Politics & Policy

A Campaign for Order

The president comes back down to earth.

President Bush didn’t talk about the yearning of the human heart for freedom in his latest Iraq speech. Such reductive anthropology used to be a staple of his pronouncements — everywhere human hearts were hungering for freedom, and the global mission of the U.S. was to release this pent-up desire for liberty.

Bush’s second inaugural address stated this theme in soaring terms: “Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul.” That speech now reads as though it were written longer than a mere two years ago. In the interim, the human heart has failed President Bush. In Iraq, it has shown that it yearns for honor and for revenge, for tribal loyalty and for power as much as for freedom.

Bush still talked the other night of advancing liberty, but his key claim about the hearts of Iraqis was a stripped-down (but still somewhat dubious) one: “Most of Iraq’s Sunni and Shia want to live together in peace.” If this is the case — and it becomes ever less so as the civil war intensifies — it speaks less to a hunger for freedom than for order, which the Bush administration has foolishly neglected at both the conceptual and practical levels.

Calls for order do not make for stirring lines in poetic presidential speeches. It is a cliché to say that we take freedom for granted, but it is not so. Freedom is constantly invoked by all sides of the American political debate. It is order — the underpinning of freedom — that is taken for granted.

The conservative intellectual Russell Kirk wrote an entire book on the subject called The Roots of American Order. In it, he explained: “The good society is marked by a high degree of order, justice and freedom. Among these, order has primacy: For justice cannot be enforced until a tolerable civil social order is attained, nor can freedom be anything better than violence until order gives us laws.”

This is why Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous statement during the rioting after the fall of Saddam Hussein that “freedom is untidy” was so wrong-headed. Freedom ultimately has to be tidy, because it depends on boundaries and rules — a societal consensus — that have existed for so long in the West that we often forget about them. The historian Theodore Von Laue called them “the invisible substructures of individual and collective discipline.”

Iraq had few such substructures. In the Saddam era, it had only the top-down coercive power of the state. When that was removed, there was chaos, without the U.S. ever substituting enough force to give the Iraqi people the blessings of order — an order that obviously would be more just and free than that imposed by Saddam.

As Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute — the intellectual godfather of the Bush “surge” — has noted, the absence of order is fatal to any government: “Continual violence and death eliminate the people’s support for the government, leading to an increase in violence, as individuals and groups undertake to protect and avenge themselves independently of state structures, legal institutions or government sanction.” In other words, they cling to militias, insurgents and all the other forces bedeviling us in Iraq.

The surge is meant finally to check this process. But American troops won’t be able to do it alone. There is a reason that so many democracies have been created out of reforming authoritarian governments. They provided the prerequisite of order, but with enough breathing space so that eventually freedom could flourish. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki already has a kind of democratic mandate. Now, he needs to act with enough strength to hold his country together. So far, he simply has been demonstrating Edmund Burke’s insight that “nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.”

The president’s speech was a belated recognition that the Iraqi people need order, and only then will they truly enjoy justice and freedom.

© 2007 by King Features Syndicate


The Latest