Many people throughout the world–leftists, Islamicists, and nationalists–are far too anti-American.
It’s not that they’re wrong. Any impression to the contrary comes from pitching anti-Americanism as the main event in a Clash of Civilizations, jihad versus big mac, Floridian democracy and tight-fittin’ jeans. Anti-Americanism has more to do with taking the US to be a grownup democratic nation, one fully responsible for its ‘mistakes’ and ‘collateral damage’. These include its genocide-for-dummies ‘blunder’ in Vietnam, and its support for our friends: dozens of satanically brutal Latin American ‘strongmen’, the mass murderers of Indonesia, and peasant-killers from India to Guatemala to Brazil. What America actually intends, or ‘stands for’, or offers to the world as a civilization, would not compensate for a millionth of this.
The extent to which America is oblivious to its responsibilities is quite extraordinary. The overwhelming majority of Americans manage no contrition for the millions–yes, millions–their country slaughtered in Vietnam. Instead they wallow in a maudlin, falsely populist and deeply racist compassion for the terrible trauma ‘our’ soldiers endured while they killed. America likes to search its soul for wrongs done to fellow-citizens–Indians, blacks, Japanese-Americans–but not to those foreign victims who make cameo appearances as stick-figures in the self-pitying recitations of America’s recent past. For most Americans, the famous napalmed, naked Vietnamese girl, photographed in her terror, is a symbol, not of an atrocity, but of some tragic drama in which God or fate or the complexities of history obligingly pitch in to let America off the hook for its cruelties. Even the American left–so approving of the efforts to bring the criminals of Argentina and Chile to justice–has never agitated for a war crimes tribunal to judge all those implicated in the Vietnam war. Excoriating Kissinger doesn’t go very far towards calling to account the soldiers and pilots who actually did the killing, much less the politicians and generals who made the war, or the electorate who cheered them on.
Faced with this disgusting spectacle, what retribution would seem too severe? Yet any retribution is unjustified, and an anti-Americanism that dwells on American sins is unjustified as well.
Anti-Americanism is a political stance which implies political action. As such, it must have some reasonable prospect of being effective. If not, it is wrong: a truly tragic misdirection of effort for which many innocent people will suffer, just as they suffer in the aftermath of that quintessentially anti-American act of September 11th, 2001. And this suffering goes nowhere.
The futility of anti-Americanism becomes apparent with the lightest consideration of history. World powers do not disappear to make way for a cozy community of nations; they make way for other world powers. (This may not be an eternal law, but it’s a pattern that shows no sign of changing for quite some time.) All the primary states of Europe–England, France, Germany, Russia, Italy and Spain–have in their day displayed the very same mixture of gross ignorance, stupidity, sadism and placid racism that one finds in America today: Colonel Blimp’s blustery good spirits and xenophobic irritability would fit right into the American scene and, at one time or another, go down quite well in the drawing rooms of the former colonial powers. The same may be said for Japan. America, should it go, will not be replaced by anything better.
But can American power be checked? Recent events suggest otherwise. America is certainly in decline relative to the rest of the world. Even the consensus about its ‘crushing military superiority’ is quite unfounded: there can be no foundation, because America has not, since its defeat in Vietnam, fought anything but basket cases. And even though it is the Vietnamese who deserve the credit for humiliating the US, they fought with the backing–almost, one might say, in the shadow–of two great military powers, the USSR and China. This imposed certain constraints on American military plans. Today, no great power or alliance is willing, or perceived as willing, to confront America militarily. This is going to change eventually, but not in the near future. America, for a good long while, will not have to answer to anyone for what it does.
Perhaps individual small states can still, in limited conflicts, defeat American aggression. Even so, we onlookers can do little to contribute to such defeats, and we are not about to try. It is not as if the American left, for all its detestation of American power, would make any substantial contribution to Iraqi resistance.
All this points to one great big ugly fact: America, for the foreseeable future, is the only game in town. Like all colonial powers, it is utterly immune to moral appeals until, like the British in India, it blunders off, leaving more agony in its departure than its arrival. This is not right; it is not just; it is everything leftists critics say it is, but so what? This is the world in which we must live.
If America will, more or less, do whatever it likes, then the only possible effective check to America’s foolish and destructive policies lie in appeals to American self-interest. The notion that there is no such interest, or that American policies benefit only a ruling class, is so much posturing. Ordinary Americans benefit greatly from America’s military and economic dominance, and will be harmed by its decline. (This dominance is established by fair means as well as foul.) The fact that many Americans suffer from America’s atrocious domestic policies may obscure the benefits of America’s imperial ventures, but that hardly means the benefits do not exist. America’s wealth and power is no less for being unequally divided, and if the pie were smaller, ordinary Americans would of course have less, not more.
When America policy becomes obviously, patently stupid–as in the case of Iraq–critics do not fail to point out how America defies its own interests. But even then, the case is diluted by moralizing and strained efforts to show that, after all, American interests are being served. If, for example, America is really going to get such a bonanza of oil wealth and strategic power out of Iraq, how can this be interpreted as anything but an encouragement to hang in there? And how exactly will this supposedly enormous bonanza harm ordinary Americans? Even if it strengthens some ruling class, even if wealth does not trickle down to the bottom, how would a noble rejection of advantage destroy American elites or improve the condition of other Americans?
When American policy is not obviously stupid, just terribly misguided, the moralizing complaints tend to drown out any effective criticism. There is a deep inconsistency underlying this approach. Any good anti-American ought to know that Americans will never give a damn how many Palestinian children are shredded by Israeli shrapnel. Any good anti-American ought to know that, at best, the plight of other peoples will never rate more than patronizing sniffles provoked by images of starving kiddies, shoved onto TV by enterprising charities. Why bother complaining or addressing the conscience of a public that respects, not even all white folks, but only those–like Blair–who abase themselves before American ‘values’, hoping for a pat on the head and a future handout? Moralizing to Americans is worse than irrational or futile; it is itself immoral. It is a counterproductive waste of commodities we cannot afford to waste–of effort and dedication.
The world can improve only if America changes from the inside, and it will change only on the impulse of self-interest. It doesn’t matter if Americans seek wealth and power. What difference does that make? some dominant nation will always be doing this, always at great cost to others. What matters is when America increases this cost for no good reason, often against its own interests. That is something no American, no matter how selfish or insular, can welcome, so that is something that can be changed. Addressing such an audience requires no new facts, but a rearrangement of old ones.
This means that Americans don’t need to be preached at. Americans need to be scared, just as they were scared after 9-11. They need to realize that the invasion of Iraq, for instance, is more than an unpardonable and stupid mistake; it is a very dangerous one. While the left is fond of talking about how America out to dominate the world, it isn’t important that America has these bad intentions. What is important is that it can’t realize them.
America, despite its pre-eminence, does not have the military might to do what it wants. It wanted to get Bin Laden and the Mullah Omar; it couldn’t. Even if they were both captured tomorrow, to elude the US for so long is a victory that encourages others to follow in their footsteps. America claims to have won the war in Iraq: quite apart from the continuing resistance, can you be said to win the war before you capture the enemy leader? Again, even if Saddam Hussein is caught tomorrow, the record hardly encourages the leaders of ‘rogue states’ to tremble for their personal safety.
It is sometimes claimed that the US is militarily unstoppable, but somehow politically squeamish about war, or prone to errors of grand strategy. But everything that contributes to victory or defeat in warfare counts in assessing military capacity: poor planning and overconfidence weaken America’s military power just as they did France’s when the French put their faith in the Maginot Line. And many American ‘mistakes’ were born of some sort of weakness. If the US didn’t go on to Baghdad in 1990, it was because the US felt it needed its allies, and didn’t dare offend them. If the US let itself get chased out of Iran, Lebanon, and Somalia, it was because it felt unable to react more forcefully. If America now has problems in Iraq, it is because American intelligence had no very good idea of what was going on there, and because America, for whatever reason, feels unable to send in another 400,000 troops it should have known would be needed. These sort of strategic and intelligence failures are not something distinct from America’s military incapacity. In America’s supposedly information-sodden warfare, they are part of it.
In other words what matters is not the extent to which America pushes everyone around, but the extent to which it can’t. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Israel. Pro-Israel lobbies have certainly been effective in promoting the insane practice of paying Israel to make itself hated and thereby draw hatred on the United States–all this to ‘stand by a valued ally’ who must, at all costs, be prevented from helping the US in any military conflict. But this is not the whole story. The internal pressure to support Israel has been effective partly because the US cannot do what it wants in the Middle East. Critics of America’s Israel policy seem to forget that, for the most part, America’s recent official position has been almost unobjectionable. The US has pretty consistently: opposed any attempt to make Jerusalem Israel’s capital; condemned Israel’s helicopter assassinations; and, most important, opposed the settlements while promoting the idea of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories. In other words, despite all the efforts of the Israel lobbies and all the Jewish neo-cons who supposedly guide US policy, America has pretty consistently backed an approach which, stripped naked, would fall well within the spectrum of left-wing views.
Why is this? It seems odd to suppose that the lobbies are strong enough to make America lavish so many billions on Israel, yet too weak to change basic official policy. More likely, things are more or less as the American government would probably claim them to be: America can’t impose a settlement on Israel, and is prevented by the lobbies from abandoning it, so it backs Israel with mountains of cash instead of providing the more lasting security that a settlement would produce. The notion that this is all part of some sinister plan runs aground on the simple fact that the US gets nothing from Israel’s continued war with the Palestinians.
In other words, here again, the US is too weak to get what it wants. It knows that the Israelis should pull out of the occupied territories, but it is in no position to make that happen.
If that’s the situation, what can be done about it? If anything, America needs to be convinced of its weakness. Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are not the strongest enemies the US has. They are among the weakest, and the US can’t even deal properly with them. So the US needs fewer enemies and more friends. Almost all its potential friends are seriously anti-Israel, and will not align with the US until the US aligns against Israel. But pro-Israel lobbyists block any such realignment. So the US needs to understand two things: that the Israel lobby is a serious threat to its security, and that it is the only such threat the US can actually overcome at this point. Indeed that very realization would alone make victory over the lobby possible.
MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com.