Overthrowing the Washington Mindset
A strategic perspective for a peace movement that matters
Our goal, here at Antiwar.com, is to change American foreign policy: to divert the US from its course toward empire and restore the old republic. How, exactly, is this going to happen?
Well, to begin with, there are those who argue that it will never and can never happen: that once embarked on this course the ship of state cannot be diverted or turned around. This is usually said by those who have an interest in maintaining the present course – the Washington policy wonks and politicians who decry our efforts as symptoms of an outdated "isolationism." This is nonsensical, and it is just like the "progressives" (and sold out "conservatives") of the present era to equate modernity with enormity. Yet they do have a point, albeit a limited one: it does often seem that the apparatus of imperialism is so enormous, so pervasive, and so profitable (for our elites) that it will only perish on account of some world-shaking catastrophe, or perhaps due to divine intervention.
However, this static supremacy is an illusion, one made superficially plausible by what is the defining characteristic of the American political class. As George Orwell pointed out in his critique of James Burnham:
"Power worship blurs political judgment because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible. If the Japanese have conquered south Asia, then they will keep south Asia for ever, if the Germans have captured Tobruk, they will infallibly capture Cairo; if the Russians are in Berlin, it will not be long before they are in London: and so on. This habit of mind leads also to the belief that things will happen more quickly, completely, and catastrophically than they ever do in practice."
In the Imperial Court of Washington, D.C., where one’s importance is measured by one’s proximity to power – to the President and his courtiers, and to the governmental apparatus over which he and his appointees preside – the worship of Power is the state religion. To question the permanence of American hegemony, to even consider the possibility that all this pomp and circumstance sits atop a house of cards – why, it’s not only treasonous, it’s unfathomable. The Washington mindset will simply not allow such thoughts to enter the conscious realm. The idea of the American empire is tied to their self-conception as the guardians and gatekeepers of civilization, their identification of their own privileged lives with the Great and the Good. It is the Washington Conceit, as inflated as the city’s real estate values and pretensions to high culture.
And yet, just as the immutable preeminence of the American Imperium is a self-delusion, so are some of the scenarios entertained by the Empire’s enemies. Some imagine imminent insolvency will bring it all down in a cataclysmic – and quite sudden – Apocalypse. Uncle Sam will go into default, the Chinese will stop buying our Treasury notes, and the whole thing will implode, as did the old Soviet Union.
These professional pessimists – or are they really optimists? – are bound to be disappointed, if for no other reason than that events rarely occur with such melodramatic precision. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor did it fall in a week. It took the financially unfeasible British Empire a couple of hundred years to fall, and it didn’t exactly tumble like the walls of Jericho – instead, it slowly contracted.
Another reason to doubt this end-times scenario is that the United States is far richer and more stable than any of its imperial predecessors: it has taken us over two hundred years to consume the seed corn produced in the early years of territorial and industrial expansion, and it could quite conceivably take twice as long as that before decadence and hubris take their toll and the Visigoths take Washington.
These optimistic pessimists, with their apocalyptic visions of a rapid fall, underestimate the durability of the present order – and misidentify their real opponents. They think the enemy is a certain politician, or political party: they imagine a secret cabal manipulating the levers of power, buying off or otherwise silencing dissidents who make it into the political class and achieve some measure of influence. And while this does occur with depressing frequency, this is not the source of the War Party’s power, nor is there anything in the least bit secret about their machinations: it is all out there in the open.
Nothing illustrates this better than the controversy surrounding the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. For the sin of saying out loud what everyone knows to be true – that the "defense" budget is bloated, that the Israel lobby intimidates American politicians, and that the only way to avoid unnecessary wars is to talk to our alleged enemies – he is the target of a smear campaign of such unreasonable ferocity that even many not in total accord with his views, including some who might not be all that enthusiastic about a conservative Republican getting a key post in a liberal Democratic administration, have rallied around him.
The educational value of the neoconservatives’ anti-Hagel hate campaign would be hard to overestimate. A veritable orgy of public obloquy has thrown into sharp relief the interventionist mindset – their obsessions, their hostility to dissent, and their distance from the beliefs and concerns of ordinary Americans. If there is a transgression against political correctness of which Hagel is not guilty, then I have yet to hear of it: he’s supposedly not only anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, anti-gay, anti-black, and anti-woman, he is also, according to his detractors, anti-military – an amazing feat given his two Purple Hearts garnered after having volunteered to fight in Vietnam.
Why the vicious hate campaign? After all, the President is going to be setting policy, and his Defense Secretary is merely going to be carrying it out. If Obama decides to bomb Tehran –or whoever is next on our list – he will do so, perhaps in spite of whatever rational advice Hagel or anyone else may give him. Why is defeating Hagel so important to the War Party – and, conversely, why would his confirmation mark a victory for the Peace Party?
The answer is provided by Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, who has been calumniating Hagel in a series of blog posts that have set some kind of record for the number of negative comments attached. Her monomania is indicative of the War Party’s panic, and Rubin, being an unusually pure example of the species, has been shrieking like a shrike on the wing for weeks. Her latest, written as Senator after Senator has defied her imprecations and said they’ll vote to confirm, underscores the real significance of what may seem, at first glance, like another partisan food fight in the Senate cafeteria:
"Only after an exhaustive exploration of all his controversial positions and the accompanying about-faces can senators assess whether Hagel is sincere and committed to his new found views. Only then can they determine if he has the emotional commitment to these views and the intellectual rigor to defend them against those who shared the old Hagel views (both here and abroad). It may still be that senators find his conversion unconvincing. They may still be legitimately worried that our foes will perceive his nomination as an implicit adoption of his past views on nuclear weapons, Iran, terrorism and the Palestinian-Israel conflict."
Note the distinctly Soviet air of Rubin’s rhetorical style: he must not only confess, preferably in writing, but he must also demonstrate "emotional commitment" to smiting Israel’s enemies (Iran, the Palestinians) to the satisfaction of Rubin and her fellow shrikes. He must, in short, pay fealty to the dominant mindset that has defined the parameters of the politically possible in Washington. The Hagel nomination threatens to upend that mindset, so the best the War Party can now hope for is to salvage what they can – that is, to preserve at least the formal dominance of the prevailing foreign policy orthodoxy.
Whether or not Hagel caves and pulls a Bukharin – who confessed in writing to his "crimes," and yet was lined up against a wall and shot anyway – matters less than Rubin and her fellow neocons imagine. Because in the Washington of recent times the mere suspicion that one held the views ascribed to Hagel automatically ruled one out as a candidate for anything, let alone SecDef. That he has been nominated, and will likely be confirmed – and that this debate occurred at all – is a major setback for the War Party. Hagel’s confirmation, in defiance of the organizational and financial resources brought to bear against him, would teach Washington – and the country – an important lesson: after more than a decade of unchallenged supremacy in Washington, the War Party is not only weakened, it’s in full retreat politically.
Which brings us back to the topic at hand: the manner in which our foreign policy of global intervention can be changed.
No, it won’t happen all at once: the apocalyptic scenario in which Washington goes suddenly bankrupt and starts recalling its armadas and dismantling its overseas network of bases is just a fantasy. Too many entrenched interests stand in the way. Equally implausible is the populist dream of peasants with pitchforks storming the White House and Capitol Hill in an American version of Bastille Day. While this has happened, on occasion, the idea that a mass antiwar movement can somehow reverse us in our course is disproved by the fact that the last such movement – the Vietnam era protests – did no such thing. After a relatively short respite, the machinery of American imperialism kept right on chugging along, picking up considerable speed and momentum in the wake of 9/11.
I fear we are doomed to the unspectacular and even rather boring prospect of incremental change: slow and by no means sure. Because no mass movement, no matter how massive, can bring about lasting change until and unless the American mindset is transformed.
The political class in this country, corrupted by narcissism and an overweening hubris, has led us down a path that can only end where all empires end: in the graveyard of history’s losers. These worthies fear decline, and yet it was their Satanic ambition that made our descent inevitable – because to storm the gates of heaven is to mock the gods and invite divine retribution.
Yet we’ll see no lightning bolts unleashed from high Olympus. The powers that be will not give up their illusions so quickly or easily: people never do. Like all worshippers at the altar of Power, our political class projects the present into the future, blithely assuming the latter will resemble the former in all important respects. If it has nearly always been politically toxic to even think about the existence of a foreign lobby powerful enough to intimidate the most powerful public official into silence, then it will always be so. If the Pentagon has been the biggest pork-barrel of them all, then it will, should, and must continue to be so. If the American government can depose foreign princes and raise up others at will, or whim, then surely we can continue to do so with impunity, and without regard for any possible consequences.
It is going to be a long, drawn-out fight, and advocates of a more peaceful foreign policy – one that puts America’s real interests first – must take the long view. A confirmation battle here, an election campaign there, a pushback against yet another neocon smear campaign – many battles await us, and there is no guarantee of victory. No apocalyptic crisis of the American state is going to incapacitate the US military and stop the motor of American militarism dead in its tracks – or, at least, we can’t bet on what would seem like divine intervention.
The strategic perspective of the peace movement must be to take full advantage of such openings as we are presented with, such as the Hagel confirmation battle, in order to make our case to the American people. While this is an educational enterprise, it is not purely propagandistic: we must not stand aside from the battle, merely commenting on this or that controversy: we have a moral and political responsibility to take an active part insofar as we have the resources to do so.
We must come to understand that a movement to change the American mindset – and overthrow the Washington Conceit – is not the same as an election campaign. In the battle of ideas, the anti-interventionists are fighting a guerrilla war against a formidable enemy: we are outnumbered, outgunned, and certainly out-spent. We must seek out allies – with whom we have our differences, and who are not always reliable – in the knowledge that we can’t always (or even usually) choose our battles. We are not and cannot be above the fray.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Forward by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
Buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard, my biography of the late great libertarian thinker, here.
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- American Foreign Policy: Still Crazy After All These Years – October 14th, 2014