David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for TomPaine.com. Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers).
"I'm the anti-neocon." That's how Robert Merry recently described himself to me. After reading his new book—Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition —I have to say: He got that right.
His book is the most scorching mainstream critique of the neocons and their misadventure in Iraq that I have encountered. Merry, the publisher of Congressional Quarterly and a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, rips apart that small band of ideologically driven chickenhawks and leaves their bones scattered on the floor of a Council of Foreign Relations conference room. Merry is a hard-ass practitioner of global realpolitik. There is not a smidgeon of sentiment in a single sentence of this book. He's certainly not keeping company with one-worlders and those who would identify (or misidentify, in his view) American national security interests with feel-good global humanitarianism. But in a classic example of that old Middle East cliché—the enemy of my enemy is my friend—he has produced a book that liberal-minded foreign policy folks ought to gobble up. And I would dare the neocons to enter Merry's knife-throwing gallery.
His high-minded goal was to pen an intellectual history that traced the ideas that led—over decades—to George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. (Let's assume that ideas had something to do with it.) Merry does reach back far, reviewing the works and notions of such profound ponderers as the Abbé Charles-Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre (who postulated that humankind was on an inevitable journey toward further enlightenment and civilization), Oswald Spengler (the chronicler of the ups and downs of civilizations), and such big-idea moderns as Frances Fukuyama (the premature prophet of the End of History), Samuel Huntington (the advocate of the Clash of Civilizations), and Thomas Friedman (the cheerleader for the Glory of Globalization). Merry suggests that in the broadest terms there are two ideas that have motivated Western thought: the Idea of Progress (humankind is on a never-ending advance), and the Cycle of History (history is the story of civilizations that rise and then fall; screw progress). And a corollary to the Cycle of History view, he notes, is Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, which suggests that not only is progress not inevitable but that conflict between civilizations is. The capital letters are his.
Out of all this, he notes, American history has yielded four basic strains of foreign policy: conservative interventionism (the hard-headed Cold War policy that came out of World War II), conservative isolationism (poster boy: Pat Buchanan), liberal interventionism (sending U.S. troops to help troubled countries such as Haiti), and liberal isolationism (think of the movement against the Vietnam War). His descriptions invite the charge that he is being overly simplistic. For instance, he claims Reagan's use of force in Central America in the 1980s—which he points to as an example of conservative interventionism—was necessary to "save Western civilization from the threat of Soviet expansionism." No, it wasn't. But the real question for him—and for us—is, which of these four teams is essentially right?
To answer that, Merry has fun batting aside those he consider wrong. He scoffs at Fukuyama's thesis—that America and other Western democracies represent the culmination of human civilization and stand as the obvious (and only) ideal for the rest of the world. From this stance, Merry notes, it's a perilously short distance to presuming a missionary destiny for the United States: Let's make them more like us. He notes that Fukuyama, in his famous 1989 essay "End of History," observed that nationalism and ethnic zeal could no longer threaten a nation and that Islamic fundamentalism "has little appeal for non-Muslims, and it is hard to believe that the movement will take on any universal significance. Ouch. And he whips Thomas Friedman to an inch of his intellectual life, noting that the gaga-on-globalization columnist is deft at analyzing transnational economic forces but willfully naïve in saying that the people of the world, looking toward the United States as "a spiritual value and a role model," will harness these new economic trends and ride off to a better future because they have no choice. "Political analysis as exhortation is not serious political analysis," Merry rightfully huffs, adding, "The impulses of human nature go far beyond the material comforts and options that so preoccupy Friedman."
Why does Merry devote himself to disproving Fukuyama and Friedman? It's because they are idealists whose out-of-touch-with-reality views (as Merry sees it) lead toward danger. But it is the neocons who have put this danger into practice. It's no secret: Merry is with the hardheaded conservative interventionists and quite sympathetic to Huntingtonism. The world is nasty and full of nasty people—most notably, Islamic extremists—and it's our job not to change the world but to define the threat wisely and specifically and to take the practical steps necessary to thwart that threat or at least keep it at bay for as long as possible.
He and I would, no doubt, consume many beers in any full-length conversation about the past glories and mistakes of U.S. foreign policy. But Merry is not interested in raking through the coals of the many past debates. This is what concerns him now: "Can an effective brand of conservative interventionism be fashioned for the post-9/11 era, when the West is locked in a clash of civilizations with major elements of the world of Islam and cultural instability seems on the rise elsewhere around the globe?" He adds, "That is probably the most pressing question facing the country—and the world—today." And the biggest obstacle to fashioning a positive response, he argues, is the neocons.
Another obstacle, he claims, are liberal interventionists such as those who supported the U.S. bombing in Kosovo and Bill Clinton's involvement in the Balkans. Merry goes for the jugular in questioning the arguments for and the wisdom of these actions. This section of the book is not for the faint-hearted. ("True, Serbian actions in Kosovo prior to the bombing were barbaric. But in fact they never matched the kinds of abuses the [Clinton] administration had been willing to accept in Turkey, Kashmir, Sudan, and Rwanda—or in Croatia, for that matter. Thus did the United States action reveal a fundamental reality of any moralistic foreign policy: inevitably it exposes a selective morality.") But since the liberal interventionists are not in the driver's seat and did not lead the nation into the wrong war in Iraq, Merry has less reason to worry about them these days. So he unleashes the lion's share of his fury upon the neoconservatives.
He traces the history of this bunch and pokes at the contradictions and inconsistencies that lie in their wake. This band of Democratic-liberals-turned-Republicans-armchair-warriors, he notes, have abandoned the typical "conservative hostility" toward utopian visions and bold government initiatives and have "embraced a Brave New World in which American exceptionalism holds sway everywhere and peoples around the globe abandon their own cultures in favor of Western ideals….[T]he neoconservatives have arrived at a point where they aren't really conservative at all." The neocons' transition into idealists—hey, let's fight for democracy in the Middle East!—is an odd one and ought to be greeted with skepticism. Merry points out that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the neocons held firm to a less noble operating premise. It was Jeane Kirkpatrick, the godmother of the neocons, who wrote an influential article that bitterly decried assigning human rights a priority in foreign policy. She scoffed at those who believed "that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances." Such conversions, she said, take "decades, if not centuries." (Hmmmm.) And in a 1978 essay, Irving Kristol, the neocons' godfather (and the actual father of William Kristol, the movement's unofficial student body president), urged the United States to be "less vaguely moralistic in its pronouncements." In 1980, Merry notes, Irving Kristol wrote that it was a "fundamental fallacy" to believe that people in all nations are entitled to a liberal constitutional government. The apple has bounced far from this tree.
So how did we get from there to the point where Bill Kristol and Co. are rah-rahing and egging on a president who justifies invading a country—forget those nonexistent WMDs—with the most lofty rhetoric about exporting democracy and freedom overseas? It's not just 9/11. The neocons were hankering for a war against Iraq long before nineteen al Qaeda recruits stunned the world. The neocons, Merry writes, "have a tendency to make their way to whatever watering hole they can find to quench their need for a rhetorical argument of the moment." And in the years prior to 9/11, they became enthralled with the idea of "American hegemony." Merry considers this quest for a Wilsonian-fueled hegemony nuts, for it obscures the difficult questions and prevents consideration of what to do about complex, centuries-in-the-making, on-the-ground realities.
Merry sees the clash between "the West and Islam" as the fundamental reality of the day. But he is not looking forward to any ultimate confrontation. This reality, he argues, "demands from the West a steady, careful, measured approach to diplomacy and war. Will the West, with all its power and influence, stimulate and aggravate these emerging cultural tensions around the world? Or will it seek an approach aimed at protecting its interests while calming as much as possible the cultural hostilities that are an integral part of our era." He's essentially calling for a Nixonian approach. (I can't bring myself to refer to it as Kissingerian.)
His book half-echoes the critique made by the left (whether it is the isolationist or interventionist left) of the current regime. Merry is talking about wrestling with realities. The neocons speak of redefining reality—which also can become ignoring reality. Remember Dick Cheney's promise that American troops in Iraq would be welcomed as liberators? Merry does, and he catalogues all the false assumptions made by the neocons and Bush's foreign policy team:
"This litany of misstatements, misperceptions, faulty thinking and off-the-mark predictions raises a question: how could so many highly intelligent people be so wrong? The only answer is that they stumbled into a classic case of ideological policymaking—viewing the world through the prism of a rigid ideology, and then placing the pieces together to fit that ideological picture."
Instead of offering a solution to the knotty dilemmas of the post-9/11 threat, the Iraq war has worsened the problem. This war, Merry maintains, can only "enflame anti-Western passions in the world of Islam." That will mean "more jihadists directed against the United States." The war also increases the odds of destabilization in other lands—such as Saudi Arabia (which has oil we need) and Pakistan (which has nukes we don't want to see used or transferred). Merry sums up:
In taking his military into the heart of Islam and planting his country's flag into the soil of a foreign culture based on flimsy perceptions of a national threat, George W. Bush has brought his country and the world closer to that kind of Armageddon than it faced before. He did so on the basis of a world outlook and political idealism that are alluring, comforting, and widely embraced throughout American intellectual circles. They are also false and highly dangerous.
Strong stuff. This book shows that anti-war passion does not reside only on the left. Merry, an Establishment sort, whacks Bush and the neocons for turning America into the "Crusader State." And he calls for a foreign policy with less idealistic zeal. Cut deals with strongman dictators who can contain Islamic fundamentalism. Realize that "missionary democracy in the Middle East is not necessarily our friend, for it likely would foster fundamentalist and anti-American regimes in that strategically important region." Take the swagger out of U.S. diplomacy. Drop the tough talk about who is "evil" and who is not. Such actions, he maintains, only "exacerbate the civilizational war." Instead, he advises, the United States to "foster the emergence of Islamic core states" and to not fret too much about their records on democracy and human rights. He calls for a rapprochement with Iran. He also suggests Washington does what's necessary to encourage China and Russia to join in a containment policy aimed at Islam. "What is required," he writes, "is an approach that is sustained, measured, defensive in nature, limited in ambition, and based on a sophisticated understanding of the cultural currents in play in the world."
Merry is indeed the anti-neocon. Forget any idealism. Lose the rhetoric about freedom, democracy and human rights. Don't give a damn about American hegemony and exceptionalism. Just figure out what must be done in practical and realistic terms to curtail the threat posed by Islamic extremism. It would be hard for me to endorse an overarching policy so free of sentiment and aspiration. But when idealism has been commandeered by the neocons for this misguided (and so far unending) war, the desire for a foreign policy devoid of such notions is understandable. Merry's provocative book is so hard-edged that it poses a challenge to neocons and their critics on the left. But his skewering of the Kristol crowd is so thorough and delicious that it makes one yearn for more tough-talk from the self-described realists of the foreign policy establishment.