My thanks to Scene colleague Matt Frost for his post on Kateb, Wilkinson and patriotism.  I generally agree with his remarks, and I should have more to say about it in coming days.  Let me note that I agree with something Wilkinson said in the comments to Matt’s post:

But please don’t forget the role of the “national greatness” folks. And please recall how mightily the administration worked, successfully, to attach the war to the popular surge of intense post-9/11 patriotism.

Indeed, I am not likely to forget any of this, but to then blame the outcome on patriotism is rather like blaming oxygen for an arsonist’s crimes.  It is true, but irrelevant, that an arsonist would be unable to commit his crimes without oxygen; it does not therefore follow that oxygen is undesirable or that we would be better off without it.  Patriotism is not ”fire,” but it is potentially explosive because it is a strong attachment and one charged with emotional power.  Surely there is some middle ground between arson and explosions on the one hand and suffocation on the other.   

It does not therefore follow that “Without that [patriotism], it [the Iraq war] would not have had political legs.”  Initial opposition to any military missions overseas, almost no matter the reason given for them, is consistently in the minority in America.  One of the reasons for this is the ability of the administration in power to manipulate both patriotism and liberal universalist principles and, when the propagandists are really working overtime, to fuse the two together to make the argument that ours is an “ideological nation” (I. Kristol) that will have to engage in conflicts for the sake of liberal democracy and universalism.  For the Jacksonians who are worried that we are engaged in a lot of touchy-feely internationalism, there are the nationalist manipulations of patriotism and the nationalist zeal for power to get them on board; for the “centrists” and liberal hawks there are invocations of America’s “responsibility” to the world and the importance of defending our “values.”  Liberal hawks who fell for this and have since recanted would now like to pretend that the second part of the message was completely empty and insincere, but the reason why the nationalist argument is so powerful–and consequently so dangerous–is that it can deploy an argument for the crude use of hard power and wrap it in decorative packaging of allegedly high-minded liberal principles. 

To the extent that American nationalism is rooted in an exceptionalism derived from political propositions and is not, as we are reminded so often, a nationalism of a particular ethnicity, nationalism and liberal universalism are inextricably bound up together.  To say that the Iraq war was universalist, rather than nationalist, or nationalist rather than universalist is to fall into a pointless, dead-end argument every bit as futile as the dispute over whether this war of aggression should have been ”unilateral” or “multilateral.”  It was both nationalist and universalist (and incidentally it was both unilateral and multilateral at times), because the people who clearly are American nationalists are also some of the loudest proponents of projecting power for the sake of what they believe to be universal values.  Usually at this point someone will say, “Aha!  They are universalists, so they can’t be nationalists!”  But this is mistaken. 

How are they nationalists?  They glorify the progressive narrative of national unification and consolidation; they champion the centralisers and expansionists in American history; they identify the country with the state and see the state as the embodiment of the nation, which makes them react against criticisms of the state with accusations of betrayal; they are usually supportive of national wars because they see them as agents for creating national unity out of disparate elements.  Neoconservatives are among these nationalists.  This may seem controversial or strange to those who are accustomed to thinking of neoconservatives simply as universalists or globalists, but thanks to their definition of the nation–an abstraction defined by its regime and political values–they can be the kind of nationalist who quite seriously identifies the power of his nation-state with what he will inevitably frame as the highest aspirations of mankind.  This is nothing new: liberal nationalists all across Europe and the Americas conceived of their struggles for national liberation and liberalism to be one and the same, and often proclaimed future era of national greatness as a means of spreading liberal revolutionary principles to other parts of the world.  French, British and German liberals have all had more than their share of “national greatness” and mission civilisatrice moments, and they are hardly alone.  The aggressive impulses of nationalism are, of course, dangerous enough on their own, but they are made even more dangerous by the respectability that the fusion with liberal principles seems to lend nationalist causes.     

That is what I find so strange about my WWWTW colleague Steve Burton’s comment in which he said:

A frankly nationalist crusade would not have failed anywhere near so badly.

I’m not sure what the argument behind this is, unless it is that a war fought purely to project American power in the Near East and framed simply in terms of our government smashing another state because it could would have generated less Iraqi resistance or would have won greater international support.  The more relevant question might be: failed to do what?  How would the objectives of a “frankly nationalist crusade” have differed substantially from the war as it was actually fought?  Indeed, without the promise that the war would improve the lot of Iraqis and could be classed, however incredibly, as a liberation there would have been less domestic support and even less foreign support.