It speaks volumes for the state of America’s political dialogue that a new book defending nation-building mentions the word “Islam” in passing just twice, not counting footnotes or index. Robert Kagan reviews Prof. Jeremi Suri’s little tome entitled Liberty’s Surest Guardian: Nation-Building From the Founders to Obama in Sunday’s New York Times. Don’t bother to read the book. As Kagan complains, “Suri’s work is marred by some dreadful writing — repetitious, stilted, awkward.”
Kagan nonetheless calls the book “useful”:
“Nation-building” is in bad odor these days, among the foreign policy cognoscenti and the general public alike. Weariness with the long struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq has produced a grand opposition alliance of isolationists, realists, populists and left-liberal anti-interventionists, who all agree it is past time to give up the hopeless dream. As Peggy Noonan recently put it, “We should not occupy their lands, run their governments or try to bribe them into bonhomie.” American soldiers should not be “social workers.” When she visited Afghanistan earlier this year, Noonan asked an American general how the war was going and was appalled to hear his answer: “Great. We just opened a new hospital.” Noonan lamented that the American soldier was no longer allowed to be “a warrior in a warrior army.”
But wasn’t the Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War “nation-building”? And the counterinsurgency in the Philippines? And the many interventions in Central America? And the Marshall Plan in Europe after World War II? Isn’t that what America does? — asks Prof. Suri.
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. “Suri must be in a distinct minority of modern American historians who consider both the rebuilding of the South and the occupation of the Philippines to be successes,” Kagan concedes. But what of the Marshall Plan? We tend to forget that America allied itself with the Catholic Church — with the remnants of political opposition to Hitler in the Catholic Rhineland around Konrad Adenauer, with Italy’s Christian Democrats, and with the bloviating Col. Blimp of Gallic election, Gen. de Gaulle — in order to keep Communism at bay. A dozen years of Nazi rule had not yet eradicated the Catholic Church, and the Vatican party in Italy, for all its flagrant corruption and malfeasance, still had a mass constituency. And these were countries that had enjoyed parliamentary rule prior to fascist victory, and whose cultural affinity to America was powerful.
Yes, we spent lavishly on nation-building in in Germany and Italy, although the long-term outcome is a failure worse than Reconstruction or the Philippines, for the Germans and Italians both are disappearing as peoples. Nonetheless it was the right thing to do.
It is astonishing that Prof. Suri, who holds an important chair at the University of Texas at Austin, could publish a book on the subject without so much as a nod towards the cultural, religious, and sociological issues that make democracy in the Muslim world a vastly different proposition than in Italy. And it is just as lamentable that Robert Kagan would lump the Catholic Philippines of 1900 together with the Muslim Afghanistan of 2011, as if such issues made no difference at all.
To Kagan, Suri, and most of the nation-builders, religion does not make a difference, for they all come out of a school of “political philosophy” that believes (with Thomas Hobbes) that religion is useful for socializing the masses but never to be taken seriously, and that what human beings really care about is individual self-preservation.
It is troubling how little capacity for self-examination we encounter in the conservative punditeska, the talking heads on Fox News and similar venues. After 4,500 dead, 33,000 wounded, and a trillion dollars, America is left with an Iraqi regime that openly supports the strategic objectives of Iran, America’s most dangerous adversary. As the Washington Post reported Oct. 8, “More than six months after the start of the Syrian uprising, Iraq is offering key moral and financial support to the country’s embattled president, undermining a central U.S. policy objective and raising fresh concerns that Iraq is drifting further into the orbit of an American arch rival — Iran.” And with the Obama administration’s reported readiness to cut and run by Dec. 31, it seems unlikely that Gen. Petraeus’ mercenary irregulars, the “Sunni Awakening,” will last very long. [As a matter of record: The American Enterprise Institute did not first propose the “surge,” the counterinsurgency plan that pacified Iraq, in 2006. It was first proposed by the Asia Times’ Marc Erikson in January 2004.]
Some of my conservative colleagues think me a renegade. The fact is that the conservative intellectual elite is sadly out of touch with the conservative base, and especially the evangelical Christians who comprise just over a quarter of American voters. During the past couple of weeks I have spent a good twenty hours on the air talking about my new book, How Civilizations Die (and why Islam Is Dying, Too), mostly on self-described Christian stations. And I’ve been talking to a lot of Orthodox Jews as well, my home audience.
Talking to religious conservatives is like breathing pure intellectual oxygen. They know that there is a basic difference between a nation committed to the biblical concept of individual sanctity, and one based on mere submission. They may or may not not know Thucydides, but they know the Bible, which is a far better source-book for statecraft. In short, the religious have a better education in political philosophy than their secular counterparts. They get the joke right off, while the secular types waste the declining days of their careers trying to defend the indefensible.