A Tragedy of Errors | The Nation


A Tragedy of Errors

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A few years earlier in the Wall Street Journal, Irving's son William and David Brooks co-authored a similar call for a "national greatness conservatism" in which American patriotism is emptied of all content except for military crusades on behalf of democracy abroad. As far as empire is concerned, William Kristol and Max Boot embrace the "e-word" while Frum and Perle disavow it. But if the nation has value only as the host or carrier of a potentially universal ideology, which must be spread abroad by force of arms and subversion, then the distinction between "national greatness" and "imperialism" disappears--in the case of American neoconservatism no less than in the comparable cases of Soviet Communism and Napoleonic liberalism. This kind of crusading secular messianism has nothing at all to do with conventional patriotism and nationalism, even in their liberal forms. Many Americans have thought of our country as a model for other liberal democracies, but hardly any view our nation as a mere staging platform for a "global democratic revolution," to be promoted by invading foreign countries and arming foreign insurrections where no "calculations of national interest are necessary."

About the Author

Michael Lind
Michael Lind, the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of The American Way of Strategy...

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Now that neoconservative policies have led us into disaster, it's time to give liberal internationalism a chance.

During the early years of the civil rights revolution, Theodore Bilbo,
the ferocious segregationist senator from Mississippi, published a book
titled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongreli

The distant influence of the Trotskyist Fourth International is apparent, even though the neocons ransack American history in order to provide their movement with a usable past. Max Boot calls himself a "hard Wilsonian," but in his celebration of Kipling-style imperialism it's hard to see much of Wilson, who viewed international law and international organization as the alternative to the militarization of American society that he dreaded, and who is forever identified with national self-determination of the kind claimed by the Palestinians. William Kristol and David Brooks invoke the name of Theodore Roosevelt. But unlike TR's imperial Progressivism, which supported conservation and prolabor reforms, the domestic side of "national greatness conservatism" is vacuous, consisting chiefly of the suggestion by Brooks and Kristol that the United States build more war memorials, perhaps in response to the body count they anticipate from their wars of democracy promotion.

Like Paul Berman, the maître penseur of the liberal hawks, many neocons try to enlist Lincoln for their cause. But Lincoln opposed the Mexican War and rejected the idea that the United States had a duty to spread democracy by force. In 1859 Lincoln ridiculed "Young America," who "is a great friend of humanity; and his desire for land is not selfish, but merely an impulse to extend the area of freedom. He is very anxious to fight for the liberation of enslaved nations and colonies, provided, always, they have land, and have not any liking for his interference."

The redefinition of American patriotism as zealotry on behalf of a crusading, messianic ideology is compatible with a disrespect for actual American institutions, which, if it were expressed by leftists or liberals, would be denounced as un-American by neocon arbiters of American patriotism like Frum, a Canadian who bothered to become a US citizen only after he'd served in the Bush White House. Most of the career professionals in the national security agencies--the military, the intelligence community and the Foreign Service--oppose the grand strategy of Bush and his neocon political appointees. Logically, therefore, Perle and Frum want to replace lifelong public servants with presidential spoilsmen. Of the intelligence community they write, "It may be time to bring all of these secret warriors into a single paramilitary structure ultimately answerable to the secretary of defense"--not to mention Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz and Under Secretary of Defense Feith. If the intelligence agencies had already been subordinated to civilians in the Pentagon, then Wolfowitz and Feith would not have needed to do an end run around the CIA and the State Department by creating a new intelligence agency, the Office of Special Plans, which tortured data until it supported the policies advocated by the neocons. While neocon appointees in the Pentagon bring the intelligence community to heel, others will colonize the diplomatic service. Perle and Frum, two former political appointees, write, "Next, we should increase sharply the number of political appointees in the State Department and expand their role."

The ideological Gleichschaltung will extend to the US military. The neocons, few of whom ever served in the military, can scarcely conceal their contempt for America's soldiers; Frum and Perle write of "the dead hand of military tradition." (Lieut. Gen. William Boykin, a Christian fundamentalist like so many of Ariel Sharon's American supporters, is acceptable, and has been brought into the Office of the Secretary of Defense to work with civilian appointees Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith.) The career military, so often an obstacle to grandiose neocon schemes, must be transformed into an instrument of preventive wars, argue Perle and Frum: "Will we need to go after a terrorist camp in some remote village in Indonesia? Or raid Syria to retrieve or destroy weapons of mass destruction that may have been sent there by Saddam Hussein for safekeeping? Or strike a decisive blow against a North Korean facility about to produce nuclear weapons for a terrorist customer?"--actions justified, we have reason to fear, on the basis of data doctored by neocon political appointees in the US intelligence community.

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