Top Gun

War and the American Presidency
By Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. •
Norton • 224 pages • $23.95

America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism

By Anatol Lieven • Oxford University Press • 304 pages • $30.00

It has become a cliché to hurl back at President George W. Bush his statement as a candidate in 2000 that the United States would be resented abroad for arrogance but welcomed for humility. Four years later, with America deeply resented abroad and bitterly divided at home as a result of the policies Bush has followed, little, it would seem, remains to be said on this score. But two new books criticizing the hubris and messianism of Bush's foreign policy are both well worth reading -- one for its eloquence, the other for its rigor, originality, and fresh perspective.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the eminent American political historian and a onetime aide to President John F. Kennedy, has issued a slim new volume with a stentorian title. War and the American Presidency consists of seven interlocking essays that place the Bush doctrine and its consequences in historical perspective. There is little that is truly new here, but Schlesinger writes with dignity and authority. Among the essays is an instructive history of America's robust tradition of patriotic wartime dissent and of the sometimes hysterical measures taken to suppress it, including the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the violations of civil liberties during World War I. After each episode, “we hated ourselves in the morning,” Schlesinger writes. And so he concludes, “Looking back a decade from now, I doubt that most Americans will take much pride in the fate of the 660 Guantanamo Bay ‘detainees' denied specification of charges, access to counsel, contact with families, and the right to a judicial hearing.”

To these and other questions, Schlesinger brings the sobriety of one who has not only studied history but observed it in the making. Nonetheless, he indulges few illusions about the predictive power of the past. History furnishes metaphors, he cautions, but those who seek to generalize from historical experience must beware “the bewitchment of analogy.” “Munich” has become a byword for appeasement, but those who invoke it in every instance of confrontation with tyrants abroad risk obscuring the situational nuances that might yield more effective and less costly solutions to the crises at hand. While history can offer perspective, it can also produce stereotypes “wrenched illegitimately out of the past and imposed mechanically on the future.” History, concludes Schlesinger, can answer questions at long range, which is of interest to historians, but very rarely at short range, as policy-makers require.

Schlesinger himself has a foot in both worlds. He has much to say about the direction of foreign policy under Bush, and most of it could fit under the heading of frank disapproval. Of particular concern to Schlesinger is Bush's decision to enshrine not preemptive war, for which there is a place under international law and which presumes an imminent threat, but preventive war, which requires only a speculative, future threat, as a foreign-policy doctrine for the post–September 11 era. “Mr. Bush replaced a policy aimed at peace through the prevention of war by a policy aimed at peace through preventive war,” writes Schlesinger. That policy -- combined with the neoconservative vision of a permanent American supremacy enabling the United States “to promote democracy, free markets, private enterprise, and godliness, and thereby control the future” -- has produced a corrosive arrogance and militarism.

Schlesinger recalls his earlier work on the “imperial presidency,” or the expansion of presidential powers during wartime, and notes that in the past, emergency prerogatives have expired with the resolution of war. The implication is that the current president has seized such prerogatives without the constraint of a military engagement with a foreseeable end. What's more, he writes, though it would unleash global chaos to endorse a universal right to wage preventive war, it is also difficult to justify reserving that right to the United States alone. In doing so, we “make our nation the world's judge, jury, and executioner. However virtuous some Americans may feel in assigning this triple role to an American president, less powerful nations are likely to hate us for it.”

Nationalism Unbound

It is precisely this notion of unique American virtue that preoccupies Anatol Lieven, a British journalist and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Fiercely smart and lucidly written, his America Right or Wrong is part trenchant study of American national feeling, part critique of Bush's foreign policy and of the deepest cultural assumptions upon which it is based. The United States, Lieven reminds us, bears no special immunity to the power and peril of nationalism, that crude force that has shaped the last two centuries' global history more consistently than any other.

Scholars of nationalism have long distinguished between ethnic nationalism, based on blood and soil, and civic nationalism, based on contracts, citizenship, and consent. Lieven recognizes American nationalism as an often contradictory amalgam of the two. One strand, the “American creed,” draws upon “the set of great democratic, legal, and individualist beliefs and principles on which the American state and constitution are founded.” To be sure, this panoply of essentially liberal ideals is the shared heritage of the West; but Americans, writes Lieven, imbue it with a particular universalizing zeal because it also forms the basis of the civic nationalism that glues together a vast and disparate nation. The other strand, by contrast, which Lieven dubs Jacksonian nationalism, consists of “a diffuse mass of identities and impulses, including nativist sentiments on the part of America's original white population, the particular culture of the white South, and the beliefs and agendas of ethnic lobbies.”

Our triumphalist, evangelizing civic nationalism seeks to remake the world in its image, which it presumes to be the very essence of progress. Our “don't tread on me” nativist nationalism assumes the defensive, often racist posture characteristic of embittered and defeated nations. While the civic tradition tends to dominate American public life, the Jacksonian strain rises to the surface at times of crisis. The civic strain, writes Lieven, is radically forward-looking; the Jacksonian strain, like many European nationalisms before it, looks persistently backward, to a vanished age of presumed purity.

The United States is able to encompass these profoundly contradictory impulses because it is at once progressive and traditionalist, shaped by a radically secular capitalism and a uniquely pervasive religiosity. The piece of America that is socially, politically, and morally conservative -- largely the white, Protestant South -- has assumed the chronically defensive posture of a defeated minority. To liberals frustrated with a political establishment dominated by conservatives, this mentality is hard to understand. But Lieven observes that American society will never revert to the Eisenhower-era values many conservatives idealize: Capitalism inexorably modernizes everything from industry to sexual mores, and as hard as religious conservatives fight, they are right to perceive theirs as a battle already lost. Ironically, notes Lieven, this conservative anguish has been effectively exploited by a Republican Party that also seeks to unleash fully the very free-market forces that most threaten traditional community values. Such is the demagogic power of nationalism.

Although Lieven devotes two substantial chapters to the roots of embittered Jacksonian nationalism -- the frontier of Andrew Jackson's day, the tortured history of American race relations and the defeat of the confederacy in the Civil War, the unique provenance of fundamentalist Protestantism -- this book is, at its heart, a critique of an increasingly nationalist American foreign policy. Lieven is troubled by the projection of either form of American nationalism onto a world presumed passive. Americans, Lieven contends, fail to study other nations in depth but believe that their creed dictates what is right for others. Those who disagree or seek to restrain American ambitions, whether friends or foes, are treated to a geyser of bilious ridicule. According to many neoconservative thinkers, the very extension of American power implies the triumph of good over bad political systems and ideals. Echoing Schlesinger, Lieven writes, “To assert the unique morality of your country's political culture is already to adopt a position which the rest of the world will find very difficult to accept, and will be strongly tempted to challenge by reference to the darker episodes of your past -- thereby setting off ugly national exchanges. To assert this and then derive from it, like [Weekly Standard Editors] William Kristol and Robert Kagan, the belief that America's ‘moral goals and its fundamental national interests are almost always in harmony' is to come rather close to saying ‘my country is always right.'”

Lieven is right to discern in such thinking the tropes of nationalisms past, and his unwillingness to view American nationalism as exceptional is a breath of fresh air in the current political climate. Indeed, Lieven compares the intensity of American national feeling to that of Europe prior to the outbreak of World War I. In his final chapter, an impassioned and persuasive, if somewhat tangential, critique of American policy vis-à-vis Israel, Lieven compares the American commitment to Israeli national interests to Russia's fealty to Serbia before the First World War. In both cases, a small, revisionist, and potentially radical country in an unstable region, when offered a nearly unconditional guarantee by a superpower, finds itself emboldened to enact its most destabilizing and maximalist agenda. And in both instances, the allied superpower has found itself increasingly embroiled in explosive regional politics, ultimately against its own national interests. Lieven advocates not that the United States abandon Israel but that it cease to view its commitment as unconditional. Rather, the United States should use its leverage to exert serious pressure on Ariel Sharon's government to withdraw to within Israel's 1967 borders. This course of action, writes Lieven, would require the U.S. government to exercise the same “political and moral courage” that it requests when it urges Muslims to stand up to extremists in their midst.

Lieven also categorically disapproves of the United States putting pressure on its allies and trading partners (leave aside, for the moment, its enemies) to adopt democratic reforms or show greater respect for human rights. These are some of his book's muddiest passages. In pressing China to improve its human-rights record, Lieven laments, American policy-makers fail to appreciate the Chinese government's economic accomplishments. But do economic accomplishments render human-rights abuses irrelevant, and can they only be recognized at the expense of all other criticism? Lieven's larger point is that those who suggest that the United States advocate democracy or human rights abroad often do so presuming that the American creed is the world's, and that the United States has a quasi-religious duty to spread the good news. Suppose that in doing so, the United States tramples on the particularities, cultural or situational, of another country that is pursuing its own path. By virtue of what virtue, Lieven asks, does the United States arrogate to itself the power to designate some countries “enemies of freedom”?

Though such questions are well-taken, Lieven doesn't explore the alternatives, which are often even more unappealing. Would the United States do better to cast its weight behind human-rights-abusing or autocratic allies? Doesn't it exert influence in either case, whether it presses for reform or simply endorses and further empowers a repressive regime as it is? For a country the size and strength of the United States, there is no value-neutral way to engage with the world. Those who seek one often find themselves drawn toward isolationism or, like Lieven, toward a realism that accepts brutal governments as necessary for some peoples. But, as a theory of international relations, realism -- with its focus on threats and resources over rights and freedoms -- promotes a nationalist agenda of another kind, as Lieven himself observes.

Lieven does not even acknowledge such problems as morally thorny ones. Rather, his blanket hostility toward any kind of explicitly value-driven foreign policy leads him to see no difference between even moderately hawkish liberals and fire-breathing neoconservatives. He quotes from an essay by Michael Tomasky [Full disclosure: The reviewer is a contributor to the anthology in which that essay appears, and Tomasky is the executive editor of this magazine.] in which Tomasky calls for the United States to press Turkey and Saudi Arabia to comply with international human-rights norms. Lieven compares Tomasky to Richard Perle, mistakenly presuming that Tomasky endorsed the war with Iraq and suggested pressing Turkey and Saudi Arabia for reform in order to punish the Turks for refusing to cooperate with the war plans and the Saudis for their hostility toward Israel.

Still, Lieven's book is original, thought-provoking, and urgent. National-ism can be bellicose, self-righteous, and conflict-prone. It treads on the views and interests of others and, at its extreme, justifies brutality. American civic nationalism had its comeuppance at Abu Ghraib. Schlesinger writes that the very “atmospherics of the Bush presidency” led us there. Lieven sees in that atmosphere the cold front of Jacksonianism hurtling toward the warm front of the American civic creed. It's a storm that may pass with the passing of the Bush presidency. But Schlesinger, a believer in the American creed if there ever was, sees another force at work.

“As a world empire,” he writes, “the United States is undone by its own domestic politics and its own humane, pluralistic, and tolerant ideals. The premises of our national existence undermine our imperial aspirations. So the imperial presidency redux is likely to continue messing things up, as we are doing so successfully in Iraq, the needless war. Then democracy's singular virtue -- its capacity for self-correction -- will one day swing into action.”

Laura Secor is the Prospect's foreign policy editor.

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