Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Scourging

Robert Kagan -- or anyone with the name "Kagan" -- seems to be invisible to the many people disaffected with the Iraq War. You get the feeling if they saw one of his articles blowing down the sidewalk they'd cross the street with their fingers in their ears and eyes squeezed shut.

As a neo-con icon, he's on the defensive these days. But what he's defending is not just his own political philosophy. His work lately has become a futile attempt to head off a massive re-write of American history to absolve the nation from the Iraq War. Like the Lost Cause version of the Civil War, it allows almost everyone to think they were right all along, just perhaps misled by a few bad eggs.

Which is what is happening now, in a process of collective forgetting. This one will be a lot nastier than the Lost Cause, however, since it focuses not on the unity of the national experience so much as the supposed intrusion of political parasites. Or, as Kagan puts it:

To understand where the idea of promoting American principles by force comes from, it is not really necessary to parse the writings of Jewish émigrés.

Naturally, trying to stave off ostracism, he would tie his favored policies to the great American tradition. But he happens to be right. Historians, such as John Lewis Gaddis have wondered at the forgetfulness of those who consider Bush and Kagan as the kind of people America has to be "restored" away from:

So when Bush, in the aftermath of September 11, evoked the Jeffersonian idea of a world free from tyranny and the Wilsonian idea of a world safe for democracy, he was doing nothing radical or unprecedented: he was well within the tradition of American two-party politics.

As an example of that, Kagan quotes a few half-lines from Woodrow Wilson's war message to Congress in 1917, noting that the president "used language that would make George W. Bush’s speechwriters blush." Here's a fuller excerpt:

We are now about to accept gage of battle with this natural foe to liberty and shall, if necessary, spend the whole force of the nation to check and nullify its pretensions and its power. We are glad, now that we see the facts with no veil of false pretence about them, to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them."

... It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts -- for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free. To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.

Of course, the lessons about the dark side, and the wash of cynicism that can follow on failure, are in the history books, too. Collective righteousness, which Wilsonian war politics encouraged, can easily become ungovernable and cruel. Kagan cites the William McKinley/Mark Hanna GOP of 1900, fresh off the victory over Spain that placed the destiny of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba and other places in American hands.

It was, they declared, a war fought for “high purpose,” a “war for liberty and human rights” that had given “ten millions of the human race” a “new birth of freedom” and the American people “a new and noble responsibility ... to confer the blessings of liberty and civilization upon all the rescued peoples.”

He doesn't mention the ambivalent outcome of all that, the nasty guerrilla war in the Philippines and the serious domestic dissent it inspired. But Kagan is right in connecting the core of what passes for "neo-con" attitudes today to Lincoln, to Seward, to Henry Clay, "who sought to place the United States at the 'centre of a system which would constitute the rallying point of human freedom against all the despotism of the Old World,'” to Alexander Hamilton, to Thomas Jefferson, to John Quincy Adams, to George Washington, to the Declaration of Independence itself.

Jefferson wrote of an empire of liberty. Americans in his lifetime tried to extend it by force to Canada, before they realized the Canadians wanted none of it. The Monroe Doctrine, which tends to stand nowadays for all pan-American policy of the U.S. in the early 19th century, masks a genuine idealistic support for the Latin American nations after they broke from Spain by Adams, Clay, and many others.

The American belief in spreading liberty in the world always has been tangled up in more mundane motives and thwarted by cross-currents of more realistic and ambitious diplomacy. It has involved us in an essential split between those who wanted to concentrate national effort on perfecting the American experiment and those who sought first to expand it. It has involved furious debates over literal empire vs. an empire of influence and ideas. The man most likely to have coined the term "manifest destiny" became a bitter opponent of the war against Mexico that seems now to be its natural expression.

People steeped in Protestant Christianity will at once recognize the shape of these problems and debates. And the evangelism of early America was both the template and a motive force for all of this. Its influence on American ways of thinking and acting can not be underestimated -- with the single exception of the deistic intellectual generation of the Founders.

So when George W. Bush, in his clumsy way, says he felt the hand of divinity steering him toward a bold move to spread freedom and liberty in the Mideast, some people gasped in horror. But that is nothing more than American history. If you hate it on sight, if you proscribe something so deep in American soul as the recent and despicable innovation of a recently risen foreign-born coterie, you disown your heritage whether you know it or not.

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