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Liberal Hawk Down | The Nation

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Liberal Hawk Down

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It may be objected that whatever the political provenance of the idea, surely a strategy of democratization is in itself a good thing. And as the ultimate goal of the United States and European strategy in the Muslim world, this is true. But when this becomes the only goal and the only strategy, and when the understanding of the historical development of democracy is extremely simplistic, then this approach is very wrong. Its encouragement of a messianic vision of the United States and its role in the world fuels self-righteous nationalist extremism in America itself. Such attitudes openly despise the interests and views of other nations.

This essay is adapted from Anatol Lieven's next book, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, to be published this month by Oxford University Press.

About the Author

Anatol Lieven
Anatol Lieven, a professor at King's College, London, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author...

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In particular, the authoritarian nature of most states in the Arab and Muslim world is used as an excuse to dismiss out of hand not only the views of their rulers but those of their peoples--with potentially catastrophic results for the struggle against Islamist terrorism. More widely, this messianic attitude leads to a curious but historically familiar mixture of rampant idealism and complete absence of charity, in the wider biblical sense. C. Vann Woodward warned of this danger during the Vietnam War:

The true American mission, according to those who support this view, is a moral crusade on a worldwide scale. Such people are likely to concede no validity whatever and grant no hearing to the opposing point of view, and to appeal to a higher law to justify bloody and revolting means in the name of a noble end. For what end could be nobler, they ask, than the liberation of man.... The irony of the moralistic approach, when exploited by nationalism, is that the high motive to end injustice and immorality actually results in making war more amoral and horrible than ever and in shattering the foundations of the political and moral order upon which peace has to be built.

As Woodward indicated, this attitude encourages contempt for and hostility to states; not only particular states but the great majority of states that do not conform to American standards of democracy and economic success; and even those that do, like the ones of Western Europe, can be damned for being too cowardly, cynical and decadent to support America's courageous and idealistic mission to the world. This hostility represents a grave threat to US strategy in the war on terrorism.

A central question raised by James Mann in his book Rise of the Vulcans, and in my own forthcoming book, is why the Bush Administration and so many American citizens have been so obsessed with the alleged threat from states that have a tiny fraction of American power and can also be deterred by the threat of massive retaliation. In Iraq, this attitude has led the Administration to destroy a state that, though savagely oppressive, posed no serious threat to the United States. In the place of Baathist Iraq the Bush Administration and its supporters have created a brutal anarchy that is the ideal breeding ground for terrorists who really do pose a dreadful threat to the United States.

This hostility to authoritarian states--even those that have been very successful in improving the lives of their peoples--is, naturally, generally shared among liberals in the Western NGO world. It is reflected, for example, in the precepts of Michael Ignatieff's recent work. The risk is that it can bring liberals together with imperialists of the neoconservative type in an alliance that much of the world is bound to see as highly reminiscent of the alliance between Christian missionaries and Western imperial soldiers in the nineteenth century. Despite their often genuine idealism and good intentions, the missionaries in the last resort depended on the soldiers, and had to abide the colonial orders that the soldiers created, however much these conflicted with Christian ethics.

The missionaries, and their democratizing descendants of today, would have done better to remember a certain Christian adage about the man who dines with the devil needing a long spoon. The liberal hawks in particular have failed to bring such a spoon to their relationship with the policies of the Bush Administration and the neoconservatives, and in consequence they are in the process of becoming dinner themselves. At present, the liberal hawks' legs are still sticking out of the neoconservatives' collective mouth, kicking faintly, but in a few years, at this rate, only a pathetic, muffled squeaking will remain, protesting that if only they had been in charge, all the disasters of the coming years would not have happened.

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