Paved With Good Intentions

The Bush administration says its push toward global dominance is driven by high-minded ideals. But that's part of the problem.

A self-congratulatory poster that used to be found on dorm-room walls said, "Revolutions begin in quiet places." Go back to 1996 and an article in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs. A quiet place, a quiet time. What was happening on the world scene? It's hard to remember anything at all. From a couple of minutes' thought I can come up with the U.N. deployment in Bosnia after the Dayton Agreement and the terror bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. It was the REM stage of the post-Cold War American sleep -- a good time for a revolution to begin.

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The article, by William Kristol and Robert Kagan, was called "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy." Its basic argument was this: In the years after the end of the Cold War, America lost its sense of mission and purpose in the world. It fell into drift. It scaled back its military and diplomatic power, and it allowed other countries to threaten the stable world order that American power alone could sustain. The article called for a dramatic increase in defense spending, but not only that -- it also urged that American influence be expanded as widely as possible all over the world. This expansion wouldn't merely advance American interests. More important, it would promote American principles, which would almost always rhyme with American interests, and which would make the world a freer, more democratic, more prosperous, and ultimately more peaceful place. This new American reign would be a "benevolent global hegemony."

In both the article and the introductory essay to their subsequent anthology -- called Present Dangers and brought out in 2000 by Encounter Books, a small, conservative San Francisco publisher -- Kristol and Kagan say some surprising things. They claim FDR and Harry Truman as political ancestors. There is much talk of democracy and civic activism and justice. They embrace the humanitarian interventions of the Ô90s, in Bosnia, Kosovo -- even, apparently, in Haiti. They want more of the same in other places where tyranny and genocide and unconventional weapons threaten massive numbers of people. They don't heap scorn on international institutions and alliances. "Those alliances are a bulwark of American power," they write in Present Dangers, "and, more important still, they constitute the heart of the liberal democratic civilization that the United States seeks to preserve and extend. Critics of a strategy of American pre-eminence sometimes claim that it is a call for unilateralism. It is not. The notion that the United States could somehow Ôgo it alone' and maintain its pre-eminence without its allies is strategically misguided. It is also morally bankrupt." Morality, in the form of the universal principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence -- and always backed by staggering military power and a ready willingness to use it -- is the keystone of this new foreign policy. Ideas have consequences: Seven years after the Foreign Affairs article, many of its arguments and phrases have been adopted at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Enterprising journalists have traced the origins of the Bush administration's doctrine of pre-emptive war and its National Security Strategy to a leaked 1992 Pentagon paper, the brainchild of Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, that was repudiated by the first President Bush. But that document is only the glowering, belligerent face of the second President Bush's foreign policy, which actually has two founding documents -- two faces. The other face is the Kristol and Kagan article.

This face smiles with all the high-minded virtuousness of Woodrow Wilson. It expresses a revolutionary idealism that makes the Best and Brightest of the Kennedy years seem by comparison like hard-eyed realists. It almost deserves the name “utopian.” Henry Kissinger, not Human Rights Watch, is the truly despised opponent of the conservative idealists. This is the thing that liberal critics have such a hard time accepting but must understand if they ultimately hope to mount a counterattack.

Conservative idealism raises questions that idealism of other varieties needs to answer. The first is whether or not the differences between them matter. At the end of the Iraq war, David Brooks, a senior editor at the house organ of conservative idealism, the Weekly Standard, wrote an article that divides the postwar political landscape into deliberately and provocatively scrambled groups. On one side are the “progressives,” who view foreign policy in moral terms and endorse robust American interventionism, who can congratulate themselves on the toppling of statues in Baghdad, and who include Richard Holbrooke, John McCain, and George W. Bush (and, he might have added, Tony Blair). On the other side are the “conservatives,” who regard such views and actions with skepticism, who get no credit for the liberation of Iraqis, and who include John Kerry, Brent Scowcroft, the State Department, and most of the press corps. In Brooks’ schema, are you a progressive or a conservative? If you don’t like the answer or the company, is it just a matter of outdated taxonomy and pride—in which case, shouldn’t you quietly abandon your objections and join the new club?

I don’t think that the old categories have lost all their relevance; I don’t think that George Bush and Tony Blair (or George Will and Michael Ignatieff) want the same world. Eventually they will have to part ways or somehow cease being themselves. But September 11 and Iraq have blurred many distinctions and forced anyone still capable of new thoughts to reconsider old positions. The temperamental difference between idealists and realists is more significant for the moment than the ideological difference between left and right. The anti-war argument that America won’t succeed in liberalizing Iraq or the Middle East is more interesting and persuasive than the anti-war argument that America has no business trying. And the pro-war argument that America will succeed is more interesting and persuasive than the pro-war argument that America was directly threatened by Saddam Hussein. This leads to a second question about idealism and the Bush administration: Do they have anything to do with each other? The call issued by Kristol and Kagan and now trumpeted in the pages of Kristol’s Weekly Standard, at American Enterprise Institute conferences, and, occasionally, in administration policy statements and presidential speeches gave a high-minded jus- tification for the conquest of Iraq. It’s worth noting how much of the original vision crumbled on the road to Baghdad—especially the insistence that America’s “benev-olent global hegemony” would not mean American unilateralism or the discarding of alliances. Apparently there’s a conflict between America’s principled interests and its responsibilities to the international order set up under its own guidance half a century ago. For the conservative idealists, the latter proved far easier to chuck aside.

Beyond this, how far do they speak for the administration? Put another way, does the administration believe its own grand rhetoric? Is the real-world version of conservative idealism pure hypocrisy? Now that we are in Iraq, we’ll find out.

Commentators have compared this war, depending on their sympathies, with World War II or Vietnam. But these days I often find myself thinking of an earlier war, and an earlier group of politically connected intellectuals. The Weekly Standard’s favorite president, along with Reagan, is Theodore Roosevelt. T.R. was also the favorite of the first editors of The New Republic, and they founded the magazine in 1914 partly to advance his brand of aggressive internationalism. They distrusted the man who happened to occupy the White House, Woodrow Wilson, thinking him a small-minded reactionary—just as the Weekly Standard once favored John McCain over George W. Bush. But, just as the Weekly Standard rallied to President Bush’s side after September 11, President Wilson became The New Republic’s hero when he led America into the European war in 1917. The magazine’s editorials expressed the soaring idealism that would justify the shedding of blood in a war that many Americans had seen as unnecessary: “Unless the world emerges from this war a more liberal and a more peaceful world, America is beaten no matter how badly Germany is crushed. We have absolutely nothing to gain from the war except international security, no imperial ambitions in the Near East, no lost provinces to reconquer, no strategic points that we desire.”

Within a year of the armistice, the editors of The New Republic were bitterly disappointed. The war was won, but the peace was lost. The world was not more liberal, and it was not going to be more peaceful. At Versailles in 1919, when the victors carved up the post war world, power politics and narrow interest made a mockery of Wilson’s idealism. But the president, incapable of self-criticism, continued to justify his decisions until a stroke effectively ended his presidency. The editors of The New Republic, who took their ideas at least as seriously as they took themselves, plunged into a painful reconsideration that led some of them to repudiate the war—and war itself.

One of the results of World War I was the creation of Iraq. Now that we have fought another war of choice there—another war that could be justified only by producing “a more liberal and a more peaceful world”—what inspiration should we take from the unhappy precedent of 1919? Not, certainly, the hope for failure in Iraq, conflagration in the Middle East, cerebral hemorrhage in the East Wing, and anguish at the Weekly Standard. In any case, President Bush, who is also incapable of self-criticism, will be more durable than Wilson because he is less thoughtful, driven less by the need to be right than by the urge to win; and Kristol, Kagan, Brooks, and their colleagues have never yet shown an ability to look at their own ideas in anything but the most flattering light. If the United States fails to live up to its talk about democracy in Iraq and liberal reform in the region, don’t expect the administration’s intellectual champions to become its harshest critics. It’s not in the nature of their brand of idealism. And this is where its true danger lies: not in hypocrisy, but in absolute belief.

Conservative idealism sees America and goodness as identical. Its logic proclaims, We are righteous; therefore what we do is right. This is a functional definition of zealotry, and it is not given to second thoughts or moral complexity. It leads to hubris and self- blindness; it lacks exactly what idealism most needs, a check on its own tendency to overreach and detach itself from human reality. At the end of the Foreign Affairs article, Kristol and Kagan declare, “A neo-Reaganite foreign policy would be good for conservatives, good for America, and good for the world.” This headlong rush from partisan to national to global interests shows idealism without brakes. If the administration ends up betraying Iraq, it may be not so much because it was never serious about its own lofty goals, but because it is too intoxicated with self-righteousness to see how it could possibly fail. There is much discussion these days about the new American imperium and whether it is, or should be, like the older ones. The un- official poet laureate of British imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, in a poem called “Recessional,” warned against the very pride of power that he is mainly famous for celebrating:

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Substitute the American civic religion for the biblical imagery and you have the creed of the Bush administration’s foreign policy—except for that last line. The conservative idealists can’t imagine that they might forget.

Idealism remains a noble guide to the world. And idealists who still call themselves liberals now have an obligation to help Iraqis get the democracy they deserve, to make Bush honor his own professed ideals—and in spite of everything, to wish him well.