George F. Kennan, one of America’s greatest statesmen, warned in his classic American Diplomacy (1951) and many times thereafter of the country’s tendency to universalize its self-conceptions and its aims, particularly in war. Presidents, regardless of party, have consistently proven unable to separate the necessity to defend against a particular threat based on a restricted notion of national interest from the idealistic ambition to remake the world in our image. Thus, World War I became a war to end all wars; World War II was a fight for (Roosevelt’s) four freedoms and the “scourge of war”; Vietnam was a battle against all communist-backed insurgencies; and since 9/11, the “global war on terror” has been all-consuming.
Kennan correctly saw the dangers of such an expansive notion of war aims. For if the stakes are global and not merely local, they require a total commitment. War becomes a crusade on behalf of “freedom,” “(Western) civilization,” “democracy,” and inevitably, the American way of life. Regardless whether the US leader was Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, or George W. Bush, each one of them embraced the idea that the United States fought for and on behalf of all right-thinking people.
So now I come to President Obama and his speech of September 10. I won’t repeat what I’ve said in earlier posts about the pattern of escalating intervention that his administration is following, which now includes about 1,000 US advisers, direct involvement in Syria, and dismissal of constitutional and legal war-making procedures. To “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS will take a very long time, with risks and costs that his speech did not address. Nor did he make the case that ISIS represents a national security threat. In fact, he indicated that no specific threat to the US homeland had yet been detected, that the threat ISIS poses is to the Middle East, and that Americans are safer now than ever before. (What is most likely to raise the threat to the United States, as well as to those countries that join it, is blowback from deeper and more destructive US military actions.) Yet he insisted, as so many presidents before him have insisted, that Americans cannot be truly secure unless the terrorists are expunged.
Take a look at the end of this post at the language used by George W. Bush after 9/11.* Doesn’t it strike you as being almost exactly like the language now being used by US officials, from the president on down, to describe war aims and demonize the enemy? Americans have a long history of reducing the enemy to subhuman status. The Germans, the Japanese, the Russians, the Chinese, and now Islamic militants (and apparently the Russians again) are the Other—“evil incarnate,” the director of Central Intelligence said of ISIS the other day. Sadly, such propaganda seems to be succeeding: The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, released the day before Obama’s speech, shows a huge majority in favor of taking the war to ISIS in Syria as well as in Iraq. A CBS poll reports similar results. And here we thought Americans were tired of war!
The argument of a war for civilization compels US presidents to ask for sacrifices of young lives and taxpayers’ money; pressing domestic issues are put on hold. Many people may want the executive and legislative branches to finally get their act together and deal effectively with the many problems we face—climate change, immigration reform, the rich-poor divide, racism, gun control, jobs. It’s a daunting list, but so long as the enemy is out there, we must put the list aside, show bipartisanship, and demonstrate international leadership.
Saving the world in order to save ourselves is a recipe for endless war. President Bush told West Point cadets in 2006, “The war began on my watch. But it’s going to end on your watch.” He was more right than he could possibly have imagined. Obama took pride in thinking he was ending US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan; but instead, he’s the next in line to fight the war on terror. Once it was all about al-Qaeda; now it’s about ISIS; and sometime in the not-too-distant future it will be about some other militant group with ambitions just as grandiose as our own. As Obama said in his September 10 speech, “It is America that has the capacity to mobilize the world against terrorism.”
My argument is not on behalf of isolationism. It’s about rethinking America’s place in the world and the limits of power and responsibility. Kennan, though best known as the “father of containment” of communism, in fact was a consistent advocate of humility in foreign policy: avoiding “delusions of superiority,” excessive moralizing, and notions of indispensability and virtuousness. The United States does have a positive mission in international affairs, one that has deep historical roots: I would list, for instance, supporting self-determination of peoples (read the Palestinians and the Kurds, for example); reducing global poverty and inequality; stopping and reversing global warming; working toward the elimination of weapons of mass destruction; promoting respect for international law (and abiding by it); and demonstrating by “shining example” (as our founders put it) the attractiveness of democratic governance. This mission requires cooperation with other countries, searching for common ground with adversaries, sharing financial, technological, and other resources, and above all perfecting our own experiment in democracy and social justice. It does not require deploying troops and bombers all over the world with the hopeless task of defeating “evil” and creating a new world order based on American values.
*Here are a few excerpts from two of Bush’s speeches. Compare his language with Obama’s and others in his administration.
Bush at West Point in 2002:
“Because the war on terror will require resolve and patience, it will also require firm moral purpose. In this way our struggle is similar to the Cold War. Now, as then, our enemies are totalitarians, holding a creed of power with no place for human dignity. Now, as then, they seek to impose a joyless conformity, to control every life and all of life.”
“Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place. Targeting innocent civilians for murder is always and everywhere wrong. Brutality against women is always and everywhere wrong. There can be no neutrality between justice and cruelty, between the innocent and the guilty. We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name.”
“America has a greater objective than controlling threats and containing resentment. We will work for a just and peaceful world beyond the war on terror.”
Bush at West Point in 2006:
“We have made clear that the war on terror is an ideological struggle between tyranny and freedom. When President Truman spoke here [in 1952, he said]: “We can’t have lasting peace unless we work actively and vigorously to bring about conditions of freedom and justice in the world. . . . Our strategy to protect America is based on a clear premise: The security of our nation depends on the advance of liberty in other nations. On September the 11th, 2001, we saw that problems originating in a failed and oppressive state 7,000 miles away could bring murder and destruction to our country. And we learned an important lesson: Decades of excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe.”
“So long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place where terrorists foment resentment and threaten American security. . . . So we are pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. I believe the desire for liberty is universal — and by standing with democratic reformers across a troubled region, we will extend freedom to millions who have not known it — and lay the foundation of peace for generations to come.”