TCS Daily

Against Neo-Carterism

By Lee Harris - September 17, 2003 12:00 AM

According to the tenets of the Bush Doctrine, the Bush administration has one, and only one, legitimate goal to pursue in Iraq: it must make Iraq less likely to be a source of catastrophic terror against the United States than it was before we invaded it, and it must aim at creating a government that is also less likely to be a future source of such terror.


The initial phase of the war in Iraq went a long way toward accomplishing this goal. But recently it has begun to look as if our occupation of Iraq may well end by inadvertently undermining this primary objective -- not in spite of our best intentions, however, but because of them. Or to express my fear in its most brutal form, I am scared that the administration may be pursuing a policy that I will call neo-Carterism, in honor of the president who most embodied a perilously cheerful faith in the efficacy of good intentions.


Neo-Carterism is the naïve insistence that nation building must not aim merely at democracy in the long run, but that it must proceed democratically from the very beginning; with the accompanying belief that any stability that is achieved by non-democratic means is illegitimate and should be fought tooth-and-nail. Neo-Carterism, in sum, overlooks the fact that all societies without exception, including ours, have historically required a strong man in order to make that first critical step from anarchy to stability.


When you are trying to construct a society from the ground up, it is impossible to do without the services of such an individual -- but who counts as a strong man?


First of all, a strong man does not necessarily mean a brutal authoritarian: both Washington and even Jefferson, according to my definition, would qualify as strong men because of their ability to get the enormous segments of the population to obey them on faith, even when the men who did the obeying had never had a face-to-face encounter with them. A strong man, in this sense, is simply the man the rest of the society is in fact willing to obey, and not merely the man who, by the society's written constitution, they are supposed to obey.


Secondly, a strong man, while willing to take account of other people's ideas, must also recognize when the time for debate and discussion has ended. He is the man who, irrespective of his title or his position on a flow chart, is sitting in the seat where the buck stops, and who is willing to make the hard and terrible decisions that come to the person sitting there, not the easy decisions between the better and the worse, but the impossible decisions between the worse and the even worse than that.


Thirdly, not only must the strong man be prepared to give such commands, but the people to whom he gives them must also be prepared to obey them, and to do so without a moment's reflection, as automatically as the impulse from our brain travels through our nervous system in order to lift our right arm.


But fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, a strong man must be able to count not merely on the promptness of his followers in carrying out his commands, but on their willingness to use lethal force to compel other people to carry out these commands as well.


The Step From Anarchy to Order


Unless a strong man can force others to do his will, there can never be the step from anarchy to order. Once that step is made, however, then the automatic pilot of legitimacy takes over. The step from anarchy to order coincides with the establishment of "legitimacy" whereupon obedience becomes possible without the strong man. Then it becomes possible for the first time to conceal, and to forget, the necessity of force in civic life, as has happened both in American and in contemporary European society. But first someone must give commands that are never questioned or debated, but simply obeyed. If we, or the French, or the English were forced to recreate the civil ecology of our political order from scratch, according to the standards of President Carter, we would still be hitting each other over the heads with clubs.


A strong man in Iraq may not, in fact, be forthcoming. After all, simply review the conditions necessary for his emergence. He must be able to command the obedience of enough of his population to provide a basis for his power -- and the only way this can be done is by having many people either trust you very much or fear you very much. But if such a man does emerge, it would be rank insanity for us to fail to encourage his ascent, provided that he meets one critical test.


The Simple Test


Our criterion is simple: Anyone is acceptable who opposes the fantasy ideology of radical Islam, with its endorsement of catastrophic terror, anyone who can credibly mount a vigorous campaign to eliminate this cultural pathology from his nation. Anyone who does not, we will remove -- somehow or other. Nothing else matters.


Our target in Iraq must not be to earn the moral approval of President Carter and his many well-meaning admirers, but to keep the leadership of Iraq untainted by the poisonous fantasy ideology circulating today throughout so much of the Muslim world. If we have no better choice, we can live with a ruler who exploits his people, or denies them their civil rights. But we cannot live with the most upright man if he is guided by the fantasy ideology of radical Islam.


And, most emphatically, we cannot live with a parliamentary democracy that is too weak to fight against the ruthless forces that will emerge the moment the American presence is no longer there to combat them. Such forces have always emerged when there is no strong man to prevent them; and they will emerge again in a rudderless Iraq just as they emerged out of every other rudderless society that has tried parliamentary democracy. For while we can go on killing guerillas and terrorists, so long as a handful of men remain who are prepared to use act ruthlessly against their parliamentary opponents, they will win in the end -- and in the Iraq of today and the foreseeable future, there can be little question what this handful of men will represent.


If the United States must stand firm in Iraq, let it be for something that has a snowball's chance in hell of succeeding -- and the only form of government that can work there right now and for the foreseeable future is the government of a strong man. Not because the Iraqis are subhuman, but because they are fully human. That is to say, they, like us, are quarrelsome and wish to impose their wills on others, and will try to do so until they are forced to stop by a central authority with the power to overawe them.


If this sounds like a return to the old Cold War strategy of giving our financial and military support to authoritarian regimes so long as they are willing to play by our rules, you are right. That is exactly what I am advocating.


Cold War Lessons


One of the paradoxes of the Cold War is that, while it was going on, no one was able to see the true wisdom behind the strategy of backing authoritarian regimes, like South Korea's in the fifties or the Shah of Iran's in the sixties. This is because for nearly everyone at that time, Communism was a natural part of life; a solid achievement, and here to stay. In fact, it was not here to stay at all, but a passing fad like the hula-hoop; and out of this unexpected truth, we discovered something we could not have known otherwise: we learned how difficult it is to repair a society that has been moored in a complete fantasy -- the fantasy, in the case of the USSR, that socialism would produce a vastly superior material prosperity and quality of life than would capitalism over time.


To call Communism a theory is to miss its point entirely. It worked rather as a fantasy; but the problem with fantasy, as I have argued elsewhere, is that in order for fantasy to work, you have to begin tampering with reality, to rearrange it and style it to fit your fantasy needs; and such a process, when carried out collectively decade after decade, ends by producing societies that no longer have the privilege of merely starting all over again from scratch, because that point, alas, has long since vanished from view. It must start from far below scratch -- as the gang rule in the rumble of the former USSR makes clear.


Communism, in short, proved not to be simply a life-style choice, or a divergent form of economic organization; it was a collective retrogression of an entire culture and the progressive de-civilizing of the individuals who had to operate in this hallucinatory world, both of which tendencies may still require decades to overcome, if indeed they can ever be overcome at all.


It was not merely that anything was better than Communism; it was that Communism was a dead end, whereas authoritarianism was a stage moving toward a freer and more prosperous way of life. It was like pubescence -- rough to get through, but at least heading in the right direction. Consider Spain's transition from Franco to modern liberal democracy, as well as the miracle of South Korea, and many others, and you will see this at once. Their prior history of authoritarian rule did not, in the end, preclude the creation of a stable and liberal society; Communism has, if not altogether precluded such a transition, at least made it much harder than anyone at first imagined.


Liberal admirers of Carter scoffed at Jeanne Kirkpartrick's distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes; and during the time when while both regimes actually existed, the scoffers had a point: it was not so clear where the difference between them lay.


It was easy, after all, to point to the same acts of atrocity committed on specific individuals in both kinds of regimes, so that, equally overwhelmed by indignation for both acts, some of us did not tarry over any exculpatory evidence in favor of one or the other -- though many others, like Jeanne Kirkpatrick, did. But none of us any longer has that excuse. Looking back from a perspective that allows us to see the big picture, we find that the fundamental difference between these two kinds of regime jumps is one that jumps right out at us.


The totalitarian systems were based in fantasy, and they failed; the authoritarian systems were based on a melancholy acceptance of reality, and they worked -- worked well enough, indeed, to provide for their own peaceful liquidation in several cases.


And today this same difference is back with a vengeance.


The fantasy ideology of radical Islam that is currently agitating the Muslim world is, if permitted to continue, a fantasy that will end by having the same apocalyptic outcome as all the other fantasy ideologies that flourished in the last century. Weak and divided men cannot hope to fight against it, only strong men can.


No matter what we do in Iraq today, sooner or later it will be ruled by a strong man. We must make sure it is someone who owes us; and not someone who has risen to popularity by opposing us and by promoting the fantasy needs of his people.


Is this a guarantee of our security? After all, wasn't Saddam Hussein supposed to be exactly this kind of strong man?


Both of these questions should give us serious pause; but at the worst they indicate that there is a risk attached to the case for authoritarianism in Iraq, just as there is a risk attached to every possible post-war Iraqi option available to us. Yet the riskily doable is always preferable to the flat out impossible -- and that is the best that a policy of neo-Carterism has to offer us in Iraq.



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