Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Manifest Destiny

A savaging is in order.

I'm already in a vicious mood and more on that shortly but I have to say that I almost had a case of airplane rage while flying back from San Francisco last Sunday. There I was, reading what started out as a reasonable essay by Michael Ignatieff, Who Are Americans to Think That Freedom Is Theirs to Spread?, when I came across the following:

Never has America been more alone in spreading democracy's promise.

I didn't even know where to start with that last sentence and I still don't. I've written recently about a supremely supine media, but here we have hubris beyond belief from the academy. Still let me give it a little context, lest I be accused of nitpicking his point.
Other democratic leaders may suspect Bush is right, but that doesn't mean they are joining his crusade. Never have there been more democracies. Never has America been more alone in spreading democracy's promise.

The cheek of it. The self-righteous solipsist.

Ignatieff used to write similarly long, ambitious pieces for The Observer in the 90s. I can imagine him content with the ring of those heady sentences but he really should be taken to task. There is a certain class of supposedly "Public Intellectuals" who are simply pernicious because of the palliative cover they provide for Rovian rogues who probably can't believe their luck that they can point to ideological justification for their misdeeds in the pages of the Grey Lady and from Ivory Towers I'm quite familiar with. And from that sentence on, the Great Game of misdirection and bromides proceeds apace.

Now the deification of Reagan is one thing (although there was a little shock on my part in reading the ensuing pablum about Ronnie's supposed prescience), but that deserves a separate post and I've long promised The Governor of Redmonk something on that front. Per Ignatieff, Reagan is supposedly responsible for "the emergence of democracy promotion as a central goal of United States foreign policy". The repeated misadventures in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and almost everywhere else are conveniently skipped over. The dissonance of soaring cowboy rhetoric, garden-variety Iran/Contra criminality, defence industry sinecures, or Savings and Loan cronyism and plain hypocrisy in the Realpolitik that Reagan's cohorts practiced are not commented upon, nor is it anywhere acknowledged that those swarthy developing world types incurred considerable collateral damage when they served as battlegrounds and proxies in that awful Cold War.

In any case, it's understandable that we want to ascribe superhuman attributes to B-movie players, and we should have a little respect for genuinely popular "Great Men" who were in tune with the zeitgeist. The rush to beatify John Paul II is similarly par for the course.

Still Ignatieff's conflation of the Iraq blackhole with the supposed project to spread democracy is even harder to take, but that too is just a post-hoc rationalization of ongoing, ill-conceived follies, or rectfication of errors as Billmon would put it. I understand we'll hear yet another turn of the damage mitigation in the much leaked presidential address on the "resolve" required to "stay the course".

I had just finished reading a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, Optimism fades, but war goes on, which sought out the opinions of those who are bearing the weight of the current imperial overstretch. On the ground in Iraq, the soldiers, who by inclination are not normally the most reflective of types, no longer have the WMD plank of yore as motivation, hence they are falling to either the "Saddam was a bad guy" plank or to the "better we fight over there than in Manhattan" party line. And yes, Uday feeding his people to the lions in his private zoo is awful but we won't mention Rumsfeld visiting Uday's father in the 80s selling him weapons and turning a blind eye to the gassing of those pesky Kurds, all in the name of access to oil or of "containing Iran". There is no moral equivalence but there is a certain axis of hypocrisy at work.
Despite the seeming lack of progress against the insurgency - as evidenced by the rising casualty count of both Americans and civilian Iraqis - it is those scenes that make Wood, a career officer who has been in the army for 19 years, a firm believer in his mission.

Even with all the setbacks, he adds, the war must continue to be waged in Iraq. Otherwise, it will be waged on American soil, he says.

The soldiers don't even know that back home the rhetoric has gone past The Evildoers or even The Neighbour's Grass Theory to the "we can't allow our folly to fail" routine. What a wonderful world I suppose, to mess up other people's gardens.

"But yet, but yet", Ignatief writes. There must be some good to find in all of this, something to make us feel good about what has come to pass. So then we turn to this:
While Americans characteristically oversell and exaggerate the world's desire to live as they do, it is actually reasonable to suppose, as Americans believe, that most human beings, if given the chance, would like to rule themselves. It is not imperialistic to believe this. It might even be condescending to believe anything else.

Now if anything has been oversold in his essay it is precisely his previous exercise in rhetorical overstretch.
Never has America been more alone in spreading democracy's promise.

Really?

America alone? I beg your pardon.

Democracy promotion is not the preserve of Americans, it is a universal struggle. Further it is a struggle that is undergoing many setbacks currently because of proverbial Quiet Americans (and would it that Dubya and co were quiet). That same laudable Reagan was for breaking sanctions on the apartheid regime in the name of not encouraging that dastardly communist Nelson Mandela who was busy breaking rocks on Robben Island. Indeed, if I remember correctly, even the democratic institutions of the US need looking after, and some of us are monitoring the situation here with alarm.

In Ghana we get daily lectures from the State Department about governance, corruption and institutions, lectures on the form of democracy in short. The concern is well taken but all too often these are just a cover for securing very favourable access for American firms to our local markets. In terms of actual aid and strengthening of democracy, those sensible Canadians, those quiet Dutch, the Danes or even the Brits who are quietly doing penance for their colonial past are in fact far more effective on the ground in spreading democracy's promise.

The story of Millennium Challenge Accounts is the correct parable in this respect: announce lofty goals to provide cover during election season and actually don't do anything, wrap the "aid" with red tape, rinse with a touch of quid pro quo a la Haliburton and lecture away about the feel good quotient of the benevolent elephant. Levelling the playing field of global affairs is actually anathema to America foreign policy as we have seen - to be fair the French and others are no choirboys. "But yet, but yet".

Still we sit and listen to the lectures because, in our position, we'll take any help we can get even if it is the incidental backwash of self-congratulation. But that's the thing: the rhetoric is all about democracy when the practice is about exceptionalism. As a piece I read on the same flight put it, it all depends on which side is doing the globalizing. The unresolved issues in the American Dream, the dissonance between perception and reality is something that this young country is still dealing with.

The sadness that came over me as I finished the article was much like the disappointment one has felt reading almost anything Thomas Friedman has written in the past 4 years. Others have taken Chutzpah Thomas to task for his most brazen piece of revisionism from last week. And like Dershowitz, his discourse has devolved into the most unseemly blowhard rhetoric.

Now I've read Isaiah Berlin on Liberty, I read the Woodrow Wilson Quarterly, I've read the canon of both the liberals and the conservatives in the west. You think that by reading the same texts that you've taken away a coherent worldview but, truth be told, there are considerable blindspots and much solipsism in these "world"views. And these blindspots manifest themselves in the contortions of apologia and logical inconsistency borne of hurt pride that we've been seeing especially since 9/11. What's worse is that no one calls these people on it and we are supposed to bear their hot air lectures with a smile.

This reminded me of the way many Africans felt on reading Robert Kaplan in The Coming Anarchy back in 1994. Kaplan at least was embarrassed that his travel journalism came to be construed as policy prescriptions for Bill Clinton and Madelaine Albright in dealing with Rwanda and the madness in the former Yugoslavia. Actually, Kaplan was making a more subtle point than Ignatieff or Friedman ever will and when I see neighbour's houses on fire and worse, I can at least empathize with his concern for the fabric of my society. But I can't wash my hands of my home so I differ on the remedies (cut-and-run) prescribed from this side of the Atlantic.

I read the rest of the article half expecting some Social Darwinist claptrap to emerge and it's quite close: Ignatieff's essay is simply Manifest Destiny revisited as farce.

A Manifest Destiny Soundtrack


The sound of manifest destiny has mostly been a soundtrack of irony because the foundations of the ideology simply dissolve away with the slightest hint of scrutiny. Thus I haven't been able to find much worthy art in the affirmation of self congratulation. Consider this then a passive-aggressive musical take on the theme.

Update: Lord of the Rings

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5 comments:

james governor said...

agreed. i had been wondering what to call it. the axis of hypocrisy just might be pithy enough

orchid lover said...

axis of hypocrisy ie: us, uk, israel? breathe, koranteng, breathe...

Koranteng said...

I wouldn't go with countries since it's a small minority that prevails in each case (serious and single-minded perhaps, but ultimately we'll realize just how parochial their concerns are)

When I was in a more relaxed mode with my coinages, I had come up with

Axis of Righteous Neocon NefarIousnEss (ARNNIE)

We might get tortured in Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu-Ghraib or get a little Extraodinary Rendition to Uzbekistan or Syria (ERUStication?) if we aren't careful.

I thought it was quite clever at the time but that Erustication was the better contribution to the language and those letter US are promising.

Pithyness is a concern and the Axis of formulation is promising.

Hypocrisy doesn't capture the extent of infamy so I prefer nefariousness

If we lose the extra N we gain closer proximity to bodybuilding irony and B-movies so I like:

Axis of Righteous Neocon NefarIousnEss (ARNIE)

but perhaps in the interest of brevity

Axis of Righteous Neocon Infamy Excess (ARNIE)

Kwasi said...

Good post. I've given up on discussing the cold war with Americans because most of them fail to understand that there were massive casualties, just not in the US or Russia

Brian said...

Well said.