law and limited government. The traditions of Islamic sharia and sectarian factionalism will not permit free institutions to develop anytime soon.

The other utopian element of the American war in Iraq is that this has been a Presidential war. Bush's Second Inaugural is a glorious speech. But that's just the problem! The American constitutional framers understood that the President would be tempted to go to war to satisfy his ambition and love of glory. That's why they designed a constitutional system based on a balance of powers that would have ambition checking ambition. (This is the subject of my chapter on limited government in DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM.) The President's glory-seeking ambition as Commander in Chief would be checked by the powers of Congress for declaring war, for regulating and financing the military, and for impeachment. Regretably, however, the Congress of the United States has largely given up its war powers to the President. Rather than insisting on a declaration of war, as required by the Constitution, the Congress passed an Iraq Resolution in October of 2002 that essentially gave unlimited discretion to the President to launch a war as he wished.

To assume that a politically ambitious man like the President can be trusted to exercise such discretionary and arbitrary power assumes a perfection of wisdom and virtue in the President that is nothing more than a utopian fantasy. A more realistic, and therefore conservative, view of presidential power and glory was stated by James Madison in his fourth Helvidius paper:

"In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war and peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department. Beside the objection to such a mixture to heterogeneous powers, the trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man; not such as nature may offer as the prodigy of many centuries, but such as may be expected in the ordinary successions of magistracy. War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it. In war, the public treasures are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war, the honours and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed. It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honourable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.

"Hence it has grown into an axiom that the executive is the department of power most distinguished by its propensity to war; hence it is the practice of all states, in proportion as they are free, to disarm this propensity of its influence."

Darwinian conservatives will agree with President Bush that there is a natural desire for liberty. But they will insist that one fundamental condition for satisfying that natural desire is a system of limited government in which chief executives do not have the discretionary power to initiate imperialistic wars in the name of liberty.


Anonymous said...

Dear Larry,

I read your post with great interest. As you know, I am generally on the other side of you on the issue of Iraq but I respect and find your position very interesting. I have some questions that will help me clarify what you mean.

1. Does 9/11 matter?
2. Are we at war with radical Islamists
3. Does Iraq play into that war?
4. How do you suggest we get out of Iraq?

These are the some of the questions that your post brought to mind.

Your former student and current friend,

Mark Griffith

Larry Arnhart said...


Yes, we are at war with radical Islamists. But imperialistic wars like that in Iraq only promote new converts to radical Islam. If the American political culture of ordered liberty has a universal appeal, because it satisfies natural human desires, the cultural influence of the American way of life will eventually defeat Islamic radicalism. But to engage in imperialistic "nation building" in the Middle East will fail.

American leaders should proclaim "mission accomplished" in Iraq and then leave immediately.