I do not disagree lightly with Will Wilkinson, for whom I have great respect. He is one of the smartest and most intellectually honest commentators I know of. But I think he’s being a bit naive in this defense of America’s “moral idealism” when it comes to foreign policy. Wilkinson is not a neo-con, not even close, and he generally rejects foreign wars, including the invasion of Iraq.
But he nonetheless wants to believe that even when the U.S. government is wrong in its foreign military adventures, its heart is in the right place — that it’s really motivated by a moral idealism concerning the need to spread freedom and democracy around the world. He writes:
Perhaps Mr Franzen had Operation Iraqi Freedom in mind. Still… I’ve always opposed that war, but one must admit that overthrowing a dictatorial government does have a good deal to do with freedom in its most straightforward political sense. I have never understood the glib reflex, which Mr Franzen seems to display here in his quip about SUVs, to deny the moral idealism behind America’s wars in the Middle East. George W. Bush believed it when he said that “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world”, and that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” Heady stuff.
Even the hardened neo-con architects of the war in Iraq are idealists of sorts, sincerely believing that frequent displays of America’s awesome power to wreak devastation and death prevent even deadlier wars and make more favourable the chance that freedom will flourish worldwide. The United States is “causing enormous trouble around the world” not due to some muddled idea of freedom, but due to a mixed-up conviction that America is special, the vanguard of providence, called forth unto the world with the righteous sword of liberation. If America is “almost a rogue state”, it is because our Pharisaic self-infatuation encourages us to see ourselves as a colossus of emancipation both able and obligated to stomp around the globe making it safe for democracy.
This would be a lot more believable if the last 140 years had not been filled with one foreign adventure after another — and here I include not just military invasions but also CIA-sponsored coups and the propping up of dictators with American economic and military aid — that supported brutal dictators all over the world.
I can’t imagine how one finds a “moral idealism” in favor of freedom and democracy in American actions to install and prop up brutal dictators like Reza Pahlevi in Iran or Suharto in Indonesia (and one could go on with a very long list of similar tyrants on the American payroll).
Even if we limit our attention to Iraq, the notion that our government was genuinely motivated by a desire to spread freedom and democracy in that country is belied by the fact that we helped put Hussein in power, helped keep him in power with aid and even supplied him with the chemical and biological weapons he used against Iran and against his own people.
We certainly weren’t concerned about freedom and democracy as long as he was doing our bidding in the Middle East. Only when he got all mavericky and invaded Kuwait did we suddenly get concerned about the freedom of the people we had long helped him oppress.
American foreign policy is not premised on any such moral idealism. When brutal dictators do our bidding, we don’t care what they do to their own people with the money and weapons we give them. When they stop being compliant lapdogs — e.g. Marcos in the Phillipines, Noriega in Panama and Hussein — do we suddenly begin to invoke the ideals of freedom and democracy.
Wars and invasions are always sold on the basis of either necessity or a moral crusade, but those things are merely part of the marketing campaign. They rarely have any genuine relationship to the actual reasons for our actions.