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What Lies Beneath: Bush and the Liberal Idealists

Ideologies seldom serve the purposes their creators intended. Fanatics shear off the nuances of ideas and drive the jagged points into their enemies. Ordinary politicians turn the sharp edges into anodyne talking points to soothe the ordinary voter. Over time, the original meaning of a creed gets distorted, reversed, or forgotten. But if it speaks to a powerful desire of those in power, the ideology endures, even flourishes, albeit under a different name.

So it is with the big ideas that, together with the phantom threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, motivated the United States to invade and occupy Iraq. In March 2003, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz promised the Veterans of Foreign Wars that the imminent conflict “would be like wars that you’ve fought in, a war of liberation, a war to secure peace and freedom not only for ourselves, but for the Iraqi people who have suffered so long under one of the world’s most brutal tyrannies.” Two years later, George W. Bush declared, “Across the generations, we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave.” The president continued, “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for liberty, we will stand with you.”

There is nothing conservative about these statements. They would have distressed major thinkers on the right—from Edmund Burke at the end of the eighteenth century to Robert Nisbet two centuries later—who believed the sudden overthrow of authorities inexorably leads to anarchy and long periods of war. Nor, contrary to conventional wisdom, did Bush’s grand ambitions originate in the minds of neoconservatives. During the 1990s, some commentators argued that the thinking of Leon Trotsky had a major influence on leftists who became neocons, such as Irving Kristol, Sidney Hook, Nathan Glazer, and Joshua Muravchik. These thinkers, according to John Judis, writing in Foreign Affairs, “came to see foreign policy as a crusade, the goal of which was first global socialism, then social democracy, and finally democratic capitalism.”

Judis was correct in drawing attention to the long history of messianism in U.S. foreign policy. But he didn’t bother to explain how neoconservatives could so easily transmute Trotsky’s call for “permanent revolution” into a zeal for free markets and competitive elections. And none of the thinkers Judis mentioned were still followers of the goateed old Bolshevik in 1940 when a Soviet agent drove an ice pick into his brain. Muravchik, who made his name in the Reagan years as a muscular anti-Communist, wasn’t even born yet.

The desire to remake the world into an ideal democracy predates the lives of Trotsky and all of his erstwhile comrades. The impulse is older even than Woodrow Wilson’s failed attempt to build a new world based on progressive American principles. It was, in fact, an original project of the left in Europe as well as the United States. This centuries-old precept maintains that solidarity with democrats in other lands, whether liberal or socialist, must be accompanied by meaningful deeds. These can take different forms—from traveling lecturers armed only with pamphlets to troops and warplanes. A competing tradition on the left opposes such interventions as arrogant and hypocritical: ordinary people can and should govern themselves without the help of well-meaning outsiders. What is more, spreading these ideals abroad, particularly with force, can imperil them at home.

Throughout its history, the left has spoken with both voices, the assertive universalist and the champion of self-determination. Although he’s not likely to recognize himself as such, George W. Bush epitomizes the more aggressive side of this liberal tradition. His colossal blunder in Iraq owes a good deal to the enduring appeal of ideas that first sprouted on the left among activists who had little power to do anything but talk and write. When radicals and liberals did gain the opportunity to test their worldview in foreign lands, they produced disasters on a scale that rivaled or surpassed the current folly.

Competition between the expansive and minimalist strains of contemporary liberalism began in the early nineteenth century, at the dawn of the modern left, which included both secularists and devout Christians. In Britain, industrialist Robert Owen promoted the idea of a “new moral world,” based on self-governing communities in which work and property were shared and in which women enjoyed the same rights as men. The name of one group he founded, The Association of All Classes of All Nations, made his ambition clear.

Owen and his fellow “utopian” socialists thought religion was just a collection of silly myths. But evangelical crusaders in America felt a similar calling “to effect an entire change in the character and condition of the human race.” They believed their campaigns to abolish slavery, build humane prisons, ban commerce in alcohol and prostitutes, enact women’s suffrage, and settle all conflicts peacefully would, over time and with grace, usher in the Kingdom of God—a perfect society. Rejecting the Calvinist doctrine that only the “elect” would get to heaven, they declared that any individual could achieve “entire sanctification.”

Christian radicals, while they often cited the Declaration of Independence, were as determined to spread their ideals abroad as were their secular counterparts. “My country is the world; my countrymen are mankind,” William Lloyd Garrison announced on the masthead of his newspaper, the Liberator. If it was sinful for Americans to hold slaves, sell whiskey, and keep women from voting, why should these practices be tolerated in any other nation? Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner asked a Boston crowd in 1855, “Are you for God or are you for the Devil?” Whether radicals put their faith in reason, nation, or scripture, they came to the same conclusion: either humankind would come to share their vision of a perfect society or the world would descend into a new dark age of misery and hatred.

The mass socialist parties that mushroomed toward the end of the nineteenth century articulated their own version of this messianic creed, although it was stamped more by the Enlightenment than by the Sermon on the Mount. Socialists learned from Marx that capitalism was an unstable system that would eventually collapse, regardless of what one did to further that outcome. Still, it would be immoral just to sit around in cafés and workshops waiting for the inevitable. Revolutionaries had to “heighten the contradictions” by bringing the good, class-conscious news to proletarians and their intellectual allies. For practical reasons, Socialists organized parties in every nation-state. But following Marx’s dictum that “the workers have no country,” they gave their true loyalty to the global movement still in embryo. As the French Communard Eugène Pottier put it in his ubiquitous lyric, “Tis the final conflict, let each stand in his place, the International will be the human race.”

Despite their militant rhetoric, Socialists and other radicals in the nineteenth century were reluctant to endorse the use of organized violence to spread their beliefs. Professional armies easily crushed the untrained, poorly equipped revolutionaries of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871. In the United States, it took John Brown’s raid and the outbreak of the Civil War for Garrison and his fellow abolitionists to abandon their faith in “non-resistance.” The Socialist International, fearing that rivalries between capitalist powers could lead to war, declared in 1907, “The proletariat, which contributes most of the soldiers and makes most of the material sacrifices is a natural opponent of war which contradicts its highest goal—the creation of an economic order on a Socialist basis which will bring about the solidarity of all peoples.”

World War I tossed this pacific creed into the dustbin of history. Not only did the biggest left parties in Europe vote to send their nations’ workers off to kill the workers of other nations, but radicals like Lenin and Trotsky who cursed this betrayal contended that armed revolutionaries could hasten the triumph of socialism. Lenin famously called for “turning the imperialist war into a civil war,” and the Bolsheviks consolidated their power in Russia only after an internal conflict in which millions died.

As Lenin would shortly discover, the lure of Communism had severe limits. In 1920, the Red Army invaded Poland, which had just gained its independence after more than a century under foreign rule. Lenin, who believed Polish workers and peasants would gladly throw off the yoke of their homegrown “masters,” explained, “we could, and had the obligation to, exploit the military situation to launch an offensive war.” He also hoped a Communist triumph in Poland would embolden radicals next door in Germany to make their own revolution. But most Poles viewed the Bolsheviks as foreign aggressors, and their army mobilized to push the Reds away from the outskirts of Warsaw and back across the contested border. It would be almost two decades before Soviet troops again invaded Poland. And by 1939, “socialism in one country” had come to mean that aiding Communists elsewhere was a secondary priority, at best, to securing the vast homeland.

Even as the Bolsheviks were planning to take power in Russia, American radicals were immersed in their own bitter dispute over whether one ought to cleanse the world through war or confine one’s exertions to the homefront. When Woodrow Wilson announced his crusade to “save the world for democracy,” most socialists and all anarchists responded by refreshing the old anti-militarist gospel. Any war led by a “capitalist” government, they argued, could only be motivated by greed and a hunger for empire. Eugene Debs and hundreds of other activists went to prison for asserting that belief, and the federal government deported Emma Goldman back to Russia.

Nonetheless, a small but determined minority of progressives took up a version of Goldman’s argument. William Jennings Bryan, who had been Wilson’s first secretary of state, predicted that “Eastern financiers are going to force this country into war in order to make their investments in the war loans of the Allies profitable.” He endorsed holding a national plebiscite to decide whether to send troops into harm’s way. Senator Robert La Follette, a Republican, argued that intervention would only victimize workers and the poor “who are always the ones called upon to rot in the trenches [and] have no organized power.” But that April, just five other senators joined him in voting against the declaration of war.

As Americans began to mobilize, young New York writer Randolph Bourne expressed doubt that they could achieve Woodrow Wilson’s goal of “a war free from any taint of self-seeking, a war that will secure the triumph of democracy and internationalize the world.” His protest got him ostracized from the ranks of urbane progressive intellectuals like his one-time mentor John Dewey. For Dewey and his ilk, the war was a unique opportunity. Behind Wilson’s eloquent leadership, Americans could help free the world from the poisonous national rivalries that had driven millions into the trenches. Because the European allies dismissed any notion of “a peace without victory,” the pro-war progressives, wrote Bourne, “are therefore suffering the humiliation of seeing their . . . strategy for peace transformed into a strategy for prolonged war.”

After a few years of disillusionment following the Armistice, most liberals restored their confidence that wars fought in the name of progressive ideals were necessarily good wars, although some figures on the moderate left continued to dissent from that logic. After World War II began in Europe, Norman Thomas, who had succeeded Debs at the helm of the Socialist Party, served on the board of the America First Committee. Senator Burton Wheeler, an anti–corporate Democrat from Montana, declared that Wall Street was once more planning to plunge the nation into a conflict in which working-class Americans would fight and die. But with every advance of Hitler’s juggernaut, the number of liberals and radicals who agreed with them grew smaller.

Early in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who began his career as an ardent Wilsonian, called for a military build-up to make possible a “world founded upon four essential human freedoms.” Among these was economic security (“freedom from hunger”)—an age-old goal of the left. A year later, Vice President Henry Wallace called the world war in which Americans were now fully engaged a “people’s revolution.” With the evangelical fervor of a William Lloyd Garrison, Wallace predicted, “Strong in the strength of the Lord, we who fight in the people’s cause will never stop until the cause is won.” Wallace would soon become a Soviet apologist, but during World War II, he was one of many who helped promote the notion, particularly among liberal intellectuals and politicians, that the world’s wealthiest and most potent nation would always be motivated primarily by moral ends.

Of course, the Vietnam War made this assumption quite difficult for anyone on the broad left to sustain. The long, losing battle the U.S. fought against an army of Asian peasants soured liberals on the legacy of Wilson and FDR. By the McGovern campaign in 1972, most had come to agree with radical historian William Appleman Williams, who scorned American foreign policy as the “imperialism of idealism.” Three years later, when North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon, hardly any liberal Democrat, including Senator Ted Kennedy, still longed to fulfill John Kennedy’s vow “to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”



Then a funny thing happened on the way to the humbling of American idealism: conservatives revived the crusade. A self-confident messianism of the right replaced the moribund messianism of the left. As president, Ronald Reagan vowed to lead the democratic West against the “evil empire” of the USSR and took forceful steps—invading Grenada, arming the Contras in Nicaragua, and placing a new generation of nuclear missiles in Western Europe—to put the despots in the Kremlin on the defensive. “If, in fact, we are to follow the Chamberlain liberal Democratic line of withdrawal from the planet,” warned an obscure Georgia congressman named Newt Gingrich in 1983, “we would truly have tyranny everywhere.”

This was a marked departure from conservative tradition. Before the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor, most Americans on the right had been steadfast opponents of American intervention in World War II. Pointing to Wilson’s false promises of 1917, they were leery of any attempt to promote democratic principles by force. In 1941, Senator Robert Taft, then the most respected Republican in Congress, opposed Lend-Lease and feared that FDR would enact wartime measures that would make the president “a complete dictator over the lives and property of all our citizens.” Taft and most of his fellow conservatives were initially no more eager to use American money and arms to save the world from Communism. They voted against both the Marshall Plan and the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “We have quietly adopted a tendency to interfere in the affairs of other nations,” Taft grumbled in 1949, “to assume that we are a kind of demigod and Santa Claus to solve the problems of the world.”

Taft died in 1953, and William F. Buckley’s National Review and the Goldwater campaign of 1964 drove anyone holding such views to the far reaches of the growing conservative movement. Asking “why not victory?” leaders of the New Right criticized liberals for believing that co-existence with Communism was possible and desirable. But they did not yet put forth a messianic alternative. In 1971, amid the debacle in Vietnam, Irving Kristol, the so-called father of neoconservatism, warned, “to think we have it in our power to change people so as to make the human estate radically better than it is . . . [is an] arrogant assumption . . . acting upon this assumption we shall surely end up making our world worse than it need have been.”

It took a former New Dealer and union president to break decisively with that sober judgment. With support from former liberals like himself, Ronald Reagan called for sweeping changes (even a “revolution”) in human affairs. The age-old rhetoric of the left was thus appropriated by one of its most effective opponents. During his acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican convention, Reagan cited both Thomas Paine’s vow that “We have it in our power to begin the world over again” and FDR’s 1936 pledge that Americans had “a rendezvous with destiny.” Reagan’s theory was more virtuous than his practice: as president, he sent arms to a brutal military ruler in Guatemala and opposed sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. But he had the muse of history on his side: the collapse of European Communism just after he left office appeared to confirm the wisdom of his anti-totalitarian, populist vision.

Lately, conservatives have tried to apply the same creed to the Islamic world. In overthrowing Saddam Hussein, argued William Kristol and the editor of this journal, the U.S. should stress “the universality of American principles. . . . By defining our aims in democratic, rather than in specifically American, terms, U.S. policies may attract wider support.” The fact that many on the right, including President George W. Bush, were ardent evangelicals only further bolstered their faith in the mission. Freedom, declared the president in 2003, “was God’s gift to humanity.” Only a fool or evildoer would turn it down.

It should have come as no surprise that some prominent intellectuals on the liberal left—including George Packer, Peter Beinart, and Paul Berman—made this project their own, while taking care to discard its spiritual trappings. During the 1990s, Slobodan Milosevic’s assault on Kosovo, as well as a certain fondness for the Clinton administration, had cured them of their own Vietnam syndrome. They defended NATO’s bombing campaign, using arguments analogous to those their forerunners had made in defense of the Spanish Republic in the 1930s. “I don’t think it matters much if this particular fire isn’t dangerous to me and mine,” wrote Michael Walzer, co-editor of Dissent. “I can’t just sit and watch . . . the price of sitting and watching is a kind of moral corruption that leftists (and others too) must always resist.”

So on the eve of war in Iraq, many of these same people (although not Walzer) defended Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. The administration, after all, was evoking the same ideals as Garrison, Dewey, and FDR. And didn’t Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein represent two sides of the same reactionary ideology—what Berman called “the Muslim totalitarian idea” and what Christopher Hitchens called “Islamo-fascism?” On the eve of war, Berman observed, “I think the neocons are correct in supposing that something fundamental has gone wrong in the political culture of the Middle East, and that radical measures are required to set the wrong aright. They are right to speak about liberal democracy too.” But the pro-war leftists had failed to learn a lesson the bloody past century ought to have taught them.

Since it became clear that the mission in Iraq was unlikely to be accomplished, most liberals have set aside their world-changing ambitions, at least for now. In retrospect, most see how illogical it was to expect men like Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, whose domestic policies they loathed, to be capable of installing a new order of self-government, civil liberty, and secular culture in Baghdad. “The nuggets of important insight we had” about the evils of Islamist militancy, writes Johann Hari, a British journalist who once supported the war, “have been cluster-bombed and suicide-massacred to death in the killing fields of Mesopotamia. . . . To rally the left to solidarity with the victims of Baathism and Islamism is an honorable cause; to do it with the weapon of neoconservatism was a disastrous misjudgment.”

Over the past year, a growing number of intellectuals on the right have been voicing their own doubts about the grand mission they once trumpeted far and wide. Op-ed columnists David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer now wonder whether a democratic Iraq is even possible and endorse a three-way partition of the country. Francis Fukuyama compares his former neoconservative allies to Leninists who believed they could force their ideology on other nations. “Leninism was a tragedy in its Bolshevik version,” he wrote in the New York Times, “and it has returned as farce when practiced by the United States.” Paraphrasing Marx to accuse one’s fellow conservatives for behaving like Communists was a deft and historically observant move. The fact that President Bush likes to describe himself as a “dissident”—a figure akin to Václav Havel or Anatol Sharansky—illustrates how little support his faith still engenders on either side of the political divide.

These disputes, of course, mirror a broader debate among Americans that goes back to George Washington’s farewell address. Since its founding, the United States has always been a “nation with the soul of a church,” as G. K. Chesterton once put it. No American politician or political movement has ever gained national power by dismissing humanitarian concerns or firmly opposing any intervention that does not serve the nation’s immediate economic or security interests. Liberals correctly regret that Bill Clinton did not dispatch troops to stop the genocide in Rwanda; many wish George W. Bush would do so in Darfur. Conservatives correctly assail progressives who refrain from criticizing the abuse of women and the repression of Christians and Jews that occur in many Muslim countries. An “anti-imperialist” left that is silent about injustices abroad is not worthy of the name.

But there has always been a critical distinction between standing up for moral principles and seeking to impose them on others. What distinguishes the latter practice is a zeal grounded in the militancy of crusading radicalism. A few months after the occupation of Iraq, Nicholas Lemann wrote, “The understaffing of the reconstruction and the lack of post-combat planning wasn’t the result merely of Donald Rumsfeld’s bullheadedness. It stemmed from the President’s soaring conviction that courageous intentions must inevitably produce pleasing results.” Since the American Civil War, the U.S. has not infrequently dispatched troops to underdeveloped lands in the name of democracy, self-determination, and the like. But most of these adventures—in Cuba, Mexico, Haiti, Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, and Iraq—stirred up more hostility than conversions. Such “military humanism,” a term coined by German sociologist Ulrich Beck, is nearly always a temptation that leads to failure.

Randolph Bourne appreciated the dilemma of having to accept a bloody outcome one can do little to change. “The final solution will neither be short nor soon,” he predicted about World War I. “There are too many old crimes unpunished, too many spoilations unrecompensed, to make this struggle anything but the prelude to a long series of laborious adjustments.” Almost a century later, it is no easier to advance our ideals without betraying the arrogance of power.

Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University. He is the author of four books including A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan.

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