Respond to this Article April 2005

Bloody Necessary

Europeans won't admit it but America's violent messianism isn't all bad.

By Michael Hirsh

Listening to European intellectuals debate American power these days, I'm often reminded of one of my favorite scenes in Anna Karenina. It comes toward the end of the novel, when Tolstoy's other protagonist, the self-doubting Constantine Levin, has his climactic epiphany about faith and God. Levin recalls a moment when his nieces and nephews had been playing games with their milk and raspberries as their mother admonishes them for wastefulness: If they turn their food into a toy, she says, then they will not have anything to eat. Reflecting on her children's bewilderment, Levin realizes that they "could not conceive that what they were destroying was the very thing they lived by." To the children, food had always just been there: "There is no need for us to think about that, it's all ready for us. We want to think out something of our own invention."

America Right or Wrong
by Anatol Lieven
Oxford University Press, $30.00

When it comes to grappling with the giant across the Atlantic, European thinkers of this generation tend to behave like Tolstoy's children. They toy intellectually with American power, lamenting its excesses, warning of its evils, advising endlessly on its better uses--usually without acknowledging that it is the very thing that has kept them free to have these discussions in the first place, and that today it continues to be the backbone of the international system that sustains them. Tolstoy, of course, was giving us a parable about how human beings take their faith in God and his works for granted. No one, not even the most fervid neoconservative in George W. Bush's Washington, would mistake America for the Almighty (at least one hopes not). But too often America's works, and their profound influence on the modern world, do go underappreciated (not least by Americans themselves, which is one reason the current international system still seems alien to them rather than what it is: their own creation).

Consider the French, our most persistent critics. Seeking to curb the excesses of the self-righteous, God-obsessed Bush, French officials regularly invoke U.N. resolutions and international law like holy writ. Rarely do they acknowledge that it was another self-righteous, God-obsessed American president, Woodrow Wilson, who forced the proto-United Nations, the League of Nations, on them nearly a century ago; and two other equally self-assured presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, who made the next-generation iteration of the failed League work. There are some exceptions in Europe today, like the small band of "anti-anti-Americans" who tentatively defend Bush. But on the whole the Europeans, having known three generations now without war--and earnestly desiring to become "postmodern states" that never again wage war--tend to forget that it is principally the U.S. defense umbrella that has made this dream possible.

Set aside for the moment the precipitous invasion of Iraq. America spends more on defense than the rest of the industrialized world combined not because it is inherently belligerent or militaristic but mainly because America is today more than just the "lone superpower." It is the stabilizer of the international system. American power overlays every region of the planet, and it supplies the control rods that restrain belligerents and arms races from East Asia to Latin America, enabling globalization to proceed apace. With the exception of Iraq, this hidden infrastructure of U.S. power emerges into public view only occasionally, in tsunami relief or in America's unique ability to supply airlift and logistical support to hotspots from East Timor to Sudan. Since 9/11, U.S. special forces have been increasingly operating as global SWAT teams, slipping silently across borders to take out terror cells--systematically, if sometimes savagely, clearing the mean back alleys of the global village (controversial, yes, but most governments don't seem to mind.) Even in Afghanistan, despite considerable European help on the ground, it is "B-52 peacekeeping" in the skies--as a warlord once described it to me--that keeps Hamid Karzai in power, civil war from breaking out, and the Taliban lying low.

Yet, for too many post-Cold War Europeans, this stabilizing structure of American power has been so hidden as not to be worthy of note. Why exactly do they think their governments can afford to spend so little on defense (thereby subsidizing the European welfare state)? As with the children in Anna Karenina, "there is no need for us to think about that, it's all ready for us."

Anatol Lieven's new book unfortunately tends to fall into this peevish Euro-genre. I say "unfortunately" because in some respects Lieven's book, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, is the most brilliant analysis of America's attitude toward the world to come along since 9/11. Lieven explains why so many people around the world no longer trust this framework of American power, indeed fear it, especially since the invasion of Iraq. Lieven, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has covered hot zones as a correspondent for London's Times, is certainly aware of the enormous good that American power has brought to the world. "Following World War II," he writes, "the United States itself played the leading part in creating the institutions which between 2001 and 2003 the Bush administration sought to undermine." The real question now, Lieven notes tartly, is why America is "kicking to pieces the hill of which it is king." His book seeks "to explain why a country which after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, had the chance to create a concert of all the world's major states--including Muslim ones--against Islamist revolutionary terrorism chose instead to pursue policies which divided the West, further alienated the Muslim world and exposed America itself to greatly increased dangers."

Lieven's explanation for this goes to the very root of America's self-identity. But he takes his argument much too far, and this is the book's central weakness. Like many in Europe--and many liberal Democrats here in the United States--Lieven allows his alarm at Bush's foreign policy to lead him to an excessively negative and sweeping critique of American culture and foreign policy. Echoing the essay that inspired it ("The Threat from America," London Review of Books, October 2002), the book descends quickly to the level of diatribe and, despite much incisive analysis, never really manages to rise above it. In the end, the author's error is to confuse the pathology of the Bush administration with the alleged pathology of America. To Lieven, the current historical context somehow typifies an American sickness, perpetually latent in our national culture and foreign policy. What is far more likely is that this is an out-of-balance moment illustrating the dominance of a certain strand of political culture--a strand which, when offset by other elements of American culture and foreign-policy tradition (as it usually is), has produced the world that Lieven rightly values.

Lieven is at his best when he traces the lineage of this now-dominant strand of political culture. In three penetrating chapters that should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand Bush's election victory in 2004, he explains how this dominance has come in the form of a successful rebellion against the Eastern elites by the Southern/Frontier culture that has found its hero in Bush. Lieven describes how the "American Creed," the exceptionalist "thesis" that traditionally defines the self-image of most Americans--of a people free, equal, and good--has become overpowered by the "antithesis" of America's "embittered heartland." "While America keeps a splendid and welcoming house, it also keeps a family of demons in the cellar," Lieven writes. "Usually kept under certain restraints, these demons were released by 9/11."

Indeed, they have been. Woodrow Wilson may once have invoked God as stridently as Bush now doess--America's sponsorship of the League, Wilson once intoned, has "come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God"--but Wilson's Presbyterian God stemmed from a very different tradition than Bush's does, as Lieven perceptively explains.

What is Bush's tradition? Who are these demons? In the most original part of his book, Lieven analyzes at length the influences of this "second strand" of American nationalism, which resides in a culture dating back to Andrew Jackson and Southern evangelical tradition. Building on the work of Walter Russell Mead, T.R. Fehrenbach, David Hackett Fischer, and Michael Lind, among others, he describes how the much-noted "Southernization" of Republican politics in recent decades has had a deeper impact on our foreign policy than many of us have realized. The nation is now in the grip of a "radical nationalism" that traces its origins to the demographic makeup and mores of the South and of much of the West and Southern Midwest--in other words, what we know today as red America.

As Lieven writes, this region was heavily settled by Scots-Irish immigrants whom King James I sent to Northern Ireland to clear out the native Celtic Catholics, which they did. Along with Anglo-Saxons, they then settled the American Frontier, moving westward from one piece of mean land to the next, suffering Indian raids and fighting for their lives every step of the way. The outcome was that a substantial portion of the new nation developed, over many generations, a rather savage set of mores. Thanks largely to this huge subpopulation, a quickness to fight and a dedication to total annihilation of any enemy has always been part of American culture. This tends to emerge in a "burst of chauvinist fury" and predominate during times of national crisis.

Traditionally, it has also been balanced by a more diplomatic, communitarian Yankee sensibility from the Northeast and upper Midwest. Even so, the Southern Frontiersmen never got over their hatred of the East Coast elites and a belief in the morality and nobility of defying them. Their champion was the Indian-fighter Andrew Jackson, who resented the Eastern establishment's smug insistence that they, the backward Southern Frontiersmen, enforce U.S. treaties with the tribes when these same New Englanders had once slaughtered their own Indians.

Perceptively, Lieven likens this Southern/Frontier nationalism to the more classic kind of radical nationalism that emerges from the cumulative frustration of defeat often found in nations, say of Germany in World War I (and which in that particular case helped buttress Hitler's rise to power half a generation later). In this case, however, the frustration of the South and Southern Midwest over the rise of godless modernity at the hands of the North and the Easterners built up over a century and a half during which Southerners were derided as "peckerwoods and rednecks," as the former segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, once put it. "The role of defeat in the genesis of nationalism resides not only in the defeat of a nation as a whole, but of classes, groups and indeed individuals within them," Lieven writes.

This particular class of Americans, with demographics and post 9/11 rage on its side, is now having its day in the sun, though its victory is incomplete. As Lieven observes, the American thesis prevents the descent into authoritarianism that nationalist frenzies so often produce elsewhere.

In the triumphant state of Texas in particular, Lieven writes, we can see "the mingling of the Southern and Western traditions" that made its first appearance during Jackson's presidency, and which today so defines our current politics, culture, and foreign policy. And nowhere is the backlash against the Eastern elitist tradition at the hands of this Southern/Frontier extremism and religiosity more obvious than in the personal history of the Bush family. Indeed, though Lieven does not note this, the person of George W. Bush himself best embodies this trend. In Bush there seems little trace left of the Eastern WASP sensibility into which he was born and educated, and which explains so much of his father's far more moderate presidency. He went to Andover, Yale, and Harvard, but he rebelled against the ethos he learned there. The transformation is complete, right down to the Texas accent that no one else in his family seems to have. Bush is a Jacksonian pod person.

The coarsened sensibility that this now-dominant Southernism and Frontierism has brought to our politics is unmistakable. Things seem to be out of whack. We have reimported creationism into our political dialogue (in the form of "intelligent design"). We routinely demonize organizations like the United Nations that we desperately need and which have been critical to the success of nation-building in Afghanistan. (The Texas GOP platform actually calls for the United States to kick the United Nations out of New York, as well as for U.S. withdrawal from the world body.) On foreign policy, the realism and internationalism of the Eastern elitist tradition once kept the Southern/Frontier warrior culture and Wilsonian messianism in check. Now the latter two, in toxic combination, have taken over our national dialogue, and the Easterners are running for the hills. The only Easterners who are left are the neocons, whose grand global construct, a kind of Nietzschean will to power--Michael Lind once described the neocons as the brains of the Southern evangelicals--only feeds this out-of-control messianism and a deep-seated distaste for globalism that goes back to the "don't-tread-on-me" attitude of the Southern/Frontier tradition. "In such circles," Lieven writes, "neither 9/11 nor the bloody occupation of Iraq had much effect on this underlying psychological stance." Nor is the fact that Bush has utterly depleted his Army in Iraq--and is supposedly pursuing a "new diplomacy"--likely to change the basic character of his foreign policy in his second term.

No matter what, those Jacksonian furies will out. Hence, Bush says that in his second term he is attaching new importance to diplomacy within the international community, and then he appoints as his U.N. ambassador John Bolton, an uncompromising libertarian whose lifelong goal has been to destroy America's affiliation with the international community. And on North Korea, Bush officials will acknowledge one day that they need China's diplomatic help to pressure Pyongyang into dismantling its nuclear program--and it's clear they do, since the president refuses either to attack or to negotiate. But then the hawks, with apparent approval from the White House, go out the next day and announce a renewed strategic alliance with Japan against China over the largely quiescent Taiwan issue. That's called shooting oneself in the foot. Yet the Bushies don't seem to be able to help themselves: The Jacksonian tradition seems to have an irrepressible bias toward war and an antibody to diplomacy.

So, too, the hard-edged Wilsonian impulses of the neocons, if unchecked by the realist tradition, will invariably go over the top, and indeed they already have. Bush now needs Russian President Vladimir Putin as an ally in order to pressure Iran, but because of his strident efforts to out-Wilson Wilson--declaring that the spread of democracy is his number one foreign policy goal--he's painted himself into a corner. Now, he needs to bring up Putin's anti-democratic excesses every time they meet or be called a hypocrite. Putin, not surprisingly, is on Iran's side. Expect four more years of bad blood.

Nor will Bush likely worry much about the now-settled mistrust of American power in Europe and elsewhere, which shows no signs of abating. Consider the little-noted surge of dissidence which Bush confronted on his most recent visit to Europe. It was Bush, not the Europeans, who shifted positions on Iran, opting (just barely) to negotiate. Sources later indicated that a decisive moment was when Bush sensed a united front by the Europeans against an Iranian nuclear weapon. But this united front did not occur by accident; sources say that Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder, with Tony Blair's grudging assent, all compared notes and decided to gang up on Bush as the "European Union." Berlin and Paris decided they'd had enough of being humiliated, and that the European Union, not NATO, would now be the principal forum for dealing with America (in other words, a forum that does not include Washington). This could mark the beginning of a classic "balancing" that usually occurs against the major power on the global stage--but which America, because it had been viewed benignly until Bush, had managed to avoid until now. China, too, has been going its own way and, working behind Bush's back, has managed to induce the Europeans to lift their arms embargo. And several Latin American nations have begun to defy Bush on Cuba and other issues.

We may be witnessing, in other words, the unraveling of the global consensus in favor of the American-created-and-led system that has lasted for about 60 years, all largely thanks to the fecklessness of the Bush administration. No doubt there are other explanations for why a nation that invented an international system that largely works in its favor would go about "kicking it to pieces."

One problem with Lieven's deconstruction of American nationalism is that it doesn't always add up. For example, he describes how a "violent hostility to other races" was at the core of the Jacksonian tradition. But if that's so, then why is a president who seems to have admirably overcome that unhappy legacy (he's now appointed two black secretaries of State and a Hispanic attorney general) still so enslaved to other aspects of Jacksonianism? Another explanation is the simpler one provided by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, who note in their excellent The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America that the essence of "American conservatism" has always been to move out into the Great Space of America and invent new realities. Why should today's conservatives settle for the hoary reality created a half-century ago, which they never really liked anyway (it was built by Democrats)? Why not just build a new international system with America as hegemon?

Whatever the impetus behind Bush's radicalism, the good news for worried Americans is that this international consensus will still take a long, long time to destroy, in large part because of the pervasiveness and dominance of American power described above (Europeans still aren't boosting their defense budgets by much). It is true that, as Micklethwait and Wooldridge point out, the nation's population center is "moving south and west at a rate of three feet an hour, five miles a year." But pundits tend to overplay the significance of the "values shift" in the 2004 election. The outcome was far more about the fact that one side had a first-class campaigner and strategist (Bush and Karl Rove) while the other side put up rank incompetents (John Kerry and his masters of disaster, Bob Shrum and Tad Devine). If the Democrats can field a candidate only slightly more winning than Kerry, the Easterners will come down from the hills and rejoin the dialogue. The new power centers in the country, meanwhile, will be forced to quell their Jacksonian furies when they come to understand the necessity of an international consensus in the age of globalization (in other words, it means their jobs). And that will inevitably shift American foreign policy back into balance.

All of which points out Lieven's central error: He does not account for the fact that vast numbers of Americans--including very many in red states--hate where Bush is leading their country and share Lieven's criticisms. Instead he attempts, lamely, to argue that Democrats or moderate Republicans would probably be taking the country in the same direction as Bush Republicans have.

I tend to agree that in the run-up to the Iraq war there was a shameful failure on the part of American intellectuals to debate the ill-justified segue from al Qaeda to Saddam. This can be ascribed to an understandable excess of war fever and patriotism in the aftermath of 9/11, the somewhat demagogic manipulation of those feelings by the Bush administration, and the inability of the gelded Democrats to reclaim their legacy of internationalism and articulate a powerful alternative vision. But to advance his thesis Lieven tries to lump the centrist "progressive internationalism" of such judicious thinkers as Michael O'Hanlon and Michael McFaul together with the arch unilateralism of William Kristol and Richard Perle. This simply does not square with the facts. Even Colin Powell and Richard Haass, had they been able to run things, would have taken U.S. foreign policy in a very different direction. At the very least, they would not have invaded Iraq, and in the end, that decision would have made all the difference.

But because he's decided to attack American nationalism in every form, Lieven attacks everybody. To make his case, he cites, far too often for my taste, addled anti-imperialists of the left like Chalmers Johnson. He revisits the great triumphs of the 20th century in an offhanded way, finding them somehow wanting. He cavils, for example, over whether the astonishing transformations of Germany and Japan from vicious dictatorships into benign democracies after World War II--perhaps the greatest and potentially most enduring examples of nation-building in modern history--was really "nation-building" at all (what difference does the term make?). He remarks casually at another point that the "effects of the American ideology are akin to those of communism," a curious comment given that the "American ideology" has been a smashing success in the last century, and communism a long-debunked fraud.

It is not really until page 153, three quarters of the way through the book, that Lieven grudgingly notes that the dangerous "messianic" impulses he ascribes to the American Creed might have served some useful purpose (allowing America to be "the leader and bulwark of Western democracies against Nazism and then communism"). All in all, this is a topsy-turvy account of the last century, reminiscent of the tone-deaf newspaper reporter at the Gettysburg dedication who noted, in a long account of Edward Everett's bombast, that "the President also spoke."

Why does Lieven miss so much when he also gets so much? Perhaps his anger has got the better of him. It is telling that, in his preface, he ascribes "part of the genesis" of his book to a conversation he had with an arrogant American diplomat in 1989. The Soviets had just left Afghanistan, and to Lieven's dismay, the American insisted that the country would swiftly become a democracy. The diplomat was wrong, of course, and Lieven attributes the error to "the messianism rooted in the American Creed" along with "a total ignorance of Afghan history, society, tradition or reality in general." Lieven knew this history well, having studied the British experience in the 19th century. And he seems never to have recovered from his pique over this diplomat's insufferable arrogance.

This follows an old pattern, of course, in which idealistic and ignorant Americans insist they can create a brand-new reality, and world-weary Europeans roll their eyes. Transformational foreign policy of the kind that the United States has pursued over the last century is always a delicate balance of realism and idealism; of boldly setting out a vision and muddling through the bad parts. Europeans tend to deride this crusading approach even as they ultimately taste its fruits; we Americans tend to get the balance wrong and almost always botch things at first.

But somehow, after a lot of trial and error, American-style transformation does occur. There does seem to be a forward motion to human history. And there is no better proof than the extraordinary 86-year arc of American activism dating from Wilson's efforts at Versailles. Historians like Lieven, precisely because they are so steeped in past pitfalls, tend to short-shrift this effect. After the Taliban fell in December 2001, many Afghanistan specialists also expressed the view that the country would descend into warlordism again, and that Karzai would remain little more than "mayor of Kabul." Certainly, many said, democracy wasn't going to take root in such a wild and ungovernable place! But it does seem that Afghanistan is, at long last, changing. It is still a poppy-exporting, impoverished disaster area, yet democracy of some kind does seem to be taking root, and Karzai has exercised increasing control over the provinces. Lieven's diplomat may yet prove correct, just 20 years late.

Iraq is also a quagmire, and a horribly bloody one, but the lid may well stay on there as well, belying many of the regional experts who predicted that the fractious falsehood of a country pieced together by the British 85 years ago couldn't hold under anything but a strongman. And there may in fact be a larger democratic transformation occurring in the Arab world, from Lebanon to Egypt to Palestine. Critics shudder to think it, but perhaps in the long reach of history George W. Bush--Andrew Jackson's avenging spirit come to life--will be viewed as having been right. The reasons for the Iraq war were always murky, but no one who knows the Bushies believes for a moment that the invasion was ever just about WMD. For them, war was also necessary because, as one official told me before the war began, "an icebreaker" was needed to transform the frozen mass of dysfunction that is the Arab world. This is exactly what is happening: The ice is breaking.

The principal icebreaker causing most of this change, of course, has been American power, however arrogantly used and squandered. Yet Lieven's narrow view of American power does not give enough credit to these outcomes. Perhaps he should heed the advice of his countryman, Winston Churchill, who famously declared, "The Americans will always do the right thing …after they've exhausted all the alternatives." We're still exhausting these, of course, and Anatol Lieven might think about cutting us a little slack.

Michael Hirsh is a senior editor at Newsweek, based in Washington, and author of At War With Ourselves: Why America is Squandering Its Chance To Build a Better World.


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