None but the delusional at this point can claim that invading Iraq was anything but a mistake: a colossal error of moral judgment, an arrogant and uncritical analysis of our own motives, and a shallow examination of facts. Those who correctly argued it was a mistake before it happened–the “Cassandras”–haven’t yet been sufficiently praised. On the other hand, those who made the shallow case for war, and impugned the intelligence, sanity, courage, and patriotism of those who didn’t, continue to appear as experts on the TV and in the newspaper. They got it wrong the first time–really really wrong–but despite this they still weigh in now on how to fix it or the lessons to be drawn. Who says Americans do not forgive?
One of these experts is Robert Kagan. Today he considers the lessons not to be drawn from this war:
>The problem for those who have tried to steer the United States away from its long history of expansiveness, then and now, is that Americans’ belief in the possibility of global transformation — the “messianic” impulse — is and always has been the more dominant strain in the nation’s character. It is rooted in the nation’s founding principles and is the hearty offspring of the marriage between Americans’ driving ambitions and their overpowering sense of righteousness.
>Critics have occasionally succeeded in checking these tendencies, temporarily. Failures of world-transforming efforts overseas have also had their effect, but only briefly. Five years after the end of the Vietnam War, which seemed to many to presage the rejection of Achesonian principles of power and ideological triumphalism, Americans elected Ronald Reagan, who took up those principles again with a vengeance.
>Today many hope and believe that the difficulties in Iraq will turn Americans once and for all against ambition and messianism in the world. History is not on their side.
Whatever is going on in Iraq, “difficulties” doesn’t quite do it justice. In its original iteration, Iraq had nothing to do with messianism, and everything to do with 9/11 and the hysteria over terrorism. But for those who argued for the parallel claim that Iraq could be remade on the American model, just because democratic messianism has long been a dominant strain in American foreign policy rhetoric, not necessarily its reality, does not, as the death, destruction and resentment caused by Iraq amply demonstrate, mean that it should be.
3 thoughts on “Lessons”
“It is rooted in the nation’s founding principles and is the hearty offspring of the marriage between Americans’ driving ambitions and their overpowering sense of righteousness.”
Kagan’s ignorance of history is appalling. Especially considering he has a PhD in American History. From Harvard. My NEIU inferiority complex is shrinking away. What he is ignoring is the 40 or so years of American History that preceded the Monroe Doctrine. Washington, Paine, Franklin, and Jefferson all urged the U.S. to stay out of foreign affairs. Of course, they also had no problem accepting and defaulting on foreign loans, yet they remained firm in the principle of staying clear of foreign “entanglements,” a word they often used to describe these situations. At the very least, Kagan could acknowledge this attitude and contrast it to the Monroe-Jackson-(Teddy)Roosevelt Manifest Destiny sort of Americana–but that would fit his own “overpowering sense of righteousness,” now, would it. Quoth Our First President:
In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence, frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.
So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.
As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot. How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils 7 Such an attachment of a small or weak towards a great and powerful nation dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter.
Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.
The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.
Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?
It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.
Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.
Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing; establishing (with powers so disposed, in order to give trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the government to support them) conventional rules of intercourse, the best that present circumstances and mutual opinion will permit, but temporary, and liable to be from time to time abandoned or varied, as experience and circumstances shall dictate; constantly keeping in view that it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character; that, by such acceptance, it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favors, and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more. There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.
In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish; that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations. But, if I may even flatter myself that they may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good; that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism; this hope will be a full recompense for the solicitude for your welfare, by which they have been dictated.
The full text version of this address is here: http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/washing.htm
RE: previous comment. In fact Kagan does NOT have a PhD from
Harvard. He has a master’s from the Kennedy School.
It’s important, when combating those who have such a shaky grasp
of reality, to get our facts straight…
Maybe Mayo mixed up Kagans (maybe he was thinking of Fred). Thanks for the comment.
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