Well Said

In our suitcase, we found the midsummer New Yorker we’d misplaced on our last trip (July 10 & 17), which kind of makes up for the lightweight nature of the current issue.

Anyhow, there’s a long rumination about the future of liberal internationalism by George Packer in which he discusses the struggle with jihadism as compared (by others) to the Cold War against expanding communism. The final few paragraphs are well worth your time:

The critical view [of l.i.] is not confined to the pacifist and anti-imperialist left. It can count among its most thoughtful and influential adherents the writer David Rieff, who a decade ago in Bosnia was a leading liberal internationalist himself. The interventions of the past ten years, culminating with Iraq, have turned Rieff into a deep skeptic of power used in the name of human rights — a self-proclaimed realist. Writing recently in The Nation, and amplifying his latest book, “At the Point of a Gun,” he suggested that “when you posit the fundamental benevolence of the liberal universalist order and identify the United States as a guarantor of that order . . . you are stuck with the prospect of a virtually untrammeled use of American power.” In other words, there is a straight and not very long line from the Atlantic Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to Abu Ghraib and Haditha. Like Kurtz, those who begin as humanitarians have a way of ending as barbarians.

Rieff writes with the bitter scorn of an ex-interventionist, and he forces innocent believers to confront the most painful questions about the motives and consequences of their actions. He dislikes, above all, the moral vanity inherent in American exceptionalism — the idea, as the Bush Administration’s crucial 2002 position paper “National Security Strategy of the United States” put it, of “a distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests.” For Rieff, there is no union; America is just like any other empire, acting out of selfish concerns, and its moral fantasies make its power only more dangerous. Rieff is in love with disillusionment, and he was resolved the crisis in his own outlook by taking an impossibly pure position. . . For Rieff, the fact that NATO was partly designed to enhance American power means that a benign view of Truman’s foreign policy is childish. Having gazed into the dark heart of liberal internationalism and recoiled, he doesn’t allow the possibility that NATO is both a tool for America to assert its will and an arrangement that has benefitted large numbers of people, most of them non-Americans, for more than half a century.

American power, currently reviled around the world, is an inescapable fact, and when it allows itself to be harnessed to the wishes and interests of other nations, especially democratic ones, it can be a constructive force and win wider acceptance. As the German journalists Josef Joffe writes in his new book “Uberpower: The Imperial Temptation of America” (Norton; $24.95), “If the United States is an empire, it is a liberal one — a power that seeks not to grab but to co-opt.” This is not a narcissistic fantasy but an accurate description by a European who, unburdened by the torments of exceptionalism as few American writers of any persuasion are, can say matter-of-factly to his American friends, You have made your problems worse, you have acted recklessly and selfishly, but don’t overdo the self-criticism. Other countries naturally resent your power, but most still prefer it to the alternative. The world can’t afford these wild mood swings.

One of the greatest challenges of the new few years will be to rescue democracy, human rights, and national security from the company these words have recently kept. A clear-eyed understanding of our predicament begins with the recognition that American interests and values do not always rhyme; imagining that they do makes it more likely that in the end we’ll compromise both. [Emph. added] How can the U.S. fight jihadism without supporting dictatorships? Regime change by force has proved disastrous; elections have brought to power Islamists whose commitment to democracy is doubtful; ongoing blank checks written to Saudi princes, Pakistani generals, and a decaying dynasty in Cairo are bound to bankrupt sender and receiver alike. It’s ahrd to imagine a waning of the jihadist threat that doesn’t involve some kind of liberalization in the Muslim world, either because Islamism comes to be reformed from within or because it comes to be rejected by subject populations. (Iran, several decades ahead of the Arab countries, is where this struggle can be seen in sharpest relief.) A serious American policy towards Islamism will do well what the Bush Administration has done badly or not at all, and without triumphalist speeches: modest, informed, persistent support for reformers, without grand promises of regime change; concerted efforts at reconstruction and counter-insurgency that bring to bear the full range of government agencies as well as alliances and international institutions. Since these tasks will fall to the United States one way or another, we should learn to do them better rather than vow never to try again. large ideas drawn from historical analogies can help as guiding frameworks, but the glamorous certainties they seem to offer are illusions; we still have to think for ourselves.

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