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Americans aren't fighting just a war on terrorism ... they are fighting, and losing, a war of ideas.
This riveting collection of original essays by some of the best political minds in America argues that the post–September 11 era has put American democracy itself on trial. In short, defeating terrorism requires us to live up to our own ideals. In The Fight Is for Democracy, nine leading writers take a hard, and at times personal, look at American life and America's role in the ...
Americans aren't fighting just a war on terrorism ... they are fighting, and losing, a war of ideas.
This riveting collection of original essays by some of the best political minds in America argues that the post–September 11 era has put American democracy itself on trial. In short, defeating terrorism requires us to live up to our own ideals. In The Fight Is for Democracy, nine leading writers take a hard, and at times personal, look at American life and America's role in the world. These pieces share a belief in the need for liberal reform at home and abroad. Power alone is not enough to win hearts and minds around the world. The war against terrorism should be a war for democracy.
Edited and with an Introduction by George Packer, The Fight Is for Democracy pushes the national debate in provocative new directions with essays on:
Publicly, in the late spring of 1964, Lyndon Johnson was about as hawkish on the Vietnam War as it was possible to be. The Gulf of Tonkin "incident," which we now know to have been at best half an incident, was three months away yet, and the first large-scale commitment of American troops to the region nearly a year distant. Nevertheless, even at this early interval, the public Johnson spoke bullishly on the need to defend America's interests and to beat back the Red wedge.
The private Johnson that spring spoke quite differently, according to transcripts of Oval Office meetings and telephone conversations that were made public in 1997. Confiding to an old friend and mentor, Georgia Democratic senator Richard Russell, in May 1964, LBJ agonized over the impending conflict in Southeast Asia as "the damnedest worst mess I ever saw ... I do not see how we are ever going to get out of it without getting in a major war with the Chinese and all of them down there in those rice paddies and jungles." That same month he spoke similarly to McGeorge Bundy, his nationalsecurity adviser: "I stayed awake at night worrying about this thing, and the more I think about it, I don't know what in the hell ... It looks to me like we're getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me ... I don't think it's worth fighting for and I don't think we can get out, and it's just the biggest damn mess."
Why the two Johnsons? Well, we understand the answer to that. Politicians often have to say one thing in public while believing another in private - it buys them time to try to work behind the scenes to move public opinion in their direction. But Johnson failed to do this, of course, so the more compelling, and tragic, question is: Why did the public Johnson never act on the private Johnson's intuitions and beliefs? Why, in more blunt words, were fifty-eight thousand Americans sent to their deaths even though their commander in chief knew as he was signing their deployment orders that the United States' first-ever military defeat would be the almost inevitable result? Johnson's biographers have chiefly sought to explain the ghastly contradiction in terms of a great Shakespearean personal flaw. No doubt that was the case. It has proven an especially alluring analysis in light of Johnson's unprecedented courage on social policy: How could a man so willing, even determined, to take political risks on domestic questions have been such a coward on foreign affairs? But ultimately, the fatal-flaw theory is more a literary explanation - conducive as it is to the dramatic narrative arc that is a necessity of great biography - or, alternatively, a characterological one. It is not a political explanation. And when we're talking about politics, it is political explanations first and foremost that we should seek.
The main reason, then, that Johnson pursued the war? Without question, it was the domestic political pressure he felt to do so. Consider another snippet of that conversation with Senator Russell, as described by Robert Scheer in the Los Angeles Times in 1997:
But [Johnson] did agree that the status quo in Vietnam was untenable; the choice was withdrawal or escalation. And he chose the latter because to do otherwise would endanger his chances for victory in the election that fall. "The Republi-cans are going to make a political issue out of it," warned Russell. "It's the only issue that they've got."
Johnson concurred. He was particularly concerned about the prospect that Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., then the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, might return to America to take a place on the GOP ticket that fall. Though a moderate, Lodge was a Vietnam hawk who was urging the administration to act with force and even, to Johnson's eyes, turning the embassy in Saigon into his own little freelancing fief. Johnson disdained Lodge's ambassadorship, but he knew, too, that Lodge would have made an attractive running mate for either fellow moderate Nelson Rockefeller or perhaps especially for conservative Barry Goldwater - and indeed, Lodge's political strength had been made clear on March 10, 1964, when, in the New Hampshire GOP presidential primary, he defeated both front-runners by collecting 33,007 votes as a write-in. One can easily imagine how that showing must have impressed, not to say scared, Johnson. And so, much as the president might have liked to recall Lodge, he dared not, because "he'd be back home campaigning against us every day."
But the political cost that Johnson calculated of withdrawal was not limited to having to endure the surly arraignments of a bothersome vice presidential nominee from the other side. This former senator, who had lived through the loyalty oaths and the McCarthy era and the tumultuous debates over the loss of China and the Korean War and so much else domestic turmoil around foreign-policy questions, felt that his experience had led him to conclude that there was only one way Congress would deal in an election year with a president who withdrew from Vietnam: "Well," he asked Russell, "they would impeach a president that would run out, wouldn't they?"
Would they? In retrospect, it sounds extreme; Democrats did control both houses of Congress at the time, and the America of 1964 was a nation where civic faith in the leaders and institutions was still strong enough that the idea of impeaching a president was something most Americans couldn't comprehend. On the other hand, Johnson's acumen in such matters is not to be shrugged off. He was nothing, after all, if not one of the great vote-counters in American political history ...
Excerpted from The Fight Is for Democracy by George Packer
Copyright © 2003 by George Packer
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Introduction: Living Up to It||1|
|Between Cheney and Chomsky: Making a Domestic Case for a New Liberal Foreign Policy||21|
|The Giant in the House||49|
|Ideas of Transcendence||79|
|Varieties of Patriotic Experience||105|
|Arab Demons, Arab Dreams: 1967-2003||139|
|The Treason of the Intellectuals (Again)||165|
|Globalization Meets Pachamama||189|
|Inequality and Democracy||241|
|Thirteen Observations on a Very Unlucky Predicament||265|
The nine essays in this book deal with the question of what American democracy stands for after September 11. They come in a variety of styles and voices, and there are disagreements between them. What they have in common is an attachment to the ideals of American democracy, a dissatisfaction with its current practice, and a belief that we are engaged in a war for world opinion, a war of ideas. No one should doubt that we are losing it -- and that this has something to do with the condition of American democracy. Our leaders have failed to articulate what we are fighting for beyond our own security and the assertion of our power around the world; and the failure is no accident or "missed opportunity." It comes from the fact that they themselves have no ardor for democracy. The ideals of freedom and equality, secularism, tolerance, and critical inquiry that have lain at the heart of the American experiment from the beginning get lip service from those in power; much of the world, with some reason, sees America's commitment to them as shallow and hypocritical.
The fight against political Islam isn't a clash of civilizations, and it isn't an imperialist campaign. As Paul Berman writes, it is a conflict of ideologies and they come down to the century-old struggle between totalitarianism and liberal democracy. There is no possibility of a negotiated peace, because the ideologies are incompatible -- they can't coexist. "Between democracy and totalitarianism there can be no compromise," said an authority on the subject, Benito Mussolini. Leaving aside the implacable foes who want us dead, America has to persuade people around the world that this is their fight, too; that the side of liberal democracy is where their hope lies.
In the war on terror, the ultimate enemy isn't a method, even one as apocalyptically menacing as al-Qaedastyle terrorism. It's the outlook that produced al-Qaeda—in this case, political Islam, but at bottom the view of all people who fear and hate the modern democratic world, with its fluidity, its openness, its assertion of the individual's freedom and of human equality. America is the most vibrant example. America is also the world's leading power, constantly racking up resentments. It's this combination of facts that makes our situation as complex and delicate as it is.
America is seen by much of the world as an empire without actual colonies, perhaps the most dominant since Rome. To Americans this view is bewildering. Unlike the British or the French, Americans have never had an interest in empire building. They elect presidents who have barely traveled abroad, eliminate the U.S. Information Service and shut down cultural centers in foreign capitals, resent being "the world's policeman," and pride themselves on their ignorance of other countries. Throughout the decade after the Cold War ended, American military action and inaction, corporate dominance, and cultural influence were making us the object of hope and confusion and anger among hundreds of millions of people, from Kigali to Jakarta. Meanwhile, it's difficult to think of a period when Americans showed less interest in the rest of the world. Genocide, famine, plague, economic upheaval, filthy wars on every continent, and, of course, international terrorism -- an incredibly tumultuous period (at what was supposed to be the end of history), but citizens of the world's superpower largely succeeded in not paying attention. While we were absorbed with Internet chat rooms and a blue Gap dress, power and resentment accumulated in front of our noses or behind our backs. Even the battle over multiculturalism turned out to have nothing to teach us about anyone else -- it was an internal fight and a ritualized one, the narcissism of small differences. September 11 came as an immense slap to this immense complacency.
The real question is not whether America is an empire, but what to do with the power we have. It's a question with which Americans are instinctively uncomfortable, none more than those who think of themselves as liberals. Much of what made up liberal thinking in the past few decades will be of no help from now on. The reluctance to make judgments, the finely ironic habits of thought, the reflexive contempt for patriotism, the suspicion of uniforms and military qualities, the sentimentality about oppressed peoples, the irresponsibility about hard choices, the embarrassment with phrases like "democratic values" and "Western civilization" -- the softheadedness into which liberalism sank after the 1960s seems as useless today as isolationism in 1941 or compromise in 1861. If there is any guide to this strange new era in our recent past, it could be the liberal anti-Communism of the postwar period (discussed by Michael Tomasky), which confidently defended democracy in the face of totalitarianism but also took economic justice and nation building seriously. It was both tough and wise; it had a decent respect for the opinion of mankind; it understood the struggle against Communism to be a struggle for hearts and minds.
So is the current conflict. Kanan Makiya's essay looks at the political psychology of his native Iraq and, more broadly, that region where democracy has been slowest to take hold. Breaking the seal of tyranny in the Arab world and letting in fresh liberal air is a matter of our security as much as their freedom. But the ultimate audience for this fight is neither in the West nor in the Arab countries, but among the vast majority of the world's poor. Beyond the struggle to survive -- to avoid disease, find enough to eat, educate their children, stay out of the way of men with guns—people in Asia and Africa and Latin America increasingly wonder whether the modern world holds a place for them, whether dignity and a decent life and a sense of identity are possible. This is an economic problem, but not only that -- it's also cultural and, in a way, existential. Globalization -- the subject of William Finnegan's essay -- didn't lose its importance on September 11. Just the opposite: It underlies everything else, and the shape it takes in the new century will determine whether the world's poor see America as a beacon or a blackmailer.
Without a vibrant, hardheaded liberalism in America, the era that began on September 11, 2001, will continue in the direction that we now see: narrow, defensive, chauvinistic, an American war for American security that leaves the rest of the world feeling ignored or threatened. The title of a conservative manifesto proclaimed Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism. Moral clarity is not why we should fight; it is why the other side fights. What the title of Vijay Seshadri's essay calls our "idea of transcendence" is secular and democratic -- an idea of human possibility, not fixed and eternal truth. Beyond sheer physical survival, a liberal civilization like ours should fight for the ability to remain open to what's foreign or unknown, tell leaders what they don't want to hear, tolerate moral uncertainty, act in spite of self-criticism, and ask questions like: Can a civilization remain liberal when it's as heavily armed as ours? Can a fight for democracy be led by the world's greatest power?
As Laura Secor discusses in her essay, liberals have an uneasy relationship with force. Force has no sense of complexity. It reduces everything to the elemental level where thinking is trampled under-foot. When America entered World War I, an argument broke out among the first generation of Americans to call themselves liberals. On one side, people like the editors of The New Republic saw the war as an international extension of progressive reform. In language as exalted as their hero Woodrow Wilson's, they proclaimed the world's first humanitarian war. On the other side stood skeptics like The New Republic's own young contributor Randolph Bourne. To him, liberal intellectuals urging war were like children who imagined they could control a wild elephant by riding on its back. "Willing war means willing all the evils that are organically bound up with it," he wrote (but not in The New Republic, which banned his criticism). "A good many people still seem to believe in a peculiar kind of democratic and antiseptic war. The pacifists opposed the war because they knew this was an illusion, and because of the myriad hurts they knew war would do the promise of democracy at home. For once the babes and sucklings seem to have been wiser than the children of light." Intellectuals like John Dewey, Bourne said, were too rational to understand war. On airships of idealism, they unleashed a barrage of violence that fell on American towns as well as the trenches in France. The war whipped up a frenzy of intolerance all over the country that destroyed what was left of the progressive era, mocked Wilson's vision of a just new world order, and produced a backlash against reform lasting for the next decade.
Liberalism has a tendency to respond to its doubts by overreaching. There are good reasons in history and principle -- Vietnam is one -- to keep Randolph Bourne's warning in mind. But there are equally good reasons -- the war against fascism -- to imagine exceptions. We have to answer the demands of our own age. And what we need today is more, not less, confidence in liberal democracy. America has always swung feverishly between its individualism and its moralism -- between periods of business dominance, when the rest of the world can go to hell, and bursts of reformist zeal, when America shines a light unto the nations. September 11 was a hinge between two such eras -- and our current conservative leadership wants to take the country into one without leaving the other. It wants to wage war on terrorism and still preserve all the privileges and injustices of a low dishonest age. It wants lockstep unity and unequal sacrifice.
Citizens of a democracy need to know what they're fighting for, and to believe in it. We are fighting the wrong fight if corporations can move offshore to avoid taxes while the working poor get audited; if the vice president's former company profiteers off the war while Americans taking care of old people make $6 an hour; if millionaires buy elections here while generals win them by fraud and force overseas; if security becomes an excuse for taking away some liberties while self-censorship removes others; if Saudi oil princes are coddled while Muslim students can't get U.S. visas; if Afghan warlords are left in power while returning refugees are allowed to starve. In the long run we will lose if this fight isn't for something. It ought to be for democracy.The Fight Is for Democracy