An Attractive Nuisance

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Washington Post columnist David Ignatius appears to get it. A "serious" member of the "establishment," Ignatius may not get much, but it appears he is beginning to understand the limits of American state power and the wisdom of the very elite to which he belongs. In an essay that verges on the silly in some places (what else could something called "The Politics of Murder" be?), Ignatius concludes:

The idea that America is going to save the Arab world from itself is seductive, but it’s wrong. We have watched in Iraq an excruciating demonstration of our inability to stop the killers. We aren’t tough enough for it or smart enough — and in the end it isn’t our problem. The hard work of building a new Middle East will be done by the Arabs, or it won’t happen. What would be unforgivable would be to assume that, in this part of the world, the rule of law is inherently impossible.

It’s nice to see that someone in Washington and attached to something as staid and statist as the Washington Post has come to that conclusion. As a friend (who is much more "establishment" than I am, though that says little) wrote me Friday, the faster this idea catches on, the sooner the United States government will pull the plug on the Iraq venture and the quicker American soldiers (and Marines, and sailors, and airmen) will be withdrawn.

But even if this idea catches on, the fight is not over. For as much as I would like to see an honest conversation about future U.S. foreign policy include isolationism, it won’t. At least not yet. Instead, the conversation will boil down to whether the invasion and occupation of Iraq (and, eventually, Afghanistan) failed because War Minister Donald Rumsfeld and the entire Bush regime were incompetent and mismanaged it or because remaking those parts of the Muslim world (or any other part of the world) was never achievable to begin with.

This is not simple hairsplitting. The former question suggests that under the right leadership, the invasion was actually doable, that the goal of democratizing Iraq and Afghanistan through force was not just a good idea, but something force could have actually accomplished if done right. The latter claims exactly what it says — many things could have been accomplished through the use of force, but a substantial remake of Iraqi politics and the creation of a shining beacon along the Tigris and Euphrates to inspire the entire Islamic world as to the benefits of social democracy was not any of them.

I fully expect some Democrats — especially “serious” ones — and some Republicans to take the first stance, and thus focus on Team Bush’s alleged incompetence. (And they are incompetent, but that is mainly because they are stupid and deluded themselves into believing the Middle East could be remade, and remade on the cheap as part of a show of force, and not because they are bad managers of war — even though they are that too.) The American policy elite, the New York-Washington think tank axis which swirls around the Council on Foreign Relations, will probably take some version of this stance as well. And the reason for this is simple — those who craft the country’s interventionist foreign policy want to save American state power and global influence (and prospects for future inventions — this, I believe, is why so much ink is being spilled over Darfur). They fear a world run by someone other than Americans. Or they fear a world in which the United States is something less than a first-among-equals. They hope that with better management, the international power, prestige and authority held by the United States government to influence or even determine world events will return to what it was in the Clinton and Bush Il Sung regimes, in which Washington led the “global community” but did not quite dictate to it (at least not all the time). First-among-equals sums it up, I believe.

But there are some — and maybe Ignatius is one of them — who have concluded, or will eventually conclude, that better management will not return Washington to the status quo ante of 1999, that the loss of power, prestige and influence that has marked the six years of the Bush Jong Il regime is permanent and cannot be regained. They won’t necessarily argue for isolationism, but will, instead, argue for a truer international order. The U.S. will not necessarily be a “first-among-equals” in this system, at least not in all things and not all the time.

(And let’s be fair, the zenith of American hard power — warmaking — was in 1945, just as the European nation-state was at its most powerful militarily in 1914. It has been down hill from there. The events of the last six years are not really new, they merely confirm a trend that has been true since V-E Day.)

This will be the fight, at least for the next few years. Hard power is finite, costly and difficult to actually deploy, and is only becoming more expensive and difficult to use, so the latter argument will eventually prove itself to be the better argument (and better understanding of the world as it actually is). But I suspect few real policy makers will want to embrace a real decline of American power — both hard and soft.

The truth is state power works more on the basis of consent and cooperation rather than coercion. Hard power only really works if a potential opponent has something to fear from its use. This is why deterrence works and why the hydrogen bomb functions better simply sitting atop a missile in the North Dakota prairie than it does roaring across the pole. Those who rule states have a lot to fear from the application of someone else’s hard power — mostly their own power and privilege. Again, this is why deterrence works in state-to-state interactions. But when faced with non-state actors, groups like Al-Qaeda, Hizbullah, Hamas, and others, hard power can accomplish little because those waging that kind of war have very little to lose and utterly no incentive to give up as long as individuals can resist on behalf of the organization. Non-state actors also get far more bang for their warmaking buck than do states, and thus are proportionally much more effective at actually waging war than states. Every dollar a state spends on warmaking buys less — a lot less — than every dollar a non-state actor spends on warmaking.

Team Bush, however, put all of its faith in waging war, in pursuit of that conservative grail, "peace through superior firepower." It’s the only kind of power movement conservatives and most Republicans either respect or understand (and thus they think it’s the only power anyone else understands too). But one need only look around at all the war in the world. Has superior firepower gotten Israel any "peace" with the Palestinians or Hizbullah? Has it achieved peace in Iraq or Afghanistan? Superior firepower actually guarantees very little peace and not a lot more victory. However, for the true believe, the answer is more firepower, which constantly reminds me of Ronald Reagan in 1980 chiding Democrats for believing that the answer to failed government programs were more programs and more spending. It’s the same approach to governing and the same faith in government, really.

And the Bush Administration’s attachment to hard power is part and parcel of the Conservative kulturkampf, the belief that the specific struggle against bad guys abroad using bombs and soldiers is part of a greater cultural struggle against degenerates, liberals, leftists, atheists, Europeans, homosexuals and other malcontents and non-conformists. Team Bush has a whole mess of wars — the military struggle for Iraq and Afghanistan and the political struggle to lead the world and use force to dictate what its “correct culture” ought to be. Hollywood and Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province are, mysteriously and ridiculously, intertwined and turned into the same kind of place and the same kind of threat.

For all their faults (I don’t like Rockefeller World Empire as articulated by the CFR or any of its minions, affiliates, franchisees and subcontractors), the American policy elite understands, in their guts if no place else, that the Conservative kulturkampf is a pointless and no-win proposition because, for the most part, American (and European) values already rule the world. They are triumphant, largely because they are (and have been made to be) so appealing. This is especially true for the very wealthy and well-connected — the global policy elite, the people who work for and run Rockefeller World Empire — as the places they hang out look the same no matter where in the world they are. M Street in Washington, Tahliyyah Street in Jeddah (especially toward the Cornische), the Upper East Side of New York City, and parts of London, Amsterdam, Dubai, Mumbai, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai, or a hundred other great big cities all look the same, and are populated by the same people who are at ease moving between them and managing the world’s global institutions — the UN, the IMF, the World Trade Organization, global corporations and so-called non-governmental organizations — consuming the world’s products and generating the world ideas (or what passes for them). Globalization works, and works very well, for them. It is a world of social democracy, of managed states, of managed state-capitalist economies, of consumerism with a human and environmental face, it is a world in which one can be at home just about anywhere. And this package of what might be called enlightened humanism (it’s an icky term, I know), not revolutionary Islam or Bolivarianism or fundamentalist Calvinism or whatever, are the values most of the world’s people aspire to.

And this highlights Team Bush’s greatest failure. For not only did it make war on Al-Qaeda, Iraq, the Taliban, terrorism wherever it existed, tyranny in all its forms and even evil itself, but it more or less made war on the very world community the United States had spent so much time, energy, effort and capital trying to breathe into existence after the Second World War. I would not be surprised if the policy elites, more at home in that world than Bush’s (and seeing the complete collapse of Bushworld), as they consider the efforts they need to make to salvage American power, have concluded that a good internationalist Democrat, a la Al Gore, would be a much better fit given the global effects of alleged and assumed American leadership. (Whatever shall I call Hillary Clinton should she be elevated to the presidency?) They let Bush win in 2000 (or rather, they accepted the Bush “victory”) and then supported both the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions and occupations because they will support anything they see as possibly advancing American power. And I suspect many bought into the idea that American hard power would accomplish what many neoconservatives and Republicans believed it would. They were as much invested in the success of those wars as anyone living and working between Westchester and Alexandria. That it has failed has left them worried (the signs of this worry were clear by the spring of this year) and wondering what will become of them. It isn’t that they’d sell out the United States of America (because they see American interests and global interests as more or less synonymous), but that they would very happily believe that American interests are better served — and American goals most effectively accomplished — by an “international order” that is much more “multilateral” and cooperative than what Team Bush currently presides over.

And while I shed no tears for the “realists” of ages past (who gave us such wonderful and enlightened actions as the 1973 coup in Chile) nor the multilateralists of more recent eras (I became a libertarian/anarchist because of the 1999 NATO war on Serbia), the wreckage of Bush’s world does spark a perverse and quite unexpected and unwanted fondness in me for those happier days (ick!) of Clintonian “multilaterism.”

The problem is not, however, that some conspiratorial cabal of either CFR guys and gals on the one hand or a group of deluded and stupid neoconservatives on the other are plotting to hijack the country’s foreign policy. The real problem is the whole existence of foreign policy itself and the very idea that there is, or even can be, something called the "national interest." And as long as people, even well-meaning rightists with isolation carved upon their hearts, argue that the government can somehow speak as one voice for 300 million people and work on behalf of their single and unified "interest," and then devote resources being that voice and furthering that "interest," then there will always be something so shiny and pretty and attractive that it’s just asking to be hijacked.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a seminarian and freelance editor living in Chicago. Visit his blog.

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