Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Manifest Destiny: A New Direction for America

The article here by William Pfaff in The New York Review of Books offers one of the best insights into our current foreign policy debacle, and how we got there. Pfaff sees a "larger intellectual failure," indeed, a "national conceit" where "it is something like a national heresy to suggest that the United States does not have a unique moral status and role to play in the history of nations, and therefore in the affairs of the contemporary world. In fact it does not."

For years there has been little or no critical reexamination of how and why the limited, specific, and ultimately successful postwar American policy of "patient but firm and vigilant containment of Soviet expansionist tendencies...and pressure against the free institutions of the Western world" (as George Kennan formulated it at the time) has over six decades turned into a vast project for "ending tyranny in the world."

The Bush administration defends its pursuit of this unlikely goal by means of internationally illegal, unilateralist, and preemptive attacks on other countries, accompanied by arbitrary imprisonments and the practice of torture, and by making the claim that the United States possesses an exceptional status among nations that confers upon it special international responsibilities, and exceptional privileges in meeting those responsibilities.

Other excerpts, as follows:

quoting Thomas Paine: We if we had lived in the beginning of time.

and Fukuyama: ...American economic and political policies today rest on an unearned claim to privilege, the American "belief in American exceptionalism that most non-Americans simply find not credible." Nor, he adds, is the claim tenable, since "it presupposes an extremely high level of competence" which the country does not demonstrate.[2]

and Michael Madelbaum: He describes the United States as already dominating the world, much as the elephant (in his genial comparison) dominates the African savanna: the calm herbivorous goliath that keeps the carnivores at a respectful distance, while supporting "a wide variety of other creatures—smaller mammals, birds and insects—by generating nourishment for them as it goes about the business of feeding itself."[6] Everyone knows the United States is not a predatory power, he says, so everyone profits from the stability the elephant provides, at American taxpayer expense.

Elephants are also known to trample people, uproot crops and gardens, topple trees and houses, and occasionally go mad (hence, "rogue nations"). Americans, moreover, are carnivores. The administration has attacked the existing international order by renouncing inconvenient treaties and conventions and reintroducing torture, and arbitrary and indefinite imprisonment, into advanced civilization. Where is the stability that Mandelbaum tells us has been provided by this American military and political deployment? The doomed and destructive war of choice in Iraq, continuing and mounting disorder in Afghanistan following another such war, war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, as well as between Hamas and Fatah, accompanied by continuing crisis in Palestine, with rumbles of new American wars of choice with Iran or Syria, and the emergence of a nuclear North Korea —all demonstrate deep international instability.

And this from George Kennan's 1993 autobiography:

He did not think that democracy along North American and Western European lines can prevail internationally. "To have real self-government, a people must understand what that means, want it, and be willing to sacrifice for it." Many nondemocratic systems are inherently unstable. "But so what?" he asked. "We are not their keepers. We never will be." (He did not say that we might one day try to be.) He suggested that nondemocratic societies should be left "to be governed or misgoverned as habit and tradition may dictate, asking of their governing cliques only that they observe, in their bilateral relations with us and with the remainder of the world community, the minimum standards of civilized diplomatic intercourse."[8]

With the cold war over, Kennan saw no need for the continuing presence of American troops in Europe, and little need for them in Asia, subject to the security interests of Japan, allied to the United States by treaty. He deplored economic and military programs that existed in "so great a profusion and complexity that they escape the normal possibilities for official, not to mention private oversight." He asked why the United States was [in 1992] giving military assistance to forty-three African countries and twenty-two (of twenty-four) countries in Latin America. "Against whom are these weapons conceivably to be employed?... [Presumably] their neighbors or, in civil conflict, against themselves. Is it our business to prepare them for that?"

Pfaff concludes:

History does not offer nations permanent security, and when it seems to offer hegemonic domination this usually is only to take it away again, often in unpleasant ways. The United States was fortunate to enjoy relative isolation for as long as it did. The conviction of Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the country was exempt from the common fate has been succeeded in the twenty-first century by an American determination to fight (to "victory," as the President insists) against the conditions of existence history now actually does offer. It sets against them the consoling illusion that power will always prevail, despite the evidence that this is not true.

Schumpeter remarked in 1919 that imperialism necessarily carries the implication of

an aggressiveness, the true reasons for which do not lie in the aims which are temporarily being aggressiveness for its own sake, as reflected in such terms as "hegemony," "world dominion," and so forth...expansion for the sake of expanding....

"This determination," he continues,

cannot be explained by any of the pretexts that bring it into action, by any of the aims for which it seems to be struggling at the time.... Such expansion is in a sense its own "object."

Perhaps this has come to apply in the American case, and we have gone beyond the belief in national exception to make an ideology of progress and universal leadership into our moral justification for a policy of simple power expansion. In that case we have entered into a logic of history that in the past has invariably ended in tragedy.

There's much to consider here.

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