“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."
Sunday, May 11, 2008
This election is like a circus sideshow: "Step and see the woman with a thousand faces." "Step up and see the incredible weightless man." While we are distracted, higher-purpose persons at State and various think tanks are scheming about foreign policy.
Their thinking and their writings are often ponderous which dissuades many people from reading them but their policy deliberations need to be exposed to a much wider audience. So, read them we must.
The Arabists or the Corporations seeking to expand their markets pose their own kind of problems but it is the do-gooders, the Wilsonian Interventionists, and Multilateralists, etc. who want to expand the influence of American ideals by breaking down national borders (an oxymoron if there ever was one) and exporting democracy.
Right now, we see examples of this in the unrestricted illegal immigration allowed by the current administration, which is a de facto obliteration of the border with Mexico, and the quixotic mission in Iraq (which Doug has briefly commented on, once or twice). If these two examples aren't enough to cripple America you can be sure that, somewhere, our self appointed nobility are planning and executing more foreign entanglements e.g. the U.S. - Columbian Free Trade Agreement. The United States is already a member of NAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the Security and Prosperity Partnership, etc. Many feel that there is a growing trend towards a trilateral North American government.
These "can't we all get along" fantasists, must be repudiated but they can't be unless we get to know them better; get to know their underlying theories and marshal arguments against them. Toward this end I bring you two of the usual suspects: Robert Kagan and his partner in crime, Bill Kristol.
Bill Kristol is editor of the Weekly Standard and chairman of the American neo-conservative think tank Project for the New American Century, or PNAC and he is the son of Irving Kristol, one of the founders of the neoconservative movement, and Gertrude Himmelfarb, who is now Professor Emeritus of the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Bill Kristol is mentioned here because he is a close associate of Robert Kagan (whose latest effort is printed below) and part of a much larger network of Neo-cons that we should become familiar with.
Robert Kagan is a Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is, also, a foreign policy advisor to John McCain, the presumptive Republican Party nominee for President of the United States.
Kagan's bother is Fred Kagan who is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Fred Kagan is married to Kimberly Kagan, Assistant Professor of History at West Point and Executive Director of the
Institute for the Study of War.
His father is Donald Kagan, who is a fellow at the Hudson Institute. Fred, along with his brother Robert, who is a member of the Aspen Strategy Group, and their father Donald are all signatories to the Project for the New American Century manifesto titled Rebuilding America's Defenses.
Fred Kagan is said to have have the ear of President Bush and strongly influenced his plan for a troop surge to change the course of the Iraq War. Kagan is credited as one of the "intellectual architects" of the troop surge plan.
This brief biography of the Kristols and the Kagans doesn't even scratch the surface of the neo-con connections and think tank cross links. And please remember the McCain - Robert Kagan - Fred Kagan - Bush connection.
This Robert Kagan's latest effort.
Neocon Nation: Neoconservatism, c. 1776
Original Kagan essay Here
Condensed version below: about 1/4 original length.
The conventional wisdom today is that a small group of neoconservatives seized the occasion of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, to steer the nation into a war that would never have been fought had not this group of ideologues managed somehow to gain control of national policy.
This version of events implicitly rejects another and simpler interpretation: that after September 11, the Bush administration weighed the risks of leaving Saddam Hussein in power against the risks of fighting a war to remove him and chose the latter.
The decision to invade Iraq might have been correct or mistaken in matters of judgment, tactics, and execution. But they would raise broader issues of foreign policy doctrine and grand strategy.
In his book The Assassins’ Gate, George Packer claims that he is unable to explain why the United States went to war without recourse to the larger doctrine behind it. His premise, and that of most critics, is that neoconservatism was uniquely responsible for the United States going to war in Iraq and that, had it not been for the influence of neoconservative ideas, the war never would have occurred.
Packer thinks neo-conservativism connotes a potent moralism and idealism in world affairs, a belief in America’s exceptional role as a promoter of the principles of liberty and democracy and the exercise of military power, as a tool for defending and advancing moralistic and idealistic causes, as well as a suspicion of international institutions and a tendency toward unilateralism.
A central contention of those who insist that neoconservatism explains the Iraq War is that the doctrine is not only new but outside the foreign policy traditions that have guided the United States throughout its history. The point is, according to those same critics, is that the “neoconservative” foreign policy of the Bush years needs to be understood as an alien presence in the American body.
Is this right? Is it true that moralism, idealism, exceptionalism, militarism, and global ambition are alien to American foreign policy traditions?
To understand where the idea of promoting American principles by force comes from, one could begin with the Republican Party’s campaign platform of 1900. The party leaders congratulated themselves and the country for their recently concluded war with Spain. It was, they declared, a war fought for "liberty and human rights” that had given “ten millions of the human race” a “new birth of freedom” and the American people “a new and noble responsibility."
John Quincy Adams considered the United States “destined by God and by nature to be the most populous and powerful people ever combined under one social contract.” Hamilton, even in the 1790s, looked forward to the day when America would be powerful enough to assist peoples in the “gloomy regions of despotism” to rise up against the “tyrants” that oppressed them.
This young, muscular America was “the just man armed,” and when World War I came, Roosevelt and others of his generation regarded it as America’s second great moral crusade. The Civil War had been the first. “As our fathers fought with slavery and crushed it, in order that it not seize and crush them,”
Woodrow Wilson, in his message to Congress in 1917, said, “The right is more precious than peace." The day had finally come when America was “privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness.”(my italics)
The first decades of the twentieth century saw a steady stream of military interventions in the affairs of Latin American and Caribbean peoples, often launched with the professed aim of “teaching them to elect good men” (Woodrow Wilson) or lifting them “up out of the discord and turmoil of continual revolution into a general public sense of justice and determination to maintain order” (Elihu Root).
Then there was the great moral crusade against Nazism and fascism — a battle for democratic civilization.
In the middle there was John F. Kennedy proclaiming America’s determination to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
It is hard to believe that Americans today have really forgotten this long history. The idea that today’s policies represent a decisive break from the past would certainly come as a surprise to the many critics of American foreign policy across the generations, for there has not been a single criticism leveled at neoconservatism in recent years that was not leveled at American foreign policy hundreds of times over the past two centuries.
A big, expansive foreign policy requires a big, powerful central government to advance it and such a government imperils American liberties. It also imperils its democratic soul. As John Quincy Adams memorably put it in 1821, America might become “the dictatress of the world,” but she would “be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”
In the “Wilsonian” twentieth century, conservatives fought Wilson’s interventionist foreign policies partly because they saw in them the extension of his progressive domestic policies, which they regarded as bordering on despotic. The more radical progressives like Randolph Bourne believed the war to make the world safe for democracy would undermine democracy in the United States, and given the undemocratic excesses of the Wilson years — which dwarf anything that has occurred since September 11 — Bourne was not entirely mistaken.
Robert A. Taft, the “Mr. Republican” of his day has long been in bad odor for opposing the war against fascism. But his objections to America’s global involvement, including against Nazi Germany, were not those of a bumpkin but of a highly sophisticated conservative critic of American ambition and hubris. “We should be prepared to defend our own shores,” Taft warned, “but we should not undertake to defend the ideals of democracy in foreign countries.” Otherwise the United States would become a “meddlesome Mattie, interfering in trouble throughout the world,” with “our fingers in every pie.”
What does it tell us that decades-old critiques of American foreign policy seem so strikingly apt and useful in critiquing today’s “neoconservative” foreign policies? What it tells us, quite simply, is that what many consider the neoconservative aberration may not be such a great aberration after all. The tendencies associated these days with neoconservatism are more deeply rooted in American traditions than the critics care to admit, which means they will not so easily be uprooted, even by the coming epochal presidential election.
What are the sources of its enduring power? One source is the American commitment to universal principles embedded in the nation’s founding documents, and the belief that these principles are not debatable but are, as Hamilton suggested, written in the stars by the hand of God. Americans believe they know the truth, and they do not admit alternate truths. Democracy is the only legitimate form of government, and America as the greatest democracy is the most legitimate of all.
American foreign policy’s most astute critics have always understood that it is not conservatism but this liberal and progressive idealism that is the engine of American expansionism and hegemonism.
The expansive, moralistic, militaristic tradition in American foreign policy is the hearty offspring of this marriage between Americans’ driving ambitions and their overpowering sense of righteousness.
The story of America’s first century is not one of virtuous restraint but of an increasingly powerful nation systematically eliminating all competitors on the North American continent. The story of its second century is not one of caution and a recognition of limits but of a steady and determined rise to global dominance.
Today, many hope that the war in Iraq will quench once and for all Americans’ messianic impulses and their belief in the virtues of power. But will it? Are Americans, either Democrats or Republicans, prepared to forfeit either their power or their belief in America’s exceptional role in the world?
These days few people are more vigorous spokesmen for the conservative critique than George F. Will. “On foreign policy,” he writes, “conservatism begins, and very nearly ends, by eschewing abroad the fatal conceit that has been liberalism’s undoing domestically — hubris about controlling what cannot, and should not, be controlled.”
And of course exhibit “A” of this misguided hubris was the intervention in Iraq — a war fought for the “delusory goal” of implanting a democracy there “that would inspire emulation, transforming the region.” Conservatives ought not to have had to learn “on the job” about “the limits of power to subdue an unruly world,” or succumbed to the “generous but preposterous assumption” that a people like the Iraqis could “spontaneously” flourish under a democratic regime “without long acculturation in the necessary habits and mores.”
A “constant” of America’s “national character,” Will explained, and “a component of American patriotism” had always been this “messianic impulse.” It derived from the belief that America’s “national identity is bound up with acceptance of a responsibility to further democracy.”
And while there had always been “many Americans who reject that premise” and who have insisted that America “has no responsibility toward democracy abroad,” nevertheless a majority of Americans have “always thought otherwise.” The “restoration of democracy” was part of “a tradition with a distinguished pedigree.
Which brings us back to the question of whether “neoconservatives” dragged the United States into war in 2003. As a purely practical matter, the suggestion has always presented a puzzle. How did they do it?
The Bush administration had not brought a new doctrine to bear in considering the Iraq question. The specific rationale for the war it inherited from the Clinton administration. The fear of Saddam’s weapons programs, the concern that his weapons might someday end up in the hands of terrorists, the belief that containment was failing, that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant and a serial aggressor — all these arguments had been made in public and in detail in the years when the Clinton administration grappled with the problem of Iraq.
Americans have an image of themselves as a peace-loving people who generally mind their own business unless blatantly provoked. This self-image is profoundly at odds with reality.
- Robert Kagan