I have been diligently reading the post-mortems by conservatives and Republican partisans the past couple of days and one thing seems to me undeniable: the Republican defeat means the end of the Bush Doctrine in the War against Terror. The resignation of Donald Rumsfeld and his replacement by Bush I crony, CIA connected Robert Gates simply confirms what Bush probably had no choice about anyway–support for the Bush Doctrine even among Republicans could not survive this defeat. Regardless of what anyone thinks the election was really about (Republican corruption and incompetence, a normal 6th year Presidential power trim, failures to halt the orgy of spending, to control immigration, etc.) no politician (especially those running for President in 2008) will gamble his political future on the unknowable possibility that it wasn’t, in fact, a repudiation of the President’s policy on Iraq. We have just witnessed an epic battle between a courageous, novel, and, of course, risky strategy for transforming the very conditions that have made us powerless against victimary Islamist blackmail, on the one hand, and the forces of continuity with pre-9/11 policies (I would say “illusions,” but part of my argument here will be in favor of stepping back from these more immediate polemical stances), in particular foreign policy realism and transnational progressivism, the political form of White Guilt, on the other. The forces of continuity have won, and our first task is to process that. (There was always a third possible approach to Islamic terror and totalitarian advance: the approach of what I have recently seen referred to as the “endgame conservatives,” those who–John Derbyshire is a well known example, but there are quite a few others, like Andrew McCarthy at NRO, writers at the American Spectator and Claremont Review of Books, and I would include columnist Diana West here–who believe that trying to transform the internal politics and culture of Muslim societies is a chimerical goal, and we should focus on developing unmistakable and reliable responses to their external behavior. In short, the massive use of force against very specifically defined transgressions against U.S. or Western interests. Up until a few days ago, I saw the debate between these thinkers and adherents to the Bush Doctrine to be a crucially important one (I was preparing a couple of pieces to address it)–but could anyone really believe that the loss of Republican majorities makes it more likely that the endgamers will get a serious hearing?)
So, what I will try to do now is give the Bush Doctrine a decent burial, and, even more, to try and articulate its moral, political, historical and anthropological presuppositions, because I believe the three alternatives I have mentioned are, in one form or another, likely to be all that we will have for the duration–since I believe the others will ultimately fail, the Bush Doctrine, in whatever new form it emerges, is likely to get its chance again and next time we should try to provide it with the kind of intellectual “ballast” it will need.
So, let’s begin with “pre-emption”: first, we will not distinguish between the terrorists and the states harboring them; second, we will not wait for threats to crystallize before acting against them. The doctrine of pre-emption recognizes the way the connection between the structures of blackmail and deniability on the one hand, and the increasingly availability of deadly weapons to even non-state actors, on the other hand, creates a new reality, the outlines of which were revealed on 9/11. Terrorism had been parasitical on the “stability” of the state system from the 70s on: the assimilation of Western instititions to the victimary standpoint means that victimary blackmail is only limited by realist calculations: if the attacks are low level enough, it will be worth paying the blackmail (in the form, say, of the recognition that Palestine is indeed central to any resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict) rather than upsetting the delicate network of corrupt, brutal and ultimately vulnerable (at least according them the strongmen themselves) dictatorships which keep things simmering so as to prevent them from boiling over. On the one hand, we know that the various states which provide weapons, propaganda, money, etc., to terrorists (or allow their elites to do so) will keep things under control, and if things get a little out of control, we can focus on a relatively minor player (like, say, Libya), which the other Arab and Muslim states will probably be able to cut loose anyway. The 9/11 attacks destroyed this implicit arrangement, and the doctrine of pre-emption means that we will ourselves impose accountability upon the states which play this duplicitous role, no longer routing our actions through the superstructure of complicit international institutions and alliances, like the UN. But pre-emption reveals a broader truth: one has to choose between erring on the side of too much caution (one more round of negotiations while the plot takes shape) or too much risk (attacking a particular country before all the facts are in regarding its capabilities and intentions)–there is no position of perfect knowledge here, especially since very often what we do know and can find out depends upon what we are willing to do. So, a profound shift of attitude is implicit here: we shift the burden of proof from ourselves to those whom we have reason to suspect might be colluding with terrorists or even (depending on how “energetically” we wish interpret the doctrine), say, providing propaganda back-up.
Now, the doctrine of pre-emption could conceivably be installed as policy without the other pillar of the Bush Doctrine, the spreading of liberty as the war against Islamic fascism. But spreading liberty does answer some questions which immediately emerge once one commits to pre-emption. First of, what counts as a successful pre-emption? Let’s say we had invaded Iraq, chased Saddam Huessein from power, scoured the country looking for weapons and material which could be used for weapons, ignoring everything and everyone else, finding (or not) what we were looking for, disarming the country–then what? Saddam was in hiding–should we stay and look for him? Why? If we stay, what exactly are we doing while we’re looking for Saddam? Are we looking for Saddam or his helpers as well–his sons, his security forces, etc.? Why–what makes any of that our business? After we’ve done what we came for perhaps Saddam will return to power. Or his sons will. Or one of his generals. Do we care? Let’s say we leave and they immediately start to rearm. We can repeat what we have already done–but since we can’t waste the time and resources (not to mention looking ridiculous after a little while) the next time around we won’t bother to invade and look. We’ll just destroy the country, so that it will take decades to rebuild again as a threat. Can we be sure of that, though? How much effort and time would it take for a ruthless gang, ruling over a traumatized people living among rubble, to acquire weapons and networks of people capable of doing great damage? There is a bizarre repetition compulsion pattern to such behavior, and it can only really end by just commiting genocide against entire peoples who still haven’t “learned their lesson.”
So, spreading liberty answers the question of what we do once we have pre-empted. In a certain sense we might consider it a weapon of war against tyranny, designed to use the characteristic weaknesses of tyrannies against them. And we have an interesting precedent for us in this case: the Emancipation Proclamation (as an aside, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone pursue the obvious fact that neo-conservative politics are Lincolnian before they are Straussian or anything else). It is often noted, usually by hypocrisy-spotters, that the Emancipation Proclamation only freed those slaves held in territories which the Union government did not yet control; which is to say, it actually freed not a single one. There was a good, legalistic reason for this: Lincoln did not believe he had the authority under the Constitution to free the slaves within the Union, in which case it could only be advanced as a war measure, targeting the rebels. But there was an even better, political reason (and it’s not a coincidence that the legal and political reasons lined up so felicitously–that is what happens when you make sure to double the particular policy you pursue as a defense of some threatened portion of the Constitutional order itself): the Proclamation in one stroke produced a new powerful ally, those, black and white, slave and free, who saw the real meaning of the war in the abolition of slavery. At the same time, it radicalized the war precisely when it was necessary to do so, when the slogan of “Union” was no longer quite enough to justify the enormous sacrifices already and yet to be made, and when the unforseen consequences of unjustified Confederate resistance needed to be met with an escalation in the consequences they would confront–in other words, it provided a “no turning back” character to the struggle. And can anyone really believe that, once the war was over and slavery had been abolished in the intransigent states like the Carolinas, Alabama, etc., it could really survive long in the states which had remained loyal (or which abandoned the rebellion)? In which case, the Proclamation provided an incentive for slave states to return to the Union which was ultimately cost-free–and even if no states took up the offer, it certainly introduced divisions throughout the South.
Precisely the same logic applies to an assessment of the spread of liberty in the War against Islamic fascism. We don’t seek to forcibly democratize Egypt, not because it is less dictatorial than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (it is, but that’s not the criterion) but because the Egyptian government has not ranged itself against us, with our enemies, much less challenged us directly. If it were to consider doing so, it is aware of the consequences. Installing free governments is intrinsically connected to regime change–a punishment for our enemies and an attempt to turn their subject peoples into allies. The hope is that this will break the cycle of installing one friendly dictator after another, until each is overthrown or becomes unfriendly in turn–or, worse, simply wiping out, Carthage style, any society that looks at us wrong (and I will return the question of why we can’t do that later–at this point, nothing should be taken for granted). Meanwhile, while we don’t directly overthrow the Egyptian government, we can be confident that the spread of free societies in the region will increase the confidence of the Egyptian people and the pressure on the Egyptian government.
Now comes the difficult part. Two questions or claims account for the opposition to the Bush Doctrine by conservatives in particular; these objections were never adequately addressed by the Administration, but they deserve to be, and like all good questions answering them will clarify our own understanding of the Doctrine. First, what happens when free elections bring inimical or tyrannical regimes to power, thereby intensifying the problem they were meant to solve? Second, simply because it fits our strategy to transform these societies along these lines, there is no reason to assume that the “human material” comprising them is at all fit for the transformation. These are, of course, related questions, touching upon the unreadiness of the Arab and Muslim worlds for liberal democracy, and they also raise more basic questions about the cultural prerequisites of democracy and the actual political conditions (beyond elections) that we are willing to consider genuinely democratic. I will not argue that the claim that Muslim societies are unsuited for democracy is overstated, although I have seen that argument made, with regard to Iraq and Iran in particular; rather, I will simply stipulate to it, so that we can confront the questions in the most minimal way.
So, when Muslim countries vote, they elect Islamic fundamentalists, terrorist gangs, and Parliaments which make Sharia the law of the land. Our first question here is, if they were enemies before, are they enemies now?–if we stick to the rule that we only execute regime change upon enemies, this is the initial form in which we confront the question. If they are still enemies, well, the policy has failed in that particular case, but nothing much has changed–we are still at war with them, and the fact that we are now at war with a democratically elected government, i.e., with a people that has chosen to be at war with us, in fact widens our options: we are no longer restricted to the kind of surgical strike that the strategy of spreading freedom would dictate. We might have to defer the question of what kind of government we would insist upon in the wake of that war, but we might be in a better condition to impose liberal democracy upon a chastened population–however bitter they might be about it, a new generation raised under the imposed institutions might very well make something of them. If the new, less than ideally democratic government is not an enemy, well, at the very least we have gained something, and we are in a position to exploit that new government’s dependence upon us to insist upon (or support those fighting for) more incremental democratic transformations. At the very least it will be in a poor position to resist the demand that it continue to submit itself to regular elections.
And we will have, again, at the very least, brought such societies out of what Lee Harris calls the “fantasy ideologies” which enthrall them–in the Muslim world, in particular, the fantasy of an eternal “resistance” to the West, to the Crusaders, to imperialism, to Zionism, to whatever–a resistance without criteria and without measurable consequences because the West’s dependence upon Middle Eastern oil means that we can neither ignore such victimary resentment (as we might do if it were coming, say–but this is why it is not coming–from Africa) nor settle accounts with it once and for all. The Bush Doctrine would introduce symmetry, accountability, even a structure of causality into our relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds.
And regular elections are not a small thing, regardless of the contempt in which many seem to hold “illiberal democracy.” We prefer the liberal kind, of course, but the historically privileged route of gradual liberalization, development of a middle class, extension of the franchise and of civil liberties has pretty much been closed to us in the Muslim World. Perhaps in countries like Jordan or Morocco, the development of a more liberal, and then more democratic culture within the framework of a fairly decent and legitimate monarchy is possible–even in these cases, that possibility is fading, if not gone. Elsewhere, such regimes were destroyed long ago, and so there is no middle ground between autocracy and democracy. Without elections, freedoms will never be taken seriously, and the longer you delay (imagine if we had not yet held elections in Iraq on the grounds that the “conditions were not yet ripe”), the greater the suspicion that you will never hold them, or if you do, only when you are assured of the results (which, by now, is also impossible, so that if you do hold out for favorable results you will look incompetent as well as repressive, a deadly combination).
To accept the result of elections, once, twice, three and then four times, to have one ruler or party voluntarily step down in favor of another repeatedly, is already to exhibit some of the habits of liberalism, which are really simply advanced habits of deferral: if I am capable of letting the other side win and rule for a awhile because I know I will get my chance I will also be ready to let the other fellow speak or practice a different religion because when he is in power he will let me do so as well. So, there is absolutely no reason why the simple act of repeated elections can’t take us quite a bit of the way toward genuine liberalism.
And why, after all, would people who have not yet done so, people who are used to dominating or being dominated, habituate themselves to such a regimen of deferral if not for the simple reason that they have experienced the alternatives (or have stepped back from the brink of them), have found those alternatives to be too horrible to undergo again (or contemplate), and are thereby kept on the only path capable of keeping those alternative at bay. Indeed, could the origins of freedom and democracy lie anywhere else than in some pact made by antagonistic tribes which found themselves unable to conquer but capable of destroying each other; or found themselves facing a more formidable foe who could be defeated only with their combined powers? Once such a pact, displacing the particular ritual center of each of the tribes or groups involved in favor of the sacralization of the pact itself, is secured and repeated, the details can be filled in afterward. And for countries in the Muslim world today, those alternatives must be, on the one side, the far more horrible damages ethnic groups and states are capable of inflicting upon each other today and, on the other side-us. To put it crudely, what must supplement the deficiency in cultural prerequisites is our giving these countries absolutely no other choice.
And here, it seems to me, is the answer to those whose variant on the arguments I have been addressing focuses on Islam and the doctrines of violence, imperialism and intolerance built into it doctrinally and historically. We could, perhaps, quarantine the Muslim world, but if we wanted to set up conditions under which Muslims themselves would be forced to confront the consequences of Islam in the modern world, and to either reform it accordingly or abandon it (and, first of all, to open a space in which Muslims could discuss these alternatives freely), then the Bush Doctrine would provide the best conditions for that as well. Only a genuinely political space, even an only partially open one, would make such contests over the fate of of Islam possible: fine, a democratically elected Parliament will implement Sharia, but then they will have to pass laws which actually define its meaning, bringing it into the secular realm; imams may be given a privileged place in the political order, perhaps akin to a Supreme Court, but they will also come under public criticism for their decisions. We must have the patience to allow such processes to play themselves out, while at the same time setting some outer limits regarding, say, the execution of “apostates.” In the meantime, while maintaining some degree of neutrality in supporting the processes established by a given state, we will also be free to express our preferences for the more liberal elements.
The Bush Doctrine, on a more “originary” level, is, finally, a response to the double bind the most powerful nation is in in a post-Auschwitz, post-Hiroshima world–a double bind that is aggravated by the end of bi-polar superpower rivalry and, as has already been analyzed extensively, has produced the currently metastasizing White Guilt. This double bind is that we cannot, possibly, fight “all out” (another of the frustrations expressed by many conservative supporters of a forceful anti-terror, anti-Islamist policy): fighting all out would mean completely wiping out any enemy, perhaps even merely potential ones. We are inevitably withholding some of our power: but the problem here is, it is impossible to prevent this restraint from being interpreted as hesitancy and even fear of the consequences, and hence as a victory for whoever simply manages to survive our assaults.
And the fact is, this would be the correct interpretation, although not for the reason usually assumed, that we fear producing further uprisings among the “wretched of the earth”–it can’t be that because such revolts could be settled just as easily if we were ready to go “all out.” Our fear, in fact, is of civil war within our own country and our own civilization: if some of us made others of us complicit in genocide we would no longer be able to live together. Rather than a conventional shooting war among factions in the West, the aftermath of going “all out” would be gradual poisoning of relations as we all look at each other and see reflected our own renunciation of responsibility for our collective “re-barbarization” (to use Mark’s Steyn’s term), or our inability to match the re-barbarization of the world with anything other than a thoughtless mimetic response. It is true that if we turned out to be capable of that, there is very little that we could assume (of each other and ourselves) that we wouldn’t be capable of. The power of White Guilt lies, I would suggest, in this implicit threat to withdraw consent and initiate (or, perhaps, accelerate) this process of civilizational suicide–for White Guilt, this is a form of blackmail, applied in perfect harmony with victimary blackmail, which itself aims at inducing this civil war cum civilizational suicide (it might be compared to the strife introduced among a family, one of whose members is being held hostage, with any decision, made by any member, being potentially the fatal one, with no criteria for deciding what that might be–in such a condition of suspense, the maintenance of solidarity would become extremely difficult, the temptation to be ready to displace blame onto another almost irresistible). But this could only be effective to the extent that we recognize the destruction WG continually pre-empts in its own virtual reality as a genuine possibility.
The Bush Doctrine, then, is most fundamentally a deferral of our own tendencies to devolve into a new mode of civil disintegration over the enormous tension between our need to take the lead in establishing new, workable, symmetries and reciprocities and the actual existence of glaring asymmetries which are continually judged in the light of those very responsbilities we must take upon ourselves. This deferral must take the form of a very radical mode of freedom, what Eric Gans has called “omnicentrism,” the power of each individual to constitute him/herself as a new center, and hence a new beginning: only such a “sign” can effectively defer the temptations of both the ancient tyrannies (the “big man,” now revived by Islamic barbarism) and the modern, “ideological” ones (which usurp human freedom by reducing human action to some kind of controllable process).
The highest political form taken by this mode of freedom is “civil disobedience,” first made prominent, I suppose, in the passive resistance movement led by Gandhi, but perfected, I would suggest, by our own civil rights movement. Civil disobedience unites the individual’s freedom to resist unjust laws with a very rigorous responsibility toward those laws and whatever legitimacy (and good faith) might be possessed by their authorizers along with a disciplined, exemplary approach to the antagonisms it deliberately instigates: representing, embodying those antagonisms while refusing to allow them to escalate into violence. The conception of the world involved in the Bush Doctrine–which it didn’t live up to, and which perhaps can’t be lived up to but, like Christian martyrdom and monasticism, must come to define our culture as a possible space (realized by a few) to be preserved and allowed to shine forth–was best expressed in Bush’s Second Inaugural Address, and it comes down to, we are always on the side of the civil disobedient. Even when he is wrong we can be on his side because he allows himself to be proven wrong and accepts the lion’s share of the consequences of his own actions. The richness of this conception was just barely intimated, and not at all explored, and our tragedy is that now, perhaps, it never will be. It would not, I believe, interfere with our need to engage at times with even despicable regimes, but it would at the very least shape the way we did engage them, always finding some way to place their civil disobedients at the center of our interactions. I, at least, will be forever grateful to George W. Bush for the courage to even adumbrate such a conception and will dedicate myself to keeping its meaning out of reach of the jackals and vultures who have been gathering from the beginning and now, I suspect, will not be satisfied until they have paved over all memory of such possibilities, reducing the Bush years to nothing more than a series of criminal adventures, a nightmare from which we can now wake up.