Progressive support for democracy promotion and military intervention ignores our dismal history. A response to Rosa Brooks and Tom Perriello.
I have always thought George Santayana’s celebrated phrase that those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it to be one of the dumbest things ever said by a smart person. It assumes the past repeats itself, which hardly seems likely, and that the past can be understood by posterity as offering simple moral lessons—history as a kind of McGuffey’s Reader writ large—when in fact history is almost never morally binary, but rather bears out Walter Benjamin’s saturnine claim that every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism.
Still, reading both Rosa Brooks’s and Tom Perriello’s contributions to Democracy’s “America and the World” symposium [Issue #23], I found Santayana’s sentence coming unbidden to mind. For rarely have two pieces illustrated what might with only slight exaggeration be called the will to forget the past, and, as in so many of America’s foreign-policy follies, both the triumph of hope over (even recent) experience and the belief that this time America’s good intentions in fostering a global democratic order should matter far more than the actual history of U.S. actions from at least Woodrow Wilson’s day to George W. Bush’s.
To put the matter even more pointedly, after all the harm the United States has done in the Arab Middle East over the course of the past decade—not least, the comparatively unremarked fact that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein seems to have led not to democracy but to a world-historical tragedy that will be remembered long after Saddam and Bush have become footnotes: the end of Christianity in Iraq, one of the oldest loci of the faith—the only sensible thing to conclude is that in fact Washington is very bad at promoting democracy, and that, desirable as democracy doubtless is, its gift is not and therefore must not be asserted by influential policy intellectuals to be within America’s grace and favor. And so, though I have no doubts about either Brooks’s or Perriello’s moral seriousness, nor that the world they would like to see would be a far better one than that which we inhabit today, when I read two former members of the U.S. government calling not for an end to democracy promotion and humanitarian military interventions by the United States, but for better forms of both, I really do want to ask them: “Have you no shame?”
Because with regard to the American empire, there is much to be ashamed about. Obviously, progressive policy intellectuals like Brooks and Perriello (and their opposite numbers at places like the Truman National Security Project, The New Republic, and other like-minded venues, and in the work of writers like Anne-Marie Slaughter, to name the best rather than the worst of them) know perfectly well that America has committed many crimes in its history—as all empires before us have done, and presumably, after us, will do as well. Brooks in her piece dwells at some length on the historical flaws and faults of American democracy. But for some reason this knowledge doesn’t seem to chasten her and her intellectual cohort in the way that it should. After mentioning the genocide of the Native American peoples, slavery, etc., etc., and frankly acknowledging that America as premier global democracy promoter must, indeed, sound more than a little grotesque to any Latin American with the slightest familiarity with her region’s history, they return to their default position, which is that America’s mistakes of the past should not be allowed to impede America’s fundamental commitment to the liberal internationalist project, which is, at its core, about the instauration of democracy everywhere in the world where it has any chance of gaining a foothold.
How is one to account for this? How, pace Santayana, do the lessons of the past seem to weigh so little? An as-yet-unshaken allegiance to a certain liberal, enlightened version of American exceptionalism—one, to its credit, leached of its triumphalism, its xenophobia, and its bellicosity—is surely part of the explanation. American democracy may not be perfect (far from it); but democracy at least does allow a people to set things right if they’ve gone off the rails, as the history of the United States is supposed to demonstrate. Doubtless, what might be called America’s Great Gatsby complex—that is, the belief that our past mistakes should not limit our future possibilities—is another. As Fitzgerald put it, there are no second acts in American lives. And because we somehow are supposed to believe this self-serving, consoling rubbish, we have our moral guilt and our interventionism too.
This allows progressive internationalists to feel entitled to note, but not be impeded by, the inconvenient truth that virtually all major U.S. interventions—from Woodrow Wilson’s adventures in Mexico to the occupations in the Caribbean in the 1920s and 1930s; to the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh and Jacobo Arbenz in the 1950s; to Vietnam, and the dirty wars in Central America of the 1980s; and finally to the sanguinary folly of Iraq—were undertaken in the name of some form of democracy promotion or humanitarian or human-rights intervention. But this time it will be different, they insist! At least if done with—to use words both Brooks and Perriello emphasize—care, humility, and realism about what can and what cannot actually be achieved.
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