photo by Yoshinori Abe

May 5, 2000


It isn't very often that we get to see the doctrine of global intervention expressed in its pristine pure form. Oh, there are a few examples: Joshua Muravchik's book, Exporting Democracy, which hails the US military occupation of Germany and Japan as models for American foreign policy in the post-cold war era, is one, and the infamous essay by William Kristol and Robert Kagan. "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy" [Foreign Affairs, July/August 1996] calling for the US to establish a "benevolent world hegemony" is another. But these exceptions merely prove the rule: they stand out precisely because they are so unusual. Most Americans reflexively react to the proposition that we ought to go charging off into the world with a sword drawn, looking for dragons to slay, with suspicion, disdain, and even horror. Their first question is: why? Why is this our fight? The elites, however, are quite a different matter: a recent study by the Pew Center bemoans the fact that, while the elites in media, government, and the corporate boardroom are enthusiastic internationalists, the lumpen masses are still mired in their "isolationism." In an appalling display of smugness, the study divides those polled into two groups: the public, and "the Influentials" – and notes that while the latter see US meddling in the Balkans as a great idea, the stupid common folks sullenly dissent; the elites think the top goal of US foreign policy ought to be combating "nationalism and ethnic hatred," while the public puts this at the bottom of its list of things to do. The Influentials just love foreign aid, but the Uninfluential Majority hates it. Now, at first blush, this Influential/Nobody dichotomy seems like an affectation, and certainly the way the Pew Center goes on about it is insufferable. We are told, for example, that the brave new world order Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright are building for us thrills the elites, but somehow

"Public responses suggest that it has not yet caught up to changed conditions over the past few years. While the public at large continues to have a gloomy international outlook, the very small percentage of Americans who are well informed about foreign affairs and have a college degree (about 4% of all Americans) have a positive view of world conditions – one that approaches that of Opinion Leaders."


If you aren't an internationalist, then you're obviously an uneducated dolt with dirt under your fingernails and a single-digit IQ. To be "well-informed" is to agree with the Opinion Leaders who, by definition, know what's best for us Nobodies. The pretensions of the Pew Center aside for the moment, this division of the world into the Power Elite and the Powerless is unfortunately not just an affectation but also reflects reality – especially when it comes to foreign affairs, a realm long dominated by the pin-stripes crowd, the "best and the brightest" architects of disaster. Foreign policy has traditionally been the purview of a very elite group of "experts," ostensibly bipartisan but representing a very narrow range of opinion, and this exclusivity carries over into the punditocracy. Now that Pat Buchanan is writing campaign speeches instead of newspaper columns, there are only two nationally-syndicated columnists that I can think of who can be relied on to represent the foreign policy views of the Powerless Majority: Charley Reese, of the Orlando Sentinel, and Robert Novak.


This elite/hoi polloi dichotomy also carries over into the conservative movement, that hotbed of "isolationism" and know-nothingism, where the split between the leadership and the rank-and-file on foreign affairs is even wider. While Dubya's foreign policy advisors would rewrite "America the Beautiful" to say "America, the Hegemon," and Heritage Foundation policy wonks write heavily-footnoted tomes on the necessity of extending NATO to the Ukraine and beyond, the average outside-the-Beltway conservative activist is focused on the enemy at home. It wasn't Slobodan Milosevic who crashed through the door of the Gonzalez family home and seized a six-year-old boy at gunpoint. It wasn't the Attorney General of Yugoslavia who incinerated the martyrs of Waco. It wasn't the Russian federal police who visited death on a small cabin in a place called Ruby Ridge.


But the conservative elite, centered in the Upper West Side of Manhattan as well as the Washington Beltway, while occasionally pandering to the radicalized hoi polloi, disdain this vulgar anti-statism. A whole school of thought has erupted, like a small pimple, in these haughty circles, in opposition to what they regard as outright subversion and even treason. Embarrassed in front of their liberal friends to be seen with such obviously lowbrow Neanderthals and isolationists, they have come up with an alternative all their own – "national greatness conservatism." Here, at last, is a way to ditch all that radical-sounding rhetoric about cutting back government and tearing down the monuments of the welfare state: instead, we'll be building some monuments of our own: bridges, roads, airports, statues, and other public works that embody an ostensibly conservative vision of a strong American state. The Weekly Standard, that barometer of Manhattanite Reaction, was the first to take up the cry, but the "national greatness" bandwagon really picked up speed when John McCain took the reins, and then all the neocons hitched a ride. A short ride, but a heady one, and don't think that this is the last we are going to hear of either McCain or "national greatness." Of course, what really got the neocons all excited about McCain was his bellicosity: oh yeah, let's go after all those "rogue states," overthrow the governments of Iraq, North Korea, and Yugoslavia, and confront Russia and China while we're at it. This is the really dangerous aspect of the "national greatness" concept: it's application to foreign policy.


If the Kristol-Kagan article outlines the theory of "national greatness" applied to foreign policy, then Jonah Goldberg's "A Continent Bleeds," posted at National Review Online, illustrates the utter absurdity of the concept in practice. The piece is portentously subtitled "Taking America – and our responsibilities – seriously." Uh oh, this sounds ominous, and it is: We are treated, in the opening paragraphs, to a litany of Africa's afflictions: AIDS, hunger, corruption, and war. Goldberg, a columnist usually given to cute one-liners but nothing really all that weighty, clues us in at the beginning: "This ain't a funny column." But the best humor is unintentional, and Goldberg's extended remarks on how we might aspire to national greatness are good for more than a few guffaws. For young Jonah, who is identified as the Editor of National Review Online, is not interested in anything so prosaic as bridges. He just loves this national greatness stuff, but the trouble is that "greatness conservatives are slow to realize that we do not live in an age where we need another department of agriculture, some more land-grant colleges, or a push to bust the trusts." He kind of likes Charles Krauthammer's suggestion that we re-launch the space program and colonize Mars, because

"Great civilizations create great cathedrals, and the cathedrals of this generation should be in outer space. Cathedrals inspire rich and poor people alike to believe great things are possible. The Mars Polar Lander cost the average American the price of half a cheeseburger. A human lander would cost the average American more – perhaps even ten cheeseburgers! So be it. That is no great sacrifice."


Isn't it great being a "greatness conservative"? All you have to do is say "so be it!" and mountains are moved, cathedrals rise, and slaves toil happily to the greater glory of Pharoah. As for computing the cost of the Mars Polar Lander in cheeseburgers – the usual measure of cost is dollars, which don't have to be spent on cheeseburgers. But what if they are? Is government empowered to trump any and all private desires with the overbearing "greatness" of our noble elites? To concede this would indeed be a great sacrifice of American liberties. This does not occur to Goldberg, however, who blithely plunges on, opining that

"If great sacrifice is the measure of true greatness, then the answer does not lie on the surface of Mars. One need only look to the area on this planet where it appears time is moving in the wrong direction. The average African is indisputably worse off today than he was thirty or forty years ago. Of what other place can you say such a thing?"


Vietnam, for one; North Korea, for another. The former Soviet Union, for another, where the infant mortality rate is surpassing Third World levels. The Arabs who live in the "demilitarized" zone of Lebanon, annexed and perpetually bombed by Israel, don't seem too much better off, and neither do the Iraqis and the Serbians. I guess getting bombed at regular intervals isn't too conducive to progress. As for America, even aside from urban blight and the growing predominance of a neobarbarian adversary culture, we are much worse off in the sense that the citizens of the late Roman Empire were worse off than those of the old Republic. But Goldberg, oblivious to such fine distinction,s is impatient to get on with his Africa thesis, which is this:

"I think it's time we revisited the notion of a new kind of Colonialism – though we shouldn't call it that. I don't mean ripping off poor countries. I don't mean setting tribes against one another and paying off corrupt "leaders" to keep down unrest. I mean going in – guns blazing if necessary – for truth and justice. I am quite serious about this. The United States should mount a serious effort to bring civilization (yes, "Civilization") to those parts of Africa that are in Hobbesian despair. We should enlist any nation, institution organization – especially multinational corporations and evangelical churches as well as average African citizens – interested in permanently helping Africa join the 21st century. This might mean that Harvard would have to cut back on courses about transgender construction workers. And it might mean that some churches would have to spend more time feeding starving people than pronouncing on American presidential candidates."


Oh, and by the way, it isn't only Harvard that will be sacrificing a few cheeseburgers: "We should spend billions upon billions doing it," Goldberg avers, and if a few American soldiers will have to be fed into the meatgrinder – well then, so be it! See, now wasn't that easy? But that's what "greatness" is all about – sending other people off to die for your delusions. According to Goldberg, we must

"put American troops in harm's way" and "not be surprised that Americans will die doing the right thing. We should not be squeamish, either, about the fact that (mostly white) Americans will kill some black Africans in the process."


Why should Goldberg be squeamish? After all, he is not going to get shipped to some African hellhole, it won't be his guns that are blazing into the impenetrable darkness of that jungled continent. He won't be camped out in the middle of the biggest concentration of poisonous insects and murderous predators, both animal and human, on earth. He'll be sitting in his Upper West Side apartment, thinking up new ways to celebrate his own greatness. We must bring "civilization" to Africa – but what is that? A Zabar's in Uganda? A cell phone for every Namibian? Must we hook up every hut to the Internet? And they used to call the New Left "condescending saviors," but even the social engineers of the old Soviet Union could not have even conceived of taking on such a grandiose project as Goldberg proposes. Before we go on civilizing mission to Sierra Leone, perhaps we should send an expeditionary force to certain sections of the Bronx as a kind of test case.


Goldberg claims that his brand of colonialism is "new," but he has not even bothered to give it any new packaging. Not only does he want to bring in the "multinational corporations," he wants to get the churches in on the deal too – just like in the old days of British imperialism, which Goldberg conjures as a great and noble enterprise:

"The British Empire decided unilaterally that the global practice of slavery was a crime against God and man, and they set out to stop it. They didn't care about the 'sovereignty' of other nations when it came to an evil institution. They didn't care about the 'rule of international law,' they made law with the barrel of a cannon."

Yes, and look where they are now: shrunken to a shadow of their former imperial "greatness." Shriveled by socialism and debauched by imperialism, they are the victims of their own overweening arrogance. Is this the Goldbergian prescription for "national greatness" – that we should end up utterly impoverished, exhausted by our imperial adventures and dreaming of better days?


In reading this piece, it was possible to forget that one was reading an ostensibly conservative magazine, and toward the end he directly addresses leftists, who, it seems, have been his real target audience all along:

"Recently, we've heard a lot from the Left about how great Cuba is because it has free health care. American liberals are perfectly willing to countenance Cuba's state-sanctioned murder and the abrogation of virtually all civil rights in exchange for free mammograms and tonsillectomies. Ending poverty and hunger – barely – ought to be worth a mighty price for these men and women who spout daily about the right to burn flags and receive government payments for artfully arranged fecal matter. One wonders what they would be willing to accept for African children to grow up with arms and families intact. As for what conservatives would be willing to accept, I have no idea. But I have a sense quite a few of them will tell me."


It is slightly odd that an editor of National Review has "no idea" what conservatives will think of his Napoleonic altruism, but even odder that he doesn't seem to care. I realize that NR has long since ceased to be the literary epicenter of American conservatism – although I am old enough to remember a time when it was – but it is still sad to see that under the editorship of that P. J. O'Rourke-ish looking fellow it has degenerated to the point of printing (or posting) pieces directed at the author's leftist friends instead of the magazine's actual readers. Who cares what the left has to say about health care in Cuba – do really we have to send American boys (and girls) to the oozing swamps of deepest darkest Africa so that Jonah Goldberg can lord it over the trendy-lefty partygoers at some Manhattan loft?


I don't mean to take Goldberg's column too seriously – after all, most of his columns are meant, I think, to be humorous – but perhaps it does tell us something about the Influentials, the Opinion Leaders, and the way they get appointed these days. The first time I ever saw Jonah Goldberg he was sitting next to Lucianne Goldberg, his mother, describing – in some detail – just how that stain happened to get on Monica's infamous dress. The Lewinsky scandal spawned a whole new wave of instant "experts," whose job it was to provide grist for the endless media mill; just as the O.J. Simpson trial made several media careers (CNN's Greta van Sustern), so the Lewinsky/impeachment affair produced a new generation of scandalmongers, of whom Lucianne Goldberg was certainly one of the most colorful – and enterprising. With the Lewinsky tapes in her hot little hands, Lucianne was momentarily at the center of l'affaire Lewinsky, and she managed to spin a radio show off of her notoriety, a website, and, it seems, instant appointment of her son as a resident foreign policy guru at the flagship magazine of the American Right. From Lewinsky-ology to geopolitics – in the conservative movement of today, the transition is quick and almost effortless.


I don't mean to be unkind – really I don't – but Goldberg's article is a virtual parody, albeit unintended, of the globalist idea. Drawing out an absurd premise – that the US must right every wrong, heal every wound, bear every burden and pay any price – to its logical conclusion, he demonstrates its self-evident impossibility. Evident, that is, to any ordinary conservative, but not to the Opinion Leaders and other high-falutin' folks, in government and the media, who only have to declare: So be it! – and suddenly governments are building bridges, raising cathedrals, colonizing Mars, and, most important of all, starting wars. But before we get started, the rest of us have a few questions. . . .


There are not nearly enough American troops to patrol the African continent; will Goldberg have us bring back the draft, and thus force every young American to aspire to his kind of "greatness"? But the big question is this – will Goldberg himself volunteer for this noble mission to bring civilization to Africa? Asking whether the Cuba-loving Left would be willing to accept the challenge of lifting Africa up out of oppression and poverty, he concluded his article by noting that "quite a few" conservatives will tell him what they think of his proposal. Well then, here goes: I'm for it Jonah, but only on the condition that we send you over there first, as a kind of scouting party, with the rest of the invading army to follow not too long after you give the signal. And don't worry, we'll give you plenty of mosquito nets – and your choice of a farm in Zimbabwe or UN headquarters in Sierra Leone.

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