In Prospect

Winter 2004

Theories, however ingenious, must withstand the test of concrete reality; and City Journal has been chronicling over the last year just how actual experience in the Iraq war and its aftermath has left certain cherished hypotheses in tatters. This issue’s cover package powerfully extends that work of clarification. George Will’s hard-hitting “Can We Make Iraq Democratic?” explodes a widespread view that all we need to do to make Iraq democratic is remove the tyranny that oppressed that nation, and lo! the Iraqis will forthwith become democratic republicans, like the geranium that grows up straight once the saucer has been lifted off its pot. Though love of liberty may be part of the endowment of universal human nature, we never find human nature in the abstract but only as embodied in a particular historical and national form, where love of liberty may be stronger or weaker; and as Will argues, love of liberty is not enough to make a people capable of democracy. Democracy rests on such notions as the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and equality before the law. These ideals are not inborn in all men but are the fruit of a long cultural development, which in America’s case involves a Puritan heritage of individualism, freedom of conscience, and congregational self-government, and the lucky existence of such heroic Enlightenment-inspired institution builders as the Founding Fathers.

In this same vein, as Stanley Kurtz has argued in “After the War” (Winter 2003), democracy requires not just democratic ideas but also a public-spirited administrative class to turn those ideals into reality. Iraqi society, where tribal and family loyalties make dispassionate equality before the law unthinkable, even immoral, has no such group. And as is especially clear now that Saddam Hussein is in custody, his reign of terror, weakening such civil society as existed and prompting Iraqis to fear one another, makes the democratization of that nation a work of decades, with the prospect of success uncertain. But of course there is a wide zone of liberty between Saddam’s murderous absolute tyranny, without any civil rights, and full democracy; and we have already moved Iraq toward that zone.

Second, as James Q. Wilson’s thought-provoking “What Makes a Terrorist?” implicitly makes clear, we should be very skeptical about libertarianism, because the psychological assumptions that underpin it are false. It’s not nature, but rather a highly developed civilization, that produces men capable of rationally calculating their self-interest—and then following it, rather than bending to appetite or passion. As Wilson shows, most terrorists belong to tightly bonded groups, whose members reinforce one another’s delusions: that evil is good, wrong is right, death is life. All this might make rational (if immoral) sense if terrorism achieved its political goals; but as Wilson finds, it rarely does. At the center of Wilson’s essay is a famous experiment done years ago by a Yale psychologist who sought to understand why so many ordinary Germans were willing to pull the levers at Auschwitz: if an authority figure applies enough moral pressure and asserts that what is clearly wrong is in the service of a higher good, the experiment concluded, most people can be brought to do almost anything, however irrational.

Finally, both these remarkable stories finish the job Victor Davis Hanson began in “Why History Has No End” (Autumn 2003) of blowing the End of History theory out of the water. That theory, hypothesizing that conflicts will fade, and peace will prevail, as people increasingly accept free-market capitalism and democracy as the best life for man, is a corollary of libertarianism, in its assumption that people see reason and act according to its dictates. But how far, George Will might say, are the Iraqis from Enlightenment reason and institutions—and how inadequate is rationality alone in melding even the separate nations of Europe, with their long history of conflict, into a single harmonious polity! Worse, as James Q. Wilson’s article on terrorists shows, little platoons of nihilistic, death-dealing unreason, cheered on by a culture of rage and resentment, have seen the Enlightenment and wish to wipe it out.

There’s enough dark dynamism here to power history for eons to come.