October 20, 2003

Hey guys, do you know you're playing with fire?

Reading Stephen den Beste this morning, on why we are giving a lot of rope to a dangerous anti-American demagogue in Iraq, made me think again about the blogpost I recently wrote about, where Jim Henley claimed we have gone into the "God business," without having the wisdom to pull it off.

"Power without wisdom" or "godlike power" are clichés [cliché is the wrong word--IC. Yeah, but I can't think of the right one. Saws?...Update: Clayton Jones suggests "bromide."] that can be inserted in a narrative to avoid true debating. One could argue the point fairly, marshalling evidence and facts to support your claim. But in my experience no one who complains about "godlike power" ever does that. They just select maybe one bad incident or shortcoming, and improvise endlessly on the theme. (By the way, there's another viewpoint on the bulldozing of Iraqi orchards here.)

Actually, the American people took on "godlike powers" around 1775, nominating themselves to replace an anointed monarch. And we use those powers all the time, experimenting boldly with new leaders and new laws. It's what we DO. Henley's criticism was like telling the guys in the steel mill that they are "playing with fire."

Representative government is not something you learn from theories or books. It's something a polity learns like a martial art, by practice, and by absorbing technique from those who are ahead of you. Our revolution was successful because the people who ran it were already skilled in self-government, and because they were wise with the practical wisdom that comes with being British.John Adams John Adams KNEW that unicameral legislatures were a bad idea. He knew that the French Revolution was heading for trouble when the French created one. And he was completely opposed to the Philosophes, (some of whom were his friends) because they were designing new societies without the grubby practical wisdom they needed. The French Revolution was a perfect example of people taking on godlike power without wisdom.

I've seen many indications that our work in Iraq is based on trusting the wisdom of ordinary Americans. The people on the ground seem to have lots of freedom to experiment and improvise (and to make mistakes, and learn from them.) There's no master plan. That's GOOD. Theorist types sneer and call it feckless, but you can't plan how to teach people to solve their own problems. You have to wing it. As an example, we didn't get flustered by the initial orgy of looting. The Iraqis needed to learn that that's not the kind of freedom they really want. We didn't anticipate it, but we reacted correctly.

It's like raising children, you can't do it from a book. Childrearing is non-stop improvisation, balancing the need to let them make mistakes with the need to keep them alive. My daughter has a friend so over-protected she's never lit a match, and wasn't allowed to go on the school trip to Yosemite. One of my sons has a friend who was allowed to wander almost totally unsupervised, and ended up spending weeks in a coma in the Intensive Care Unit. But most parents strike better balances...

Anyway, we (and many of our coalition partners) HAVE the wisdom we need. This isn't "power without wisdom."

Posted by John Weidner at October 20, 2003 8:45 AM
Weblog by John Weidner