During the 2000 campaign, candidate George W. Bush proclaimed that America must be “humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course.” But that was then. September 11 opened up a door through which such rhetoric might be unceremoniously tossed. Its replacement: a decade-in-the-making, neoconservative national security strategy envisioning a global US military empire and a degree of imperial ambition with few, if any, historical parallels.
What makes the new policy’s promulgation politically possible is the lack of interest most Americans evince in foreign affairs, save matters of war and peace. The market-minded media follow suit, and the net result is a thoroughly undemocratic state of affairs, in which the politico/military resources of the most powerful nation in human history become the plaything of a tiny group of shifting “players” whose identities change with every issue: AIPAC gets the Middle East; Miami gets Cuba; multinationals get the WTO and the destruction of Kyoto; Christian fundamentalists (these days) get population planning, etc.
If the enunciation of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz/ Perle Pax Americana doctrine is to have any benefit, it will be in finally forcing the consideration of an alternative vision. Somewhat amazingly, essays questioning the costs and value of the new American empire recently graced the simultaneous covers of US News & World Report (by Jay Tolson), The New York Times Magazine (by Michael Ignatieff) and Mother Jones (by George Packer and Todd Gitlin). Packer, addressing himself primarily to liberals, properly points out that the Democrats have had no foreign policy since Vietnam. He notes, “The usual response is to moan about the party’s spineless leaders, but…they can’t stand up because they have nowhere to stand, no alternate vision of what purpose America’s enormous power in the world should serve.”
Packer speaks for many liberals when he writes: “A truly liberal foreign policy starts with the idea that the things American liberals want…for their own country–liberty and equality ensured by collective action, through government and civil society–should be America’s goal for the rest of the world as well.” He imagines “nation building on a far greater scale than we’ve seen–not just peacekeeping in Afghanistan, but economic development in Uganda and support for democratic forces in Iran.”
Yet these were exactly the goals Lyndon Johnson hoped to achieve in Vietnam. As the liberal realist Stanley Hoffmann observes in the January 13 American Prospect, there is no indication we are any more competent to carry this kind of thing off now. Hoffmann warns, “We don’t have the skill or the knowledge it would take to manipulate the domestic politics of many countries, or even to choose the right leaders for other people. It is blind hubris to assume that we will ‘improve’ the world by projecting on others a model of democracy that has worked–not without upheavals–in the rich and multicultural United States but has little immediate relevance in much of the rest of the world.”