In the year 2000, many conservatives, with or without holding their noses, turned out to vote for George W. Bush. One of the Republicans’ strongest selling points during the campaign was Governor Bush’s oft-repeated declaration that his administration would not engage in nation-building experiments. After eight years of President Clinton’s busybodying in the Balkans, where he capped his folly by launching an unjustifiable war against what little we had allowed to survive of Yugoslavia, George Bush’s pronouncements fell upon conservative ears like rain on the parched desert floor. Hopes were confirmed by his promise to name Colin Powell as secretary of state.
Some conservatives, including several of us at Chronicles, were disturbed by the men of evil omen who assisted the campaign and were likely to play a major role in a Bush administration: the sinister Richard Perle and his bumbling apprentices, Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith; the naive and inexperienced Condoleezza Rice; and, worst of all, the dark lords of the Republican Party, Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld’s management style and commitment to high-tech warfare had, even then, made him an object of suspicion to experienced military men.
As everyone knows, our suspicions turned out to be justified—in spades—and, six years after George Bush’s inauguration, we are bogged down in a deepening civil war in Iraq and a conflict in Afghanistan that more and more reminds us of why the Russians had to leave. Though it would be bad manners to say so to the President, Governor Bush has been proved right. The government of the United States has no mission or mandate to rebuild other nations in its own image, and our two little experiments have proved to be a disaster for the miserable laboratory rats we are forcing to run the maze of post-American democracy and international human rights.
Much of our criticism of the President’s foreign policy has been made on the level of principle: Preemptive wars, inherently wrong, would eventually justify the militarization of American life and the final destruction of our constitutional order. Reconstruction abroad would inevitably justify reconstruction at home. But the “Just Argument” (borrowed without apologies from Aristophanes’ Clouds) has been shouted down by the Unjust Argument, which has stolen the clothes and assumed the appearance of justice. Many otherwise decent conservatives now mistake the American Greatness propaganda of National Review and the Weekly Standard for authentic American patriotism, and they interpret any principled criticism as a sign of cowardice and disloyalty. If we wish to persuade our friends, we can no longer speak as Christians or old-school republicans and patriots, and we shall have to abandon the high ground of morality, law, and the Constitution and descend into the political mire to wallow with the demon-haunted swine, grunting hosannas to American imperium without ever lifting their snouts from the trough. Once we get accustomed to the company—and the smell—we are ready to ask the only question these people, who have so seriously misled the President and his party, are willing to entertain: What’s in it for us?
The President’s advisors do not like history, because, like Greek tragedy, it teaches all the wrong lessons. During the Cold War, the United States invested a great deal of energy and money into putting Germany and Japan back on their feet, staving off the Soviets’ reach into Southern Europe, and setting up pro-American social democracies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. We certainly achieved our objectives in Germany and Japan, though at the price of creating serious economic rivals; Greece was rescued from the jaws of Stalin, and CIA support for Christian Democrats and Socialists kept Italy firmly within our orbit. The assassination of Salvador Allende in the course of a capitalist coup, while not the cleanest operation the CIA has ever undertaken, had salutary effects that are enjoyed by most Chileans to this day. To multiply instances might seem unpatriotic, though I am not moralizing. Our successes, clean as well as dirty, all have something in common. With the exception of Japan, all these countries were populated by European Christians who maintained or at least remembered traditions that included the rule of law, hard work, self-restraint, and the political participation of the responsible classes. Japan was a civilized and disciplined country that had been absorbing many Western political and legal concepts since the Meiji restoration (1868).
By contrast, our experiments in Vietnam, most of Latin America, and Africa foundered on the rock of non-European populations whose legal, political, and social traditions were not very compatible with our own. In Vietnam, we murdered President Diem and overthrew his Christian and pro-Western regime under the delusion that Asian Buddhists would repel the communists by offering a nonrevolutionary socialist alternative. In El Salvador, we opposed both communists and Catholic rightists in order to promote an American socialist professor who had little support among his own people. But why go on enumerating our failures—in Rhodesia and Nicaragua, for example, where American policies unintentionally led to the installation of communist regimes? Yes, there are fluctuations, but the good news, for those who savor the taste of reality, is that Danny Ortega is back and, failing a CIA coup, will soon be joining Hugo Chavez’s alliance against America. Ortega had tried, twice before, to return to power, but this time, the road was smoothed for him by Donald Rumsfeld, who also installed the far more dangerous Nancy Pelosi into the House Speaker’s chair.
Any effort to build a stable regime friendly to U.S. interests will have to construct its programs on a population that has some understanding of the West and some institutions—religious or cultural—compatible with our own. On this basis, we can appreciate at least one of the reasons why we have chosen Israel—for all the troubles this special relationship has cost us—to be the focus of our influence in the Middle East: Israel is a European colony in the Arab world. For a similar reason, we have relied on the Turkish military, a secular force up till recently, to repress Islamic fanaticism and cooperate with us and our democratic satellite in the Middle East. By the same token, we should realize why Lebanon was a lost cause as soon as we abandoned her Christian leadership, and why the secular regime of Saddam Hussein was probably the nearest thing to a gang we could do business with in the Arab world. As deplorable as we might find President Reagan’s support of Iraq against Iran, no one can deny the Machiavellian logic that would dictate such a policy.
Looking at ourselves, it is not too difficult to understand why Germany and Italy would be willing to follow our lead in the 1950’s. Victorious in war and rich beyond belief, the United States possessed an exuberance and boyish self-confidence that impressed all but the most civilized. Even Marxists knew, in their hearts, that we were the wave of the future. Why else did so many American leftists invest in the stock market, and why else did so many Soviet officials squirrel away their stolen assets in capitalist banks? Khrushchev’s famous “We will bury you” was the desperate threat of an ideology that had lost every argument and had to place its last hope in oversized ICBMs with nuclear warheads.
The builders of the British and Roman Empires were tough men who had faith in their countries and did not spend much time analyzing motives or expressing compassion for the nations they subjugated. For good and ill, we Americans were like that once when we conquered the Philippines and sent Blackjack Pershing down into Mexico to ferret out Pancho Villa. In two world wars, Wilson and Roosevelt obscured our aims with globalist platitudes, but American soldiers did not fight to end all wars or eliminate fascism or impose democracy. They fought for their country and for the women and children they thought would suffer if the other side won.
Even down to the end of the 1960’s, we Americans believed in ourselves and in our famous “way of life.” We were proud of the heroes who were praised in our history books and celebrated in films and music. Can you imagine anyone today making John Wayne’s The Alamo or having a pop-music hit with “The Battle of New Orleans”? These days, our heroes are rappers gunned down in drug deals that have gone bad.
There was more than a bit of the Potemkin Village in the postwar Americanism with which we reassured ourselves in a darkening world threatened by communism and moral dissolution, but every generation fights with the weapons it has. By the end of the 1970’s, however, as my generation was finally exchanging its beer bongs and Hendrix records for the levers of power, we told a quite different story about ourselves. Our old heroes were patriarchal racists who oppressed women and exterminated Indians—whoops, the indigenous peoples of North America. They were capitalists who exploited the poor and subjugated Latin America, and Christian bigots who hated Jews and repressed homosexuals. The only ray of hope was represented by minority leaders who fought to eliminate the American Way of Life and replace it with a synthesis of the best elements of Lenin and Andy Warhol: bad art imposed by bayonets and state-subsidized perversity.
Not everyone believes all of the self-hating American myth, but most of us believe some of it. We may not condemn George Washington, though we no longer celebrate his birthday, but even conservative Republicans pretend to revere Martin Luther King, Jr. We say we are Christians and revere marriage, but the best our conservative politicians can do is to promote “civil unions,” which is just another term for “gay marriage.” At best, we are half-hearted defenders of our way of life, and, at worst, we hate every good thing our country has ever stood for—and not just our country, but our civilization (European) and our religion (Christian). The most we can do, apparently, is to prattle endlessly about values and some generic sense of religiosity that binds violent Muslims with pacifist Buddhists.
Our lack of confidence in ourselves and our self-defeating sense of guilt stem in part from our ignorance of who we are. Our country, according to neoconservatives and other leftists, is only an advertising slogan, and anyone who learns to mouth the slogan, after a few days on American soil, makes a better American than a war hero descended from ten generations of patriotic Americans. We do not offer the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan the “nation” of Washington and Jefferson or even the “nation” of Lincoln and Wilson. Our nation-builders say openly and plainly that they expect to bribe these poor benighted Muslims into an orgy of fast food and pornography, in the course of which they will forget the religion and history of their ancestors and be enrolled as honorary Californians. If only Osama bin Laden could afford a membership in the Playboy Club; if only Mohammed Atta had gone to college.
I have never forgotten a conversation I had a few years ago in Israel, when a group of us had a meeting with a high-level academic advisor to the Likud Party. In discussing the Palestinian question, we brought up the financial angle. How much would it take, per person, to persuade Palestinians to give up their extravagant claims? How much for Israelis to abandon the settlements? With some warmth, the Israeli explained that he had served his country as a paratrooper, and his son was now doing the same. Not a year went by that he did not receive offers from great universities—London, Harvard, Berkeley—but Israel was his country, and he would never abandon her. By implication, he meant that some Palestinians believed as he did. There are some things that money cannot buy—among them, love and hate.
We are now learning a costly lesson in Iraq. No matter how many lives we sacrifice and how many billions we squander, we can only make things worse both for the Iraqi people, whose country we have destroyed, and for our own people, who are now hated around the globe as a nation of ruthless imperialists. In pulling out of Iraq—which is only a matter of time—we shall taste the bitterness of defeat, and not for the first time. According to Vanity Fair, Richard Perle now says Iraq was a mistake, and David Frum blames everything on the President. As the Gadarene swine, driven by the demons of greed and power, go over the cliff, the good little piggies can get back to the business of looking after their own and the American interest.
No change of heart can ever bring back either the Iraqi or the American dead, but, on the low, amoral level at which I have pitched my discourse, I can say that we are learning the valuable lesson that Governor Bush, before his administration was overtaken by catastrophe and corrupted by cynics, tried to teach the American people. Self-interest is the highest virtue of democratic capitalism, and it is time for us to return to the good old American practice of looking out for number one. There is a war to win against the enemies of America and Christendom. But that war can only be waged here.