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October 11, 2007

The Dangers of Militarism
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I finally read Robert Kaplan’s rather intriguing pro-militarism piece in The Wall Street Journal, from last week. Kaplan makes what seems, at least in the first few paragraphs, a somewhat sensible argument. But, on closer inspection, it is also a dangerous one. Liberals, always looking for new ways to reaffirm their “toughness,” are at greatest risk of falling for this type of ra-ra martial posturing. Kaplan’s argument is that while we may “love” the troops, in a kind of pitying condescension, we no longer honor the troops for what they do, that we see them more as victims than heroes. He is referring to “traditional heroism, of the kind celebrated from Herodotus through World War II.” 

Kaplan is a nationalist, not in the liberal internationalist sense, but more in the Greco-Roman sense of idealizing the nation – as a territory, as a sacred ground to be defended - rather than the ideas, or ideals, the nation purports to hold. Kaplan, like many on the Right, longs for something worth fighting for. But in place of a cause (causes, after all, change and inevitably lose salience), he has resorted to honoring the fight itself, the very act of being a warrior. There is something primal about this, and one gets the sense in some of his other work that one of the few things he envies the Muslim world for is its (purported) willingness to sacrifice and die for something, anything.

The fact of the matter is that the kind of heroism Kaplan longs for is intimately tied, if not in intent then in effect, to the kind of militarism that has plagued, to great detriment, the post-9/11 American psyche. Apparently, this more than momentary lapse hasn’t been enough for Kaplan. He wants more, even though the last six years have, not surprisingly although perhaps ironically, coincided with one of the most precipitous declines in American power and influence in recent memory.

In any case, Kaplan answers his own question, saying that “feeling comfortable with heroes requires a lack of cynicism toward the cause for which they fight.” This cynicism, however, is precisely what protects us from dashing unprepared into wars of choice. We certainly could have used more cynicism in 2002-3, in the run-up to the Iraq war. And, still, we can use more of it now, in light of the recent Iran resolution passed by congress, an incredibly inane piece of legislative stupidity, which sounds to me and many others like the very dangerous declaration of intent it most certainly is and its Republican authors want it to be. If this cynicism, which in my view is the very lifeblood of democracy, translates into loving the troops rather than “honoring” them, so be it. Of course, we shouldn’t even begin to accept Kaplan’s definition and usage of the word “honor.” To honor is not to, and shouldn’t be, to suspend judgment, reason, and our willingness to criticize our own actions. In Peter Beinart’s words, “it is precisely our recognition that we are not angels that makes us exceptional.” This – the understanding that while we may be good in some abstract sense, we are not, and cannot be, inherently good – I suspect, is the major point of distinction between liberal interventionists and neo-conservatives.


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Shadi, on your final point, one can believe in the inherent goodness of America - and it have nothing to do with ones perspective on foreign policy. The notion that beliving in the inherent goodness of America as a nation and an idea is the perview of only neo-conservatives does injustice to those progressives (such as myself) who believe in the goodness of America, but don't share the neo-conservatives toxic views. I think America is an inherently good nation - it doesn't mean I think we should go around invading other nations.

Michael, it may be an issue of phrasing, but I'm not sure. I guess part of the problem is that I'm unclear what you mean by America is an "inherently good nation." What does it mean to be inherently good? Perhaps more importantly, what are the implications that flow from such a statement?

You can see below what I wrote a few weeks ago. For the record, inherently good is not my phrasing - it came from our favorite person, Glenn Greenwald and was really an off-hand remark I made in a blog post.

2) No nation is perfect and America has its flaws. Of course we have acted badly, it would be disingenuous to deny that and it pains me to no end that we have acted badly in Iraq and Guantanamo. However, I don't for a second believe that Abu Ghraib, as just one example, reflects what America is really about and I hope you don't either. The many good acts performed by the vast majority of our soldiers in Iraq is in my view, far more indicative of the basic goodness that defines this nation and its people.

3) Yes, I believe that America is inherently good. That goodness, if you will, comes from the basic values that I believe underpin this nation, from not only our founding documents and in particular the Bill of Rights, but from the ongoing efforts to ensure the spread of freedom and opporunity to all our citizens. If you think this sounds hackneyed that is your right - you have as much right to hate America as I do to love it, but I apologize to no one for my patriotism and basic faith in America and its people.

4) I'm not going to get into a debate about whether other nations are also inherently good. Most of course are. But I don't live in other nations, I live here and I wouldn't feel comfortable passing judgment.


What I believe makes America great is the corrective nature of our democracy. It's amazing to consider that we were founded by a bunch of white male, landowners who condoned and allowed slavery and prevented half of all Americans from enjoying their full political rights. Yet, they put in place a political system based on a set of universal values that eventually would ensure the full realization of civil rights for all Americans. Over 230 years we have constantly improved and bettered ourselves as a nation - due in large measure to the political values instilled in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. This doesnt make us better than other countries, it just speaks, in my view, to the inherent good that is grounded in our founding documents and the values therein.

(On a personal note, let me also add that the political orthodoxy assigned to me by some of these posts is completely absurd. If you think I am comfortable with Gitmo, warrantless surveillance, Abu Ghraib, CIA black prisons or the war in Iraq you havent been reading my posts and frankly you know nothing about me. The notion that believing in America's inherent goodness is synonomous with supporting those un-American policies is something that I find highly offensive. One can believe in the inherent good of America and still be a progressive/liberal/Democrat. In fact, I would argue they go hand-in -hand.)

Shadi, I think you're misunderstanding and misusing the word "cynicism." I believe what you're looking for is "skepticism."

We had entirely too *much* cynicism (on both sides of the aisle) in the runup to Bush's invasion of Iraq.

But Michael, is it "inherent" goodness or "contingent" goodness?

If inherent, then American could scrap the Bill of Rights - indeed the entire Constitution - revert back to slavery and adopt a brutish fascistic militarism...but still be good by dint of some inherent quality that is intrinsic and immutable.

This is a semantic exercise, for sure, but one that may be more than mere hair-splitting.

You seem to be nipping around the edges of acknowledging this differentiation, but then you slip back into muddled definitions (or so it seems to me).

I should add that, contrary to your crude phrasing, the opposite of viewing America as inherently good is not "hating America." Rather, one could view the institutions that we have embraced - to varying degrees throughout our history - as inherently good, thus recognizing the contingent nature of our own "goodness" without hating America.

We are good so long as we embrace those institutions, and when we don't we are not good because it is not an inherent trait, but rather one that is dependent on our actual actions.

I think America is an inherently good nation

Would someone please explain to me what "America is an inherently good nation" means, exactly? What, exactly, does 'nation' refer to? How, exactly, is that entity 'inherently good'?

Eric, you're right. I didn't meant to suggest that opposite of believing America is inherently good is hating America. In fact, after initially writing that comment, I immediately corrected it. It was an incorrect and hastily crafted formulation.

However, I think you miss my point - the Bill of Rights and Consitution is what I believe makes America inherently good: scrapping them would actually run counter to everything I've stated and everything that makes me believe America is inherently good. What makes us good is not something inherent in living on the North American landmass - it is, in my view, the guiding principles of our our founding documents.

Gotcha Michael. I think I see where you're coming from, but am not quite sure yet.

To clarify, you said this:

What makes us good is not something inherent in living on the North American landmass - it is, in my view, the guiding principles of our our founding documents.

OK, it's not geographical location that makes us inherently good. But we are, nevertheless, inherently good? That still troubles me.

Just so we're clear, a definition:

in·her·ent - adjective: existing in someone or something as a permanent and inseparable element, quality, or attribute.

While I agree with you that our more exalted guiding principles (justice, freedom, human rights, tolerance) are inherently good, I'm not so sure that "we" are. We are good when we espouse them, we aren't good when we don't. Living in America gives you access to such goodness, but not everyone takes advantage. There is no "permanent" or inherent quality to our goodness.

Which is what you seem to be saying half the time until it you get to the verge of reaching the expected conclusion, and then you flip back on the "inherent" train.

I know this might sound pedantic, but there is a method to my meticulousness. Many Americans (and indeed, members of other nations, tribes, groups, etc), believe that their group is "good" right or wrong. That is, that there is an intrinsic, inherent goodness that comes with membership (citizenship in the present example) and membership alone. You seem unwilling to completely part ways with that conception of goodness.

Am I missing something/misconstruing your point (wouldn't be the first time, I acknowledge)

Hey Michael: While I have you on the line, could I also ask that someone over at Dem Arsenal update the blogroll.

"Liberals Against Terrorism" changed names and URLs about a year ago (maybe more).

We're now: American Footprints, but we'd love to stay in the 'roll.


This debate about America's inherent goodness or lack thereof strikes me as arid, unimportant and lacking in significant content.

America is what America does. It is the sum total of the actions of many millions of people. Those people act and move in a large variety of often contradictory directions. Every day they produce lots of scattered good and lots of scattered evil. To say America or any other country is "inherently good" strikes me as a way of saying there is something like the "true spirit of America", and that spirit is good. Such an attitude seems superstitious to me - no less superstitious than saying America is "inherently bad". America might be at any given time a net generator of good or a net generator of evil, but there is no nation-spirit or permanent national essence in which goodness or evil as such might inhere.

The persistance of this sort of spiritualized or Platonized nationalism among the educated is perhaps a disorder of the modern, secular era. Lacking a traditional religion, some would elevate America itself into an object of idolatrous worship, and agonize and argue about the nation's soul. But there is no such thing.

Nor is it necessary to have a faith in the nation's inherent goodness in order to work effectively to try to get it to be as good as possible.

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