The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Last Best Hope

In a comment at Belgravia Dispatch, Joseph Britt writes:
I actually think the stakes involved in the American commitment in Iraq are quite large, but I also think they are very different than Greg does. To me, these stakes involve America's sense of proportion, its ability to set priorities, and its understanding of the limits to its resources. Five years ago hardly anyone in this country would have considered the less-than-even odds of establishing a liberal democracy in Iraq worth the price in blood and treasure we have already paid. They weren't wrong then; Greg is wrong now.
If I understand Mr. Britt correctly, he is saying that America's "sense of proportion" and "understanding of [its] limits" are important -- so important that they, rather than the more commonly voiced goals of reducing terrorism and autocracy, dominate the stakes in Iraq. I interpret this to mean that Mr. Britt thinks it would be a great good if America gained such an understanding of its limits.

I cannot agree. An America that thinks in terms of limits, that errs on the side of ratiocination rather than idealism, is just a larger version of Europe. My thinking is undoubtedly a throwback to the days of proclaimed Manifest Destiny, but I believe there is a rational case to be made that a more powerful America corresponds directly to a better world.

In particular, suppose that America had carefully weighed the costs and benefits, and had decided that the invasion of Iraq was not worthwhile. This would surely have been the act of a less powerful, less self-assured, more European America. It would also have been the last nail in the coffin of international law, which would have been starkly revealed to have no coercive power over any dictator capable of suppressing his own citizens. The defense of international law -- even an international law which is in the eyes of many tainted by a too-close association with the world's sole policeman -- was an expensive, idealistic, non-European choice; a choice which showed America's lack of a sense of proportion.

Capitalism has evolved over many years to allow people to prosper together even while pursuing their own best interests; and even capitalism is so fragile that it depends on a complex social fabric to function well (consider the fate of Russia). The relations between nations have evolved on a shorter timescale with far less breadth of experimentation, and no such system is even close to emerging. In this world, American involvement in the Middle East is irrational but generous.

Mr. Britt also mentions "ability to set priorities", which seems to me completely tangential. Our domestic priorities, with borrowing far exceeding the cost of all our foreign ventures, and with runaway increases in special-purpose earmarks, are utterly muddled. The Iraq war, by contrast, has been entered into with extensive national debate, and the opposition has certainly not been shy of publicizing its cost. Our Iraqi project represents, not a lack of priorities, but a choice of priorities.

Finally, "understanding of the limits to its resources." Many of the limits to our resources are self-imposed: a childish aversion to nuclear power, a refusal to honestly balance the costs and benefits of ever-increasing medical care, and our continuing and expensive betrayal of the public-schooled poor spring to mind. I have a burning understanding of those limits, and an equally strong wish to lift them -- not to limbo under them.

Europe will not lead; and where China will go, you will not want to follow. America, in all its arrogance, remains different, and usually for the better. As Abraham Lincoln said:
In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.