Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Changing perspectives

Sometimes when I look back at something written or said prior to the Cheney-Bush administration, I'm surprised at how much my own way of looking at things has changed. But it's not 9/11 that "changed everything" for me. For that matter, I don't think I've had any drastic turns or breaks in my way of looking at things. But the Iraq War and the administration's torture policy have made me look at some things, particularly in relation to foreign policy, in a different way than I did before.

I was reminded of that coming across these three articles:

Andrew Bacevich,
The World According to Clinton First Things June/July 1999

The Idea that Is America by Anne-Marie Slaughter TPMCafe 06/19/07

American Exceptionalism by any other name... by David Rieff TPMCafe 06/19/07

Prior to 2002 or so, Bacevich seems to have published his articles on military and foreign policy issues mainly in conservative journals, of which First Things is one. In the 1999 linked above, he is making a thoughtful if somewhat caustic criticism of the Clinton's administration's use of history in terms that apply even more strongly to the neoconservative ideologues who defined not only the surface ideology but also the policies of the Cheney-Bush administration.

David Rieff is replying to the Anne-Marie Slaughter post that elaborates a 2007 version of the kind of Clintonian historical moralism that Bacevich discusses. Slaughter's piece is pretty general. But here is how Slaughter describes her Wilsonian framework for US foreign policy:
We need not only to embrace a vigorous national debate on what we stand for, but also to launch a global debate about the meanings and trade-offs of universal values. Liberty, democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith bind Americans together, but these values do not stop at the shores of the Atlantic and Pacific, or the banks of the Rio Grande and Saint Lawrence. We have always insisted that our values are universal values. Indeed, part of what we think makes us distinctively American is that we hold to a set of values that apply around the world. (my emphasis)
I'm always dubious when people start talking about "launching a debate". That's one of those things where I want to say, okay, if you think we need to launch a debate, then launch it, don't talk about the need to launch it.

Her article's main point is pretty tame. She's saying that Americans need to learn a lot more about how other democracies in the world work. I'm down with that.

Where Rieff challenges her is on her moralistic vision of American history as the story of the progress of democracy, which he calls "Whig" history:
But leave what we have wrought in Latin America from James Monroe through Woodrow Wilson (self-determination, indeed!) to Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan to one side. There is, more generally, something strangely over-intellectualized as well as over-sentimentalized about Anne-Marie’s account of our own history. Take, for example, her argument that our debates about what our values mean constitute what she calls “the essence of our politics, the secret of our success, and the source of our strength as a vibrant, open society.” Frankly, while I might wish this were so, I don’t think there is really much historical basis for the claim.
Rieff takes a shot at the assumption that democracy produces capitalism and vice versa:
Would an economic historian agree that political and moral debate was the secret of our economic success? Perhaps one who subscribes to the neo-liberal and neo-conservative view that democracy engenders successful, liberal capitalist societies would do so? But that, frankly, is utopianism disguised as economics and is, in any case, foundering as China and Russia demonstrate the economic viability of capitalism in an authoritarian political context.
I would add that Wilhelminian Germany and France under Napolean III also provide examples of thriving capitalism under an authoritarian-type government.

Rieff also calls attention to the fact that much of the world is unlikely to share a Wilsonian vision of American moral virtue:
I try to imagine a historically-minded Latin American reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s claim that the essence of American patriotism is its commitment to “liberty, democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith,” without exploding in bitter laughter and I find that I cannot. ...

But is history really a progress, as Anne-Marie claims? Perhaps we are not going ‘forward’ at all, but backwards, or sideways. Frankly that seems far more likely to me and I can’t help wondering, were Anne-Marie herself not trying to ‘rehumanize and revitalize’ what I believe she would think of as the American project, whether she would really disagree? Again, when Anne-Marie speaks of the need to “get our foreign policy back on track,” or, in her justifiable consternation over the Bush administration’s suicidal foreign policy, refers to nations friendly to the United States that think that we Americans “no longer (italics mine [Rieff's]) listen and learn,” I come back to my fantasy of a Latin American reading these words, and I invite Anne-Marie’s readers to ask themselves what any non-American would make of such a claim? I also cannot help wondering if the nations and peoples who did once believe this were any other than the Europeans grateful at America’s role in their liberation from the Nazis. But Europe is not the world, and I do not believe that Latin Americans or East Asians ever believed anything of the sort. (my emphasis in italics)
Rieff writes about the notion of American exceptionalism which he finds in Slaughter's work, "What a florid romance Americans make of America!"

Bacevich in 1999 was also arguing for a more restrained, more realistic, less messianic vision of America's role in the world. But it was the Clinton administration, then dealing with the Kosovo crisis, to which his main criticism was directed:
The view of history espoused by President Clinton - and the vast aspirations that he and his lieutenants have concocted - appear by comparison naive and pretentious. For this Administration, the true object of the exercise [of promoting its particular interpretation of history] is not understanding or wisdom. Rather, it is to package the past into nice inoffensive bundles, neatly lined up on the near side of the President’s bridge to the new millennium. As we step off into the twenty-first century, Mr. Clinton would have us leave that history behind. But we had best step lively. For the contents of those bundles remain toxic and Mr. Clinton’s packaging is imperfect. Indeed, the bundle marked Kosovo just sprang a leak.
Bacevich in that article discusses at some length the ways in which the Clinton administration tried to promote an interpretation of American history that was optimistic and humane, but also directed toward justifying it's own policy orientation. He argues that the reason such an undertaking was such a priority for Clinton had to do with "the 1960s". Bacevich's description of what that means reflects his own background adhering to more the conservative side of what we now commonly call the "culture war" (although as late as 1992, it sounded shocking and extreme to hear Pat Buchanan talking that way at the Republican National Convention.)

Bacevich describes the relevant elements of the "1960s" view he saw as follows:
Foremost among those myths was the assertion that in the twentieth century survival itself had become problematic. ...

A second and related element of this mythology was a deep-seated skepticism about the nation’s founding ideals. ...

The third element was a corresponding skepticism about America’s role in world affairs.
But, Bacevich says, the Clintonians discovered that "as a blueprint for governance, the mythology of the 1960s is next to useless." He then cites several examples of Clinton administration rhetoric that I find far more problematic today after seeing Bush, Cheney, Rummy and the neocons bring democracy and liberty to Iraq through bombs, bullets and torture. He writes:
In the new age of globalization that beckons, according to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in a speech at Tennessee State University, the United States provides the "organizing principal" [sic]. America’s place is at "the center of this emerging international system." Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott has gone a step further, declaring that the United States is "hegemon and proud of it." ...

The American claim to being the "organizing principal" of the new age rests on the certainty that the United States embodies that right side, and that Americans, especially senior government officials, are uniquely equipped to discern the direction of world affairs. After all, as Secretary Albright has explained, "We stand tall, and therefore we can see further into the future." The mission of the United States on the eve of the new millennium is to coax others into acknowledging the direction in which historical forces tend, to commend those nations that are moving in concert with history, and to chide the reluctant to get with the program. (my emphasis)
And this one particularly caught my eye after seeing Bush and Cheney's faith-based foreign policy in action:
Thus, during President Jiang Zemin’s 1997 visit to the United States, Mr. Clinton publicly rebuked the Chinese government for being on "the wrong side of history." A year later, explaining the rationale for his own trip to China, the President told reporters that "one of the things I have to do is ... to create for them a new and different historical reality." (my emphasis)
Now, the Clinton administration never had the absurd level of hubris Cheney and Rummy and the neocons have displayed in recent years. In general, the tried to keep themselves "reality-based".

But still, I think we have to be careful about letting our leaders, Republican or Democratic, hide behind pretty abstract ideals. We have to look at the realities their actions are producing. And when it comes to wars, we should (1) avoid them whenever reasonably possible and (2) insist that policy-makers take full account of the specific realities of that country instead of invading the country that imagine is there instead of the country that we're actually invading.

Today, the following comment of Bacevich's resonates with me much more strongly than it would have in 1999:
There are those, on both the left and the right, who will find much to applaud in the prospect of the United States exerting itself to "shape history." There are others, again across the political spectrum, who will judge such an endeavor to be suffused with arrogance and doomed to fail.

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