The specter of two
By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - With US citizens marking
their annual celebration of patriotism on July 4,
they might do well to also ponder the specter of
two other "isms" - nationalism and militarism -
that threaten the country's durability and
Both have been addressed by two
important books published over the past year.
America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American
Nationalism, by Financial Times columnist
Anatol Lieven, warns that the US polity is turning
its back on the civic patriotism of the "American
creed" of liberty, the rule of law and political
egalitarianism in favor of an "American
antithesis", a radical and vengeful nationalism
that recalls the worst tendencies and mistakes of
Germany just before World War I.
The New American
Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War,
by retired army Colonel Andrew Bacevich,
contends that the country's recent love affair
with force and exaltation of the soldier threaten
both the military institution, as policymakers
expect it to solve ever more problems, but also
the republican ideals on which the US was founded.
"Of all the enemies of public liberty,"
Bacevich quotes former president James Madison as
writing in 1795, "war is perhaps the most to be
dreaded, because it comprises and develops the
germ of every other ... No nation could preserve
its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
Published by Oxford University Press, both
books offer some of the most trenchant and
original criticism of the trajectory of US foreign
and military policy that has surfaced since the US
invasion of Iraq in March, 2003.
their analyses of that trajectory - and the larger
social and cultural trends that underpin it -
would not be unfamiliar to left-wing analysts, the
two authors could not possibly be confused with
the "blame-America-first" crowd that has been
scapegoated so frequently by the US right since
the Vietnam War.
Indeed, Bacevich, a West
Point graduate, Vietnam veteran and career
soldier, used to write for the neo-conservative
Weekly Standard and the far-right National Review,
while Lieven, a British subject who has more
recently sought to revive the "ethical realism" of
the post-World War II era, betrays a deep
affection for the US, gained in part from a year
as a high school exchange student in Alabama. Both
write from a deep sense of concern about where the
US is headed.
To Lieven, now based at the
New American Foundation after several years at the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, two
kinds of nationalism have long wrestled over the
country's soul - a civic nationalism, or "American
thesis", based on universalist principles of the
enlightenment and that animated the Declaration of
Independence 229 years ago, and the far more
aggressive and exclusivist nationalism, or
"American antithesis", that harkens back to the
Protestant Reformation, and the religious wars
that it sparked.
While the thesis is
optimistic by nature and extols reason and the
rule of law, the antithesis in many ways is
anti-modern, radical, deeply alienated "from the
supposed ruling elites and dominant culture", and
even paranoid. Through most of US history, it has
also been deeply racist, not just toward blacks,
but toward most minority groups, including
Catholics and Jews.
What the two
nationalisms share, however, is a sense that the
US "is exceptional in its allegiance to democracy
and freedom and is therefore exceptionally good",
in Lieven's view. And because America is
exceptionally good, it both deserves to be
exceptionally powerful and by nature cannot use
its power for evil ends.
This belief in
the fundamental goodness of America - which
actually runs from the first Pilgrims straight
through Woodrow Wilson to George W Bush -
naturally reinforces everything that many
Europeans and much of the rest of the world find
objectionable about US foreign policy.
This is namely its moral absolutism,
messianism and a contempt for history that can
have grave consequences, particularly when it is
held by the world's sole superpower after a period
in which it triumphed over "evil" - first the
Nazis and then the communists during the Cold War.
Many, if not most US citizens, combine the
two kinds of nationalism in varying degrees and
proportions in themselves, although, with the
"southernization of the Republican Party since the
1960s, the party has tended increasingly to
embrace and become identified with the
antithesis", even while it extols the myths of the
American thesis, according to Lieven.
process has been boosted over the past 30 years by
two groups in particular: the Christian Right and
its Christian Zionist leaders, such as Jerry
Falwell and Pat Robertson; and the
neo-conservatives, who have played a key role both
by cloaking the angry and exclusivist outlook of
the far right in the universalist rhetoric of the
"American creed" of democracy and freedom (thus
attracting support from internationalist liberals
who should know better) and by mounting a
sustained attack on mainstream Republican realism
In the most controversial but
ultimately persuasive section of the book, Lieven
argues that the same two groups have done much to
tie US policy to Israel's rightwing governments,
in much the same way that Slavic nationalists tied
imperial Russia to Serbian radicals on the eve of
World War I.
"Insofar as American
nationalism has become mixed up with a chauvinist
version of Israeli nationalism," according to
Lieven, "it ... plays an absolutely disastrous
role in US relations with the Muslim world and in
Lieven stresses that
there have been periods in US history - most
recently during the McCarthy era - when the US
antithesis has gained the upper hand in the body
politic, but each time the pendulum has swung
back, saving "the nation from falling into
authoritarian rule or a permanent state of
Now, however, he is
less optimistic, warning that another devastating
terrorist attack could provoke a permanent state
of siege and that the continuing stresses on the
middle class in coping with globalization and
economic change could swell the ranks of the
antithesis who are angry, aggrieved and
Bacevich, director of the
Center for International Relations at Boston
University, is similarly concerned about the fate
of the republic and likewise sees the Christian
Right, whose own much-requited love affair with
the military after the Vietnam War is detailed in
the book, and the neo-conservatives as bearing
heavy responsibility for "creeping militarism".
Both are subjects of entire chapters.
he stresses that blaming a particular sector or
group, or even Bush himself, misses the bipartisan
and cultural nature of the phenomenon. Hollywood,
a generation of "defense intellectuals",
particularly neo-con prince Richard Perle's
mentor, Albert Wohlstetter, and the Democratic
administrations of Jimmy Carter ("the Carter
Doctrine" to protect the Persian Gulf) and Bill
Clinton, have all made important contributions,
according to Bacevich.
He writes with real
anger about the role played by former secretary of
state Colin Powell first in promulgating the
doctrine that bears his name - a doctrine that
encapsulated all the bitter lessons of the Vietnam
War - and then in acquiescing in its wholesale
abandonment over a period of 15 years.
key moment, according to Bacevich, came in the
early 1990s when the collapse of the Soviet Union
- Washington's only peer rival - should have
brought about a major reassessment and reduction
of Washington's global military posture.
The first Gulf War - and the interests of
the military-industrial complex and its
ideological fellow-travelers - put paid to any
such possibility, and, in the wake of Desert
Storm, it suddenly seemed that the armed forces,
fully recovered from Vietnam, could do just about
anything it wished, and, given technological
advances, in ways that appeared on television to
be more or less bloodless, at least for the home
The distance between "coercive
diplomacy", as in Kosovo, and preventive warfare,
as in Iraq, is not as great as some Democrats
would like to think.
"At the end of the
Cold War, Americans said yes to military power,"
Bacevich writes. "The skepticism about arms and
armies that informed the original Wilsonian
vision, indeed, that pervaded the American
experiment from its founding, vanished. Political
leaders, liberals and conservatives alike, became
enamoured with military power."
result: "To a degree without precedent in US
history, Americans have come to define the
nation's strength and well-being in terms of
military preparedness, military action and the
fostering of (or nostalgia for) military ideals,"
according to Bacevich, who writes as a very
knowledgeable, if very worried, insider on the
military's own thinking from the disaster of
Vietnam to the anticipated disaster of the
open-ended "global war on terror".
reading of the two books makes clear, the
nationalism and militarism addressed,
respectively, by Lieven and Bacevich are in
reality closely related, but the books' distinct
perspectives and insights make them a particularly
Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American
Nationalism by Anatol Lieven. Oxford
University Press, September 30, 2004. ISBN:
0195168402. Price $30.00, 288 pages.
The New American Militarism: How
Americans are Seduced by War by Andrew Bacevich. Oxford University
Press. February, 2005. ISBN: 0195173384. Price
$28, 270 pages.
(Inter Press Service)
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