A critique of U.S. Cold War policy in Latin America

The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin AmericaThe Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America by Stephen G. Rabe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Pros: lots of information about the period, a lot of analysis of policymaking, made a strong argument

Cons: could have been better organized, bordered on polemical and left me wanting to read a different perspective on US Latin America during the Cold War

Overall, I learned a lot, and I will probably go back to it if I teach Latin American history again.

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Neoconservatives vs. paleoconservatives

From reading the title of this post, you may wonder if you traveled back in time to 2003, 2005, or at the latest 2008. Fair enough. But my last post reminded me of another essay by Patrick Deneen that I read recently, and I wanted to note something from it.

Deneen recently wrote a long essay about the legacy of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind after 25 years, a work that really stirred the pot in the 1980s. Check out the essay for more.

The reason that I wanted to note the essay is that it gave the best quick explanation of the underlying philosophy of neoconservatism that I’ve seen. I had heard of Leo Strauss from reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog regularly years ago but had not gotten a sense of where he fit in with intellectual history, probably because I wasn’t paying close enough attention. Anyway, I found this section near the end of Deneen’s essay helpful:

In fact, Bloom’s critique of the “multicultural” left is identical to and drawn from the critique of the “multicultural” right advanced by his teacher, Leo Strauss. In his seminal work Natural Right and History, Strauss identified Burke’s criticisms of the French Revolution as one of the lamentable responses to the “Crisis of Modern Natural Right,” a crisis that arose as a reaction against the social contractarianism of “modern natural right.” Burke’s argument against the revolutionary impulses of social contractarianism constituted a form of conservative “historicism”—that is, in Strauss’s view, the rejection of claims of natural right in favor of a preference for the vagaries of History. While today’s Straussians concentrate their criticisms largely on left historicism (i.e., progressivism), Strauss was just as willing to focus his criticisms on right historicism, that is, the traditionalism of Burke and his progeny.

Ironically, because the left in the 1980s adopted the language (if not the substance) of multiculturalism, Bloom was able to turn those Straussian critiques of Burke against those on the left—though of course they were no Burkeans, even if they used some Burkean language. For this reason, Bloom was assumed by almost everyone to be a “conservative,” a label that he not only explicitly rejected, but a worldview that he philosophically and personally abhorred.

Bloom’s argument became a major touchstone in the development of “neoconservatism,” a label that became associated with many fellow students of Strauss but which, ironically, explicitly rested on rejection of the claims of culture, tradition, and custom—the main impulses of Burkean conservatism. Bloom continuously invoked the natural-rights teachings of the Declaration and Constitution as necessary correctives to the purported dangers of left multiculturalism: rather than endorsing the supposed inheritance of various cultures, he commended the universalistic claims of liberal democracy, which ought to trump any identification with particular culture and creed. The citizen who emerged from the State of Nature, shorn of any specific cultural, religious, or ancestral limitation, was the political analogue for the philosopher who emerged from the Cave. Not everyone could become a philosopher, Bloom insisted, but everyone could be a liberal citizen, and ought rightly to be liberated from the limitations of place and culture—if for no other reason, to make them more tolerant of the radical philosophers in their midst.

Bloom’s was thus not only an early salvo in the culture wars, but an incipient articulation of the neoconservative impulse toward universalistic expansion. Burke’s willingness to acknowledge the basic legitimacy of most cultures—his “multiculturalism”—led him, in the main, to oppose most forms of imperialism. The rejection of multiculturalism, and the valorization of a monolithic liberal project, has inclined historically to a tendency toward expansionism and even imperialism, and neoconservatism is only the latest iteration of this tendency. While many of the claims about Strauss’s influence on the Iraq invasion and the neoconservative insistence upon spreading democracy throughout the world were confused, there was in fact a direct lineage from Bloom’s arguments against the multicultural left and rise of the neo-liberal or neoconservative imperialistic impulse. Bloom explicitly rejected the cautiousness and prudence endorsed by conservatism as a hindrance to philosophy, and thus rejected it as a political matter as a hindrance to the possibility of perfectibility:

Conservatives want young people to know that this tawdry old world cannot respond to their demands for perfection. … But … man is a being who must take his orientation by his possible perfection. …. Utopianism is, as Plato taught us at the outset, the fire with which we must play because it is the only way we can find out what we are.

An intellectual history of George W. Bush

A while back, James K.A. Smith linked to this portrait of George W. Bush’s thought that grew out of journalism professor Walt Harrington’s 25-year acquaintance (which grew into friendship) with him. It’s a warm and friendly portrait without being a hagiographic justification of his policies (or, on the other hand, a screed against those same policies). It’s long but good.

What Saddam thought

At Musings on Iraq, Joel Wing writes that Saddam did not plan the post-invasion insurgency, as some thought at the time, because he didn’t think that his government was going to fall. It’s strange that despite the talk of “regime change” here, he completely discounted the possibility:

The project found that Saddam and his top officials’ worldview was shaped by Iraqi history, and was quite different from what Americans were thinking. First, Saddam did not believe that the United States had the will to invade Iraq. He looked at Vietnam, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and even the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and interpreted them all as examples that the Americans could not take casualties, and preferred to use air rather than ground power. Saddam also looked at Iraq’s past intransigence with the United Nations weapons inspectors and its 1993 attempt on former President Bush’s life in Kuwait where the U.S. just launched air and missile strikes as other examples to bolster his opinion. A few senior military officials believed that the Americans would actually invade, but they thought it would be like the 1991 Gulf War where the U.S. would carry out a massive air campaign, and then invade the south, but never head towards Baghdad. For example, the former commander of the Iraqi Air Force and Air Defense told interrogators after the war that, “We thought that the war would be like the last one in 1991. We figured that the United States would conduct some operations in the south and then go home.” The Director General of the Republican Guard’s General Staff told his captors, “We thought the Coalition would go to Basra, may be to Amarah, and then the war would end.” In 2002, when Washington and London were stepping up international pressure upon Baghdad, Saddam thought that France and Russia would stop any United Nations’ resolutions that authorized the use of force. That was because Iraq had created strong economic ties with both since the 1990s in an attempt to undermine U.N. sanctions imposed after the Gulf War. Even if the U.S. were to invade, Saddam thought that Iraqi troops were better fighters, and would cause such heavy casualties, that President Bush would stop. As Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said, Saddam “Thought that this war would not lead to his ending.”

When the invasion came in March 2003, Saddam was obsessed with the military details and giving orders, but because his staff had been conditioned to hide bad news from him out of fear that he would have them killed, he never knew how serious the threat was, and how fast the American troops were moving towards Baghdad. Instead he thought the Iraqi forces were actually winning. General Abed Hamid Mahmoud, Saddam’s secretary for example, later told the U.S. that Saddam ordered the Foreign Ministry on March 30 to tell the French and Germans that Iraq wanted an unconditional surrender from the U.S. Even in the last days of his regime in April, Saddam was still coming up with plans on how to defend the capital, and ordering units that had been destroyed into new positions. To the very end, Saddam was focused upon the invasion, and not what would happen afterward. That’s why no documents or official was found that said that he ever thought about forming an insurgency. Before the war, he thought it wouldn’t happen, and then when it did, he believed the U.S. would never head towards Baghdad, and that his army could stop the Americans in their tracks. The idea that he might be deposed, never seemed to enter his mind until the night he fled, and his regime collapsed.

U.S. policy in the “Arab Spring”

Jeff Goldberg’s new article in The Atlantic Monthly reports on the emerging Middle East policy of the Obama administration. He writes, and recommends, that this policy is based on a balance of the promotion of democracy and U.S. interests in containing Iran and preserving access to oil (a similar “values and interests” formula that Hussein Ibish has described and commended):

In these early days of the Arab revolt, President Obama and his administration, already busy with other wars, are struggling for clarity. At a time when policy makers are wrestling with what might be called, in a nod to the president, the fierce incoherence of now, the administration has to bring about the marginalization of anti-modern, anti-Western, Islamist-oriented political parties, while not seeming to be working toward that goal. It has to continually decide which governments of the Middle East deserve the support of the United States and which deserve abandonment. This question points up a core contradiction of the moment: at the same time America is working for permanent and dramatic democratic change in certain republics of the Middle East, it has, 235 years after freeing itself from the rule of a despotic king, gone into the monarchy-maintenance business, propping up kings, emirs, and sheikhs who, though they may be as venal as Ben Ali, Qaddafi, and Mubarak, have oil the West needs, and who serve as a counterbalance to the greatest threat facing the U.S. in the Middle East, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Goldberg’s recommended approach shows his assumption that we must continue to have a strong presence in the Middle East as well as the challenges posed by when we try to maintain the Pax Americana:

Creating an overarching doctrine suitable for the moment is an almost impossible task, particularly during a crisis that demands from American policy makers analytical humility, doctrinal plasticity, and a tolerance for contradiction. Analytical humility is called for because the trajectories of the Middle East’s revolutions are still difficult to discern, and because it is not yet clear that tyranny is, in fact, in permanent eclipse. Doctrinal plasticity, which in a less value-neutral way could be called hypocrisy, is a necessity because, while it is true that President Obama, to the surprise of many, has shown himself to be more of a liberal interventionist than a cold-eyed realist, it is also true that America retains fixed, and vital, interests across the Middle East, interests that have already forced America to side with monarchs over the masses they rule. And a tolerance for contradiction is vital not only because America’s democratically elected government is scrambling to keep monarchs on their thrones, but because people across the Middle East are embracing American ideals—freedom of speech, financial transparency, leaders who are chosen by the people and are accountable to them—while at the same time distancing themselves from America itself, and rejecting American assumptions about what freedom is meant to look like.