October 24, 2009

The Empty Establishment: No One's Home in an Intellectual Wasteland

Amy Chua's survey of current trends in foreign policy analysis and prescriptions for future action unintentionally reveals the terminal fatigue and intellectual inertia that have all but extinguished any faint, remaining signs of vitality and originality. Her major message is that all the writers she mentions, chosen because they represent the allegedly "competing" schools of thought, recommend returning to policies that were followed at various times in the past, when they supposedly succeeded. After twelve good-sized paragraphs that describe the terrain in broad outline, Chua concludes:
It may not be a bad thing that almost no one in foreign policy circles is proposing anything new. Foreign policy is not modern dance; tried and true may be better than avant-garde and visionary. Still, in today’s world, marked by unparalleled threats and characterized by a striking division between elite ideas and broad public opinion, it’s hard to believe that America’s way forward is a return to the past.
Let us first take the measure of Chua's predictable deployment of one of the hoariest of cliches: that our world today is one "marked by unparalleled threats." Our betters seek to terrify us into submission with visions of "unparalleled threats" (or "unique evil") on alternate Mondays at a minimum. History suggests that every generation since apes first grunted has been encouraged to tremble before the same spectres. How many times can people hear such drivel before they understand it to be malignantly malodorous manure? Every threat is unparalleled, and no morning is like any other. This moment is unlike all the moments that preceded it. You are a unique wonder, and I'm the Queen of Sheba. I'm ready to be published now, New York Times person!

According to the brief biographical note at the end of her article, Chua is a professor at Yale Law School and the author of two portentous-sounding tomes. She is unquestionably respectable and serious, and obviously a fully-deserving member of the intellectual establishment herself. And Chua tells us that "[i]t may not be a bad thing" (thus courageously staking out her affirmative vision in memorable fashion) that "almost no one...is proposing anything new," yet "it's hard to believe that America's way forward is a return to the past." In other words: who the hell knows what the U.S. should do?

At this point, common folk like you and me might well think that Chua has put herself out of business, together with those individuals she discusses. Ah, but that's not at all how it works. We're repeatedly told that the best we can do is acknowledge that A and B say thus and so, while C and D recommend a very different course of action, and E and F maintain that something else entirely is called for. And all these people are experts and recognized thinkers in their field! Who are we to question their wisdom? They question each other's wisdom, but they're entitled to. They're experts! Is there some method that ordinary schlubs (that's you and me again, bub) might employ to determine where the truth lies? If there is, Chua isn't about to tell us; her final paragraph indicates that she doesn't have such a methodology herself.

Someone will object: But she's doing a survey-review kind of piece, and she's only reporting what's out there, not assessing the validity of the various schools of thought. At a quick glance, that's a good try, but it fails. For this isn't an approach restricted to articles of a certain kind: it's the way these "debates" are always conducted. The experts all have their own ideas, but they'll work it out; meanwhile you mind your own business (which means that you pay for it with your blood and fortune, whatever may be left of either, but otherwise you will shut up). And the notion that the experts will find a solution in their own good time and with the benefit of their unalloyed wisdom simply reduces to the fact that whichever clique happens to be in power at any given moment will determine and implement the policies. Through some process known only to the elites, a consensus will be found. The consensus will know what to do.

And that brings us to the actual problem. You can see the outline of that problem in three paragraphs in particular. This is the opening of Chua's piece:
Neoliberalism, which dominated the decade before 9/11, had an exuberantly simple vision. Communism and authoritarianism had failed; therefore markets and free elections were the answer. Free-market democracy, conveniently spread by globalization, would transform the world into a community of productive, peace-loving nations. Instead, the ensuing years saw repeated economic crises outside the West, genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, intensifying fundamentalism, virulent anti-Americanism and finally the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Enter neoconservatism. At its core, the neoconservative program was premised on the aggressive, interventionist use of American military force, with or without international approval, to effect regime change and nation building. If 9/11 sent neoliberalism into a tailspin, the Iraq quagmire did the same for neoconservatism.
And then this paragraph, following Chua's discussion of various writers and the schools of thought they represent:
Despite such conflicting perspectives, however, it’s a sign of the times that the major thinkers are virtually all proposing a return to something old. Critics of the Bush-Cheney era depict those eight years as disastrous departures from traditional American principles. Supporters of the Bush administration present their new prescriptions as consistent with earlier eras of successful American foreign policy.
This presentation -- one which is generally consistent with the view held by many people, and not only among the elites -- neatly elides the most critical aspect of U.S. foreign policy, especially since World War II. That truth is readily ascertainable, by "expert" and layperson alike, and it is simply that U.S. foreign policy has been on a steady course since the 1940s (and, I would argue, since the 1890s and the episode in Hawaii and the murderous occupation of the Philippines), through Democratic and Republican administrations alike. The goal is nothing less than worldwide hegemony for the benefit of the American ruling class, and it is guided by "both economic expansion and ideological expansion and links them to U.S. national security," in the words of Christopher Layne.

In his insightful book, The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present, Layne writes:
This book is not a chronicle of the grand strategy of the Bush II administration or of the two administrations that preceded it. Nevertheless, the real world events that have shaped U.S. grand strategy since the Bush II administration took office--9/11, the war on terror, the March 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, and mounting tensions with Iran and North Korea caused by those two states' nuclear ambitions--cast a long shadow. One of my objectives in this book is to put these events into historical perspective and to show that they are part of a larger pattern that extends back to the early 1940s. Here, I take issue with those who have argued that the Bush II administration's approach to U.S. grand strategy--its determination to maintain overwhelming U.S. geopolitical dominance and its muscular idealism--breaks sharply with the principles and assumptions that guided earlier U.S. policymakers. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Take the administration's resolve to use America's preponderant power to ensure that other states cannot entertain the "hope of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States." Here the administration simply reaffirmed the policy adopted by its two immediate predecessors.

The Bush II administration's decision to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein is another example of continuity in U.S. grand strategy since 1989. As we now know, that decision had nothing to do with 9/11, the war on terror, or Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Rather it was a war of hegemony intended to establish U.S. military and ideological dominance in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. Iraq was not the first, but merely the latest, U.S. war of hegemony since the cold war's end. Since the cold war waned in the late 1980s the United States has been involved in a series of such military interventions.

Few raised their eyebrows about Panama (1989) or Haiti (1994, 2004). After all, the United States has a track record of wielding a big stick to maintain stability in its own backyard. But the two wars with Iraq (1991, 2003), the U.S. military interventions in the Balkans (Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1999), and the invasion of Afghanistan (2001) do stand out. The first war with Iraq was fought to exert U.S. geopolitical primacy in the Gulf. The Balkan interventions aimed to "strengthen Washington's control of NATO, the major institution for maintaining U.S. influence in European affairs" and to "project American power into the East Mediterranean region where it could link up with a growing U.S. military presence in the Middle East." Afghanistan allowed the United States to do more than go after al Qaeda and the Taliban. The United States shored up its strategic position in the Middle East while simultaneously extending its reach into Central Asia and, in the process, challenging Russia's influence in Moscow's own backyard.


It is often said, with respect to U.S. grand strategy, that the al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., "changed everything." But they didn't. After 9/11--as before--geopolitical dominance has been the ambition of the United States. If anything, 9/11 gave the Bush II administration's "hegemonists" a convenient--indeed, almost providential--rationale for implementing policies they would have wanted to pursue in any event, including "regime change" in Iraq (and possibly Iran); the projection of U.S. power into the Middle East and Central Asia; a massive five-year defense buildup, which, when completed, will result in U.S. military outlays exceeding the combined defense budgets of the rest of the world's states; and a nuclear strategy that aims at attaining meaningful nuclear superiority over peer competitors and simultaneously ensuring that regional powers cannot develop the capacity to deter U.S. military intervention abroad. In short, the Bush II administration has sought security by expanding U.S. power and pursuing hegemony. In this respect it has stayed on--not left--the grand strategic path followed by the United States since the early 1940s.
William Pfaff often talks of these same ideas. In one passage, Pfaff discusses the widespread belief 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," and then writes:
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.
It would take far too long to examine all the erroneous assumptions underlying Chua's NYT piece, but I want to drive home how profoundly wrong and misleading this passage is:
Critics of the Bush-Cheney era depict those eight years as disastrous departures from traditional American principles. Supporters of the Bush administration present their new prescriptions as consistent with earlier eras of successful American foreign policy.
As Chua describes it, even "supporters of the Bush administration" seek to distinguish "their new prescriptions" from the policies of the departed and unlamented Bush II. These Bush supporters now favor policies that are "consistent with earlier eras of successful American foreign policy," but apparently they would have us believe those policies have little to do with what transpired under the Bush administration.

And Chua is probably correct about that much -- that is, about what these Bush supporters would have us believe, as distinguished from what is true. For almost everyone, the preferred intellectual stance at this point is to isolate the Bush administration as unique -- even "uniquely evil," and having no correspondence at any point to America the (otherwise) Good -- and as representing a major break with American policy before and (it is hoped) after. But, and I underscore this a multitude of times, this view is absolutely, unequivocally wrong. Numerous signs already indicate that Obama will continue Bush's policies on all the major points, just as Bush continued the policies that had preceded him. Obama made this clear as early as the spring of 2007, in a major foreign policy address that I analyzed in "Songs of Death." At present, and as just one example, we have Obama's likely course with regard to Iran, which differs from Bush's on not a single issue of significance.

As indicated in the excerpts above, Layne and Pfaff both offer compelling arguments about the continuity of American foreign policy. The issues Layne discusses are further analyzed in Part III of my "Dominion Over the World" series ("The Open Door to Worldwide Hegemony"). In my discussion of the Pfaff excerpt in Part VI of the same series ("Global Interventionism -- A Disastrous Policy Supported by Indefensible Ideas"), I went on to write:
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.
In the Age of Obama, Democratic partisans and Obama hagiographers want us to believe that all this has changed, that the moment of militarized insanity has passed, and that we will someday, sometime, somehow enter into a new world of realized hope and peace. But, as Layne observed in a largely identical context, nothing could be farther from the truth. In all essential respects, nothing has changed at all. One element has altered, but only one: Obama is a much more effective salesman and representative, and he has infinitely better PR. In consumer-driven America (although consumers aren't able to drive much, if anything, these days), where appearances are everything, or at least everything that matters, that is enough to fool far too many people, even many people who easily could and should know much better.

It is the policy of the last century and longer, which is also the policy of today, that must be questioned, and finally rejected. That is, it must be rejected if you genuinely hope for a world of peace. If that truly is your goal, resolutely throw away the hideously destructive idea of worldwide hegemony and all its manifestations once and for all.