Appearing Friday in the Rose Garden with Canada’s prime minister, President Bush was answering a reporter’s question about Canada’s role in Iraq when suddenly he swerved into this extraneous thought:
“There’s a lot of people in the world who don’t believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly. I believe that people who practice the Muslim faith can self-govern. I believe that people whose skins aren’t necessarily – are a different color than white can self-govern.”
What does such careless talk say about the mind of this administration? Note that the clearly implied antecedent of the pronoun “ours” is “Americans.” So the president seemed to be saying that white is, and brown is not, the color of Americans’ skin. He does not mean that. But that is the sort of swamp one wanders into when trying to deflect doubts about policy by caricaturing and discrediting the doubters.
Scott McClellan, the president’s press secretary, later said the president meant only that “there are some in the world that think that some people can’t be free” or “can’t live in freedom.” The president meant that “some Middle Eastern countries – that the people in those Middle Eastern countries cannot be free.”
Perhaps that, which is problematic enough, is what the president meant. But what he suggested was: Some persons – perhaps many persons; no names being named, the smear remained tantalizingly vague – doubt his nation-building project because they are racists.
That is one way to respond to questions about the wisdom of thinking America can transform the entire Middle East by constructing a liberal democracy in Iraq. But if any Americans want to be governed by politicians who short-circuit complex discussions by recklessly imputing racism to those who differ with them, such Americans do not usually turn to the Republican choice in our two-party system.
This administration cannot be trusted to govern if it cannot be counted on to think and, having thought, to have second thoughts. Thinking is not the reiteration of bromides about how “all people yearn to live in freedom” (McClellan). And about how it is “cultural condescension” to doubt that some cultures have the requisite aptitudes for democracy (Bush). And about how it is a “myth” that “our attachment to freedom is a product of our culture” because “ours are not Western values; they are the universal values of the human spirit” (Tony Blair).
Speaking of culture, as neoconservative nation-builders would be well-advised to avoid doing, Pat Moynihan said: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Here we reach the real issue about Iraq, as distinct from unpleasant musings about who believes what about skin color.
The issue is the second half of Moynihan’s formulation – our ability to wield political power to produce the requisite cultural change in a place such as Iraq. Time was, this question would have separated conservatives from liberals. Nowadays it separates conservatives from neoconservatives.
Condoleezza Rice, a political scientist, believes there is scholarly evidence that democratic institutions do not merely spring from a hospitable culture, but that they also can help create such a culture. She is correct; they can. They did so in the young American republic. But it would be reassuring to see more evidence that the administration is being empirical, believing that this can happen in some places, as opposed to ideological, believing that it must happen everywhere it is tried.
Being steadfast in defense of carefully considered convictions is a virtue. Being blankly incapable of distinguishing cherished hopes from disappointing facts, or of reassessing comforting doctrines in face of contrary evidence, is a crippling political vice.
In “On Liberty” (1859), John Stuart Mill said, “It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say” that the doctrine of limited, democratic government “is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties.” One hundred forty-five years later it obviously is necessary to say that.
Ron Chernow’s magnificent new biography of Alexander Hamilton begins with these of his subject’s words: “I have thought it my duty to exhibit things as they are, not as they ought to be.” That is the core of conservatism.
Traditional conservatism. Nothing “neo” about it. This administration needs a dose of conservatism without the prefix.