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The Scandal of the Secular Mind

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.