Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The perilous ideological foreign policy of the US as the Elect among the nations

Geoffrey Wheatcroft in The Voice of Unconventional Wisdom New York Review of Books (11/112010 issue; accessed 10/27/2010) summarizes the world position of the United States, describing the framework William Pfaff uses in his new book, The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy (2010):

He [Pfaff] explains how the acquisition of great power by the United States has meant "a subordination of ethical values to an ideology of national triumphalism," which he sees as part of the strange and indeed terrifying transformation of Western Enlightenment civilization into "our twentieth- and twenty-first-century experience of extreme ideological violence."
American Progress by John Gast (c. 1872)

I haven't read Pfaff's book yet. It's not clear from this quote whether Pfaff includes nationalism as one of the ideologies producing "extreme ideological violence." But I'm intrigued by the ways that Enlightenment rationalism and notions of purity can lead to extreme violence.

Wheatcroft writes that "for more than sixty years the United States has tried to control [a fractured world], culminating in a historically unprecedented attempt to create American domination in what we misleadingly call the Middle East."


Citing Pfaff, he cites a difference between Europe and the USA in the understanding of countries in the religious sceme of things.

In Europe, the crisis in traditional religion brought about by the Enlightenment undermined confidence in the existing condition of society, especially after the French Revolution, but this, Pfaff points out, crucially did not happen in America, where something more than mere confidence survived. "The case and circumstances of America present themselves as in the beginning of the world,” Thomas Paine wrote in Rights of Man, “as if we had lived in the beginning of time." The exalted sense of being immaculately newborn fed a national faith in "manifest destiny" (a phrase first used in 1839), an assumption that American success and American power must be a reflection of American virtue.

For more than 130 years, with some exceptions in the Caribbean and the Philippines, this took the form of political and military isolation—until Woodrow Wilson. With him, Pfaff writes, “the national myth was turned into a philosophy of international action." Wilson’s interventionism, didactic and ignorant at once, failed to create a new order of world peace, and was followed by a hiatus when America once more withdrew into its shell, until rudely awoken in 1941. [my emphasis

In that quote, Wheatcroft invokes the conventional story of the triumph of "isolationism" in the 1920s and early 1930s. I've become very leery of such invocations, because "isolationism" is a bogeyman that has been used since the end of the Second World War to stigmatize any and all critics of American interventionism. Andrew Bacevich has been pointing out for years that there are no significant advocates of isolationism in the US any more.

The far right, including the John Birch Society, is nominally isolationist, based on a conspiratorial view of the world and current affairs. But even that sort of isolationism is really based on the same kind of hardcore nationalism that constitutes Dick Cheney's foreign policy perspective. It's worth noting in that regard that Congressman Ron Paul is a favorite among the Bircher and militia sorts. And his son Randy "Aqua Buddha" Paul generally follows his father's political outlook, down to his segregationist views on civil rights legislation. (Old Man Paul probably shares his son's philosophy of Don't tread on me, tread on that woman over there.) But Aqua Buddha in his Senate campaign this year has endorsed the consensus nationalist foreign policy of the Republican Party.

Frank Rich, in a 2006 quote cited by Wheatcroft, reflects this conventional assumption that rabid isolationist sentiment is always on the verge of seizing the passion of the public (from Ideas for Democrats? New York Review of Books 10/19/2006 issue):

If Truman and Marshall came back from the dead, they could not sell a Marshall Plan to the isolationist and xenophobic America that the Iraq war has left in its wake, not just among some Democrats ... but, in an even more virulent form, among the Republican base. The Marshall Plan we theoretically brought to Iraq, a $22 billion farrago of waste and corruption, will serve as a poster child against foreign aid in congressional races for years.
The only true isolationism is in the portion of the Republican base so hardcore they worry that Glenn Beck is too liberal. But Rich, one of our star liberal pundits, locates it mainly in the Democratic Party, i.e., he equates it with criticisms of the Iraq War.

Wheatcroft continues:

A second great war left behind that chaotic world, and a forty-year rivalry between the United States and Soviet Russia followed. But after the war, in Pfaff's account, manifest destiny mutated into the "rigid and moralistic foreign policy” of Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles (another Presbyterian like Wilson, imbued with the doctrine of predestined election). Pfaff not only admires George Kennan but, as so many did not, understands him and the complexity of his ideas. Kennan’s wise advocacy of "containment" and letting time do its work was perverted toward ever-increasing militarization and futile wars, from Vietnam to Iraq. [my emphasis]
Such sweeping but brief generalizations of decades of time always leave infinite possibilities to raise objections, sophomoric and otherwise, to the picture they present.

But the basic idea is right. And it's a very important one. The United States foreign policy, which under Cheney and Bush became an ideology and a physical reality of permanent war, really is based on a rigid ideology, an ideology that the United States is required to cleanse the world of evil. Or, as a CIA officer said to Bob Woodward as quoted in his book Bush at War (2002), "America will export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defense of our great nation."

(Wheatcroft designates that as a Bush quote, which is apparently a common error.)

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