ANDREW YOUNG is unquestionably a prominent figure in American politics today, and one of growing international importance as well. Before…
Andrew young is unquestionably a prominent figure in American politics today, and one of growing international importance as well. Before his remarkably rapid rise—owing largely to the role he played in Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign—Young served as Congressman from Atlanta’s 5th District, and before that as Executive Director of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In both these capacities he was known as a skilled negotiator—tough, but also conciliatory when necessary—and a racial moderate; he was the only black Congressman who voted to confirm Gerald Ford as Vice President, for example. It is only since his appointment as United States Ambassador to the United Nations that Young has seemingly gone out of his way to court political controversy and to adopt the provocative, outspoken manner that has become his trademark in office.
From the beginning, Young has seen that appointment as something more than just a diplomatic assignment. He has referred time and again to its symbolic significance, calling it a sign of America’s racial progress and the harbinger of a new relationship between the U.S. and the countries of the Third World. He seems to see himself as a kind of diplomatic avenging angel, called upon to right the wrongs of past American foreign policy, to put the United States on the “right side of the moral issues in this world,” and to “repair the damage” which was done during the years when America supported the “worst leadership groups” and became party to a “vast network of oppression” instead of siding with “oppressed peoples everywhere.”
The torrent of controversy provoked by Young during his first months in office seemed designed to call attention to his new, crusading role and to the new American stance which it presumably symbolized. Conor Cruise O’Brien has observed that Young “knows how to be indiscreet and makes his indiscretions work in his favor,” and this assessment is probably right. Though Young outraged many people by calling Cuban troops in Angola “a force for stability,” or advising Americans not to be “paranoid” about “a few thousand” Communist soldiers in Africa, or by hurling indiscriminate charges of racism at U.S. allies, adversaries, past Presidents, and even the borough of Queens, he also strengthened his credibility at the UN by saying such things and enlarged his popularity among many American blacks. Not long after Young took office, the Nigerian foreign minister called him the “symbol of a new and constructive United States policy toward Africa,” and three leaders of the NAACP, including Roy Wilkins, praised him for speaking the “brutal, unvarnished truth” about racism in America and urged President Carter not to let the “enemies of racial progress” sway him from supporting Young.
President Carter has needed no such urging. He has been almost reverential toward Young, calling him the “finest elected official” and the “best man” he has ever known, as well as a “national treasure” and “Third World hero.” Repeatedly, the President has made a point of affirming his “complete faith” in the way Young has gone about fulfilling his diplomatic responsibilities.1 In token of all this, Young is the first U.S. Ambasssador to have his own full-time staff on the seventh floor of the State Department—down the hall from Secretary of State Vance; he is the only U.S. diplomat permitted to engage in fund-raising activities on behalf of Democratic candidates; and his advice is solicited on many vital policy questions having nothing to do with Africa or the Third World. Carter’s initial decision to stop development of the neutron bomb, for example, was reportedly influenced by Young, who feared that production of the bomb would make the U.S. position difficult to defend at the special UN session on disarmament.
Is it then the case that the views which Young has been articulating so freely during his tenure at the UN reflect the policies of the United States government? Young himself suggests as much. Whenever he creates a furor, he defends himself by claiming first that his remarks have been taken out of context and, second, that they represent a fairly accurate reflection of policy—a policy that is in process of changing to become “much more in tune with the thinking of the rest of the world.”
Lately, of course, the President has been expressing views about the activities of the Russians and the Cubans in Africa that diverge sharply from those of Young. Nevertheless, it remains unclear whether or to what extent Young speaks for himself or on behalf of the administration. Whatever the answer to that question may turn out to be, Young’s political attitudes, as represented by his public utterances during the year-and-a-half since he took office, do indeed, as he himself says, point toward a fundamental revision of American foreign policy—though a revision with very different moral implications from those he ascribes to it. Young’s views may or may not be consonant with those of President Carter. But if they are, then the conception of human rights articulated by the Carter administration is a sham, put forward to disguise a rather cynical accommodation to a world in which Communist totalitarianism is the dominant reality.
To understand Young’s thinking, one must understand that all his political judgments are made from the vantage point of the American civil-rights movement of the 1960’s. When an interviewer commented on “how often you interpret world events through your own civil-rights experience,” Young answered: “It’s true. I mean, it’s all I got. Everybody is determined by his own experience.” That experience, in Young’s view, is relevant not only to America but to all sorts of countries and situations no matter how far removed they may be from the specific conditions that existed in the American South under segregation. Whether he is speaking in Lagos to a World Conference on Action Against Apartheid, or in Maputo at a conference in support of black nationalist movements in Namibia (South West Africa) and Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), Young continually draws a parallel between the struggles fought in the 50’s and 60’s against Jim Crow in the South and the struggle currently being fought against white minority rule in Africa.
And it is not only Africa that elicits this parallel. Young is no less hesitant in drawing comparisons between the American civil-rights movement and the current dissident movement in the Soviet Union. He has said, for example, that the Shcharansky and Ginzburg trials “remind me very much of my own days in the civil-rights movement.” Repression in Mississippi, he has also said, “just made more people more determined,” and “[t]he same things will happen in Russia.” Furthermore, “as the Soviet Union becomes more prosperous, as more and more people are exposed to any kind of art and culture,” especially through the medium of television, there will be a “human-rights explosion that will not be unlike our civil-rights movement.” Young’s experience in the civil-rights movement even provides a model for his approach to the politics of the United Nations. Just as the black movement in the U.S. built a broad coalition for change, so too, he says, is it necessary at the world body “to build coalitions that cross racial and geographic and ideological lines.”
So central is the civil-rights movement in Young’s scheme of things that he credits it with having started a “political revolution” that brought about a “radical reformation of American foreign policy.” In his speech to the Maputo conference in May 1977, Young explained to his African audience how the civil-rights movement evolved into the anti-war protest movement, which in turn created a “new approach to the problems we face everywhere in the world.” Thanks to this “new approach,” which grew “out of a concern for the end to racism, and an end to militarism and imperialism,” American foreign policy is now profoundly different from what it was during “the tragedy of the past twenty years,” when American tax dollars were used “not to develop, not to feed the hungry, but essentially as part of an apparatus of repression in many places on the face of the earth.” At long last, the cold war is behind us, and what used to be “an adversary relationship between East and West . . . is giving way to much more cooperation. . . .”
Of course, Young is aware that the transformation is not yet total. The U.S. still spends “close to $100 billion a year [sic] on so-called military preparedness,” and many Americans still persist in seeing a “so-called ‘clear and present danger’” in Communism as a result of a “massive education campaign run by the government and private agencies.” But the outlook is improving. Americans are gradually coming to acknowledge the past racism of our government, and to recognize the truth of W.E.B. Du Bois’s dictum that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” At a conference in Lagos against apartheid, Young noted approvingly that though much of the “imperialism, neocolonialism, capitalism, or what have you” of the United States is still present, the situation is in the process of being transformed by the Carter administration.
Given this general view of the world, it is not surprising to discover that Young sees no reason for the U.S. to oppose Communism militarily, or even to confront it ideologically. He simply does not believe that the Soviet Union and its allies pose a military or strategic threat to the United States. The whole question of the Horn of Africa, for example, is in Young’s opinion vastly exaggerated, and he pronounces it “ridiculous” to find “this enormous strategic significance in a thousand miles of sand.” Indeed, if there are strategic interests at stake at all in the Horn of Africa, the United States has only benefited from the Soviet action, for it will prove to be “the Soviet Union’s Vietnam”—“the Russians have done more to hurt themselves than we could have ever done to hurt them.”
Nor, according to Young, does the fact that Cuba is a Communist regime allied with the Soviet Union have any bearing on the situation. “Cubans are people,” he said after Cuban advisers arrived in Ethiopia. “They might do good things. They might do bad things. Let’s wait and see before we jump to conclusions.” When asked on Meet the Press whether he was for, against, or neutral toward the Cuban presence in Africa, Young replied: “I think I would treat the Cuban presence just like I would treat the Israeli presence or the French presence or the American presence. I would ask the question: What are they doing?”
What, then, are the Cubans doing in Africa in Young’s opinion? The answer has varied on different occasions, but always the motives imputed have been honorable ones. When the Cubans first arrived in Angola, Young thought that “they were essentially opposing racism, and driving the South Africans out”; later, when the civil war was over and the Neto regime installed in power, Young explained that the Cubans were “basically doing technical assistance,” and in fact representing our own interests by protecting Gulf Oil’s installations in Cabinda. Whatever their motives, crass political expediency was not among them: “I don’t believe that Cuba is in Africa because it was ordered there by the Russians. I believe that Cuba is in Africa because it really has shared a sense of colonial oppression and domination.”
It was only when the Cubans (for reasons not quite covered by Young’s analysis) “used military means to try to resolve a conflict of Angolans themselves” that he was ready to condemn “that military role.” But even while he expressed concern about “the continuation of death and destruction almost everywhere there is a Cuban military presence,” he did not feel that any kind of U.S. military response was called for, and he continues to oppose any such response whether in Angola, in the Horn of Africa, in Zaire, or in Rhodesia. To reply with force would, in the first place, only compound the violence (“I don’t think it’s right for us to become a destructive force because they are a destructive force”) and in the second place would never work “because the Soviets are willing to put so much more in weaponry into a situation in Africa,” while “[t]he American people have sort of determined that our foreign policy for the near future, anyway, ought to avoid any military involvement in which the shores of the United States are not threatened.” And this is all for the best, according to Young, since in any case the U.S. “fares better in the world through peaceful economic competition wherever possible.” “The sooner the fighting stops and the trading starts,” he has declared, “the quicker we win.”
If Young sees no strategic grounds for opposing Communist advances, neither does he see any moral ones, for he does not feel qualified to pass judgment on the Communist system of government. Concerning Angola, for example, he has said that “There’s nothing wrong with their deciding to live under a socialist [sic] system,” though he did not quite explain what “deciding” meant in this connection. He himself, as he once explained it, would not want to live in a place like Mozambique, for example, yet in the course of a visit there he “found that in the midst of that liberation movement there was in addition to the Communist social structure a remnant of humanism. . . . I say they are Communist but they are also humanist.”
The question of human rights, too, according to Young, is relative rather than absolute, in the sense that it is “understandable that people in different circumstances should have different perceptions of what human rights are.” In a speech delivered at the Riverside Church in New York on Human Rights Sunday, Young urged Americans to broaden their definition of human rights to take account of these “different perceptions,” and to understand that for the poor people of the world, the most pressing concern is overcoming poverty, not political freedom. In effect, therefore, “For most of the world, civil and political rights . . . come as luxuries that are far away in the future.” Applying this “different-perceptions” theory to the Soviet Union, Young explained rather ingeniously how under that particular style of government, human rights—redefined, of course—have been preserved. In part, this appears to have been due to differences in climate:
. . . we must recognize that they are growing up in circumstances different from ours. They have, therefore, developed a completely different concept of human rights. For them, human rights are essentially not civil and political, but economic. . . . One lives in a land where, in most of that land, the sun sets as early as three o’clock in the afternoon, and where the planting season is minimal. Under those circumstances the struggle for human rights inevitably becomes far more economic in its expression than it would in a country such as ours, where we almost take it for granted that anything can grow almost anywhere year ’round.
But even the acknowledged defects of Communism do not grant us the right to judge it, in Young’s opinion, because our own record on human rights is far from clean. While it is true that there is no political liberty in the Soviet Union, “We unfortunately have been very reluctant to accept the concept of economic responsibility for all of our citizens.” And while it is true that the Soviet Union represses its dissidents, “many of our own students were shot down on their own campuses” as a result of their political activities against the war in Vietnam. And even if we do not go in for literal torture, as some other countries do, the United States “still has subtle but very strong systems of intimidation at work that inhibit the possibilities of our poor, our discriminated against, and our dissidents, from speaking fully to address themselves.” To illustrate this point, he has observed that a young black in America “is much more likely to go to jail and find himself abused there” than is a young white; and that the poor find it more difficult than the rich to gain adequate legal representation. No wonder, then, that at a meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights, a body which includes some of the harshest despotisms on the planet, Young said, “I see my country as vulnerable as anybody else’s around the table.” He made a similar point during the Shcharansky trial when he said that there are “hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people whom I would call political prisoners” in the United States.
Young’s willingness to give certain countries the benefit of the doubt extends even to Uganda. He acknowledges that there have been “massive violations of human rights and destruction of people” in that country, but is not sure how much violence is “done as a matter of government policy and how much is done as a result of an imminent kind of chaos.” Then, too, Western nations have no right to be sanctimonious about Idi Amin, since they “contributed to overthrowing” the government of Milton Obote (a “left-leaning intellectual”) and thereby paved the way for Amin’s tyranny. Uganda, therefore, “is not just an African problem, [but] a Western one . . . a result of the excesses of both colonialism and neocolonialism.”
There is, of course, a limit to Young’s moral relativism. It does not extend to South Korea, Iran, Chile, the Philippines, or any of the other countries belonging presumably to that “vast network of oppression” to which we became a party in past years. Nor does it extend to South Africa, which Young has singled out from among all the countries of the world for unique moral condemnation. Here, for once, the question of human rights is paramount and there is not a trace of that hesitation to pass judgment which Young so frequently displays toward other governments that deny their citizens democratic rights. Here, and only here, “the whole conscience of the world is . . . on trial.”
Appearing on Face the Nation on May 21, 1978, only a few days after Communist-backed forces invaded Zaire’s Shaba province and had reportedly launched a major offensive in Eritrea, Young assessed the African situation: “I think our policy is doing very well,” he said, “and frankly, I think we are much better off in Africa now . . . than we have been for the last decade.” Considered in light of the preceding week’s events—and indeed, in light of events that have taken place over the entire period since Young and Carter took charge of our African policy—Young’s reply was well-nigh staggering.
There are now Cuban military personnel and civilian “advisers” stationed in some fifteen African countries, most of them concentrated in southern Africa and the Horn, the two zones where military conflict on the continent is most intense. The 25,000-man Cuban force in Angola, which is financed by the Soviet Union at a rate of $2½ million a day, is greater by one-quarter than it was when Carter took office, and serves the double purpose of securing the Communist hold on Angola and aiding pro-Soviet insurgents in neighboring countries. The Cubans guard the Cabinda oilfields (the source of yearly revenues of close to $1 billion which keep the MPLA regime afloat); fight a continuing war in the countryside against the guerrilla forces of UNITA and FNLA (the two nationalist movements defeated in the civil war); and maintain order in the capital city of Luanda, where they put down an attempted coup in May of last year. From their Angolan base, the Cubans train SWAPO and ZAPU guerrillas in the use of Soviet weapons for an eventual takeover in Namibia and Zimbabwe. Here, too, they have trained and armed the Congolese National Liberation Front, the rebel group that invaded Shaba province this past May (the second such invasion in fourteen months) in an effort to topple the Mobutu government. In addition to the Angola operation, Moscow has also stepped up arms shipments to the Patriotic Front in Zambia and Mozambique, and flown groups of Malawian recruits to Cuba for military training. Reviewing these efforts in a joint communiqué issued on April 24, 1978, the Soviet Union and Cuba pledged to increase “assistance and support” to all the pro-Moscow insurgencies in the region.
In the Horn, 12,000 Cuban troops, 1,000 Soviet “advisers,” and $1 billion of Soviet weapons enabled Ethiopia to drive Somali forces out of the Ogaden desert in March of this year. Not content with this victory, and despite implicit assurances to Washington that the Somali withdrawal would be followed by “substantial reductions” in Cuban and Soviet forces in Ethiopia, Moscow soon sought to establish its control over the entire Horn. On April 9, just three days after Ethiopian President Mengistu returned from a hasty visit to Moscow, there was an abortive coup against the government of Somali President Mohammed Siad Barre, which Somalia charged had been instigated by the Soviet Union and Cuba. Not long after, Ethiopian troops backed by an enlarged Cuban force of 17,000 (and, according to Mengistu, backed also by forces from the Soviet Union, East Germany, and South Yemen) stepped up their offensive against the Eritrean secessionist movement.
In short, during the first year and a half of the Carter Presidency, two areas of considerable strategic importance—southern Africa, with its vast mineral deposits, and the Horn of Africa, with its proximity both to the vital sea routes through the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and to the world’s largest oil reserves in Saudi Arabia—have fallen under increasing assault from the Soviet Union and its allied forces. While all this has been going on, Young has retained his equanimity and urged Americans not to overreact, in accordance with his well-earned reputation in the Carter administration as a “cool-it person.” There have, however, been occasions when even Young has lost his equanimity. This happened, for example, when it was announced that an internal settlement had been reached in Rhodesia between the Smith government and three black leaders, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole, and Senator Jeremiah Chirau. Young was obviously taken by surprise and refused to believe it at first (“Our intelligence reports [said] that this would not happen, certainly not soon”). Then he went on to say that the settlement—which would guarantee the white 4 per cent of the population 28 per cent of the seats for ten years in a parliament elected by universal suffrage—would not work because it did not “address the issues that have some 40,000 people fighting” (the actual number is closer to 10,000). Comparing it to the “three or four internal settlements in Vietnam” which failed to stop the fighting there, Young predicted that the settlement would lead to a “black-on-black civil war,” followed by a “massive commitment of Soviet weapons.” He added that even if the U.S. and other Western countries recognized the new Salisbury government (which “would be very difficult”), such recognition would not mean much unless they were willing to send troops in to back it up, if necessary. “I don’t think we are ready to do that,” Young concluded, thereby announcing in advance that the United States would abstain from any action in the situation, and virtually inviting the Soviet Union and Cuba to intervene.
Young is against the internal settlement, which envisions independence before the end of the year, free and fair elections open to all parties (including the guerrillas who would be encouraged to return and to participate on an equal basis in the new order), on the ground that it is insufficiently representative (though in fact it would be one of the most democratic states in Africa). Instead, he supports the Anglo-American plan which requires all parties to agree to a settlement—the white majority, the internally-based black groups, and the two wings of the Patriotic Front led by Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe—after which a free election will take place to determine the composition of a new government. But this assumes, first of all, that both Nkomo and Mugabe really want a free election—in which, most observers feel, they would not do very well—and secondly, that a consensus could be reached by all the parties involved not only about the terms for a settlement, but about a future democratic state as well. Hard as it was to reach a compromise between the white minority and the moderate black internal leaders, it is impossible to imagine a compromise between Ian Smith and Mugabe (who has said that there should be no amnesty for “war criminals”). It is also exceedingly difficult to imagine that a consensus could ever be reached between Mugabe, who has opposed multiparty democracy as a “luxury” and has called for a “one-party state,” and Muzorewa, the most popular of the internal leaders, who has called for a multiparty, multiracial, constitutional democracy with a bill of rights, an independent judiciary, and a “mixed type of economy.”
Indeed, the irreconcilability of these two positions, held by two black leaders, is an ironic commentary on Young’s belief, which he has expressed so often at the United Nations and which is such an integral part of his total outlook, that the East-West conflict between totalitarianism and democracy has come to an end, and that race is the main dividing line in the world today. In fact, however, the decisive issue in Rhodesia is not the imperfections of the democracy envisioned by the internal settlement, or even the resistance to white minority rule, which the settlement would end. Rather, it is whether or not the future Zimbabwe will be democratic or totalitarian.
One need not accept Muzorewa’s contention that Young has been “terribly brainwashed by the Patriotic Front and the so-called front-line states” to notice his clear bias in their favor. Indeed he has asserted, in a recent BBC interview, that “We are on the side of the front-line presidents in the Rhodesian situation.” In consonance with this, he has spoken of the guerrillas with extreme deference. “People who are engaged in negotiated settlements,” he told the Maputo conference in support of the Front, “hardly have the moral right to tell the people who are engaged in armed struggle how to run their paths and determine their freedom.” And in further token of his admiration, Young publicly implored “my brother Robert Mugabe . . . not to think of us in the same context as our involvement in Vietnam now in 1977.”
In adopting this ingratiating stance toward the Patriotic Front, and by opposing a course that would seek to strengthen its democratic opponents, Young is no doubt motivated in part by the wish to maintain his “credibility” with such Front supporters in Africa as Samora Machel of Mozambique, Agostinho Neto of Angola, and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. At the same time, there is little to suggest, in light of his overall political point of view, that he would regard the installation of a Mugabe-type regime in Zimbabwe as cause for concern. Certainly it would be no more harmful to U.S. interests, from his point of view, than a Neto regime in Angola, and it might even be helpful. After all, Rhodesia under Mugabe would be “stable,” the U.S. could trade with it (importing its chrome, for example, without political embarrassment), and, like Mozambique, it might even be “humanistic” as well as Communist.
In the end, it is Young’s apparent lack of commitment to political freedom, and his ability to turn a blind eye to oppression if it is carried out by African and other Third World regimes in the name of a progressive ideology, that is the most troubling aspect of his thought and of his performance at the United Nations. More is at issue than a mere disagreement over policy when Young finds it possible to assert, for example, that the “success” of Mozambique “makes East and West alike look to this nation with new hope and with new courage.” Leaving aside the FRELIMO regime’s disastrous economic performance, it would be an understatement to say that it has not respected the principle of majority rule, given the fact that Machel has pledged to “liquidate abrasive forces in the service of imperialism” and is currently holding some 100,000 people in forced-labor camps on suspicion of opposing the regime’s policies.
And Mozambique is only one example of Young’s indifference to the issue of political freedom in Africa except insofar as it pertains to the question of white minority rule. He has also spoken of the “impressive leadership” of SWAPO, the Namibian “liberation” movement, and conferred upon it the “Freedom Now” slogan, without, however, mentioning the arrest and detention in Zambia and Tanzania (under conditions marked by what the New Republic has called “unspeakable cruelties”) of over 1,000 SWAPO dissidents, whose only crime was calling for a democratic party congress.
Young seems equally unconcerned about the fate of freedom elsewhere in the Third World, so long as the regime in question calls itself “progressive.” On the very day that Young was welcoming Vietnam into the United Nations in the most lyrical terms, for example, the New York Times published an article by Henry Kamm containing extensively detailed accounts by refugees of the harsh political persecution which had led them to flee Vietnam by boat, at great risk to their lives. Young has expressed his admiration for “Vietnam’s struggle for independence,” and in a statement delivered by an aide in Bangkok this March, he observed, in an obvious reference to America’s role in the Vietnam war, that “no part of the world has borne more tragic witness than Asia to the devastation of modern man’s technology and intolerance of other socioeconomic systems.” But nowhere in this speech about “basic human needs” did he mention the plight of the refugees from Communist Indochina or, for that matter, the holocaust taking place across the border in Cambodia.
To understand how Young can have evolved into an advocate of U.S. acquiescence in a new system of tyranny, one must again turn to the formative political experience of his life, the civil-rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s. In a sense, that movement was innocent about international affairs. Though influenced by, and in turn influencing, the anti-colonialist movements of Africa, the civil-rights movement never really had much interest in international questions. Justifiably preoccupied with solving problems in this country, it did not feel called upon to develop a perspective on American foreign policy, which during this period was concerned above all with the containment of Communism. To the degree that the issue of Communism impinged on the civil-rights movement, it did so in one of two ways: the opponents of integration sought to discredit the movement by calling it Communist, and the American Communist party, posing as a dedicated opponent of racial injustice, sought to use the movement to further its own political objectives. Neither attempt was new, and neither was particularly successful.2 But perhaps inevitably, a tendency developed to view “the enemy of my enemy as my friend,” and some in the civil-rights movement began to identify anti-Communism with opposition to racial progress and to view Communism as a sincere ally of the black freedom struggle. Young in his civil-rights days may have been influenced by this misperception of the role of Communism. Only recently he referred to Paul Robeson—an inveterate apologist for Stalinism—as “the hero of my youth,” and he continues to see no contradiction between Robeson’s defense of black freedom and his support for Stalinist totalitarianism.
Apart from all this, Young’s insistence that the civil-rights movement in America can serve as a paradigm for such differing phenomena as the racial conflict in South Africa and the dissident movement in the Soviet Union reveals a parochialism that accounts in some measure for his failure to understand the nature of totalitarianism. It also accounts for his nonchalant attitude toward political democracy, whose virtues are difficult to appreciate fully without understanding what their absence would entail. In his Reflections on Gandhi, George Orwell wrote: “It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where the opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary.” Ironically, by looking at the world strictly in terms of his own experience in the civil-rights movement, Young not only misperceives different political situations, but also fails to understand why his own movement was able to appeal so successfully to the conscience of America.
The same parochialism which explains Young’s failure to distinguish sufficiently between democracy and totalitarianism also accounts for his inability to see any distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian societies. Referring recently to the restoration of democracy in Portugal, Spain, and Greece, Young said that “totalitarian states and oppressive regimes fall suddenly and without much warning.” He did not seem to understand that the right-wing regimes in these countries could be replaced as quickly and as smoothly as they were precisely because they were not totalitarian in the sense of controlling every aspect of human existence. For this same reason, the prospects for a democratic political evolution in South Africa—despite its perilous racial situation and its despicable policy of apartheid—are more hopeful than they are in the Soviet Union or Vietnam. To condemn this society more strongly than any other, as Young has done, bespeaks something less than a consistent moral standard on human rights.
But to attribute Young’s political views simply to a naiveté born of a parochial view of the world is insufficient. His objection to anti-Communism, his denunciation of U.S. “militarism” and “imperialism,” his opposition to the use of American military power under any circumstances, his readiness to justify Soviet despotism as a product of Russian economic backwardness or to blame Amin’s tyranny on Western colonialism, his benignly relativistic attitude toward Third World dictatorships of the Left, in contrast to his absolutistic assurance about right-wing dictatorships—all these bespeak a political perspective that has much more in common with the New Politics movement of the past decade than with the civil-rights movement of the decade before that. This more recent movement has had an impact on American political culture no less far-reaching (though infinitely less constructive) than the civil-rights movement had on the nation’s racial attitudes; and it now finds itself well represented in the Carter administration’s foreign-policy establishment, especially among the younger members. In virtually every one of his political attitudes Young reflects the conventional wisdom of the New Politics and its two key ideas: that the East-West conflict has now given way to the North-South “dialogue,” and that Communism does not constitute a threat to the West.
Obviously this point of view, with its downgrading of political freedom, is well calculated to make Young popular in a forum dominated, as the UN is, by member states which are not democratic. Just as obviously it is indispensable to the role Young wishes to play of chief intermediary between black Africa and the United States. Yet in his eagerness to demonstrate his solidarity with the new Marxist-Leninist elite of black Africa, Young finds himself today for the most part on the side not of the oppressed but of the oppressors. In Angola, for example, thousands of young people from rebel villages in the northern and central part of the country are being rounded up and shipped to Cuba’s Oriente province where they are forced to cut sugar cane and undergo political indoctrination. At the same time, and in a far more comfortable setting, the sons and daughters of Angola’s new ruling class are receiving technical and political training in Cuba’s Isle of Pines at schools named after President Agostinho Neto. Here, in the division between slaves and slave masters, between the victims of the new order and those who rule over it, we have a true paradigm of revolutionary Africa.
President Carter has said that Andrew Young “has a great sensitivity about the yearnings” of Third World peoples, as well as an understanding of the reasons for their “animosities and hatred” toward the United States. “I think,” said the President, “he’s made great strides in repairing [the] damage that [has] been done.” While it is no doubt true that Young has established friendly relations with some leaders who are otherwise hostile to America, he has done so at the expense of a retreat from the principles of liberty and democracy. Worse still, this retreat has involved a solidarity with totalitarian rulers in the Third World whose victims might well pray to be delivered from such “sensitivity” to their “yearnings.” For their sake, as well as for our own, one can only hope that President Carter’s recent warnings about Soviet-Cuban adventurism in Africa mean that Young is not the “point man” of this administration, as he has claimed to be, but rather the rearguard legacy of a political movement spawned by Vietnam and now on its way to being left behind.
1 Young has been equally lavish in his praise of Carter. According to Young, the President is “free of racism” and “has the capacity as President of the United States to do more to put an end to racism than anybody since Martin Luther King.” This is remarkable praise from Young, all the more so since Carter admittedly took no part in the civil-rights movement and used racially questionable tactics in his 1970 gubernatorial race in Georgia. But Carter is an avowedly repentant sinner and this may account for what Newsweek has called the “almost mystical friendship” between the President and Young.
2 A full account of the long history of the relationship between the American Communist party and the racial protest movement in this country appears in Wilson Record's excellent volume, Race and Radicalism: The NAACP and the Communist Party in Conflict (Cornell University Press, 1964).
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The World According to Andrew Young
Must-Reads from Magazine
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.
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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.
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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.