Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Key Problem: American Exceptionalism

I've talked a lot about how views of American exceptionalism, often underpinned by Calvinism, shape much of Bush's foreign policy. Now, William Pfaff has penned an excellent essay on this very topic in the New York Review of Books.

He states the problem up front:

"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."
And this can be traced directly to the Calvinist religious dissenters who formed the early New England colonies. Pfaff does not engage the theology directly. Clearly, the early settlers saw America as favored by God, much as ancient Israel had been in Old Testament times. God formed a covenant with the Puritans, again following the Old Testament example. They viewed themselves as the "elect", those chosen by God to be saved through no action of their own. And America was their country. Puritan settler John Winthrop gave perhaps the clearest example of this theology in his famous city-on-a-hill speech in 1630 (that was later appropriated by Ronald Reagan):

"For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken ... we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God ... We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us til we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going."
This mentality guided the "manifest destiny" and frontier expansion, but Pfaff argues that it was pretty harmless until the 20th century. Then Woodrow Wilson stepped onto the stage. Wilson, the son of a Calvinist minister, believed that the United States had been chosen by God to show "the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty." Pfaff notes that Wilson's far-reaching approach to "self-determination" complicated Europe's pre-existing problems, leading to ethnic and territorial grievances that would ultimately be exploited by the fascists. During the Cold War, Eisenhower's secretary of state was John Foster Dulles, a firm Calvinist (and Presbyterian elder). The notion of the United States as a providential nation really became ingrained under Dulles, after Wilson's false start. And Bush fit right in, dividing the world into the good and the bad, embracing American exceptionalism on steroids, and trying to remodel the world under the tutelage of the United States.

Interestingly, the Wilson-Dulles-Bush ideology is eerily similar to Marxism. This is hardly surprising given its roots, as many have interpreted Marxist determinism as secularized Calvinism. History is moving inexorably in one direction, and the role of America is to nudge it along. In Bush's version, the impediment is radical Islam intent on restoring an oppressive caliphate. Just wipe the mess out of the way, and the preordained plan will play out.

But history does not move in a linear deterministic fashion as the Marxists predict. By ignoring the consequences of their actions, the Dulles-Bush strategy has been an unmitigated disaster. Just look at Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine. More generally:

"America's so-called war against terrorism has not saved its allies from violence. The terrorist problem is generally seen in Europe as one of domestic social order and immigrant integration—a matter for political treatment and police precautions— related to a religious and political crisis inside contemporary Islamic culture that is unsusceptible to foreign remedy. Few leaders outside the United States, other than Tony Blair, consider the terrorist threat a global conspiracy of those "who hate freedom"—a puerile formulation—or think the existing militarized response to it a success. The positive results have been meager, and the negative consequences in relations with Muslim countries have been disastrous. The US approach has become perceived as a war against Islamic "nationalism"—a reaffirmation of cultural as well as political identity (and separatism)—which like most nationalisms has thrown up terrorist fighting organizations."
There is, of course, a better approach, one that eschews American exceptionalism. Pfaff lauds George Kennan's approach to the Cold War, that of containing communist powers and staying patient until their internal contradictions undermined them. This is the approach he recommends, an approach that actually thought about the consequences, shunning ideology, emphasizing "pragmatic and empirical judgment" and always paying attention to history. It would be based on minimal interference in other countries, and working resolutely through international organizations. Military action would be a last resort, a sign of political failure. [see my post on the wrong lessons from World War II for similar points]

Pfaff dares to imagine an alternative history, had this path been tried:

"Had a noninterventionist policy been followed in the 1960s, there would have been no American war in Indochina. The struggle there would have been recognized as nationalist in motivation, unsusceptible to solution by foreigners, and inherently limited in its international consequences, whatever they might be—as has proved to be the case. The United States would never have been defeated, its army demoralized, or its students radicalized. There would have been no American invasion of Cambodia, which precipitated the Khmer Rouge genocide. The tribal peoples of Laos would probably have been spared their ordeal.

The United States would not have suffered its catastrophic implication in what was
essentially a domestic crisis in Iran in 1979, which still poisons Near and Middle Eastern affairs, since there would never have been the huge and provocative American investment in the Shah's regime as American "gendarme" in the region, compromising the Shah and contributing to the fundamentalist backlash against his secularizing modernization."
Importantly, the United States would not be stuck in Iraq today, just as it was stuck in Vietnam three decades ago. And it most certainly would not be thinking of starting a war with Iran, where the consequences in terms of regional stability and fallout would be utterly disastrous. It would not have tilted so heavily toward Israel over the years, as the Israel will only ever have true security upon the resolution of the Palestinian political question. Pfaff notes that 40 years of American misguided involvement "served mainly to allow the Israelis to avoid facing facts, contributing to the radicalization in Islamic society".

In conclusion, much of the American zeal for military solutions arises from an ingrained ideology that can be traced back to Calvinist notions of American exceptionalism. It ignores messy consequences and contexts, because it believes in a linear deterministic view of history. Unfortunately, this is wrong. The mistakes in Vietnam are being replayed in Iraq. And Bush and Cheney now want to march into Iran...

What role for the military solution? In line with recent Vatican thinking, Pfaff makes a case for "humanitarian intervention" under the auspices of the United Nations. There is no double standard, as he notes correctly that "an interventionist foreign policy in which the US aggressively interferes in other states in order to shape their affairs according to American interest or ideology is not the same as responding to atrocious public crimes." Extracting Charles Taylor from Liberia is an example of a successful intervention. Kosovo, Rwanda, and Darfur are clearly more complicated, requiring careful thought. But one thing is for sure: Clinton's actions in Kosovo are in no way similar to Bush's in Iraq. And we need to understand why.

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