The Tragedy and Challenge of Afghanistan and America’s Principles

The unfolding story of Afghanistan is nothing short of tragic. This tragedy extends beyond the current reestablishment of Taliban rule. It extends past the many brutal deaths and villainous oppressions that have and will result.

In fact, the tragedy encompasses the last twenty years of American presence in that country. We came to topple terrorism and establish liberal democracy. After many deaths and much expended treasure, we leave with nothing enduring on either front.

This tragedy brings to the fore a question about our own principles. Every July 4th, we celebrate our independence by remembering and revering the Declaration of Independence. That document does more than declare our separation from Great Britain. It goes further than merely listing particular complaints by the colonists against Parliament and King. Indeed, the Declaration grounds its particular aims in universal claims of human equality, in the purpose of government as securing natural rights, and in government’s legitimate power stemming from the consent of the governed.

The policies pursued in Iraq and Afghanistan claimed their source in a similar, if not identical, set of claims: that all peoples ultimately desired – and justly deserved – democratic self-rule according to the dictates of human rights.

Does the utter failure of our endeavor disprove the universality of the Declaration? Some think so, not least including the Taliban. Some explicitly argue for the impossibility of popular government taking root in Afghanistan and much of the rest of the world. Instead, they deserve and need despotism. They cannot and will not avoid anarchy otherwise. Implicitly, these critiques also seem to deny the Declaration’s claims of universal rights and human equality. If obtaining the consent of the governed is impossible, these attendant concepts are similarly unlikely.  

One might counter with objections grounded in the particulars of our invasion and occupation. Plenty of reports have already exposed the corruption, lying, and obtuseness of our efforts over the past two decades. We also could blame our own inability to understand – or even respect – our principles (which, of course, bodes poorly for exporting them). Those points all are true. But they are insufficient to explain what happened here.

A better explanation can be gleaned from one of the American Founders’ great teachers. That man was Montesquieu, the 18th century French thinker whose “The Spirit of the Laws” deeply influenced the principles and structure of our Constitution.

Montesquieu lambasted despotism and extolled the cause of liberty. He declared that men “love liberty” and possess a “hatred of violence” or oppression. He admitted, however, that “most peoples are subjected to this type of government” despite his claim that “human nature would rise up incessantly against despotic government.” He thus faced a question similar to our own: can we square a natural love for liberty with the existence – even predominance – of tyranny?

Montesquieu found the answer “easy to understand.” Part of the issue pertained to the habits of self-rule essential to free government. What one possesses by nature must receive cultivation through education to exercise adequately. At the same time, a problem of construction exists. Despotism is easy to create and maintain, but free government is infinitely harder to institute. For despotism establishes and sustains itself through fear, a passion all-to-readily at hand and one easily exploited.

Free governments, on the contrary, are studies in complexity. Montesquieu wrote that in them, “one must combine powers, regulate them, temper them, make them act; one must give one power a ballast, so to speak, to put it in a position to resist another.” Only by these means could “moderate” – and thus free governments – exist. For only by these complex combinations could fear and oppression be checked in favor of reason, justice, and liberty.

Montesquieu declared that founding a free government requires a “masterpiece of legislation that chance rarely produces and prudence is rarely allowed to produce.” Anything less than a masterpiece would fall apart, ultimately descending into despotism. Disheartened and daunted, most people would wish for liberty but settle for its opposite.

This point does much to explain the claims of the Declaration. One reason our own Constitution has lasted is that it achieved the rare feat of a legislative masterpiece: committed to pursuing human liberty and government by consent but achieved through a genius combination of federalism and separation of powers. It did so, moreover, because of persons who had cultivated the exercise of liberty using these mechanisms for generations.

The people of Afghanistan possessed none of these advantages. It is little wonder that they, even with our misguided help, could not achieve such a rare founding. As we mourn this ever-expanding tragedy, we should be even more thankful for the heritage bestowed upon us. We also must learn anew not only the principles of the Declaration but the difficulty in fulfilling its claims.

Adam Carrington is the Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College.

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