Part I: If the Words Don't Kill You, the Bombs Will
Part II: The Hideous Horror of the Biden Selection
The major part of this post will concern U.S. foreign policy generally, and what we can anticipate from Barack Obama's foreign policy prescriptions more specifically. I most recently addressed the latter in the second part of this series
. I want to preface the current discussion with some observations about a particular aspect of the Western cultural perspective. This is a very complex issue, which I will address in only an abbreviated form. If I have time at some point, I'll return to this subject in more detail. But it is important to understand the manner in which we tend to approach many (if not most, or even all) subjects, and the way in which we attempt to analyze certain questions. The relevance of this to certain problems of foreign policy will become apparent in short order.
On several occasions, I have offered excerpts from Jamake Highwater's fascinating and provocative book, Myth and Sexuality
. (In particular, see "Of Abortion, and Women as the Ultimate Source of Evil
.") One of Highwater's themes, and one which frequently carries great irony in the context of events of the last seven years, is that despite what many propagandists for endless "civilizational" war would have us believe, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all spring from the same cultural and historic roots. Those roots and the more specific beliefs to which they gave rise resulted in a series of dualities. More than that, and more to the terrible point in light of world events, they resulted in a series of warring
dualities. In many respects, the current and likely future military conflicts are only the latest manifestations of this ancient set of conflicts. It might be more effective to express this idea in another form: if it is true that we often remake the world in the form of the ideas we hold and believe to be correct (whether they are in fact correct or not), most wars and other conflicts are only the physical manifestation of conflicts that first found expression in the way we analyze and organize the world in our thought.
Here is Highwater on some of the background to these concerns:
It is apparent that this Persian tale of genesis is thoroughly pessimistic. It takes for granted the corruption of matter, nature, the world, and the body. Even with its promise of redemption and the eventual defeat of evil, it is, nonetheless, so grim a vision of existence that we may find it difficult to imagine how it could have become the basis of a religious philosophy called Zoroastrianism, which ruled the lives of millions of people for thousands of years. It therefore comes as a shock to realize that our own viewpoint was greatly influenced by the moral cosmology implicit in this Persian myth of Creation, Fall, and World Renovation. In fact, as we shall see, Persian Zoroastrianism greatly influenced the Messianic ideas of Judaism and Christianity as well as the world view of Islam. This dismal, polemical cosmogony of absolute good and evil is very familiar in our own religious mythologies. ... [And recall Chris Hedges' discussion of "mythic war" on this same point.]
Like our own genesis, the key to Persian mythology is cosmic dualism, with a persistent battle taking place between the forces of good (or light) and the forces of evil (or darkness). That conflict is reflected in every aspect of our lives, profoundly and superficially. We take for granted the notion that darkness equates with evil and that light is a reference to good. We are completely comfortable with the depiction of dark villains threatening fair heroes in melodramas and science fiction, of cowboys wearing white hats and riding white horses in their battles against the bad guys who wear black hats and ride dark horses. We fear the dark. For us, the forces of darkness are evil. The night has a bad reputation. It is filled with demons, vampires, werewolves, and all the other creatures associated with the feminine moon that cannot tolerate the light of day. Even Mozart's beguiling Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute is envisioned as the consummately evil and devouring mother.
We find great comfort in such polemic attitudes. They provide the superstructure upon which we build our value systems of innocence and guilt, good and evil, pain and pleasure, normalcy and abnormalcy. So it taunts us to be told that this comfortable dualism is not an ultimate truth held by all peoples of all times, and that other cultures have drastically different visions of the cosmos. From what we know of the earliest cultures, it seems that myths, rites, and philosophies were comparatively affirmative in their vision of existence. Pleasure was valued over pain. It was assumed that life would bring fulfillment and pleasure, rather than denial and pain. Evil was not a given--an inescapable aspect of cosmic corruption. This affirmative attitude of antiquity would not persist in Western mentality. About 600 B.C., there occurred what [Joseph] Campbell has called "the Great Reversal," when the prevailing world view shifted from an affirmation of life to a negation of life, from the expectation of reward, comfort, and innocence to the acceptance of punishment, discomfort, and guilt. The Great Reversal was an epic moment in history, when a negative conception of destiny arose that would eventually be symbolized by that Original Sin which makes pain and punishment an implacable aspect of Western life.
It is this "negative conception of destiny" that dominates our world today, as it has for many centuries. You can see the results all around you.
More to our point here, "cosmic dualism" has set the terms for our discussion of any and all subjects. When we seek the answer to almost any question, we are most comfortable with an either-or structure. Either
an individual's motives were good, or they were bad. Either
someone is loyal, or he isn't. Either
we are the "good guys,"
or we are not. These remarks are hardly novel, and they probably come as news to none of you. Nonetheless, we should observe how difficult it is for us to navigate the alternatives. Pause for a moment to notice what may have happened in your thinking right there. You may have thought there was only one alternative to the cosmic dualism perspective. Why would you think that? Because we are all trained to think in dualities all the time,
from our earliest years. If cosmic dualism may be insufficient or unsatisfactory, what is the alternative approach? But why is there only one
alternative approach? There might be a multiplicity of approaches. Or perhaps we have formulated the question in a way that fails to address the real problem.
The dualities that form the foundation of our thinking find expression in an endless variety of ways. One of the results is a particularly Western obsession, one that reaches heights of absurdity in our popular culture. We are absolutely manic on the subject of ranking: we constantly search to identify the "best," the "worst," the "greatest," the "worst blunder."
Without exception -- for I can think of no exception which I would view as meaningful -- I view all such judgments as worthless, and even destructive. The "best" or "worst" -- compared to what exactly? Precisely what standards for judgment are being employed? What period of time is used for inclusion of the persons or works being so judged? There are many such questions. By the time you've answered all the questions that underlie such judgments of rank and hierarchy, you may actually have said something substantive -- and you will have arrived at the point where you might more effectively have begun. And notice the influence of the dualistic approach: there is the "best" actor -- and all the others. This writer is the "greatest" novelist -- and then there are all the others. There is the "winner" -- and then there are all the "losers." We invariably see every aspect of the world in pairs, one member of which is favored and approved while the other is disfavored and disapproved.
You might already appreciate that the dualistic approach has another effect, across every subject it touches (which for us is every
subject): it makes simple and simplistic what is much more complex. It dumbs down the discussion. It eliminates the rough edges, it enables easy categorization, and -- very importantly -- it eradicates the specificity of the particulars with which we deal. Remember: particulars are all
that exist. When you minimize or even eliminate what individuates the particular, you erase its identity. We must do this in certain respects in order to think (you can't form concepts without eliminating certain aspects of the particular), but when we seek to understand the particular, we cannot eliminate any of its aspects.
One subject that is particularly dumbed down in the manner I describe is psychology, and the question of motivation. I am condensing a great deal of material in this entire discussion, so here I will mention only one especially relevant aspect of certain questions of psychology and motivation as they pertain to foreign policy. With regard to the actions of the U.S. government over the course of the Bush administration, many commentators can see only two possibilities: either the Bush administration is attempting to defend the U.S. as it sees best, while it simultaneously seeks to bring freedom to oppressed peoples -- or the Bush administration is made up of crazed or almost-crazed criminals, who are happy to engage in murder and destruction as long as their corporate cronies are enriched. A cautionary note is in order: what I am discussing here is entirely separate from the area of moral judgment, when such judgment is appropriate and required. Here, I am attempting to identify what causes individuals to act in the manner they do. If, in fact, their actions lead to the death of many innocents -- as they have; if, in fact, their actions constitute criminal acts of aggression -- as they do; if, in fact, their actions destroy liberty -- as they do -- one may, indeed one must
, make a moral judgment about the moral status of those actions and of the actors involved, regardless of what their motivations may have been. My own extraordinarily negative judgment of the Bush administration and those who support it is reflected in many essays here.
But if we want to understand why the U.S. acts in the manner it does on the world stage, the either-or approach will not do. If we wish to change our course and if we seek to move toward a world at peace, we must appreciate all the reasons that impel the ruling class to act. Again, I must oversimplify what is hugely complicated, so I will identify only two major components that inform U.S. foreign policy. Even though there are others (and some of those others are of considerable significance), I select these two because I think they explain the most.
The first component is one identified by Christopher Layne. I offered some excerpts from Layne's book, The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present
, in the third part of my "Dominion Over the World" series: "The Open Door to World Hegemony
." The first excerpt (and see the earlier piece for more) dealt with this part of Layne's thesis: "I take issue with those who have argued that the Bush II administration's approach to U.S. grand strategy--its determination to maintain overwhelming U.S. geopolitical dominance and its muscular idealism--breaks sharply with the principles and assumptions that guided earlier U.S. policymakers. Nothing could be farther from the truth."
This is a point I make repeatedly, one that superficial Democratic apologists and hacks absolutely refuse to acknowledge or seriously address.
The following is the excerpt from Layne that I want to emphasize -- and I have set in bold the passage that is especially relevant in this context:
America's pursuit of extraregional hegemony results, I believe, from the causal linkages between the distribution of power in the international system and intervening domestic variables.
I believe that the "Open Door" explains America's drive for extraregional hegemony. The Open Door school of U.S. diplomatic history holds that beginning in the late nineteenth century the United States has pursued an expansionist--indeed, hegemonic or even imperial--policy, first in the Western Hemisphere and then in East Asia, Europe, and the Persian Gulf. The Open Door holds the answer to an important puzzle: Why didn't U.S. grand strategy change when the cold war ended? Why did U.S. forces stay "over there" instead of "coming home"? The Open Door incorporates both economic expansion and ideological expansion and links them to U.S. national security. Open Door economic expansion created new interests that had to be defended by projecting U.S. military power abroad, shaped policymakers' perceptions of how those interests were threatened, and led to a new conception of America's security requirements by transforming the goal of U.S. grand strategy from national defense to national security. "National security," Melvyn P. Leffler observes, "meant more than defending territory." Rather, it meant "defending the nation's core values, its organizing ideology, and its free political and economic institutions." The Open Door is as much about ideology as it is about economic expansion and the distribution of power in the international system. Indeed, these factors are linked inextricably, because U.S. strategists believed that the nation's core values could be safe only in an international system underwritten by hegemonic U.S. power and open both to U.S. economic penetration and to the penetration of American ideology. This is what William Appleman Williams called an "Open Door world." Because of the Open Door, U.S. policymakers defined threats not only in terms of the distribution of power in the international system but also ideologically in terms of threats to America's "core values."
The Open Door world described by Williams is a world shaped by liberal -- Wilsonian -- ideas.
Now it's easy to say, as some realists do, that the Wilsonian vision of an Open Door world is simply window dressing invoked by U.S. policymakers as a smoke screen to mask the fundamentally realpolitik nature of U.S. grand strategy. However, the role of Wilsonian ideology in U.S. grand strategy cannot be dismissed so cavalierly--it is far too deeply entrenched in America's political culture and foreign policy tradition for that. In fact, the subtle interplay between Wilsonianism and realism has been the hallmark of U.S. grand strategy. U.S. grand strategy defines U.S. national interests in terms of power, economic openness, and the promotion of U.S. ideals. ...
In grand strategy terms American liberalism is muscular--offensive--not "idealistic." It postulates cause-and-effect linkages about how the United States can gain security. The spread of democracy and of economic openness are embedded in U.S. grand strategic thought because policymakers believe an Open Door world fosters U.S. power, influence, and security. Wilsonianism holds out the promise of peace for the United States. As I demonstrate, however, this is a peace of illusions. Far from creating peace and enhancing U.S. security, the pursuit of an Open Door world is the motor that drives America's quest for extraregional hegemony. Wilsonian ideology is a potent generator of U.S. overexpansion and of unnecessary military entanglements abroad. Wilsonianism makes the United States less, not more, secure.
Note that national security means "defending the nation's core values, its organizing ideology, and its free political and economic institutions." Note also Layne's point, with which I fully agree, that this conception of national security should not dismissed as "simply window dressing." Put more simply: the ruling class believes this,
as do most Americans. As Layne says, Wilsonian ideology "is far too deeply entrenched in America's political culture and foreign policy tradition [to be dismissed]." In fact, this aspect of Wilsonian ideology has long been a critical element in America's conception of itself as a nation. What the ruling class and most Americans believe is that America is "the last, best hope of Earth" -- a phrase that Barack Obama
and every major politician repeat without end. Note the influence of dualism: there is the "divinely elected" United States -- "the last, best hope of Earth" -- and then there is everyone else and every other country on Earth. I have discussed this belief and its destructive effects in many essays (you can start with, "'Regrettable Misjudgments': The Shocking Immorality of Our Constricted Thought
," and follow the links).
This is the first component of the beliefs that constitute the foundation for U.S. foreign policy. I repeat that, in the case of probably most of the people who hold this conviction, they genuinely believe it.
You dismiss it as "window dressing" at your own peril, and I would submit that such a dismissal makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to address the argument and to alter people's perspective on this crucial question.
The second component has been addressed by Robert Higgs, in a passage that I have offered several times, because many people (even many severe critics of the Bush administration) seem to have great difficulty appreciating this issue. Here is how Higgs expresses the point
As a general rule for understanding public policies, I insist that there are no persistent "failed" policies. Policies that do not achieve their desired outcomes for the actual powers-that-be are quickly changed. If you want to know why the U.S. policies have been what they have been for the past sixty years, you need only comply with that invaluable rule of inquiry in politics: follow the money.
When you do so, I believe you will find U.S. policies in the Middle East to have been wildly successful, so successful that the gains they have produced for the movers and shakers in the petrochemical, financial, and weapons industries (which is approximately to say, for those who have the greatest influence in determining U.S. foreign policies) must surely be counted in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
So U.S. soldiers get killed, so Palestinians get insulted, robbed, and confined to a set of squalid concentration areas, so the "peace process" never gets far from square one, etc., etc. – none of this makes the policies failures; these things are all surface froth, costs not borne by the policy makers themselves but by the cannon-fodder masses, the bovine taxpayers at large, and foreigners who count for nothing.
My argument, in essence, is that both
Layne's point and Higgs' point are true. It is not a question of either-or. They are both
true: the two points address different aspects of the same phenomenon, and they explain separate parts of the motives that impel the actors in question.
An example may help to clarify certain of the issues that concern me. It's a useful example, because it presents the problem in a fairly extreme form. In the fall of 2007, there was a huge to-do about Pete Stark's comment
that Bush sent American troops to fight in Iraq to have their "heads blown off for the president's amusement." Here, I'm not interested in the public spectacle that ensued, which predictably forced Stark to apologize. That spectacle falls into the category of public pretense that I just recently discussed once again
But consider the nature of Stark's remark. At some point in the future, I intend to discuss how everyone in American life now views him or herself as a professional psychologist, fully credentialed and able to diagnose every psychological malady at a distance of thousands of miles, without benefit of ever talking to the subject even once. We saw this kind of thing on full display in the reaction of many people to the Wright-Obama controversy. I offered some comments about a post by Digby that I found especially shocking on that subject
, and most of her post is at the far edges of idiotic. But I haven't yet noted this remark of Digby's: "But Wright's latest round of media appearances have not seemed to me to be any kind of defense of liberalism or the black church or even Black Liberation Theology so much as one man's desire to deny a rival his destiny."
Obama's "destiny"? Is it preordained, written in the stars as it were? Pity the person who thinks in such bathetic terms. Out with you -- and perhaps off to the reeducation camp -- if you dare to deny Obama his destiny!
The Democratic apologists, who fear an original thought or a sustained attack on American exceptionalism more than they fear Jack the Ripper bearing down on them with a fully-loaded arsenal of the sharpest knives ever manufactured, did succeed in driving Wright underground and entirely out of the primary. O brave progressives!
But on what basis, pray tell, does Digby conclude that Wright viewed Obama as a rival
(her italics)? To use one of certain liberals' own favorite put-downs: this is making shit up, because the shit in question happens to aid your argument of the moment. This kind of faux-psychology is irresponsible in the extreme, and it should be deeply insulting, not only to the person so "diagnosed" (read: attacked and dismissed), but to any adult capable of minimal thought. I suppose it may
be possible that Wright viewed Obama as a rival
, but neither Digby, nor you, nor I nor anyone else knows
that in the absence of Wright's confession on the point, or before spending considerable time talking to the man. But note the further effect of this attack and dismissal that parades as a psychological diagnosis: it demeans the man, and it means that you do not have to engage the argument.
And beneath the surface, dualism makes its appearance once again; the diagnosis means that Wright has bad
motives and is a bad
man, at least in part. It is therefore a good
thing and a valid response to ignore the substance of what he had to say.
In general terms, the same can be said of Stark's comment about Bush. No one has condemned Bush's actions more severely than I have, but it would never occur to me to maintain that Bush is amused
by the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq. As in the case of Wright, it may
be the case that Bush is so deeply disturbed that he enjoys hearty laughs looking at pictures of the corpses of American soldiers -- but you don't know that.
And as with Wright, it enables the critic to dismiss Bush entirely -- in this instance, as an apparent sadistic psychotic -- and thus relieves the critic of engaging the argument.
Setting aside the narrower question of whether Bush, et al.
genuinely believed Iraq to be a serious threat to the United States, those who drive our foreign policy -- both Republicans and Democrats
-- certainly believe in the Open Door policy described above. Remember: "The Open Door is as much about ideology as it is about economic expansion and the distribution of power in the international system." When Bush and many others talk about "spreading freedom," they believe it
, or at least they give every indication that they do. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, you cannot conclude they don't. Of course, they are profoundly wrong -- and the error is an especially deadly one. But if you want to alter the terms of debate, you must point out why
the notion of "spreading freedom" by means of murder and occupation is not only fatally self-contradictory, but one that is impossible of success.
The full truth, or at least a fuller version of the truth, is much more complex than the dualistic, either-or approach permits. Those who support the U.S. foreign policy of endless intervention with the goal of American global hegemony believe in the ideological arguments they offer -- and the corporate interests that support the same policies believe in the continued and expanded success of their businesses and in maximizing profits. It is the intersection and mutual reinforcement
of these sets of beliefs and goals that result in a foreign policy that has become deeply embedded in our very system of governance, and that have effects that reach out to every aspect of American political, economic and cultural life.
As indicated in my title, we've begun to follow the money, and this is more than long enough for the moment. We'll follow the military bases in the next installment.