Early in the last century, H.N. Brailsford was among the most influential English writers on international relations. One of his books, The War of Steel and Gold, ended with the ringing assertion that “there will be no more wars among the six Great Powers.” That was published in the late spring of 1914. A similar fate might have awaited someone publishing a book about the Soviet Union just before the Berlin Wall came down, but William Pfaff’s Barbarian Sentiments (1989) reads very well today, needing no amendment or apology. While he had no illusions about the Soviet system, that book displayed his rare gift for seeing through façade and rhetoric, not least when that rhetoric became an imaginary threat.
His knack for seeing behind received ideas, attitudes, and platitudes of the age means that, over the fifty years Pfaff has been writing about international politics in innumerable columns and essays and in a series of books that now culminates with The Irony of Manifest Destiny, he has been among the most prescient of observers. His latest book, whose germ was an essay in these pages,1 examines in historical perspective the “tragedy of America’s foreign policy” that events have, in effect, obliged him to take as his last great subject.
To take one example of his originality and insight, Pfaff wrote years ago an essay on “Finlandization.” This was a favorite fighting word of cold warriors, who thought that the Finns had needlessly and cravenly truckled to their Russian neighbor, surrendering their freedom in a kind of voluntary salami-slicing that relieved the Soviets of the usual need to impose puppet dictatorship by brute force, and that served as a terrible warning to the free world. As Pfaff pointed out, this was the reverse of what had actually happened. Finland was attacked by Stalin in 1939 but defended itself heroically during the Winter War until forced to concede territory, which the Finns understandably but unwisely fought to recover when Hitler invaded Russia. When the war ended they found themselves about as awkwardly placed as they could be as a former ally of Germany, and a prime candidate for absorption as a Russian satellite. Instead, in those highly unpropitious circumstances, Finland maintained careful neutrality and made sometimes disagreeable compromises but, far more important, it guarded its independence and its democracy to become what it is today: one of the most admirable countries in Europe, where an open society and high-tech capitalist prosperity are combined with advanced public health services and an excellent educational system.
In the end Finland not only survived but outlived the Soviet Union, thanks to restraint, forbearance, and patience—the very qualities Pfaff finds so conspicuously lacking in American foreign policy. In two early books that he cowrote with Edmund Stillman, The New Politics: America and the End of the Postwar World (1961) and The Politics of Hysteria (1964), he had looked skeptically behind the received ideas of the cold war with an open-mindedness that was the more striking because of his background. After serving with the US Army in the early 1950s, he worked for the Free Europe Committee in New York, channeling funds from the CIA to the radio stations that broadcast to Eastern Europe. He moved to Paris, where he still lives, in 1971.
Despite that experience (or perhaps because of it), Pfaff perceived half a century ago that his country’s obsession with communism was moving toward “an Americanized version of Marxist historicism and ideological messianism.” One of the consequences of this would prove to be the Vietnam War, and Pfaff can now quote himself writing from Saigon in 1962, dismayed at the way the unimaginative staff members of the American embassy were “obsessed with ‘Communist timetables for the takeover of Asia.'” Pfaff had no illusions whatever about Communist repression and dictatorship; but he was so far from sharing obsessions about falling dominoes that he early recognized what some zealous anti-Communists (as well as Communists) quite failed to see: the sheer backwardness—political, cultural, and economic—of Soviet Russia meant that it could not very long survive.
By 1989 he could further observe that after “more than seventy years and unlimited means to turn people into the pliant, morally amputated creatures totalitarianism was supposed to create,” communism had failed so completely that “forty years of virtually unchecked power over Eastern Europe” had only produced one rebellion after another, culminating in the final explosion that, even as Pfaff wrote, would bring down the whole decayed structure. It was tempting to see the Soviet collapse as a triumph for the free world and the free market. Amid the glib rhetoric of twenty years ago, the United States and what it stood for could seem all-conquering and irresistible, a view given weightier expression by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History (1992).
But Pfaff did not share the delusion that history had ended, although it has taken the disasters of the past decade to make that point with such dramatic emphasis. Blame can too easily be laid with the administration of Bush the Younger and the neoconservatives, but Pfaff traces a much longer lineage. He explains how the acquisition of great power by the United States has meant “a subordination of ethical values to an ideology of national triumphalism,” which he sees as part of the strange and indeed terrifying transformation of Western Enlightenment civilization into “our twentieth- and twenty-first-century experience of extreme ideological violence.”
In the shorter term, the great crisis within Europe in the first half of the last century, and then the breakdown of the European imperial order, left a fractured world that for more than sixty years the United States has tried to control, culminating in a historically unprecedented attempt to create American domination in what we misleadingly call the Middle East. That might have a familiar ring of imperial ambition, but as Pfaff says, “the mass of Americans would reject or even recoil from the notion of a formal empire.”
In Europe, the crisis in traditional religion brought about by the Enlightenment undermined confidence in the existing condition of society, especially after the French Revolution, but this, Pfaff points out, crucially did not happen in America, where something more than mere confidence survived. “The case and circumstances of America present themselves as in the beginning of the world,” Thomas Paine wrote in Rights of Man, “as if we had lived in the beginning of time.” The exalted sense of being immaculately newborn fed a national faith in “manifest destiny” (a phrase first used in 1839), an assumption that American success and American power must be a reflection of American virtue.
For more than 130 years, with some exceptions in the Caribbean and the Philippines, this took the form of political and military isolation—until Woodrow Wilson. With him, Pfaff writes, “the national myth was turned into a philosophy of international action.” Wilson’s interventionism, didactic and ignorant at once, failed to create a new order of world peace, and was followed by a hiatus when America once more withdrew into its shell, until rudely awoken in 1941.
A second great war left behind that chaotic world, and a forty-year rivalry between the United States and Soviet Russia followed. But after the war, in Pfaff’s account, manifest destiny mutated into the “rigid and moralistic foreign policy” of Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles (another Presbyterian like Wilson, imbued with the doctrine of predestined election). Pfaff not only admires George Kennan but, as so many did not, understands him and the complexity of his ideas. Kennan’s wise advocacy of “containment” and letting time do its work was perverted toward ever-increasing militarization and futile wars, from Vietnam to Iraq.
In The Wrath of Nations (1993) Pfaff turned aside to discuss nationalism, and in The Bullet’s Song (2004) he examined utopian violence and what he called the most influential myth since 1789, the political idea of “total and redemptive transformation.” But then, whether writing about Europe or nationalism, communism or Islam, Pfaff always had his own country at the back of his mind, and in 2004 he also published Fear, Anger and Failure, a collection of columns about the Bush administration’s wrongheaded and ill-fated prosecution of its “war on terror.” Here he pointed to what he referred to in The Bullet’s Song as an exceptionally “naïve American version” of redemptive transformation, now voiced by a president who believed that any enemy of America must “hate our freedoms” and that the proper response, as Bush memorably put it, was to “export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defense of our great nation.” In this respect at least, the last president was as good as his word.
Death and violence duly ensued, but the result was not a success. As Pfaff likes to point out, the all-powerful United States has not (excepting such triumphs of arms as the invasions of Grenada and Panama) actually won a war in unequivocal fashion since 1945. That includes the latest wars in western Asia, the vast land between the Indus and the Mediterranean that is the most fractious region on earth, and for any outside power much the most dangerous in which to intervene.
In Iraq, Washington was always likely, under whatever administration, to follow Senator George Aiken’s prescription for Vietnam: declare victory and go home. Sure enough, in late August, President Obama said, “The bottom line is this: the war is ending,” and a GI in his armored vehicle driving out of the country shouted, “We won! It’s over! America, we brought democracy to Iraq!” More somber voices, including more than a few who once supported the war, have acknowledged the magnitude of failure—not least, some 2.5 million external refugees, many of them living miserably in Syria and Jordan. Fukuyama is one of the former hawks—“a recovering neoconservative,” as Pfaff calls him—and Peter Beinart is another.
As editor of The New Republic in 2003, Beinart supported the invasion of Iraq, and in 2006 he wrote The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (phew). Four years ago he was one of the targets of the late Tony Judt in his polemical essay “Bush’s Useful Idiots,” in which he excoriated so many supposed liberals who had “acquiesced in President Bush’s catastrophic foreign policy.”2
Not that Judt was alone in seeing the element of willed illusion in The Good Fight. As Frank Rich put it in these pages:
Some of Beinart’s program is simply wishful thinking. If Truman and Marshall came back from the dead, they could not sell a Marshall Plan to the isolationist and xenophobic America that the Iraq war has left in its wake, not just among some Democrats (as Beinart bemoans) but, in an even more virulent form, among the Republican base.3
In his thoughtful book The Utility of Force (2007), General Sir Rupert Smith observes that “since the end of the Cold War force has been used time and again, yet failed to achieve the result expected” (words Pfaff himself might have written), and adds that the phrase “war on terror” is “without useful meaning.” An implied analogy between the resistance to totalitarianism of anti-Stalinist liberals sixty years ago and a new mortal combat with “Islamo-fascism” is plainly false, quite apart from the fact that the cold war liberals knew a great deal about communism, while the warriors on terror know remarkably little about Islam.
At any rate, Beinart today might be called a chastened liberal hawk. Readers will know one aspect of this evolution from his much-discussed essay on the growing detachment of younger Jewish-Americans from Zionism and Israel,4 and his new book is in part an act of atonement, which is all to the good, even if one sometimes feels like Sir Ambrose Abercrombie in Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One: “He atoned, but I always think how much better not to have anything to atone for, eh?”
Although The Icarus Syndrome is a better book than his previous one, it is perhaps not the book Beinart meant to write. Starting with an elaborate trope about flying too near the sun, he presents a schematic analysis in which American hubris has taken successively different forms. There was “the hubris of reason” personified by Woodrow Wilson with his belief that America in its superior virtue and wisdom should and could put the world to rights, then “the hubris of toughness” personified by Lyndon Johnson with his belief that communism should and could be halted “through unyielding force,” and “the hubris of dominance” personified by Bush the Younger, with his belief that the United States should and could lead the world. What Beinart does not consider is that what all these really have in common is not vanity or exorbitance but failure; another writer could just as well have said that President Hoover or Nixon had been guilty of hubris about this or that.
Even if the argument doesn’t quite come off, The Icarus Syndrome is a readable survey of “America in the world” over the past hundred years. Nothing is more chilling than Beinart’s catalog of the continuous, wrong-headed invocation of “Munich” and “appeasement.” Senator Joseph McCarthy accused Truman of “super-Munich” when he declined to pursue a total victory in Korea; McGeorge Bundy’s Munich lecture was famous at Harvard years before Bundy became one of the architects of the Vietnam War; “the parallels with England in 1937 are here,” Norman Podhoretz wrote in 1977, decrying the new “culture of appeasement.” (“If that was too subtle,” Beinart notes, “the essay was accompanied by a drawing of Carter carrying an umbrella.”)
Some of what Beinart says about American arrogance has been said by Pfaff for many years, but Pfaff’s version of events is more clear-sighted, as in his account of Woodrow Wilson. A president of Princeton and product of the Progressive Era, he is easily seen as a desiccated academic rationalist susceptible to the “hubris of reason,” but reading Pfaff, one wonders whether Wilson’s own language really suggests that. In 1912 he said that God had chosen the United States “to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.” (Thirty years later this was echoed by another pious “progressive” politician, Roosevelt’s eccentric third-term vice-president, Henry Wallace, in his 1942 speech with the unimprovable title “Why Did God Make America?”) Wilson believed that his country, and he, had a preternatural commission to redeem mankind, which exalted role had come “by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God who led us into this way.” Hubristic, to be sure—but is that the language of reason?
For that matter, there was less reason than dogmatism on display when Wilson attempted to remodel Europe “in ignorance of the actual ethnic, religious, historical, and territorial complexities of the nations and national communities,” as Pfaff says, adding drily that Wilson had a very American determination “not to be confused by reality or bound by the past (not to be ‘reality-bound,’ as a spokesman of another White House, eight decades later, was to say.” In an informative (and rueful) chapter on Iraq, Beinart compares the generation of Kennan, steeped in Russian history, language, and civilization, with Bush’s proconsuls in the Green Zone, who knew little or nothing about Iraq or its people and culture. But then self-confidence founded on ignorance is nothing new.
Now in his eighties, Pfaff looks back over a remarkable career, which has known departures as well as arrivals. Benjamin Balint’s recent book Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right (2010) reminds us that Pfaff was among those (they were not a few) who contributed to that magazine until purged by Podhoretz in the 1970s. Then he wrote for The New Yorker, until a new editor apparently decided that his essays were too erudite and reflective, and he wrote for the International Herald Tribune for many years but it seems to have dropped him. He still writes in these pages, for the online Truthdig, and for the Tribune syndicate, but his absence from the mainstream press would be vexing enough even if it weren’t for the remarkably low level of discussion of international politics found in those papers.
If Pfaff ever felt frustrated and despondent, it would be understandable, and he might seem to be an unhonored prophet. But I wonder. His work is much admired by those whose admiration is worth having—and his work is bearing fruit. After all, he was right nearly fifty years ago when he said that Soviet communism was inherently weak. He was right nearly twenty years ago when he said that, with the end of the cold war, American armed forces should be reduced and adapted to new circumstances (instead of being hugely increased, as they were). Now that he calls himself “one of the very few Americans who do not believe in the enormity of the Islamic radical threat,” might he not be right again?
At any rate, there are some signs that he is no longer alone. David Cameron has said that British troops will return home from Afghanistan within five years, which is to say before the next general election. Whether or not Cameron reads Pfaff (and it’s not impossible), shortly after he became Tory leader he detached himself from the neoconservative camp with the words, “We cannot drop democracy from 10,000 feet—and we shouldn’t try.”
And in the land of manifest destiny itself? Although Obama may not be looking forward to the midterm elections, it is unlikely that he will be defeated in two years’ time by a Republican who advocates war with Iran. Europeans are bewildered by the Muslim-hating demagogues ranting across America, but those are not the only voices on the right. Whether or not the antigovernment libertarian Rand Paul turns his landslide in the Republican primary in Kentucky into a Senate seat, some of his views may be more widely shared than they would have been a few years ago. Paul opposes not only domestic state subsidies but wasteful and needless foreign adventures, from Iraq to Afghanistan, and he thinks that the United States is “not threatened by Iran having one nuclear weapon.” As Rich observes, his rise “is a rolling rebuke to the neocons’ quarter-century dominance of the GOP,”5 though it’s also a reflection of the unmistakable fact that the American people have little stomach for engaging in additional costly foreign adventures.
After all, Pfaff writes, “there has always been, and remains, a noninterventionist alternative.” The national tradition of “pragmatism and practicality, and the national myth of unlimited opportunity,” have in the past acted as checks to ideological utopianism. And there is a strong traditional hostility to foreign wars, entangling alliances, and meddling in distant countries. For the first 165 of the 235 years it has existed, the United States did in fact keep largely to itself outside the Western Hemisphere, apart from a short interlude in 1917–1918. Nor is Rand Paul all that new: the dominant figure in the Republican Party sixty years ago was the noninterventionist Senator Robert Taft.
If only from bitter experience, might not an increasing proportion of Americans be turning away from what Pfaff calls “the secular utopian ideology” of promoting universal democracy? Kennan conceded that many countries were likely to have undemocratic systems. “But so what? We are not their keepers and never will be,” and Pfaff adds that forcing democracy on reluctant voters is “an intellectually unsustainable idea as well as politically impossible to achieve.”
“I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!” Wilson notoriously said, and Beinart adds that what he meant by good men was “people like him—progressive capitalists—not radicals who might foment disorder or interfere with American business.” He could usefully have compared Wilson with Howard Dean, himself thought to be some kind of progressive. When the hapless Nouri al-Maliki, newly installed as prime minister of “liberated” Iraq, visited Washington in 2006 during the fighting in Lebanon, Dean berated Maliki for his failure to support Israel. “We don’t,” he said, “need to spend $200 and $300 and $500 billion bringing democracy to Iraq to turn it over to people who believe that Israel doesn’t have a right to defend itself.”
When the present wars are “wound up,” Americans may also begin to ask other questions. Does China actually represent a military threat, as well as economic competition, to the United States? Was the eastward expansion of NATO necessary or wise? For all the neocon saber-rattling during the brief Russian–Georgian crisis two summers ago, did anyone really think Americans were going to die for South Ossetia? Does the US Navy still require eleven large carrier battle groups, “structured,” as the military theorist William Lind puts it, “to fight the Imperial Japanese Navy”? Do American troops need to serve, as they do today, in more than one thousand bases, on the soil of 175 of the 192 member states of the United Nations? These questions aren’t fully addressed by Beinart: for all his apparent new-found realism, he ends his book on a jarring note of uplift: “tempered by wisdom, American optimism is—and always will be—one of the great wonders of the world.” He has just spent nearly four hundred pages describing the consequences of “hubris,” which is really misplaced optimism.
By contrast, Pfaff’s strength is precisely his unillusioned skepticism. By formation a traditional Catholic, he sees human history sub specie aeternitatis, with no reason to suppose that mere material progress will itself redeem fallen humanity. For many years he has challenged the conventional wisdom of the age, speaking with a deep understanding born of past experience. Might his unconventional wisdom possibly turn out to be the voice of the future?
November 11, 2010
“[Manifest Destiny: A New Direction for America](/articles/archives/2007/feb/15/manifest-destiny-a-new-direction-for-america/),” The New York Review, February 15, 2007. ↩
London Review of Books, September 21, 2006; Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (Penguin, 2008). ↩
“[Ideas for Democrats?](/articles/archives/2006/oct/19/ideas-for-democrats/),” The New York Review, October 19, 2006. ↩
“[The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment](/articles/archives/2010/jun/10/failure-american-jewish-establishment/),” The New York Review, June 10, 2010. ↩
“The ‘Randslide’ and Its Discontents,” The New York Times, May 22, 2010. ↩