by Bastoche | 1/20/2008 02:24:00 PM
Barack Obama, according to Michael O’Hanlon in his recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “has some work to do.” Obama advertises himself as the candidate who will harmonize all the voices, raucous and discordant and vehemently partisan, contending on the stage of American politics. But for O’Hanlon it is already clear that Obama has no intention of drawing together all the rowdy and dissonant factions into one all-inclusive chorus of comity and hope. Quite the contrary, Obama is being deliberately exclusionary and shunting off to the wings a significant portion of the American electorate. The loss, O'Hanlon warns, will be Obama’s, for by cutting himself off from that portion, he is also cutting himself off from the “non-ideological, nonpartisan wisdom of the American people that he seeks to lead.”

That portion, one to which O’Hanlon himself belongs, comprises the liberals and “centrists” who supported, and who still support, the Iraq War. These liberals and centrists subscribe to the “non-ideological, nonpartisan wisdom” widespread among “the American people,” a wisdom that has discerned—that has always discerned—the right course of action in Iraq. According to O’Hanlon, there are “two problems with Mr. Obama’s Iraq views” that threaten to sever him from this wisdom and from those who embody it, thereby undermining “his ability to build a truly inclusive American political movement.”

1. Monsters and Hawks

The first problem concerns Obama’s refusal to respect the motives of those who supported and who still support the war. As O’Hanlon reminds us, Saddam “was one of the worst and most dangerous dictators of the late 20th century,” an inveterate “monster” who imprisoned, tortured, and killed thousands of his own people. O’Hanlon admits that by 2003 Saddam may have committed the worst of his mayhem, “but he was grooming his sadistic sons Uday and Qusay as successors with unknowable consequences.” Throughout his career Saddam had provided his sons with a model of egregious behavior, and although one could not predict with absolute certainty that they would reproduce the paternal template, they were themselves incorrigible thugs and without doubt predisposed to continue and even magnify their father’s cruelty. The moral justification to initiate a preemptive war of choice against the Iraq regime was therefore clear. Saddam and his malignant sons had to be stopped before they committed further atrocities against innocent people, both in and beyond Iraq. And just as it could not conceivably be doubted that the sons were predisposed to replicate their father’s behavior, so too it could not conceivably be doubted that they would be impervious to reason and resistant to diplomatic approach. Like their father, they would prove to be masters of masquerade, fronting to the world facades of rationality and peace, while covertly hatching sadistic schemes of mayhem and terror.

The nonpartisan wisdom of the American people understands that a preemptive strike against such ruthless murderers was justified. “Yet Mr. Obama,” as well as other partisan ideologues of the left, discounts this argument and “consistently accuses those who supported the war of political motivations -- and unsavory ones at that.” O’Hanlon does not specify what those unsavory motives were—invasion for the sake of oil, perhaps—but his point is clear: far from being unsavory, the motives of the liberal and centrist hawks were honorable, even laudable. They did not seek to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam’s regime for the sake of personal or national profit. They sought to topple Saddam in order to rescue the Iraqi people from his brutality, to bring them the benefits of democracy, and to integrate them into the worldwide network of free and prosperous nations. No covert motives impelled their decision: no desire to project America’s power into the Middle East and to relish victory in the clash of civilizations; no drive to unleash America’s military might and to take pleasure in the grandiose and triumphant spectacle; no craving to shape the course of history and to savor the knowledge that they were among the elite who shaped it.

The liberals and centrists thus had a solid rationale for supporting military action in Iraq, and they have a solid rationale for continuing it. Obama, however, “would withdraw all our main combat forces in the first 16 months of his presidency,” once again putting himself at odds with the non-ideological, nonpartisan wisdom of centrist Americans who will not “support such a policy once they fully consider its likely implications for Iraqi—and American—national security.” The likely implications of “a rapid U.S. witdrawal” from Iraq are not difficult to discern—if one’s foresight is not bedimmed by partisan ideology. A retreat of American forces from Iraq will result in “renewed civil warfare,” a resurgence of internecine strife that will fatally undermine both political and civil stability. The collapse of stability will in turn recreate precisely those conditions conducive to the growth and propagation of terror. And that terror will not confine itself to Iraq. The nonpartisan, non-ideological wisdom of centrist America thus discerns what Obama, in his partisan, ideological dimness does not: the ultimate consequence of a rapid American disengagement from Iraq will be a renewed migration of terror to America.

2. Force Has a Logic All Its Own

The neocons and their allies, the liberal interventionists, recognize that in the wake of Iraq their intellectual justification for the use of American military might in world affairs needs to be refurbished. Shelby Steele draws a distinction between wars of choice and wars of survival and argues that the proper use of diplomacy can transform the former into the latter. Robert Kagan and Ivo Daalder call for a Concert of Democracies that will lend legitimacy to America’s use of force in world crises. And Michael O’Hanlon argues that the use of force to change regimes is not only permissible but morally compulsory when a regime becomes monstrous and subjects its own people to sadistic degradation and death.

In each instance the “logic of reason,” exemplified in negotiation and diplomacy, is either subordinated to the "logic of force" or erased entirely from the scenario. O’Hanlon, for example, argues that a disengagement of American forces from Iraq within a timeframe of sixteen months constitutes “a rapid withdrawal.” Perhaps it does. Given the complexity of such a process and unforeseen contingencies, a withdrawal that guarantees the safety of American troops could take longer than sixteen months. But it would still constitute that which O’Hanlon wants to avoid: a disengagement of American troops from Iraq.

To rule out military disengagement O’Hanlon erases from his scenario a crucial point, namely that American military disengagement from Iraq would occur simultaneously with diplomatic and economic and humanitarian reengagement. Such reengagement would not be unilateral but would take place with a multilateral and regional framework—a framework conceived, constructed, and maintained through diplomacy and negotiation. Such a framework could perhaps be put together under the auspices of the UN and would certainly include the US. But the US would not dominate and control it. As Obama said in “A Way Forward in Iraq,” his November 2006 speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “we have to realize that the entire Middle East has an enormous stake in the outcome of Iraq, and we must engage neighboring countries in finding a solution.” Specifically, 

we should convene a regional conference with the Iraqis, Saudis, Iranians, Syrians, the Turks, Jordanians, the British and others. The goal of this conference should be to get foreign fighters out of Iraq, prevent a further descent into civil war, and push the various Iraqi factions towards a political solution.

The logic of force, in other words, would be replaced by the logic of reason. O’Hanlon does not mention diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian reengagement because like the neocons with whom he has aligned himself he privileges the logic of force in international relations. According to Robert Kagan, in Of Paradise and Power, this privileging of the logic of force over the logic of reason has a long history, one that extends back to the beginning of the Cold War. The distinction between these two foreign policy logics, Kagan says, derives from the famous Long Telegram (Part 5, Section 1) of George Kennan.

The founding document of the Cold War, Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram,’ starkly set out the dominant perspective of America’s postwar strategic culture: The Soviet Union was ‘impervious to the logic of reason,’ Kennan wrote, but would be ‘highly sensitive to the logic of force.’ (89-90)

During the Cold War, “Kennan’s ‘logic of force’ became the operating assumption of American strategy” (91). The neocon narrative of the Cold War, to which Kagan makes his own contribution in Of Paradise and Power, is admirably direct, compellingly clear, and melodramatically simple. Two great military powers emerged from the carnage of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the ideologies of the two powers were diametrically opposed. The ideology of the Soviet Union espoused an autocratic one-party state and a command economy. The ideology of America, on the other hand, espoused a pluralistic multiparty state and a free-market economy. Moreover, each nation was inherently expansionist, intent both on promoting its way of life of throughout the globe and on containing the ambition of its great competitor.

Democracy thus squared off against despotism for global dominance. Because each nation had a nuclear capacity more than sufficient to annihilate the other, they avoided direct military confrontation. Instead, they sublimated their ideological rivalry by competing in space races and quadrennial games. More important, they fought proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. But not in Europe. Though confronting one another directly over the Iron Curtain, both the United States and the Soviet Union understood that a conventional military confrontation in Europe could uncontrollably escalate into a nuclear one.

And so for half a century peace reigned in Europe. It was of course a peace that was predicated on the nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers and their deterrent effect. But it was peace nonetheless. And within the secure space provided by American military power, according to Kagan, Europe underwent a momentous shift in perspective. To be sure, the nations of Western Europe maintained during the Cold War imposing armed forces, but they were small in comparison to those of America. And there was no good reason to augment them, since the awesome firepower of the US military was more than sufficient to deter the expansionist ambitions of the Soviet Union.

The nations of Western Europe therefore left the protection of the free world to the superpower, America, and devoted most of their productive energies to rehabilitation, both economic and political. They restored their economies out of the carnage of the WW II, and they decided that cooperation, based on reason and rules, was more conducive to growth and wellbeing than the futile competition of colonialism and war. They therefore renounced their traditional enmities and pulled closer together, forging the political and economic ties that resulted finally in the European Union.

Their Union has by no means proved to be perfect. But it has continued to grow, and its success has led Europeans to conclude that the “soft” power of negotiation and economic exchange is a more effective method of reconciling international differences than the “hard” power so favored by the US. Even rogue and recalcitrant nations, they argue, can be coaxed into reform by the rationales of diplomacy and the incentives of exchange. Reason, they affirm, is universal. No nation is wholly immune to its power.

America demurs.

One of the things that most clearly divides Europeans and Americans today is a philosophical, even metaphysical disagreement over where exactly mankind stands on the continuum between the laws of the jungle and the laws of reason. Americans do not believe we are as close to the realization of the Kantian dream as do Europeans. (91)

America does not deny the Kantian dream. It is as committed as Europe to a concert of nations founded on reason and the rule of law. As Kagan says, “Americans are idealists” (95). But their idealism has not beclouded their judgment. They “remain realists in the limited sense that they still believe in the necessity of power in a world that remains far from perfection” (95). Outside the Kantian paradise that Europe has established lies a jungle of Hobbesian anarchy, ruled not by the rationalities of trust and law but by the irrationalities of deceit and force. Though many nations outside Europe profess to abide by international standards of behavior, they are in reality driven by covert motives of power and domination. In spite of Europe’s optimism, such nations can never be reached by reason. They live by deceit and force, and can be countered effectively only on their own terms.

To deal with the outlaws—and there will always be outlaws—the world needs a sheriff. America is that sheriff, the indispensable nation that can clearheadedly estimate danger and straightforwardly deal with it. Because they have the strength to see danger clearly and the will to deal with it directly, “Americans can still sometimes see themselves in heroic terms—as Gary Cooper at high noon” (95). Europeans scoff at such pretense. Accustomed to the use of rationality and rules and averse to the use of force, they prefer that America not take military action against the outlaw but rather appeal to it by means of diplomacy and economic incentives. America in turn scoffs at such naiveté. It knows that the outlaw will treat such appeals as appeasement and will happily take advantage of the weakness and gullibility of its adversary. Americans instinctively know that the outlaw is not susceptible to the logic of reason and will bend only to the logic of force. America’s allies in Europe might balk at the spectacular assertion of American military might. But Americans see the danger—they see it clearly and they see it whole—and they “will defend the townspeople, whether the townspeople want them to or not” (95).

3. Of Cowboys and Character

Before the sheriff acts, he talks to the outlaw. When the outlaw proves intransigent, as outlaws always do, the sheriff unholsters his hardware, surgically strikes, and reestablishes the peace. The grateful townspeople, far from disputing the moral authority of their protector, congratulate his success, return to their shops and saloons and, beneath the roll of the final credits, revivify their getting and spending.

Such is Kagan’s ideal scenario, but the realist in him has always recognized that the ideal will of necessity be modified by the contingencies of the real. Writing early in 2003, just prior to the March invasion, he is well aware that many of the townspeople do not wholeheartedly approve of the sheriff’s aggressive stance towards the outlaw. Witnessing America’s immovable resolve to initiate a preemptive war of choice against Iraq, many Europeans, puzzled by America’s zeal and helpless to placate it, “have come to consider the United States itself to be the outlaw, a rogue colossus” (100). Kagan himself allows that there is something incalculable in America’s behavior, something that impels it to push beyond the safety and circumspection of its European allies. He foresees that the invasion of Iraq will not be a brief humanitarian exercise in regime change but “will likely produce a lasting American military presence in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, and perhaps a long-term occupation of one of the Arab world’s largest countries” (96). He also foresees that many in America itself will be disturbed by this unprecedented insertion of American power into the Middle East and Central Asia.

But viewed from the perspective of the grand sweep of American history, a history marked by the nation’s steady expansion and a seemingly ineluctable rise from perilous weakness to the present global hegemony, this latest expansion of America’s strategic role may be less than shocking. (96)

Those who are disturbed by America’s assertive behavior in the Middle East understand neither America’s role in the unfolding story of freedom nor its character as a nation, a character fully in accord with the role that history has scripted for it. This character is indeed incalculable, even dangerous. From its birth America has felt itself impelled to expand: first its territory and now its ideology. It has often put diplomacy and negotiation in the service of its expansionary drive and especially, of course, when it did not have the military means to assert its will in the world. But during the twentieth century it developed those means, and now, though it will always fall back on diplomacy and trade to expand its ideals, it stands ready and eager to use its military might to counter tyranny and carry freedom into every region of the globe.

In fact, for Kagan, there is something in the depths of America’s character as a nation that instinctively responds to the logic of force. Now, nearly five years after writing Of Paradise and Power—and after five years of observing war and occupation in Iraq—Kagan has somewhat modified his preference for unilateral action and the preemptive use of force. As his support for a Concert of Democracies suggests, he now sees that it might be useful for the sheriff to consult more closely with the townspeople and gain their consent before squaring off against the outlaw.

But square off he must, with or without the consent of the townspeople. For the neocons—and for those liberals like Michael O’Hanlon who have allied themselves with the neocon view—the world remains a dangerous place, populated by autocrats and demagogues intent on subduing the weak and dominating the free. And America, as the title of Kagan’s latest book announces, remains a dangerous nation—dangerous, that is, to the autocrats and demagogues who resist the march of freedom through history. It is America’s mission in history to carry freedom to every corner of the globe, and it cannot rest—it will not rest—until it has done so. Nor will America’s character allow it to rest. Some of America’s European allies—some Americans themselves—are perturbed by America’s “cowboy” character and its distinctive qualities: its assertiveness, its spiritedness, its propulsive energy, its affinity for the logic of force. Perturbing they may be, but these qualities are intrinsic elements of the American character, and precisely the ones that will enable America to achieve its goal. As Kagan puts it, those who deny these characteristics deny the very nature of America as a nation.

Next time I will examine Kagan’s characterization of America as the Cowboy Nation. To help elucidate Kagan’s concept of America’s character, I will also discuss a key idea of Harvey Mansfield, whom The Weekly Standard has hailed as “our greatest living scholar of political philosophy and our greatest living political philosopher.” Specifically, I will examine a quality that Mansfield and other neocons, Kagan included, have seen as integral to the American character—spiritedness or thumos.


Kennan subsequently recast the Long Telegram into an essay, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which he published in Foreign Affairs in 1947 and in which he made the case for containment as the best approach to the threat posed by an expansive Soviet Union.

crossposted at dailykos

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Blogger Bastoche on 1/20/2008 3:20 PM:

Note the dueling opinion pieces in this morning’s Washington Post, one by Andrew J. Bacevich, the other by the Kagan/Keane/O’Hanlon Trio. The Trio warn against a rapid withdrawal of US forces, but quite deliberately do not mention that a military disengagement would be accompanied by a diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian reengagement. Only the logic of force is applicable in Iraq, the Trio assumes, and that logic will prevail, however long it takes.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/20/2008 5:07 PM:

From Bacevich: "A nation-building project launched in the confident expectation that the United States would repeat in Iraq the successes it had achieved in Germany and Japan after 1945 instead compares unfavorably with the U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina."

That's gotta sting.

At some point we're going to have to figure out a meme that can supplant "nonpartisan = agreeing with the other guys" with something like "nonpartisan = based on facts and common values." Suggestions welcome.


Blogger Unknown on 1/21/2008 2:04 AM:

You guys do know that Bacevich's son was killed in Iraq just a few months ago, right? It's no surprise that he's engaging these issues with a new fury.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/21/2008 2:04 PM:

Yeah, I remember linking to his first piece after the death in one of our old open threads. He was a pretty vocal opponent of the Iraq occupation before that, too, so it doesn't really change much.