John Stuart Mill, call your office

A while back, I expressed the view that the success of our efforts to bring about democracy in Iraq is not guaranteed, and that there needs to be a point at which the administration is prepared to admit that these efforts will not succeed. Today, George Will articulates the concern I was attempting to express. Will says that “it would be reassuring to see more evidence that the administration is being empirical, believing that [the springing up of democracy in an inhospitable culture] can happen in some places, as opposed to [being] ideological, believing that [this] must happen everywhere it is tried.” Will adds: “Being steadfast in defense of carefully considered convictions is a virtue. Being blankly incapable of distinguishing cherished hopes from disappointing facts, or of reassessing comforting doctrines in face of contrary evidence, is a crippling political vice.” Will seems to imply that the administration has fallen into that vice, finding it necessary to invoke John Stuart Mill’s axiom that the doctrine of limited, democratic government “is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties.” I am not convinced that the administration has so fallen, because I am not convinced that being empirical would cause it to conclude, at this point, that its convictions about what is possible in Iraq are false. But I think Will is spot-on when he yearns for evidence that the administration is being empirical.
Over the weekend, Robert Kagan responded to those who (unlike me) believe that now is the time to lower our sights in Iraq and settle for stability. However, Kagan did not respond by arguing that democracy in Iraq is a goal that, realistically, can attained. Instead, he argued that the goal of stability is “no easier to carry out and no less costly in money and lives than the present attempt to create some form of democracy in Iraq.” Thus, Kagan insists that the real alternative to the present course “is not stability at all but to abandon Iraq to whatever horrible fate awaits it.”
Kagan provides a useful service to the extent that he points out the difficulties associated with bringing about even a stable Iraq. But to the extent that he tries to rule out the middle ground of making stability (not democracy) our goal, his argument betrays a certain desperation. Does Kagan actually believe that, if our goal became merely to create a stable Iraq, the length of our occupation, and its cost in American blood and treasure, would not likely decrease? He certainly does not demonstrate the truth of this counter-intuitive proposition.
The case for striving to create a democratic Iraq should be based neither on the claim that there is no alternative policy other than “cut and run” nor on the notion that, because Iraqis are people too, democracy is bound to take root if we push hard enough. The case should be based on evidence that we can make this ideal a reality at an acceptable cost (the hard part), coupled with an explanation of the advantages of obtaining more than just stability (the easy part). This, I assume, is what Will has in mind when he talks about “being empirical.”


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