Note: The debut today of the first of several occasional columns for Eunomia, Defensor Pacis, will be the beginning of combining the shorter, more immediate responses to daily news items and commentary that have been typical of this blog and longer, more developed discussions contained in thematic treatments of various contemporary questions. Defensor Pacis will aim to address principally the questions surrounding the proper role and function of government, legitimate authority and the appropriate goals of good government. Naturally, while Marsilio of Padua’s treatise is the inspiration for the name and some of the general conceptions of the work, this column will not always be applying his arguments to contemporary affairs, but will be taking his understanding of government and, by extension, Aristotle’s, as a guide.
The purpose of government is to restrain the wicked, ensure the administration of justice, defend domestic tranquility, repel foreign invaders and secure the lives and property of the people. Good government requires that the prescriptive rights and customary practices of a people be respected by those in authority, and that those subject to legitimate authority cooperate with the authorities for the common good. Free men are not hostile to obedience within limits, and obedience is a political virtue when the political authority remains within its proper limits and fulfills it proper role.
When the authorities fail in their responsibilities, or those who have seized their place fail in fulfilling them, respect for authority will be vitiated, hubris will increase, order will collapse and the blessings of tranquility depart from the land. The failure to execute the duties of legitimate authority deprives it of a great deal of its legitimacy, and it is a matter of practical fact (whether or not it is a so-called ‘right’) that people, who normally desire only these most basic functions of government, will cease to obey and support an authority that has effectively abandoned them. They will fall back upon natural bonds of kinship and the more profound affinities of a common land or a common faith. These are their primary loyalties, and political authority possesses any of this loyalty only upon completion of its duties.
Naturally, a servile nation will fail to reject an authority even long after it has abandoned any pretense to fulfilling its proper role and has worked mightily to sever their natural loyalties. Such a nation will be inordinately preoccupied with the idea of freedom, perhaps in proportion to the degree to which they themselves lack such freedom, and will be obsessed with liberating other nations (however, in the course of things, this liberation has come to mean nothing other than making the others like themselves).
It is exceedingly difficult for any power to establish itself as the political authority in a land by sheer force, but even once some measure of control has been acquired maintaining obedience is still more taxing. To secure and legitimise his seizure of power, it has always been necessary for the conqueror to accommodate himself to the customs, practices and institutions of the conquered, if he wishes to be most successful in obtaining the ready obedience of his subjects. When we review the history of the most successful and enduring empires and states, even if they were initially forged by conquest, they survived as long as they did by dint of incorporating existing power structures into their own and leaving most native affairs to local, traditional authorities. The surest road to ruin in any foreign adventure, whatever its pretext, has been to import foreign models unknown in practice to the inhabitants of the conquered land, replace native hierarchies with direct administration of local affairs by imperial officers or by locals divorced from their national or cultural affinities, and set greater store by ideological benchmarks and signs of conformity with official doctrine rather than attend to the essential functions of government.
In Iraq, the shibboleth of elections has taken precedence over the establishment of law and order and most of the other basic functions of government listed above. Critics of the war are keen to point out the immensely flawed nature of the elections, just as advocates of the war are zealous to defend the elections as the only possible way out of Iraq (just as it is the remaining ‘justification’ for their war). But this is not going to be simply another rendition of explaining why law and order must take priority over democratic practices, which is increasingly obvious even to those suckered by the government line on the war in general. It will be an explanation of why any power that makes such a symbol of “liberation” a priority over all these other things is clearly engaged in illegitimate domination, has admitted as much, and has thrown away all other options for a successful rule that would re-establish the relative order and tranquility that existed before the war.
Contemporary critical arguments over the forthcoming Iraqi elections have almost all taken as a given that, on the one side, either simply the practical lack of security or complete inexperience with or incompatibility of Iraqis for democracy will lead to political failure, while on the other side there has been the assumption that there can be no legitimate opposition to the holding of the elections as such, such that there is no moral, justifiable and conceivable alternative other than the one they support. Some have also observed, with some merit, that such elections might exacerbate the insecurity of the country and provoke general civil war.
Most skeptics of the elections seem to think either that they will become a bloody shambles (which they might), and criticise them for this reason, or they see the political result as being itself undesirable or inherently contradictory of the electoral process in some way (i.e., Shi’i majoritarian rule). Those adamantly in support of the elections seem to have much more limited conceptual tools, but generally support elections as such as a manifestation of democratic government and, ipso facto, “freedom,” which they erroneously attach to such a regime. A few apparently now more moderate enthusiasts for the Iraq cause seem to be crossing their fingers, fully aware that the success of an Iraqi democracy goes against all the odds and perhaps even against much of what these enthusiasts claim to believe.
More than a few enthusiasts also seem to have no intellectual apparatus to perceive the bizarre, anarchic ideas that permeated Mr. Bush’s inaugural address. After all, they say, who can be against freedom? Well, when defined by Mr. Bush, I would go so far as to say that I am–thank goodness his ‘freedom’ has nothing to do with the real thing. The address is directly relevant to today’s discussion because the test-run of the fanatical ideas in that speech is on display this week in Iraq. Radio host and blogger Kevin McCullough (an unremarkable, party-line “conservative,” but all the more representative for this reason), whom I had the misfortune of briefly hearing last night on the radio, positively gushed about the eloquence and meaning of the speech, just as he marveled at those who criticised the imposition of a political system as an imposition of a political system, offering the profound remark that “freedom” isn’t imposed. Mr. McCullough’s remark is as typical of the mentality of optimists about these elections as it is unwise.
All of the arguments, both the skeptical and the ‘optimistic’, seem to keep treading over the same ground again and again, elucidating very little, as they have been boxed in by their general views of the war either as one of domination or one of liberation. My very strong views against the war are, of course, perfectly well known, but what I hope to discuss here is why both of these narratives continue to mask what I think are the more profound problems surrounding these elections and the effort in Iraq in general.
Naturally, I tend to agree with the view that Iraq is under occupation and is in no way free or “more free” than it was two years ago at this time. But we cannot actually blame this simply on the deceit of hegemonists, who preach liberation and deliver something else. This is to make the mistake that there ever are real “liberations” in political history separable from domination, or that the rhetoric of liberation is used by anyone other than the conqueror and the despoiler of a nation’s independence, sovereignty and rights. For instance, one can make very clever arguments–and I have even tried my hand at this–that say that the Germans in WWI represented the ‘real’ forces of “liberty” against the domination of Allied empires.
This is demonstrably true in a certain way: Georgia, Finland, the Baltic states and the Ukraine all gained their brief independence thanks to the German government and their ‘liberation’ was actively supported by the Germans. It is perhaps a great irony that the Kaiser’s government set up at least four successful representative governments in less time and under greater duress than we, that bastion of representative government, have failed to do the same in setting up one in relative calm. But to put it in this way would be to make such raw uses of power and force somehow more acceptable. Underlying this success was nothing other than sheer military power, and the ‘liberation’ occurred only because it suited Berlin to carve these countries out of Russian territory. Likewise, in the real world, American ‘liberation’ of western Europe worked out as it did in ways that suited Washington, which obviously retained overwhelming practical political predominance over all of the governments in western Europe. Real liberation, wherein the formerly occupied countries would become fully independent again in every way, was no longer possible, nor would Washington have desired it if it were.
Moreover, the Germans in 1917-18 succeeded because the nations they were ‘liberating’ were distinct and wanted out of the Russian system. In our case, there can really be no successful ‘liberation’ that will last beyond the end of our domination, as we are not liberating them from foreigners but supposedly from their ‘own’ government. One cannot really liberate a people from its own government, attractive as the idea might occasionally be, and not simply because of the predictable nationalist solidarity in support of said government. In such a circumstance, even after purging the old guard of the upper echelons of the regime itself, there are great numbers of people who did not want ‘liberation’ and have only lost because of it. Even many of the disempowered are losers under a new order. They will persistently be a thorn in the side of any future ‘liberated’ regime, and that regime will only survive the numerous coup and assassination attempts through the continued presence of the invader’s forces.
In the Hellenistic era, the predominant ruler in Macedonia, such as Poliorketes, could cast himself as a ‘restorer’ of democracy (even if the democracy had not really been abandoned under Demetrios of Phaleron), which simply meant that he was choosing the side of partisans who opposed the partisans of Cassander who dominated before him. Likewise, we have not ‘liberated’ Iraq anymore than Poliorketes ‘liberated’ Athens, in the full political sense, because in both cases the invader has simply chosen to empower the side that lacked power under the previous regime. Like Athens, Iraq might be left to its own devices in some internal affairs, but like the Macedonians we will continue to have our garrison at Piraeus and will direct their external policy. The moment we cease to have that garrison there, the old dynamic that created the previous situation will reassert itself, perpetually breeding instability and violence. Clearly, any government operating under these constraints will never be fully legitimate, no matter how many votes it receives and no matter how willing Shi’i clerics are to accommodate with some democratic norms, and it will never be able to fulfill its proper tasks as a government.
The new Iraqi regime will have been a politically imposed one in the same way that the Weimar constitution was practically imposed on the Germans by external constraints (even though it was facilitated by the cooperation of a great number of Germans). Constitutionally, one could, I suppose, have seriously claimed that Germany had become more ‘liberal’ under the Weimar republic than it had been under the Kaiserreich. Perhaps one could claim even that the domestic support for the new constitution was such that it possessed a certain “democratic” legitimacy. But, in fact, none of that mattered, as the constitution effectively empowered Social Democrats, who established policies for Germany that were unacceptable to a significant minority who either had affinities for the old regime or those who resented the subordinate position Germany held in its external relationships, and that minority was large enough to organise opposition to the republic and ultimately break it. This regime was not even so thoroughly tainted by active complicity with forces that occupied the entire country as the Iraqi government has been and will be, so the new regime in Iraq will be even more dependent on American forces not just for establishing security but for its very survival against domestic political enemies (and these need not include simply the current insurgents).
The government’s preference for elections at this early date is a mark not of Mr. Bush’s benevolence, the lack of hegemonic designs or even a growing desire to escape the mess Mr. Bush has made for us, but an implicit admission that the domination itself is faltering and has failed to win the respect of the people. Even an invader can gain grudging respect by governing more effectively than the previous, local regime. But the recourse to elections will simply accelerate its evident failure in all respects, as both the dominant power and its installed regime will have lost all legitimate authority once the elections are finished and none of the benefits of good government are realised.
At any rate, the ‘failure’ or ‘success’ of the forthcoming elections should not be taken in any way as a sign of the failure or success of the Iraq war, as the very existence of these elections under occupation promises the failure of whatever regime is elected. In the wake of that failure, we will see a regime perhaps not much different from the last, though it may be ruled by people from a different sect or ethnicity, and will finally acknowledge that our sons have died in vain.
It is because the ‘liberation’ was always impossible that foreign domination, long after the elections, will be the political reality for as long as the American people are daft enough to allow it to continue. The increasing awareness of that fact among Iraqis means only a progressively more violent future for our soldiers. Those holding out the prospect of holding elections, setting up a government and then departing are either fools or dishonest, and those who propose that the elections will bring stability have spent too much time following the drudgery of American elections to understand the explosive power these redistributions of power normally have. No government set up under foreign domination or threat has survived more than 15 or 20 years after the conqueror has fully departed, and obviously no modern government set up by the United States has survived more than 5 years without extensive continued political and military support and oversight. In the coming years we will be presented with the bad option of remaining indefinitely in Iraq to ‘justify’ the sacrifices of the war–we should vocally reject it now, before the offer is ever made.
American departure cannot ever be determined by the success or failure of a new Iraqi regime, as this would mean our permanent presence on a large scale in the country for a generation or more. Recognising the inherent connection between all such “liberations” and foreign political domination, we can begin to scrap the enervating debate over whether Iraqi democracy will “work” or arguing that the ‘liberation’ is fraudulent: of course, it is fraudulent, as all liberations by invaders always are. Even if everything else were working in favour of that regime (cultural traditions favourable to liberalism, ethnic homogeneity, relative peace and quiet), the manner in which the government was established dooms it to perpetual internal strife, instability and failure.