February 03, 2006

The "Isolationist" Smear, and the Lie of "Good Intentions" Once Again

Just the other day, I discussed in some detail how the advocates of our current foreign policy have been busily channeling Woodrow Wilson, whose disastrous war to spread "democracy" and whose "ideals" inevitably led to a series of worldwide disasters. In an excellent op-ed piece in the LA Times, Andrew Bacevich (author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War) addresses some of these same points.

Bacevich begins by noting that Bush's State of the Union address "bulged with ominous references to ostensibly resurgent isolationists" who would have America retreat within its own borders, and abandon "an assaulted world to fend for itself." He then points out entirely correctly that using "isolationism" in this manner is nothing more than a smear designed to forestall all debate:
But who exactly are these isolationists eager to pull up the drawbridges? What party do they control? What influential journals of opinion do they publish? Who are their leaders? Which foundations bankroll this isolationist cause?

The president provided no such details, and for good reason: They do not exist. Indeed, in present-day American politics, isolationism does not exist. It is a fiction, a fabrication and a smear imported from another era.

Isolationism survives in contemporary American political discourse because it retains utility as a cheap device employed to impose discipline. Think of it as akin to red-baiting — conjuring up bogus fears to enforce conformity in the realm of foreign policy. In that regard, the beleaguered Bush, his standing in public opinion polls tumbling, is by no means the first president to sound the alarm about supposed isolationists subverting American statecraft.
This is a critical point that far too many people do not appreciate. Throwing the term "isolationism" around in the manner Bush and many hawks do has one purpose above all: to intimidate all those who seriously challenge Bush's foreign policy, and hopefully to shut them up. As Bacevich points out, there is no one of any importance proposing "isolationism" in the manner Bush would have us believe.

And the truth reveals the smear to be still worse: even someone with views like mine -- someone who opposes the aggressively interventionist foreign policy the U.S. has followed for over a century -- does not endorse "isolationism." I am in favor of genuine free trade with all countries (which I emphasize is vastly different from the kind of "free trade" favored by Bush and his cronies, which only works to the advantage of those corporations and individuals with powerful connections to the neofascist corporate statism which the U.S. embodies today) and open immigration. How in the world can that be construed as "isolationism"? It can't, except in the minds of the propagandists eager to shut down all debate and all questioning directed at them and their failures, which become more tragically obvious by the day.

Bacevich then addresses the actual questions -- the issues that demand a genuinely serious debate, which is precisely what the propagandists will do anything to avoid:
The problem is that scaremongering about nonexistent isolationists preempts a much-needed debate over the principles that ought to inform our behavior as a world power. Call that debate George Washington versus Woodrow Wilson.

After 9/11, Bush the born-again Christian became a born-again Wilsonian, embracing the American mission of spreading liberty around the world. In his State of the Union address, the president affirmed his commitment to that mission, vowing that his administration will "act boldly in freedom's cause" and "seek the end of tyranny in our world."

The Wilsonian project derives from two convictions: that history has an identifiable direction and purpose, and that providence calls upon Americans to fulfill that purpose, which is the triumph of liberty. On Tuesday, the president reaffirmed his adherence to those convictions, declaring, "we accept the call of history to deliver the oppressed."

Responding to these calls from above, Wilsonians tend to neglect mundane details about feasibility. Wilson had no patience with the idea of limits, and neither do his disciples. Thus Bush asserts that there is nothing a righteous America acting in pursuit of a righteous cause cannot accomplish. One will search Bush's speech in vain for any doubts regarding American omnipotence.

It was Bush channeling Wilson that landed us in Iraq. Even today, many Americans agree with the president's view of the U.S. invasion as an act of liberation, although many others view the war as patently misguided and morally unjustifiable. What can hardly be denied is that it has exacted enormous, unsustainable costs.
Thus you can see how Bush's "Wilsonian project," with its tragically misguided notion that "history has an identifiable direction and purpose, and that providence calls upon Americans to fulfill that purpose," corresponds exactly with Chris Hedges' description of the "mythic reality" of war that has taken over our national discourse, and which I recently excerpted:
By turning history into myth we transform random events into a chain of events directed by a will greater than our own, one that is determined and preordained. We are elevated above the multitude. We march toward nobility. And no society is immune.
As I noted in a followup post about "The Price of Empire" and as Hedges also emphasizes, this mythic view of history permits Bush and his supporters to ignore all questions of "feasibility" as Bacevich notes, as well as all the particular, human costs of their calamitous policies. And I repeat my warning from that followup entry: if you still give Bush credit for his "good intentions" and insist that he "meant well," you allow the illusion to continue. In this manner, you permit the myth to persist.

Even if we were to set aside the blatant contradiction contained in the policy itself, there is no evidence in history -- no evidence anywhere -- to support the idea that "democracy" can be successfully imposed by military force. (I have often referred in past discussions of this point to a wonderful Ken Jowitt article, which explains why Japan and Germany after World War II are not counterexamples on this point. Both those countries were significantly different from any nation in the Middle East in ways that make their experience completely inapplicable to current events.) There is nothing "good" or "idealistic" about invading a country that was no threat to us, and then occupying it for endless years. There is nothing "good" or "idealistic" about pursuing a policy that leads to the deaths of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis, and that injures countless additional tens of thousands of people. And there is nothing "good" or "idealistic" about a policy that serves only to empower Iran and to destabilize the Middle East and the world even further.

Until a sufficient number of people are prepared to jettison entirely the extraordinarily dangerous notion of "good intentions" as a camouflage for policies that spread disaster in every direction, the myth will endure. And none of us will be safe.