Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 11:35 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 11:35 | SYDNEY

Conservatives against Afghanistan


Sam Roggeveen


16 October 2009 09:10

Andrew Sullivan has published an email from a reader putting what Sullivan calls 'the conservative case for cutting our losses' in Afghanistan:

Critics of non-intervention tend to accuse their opponents of cynicism, cruelty, and brutality...But foreign policy realism is essentially grounded in three deeply conservative concepts: first, we do not really know what makes societies successful, second, we do not know how to make these things happen, and, third, as a result we prefer some kind of stability as opposed to chaos; because conservatives will always prefer the orderly known to the disorderly unknown.

I've made similar arguments myself about Western hubris and the immodesty of our aims in Afghanistan, but when the case is put as starkly as this, it invites second thoughts.

After all, it doesn't take a very detailed understanding of twentieth century history to see that we actually know a great deal about 'what makes societies successful': peace, the rule of law, stable and accountable political institutions and a high degree of economic freedom are an excellent start. The worldwide advance of economic and political liberty over the last sixty-odd years suggests we're even quite good at 'making these things happen'.

What's more, it seems we've also learnt quite a lot in recent years about human conflict and how to end it through third-party interventions. The 2005 Human Security Report, for instance, said that the 80% decline in the most deadly civil conflicts that have taken place since the early 1990s could largely be attributed to 'the extraordinary upsurge of activism by the international community that has been directed toward conflict prevention, peacemaking and peacebuilding.'

None of this is meant as a defence of the Afghanistan mission specifically, but it is to caution against the idea that it is beyond the power of people and states to make a very constructive contribution in foreign countries through various forms of intervention.

The 'conservatism of doubt' Andrew Sullivan champions on his blog strikes me as a broadly sensible response to the excesses of American foreign policy in the Bush years. That conservatism is marked by a suspicion of ideology (because ideology implies there are ideal and permanent 'technical' solutions to political problems) and stresses a scepticism toward large-scale government activism.

But applying the conservative injunction against social engineering too bluntly to the Afghanistan case leaves Sullivan in danger of 'iedologizing' his brand of conservatism. The conservative case against the Afghanistan war ought to be made on the grounds of the specific circumstances that America and allies such as Australia face there.