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Are conservatives re-fighting the last war?

By W. James Antle III
web posted February 7, 2005

When the Jan. 30 elections proceeded with high turnout and relatively low levels of violence, defying most predictions, many conservatives in the United States, especially those belonging to the chattering class, were almost as jubilant as the Iraqis dancing in the streets of Baghdad. But now it's time to lose the purple ties and put on our thinking caps.

As the votes are tallied and the results continue to roll in, the religious Shiite political party linked to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani appears to be headed for a big win. The ticket associated with U.S.-backed Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is trailing badly. Key Shiite leaders are now speaking openly of imposing some version of Islamic law on the country.

Let's be frank: This is almost exactly the opposite of what most war supporters intended to achieve in Iraq. Put aside for a moment your affection for President Bush and your enthusiasm for the Republican Party. Would you have wanted to go to war to replace a secular state with one ruled by clerics?

Yes, Dick Cheney insists he doesn't see any theocracy looming on the Iraqi horizon. Maybe the newly elected government will prove capable of bringing the Sunnis back into the fold. There is some debate about whether Sistani and other Shiite clerics are actually as close to Iran as is often assumed. Hardly anybody, outside the stubborn insurgency, misses Saddam Hussein. It won't be all that difficult for the new government to be an improvement over the Ba'athists of old.

None of this, however, adds up to a big picture of what we are trying to accomplish in Iraq or how this intersects with the broader global war on terror. The assumption has always been that if the Middle East were governed by less repressive regimes, it would be less of a breeding ground for terrorists. But even if this is true, it doesn't tell us what means should be used to achieve that end.

A lot of conservative thinking in the post-9/11 war on terror has been mired in past conflicts. Norman Podhoretz has described the struggle against international terrorism as "World War IV," preceded by the Cold War as World War III. And the Cold War seems to be the frame of reference most conservatives use in analyzing the anti-terror war.

The analogy runs roughly like this: Militant Islam, or Islamism, has replaced communism. George W. Bush is reprising the role of Ronald Reagan, the leader who will finally prevail in our nation's central geopolitical struggle. Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech was his Evil Empire moment and the stirring rhetoric of his second inaugural address was his "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

This easy appeal to the recent past is one reason conservative Republicans are so reluctant to turn on President Bush even when the rest of the world opposes him and actual events don't appear to go his way. After all, many of the same liberals and Europeans derided the 40th president as a know-nothing cowboy whose bellicosity put the world at risk of nuclear war. Instead, Reagan presided over the Cold War's last chapter and has largely been vindicated by history, as even some of his erstwhile critics were forced to concede when he died last summer.

The Cold War comparison has always suffered from obvious flaws. For one thing, the Islamist world lacks a Soviet Union. Indeed, the perpetrators of 9/11 were from al-Qaida, a terror network that has sought refuge in rogue states but is itself a stateless actor that knows no borders. Reagan arrived on the scene as president decades into the Cold War, not at its beginning, and was more restrained in his actions than his rhetoric. Bush and Reagan may appeal to similar principles, but it's not altogether obvious that they are alike in their implementation.

The analogy becomes even more strained the closer one looks. During the Cold War, we might have argued about who was or wasn't a communist at home, but we certainly could identify the Soviet bloc abroad. But our definition of militant Islam seems much more muddled. Some conservatives essentially treat Iraqi Ba'athists, the Saudi royal family and the Iranian ayatollahs as if they were interchangeable. "Islamism" seems simply to be convenient shorthand for any entity in the Middle East that we dislike or has unsavory ties (and unfortunately, there is much to dislike about that region's political culture and many unsavory ties).

We're equally unclear about our choice of political corrective. What do we mean when we say we want freedom and democracy in the Muslim world? Democracy, as we may be beginning to see in Iraq, could potentially advance the kind of politics we in other contexts claim to oppose. If forced to choose, which do we find more important – fostering democratic government or defeating Islamists?

Once you begin asking these questions, the exercise leads you to ask more. What are the limits of military intervention? Would the burgeoning reform movement in Iran benefit or be harmed by identification with the United States? Are the political trouble spots we've identified in the region normal political cultures that have been taken over by tyrants, as was the case with many of the nations opposing us in World War II and the Cold War, or are they high-violence societies with numerous illiberal, undemocratic conflicting factions?

These are not questions that can be brushed aside by proclaiming one's belief in freedom or support for the troops. Indeed, the value of liberty and the courageous sacrifices of our servicemen are two of the most compelling reasons to find real answers. Conservatives must play a more important role in this conversation than that of uncritical cheerleaders.

When on that bright September day the twin towers came down and smoke billowed from the Pentagon, most Americans immediately sensed they were at war. Conservatives would serve them better with a more thoughtful response than merely re-fighting the last one.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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