Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Friday, September 05, 2003
The chief neo-conservative insight in foreign policy is that the internal character of a regime determines its foreign policy. Liberal societies may expand aggressively to "fill the space available" (as, for example, Britain did into Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and as the United States did across the American continent) but they will not generally undertake aggressive war against other powers. Traditional authoritarian regimes *will* intiate aggressive wars, because in these regimes the state in an instrument of the autocrat rather than of the people, and the autocrat's power, wealth and prestige is enhanced by conquest. But these regimes can be deterred - not by the prospect of loss, since loss is borne by the people, but by the prospect of defeat, for defeat can be fatal to regimes like these that depend on the tacit support of a large minority of the people (see, for example, Argentina after the Falklands War, the coups in various Arab states that followed the Israeli War of Independence, or the uprisings that might have toppled Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War had they not been betrayed).

By contrast, radical authoritarian regimes - totalitarian, if you prefer - mobilize all of society in an all-consuming ideological war; and to maintain this level of mobilization - which is essential for the regime to survive - generally requires actual war. Thus: Nazi Germany, militarist Japan, Leninist Russia. This warfare can be turned inward into a kind of state-run civil war (China's cultural revolution, Pol Pot's Cambodian auto-genocide), but even in these cases it generally spills outward. Because these radical states must make war or die, they cannot be handled the way states traditionally are, with a combination of threat and conciliation. It is not that these states are irrational; it's that they cannot survive peace. You can't deter them into making peace, and you can't conciliate them into making peace; if they make peace, they collapse, and so they do not - cannot - make peace, no matter what you do. This is how the Soviets behaved from the 1950s through the early 1980s: when America threatened and confronted, they responded aggressively; when America conciliated, they took advantage by engaging in aggression. "When we build, they build; when we don't build, they build." The first Soviet leader to seriously attempt to make peace with the West, Mikhail Gorbachev, was astonished to find that his efforts promptly resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The implication of this understanding - that some regimes are so constituted that they *necessarily* wage war, and are therefore a threat (to the extent that they have power) by their mere *existence* - is that some regimes must be *obliterated* as a matter of self-defense. What looks like aggression - FDR demanding "unconditional surrender" from Germany, Reagan calling the Soviets an "evil empire," Bush referring to an "axis of evil" and his deputies talking about "ending states" - is merely the logical consequence of joining traditional notions of self defense with the neo-conservative understanding of how the character of a regime affects its foreign policy. When dealing with radical enemies like these, the only defense is a good offense.

I happen to think this neo-conservative insight is correct. But it has not escaped my attention that the chief foreign policy insight of their ideological opposites within the conservative camp - the libertarians - is the precise converse of the neo-conservative insight - to whit, that a state's foreign policy affects the character of the regime. And this insight also strikes me as correct. It is an older insight, one that animated Washington's farewell warning against entangling alliances, and one that animated Eisenhower's farewell warning against the military-industrial complex. War *is* the health of the state. The Civil War and World War I each ushered in dramatic expansions in Federal power and authority that have never been meaningfully reversed. That war is sometimes necessary does not alter the fact that it has important domestic consequences. I believe strongly that our current war is necessary, and it will necessitate future battles - possibly on the Korean penninsula, possibly in South Asia, possibly in Lebanon, possibly in yet other theaters. But that doesn't mean I don't worry about the consequences of a long, drawn-out conflict on our culture and or habits of governance.

Which is one reason why, contra Stanley Kurtz, I am pleased that we are not entertaining thoughts of a draft, in spite of our military manpower needs. I acknowledge those needs; we ought to be building up our military to something like its Reagan-era size - which, I note, was achieved without conscription. But we shouldn't, if at all possible, do it through conscription. Conscript militaries are deeply contrary to Anglo-Saxon traditions, and very dangerous to a liberal order. Yes, conscription is the cheapest way to raise an army (though if you factor in the cost of the economic dislocation caused thereby, I suspect you'd discover that it is cheaper, all-around, to raise taxes and pay more for a larger military than to conscript). But for many advocates for conscription the key arguments in favor are cultural: it will reduce the culture gap between military and civilian, imbue the country with a spirit of solidarity and purpose, etc. These are Prussian ideas, and we should be wary of them.

There are necessary wars that can't be won without a draft. This isn't one of them. And that criterion - can we win without it - should be the only one used when evaluating the question.