February 11, 2007

Dominion Over the World (VI): Global Interventionism -- A Disastrous Policy Supported by Indefensible Ideas

Part I: Iraq Is the Democrats' War, Too

Part II: Why the Stories We Tell Matter So Much

Part III: The Open Door to Worldwide Hegemony

Part IV: A "Splendid People" Set Out for Empire

Part V: A Global Empire of Bases

(Sidebar): Ah, Democracy...Ah, Peace

[L]ittle sign exists of a challenge in American foreign policy debates to the principles and assumptions of an international interventionism motivated by belief in a special national mission. The country might find itself with a new administration in 2009 which provides a less abrasive and more courteous version of the American pursuit of world hegemony, but one still condemned by the inherent impossibility of success.

The intellectual and material commitments made during the past half-century of American military, bureaucratic, and intellectual investment in global interventionism will be hard to reverse. The Washington political class remains largely convinced that the United States supplies the essential structure of international security, and that a withdrawal of American forces from their expanding network of overseas military bases, or disengagement from present American interventions into the affairs of many dozens of countries, would destabilize the international system and produce unacceptable consequences for American security. Why this should be so is rarely explained.
-- William Pfaff, "Manifest Destiny: A New Direction for America"
Before I return to some of the historical roots of our foreign policy that I began to explore in Part IV, I want to bring William Pfaff's latest article to your attention. It discusses many of the themes I've touched on in this series and, as is always the case with Pfaff, it provides a wealth of invaluable insights. Pfaff is one of a handful of writers about foreign policy who consistently demonstrate a superlative knowledge of history, political theory and an understanding of the dizzyingly complex realities that obtain around the world -- realities that are not amenable to "solution" by means of the imposition of power founded on ideas with scant or no evidentiary support.

I've mentioned Pfaff's work before; see, for example, Morality, Humanity and Civilization, where I excerpted a collection of his newspaper columns, Fear, Anger and Failure. The particular selection from Pfaff that I highlighted dealt with a theme that recurs in his latest piece. In discussing the idea that "the American model of society is destined to dominate the world, by one means or another, since it is held to be the culmination of human development," Pfaff wrote:
This conviction is commonly found on both left and right. It was during the Clinton Administration that the secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, proclaimed that Americans see farther than anyone else because they "stand taller." "Globalization" was a product of the same administration, a program for opening deregulated markets worldwide to U.S. investment that was articulated by the administration as part of world society's march towards unification in democracy and market capitalism (and history's end).

It was also under President Clinton that the unprecedented Pentagon system of regional commands was established that now covers the entire world, responsible for monitoring developments in each region and preparing for possible U.S. interventions under a wide variety of scenarios involving challenges not only to U.S. interests but, as it is said, to world order.

Militarized or otherwise, American policy remains under the influence of an unacknowledged and unjustified utopianism. This is the unanalyzed background to the work of all Washington's foreign policy agencies. It permeates the rhetoric and thinking of Republicans and Democrats alike. It is the reason Americans can think that history has an ultimate solution, and that the United States is meant to provide it.
I will frankly admit that one of my ongoing and often severe disappointments with regard to some of even the most intelligent of liberal-progressive writers and bloggers is their seeming inability to appreciate the continuity and uniformity of American foreign policy over the last century, and particularly since World War II. It appears that their determination to turn virtually every episode in our national life, no matter how disastrous, into an opportunity for partisan advantage and electoral victory overcomes analytic abilities which can often be very insightful on more limited questions. This myopic slant proceeds, in turn, from a willingness to allow the demands of tribal political identity to trump a more dispassionate (and I would submit, much more accurate) assessment of how the current Bush administration differs from previous administrations -- and how it does not. (I do not even mention conservative or self-identified "libertarian" apologists for empire in this context: writers and bloggers in these categories established beyond all question several years ago that reasoned and objective consideration of relevant facts is entirely impossible to them. And worse than that, they rarely even acknowledge the existence of those facts.)

In many essays, I have offered seriously damning judgments about the policies of the Bush administration, on both the domestic and foreign policy fronts. My most damning judgment, concerning this administration's determination to destroy the most basic foundation of liberty, is explained in, "Thus the World Was Lost." It is obviously not the case that I view this administration in anything even close to a favorable light. It is unquestionably one of the worst administrations in our entire history. If they should decide to attack Iran or otherwise broaden an already damnably immoral war in the time remaining to them, they may well place themselves at the very bottom of the list in terms of the probably irreversible damage they will have done, not only to us but to a great many others around the world.

In earlier parts of this series, I have explained how the Bush administration's foreign policy represents a continuation of the broad contours of our stance toward the world beyond our shores for more than a century. It similarly continues the policy embraced by all Democratic and Republican administrations since World War II. As Christopher Layne describes it, that policy's goal is to establish an Open Door world, a world that is "open" to both economic and ideological expansion by the United States. The Open Door doctrine considers such expansion a necessary component of national security; see the earlier essay for details. It is certainly true that the current administration is uniquely dangerous in certain ways. But in large part, and this is the absolutely crucial point, that is only because it has been and continues to be ruthlessly determined to cash in on the unavoidable implications of the policies pursued by those who have gone before.

To put it another way, and this is the issue that mere Democratic partisans adamantly refuse to acknowledge: Bush would not have been possible but for the Democrats who had preceded him. The historical record of the past century establishes beyond all question that the Open Door world is one sought just as eagerly by Democrats as by Republicans; in many cases, Democrats have been notably more zealous about this aim, as are many contemporary Democrats. As the inconceivable dangers of wider war, including possible nuclear exchanges, loom over us all, petty partisanship and party loyalty as the primary concern are morally distasteful at a minimum, and occasionally abhorrent in their worst manifestations, intellectually irresponsible, and immensely dangerous. Such an approach does nothing to decrease the continuing calamities that confront us, but only worsens them.

It should also be noted that, while many liberal-progressive writers and bloggers appear to imagine they are challenging "conventional wisdom," this mode of analysis only strengthens that "wisdom" and ensures that the governing class will never be seriously challenged. In fact, to maintain that this administration's foreign policy represents a radical break with history rather than admitting, as the record conclusively demonstrates, that it continues what went before, serves the purposes of the governing class in every way it could demand -- precisely because it completely fails to seriously question the basic underlying assumptions and framework. In this manner, many liberal-progressive bloggers and writers have been entirely coopted by the establishment elites, certainly insofar as foreign policy is concerned. The elites know it; many liberals and progressives haven't figured it out yet. I would say the joke's on them, but for the fact that the stakes involved may literally be the future of the world itself (although I have no doubt that many members of the governing class are enjoying much hearty laughter). Even if the damage is limited to our own country and those nations we criminally attack even when they are no threat to us, the scope of the present and possible future devastation is beyond contemplation.

At the beginning of his article, Pfaff outlines the fundamental problem in broad terms. With regard to the fantasist goal of "ending tyranny in the world," Pfaff writes (in all these excerpts, the highlights are mine, and I have omitted footnotes):
The Bush administration defends its pursuit of this unlikely goal by means of internationally illegal, unilateralist, and preemptive attacks on other countries, accompanied by arbitrary imprisonments and the practice of torture, and by making the claim that the United States possesses an exceptional status among nations that confers upon it special international responsibilities, and exceptional privileges in meeting those responsibilities.

This is where the problem lies. Other American leaders before George Bush have made the same claim in matters of less moment. It is something like a national heresy to suggest that the United States does not have a unique moral status and role to play in the history of nations, and therefore in the affairs of the contemporary world. In fact it does not.
Pfaff traces the historic roots of this "old and very powerful" belief, and notes that even Edmund Wilson "wrote nostalgically" about "the old idea of an anointed nation doing God's work in the world." I have noted this theme before: in connection with the war with Mexico in the 1840s, with regard to the Philippines, and in other episodes.

Many people posit Bush's "unique" danger as resting on the religious-messianic element that he has welded into his foreign policy pursuits. But of course, this too has roots deep in our history. Our interventionism went fully international with World War I, and it is Wilson's general approach that Bush has adopted:
During the first century and a half of the United States' history, the influence of the national myth of divine election and mission was generally harmless, a reassuring and inspiring untruth. During that period the country remained largely isolated from international affairs. The myth found expression in the idea of a "manifest destiny" of continental expansion— including annexation of Mexican land north of the Rio Grande—with no need to plead a divine commission. [I think Pfaff is wrong, at least to some extent, on this particular point. See the Hampton Sides' excerpts here.]

With Woodrow Wilson, this changed. The national myth became a philosophy of international action, and has remained so. In the great crisis of World War I the United States and Wilson personally had thrust upon them seemingly providential international roles; Wilson said that he believed he had been chosen by God to lead America in showing "the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty." The war's carnage and futility largely destroyed the existing European order and undermined confidence in European civilization.
So even Bush's messianic streak is not unique to him. It should be emphasized that the explicitly religious element can be stripped from this approach, as many politicians and writers do -- but, in certain key respects, the Open Door model is only the secular version of the same idea. The Open Door world rests on the idea that freedom in the particularly Western-American form embodies history's "ultimate solution," and that it is one the entire world must embrace, if it is to survive and be at peace. That such "peace" is to be achieved by endless war is only one of many contradictions the advocates of this notion choose not to address. (I've discussed the phenomenon of secular versions of religious ideas before, especially as regards the largely identical "Idea of Progress"; see, for example, Part III of my Iran series.)

I want to mention only briefly the following passage in Pfaff's article. Among other subjects, this touches on the role of ideas in history, a complex subject I plan to begin addressing fairly soon. Pfaff writes:
The neo-conservative, "neo-Wilsonian" ideological influence on Bush's thinking, that history's course is moving toward universal democracy, was reinforced by the President's encounter in 2004 with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident. Sharansky's argument that international stability is possible only under the rule of democracy was reflected in the President's second-term inaugural announcement that America's foreign policy objective had become "ending tyranny in our world." This amounted to a naive instance of what the British-Austrian political philosopher Karl Popper called "historicism," meaning faith in large-scale "laws" of historical development.


The Bush administration and its sympathizers thus see themselves supporting the dominant force in history's development. If history's natural trajectory is toward democracy, US policy is simply to accelerate the inevitable.
I note again that this idea is fully shared by many Democrats, and you can hear every leading Democrat today make numerous statements to the same effect.

In the middle of his article, Pfaff asks whether there is an "alternative policy" to our unbroken policy of international interventionism. He goes on:
At the time of George Kennan's death in 2005, much was made of the cold war policy of containment, of which he was the author, and its vindication by the collapse of the Soviet Union from inner decay, as he had foreseen. Not much was written about Kennan's general view of the nature of relations between states, which was in radical contrast with the policies and assumptions of the present US government and most of those concerned with foreign policy in Washington. Kennan's volume of autobiographical reflections, Around the Cragged Hill, published in 1993 when he was eighty-nine, contained his mature reflections on this subject, as well as his thoughts on American foreign policy.

He did not think that democracy along North American and Western European lines can prevail internationally. "To have real self-government, a people must understand what that means, want it, and be willing to sacrifice for it." Many nondemocratic systems are inherently unstable. "But so what?" he asked. "We are not their keepers. We never will be." (He did not say that we might one day try to be.) He suggested that nondemocratic societies should be left "to be governed or misgoverned as habit and tradition may dictate, asking of their governing cliques only that they observe, in their bilateral relations with us and with the remainder of the world community, the minimum standards of civilized diplomatic intercourse."
Later, Pfaff writes:
The noninterventionist alternative to the policies followed in the United States since the 1950s is to minimize interference in other societies and accept the existence of an international system of plural and legitimate powers and interests. One would think the idea that nations are responsible for themselves, and that American military interference in their affairs is more likely to turn small problems into big ones than to solve them, would appeal to an American public that believes in individual responsibility and the autonomy of markets, considers itself hostile to political ideology (largely unaware of its own), and professes to be governed by constitutional order, pragmatism, and compromise.

A noninterventionist policy would shun ideology and emphasize pragmatic and empirical judgment of the interests and needs of this nation and of others, with reliance on diplomacy and analytical intelligence, giving particular attention to history, since nearly all serious problems between nations are recurrent or have important recurrent elements in them. The current crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine-Israel, and Iran are all colonial or postcolonial in nature, which is generally ignored in American political and press discussion.

Such a noninterventionist policy would rely primarily on trade and the market, rather than territorial control or military intimidation, to provide the resources and energy the United States needs. Political and diplomatic action would be the primary and essential instruments of international relations and persuasion; military action the last and worst one, evidence of political failure. Military deployments abroad would be reexamined with particular attention to whether they might actually be impediments to solutions of the conflicts of clients, or reinforce intransigence in the complex dynamics of relations among nations such as the two Koreas, China, Taiwan, and Japan, where lasting solutions can only be found in political settlements between principals.
As Pfaff notes, such a noninterventionist approach would have avoided Vietnam, and the related tragedies in Cambodia and Laos as well. And it would have avoided our endless interventions in the Middle East since World War II, and in Iraq today. I am pleased to note that, still later in his essay, Pfaff discusses "limits to the feasibility of humanitarian intervention," a subject I addressed in Part I of this series. He also notes the expansion of our interventionism into Africa, which I mentioned just the other day.

Tragically, both for us and for the world, adoption of a noninterventionist approach by the United States would appear impossible in the foreseeable future -- and we are left with the intractable and seemingly insurmountable problem set forth in Pfaff's observations at the opening of this essay. As Pfaff indicates, a new Democratic (or possibly even Republican) administration may "provide[] a less abrasive and more courteous version of the American pursuit of world hegemony" -- but hegemony will remain the goal. Every Democrat who has already announced his or her presidential ambitions has made numerous statements explicitly embracing this aim.

At the end of his article, Pfaff quotes Schumpeter on the characteristics of imperialism: "aggressiveness for its own sake," "expansion for the sake of expanding," with "[s]uch expansion" becoming "its own 'object.'" Pfaff concludes:
Perhaps this has come to apply in the American case, and we have gone beyond the belief in national exception to make an ideology of progress and universal leadership into our moral justification for a policy of simple power expansion. In that case we have entered into a logic of history that in the past has invariably ended in tragedy.
I would submit that all the available evidence compels that conclusion, and no other.

There are still further reasons why none of this will change in the near-term, and some of them concern the manner in which these goals have been absorbed into our system of governance itself, via certain institutions of power. I will address certain of those issues next time.