A “happy holidays” email from The Atlantic’s ubiquitous self-promoter Steve Clemons last week suggests that any unified right-left movement to end America’s wars of choice might be unattainable. Normally I do not read Clemons, but on this occasion I persevered and was rewarded with a bit of political folderol that was too deliciously bizarre not to share. Steve is a progressive who sees himself as a realist and who likes to suggest to his readers that he is a true Washington insider unafraid to challenge the status quo. He does so gingerly, however, never wanting to offend anyone who is really important. He is a fan of the late Richard Holbrooke, whom he describes as an “outstanding global policy practitioner,” presumably a tribute to his success at turning the Balkans into a festering sore before pissing the Pakistanis off. He also believes that Henry Kissinger is the greatest foreign policy genius to emerge since the Second World War.
Steve’s track record in predicting foreign policy developments is not good. Over a year ago at his website, The Washington Note, he recounted cornering an ostentatiously self-important though unidentified administration source and quizzing him regarding the Israel-Palestine peace process. Quoting himself in his article, he asked portentously, “My question then was, what next? And the response was incomplete but probably sound. ‘We are studying options.’” Relying on such brilliant though admittedly laconic insights, Steve then opined “that the door is open for new frames that could capture the day and change the current paralyzed standoff.” “Frames” is one of Steve’s favorite expressions. The frames have apparently not materialized in 2011 unless one considers a dressing-down of the U.S. president by the Israeli prime minister to be progress, but no matter. That was last year, which is now over, so it is possible to move on to new frames for 2012.
Steve’s happy holidays message cited a recent article by Charles Kupchan, a former Clinton administration National Security Council staffer, and quoted from it: “Progressive leadership at home is essential to the nation’s political and economic renewal, which in turn is the foundation for progressive leadership abroad. Since World War II, the United States has been dramatically successful in making the globe more stable, prosperous, and liberal. The recipe for ongoing success in this mission is no different than in the past: a solvent and centrist America reliant on a progressive combination of power and partnership to safeguard the national interest while improving the world.”
Steve approves. He “rides closely to Charles Kupchan’s thinking,” as he puts it, but he adds: “The dominant personality of the Republican and Democratic parties runs under two monikers — but is essentially tied to the notion that the U.S. has a moral responsibility to re-order the internal workings of other nations that constrain the freedoms and rights of their citizens. The liberal (or humanitarian) interventionist school dominates the progressive foreign policy establishment and more significantly populates the power positions of the Democratic Party today than its rivals; and in the Republican Party, various strains of neoconservatism (there is now competition among the heirs of Irving Kristol, Albert Wohlstetter, and other founding fathers) dominate.”
Wow. Two choices, both delusional. Intervene from the left or intervene from the right. Where to start when confronted by some of the most chilling prose and warped ideas to be floated anywhere since Sarah Palin disappeared from the scene? Kupchan’s assertion that the United States has been “dramatically successful in making the globe more stable, prosperous, and liberal” and that it should use its power to continue to do so reminds one of Madeleine Albright’s description of the United States as the “essential nation.” It also sounds a lot like the Republican promotion of “American exceptionalism,” except for the liberal part. But just because both major political parties are saying something does not necessarily make it so, particularly as groupthink in Washington is the norm while the premise that the United States should be at all involved in nation-building should be considered highly questionable. In reality, the Kupchan narrative must be regarded as a self-congratulatory conceit promoted by supporters of the status quo who believe that American Empire is something that benefits the entire world and should be cherished.
Even Steve Clemons concedes that Iraq and Afghanistan have been disasters, but there is much, much more that demolishes the Kupchan assertion. U.S. intervention in Western Europe after the Second World War focused on keeping the communist parties out of power. To do so, it stunted the development of a genuine democratic system in countries such as Italy where it bribed politicians and created a corrupt political culture that persists to this day. And then there was the Cold War that played out mostly in Europe, based on a series of deliberate lies about the might of the Soviet Union. It is over, but the results are untidy, particularly in the Balkans. And the United States is again, inexplicably, raising the temperature with Russia by criticizing that country’s internal politics and supporting nongovernmental organizations that seek to empower opposition groups. What good will come from that, and what are the interests that drive the U.S. role? Kupchan would no doubt argue that baiting Vladimir Putin somehow equates to promoting stability, prosperity, and liberalism. Or would he? Steve Clemons describes it as a successful “reset [of] U.S.-Russia relations.”
And then there is Asia. Pakistan is a basket case as a result of U.S. policies related to the “war on terror” that have encouraged centrifugal tendencies that existed in the country. Vietnam? One might well recall the millions killed in a pointless war there. And then there is the division of the Korean peninsula perpetuated by the United States’ unwillingness to sign a peace treaty with the North. And throw into the hopper Washington’s blowing hot and cold with China, where Clemons calls for “knock[ing] back Chinese predatory behaviors by becoming more shrewdly predatory.” Yeah. Hillary Clinton will become “more shrewdly predatory.”
Don’t forget the Middle East, where U.S. government’s unconditional support of Israel has alienated traditional allies and strengthened the hand of Iran, which might or might not be seeking to become the regional hegemon and might or might not be developing a nuclear weapon. Invading people and denying them their human rights is a funny way to bring stability, prosperity, and liberalism. Ask the Iraqis or the Palestinians.
And the United States is also engaged in little wars and interventions throughout Africa, at various points in Asia and Europe, and in Latin America. Mexico is increasingly seen as a failed state, a victim of the U.S. war on drugs, while Haiti is a disaster in nation-building. More stable and prosperous? Depends on your viewpoint, but it is likely that only a drug trafficker or corrupt politician would agree. And what is so liberal about political turmoil stirred up by Washington bringing about transitions from reliable dictators to shaky one-party states, which are both intent on denying political rights to opponents.
But Clemons’ formulation of the assertion that “the U.S. has a moral responsibility to re-order the internal workings of other nations that constrain the freedoms and rights of their citizens” has to take the prize as a perfect framework for a tone-deaf foreign policy that will quickly lead to the end of the American experiment in republican government. What can he and Kupchan be thinking? It is a Father Knows Best sitcom plot transferred to real life and illustrates the enormous gap in perception between the liberal humanitarian interventionists and those of us who have been demanding a sane foreign policy. Does it mean that any government that does not protect gay and women’s rights, abortion on demand, and the freedom to join Facebook will be confronted by the First Marine Division?
Washington’s stewardship of much of the world after the Second World War as a continuation of the Pax Britannica has been an abysmal failure, largely because of the inability of the U.S. government to rein in and control the military-industrial complex. As a result of 9/11, latent militarism has evolved into a full-blown national security state that has global pretensions but cannot pay its utility bills. That people who call themselves progressives see America’s overseas role as a wonderful success is quite frightening, particularly as one has to suspect that it is also the type of thinking that drives the White House. Those who support an aggressive policy to give the world stability, prosperity, and liberalism should pause and consider what they are advocating. The assumption that the United States is a force for good and must promote its values worldwide is fallacious. It will inevitably lead to bankruptcy, civil disorder, and a loss of fundamental liberties at home as well as creating resentment and devastation overseas.