Burke, Oakeshott, and Iraq

The invasion of Iraq is the most radical project undertaken by our government in generations. It involves the use of coercive state power to redesign a whole society, ostensibly in the name of liberty and political equality. This sounds like a highly “progressive” program. Thus Leftist critics of the occupation resort to charges of duplicity: the aims of the Bush administration, they say, are not what the President now publicly announces them to be. He is not after democratic reconstruction, but rather oil or military bases or avenging a Bush family quarrel. Whether these charges are valid will be clear only after several years, once we can observe the whole course and consequences of the occupation.

I find the conservative critique more interesting and perhaps more compelling. I’ve invoked Edmund Burke’s name against the war, for that great conservative warned that it is always a mistake to try to change societies rapidly and wholesale, especially from afar and without due appreciation of local norms. Similarly, in Saturday’s New York Times column, David Brooks conducts an imaginary dialogue with another major, dead English conservative, Michael Oakeshott. “Be aware of what you do not know,” he imagines Oakeshott warning us. “Do not go charging off to remake a society when you do not understand its moral traditions, when you do not even understand yourself. Do not imagine that if you conquer a nation the results will be in any way predictable. Do not try to administer a country from behind a security bunker.”


Brooks’ first response is reasonable enough: conservatism is usually good policy, but not in places like Saddam’s Iraq, where there was nothing worth conserving. Brooks’ judgment on this point will prove correct if (but only if) our forces help to create an Iraq that is distinctly and lastingly better than the awful society they helped to destroy. Burke and Oakeshott would be skeptical, but they were wrong about other things.

Brooks’ second reply invokes the American tradition of “modest” revolutions. The men who built our republic, he says, “didn’t pretend to know what is the good life, only that people should be free to figure it out for themselves.” Likewise, our forces had no “plan for postwar Iraq,” but they were committed to creating a free society in which (presumably) the Iraqis will be able to decide their future for themselves. A revolution that expands liberty is not subject to standard conservative arguments against “social engineering.”

This is not a foolish point, but it overlooks some important complications. First, conservatives in the Burke/Oakeshott tradition would claim that rapid liberalization (i.e., quickly freeing people to make their own choices) is itself a form of social engineering. Like any imposition of a new value, liberalization can feel like cultural imperialism, it can unravel an existing social fabric, and it can generate unintended consequences. For example, the Washington Post reported yesterday that a US plan to replace food handouts with cash has been abandoned. “It’s a great idea that academics thought up, but it wasn’t in tune with the political realities,” according to a US official quoted in the Post. “We have to look at what we gain versus what we risk. Right now, we don’t need to be adding any more challenges to those we already have.” Presumably, there were powerful local interests profiting from those food rations, and alienating them would have put the occupation in extra jeopardy. This would come as no surprise to real conservatives, who (unlike libertarians) recognize that economics is always enmeshed with politics.

Second, freeing Iraqis to make their own choices is an ambiguous idea. It can mean freeing individual Iraqis to make choices for themselves in a marketplace. Or it can mean freeing Iraqis to make a joint decision by voting on their economic system. The first idea implies strong liberalization or marketization and constraints on the emergent Iraqi state; the second means allowing an Iraqi democracy to regulate markets if it so chooses. The second interpretation is presumably what Adel Abdel-Mahdi, a Shiite leader, means when he says, “The Americans … need to let the Iraqi people decide the big issues.” Indeed, the US Administrator of Iraq, Paul Bremer, who was formerly a proponent of rapid privatization, now says the scope of free markets is an issue “for a sovereign Iraqi government to address.” In other words, he has interpreted “letting the Iraqis decide” as a commitment to democratic procedures, not markets. [All these quotes come from the Post.]

Perhaps Bremer is right, although there is also a case for using American power to overturn an incredibly corrupt and ineffecient state-centered system, so that individual Iraqis can make free private decisions. In any case, true conservatives would view the imposition of either a market or a democracy as a perilous enterprise. Either way, the occupiers will make a decision that must rapidly and unpredictably change life in a far-away country that they little understand.

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