Commentary

Today’s Conservatives Support Government Managing Other Countries

This article originally appeared in Saint Paul Pioneer Press on September 14, 2003.

If there was one thing that used to define American conservatives, it was their skepticism — if not hostility — toward the role of government in the management of human affairs. According to traditional conservative philosophy, the state and its political class have neither the moral right nor the administrative capability to direct people’s lives, here or abroad.

Yet today that’s all changed. American conservatives — traditional or “neoconservative” — apparently want government to manage everywhere, especially abroad.

American conservatives seem to have become born-again government interventionists and social engineers when it comes to Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, and to millions of foreigners and other distant societies whose values are alien to most Americans.

Indeed, there is a certain touch of the theater-of-the-absurd in watching spokesmen for a White House controlled by a political party that had been a proponent of “states’ rights” in the South not many years ago, now proclaiming the need to advance the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. in Iraq. (Which kind of begs the question: Did the CEOs of Bechtel and other big American firms flocking to Iraq these days take part in the civil rights marches in the 1950s?)

Most Americans believe that government can play a limited role in the process of improving race relations in the United States. And most conservatives would agree with that. Yet a conservative administration is now suggesting that all you need is, yes, government — a few days and nights of aerial bombing, 140,000 U.S. troops, bureaucrats with good intentions and economic aid from Washington — and, voila! we have “nation building.”

And next to come? Religious freedom, individual rights and democracy among members of a society that is just starting to enter the Age of Enlightenment. Give government a chance and thousands of years of deep-rooted hatred among tribal, ethnic, religious communities in Iraq will come to a happy end.

The same conservatives who have warned us in the past of the harmful, unintended consequences of government projects seem to ignore concerns that America’s nation-building venture in Iraq could fail but could also destabilize Iraq and the entire Middle East. Further, they apparently don’t see that it could ignite more anti-American terrorism, not to mention the harmful impact it would have on the growth of U.S. government power and the effect it would have on the economy and civil rights in America.

Of course, some conservatives recognize the long-term risks posed by the American revolutionary plan in Iraq and the Middle East. But they contend that their support for it stems from the lessons of Sept. 11 and the ensuing war on terrorism. They overlook the fact that policies advanced by the U.S. government, ranging from the American coup in Iran in 1953 to the backing for the radical Moslem guerrillas in Afghanistan, and the corrupt Arab regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are at the root of much of anti-American terrorism.

It makes sense that conservatives should support a strong U.S. military to protect American security interests, which includes U.S. forces fighting terrorist groups such as al-Qaida. But conservatives should realize that, once again — not unlike the American overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 — the ousting of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 is bound to create an environment in the Middle East that is more conducive to anti-American violence.

It seems that there are conservatives (the “neo” ones) who welcome such an outcome of “creative destruction” in the Middle East, as Michael Ledeen has described it. Such sentiments, which promote a U.S.-led revolutionary process in the Middle East — and tomorrow in the rest of the world? — may delight the ideological successors to Trotsky or Mussolini. But do they represent the kind of legacy that a self-described “compassionate conservative” like George W. Bush, who once preached “humility” in the conduct of American relationship with the world, wants?

Hadar is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.