A college friend of mine wrote to me today and mentioned, in passing, being depressed over the election victory of "this monster" Bush. Partly to explain to her, and partly because I've thought about it a lot, and partly because it's the beginning of a new year, here's a piece explaining why I voted for him.
And there's a free prize for anyone who reads through to the end! Seriously. :)
[Note, Jan 2 2005: I'm editing this piece a bit as time goes on, not to change any of the ideas, but to make them a little clearer here and there.]
George W. Bush was the first time I ever voted Republican. I spent quite some time studying the issues and thinking about them. The thing is, I believe the neocon vision that the best chance for giving the world a future is to spread liberal democracy all through it. And when dictatorship is too entrenched, as it was with Hitler or Hussein, the only way that can be done is through military action. 40 million lives would have been saved if Churchill had had his way, and attacked Hitler in the 1937 time frame. That would have been before Hitler had fully built up the German military (I've read about 7-8 books on WWII to try to give myself some background in understanding these issues).
That's just a fact, in hindsight; I don't there is any reasonable way to argue against it. But had we taken such action then, the exact same arguments would have been raised that Churchill was a monster for doing it. The 40 million unnecessary dead would never have happened, but Germany then would have looked a lot like Iraq does now. Churchill would have been reviled and hated for it. That, too, is just a fact as far as I can tell. But, such an attack on Hitler would have overwhelmingly been the best thing to do, in order to avoid the Holocaust and all else that Hitler caused. Churchill would have unquestionably been reviled for doing what unquestionably would have been, by far, the right thing.
Obviously, the moral is not that all pre-emptive attacks on countries run by dictators are fine. The moral, as I see it, is: The fact that a lot of people hate Bush does not mean that he did the wrong thing; just as many people would have hated Churchill too. Any time an action is taken that involves immediate suffering, those who take the action will be reviled by a large segment of the population. But a great tragedy of life is that sometimes, such actions are necessary to avoid far, far greater, totally unnecessary death and suffering, that would otherwise occur in the future. Hitler, and the process that led to his ability to be responsible for 40 million deaths, is the world's greatest example of that. And it's one we should really strive to learn from.
It's said that "he who does not learn from history is condemned to repeat it." But it's not enough to look at certain historical events too specifically and try to avoid those exact same circumstances again. The next crises leading to 10's or 100's of millions of deaths isn't going to look very much like Hitler. The real historical studies we need to make should have, as their main subject, the process of thinking about these issues. What process leads to conclusions that involve fewer horrific, needless deaths? In the case of World War II, a desire on the part of those in power to avoid war, which was clearly driven by good, caring impulses, was not counteracted by enough confidence in the benefits of rational thinking and study of the data that showed that something, very, very bad could happen if Hitler wasn't taken out.
Churchill spent that thought-time and made such studies, and came nearly 100% to the right conclusions, and came to them while there was still plenty of time to avert the disaster that eventually unfolded. The information was right there in Mein Kampf and in data about Germany's illicit military buildup. But putting it all together and drawing the right conclusions was abstract. What seemed real was that a pre-emptive attack on Germany would lead to terrible suffering. And that was, indeed, real. As it is in Iraq today.
But: THE ABSTRACT IS REAL TOO. Just because it is abstract, many people, in and out of power, seem to feel they can ignore it. But in reality, the abstract is just as real, and the dangers that spring from ignoring it are so gargantuan that they seriously challenge our ability to comprehend them. In fact, world events as horrific as the Holocaust cannot be comprehended. And still, the Holocaust comprised only 6 million of WWII's 40 million unnecessary, needless, terrible deaths. The abstract is as real as the immediate pain we rightly seek to avoid: THAT is a key lesson we should learn from history.
The overall long-term (though abstract) problem the world faces today, as I see it, is that with the rapid improvements in the technology of mass-destruction that is coming, it is inevitable that there will be large-scale destruction even far beyond what happened in WWII. Completely inevitable -- unless something happens to change things in a big way.
That has been obvious to me ever since I reached an age where I could think about such matters. I have been quite unhappy, to say the least, about believing things would come to such an end, but I saw no way out. I saw no evidence that those in leadership would ever do anything to change it, largely because the problem, though obvious, was not obvious enough to be taken up as a popular cause. It was too abstract; and also, the price to pay in addressing it would be very high.
But, I now believe that there is at least the possibility of a way out, and that is if the dictatorships are replaced by liberal democracy before it's too late. When the rest of the world is on a roughly similar level of prosperity as today's liberal democracies are, there will be far less psychological need for movements such as Bin Laden's.
Obviously no one is advocating attacking every dictatorship, Islamic or otherwise. But the problem with spreading liberal democracy into the Muslim world is that there is presently no major example of an Islamically-oriented, successful and prosperous democracy, embodying ideals like free speech. Iraq has the potential to become that. If it is successful, it will give the average Muslim a much better idea of what benefits a liberal democracy has. For instance, from articles I've read, the average Muslim does not believe that an American can speak ill of Bush without going to jail. They just don't have a close, concrete example of how a liberal democracy would work, demonstrating the actual reality of life in one. If our work in Iraq is successful, that example will exist. Or at least it will be a real partial step there.
And I believe that governments will change due to that, as happened to the Soviet Union. At bottom, it's all about information, or more accurately, memes. The culture in the Soviet Union was close enough to ours that the idea of a liberal democracy as practiced in the U.S., Western Europe, and elsewhere, could be understood, embraced, and fought for. (They've taken some steps backward lately, but let's continue.) Unlike the situation with the Soviet Union, it seems that the average Muslim living in an Islamic dictatorship truly doesn't have a "close enough" example to serve as a good enough model. There is thus no way for the liberal democracy meme to propagate powerfully across that chasm. This is crystalized in the apparently common belief that one cannot legally criticize Bush in the U.S. How can people with such totally wrong beliefs about liberal democracies ever hope to fight for getting one themselves?
I don't think this idea of memetic transfer of personal goals, values, and beliefs is taken nearly seriously enough. We need the concept of liberal democracy to propagate to people who can't really hear it today, because it is so foreign that it is hard for them to form an accurate picture of it. It doesn't matter how great an idea is if it's so foreign that it doesn't seem real. A success in Iraq, resulting in Muslims living with free speech and free elections, could make it seem real to many, many millions of people who do not understand it now. This is not vague psycho-babble. This is the bottom line. It's extremely concrete. People will only fight for causes that they can embrace wholeheartedly. They can't embrace them wholeheartedly if the only examples of the causes are in cultures that are so different that the relevant memes can't effectively spread across the chasm. People who assume that we in the U.S. can't criticize Bush without being thrown into jail are not going to fight for their own liberal democracy. They need to see how it works close-up. That's the only way the memes can propagate.
The reality of seeing a living situation that works is far better for meme propagation than even the most skillful propaganda. It has the benefit of being understandable, as well as being ultimately believable for the best reason possible: it's true; it's really happening.
It seems clear to me that Kerry doesn't understand the totality of this, and that Bush does. Or close enough. Hence, my vote. That vote was made despite the fact that I think that Bush has screwed up horribly in Iraq in many important ways, including real humanitarian ones.
I don't think Bush is great, but at least he has a clue about what the fundamental issue is; and without the leadership having a clue, I don't see grounds for hope. So, with regret, I voted for Bush.
And I need to give him credit: he gave me my first serious hope that perhaps those tens or hundreds of millions of needless deaths, that I always believed would one day occur due to the wrong weapon in the wrong hands, don't need to occur.
Note that there's a lot more to the story than I could outline above. I left a lot out. Almost every paragraph could be explicated in the form of a whole book. It's not a simple matter, and I don't expect to change anyone's mind with what I have said above.
It takes a lot to change someone's mind. In my case, I had to read a number of books, including books about other wars, about Islam, and about the current situation, to feel like I had a clue. I had to read blogs coming from Iraq and expressing the unfiltered opinions of actual Iraqis, which do not often appear in the U.S. media. If I hadn't done such things, I don't think I would have a basis for feeling justified in holding any opinion, one way or the other. I don't see how one could form, or change, one's opinion without going at least that far.
For some reason, people in our society seem to feel that to be a scientist or doctor, they should have to go to school for many years, but to be an expert in international affairs, one merely has to catch a few sound bytes on CNN or a few headlines in the NY Times. People tend to be absolutely sure their opinions are right, even with extremely little effort or research being expended in the process of forming those opinions. It's truly bizarre.
In fact, the world of international affairs is far more complex than the world of most scientists, and if anything, the learning entailed before forming an opinion should be greater. But of course, only a few professionals have the time resources to put in that kind of effort. The rest of us have to make do with what we can. But, I don't think there is any reason, when there are well-informed people who disagree with one, why that one should just assume he or she is right, and make no serious effort to try to understand why those others have the opinions they do. Nevertheless, depressingly, that is exactly what happens most of the time.
With that in mind, here's the free prize alluded to at the beginning: if you have a serious interest in this subject, and especially if you currently disagree with me, I will buy you a copy of Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, which I think is a great place to start. Berman is a liberal, so you'll be in good hands. ;) Just let me know to whom and where to send it.
And feel free to buy me a book that you think might aid my understanding -- ideally, it shouldn't agree with the point of view expressed above. Email me and I'll let you know where to send it. :)