Thomas Friedman, who supports the war in Iraq, notes in his Sunday New York Times article,"Presidents Remade by War," that the events of war often transform presidents. Such men as Lincoln and Wilson moved toward broader,"bigger purpose" in the wars in which they were engaged. What started out for Lincoln as a war to preserve the Union became a war to fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence. What started out as a purely European mess for Wilson became a war to make the world safe for democracy. And what started out as a war to strip Iraq of weapons of mass destruction has now become a war of democratic nation-building, in the hands of George W. Bush.
It should not be forgotten, however, that both the Civil War and World War I entailed massive increases in the scope and power of government—increases that simply became institutionalized in the postwar period, as a means to achieving such"bigger purpose." As Jeffrey Rogers Hummel argues, the history of the American Civil War was one of Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men. It entailed a face-off between Republican neomercantilism and confederate war socialism, and while slavery ended, the war had perennial deleterious effects on American political institutions and culture. And, as Thomas Fleming argues, US involvement in World War I only provided The Illusion of Victory. It resulted in a massive increase in US government power at home and abroad, and laid the basis for the nightmarish events that would engulf the globe in a Second World War and beyond.
It matters not if such wars are pursued for petty reasons or for"bigger purpose." Cliche though it is, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And it is often the case that the"nobler" the intention, the more hellish the long-term consequences.
Ironically, Friedman embraces the nobler goal of democratic nation-building. He says he's"partial to Mr. Bush's new emphasis on the freedom and democracy argument ... the only compelling rationale for the Iraqi war." But this really is not a new emphasis. The promise of bringing"democracy" to Iraq and to the Middle East in general has been a part of the neoconservative rationale for this war from the beginning. Mr. Bush may have emphasized the WMD issue as a rhetorical device, he may have eschewed the notion of democratic"nation-building" as a presidential candidate, but as President, he has bought into this Wilsonian neocon project in a very big way.
Friedman ponders"how deeply Mr. Bush has internalized this democracy agenda, which is going to be a long, costly enterprise," but he finds hope in Bush's"heartfelt, almost ... religious conviction" in the stated goals."Only the future will tell us whether his attachment to this issue is the product of epiphany or expediency—or both."
From my perspective, such"religious conviction" might well contribute to another"bigger purpose," with"religious" implications. It's called Armageddon, and the only thing"democratic" about it is that the majority of us will perish.