June 23, 2000


"Guess who hates America?" asks the headline. Answer: American conservatives, because they are beginning to question the wisdom of our overseas empire – so says Lawrence F. Kaplan, the executive editor of The National Interest, the neoconservative equivalent of Foreign Affairs, in the current issue of The New Republic. The "declinists" of the Paul Kennedy school were wrong, he avers, because they were offering their prognosis

"just as America's geopolitical rival was crumbling to dust and just before its principal economic competitor went into a tailspin. In the years since, the United States has enjoyed unprecedented economic growth, unrivaled military power, and the near-universal vindication of its national creed. Were foreign policy intellectuals held to the same standards of accountability as doctors and lawyers, a substantial slice of the commentariat would have been sued for malpractice or disbarred about the time the Soviet Union imploded."


But the declinist insight that what Paul Kennedy called "imperial overstretch" is draining our economy and leading to malinvestment of vital resources – with serious consequences down the road – is hardly disproved by the example of the Soviet Union. Indeed, the case against imperial overstretch is buttressed because that was so clearly the cause of the Kremlin's demise. Unless we want to follow the Soviet commissars down the path of historical obsolescence, US policy makers would do well to reexamine their most basic assumptions about America as "the indispensable nation," in the Clintonian version of imperial glory – or the seeker after "benevolent world hegemony," as the neoconservatives put it. But the very definition of hubris, the urge to tempt Fate and defy the gods, implies a certain blindness to the consequences of one's actions, and Kaplan therefore finds it "odd" that "terms like 'imperial overstretch' and 'American exhaustion' have returned to favor." The new declinism is on the attack! Only this time it isn't mushy-headed liberals who had "ideological" reasons for opposing interventionism in the years before the cold war ended: now it is "ostensibly tough-minded foreign policy 'realists'" – conservatives – "who have somehow managed to locate in one of history's most lopsided victories the seeds of an even greater defeat." Gee, I couldn't have put it better myself: it wouldn't be the first time in human history that a glorious and supposedly permanent triumph turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory. But the mindless triumphalism of those who celebrate the rise of an American Empire makes one immune to irony as well as indifferent to history, or so it would seem.


According to Kaplan, all those ignorant conservatives who opposed the Kosovo war and now challenge each and every "humanitarian" intervention that Congress is asked to rubberstamp are really the victims of a tiny group of intellectuals, "some so obscure that many of the conservative opinion makers who recycle declinist wisdom remain unaware of its origin." Who are these obscure intellectuals, who are handing down the party line from on high? Samuel Huntington, the prominent foreign policy theoretician is one, and Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback, is another. But before we get to them, let's look at Kaplan's conspiracy theory, which assumes that ideas are planted by small "cadres" of elites, and that the rest of us ordinary folks robotically respond.


Earth calling Kaplan: ordinary people, including grassroots conservative activists, don't need to be told by anyone that the cold war is over and it's time for the US to start scaling down the scope of its global military operations. They didn't need much of anyone to tell them that something is terribly wrong about a war in which we bombed some of the oldest cities in Europe in the name of "humanitarianism." Their natural reaction was shock, horror, and shame – yes, shame that their country had committed acts of naked aggression, in violation of international law and all the laws of morality; shame that we fought a war to benefit the totalitarian thugs of the KLA, who are now trying for an encore. Does this mean they hate America?


It depends on what you mean by "America." If we're talking about the American people themselves, then the answer is obviously no. But what America means to Kaplan is the American government – i.e. not only the state apparatus, but in a broader sense the elites that rule over us ordinary folk, in the media, academia, and the higher reaches of the corporate world, as well as government officials. This, to him, is the real America, the only America that counts – ordinary people don't have opinions, remember, except those they are programmed by intellectuals to accept – and so, yes, given those terms, Kaplan is quite right: conservatives do hate that America. They love their country – and hate its rulers. To Kaplan, this dichotomy makes no sense, since to an imperialist liberal like himself, the country is the government and its intellectual courtiers.


Kaplan is practically beside himself with the rise of "realism" as the leitmotif of conservative foreign policy analysis: frankly anti-imperialist and skeptical of the idea that we have the material and spiritual resources to spend on a quest for empire, the conservative "declinists," avers Kaplan, are just a new variation on what used to be known as left-wing 'anti-Americanism':

"If liberal declinism seemed designed to rebut the Reagan-era cliché of 'morning in America,' the conservative version means to debunk the Clinton administration mantra that America is the 'indispensable nation' Unnerved by the enshrining of democracy and human rights as central elements of U.S. foreign policy, the new declinists warn that if naive policymakers do not drive American power into eclipse, the resentments stirred by their arrogant admonitions surely will. In one article after another, they dismiss post-cold-war 'triumphalism' as sheer delusion, arguing that American power is on the wane or soon will be. And, as with the left of a decade ago, the diagnosis presupposes the cure: the United States should mind its own business."


Mind our own business – unthinkable! And how dare those foreign ingrates fail to get down on their hands and knees and bow low before the beneficence of the great American hegemon –they have no right to resent being bullied, hit with economic sanctions, and invaded by American "peacekeepers"! Don't they know its for their own good? "Unnerved" is hardly the word for the conservative response to Mad Madeleine Albright's conceit of American indispensability. As we watch the US-funded-and -trained Kosovo "Liberation" Army drive the last Serbs out of Kosovo, and the former Yugoslav province turned into a gangster state ruled by the Albanian Mafia, repulsion is more like it. What's more, this equation of conservative "isolationism" with the antiwar left of the sixties is meant as an insult, but ought to be taken as a compliment. If only conservative opponents of globalism could have the same impact as the sixties movement against the Vietnam war, then this is good news indeed. The bad news, however, is that it may take another Vietnam before such a movement can become a reality. . . .


Besides attacking Huntington for having undergone an evolution of his views – as did most conservatives after the implosion of Communism and the end of the cold war; most, that is, except the neoconservatives – The New Republic also goes after Robert D. Kaplan, the conservative Atlantic Monthly writer and author of The Coming Anarchy, which compares post-millennial America with the Roman Empire in decline. Most of the world is not and has never been touched by the ideals of the Enlightenment, and we cannot bestow such gifts with a sword: the nations of the former Soviet Union as well as in Eastern Europe have no tradition of democratic or constitutional governance, and in spite of any lip service paid to these lofty ideals – mostly in an effort to garner US foreign aid dollars – the pendulum is bound to swing the other way. This view is cited in The New Republic piece as if it were a self-evident fallacy, but the only effort to refute it is the characterization of these views as "dark pessimism." But so what if it is? In the lexicon of our court intellectuals, who are themselves always in a frenzy of optimism and good spirits due to the wisdom and good deeds of their masters in Washington, all forms of pessimism, for whatever reason, are suspect and necessarily "dark" (i.e. bad). What balderdash! Anyone who isn't pessimistic about the prospect of what new horror our rulers will pull off next is either brain-dead or – out of self-protection – completely indifferent to anything outside the sphere of the personal. If that be a state of darkness, then you can color me black. . . .


Most outrageous of all is Kaplan's smear of Chalmers Johnson, whose brilliant book, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, makes the case that imperial overstretch has had disastrous economic consequences – which could manifest themselves in the US in the very near future. Johnson's sin – apparently unforgiveable – is that he pops the hot-air balloon of the Clintonian triumphalists who seek to whitewash every crime with the same old mantra of "we've never had it so good." Kaplan writes:

"Then there is Chalmers Johnson, a prominent Japan specialist, former CIA consultant, and ivory-tower cold warrior who today sees portents of declining American power in everything from the Asian economic meltdown to (in his view, justified) terrorist attacks against US installations. Johnson – whose latest book, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, suggests that one of the chief occupations of American soldiers abroad is to prey on local women – can barely contain his glee at the prospect of an America cut down to size."


To say that Johnson believes terrorist attacks against Americans are "justified" is an outright lie. The author of Blowback merely points out that, in the past, terrorist attacks on US military and civilian targets in, say, Saudi Arabia, have been "blowback" from the unintended consequences of our various activities in that region of the world. If we bomb an aspirin factory in the Sudan because the American chief executive needs to divert attention away from his sexual peccadilloes, at least for a crucial moment, then should we be surprised when the survivors attack US tourists or businesses or American military installations in the region? This is not to justify, but to explain simple cause and effect. Apparently it is unpatriotic – as well as politically incorrect – to point out the sexual wildings routinely indulged in by American centurions abroad, but surely this is a major cause of anti-American feeling in US client states, such as Japan, and especially on the island of Okinawa, which is dealt with in the first chapter of Johnson's well-written and very interesting book. Indeed, what is happening on Okinawa – the literal rape of the country – captures, in microcosm, what the America's empire-builders have in store for the whole world. A more apt metaphor was never invented.


The political implications of the conservative-neocon split on foreign policy are reflected, says Kaplan, in the Bush campaign, with Bush adviser Brent Scowcroft and realist Ricard Haass "balanced" by neocons Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. What he doesn't say is that the latter have the complete upper hand: they won on Kosovo, when it counted, in spite of mighty efforts on the part of the Bush campaign to appear to be splitting the differences. Dubya is reportedly reading Kaplan's The Coming Anarchy, or having it read to him, but one can only speculate how much he actually comprehends. In any case, the executive editor of The National Interest is not really all that peeved at Bush: it's the Republican Congress that really irritates him: "Though he cautions against 'overstretch,' Bush has also repudiated the foreign policy gloom that has become a staple of Republican congressional speechifying."


But unless you're William Cohen, how else is a Republican to view the last eight years of American foreign policy except as an unmitigated disaster? More US military interventions than in the entire fifty years previous, and a new role as the policeman and wet nurse to the world. Also, please note the clever way in which the terms of the debate are colored in the most emotional terms: all opposition to war and other forms of foreign meddling is characterized as "gloom" – while the rabid fulminations of the War Party about this threat and the other are really the exhortations of a sunny optimism.


Another symptom of the conservative anti-imperialists' "pessimism" is their critique of American society as decadent and thus not up to the task of global imperator:

"In their preoccupation with America's moral corruption, the new declinists extend to foreign policy the cultural despair of Paul Weyrich, Robert Bork, and many other pessimists on the right. 'What does it tell about the West,' Huntington asks, 'when Westerners identify their civilization with fizzy liquids, faded pants, and fatty foods?" For Huntington, it tells that the United States is going to hell in a handbasket, subject, like the West as a whole, to 'internal processes of decay.'"


This misses the real point, which is that our old Republic has been corrupted and transformed into an Empire. The conservative noninterventionist case is encapsulated in an old liberal axiom, Lord Acton's aphorism about how "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Imperialism corrupts the nation not only morally, but also politically in that it centralizes power in the hands of the federal executive. We used to have a citizen president, now we have a king who aspires to be an emperor, an imperial hegemon whose rule extends over the whole world. It isn't that we aren't good enough to rule the world – it's just that the effort required to achieve such a goal would soon render us unworthy, if we weren't already.


With the neoconservatives, there is no such thing as intellectual argument, and Kaplan follows this well-traveled polemical route, quoting what he regards as his opponents' outrageous arguments about how we ought to mind our peas and q's and stay out of affairs that don't concern us, and then smearing them in a few short sentences. Thus, he goes on for paragraphs describing how everyone from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison to obscure "declinist" intellectuals are going around talking about the dangers of imposing "gunpoint democracy" – and then out comes the knife:

"And with their reservations about American democracy goes a reflexive sympathy for America's detractors abroad, whether they be Serb, Russian, or Chinese. Singapore's authoritarian 'Asian values,' in particular, have been singled out for praise by Kaplan, Alexander Haig, Henry Kissinger, and other conservative realists."


This has always been the chief argument of the War Party, when push comes to shove: any and all opposition to their war plans is treason, and should be dealt with accordingly. Opposition to intervention means support for the Enemy. The Peace Party is really a "fifth column." This argument is not usually made at the beginning of a foreign policy debate, but is nearly always reserved for the end, as the last and deadliest weapon in the War Party's arsenal. That they are hauling it out so early is evidence that they are getting desperate. There is a rising tide of intellectual as well as popular opinion embracing the noninterventionist insight that our empire has become an albatross hung 'round America's neck, one that will sink us unless we can somehow get rid of it. Kaplan's panic is a good sign, then, that we are closer to our goal than we think.


Kaplan pulls out every old warhorse in the interventionist lexicon: calling up the "appeasers" of the 1930s, the shadow of Hitler is raised, along with hints that the new appeasers are just as dastardly as the old: "Today, as before, the most formidable challenge to that power comes not from Europe, imperial overstretch, or rock and roll but from false prophets in our midst." They are not only false prophets, in Kaplan's view, but really traitors to the sacred cause of Global Democracy and the new politically correct Americanism. The implication that these rightist opponents of global gunpoint "democracy" might be authoritarians or even closet Nazis is raised when Kaplan describes the Huntington-realist critique in the following terms:

"One is the opening of US foreign policy to the influence of historically marginal American ethnic groups ('It is scarcely possible to overstate the influence of Israel's supporters on our policies in the Middle East' complains [former Republican Secretary of Defense James] Schlesinger). Another is the disuniting of America that has resulted from letting 'immigrants from other civilizations' into the country at all. Huntington, for example, frets that a polyglot America 'will not be the United States; it will be the United Nations.'"


The same old smears won't work, this time, because the War party's game is up. Politically, the tide is turning, as the arrogance of America's imperial pretensions strikes ordinary people as un-American – and dangerous. Huntington's insight into the transformative effects of multiculturalism on America's global role has cut to the very heart of the conservative conundrum over the question of their incipient "anti-Americanism": America, the bomber of Belgrade, the murderer of Iraqi children, the scourge of the Sudan and the terror of the world, is no longer itself. The real treason, here, is not in the hearts of the Empire's enemies on the home front, but in those who have usurped the original American ideal and substituted something alien: Kaplan talks about the triumph of the "national creed" as evidence that world hegemony is our right and our duty, but he is speaking, here, not of the American credo but the imperial creed of our former colonial overlords, the British. If, like them, we take the road of Empire, it will be a one-way trek to oblivion. That is the lesson of history – one that conservatives ignore at their peril.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (forthcoming from Prometheus Books).

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