TCS Daily

Whither Burke?

By Paul J. Cella - March 19, 2003 12:00 AM

Indulge me as I relate my ambivalence about the coming war in Iraq. It rests on several factors. First, I am not yet persuaded that fighting a war in Iraq would necessarily work to the advantage of America and the West and against the interests of our Islamic enemies. Now it may work to our advantage, but that it will is not obvious. I cannot quite fathom why the administration has not made a more emphatic effort to highlight the Iraq-al Qaeda connections, unless there simply are none to highlight, or none which we have uncovered, or none which we can prudently reveal. But that's the crux of the whole thing. The "weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a madman" argument - horrifying though it is - is not enough, in my view, to justify a dismantling of the Westphalian international structure, which centers on the sovereignty of nation-states. A potential threat, no matter how monstrous, does not justify preemptive action; the threat must be imminent. Surprise attacks have ever been with us; the cruel complication of Technology's nightmares does not alter basic principles. If Iraq is allied with al-Qaeda, gives it aid and comfort, abets its sinister intrigues, arms it with hideous technology, systematically shelters its minions, even if it were not specifically part of the 9/11 plot, then that is enough; the regime must fall. I support a war of self-defense, but I am very skeptical about the idea of preemptive war.

Moreover, I am frankly fed up with the fanciful, even utopian schemes of some conservatives about a huge and comprehensive democratic revolution in the Arab world. Conservatives oppose the very idea of Revolution, remember? And they criticize not only the excesses of democracy, but the thing itself - criticize not to destroy it but, in Tocqueville's ringing prose,

To instruct democracy, if possible reanimate its beliefs, to purify its mores, to regulate its movements, to substitute little by little the science of affairs for its inexperience, and knowledge of its true interests for its blind instincts; to adapt its government to time and place; to modify it according to circumstances and men; such is the first duty imposed on those who direct society in our day.

And such is the first duty of conservatives today. Where is this Tocquevillean, or maybe Burkean imagination? Is there anyone left on the Right who remembers the vast bulk of literature examining the indispensable role of organic, prescriptive institutions and mores in giving life to ordered freedom? Have we forgotten how precious it is? How difficult to export? Of some who clamor for war, and seem to have forsaken the great virtue of prudence, I am tempted say with John Henry Newman: they "are so intemperate and intractable that there is no greater calamity for a good cause than that they should get hold of it." The same might be more justly said of the "peace movement," except that it remains an open question whether theirs is a good cause at all; deposing Saddam Hussein, freeing the Iraqi people from his fiendish yoke, is emphatically a good cause, whether or not it is properly our own.

(I admit that this You-Say-You-Want-A-Revolution fancy once inebriated me; but I can only comment by saying that I believe brashness and anger has yielded to wisdom, or at least to humility.)

Part of the problem here is the profound intellectual poverty of the Left. The whole debate about this massive, this ancient, this hugely complex threat to Western civilization, this clash of civilizations, is, for all intents and purposes, being hashed out on the Right. The best arguments against war come from the Right; the best arguments for it come from the Right. The Left chicanes and heckles, enfeebles and distracts; it says almost nothing of value, except when it adopts polemical postures hammered out in earnest by those it regards as monstrous. A good example is the sudden discovery by militants of the secularist Left of the Just War theory: who knew that Communists admired St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas? So often it seems that the Left has been reduced to that mute and stupid slogan: "No Blood for Oil"; or to looking toward the French (!) for guidance.

Meanwhile, some conservatives imagine the role of America today as imperial, with a reformulated noblesse oblige, to democratize rather than civilize, animating it. I think this wild idea dangerous, impractical and largely divorced from reality; but even if it were advisable, do we really think that the country could undertake to implement it, with ruthlessness and perseverance? We have not that strength; it is imprudence to think so; the British imperialists, who failed as much as they succeeded, were made of sterner stuff than us. We cannot even get control of our own immigration policy where it concerns immigrants from countries full of our enemies. We can hardly educate our own children. For us, it is controversial to demand that school children be taught English; or to question the wisdom of that tedious old refrain about a certain religion of peace, which nevertheless inspires and countenances bloody mayhem on the occasion of a beauty contest. These are the symptoms of a profound spiritual loss of nerve; one of the more brazen symptoms of which is that hubris which gives rise to the notion that a nation ashamed of its own institutions and traditions, its own founts of inspiration, its own ideals as they developed organically out of a matrix of reason and faith, its own school of experience and inherited wisdom - that a nation ashamed of all these things, can nonetheless successfully export them to those resentful masses who long for our demise.

I am open to the idea that we must be imperial because we are in fact an Empire; and that, as such, we must punish and humiliate the barbarians when they rise. We are an Empire, we best start to act like one, this argument goes. Fine, I say; let us have that debate, but let us not be deluded about what it entails. Imperial Rome near the end was essentially a totalitarian state; certainly a grim tyranny. Must we start down that road? I think we must if the alternative is chaos in a nuclear age, with the unscrupulous arming of any lunatic with hard currency. But taking it will most decidedly not mean a triumph for freedom, or an expansion of democracy. So at base the question is a prudential one: Will an advance to American Empire make us safer or not?

The author is a writer living in Atlanta. You can visit his online home here.

1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, H. Mansfield and D. Winthrop, eds. (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 7.

2. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, M. Svaglic, ed. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), Preface, XLIII.

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