Saddam Hussein’s little expedition into Kuwait has begun to take on the colors of a counter-crusade against European and American influence in the Middle East. As I write, in the second week of August, it is too early to predict the outcome of any of President Bush’s diplomatic and military initiatives. In general, he deserves praise for the caution with which he has acted but blame for the vehement rhetoric in which he and other American politicians have been indulging. Saddam is not Hitler, and Iraq is a nation that, for all its “million-man army,” could not even conquer the priest-ridden shambles of what had been Iran.
Of course, our own affirmative action army may prove to be no match for Iraq’s well-equipped mob of Arabs. And, as Bill Hawkins points out elsewhere in this issue, America is woefully underprepared to shoulder the burdens of empire. We are back to the policies of the 1930’s when FDR was cutting the military budget and goading the Japanese into war. But George Bush has no Douglas MacArthur to rebuke him.
The idea of shedding a single drop of American blood to restore the emir of Kuwait (or lower oil prices for bankers and lawyers commuting to work) is worse than preposterous. Even Saudi Arabia is important to us only as a strategic ally to which we have made commitments. On its own merits the regime of the Saudi “royal” family is not worth a single bullet, much less a single life. But if our aim was to aid the Saudis, our efforts to drag them into the conflict may have sealed their fate, since we have given Saddam Hussein all the evidence he needs to portray himself as an Arab nationalist fighting against American carpetbaggers and Saudi scalawags.
It is now a week later as I write, and some of my worst fears have materialized. Egypt and Turkey have maintained faith with the United States, but President Mubarak has put himself in an unenviable position. Since Egypt receives over $2 billion a year in aid from the United States, the Iraqis can say with some justification that Mubarak is only “an obedient imperialist agent,” as he was called in al-Thawra, Hussein’s party organ. The Iranians, at this point, still claim to be holding tough, despite Saddam Hussein’s generous concession of one thousand square miles of territory. But no one in the Arab world has ever believed anything the Iranians say. They are a people for whom “the truth” means only a lie sold to the highest bidder.
Meanwhile, the other Hussein has also refused to allow his country, Jordan, to be offered as a sacrifice on the altar of world peace. The king, while promising to honor the embargo, managed to qualify his promise by referring to the U.N. charter, which guarantees relief to nonbelligerent nations suffering from the effects of an embargo. Even if the king of Jordan wanted to join the American offensive, it is not clear that his people would let him: the pro-Iraq demonstrations on the streets of Aman look like the real thing, a rising tide of anti-Western, specifically anti-American sentiment. Even George Ball conceded that “Arabs privately have a considerable admiration for Saddam Hussein.” It will be America’s worst nightmare, if our vigorous defense of “Abdul Abulbul Emir” results in a pan-Arab alliance against the United States.
As Sam Francis points out, the Iraqi dictator has committed an unforgivable sin by acting as a nationalist in an internationalist age. Now that the Cold War is over and history has come to a screeching halt, the United States and its once-again noble ally the Soviet Union will join hands to insure the peace and freedom of every oasis and shantytown in the world. That, at least, seemed to be the burden of President Bush’s speech on August 8. Like most Americans, I am completely in favor of actions taken to protect American lives in Liberia (what these people are doing in Liberia or Iraq is another matter), but I can find no conceivable justification for sending in American boys to die fighting for this or that group of heroic democrats or gangster allies. If the Russian bear has really clipped his claws—as both the President and the Democratic leadership appear to believe—then the last pretext for American interventionism has been taken away.
What possible good do we think we can accomplish in Liberia or Haih or Iraq? People who have been butchering each other for centuries are not about to recognize any Pax Americana that is not enforced, day after day, by bayonets and strategic air strikes, and the same Americans who are crying out for the blood of Saddam Hussein will be singing a dirge six months from now as the body bags are carried past the CBS cameras on the Evening News. We don’t have the stomach for empire; we showed that in Korea and Vietnam, and if we did embark on a course of imperialist aggression, it would be nice to think that the American people stood to gain something more than lower plane fares.
Why not take a page out of the Israelis’ book? Israel has been denouncing the evil Hussein for years, demanding action from the United States, but now that the New Hitler has succeeded in provoking us, Israel’s leaders have declared they won’t get involved in a war that does not affect their security or material interests. Exactly. It is impossible not to admire a country that is brave enough to pursue a policy of selfish nationalism in this age of internationalism and the New World Order.
It is not that the internationalists don’t have a case. If the choice is between a peaceful world administered by the U.N. Security Council or a world periodically torn to pieces by homocidal despots, drug lords, and ethnic terrorists, who wouldn’t choose to cede major portions of national sovereignty in the interest of peace and freedom? Saddam Hussein wouldn’t, and neither would I. He, because he is an Iraqi nationalist and perhaps an Arab imperialist; I, because I believe that we—and by “we” I mean first the American people but also everyone on the face of the earth—stand to lose more than we will gain.
To explain what I am talking about requires a brief detour into political theory. Two years ago in a book (The Politics of Human Nature) I attempted to refine the old distinction between community and society (Tonnies’ Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft). Institutions of community, so I argued, are all rooted in the family and are exemplified by the long-suffering love of a mother who accepts her children no matter what they have done. Institutions of society, on the other hand, derive from male groups, hunting bands for example, in which the ruling principles are not love and acceptance but competition and excellence. And while it has usually been my task to defend community against the inroads made by society, it is task perhaps even more vital to defend society against the smothering affection of world communalism.
When men band together for a purpose, that purpose defines a competitive struggle for results both within the group and between groups. In a hunting party, it makes little difference who you are (which is really all that matters within a family); it is how good a shot you are, how good a tracker, that defines your status and prestige. The best and most experienced hunters are the leaders of the group, and groups that adopt some other principle of leadership—wealth, social position, good looks, cleverness—will inevitably lose out in the struggle with other groups that have stuck to the fundamentals. The free market—that amoral competition for economic success—is the preeminent modern institution of society, although it is continually being hampered and restricted by communalists who hate the very ideas of competition and excellence.
It is Eros and Eris, love and strife, according to the poet-philosopher Empedocles, that rule the world, and although I continue to advocate the primary claims of love as the most solid foundation of human morality, let me put in a word for strife, for competition, for emulation. Without strife, the striving for superiority over one’s fellows, we should be condemned to the life of the Hopi who till the ground and so humiliate their adolescent males that all decent aspirations for success are either suppressed or perverted into envy and resentment.
Strife is not limited to personal conflict. It was strife that set Athens against Thebes and Sparta, Rome against Carthage, Siena and Pisa against Florence, Elizabeth I’s England against Philip II’s Spain. What, apart from appalling carnage, were the results? Virtually everything we celebrate as the highest products of our civilization: Attic drama, the Parthenon, Roman law and architecture, Dante and the Duomo, campanile, and baptistery at Pisa, Shakespeare and the Escorial.
But strife is responsible for a great deal more than beautiful poetry and magnificent buildings. It is only the competition within and between social groups that can ever counteract the universal tendency for power to rise to the highest level at which it can consolidate. The only writers who have fully appreciated the nature of political power have been the Italians: Machiavelli, Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca; and their disciples and fellow-travelers: Georges Sorel, James Burnham, and Burnham’s interpreter, Samuel Francis. In the Italian view, whatever the official form of a regime may be—monarchy, oligarchy, or democracy—the facts of the case will always turn out, upon examination, to reveal an elite class (or classes) that control the resources of society and government and manipulate them in their own interest. Pareto and Mosca were extremely skeptical of the prospects of democracy, which they made the mistake of viewing as the institutionalization of political equality, because they were aware of how easy it is to rig elections, control the press, and seduce the electorate.
But our own founding fathers were far from being the dreamy-eyed idealists that are portrayed in Harry Jaffa’s never-ending stream of letters to National Review. Most of the founders were explicitly opposed to democracy both in its 18th-century and in its modern sense. Most of them were Republicans, whose greatest anxiety was over how to get around the well-known fact that all successful republics had been on a small scale. Even the 13 colonies—to say nothing of the vast expanse of North America—were too vast in extent, too varied in character for anything like a unitary government. Their solution was that federal union that perished in the War Between the States.
But quite apart from the federal principle, at least one of the founders shared the Italian understanding of power. Thomas Jefferson, the most practical and hardheaded of our national leaders, was fully aware of the centralizing tendencies of power. When the respectable element in New England took fright at Shays’s Rebellion, Jefferson’s cool response was the last word in Machiavellianism:
God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to public liberty. . . . What country can preserve its liberties, if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? . . . What signify a few lost lives in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.
These lines, so often taken as proof of Jefferson’s Jacobinism, are in fact the best evidence for his political realism. It was only the struggle between states, classes, and interests that enabled Americans to preserve the liberties they had secured in an armed rebellion, and when one section and one class mustered the power to overwhelm its major competitor, it spelled doom not only for the federal system but, eventually, also for all those habits of liberty that had characterized American life.
Since the nervous edge of a civilization is primarily the result of competition, the suppression of social and political conflict has meant progressive decadence in American culture. We are doing our best, in this country, to strangle competition in every important endeavor. Apart from socializing and internationalizing our economy, we have reduced our public architecture to the lowest common denominator of the international style, taken away most market incentives from artists and writers by subsidizing prose poetry and performance art for which there is no market, and—this is the masterstroke—created a bureaucratic system of education whose intended effect is the elimination of that striving for intellectual distinction upon which all scholarship, philosophy, and literature ultimately rests. By the end of the century we shall be a nation of Hopi.
There are still sufficient remnants of that old America to keep this nation viable, partly because Americans tend to ignore politics and prefer to concentrate on their own lives, and partly because we have become in some measure American nationalists who can define ourselves as part of a body politic in competition with Japan or the Soviet Union. However, the New International Order will soon fix that. If, in the name of universal peace and freedom, we are free to suppress an Arab bully who represents no material threat to our security or vital interests, it is because we are willing to surrender huge portions of our national autonomy to the United Nations.
Do I exaggerate? Here is the language of the President’s declaration of war—make no mistake about it, embargoes and blockades constitute acts of war—against Iraq as reported in the New York Times: “This morning the President received a letter from [blah blah blah] the Emir of Kuwait, requesting on behalf of the government of Kuwait and in accordance with article 51 of the U.N. Charter and the right of individual and collective self defense. . . . In view of the Emir’s request, the President has decided that the United States will do whatever is necessary to see that relevant U.N. sanctions are enforced.” George Ball, as enthusiastic as Jesse Jackson and Pat Schroeder about the American counter-invasion, declares (also in the Times) that “The legitimacy of what the United States is doing depends now on the Security Council resolution. It’s a United Nations action.”
The line taken by the administration is parroted everywhere: we are acting as the right arm of the United Nations, not in the interest of the United States. This argument has its advantages, as a justification, since unlike Europe and Japan the United States gets comparatively little of its oil from the Persian Gulf states and next to nothing from Kuwait. But now the cry goes up: let Europe and Japan pay for our invasion force. This is the depth to which we have sunk as a nation, that our greatest wish is to be paid mercenaries for Germany and Japan. But such is the tangle of motivations in which we ensnare ourselves, whenever we leave the main highway of national self-interest for a sentimental trip down the scenic route of international idealism.
Some of our internationalist posturing is no more than the knavish language of cynical politicians who want to keep the American economy fueled on cheap oil. My conservative friends have been telling me that George Bush is only dressing up his nationalism in sheep’s clothing borrowed from the United Nations. Perhaps. But why, then, did we have to request U.N. approval for any naval action against Iraqi tankers? It took the Security Council a week to decide, and even then approval came at the price of a U.S. promise to hold its fire until diplomats had exhausted all possibilities of compromise. Besides, New York and Washington are full of business and political leaders who would like nothing better than to finish the job of tidying up the globe by snuffing out the last sparks of independence and initiative, at home and abroad.
It is for this reason that I prefer the old Adam of strife and carnage to the new Prometheus of peace and human rights. Better a world torn apart by Husseins and Qaddafis, better a war to the knife between the PLC and the Likud Party, between Zulus and Afrikaaners, than a world run by George Balls and Dag Hammarskjölds, because a world made safe for democracy is a world in which no one dares to raise his voice for fear that mommy will put you away some place where you can be reeducated.