June 29, 2000

A Franco-American Punch & Judy Show

The Warsaw conference on democracy was the meaningless Punch and Judy affair that such events are meant to be. Countries play their assigned roles and try not to fluff their lines. The star of the show was the United States. It played the part of the naïve, generous, idealistic giant – full of grand notions about improving the lot of mankind. The United States supported "democracy." It wanted to create a "community of democracies." The conference would do for "democracy" what the 1975 Helsinki Accords allegedly did for "human rights": set international standards that all signatories would be obliged to live up to. Playing opposite the United States was France. Its role was that of skunk at the picnic. It represented the Old World: calculating, shrewd, realistic, and wedded to cynical power politics. France would refuse to support "democracy." It pointedly refused to sign the document summarizing the principles of the gathering. The French refusal was odd. The declaration had been circulated for comment among participants for weeks before the conference.

But then French posturing against the United States should never be taken very seriously. According to French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, democracy could not be imposed on countries. "The bottom line is that in Western countries the thinking is that democracy is like religion and that all you have to do is convert people," he explained. The French Embassy issued a statement declaring democracy to be "not a matter which allows sweeping generalizations….The specifics of each case should be taken into consideration." Banal platitudes like these invariably pass for profundities in the Qui d'Orsay. In insightfulness, they are on a par with fulminations about America as the "hyperpower" or the curse of the Big Mac. None the less the hideous harridan of Foggy Bottom made a show of defensiveness: "We did not come to Warsaw to impose democracy – for that is a contradiction in terms. Dictators impose; democracy is chosen….Nor is democracy a religion but it is a faith that has lifted the lives of people in every corner of the globe."

That's the story for the children, eagerly lapped up by the media. Democracy versus Realpolitik; New World versus Old World; idealism versus cynicism. In reality, of course, French and American foreign policies are indistinguishable. France is America's junior partner in the establishment of a US-dominated Western empire. In fact, France, like some neurotic little pup, is even more eager than the United States to intervene everywhere in the world. For years it has been hankering to return to Africa. France has been an eager participant in the destruction of Yugoslavia. Just last week, it joined the United States in banning the Yugoslavia's UN envoy from taking part in the UN Security Council debate on the Balkans. France rails at Russia's use of force in Chechnya. France condemns Peru's Fujimori even more vehemently than Washington. And so on.

Oddly enough, the fraudulence of this supposed clash among the Western powers was shown up by one of Washington's most ardent champions of empire. Writing in the Washington Post, Robert Kagan poured scorn on the conference: "The democratic world has become a bit flaccid and is in a more forgiving mood than it was a decade ago….[P]romoting democracy where it doesn't exist? Setting off a Fourth Wave? That's not part of the agenda….Attendees include such notable democracies as Algeria, Egypt, Kenya and Yemen." Exactly. The United States is no more in the business of promoting democracy than France is. The whole point of a conference like this is to create not a community of democracies, but a community of client-states. Those who attend become eligible for American largesse: A World Bank loan; an IMF credit facility; a grant from the NED or the USIA; removal of the odd tariff; help with securing investment; and if all else fails a Presidential visit. The French do not have as much money to throw around as the Americans. So they get a little peeved. But, thanks to the European Union, they will soon be in the big-time patronage business.

If the French did not exist, they would have to be invented. There is nothing US policymakers – not to mention the denizens of Washington's little magazines and think tanks – love to talk about more than the promotion of democracy. In reality, of course, US foreign policy has never – not even under Woodrow Wilson – been about making the world safe for democracy. Whenever national interests dictated, the United States did not hesitate to align itself with the most unsavory dictators around. To be sure, Washington often discarded them once they outlived their usefulness. Noriega, Somoza, Duvalier, Marcos, Diem, Suharto, Muhammad Shah Pahlavi, were all victims of a change of priorities in Washington. Such ruthless abandonment of former close pals is what "neo-conservatives" often mean by "promoting democracy." Championing "democracy" – it used to be "human rights" – enables liberals to justify bombing, starvation, overthrowing legitimate governments. Republicans have no problems with the policy. They just hate the talk of "democracy" to justify it. They much prefer the soothing sounds of pennies accumulating in the bank. Republicans want to bomb a country to make it safe for US investment. Democrats want to bomb it to make it safe for American-style democracy. The policy is the same. The consequences are the same.

This is why Republicans have always ended up supporting Democratic interventions. It is why elections are so tedious. To the individual actors involved, who wields power in Washington is all-important. US elections are endlessly fascinating to the tiny coterie of journalist, lobbyists and politicians, but of no interest whatsoever to the rest of us. Every four years, the candidates hurl abuse at one another. Whoever wins ends up pursuing the same policy as the one who lost would have done. The Bush Administration sponsored the breakup of Yugoslavia, recognizing the Moslem-dominated state of Bosnia. Candidate Clinton attacked Bush for being insufficiently pro-Moslem. Candidate George W. attacks the Clinton Administration for not waging war against the Serbs ferociously enough. Candidate Clinton attacked George W.'s father for coddling the "Butchers of Beijing." Today, George W. attacks Clinton for not caring enough about human rights in China and not doing enough for Taiwan.

Yet there is something sinister going on in this election. Gore and his acolytes in the media are so desperate to win that they are willing to silence all debate on the desirability of the US Empire. Recently, Al Gore attacks George W. for allegedly being unwilling to "intervene to relieve even the brutal repression of ethnic cleansing and genocide." – this despite Bush's shameful support for Clinton's bombing caper last year. The New Republic, now little more than a Gore campaign handout, has come up with an ingenious way of attacking George W. Bush. Though there is not the slightest evidence for it, the magazine is trying to show that Bush – or the people around him – are opponents of American interventionism. Moreover, they are motivated by hatred of America and the conviction that America is in decline. It is difficult to convey fully the scurrilous nature of Lawrence Kaplan's recent New Republic article. How contemptible this magazine has become was apparent from the heading that went with the piece. "Guess who hates America?," it asked. Answer: "Conservatives." To suggest that if you do not support US Government policy you "hate America" is about the lowest one can descend to. Lawrence Kaplan's is a style of writing that we have become familiar with from the "neo-conservatives." He sticks suggestive, slanderous labels on people he disagrees with, as if he had thereby demonstrated the erroneous nature of their thinking. In the past, we have seen terms like "Anti-Semitic" and "isolationist" being used like this. Kaplan adds "declinist" and "pessimist" to the repertoire. "Declinism," he explains, is a way of thinking engaged in by "tough-minded foreign policy 'realists', conservatives in the Kissingerian mold who have somehow managed to locate in one of history's most lopsided victories the seeds of an even greater defeat." It is based on hostility "toward the American idea itself." Kaplan offers no evidence to support his sweeping statements. Though it is evident that his argument is little more than tautology. Since he defines the American in a particular and tendentious fashion, Those who disagree with him must, therefore, be hostile to the "American idea." And just who are these terrible "declinists," Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington is one. Then there is Robert D. Kaplan "credited by the media with…persuading President Clinton to delay US intervention in Bosnia. (Texas Governor George W. Bush, too, claims Kaplan at the top of his reading list.)" Now, in the first place there is something repellent about mentioning a distinguished political scientist like Huntington in the same breath as an ignorant fraud like Robert Kaplan. Second, Kaplan has always been an ardent supporter of US intervention in the Balkans.

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George Szamuely was born in Budapest, Hungary, educated in England, and has worked as an editorial writer for The Times (London), The Spectator (London), and the Times Literary Supplement (London). In America, he has been equally busy: as an associate at the Manhattan Institute, editor at Freedom House, film critic for Insight, research consultant at the Hudson Institute, and as a weekly columnist for the New York Press. Szamuely has contributed to innumerable publications including Commentary, American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, American Scholar, Orbis, Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Criterion. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Wednesday.

Go to George Szamuely's latest column from the New York Press.

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Holy Toledo: The Canonization of Alejandro Toledo

Into Africa

Vietnam: Lessons Not Learned

A Monster, At Home and Abroad

Embassy Bombing: Accidentally on Purpose

"Anti- Americanism," Pose and Reality

Punch & Judy at The New Republic

The New World Order and You

Baiting the Russian Bear

Forever Munich: The Kagan-Kristol Thesis

The American Conquest of Europe

The Media & Mitrovica: NATO's Handmaidens

The Amazing Colossal Arrogance of Bill Kristol

William Safire: Man With A Mission

Uncle Sam Says: "To Hell With Elections"

The Fatuous Mind of Condolezza Rice

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If Things Are So Good, Why Are They So Bad?

Lawrence Kaplan's list of villains goes on and on. There is Former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. He had argued that "America's combination of 'internal weaknesses' and 'national hubris' is speeding its fall from preeminence." This quote alone suggests that this is something Schlesinger would not find desirable. There is Richard Haass, yet another "adviser to George W" He has said: " 'US superiority will not last. As power diffuses around the world, America's position relative to others will inevitably erode.'" Fairly routine Foreign Affairs stuff, I would have thought. Yet it is enough to make Kaplan apoplectic. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas alleges that "gunpoint democracy" is "draining our own resources." The horror! The horror! And then there are, of course, the Congressional Republicans who "rue the steep price that America's 'universalistic' pretensions have exacted." Interestingly enough, Kaplan omits from this list of the wicked, one of Washington's leading foreign policy "realists": his boss at the National Interest, Owen Harries. An oversight, surely.

"In the Bush campaign," Kaplan explains, the gloomy views of Haass and his like-minded mentor, Bush adviser Brent Scowcroft, are balanced by prominent neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle….[T]he Bush campaign straddles a gap in conservative foreign policy thinking that has been growing wider over the past several years: between neocons who viewed the cold war as a struggle for American ideals and realists who saw it as a classic struggle between two great powers. The former want post-cold-war U.S. foreign policy to continue to reflect the American creed, while the latter espouse a definition of national interest rooted in the unsentimental language of realpolitik." All of this begs so many questions. Why is Realpolitik synonymous with "declinism"? Why is Realpolitik the same as "hating America"?

And then Kaplan gets down to it: "But the danger is precisely that the declinists will influence Republican policy and Republican presidents. For the quintessentially European inclination to accommodate and adapt to decline, to surrender control over one's destiny…all too easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy….That despair is, and always has been, destructive to the cause of self-preservation. It was exactly this inclination that during the 1930s drove British conservatives to appeasement and their French counterparts to yearn for defeat. And it is having a similar effect today among American conservatives. But then, for the new declinists, willing American power into eclipse is the whole point. Beneath the technocratic jargon, the urgent demands that the United States accommodate itself to hitherto indiscernible 'facts'…all betray a yearning to see US power erode." In other words, George W. Bush, champion of higher defense spending; promoter of Missile Defenses; supporter of NATO expansion, arms for Taiwan, and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, is almost an appeaser. He would be quite happy to preside over an America in decline. If Bush is this bad, what about the real critics of Empire? What is to be done with them? Stay tuned for what the New Republic has in store for such purveyors of "hate speech."

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