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A Laboratory for Conservatism?

Some liberals are desperate to paint post-war Iraq as conservatism's nirvana. The operative word here is "desperate."

12:00 AM, Jun 10, 2003 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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NOW THAT MATTERS IN POSTWAR IRAQ have, to put it mildly, become challenging, antiwar liberals are exhibiting a new spring in their step, and a revivified eagerness to heap scorn on the Bush administration.

One of the most bizarre examples of this appears in the June 9 issue of the New Yorker, in a truly unhinged "Talk of the Town" column by Hendrik Hertzberg. The article, "Building Nations," begins with a description of the "catastrophe" that is postwar Iraq--a "Hobbesian state of nature" lacking water, phones, and electric power, and full of environmental degradation and rampant crime.

But Hertzberg isn't content to make the (defensible) argument that Iraq's current troubles result from incompetent American planning; instead, the blame lies with the administration's ideological obsession. Hertzberg writes: "It's tempting to suggest that the Bush Administration is failing to provide Iraq with functioning, efficient, reliable public services because it doesn't believe in functioning, reliable public services--doesn't believe they should exist, and doesn't really believe that they can exist."

"It's tempting to suggest" is a rhetorical trope that usually precedes some sort of measured qualification; it allows a writer to make a nasty jab before retreating at the last minute to claim, "but I'm not really making that argument--I'm just being clever!" But Hertzberg never gets around to the "however" paragraph. That's right, folks--the Bush administration: Working tirelessly to eliminate running water, phone service, police, and electricity around the globe! Yes, this is the true goal of the conservative movement! "In a way," Hertzberg snorts, "Iraq has become a theme park of conservative policy nostrums":

There are no burdensome government regulations. Health and safety inspectors and environmental busybodies are nowhere to be seen. The Ministry of Finance, Iraq's equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service, is a scorched ruin. . . . Gun control is being kept within reasonable limits. . . . And, in the absence of welfare programs and other free-lunch giveaways, faith-based initiatives are flourishing. The faith in question may be Iranian-style militant Shiism, but at least it's fundamentalist.

And the notion of lawless, dysfunctional Iraq as an incarnation of conservative policy fantasies has gained traction among saner liberals as well. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne made a similar point (in a more muted fashion) in his April 15 tax day column.

The "basic" lesson taught by the chaos in postwar Iraq, Dionne writes, is that "the alternative to tyranny is not the abolition of government. Absent a government committed to the protection of rights, there are no rights." Now in principle, there's nothing here to which any conservative could object (excepting perhaps a few reefer-mad libertarians). But in the course of his column, Dionne manages to set up a convenient straw man: Conservatives believe that government might as well be abolished, because it is "useless, evil and unnecessary."

Both Hertzberg and Dionne claim that turbulent postwar Iraq and conservatives' fondness for limited government are merely variations on a common theme. For Hertzberg and (to a lesser extent) Dionne, the only rational middle ground between tyranny and the conservative-policy theme park that is now Iraq is--surprise!--some form of cradle-to-grave welfare state. They both imply that the current "Hobbesian state of nature" in Iraq is what conservatism, fully embraced, would lead to here in America.

But this is to assert, rather absurdly, that belief in the importance of limited government is equivalent to distaste for basic rule of law and public order. A desire for limited, constitutional government is not the same as a belief that government is intrinsically evil, as any cursory glance at the Federalist Papers will make clear. Certainly, the rhetoric of some fringe elements of the conservative movement comes close to endorsing the caricatured worldview Hertzberg and Dionne present as conservatism's essence. But to say that such fevered thought represents the conservatism that currently resides, as Hertzberg claims, "not only in the White House but also in the Republican congressional leadership, in the faction that dominates the Supreme Court, and in the conservative press and think tanks," is willfully misleading.

Lee Bockhorn is associate editor at The Weekly Standard.