Unlike most of the optimistic things people have said about Iraq, from “cakewalk” right on down the line, this one still holds up pretty well, even though it’s from last October. The reason? Because it’s in that fine tradition of American optimism that seeks very pragmatically to make the best of the facts that actually exist. In “Liberating Ourselves” (The American Conservative, Oct. 9, 2006), historian Paul W. Schroeder outlines a strategy he calls “The Bright Promise of Accepting Failure in Iraq.” It is not easy to reduce this strategy to a campaign slogan or even a list of bullet points, but the general idea is to abandon our quest for a utopian solution (e.g., a secular modern democracy that pays no more attention to radical Islam than the West pays to Christianity), and to seek instead the much more modest goal of containing and managing the threatening consequences of the sectarian violence that seems likely to continue there for the foreseeable future. Unlike many of the war’s proponents, Schroeder is careful not to overpromise:
I begin by admitting, indeed insisting, that the light that could be kindled by accepting failure in Iraq resembles a flashlight with limited battery life rather than a locomotive headlight. But like a flashlight in a dark cave, it may be bright enough to show the way out.
Schroeder bases his argument on two generalizations from history, “obvious and familiar but often ignored”: First, “that the worst disasters in history arise from a refusal to recognize and admit failure and deal with it,” and second, that “[o]ften — not always — a timely recognition of failure and the willingness to abandon or alter a wrong course leads in unexpected ways to success.” Schroeder does not appeal to history merely as a convenient source for introductory platitudes; he believes “The main intellectual defect in current American foreign policy is the lack of any sense of history, particularly as the British historian Lewis B. Namier defined it: a trained intuitive sense of the way things do not happen.” (I love that phrase.) Schroeder continues:
America’s leaders and their advisers, including some so-called historians and political scientists, not only are ignorant of history and insensitive to it, they despise and repudiate it. Their favorite epithet for opponents is to accuse them of having a pre-9/11 mentality, of believing that history before September 2001 still tells us something.
Neither having a sense of history nor wanting one, their calculations and policies are thoroughly infected with that disease fatal for good policy, for which a sense of history is the best prophylactic and cure—utopianism. It is the blind optimism, the utopianism of this administration, along with its dishonesty, that accounts for its record of repeated promises and calculations that anyone with a sound historical sense could tell were not going to work. Their particular brand of utopianism, moreover, combines its two worst forms—a radical utopianism that believes that the evils to be fought are simple, readily identified, and easily capable of being rooted out and replaced with good, and the utopianism of Machtpolitik, the belief that with enough power resolutely applied one can do anything.
Among other things, Schroeder recommends
- Recognizing that our “global war on terror” cannot possibly be fought and won like a literal war. According to Schroeder, our failure to recognize this has given the terrorist international stature and legitimacy they could never have achieved on their own. He backs up this observation by drawing parallels from the history of 19th century Europe.
- “[O]utliving the evil. That is not compromise or surrender. It means ensuring that one’s own values, institutions, and way of life survive and ultimately thrive while those who would overthrow them are gradually marginalized and ultimately die out.” His examples here come from the Cold War.
- Publicly pursuing a policy of “disimperialism.” “America’s so-called unipolar moment is past, rotten before it was ripe, and the task before it now is disimperialism.” Historical examples here include Britain and France after World War II and the USSR after 1989. Schroeder acknowledges that this is “so politically incorrect that neither party could embrace it.”
In short, we must understand our struggle against radical Islam “as a long-term political, legal struggle to uphold the rule of law rather than a war, and judo rather than a gunfight.” I recommend the piece to anyone who, regardless of his original position on Iraq, is scratching his head about where we go from here.