The burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire
Incuriosity about culture has become a public virtue
This century has already seen its fair share of great delusions, society-changing disasters built on wishful thinking: you can loan mortgages to people who obviously can’t pay them back; you can cure pain with an opiate that won’t make people addicted; and now the unstoppable idea of equality of outcomes between races, a project doomed to failure and tragedy.
But none was perhaps so spectacularly disastrous as liberal imperialism. Twenty years ago, George W Bush sent the most powerful military the world had ever seen into the birthplace of Abraham to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and as Niall Ferguson wrote in the Wall Street Journal at the time: ‘the greatest empire of the modern times has come into existence without the American people even noticing’.
The New American Empire lasted, at most, twenty years, if one counts the two falls of Kabul as brackets. This was despite enormous technological supremacy, and genuine goodwill and benevolence among many of the state-builders.
The United States was ‘born liberal’, as historian Louis Hartz said, even if the crime wave of the late 20th century made that a dirty word, and the ‘New American Empire’ would spread the benefits of liberalism to grateful beneficiaries around the world.
Yet what is so striking about the imperialists of the 21st century, compared to their forebears in the 19th, was just how little interest they seemed to show in the subject people. Their naivety about human nature, and their utopian belief that people around the world just wanted ‘freedom’, chimed with a lack of curiosity about humanity.
To think that people around the world might not be the same, that they might not want ‘freedom’ nor have the social structure or culture that suited democracy, might be to venture into dangerous territory. To suggest that Iraq was incapable of democracy was insulting to Iraqis, since as the US president said ahead of the war: ‘There was a time when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values. Well, they were wrong. Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken.’
Yet the defeated nations in 1945 had very old, well-established institutions and very strong national identities, something Iraq did not. The latter was extremely clannish, something no one seemed to consider. Sovereignty and strong institutions take generations to build, and cannot just be imposed by foreigners working on abstract principles like ‘democracy’.
Bush was not alone. That same year, John McCain had said: ‘There is not a history of clashes that are violent between Sunnis and Shias, so I think they can probably get along.’ And on March 1, 2003, two weeks before the war started, Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, had dismissed warnings about sectarian conflict: ‘We talk here about Shiites and Sunnis as if they’ve never lived together. Most Arab countries have Shiites and Sunnis, and a lot of them live perfectly well together.’ On top of that, ‘Very few wars in American history were prepared better or more thoroughly than this one by this president.’ He was totally wrong, while in contrast the American Conservative’s pessimistic warnings about Iraq’s social fabric proved correct.
Yet while Iraq was a disaster, western intervention in Libya was arguably a bigger catastrophe: what followed was further civil war, a huge and continual wave of migration into Europe, which perhaps swung the Brexit vote, and a far more serious problem with terrorism.
This time the western allies, led by France and Britain, didn’t even have a plan, only their wilful naivety. For David Cameron, the idea that democracy might be unworkable in Arab countries like Libya was ‘a prejudice that borders on racism’ — and we can’t possibly consider racist thoughts when we’re making decisions that will literally decide the fate of nations. After Gaddafi was brought down, Barack Obama said ‘One thing is clear – the future of Libya is now in the hands of the Libyan people… It will be Libyans who build their new nation’.
‘But,’ as Amy Chua wrote in Political Tribes: ‘“the Libyan people” hail from some 140 different tribes, and they did not come together to “build their new nation”. On the contrary, the country began a slow descent into fragmentation and eventually a bloody civil war. As Obama would later say, “The degree of tribal division in Libya was greater than our analysts had expected.”’ By 2016 it was a failed state.
How could the American government, with its huge amount of expertise and wealth, not know about the degree of tribal division in Libya?