JULY 23, 2007
It was only two years ago that conservatives, still basking in theirtriumph over the freshly slain corpse of John Kerry, were insistingnear and far that they had triumphed in the War of Ideas. "[T]heplain fact," wrote conservative foundation honcho and currentGiuliani adviser James Piereson in 2005, "is that modernconservatives have been engaged with the world of ideas to a fargreater extent than most modern liberals."
This has become a standard conservative rhetorical trope over thelast 25 years. Just as ancient civilizations believed that theirsuccess on the battlefield proved that their gods had vanquishedthose of the enemy, conservatives have attributed their politicalrise to the power of their philosophical deities. With everyDemocratic electoral defeat, liberals have been made to endure theadded ignominy of listening to every conservative op-ed scribblerand think-tank denizen lecture us on our intellectual deficiencies.
These days, of course, the Republican Party has been routed andconservatives are beset by panic and gloom. You'd think this would,at minimum, give us a small respite from boasts about the right'svictory in the War of Ideas. But no. They're still at it. The newline, put forward by the likes of Boston Globe columnist JeffJacoby and Hoover Institution fellow Peter Berkowitz, is thatconservatives are more intellectually serious because they'rehaving deep debates over first principles, while liberals enforcestultifying conformity. As Jacoby puts it, "[T]he right churns withserious disputes over policy and principle, while the left marchesmostly in lockstep." Berkowitz bemoans "the absence on the left ofdebate 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 mostdisastrously, should be a delicate point for conservativeintellectual triumphalists. Instead, it's their favorite example."Democrats today," complains Berkowitz, "are nearly united in thebelief that the invasion has been a fiasco and that we mustwithdraw promptly." Meanwhile, conservatives are fiercely divided.Ergo, the right is "wrestl[ing] with the consequences of changemore fully than progressives."
As an attempt to make propaganda lemonade out of the lemon of theIraq war, this is probably about as good as conservatives couldhope to do. Since we're likely to be hearing this line repeated fora while--probably until the next GOP electoral triumph, whenconservatives can go back to straightforward gloating--it's worthconsidering a few wee logical flaws.
First, it's not true that liberals all agree that "we must withdrawpromptly" from Iraq. Some liberals certainly favor this, but othersfavor partial withdrawal, partitioning Iraq, enforceable benchmarksto pressure Iraq's government, or a myriad of other plans. Thenotion that all liberals agree about Iraq would come as a surpriseto both Carl Levin and the many antiwar protesters seeking to drivehim from public office.
Second, if memory serves, liberals had a lot of arguments about theIraq war in 2002 and 2003. Some of them involved me, in fact. Idon't recall any conservatives at the time citing these debates asevidence of liberalism's intellectual seriousness. Instead, theright-wing press offered up headlines like "democrats' war in ranksimperils chances in '04" (Washington Times) or "democrats in a timeof war: we're looking at another liberal crack-up" (NationalReview).
Meanwhile, pretty much the only conservatives who openly opposed thewar were libertarians or Buchananites, who already had the loosestties with the movement. A handful of conservatives in goodstanding, such as William F. Buckley and Jeane Kirkpatrick, haverecently confessed to harboring doubts about the war all along.But, of course, the fact that they felt obliged to keep theirinitial misgivings sotto voce hardly speaks well of conservatism'sintellectual openness.
Third, it's certainly true that conservatives today are more dividedthan liberals about whether the Iraq war has been a fiasco. Isimply disagree about what this fact tells us. Conservatives seetheir split on this proposition as evidence of intellectual acuity.I see it as evidence that roughly half of all conservatives arebarking mad. On last year's National Review cruise, as Johann Harireported in these pages, Norman Podhoretz called the war "anamazing success" and insisted that "it couldn't have gone better."To believe this, you have to believe it was worth 3,500 Americanmilitary deaths, many times that number wounded, tens or hundredsof thousands of Iraqi deaths, and hundreds of billions of dollarsto convert a brutal secular Sunni thugocracy into what may be, in abest-case scenario, a somewhat less brutal, but far moretheocratic, Shia thugocracy. Maybe it's the blind Bush hatredtalking, but I'm not terribly embarrassed that liberals are unitedin rejecting this notion.
What explains the right's insufferable need to declare philosophicalvictory at all times? In part, it reflects the natural insecuritythat comes with being conservative in a scholarly milieu. If I werean academic or a writer who made his living defending a party thatroutinely wins elections by appealing to rabidanti-intellectualism, I'd be a little defensive, too.
But it also reflects the fact that conservatism is more of anideological movement than liberalism. Conservatives insist that,unlike liberals, they're "acutely conscious of their intellectualforebears," as David Brooks once put it. Such boasts are usuallydecorated with references to Kirk, Hayek, and other philosophicalpatron saints of the right.
Like communists, conservatives have a tendency to believe that everyquestion can be answered by referencing theory. Berkowitz, forinstance, describes the conservative debate over the war as one ofpure philosophical abstractions: Defenders of the invasion, hewrites, believe in "planting the seeds of liberty and democracy inthe Muslim Middle East." Whether or not the war actually hasaccomplished these ends is not an issue of much interest.
I admit that liberals don't generally look to our intellectualforebears to tell us whether the Iraq war is going well. But, then,we don't have to. We can read the newspaper.