A Conservative Road to Serfdom
As a Marxist, Eugene Genovese recognized the failure of the Soviet experiment as the decisive end of a road he had spent his life walking. But as he took in the disheartening failure in his own political neighborhood, he heard familiar sounds to his right. As he wrote in the curious The Southern Tradition:"The socialist debacle has exposed the false premises on which the Left has proceeded, but it has done so at a time in which the Right is embracing many of those premises -- notably, personal liberation and radical egalitarianism."
Genovese first published those words in 1994, well before our current set of putative conservatives embarked on their global crusade for Western Civilization. But his premise has grown stronger with time. To return to a favorite and endlessly useful figure, look at this Victor Davis Hanson column on the purportedly conservative National Review Online. Writing in March, Hanson offered a triumphal catalog of those moments in which the U.S. government has"acted boldly" against the"unstable and corrupt...status quo" to achieve"a radical and systematic political solution...to the entire Arab cycle of failure."
In the alternative universe we currently call home," conservative" writers now celebrate moments in which the state takes bold action against the status quo in the service of dramatic societal transformations; a" conservative" is someone who urges his neighbors to march to utopia behind the banner of the liberationist state. I have previously described the application of this new ideal as the conservative Great Society program for the Middle East, a fevered embrace of the nearly unlimited application of state power. The United States government, possessing great human truths, will make common cause with the world's oppressed, and spread its system of freedom across the globe. So far, this is familiar stuff that I have said before (and will say again and again).
But the interesting development now underway is that putative conservatives, having abandoned moral modesty in global affairs in favor of an unyielding ideological certitude, are now compelled to take a distinctly Soviet attitude toward the simplest realities. While people who follow the U.S. military closely are describing a "manpower meltdown" -- especially in the army, and especially among soldiers in the combat arms -- the emerging collapse of the very force needed to sustain the liberationist project is entirely absent from the neoconservative radar. Look at Michelle Malkin's blog, or Victor Davis Hanson's website. See any signs in there that American military power is reaching its limit on the ground? Any mention of the growing crisis in recruiting and retention?
Meanwhile, Hanson wonders publicly if it isn't maybe time -- you can't make this stuff up -- to"press on" and begin bombing Syria. The war is going so well, in the alternative universe these folks have constructed for themselves, that it's time to think about extending the project.
Our soldiers are Stakhanovites for global liberation! All are marching in unison behind the banner of glory!
Sing that anthem, brothers and sisters. Conservatism is no longer premised on limited power, cautious goals, and modest means. The law of unintended consequences is repealed, and there are no barriers to the global success of Our Glorious Way of Life. (And you should really take a moment to click on that last link. Soon, all will bow down before us! Hail! All hail!)
But here's the bottom line, and it just doesn't fit the message.
So they simply aren't going to notice it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a dynamic that the world has seen before. Fortunately, the available political forms are very different; the United States is nowhere near the model of the Soviet Union, and our own Stalinist faithful are more pathetic than powerful. But the psychology is there, and worth watching very closely.
Seriously: Read this. Remember that you've read it. (The man opens with a radical global power shift and ends with the thought that one day our enemies will whimper back, asking for our friendship.) (Our struggle will be vindicated! Hail!)
Keep your eyes on these folks.
(Cross-posted on Historiblography)
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David Timothy Beito - 6/12/2005
The conservative call for utopia is selective and apparently does not include our U.S. ally, the unreconstructed Soviet state of Uzbekistan.
Jeff Vanke - 6/12/2005
Are you saying that there was a proposal for UN intervention in either case, with no obligation of US participation, and the US blocked it both times? I don't recall it that way.
On the other hand, I do recall Sec-Gen. Boutros-Boutros Ghali saying that the "West" shouldn't worry so much about the Yugoslav wars. And I remember Russia and China repeatedly threatening to veto any UN intervention. Don't blame the US for blocking action.
And even in 1995, it sure wasn't the UN that intervened. Russia wouldn't have the UN beating up its Serb buddies. It was NATO, mostly the US, that brought in arms and air power against the Serbs. At least three or four West European countries, any of them alone, could have done what the US did in Bosnia (and Kosovo), three years earlier, if they had had the political will. Nothing doing, not by a long shot. Our failure to act earlier is not at all the same thing as blocking others.
chris l pettit - 6/12/2005
Europe was asking for something to be done in Bosnia...legally...through the United Nations. The only reason that they had to start asking the US was due to the self interest of the P5 in the Security Council which was preventing action from being taken...and the US was a huge part of that. Seeing things in such simple terms and misinterpreting the fact that Europe came to the US asking that action be taken can be dangerous and lead to exactly the conclusions Hanson makes.
A very similar example would be Rwanda in 1994...the US holding everything up due to nonsensical self interest...Europe (other than France) asking for something to be done...the US refusing...I wonder if somehow Hanson can work that into his ideological rhetoric?
Chris Bray - 6/12/2005
The thing I find interesting is not that Hanson makes an argument about Europeans one day begging for U.S. military protection -- which would be unobjectionable, and probably a pretty good prediction. What I find remarkable is his use of language. The structure of this piece seems to me to be the classic rhetoric of totalitarian movements: Our inexorable rise to total power; our enemies trembling before us; our struggle vindicated.
Jeremiah 5:22: "'Should you not fear me?' declares the LORD. 'Should you not tremble in my presence?'"
Jeff Vanke - 6/12/2005
By the way, I really look forward to your impressions from the field. I know that a lot of Iraqis already do like the American presence, and that American media have missed a lot of this. But I also know that many in the military, especially below top ranks, think that about 99% of Iraqis are glad to have us, an extreme view compensating the other way. I'm very sorry you have to go.
Jeff Vanke - 6/12/2005
Yes, you can certainly count Hanson among the neocons who claimed that Iraqis would rise up and greet Americans as liberators. I saw him say so in 2002.
But no, I don't think Hanson is entirely wrong about Europeans begging for American military protection. Keep in mind, the Europeans shed tears but refused to do anything meaningful about Bosnia, 1992-95, and then Kosovo, 1999, until the Americans led the way. And with Putin regretting the Soviet Union's collapse, it is notable that today's young West Europeans do not protest American military presence in their countries as their parents did in the early 1980s. To say nothing of Eastern / Central Europe.
There's a lot to complain about American foreign military interventions. But Hanson's point could be made already today with the free countries of East Asia, those close to China, as examples of deeply divided opinions about American military involvement across the globe.
(An interesting analogy are West Europeans during the Vietnam War. Starting in 1965, they mostly thought we were out of control there -- but largely because they wanted us to focus on defending Western Europe.)
Michael Meo - 6/11/2005
Heck if I, Mr Duemer, can speak for other historians but. . .
While we do not know what form the coming crash will take, it's on the way. Imperial overstretch, tragic hubris, whatever . . . the value of the critical skills that we have cultivated is, that we're aware of it as it's happening, not that we feel any more in control of the process than you and your poet colleagues.
Joseph Duemer - 6/11/2005
I notice that the ABC network is rolling out a new miniseries called Empire. Set in the "ancient world," it looks to be about "greatness." Great heroes, great nations, etc. I'm a poet, not a historian, but it seems to me that history has developed its own momentum & that nothing the Bush administration or the international community can do is going to steer us away from a coming disaster. I recall how policymakers were paralized all through the Vietnam War by assumptions about the US & our adversaries that proved to be completely wrong. My question is, do historians think in terms of the sort of "momentum" of events I'm thinking of, or is this just a result of my feeling personally powerless to change things.
Jonathan Goodwin - 6/11/2005
That's what I'm saying. Making Syria a colonial protectorate of the U.S. is not feasible. We're basically in the situation faced by the Melniboneans, with some important differences. (But was Arioch originally a Syrian demon?)
Chris Bray - 6/11/2005
What kind of war? For what reason, and toward what purpose?
The U.S. could certainly bomb the crap out of Syria right now, but certainly could not occupy it and control it. This is the very problem we're having in Iraq: What kind of war? Why? How are we defining "victory" there? What's the intended result?
"Freedom" or "an end to terror" are rhetorical soup.
Jonathan Goodwin - 6/11/2005
I remember quite clearly from <em>Red Dawn</em> that the Chinese tried, at least, to be on our side.
Jonathan Goodwin - 6/11/2005
In some senses, yes, of course. But would it be politically viable? I don't see how, not unless there was a major and unambiguous precipitating event. And what could that be, exactly?
Meanwhile there's an essay in this month's Atlantic, I think, by Robert Kagan, saying that we need to put this childishness behind us and start thinking about the upcoming war with China.
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