The Magazine

Civilization and Barbarism

Apr 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 31 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Well, I would have to know more about the incident. And obviously the Department of Defense would have answers to your questions on this matter. We have more than 60,000 U.S. troops involved in a war in Afghanistan, a war that began when the United States was attacked in an attack that was organized on the soil of Afghanistan by al Qaeda, by Osama bin Laden, and others. And 3,000 people were killed in that attack. And it has been the president’s objective, once he took office, to make clear what our goals are in Afghanistan, and that is to disrupt, dismantle, and ultimately defeat al Qaeda. With that as our objective to provide enough assistance to Afghan national security forces and the Afghan government to allow them to take over security for themselves, and that process is under way and the United States has withdrawn a substantial number of troops and we’re in the process of drawing down further as we hand over security lead to Afghan forces. And it is certainly the case, but I refer you to the Defense Department for details, that we take great care in the prosecution of this war, and we are very mindful of what our objectives are.

Appalling. We have a White House spokesman who seems incapable of saying: We regret any inadvertent killing of civilians in Afghanistan, but American troops fighting there are not engaged in terrorism. We have a White House that lacks moral clarity about the world in which we live. Moral clarity by itself isn’t sufficient to produce a successful national security strategy, or for that matter successful domestic policies. But a degree of moral clarity and candor is surely necessary. A political leadership that cannot speak of barbarism with the same confidence with which medicine speaks, for example, of cancer, cannot understand political phenomena for what they are and cannot deal with the threats to civilization as they exist.

In the 19th century, liberals like John Stuart Mill could write of civilization and barbarism. In the last half of the 20th century, as liberalism degenerated, it fell to conservatives like Reagan and Thatcher to call the evil empire by its proper name, and to stand up to it. Do we in the 21st century have what it takes to confront and defeat today’s barbarians? It’s not a sophisticated question. But it’s a real one.

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