TCS Daily

Bobos in Baghdad

By Arnold Kling - September 15, 2004 12:00 AM

"The gradualists argue that it would be crazy to rush into terrorist-controlled cities and try to clean them out with massive force because the initial attack would be so bloody there'd be a debilitating political backlash.

...the weight of the argument is on the gradualist side. That's mostly because people like Ayad Allawi deserve a chance to succeed. These people in the interim government are scorned as stooges and U.S. puppets, but they're risking and sometimes giving their lives for their country. Let's take the time to give them a shot."
-- David Brooks

David Brooks epitomizes what I dislike about neoconservatives. He is an elitist, who believes that the best and the brightest can fashion a conservative dress out of big-government cloth. He has faith that America can take on the burden of remaking the Middle East.

My own conservatism/libertarianism is much less optimistic about government elites. On domestic policy, I put my faith in the private sector to muddle through, not brilliantly, but effectively. Government programs, whether they stem from conservative or liberal ideals, fill me more with concern or frustration than with hope. I was less than pleased with the extent to which President Bush tilted in Brooks' direction when he gave his acceptance speech at the Republican convention.

On the war in Iraq, the choice that Brooks lays out is one between an aggressive military campaign against the insurgency or instead -- as he prefers -- a more patient approach that tries to minimize civilian casualties. I fear that, once again, the President leans in Brooks's direction while I lean in the other. This serves to accentuate an anxiety I have felt about Brooks since I first read his book Bobos in Paradise.

Thou Shalt Not Confront

The "Bobos" to whom Brooks refers are "Bourgeois Bohemians," who are like former hippies in high-income, high-status occupations. Brooks pokes fun at the contradictions between their "bohemian" nonconformist poses and their "bourgeois" status as a successful economic and technocratic class. Ultimately, however, he views the Bobo phenomenon with admiration, because he sees it producing an elite that is flexible, open-minded, decent, and inclusive. He thought that the only thing missing from the Bobos was a commitment to great causes.

In July of 2001, I wrote an essay criticizing Brooks and the Bobos. In it, I said,

Bobos put up little or no moral resistance to some forms of antisocial behavior. This aspect of the Bobo mindset is captured in such labels as "nonjudgmentalism," "ethical relativism," and "tolerance for diverse points of view."

...the common thread in Bobo moral attitudes is laziness. For most Bobos, their outlook does not reflect an intellectual commitment to ethical relativism. Instead, it results from a fear of confrontation.

...The over-arching commandment of Bobo-ism is "Thou shalt not confront."

In his recent column on Iraq, I was struck at how closely Brooks adhered to the pre-9/11 Bobo mentality that I identified. He refers to the hawkish position with which he disagrees as "confrontationalist." September 11 changes nothing for the Bobos. "Thou shalt not confront" is still the commandment.


Brooks correctly points out that the debate over whether to try to achieve our objectives in Iraq by overwhelming force or by subtler means is a debate among hawks allied with the Bush Administration. Relative to this debate, Bush's Democratic opponents are on the sidelines.

The Democrats, in my view, are neither hawks nor doves. They are ostriches. Some of the ostriches disparage nations like Australia and Italy that stand with us and instead fantasize about forging a coalition out of the unwilling nations of France and Germany. They have faith in the United Nations, even as the Sudan and Iran thumb their noses at that body.

Other ostriches believe that the United States needs to act smaller and more powerless in the world. That, the theory goes, would make us less resented and more secure.

Some of the ostriches say, "Iraq was the wrong place to go to war. Look at North Korea. Look at Iran. Look at Saudi Arabia." Yet they never argued for war in those other countries. Moreover, if we imagine Saddam still in power, still defying the UN, and still believed to possess weapons of mass destruction, what leverage would we possibly have on Iran or on the Saudis?

Army vs. Marines

In Iraq, the "gradualist" position, which is consistent with the Bobo's "do not confront" commandment, is represented institutionally by the Marines, of all forces. Max Boot's book The Savage Wars of Peace is a tribute the Marines' historical efforts to work with indigenous groups in small countries in order to quell guerilla rebellions.

The confrontationalist view, which is that we should destroy enemy strongholds in places like Falluja and Najaf, is more compatible with Army doctrine. This point of view has been articulated by Ralph Peters. He writes,

It is not a matter of whether attrition is good or bad. It's necessary. Only the shedding of their blood defeats resolute enemies. Especially in our struggle with God-obsessed terrorists-the most implacable enemies our nation has ever faced-there is no economical solution. Unquestionably, our long-term strategy must include a wide range of efforts to do what we, as outsiders, can to address the environmental conditions in which terrorism arises and thrives (often disappointingly little-it's a self-help world). But, for now, all we can do is to impress our enemies, our allies, and all the populations in between that we are winning and will continue to win.

The only way to do that is through killing.

I have no military background, so that I have no basis of expertise for choosing between what I call the Marines' doctrine and what I call the Army's doctrine. I know little beyond my reading of Boot and Peters.

In Iraq, the argument of the "gradualists" is that confrontation will cause death, leading to resentment and people taking sides with the guerillas. My instinct is that the more people who die among and in proximity to insurgents, the fewer will take their side. I suspect that we lose "the street" by failing to demonstrate the ability to confront the armed opposition and by showing reluctance to do what it takes to establish security.

My guess is that ordinary people will not join a battered guerilla movement out of sympathy. On the other hand, if they see guerillas thumbing their noses at our more-powerful forces, that is what will motivate undecided individuals to take up arms against us.


I believe that the United States may have to fight The Battle of the Mosque and deal with The Terrorism Funnel largely alone. I do not think that other nations, willing or unwilling, have the military strength to contribute significantly to the effort.

Furthermore, I do not believe that "moderate Muslims" are going to be able to play a role at this stage. The radicals have all of the passion and energy on their side. Until we break the radicals, outspoken moderates will be a small, ineffectual minority.

During the Civil War, most Northern generals believed in a military doctrine that favored maneuvering for position rather than confronting the enemy. Lincoln could not win the war until he managed to find Grant and Sherman.

My guess is that President Bush needs to find similar generals today. If he listens to David Brooks, then the strategy of nonconfrontational Bobos in Baghdad may lead to nothing but pain and humiliation.

Arnold Kling's latest book is Learning Economics.


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