Late last year, I gave a talk at a university debating society on the subject of ‘Evangelical Democracy and Exemplary Democracy’. I can’t imagine my argument would have been well received by the theorists of globalisation who dominate American opinion on international relations. But these were not IR types or neoconservatives. Young neoconservatives (but ‘young’ is a tricky word: their parents are almost always in it) look forward to careers of power and are subsidised in college by well-funded journals and paid summer internships at prestigious think tanks. The undergraduates I spoke to were interested in political ideas, and I was offering a contrast anyone could have worked up from two easily available archives: the foreign policy speeches of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney (as well as the National Security Strategy of September 2002, largely written by Condoleezza Rice); and a few celebrated statements about the duties and limitations of democracy by John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.

Adams’s 1821 Independence Day address to the House of Representatives was delivered while he was secretary of state in the administration of James Monroe. A sceptic might see this speech as a cover for the Monroe Doctrine (the first American declaration of hemispheric hegemony); yet ideals have their own history, and sometimes outlive the practice of those who promulgate them. Adams said to the members of Congress that the United States, in its first four decades, had ‘respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own’. Its abstention from wars of choice had been observed ‘even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings’; and, facing the contests in the Old World between ‘emerging right’ and ‘inveterate power’, America had given its prayers but never its arms to the struggle for freedom.

At this point, Adams uttered a prophecy against the doctrine that now goes by the name of ‘force projection’. America ‘goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.’ America, he concluded, will ‘commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example’. So democratic proselytism, on Adams’s view, ought to be confined to the force of example. Every empire thinks itself superior, deserving or generous (or all three at once); but Adams saw that self-deception as well as cruelty was a danger of ‘all the wars of interest and intrigue’ (he means all wars except those of immediate self-preservation or rebellion against despotism). Wars generally are driven by ‘avarice, envy and ambition’, and foreign wars in the cause of liberty always subvert liberty in principle: the character of our ends must change in the service of violent, rash and unnecessary means, because it is the nature of action to change the actor. If America ever deluded itself with the idea of exporting democracy, ‘the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force’. In this way, America ‘might become the dictatress of the world; she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.’

To be literal and anachronistic: you do not devastate a country in a war of choice, smash its generators and lines of electrical supply, and watch while its governing class is assassinated and its middle class put to flight, and the remaining beneficiaries fitted out with a tribal constitution that invites sectarian warfare – you don’t do all this with impunity in the moral world, or in the world of nations. You don’t do it, that is, without becoming the sort of country that does these things. Such was Adams’s perception. We lose the distinction of being exemplary when we choose the path of imposition and monstrous benevolence.

Lincoln, the hero of every American ‘war president’, did not want to fight a war to abolish slavery. His method was to talk down the fury and the heat, a choice that served him well when war came. But he had preferred a plan of ‘compensated emancipation’, with money paid to the owners who freed their slaves – a design to be completed over a generation in order to soften the concussion of the new political relations. His ameliorative tendency shows most plainly in the earliest of his celebrated speeches – the Lyceum address of 1838, with its appeal to ‘sober reason’ and strict adherence to the law as the cure for the ‘mobocratic’ spirit – and in his last speeches: the Second Inaugural (‘with malice toward none; with charity for all’), and the speech on reconstruction that followed it.

Yet Lincoln opposed slavery without reservation. He believed that the imposition of slavery – not only on black people but on the manners, the morale and the laws of a society based on ‘certain inalienable rights’ – had to be resisted. And when the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court in 1857 denied negroes all the rights of citizenship (and claimed that the constitutional founders had always intended to deny those rights), he made a speech against Chief Justice Taney’s majority opinion. Lincoln’s purpose here was to explain the sense the founders must have given to the words ‘all men are created equal’: ‘They defined, with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal – equal in “certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. This they said, and this meant.’

But Lincoln suspected that their design was broader: ‘They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly laboured for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colours everywhere.’ This suggestive passage has been taken to supply a warrant for the 21st-century faith in evangelical democracy. One often felt these words in the background or closely echoed in the speeches of George W. Bush around the time of the Iraq invasion. They also find a resemblance – adapted to a mind less sombre than Lincoln’s, more given to enthusiastic postures – in the political transcendentalism of Tony Blair.

The Blair-Bush misreading, as I see it, comes from dwelling on the words ‘constantly’ and ‘everywhere’ and ignoring the rest of Lincoln’s sentence. He was speaking of a standard, not of a visible and magnetised point in space; an ideal rather than a stimulant. It is a fact traceable in all the political choices of his life that Lincoln did not believe this standard could be transferred to other people by force, not even the force of a benign liberator. A decade before the Dred Scott speech, he had opposed the Mexican War, calling it just such a war of interest and intrigue as Adams had warned against. And he believed slavery was wrong not chiefly because it violated a love of freedom that is planted in every human soul (to borrow the theological language of Blair and Bush), since he took a very circumscribed view of the content of our souls. He hated slavery because it was a violent imposition. So, too, is war; and the only justification for a war against slavery was the threat that slavery might be extended to the new territories of North America. That would diminish the hope that democracy could civilise itself in America by ‘lifting artificial weights from all shoulders’. It would also destroy the exemplary value of the United States as a large republic that governed itself peacefully by a limited popular sovereignty. The idealism of the great passage by Lincoln is vivid and startling; but it takes care to withhold any metaphorical suggestion that democracy is a substance that can be exported.

The idea that our way of life is the natural way for everyone leads to a conclusion at odds with both Adams and Lincoln: that the purer a democracy is, the more inevitably it tends towards empire. Yet this was the consensus reached by Blair and Bush in the years 2003-6. Commercial democracy wants to expand, people everywhere want it (or they will as soon as they know what it really is), and the right response is to press for its general adoption. Globalisation had been the unifying term for Blair and Clinton. Democracy and war became the words of choice in 2002, because, together, they were sufficiently vague to cover the differences between the technocratic ideology of Blair and the aristocratic populism of a second-generation Texas oil-man. The proper parental figure for this pair could hardly be Lincoln, who was a believer in human progress, but in the dry, instructed, melancholy way of Mill and Darwin; a believer without an ounce of utopian fervour.

A truer source is John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address of 20 January 1961. This was a Cold War speech, clear and sure of itself, made weightier by Churchillian echoes and calibrated for delivery by a young president who wanted to reflect his predecessor’s vaunted military realism. But Kennedy also offered himself as a bearer of visionary hopes; a new enterprise and courage were to be looked for, with patience and a soldier’s knowledge that war is to be avoided. The Second World War was close to his listeners – closer than the Cold War is to us now – when Kennedy uttered his stirring promise:

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

A man who had survived the sinking of his torpedo boat in the Pacific could talk of being ‘tempered by war’ and have it count as understatement. Yet this prepares for the parallel phrase, ‘disciplined by a hard and bitter peace’, which is a notably flattering description of the mania and secrecy and experimental ‘brinkmanship’ of the Cold War on both sides. The evangelical moment comes with the pledge by Kennedy that the United States will be ‘unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing’ of the right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness anywhere. The United States had in fact recently witnessed and permitted the suppression of such rights in the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and there was nothing unexpected about our refusal to go to war over it. No nation has ever sustained an emancipationist foreign policy, free of prudential calculations (to say nothing of ordinary ambition and greed).

But Kennedy had not yet finished his appeal to national magnanimity and self-love. He asked other nations to recognise that ‘we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of this liberty.’ And here we pass from the pleasing illusion to the dangerous falsehood; for Kennedy (however craftily qualified by Pericles) was saying something any politician must know to be false. There has never been a nation that would ‘pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship’, except in the cause of self-preservation. In the Second World War, Britain came far closer to such a sacrifice than the United States, but the bombing of London was a constant reminder that Britain was fighting for its life. The Soviet Union sacrificed far more than Britain, but again, for reasons of necessity: it was fighting to throw off an occupying and enslaving army.

Perhaps without quite seeing that his speech could be felt to look back to the 1940s as well as ahead to the 1960s, Kennedy here lent support to a myth that has grown much stronger in the 21st century: the myth that the Second World War was fought by the Allies for reasons of benevolence and generosity. The trouble with the idea of the good and generous war is that it leads to the launching of wars of choice that can then be ‘shaped’ to benevolent ends. But war is a way of killing people whom you intend to kill and always also killing many more in addition; a process in which the destruction is certain, the renovation conjectural and usually wishful. Honest speech about war must omit every adjective: not only glorious and noble but also pre-emptive, preventive, short, limited, compassionate, justified, just.

My talk was received with some challenge on points of detail, but without hostility and with less surprise than might have been expected. (It would have had a tougher time with an audience of young liberals, who think intervention a natural pursuit for a great power.) A cause, I think, of the sympathetic response is the pronounced libertarian streak that persists in many conservatives. Some of them have read and all profess to admire the constitution and the Bill of Rights; this in contrast with neoconservatives, whose politics are thoroughly statist and whose methods of organisation and influence owe much to Communism. The ‘global war on terrorism’ gave the neoconservatives their moment of ‘blending in’, just as the Popular Front against Fascism gave the Communists their moment. Conservatives of the older sort have always preferred to speak of individual rights, and against the aggrandisement of the state, and though outnumbered at present in the mainstream media, they enjoy the advantage that their ideology matches that of the American founders.

If you look back now at the evangelical democracy of Bush and Blair, what seems most striking is its posture of exhibited unselfishness. Maybe it was this – a trait both of rhetoric and of character – that libertarian conservatives found most deeply repellent in both men. I am thinking of the anti-evangelical temper of a magazine like the American Conservative or a politician like Chuck Hagel or Ron Paul. Such people often prefer to think themselves selfish, in a sense that relates to self-restraint. ‘I decide for myself and I don’t trust anyone who wants to decide for someone else’ might be their credo if they were much given to credos. They talk sparingly in public about ‘the good’, and do not especially look to find the good in politics, or to induce it in others by political or military means.

Compare the eloquence of Blair in October 2001: ‘The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world.’ What a curious piece of misplaced aestheticism. But it can’t be denied that the man who spoke those words had taken care to be moved himself before he moved others. The odd combination, in Blair himself, of the man of power and the man of fine feelings was also probably a necessary ingredient in assuring Bush that he was even more right than he realised. The contribution of Blair was all important, too, in bringing a large portion of mainstream American opinion-makers into the van of the war party in 2002. Many of these were the young men of the 1960s, brave now in their middle years and, after Kosovo, hungry for more good wars. In the immediate aftermath of ‘shock and awe’ in Iraq, they disclaimed Bush but loved to cite Blair as proof of the ultimate decency of the devastation.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia was understood to have been a signal accomplishment of military humanism; and this view is unlikely to be challenged by any candidate in the election of 2008. To the Clintons, the defence of Kosovo stands as a vindication of their ideas of liberal intervention, with the lightest of casualties among the peace-keepers. Kosovo supplied the rhetorical bridge on which John McCain passed from an early prejudice against foreign entanglements – in Lebanon in 1983 for example – to the uncompromising militarism that now defines his stance toward Iraq, Iran, China, Russia, and Palestine. Barack Obama, though more sceptical than McCain or Clinton regarding war as an instrument of policy, nonetheless has preferred advisers, including, until recently, Samantha Power, who take a very enlarged view of the obligations of the West to spread our regime of universal rights by military means if necessary.

The Kosovo war now seems in many ways to have been a dress rehearsal for Iraq. A delicately publicised reward of the earlier war, the American superbase Camp Bondsteel, was in the works as soon as the bombing was over. Built on 1000 acres of farmland near the Macedonian border, it quickly turned into the largest American foreign base constructed between the Vietnam war and Iraq.

Diplomacy, in the years since 1999, has likewise ratified the political consequences of that war; and the recent recognition of Kosovo as an independent state by both the United States and Britain, in violation of UN Resolution 1244 (respecting the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia), suggests a significant continuity between the internationalism of Clinton and Blair in the Balkan states and that of Bush and Blair in the Middle East. All empires develop systems of excuses that put the blame for disasters on subject peoples. Blair said he was sorry about Iraq, but of course he could not excuse himself as he would have liked, because he couldn’t appear to find the Americans at fault. In late 2006, when American lawmakers actually talked of getting out, the Iraqi government was said to be ‘dysfunctional’, while by their sectarian violence the Iraqi people were proving themselves unready for democracy after all.

Now that there is talk of staying for fifty years or a hundred, the mainstream media have had to devise a justification that turns around again from disgust to compassion. The Iraqi people are ‘traumatised’ (we are now told) by decades of suffering under Saddam Hussein, and America will have to stay until they prove, by their docility, that they have overcome the trauma. Meanwhile, what to say of Balad Air Base, with its 30,000 troops and its conveniences suitable to a gated community; or of Al Asad, with its 17,000, and the nickname, ‘Camp Cupcake’, which it owes to its amenities; or of several other bases settled or settling? One of the few American journalists who look steadily at such things, Tom Engelhardt, has concluded that ‘these bases practically scream “permanency”.’ And Tony Blair? He will soon divide his time between the Middle East and Yale University, where probably, one day, he will be asked to address a debating society on his developing thoughts about Iraq. He holds a split position, half in Divinity, half in Management, and is scheduled to teach a seminar on Faith and Globalisation.

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