Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Leadership and the future of Iraq

I spent a little time this morning reading what people are saying about "the future" of Iraq. Folks in the defense and foreign policy establishments have been war-gaming various draw-down scenarios. Nothing pretty there. And no evidence, in the article at least, of what the consequence will be for U.S. interests and influence in the region.

Anne Applebaum isn’t happy with any of the politicians’ plans. World leaders don’t want an abrupt pull-out.

Michael Barone and David Brooks reflect on their meeting with the President last week. Brooks’s take-away is quite interesting: Bush’s attitude is a combination of a faith in the direction of history (the familiar "freedom is God’s gift to humanity") and faith in the efficacy of leaders (just look at any business school curriculum or any shelf of business books at Borders or Barnes & Noble). (For those who can’t get behind the TimesSelect firewall here, once again, is the post with a link to get .edu readers behind it), here’s a portion of Brooks’s argument:

Conservatives are supposed to distrust government, but Bush clearly loves the presidency. Or to be more precise, he loves leadership. He’s convinced leaders have the power to change societies. Even in a place as chaotic as Iraq, good leadership makes all the difference.


When Bush is asked about military strategy, he talks about the leadership qualities of his top generals. Before, it was Generals Abizaid and Casey. Now, it’s Generals Petraeus and Odierno.


When Bush talks about world affairs more generally, he talks about national leaders. When he is asked to analyze Iraq, he talks about Maliki. With Russia, it’s Putin. With Europe, it’s Merkel, Sarkozy, Brown and the rest.


He is confident in his ability to read other leaders: Who has courage? Who has a chip on his shoulder? And he is confident that in reading the individual character of leaders, he is reading the tablet that really matters. History is driven by the club of those in power. When far-sighted leaders change laws and institutions, they have the power to transform people.


Many will doubt this, but Bush is a smart and compelling presence in person, and only the whispering voice of Leo Tolstoy holds one back.


Tolstoy had a very different theory of history. Tolstoy believed great leaders are puffed-up popinjays. They think their public decisions shape history, but really it is the everyday experiences of millions of people which organically and chaotically shape the destiny of nations — from the bottom up.

According to this view, societies are infinitely complex. They can’t be understood or directed by a group of politicians in the White House or the Green Zone. Societies move and breathe on their own, through the jostling of mentalities and habits. Politics is a thin crust on the surface of culture. Political leaders can only play a tiny role in transforming a people, especially when the integral fabric of society has dissolved.

If Bush’s theory of history is correct, the right security plan can lead to safety, the right political compromises to stability. But if Tolstoy is right, then the future of Iraq is beyond the reach of global summits, political benchmarks and the understanding of any chief executive.

Surely there’s a middle ground here. The "integral fabric of society" doesn’t regenerate itself, even if it can’t simply be willed into existence by someone who has read lots of Harvard b-school case studies. If Lincoln and the founders (there go my NLT reflexes!) had been persuaded by Tolstoy, they might never have worked tirelessly with the materials at hand. And what was it Lincoln said?

If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth [well, O.K., the sixth] year, since a policy was initiated with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to [terrorism]....

Leaders who understand "where we are" and "whither we are tending" can surely make a bigger difference than Brooks’s Tolstoy could imagine.

Update: The indispensable John Burns finds yet another straw in the wind. Without Burns and Yon, it would be hard to begin to get a sense of the "facts on the ground" in Iraq.

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