Saturday, December 4, 2010

America's Two Faces | Republic or Empire

America's Two Faces | Stephen M. Walt

Some perspective on this question by looking at History, specifically the history of Britain's bargain with Hitler before WWII and how that affected the British public's view of their society and its role int he world. I am presently reading Cleopatra by the historian Stacy Schiff and that history is set at the Transition for the Roman empire from Republic to Dictatorship. The picture of Roman politics with its anything to gain power impetus and the hurling of lies and epithets between political opponents (Marc Anthony and Octavian) show a disturbing parallel to present day American political life, from the lies and propaganda to the bread and circuses for the masses.

Stephen Waite comments on a essay called "Post Munich" in the Novel Two Cheers for Democracy by EM Forester: "The essay is called "Post-Munich," and it is a reflection, written in 1939, on the curious political psychology that gripped England after Chamberlain made his deal with Hitler. He describes the country as in a strange double-state: still deeply fearful, and yet simultaneously distractible by the routines of life promised through the deal. Here is what Forster writes:

'This state of being half-frightened and half-thinking about something else at the same time is the state of many English people today. It is worth examining, partly because it is interesting, partly because, like all mixed states, it can be improved by thought.'

Forster goes on to describe why it is so hard to break free and face what needs to be done:

'We are urged. . . to face facts, and we ought to. But we can only face them by being double-faced. The facts lie in opposite directions, and no exhortation will group them into a single field. No slogan works. All is lost if the totalitarians destroy us. But all is equally lost if we have nothing left to lose.'" If you just substitute terrorists for totalitarians and terrorism for fascism, you have a pretty good picture of our politics today. But here's the important question this raises in my mind:

Why, I ask myself, does the United States today seem like England after Munich? The Taliban are not Hitler. I think it is because we have indulged this same appeasement, but with ourselves. We are on both sides of the bargain: we are the world's threatening tyrant, and we are the world's best hope for freedom. And rather than fight out that battle, we have decided we can have it both ways. We have walked up to the fundamental choice that we face about our role in the world, and we have made a Munich pact with ourselves instead of choosing liberty and democracy for all. The point here is that it is as unstable and unholy a pact as Munich. It will come undone, and it should come undone. But then the real choice and the real peril will confront us."

My reaction: I reproduced his email because I think Chris is on to something (just as Forster was back in 1939). Americans think we ought to be managing the whole world, but we shouldn't have to pay taxes or sacrifice our way of life in order to do it. We use our military machine to kill literally tens of thousands of Muslims in different countries, and then we are surprised when a handful of them get mad and try (usually not every effectively) to hit us back. But then we docilely submit to all sorts of degrading and costly procedures at airports, because we demand to be protected from threats whose origins we've been refusing to talk about honestly for years. We are constantly warned about grave dangers, secret plots, impending confrontations, slow-motion crises, etc., and we are told that these often hypothetical scenarios justify compromising liberties here at home and engaging in practices (torture, targeted assassinations, preventive missile strikes at suspected terrorists, etc.) that we would roundly condemn if anyone else did them. We think it is an outrage when North Korea shells a South Korean island and kills four people, (correct), yet it is just "business as usual" when one of our drones hits some innocent civilians in Pakistan or Yemen. We have disdain for our politics and our politicians, but instead of questioning the institutions and practices that fuel this dysfunction, we indulge in fairy tales about so-called leaders who will somehow lead us out of the darkness."

Wait Concludes:
"...the lesson here is that the United States cannot be a republic and an empire, because the latter inevitably ends up corrupting the former. This is the central point raised by the late Chalmers Johnson (who passed away last week), by Andrew Bacevich, and by a number of other thoughtful people. It is an issue that gets raised in various corners of the blogosphere, but hardly ever in the mainstream press and certainly not at most of the think tanks and talk shops inside the Beltway, most of whom are devoted custodians of energetic international activism. And until that debate starts happening in a serious way, we will continue to stumble about, simultaneously bearing the weight of the world and being afraid of our own shadow. "

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