Jewish World Review Jan. 15, 2004 / 21 Teves 5764
Pernicious abstractions: Of Lincoln and Iraq, practice and theory
It was the last public address Abraham Lincoln would ever give. It was delivered April 11, 1865 - a few days before he himself would belong to the ages. Victory had been achieved or, as he put it, "the principal insurgent army" had surrendered - but Reconstruction was still only a word, and a new one at that. Chaos reigned. Pockets of resistance remained.
All eyes turned to the president, who was asked to choose from a multitude of theories about how to proceed:
Were the Southern states, having seceded, no longer in the Union and therefore to be treated as conquered territories? But to accept that theory would be to abandon the principle on which the war had been fought - that ours was an indissoluble union of indissoluble states.
But to act as if The War had not happened, and restore the Southern states to their former power and influence in Congress, would be to reward the Slave Power for having started and lost what some called the War of the Rebellion.
Asked to address these theoretical (and inflammatory) questions, Mr. Lincoln replied, in essence, that they were the wrong questions. His discussing such issues, he said, "could have no effect other than the mischievous one of dividing our friends."
So were the seceded states in or out of the Union? That question, he said, is "good for nothing at all - a merely pernicious abstraction."
Mr. Lincoln was out to reconstruct the Union, not philosophize about its nature. He would not be diverted by political conundrums. He would move step by step, as a river captain navigates from bend to bend. He would keep his ultimate goal in mind - a more perfect Union - but he would follow the most practical course to get there.
There is now no end of pernicious abstractions about the direction American policy should take in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. Everybody and his college professor seems to have a position. All look to the president for direction while offering their own solutions.
Bernard Lewis, the grand old man of Middle Eastern studies, suggests restoring the Iraqi monarchy.
It might help put that idea in perspective to recall a few words from the Arab prince the British installed in Iraq after the First World War, when they not only drew the borders of the new state but gave it a bright, shiny Western-style constitution - in theory.
In practice, Iraq's designated king - Faisal, the first of the Hashemite rulers of Iraq - soon discovered that there was no Iraqi people, only a collection of tribes. Or as he put it shortly before his death, only "unimaginable masses of human beings devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever."
Soon the British, too, came to realize as much. Tiring of their responsibility, they abandoned Iraq in the name of recognizing its independence in 1931. Chaos ensued. One genocide followed another, and one coup succeeded another, culminating in Saddam Hussein's murderous rule.
Once again Western-style democracy, complete with a paper constitution full of fine Western-style sentiments, is being proposed for Iraq. And not just for Iraq. That still restive country is to become a beacon of freedom for the whole of Arabdom.
Listen to George W. Bush in one of his headier moods last November as he addressed the National Endowment for Democracy:
"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe - because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence for export."
Dr. Bush's prescription for Iraq - and the whole of the Middle East - is democracy. But for now democracy remains more a word than a realistic possibility in Iraq, a talisman for Western statesmen to wave about. Because it has few if any roots in that part of the world.
The tender shoots of freedom must be planted carefully in stony soil; liberty can't be laid down like so much Astroturf. Law and order must come first. Without stability, there can be no democracy, only anarchy.
If put into place by foreign occupiers, democracy may leave with them. For now all this talk of a democratic Middle East is, to borrow a Lincolnian phrase, a pernicious abstraction.
Unless it can be conducted with respect for local conditions and traditions, the reconstruction of Iraq will prove no more successful than the Radical Republicans' reconstruction of the South, which ended when the federal occupation did.
Mr. Lincoln respected the realities. Will this administration?
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