Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Democratic legitimacy, what non-Americans think about American policy, and the war on terror (excerpt from a paper in progress)

The following is an excerpt from a new essay I am currently drafting, on institutionalizing the war on terror through Congressional legislation. This particular section is concerned with the extent to which the war on terror should be framed with "how others abroad see us" as the driving issue. I argue that the legitimacy that matters is legitimacy internal to the American democratic process, and that for several reasons, it is folly - folly unfortunately indulged extensively by the Bush administration and not merely the the anti-war American left - to frame American policy around trying to make nice to the rest of the world (note that this is all still first draft stuff):

The American people will not engage with the struggle against a transnational terrorist threat over the long run unless it is consonant with deep American values. Americans have not historically been very willing to support in blood and treasure – and, today, attention span – long running wars or foreign policy agendas that do not seem to them both necessary to the national survival and broadly just. The Cold War, by comparison, was understood by a broad range of the public, including its elites, as both necessary and just, even when particular wars within it – Korea and Vietnam, for example – sorely tested those presumptions. “We fight well,” wrote Rene Char in his Resistance journal, “only for causes of our own molding, and are fired up only when we identify ourselves in them.”[1] Values are an expression of the legitimacy of the struggle against jihadist terrorism and a long term requirement of the national will. And long term legitimacy can only come through the time-honored mechanisms of public ratification through democratic processes.

Legitimacy is also crucial in another way, however. Not only does the nature of the struggle require the use of force, and hence the defense of its legitimacy – in addition, it is a struggle of ideas, ideals, and ideology. The struggle over ideals requires the clear, unapologetic advocacy of liberal, Enlightenment values – the legitimate foundation of our constitutional order – as against the religious obscurantism of an enemy who seeks both to hide among and to persuade global Muslim masses to adopt its syncretic religion of Islamic fundamentalism and Western ideologies of ressentiment against the liberal West. That advocacy – what amounts to the defense of America and the world’s liberal societies – can scarcely be undertaken without the clear understanding that the struggle of an open, democratic society against inflamed, violent religious fundamentalism and regimes exploiting that fanaticism is buttressed by the legitimacy conveyed by its own democratic process. Yet once again, I do not mean this in the way it is usually deployed in the national debate. Typically, the observation that the war on terror requires not only the use of force but the use of ideals and ideology is prelude to a disquisition on the global spread of anti-Americanism, and a long list of reasons why America must give up the use of force, pursuit of national interest, disdain of global governance, etc., in favor of a policy of seeking to be loved by the rest of the world. When we are loved, we will then be safe.


Alas, no. The question of legitimacy is first a question of legitimacy within the constitutional political community that defines the United States, and only secondarily – very secondarily – how it plays with the rest of the world. The effort to design American policy in the war on terror by its appeal to foreigners is disastrous. It has backfired upon us. It will always backfire. It is a form of foreign policy that the Bush administration has followed with extraordinary foolishness since 9-11 – what possessed the administration in the Iraq invasion, for example, to announce that success in the war would be measured by whether Iraqis threw flowers and danced in the streets? If it happens, great – but announcing that your definition of victory depends upon other people making known their happiness grants them a power over you that they will almost certainly exercise by failing to dance or throw flowers.

This has never been the measure of victory for an invader, even a benevolent one. Better, rather, to follow your own policies, your own goals, as the measure of victory. If it includes liberation for Iraq’s population, measured on objective, not psychological, grounds, well and good. Remember that measuring victory by waiting for them to dance in the streets amounts, psychologically, to the humiliation of them putting on a dance for you so that you feel good about what you did. Given a choice, people prefer not to humiliate themselves, and if refusing to do so is also an exercise of power, then they will refuse and simultaneously heighten their threshold of resentment and offended sensitivity. Far better to be objective, not psychological, about the definition of victory – Saddam is gone, and how anyone feels about it is not an issue; force them, therefore, to share with us an objective definition of victory and to understand, with the same sense of relief that we feel, that in war it is good enough for all concerned, not that things did not go off perfectly, but that things did not go worse than they did. As a matter of individual or mass psychology, if you tell people that your policy is subject to their veto if they do not love you, do not like you, or resent you – subjected in effect to a veto on the basis of how they feel – rest assured that they will exercise that power by failing to love you, by not liking you, and resenting you. And they will then raise the bar for your behavior at each opportunity by making their sensitivities ever more exquisitely offendable as they exercise the (only) levers of power you have given them. Give people a button to push that consists of their own resentments, and they will push it, discovering new and ever more sensitized sources of resentment.

This is fundamental; an uncompromisable condition in legislating the war on terror. The ideological and ideal aspects of the war on terror must be conceived within the framework of legitimacy of the American people, and not by some mythical appeal to how other people in the world will see us. Forget the endless surveys from the Pew Charitable Trusts of anti-Americanism in the world, trumpeted relentlessly by the media. Trust, rather, that the general ideals of America’s liberal inheritance will sufficiently inform American policy and will work for the interests of a sufficient number of people in the world outside the United States that there is no reason to consider granting whole populations a stick with which to beat upon US policy in the form of resentment – resentment increasingly, and thanks in no small part to foolish American encouragement, not merely against the United States and its allies, but against Western liberal values as such.

None of this displaces the need for detailed policy negotiations and diplomatic arrangements that must take place at the level of states in creating coalitions against terror with our allies including, sometimes, our allies of convenience. But it does remove the misguided temptation to establish policy in the fight against transnational terror by appeal to the world as the cosmopolitan “street.”[2] That effort - psychological rather than political - will backfire politically and strategically. Legislating US policy on the basis of long term American interests and ideals is enough to satisfy the people in the world we want to satisfy, without attempting to appease those who, in the final analysis, will not be appeased anyway. It provides predictability for American behavior to the policymakers of other states, in no small part because others in the world can see that it represents not merely whim and fashion in American politics, but the comprehensible, rational expression of interest. And it removes a foolish invitation to those who sit in the middle - Muslim masses in the world, principally - to (further) radicalize and inflame their sensitivities and capacities for offense as a means of exercising power.


[1] Char was both a great French poet and a maquisard who actually fought in the Resistance and did not merely write clandestine essays. Leaves of Hypnos 63 (Feuillets d’Hypnos, Paris: Gallimard 1946).

[2] The latest expression of this administration folly – sending Karen Hughes, Soccer Mom to the world, abroad as though the world were merely the suburbs of Texas – is more than mere silliness. It is seen as insult because it is. A nation – the US - which believes that, even though powerful, it must treat seriously with the rest of the world sends representatives who are unapologetic representatives of power and do not dissemble that power is not at issue and only values – and a single “value,” “niceness,” at that – are under discussion. It sends Condoleezza Rice – the embodiment of power conjoined with values – not Karen Hughes. It does not send representatives to make nice as though “niceness” were a foreign policy even while the United States is engaged in several wars at once. It is a form of patronizing contempt, and is fully understood that way by the rest of the world – which responds with still greater resentment and heightened sensitivity to offense. The damage is considerable. This model of ressentiment and offense restates the ideology of multiculturalism, and the way in which multiculturalism has systematically deformed, overtaken, and replaced the Enlightenment ideology of liberalism. That shift – and its many pernicious consequences – is unfortunately beyond the scope of this essay.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I realize that this is only a first draft and an exerpt, but the final version of the paper would be much strengthened by concrete examples - outside the Iraqi population's view of the war, which is an example too easily turned back against you - of when "niceness" as a foreign policy objective has been disastrous.

Much of the American left views foreign affairs on the schoolyard playground model. Nice words are an end in themselves and the US is a big bully who violates the niceness code.

If your aim is to oppose the "obligatory niceness" aspect of the schoolyard view of foreign affairs, you first have to prove why the schoolyard model is incorrect. To do that effectively, you need examples. Otherwise things just come across as a statement of ideology - meanie ideology - which is then easily dismissed as morally inferior to niceness.

So you say certain nations or groups exploit our desire to be nice to them by refusing to be satisfied and simply escalating their demands. How do we know (says a left-thinking opponent) that these demands are not reasonable in the face of US depredations? You cannot win that argument without something more concrete.

Where precisely has pursuing niceness as an end proven disastrous?