(...)The issue here is: What do we know about Iraq? About the people, their desires, their prospects, their capabilities? I have got into trouble with some readers, and even some colleagues, for aligning myself with George Will and Bill Buckley in a faction that believes the democratization of Iraq to be a hopeless enterprise, and a waste of America's attention and resources. A quick trip through my archived columns will show that this was not any great reversal on my part. (Not that there is anything wrong with changing your mind when new facts appear.) I have never been on board with the project to democratize the Middle East, except to the extent of thinking that perhaps if we smack them around enough, they might see some sense at last — that an exercise in "attitude adjustment" might bear some fruit. And plenty of readers agree with me that we are on a fool's errand in Iraq — but it is those others that I want to take on here...
I do believe that over the past generation or so, we in the West have sunk into some seriously false beliefs about human nature. This is perhaps truer in the USA than elsewhere in the West. Our national fondness for high-flown rhetoric about liberty, rights, and the brotherhood of Man, which we have inherited from our Founding Fathers, and which we have been applying with special diligence to our domestic affairs since the 1960s, has worked on us like a spell, enchanting us into folly. It has left us blind to some of the coarser, meatier realities of human nature, to the passions stirred by family, tribe, faith, race, and charisma, by the contemplation of imagined honor, glory, and transcendence. Having lost touch with those things, or having willfully blinded ourselves to them, a great deal of what goes on in the world is difficult for us to understand, and easy for us to misunderstand. If "all human beings desire liberty," how is it that unfree societies ever arise and persist? (Nor do these comments apply only to the world beyond our borders. If "all human beings desire good government," why do the people of Washington DC keep electing Marion Barry?)
In his 1958 novel Three's Company, Alfred Duggan told the story of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, who was the third man in the Second Triumvirate that followed the death of Julius Caesar, the other members being Mark Antony and Octavian Caesar (who later became the emperor Augustus). Lepidus, a wealthy citizen from a good family, does what the other two are doing: he raises an army, so that he can take part in the great power struggle that followed Julius Caesar's death. An intelligent and capable man, Lepidus does this very well, taking great pains to see his troops are properly equipped, housed, trained, and fed. To these ends, Lepidus is a little can-do America, performing prodigies of administration and organization, and conscientiously making a credible military man of himself.
Lepidus could make out the encampment of his own seven legions. Even at this distance their huts showed better built and better aligned than the ramshackle bivouac of the slacker Plancus, or the flimsy shelters of improvident Antonians. Yes, his seven legions were the flower of the army, as brave and well-trained as their comrades and more efficiently administered. There was an advantage to being led by an industrious, conscientious man of business, too wealthy and too honourable to be tempted by the bribes of contractors.
Unfortunately Octavian shows up at Lepidus's camp. There is a confrontation, and Octavian is slightly wounded by a javelin hurled by one of Lepidus's men. Seeing this, the main body of Lepidus's troops are dismayed.
"We have shed the blood of Caesar," they screamed in a frenzy of self-accusation. Someone reopened the gate and they streamed out after [Octavian's] retreating cavalry. ... Lepidus thrust himself into the gateway, trying to stem the tide of hysterical desertion. Looming above the helmets he saw the towering staff of an Eagle, unescorted, clutched precariously by a solitary Aquilifer. To see this sacred image thus desecrated was almost as painful to him as the desertion of his soldiers. As the Eagle came up with him he strove to wrest it from its bearer. "Out of the way, fatty. All the Eagles of Rome follow Caesar, and shall until the ending of the world," shouted the Aquilifer...
All Lepidus's wealth, capability, courage, and managerial prowess counted for nothing when Octavian showed up. Plainly there was something about the mood of his troops Lepidus had failed to understand; something about Octavian that, when it touched Lepidus's noble intentions and splendid qualities, turned them instantly to dust. What was it, I wonder?