Fall of the Liberal Empire

Over at The Spectator there’s an excellent piece by Angus Colwell reconsiders the legacy of Christopher Hitchens in light of our defeat in Afghanistan. “It hasn’t taken 20 years to work out that Christopher Hitchens was a dud,” Mr. Colwell writes,

but this week’s collapse of Kabul obliges us to re-examine the Hitchens back catalogue—because Hitchens had an outsized influence on debates about the supersized errors of post-9/11 foreign policy.The briefest of looks exposes the deficits of the neoconservative mind. An even clearer picture emerges of the hubris that led American policymakers, and the West in general, to justify the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as the spread of liberal enlightenment, rather than subjecting them to the tests of Realpolitik.

Some pedants insist we only use “neoconservative” in reference to East Coast Straussians who interned with Jeane Kirkpatrick at some point between 1980 and 1985. Here, Mr. Colwell uses it the way ninety-nine percent of us use it, meaning someone who’s on board with the sorts of things Bill Kristol is on board with. 

Still, if you don’t like “neoconservative,” try Liberal Imperialist.

Liberal Imperialists come in all shapes and sizes. Some, like Mr. Kristol, embody what one might call “suburbanality.” They’re human McMansions. They don’t have beliefs as such, much less convictions or principles—but they do have surveys and statistics and whole cabinets full of newspaper clippings. They don’t have any personality to speak of, either, unless you count their collection of fountain pens (which haven’t used since they bought their first iPad in 2011). Their hobby opinion-collecting: they form opinions about things and exchanging those opinions with other opinionated people. They enjoy reading about wine more than drinking it. They set our sons and daughters into Afghanistan and Iraq and about 150 other countries, but they roll up their windows and lock their doors when I-95 takes them through Baltimore.

Others, like Mr. Hitchens, have a certain joie de vivre their comrades lack. They also like collecting opinions, though while the Kristols trade them like baseball cards, the Hitchenses duel with them like it’s Pokémon. Otherwise, they enjoy sex, booze, and… well, that’s about it. They say things like, “I just don’t see how anyone can still believe in a supernatural God in the 21st century,” and they mean it. They think men like Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas were intellectual midgets compared to the author of God Is Not Great.

The founders of neoconservatism—including Bill’s father, Irving Kristol—were all Marxists in their youth.  So was Christopher Hitchens.  In fact, their worldview remained fundamentally Marxist, though I prefer to call it Engelian, after the great lecher Friedrich Engels. While the orthodox Marxist wants to make everyone working-class, the Engelian wants to make them all middle-class. The Marxist believes in the Dictatorship of the Proletariat; the Engelian, in the Dictatorship of the Bourgeoise.

(Like their Marxist cousins, the Engelians also have a strong tendency towards internationalism. They are universalists to the core.)

Don’t take my word for it, though. Kristol the Elder wrote that a “bourgeois civilization” like ours is “uninterested in… transcendence, which it at best tolerates as a private affair, a matter of individual taste and individual consumption, as it were.” Bourgeois civilization is “prosaic, not only in form but in essence. It is a society organized for the convenience and comfort of common men and women, not for the production of heroic, memorable figures. It is a society interested in making the best of this world, not in any kind of transfiguration, whether through tragedy or piety.”

The Taliban are nothing if not pious.  They aren’t heroes, though it’s a mistake some Afghan peasant might easily make.  Their victory is, if not quite tragic, certainly inconvenient. Still, we can take some comfort in knowing that the Taliban didn’t defeat the United States of America. No: the Taliban defeated our Liberal Empire, our bourgeois civilization, our Engelian elite.

Our political class offered to exchange the Middle East’s religion and traditions for our moral relativism, our plutocratic democracy, and our consumer-capitalist economy. Some are now genuinely surprised that they refused. In fact, these neoconservatives believed the Liberal Empire would sweep the Arabs off their feet. Not only did Bill Kristol promise us that the invasion of Iraq would only last two months: he also believed it would leave troublesome neighbors like Syria “cowed.”

And you know what? I think Mr. Kristol was being honest. I think he really thought the War on Terror would be a cake walk. (Hey, who doesn’t like cake?) But Mr. Kristol was wrong.  He was wrong for the same reason that Mr. Hitchens was wrong: because he chose to be. Bill Kristol didn’t think the Liberal Empire could be defeated, for the same reason Christopher Hitchens “couldn’t see” why Americans still believe in God: because they didn’t want to, and nobody made them.

Now, obviously, by “make them,” I don’t mean we should put them in thumbscrews until they recite the Nicene Creed. I mean their basic assumptions about the world are never challenged. The circles they occupy are full of decadent, soulless materialists like themselves. They don’t interact with people who think differently than they do. They don’t encounter people who live differently than they do. They don’t understand folks who value things above their own power and pleasure—things like family, honor, country, God.

These Liberal Imperialists misruled Afghanistan for the same reason they misrule the United States. They badly underestimated ordinary peoples’ devotion to God, to local custom, to national pride, to self-determination. The Afghan people don’t want to be ruled by a cabal of plutocrats who believe that sex reassignment surgery is a human right but religious worship is a threat to public health. And neither do we.

It’s unfortunate that the Afghans felt they had no alternative to the Liberal Empire except the Islamic Emirate, but it’s not surprising. The U.S. government has failed in all of its goals in the Middle East. It has only succeeded in providing a cartoonish villain for Islamist propaganda: colonialist jackboots who come to plant the rainbow flag in their native soil.

Obviously, we needn’t make the same choice. We can be anything we like. We can even be a republic again—only this time, let’s keep it.

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