Thursday, September 21, 2006

The "failure of execution" myth exposed

Anatol Lieven, on how liberal hawks are just more confused versions of the neocons:

Michael Signer's essay is yet another in an all-too-numerous list of recent works by center-left intellectuals arguing that America can recover from its present international difficulties by changing the style of its approach to the world without significantly changing its policies. He denounces the "vulgar exceptionalism" of the neoconservatives and the Bush Administration but does not realize that we are well past the days when a tonier, more agreeably phrased American exceptionalism could command real support from most of the rest of the world. Signer's argument reflects the fact that, in the end, by far the greater part of the Republican and Democratic establishments share the same basic myths of American nationalism concerning the righteousness of American power, the same commitment to U.S. supremacy in the world, and a common adherence to the same set of basic imperial strategies. And until progressive foreign policy thinkers confront these myths, they only will offer up alternative slogans or tactics but nothing resembling a foreign policy vision.

Take Signer's supposed alternative to the failed policies of the Bush Administration, "exemplarism." He writes, "[In today's globalized environment], it is simply impossible for any country, even one as powerful as the United States, to ignore or neglect its interconnections with other nations." At the same time, Signer is a strong believer both in America’s superpower status and in innate American virtue: What he calls "the ineluctable attractions of [America's] own unique capabilities and goodwill–by the charisma of its own great character...."

Signer does not seem to appreciate that, like any other country... America is judged by others not just on its present actions and declarations, but on its past record. If, as he himself says, the recent record of the United States has been so awful, why should other countries automatically trust America in the future? Like so much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, Signer fails in what Hans Morgenthau laid down as one of the most fundamental virtues of true statesmen: The ability to put themselves in the shoes of other countries.

Signer declares that "exemplarism would value both strength and international prestige equally, seeing them not as mutually exclusive but rather as mutually reinforcing" and that "America's economic, political, and military strength, when deployed wisely, enhances our prestige around the world." Who could possibly disagree? But, once again, what does "deploying American strength wisely" actually mean in practice? And who gets to decide what is "wise"? Is it America alone, or do American allies get a real say when it comes to designing and changing American policies? Without a real willingness to change American policies, it may be possible to bring about the kind of sullen acquiescence to the United States that one sees at present in Western Europe, for example, but it will be quite impossible to get nations outside that sphere to make real sacrifices for the sake of those policies and thereby lighten the present unsustainable burden on American resources. It is easy to talk of a need for more diplomatic approaches by the United States, and it is true that leading members of the Bush Administration have been notoriously and dangerously contemptuous of the very idea of diplomacy. But the liberal hawks who praise diplomacy in principle also appear to misunderstand its true nature. When they speak of engaging other countries diplomatically, what they usually mean is talking at them more loudly and sweetly, but with the same ends in mind. True, this has always been a key feature of diplomacy. But real diplomacy also means a recognition of other states' vital interests and a willingness to reach compromises accordingly. This, by contrast, is too often called–by Democrats as well as Republicans–"accommodation" or even "appeasement."

The weakness of Signer's approach is exemplified by his treatment of the Iraq war. As with so many of his Democratic colleagues, he wriggles out of saying whether the war itself was a good or bad thing. Instead, he suggests that if only the Bush Administration had diplomatically enlisted European help, what happened in Iraq would have been very different. This is arrant nonsense. The Europeans were never going to be able to give serious help to the United States in Iraq. They have no effective military help to give, and their readiness to make financial sacrifices was always going to be severely limited by the–entirely correct–opinion of European policymakers and electorates that the whole U.S. strategy was fundamentally misguided.

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