Monday, November 15, 2010

William Pfaff's "The Irony of Manifest Destiny"

William Pfaff's The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (2010) is a sober and sobering reflection on the current state of American foreign and military policy. Unfortunately, important insights are mixed in with vague and dubious historical generalizations. And with statements that are confusing, careless and even contradictory.

The best passages are where he deals with policies of the United States toward Muslim countries during the last 10 years and their immediate background, and those that highlight the global nature of American military aspirations and the hubris that display. My recommendation would be to start with Chapter 4, "From American Isolationism to Utopian Interventionism", and read through to the end, then circle back to the first three chapters.

Pfaff highlights an important reality of today that is not well understood in ordinary political commentary; that is, it's rarely mentioned as such. "American foreign policy, economy and society seem all to have become dominated the assumptions of permanent or serial wars against American enemies, identified by Washington as the enemies as well of democracy and Western civilization." (my emphasis) The idea that war itself is evil and something to be minimized and avoided whenever reasonably possible is hardly even paid lip service in American political discourse now.

He also recognizes that what was for a few years called the Long War didn't begin with 9/11, but is in a real sense a continuation of the Cold War, as described by Andrew Bacevich and the other contributors to The Long War: A New History of U.S. National Security Policy Since World War II (2007). Pfaff quotes Bacevich's work approvingly, and Bacevich blurbs the book as showing Pfaff's "standing as our wisest critic of U.S. foreign policy".

In this passage, Pfaff makes that connection by referring to the good-vs.-evil approach of Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles:

The Dulles vision of bipolar struggle, promoted to global dimensions in the late 19505, continued to rule American policy thinking until after Communism's collapse. Its influence was still so great in 2001 that George W. Bush automatically constructed his global war on terror as what even at the time could be seen as a parody of the Cold War, even though the enemy in this new version of global struggle was an organization of a few thousand Muslim mujahideen and sympathizers, replacing as enemy in the administration's imagination and propaganda a Soviet Union of 150 million people, possessing the second largest strategic nuclear force on the planet, an imposing economy, and global allies and clients. Astonishingly, this notion was generally accepted in the professional policy community and among the international media. The consequence of this has been the substitution of fictions for fact in important deliberations of government, as repeatedly attested by recent experience. A virtual reality is willed into existence that blocks out reality itself. Sometimes this delusion is driven by domestic political advantage. More often it is a case of personal or collective illusion, motivated by ideology, or private commitments or advantage, that in turn demands confirmation by subordinate officials. [my emphasis]
He makes an important historical point about the ideology of spreading democracy, which is the rhetoric of Wilsonian internationalism and idealism that the Cheney-Bush Administration used to justify the Iraq War, in particular:

The policy of the George W. Bush administration to make the Islamic states democracies was supported by a neoconservative misreading of history - that after the Second World War the United States had "made" Germany and Japan into democracies. Both of those nations in the past were constitutional monarchies, with parliaments, sophisticated administrative institutions, advanced legal systems and courts, and national political parties. They had little need of instruction in representative institutions, only the motive to reestablish them - which defeat in the Second World War and Allied military occupation amply supplied. [my emphasis]
He notes, "The material interests involved in the Middle East are obvious, of course, but they do not explain the element of unreasonableness present" in US and British policy perspectives and decisions. This is important. There is a lot of effort made by policymakers to hide the less noble motivators of their foreign policy goals, like promotion of the interests of energy corporations. It's important to look beyond the rhetoric for that reason. But also, many historians and observers of current affairs are tempted to downplay the role that irrational turns of mind and even just plain stupidity can and do play in major decisions.


The book is full of valuable observations, coming as they do from an experienced and sensible long-time observer of these policies. For instance, he writes on Old Man Bush and the Gulf War of 1991: "He ... inaugurated a new series of American Middle Eastern military engagements with the Gulf War against Iraq, a superficially comprehensible decision, at the same time one whose deep sources remain today without a satisfactory explanation."

He stresses the too-little-appreciated point about the role India-Pakistan tensions over Kashmir play in the Afghanistan War: "Pakistan's own interest lies in manipulating both Taliban and foreign Islamist elements - as well as the United States, when feasible - in its own defense against its permanent enemy, India."This is a fundamental problem for NATO policy in the Afghanistan War and the widening conflict in Pakistan so long as Pakistan views the Afghan government as pro-Indian. Juan Cole elaborates on this in Obama in Asia: Meeting American Decline Face to Face TomDispatch 11/11/2010:

The U.S. military in Afghanistan is seen [by the Indian government] as a proxy for Indian interests in putting down the Taliban and preventing the reestablishment of Pakistani hegemony over Kabul. For purely self-interested reasons Prime Minister Singh has long taken the same position as the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives, urging Obama to postpone any plans to begin a drawdown in Afghanistan in the summer of 2011.
The last three chapters are full of useful and important observations. Like the fact that the Cheney-Bush Administration opposed the International Criminal Court (ICC) "because of the [USA's] present vulnerability to indictments and prosecution for a number of practices that have been or are national policy."

Like his comment, "Direct American intervention polarizes and politicizes, given not only the widespread present unpopularity of the United States in the non-Western world, but also the frequent incompetence and destructiveness of these interventions."

I could easily cite other examples: his recognition of how the Western Cold War policy of encouraging political Islam as an alternative to left-leaning Arab nationalism played a huge part in creating the current conflicts with Islamists; about how fundamentalist ideas can be particularly appealing "to people educated in the applied sciences and technology" in which "the subject matter is fixed and unsusceptible to critical thinking, a matter of certitudes"; his observations on how absurd it is that the threat of "Al Qa'ida" effectively occupied the place in Long War propaganda that the nuclear-armed Soviet Union and its allies played during the Cold War; on how the Cheney-Bush administration needed the "Al Qa'ida" bogeyman (not merely the far more modest reality) to justify its wars and war crimes; his observations on the privatization of military functions and the rise in the Homeland Security complex; and on how the United States has not "since 1945 won a war, other than the invasion of the Dominican Republic [1965m LBJ], the pathetic conquest of Panama [1989, Old Man Bush], and the successful seizure of that menacing member of the British Commonwealth, the Caribbean island nation of Grenada [1983, St. Reagan]."

On the state of Al Qa'ida as of 2009, he recommends Marc Sageman, Testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Confronting al-Qaeda: Understanding the Threat in Afghanistan and Beyond 10/07/2009.

One of Pfaff's most important and most disturbing observations comes near the end, when he speculates about what might prompt the United States to adopt a far less militarized and interventionist foreign policy:

The United States may simply find itself with no choice but to fall back on itself, no doubt embittered by disappointment. That might provide a soft ending to empire. The hard ending would be palpable defeat in crucial undertakings. These would have to be defeats that cut through the insulation of ignorance, misinformation, and complacency that has prevailed in the country during the first decade of the new century and such is perhaps impossible. The external crisis would have to be deeper, and be more personal in its effects, than the Vietnam defeat, and that too seems unlikely.
However, the book is populated with sloppy generalizations and even errors that can be distracting. Examples:

  • The workers' revolt in Communist East Germany was in 1953, not 1952. (p.77)
  • Benito Mussolini himself didn't invent the concept "totalitarian". (p. 36) Hans Maier wrote in "'Totalitarismus' und 'politische Religionen'. Konzepte der Diktaturvergleiches" Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte July 1995 that, although Mussolini adopted the term as his own as early as 1925, "Clearly it was not Mussolini and his partisan supporters that introduced the concept into the discussion, but the opponents of the Fascists from the liberal-democratic, socialist and Catholic camps," such as Luigi Salvatorelli, Giorgio Amendola and Lelio Basso. (my translation)
  • The US ousted Maximilio I from his post(1832-1867) as Habsburg Emperor of México?!? (p. 163) Benito Juárez would have been surprised to hear that! The US did pressure France, on whose behalf Maximilio was acting, to pull out of México. But Maximilio stayed in place after the French departure and was ousted by the Mexicans themselves.
  • At one point, he seems to blame the Presbyterians ("the Reformed Churches") for the 16th-century Wars of Religion and Thirty Years War. (p. 21) Not really fair to the poor Presbyterians.
  • Popular piety may regard the Qu'ran as "the living word of God". (p. 117 footnote) But Islamic theology and tradition see it as the words of the Archangel Gabriel as revealed in visions to the Prophet Muhammad.
  • He conflates the "backyard steel smelters" of Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward with the Cultural Revolution. And in doing so, blurs a valid historical point, that the radical ideology of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was based on Chinese Cultural Revolution notions. (pp. 126-7)
  • He steps on what could have been a good point about Henry Kissinger buying into a fantasy about the Islamist prospects for reconstituting an international caliphate, by turning it into one about Kissinger's Westphalian understanding of international relations being different from Condi-Condi's. (pp. 135-6)
A more substantial confusion has to do with the question of to what extent the Cheney-Bush Administration was cynically using the slogan of Wilsonian internationalism and support for democracy for interventions desired for other purposes. He writes in Chapter 4 describing Bush policy as if the democratic ideology was the motivation of the Cheney-Bush Administration's decision makers. But later he brings in energy and other concerns and eventually writes that "it is difficult to say" whether they took the spreading-democracy hype seriously. There probably were true believers in the democratic mission like Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith. And he makes a valid point about neocon Jacobins and their Straussian skepticism about democracy in general, including in the United States. But even in their conduct in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Cheney-Bush Administration's alleged commitment to democracy was used pretty cynically. And in other areas of foreign policy, the passion for democracy wasn't much on display.

The larger historical theories he spells out in the first three chapters are too general and vaguely argued to be of much value. His basic point is that Enlightenment rationalism pushed aside European Christian outlooks on the world and created a search for secular utopias, which motivated the Terror of the French Revolution. This search for utopia led to Nazism and Stalinism in the 20th century. And to Wilsonian internationalism and the Cheney-Bush/neocon notion of spreading democracy in Troskyist-like wars of liberation.

There is validity in his point. National Socialism in Germany and the Soviet brand of Marxism-Leninism had elements of utopian thought, which led to some genuine horrors. But he draws a sharp distinction between Marxist-Leninist regimes in the Soviet Union and China and such movements in smaller countries like Vietnam and Cuba, where he sees the ideology as almost incidental to the nationalism they also espoused.

But his argument is weakly constructed. For one thing, the pre-Enlightenment Wars of Religion, especially the 30 Years War of 1608-1648, would likely have been every bit as destructive as one of the two World Wars of the 20th century if they had had 20th-century means of warfare - poison gas, aerial bombardment, atomic bombs. How Pfaff's construction comports with the revival of religious wars in recent decades is a question with which he doesn't really grapple in this book-length essay. And at one point, he also throws German Romanticism into the chain of causation; but one of the characteristics of Romantic philosophy was a rejection of the central role of Reason in Enlightenment thinking. For that matter, Nazi ideology in particular rejected Enlightenment rationalism and embraced neo-Romantic notions to support its main element of utopianism (or rather dystopianism), the theory of the superior Aryan race.

Pfaff's definition of nationalism is confusing. Did the destructive effects of European nationalism come from the Enlightenment or Romanticism? Is nationalism in Islamic countries based on nationalism or on some larger religious-cultural attitude? This is left unclear.

Pfaff also blames the whole concept of a theory of history for the rise of destructive utopian political movements and states. But it's a huge leap from elaborating theories of history that seek to understand patterns of development to inviting "organized violence to make themselves [the theories of history] come true."

He writes as if separation of Church and State were clearly established sometime during the medieval era in the West, claims that such a separation was not the case in the Islamic world, but also says Islamic divisions of authority among secular and "religiously trained legal scholars" were "comparable to, but different from, feudal arrangements in the West" in which Church and State were intertwined but not identical institutions. His account of the Ottoman Empire suggests that the conflation of the Islamic religion with state power began with the Ottoman rulers in the nineteenth century. His formulation of the whole issue is hazy, if not downright confused.

My basic complaint about the theory he elaborates in the first three chapters - a theory of history, actually, though he claims to reject the whole concept of such a thing - is that it's largely a philosophically Idealist approach, basing itself essentially exclusively on intellectual history. It's only later in the book when he gets around to discussing economic considerations in the relatively specific context of recent US policy toward the Muslim world. And he's explicit in justifying his basically Idealist approach:

I do not consider material interest an adequate explanation for the conduct of governments and nations, least of all the American, although I do not underestimate the importance of access to energy and material gain in the currents influencing policy in every world capital. Nonetheless, fundamental motives must be looked for in the intellectual and moral realms of national decision, and in the vulnerability of people - intellectuals and political professionals notably among them—to the vulgarization of ideas in political ideology, which, as the twentieth century demonstrated, can justify nearly anything - even the most outrageous (as measured by the norms of ordinary rationality). [my emphasis]
In other words, he is operating on an Idealist theory of history which pretends not to be a theory of history and all. And which doesn't hang together all that well in terms of intellectual history.

It adds to the picture of insufficient coherence that he cites in support of his theory two classical-liberal philosophers who have put enormous confidence in a kind of free-market dogma that Pfaff himself suggests can also be a dangerous form of utopianism: Karl Popper, a friend and philosophical cousin to Friedrich von Hayek, an Austrian economist much admired by rightwing libertarians today; and John Gray, also a fan of Von Hayek, who once said of his perspective, "What I liked was Thatcherism's Bolshevik aspect, which was to shake up the whole of Britain quite fundamentally," though more recent work he has also been critical of the neoliberal globalization assumptions (John Gray: Forget everything you know The Independent 09/03/2002).

Bottom line on Pfaff's book: there's really good stuff there in Chapters 4-6.

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