Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Foreign Entanglements

The United States is a country founded on ideas, not on membership within a given tribe. States formed from tribal membership, when the tribe is abstracted, for example, to the level of everyone who speaks a certain language, are what we call "nation-states". France is such an abstract tribal state, as is Italy, Germany, et al. The United Kingdom was founded as a nation-state but has some of the hallmarks of an idea-state, as even for that matter France does to some extent. The boundary between these concepts is not completely hard and fast.

There is however a fundamental and unavoidable difference in basic foreign policy outlook between a tribal state and an ideological state. A tribal state must first and foremost look out for the interests of the tribe. That is all that matters. If rules have to be bent, if corruption occurs, well, c'est la vie. The survival of the tribe is the highest goal. A tribal state will sacrifice principle for the sake of people. An ideological state must, by contrast, be focused first and foremost on its ideology. It must be true to that ideology and any deviance from the principles of the ideology will be condemned roundly. An ideological state will sacrifice people for the sake of principle.

This ideological nature runs throughout American foreign history. We started with the Monroe Doctrine, essentially declaring that self-determination was to be the fate of peoples living in the Americas. We had a war to end slavery. We had the "War to end all wars". We had the war to end Fascism. We fought at least two wars to stop Communism. The message is clear and unequivocal: we are willing to sacrifice the lives of our children in order to accomplish Good Things in the world. Nearly every American war fits into this category and it is almost impossible for us to fight a war if it does not fit into this category.

It is interesting to note that World War II brought the issue of tribal-state versus ideological-state very dramatically to the fore. Germany and Japan were the ultimate tribal states; Germany declared its citizens to be the "master race" (and in the process were implicitly declaring that it was going to be "race", i.e., tribal membership, which was going to be the operative principle for the world after they won), while Japan's subjects were willing and eager to commit suicide for the sake of their tribe. These tribal states were opposed by two ideological-states, the USSR and the USA. The ideological states won, and in some sense one would expect this. Consider the position of a neutral who is not German or Japanese. Such a person has absolutely nothing to gain from the triumph of the tribe of Germans or Japanese, but everything to gain from seeing them stopped by the universalist states proclaiming a place for all people, regardless of origin. Clearly the self-interest of such a person lies with the ideological states. No one but the Germans and Japanese had any interest in seeing them win; it would have been interesting in an academic sort of way to see what they might have done to each other had they managed to triumph instead.

It is clear from the above analysis how to defeat an ideological state. All that is required is to convince its people that they are no longer furthering the ideology. That they are in fact the cause of opposition to the ideology. This action was performed on the United States by its enemies during the Vietnam War. Once we had become convinced that we ourselves were Evil it was no longer possible for us to have the heart to fight against Evil. "We have met the enemy and it is us" became the byword of the anti-war era. The ideological component of the body politic became focused on the destruction of the United States itself. Never mind that the Communist dictatorship of Vietnam was brutal in the extreme. Never mind that millions of people were murdered and tortured as a result of our withdrawal. The issue had changed. The issue wasn't that the Vietnamese government was worse than the United States, maybe even infinitely worse. The issue had become that the United States was not perfect. Completely forgetting that "the perfect is the enemy of the good", the United States devolved into what the historian Paul Johnson called "America's suicide attempt". A state dedicated to the extirpation of Evil from the world must, like a computer finding itself in a logical contradiction in the original Star Trek, implode upon itself in a feeding frenzy of lustful self-hatred.

Chomsky has made a good living by continuing this process of blaming the United States for every evil in the world all the way to the present day.

There are reports that the self-destruction of the Soviet Union was hastened in a somewhat similar way by the dawning realization on the part of many individuals within that state that, with their gulags and bloody foreign wars, they were not on the side pf the angels after all. Reagan's "evil empire" speech is said to have contributed to this.

There are general limits to the self-destruction an ideological state will undergo once it perceives itself to be Evil. Even the state of the French Revolution eventually pulled back from the brink of the Terror and the Chinese Communists pulled back from the brink of the Cultural Revolution. This is because the people living in any state have, when all is said and done, their own self-interest at heart. You can't eat ideas. You can't wear them on your back. Much of life of necessity must be expended taking care of one's own physical needs. When push really comes to shove, nearly everyone is willing to jettison his or her extreme ideology in favor of just getting along with living life after all.

The Iraq War has brought all this to the fore once again. It is in a sense the perfect war for the United States to fight: it was in our self-interest to do so and was simultaneously ideologically correct for us to do so. It would be hard to imagine a more blatant example of a murderous thuggish dictator who opposes everything we believe in than Saddam Hussein. The Kosovo War by contrast was not fought for our self-interest but was fought for ideological reasons. Because it was led by that portion of the electorate which views itself as ideologically pure (the "Neopuritans") it was viewed as a Good War by them. But the Iraq war was led by the other party and for those who believe themselves to be on a high moral horse, that makes it a Bad War. After all, the issue of whether we Americans are the Ones Who Are Evil has never been decisively answered. To some extent the two main political parties have split along these lines, the Democrats becoming the "America is inherently evil" party and the Republicans becoming the "Americans are the city on the hill" party. The Kosovo War was an attempt by the Democrats to retake their position of the middle Twentieth Century as the party leading the country to its ideological ends, wielding the American military as a Force for Good. And this analysis makes it clear why Abu Ghraib is so religiously important to some people: it proves once again that we Americans are not perfect, so once again we can attack ourselves for being Evil, and once again we can descend into the feeding frenzy of self-hatred and self-destruction.

Republicans, and many Democrats, tend to view the Democrats as rather hypocritical with respect to the Iraq War. After all, as the Democrat Terrye from Roger Simon's blog has pointed out, we never see the Democratic-controlled mainstream media running polls in Kosovo or Serbia asking the people there whether they feel "liberated" or "occupied". That's definitely not a question one is allowed to ask. But the truth is not so much that the Democrats are hypocritical as it is that they are simply conflicted. Or perhaps I should say the Neopuritans--the believers in the ideological nature of the American state--since the Neopuritans are not all Democrats and not all Democrats are Neopuritans. On the one hand, they still believe, deep in their hearts, that the United States, or at least that group within the American body politic to which they belong, is a force for good in the world. Why else would they support the Kosovo War? On the other hand, they continue to believe that America is Evil. As evidence for this is trotted out the endless stories about Abu Ghraib. Since most people don't like to consider themselves Evil for long periods, the "America is Evil" meme has largely been transmuted into the far more comfortable "Republicans are Evil" and "corporations are Evil" narratives.

And thus we see the source of the bitterness so evident in today's political discussions. The Neopuritans are suffering enormous cognitive dissonance. They are faced with a war which is accomplishing the very things they believe in and yet which is being led by Evil Incarnate in the form of George Bush and the Republicans. It must be a very painful position.

We can also see clearly why the "Neoconservatives" are so reviled. The "Neoconservatives" are the precise ideological twins of the Neopuritans--people who believe that the United States should shed the lives of its children for the sake of the establishment of democracy and other ideological gains abroad--yet they reside on the other side, among the Evil Republicans. They are turncoats to the One True Cause and little can be more Evil than that.

The other night my son asked me if I wanted him to die in Iraq or the Sudan for the human rights of the people in those faraway places. His question stopped me cold. He and I agree that the horrible genocide occurring there should be stopped but I have no desire whatsoever to see him die for that purpose. While everyone agrees that Something Should Be Done, no one really wants to die personlly for that cause. Thus we see the other strain running through American foreign policy and our attitudes toward the Iraq War--basic self-interest. Sometimes that means isolationism. Bush made the case for the Iraq War on the grounds of self-interest but that case has not turned out to be the strongest. The Neopuritans have attacked Bush relentlessly on this point, claiming that the threat to the United States was not sufficient to claim American lives. They may be right, but this attack on Bush puts the Neopuritans into a state of extreme cognitive dissonance, for it is against their religious beliefs to argue pure self-interest and in favor of "supporting" murderous tyrants such as Saddam, yet politics makes strange bedfellows. The attempt to ease this cognitive dissonance explains why the argument is often couched in the terms of class and race: it is wrong for rich Republicans to send poor blacks and hispanics to their deaths. That's far more palatable.

Considered from the point of view of sacrificing one's own son, I must say that there is very little that justifies it. Only a direct threat to the country falls within this category. The question is what, in today's hyperlinked world, constitutes a direct threat? Are nuclear weapons and ICBMs in North Korea a direct threat? How about nuclear weapons in Iran? That is precisely the rock upon which the American ship of state is currently foundering.


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