E pluribus Unum or Akbar?

View 838 Thursday, August 14, 2014

“Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

President Barack Obama, January 31, 2009


Think of this week as part of a vacation but I am preparing the latest Chaos Manor Reviews. Thanks to those who have commented on what it would take to make you love Windows Nine.  I meant it as a serious question and most of you have treated it as such.  Thanks again.


E Pluribus Unum


Dear Mr. Pournelle:

The "Caliphate," together with other results of the Arab Spring, has me pondering Hobbes’ Leviathan, next to Lincoln’s comments at Gettysburg: "whether this nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." While I suspect you’re quite right that, after Bremer, no better result was likely, I’m wondering whether, first, any better result was likely from the beginning, and second, whether there’s any real possibility that we can "restabilize and get out." To put it in ugly terms: was Saddam Hussain (or some similar Leviathan) the best deal Iraq was ever going to get?

You’ve commented, quite rightly I believe, that a free government can only survive when it’s possible to lose an election without catastrophe for you and yours. Combine a tendency toward fragmentation (see not only the Arab world, but Scotland, and, I personally think, the Tea Party) with a history of tyranny which leaves no expectation that survival without power is possible, and I begin to wonder whether there’s any chance of a stable result in someplace like Iraq without overwhelming force; government without the consent of the governed, since too many of the governed insist on being petty tyrants themselves.

I find this an appalling thought. Can you propose any plausible counter-argument?


Allan E. Johnson

The conservative view of the place of the United States in this world has always been that we provide a well armed and well defended example of a free people living under a constitutional order. Periodic attempts to export our views never worked well, whether the export was on the points of Marine bayonets, or in books and pamphlets. Our ides converted Simon Bolivar, and the constitution of Venezuela looked very like the constitution of the United States, but in over a hundred and fifty years Venezuela never had a single peaceful transfer of power due to an election. Our military attempt to export our Republic to the Philippines didn’t work very well, and the Liberian experiment wasn’t a great deal more successful.

But the premise of the United States, the really founding principle, was e pluribus unum – that from many peoples we would create one people, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, and those phrases were not taken lightly. As the late William Buckley observed, you could study and learn to become an American. That wasn’t true of other nations. You could not learn to be Swiss, or a Swede or a German; but you could learn to become an American.

Diversity was not a goal of this mixture. Certainly you could be an Irish-American, or an Italian-American, and we had parades and lodges to prove it, but you were American first; and while we tolerated various sub-cultures, diversity as such was not a goal. The goal is one people living in harmony. The original civil rights movements understood that: its goal was not a diversity of cultures all to be treated as equally valuable but rather the admission of minorities into the general culture. Some diversities were tolerated – they had to be, given the multiple origins – but nothing like all of them.

This was in contrast to, say, Gothic Spain, in which the Visigoths had one set of laws and judges, and the former Roman inhabitants had another. There had been plenty of diverse polities in classical times. The problem is one of loyalties. Diverse societies tended to become empires, with loyalty to a central emperor, a king of kings, who protected the various sub-cultures from each other.

When we went into Iraq it was obvious to everyone but political theorists that Iraq already had its diversity, and some of the diverse elements hated the others. The dominant Baathists were predominately Sunni, but the Party was “pan-Arabic” and played down the religious differences. Shiite leaders were expected to be loyal to the nation and to its leaders, and many were. The result was a military that was more nationalist than Sunni, and it was this military force which held the key to rebuilding Iraq. Whether that could have been done in the classical Imperial manner – using Iraqi forces to govern, while the Legions of American troops stayed in background – is not known. The classical technique has worked in the past in Iraq and Syria. What could not work was the establishment of liberal democracy in a decade. The result of disbanding the Army and a policy of de-Baathization was predictable and in fact predicted.

For many generations the American schools taught American children that our nation was unique. This is no longer taught in our schools; rather the opposite. The unity of American culture is no longer thought to be desirable. Diversity, rather than unity, is now the modern intellectual goal. Among people for whom Sunni and Shiite opposition has meant defiance and death for centuries this is not likely to work. In the United States some customs and practices common and accepted in Islam are not acceptable to American law and are considered barbaric. We are now engaged in a test of whether the principle of e pluribus unum can survive such diversity.

History shows that the American Melting Pot can work wonders. It has assimilated Irish, Jews, Poles, Sicilians, Goths, Cossacks, Japanese, Chinese, Polynesians, and a large number of Native Americans and freed slaves into the American mixture, and in two world wars proved that assimilation into a political and social culture derived mostly from English protestants could create a unified force capable of nearly any imaginable military goal.

History has not shown that this can be exported, nor has it shown that it can survive a deliberate attempt to abandon the principle of e pluribus unum. It has worked well to unite a large and diverse land into the most powerful nation in the history of the world. No outside enemy can destroy it; but it can be disassembled from within.  It could not be imposed on Iraq, and the victory in Iraq closely following the collapse of the Soviet Union was not a signal that history had ended and there was nothing left but to cheer as liberal democracy encompassed the world. Liberal democracy was known to be unstable in 1787 when the Philadelphia Convention rejected it.  It remains unstable in the 21st Century.


I said this as Arab Spring began:

For those with grievances who want to demonstrate: choose your side carefully. Be very careful who you support. Arab Spring in Cairo is turning into Islamist Fall. Raids on the Christian community. Armed conflict between Army enlisted troops and the police. Egyptian officers losing control of their conflict soldiers. That way lies – well, there are several paths, as those who have read their Aristotle and Cicero know full well. It may lead to Caesar. Or as Mill said

Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing … but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Of course few are fortunate enough to find an Akbar or Charlemagne. Usually they find themselves in the Hobbesian state of nature, where life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Then they seek Caesar, which leads to Tiberius and Caligula. Good luck brings them Claudius – then Nero.


I have found no reason to retract the view.




Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.




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