JUST WAIT FOR THE CHAPTERS WE HAVEN'T WRITTEN YET…:

November 28, 2006

Once upon a time in the west: a review of DANGEROUS NATION: America and the World 1600-1898 by Robert Kagan (Robert Cooper, Sunday Times of London)

The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 — that the US would not accept European interference in the Western hemisphere — was unilateral, like all subsequent American “doctrines”. But America also retained an ideological preference for Britain over the continental powers; if not a republic, it was at least a liberal monarchy. This was not the special relationship that the British still like to imagine. Britain was the superpower of the day; and it is this that accounts for the remarkable survival of Canada on a continent where the United States took everything else within reach. Dealing with America is always easier if you are powerful.

Why was the nation dangerous? Because it believed in itself and in its cause. America, Kagan tells us, was never a status quo power. It wanted to remake the world in its own image; and because its cause was righteous it saw no reason to limit its power. Reacting to the American wish to be rid altogether of the French and Indians, Edmund Burke argued for a balance of power in America. The idea that you could feel secure “only by having no other Nation near you was alien and repulsive to the European mind”. The search for absolute security — which was American policy then and now — represented, like the search for absolute power, immoderation; and that was dangerous.

So are idealism and democracy. The unnecessary wars that America fought in the 19th century — in 1812 against Britain, and in1898 against Spain — began on a wave of popular enthusiasm. (By contrast, America entered the necessary wars of the 20th century with reluctance.) Throughout this period the United States was long on ambition but short on the power to impose its ideals. But by the end of the century it had taken over most of the continent, settled the question of slavery, and was sending gunboats to Samoa, Brazil and Korea.

Dangerous Nation’s emphasis on democracy as a constant goal, accompanied occasionally by regime change (starting 200 years ago, during the war on piracy, with an attempt to overthrow the Pasha of Tripoli), make this a neoconservative history. Perhaps, but the case is well put and is beautifully written. This reader could not put it down, and cannot wait for part two.

MORE:
Back to the Future (Fouad Ajami, November 26, 2006, US News)

The sin of George W. Bush, to hear his critics tell it, is that he unleashed the forces of freedom in Arab-Islamic lands only to beget a terrible storm. In Iraq and in Lebanon, the furies of sectarianism are on the loose; and in that greater Middle East stretching from Pakistan to Morocco, the forces of freedom and reform appear chastened. Autocracy is fashionable once again, and that bet on freedom made in the aftermath of the American venture into Iraq now seems, to the skeptics, fatally compromised. For decades, we had lived with Arab autocracies, befriended them, taken their rule as the age-old dominion in lands unfit for freedom. Then came this Wilsonian moment proclaimed in the course of the war on Iraq. To the “realists,” it had been naive and foolhardy to hold out to the Arabs the promise of freedom. We had bet on the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, thrilled to these young people in Beirut’s plazas reclaiming their country from Syrian tyranny. But that promise, too, has been battered, and in the shadows, the old policy of ceding Lebanon to the rule of Syria’s informers and policemen now claims a measure of vindication. On the surface of things, it is the moment of the “realists,” then: They speak with greater confidence. The world had lived down, as it were, to their expectations. And now they wish to return history to its old rhythm.

But in truth there can be no return to the bosom of the old order. American power and the very force of what had played out in the Arab-Islamic lands in recent years have rendered the old order hollow, mocked its claims to primacy and coherence. The moment our soldiers flushed Saddam Hussein from his filthy spider hole, we had put on display the farce and swindle of Arab authority.

Primacy and power. We can’t shy away from the very history we unleashed. We had demonstrated to the Arabs that the rulers are not deities; we had given birth to the principle of political accountability. In the same vein, we may not be comfortable with all the manifestations of an emancipated Arab Shiism–we recoil, as we should, from the Mahdi Army in Iraq and from Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut–but the Shiite stepchildren of the Arab world have been given a new claim on the Arab political order of primacy and power. In the annals of Arab history, this is nothing short of revolutionary. The Sunni Arab regimes have a dread of the emancipation of the Shiites. But American power is under no obligation to protect their phobias and privileges. History has served notice on their world and their biases. We can’t fall for their legends, and we ought to remember that the road to all these perditions, and the terrors of 9/11, had led through Sunni movements that originated in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

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