To commemorate COMMENTARY’s sixtieth anniversary, and in an effort to advance discussion of the present American position in the world, the editors addressed the following statement and questions to a group of leading thinkers:
In response to a radically changed world situation since the Islamist attacks of 9/11, the United States under George W. Bush has adopted a broad new approach to national security. The Bush Doctrine, as this policy has come to be known, emphasizes the need for preemption in order to “confront the worst threats before they emerge.” It also stresses the need to transform the cultures that breed hatred and fanaticism by—in a historically stunning move—actively promoting democracy and liberty in the Middle East and beyond. In the President’s words, “We live in a time when the defense of freedom requires the advance of freedom.”
This sweeping redirection of policy has provoked intense controversy, especially but not only over its practicality, and especially but not only over its application to Iraq. At issue as well are the precise nature of the threats faced by the United States and the West, the specific tactics adopted by the Bush administration in meeting them, American capabilities and staying power, relations with traditional allies, the larger intentions and moral bona fides of U.S. foreign policy, and much else besides. Opinion on these matters is divided not only between the Left and the Right in political and intellectual life but, quite sharply, among American conservatives themselves.
- Where have you stood, and where do you now stand, in relation to the Bush Doctrine? Do you agree with the President’s diagnosis of the threat we face and his prescription for dealing with it?
- How would you rate the progress of the Bush Doctrine so far in making the U.S. more secure and in working toward a safer world environment? What about the policy’s longer-range prospects?
- Are there particular aspects of American policy, or of the administration’s handling or explanation of it, that you would change immediately?
- Apart from your view of the way the Bush Doctrine has been defined or implemented, do you agree with its expansive vision of America’s world role and the moral responsibilities of American power?
The responses, 36 in all, appear below in alphabetical order.
This symposium is sponsored by the Edwin Morris Gale Memorial Fund.
The Bush Doctrine contains two strands of analysis that, pushing in opposite directions, have produced gigantic failures in American policy. The doctrine’s first strand affirms that the United States and the world are threatened by rogue states and some dangerous non-state actors, whose motivations are, at bottom, self-interested. These enemies ought to be brought to heel by swift military action, keeping the power of command in American hands and relying on the latest gizmos of high-tech weaponry.
The Bush Doctrine’s second strand asserts that the United States and the world are threatened by full-scale ideological movements calling for aggressive violence and random slaughter, and resembling in some ways the classic totalitarian ideologies of the past. These movements, being popular, will never be defeated by armies alone. They will be defeated, instead, by countermovements that will engage the totalitarians in argument and that will secure their triumphs only by constructing the kinds of institutions that favor liberal and rationalist ideas. The countermovements will have to build, in short, a new political culture in key regions. Military force might well be required to give the anti-totalitarians a boost—to lift them into power, in certain cases, and to help them stay there. But ultimately the victories will have to be political and ideological.
The champions of the Bush Doctrine, to my knowledge, have never laid out the principles of this second strand of thought in much detail. President Bush has delivered some intelligent speeches about totalitarianism and “ideologies of hate,” but when he has spoken off the cuff he has sometimes recast the ideological battle in terms that might seem appropriate to a rustic Christian preacher, all of which suggests a somewhat casual or non-committal attitude.
In any fight against mass movements that are animated by mad ideological beliefs, the first thing to do is to mount a campaign of ideas—a campaign to identify the totalitarian doctrines and expose their flaws. The Bush administration has never managed to mount anything of the sort, at least not on the eye-catching and ambitious scale that our current predicament would seem to require (though I’m aware that, here and there within the government, some people are doing their best). Instead, the administration has launched public-relations programs in the Muslim world, which have been laughable—reinforcing the impression that the Bush Doctrine’s second strand has been conceived as an afterthought and is valued mainly for its oratorical opportunities.
The second strand does have military implications, and these are easy to identify, even to a military non-expert like me. The main purpose of military action, from this viewpoint, ought to be to support the political development and popular strength of the anti-totalitarian movements. Toward this end, military action ought to be designed to promote liberal and rationalist goals—and therefore ought to be consistent, as much as possible, with liberal principles. There is an obvious way to go about launching military actions that deploy large numbers of troops and observe liberal principles and encourage a new political culture, and this obvious way is to make use of the elephantine mechanisms of law and multilateral institutions. The first strand of the Bush Doctrine emphasizes the military value of being sleek, agile, and indifferent to world opinion, but the second emphasizes the military value of actions that are plodding, punctilious, and popular.
President Bush has tried to meld these strands together. It can’t be done. He has described the enemy every which way, and in so doing has left most of the world, including our own part of it, fatefully confused. It is shocking to me that, four years after 9/11, the White House has generated no consensus, none at all, about the general nature of the enemies we face. We invaded Iraq on the military basis of the first strand, only to discover our urgent need for the military qualities implied in the second. And disasters have followed.
The first Bush administration, back in 1991, badly underestimated the Baathists and ended up allowing Saddam to achieve a victory, if only by allowing him to remain in power. The administration thereby betrayed the Kurds and Shiites of Iraq, who were slaughtered in droves. The second Bush administration has committed precisely the same error. Thus the United States has for the second time created a situation in which huge masses of Iraqis, our own allies, have been slaughtered by their and our enemies. This is surely one of the worst things the U.S. has ever done in modern times—something disgraceful yet somewhat understandable the first time, and beyond disgraceful the second time.
If I had my druthers, I would love to see President Bush fire every one of his top advisers, and keep on firing them, the way that Lincoln did during the Civil War, until a new Ulysses Grant, or several of them, civilian and military, somehow emerged. I would love to see the President reach out to those people within the European Left, not to mention the American Democrats, who share the values of the second strand. Okay, I’m dreaming. This administration is much too sectarian to do anything of the sort. Besides, the administration radiates an air of “what, me worry?” incompetence, which will inhibit any effort to undo the disasters of the past.
Is there something to be said, at least, for the Bush Doctrine’s expansive vision of American responsibility? In my view, it is a mistake to bang too heavily on an American drum. The administration has managed to reduce the gigantic question of resisting the totalitarian and fascist movements of our time to a simple question of American hegemony. We should be emphasizing something else—the need for liberal and democratic societies of many kinds to establish a hegemony of principles of human decency and mutual respect. We ought to rid ourselves of every single aspect of what is called the Bush Doctrine, except for those aspects that could just as well be called the Franklin Roosevelt Doctrine of the Four Freedoms. The United States with its wealth and power and military capabilities should certainly make outsized contributions to the foreign-policy programs of the future, but these programs ought to be conceived in a light of practical internationalism instead of incoherent nationalism.
I applaud the Bush Doctrine. I think it was the right response—the only possible response—to the horror of 9/11. In light of the very real prospect that millions of Americans may be killed by biological or nuclear weapons, it would be madness to sit back and rely on the law-enforcement approach that failed on 9/11. While President Bush has improved the effectiveness of homeland-security efforts, he has correctly placed the emphasis on a forward defense strategy. This means killing or detaining terrorists even before they attack; denying them sanctuary; and trying to dry up their sources of support by promoting a constructive alternative for the Muslim world—namely, liberal democracy.
This policy has been largely successful. Who would have dreamed in September 2001 that we would soon see the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Baathists in Iraq, or the establishment of nascent democracies in their place; the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon; the renunciation by Libya of its WMD program; the breakup of the biggest nuclear-smuggling ring in history, run by Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan; the establishment of pro-Western democracies in Ukraine and Georgia; and, perhaps most importantly of all, not a single major terrorist attack on U.S. soil? Not all of these facts can be ascribed solely or even mainly to American action; some might even be due to sheer, temporary luck. But even if we are hit again tomorrow, a four-year respite is pretty good—and more than almost everyone (myself included) expected.
That said, I think there are major problems with the way the Bush Doctrine has been implemented—or, more accurately, not implemented. After 9/11, the President vowed that “you are either with us or against us.” Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia appear not to have gotten the message.
In all three of these supposed American allies, the news media—which remain under the thumb of the state—continue to spew anti-American rhetoric of startling virulence and breathtaking falsity. Pakistan is allowing Islamist extremist groups to use its soil as a base for attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Egypt has responded to U.S. demands for democracy with sham elections in which Hosni Mubarak won a Saddam-style 88 percent of the vote. And, despite some efforts to curtail terrorist financing, Saudi Arabia continues to bankroll madrassas and mosques around the world that remain breeding grounds of fanaticism. What consequences have they suffered? None that I’m aware of.
Admittedly these are hard problems; in all three cases there is reason to fear that any alternative regime might be even worse. But what about Syria? Bashar Assad—the world’s sole remaining Baathist dictator—allows jihadist killers to use his country as a transit point into Iraq, where they murder many Americans and even more Iraqis. Syria has been warned for more than two years to shape up or face the consequences. Yet none has been forthcoming. This cannot be for fear of bringing to power a Syrian government even more inimical to U.S. interests than the current one; it is hard to imagine such a regime.
The failure better to police the Iraq-Syria border—which would probably necessitate military action in Syria itself—has been one of the biggest problems with the U.S. liberation of Iraq, but it is far from the only one. The lack of pre-invasion diplomacy, the lack of post-invasion planning, the lack of ground troops, the lack of intelligence, the lack of coordination and oversight, the lack of armor, the lack of electricity—all these errors have been noted ad nauseam. There has been some exaggeration of them by the President’s political opponents, along with an implausible attempt to dump the blame on a handful of “neocon” appointees while ignoring the culpability of senior military officers and non-neocon civilians. But in essence most of the charges are true.
There is no question that the war has been bungled in many respects. And yet, that doesn’t make the Iraq war very different from any other—including World War II, where many blunders (Anzio, Dieppe, Iwo Jima) killed more Allied troops in a single day than died during the first two years of fighting in Iraq. If we win in Iraq—and, despite everything that has gone wrong, victory is still the most likely outcome—the missteps along the way will be forgotten.
To his credit, President Bush has not made the most serious mistake of all, which would be to lose his nerve. His steely determination to stay the course, notwithstanding the baying of the press and the Democrats (forgive the redundancy), is giving Iraqis the breathing room they need to build political and security institutions that might be able to survive a drawdown (though not a total pullout) of U.S. forces.
We’re finally on the right course in Iraq, though it has taken a while to get there. I am not so sure we’re on any course at all in dealing with the looming threat of the Iranian and North Korean nuclear-weapons programs. In both cases, the administration has so far been satisfied with toothless multilateral diplomacy that has merely bought time for atomic assembly lines to ramp up. There are no easy answers here, and military action is not a terribly palatable option. But why hasn’t the U.S. done more to try to bring about peaceful regime change? The President has talked eloquently about the “non-negotiable demands of human dignity.” I wish he had done more to promote those demands in the two remaining members of the “axis of evil.”
Lest I end on a sour note, some perspective is in order. No President can achieve everything or please everyone. Even as Bush’s poll ratings go south for the winter, it helps to remember how reviled Harry Truman was when he left office in 1953. His reputation revived in subsequent years when it became clear that he had set in place the containment policies that ultimately won the cold war. So, too, I suspect George W. Bush will one day be seen as the President who set us on the long road to winning the war on Islamist terror.
William F. Buckley, Jr.
I do not count myself a supporter of the Bush Doctrine, though I count myself a supporter of Bush. The President’s “diagnosis” of the threat we faced—or were facing—or continue to face—requires more parsing than I think the editors of COMMENTARY would wish from me. The threat he singled out in 2002 focused on the accumulation of weapons of mass destruction by an enemy of freedom. Here was a dictator who had succeeded, in his own country, in ending freedom, and was putatively determined to succeed beyond his shores, reaching, perhaps, to our own.
I do not think that the President, since the invasion, established retrospectively either the capability of Saddam Hussein to extend his threat or his determination to attempt to do so. I think the President acted on the intelligence at hand. But even if he acted as we’d wished he had, his actions did not bring about the termination of a prior foreign-policy doctrine for the United States or any doctrinal prescription for dealing with such threats in the future.
Bush’s success has to be weighed by—there is no other way—the success of the Iraqi venture. Something that very much needed doing, after 9/11, was a demonstration of U.S. resolve and capability. We demonstrated both in Afghanistan. The undertaking was decisive, rapid, and exemplary in other aspects as well. The ensuing campaign, against Iraq, has required for its justification a kind of empirical success we have not yet achieved. We have not defeated the insurgency or united the Iraqi nation. If we do achieve those ends, and if they bring on a step forward in the direction of Iraqi security and constitutional government, the President will rightly be acclaimed for having dared to undertake something that vastly reorders life and hope in a critical part of the world. If the venture fails, he will justly be held accountable for imprudence.
Are there aspects of our policy that I would change? This is a tough question. As the costs increase, so also should the scale of our visionary purpose. It is inappropriate for the President to abbreviate, let alone abandon, a rhetoric that underwrites a great enterprise. If the Iraq venture were merely one more great-power gymnastic exercise, he would find the ongoing costs hard to justify. As these costs mount, the purpose of expending the necessary funds and other resources cannot be undermined. As we have come this far, and done what has been done, I do not see anything of a military character to be done differently from what we are doing, and I cannot see any prospect of a substantial geostrategic modification of the thinking that brought us to where we are.
But, to address the final question, I do not believe that Bush’s expanded view of the U.S. role is wise. Our goals, as pronounced once by Woodrow Wilson and now by George Bush, remain organically commendable as free societies are themselves commendable. In the nature of things, however, rescue missions to tormented nations of the world have to be selective—a geostrategic art form.
This is so obviously the case that it is embarrassing to undertake to remake it. “What do you call dictators of countries that have nuclear bombs?” the saw began, decades ago.
We are not about to extend the President’s concern for freedom to an energetic concern for freedom in mainland China. We cannot even rev up the political energy to do anything about the genocide in Sudan. Every now and then the stars arrange themselves to give us an ideological mission we can handle, as in Grenada under Reagan—and before that, on an entirely different scale, the war against Hitler. But accompanying doctrines are to be reserved for political oratory. In days and decades ahead, the U.S. will do good for other countries and for humankind, but not, I think, as a doctrinal exercise traceable to a “Bush Doctrine.”
Eliot A. Cohen
I have never understood the supposed novelty of the Bush Doctrine. The right to preemption is inherent in the functioning of a more or less anarchical society of states. Were the French to face a probable attack from, say, Tunisia, and if they thought they could do something about it in advance, they would. So would any other state not run by cowards or fools.
Nor is it a matter of great novelty that the path to security from Islamic terror lies in some liberalization of the Middle East—the spread, not so much of democracy in the sense of plebiscites or even regular elections, but of limited government, free press, the rule of law, and a regular rotation of leaders who can be evicted from power by something other than illness, death, or coup. What are the alternatives, really? To wall off the Middle East from all contact with the developed world? To turn the rule of turbulent societies over to reliable thugs? To accept Islamic fanatics in their rise to power, with the hope that its exercise would moderate them? The first is impossible, the second and third have been tried and failed, and even in the most appeasement-prone capitals of Old Europe or Asia, you will not find anyone who seriously believes in them. Indeed, only a handful of American academics, intoxicated with theories that deny the importance of religion as a force in the life of humanity, believe that we have the option of sitting pat, and waiting for the forces of political realism to work their inexorable and presumably beneficent will.
In the short term, doctrines do not change the world: action does. The much underrated removal of al Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan and the killing or arrest of most of its pre-9/11 leadership (and the scattering of the rest) did not remove the fundamental problem, but it did severely weaken an exceptionally dangerous organization. To be sure, the ideology of al Qaeda lives, and numerous cells remain dormant or have sprouted up around the world. But smashing and dispersing the core hierarchy probably prevented more mega-terrorist events; while dealing with loosely networked terrorists is difficult, counteracting a well-organized and coordinated enemy of this kind would be even more difficult.
About the long term we simply do not know. The liberation of Iraq was a good thing in and of itself; the language of freedom that accompanied it has had a salutary effect in Lebanon, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world; and American military prowess, and our demonstrated will to use it, produced good results in Libya. But it is no doubt true that the war increased antipathy to the United States in the Arab world, and in the short run has stimulated the recruitment of terrorists inflamed by the lies of al Jazeera as well as a bitterly anti-American Arab, and in some cases European and Asian, intelligentsia.
Launching a war is like rolling a giant stone down a mountain slope strewn with rocks: we cannot predict where the avalanche will go. Whether Iraq is a success or a failure (and what success and failure mean is open to debate), the consequences will be prodigious, for good or for ill. This is a bold and determined administration; the war was a bold stroke, and boldness has both risks and rewards.
There are three things the administration could do, in ascending order of difficulty and descending order of likelihood, to make its doctrine effective. The first is to speak plainly about the nature of the enemy—Islamic extremism—and to do so in ways that do not misstate its argument, its appeal, or its roots. Administration spokesmen shrink from using the word “Islam,” for fear of being accused of bigotry. Anodyne formulations like “a perversion of a great religion” or “a few extremists” do not capture the power of this movement. There is a great need for a sober, detailed, and educational rhetoric about whom we are fighting. Happy talk to the Muslim world about what nice people Americans are is not only no substitute—it fools only those who utter it.
Second, the administration wrongly steered away from asking the American people to sacrifice anything in this war. Lowering taxes, it hampered its own ability to raise defense budgets. More importantly, it allowed the spirit of patriotism and resolve that flooded the country after 9/11 to dissipate over time. If you do not ask people to lend their money or their children to a fight, they will not think that they are at war. Nor was the administration willing to accept the political pain of a serious effort to undermine the grip of oil on the economy—a grip that indirectly feeds the infrastructure of terror—by imposing taxes that would reduce consumption and stimulate alternative fuels or thriftier uses of those we have. If this is war—and it is—then it demands sacrifice and an appeal for service.
Finally, the administration has suffered from its insularity, its overwhelming emphasis on loyalty to the exclusion of all other virtues, its suspicion of those with whom it could have made common cause, its refusal to admit missteps or failure, its inability to fire the incompetent (as opposed to the merely disgruntled). Huddled now in its bunker, assaulted not only for a botched war abroad but for a bumbling reaction to natural catastrophe at home, it is unlikely to open itself up; but it would be better if it could.
The expansive vision of the Bush administration seems to me broadly right, and I admire unreservedly the courage and determination with which it has pressed the fight. But how I wish that the spine of steel had found its match in an eloquence suitable to the moment; how I would have desired as great a stress on talent as on fidelity; how much better if the commitment to a vision of freedom abroad were matched with an equal and effective commitment to greatness at home; how ironic and sad that competence—the quality upon which this administration prided itself when it came to office—has, for too long, been in such short supply.
In my book Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (2004), I argued that the Bush Doctrine was less radical as a doctrine than was widely thought when it was promulgated.
The administration’s key document, the September 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States, argued that because “deliverable weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terror network or murderous dictator . . . constitute as grave a threat as can be imagined,” the President should, at his discretion, act preemptively to forestall any such threat, even if the threat was not imminent in the traditional sense of armies massing on borders. Many critics seized upon this as a dangerous new departure. Yet the idea of preemption had been asserted by more than one President during the cold war, and had been assumed by them all. The radical aspect of the Bush Doctrine was not so much the theory as the practice.
Even before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it became clear that the White House intended to use the doctrine of preemption to justify violating the national sovereignty of certain “rogue regimes” and using military means to neutralize perceived future threats, preferably by changing those regimes. In Empire: The Rise and Fall of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (2003), I had expressed some doubts as to whether the United States had the economic, military, and political capabilities to make a success of what was, in all but name, an imperial undertaking. Unlike many critics of the Bush administration, I did not dismiss the project as morally wrong. On the contrary, I argued that there were a number of regimes around the world that were likely to cease sponsoring terrorism, acquiring nuclear weapons, or murdering their own people only as a result of effective foreign intervention. My qualms have all along related to the ability of the United States successfully to execute such interventions.
I have no doubt that the 2002 National Security Strategy was right in its diagnosis of the dangers posed to the United States. Nor do I doubt that a preemptive strike to avert the use of weapons of mass destruction against American targets would be legitimate. But I would add two qualifications.
First, terror networks are a proven threat even when they do not have WMD. Second, it now seems clear that Saddam Hussein did not pose even a distant threat to the United States in 2003, though it was impossible to be sure of that at the time. As I contend in Colossus, the claims made by the American and British governments in connection with Iraq’s WMD capability and links to al Qaeda lacked credibility. There were good reasons for overthrowing Saddam, but these were not among them.
Is, then, the United States more secure today than in 2000? From the point of view of U.S. military personnel, it is less secure, in the sense that they are much more likely to be killed or wounded by hostile action than during the 1990’s. How far this increased risk is outweighed by the reduced threat from a jailed Saddam is not clear.
On the other hand, we cannot know the degree to which actions taken by the Bush administration in Afghanistan, Iraq, and—perhaps more importantly—in the American homeland have reduced the ability of organizations like al Qaeda to attack the United States. My hunch is that another 9/11-type attack could happen even while this President is still in the White House; there are too many ways for terrorists to enter the country and operate undetected, and too many targets to protect. There is also good reason to think that the disruption of al Qaeda’s leadership structures has been compensated for by the formation of new cells and the recruitment of new operatives, notably in Europe. This may turn out to be one of the most important unintended consequences of the invasion of Iraq.
The longer-range prospects of the Bush Doctrine are bleak. The next President will need to come up with a national-security strategy that commands much greater legitimacy abroad. It might make more sense in the future to keep the doctrine of preemption tacit.
Are there particular aspects of American policy that I would change immediately? Secretary of State Rice has already made the single most important change that I would have recommended to the administration last year, namely, to revive the art of diplomacy. The United States came perilously close to less-than-splendid isolation in 2004, not least because the administration came to believe its own rhetoric about the viability of “acting alone” (another component of the National Security Strategy). But success in Iraq cannot be achieved with the support of Tony Blair alone. The resources needed to contain the burgeoning civil war in Iraq must come from outside as well as inside the English-speaking world.
As for what the editors call the Bush Doctrine’s “expansive vision of America’s world role and the moral responsibilities of American power,” I revert once more to the wording of the National Security Strategy. I am all for “actively work[ing] to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world.” The same goes for promoting “the rule of law; limits on the absolute power of the state; free speech; freedom of worship; equal justice; respect for women; religious and ethnic tolerance; and respect for private property.” But a further defect of the National Security Strategy was its assumption that doing these things would necessarily enhance American national security. On the contrary: the more the United States represents itself as a messianic force spreading freedom around the world, the more resentment it will arouse; see the history of the British empire, passim.
Aaron L. Friedberg
Since 9/11, the “Bush Doctrine” label has been applied to various aspects of administration policy, from the President’s initial “with us or against us” warning to state sponsors of terrorism, to his declared willingness to act preemptively (and, if need be, unilaterally) to head off the danger of covert WMD attack, to his assertion that final victory in the global war on terror depends on the spread of liberty across the Middle East and throughout the Islamic world. I will focus on this final usage, which is likely to prove the most lasting.
Is a campaign aimed at the political transformation of the “broader Middle East” essential to the defeat of terrorism? If so, how can it be carried forward to a successful conclusion at an acceptable cost? The first of these questions is easier to answer than the second.
I believe the administration’s assessment of the Islamist threat is fundamentally correct. In al Qaeda and its affiliates, we confront an enemy who aims to inflict as much pain on us and our allies as possible, thereby dividing the West, forcing a retraction of American power, and clearing the way for the overthrow of local “apostate” regimes and their absorption into a transnational caliphate. Having concocted quasi-theological justifications for their actions, the terrorists put no limit on the numbers they are willing to kill to achieve their goals; all that stands in their way is, for the moment, an apparent lack of means.
The menace we face may not be “existential,” in the same sense as the cold-war threat from the Soviet Union. Al Qaeda cannot rain down tens of thousands of nuclear warheads on American cities. But, with a few well-placed dirty bombs or vials of anthrax, it could impose terrible human and financial costs and radically alter, perhaps for a generation or more, the character of our open society and the extent of our integration into the global economy. The passage of time since 9/11, and the absence thus far of a follow-on attack on American soil, have caused some observers to lose sight of these dangers and even to argue that they have been grossly exaggerated. I know of no one involved in the conduct of the war on terror who shares this sense of complacency.
The ideology that motivates the jihadists has now metastasized and spread, so that it finds adherents even in free societies. But it sprang to life first in the diverse despotisms of the broader Middle East, and these are the sources from which it still feeds and which continue, either deliberately or indirectly, to sustain it. Even if it were possible to wave a wand and transform these societies overnight into functioning liberal democracies, the jihadist movement would likely live on, at least for a time. But unless and until progress is made in this direction, it seems certain to survive, and to thrive. The absence of liberty fuels frustration and extremism by cutting off avenues for more moderate forms of political expression, reinforcing social and economic stagnation, and feeding a sense of collective weakness, shame, and rage.
The other key elements of U.S. strategy—stronger homeland defenses and a relentless global offensive against Islamist terror networks—are necessary to keep the enemy off balance and reduce the risk of future attack; but they will not be sufficient, in themselves, to achieve a lasting peace. Jihadism cannot be defeated on the defensive, or even by cutting back its visible offshoots. It must be pulled up by the roots.
There are alternatives to a strategy that has transformation as its ultimate goal. If pressed, most liberal critics of the Bush Doctrine would say they agree with its ends but differ over means (more “soft” power and less “hard,” more multilateralism and less unilateralism). While the differences are in some respects overstated, there is a serious debate to be had here and a consensus to be hammered out, though controversies over Iraq have made this all but impossible for the moment.
More distinct are the options offered by advocates of what can only be called a policy of appeasement, on the one hand, and the self-described “realists,” on the other. The first group asserts that by leaving Iraq, cutting support for Israel, and perhaps withdrawing altogether from the Middle East, we may be able eventually to deprive the jihadists of their base of support. Despite the evident moral and strategic bankruptcy of these arguments, they have begun to gain ground recently in academic circles, where books “bravely” questioning our ties to Israel and “proving” that suicide terrorists are motivated solely by a desire to free their homes from occupation are currently the rage. Fortunately, such ideas seem unlikely for now to exert much influence on practical policy.
It is the “realists” who most stand to gain if American policy in Iraq comes to be seen as a costly failure. Such an outcome would be taken as proof that the pursuit of liberalization in the broader Middle East is a fool’s errand and that, instead of criticizing “friendly” local regimes and pressuring them to reform, we should be content to make common cause in wiping out the jihadists. What is needed, in this view, is a more effective and if need be a more ruthless version of the policy that existed before 9/11. The fact that this approach has already proved its ineffectiveness may not lessen its appeal, at least for a while.
In the long run, and whatever happens in Iraq, some variant of the Bush Doctrine will remain an essential part of overall U.S. strategy for defeating Islamist terrorism. The questions facing this administration as it enters its final quarter are more practical than theoretical. How to tailor the right mix of pressures and inducements to move “friendly” regimes toward meaningful reforms, and how to deal with openly hostile holdouts? How to minimize the inevitable risks of transition (the “one man, one vote, one time” problem)? How to institutionalize the “forward strategy of freedom” within the U.S. government and the Western alliance? And how to ensure continuing domestic political support for a goal that is both necessary and just?
I believe that the Bush Doctrine’s central assumption—that the United States had to transform the politics of the Middle East as a means of solving the post-9/11 terrorist threat—was misguided, and that the problem was greatly compounded by extremely poor policy execution before and after the Iraq war. For the record, I made up my mind that the war was a bad idea by the fall of 2002, i.e., before the war began, when I was asked to lead part of a Pentagon study on strategy in the war on terrorism, and not in response to events as they unfolded after the war.
There is no question that the 9/11 attacks exposed a very new kind of threat, and that the usual tools of the cold war—containment and deterrence—would not work against suicide terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. The Afghan war was a fully justified exercise in prevention, where we dismantled terrorist networks that were clearly of danger to us.
The problem was that the Bush administration merged the terrorist/WMD problem with the problem of Iraq and rogue-state proliferators more generally. The latter was and continues to be a very serious issue, but it was never clear that a rogue state—which (unlike stateless terrorists) has a return address—would go to all the trouble of developing nuclear weapons only to give them to a terrorist organization.
The bigger problem lay with the diagnosis of the root causes of the terrorism, and the prescription for fixing it. Radical Islamism is in no way an assertion of traditional Muslim values or religiosity. Olivier Roy has argued persuasively in Globalized Islam that it needs to be seen as an essentially modern phenomenon driven by the deterritorialization of Islam, primarily in Western Europe, and by the forces of globalization and modernization that we otherwise celebrate. In a traditional Muslim society, your identity is fixed by the society into which you are born; only when you live in a non-Muslim environment does it occur to you to ask who you are. The profound alienation that results makes poorly assimilated second- and third-generation Muslims susceptible to a pure, universalistic ideology like that of Osama bin Laden. Mohammed Atta and the other organizers of 9/11, the Madrid and London conspirators, and Mohammed Bouyeri, murderer of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, all fall into this category.
This means that more democracy and more modernization will not solve our near-term terrorism problem, but may well exacerbate it. I believe that both democracy and modernization are good things and should be promoted in the Middle East for their own sake. But we will continue to have a serious terrorist problem in democratic Western Europe, regardless of what happens in Egypt or Lebanon.
Even if one accepted the view that the Middle East needed to be “fixed,” it was hard to understand what made us think that we were capable of fixing it. So much of what neoconservatives have written over the past decades has concerned the unanticipated consequences of overly ambitious social engineering, and how the effort to get at root causes of social problems is a feckless task. If this has been true of efforts to combat crime or poverty in U.S. cities, why should anyone have believed we could get at the root causes of alienation and terrorism in a part of the world that we didn’t understand particularly well, and where our policy instruments were very limited?
The other constraint is very specific to the United States. We have gotten involved in nation-building efforts in many places over the years: Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War, occupation of the Philippines and the various Monroe Doctrine interventions, Japan, Germany, South Korea, and South Vietnam, and finally the humanitarian interventions of the post-cold-war era in Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, and other places. Of these, only Japan, Germany, and South Korea were clear successes, and these were places where U.S. occupation forces came and basically never left.
Americans have a habit of starting such projects enthusiastically and then losing interest after things go bad, usually at about the five-year mark; this is what happened with Reconstruction, in Nicaragua between 1927 and 1932, in South Vietnam, and in many other places. We sign up local allies, make a stab at giving them modern institutions, and then pull the plug. I was fearful that we would repeat this pattern in Iraq prior to the war, and nothing that has happened since then has alleviated that concern.
We need to win militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is extremely important that we resist pressures to reduce numbers of American forces prematurely. But we also need to conceive of the broader war on terrorism as a classic counterinsurgency campaign fought out on a global scale. In that campaign, winning hearts and minds is as important as neutralizing the hard-core terrorists. I strongly believe in the need for an expansive foreign policy that shapes the insides of states and not just their external behavior. But it is American soft power, not hard, that will be the primary instrument for promoting democracy and development around the world, and we need thoroughly to rethink the structure and funding of the instruments we have for doing this.
After the first four years of the Bush Doctrine, the United States has created a new terrorist haven in Iraq and a power vacuum that will destabilize regional politics for some time to come. While allies may seek to restore good relations with Washington at an elite level, at a popular level there has been a seismic shift in the way that much of the world perceives the United States. Our image, fairly or not, is no longer the Statue of Liberty but the hooded prisoner at Abu Ghraib. Fixing this problem is a project that will preoccupy us for many years to come.
Frank J. Gaffney, Jr.
I heartily agree with the Bush Doctrine as described by the editors and as outlined in the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States.
We are once again engaged in a global conflict imposed upon us by a dangerous, totalitarian ideology that has properly come to be known as Islamo-fascism. Its adherents seek to implement their vision of a global caliphate governed by a Taliban-style repressive version of shari’a law. They will employ all available means to accomplish that goal.
In a world in which Islamofascists and their state sponsors and allies can reasonably be expected to have access to weapons of mass destruction, a proactive, offensive, and, where necessary, preemptive American strategy is indispensable. Nothing less is at stake than our survival as a free, democratic, and secular nation.
If we are to defeat the Islamofascists, however, we are going to need something more: the help of non-Islamist Muslims, who are as much at risk from this intolerant ideology as are those in the non-Muslim world. We must legitimate and empower our natural allies in this war. The President is right that one means of doing so is to help them establish governments that are representative, accountable, and conducive to economic growth—in stark contrast to the repression and privation associated with Islamist misrule.
All that said, I am happier with the Bush Doctrine conceptually than with its implementation. In defining the enemy in this war, the administration has largely refused to go beyond euphemisms like “terror” and “an evil ideology.” The unwillingness to declare Islamofascism the force that drives our foes has made problematic the devising—let alone the successful implementation—of strategies for defeating them.
This failure has had negative consequences for the war effort abroad and at home. The President’s bold assertion that “you are either with us or against us” has been undermined by the administration’s practice of certifying as “with us” the nation that is arguably most responsible for the worldwide spread of Islamofascism: Saudi Arabia. Despite the President’s admirable rhetoric about spreading freedom, two other nations demonstrably not “with us”—Iran and North Korea—have moved from being members of the “axis of evil” to being negotiating partners. At the insistence of putative friends like China and Russia and the connivance of sometime allies like France and Germany, these odious regimes are being assured of our willingness to support their continued misrule in exchange for still more fraudulent promises of non-proliferation.
The administration is also confusing elections with the establishment of institutions essential to functioning and enduring democracies. Elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza have helped to empower Islamofascists. Even in Turkey, with its well-established secular democracy, an elected Islamist regime is mounting a classic takeover of the institutions of civil society. Ignoring these realities is a formula for still greater setbacks down the road.
Unfortunately, the same disconnect between rhetoric and practice is evident in the administration’s outreach to the Muslim community here at home. While it talks of rooting out domestic support cells, charities, and front organizations that enable terrorists here and abroad, it has repeatedly embraced many who have been leaders of and sympathizers with such efforts. This has afforded Islamists access and influence and added to the incoherence of U.S. war policies, while demoralizing truly non- or anti-Islamist Muslims.
Unless promptly corrected, such practices augur ill for needed security improvements over both the short and long terms. The most urgent change, apart from clarifying the nature of the enemy, is to put the country on a war footing. Four years after the attacks of 9/11, too many Americans have come to believe that the conflict in which we are engaged is the problem of the U.S. military, the President, our allies, or somebody else. That this sentiment is widely held owes much to the fact that the public has been encouraged to think of its job in this conflict as nothing more than going shopping.
There are many ways in which the American people can be asked to assist the war effort. Here are three of the most important.
First, stopping the underwriting of terror. Unbeknownst to most American investors, significant portions of their public-pension funds, mutual funds, life insurance, and private portfolios include stocks of privately held companies that partner with state sponsors of terror. Were that money to be divested, it could have a profound effect on the ability of terror-sponsoring states to underwrite the war the Islamofascists and their friends are waging against us.
Next, enhancing energy security. The public can help deny financial succor to our enemies by reducing our dependence on foreign oil—much of which is purchased from the same nations that are supporting Islamofascism and its allies. There are various ways this can begin to be accomplished. The least painful near-term approach would be to enable domestically produced alcohol-based fuels and electricity to be used on a greatly expanded basis as means of powering the transportation sector.
Third, securing the homeland. Perhaps the most basic step in protecting against future attacks requires the American people to increase their vigilance in monitoring domestic threats. In addition, the nation needs to involve its citizens much more fully in planning for and preparing against future attacks. As Hurricane Katrina reminds us, such capabilities may prove to be of great value in future emergencies, whether natural or man-made.
As for “America’s world role and the moral responsibilities of American power,” I subscribe to an expansive presidential vision that predated and underpins the Bush Doctrine: namely, President Reagan’s conviction that America is “the last best hope of mankind.” From this flows the belief that we should be engaged in the world, not out of some sense of noblesse oblige, but rather because it is essential to our own survival in the face of enemies who wish to destroy us and everything we stand for.
Reagan’s philosophy recognized that international peace is best preserved through American strength. In practice, this requires a robust presence across the globe—one able to respond to the full spectrum of threats, ideally by nipping them in the bud, but in any event confronting them in whatever way is most efficacious before they endanger our lives and freedoms.
Reuel Marc Gerecht
Although president George W. Bush didn’t invade Iraq in order to bring democracy to the Middle East—and neoconservatives, with exceptions, didn’t advocate war with that in mind—building democracy now defines U.S. policy in the entire region. If democracy succeeds in Iraq, then America, regardless of who sits in the White House, will certainly become more active in promoting representative government. If democracy fails there, then we will become much more timid in encouraging political reform.
Despite the numerous, serious mistakes of the Bush administration in the occupation of Iraq, democracy’s chances there remain decent so long as the Shiite political center behind Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani holds. But failure in Iraq may not necessarily dim the prospects of democracy elsewhere in the Muslim world.
The fall of Saddam Hussein has already accelerated convulsive democratic debates in Arab lands and in their more combative and open expatriate media. The region’s dictators and kings may have a difficult time stuffing this discontent and dissent back into the tried-and-true shibboleths—principally anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism—that have consumed the intellectual energy of so many and offered the autocrats a safety valve for popular dissatisfaction with the regimes in place. Arab left-wing intellectuals seem today less domesticated than they were just a few years back, when they eagerly turned most of their venom toward Israel and Ariel Sharon. Muslim fundamentalists, especially in Egypt, still the lodestone among Arab nations, seem much less likely to play along, and are increasingly backing the popular push for more open political systems.
Failure in Iraq would mean a civil war between Sunni and Shiite Arabs that would allow for the rise of a Shiite strongman in Baghdad. Even so, however, this might not at all be seen by Egyptians as a sufficient reason to keep President Hosni Mubarak’s family in power. The rest of the Arab world is, like Egypt, overwhelmingly Sunni. With the exceptions of Syria, tiny Bahrain, and Lebanon, democracy in the Arab world would be an intra-Sunni squabble.
Which brings us to a series of important questions for the Bush administration and its successor. Let us suppose that, regardless of what happens in Iraq, the democratic movement among Arabs pushes forward, but, as is probable, with Muslim fundamentalists in the lead. Will the administration shy away from democracy promotion if and when it becomes clear that Muslim fundamentalists will initially do very well in most Arab lands where free elections are allowed?
I myself would argue that the political and cultural evolution of Sunni fundamentalism is central to the death of bin Ladenism, and that democratic politics are an essential part of that evolution. This means that democracy’s advance in the Middle East is likely to be a very anti-American process. (Think Latin American anti-Yanquism on speed.) To my mind, this is a painful but necessary step in the evolution of Islamic activism.
Has the Bush administration thought this through? Has it tried to explain to itself, let alone to the American people, how democracy may unfold in the Muslim Middle East? Has the President, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, or Karen Hughes, the new public-diplomacy czarina, called a conclave to figure out what the administration actually believes? It would not appear so.
As for those in the administration who believe that Muslim liberals, progressives, and moderates are the real key to democracy’s future in the region—a view that I find in error, but certainly an estimable aspiration—have they troubled to explain how we are going to locate and support such individuals over the heads of the present dictators and kings? Will we endorse open elections where fundamentalists can compete with liberals and others, or will we advocate banning fundamentalists from the election process even when liberals in these countries tell us that doing so will undermine them and us? Should we treat Muslim fundamentalists as beyond the pale, or even as Nazis, as some have argued? (Given that Iran is full of fallen hard-core fundamentalists who now sincerely advocate democracy, the parallel seems strained.)
Another question is useful in considering this complex of issues: are Muslim democracies that restrict women’s social rights in practice morally superior to Muslim dictatorships that advance them in theory? I think the answer is an emphatic yes, but the administration has so far shown little desire to argue this possibility, thereby allowing the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to suggest that Saddam Hussein, who was the first Middle Eastern dictator to institute rape as an official means of mind control, was more pro-woman than the democratically sanctioned constituent assembly that drafted Iraq’s proposed constitution. Women’s rights are a hot-button issue in the United States. It would be wise for the administration to explain how it intends to handle this issue in the socially conservative Middle East.
George W. Bush is one of our most revolutionary Presidents, but regrettably his administration shows little more intellectual ferment than his father’s. That is in part because many inside the critical institutions of foreign policy—the State Department, the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Pentagon—don’t really believe in expanding democracy, at least not in the Muslim Middle East. And even among those who share the President’s commitment to expanding representative government, and who understand that democracy is an essential component in the big-picture fight against Islamic extremism, there is enormous nervousness about significant change in the status quo. Truth be told, the Bush administration was not that upset when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stole his reelection.
Four years after 9/11, it is still possible to see the United States wavering in its commitment to democracy more than in its commitment to the rulers of the Middle East. It is not hard to imagine Washington’s bureaucracies trying hard, once again, to cast the fight against Islamic extremism as essentially a police and intelligence action, which would mean drawing closer to the dictators and kings who run the Middle East’s security and intelligence services. If the President isn’t vigilant, we could soon be living again in a pre-9/11 world, in which democracy seemed a premature idea for people more suited to prayer and despotism.
Victor Davis Hanson
According to opinion polls, most Americans are now critical of the President’s foreign policy. They are uncertain not merely over the daily fare of explosions in Iraq. Rather, the sustained public attack on American action abroad, emanating from both the Left and the hard Right, has led to bipartisan and broadly-shared condemnation. Even some who once were adherents of preemption have bailed out, claiming that although they supported the removal of Saddam Hussein, they are appalled by what followed. Or, translated, “In hindsight I remain in favor of my near-perfect military campaign, but not your messy reconstruction”—as if America’s past wars were not fraught with tragic lapses and muddled operations.
But for all the media hysteria and the indisputable errors of implementation, the Bush Doctrine is, in fact, moving ahead. Soon it will bear long-term advantage. Despite our inability to articulate the dangers and stakes of the war against radical Islam and our failure to muster the full military potential of the United States, and despite the fact that our own southern border remains vulnerable to terrorist infiltration, there has been enormous progress in the past four years.
We have removed both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Those efforts have cost us over 2,000 American combat deaths, a hard loss and to be mourned, but still two-thirds of the number of American civilians killed on September 11, 2001, the first day of the war. Thanks to our forward policy of hitting rogue regimes abroad and staying on to help the reconstruction, coupled with increased vigilance at home, the United States has not been struck since then.
Inside Iraq there is a constitutional government grinding ahead, and a series of elections slated for ratification and/or amendment. Much is rightly made of Sunni intransigence, yet this minority population, with no oil and with a disreputable past of support for either Saddam or the Zarqawi terrorists, or both, has been put in an untenable position. Its clerics call for Iraqi Sunnis to vote no on the constitution even as Sunni radicals like Zarqawi threaten to kill any who would vote at all.
There has also been a radical transformation in regional mentalities. The elections in Egypt, though boycotted and rigged, were an unprecedented event, and the irregularities quickly ignited popular demonstrations. Events elsewhere are no less significant, as Libya and Pakistan have renounced their nuclear commerce, Syrians are out of Lebanon, and rudimentary parliaments are forming in the Gulf. Even on the Palestinian question, the death of Arafat, Israel’s building of a protective fence and its withdrawal from Gaza, and the removal of Saddam have strengthened the hand of beleaguered reformers in the West Bank and beyond. The onus for policing their miscreants is gradually shifting to the Palestinians themselves, which is where it belongs.
There are, of course, no Swiss cantons arising in the Middle East. Rather, we see the initial tremors of massive tectonic shifts, as the old plates of Islamic radicalism or secular autocracy give way to something new and more democratic. The United States is the primary catalyst of this dangerous but long-overdue upheaval. It has taken the risk almost alone; the ultimate reward will be a more stable world for all.
Much is made of global anti-Americanism and hatred of George Bush. But under closer examination, the furor is mostly confined to Western Europe, the autocratic Middle East, and our own elites here at home. In Europe, our most vocal critics, Jacques Chirac in France and Gerhard Schroeder in Germany, have lost considerable domestic support, and are under challenge by realists worried about their own unassimilated minorities and appreciative of American consistency in the war against radical Islam. In the meantime, Eastern Europeans, Japanese, Australians, and Indians have never been closer to the United States. Russia and China have little beef with our war on terror.
Here at home, the relative lack of bipartisan support is due partly to the media culture of the Left, partly to the turmoil and resentment of an out-of-power Democratic party, partly to uncertainty as to how it will all turn out. On the far Right, some see only too much money being spent, too much proliferation of government, and too much Israel in the background.
What lies ahead? We must continue to navigate the dangerous narrows between the two unacceptable alternatives of secular dictatorship and rule by Islamic law, even as we prod recipients of American aid or military support like Mubarak, Musharraf, and the Saudi royal family to reform. At home, unless we come up with a viable policy combining increased oil production, conservation, and alternative fuels, our ability to protect ourselves from international blackmail will soon begin to erode. Most forbiddingly, nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran or any other non-democratic Middle Eastern country could destroy much if not all of what has been accomplished. What would have happened in the late 1930’s had America found itself dependent on Romanian oil or German coal, or learned that Hitler, Mussolini, or Franco was close to obtaining atomic weapons?
I continue without reserve to support our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and our pressure for reform in the Middle East at large. No
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Defending and Advancing Freedom
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Their coming-and-going polka—now you see ’im, now you don’t—consumed the first 10 days of March. One week Cohn was in the driver’s seat of U.S. economic policy, steering his boss into a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and preparing him for a huge disgorgement of taxpayer money to repair some nebulous entity called “our crumbling infrastructure.” The next week Cohn had disappeared and in his place at the president’s side Navarro suddenly materialized. With Navarro’s encouragement, the president unexpectedly announced hefty, world-wobbling tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At first the financial markets tumbled, and nobody in Washington, including the president’s friends, seemed happy. Nobody, that is, except Navarro, whose Cheshire-cat grin quickly became unavoidable on the alphabet-soup channels of cable news. It’s the perfect place for him, front and center, trying to disentangle the conflicting strands of the president’s economic policy. Far more than Cohn, the president’s newest and most powerful economic adviser is a suitable poster boy for Trumpism, whatever that might be.
So where, the capital wondered, did this Navarro fellow come from? (The question So where did this Cohn guy go? barely lasted a news cycle.) Insiders and political obsessives dimly remembered Navarro from Trump’s presidential campaign. With Wilbur Ross, now the secretary of commerce, Navarro wrote the most articulate brief for the Trump economic plan in the months before the election, which by my reckoning occurred roughly 277 years ago. (Ross is also Navarro’s co-conspirator in pushing the steel tariffs. They’re an Odd Couple indeed: Navarro is well-coiffed and tidy and as smooth as a California anchorman, while Ross is what Barney Fife might have looked like if he’d given up his job as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and gotten a degree in mortuary science.) The Navarro-Ross paper drew predictable skepticism from mainstream economists and their proxies in the press, particularly its eye-popping claim that Trump’s “trade policy reforms” would generate an additional $1.7 trillion in government revenue over the next 10 years.
Navarro is nominally a professor at University of California, Irvine. His ideological pedigree, like the president’s, is that of a mongrel. After a decade securing tenure by writing academic papers (“A Critical Comparison of Utility-type Ratemaking Methodologies in Oil Pipeline Regulation”), he set his attention on politics. In the 1990s, he earned the distinction of losing four political races in six years, all in San Diego or its surrounding suburbs—one for mayor, another for county supervisor, another for city council. He was a Democrat in those days, as Trump was; he campaigned against sprawl and for heavy environmental regulation. In 1996, he ran for Congress as “The Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears Most.” The TV actor Ed Asner filmed a commercial for him. This proved less helpful than hoped when his Republican opponent reminded voters that a few years earlier, Asner had been a chief fundraiser for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.
After that defeat, Navarro got the message and retired from politics. He returned to teaching, became an off-and-on-again Republican, and set about writing financial potboilers, mostly on investment strategies for a world increasingly unreceptive to American leadership. One of them, Death by China (2011), purported to describe the slow but inexorable sapping of American wealth and spirit through Chinese devilry. As it happened, this was Donald Trump’s favorite theme as well. From the beginning of his 40-year public career, Trump has stuck to his insistence that someone, in geo-economic terms, is bullying this great country of his. The identity of the bully has varied over time: In the 1980s, it was the Soviets who, following their cataclysmic implosion, gave way to Japan, which was replaced, after its own economic collapse, by America’s neighbors to the north and south, who have been joined, since the end of the last decade, by China. In Death by China, the man, the moment, and the message came together with perfect timing. Trump loved it.
It’s not clear that he read it, however. Trump is a visual learner, as the educational theorists used to say. He will retain more from Fox and Friends as he constructs his hair in the morning than from a half day buried in a stack of white papers from the Department of Labor. When Navarro decided to make a movie of the book, directed by himself, Trump attended a screening and lustily endorsed it. You can see why. Navarro’s use of animation is spare but compelling; the most vivid image shows a dagger of Asiatic design plunging (up to the hilt and beyond!) into the heart of a two-dimensional map of the U.S., causing the country’s blood to spray wildly across the screen, then seep in rivulets around the world. It’s Wes Cravenomics.
Most of the movie, however, is taken up by talking heads. Nearly everyone of these heads is attached to a left-wing Democrat, a socialist, or, in a couple of instances, an anarchist from the Occupy movement. Watched today, Death by China is a reminder of how lonely—how marginal—the anti-China obsession has been. This is not to its discredit; yesterday’s fringe often becomes today’s mainstream, just as today’s consensus is often disproved by the events of tomorrow. Not so long ago, for instance, the establishment catechism declared that economic liberalization and the prosperity it created led inexorably to political liberalization; from free markets, we were told, came free societies. In the last generation, China has put this fantasy to rest. Only the willfully ignorant would deny that the behavior of the Chinese government, at home and abroad, is the work of swine. Even so, the past three presidents have seen China only as a subject for scolding, never retaliation.
And this brings us to another mystery of Trumpism, as Navarro embodies it. Retaliation against China and its bullying trade practices is exactly what Trump has promised as both candidate and president. More than a year into his presidency, with his tariffs on steel and aluminum, he has struck against the bullies at last, just as he vowed to do. And the bullies, we discover, are mostly our friends—Germans, Brazilians, South Koreans, and other partners who sell us their aluminum and steel for less than we can make it ourselves. Accounting for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports, the Chinese are barely scratched in the president’s first great foray in protectionism.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump cited Chinese “dumping,” as if out of habit. Yet Navarro himself seems at a loss to explain why he and his boss have chosen to go after our friends instead of our preeminent adversary in world trade. “China is in many ways the root of the problem for all countries of the world in aluminum and steel,” he told CNN the day after the tariffs were announced. Really? How’s that? “The bigger picture is, China has tremendous overcapacity in both aluminum and steel. So what they do is, they flood the world market, and this trickles down to our shores, and to other countries.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, we had only to wait three days. By then Navarro was telling other interviewers, “This has nothing to do with China, directly or indirectly.”
This is not the first time Trumpism has shown signs of incoherence. With Peter Navarro at the president’s side, and with Gary Cohn a fading memory, it is unlikely to be the last.
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Review of 'Political Tribes' By Amy Chua
Amy Chua has an explanation for what ails us at home and abroad: Elites keep ignoring the primacy of tribalism both in the United States and elsewhere and so are blindsided every time people act in accordance with their group instinct. In Political Tribes, she offers a survey of tribal dynamics around the globe and renders judgments about the ways in which the United States has serially misread us-and-them conflicts. In the book’s final chapters, Chua, a Yale University law professor best known for her parenting polemic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, focuses on the clashing group instincts that now threaten to sunder the American body politic.
As Chua sees it, “our blindness to political tribalism abroad reflects America at both its best and worst.” Because the United States is a nation made up of diverse immigrant populations—a “supergroup”—Americans can sometimes underestimate how hard it is for people in other countries to set aside their religious or ethnic ties and find common national purpose. That’s American ignorance in its most optimistic and benevolent form. But then there’s the more noxious variety: “In some cases, like Vietnam,” she writes, “ethnically blind racism has been part of our obliviousness.”
During the Vietnam War, Chua notes, the United States failed to distinguish between the ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese majority and the Chinese minority who were targets of mass resentment. In Vietnam, national identity was built largely on historical accounts of the courageous heroes who had been repelling Chinese invaders since 111 b.c.e., when China first conquered its neighbor to the south. This defining antipathy toward the Chinese was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority was on average far wealthier and more politically powerful than the ethnic Vietnamese masses. “Yet astonishingly,” writes Chua, “U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn—merely ‘a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’”
Throughout the book, Chua captures tribal conflicts in clear and engrossing prose. But as a guide to foreign policy, one gets the sense that her emphasis on tribal ties might not be able to do all the work she expects of it. The first hint comes in her Vietnam analysis. If American ignorance of Chinese–Vietnam tensions is to blame for our having fought and lost the war, what would a better understanding of such things have yielded? She gets to that, sort of. “Could we have supported Ho [Chi Minh] against the French, capitalizing on Vietnam’s historical hostility toward China to keep the Vietnamese within our sphere of influence?” Chua asks. “We’ll never know. Somehow we never saw or took seriously the enmity between Vietnam and China.” It’s hard to see the U.S.’s backing a mass-murdering Communist against a putatively democratic ally as anything but a surreal thought experiment, let alone a lost opportunity.
On Afghanistan, Chua is correct about a number of things. There are indeed long-simmering tensions between Pashtuns, Punjabs, and other tribes in the region. The U.S. did pay insufficient attention to Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 9/11. The Taliban did play on Pashtun aspirations to fuel their rise. But how, exactly, are we to understand our failures in Afghanistan as resulting from ignorance of tribal relations? The Taliban went on to forge a protective agreement with al-Qaeda that had little if anything to do with tribal ties. And it was that relationship that had tragic consequences for the United States.
Not only was Osama bin Laden not Pashtun; he was an Arab millionaire, and his terrorist organization was made up of jihadists from all around the world. If anything, it was Bin Laden’s trans-tribal movement that the U.S. should have been focused on. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance was based on pooling resources against perceived common threats, compatible (but not identical) religious notions, and large cash payments from Bin Laden. No American understanding of tribal relations could have interfered with that.
And while an ambitious tribe-savvy counterinsurgency strategy might have gone a long way in helping the U.S.’s war effort, there has never been broad public support for such a commitment. Ultimately, our problems in Afghanistan have less to do with neglecting tribal politics and more to do with general neglect.
In Chua’s chapter on the Iraq War, however, her paradigm aligns more closely with the facts. “Could we have done better if we hadn’t been so blind to tribal politics in Iraq?” she asks. “There’s very good evidence that the answer is yes.” Here Chua offers a concise account of the U.S.’s successful 2007 troop surge. “While the additional U.S. soldiers—sent primarily to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province—were of course a critical factor,” she writes, “the surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by a 180-degree shift in our approach to the local population.”
Chua goes into colorful detail about then colonel H.R. McMaster’s efforts to educate American troops in local Iraqi customs and his decision to position them among the local population in Tal Afar. This won the trust of Iraqis who were forthcoming with critical intelligence. She also covers the work of Col. Sean MacFarland who forged relationships with Sunni sheikhs. Those sheikhs, in turn, convinced their tribespeople to work with U.S. forces and function as a local police force. Finally, Chua explains how Gen. David Petraeus combined the work of McMaster and MacFarland and achieved the miraculous in pacifying Baghdad. In spite of U.S. gains—and the successful navigation of tribes—there was little American popular will to keep Iraq on course and, over the next few years, the country inevitably unraveled.I n writing about life in the United States, Chua is on firmer ground altogether, and her diagnostic powers are impressive. “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots,” she writes, “a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.” In the U.S., however, there’s a crucial difference to this dynamic, and Chua puts her finger right on it: “In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism.”
She backs up this contention with statistics. Some of the most interesting revelations have to do with the Occupy movement. In actual fact, those who gathered in cities across the country to protest systemic inequality in 2012 were “disproportionately affluent.” In fact, “more than half had incomes of $75,000 or more.” Occupy faded away, as she notes, because it “attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for.” Chua puts things in perspective: “Imagine if the suffragette movement hadn’t included large numbers of women, or if the civil-rights movement included very few African Americans, or if the gay-rights movement included very few gays.” America’s poorer classes, for their part, are “deeply patriotic, even if they feel they’re losing the country to distant elites who know nothing about them.”
Chua is perceptive on both the inhabitants of Trump Country and the elites who disdain them. She takes American attitudes toward professional wrestling as emblematic of the split between those who support Donald Trump and those who detest him. Trump is a bona fide hero in the world of pro wrestling; he has participated in “bouts” and was actually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. What WWE fans get from watching wrestling they also get from watching Trump—“showmanship and symbols,” a world held together by enticing false storylines, and, ultimately, “something playfully spectacular.” Those on the academic left, on the other hand, “are fascinated, even obsessed in a horrified way, with the ‘phenomenology’ of watching professional wrestling.” In the book’s most arresting line, Chua writes that “there is now so little interaction, commonality, and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic difference.’”
Of course, there’s much today dividing America along racial lines as well. While Americans of color still contend with the legacy of institutional intolerance, “it is simply a fact that ‘diversity’ policies at the most select American universities and in some sectors of the economy have had a disparate adverse impact on whites.” So, both blacks and whites (and most everyone else) feel threatened to some degree. This has sharpened the edge of identity politics on the left and right. In Chua’s reading, these tribal differences will not actually break the country apart. But, she believes, they could fundamentally and irreversibly change “who we are.”
Political Tribes, however, is no doomsday prediction. Despite our clannish resentments, Chua sees, in her daily interactions, people’s willingness to form bonds beyond those of their in-group and a relaxing of tribal ties. What’s needed is for haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to enjoy more meaningful exposure to one another. This pat prescription would come across as criminally sappy if not for the genuinely loving and patriotic way in which Chua writes about our responsibilities as a “supergroup.” “It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings,” she says, “we need to view one another as fellow Americans.” Americans as a higher ontological category than human beings—there’s poetry in that. And a healthy bit of tribalism, too.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Then again, you know what happens when you assume.
“Here is my prediction,” Kristof wrote. “The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer, will be released from prison.”
True, Kristof conceded, “I may be wrong entirely.” But, he went on, “my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.”
Five years later, the Chinese economy, while large, is saddled with debt. Analysts and government officials are worried about its real-estate bubble. Despite harsh controls, capital continues to flee China. Nor has there been “some political easing.” On the contrary, repression has worsened. The Great Firewall blocks freedom of speech and inquiry, human-rights advocates are jailed, and the provinces resemble surveillance states out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Mao rests comfortably in his mausoleum. Not only did Liu Xiaobo remain a prisoner, he was also denied medical treatment when he contracted cancer, and he died in captivity in 2017.
As for Xi Jinping, he turned out not to be a reformer but a dictator. Steadily, under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns, Xi decimated alternative centers of power within the Communist Party. He built up a cult of personality around “Xi Jinping thought” and his “Chinese dream” of economic, cultural, and military strength. His preeminence was highlighted in October 2017 when the Politburo declined to name his successor. Then, in March of this year, the Chinese abolished the term limits that have guaranteed rotation in office since the death of Mao. Xi reigns supreme.
Bizarrely, this latest development seems to have come as a surprise to the American press. The headline of Emily Rauhala’s Washington Post article read: “China proposes removal of two-term limit, potentially paving way for President Xi Jinping to stay on.” Potentially? Xi’s accession to emperor-like status, wrote Julie Bogen of Vox, “could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further toward authoritarianism.” Could? Bogen did not specify which “decades of progress toward democracy” she was talking about, but that is probably because, since 1989, there haven’t been any.
Xi’s assumption of dictatorial powers should not have shocked anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to recent Chinese history. The Chinese government, until last month a collective dictatorship, has exercised despotic control over its people since the very founding of the state in 1949. And yet the insatiable desire among media to incorporate news events into a preestablished storyline led reporters to cover the party announcement as a sudden reversal. Why? Because only then would the latest decision of an increasingly embattled and belligerent Chinese leadership fit into the prefabricated narrative that says we are living in an authoritarian moment.
For example, one article in the February 26, 2018, New York Times was headlined, “With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen.” CNN’s James Griffiths wrote, “While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.” Checks and balances, reformers and conservatives—why, they are just like us, only within the context of a one-party state that ruthlessly brooks no dissent.
Now, we do happen to live in an era when democracy and autocracy are at odds. But China is not joining the “authoritarian trend.” It helped create and promote the trend. Next year, China’s “era of strongmen” will enter its seventh decade. The fundamental nature of the Communist regime in Beijing has not changed during this time.
My suspicion is that journalists were taken aback by Xi’s revelation of his true nature because they, like most Western elites, have bought into the myth of China’s “peaceful rise.” For decades, Americans have been told that China’s economic development and participation in international organizations and markets would lead inevitably to its political liberalization. What James Mann calls “the China fantasy” manifested itself in the leadership of both major political parties and in the pronouncements of the chattering class across the ideological spectrum.
Indeed, not only was the soothing scenario of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on the glide path to democracy widespread, but media figures also admonished Americans for not living up to Chinese standards. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Tom Friedman conceded in an infamous 2009 column. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” For instance, Friedman went on, “it is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” The following year, during an episode of Meet the Press, Friedman admitted, “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but what if we could just be China for a day?” Just think of all the electric cars the government could force us to buy.
This attitude toward Chinese Communism as a public-policy exemplar became still more pronounced after Donald Trump was elected president on an “America First” agenda. China’s theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, military buildup, and interference in democratic politics and university life did not prevent it from proclaiming itself the defender of globalization and environmentalism.
When Xi visited the Davos World Economic Forum last year, the Economist noted the “fawning reception” that greeted him. The speech he delivered, pledging to uphold the international order that had facilitated his nation’s rise as well as his own, received excellent reviews. On January 15, 2017, Fareed Zakaria said, “In an America-first world, China is filling the vacuum.” A few days later, Charlie Rose told his CBS audience, “It’s almost like China is saying, ‘we are the champions of globalization, not the United States.’” And on January 30, 2017, the New York Times quoted a “Berlin-based private equity fund manager,” who said, “We heard a Chinese president becoming leader of the free world.”
The chorus of praise for China grew louder last spring when Trump announced American withdrawal from an international climate accord. In April 2017, Rick Stengel said on cable television that China is becoming “the global leader on the environment.” On June 8, a CBS reporter said that Xi is “now viewed as the world’s leader on climate change.” On June 19, 2017, on Bloomberg news, Dana Hull said, “China is the leader on climate change, especially when it comes to autos.” Also that month, one NBC anchor asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah, “Are you concerned at all that China may be seen as sort of the global leader when it comes to bringing countries together, more so than the United States?”
Last I checked, Xi Jinping’s China has not excelled at “bringing countries together,” unless—like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—those countries are allying with the United States to balance against China. What instead should concern Senator Lee, and all of us, is an American media filled with people suckered by foreign propaganda that happens to coincide with their political preferences, and who are unable to make elementary distinctions between tyrannical governments and consensual ones.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them
rom the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”1 In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”
At his website humanprogress.org, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, “all trade was stigmatized as undignified … the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse.” Cicero noted in the first century b.c.e. that retail commerce is sordidus (vile) because merchants “would not make any profit unless they lied constantly.”
Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. “For where your treasure is,” he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “there will your heart be also.” And of course he insisted that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. “The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others,” the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, “Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit”—“If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money—usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious. “While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others,” Aristotle insisted, “usury is most reasonably hated because one’s possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied.” In the Christian tradition, the only noble labor was physical labor, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.
In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant’s life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. “Echoing Aristotle,” Muller writes, “Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office, and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one’s place in the social order.”
In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”2 The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.
Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them.3 Martin Luther despised commerce. “There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men…. Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf …. And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill … hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!”4
It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther’s views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest. In his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he offers a seven-point plan on how to deal with them:
- “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools .…This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… ”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside … ”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … ”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.… But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country … ”
Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient anti-Semitism (a word that did not exist at the time and a sentiment that was not necessarily linked to more modern biological racism). His demonization of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonized again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.
Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.
The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.
Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labor were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource. In fact, while Marx despised slavery, he thought wage-labor was only a tiny improvement because wage-labor reduced costs for capitalists in that they were not required to feed or clothe wage laborers.
Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:
To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.
In his book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber suggests that “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”5
Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”
In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.
As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”
This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism. “Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties,” Engels writes in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. “The question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe. “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” Marx writes. “Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”
Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview.
The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]
The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages—individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx’s mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community. Private property empowered individuals to live as individuals “without regard to other men,” as Marx put it.
This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]
He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]
In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]
In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”6 Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”7
For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: “The capitalist knows that all commodities—however shabby they may look or bad they may smell—are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money.”
Marx’s writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has bought from him.” The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.
Marx writes how the extension of the workday into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor,” resulting in the fact that “the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are even more prominent motifs: “Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking,’ while U.S. capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children.’ The appropriation of labor is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,’ while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital.’”
Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”
In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.
Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.
It is an old conservative habit—one I’ve been guilty of myself—of looking around society and politics, finding things we don’t like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It’s unknowable.
And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx’s ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory.
There’s ample reason—with ample research to back it up—to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat—and, as Mark van Vugt has written, “the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you.”8
To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to “carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords.” He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.
Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they’ve internalized Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, the talented left-wing writer, describes Goldman Sachs (the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories) thus:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
Marx would be jealous that he didn’t think of the phrase “the great vampire squid.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has occasionally traded in the same kind of language, even evoking some ancient anti-Semitic tropes. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors,” Trump said in one campaign speech. “This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.” He added: “Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire had stripped the transcendent from its central place in human affairs. God had been dethroned and “We the People”—and our things—had taken His place. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”9
The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. “Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated,” the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. “They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without color and light…. And now it’s put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it.”10
When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.
For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.11 The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all along. They don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.
1 Muller, Jerry Z.. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Muller, Jerry Z. Capitalism and the Jews (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Luther’s economic thought, reflected in his “Long Sermon on Usury of 1520” and his tract On Trade and Usury of 1524, was hostile to commerce in general and to international trade in particular, and stricter than the canonists in its condemnation of moneylending. Muller, Jerry Z.. Capitalism and the Jews (p. 26). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Quoted approvingly in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “Capitalist Production.” Capital: Critical Analysis of Production, Volume II. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey, & Co. 1887. p. 604
5 Sperber, Jonathan. “Introduction.” Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation. 2013. xiii.
6 McCloskey, Deirdre. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 142
7 Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals (Kindle Locations 1325-1326). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
8 See also: Sunstain, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian. “Syposium on Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 17, Number 2, 2009, pp. 202-227. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Sunstein-Conspiracy-Theories-2009.pdf
9 Think of the story of the Golden Calf. Moses departs for Mt. Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. No sooner had he left did the Israelites switch their allegiance to false idol, the Golden Calf, treating a worldly inanimate object as their deity. So it is with modern man. Hence, Voegelin’s quip that for the Marxist “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”
10 Blanning, Tim. The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 34) (Kindle Locations 445-450). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11 Marx: “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
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Review of 'Realism and Democracy' By Elliott Abrams
Then, in 1966, Syrian Baathists—believers in a different transnational unite-all-the-Arabs ideology—overthrew the government in Damascus and lent their support to Palestinian guerrillas in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel. Later that year, a Jordanian-linked counter-coup in Syria failed, and the key figures behind it fled to Jordan. Then, on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, agreeing to deploy Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil and effectively giving Nasser command and control over Jordan’s own armed forces.
This is just a snapshot of the havoc wreaked on the Middle East by the conceit of pan-Arabism. This history is worth recalling when reading Elliott Abrams’s idealistic yet clearheaded Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring. One of the book’s key insights is the importance of legitimacy for regimes that rule “not nation-states” but rather “Sykes-Picot states”—the colonial heirlooms of Britain and France created in the wake of the two world wars. At times, these states barely seem to acknowledge, let alone respect, their own sovereignty.
When the spirit of revolution hit the Arab world in 2010, the states with external legitimacy—monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait—survived. Regimes that ruled merely by brute force—Egypt, Yemen, Libya—didn’t. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only held on thanks to the intervention of Iran and Russia, and it is difficult to argue that there is any such thing as “Syria” anymore. What this all proved was that the “stability” of Arab dictatorships, a central conceit of U.S. foreign policy, was in many cases an illusion.
That is the first hard lesson in pan-Arabism from Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The second is this: The extremists who filled the power vacuums in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other countries led Western analysts to believe that there was an “Islamic exceptionalism” at play that demonstrated Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Abrams effectively debunks this by showing that the real culprit stymieing the spread of liberty in the Middle East was not Islam but pan-Arabism, which stems from secular roots. He notes one study showing that, in the 30 years between 1973 and 2003, “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab-majority Muslim country.”
Abrams is thus an optimist on the subject of Islam and democracy—which is heartening, considering his experience and expertise. He worked for legendary cold-warrior Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and served as an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan and later as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy. Realism and Democracy is about U.S. policy and the Arab world—but it is also about the nature of participatory politics itself. Its theme is: Ideas have consequences. And what sets Abrams’s book apart is its concrete policy recommendations to put flesh on the bones of those ideas, and bring them to life.
The dreary disintegration of the Arab Spring saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a year was displaced in a military coup. Syria’s civil war has seen about 400,000 killed and millions displaced. Into the vacuum stepped numerous Islamist terror groups. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has resulted in total state collapse. Yemen’s civil war bleeds on.
Stability in authoritarian states with little or no legitimacy is a fiction. Communist police states were likely to fall, and the longer they took to do so, the longer the opposition sat in a balled-up rage. That, Abrams notes, is precisely what happened in Egypt. Mubarak’s repression gave the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage once the playing field opened up: The group had decades of organizing under its belt, a coherent raison d’être, and a track record of providing health and education services where the state lagged. No other parties or opposition groups had anything resembling this kind of coordination.
Abrams trenchantly concludes from this that “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous and should itself be viewed as a form of political extremism that is likely to feed other forms.” Yet even this extremism can be tempered by power, he suggests. In a democracy, Islamist parties will have to compromise and moderate or be voted out. In Tunisia, electorally successful Islamists chose the former, and it stands as a rare success story.
Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood took a different path in Egypt, with parlous results. Its government began pulling up the ladder behind it, closing avenues of political resistance and civic participation. Hamas did the same after winning Palestinian elections in 2006. Abrams thinks that the odds of such a bait-and-switch can be reduced. He quotes the academic Stephen R. Grand, who calls for all political parties “to take an oath of allegiance to the state, to respect the outcome of democratic elections, to abide by the rules of the constitution, and to forswear violence.” If they keep their word, they will open up the political space for non-Islamist parties to get in the game. If they don’t—well, let the Egyptian coup stand as a warning.
Abrams, to his credit, does not avoid the Mesopotamian elephant in the room. The Iraq War has become Exhibit A in the dangers of democracy promotion. This is understandable, but it is misguided. The Bush administration made the decision to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein based on national-security calculations, mainly the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Once the decapitation had occurred, the administration could hardly have been expected to replace Saddam with another strongman whose depravities would this time be on America’s conscience. Critics of the war reverse the order here and paint a false portrait.
Here is where Abrams’s book stands out: He provides, in the last two chapters, an accounting of the weaknesses in U.S. policy, including mistakes made by the administration he served, and a series of concrete proposals to show that democracy promotion can be effective without the use of force.
One mistake, according to Abrams, is America’s favoring of civil-society groups over political parties. These groups do much good, generally have strong English-language skills, and are less likely to be tied to the government or ancien régime. But those are also strikes against them. Abrams relates a story told by former U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman about Nelson Mandela. Nigerian activists asked the South African freedom fighter to support an oil embargo against their own government. Mandela declined because, Lyman says, there was as yet no serious, organized political opposition party: “What Mandela was saying to the Nigerian activists is that, in the absence of political movements dedicated not just to democracy but also to governing when the opportunity arises, social, civic, and economic pressures against tyranny will not suffice.” Without properly focused democracy promotion, other tools to punish repressive regimes will be off the table.
Egypt offers a good example of another principle: Backsliding must be punished. The Bush administration’s pressure on Mubarak over his treatment of opposition figures changed regime behavior in 2005. Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, the pressure had let up and Mubarak’s misbehavior continued, with no consequences from either Bush or his successor, Barack Obama, until it was too late.
That, in turn, leads to another of Abrams’s recommendations: “American diplomacy can be effective only when it is clear that the president and secretary of state are behind whatever diplomatic moves or statements an official in Washington or a U.S. ambassador is making.” This is good advice for the current Oval Office occupant and his advisers. President Trump’s supporters advise critics of his dismissive attitude toward human-rights violations to focus on what the president does, not what he says. But Trump’s refusal to take a hard line against Vladimir Putin and his recent praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to become president for life undermine lower-level officials’ attempts to encourage reform.
There won’t be democracy without democrats. Pro-democracy education, Abrams advises, can teach freedom-seekers to speak the ennobling language of liberty, which is the crucial first step toward building a culture that prizes it. And in the process, we might do some ennobling ourselves.