Most of all, though, I’m agitated by what I think is a dishonest use of language — the idea that patriotism can never be in error and that nationalism must always be a great evil. It seems to me that some truly nice, patriotic people can be driven by their patriotism to support folly. The Iraq War was not made possible just by the deceits of a handful of neocons. It was made possible because ordinary Americans thought that America could do no wrong from noble motives.
I don’t know that I have been claiming that patriotism can never be in error. It seems to me that a patriot can try to do his duty to his country, but then find himself serving a despicable regime and end up contributing, however indirectly, to the injustices of that regime. That doesn’t tar his patriotism, but rather seems to point to insufficient patriotism, since there are occasions that might require turning against the regime to fulfill one’s duty to country. Nationalism doesn’t always have to be a great evil, but on the whole it actually has a rather poor record of advancing the welfare of the nation whose interests it is supposed to serve, to say nothing of the potential for harm to other nations. Certainly, I think patriots can be in error, since they are not infallible by virtue of their patriotism, and nationalists can do the right thing, but it seems important to distinguish between erring because of an idea and erring in spite of it.
In fact, Dan and I are probably more in agreement here than our respective arguments to date would suggest. While I don’t think that there’s anything actually patriotic about believing that “America could do no wrong from noble motives,” since it is the distinguishing feature of patriotism to love one’s country despite recognising its flaws, I would agree that American citizens who have strong patriotic sentiments were attracted to the pro-war argument because the architects and propagandists for the war pushed all the right buttons and portrayed the invasion of Iraq as pre-emptive self-defense. As I see it, there is nothing inconsistent in saying that patriotism is fundamentally defensive and also saying that those agitating for war manipulated patriotic sentiments by casting a war of aggression as one of self-defense. It would hardly be the first time in our history that this has happened. The most culpable parties in such a case are those who deceived the public and promoted the war policy. That doesn’t excuse all the people who supported the war, even if they did so under false pretenses or on account of misunderstanding, but it significantly qualifies the idea, advanced by some libertarian critics from that Cato debate who want to tar patriotism with all the errors of nationalism and imperialism, that patriotism is to blame for the Iraq war.
Moreover, the ready conflation that most Americans make between the government and America, and their confusion about the proper object of patriotic devotion, is a product of American nationalist ideas. If many supporters of the war have held that America could do no wrong, they are already making a nationalist error of thinking that America is that closely identified with the government that rules over it. I’m sure Dan agrees that regimes and countries are very different things, and that it is a mistake to confuse them. As I read Dan’s statement quoted above, he is saying that “ordinary Americans” made this mistake, which is not a mistake that can really be laid at the door of patriotism.
In the end, we are on the same page on securing the borders, protecting national sovereignty and defending the national interest. We both want to be as precise as possible in language, which is especially important here, but it is also important that our terminology is clear. I think we’re getting closer to that clarity.