Politics & Policy

The “to Hell With Them” Hawks

And what's wrong with them.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the March 27, 2006, issue of National Review.

Events have conspired to knock the supports out from under the Wilsonian aspects of President Bush’s foreign policy. This is driving a nascent reaction to Bush foreign policy on the right, a growing sentiment, although one as yet without a prominent political champion. It is the rise of the “to hell with them” hawks.

#ad#These are conservatives who are comfortable using force abroad, but have little patience for a deep entanglement with the Muslim world, which they consider unredeemable, or at least not worth the strenuous effort of trying to redeem. To put their departure from Bush in terms associated with foreign-policy analyst Walter Russell Mead, they want to detach Bush’s Jacksonianism (the hardheaded, somewhat bloody-minded nationalism) from his Wilsonianism (the crusading democratic idealism). Democrats are headed in this direction too. But the tendency is problematic and, in its own way, as naïve and unrealistic as Bush at his dreamiest.

The way Bush has wed conservative opinion in the wake of 9/11 to a soaringly aspirational foreign policy has been extraordinary. It was predictable in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that conservatives would support a vigorous military response. It was not predictable that they would rally around a president who firmly maintained that “Islam is a religion of peace,” who undertook a quest for democracy in the Middle East, and who supported nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq of the sort most of the Right had rejected in the Clinton years. These positions weren’t inevitable for the Right; they were almost entirely the product of Bush’s priorities.

As Bush has weakened, so has the support for these priorities. Sotto voce, conservatives have often said among themselves of Islam, after some horrific terror attack, “This is a religion of peace?” And a small group of vocal right-wing experts have knocked Bush for his “Islam is peace” rhetoric from the beginning. The “cartoon riots” seemed to tip more conservatives into, or close to, this camp.

The Palestinian elections have undermined Bush’s contention that all people everywhere desire freedom in their hearts. If this statement is interpreted in such a way as to make it true, it becomes non-falsifiable–to wit, all people really do desire freedom although it might not be evinced in any practical way, e.g., election results. If Bush’s belief is interpreted thus, it’s not terribly comforting since it means the universal desire for freedom is limited by circumstances and buried under cultural and institutional obstacles. In other words, this supposed universal desire won’t do us much good when people hold all sorts of other competing desires, including a hunger for order, power, religious purity, ethnic solidarity, national prestige, and revenge. All of which have been on display in Iraq.

It is Iraq, of course, that is discrediting the project of nation-building. It has reminded us of the enduring importance of culture. Iraq suffers from a lack of a democratic culture, and its longstanding ethnic and tribal divisions have worked against us. Iraq has also been a lesson in the delicacy of institutions and the extreme difficulty of creating them anew. Iraq’s army, police, and governmental ministries collapsed after our invasion, and we obviously haven’t been able to reconstitute them, at least not satisfactorily.

In light of these developments, the “to hell with them” hawks want to write off reforming Islam, since they consider it inherently unreformable. They are in favor of varying levels of frankness about this evaluation, wanting either to pass over it in silence or to be open about what they see as a clash of civilizations, with Islam itself the enemy . . .

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