Patriot Games: The Ideologies of American Warmongers

Just how stupid do they think we are?

The balance of evidence provided by the public statements of senior Biden administration officials would suggest, very.

Take the following vignette from US undersecretary of state Victoria Nuland’s speech on February 22nd in Washington:

…I visited a center in Kyiv, that the U.S. supports, which helps Ukrainian children that have been displaced by the war. There I met a young boy from Kharkiv, with bright eyes and a sweet smile, who had just lost his home to Putin’s barbarity.

As part of a therapy session, he and a handful of other kids his age were making little knit dolls out of yellow and blue yarn.

Before leaving I asked him if I could keep one.

“Da,” he said.

I then asked what the doll’s name was.

“Patriot,” he answered.

It was quiet [sic] a moment – a child making a doll, who just lost his home, thinking about patriotism.

That’s what war brings. To Ukraine and around the world.

I now keep Patriot on my desk as a reminder that the support that the United States provides is not abstract. It’s often the difference between life and death for Ukrainians on the front lines of this fight for Ukraine, and for the future of the free world.”

Walter Lippmann’s observation that “we must remember that in time of war what is said on the enemy’s side of the front is always propaganda, and what is said on our side of the front is truth and righteousness, the cause of humanity and a crusade for peace” applies here with full force.

Within this sickly sweet tale of Nuland and her doll are the usual hypocrisies, after all, at no point should we expect to hear from her or any other administration official about children (11,500 as of early February according to Haaretz) with “bright eyes and  sweet smiles” starved, crushed or blown to bits by American-made ordnance in Gaza.

How do figures such as Nuland and her superiors, including Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, and Jeff Zients justify an approach to the world that privileges, above all, violence?

To get to the bottom of why things are the way they are we need to think about ideology. And the first thing that needs to be said is that the two leading foreign policy ideologies, neoconservatism and liberal internationalism, are in many respects alien to the American tradition. These ideologies serve as a cover (Hannah Arendt defined ideology as “the knowledgeable dismissal of what is visible”) and are themselves a root cause of the current madness.

The conservative philosopher Russel Kirk once observed that, “Not seldom it has seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.” Neoconservatism is, simply put, a foreign import, an offshoot of Trotskyism with an added veneer of American jingoism.

And there is liberal internationalism. This is older (dating back to the controversies around American involvement in Cuba and the Philippines during the fin de siecle)  and because it is – unlike neoconservatism – a domestic creation, it is all the more difficult to overcome.

There is a serious argument to be made that it is the more dangerous of the two, especially when one considers the track record of post Cold War American administrations on matters of war and peace. Writing in 2018, the distinguished political scientist John Mearsheimer observed that, “the United States has fought seven wars since the end of the Cold War and it initiated all seven. During that period it has been at war two out of every three years.” In the years since Mearsheimer wrote The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities we have had the coming of Biden and further American military action against targets in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and Syria and against Palestine and Russia via America’s proxies. In the years since the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) was passed, successive US administrations have abused that post 9/11 congressional authorization for counterterrorism operations against 85 countries. Eighty-five: ’Why do they hate us?’

As Mearsheimer writes, “The principle source of the problem is that liberalism has an activist mentality woven into the core.” And the “crusader impulse” as he puts it, is hardwired into the brains of liberal interventionists making it almost impossible for them to turn down any opportunity to remake the world by force – even at the cost of, in the case of Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of lives.

There is a hope however that the manifest failure of the liberal interventionist policies will spur a re-think. After all, as Mearsheimer writes, “Countries do sometimes learn from their mistakes.”

But does ours?

James W. Carden is a columnist and former adviser to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the U.S. Department of State. His articles and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Nation, The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, The Spectator, UnHerd, The National Interest, Quartz, The Los Angeles Times, and American Affairs.