In their place is bitter anger at the United States, which has once more shown that neither Lebanese democracy nor Arab civilian casualties, nor anything else in the Arab world, counts in American calculations when Israel’s perceived interests (and President Bush’s “war on terror”) are at stake.
This is also the impression left in the Arab world by the reduction of a third Arab country–Iraq, Palestine and now Lebanon–to smoldering ruins as part of what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the “birth-pangs of a new Middle East.” No one there any longer takes seriously the idea that U.S. policy has anything to do with democracy. The crushing of an elected Palestinian government (many of its leaders kidnapped by Israel) and the humiliation of an elected Lebanese government at the hands of Israel and the United States have dissolved the last illusions in the region as to this flimsy pretext for American actions. ~Rashid Khalidi, Chicago Tribune
Suppose for a moment that the administration and its supporters are in earnest (no laughing, please) about their desire to bring “freedom and democracy” to the peoples of the Near East. If it was their hope to make a success of this dubious project, can anyone think of how they could have managed foreign affairs in a more counterproductive way? For my part, in their own way I think many of the ideologues , supporters, and Mr. Bush himself are telling part of the truth when they sing the praises of democracy and claim a desire to bring its gifts to the world. As a cynical strategy for control and hegemony, active encouragement of democratisation–however superficially the administration may understand the consequences and nature of what they are doing–makes no sense and never did. Viewed cynically, it has always provided the perfect cover for any other goals–it was more difficult to accuse Mr. Bush of hegemonic designs, when it seemed clear to those who looked at Iraq’s Shi’ite population that majority rule meant pro-Iranian governments in Baghdad and the creation of a land bridge between Iran and its cat’s paw in Lebanon. This is easy to see now, but there were some folks who saw it (and many other things) coming a long way off. But if we think a little more on this we will see that the only thing that explains the unhinged, essentially irrational commitment to the policy in the region is the ideological fervour of a true believer who thinks he is bringing the political goods he claims to be bringing. The world doesn’t understand the ideologue’s methods now, but in time History will show that the ideologue knew what he was doing. That has to explain it–I am at a loss to explain it in any other terms.
It is the administration’s ideological certainty that makes me regard them as more dangerous than mere cynical political actors manipulating the aspirations of other people. If they were cynical actors working according to pure self-interest they would have liquidated the Iraq campaign long ago and changed the subject. They would be desperately trying to make us forget that it had ever happened. It is true that their policy decisions have tended to give priority to hegemonic control and the interests of Israel, but everyone must understand that from the perspective of the revolutionary ideologue there is no contradiction between the policies of the revolutionary empire and its stated goals of liberation and democratisation, especially if the ideologue takes it as axiomatic that American and Israeli power are the bases for the liberation and liberalisation of the region–it follows from the frighteningly genuine belief in what they are doing that maximising the power of the two governments in question will increase the chances of success. (That the entire policy may actually be weakening, not increasing, the power of these governments is something that the ideologues are unlikely to acknowledge or realise–it is impossible that pursuing the ideal could weaken or destroy its messengers!) For the ideologue, the advance of the empire’s power and the genuine spread of democracy go together essentially flawlessly–the empire exists only to bring freedom and the fruits of the revolution to all. (Indeed, the revolutionary imperialist will not admit that he is an imperialist, or at least not one in the conventional sense–he is a friendly hegemon who will leave once the revolution in the new land is secure from its enemies.) The means of wielding power over a region will inevitably taint the “gifts” that the hegemon offers to the nations he has “liberated,” but a supporter of the revolutionary cause of the empire simply will not see it in this way–manifest contradictions between ideal and real are simply “bumps in the road” (stuff happens, after all) to be smoothed out by more rigorous application of the ideal…and force to help smooth out the rough edges and root out the “rejectionists.”
It is really a perfect combination, because it automatically identifies those who resist your use of force in bringing liberation and political change as enemies of the political ideal itself, whether or not this is true or even relevant, which only reinforces your will to prevail for the sake of the ideal. Those who want to give up on the effort can be readily branded as lacking in loyalty to the ideals of the revolution (in this case, freedom, democracy, etc.) and more easily dismissed; critics become almost ipso facto traitors to the cause, because anyone who truly believed in the cause would know that it was going to succeed, no ifs, ands or buts. Because you, the revolutionary, have also convinced yourself, as the administration has in Iraq, that the realisation of the ideal is essential to your security, you also feel obliged to persist out of a deluded sense of self-preservation, even though you are surely increasing the danger to you and yours every day you remain.
Thinking in this way is a cruel and terrible trap to fall into, because you feel obliged to remain and make the liberation work, even if you own violence has fatally undermined any possibility of its success, and the more you try to hold onto the gains you believed you had the faster they slip through your fingers. At the same time, you cannot ever really allow yourself to yield the power you have acquired over a place, because you have convinced yourself that your power is the key to the freedom of millions, which is a very potent idea and can captivate the mind any man if he entertains these thoughts for too long.
Revolutionary ideology in this way functions like a drug, and like an addict the ideologue will perpetually make excuses and cook up implausible explanations to justify his own increasingly erratic, self-destructive and dangerous behaviour. There is also the activist, paternalist and do-gooder’s dilemma that the solution of the problem makes the do-gooder superfluous, which encourages the activist, paternalist and do-gooder to keep redefining the mission and redefining the problem or ignoring the fact that the problem has been solved in order to still have something to do. The revolutionary cannot ever really let the revolution end–new goals (and new enemies) must be found to move ever onwards, whirling-whirling towards freedom.
And because of the conviction that the fate of millions rests in your hands, you think that the country you have “liberated” will never really be stable enough, will never really be ready to run its own affairs without your help, because you are unwilling to let go of the creation and see whether it will stand or fall on its own. Besides the arrogance that must motivate such reluctance to let go, there is a terrible fear that you have been wrong all along and that the entire project–if it hasn’t already–will turn to ash in front of you. That would mean that either you or your ideal were wrong in some way. The ideal (in this case, the goodness and universality of freedom and democracy and their peace-creating properties) cannot be wrong, of course, but increasingly you come to the conclusion that insofar as you are embodying and realising the ideal in the world you, too, cannot really be wrong. Yes, you might make practical mistakes here and there, but at the core you are irrefutably right. It becomes a matter of pride that prevents you from acknowledging that, even if the ideal is sound (and let’s imagine for a moment that it is), you have failed to realise that ideal in the world.
Since you have convinced yourself that the fate of millions–indeed, the fate of the world in some sense–turns on the success of your project, you cannot accept responsibility for having failed all those people; the guilt would be crushing. So denial must follow–denial of problems, denial of failure, denial of everything that points to your massive incompetence, denial that your project has created a monster or empowered your worst enemies. In this state, you might be perfectly sincere in your way that you are bringing democracy and freedom to the entire region while signing off on the most brutal and senseless policies–and see no contradiction. If anyone raises any objections, you know that the project has always been, will always be, the right answer. Therefore, it is everyone else, the appeasers, the subversives, the dissenters, the naysayers, the unpatriotic, who have failed you and started to turn away from the holy cause. At first you don’t want to believe that your own people are effectively working with the forces of darkness, but soon it becomes unavoidable–the enemies of the Big Idea are not only over there, but have shown up inside your own country. The real danger of being a revolutionary empire, then, is that there is always the potential that the revolutionaries will turn against the people, perhaps even violently, when the latter have decided that the revolutionary mission was misguided.
Since at least the 1790s, revolutionary captains and liberals have frequently conceived of spreading the blessing of their revolution, by force when “necessary,” in ways that happen to correspond to their interests in expanding their own personal or national power. Napoleon was bringing the Revolution to all of Europe–strange how most Europeans viewed him as a butcher and barbarian. Of course, Napoleonic aggression in the name of Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite convinced generations of Europeans to reject everything associated with the Revolution because of what Napoleon had done to their countries in its name. Assuming for the moment that what Europe needed in the 19th century was more liberalism (I do not normally assume this), Napoleon’s campaigns tainted the reputation of liberalism for generations in the countries he invaded, dealing a huge setback to the liberalisation of Europe–in this sense, there was nothing worse for the indigenous rise of liberalism in many European countries than the aggressions of Napoleon. For many other Europeans, including those who had previously been sympathetic to the cause of Revolution and Bonaparte, there was the sense that he had betrayed his ideals and simply become another military despot. But it was so much worse than that.
Napoleon believed, in however self-serving a way, that he was benefiting the nations he conquered, as every person who professes such high ideals must believe when he wreaks such devastation on an entire continent. Consider this: if it is frightening to hear, “I am from the government, and I am here to help you,” it should be positively terrifying to hear, “I am from someone else’s government, and I am here to liberate you.”
German liberals in 1848 and after viewed their Ostpolitik of creating a “free trade zone” to the Black Sea (the brain-child of Heinrich von Gagern)–under German supervision, of course–in the same sort of self-justifying way that perplexes those who expect the German liberals to have no such ambitions to wield power over other nations. They’re liberals, after all! What is frequently overlooked is that a liberal or revolutionary believes that his possession of power will only work to the good of making other men free–there is a convenient intellectual support here for ever-expanding power over others for their own good. We have seen the destructive effects of this at home with social welfare schemes and again in trying to create “the Great Society on the Mekong,” but somehow seem to think that the next time will be different, will be done right. Because, obviously, nothing could be wrong with the basic assumptions–everyone knows that democracy is for everyone, and it causes freedom to flourish! If you don’t believe that, you must be some kind of reactionary (guilty as charged, Your Honour).
Not to pick on the Germans and Austrians, who have more than their share of detractors (most of whom know nothing about most of German and Austrian history, of course), but it is interesting how 19th century liberals, particularly those in German-speaking lands, inevitably became nationalists as they came to identify the success of the nation and the success of liberal politics as being one and the same. In the internecine political fights of the Habsburg Monarchy, things reached a point where being liberal and being German were almost interchangeable and the dominance of German language and German people became a symbol of the success of liberalism over and against the reactionary and pan-Slavic Czechs, Poles and Slovaks (to say nothing of conservatism of the Magyars!). This identification of German nationalism and liberalism, of course, drove most non-Germans in Austria-Hungary towards other political ideas. At the same time, the elite and urban nature of German liberalism and its economic and cultural policies in both Germany and Austria alienated the rural Catholic population and industrial workers.
In later decades the National Liberals in Germany became the most strident nationalists and boosters of Weltpolitik. Like today’s fatuous neo-imperialists and hysterical pundits who cry about WWIII (or WWIV or WWXXVII), the crazed liberal nationalist used the mad slogan, “Weltmacht oder Niedergang!” (World Power or Defeat) to describe Germany’s strategic predicament. (Sounds sort of like “war for survival” and “existential threat,” does it it not?) This sort of mentality bred a kind of paranoia about foreign threats–which were admittedly far more real and immediate for the Germans than they are for us–that encouraged the most reckless sort of confrontational policies and, well, we know how that worked out. (It is worth noting that the average American “conservative” pundit seems to think that the U.S., preeminent superpower in the world, is in the same straits as an emerging second-tier power, surrounded by powerful forces that are on the verge of annihilating it.)
After the Great War, the old Liberal voters turned to German nationalism even more strongly. Not only, as the book’s famous title has it, did they think they were free under Nazi despotism, but I expect that they, the ordinary supporters, believed the establishment of the New Order would bring freedom to many of its conquered peoples (the one word that comes up again and again in Nazi songs is Freiheit, which should give everyone who freely talks about bringing other people freedom pause). For the ideologues themselves, the destruction of national enemies and the seizure of territory for their own people would provide greater freedom for their people–modern men, especially those whose inheritance derives from the principles of 1789, will constantly convince themselves that everything they do in the political sphere is for freedom or some other fine-sounding revolutionary principle. Relatively normal people almost have to believe that their wars of aggression have some deeper or higher moral justification, or they are liable to lose confidence that their victories are worthy of respect and admiration.
Of course, I can hardly blame the average Lebanese or Iraqi who now fail to discern the high-minded, deeply moral purpose of the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” They, unlike Secretary Rice, must not be students of history. They simply don’t know about all those other times in the past when this sort of idea worked out so well.