DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

War in the 21st Century: Maturity vs. Neocon Panic and the True Role of Pax Americana

By David Brin, Ph.D.

Neoconservatives Veer... Not "Right" but Weird

My kind of passionate centrism is devoutly loyal to the Enlightenment and -- yes -- patriotic toward a version of Pax Americana representing our best and smartest virtues. Passionate centrism can be roused by events to express vigorous partisanship in a particular election. Not because I prefer simpleminded "left" or "right" solutions, but because overwhelming evidence leads me to conclude that civilization is in danger from a particular gang of manipulative rascals.

This is a weird new brand of "neoconservatism." Elsewhere, I try to look beyond this election, shedding light on the strange alliance of three strong-willed (some would say fanatical) groups that make up the Neoconservative movement that has (for now) taken over all three branches of the U.S. government. Purely as intellectual history, the roots of this alliance are fascinating. It lumps together the last great forces who oppose the Enlightenment.

Yes, that puts it strongly! Yet, I cannot overstate the extent to which the present U.S. Administration has discarded reason, abandoning conservative traditions, enlightenment values and the public interest in favor of ideological fanaticism and short term profit for a narrow elite. The evidence is so overwhelming, even dedicated pundits of the "extreme right" have taken note, as in the following:

"We invaded a country that did not threaten us, did not attack us, and did not want war with us, to disarm it of weapons we have since discovered it did not have. We may have ignited a war of civilizations it was in our vital interest to avoid. Never has America been more resented and reviled in an Islamic world of a billion people. As custodian of the national economy and decisive actor in the management of the Budget of the United States, George W. Bush has compiled a fiscal record of startling recklessness." -- conservative pundit Pat Buchanan, in Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency

Now, of course, it's ironic for me to feature a quotation from a politician I generally oppose. Just as Richard Nixon sent Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt spinning in their graves... and Gingrich-Buchanan had poor Barry Goldwater whirring in his... the latest band of ideologues has spun-up guys like Buchanan even while alive.

Indeed, for all their faults, at least Nixon was a pragmatist (the China Gambit), while Goldwater was smart and honest. Bob Dole was brave and funny. And Ronald Reagan opposed a genuinely evil empire while speaking in clear English sentences.

None of these compensating or saving graces can be found in the present administration... although one quality -- unswerving loyalty to the Saudi Royal House -- does resemble a virtue that we find endearing in hounds.

[image from Huffington Post]

The Case for a Smart, Agile and Decent Pax Americana

Let me make clear that my scorn for this gang is only glancingly related to that expressed by self-described leftists. Indeed, I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with many of the surface rationalizations expressed by administration dogmatist Paul Wolfowitz -- while despising the destructive way they are implemented in real life.

For example, I believe: (See the expanded version)

  • America has -- despite many awful mistakes -- been overall a mighty force for good.

  • Our laudable goal of improving and saving the world should not blind us to past progress, much of it promoted by American leadership.

  • No major nation can claim that it resisted the temptations of power better than the U.S. has, while spurning many traditional trappings of empire. We start with reserves of international good will that can be wasted only if we're stupid.

  • "Spreading democracy" and toppling dictators can be legitimate goals, if pursued with prudence and mature care (see "panic vs. maturity," below).

PANIC VS. MATURITY: Several times in this article I will use the metaphor of emergency vs. elective surgery. For example, our rapid intervention in Afghanistan was a clear case when urgent action had to be taken, with little time allowed for careful planning or weighing of alternatives. (Fortunately, that had been done already under Clinton.) Certainly justification for crying "emergency" was evident. No lies were needed, so Pres. Bush offered few.

But "emergency" is a word foolish leaders all too readily overuse, to quell discussion and hurry rash actions. A wise person knows frequent or ongoing emergencies are evidence of failure (see "plummeting readiness levels"). If we hope to successfully cross the mine-fields of the 21st Century, shouldn't most problems be handled with care, calm, consensus and foresight, minimizing costs, divisiveness and damage to society?

The metaphor that contrasts to an emergency room is ELECTIVE SURGERY. Undertaken with care and planning, elective procedures can often get the same job done more safely and simply, without panic.

I plan to show that the problem of Saddam Hussein -- which was largely created by members of this administration over the course of decades -- did indeed need to be solved. But the Administration had its own reasons for stoking "emergency" passions rather than calmly pursuing planned consensus toward elective surgery under circumstance of our convenience. They did this with lies, deliberately stoked panic, divisiveness, immaturity and utter devotion to their own benefit.

There are examples of calm elective intervention that point to how Pax Americana can be a force for both good and its own pragmatic self-interest during the 21st Century. (See below the devastating line-by-line comparison of Iraq with the Balkans intervention.)

For both pragmatic and moral reasons, we should re-evaluate whether we want men who are dishonest and incompetent panic-mongers in charge of our nation's affairs.

Do these statements make me sound like a neoconservative pal of Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Kenneth Adelman, Richard Pipes, and Paul Nitze? Then also consider this: Jingoist triumphalism is not patriotism.

Maniacal flag-waving is a well-known symptom of decline in great nations, from Rome in 400 AD to Britain in 1910. Our history shows that best results are achieved by a mixture of idealism, accountability, pragmatism, and adherence to truth telling. Fealty to these deeply-American (essentially Enlightenment) values will nearly always wind up serving the interests of the country, as well as our honor.

Idealism, accountability (see "idealism and accountability," below), pragmatism and credibility. These key elements of both honor and success have been abandoned by the group now controlling all three branches of government in the United States of America.

IDEALISM AND ACCOUNTABILITY: Well, you can argue that ideologues like Wolfowitz are idealists -- after a fashion, though it grates to hear them prate crayola versions of things that I believe. These fellows base their dogmas on an emigré philosopher named Leo Strauss, sharing core values with Plato, Hegel, Marx, Goebbels and -- ultimately -- Muslim fundamentalists. See my article on neocons & Islam. For more on the crucial importance of accountability in maintaining the Enlightenment and western civilization, see "Disputation Arenas."

Can I back up that strong statement? In limited space, I must pick and choose from a wealth of evidence, strewn across a dozen years of neocon fanaticism and thievery, especially the last four, in which a tragic flameout-spiral of the conservative movement has hit what we can only hope and pray will be its nadir, before climbing back (see "climbing back," below) someday to the levels of honesty and intellectual integrity shown by Barry Goldwater.

CLIMBING BACK: If you feel nostalgia for a conservatism that was about "limiting big government" by keeping it out of bedrooms, libraries and private lives, encouraging accountability, fiscal responsibility and restraint in foreign affairs, while empowering creative and competitive small business, not welfare for corporate CEOs and aristocrats, then try checking out the Libertarian Party. Today's GOP represents none of these values.

[image from Activist Post]

The Trend Back Toward a Multi-Polar World

Here and now, I'll focus on really dangerous stuff. Like an almost-Manchurian-Candidate-level demolition of American diplomatic, political and military influence in a dangerous world.

Five years ago, the USA was inarguably leader of this planet. And while some foreign politicians grumbled about "unipolarity," nobody was doing much about it. A few hand-wringing articles suggested China might get uppity by the 2020s. Big deal. Like the economy, we never had it so good.

Today there are meetings and discussions (see below) being held, almost year-round, in Beijing, Moscow, Paris, Berlin, Delhi and a dozen other locales, all with the same over-arching theme: What shall we do about America? And this leaves entirely aside the fever pitch of resentment in the Islamic world, that Pat Buchanan referred to above.

MEETINGS AND DISCUSSIONS: Emmanuel Todd's After the Empire exemplifies how seriously this is taken among leaders overseas. "Todd has a formula by which, through an analysis of demographic and economic factors, he accurately predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union in his first book, LaChute Final. This was in 1976 when the neocons' Committee on the Present Danger and the CIA's Team were predicting that the Soviet Union would very likely win the arms race. Now Todd applies a similar formula to the United States. He may underrate the resilience of the American economy, but in a not unsympathetic way he raises intelligent and disturbing questions about the American future." Excerpt from "The Making of a Mess" by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

The neoconservative movement knows this. What has been their reaction to these meetings and discussions? Essentially it is "Let 'em grumble!" or a triumphalist "We're on top; what can they do about it?"

Contempt for the impotence of protesting foreigners may be viscerally satisfying to jingoist fools. But is it practical, at any level, to express contempt as openly as so many right-wingers have? Each time they open their mouths, attendance at those meetings increases. Bright, influential and determined people in many lands have made it their priority to re-establish a multi-polar world, by hook or by crook, as soon as possible.

This it was not true during the previous administration. Moreover, it is not in our interest (see below). Even if you generally approve of Pax Americana -- especially if you do -- this kind of behavior (goading foreigners for their impotence) should seem immature at best. At worst positively moronic.

NOT IN OUR INTEREST: One more reason why the US Intelligence Community is -- according to all reports and numerous leaks -- livid at the Bush Administration. James Bamford, in A Pretext for War, describes pressures brought by the war party in Washington on CIA analysts -- e.g., meddling at a CIA staff meeting: "If Bush wants to go to war, it's your job to give him a reason to do so." Then, having done as bidden, the CIA got blamed for the nonexistence of predicted Iraqi WMD.

But above all, it is for patriotic reasons -- seeing America's reputation in the world collapse -- that the intelligence community seethes. An emphasis on "emergency room" panic -- justifed by lying to the public -- is simply not as much in the long term public interest as careful use of intelligence resources in the pursuit of "elective" interventions that take place under conditions of our own careful choosing.

Margaret Tutwiler, a veteran Republican who was in charge of public diplomacy at the State Department, testified before a House appropriations subcommittee in February 2004, declaring that America's standing abroad had deteriorated to such a degree that "it will take years of hard, focused work" to repair it.

[image from Snippets and Slappits]
War and Intervention in the 21st Century

I promised that this essay would be interesting not only to liberal detractors of the administration, but also to moderates, conservatives, even those who believe in an activist foreign policy. So let's get specific, focusing on the pragmatic exercise of Pax Americana power, comparing three recent cases of U.S. military intervention.

First off, it is simply staggering what challenges we've recently tried to take on. If you had to name three places in the world where any historian would warn a great nation not to intervene, it's Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Balkans. Only America could have even tried. Let's see how we did.

[image from Crooks and Liars]
Afghanistan: A Genuine Emergency

In the immediate aftermath of the tragic and dastardly attacks of September 11, 2001, Western Civilization had to respond decisively. While we can fret over the unsatisfying aftermath of warlords, opium and doubts, there can be no question that the initial Afghanistan Campaign was resoundingly successful -- more so than any other foreign involvement there since Alexander the Great. Even foreign powers that opposed the intervention were impressed. Knowing how difficult and obdurate the place can be, even small achievements in nation building are noteworthy, though still tentative.

(Those who reflexively oppose "Pax Americana" should ask -- where else might the women of Afghanistan ever have been able to turn?)

Credit should be apportioned equally between the President who said "go-get-em-boys" (without meddling) and the previous administration, which did the hard work of preparation.

Find that hard to swallow? Click here for an expanded discussion.

Afghanistan scores even. The Clinton Administration indisputably made preparations, created the teams, forged alliances, crafted the plan. Bush backers are welcome to crow that their guy said "go-get em", while claiming (without a scintilla of evidence) that Al Gore (who helped with the planning) would not have. What-ifs are a matter of opinion.

[image from AMEU.org]

The Balkans: Urgent but Elective Surgery

One thing the Bush Administration wants to avoid, at all costs, is any comparison between the quagmire in Iraq and the stunningly successful Clinton Administration effort to straighten out the tangled mess of the Balkans.

Click here for an expanded discussion of one of the great successes in the history of American foreign policy. An archetype for how mature, patient, forceful, and ultimately successful Pax Americana intervention should be handled during a nervous 21st Century, for both our vital interests and the betterment of all humankind.

See below for a point-by-point comparison between the Balkans and the quagmire-catastrophe that our present leadership has sent us charging into, namely....

[image from Crooks & Liars]

Iraq: Elective Surgery in a Messy Emergency Room

The American people are conflicted. They are right to feel, instinctively, that Pax Americana can be -- as Abraham Lincoln said -- "the last, best hope of humankind." At least until a day comes when force is finally replaced in world affairs by accountability and law.

Above all, the American people feel no shame over toppling Saddam Hussein. Nor should they. Indeed, I will surprise some by saying that we do not always need UN approval before acting against monsters. The UN is nothing like a sovereign and responsible Confederation of Earth.

No. Until some kind of trustworthy confederated era arrives, there are still worthy jobs for the Last Empire. But those tasks still need ratification. Experience shows that one and only one thing truly ratifies a U.S. intervention: Images of grateful populations welcoming and kissing our troops. It was the ultimate validation when we liberated captive lands in World War II and its absence proved the stupidity of entering Vietnam. That kind of scene authorized -- post facto -- Ronald Reagan's miniputsches in Grenada and Panama and their absence drove Bill Clinton out of Somalia. (I told you, I'm balanced.)

During a crucial test of American will and skill, the openly-expressed gratitude of the people of the Balkans -- especially deliriously happy Kosovars and Bosnians, but also many delighted Croats and Serbs palpably proved that we did the right thing there. Not only moral, but pragmatic, as well. (It's amazing how often these are the same.)

In 2003, while preparing to invade Iraq on the pretext of imminent, mortal danger to the American people from Weapons of Mass destruction, the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, confidently predicted that our intervention would receive similar ratification in the form of "flowers and kisses in the streets." Had this been true across the length and breadth of Iraq, all critics would be silenced, our moral authority would have risen, more allies would have stepped forward to assume duties, and our key military assets could have quickly returned to their essential task -- upgrading readiness for further challenges. Moreover, rebuilding Iraq would have proceeded at a rapid clip, propelled by good planning, an eager population, re-established infrastructure and revenues from vast reserves of oil.

Such scenes would even have pushed aside the concerns of people like me, who saw "elective surgery" blown out of all proportions by a cynically contrived and politically motivated "emergency."

But such scenes are rare as hen's teeth. Instead, here is a list of outcomes from our adventure in Iraq:

  • One brutal dictator toppled.
  • Over a thousand Americans lost, with more dying almost daily and no end in sight.
  • Uncounted (and secret) numbers of Iraqi civilian deaths.
  • Scandals; poorly supervised thugs ruining our reputation for decent behavior.
  • A Western Alliance in shambles.
  • Relentless lies; intervention justified by fabricated evidence reminiscent of Tonkin Gulf.
  • Plummeting readiness levels -- our military is being used-up.
  • Utterly divisive of American public, repeating the social effects of Vietnam.
  • Clever incarceration tricks overused as bludgeons, wrecking credibility and undermining due process.
  • Incompetent preparation and handling of the aftermath, featuring rapid deterioration of political, economic and social life in Iraq (see "Maps, Anyone?," below).
  • Worldwide acceptance of US moral leadership plummeting.

And the fundamental strategic outcome? Provoking a radicalized Islam, further stirred by Saudi-funded Al Jazeera Network and Saudi-funded religious schools, from Morocco to Mindanao, threatening a pan-Islamic coalescence into Jihad mentality for the first time in a thousand years.

MAPS, ANYONE?: Can anyone tell me why the news media won't provide us with maps that show zones of control in Iraq? In other wars, the people back home could follow progress by seeing what fraction of the territory in question was "pacified" and how much was "hostile." Even amid the rampant lying of Vietnam, such maps helped us sketch informed opinions about the war's progress and winnability.

But maps are largely missing this time. Because (I hear from reliable sources) the actual territory pacified and safe for US forces has declined steadily since President Bush declared "triumph" under a banner that blared "Mission Accomplished." (Certainly casualty rates have gone up during each of the last six months, something that even a cooperative news media cannot hide.)

Again, you cannot argue with results.

[image from griid.org]

A Line-by-Line Comparison

But by any real measure, the Balkans intervention was a near perfect archetype of how 21st Century interventions by Pax Americana should be done. Shall we stack the Balkans beside Iraq, for a point by point contrast?

  • A brutal dictator toppled.
  • A brutal dictator toppled.
  • No American lives lost.
  • 1000+ American lives lost, and more to come.
  • Competent aftermath; rapid economic & social recoveries.
  • Incompetent aftermath; Iraq falls to resentful ruin.
  • A Western Alliance strengthened.
  • A Western Alliance in shambles.
  • Intervention justified on its merits.
  • Lies, damned lies and Tonkin Gulf-level lies.
  • Readiness levels preserved.
  • Plummeting readiness: a military used-up.
  • American consensus preserved.
  • America bitterly divided & weakened.
  • World acceptance of US moral leadership increased.
  • World acceptance of US moral leadership nosedives.
  • Credibility & friendships in the Muslim world increased.
  • Saudi-financed pan-Islamic coalescence into Jihad.
  • Success; Europe at peace after 4,000 years.
  • Failure; we repeat every insanity of Vietnam.
  • The only trait that the current Iraq intervention has in common with the Balkans is a toppled tyrant. At every other level, it could not have been worse had it been (mis)managed by the Three Stooges.

    Oh, and did I mention no American servicemen or women died from hostile action in the Balkans? Alliances strengthened. Trust in our leadership increased.

    Until a day comes that we can shrug off our duty as the world's "last empire," we are still needed. And the world will accept our leadership, if we act like grownups. (That includes exercising patient diplomacy and telling the truth.)

    But the world will only put up with cowboy stuff for so long.

    Remember Vietnam, when brilliant but testosterone-poisoned JFK went macho on us, plunging America into an ill-conceived land war in Asia? When fabricated pretexts like the Tonkin Gulf Incident combined with "domino theories" to justify carte blanche spending of precious American treasure and lives in a brutal struggle without clear goals, justification or exit strategy, dividing and almost tearing our society apart? When gung-ho elements (the same ones as today) chanted "kill em all!" as an intelligent response to subtle and complex problems?

    When defeating the enemy called for judo... cautious appraisal, then surgically precise tactics... but instead we charged in like sumo wrestlers?

    There were dozens of ways we could have eliminated Saddam other than calling an emergency, using-up men, tools and credibility that we may need later, and creating another divisive, lie-soaked quagmire (see "Redux," below).

    REDUX ON EMERGENCY VS. ELECTIVE SURGERY: At risk of belaboring the metaphor (some of you may prefer the contrast between Judo and Sumo), going after the Taliban had bona fide "emergency room" urgency.

    Toppling Saddam in 2003 could be likened to highly desirable procedure that could be done outside the unpredictable and festering helter skelter of the E Room, aimed at maximum benefit with minimized disruption, leaving the rest of their lives and capabilities unaffected. In other words, letting us argue normal politics about economy, debts etc, without giving the terrorists control over our national agenda as a reward for their evil deeds. But by stoking emergency passions, Bush has spent every reserve we may need any day in a real emergency. He has also robbed that word of its vital meaning.

    For instance, in late September 2004, Julie Collins, a spokeswoman for the Army Human Resources Command, told Reuters that among those who have been called to active duty from the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) under "national emergency" mobilization, almost a third have either refused or failed to report on time.

    Again, we could have had the one part of all this that the American people like -- and the world approves -- getting rid of Saddam, by calmly preparing a method of least force, least expense, planning for the aftermath and not demolishing our readiness for new emergencies. But that would not guarantee a wartime pitch of patriotic fervor during an election.

    (These guys can learn lessons. Bosnia was too calm to benefit Gore and Desert Storm ended too soon to benefit Bush Sr. at the polls.)

    Emergencies and wars are election-winners. They make a leader look strong, whatever his true character may be.

    [image from Riverboat King]

    How Dare They Bring Up "Character"!

    Alas, character is where the very worst accusation must be made.

    For let's remember that we were led into this quagmire by same team, THE VERY SAME LIST OF NAMES, who had Saddam in their hands, in 1991 and let him go.

    They treat Desert Storm like it's ancient history. Apologists shrug off that egregious blunder. But history is important. (See more about this shame.) It reflects on the judgement of men who are now asking for our trust -- and our sons and daughters -- yet again.

    No. They had Saddam in their hands, then consigned the people of Iraq to twelve more years of hell. And Rummy had the gall to expect kisses and flowers, this time around?

    How would you feel, if you were finally rescued by a snobbish clique that betrayed you horribly, a decade earlier? At best you'd say -- "thanks for finally toppling our monster like you promised you'd do when I was young... now get the hell out!"

    Which is what many people of Iraq are saying to us right now.

    Oh,there are many issues. Many signs that these insufferably smug neocons are in no position to raise the "character" issue. But this one - the stain on our nation's honor -- is relevant. They did this in the ultimate test of character. They did it and their rationalized excuses only dishonor us more. The exact same list of names.

    [image from Comedy Central]

    CONCLUSION: An Appeal to Moderates... and Especially Genuine Conservatives

    Enough. This is but a small fraction of the stuff that never went into Fahrenheit 911. Nor should it have. That was a irate polemic of the left.

    This is an irate polemic of the center.

    Which is why I am appealing to moderates like me... and even true conservatives from the libertarian and Barry Goldwater traditions.

    Please, this is too important. Don't leave the vital and patriotic task of opposing these cretins solely to liberals. If the American people do wake up and eject these monstrous shills for a hostile foreign power, should liberals get all the credit? And if the monsters win, continuing down these paths to ruin, do you really want to share the blame?

    Moderates and true conservatives, remember that every movement has its day in the sun... and every movement spends time hijacked by jerks. Right now, the most patriotic and politically savvy thing that you can do is help clean house on the right. Then nurture and send us honest American conservatives who will talk to their neighbors and treat them as fellow citizens, not enemies in a "cultural war." Decent conservative men and women who prefer "right-handed solutions" but are willing to argue fairly and negotiate openly, helping us all come up with agile ways and means to make a better world.

    Moderates, conservatives, consider demanding some concessions from the Kerry team, in exchange for your grudging, short-term support. I pose one possible concession in an earlier political essay, "Honoring the Losing Majority" (see "works cited," below)... one that could set a precedent, helping us all turn away from the politics of isolated demagoguery toward an era of listening to each other again. An era of pragmatic consensus in dangerous times.

    I appeal to you. If Clinton and the DLC could snatch influence away from the super-liberals and fanatics who once hijacked the left, can't you start a revolution to reclaim the soul of conservatism?