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Extreme Makeover

For more than two centuries, nationalism in all its various forms—from the high-minded chauvinism of the British Empire to the virulent poison of Nazism—has been a familiar, and often negative, phenomenon. Emerging first in Europe, which it nearly destroyed and which has now apparently learned to control it, extreme nationalism still erupts from time to time in other parts of the world.

The word “nationalism” never quite seemed to fit the United States, where continental vastness and enormous power have hitherto been tempered by an often-expressed distaste for empire and by the notion of world leadership by example. Two American presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, both sponsored world organizations whose primary objective was to contain and disperse the aggressive force of nationalism.

In the first years of the twenty-first century, however, in a dramatic departure from traditional policy, the spirit of unilateralism and militant nationalism began to dominate Washington’s policies and attitudes toward the outside world. Reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001, gave new force and a new direction to this change. Anatol Lieven’s America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism examines the roots of longstanding American nationalistic tendencies that have given public support to this fundamental change in United States policy. As is already clear from some reactions to his book, for a foreigner (a Washington-based British journalist), and a European intellectual at that, this is a courageous, even foolhardy, undertaking, but it may well be that an outside observer can best approach such a sensitive American subject with candor and objectivity.1 Lieven is relentlessly candid, and has produced a remarkably thought-provoking book.

1.

Lieven contrasts the high idealism of American civic nationalism, the “American Creed”—liberty, constitutionalism, law, democracy, individualism, and the separation of church and state—with current hypernationalistic attitudes that influence both domestic and foreign affairs. His book, Lieven writes,

should in no sense be read as an attack either on a reasonable American nationalism or on the war on terrorism in its original form of a struggle against al Qaeda and its allies. As I shall argue throughout this book, American civic nationalism is a central support of American power and influence in the world, and has tremendously positive lessons to offer to humanity.

Lieven maintains that because American-style free-market liberal democracy has now become ideologically acceptable in most of the world, logically the United States should be “behaving as a conservative hegemon, defending the existing international order and spreading its values by example.”

Instead, the George W. Bush administration has attempted to go in the opposite direction. “American power,” Lieven writes, “in the service of narrow American…nationalism is an extremely unstable basis for hegemony.” Particularly after September 11, when there was a chance to “create a concert of all the world’s major states—including Muslim ones—against Islamist revolutionary terrorism,” the Bush administration “chose instead to pursue policies which divided the West, further alienated the Muslim world, and exposed America itself to greatly increased danger.”

It would be foolish to try to summarize in detail a book as tightly written and extensively researched as America Right or Wrong. But on a subject so vitally relevant at the present time, it is worth outlining some of Lieven’s main ideas. After setting out what he calls the “American Creed,” Lieven examines the historical roots of its antithesis, a “wounded and vengeful nationalism.” Irrational hatred, even fear, of the outside world, combined with an obsessive belief in the treachery of American “elites” and intellectuals, is not only destructive at home; it also demeans the traditional idea of a people with a special mission to help other nations that has been variously described over the years by many leaders and thinkers. For one example, Lieven quotes Woodrow Wilson, speaking at the end of World War I: “America had the infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world.” Ironically, it has taken Nature itself, in the Asian tsunami disaster, to show us once again that only the United States has the will and the resources—ships bearing helicopters and a worldwide logistics network—to respond immediately to such a vast emergency. Can this terrible experience help revive the reputation of Americans as a people with a compassionate mission in the world?

The missionary idea is further distorted, Lieven argues, by the Manichaean notion, frequently invoked since September 11, of the struggle between Good—America and those who unreservedly agree with it—and Evil. “Wherever we carry it,” George W. Bush told the graduating cadets at West Point in June 2002, “the American flag will stand not only for our power, but for freedom.” Such rhetoric has not only fueled self-righteous and nationalist extremism; it has also distracted the United States from the basic measures needed for a successful campaign against Islamic terrorism, including the serious pursuit of peace in the Middle East; and it has badly strained relations with the outside world. “If we have any sense at all of history,” Lieven writes, “we should know that our system does not represent the ‘end of history,’ is not divinely ordained, and will not last forever.”

In a chapter entitled “The Embittered Heartland,” Lieven examines the paradox that while much of the world sees the modern history of America as “an almost uninterrupted chronicle of success” (Senator William Fulbright’s words), very large groups inside the country itself do not see anything of the kind. Their sense of inherited defeat and humiliation not only poisons domestic politics but is also an important ingredient in America’s particular form of radical nationalism. Lieven identifies an original source of this feeling in the fear on the part of the first, fundamentalist Protestant, Anglo-Saxon core of settlers that it was losing its control of politics and culture to more recent immigrant groups, “cosmopolitan elites,” and the like.

The various revolutions of the 1960s—sexual, racial, feminist, and behavioral—certainly gave a powerful impetus to this large group’s resentment. In our time the “Gingrich revolution“‘s call to “take back America” echoes the old battle cry. As the epitome of such thinking Lieven quotes the French extreme reactionary Charles Maurras as saying during the 1930s, “In order to love France today, it is necessary to hate what she has become.” Pride, economic setbacks, and resentment have bred an intensely conservative and religious culture that is also intensely nationalistic.

However, Lieven observes, American radical nationalism, unlike similar movements elsewhere, has hitherto shown no clear impulse to move toward authoritarian rule. Pride in traditional democratic constitutionalism and in the strength of democratic culture has always contained any tendency to dictatorship. Time after time

the demons of American radical nationalism have…been bound again sooner or later by the power of the American Creed…. Periods of intense nationalism…have been followed by a return to a more tolerant and pluralist equilibrium.

Lieven writes that while, to the world, America may epitomize the triumph of modern society in all its forms, it is “also home to the largest and most powerful forces of conservative religion in the developed world.” He quotes a survey from 2000 which found that white evangelical Protestants made up 23.1 percent of the population; Catholics, the largest Christian group, were 27.3 percent. The first figure is certainly larger now. Fundamentalist evangelical beliefs, Lieven argues, are pre-Enlightenment in origin and anti-Enlightenment in substance. Both modern science and a rational basis for human discourse are highly suspect in these circles. Treacherous East Coast liberal and intellectual elites, atheist Europeans, the godless UN, and others who have proudly embraced the Enlightenment are particular villains.

Lieven notes that in 1925 there was general mockery of fundamentalism after the much-publicized Scopes trial—Samuel Eliot Morison referred to the trial as part of “Nineteenth Century America’s Last Stand.” Starting in the 1990s, the fundamentalists have now turned that humiliation around by making a strong comeback. The teaching of creationism is now being demanded in schools in more than forty states, while the low voting turnout of other, nonfundamentalist groups increases the fundamentalists’ political influence. The President himself is publicly skeptical of scientific findings in many fields, including global warming and stem-cell research. He promises to rid the world of Evil, and, as he told Bob Woodward, he is “casting his vision and that of the country in the grand vision of God’s master plan.” Radical religious nationalism, shrewdly exploited by Bush administration strategists, has become a strong force in American politics.

2.

Lieven’s chapter on the Israeli–Palestinian question is unusually forthright and is certain to give rise to much objection. He believes that this question more than any other divides the United States from opinion in most other countries. Critical discussion of Israel’s record and its behavior toward Palestinians is often presented as an assault by members of the malignant, anti-American, anti-Semitic international community, symbolized in the hated UN. Such a presentation strengthens unconditional support for Israel among most evangelicals, regardless of Israel’s policies and actions toward the occupied territories.
This point of view has become a matter of fundamentalist religious belief. Lieven quotes Jerry Falwell as saying that “to stand against Israel is to stand against God.” The Christian Zionist movement, of which the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, is a leader in Washington, is “a block of conservative Republicans whose strong support for the Jewish state is based on their interpretation of the Bible.”2 Such beliefs, which disregard international law, generally recognized rights, rational discourse, or serious negotiation, fit conveniently with the kind of neoconservative thinking to be found in the now famous 1996 position paper “A Clean Break,” written by Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, among others, which advised the Likud government to insist on “permanent control of the occupied territories,” as Lieven puts it. They do nothing to encourage moderation among Arabs and Muslims. After DeLay’s visit to Israel in 2003, during which the Texas congressman told Israeli legislators that he was “an Israeli at heart,” Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian legislator and negotiator, commented mildly that DeLay was not helping the cause of peace by “being more Israeli than the Israelis themselves.”3

Lieven observes that the debate over the Israeli–Palestinian question is far more open and uninhibited in Israel itself than in the United States, where criticism of Likud policies or arguments that the Palestinians have a case are apt to be construed as “classic anti-Semitism.” Lieven quotes, for example, the passionate protest against Likud policies by Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Knesset. “We cannot,” Burg said, “keep a Palestinian majority under an Israeli boot and at the same time think ourselves the only democracy in the Middle East.”

It is one of the great tragedies of history that during the years of moderate Israeli leadership and policy, there was no recognition by either Israel or the US of a serious Palestinian negotiating partner. The only organized representative of the Palestinians, the PLO, was kept from the negotiating table until 1993, by which time both the Israeli settlement movement and the indigenous Palestinian terrorist movement in the occupied territories were well established.

As Lieven puts it, criticism of Israeli actions in no way excuses the barbarities and brutalities of some of their Palestinian opponents:

Yet by its settlement policy, Israel has passed up the chance to end the conditions exacerbating the conflict, as have the Palestinian groups through their continued pursuit of terrorism.

The US has become deeply embroiled in the Middle East through the combination of strong, and sometimes unconditional, support for Israel and dependence on Arab oil. This creates major problems for its global leadership as well as a serious impediment to the successful pursuit of the “war on terror.” There would now appear, at least, to be a slightly improved prospect for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In view of the intrinsic importance of this question as well as its effect on other matters, it is to be hoped that Washington will adopt the courageous, objective, and active policy that might still achieve significant progress toward the peaceful solution that both the Israelis and the Palestinians desperately need.

America Right or Wrong is a valuable and also a troubling book on a subject that is both crucial and in many ways extremely sensitive. Historians may differ over Lieven’s interpretations of American history or his assessment of the importance of this or that factor, and others will certainly disagree with particular chapters. Predictably enough, he has already been called both anti-American and anti-Semitic.4 It seems to me that Lieven’s book comes more in the category of what is sometimes called “tough love.” Lieven is concerned, perhaps even obsessed, with current crises—the Iraq war, the impasse in the Middle East—and with tendencies such as the rise of radical nationalism that seem to him to be compromising the American Creed and American leadership in the world. He is also concerned with the absence of a stringent public debate on such matters. He can be tactless, perhaps, but that is hardly anti-American.

3.

In his recent book on the Scottish Enlightenment James Buchan writes of Edinburgh in the early eighteenth century, “Men and women were coming to suspect that knowledge acquired through skepticism might be more useful in this world below than knowledge ‘revealed’ by scripture.”5 It is a painful thought that in the United States in the twenty-first century we might be turning away from the world of the Enlightenment which inspired the Founding Fathers. Of all the thoughts provoked by Lieven’s book this is the most disturbing, both for America and for the world. Since religious freedom and popular elections are both sacrosanct rights of the American people, it is a particularly delicate one. Is it possible that America could eventually vote to go back on the Enlightenment?

Evangelical Protestants are a large and growing group whose influence is greatly enhanced by their voting discipline in comparison to other groups. Their influence is evident both in the rhetoric and in some actions of the current administration, as well as in Congress. This is clear in many domestic issues. The absolutes of Good and Evil, the references to God’s will in relation to adventures like the Iraq war, the idea that those who are not with us are against us, impose a rigidity that dismisses criticism and makes it impossible to admit reverses publicly or to correct mistaken policies. Such trends are a serious hazard for such a powerful and important country. And at home, the demonization of elites, anti-intellectualism, hostility to rational discourse, and an aversion to scientific method can only stultify and downgrade the educational system at a time when American leadership and technological supremacy are being challenged as never before.

The influence of Christian evangelicals now extends to many essential matters of foreign policy, quite apart from the Middle East. Dogmatic, unilateralist, and radically nationalistic, this influence ignores international law and is particularly hostile to international organizations. In some of its literature the secretary-general of the UN figures as the Antichrist. At a time when the United States is no longer immune from the ills of the outside world, many key problems—terrorism, energy, the environment, epidemics including AIDS, the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, to name only a few—can only be tackled usefully through international collective effort. Dogmatic, faith-based denial of this fact of life would be a disaster for United States leadership, and also for the hope of finding solutions to problems that may well determine the future of the human race on this planet.

The absolute right of individuals to select the religion of their choice is not in question. But when particular denominations are in a position to bring their special beliefs and taboos to bear on the general interest and on public policy on secular matters, a dangerous point has been reached. That is why the separation of church and state is so important.

Lieven has undertaken the unpopular task of trying to analyze religious forces and nationalist ideologies that have an important bearing on the present situation of the United States and to warn about their consequences. In a reply to one of his critics he has explained that the failure to remember the searing lessons of how America became involved in Vietnam seems to him

to be closely related to an inability to reexamine certain fundamental national myths…. To say this is not the standpoint of an arrogant foreigner. It stands in a great tradition of critical American thought, which should be revived as a matter of profound intellectual and indeed patriotic urgency.6

Criticism by a foreigner on sensitive national issues is always likely to raise hackles, especially when readers may have a strong feeling that some of the criticisms are right on the mark. People often do not appreciate being told in a foreign accent that they may be heading over a cliff. In his intensity Lieven sometimes drifts into an admonitory tone that some readers may find patronizing. But his conclusion, far from displaying anti-Americanism, has a cautionary perspective that Americans should take seriously:

Most important of all, the American elites should have both more confidence in and more concern for the example their country sets to the world, through their institutions, their values and the visible well-being of ordinary Americans…. These institutions and values constitute America’s civilizational empire, heir to that of Rome. Like the values of Rome, they will endure long after the American empire, and even the United States itself, has disappeared. The image of America as an economically successful pluralist democracy, open to all races and basically peaceful and nonaggressive, has been so powerful in the past because it has largely been true. Americans must make sure that it continues to be true.

  1. 1

    In 1937, the Carnegie Corporation, searching for a director for a comprehensive study of the Negro in America, concluded that an American social scientist would find it difficult to undertake such a sensitive project dispassionately and objectively. The corporation therefore asked the Swedish social economist Gunnar Myrdal to direct the study. The result was the magisterial An American Dilemma (Harper, 1944). Like Myrdal, Lieven has chosen as his basic theme the contrast between American ideals and the sometimes contrasting reality of Amer- ican politics and society.

  2. 2

    Palestinians Must Bear Burden of Peace, DeLay Tells Israelis,” The New York Times, July 30, 2003.

  3. 3

    The New York Times, July 30, 2003.

  4. 4

    See, for example, Jonathan Tepperman, in The New York Times Book Re-

  5. 5

    James Buchan, Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment, Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind (HarperCollins, 2003), p. 57; see the review by John Brewer, “Breaking with the Past,” The New York Review, March 25, 2004.

  6. 6

    The Nation, Exchange column, November 29, 2004.

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