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The Good, Bad & The Ugly
Conservatives must be heard when our side does wrong.


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Edmund Burke had a simple formula for success in the administration of empires. Magnanimity. “Magnanimity in politics,” he told the House of Commons in his 1775 speech on the American colonies, “is not seldom the truest policy; and a great empire and little minds go ill together.”

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Honorable as America’s conduct has generally been in a war that has required it to act as an imperial power–administering vast tracts of territory in the most trying conditions–it seems to me difficult to deny that, whatever the technical merits of particular cases, a spirit of magnanimity has sometimes been wanting in the effort. We are told by Gibbon that when the Roman emperor Valerian was captured by the Persians, he “was exposed to the multitude, a constant spectacle of fallen greatness; and that, whenever the Persian monarch mounted on horseback, he placed his foot on the neck of the Roman emperor.” Such was the magnanimity of a Persian conqueror. Until I saw the photograph of Saddam in his underwear on the cover of the New York Post the other day, I thought the United States capable of something better. If an Iraqi tribunal, after trying the vile man according to its laws, determines to punish him so, let them–he deserves worse. But his humiliation is not the job of his American conquerors.

Why have American conservatives failed, for the most part, to criticize these lapses in magnanimity, some of them relatively trivial, as in the case of the Saddam pictures, some of them more serious? I think I know the reasons. And with all due respect I think the reasons are wrong.

Reason # 1: The reluctance of conservatives to criticize the government in war-time. True, it is the first duty of an American patriot to do what he reasonably can to support American soldiers who have put their lives on the line to defend both the liberties of Americans and the liberties of others. But as distinguished conservatives in the past have demonstrated, a patriot may criticize the acts or policies of the executive in war-time without breaking faith either with the troops or with his country. Consider the example of Burke himself, the father of modern conservatism. England was at war with the American colonies when Burke, together with William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, criticized the policies of Lord North’s administration. The United States was in the midst of an even graver and more decisive struggle, the Cold War, when George Will criticized the actions of President Nixon. Where are the Burkes and Wills of today? Is the war on terror being conducted so perfectly that we have no need of a reasoned conservative critique?

Reason # 2: Many of the most unfortunate acts in question, conservatives know, appear to have been committed, not at the behest of the administration or the Pentagon, but by a few disorderly soldiers and interrogators–by a few rotten apples, in other words. Thus the misconduct at Abu Ghraib, thus the torture of the Afghan taxi driver reported in the New York Times not long ago. But is the conservative really being true to his own principles when he dismisses these culprits as “a few bad apples”? Conservatives win elections precisely because they don’t labor under the liberal illusion that humans beings are generally good, with a “few bad apples” thrown into the mix. Conservatives, on the contrary, know that Rousseau was wrong and Augustine was right; that human beings are not generally good; that they are filled with evil thoughts and hateful impulses; that only as a result of careful training and a scrupulous regimen of education will their passions be sufficiently softened to permit them to engage in the most ordinary offices of civilized life; and that even in the best of circumstances, with the full weight of custom and law upon them, their propensity to evil is but imperfectly restrained. Spc. Charles Graner, who has been identified as the mastermind of the macabre incidents at Abu Ghraib, might perhaps be one of those monsters that no amount of training or education could meliorate or improve. But Pfc. Lynndie England, his girlfriend, and some of the other collaborators? Were they really, ab initio, rotten apples, quite incorrigible, and duly marked off from the rest of us (the mass of innocent saints) by the Sign of the Beast? Is it not just possible that, had Miss England & Co. been educated in schools that did what schools once did fairly well–trained the faculties that make for strength of character–is it not just possible that they might have had the presence of mind to stand up to the bully? The system by which America trains its youth is, we all know and conservatives (unlike liberals) admit, deeply sick; the incidents at Abu Ghraib suggest that the Army has not found an effective way to counter the bacillus. The moral problem here is one with which conservatives are particularly well-equipped to deal; but so far many have chosen, for the most part, to remain silent. Their failure represents a species of moral cowardice, an intellectual malingering; for of course it is easier to point out pathologies in the slums than in the Army.

Reason # 3: The conservative’s instinctive belief that America is being hampered, in its prosecution of the war on terror, by its own traditions of decency, generosity, and respect for the rights of others. Reason # 3 is an in many ways understandable one. It stems from the feeling that if we don’t get tough, if we don’t knock a few guys in orange jumpsuits around, we will, like the Warren court, end up letting bad guys off on technicalities. The problem is hardly a new one. Whenever free states go to war, they feel hampered by their legal and constitutional traditions. Lincoln felt the pressure of his country’s traditions during the Civil War. In 1862 he suspended the writ of habeas corpus even in areas untouched by the rebellion. The ancient Athenians felt similarly during the Peloponnesian conflict; in a famous scene in Thucydides the Athenians repudiate their own traditions of justice and announce that “might makes right” in the treatment of foreigners. Whatever the moral merits of such breaches of faith, they almost always, as a practical matter, do more harm than good, as Lincoln discovered when the European press made merry over the Union’s heavy-handed measures–and strengthened the hand of those in England and France who sought to intervene in the American conflict with a view to partitioning the United States. In his speech on conciliating the American colonies, Burke observed that those principles that have contributed the most to making a nation great are precisely the ones which will serve it best in times of danger and adversity. “English privileges,” Burke said “have made [England's empire] all that it is; English privileges alone will make it all that it can be.” Conservatives should heed Burke’s advice and not weakly assume that our traditions are necessarily a handicap. Might one or two thugs take advantage of our decency to escape our net? Perhaps. But in the end they will be turned in by one of the millions of people around the world who, whatever they may tell CNN, believe in their hearts that Americans live up to their promises. Remember that all the anti-American and anti-English propaganda which Goebbels concocted during the Second World War never succeeded in persuading the German people of our essential indecency; and when confronted with the choice between surrendering to the Russians and surrendering to the Anglo Americans, the Germans ran towards our lines. That was a great compliment, and one which we should always endeavor to deserve.

Reason # 4: The conservative’s belief that the facile anti-American chorus has done so much damage to the American cause that it would be indecent to express any conservative reservations. With Hans Blix, Kofi Annan, Michael Moore, three dozen elite liberal-arts colleges, and the staff of Newsweek apparently doing their best to undermine American efforts in the Islamic world, why should conservatives voice criticisms that might strengthen the hand of America’s foes? The answer here is implicit in the question. It is precisely because the media-driven criticisms are so ludicrously unbalanced that a reasoned conservative critique is necessary; the Moorsian and Blixian broadsides are patently intended, not to fix problems, not to refine American policy and thereby improve its chances of success, but to denigrate particular American political leaders. Too often the conservative intellectual feels that he must be a cheerleader. The feeling is perhaps pardonable, given the fact that so many “mainstream” intellectuals have forsaken the idea of an honest patriotism and glory instead in every incident that tends to the humiliation of the United States. But cheerleading alone does not win wars.

Might it be that some conservatives are hesitant to say anything critical of the war-effort for fear that they will be perceived as “unconservative,” as traitors to their cause and their philosophy? If this is so, the fact should give conservatives pause. It is possible for a movement to have too much esprit de corps; nor should conservatives fancy themselves immune from the intellectual stultification that has overwhelmed other orthodoxies during a spell of power. Success–political influence, well-connected donors, handsome endowments, elegantly provisioned awards dinners–is a mixed blessing for any movement that values intellectual suppleness, spontaneity of debate, and purity of spirit; and the vigorous iconoclasts, the prophets, and revolutionaries, of one phase of a group’s history may all too easily degenerate into the party-line hacks of another.

Michael Knox Beran is the author of Jefferson’s Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind and The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy.



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