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Web Letter

"For example, to the extent that the demolition of totalitarianism deserves to be seen as a prominent theme of contemporary history (and it does), the primary credit for that achievement surely belongs to the Soviet Union. When it came to defeating the Third Reich, the Soviets bore by far the preponderant burden, sustaining 65 percent of all Allied deaths in World War II."

For an historian of Bacevich's caliber, the excerpt above reflects a puzzlingly shallow analysis and, quite honestly, flawed logic. To say the credit for the "demolition of totalitarianism...surely belongs to the Soviet Union" (itself a totalitarian regime that survived long past 1945--an irony not even addressed by the author), based solely on the fact they accounted for 65 percent of all Allied deaths in World War II is akin to saying that since the Persians bore the brunt of the casualties at Thermopylae in their second attack on Greece, the demolition of Greek civilization surely belongs to the Persians. Both examples use the same "analytical" model, yet history favors Bacevich's thesis, while it clearly does not in the latter example, thus invalidating the argument entirely.

Bacevich's sophistry aside, the more disturbing aspect of the article resides in his notion that institutionalized naval gazing and scab picking will somehow redound to our favor on the world stage: "Indeed, we ought to apologize. When it comes to avoiding the repetition of sin, nothing works like abject contrition. We should, therefore, tell the people of Cuba that we are sorry for having made such a hash of US-Cuban relations for so long. President Obama should speak on our behalf in asking the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for forgiveness. He should express our deep collective regret to Iranians and Afghans for what past US interventionism has wrought."

Whether you believe in the Rousseauian perfectibility of man, or whether you subscribe to the Hobbesian theory that "the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," it's difficult to discern what benefit, exactly, in real terms, a massive mea culpa from the United States would achieve. If one resides within the Rousseau camp and believes a national contrition tour of the UN General Assembly would somehow elevate the US in moral terms and eventually serve as an example for other nation states to follow, it strains credulity to think such a gesture would have any discernible impact on, say, a Putin, a Kim Jong Il or an Ahmadinejad. As Becevich points out, there's no doubt many of our foreign policy decisions have set the table from which we dine today, but one could convincingly argue that since nation states act out of national interest versus altruistic ideals, many of those foreign policy decisions have been predicated by the conditions on the ground at that time. Altruism alone won't cut it in international relations, not if you wish to remain a relevant part of the international system.

But more to the point, if the last century wasn't the "American Century," then who, exactly, can lay claim to the title? The Soviet Union? Or are they disqualified by virtue of having failed to make it to the seventy-five-year mark, much less the requisite 100 years needed for century status (never mind those pesky purges and the millions who died under communist rule--it's a simple matter of arithmetic in their case)? How about Japan? Sure, they were a bit, um, aggressive in the early decades, especially in Manchuria, but look how they turned around after World War II and very nearly toppled the US from the top of the economic pyramid in the '80s. Surely their "aggressive" foreign policy toward China and then the US doesn't necessarily disqualify them from laying claim to the "Japanese Century," does it? If only they apologized for their past arrogance and extremism, why, they would be welcomed back into the community of man. Maybe the UK or France could make a go of it, given the horrendous sacrifices both made to fight the Hun not once but twice in the name of liberal freedom. But first, before we can take any claims seriously from these leaders in liberal democracy, we'll first need to have them apologize for all of their previous warifying, colonizing and slave-ifying before we could possibly consider their application.

You get the point.

I'm not exactly sure what the origins are for this confessional vogue, but this seemingly incessant need to purge our national soul of guilt because we currently reside at the top of the food heap is puzzling. Yes, America has made mistakes. Yes, we have strayed from our ideals in the pursuit of national interests. But before we castigate ourselves on the world stage and engage in a grand self-flagellation orgy for all the world to see, it's important to consider that perfection should be viewed as a journey, not a destination. While we may fall short of our ideals from time to time, that doesn't invalidate the ideals, or the value we place in them. Along with this, it's also important to consider that the world doesn't want our apologies, or defense of our ideals, or our high falutin' speechifyin', or any of the other claptrap that so many from the Ivy League seem to value. No, the world doesn't want our bullshit, they want our filthy lucre and the means to protect the spread of our filthy lucre. It's just that simple. Oh sure, other nations may whine and complain when America acts in its own national interest, but nary a peep can be heard when those same nations come to the US with hat in hand requiring this, that, or the other.

So yes, Mr. Bacevich, speaking softly and carrying a big stick is all well and good, so long as you maintain the self-confidence, the national will as it was once known, to wield the big stick if and when deemed necessary. Self-loathing and submission before the community of man may seem all well and good from the halls of academe where the reek of white guilt is the burnt offering smoldering on the altar of multiculturalism, but genuflecting and baring the nape of our neck in contrition is more likely to invite the stroke of the sword than it is a warm embrace. At least that's what Hobbes would argue. And until man demonstrates a radical shift away from his baser nature, I'm inclined to place Rousseau at the end of the stage coach run while I ride shotgun with Hobbes. We may eventually reach the final destination, but there's sure a good chance we'll encounter bad guys along the way, so it's better to shoot first and apologize later. At least that way you still have a chance of making it to the finish line.

Grant Highland

Portland, OR

May 6 2009 - 9:30am

Web Letter

Bacevich sees Luce's "American Century " pitch as an illusion, but it lives on with President Obama. Obama's s0-called State of the Union speech in February called for a new "American century": "The only way this century will be another American century is if we confront at last the price of our dependence on oil and the high cost of healthcare; the schools that aren't preparing our children and the mountain of debt they stand to inherit."

Here he was following up on Henry Luce's claim that the twentieth century was America's time to be the world's good Samaritan, spreader of democracy and hegemon. Add to that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's notion of America as "the indispensable nation." Then go back in time to the Puritan idea that we are a chosen people that will bring light unto the world and that we are a city upon a hill (from the Bible, the followers of Jesus) for all to see, a beacon of goodness. And don't forget the neo-con Project for the New American Century, which promoted American global leadership. Fundamental to the PNAC were the view that "American leadership is both good for America and good for the world" and support for "a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity.

Can this be? Is numero uno in our future?

No doubt, we were a can-do country during the twentieth century--climbing out of the Depression, winning the war, helping our friends with the Marshall Plan and surpassing Great Britain as the major economic and military powerhouse. But we suffered during the Bush years, with the Iraq war debacle, Guantánamo, the Katrina Debacle, the Wall Street meltdown.

Are there still customers for Brand America? Probably not, and God seems to be looking at us with a jaundiced eye, and so maybe now's the time to become a caring, peaceful country like Sweden or Norway. Mixed economies with great social services. And perhaps a new UN, minus the likes of John Bolton, can become the new city upon the hill.

We need to be a kinder, gentler country and Obama needs to rein in talk of a "new American Century."

Howard Kaplan

Belmont, MA

May 4 2009 - 1:37pm

Web Letter

Luce was a magazine publisher who thinks in headlines and circulation. Luce was also a child of missionary parents, and, as a publisher, he had a bully pulpit. Slogans do not fully represent a country or a century. There is a DVD collection and sometimes mini-series on TV called The Century Of War, which would have been a more apt description. Every country has the smell of sulphur in its history, which must be fought and over come. Also, whatever their country, we should respect the honorable service of men and women caught in that horror called war. If they survive, they will carry the physical and or mental scars from that horror for the rest of their lives. They need our support!

Pervis James Casey

Riverside, CA

Apr 29 2009 - 2:16pm

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