10 February 2008

War, Power, and Supremacy: A Conservative Interpretation

T.H. Pickett has an excellent essay in the Summer 2006 volume of Modern Age (a journal founded by Russell Kirk). It begins thus:
In his wartime study of American foreign policy, Walter Lippmann remarked on the propensity of the United States government for entering commitments that lie outside the scope of existing resources. Our relations in Asia from the so-called "Open Door Policy" vis-a-vis China in the nineteenth century to the attack on Pearl Harbor are rife with rhetorical over-extension in which our government delivered warnings and ultimatums that it had neither the means to back up nor any real intention of enforcing.

There is, at the same time, another propensity that, at least on the surface, seems quite different: a readiness to employ American power in its vast and lethal potential in causes that have no carefully defined or concrete "interest" or objective, where the claim to justification is an appeal to a universal or an abstract ideal such as democratization of societies not our own, world peace, security, liberty, freedom, or a combination of these and other abstractions. The Spanish-American War of 1898 is, by and large, an example since it was the consequence of national enthusiasm for the cause of Cuban "liberty."

Americans were also mobilized for belated entry into the Great European War of 1914-18not, as was actually the case, as England's surrogate, but to "make the world saffe for democracy" and to fight a "war to end all wars." The present Iraq War is a contemporary example of the same phenomenon, having at least as one of its declared purposes the democratization of Mesopotamian society. Whether foreign policy is created out of carelessness, as in the first instance, or, as in the second, in service to a universalized ideal or wishful thinking, the consequence for the American people is always serious. Further, in both instances, lethal action is likely sooner or later and will occur with little or no prior domestic discussion, so that it is impossible to judge which of these approaches is most dangerous, particularly when they appear, at least over time, inextricably mixed.

The invocation of a humanitarian ideal can do much to overwhelm the often consideralbe initial domestic opposition prior to American involvement in war, enabling the hawks to overrun the doves in mobilizing sufficient support for war.