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Safe for democracy

Framers of United States foreign policy frequently re-examine the essential goals behind diplomatic and military necessity. Recently the neo-Conservative wing led by Max Boot and Robert Kagan have tried to distance themselves from hard-liners such as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. It is not an easy lift because although in theory they disagree, in practice it often ends up as the same result.

For neo-Conservatives the key goals surround America’s moral standing. They are great believers in America’s exceptionalism — that belief that the United States has a special mission to reorder the planet in its image. Its approach is grand, sweeping and erudite, but it often leads down the path of endless intervention. As Woodrow Wilson said, referring to Latin America, the U.S. has a duty “to teach” these countries “to elect good men.” It is, as Samuel Huntington put it, “a clash of civilization” with America being the torch bearers of liberty and tolerance.

This view, however, has considerable flaws, mostly on the level of interpretation. For openers, it tends to view all other nations chiefly through the lens of American history not their own. Wilson’s legacy in this regard is instructive because he mostly got it wrong. He was a fervent supporter of the British Empire going as far as explaining before entering World War I that a German victory would endanger everything he “loved.” That the German Kaiser Wilhelm II was a grandson of Queen Victoria did not occur to the American president. Nor was Germany particularly authoritarian. Wilson himself saw no inconsistency in suppressing civil liberties during 1917-1918.

Now, the exceptionalist would argue that making the world “safe for democracy” was a worthy and necessary goal. But, the chief weakness is that in it configuration after any moral crusade the United States must always end up on top. In this respect it looks more like a pretext rather than a valid reason. In the 20th and 21st century from Tonkin Gulf to the Trade Center events stampeded Americans into war and in the latter case into a war against the wrong enemy.

Moreover, there is a careless side to missionary diplomacy. Boot confesses that he was wrong about his support for the second Gulf War of 2003. Admirable that he would admit it, but not so much under further examination. It is not a game when an error in judgment can cause the deaths of thousands. The single weakness of the interventionalist is that they give so freely of other people’s possessions. Though they are honest and knowledgeable, their reformist zeal blinds them to possible pitfalls.

Now Pompeo and Bolton at least try to resemble Theodore Roosevelt at San Juan Hill. Dynamic, swift and unfettered by international law, they act while placing “America first.”

But the excepionalists are correct that their approach is the most effective of the two at least in the short run. However, the downside is that America becomes the key apparently in securing paradise in said country. This is a formula for a permanent presence all over the world without a fixed date. Bolton and Pompeo simply use vivid language — but the goals are the same.

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