« public work in Iraq | Main | political ideology websites »

November 11, 2003

American radicals in Iraq

In his Washington Post column today, E.J. Dionne writes, "Our foreign policy debate right now pits radicals against conservatives. Republicans are the radicals. Democrats are the conservatives." Republicans want to remake the world to match abstract ideals; Democrats are concerned about traditional alliances and institutions, unintended consequences, and appropriate limits on national power. In recent blog entries, I've been claiming that Democrats and "progressives" represent the more conservative voice in many areas of domestic policy. Dionne is making the same argument about foreign policy (writ large).

Dionne's big point can be applied to the narrower issue of reconstruction in Iraq. Apparently, most Iraqis are members of groups (religious, occupational, ethnic, regional, and tribal) that have traditional rights and privileges. The system is unfair, because privileges are not equally distributed, nor can one freely move from the group into which one is born. This is also an inefficient and irrational way to organize a society. The Bush people understandably want to rationalize and liberalize the system. But since they are eager to impose grand and simple theories directly on reality, they tend to choose the most radical approaches, for example, the "flat tax" that they are considering for Iraq.

They remind me somewhat of the French revolutionaries, who captured a regime that had conferred arbitrary privileges on most of its subjects. Even French peasants had often inherited special rights by virtue of the villages in which they were born. In contrast, the revolutionaries believed in equality for all, careers open to talents, property rights, and a system in which everything of value was exchangeable for money. Thus they revoked all special privileges (for egalitarian reasons). But this assault on the social order set them against most Frenchmen qua members of hereditary groups. The result, as Donald Sutherland shows, was a popular counterrevolution that developed almost immediately and that drew from the lower classes as well as the clergy and aristocrats (France 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution [1986]). The revolutionaries assumed that lower-class opposition must be the fruit of some conspiracy, so they turned quickly to Terror, with tragic results.

In Iraq today, the counterrevolution appears still to have very narrow support. The American occupation has not yet repeated the mistakes of the French revolution. Still, this is a good time to remember that revolutions usually backfire and traditional arrangements deserve some respect.

November 11, 2003 10:17 AM | category: Iraq and democratic theory , revitalizing the left | Comments


Site Meter