“‘God save us always,’ I said, ‘from the innocent and the good.’”
—Graham Greene, The Quiet American
Iraq is a mess. The advance of radical Sunni militants has the country going to pieces, and the blind lack of reason in the tangle web of alliances now has the United States and Iran effectively on the same page. The comparisons to Vietnam have never easier for those who enjoy the policy wonk obsession with historical analogies. Not surprisingly, the American public is rather jaded with all of this; no one has much energy for a new war or nation-building mission, and would prefer to sit back and watch all of this play out.
A lot of people in our political classes and punditocracy don’t like this. (Here’s David Brooks’s lament from Friday’s New York Times as a clear example.) It’s not really a partisan thing, either; both the neoconservatives and the liberal internationalists see it as a problem. The U.S. is reneging on its role as a world leader, and as a beacon of democracy and capitalism; this weakness will empower its rivals around the globe, from Russia to Iran to the Sunni radicals now on the rise. We could have had this, they say; if we hadn’t screwed up here or there in the past ten years, things would be better now. We could have been in control, and if we’d just flash our muscles and prove our “credibility,” we’d be able to turn the tide.
If only geopolitics were that easy. No: reality is far more troubling, far beyond anyone’s control. No one is calling the shots because no one can call the shots. Sure, there’s some collusion here and there, and the good old boys networks naturally emerge among people with common interests and aspirations to power. But through it all, there is this blind faith that the buck really does stop at the top; that, by virtue of holding certain offices, people really can decides outcomes near and far. The vast majority of the time, they can’t. Some people can fake it well for a while, and appearance can be half the battle, but things are often more tenuous than they seem. Reality is so much more fragmented, so tied up in the agendas and whims of various middlemen and self-interested actors who see the world in an entirely different way. It’s a complex web of incentives, pushing people here and there, amounting to a “thing” only on a level of abstraction.
The realm of ideas does matter, and it’s hard to be rosy when looking at things on that level. People scream “do something” left and right, whether it’s in Libya or Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan. Despite the noble efforts of many soldiers and dedicated public servants, we never seem to make things better, no matter how hard we try. If we never get it right, what on earth fuels the delusion that this time will somehow be different? We hear cries that the U.S. needs to arm the “right” people, as if there were black and white distinctions in this realm; as if all our interests somehow aligned. They don’t. Recall how “our people” in Iraq wound up being corrupt wannabe aristocrats; “our man” in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has gone down the same road. They operate by a different logic, a different set of incentives, and in turn make their way down a different path.
The trouble is that, no matter how viciously we may take apart the illusion of control, the alternatives also tend to operate in a realm of idealism no less divorced from reality. When a nation is as powerful as the United States, inaction is also an active policy. The U.S., one might recall, was minimally involved in direct intervention in the Middle East prior to 9/11. Instead, the U.S. propped up the status quo and let its global culture leech into every little village. This benign reach was, in a way, far more threatening than the complete arsenal of the American military. There was no easy target for anger, no obvious threat: just that steady loss of control, the destruction of a worldview with things as simple as pop music and suggestive clothing. The U.S. could pull every last soldier out of the Middle East, withdraw every dollar it pays into its despotic regimes, and it would still be implicated, somehow, in whatever happens next. Such is the power of Western culture and U.S. hegemony on the world stage.
This is, of course, the U.S.’s great conundrum: it is founded on the belief in ever-greater freedom, in an ongoing quest for the realization of the self. Old cultural artifices have no place here. Over two centuries after its founding, the U.S. has proved wildly successful in exporting that dream of liberty. It’s successful because it taps into a fundamental aspect of the human psyche, one that comes out most clearly in adolescence: the urge for a bold assertion of self, an individual independent of old constraints, capable of authoring one’s own fate. It’s a necessary spark, and the resultant blaze of passion fuels many of humanity’s greatest achievements. Can any of us imagine our lives without it?
Like any human urge, though, it has its dark side. It risks naïveté, consumed by the belief that this quest for freedom is the only thing. The old roots don’t die so easily, and often are an essential part of the rebellion itself. (When compared to Latin America, the U.S. owes much of its relative economic success and political stability to the Enlightenment-influenced, more bourgeois British colonists; our southern neighbors, born of the Counter-Reformation and hierarchical Spain, faced rather different troubles from independence onward.) It can’t be dropped into other places and made to take root with a few quick brushstrokes that empower the “right” people. It has to be organic, not only in the foundation of the movement but in its creation of new institutions. The two buzzwords that dominate all sensible international affairs theory nowadays are “incentives” and “institutions.” If they’re not in place, nothing can follow.
The death of great dreams is never easy, and the threat of declinist hysteria may be the most serious danger to U.S. politics in the coming years. Now more than ever, Octavio Paz’s words ring true. History did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but instead died somewhere in the sands of Iraq or among the peaks of Afghanistan, ever that graveyard of empires. At long last the worldwide ideologies have exhausted themselves, and while several linger in attenuated forms, they might yet be defeated by the forces of reality. Perhaps now we can arrive at more realistic nations in the Middle East, instead of things drawn on the back of a napkin by Europeans in 1916. The coming sort will no doubt be bloody, but precious few nations can claim a peaceful birth, and for all its flaws, the international community is better equipped to enforce some standards of decorum and decency now than it ever has been in the past. Frustrating as they can be, the idealists still have a key role to play on that front.
“Now we’re finally the same age,” wrote Roger Angell immediately after 9/11. “None of us is young this week, and, with death and calamity just down the street, few of us vicarious any longer.” He was playing the world-wise old man, one who’d seen wars and death in his then eighty years, teaching us kids a thing or two about how to handle one of those terrible reminders that we have no control. On an individual level that may have been true, but for the U.S. as a whole, it never quite worked. From Watergate to Vietnam to 9/11, people claimed that hubris would be the ruin of the innocent belief in the American world project, but it never really did. People forgot, moved on, and continued with that noble mission to mold the world in the American image.
Maybe, just maybe, Angell’s words finally ring true. Maybe that adolescent stage is now over. It was a glorious stage, one of national greatness and awesome wealth and considerable influence. Only those who serve a higher God would want to trade away that power of living in the moment. That illusion of control might have come as close to reality as it ever has. But the U.S. isn’t young anymore. We have a history now, and after touring the world and running down its streets, brashly proclaiming we’re the kings of it all, perhaps it’s time to head home for a bit. Perhaps it’s time to settle down and find a job; maybe not a glamorous one, but one that keeps us afloat and lets us do some good in the neighborhood, when and where it makes sense. We’ll never be free to be left alone; such is the life of a global citizen. But we can make sure our own house is in order before trying to save those of people we don’t really know, and we can use our soft power to make sure our little contribution—that youthful spark—remains a worthy aspiration. Maybe, then, a sane international order might emerge. Or maybe I’m just as much of a dreamer as the idealists I scorn. I’ll take my chances.