March 13, 2006

Getting Out of the Trap, I: The Old Theme -- A "Redeemer Nation," with Some Explaining to Do

A strategy exists by means of which we can neutralize the threat that a potentially nuclear Iran might represent to us. It does not involve military conflict in any manner at all and, in principle, it is remarkably simple and even obvious. But none of our major leaders of any political persuasion will even consider it, because it falls entirely outside the modes of thinking and analysis that we as a nation have utilized for well over a century.

In a column entitled, "Why They Hate Us," Jacob Hornberger lays out some of the history that most Americans prefer to forget, while those peoples who have been forced to endure the results of our incessant meddling in their affairs do not suffer from memory lapses of such magnitude. Hornberger notes that, in the wake of 9/11, the official explanation for the hatred directed at the United States was that "they" hate us "for our freedom and our values." He goes on to write:
What Americans didn’t realize is that federal officials were being disingenuous when they made that pronouncement. U.S. officials knew full-well that that their decades-old U.S. interventionist policies in the Middle East were at the bottom of the volcanic rage that people bore in that part of the world.
Hornberger traces the half-century of U.S. interference in the Middle East, from the CIA's role in the ouster of the democratically elected prime minister of Iran in 1953, through our continuing occupation of Iraq today.

In terms of a non-interventionist solution to the ongoing challenges we face, it is worth noting the concluding paragraphs of Hornberger's article:
U.S. government meddling in the Middle East occurred long before 9/11 and, in fact, was the motivating cause for 9/11 (and the previous 1993 attack on the World Trade Center). Thus, U.S. officials have it all wrong — the solution is not to invade, bomb, kill, maim, and meddle even more. That will only exacerbate the anger and rage that engenders retaliatory terrorist attacks. Continuing the same policies that have produced volcanic anger and rage will only ensure more terrorism, more counterterrorism, more infringements on the freedom of the American people, and more increases in the Pentagon’s budget.

The solution instead is for the American people to dismantle the U.S. government's overseas empire, requiring the federal government, especially the Pentagon, to withdraw from the Middle East (and the rest of the world) and also to liberate the American people to travel, trade, and interact freely with the people of the world (including both Vietnam and Cuba).

Dismantling the U.S. overseas empire would not, of course, end conflicts abroad but it would ensure that the U.S. government could not make matters worse, both for foreigners and Americans, with its meddling overseas interventions. The federal government’s power would be limited to defending the United States from a foreign invasion, a virtually nonexistent threat at present, and to prosecuting criminal acts committed on American soil.

Equally important, by ending the federal government’s isolation of the American people from the rest of the world, we not only would be restoring the constitutional republic our ancestors bequeathed to us, Americans also would once again have the opportunity to lead the world to freedom, peace, prosperity, and harmony.
I will discuss these principles in more detail in the concluding parts of this series. But as I said, the major points are remarkably straightforward: an end to military interventions overseas, coupled with genuine free travel and trade, including one related and crucial element in particular: free and open cultural and intellectual exchange.

What is remarkable is the extent to which such a course of action is almost never discussed at all, or even acknowledged. Such ideas lie outside the "conventional wisdom," and members of our government never treat them with any degree of seriousness. Given the disastrous consequences brought about by the "conventional wisdom," you would think more people would be willing to consider an alternative -- one that might lead to far better results, shorn of the endless cycle of death and destruction that now consumes us.

This is why I have discussed several of the major elements of the traditional Western approach to foreign policy in my Iran series: the idea of mythic war; notions of "Western exceptionalism" allied with a strongly messianic streak; and a particular form of the American mythology, one which carries inevitable racist implications. These elements constitute our basic frame of reference, one that is regarded as axiomatic and never to be questioned. Almost no one dares to step outside it. We can hope that at least some additional people will take up the challenge, before Armageddon is finally unleashed.

To demonstrate once again that nothing is new in our situation today -- except for the degree of lethality carried by the weapons at our disposal -- I return to the Spanish-American War and the ensuing Philippines episode. All the central components of the mindset that drives our leaders today were established then, and not one of them has altered in the century that has followed. I reposted the other day an entry about Thomas B. Reed, and why he finally retired from the House of Representatives. Reed saw all too clearly that the United States had decided to follow a fateful course, one bent on empire. He was irrevocably opposed to that decision, understanding it would lead, in time, to the destruction of the American republic. As Barbara Tuchman notes: "To retain office as Speaker would be to carry through a policy in the Philippines abominable to him."

Most Americans today know next to nothing about the history of our involvement in the Philippines, and how that history began. An important clue can be gleaned from the perspective of our president at the time:
At the end of the Spanish-American War, we collected Puerto Rico as a colony, set up a protectorate over Cuba, and annexed the Hawaiian Islands. President William McKinley also forced Spain to cede the Philippine Islands. To the American people, McKinley explained that, almost against his will, he had been led to make the decision to annex: "There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and christianize them as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died." McKinley was either unaware of or simply chose not to inform the people that, except for some Muslim tribesmen in the south, the Filipinos were Roman Catholics, and, therefore, by most accounts, already Christians.
That is a brief excerpt from Part III of a six-part series by Ralph Raico on American foreign policy, and it is one of the best treatments of the subject of which I am aware.

The paternalism and racism involved in the Philippines episode are genuinely shocking and shameful. Consider part of a very famous speech to the Senate by Albert Beveridge, "In Support of an American Empire":
MR. PRESIDENT, the times call for candor. The Philippines are ours forever, "territory belonging to the United States," as the Constitution calls them. And just beyond the Philippines are China's illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world. And we will move forward to our work, not howling out regrets like slaves whipped to their burdens but with gratitude for a task worthy of our strength and thanksgiving to Almighty God that He has marked us as His chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world.


It has been charged that our conduct of the war has been cruel. Senators, it has been the reverse. I have been in our hospitals and seen the Filipino wounded as carefully, tenderly cared for as our own. Within our lines they may plow and sow and reap and go about the affairs of peace with absolute liberty. And yet all this kindness was misunderstood, or rather not understood. Senators must remember that we are not dealing with Americans or Europeans. We are dealing with Orientals. We are dealing with Orientals who are Malays. We are dealing with Malays instructed in Spanish methods. They mistake kindness for weakness, forbearance for fear. It could not be otherwise unless you could erase hundreds of years of savagery, other hundreds of years of Orientalism, and still other hundreds of years of Spanish character and custom.
And to show yet another way in which there is nothing new under the sun, consider this:
Mr. President, reluctantly and only from a sense of duty am I forced to say that American opposition to the war has been the chief factor in prolonging it. Had Aguinaldo not understood that in America, even in the American Congress, even here in the Senate, he and his cause were supported; had he not known that it was proclaimed on the stump and in the press of a faction in the United States that every shot his misguided followers fired into the breasts of American soldiers was like the volleys fired by Washington's men against the soldiers of King George, his insurrection would have dissolved before it entirely crystallized.

The utterances of American opponents of the war are read to the ignorant soldiers of Aguinaldo and repeated in exaggerated form among the common people.
Attempts have been made by wretches claiming American citizenship to ship arms and ammunition from Asiatic ports to the Filipinos, and these acts of infamy were coupled by the Malays with American assaults on our government at home. The Filipinos do not understand free speech, and therefore our tolerance of American assaults on the American President and the American government means to them that our President is in the minority or he would not permit what appears to them such treasonable criticism. It is believed and stated in Luzon, Panay, and Cebu that the Filipinos have only to fight, harass, retreat, break up into small parties, if necessary, as they are doing now, but by any means hold out until the next presidential election, and our forces will be withdrawn.

All this has aided the enemy more than climate, arms, and battle.
Just as defenders of empire and government malfeasance always claim, the fault lies not with the policy itself, but with its critics. As I have said before, there is nothing new in any of what we are witnessing today.

And don't think that Beveridge was alone in his views, or out of the mainstream of commonly held opinion. Theodore Roosevelt wrote to the poet of empire, Rudyard Kipling, that before he could deal with the Philippines, he had to deal with "the jack-fools who seriously think that any group of pirates and head-hunters needs nothing but independence in order that it may be turned forthwith into a dark-hued New England town meeting." William Howard Taft, who became the Philippine commissioner in 1900, referred to "our little brown brothers," and contended they would require "fifty or one hundred years" of close supervision "to develop anything resembling Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills."

The Roosevelt and Taft comments are noted in a fascinating book, Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples At Home and Abroad, 1876-1917, by Matthew Frye Jacobson. I'm still reading it, and I expect to offer further excerpts from it in the future. In his brief concluding chapter, Jacobson summarizes the major theme of his book. Here are several excerpts, and you can see how Jacobson's points overlap with many of the issues I've been discussing in connection with Iran, and particularly with regard to the overall frame of reference that we bring to questions of foreign policy:
It is one of the strange throughlines in the history of U.S. nationalism that since at least the mid-nineteenth century Americans have fancied their country as the savior of the world's peoples--redeemer nation, civilizer, beacon of liberty, asylum of the oppressed--even as they have expressed profound anxiety that the world's peoples might ultimately prove the ruin of the republic. The period between the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876 and World War I was a critical epoch in the twin development of these contending ideas. Americans erected a magnificent statue in New York Harbor beckoning the "tempest-tost" and "wretched" refugees of the Old World through the "golden door" of new hope, and yet they developed in succeeding decades an elaborate biological explanation of the superiority of "old-stock" Americans and the undesirability of the "backward" or "useless" races who were overrepresented among the new immigration. ... What America had to offer seemed too good not to extend to the benighted peoples of the world (by force, if necessary); but what those people threatened to return in the bargain ultimately seemed too bad to risk.

My focus on the years 1876 to 1917 in this book is meant to redress two striking failures of our national memory--one regarding immigration; the other, imperialism.

Recent debates over immigration have revolved around highly idealized images of the "good" European immigrant of a bygone era.


It is useful to know, in this connection, that--however safely "assimilated" now--at the moment of their arrival the waves of European immigrants constituted a full-blown political crisis in the United States, and that it was a crisis articulated in exactly the terms used today by the likes of Patrick Buchanan, Pete Wilson, or Border Watch in reference to Asian and Latin American immigrants. ... The myth of yesterday's "good" European immigrant resides at the heart of this popular misreading of the period, screening the fact that today's "bad" immigration represents precisely the threat that the republic has faced and overcome many times before. Evidently the capacity of the republic to withstand its own diversity is greater than the capacity of many citizens to imagine an America that departs significantly from the demographic status quo (and lives to tell about it--in English).

The second piece of public amnesia addressed here concerns turn-of-the-century empire-building, an area even more striking for the totality of its disappearance from public discussion. ... Not only do most Americans know nothing about the conduct of the Philippine-American War; many do not even know that such a war took place.

The stakes are quite high for Americans' national self-conception. In expurgating the period of U.S. expansionism that bridges the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Americans adopt a broken narrative that casts Manifest Destiny and continental expansionism falsely adrift from "modern" U.S. history, and obscures the extent to which the modern state was built, and modern nationalism generated, in close relation to the imperialist project. The effect is to mystify U.S. involvement in global affairs by hiding the very moment when global power was so lustily seized. If there is no turn-of-the-century expansionism, then Manifest Destiny becomes an irrelevance of dim antiquity, and both the Wilsonian internationalism and the Cold War interventionism of the twentieth century can be imagined as developing upon an entirely different epistemological footing. Without the Philippines, in other words, it becomes easy to suppose a radical historical disjuncture separating the plains wars of the mid-nineteenth century and the Southeast Asian wars of the mid-twentieth: that U.S. soldiers referred to areas within Vietnam as "Indian Country" becomes a matter of simple metaphor, not of deeper ideology. But our first land war in Asia was fought not in 1950-53 but in 1899-1902, and it was waged largely by American officers who had received their practical training in campaigns against the "savages" of the Western plains in the 1870s.

This erasure has generally allowed a view that the United States has played its part as a power on the world scene only reluctantly. The triumph of American innocence, as Stuart Creighton Miller has called this willful revision, constitutes a pillar of twentieth-century American liberalism. Unabashed discussion of racial conquest has long faded from American political discourse; there is simply no longer a place in national self-conception for the rhetoric of "waste spaces" and of "unfitness for "self-government," or for the glorious war against "savages" that obtained in Theodore Roosevelt's day. And yet Americans still find themselves in possession of an empire marked by myriad alliances with pliant dictators, by an unbroken history of military interventions, by a twelve-digit defense budget, and by a global network of military bases--and so they have some explaining to do.
Jacobson's book was published in 2000. Unfortunately, events have proven him wrong in one crucial respect: he underestimated the extent to which the worst kind of atavistic racist impulses could be unleashed again after 9/11, and how many Americans would again fall prey to thinking of the enemy as embodying Absolute Evil, and of being "savages" worthy only of annihilation. Teddy Roosevelt would be completely at home with the vicious anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric that suffuses our discourse today.

But the broader point that Jacobson makes is of critical importance: our convenient historical amnesia allows the national myth to continue. It permits us to believe -- as Irving Kristol plainly stated, and as Andrew Sullivan still mindlessly repeats -- that our interference in global affairs and our desire to run the world according only to our own wishes is a fate forced upon us, and one we would not have chosen if events had permitted us to do otherwise.

And none of that is true. We deliberately and intentionally chose the course of foreign conquest, starting at the very end of the nineteenth century. But we pretend this part of our history does not exist -- and so, as Jacobson goes on to note, Woodrow Wilson was able to say that the U.S. became a global power "by the sheer genius of its people," and "not because we chose to go into the politics of the world." Jacobson continues:
When we recall and squarely face U.S. conduct in the Philippines at the dawn of Pacific empire in 1899, we [cannot] pass off the U.S. rise to global predominance as blind, unintentional, or accidental. Despite some opposition, the United States consciously chose imperial power along with the antidemocratic baggage and even the bloodshed that entailed; and many Americans--none more than Teddy Roosevelt--liked it.
And too many Americans like it still.

Today, all the leading national politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, lead us further along this course, and deeper into confrontation -- this time with Iran, where the stakes may well be horrifying on a scale that no one in public life seems prepared to name honestly or openly. More on that in the next installment.