Latest from Iraq

I sometimes think that as a pundit in the newspapers I was too realpolitik; whereas now, in my enforced leisure, writing these idle essays, I am too pixie. Put this another way. In my newspaper columns I would take the position, “If you want to achieve that, you must do this.” Whereas, now I am more inclined to say that the this is not worth discussing, because the that is not worth achieving.

“Democracy” is a word I have put in quotes often lately, in the hope that the more intelligent readers with whom I am now blessed will detect shadings of irony. No Catholic can be against voting, per se, since after all our Popes are elected by ballot; and even the Holy Roman Emperor was thus elected, albeit the franchise was limited to seven persons. My objection is to the use of the word “democracy” in an abstract and utterly irresponsible way, as in for instance the phrase, “bringing democracy to Iraq,” when the speaker (unwittingly) proposes to bring chaos and violence instead.

But I could equally place the scare quotes around e.g. “capitalism” and “free markets,” often around “Western,” and even around “constitutional” and “the rule of law.” All such terms and many more are used in a slovenly way, which under cross-examination comes down to, “You know what I mean.”

No, Mr Bush, I don’t know what you mean; though I must allow that compared to Mr Obama, Mr Bush was almost comprehensible. Moreover, in my unchanged opinion, the 43rd President was, by the standards of politics, a good and decent man, doing what he believed right by the light of his understanding. (“The light that failed,” in Kipling’s haunting phrase.) Demonized, as it were, by demons.

Iraq has been much on my mind and in my heart, these last weeks. News junkies may refer to the standard junk sources to get some idea why. The “journalists” seldom get the details right, confuse matters further by their pig ignorance of history, and by writing a farrago of meaningless abstractions, clichés, and desperate nonce words. Nevertheless, a reader acquainted with Iraq may extract some vague shape within their slurry: of another civil war in a Middle Eastern country where there are (a lot) more than two sides. We get, for instance, “Sunni versus Shia,” presented with the same glib assurance as “Brazil versus Cameroon” with a half-time score. Suffice to say, there are many factions of Arab and non-Arab Sunnis, of Arab and non-Arab Shia, of communities neither Sunni nor Shia, and “terrorists” in multiple and mixed flavours. We would seem to be coming down to a “final” between ISIS-faction Sunni Islamist terrorists and Iranian-sponsored Shia Islamist militias, with Team Obama proposing to drop bombs on behalf of the latter. But I wouldn’t be too sure, of anything in Iraq.

Now, in the olden days, earlier in this century, I was an enthusiast for invading Iraq, for smooshing the monstrous regime of Saddam Hussein, and replacing it with a more benign dictatorship under, say, Ahmed Chalabi, with American and European help cleaning up. On the assumption it was too late to restore the Hashemite dynasty, I thought, go for the next best alternative. Given the borders as drawn by Gertrude Bell, and the variety of peoples contained within them, and immediate external threats on all sides, it did strike me that an essay in mass democracy would be exceptionally obtuse. I regret that I did not make this argument (which disturbed my editors) plainer.

The interest of United States and allies, with electorates lacking moral or intellectual stamina, was to get out as quickly as possible, consistent with leaving a stable regime that would not be a threat, at least to us. Under circumstances of real and present internal and external dangers, it would be necessary to leave a few bases behind, with troops and equipment ready to dance at short notice, and the back-up of, in effect, a fully reconstituted American Fifth Fleet, receiving more generous contributions from all NATO allies. That’s what kind of Imperialist I am.

Not, alas, the older sort of Imperialist, who might have put Iraq under the rule of a British Viceroy; but only because the option was not at hand. Politics is supposed to be the art of the possible (notwithstanding the way they are conducted today), and even I, like other Canadians, have noted the decline of the British Empire — as, too, the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, &c — with their more “hands on” approach to persistent sources of disorder. The problem with American Imperialism being, they don’t know how to do it, and keep messing up, even with military resources that any of the old Imperial powers would have envied.

This is because they keep trying to sell “democracy.” They have been doing it for several generations, and they will not learn from experience, nor accept any criticism on this point. Power may be projected, but “democracy” cannot be imposed in a place like Iraq (let alone Afghanistan) without easily foreseeable, shall we say, negative consequences. Nor should one persist in giving lip service to an ideal that is impracticable, to such a ludicrous degree. As we have seen, it is not even working in the United States of America, where “the people” have voted themselves government benefits and entitlements (as the Europeans before them) to the point of spiritual as well as fiscal bankruptcy.

But let’s stick with Iraq. There are at least a dozen countries within that country, some larger, some smaller; and the challenge for any central government is to keep them out of each other’s affairs. This was the normal and traditional challenge for governors of vast dominions, and I mentioned the British with approval, above, because they were (once) rather good at it. It is exactly what mass democracy ignores, as in the case of Iraq, where the Shia majority were given the opportunity to vote on how the Sunni minority should be treated.

Just as “socialism” is only possible among friends, “democracy” is only possible at the small level, and then depending on the local mood. Trying to forge a nation on this “one size fits all” ideological principle is asking for … what we have been getting for the last century and more. Indeed, the Ottoman regime was more benign than any of the nation states that replaced it, because the Sultan in Istanbul still recognized, in the old-fashioned way, that his dominions were various. If they were sincere in arguing, “that government is best which governs least,” North American libertarians would take a good look at the Ottoman administration, and stop reflexively supporting Young Turks.

The task of statesmen — long before “Democracy!” became the cry of the mob — was to promote peace, order, and good government, given the kaleidoscopic reality of “facts on the ground.” An important part of that task, as I was reminded recently in reading at length of Talleyrand, then Wellington, was subverting megalomaniacs in their dreams of glory. They were mutual admirers, these two, incidentally. Talleyrand from within, Wellington from without, worked on the problem of Napoleon, whose immense popularity in post-revolutionary France, when he was winning, was compounded by his genius on the battlefield. This would require a very long historical essay, but for my present purpose I will cut to the chase: Both of these very different heroes understood that the cause of peace, order, and good government, could only be achieved by carefully resisting anything like mass democracy, or the popular will. For both understood the first thing: that “the people” are fools.


We are five days short of the most important centenary we will observe in our lives: that of June 28th, 1914 — the day from which I date “post-modernity,” in the work of an anarchist for “the people” of Serbia. The Great War happened because there were madmen in high stations — Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany being the prize example — but more consequentially, because the popular will had been teased into irruptions of nationalist, chauvinist hysteria in every European capital, by the newly emergent yellow press and cheap, demagogic politicians. It is sickening, today, to look back over the huge demonstrations that assembled for war in Berlin, Paris, London, elsewhere. In the background, intelligent, aristocratic statesmen of the old school were scrambling to avert it. They, unlike “the people,” knew what this world war would mean: that it would destroy Europe; that it would overwhelm every remaining vestige of peaceful and traditional ways of life. But the ideal of “democracy” had already gone too far. The mobs wanted action. And they soon got what they were lusting for.

In the aftermath of that War, in the dealings at Versailles and in constitutional developments throughout the West, it became evident, to a few of the wise, that no lesson had been learnt. And how could it, given the deceitful rewrite of history already proceeding to serve new “democratic” purposes? The very men who had struggled to avoid war were now said to have conspired to start it; the vulgar mob that had demanded it, were now cast as their innocent victims. (The media then as today delight in flattering their uneducated audiences with reversals of that kind.)

There was no turning back from what man had wrought, on his own wilful initiative. In the shadow of Total War, a new generation of populist politicians went to work on delivering Total Peace. The voting franchise, already dangerously over-extended, was now doubled; men of no distinction rose from the bottom on the churning thunder of the populist tide. Politics became everyone’s business, whether or not everyone knew the first thing, and the experienced statesmen of past generations were systematically replaced by the crowd-pleasers with their electoral circus acts. A new world of technology also burst forth, thanks to the inventions of war, helping to divert the attention of men from the life everlasting, to instant material gratification. Men were “progressively” set free of all customary restraints, especially the restraint of honour.

And what we were selling in Iraq — an artificial nation already deformed from the clash of ancient and post-modern forces — was more of this same poisoned porridge. It hasn’t worked out. It could never work out. Even had it been entirely successful, it would have delivered only another “globalized” culture of depraved men and women, shorn of their identities as souls, enslaved by their own greed for things that can only distract from Heaven.

And these are not indifferent things. In order to please the mass market, in politics as in trade, we must pile up the bodies in the mortuaries. Murder is at the root of all revolutionary zeal, and as Jefferson said, the tree of his new, revolutionary liberty “must be refreshed with blood.” (Even where there is outwardly no war: for I think of the blood of forty million North American babies, shed to refresh “the liberty of women.”)

We have been piling them up for a century, on a scale not seen since Tamurlaine, all in the name of “the people” and “democracy.” Or as a Canadian sage liked to put it — the Nova Scotia Yankee, Thomas Chandler Haliburton — “vox populi, vox diabolus.”


Let me add, for the benefit of at least a couple of readers who lost boys in Iraq or Afghanistan, that their deaths were not in vain. It is at another level from “foreign policy” that they became engaged in the struggle. What we fight for, what we achieve and don’t achieve, has a reckoning beyond the confines of this world. Those who died trying to protect the harmless — the common simple people of Iraq and Afghanistan, longing to live in peace, yet oppressed by psychotic tyrants and caught up in their wars — died well.

The real testimony to the value of their service comes from love. I was deeply moved by several allied soldiers who, in letters to me in the course of their field service, wrote with great affection for the people they had met in towns and villages — that is, real, actual, singular people, as opposed to statistical counters. They went to fight for USA, or for Canada in several cases; they stayed to fight for the Iraqis, for the Afghans, as they had come to know them — hoping to build them a better future, in safety and in freedom. Those who died, died also for them.

One is heartbroken for their loss, in the flower of youth. For their families: their moms and dads, their wives and kids, their brothers and sisters; for their friends and their lovers. But I absolutely refuse to agree that their lives were “wasted,” in the manner of newspaper pundits and the asinine liberals on TV. No matter how badly the mission failed, in the end, so many engaged with pure hearts and fine courage. And every human mission fails, in the end. We cannot judge on the basis of worldly success or failure.