Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Does this grin eat shit?

Confession: Robert Kagan fascinates me. Yes, we've all benefited from his classic essay on America and Europe--the Power and Paradise argument--but what about his latest history of American foreign policy kick? I blogged recently about his "Dangerous Nation" thesis, remarking that while it was quite accurate, it seemed rather, well, amoral, if not immoral.

(Quick summary: The United States has an internationalist, even interventionist past. We tend to have this debate every generation and some try to swear off foreign meddling forever, but it seems to be in our blood. America has undertaken various missions, both ones of goodwill and of economic and political interest, and we're not going to stop anytime soon. More than that, they have tended to have had good results or been historically necessary in one way or the other.)

Kagan has a review in the Washington Post of Michael Oren's new book Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. As is his habit these days, Kagan endeavors to show that contrary to the "conventional view," President Bush did not inaugurate a substantial change in American Middle East policy. (Coincidentally, the official White House line is part of the conventional view: Bush and Rice have both stressed that what they're doing is new, an alternative to the "false peace" of the status quo ante in the ME.) Instead, Kagan says in so many words, we've always dicked around with the Arabs, trying to "transform" them, "politically, spirtually, and economically--to conform to liberal and Christian principles." Also, far from playing the neutral judge with respect to the Israel-Palestine conflict, America has traditionally supported Jewish people against the Palestinians, even long before the creation of the state of Israel. Kagan notes that "many Americans have been obsessed with the idea of 'restoring' Palestine to the Jews." (Yes, those scare quotes are Kagan's.) In other words, Kagan has an accute historical sense and a predilection for demystifying Americans' illusions about themselves. He tends to take no prisoners on either side and is open about many powerful Americans' chauvinistic attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims.

Yet, as I noted about the Financial Times article above, the point of all this historical probing is not to teach us how to correct our international meddling, but to embrace it. Kagan cites approvingly Oren's predictions that the United States will "continue to pursue the traditional patterns of its Middle East involvement" and that policymakers "will press on with their civic mission as mediators and liberators in the area and strive for a pax Americana." At least, I think Kagan approves. It's hard to tell whether he thinks that the United States has never sufficiently screwed up in the past to warrant stopping now, or that the United States simply will not stop, and so whatever it does is automatically good. As the Washington Post says of his new book, "The picture he paints is not always edifying. Europeans and others wary of America's motives and influence may find that it confirms their deepest dreads; some neoconservatives may wonder if Kagan has decamped to the Chomskyite, America-bashing left."

In point of fact, Kagan is more like bizarro-Chomsky: they agree on basically all the historical material (which conservative and mainstream historians are often loathe to admit), yet reach polar opposite conclusions. And indeed, I wonder what his fellow neoconservatives think, because it seems he's playing the role of the loose-lipped member of the secret club, the initiate who's gabbing on about all the private rituals and handshakes. I mean, most conservatives would have us believe that we've never done anything to Arab nations, that terrorist extremists just "reflexively hate our freedom" or something. Kagan's having none of that, but he does seem to believe that we're the good guys in a battle we started. Does this man know what he's doing? Do father Donald and brother Frederick approve? Or is he the bumbling black sheep? The shiteating grin of the neoconservative movement? I'm keeping my eye on him. (Nota bene: This is not another post about what neoconservatives "really" want, but what Robert Kagan's scholarship effectively does, if anything.)


Blogger Robot said...

Is it just me or have a few conservatives just completely lost their mind, recently. We've got Kagan, as you write, doing the Chomsky bit but seemingly applauding surreptitous and unjust hegemony, and we've got D'Souza -- as Alan Wolfe pointed out in his NYT review -- going to Ward Churchill lengths (if not beyond) in blaming the September 11th attacks on Americans, and then going a step further, and sympathizing with Osama's cultural critique of America. I've just never seen anything crumble so quickly as the intellectual institution of conservatism in the last 2 years.

5:37 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

D'Souza's book is *screaming* for the Stanley Fish treatment: it's just the sort of book that demands that we take religious and moral beliefs as zero-degree foundations. Personally, I've enjoyed watching the whole spectacle, and not just because conservatives have to forcefully distance themselves from D'Souza: liberals, if they're going to be honest with themselves, should see where D'Souza's ideas line up with their own (e.g. is the West at war with Islam?, was our response to 9/11 excessive?). Indeed, I've often thought that D'Souza's view was a natural one, while of course being a terribly flawed one. You heard it expressed after 9/11 by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, for instance. I'm honestly surprised there's nobody else around to defend it. It's just been interesting to see both sides squirming, but for opposite reasons: liberals, because they obviously don't want to believe that they're responsible for a negative cultural perception of America abroad, and conservatives for a litany of reasons: they don't want to admit that Islam isn't an evil religion, that we've ever made a negative foreign policy decision against Middle Eastern countries, that religious conservatism in America *might* have a thing or two in common with conservative Islam. I suppose that the sooner people forget about D'Souza's odious theses the better, but Jesus, at least it's not just the same ol shit!

I don't really know what the intellectual institution of conservatism you speak of is. In my eyes, conservatism now is not much different from conservatism at its peak after 9/11. Sure, it's a lot less *popular,* and a lot less powerful, but the ideas haven't changed all that much, have they? As to whether some of these guys have only recently lost their mind, well, heh...

12:13 AM  

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