U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Humbled by History

The revolts in Tunsia and especially Egypt make a mockery of the American wars for freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan. I acknowledge the great sacrifice made by those who have served, fought, and died in these wars from many countries. Yet as Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times on January 31, “It’s quite possible that if Murbarak had not ruled Egypt as a dictator for the last 30 years, the World Trade Center would still be standing.” 9/11 happened not because of some grand showdown between those who “hate our freedoms” and those who defend those freedoms, as George W. Bush argued. Hate undoubtedly permeates many societies that harbor terrorists, but such hate is for the regimes that have treated millions of proud people like serfs–regimes that have been aided in no small part by the United States. As Anne Applebaum wrote in Slate, “The ‘stability’ we have so long embraced in the Arab world wasn’t really stability. It was repression…In Cairo, police were firing ‘Made in the USA’ tear gas at protesters.”

The history of such support cannot be erased or forgotten, but as Douthat suggests at the end of his brief essay, the revolts in Tunsia and Egypt have happened despite the notorious involvement of the United States. History has humbled the U.S. once again by happening without it.
Since the end of the cold war, American leaders have searched for an adequate theory to make sense of the nation’s role in the world. They did this, though, in light of a basic misinterpretation that American policy actually led to the end of the cold war in the first place. The United States did have a stated cold war policy–containment–and took action based on that policy–from the Marshall Plan to Vietnam to summits with Gorbachev–but the collective experience of the cold war did not add up to a grand theory of history.
So, history did not end, of course, and yet, it proved well-nigh impossible for American leaders not to glean particular lessons from the end of the cold war. Among the most attractive was the notion that the United States had an obligation to foster peace, prosperity, and stability around the world. The death toll from two catastrophic world wars and multiple communist experiments had receded into a darker past, and a global meliorism (as Norman Graebner put it in 2000) meekly made an appearance. A belief took hold among many American elites that the world was not hopelessly trapped in destructive cycles and, might, with help, become better. Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, and Rawanda considerably complicated that vision. But it was 9/11 that gravely distorted it. Now, if the world was to get better, it would do so, as David Rieff put it, “at the point of a gun.” Humanitarian hopes turned to high altitude bombing which led to two ground wars, two occupations, two troop surges, untold clone attacks, and uncertainty.
Yet, as should be plain now, American military actions since 1989 (or, for that matter, 1945) have no relation to recent events in Tunsia and Egypt. In other words, these revolts–these dramatic regime changes–have happened despite or even in spite of America’s wars to “spread democracy.” But more than that, these revolts have forced the United States to ask questions of fundamental importance to an era beyond the war on terror. The time has certainly come for the United States to move beyond the practice of reducing history to a slogan. If attempts to master history through military might has failed, what does this experience tell us? How should the U.S. be part of history without presuming to write it?
In his speech at Cairo University in 2009, President Obama attempted to square the idealism of American aspirations for the promotion of democracy with the sorted history of the nation’s support for repressive regimes. He declared that American idealism was not a manifestation of American exceptionalism but of universal, human rights.

“No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.”
Obama hoped this speech would help redefine the United States, slowly and deliberately, as a nation committed to something other than war and the occupation of Muslim countries. Events at the beginning of 2011 give Obama a chance to act on his gestures. The U.S. is no longer, and perhaps will never again be, a nation that can follow George Washington’s warnings, John Quincy Adams’s admonitions or even Dwight Eisenhower’s caution against foreign entanglements. Nor can it afford, though, to act with the hubris of McKinley, Kennedy, and Bush. Do the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make sense any longer? Does American military policy? For a nation that has often seemed supremely confident of its role in world affairs, a crisis of faith in its ability to read history might just be the opportunity Obama needs.

15 Thoughts on this Post

  1. The thing to question, of course, is Jewish and Israeli control of US foreign policy. Understand the nature and extent of this influence, and you will understand anti-Americanism.

  2. At the risk of stating the obvious:

    The notion that America’s relationship to Israel distorts US foreign policy is a fair view that bears serious consideration. That relationship certainly stokes anti-Americanism in the Middle East (as does the US relationship with many of the region’s autocrats).

    The idea of “Jewish control” over US foreign policy, however, is a crude, antisemitic caricature. Actual Jewish-American opinion about US foreign policy in the region is diverse. And the constituency for “Christian Zionism” is a lot larger than the Jewish population of the US.

  3. I reiterate what I suggested in the post: the US has fooled itself into believing that it can command history to obey its policies. Americans do not need to find scapegoats, they need to take responsibility for failures of their own making. To imagine some kind of “alien” control over American foreign policy is to accept distortions with grave moral and intellectual consequences. From Nitze to Wolfowitz, ideas that have shaped American foreign policy have floundered on a misguided view of history.

  4. I’m with Ben in refuting Anon 8:12. The notion that U.S. foreign policy is “controlled” by anyone other than U.S. diplomats, embassy bureaucrats, and various U.S. presidential administrations is, well, ludicrous. The vast conspiracy that would be required to pull off such a maneuver can only be pulled off by a state with resources, ironically, as vast as the United States.

    I’m going to lay down a new law of diplomacy (if it hasn’t been stated already). Tim’s Law states: “A nation that attempts to create stability abroad through the toleration of repression will, in fact, create and tolerate the conditions for repression at home.”

    Overall, I’m with Ray in noting that the events of the last week in Egypt call into question (again) the militarist strategy of the Bush administration. I think an argument (while fading) can still be made for our involvement in Afghanistan. But Egypt shows definitively that the U.S. doesn’t have to be THE CHANGE AGENT in relation to repressive regimes (e.g. Iraq, Iran, N. Korea, Venezuela).

    When will we listen to the lessons of history? I don’t know. – TL

  5. I agree with Raymond that we need to take responsibility for our past actions, and not just in the Middle East. US involvement in Latin America and Africa shows the same trend of preferring and supporting “stability” (even the stability provided by an embezzling autocrat) over potentially messy but more democratic expressions of governance. This seems to follow naturally from the dominant Cold War diplomatic framework and has been slow to change in the intervening twenty years. I hope we can break out of this “for-or-against” mindset and encourage non-exploitative political movements, however they choose to view the US.

  6. Nice post, Ray. For a short but thorough primer on the not-always-intended but more-often-predictable consequences of US interventionism since World War II, I highly recommend Gabriel Kolko, “The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World.” Of course, I highly recommend reading all of Kolko’s works.

  7. I demur. The equation must include Islam as a religio-politics, and that there are many devout Muslims in the populace who prefer Mubarak-style authoritarianism to an Islamic “republic-democracy” ala Iran or Hamas’ Gaza. Neither are they particularly anxious to start up with Israel again.

    Don’t believe the TV cameras, or that the loudest voices in the public square represent consensus. The BBC has been creaming since this started, their natural sympathies with “the people.”

    Hyuh. “The people” in Iran 1979 vs. the Shah got co-opted by an even greater tyranny and authority. Anyone who thinks things can’t get any worse has no imagination.

  8. Mr. Van Dyke: The thrust of the post, as I read it, is that the revolutionary spirit in Egypt, whether an actual revolution is successful or not, is partly rooted in a backlash against US interventionism and that, as such, Americans should rethink their hubris. Iran is a case in point, given that the revolution in 1978 overthrew a dictator who came to and remained in power with a huge helping hand from the US. I seriously doubt Ray or anyone else who blogs here regularly lacks imagination with regards to the potential for disastrous results. Hell, we’re US intellectual historians and have all, thus, dutifully internalized Niebuhrian pessimism. But from my vantage point, as a longtime avid reader of Gabriel Kolko, the best historian of US foreign policy and war since William Appleman Williams, US intervention here, whether in support of the current Egyptian tyranny or against some unknown and uncontrollable future tyranny, will surely only make matters worse.

  9. The revolts in Tunsia and Egypt did not offer opportunities to expose the Jewish conspiracy controlling American foreign policy or promote delusions about the innate goodness of “the people” flooding Cairo’s streets. My point was precisely the opposite–Americans need to resist falling back on worn-out interpretations of foreign policy and consider that history does not bend to their command. So, it is not up to the US to figure out how to solve the world’s problems in three or four slogans; nor is it prudent to ‘imagine’ that history has a discernible direction, leading inevitably toward democratic utopias or dictatorships. The revolts in the Middle East should force American leaders (policy and opinion) to rethink assumptions that have guided their views about how the world and history works. I don’t pretend to know what will happen in the Middle East, but I do think that intellectual historians can deliberate about the ideas that have guided the United States.

  10. Thank you, Mr. Hartman. I would submit that President Obama’s signal that change should come now rather than later is already an “interference.” We cannot help but influence events by our very standing in the world and our every signal. It goes beyond hubris. But I certainly do recognize that there’s much sentiment in the Muslim world that everything the US touches is “poisoned fruit.”

    Mubarak’s proposition to leave office in September, giving proper time for a more orderly election of a new regime instead of the installation of an ad hoc one, seems to me a workable idea and one that many Egyptians fight favor. Especially the sane ones.

    There is of course a prudent position to be negotiated between defending the indefensible [the excesses of Mubarak’s regime] and unintentionally [we hope unintentionally] facilitating the rise of another Iran-type regime.

    Mostly my demurral was to insert Islam as a religio-politics into the equation. The good part is that Egypt is Sunni and doesn’t have a mullah class in place like Shia Iran. The bad news is ironically enough, mullahs or imams can serve as setting a theological limit on what can is permissible in the name of Islam. At this point, I find assurances that the Brotherhood isn’t as radical as some fear to be an unwarranted fearlessness.

    Mr. Hartman, I fully appreciate that you’re US intellectual historians; it says so right at the top of the blog. But intellectuals and historians have been known to occasionally be wrong, and worse, even disagree with each other!


  11. Upon re-reading my earlier comment, the bit about us being intellectual historians is a glib act of rank pulling and I apologize. I merely meant that you won’t find any wooly-eyed optimists among this group. But we do disagree on occasion, as you assert!

  12. Cheers, Andrew. I look forward to your intrablogal disagreements, and might stop by with a few meself from time to time. This is a very stimulating blog.

    I’m not exactly sanguine with what appears to be the new conventional wisdom, a long view of history that US interventions are in the end useless or even counterproductive. Certainly some are, considered on a case-by-case basis, but it would require a “null hypothesis” approach rather than the clarity of mere hindsight, the former approach one I have seldom seen attempted by intellectuals or historians.

    Now, one could [and likely should] consider the Axis sui generis; invoking Hitler is cheap. And the asininity of WWI should stand as a lasting indictment of the macabre centuries-long Great Powers of Europe dance.

    Forty years on, Vietnam still seems more like a current debate topic than actual history with the ink dry; however, the Cold War and Korea in particular haunts—is North Korea the remnant of a “containment strategy” gone wrong, or a glimpse of a future that was headed off for much of the world, not by American hubris but by prudent men brave enough—or fearful enough—to act?

    The “long view” can maintain that the answer lies in today’s unified Vietnam, which by most accounts is somewhat tolerable to its citizens after an unpleasant transition period. So too, one “Killing Fields” later and 2 million dead, Kampuchea is somewhat tolerable as well.

    To return to point, a “null hypothesis” approach is necessary, I think, to address Douthat’s argument that 9/11 perhaps wouldn’t have happened without 30 years of Mubarak and our support for him. Likewise in the larger “lessons of history” sense, what would have happened if the US returned to its pre-Pearl Harbor shell after the defeat of the Axis? At what point in recent history do we apply the new conventional wisdom, and could we reasonably have expected the men of that time to be able to discern it?

    These are my reservations about this new conventional wisdom [as I understand it] taking form. Thank you for listening, Mr. Hartman, and anyone else reading here besides us chickens. Cheers.

  13. Conventional wisdom, you say, as the US continues to occupy and fight wars in two countries. If only. I find the premise that the US (or any nation, for that matter) acts out of some sort of humanitarian impulse to make the world a better place seriously faulty. It is true that US policymakers have long confused what is good for them as what is good for everyone. But their myopia need not afflict us.

    You bring up North Korea. This war was a disaster and thought to be so by many at the time but has only been eclipsed as a disaster in our collective memory by Vietnam, an even greater disaster. The North Korea born of that war and of six decades of being garrisoned off is dystopian, to be sure, but it is highly unlikely that a united Korea after a civil war would have looked anything like that. Who knows? The point is that Korea was the first of many US wars to establish control over a global system it could not control. We still live in this dangerous world, made more dangerous by the fact that the US is no longer in the position it once was to even seek to dominate the global system, as people everywhere are realizing.

    In short, I would be very happy if US policymakers came to the conclusion that the nation needed to seriously scale back its ambitions. But I’m skeptical this will happen and fearful of the results. And I don’t see non-interventionism as approaching anywhere near a consensus, at least, not among those who have a say in the matter.

  14. Thank you for your thoughts on Korea. You ask Who knows? and I don’t either. It was an open question, but one posed in the context of the entire Cold War, not from a comfortable distance after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    As for the current wars, the bad war seems to be not so bad anymore; the “good war,” ostensibly launched in self-defense against the Taliban gov’t that gave safe harbor to bin Ladenism, not going so good. But I admit a disinclination to give historians any greater weight than anyone else on such issues before the ink on the first draft of history is even dry.

    As for “intellectuals,” well, I think they are of greatest value when they’re disagreeing. ;-}

  15. I think it is the same people oppressing the Egyptians who are oppressing us, by, for instance, moving 80% of the wealth into the hands of 1% of the US population and allowing median wages to decline over the past 30 years. These are people (Republicans) who have no allegiance to any Nation or Human Beings, only to their profits. That they were “elected” only proves that propaganda works.

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