Wednesday, May 26, 2004

AGAINST INTERPRETATION. Every so often OpinionJournal has to publish someone's tedious poli-sci journal article and call it an "Extra." This week Zachary Selden gets the nod. He argues that the foreign policy adventuresomeness that we call "neoconservative" is not weird and phenomenonal, as some imagine, but old-fashioned and American, and based on "a set of policies that flow from two ideas that resonate deeply in American public opinion."

There's a lot to cavil here. The first of the abovementioned resonant ideas, for example, Selden says "is often credited to Woodrow Wilson, but in some ways its roots stretch back into the 18th century. It is founded on the moral assertions that have been part of American political thought since the early days of the republic. Chief among them is the idea that individual liberty is a moral absolute and that a system of governance that enshrines individual liberty is morally and practically superior to all others." Europeans can't understand all this, Selden sniffs: their "constitutions tend to place a greater emphasis on social harmony than on individual liberty."

Looked at a certain way, this is unobjectionable. But the culmination of Wilson's dream was not the establishment of a perpetual, roving gang of democratizers, but of the League of Nations -- in which cause he was at least grudgingly supported by a good many of those social-hamonist Europeans, but scuttled by his own people. In fact, Wilson failed precisely to the degree that he tried to promote American ideals to Americans. By the time we get to Iraq -- hell, by the time we get to Panama and the Philippines -- the connection between our love of liberty and our feckless foreign adventures seems not only severed, but hacked to pieces.

And this is why windy policy dissertations like Selden's frustrate me (along with the big words, of course, and compound sentences). They're all about the big ideas which allegedly animate our political actors. Frankly, in most cases I see something a whole lot less philosophical going on -- unless you consider "I got mine, don't worry about yours" a philosophy.

It may just be my ignorance, but I don't see much of any coherent idea, let alone a grand Wilsonian schema, behind the actions of this Administration. I see Bush buffeted by peddlers of crank ideas whose patrons managed in early days to squeeze through the portals of power and grab a place near the President ear. I see, in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, a tendency to go with what Cheney and the wise men suggested, and Cheney and the wise men slapping their best and brightest on the back and whispering, "OK, kid, you're on." And, of course, the usual graft, fraud, ass-covering -- and, above all, deep faith that Americans will fall for any old horseshit you care to peddle if you wrap it in a flag and drawl over it like John Wayne. (Selden's view is that Americans have been moved off their usual anti-interventionist dime by 9-11, but it was no preordained thing that they would be moved to fight Iraq -- that was pure salesmanship.)

I respect erudition in any field, but Selden's article strikes me as justification after the fact. The Founding Fathers had great, free-wheeling intellects, and wrote a lot more than their puny descendents, so it is not hard to find something in them to use as justification for any old scam you want to pull. How many times have right-wing nuts used Andrew Jackson's "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it" as a historical imprimatur for their fight against whichever branch of the government happens to piss them off?

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