JULY 23, 2007
It was only two years ago that conservatives, still basking in their
triumph over the freshly slain corpse of John Kerry, were insisting
near and far that they had triumphed in the War of Ideas. "[T]he
plain fact," wrote conservative foundation honcho and current
Giuliani adviser James Piereson in 2005, "is that modern
conservatives have been engaged with the world of ideas to a far
greater extent than most modern liberals."This has become a standard conservative rhetorical trope over the
last 25 years. Just as ancient civilizations believed that their
success on the battlefield proved that their gods had vanquished
those of the enemy, conservatives have attributed their political
rise to the power of their philosophical deities. With every
Democratic electoral defeat, liberals have been made to endure the
added ignominy of listening to every conservative op-ed scribbler
and think-tank denizen lecture us on our intellectual deficiencies.
These days, of course, the Republican Party has been routed and
conservatives are beset by panic and gloom. You'd think this would,
at minimum, give us a small respite from boasts about the right's
victory in the War of Ideas. But no. They're still at it. The new
line, put forward by the likes of Boston Globe columnist Jeff
Jacoby and Hoover Institution fellow Peter Berkowitz, is that
conservatives are more intellectually serious because they're
having deep debates over first principles, while liberals enforce
stultifying conformity. As Jacoby puts it, "[T]he right churns with
serious disputes over policy and principle, while the left marches
mostly in lockstep." Berkowitz bemoans "the absence on the left of
debate or dissent," which he attributes in part to liberals being
"blinded by rage at the Bush administration."
Presumably Iraq, where the right's ideology has collapsed most
disastrously, should be a delicate point for conservative
intellectual triumphalists. Instead, it's their favorite example.
"Democrats today," complains Berkowitz, "are nearly united in the
belief that the invasion has been a fiasco and that we must
withdraw promptly." Meanwhile, conservatives are fiercely divided.
Ergo, the right is "wrestl[ing] with the consequences of change
more fully than progressives."
As an attempt to make propaganda lemonade out of the lemon of the
Iraq war, this is probably about as good as conservatives could
hope to do. Since we're likely to be hearing this line repeated for
a while--probably until the next GOP electoral triumph, when
conservatives can go back to straightforward gloating--it's worth
considering a few wee logical flaws.
First, it's not true that liberals all agree that "we must withdraw
promptly" from Iraq. Some liberals certainly favor this, but others
favor partial withdrawal, partitioning Iraq, enforceable benchmarks
to pressure Iraq's government, or a myriad of other plans. The
notion that all liberals agree about Iraq would come as a surprise
to both Carl Levin and the many antiwar protesters seeking to drive
him from public office.
Second, if memory serves, liberals had a lot of arguments about the
Iraq war in 2002 and 2003. Some of them involved me, in fact. I
don't recall any conservatives at the time citing these debates as
evidence of liberalism's intellectual seriousness. Instead, the
right-wing press offered up headlines like "democrats' war in ranks
imperils chances in '04" (Washington Times) or "democrats in a time
of war: we're looking at another liberal crack-up" (National
Meanwhile, pretty much the only conservatives who openly opposed the
war were libertarians or Buchananites, who already had the loosest
ties with the movement. A handful of conservatives in good
standing, such as William F. Buckley and Jeane Kirkpatrick, have
recently confessed to harboring doubts about the war all along.
But, of course, the fact that they felt obliged to keep their
initial misgivings sotto voce hardly speaks well of conservatism's
Third, it's certainly true that conservatives today are more divided
than liberals about whether the Iraq war has been a fiasco. I
simply disagree about what this fact tells us. Conservatives see
their split on this proposition as evidence of intellectual acuity.
I see it as evidence that roughly half of all conservatives are
barking mad. On last year's National Review cruise, as Johann Hari
reported in these pages, Norman Podhoretz called the war "an
amazing success" and insisted that "it couldn't have gone better."
To believe this, you have to believe it was worth 3,500 American
military deaths, many times that number wounded, tens or hundreds
of thousands of Iraqi deaths, and hundreds of billions of dollars
to convert a brutal secular Sunni thugocracy into what may be, in a
best-case scenario, a somewhat less brutal, but far more
theocratic, Shia thugocracy. Maybe it's the blind Bush hatred
talking, but I'm not terribly embarrassed that liberals are united
in rejecting this notion.
What explains the right's insufferable need to declare philosophical
victory at all times? In part, it reflects the natural insecurity
that comes with being conservative in a scholarly milieu. If I were
an academic or a writer who made his living defending a party that
routinely wins elections by appealing to rabid
anti-intellectualism, I'd be a little defensive, too.
But it also reflects the fact that conservatism is more of an
ideological movement than liberalism. Conservatives insist that,
unlike liberals, they're "acutely conscious of their intellectual
forebears," as David Brooks once put it. Such boasts are usually
decorated with references to Kirk, Hayek, and other philosophical
patron saints of the right.
Like communists, conservatives have a tendency to believe that every
question can be answered by referencing theory. Berkowitz, for
instance, describes the conservative debate over the war as one of
pure philosophical abstractions: Defenders of the invasion, he
writes, believe in "planting the seeds of liberty and democracy in
the Muslim Middle East." Whether or not the war actually has
accomplished these ends is not an issue of much interest.
I admit that liberals don't generally look to our intellectual
forebears to tell us whether the Iraq war is going well. But, then,
we don't have to. We can read the newspaper.