May 22, 2000
A few weeks ago, I was innocently cruising the web, when I stumbled on an essay which denounced American business for failure to warmonger. That was an interesting and serious charge. As I scrolled down, great clumps of unalloyed neo-conservative doctrine came tumbling down, as I recall, to the tune of "Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to read Kristol."
Unluckily, I forgot to bookmark this striking contribution to Late American Thought, and only found my way back to it yesterday. Just as I might have suspected, it appeared on the website of The American Perpetrator – I'm sorry, Purpose (from vol. 12, #1 [Spring/Summer 1998]) – and, with growing concern, it dawned on me that the writer could only be one of the Elliotts. But which one?
Not T. S., to be sure, high-modernist though he was. Nor was it Elliott Ness, for he was but a domestic interventionist. That left roughly two possibilities and – I shall not keep the reader in suspense – it was, in fact, Elliott Abrams, and he ain't heavy, he's a neo.
Some will recall that Mr. Abrams had a spot of trouble involving Contras, Iranians, and being as truthful when speaking to Congress as the average Congressman is when speaking to the people. It is a time best forgotten. Anyway, I have nothing against those conservatives whose prefix is "neo," except of course for their ideas, especially on foreign affairs.
So, taking the
high road, I restrict myself to the argument made in the essay in question.
Abrams' hammer quickly falls on the 18th-century truism that trade
promotes peace. Adam Smith, Tom Paine, and many others believed this. In Abrams'
view, they were clearly deluded. Obviously, it is
American power that makes trade possible and brings peace to the world just ask the Serbs and Iraqis. Trade helps, of course, but with trade left to itself, the world would be left to itself, which is entirely unacceptable. Countless potential moral prescriptions would go unfilled. "Take two fairly honest elections, and call me in the morning. If I'm out, call my consultant, Dr. Carter."
Leaving aside the question of which shady medical school gave Dr. Sam his degree in Universal Social Phrenology and what licensing board told him he could practice wherever, whenever, and however he pleased, there is the small matter of patient consent. There is also the issue of whether or not "destroying the village to save it" really conforms to the Hippocratic Oath, assuming Uncle Sam and his agents and factotums ever took the oath.
But I wander off my subject. Mr. Abrams is at pains to indict the moral judgment of business "lobbies" – USA*Engage, the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Foreign Trade Council – when they intrude upon Uncle Sam's worldwide enforcement of righteousness. They are, he suggests, perilously close to the sort of thing that all those "trading with the enemy" acts were meant to prevent. Of course this calls for a rather openhanded definition of "enemy."
Mr. Abrams does not deny that trade can soften those un-American regimes, but, gosh, it's just too slow. I suppose that bombing and starving those "enemies" is more dramatic and does produce quicker results. From what I read, however, the results are generally not what they were forecast to be. Indeed, US aggression and blockades, so far, seem only to kill and brutalize sundry foreigners without actually toppling, or even unduly inconveniencing, the regimes about whose conduct Uncle is, from time to time, upset. I mean, you might conceivably dredge up a case where Uncle has toppled a regime, but the ones that come to my mind – like the late, unlamented Somoza regime – involve governments which Uncle invented, bankrolled, pampered, and then jettisoned at the last possible minute, when their liabilities created revolutionary situations beyond recall. Uncle is very good at acting surprised when these things happen. He's had so much practice. Besides, Dr. Frankenstein ought to be able to topple his own monsters once in a while, otherwise his quacksalver's license might be lifted.
But, no, Mr. Abrams is proud of how the Reaganites, instead of washing their hands of the gang in El Salvador, got right in there with constructive engagement and set to work "professionalizing the army and police." And rightly so – it's worked so well here at home, too. Makes sense to me. Keep handing these guys lethal weapons, pay their bills, and see to their training in crowd control and peasant-smashing, and then counteract the predictable results with a few ad-hoc courses in Kantian Ethics. Works every time. What Kant himself would think, I can't say.
The former South Africa is a case in point. Left to themselves, the greedy US capitalists would have just gone on violating South African law – which the South African regime had lost the heart to enforce, anyway by promoting qualified people, without regard to race, under the famous Sullivan Principles, instead of selling used tires and petrol to the comrades. Congress, driven forward by high moral fervor (not to mention domestic US ethnic politics) mandated sanctions, and those, in the end, we are told brought about the new, peaceful, democratic South Africa. I'm surprised that so few liberals and neo-cons have immigrated to the new paradise, but I suppose they have prior commitments.
It's a good thing that Congress steps in to keep businessmen moral, as in South Africa, Cuba, and China, otherwise they would be cooperating with "REPRESSION." What exactly is it that they are doing within US borders, one wonders, if not cooperating with repression? But never mind, there is only one international Judge Roy Bean and we all know who that is. He won't let "his" businesses stray off the reservation. The wicked Canadians, by contrast, trade with Cuba, and thereby take moral responsibility for everything old Fidel and his minions do. And all for a few cigars.
How trade could ever take place at all, if trade's necessary precondition is a complete resolution of all the world's disagreements and woes, is hard to say. Mr. Abrams is not troubled. In that he reminds me of John McCain's role-model, the ineffable Teddy Roosevelt, who was always fulminating about the "cowardice" of the business classes. But Teddy always wanted a war. You have to wonder whether he had some unresolved anger problems….
In addition, Teddy – like his cousin FDR was a son of the landed gentry of upstate New York. Such people are "above" the grasping upper bourgeoisie with their dirty factories, their productivity, and their bottom lines. The latter are useful people, to be sure, but they don't know how to build an empire – not without some retraining. No vision, you see.
But all this is mere prelude. Mr. Abrams wishes to justify "sanctions" and silence those who fail to understand their merits. Business critics of sanctions argue, he reports, that unilateral sanctions must work badly, whereas multilateral sanctions would work well. Clearly, he's dealing with rather wimpy opponents of sanctions, so wimpy in fact as to call to mind a certain gun manufacturer's recent, brilliant, head-on approach to gun-control.
Abrams invokes Hans Morgenthau to show how hard it is to conjure up a concert of nations every time Uncle Sam has a moral twinge closely connected to other, more sordid interests of his. (The "sordid interest" bit is mine, not Morgenthau's.) Hence, we can't count on multilateral sanctions. Yet sanctions there must be. This is because, without them, there would be "just two alternatives: words or war."
Not to go all 19th century on you, but I should have thought that sanctions amount to a blockade, and blockades, traditionally, were acts of war. If so, the proposed distinction between sanctions and war falls short of the mark, if it does not wholly collapse. This leaves us with a choice between 1) war, 2) war, and 3) words.
Neo-conservatives are not against stacking the deck, it seems, nor are they much for words, when there are so many wrongs to be righted and only ONE moral arbiter this side of the galaxy. Their unexamined assumption of superior American morality stands completely divorced from any realistic assessment of US practice in this century. Abrams asserts that the American people demand that Uncle moralize and threaten "everywhere in the world" (to quote FDR). This shows how wonderful the people are. In sooth, special interests, axe-grinding academics, and other usual suspects push their projects through the legislative sausage-machine. At this point, the people are asked to approve or disapprove initiatives which the Paper of Record and its nationally-owned "local" counterparts have taught them to cherish. Sometimes, they appear to approve. What this demonstrates is less than clear.
Carrying forward his case against selfish, narrow business critics of sanctions, Abrams asserts that "only money, not blood, is at stake." Aside from the pseudo-aristocratic and anti-economic contrast between money and blood, both of which are of importance to real, acting human beings, this formulation gives the game away by exposing the tunnel vision of the sanction-mongers. Yes, American companies lose a little money, while no American blood is shed – since sanctions do fall short of war by not requiring a contest involving equal risk, honor, bravery, and the other traditional warrior virtues on both sides. If no one but Americans lived in the world, this might be an open-and-shut case. But a million and more dead Iraqi civilians later, the morality of sanctions seems a bit suspect. So don't tell us that "only money, not blood, is at stake," please, without first telling us who is and who isn't bleeding.
Holding foreign populations hostage for the actions of their leaders implies that they already enjoy "democracy" – the absence of which, however, is said to show the evil of the various "rogue" regimes. If there is a contradiction here, it is not of my making. When all is said and done, just what the hell is so great about fostering "democracy" all over the world? What business of ours is it if people in other lands live under a monarch, an annoying aristocracy obsessed with fork placement, or an upstart dictator? One could easily be freer under an absent-minded king or tyrant than under the watchful eyes of the neo-Puritan schoolmarms who now infest the republic. Read the last few chapters of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, for a realistic and detailed anticipation of the regime under which we presently live.
In happier days before the old New Right (1955-1970, more or less) coalesced with the neo-conservatives former social democrats mugged by the New Left, as the saying goes William F. Buckley used to write about "democracy" as an empty dogma. The modern obsession with method, he said, had raised participation by all sentient life-forms in periodic elections to a first principle. At that time, liberals were still winning elections.
Times changed, and ever pragmatic, liberals suddenly spied drawbacks in democracy. One drawback was the American people, who inexplicably refused to take step #7 of the 10 steps to social democracy. Actually, it may be 500 steps; no one really knows. As the despicable Redleg officer in Outlaw Josey Wales says, "Doin' right ain't got no end."
So the people weren't taking the steps not on schedule, anyway. This was partly the fault of mean old George Wallace, out there settin' the woods on fire. This proved that democracy wasn't everything. To have everything, you must control the Supreme Court, which can tease socialist/statist imperatives out of even the most uncooperative 18th-century "text." Failing that, the Nine Delphi must at least block any rollback of previous liberal achievements.
Not to worry, however. "Democracy" was still a damned good export product. The whole world ought to have it – and quick – under detailed US supervision, of course. You wouldn't want those crazy foreigners making mistakes and electing leaders opposed to US "interests," whatever those might be. Elected leaders like Mossadegh, Arbenz, Milosevic, Ho Chi Minh, Haider…. Clearly, democracy needs careful guidance backed up with aerial sorties.
I have not done justice to Mr. Abrams' essay. It would take a Mark Twain or an H. L. Mencken to do that. It is well-written and tightly argued. If the premises were correct and the logical linkages held up, it might sway the intellectuals and dazzle the masses. As it is, however, it will only convince the heirs of a certain northeastern, Yankee outlook, to whom Uncle – under their advice and direction, of course embodies the Puritans' City on a Hill. The Beatles had a different phrase, which may be more to the point.
One more thing: it bears mentioning that "economic warfare" – so esteemed by recent US administrations as a clever mechanism "short of [real] war" – has never worked very well, if by "working" we mean that it should have had, in its results, some very rough approximation to the alleged purposes of the economic warriors themselves. Sad to say, our own Thomas Jefferson showed this with his absurd, criminally unconstitutional, and divisive embargo. The embargo almost ruined the northeastern carrying trade and utterly failed to "coerce" Britain and revolutionary France into doing anything they didn't wish to do anyway. It almost drove New England into secession and that, I admit, has its attractions, but the price was far too high.
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