Threat Position

Progressives who preach declinism and restraint have forgotten that we still face dangerous enemies. A response to Anatol Lieven.

By Jeffrey Herf

Tagged Foreign PolicyMiddle Easttotalitarianism

Anatol Lieven’s review of Charles Kupchan’s How Enemies Become Friends [“Strength Through Restraint,” Issue #20] makes the case that the United States should turn away from illusions of global hegemony, recognize that the balance of power in the world has changed, and thus adopt a more modest stance in world affairs. Certainly he and Kupchan are both right to draw implications from the fact that other countries have become wealthier and more powerful in recent decades. Yet Lieven’s comments reflect a reluctance to examine threats confronting the United States in recent years, as well as a certain lack of interest in how “enemies became friends” during the last decades of the Cold War that ended in Western victory, the collapse of communism, and a real peace in Europe.

Lieven argues that the United States is incapable of doing much with its power. The Bush Administration hoped to establish “unilateral global domination backed by military power and ‘democratic’ ideology,” but only saw those hopes “collapse in ruins.” The Obama Administration has “proved incapable of resolving critical international challenges, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the dispute between India and Pakistan, the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, and the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, China continues to grow stronger.” In Lieven’s view, a “central question for the future of the United States and humanity is whether, and how, the United States can accommodate rising new powers without conflict and, if possible, cooperate with them to resolve regional and local problems.”

Lieven argues that the sources of America’s foreign policy blunders are neoconservatism, the Republican Party, the religious right, and some equally misguided “liberal hawks” who are “neoconservatives in sheep’s clothing.” For him, the Bush years were a time of “national hysteria” and “aggression in international affairs.” However, there is hope: “The United States has throughout its history repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to recover from episodes both of national hysteria and of economic crisis—as indeed the election of the Obama Administration and its very real achievements remind us.” And he finds Kupchan’s new book most welcome because it “provides the historical and theoretical underpinning for ideas of strategic accommodation: the need for America to take large-scale and visible steps to acknowledge the power and the interests of other states, and, when necessary, to scale back its own regional ambitions and roles.”

In the world according to Lieven then, the task for future American policy is managing decline. But the first point to be made about the prophecies of decline is that they identify one of the greatest successes of American leadership as a sign of decline. To be sure, the relative size of the United States in the global economy has become smaller over the past half-century. But this is actually a result of the predominance of American power in the world since 1945. One of the primary purposes of American power after World War II was to make it possible for Europe and Asia to rebuild market economies and stable democracies. These policies were a stunning success. Moreover, this success would not have been possible had the United States not contained and eventually defeated communism in the Cold War. Both the defense of a liberal international economic order and the defeat of communism were preconditions for millions of people rising out of poverty in China—which has abandoned communist economic policies—as well as India, Brazil, and many other formerly destitute nations in the last half century. Obviously, the growth of these economies reduces the relative size of the American economy in the world. Far from being a symptom of decline, the growth of other market economies and the middle classes they produce augurs well for economic growth within and outside the United States.

Second, Lieven suggests that the war in Iraq has been a failure and that the war in Afghanistan is a repeat of the war in Vietnam. There is considerable evidence that the reverse is true. In any case, it is far too soon to reach these verdicts. In Afghanistan, the United States and its allies are only several years into an intensified American commitment of troops. A messy democracy in Iraq still contends with terrorist attacks and sectarian violence, but it is far preferable to the Baathist dictatorship of the past. Neither situation provides evidence that Bush Administration policies were failures.

But Lieven goes further, suggesting that it was “national hysteria” or visions of “unipolar dominance” that led the Bush Administration to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. His implication is that there were no good arguments to be made on behalf of the Iraq War. In fact there were a number of powerful arguments that remain valid, even in the face of the difficulties of the war itself. They had nothing to do with hysteria or aggression. Those of us who supported the war in Iraq did not do so in order to establish a Pax Americana but to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein before he acquired nuclear weapons. Like any war of pre-emption, it was and will always be controversial because it rested on assumptions (about Saddam’s nuclear ambitions) that could not be proven. Moreover, when the United States and its allies wage a war against the terrorism of Islamist radicals, it is not doing so in order to dominate the globe unilaterally, as Lieven contends. On the contrary, counterterrorism efforts rest on intensive cooperation among allies. As was the case in the Cold War, only the United States has the will and the capabilities to lead the effort against terrorism.

But the most striking feature of Lieven’s account is what it omits. Lieven says nothing about the attacks on 9/11, the threat of Islamist terror of the past decade, or the possibility of oil-rich dictators purchasing weapons of mass destruction. Though he is an authority on foreign affairs, the only actor in his piece is the United States. The rest of the world appears to be without agency. The threats posed by Islamic extremism in its various forms—terrorist organizations (Al Qaeda), Islamist political movements with terrorist tactics (Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, and various terrorist groups in Iraq), the government of Iran—are barely touched upon. If one doesn’t acknowledge the threats, then the responses to those threats will obviously be dismissed as hysterical and aggressive.

In fact, the bipartisan consensus that Lieven attacks did not rest on a unipolar illusion. It was instead based on a common-sense conviction that we are living in an era in which a new variant of totalitarianism has gripped the hearts and minds of committed minorities in Muslim countries. The exact size and amount of support of the Islamist movement have been hard to ascertain. What is clear is that their ideological passion will not fade away soon, and will not diminish if the United States withdraws from the Middle East and Persian Gulf or reduces its support for Israel’s security. This consensus rested—and continues to rest—on a belief that losing the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan would embolden those who have made clear that they despise Western values. The fact that Lieven does not discuss these issues suggests that he thinks they are either unimportant or are an understandable reaction to the American unipolar illusion. Be that as it may, he offers no evidence or argument to show that a retreat by the United States from the Middle East and from its support for Israel would reduce the threat of terrorism and lead to moderation and rapprochement from the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran.

Lieven implies a yearning for the American foreign-policy establishment of the 1950s, which kept its distance from Israel. His essay can be read to suggest that the American commitment to Israel is part of the unipolar illusion he wishes to demolish. But as historians Ronald and Aliss Radosh have recently reminded us, support for the founding of the Jewish state in 1948 was a liberal, even leftist, cause, championed by Harry Truman in the face of fierce opposition from the military and diplomatic establishment in Washington, led by Secretary of State and former General George C. Marshall.

Since the 1960s, every American president, even skeptics such as Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, has deepened the American alliance with Israel. Neither Truman’s initial posture nor these subsequent decisions were the result of a unipolar vision of global American dominance. Nor were they part of an effort to democratize the whole world. They rested on judgments about both American interests and American values. If the United States now, in the face of terrorism and well-financed anti-Semitism in the media of Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, were to withdraw support for Israel’s security, the lesson would be that terrorism and anti-Semitic incitement work, and that the United States will not stand by its friends when they are under attack. Moreover, the Green Revolution of 2009 in Iran and the Arab winter and spring of 2011 have made clear that dictatorship at home, not the Israeli-Palestinian issue, is foremost in the minds of people in that region.

Lieven thinks that “the single greatest issue in international relations over the next generation” will be the relationship between the United States and China. That may well be, but there are reasons to believe that rapprochement in the face of continuing differences will persist. Yes, we do have disagreements about China’s suppression of human rights, levels of currency rates, and theft of intellectual property, and we wish the Chinese would do more to rein in or even change the regime in North Korea and leave Taiwan alone. But in contrast to the Soviet Union, the Chinese economy is interwoven in the global economy, including the American economy. It is not exporting revolution or terrorist groups around the world and does not pose nearly as serious an ideological challenge to American institutions as international communism did into the 1970s. Indeed the diplomatic, economic, scholarly, and political networks between the United States and China are deeper than ever. Hence, there are reasons to believe that the mix of cooperation and disagreement that characterize American-Chinese relations will continue for quite some time.

A key issue regarding China’s future seems to me to be how long it can become wealthier and more educated while remaining a one-party dictatorship. European historians know that professionals and the highly educated have in the past made their peace with despots. Yet in addition to frustrations in foreign policy due to Western containment and assorted economic problems, the Soviet Union’s collapse was also due to the gradual disillusionment with the communist project by several generations of university graduates. China has demonstrated that it can educate millions of people in ways that are compatible with dictatorship, atavistic nationalism, and submission to authority. How long can it develop a market economy without developing centers of economic power that are independent of central state control? Will China be the first society in modern history with a large and affluent middle class as well as a significant number of university graduates that remains a one-party state? In 1989, the Chinese Communists still believed enough in their own system to kill young people in Tiananmen Square. It seems plausible to me that in ten, 20, or 30 years, fewer and fewer will be willing to fight for that belief. China will probably face its own reckoning when, in the face of protests for democracy, it decides not to shoot to sustain dictatorship. It has already abandoned the essence of communist economics. To use Marxist terminology, the base is undermining the superstructure.

Just a few words about Kupchan’s book must suffice. It is odd that he asks “why peace breaks out,” but does not discuss the peace that broke out in Europe after the collapse of communism. To be sure, war broke out in the Balkans, and was ended only by American and European military intervention. Yet the more stable and vastly less tense peace that exists in Europe today is due to the end of the Cold War—that is, to the end of ideological and political conflict between communist dictatorships and the Western democracies. That conflict ended when communism in Europe collapsed. Peace broke out above all because there was nothing of fundamental importance to fight about. Differences of opinion and contrasting views of national interests persisted but the specter of possible nuclear war was consigned to the past. Kupchan, who has worked on trans-Atlantic and European affairs, chose not to examine the most famous and important case of rapprochement, namely the era of detente in Western Europe that preceded the intensified Cold War in the 1980s or the era of stable peace between Russia and the West that has emerged after the collapse of communism in 1989-90 and the end of the Soviet Union. One would think that Germany’s normalization of relations with the Soviet Union and then with Russia, after once being deadly enemies, would stand at the center of any such examination.

We now confront the third major form of totalitarianism in modern history, following Nazism and communism: radical Islamism. Its declarations need to be taken very seriously. There are large parts of the Muslim world, especially now in the aftermath of its hopeful democratic awakening, that can and should be engaged. Rapprochement with the great majority is possible. Indeed, such rapprochement has been the policy of the United States in both the Bush and Obama eras. But until the terrorists inspired by Islamist ideology lay down their arms, are militarily crushed, or abandon core elements of their ideological hatreds, the United States will have to continue to take the lead in defeating the threat they pose. No other power has the ability or the convictions to lead this struggle. Lieven’s confidently asserted but unconvincing recommendations would leave our allies, friends, and this country vulnerable to disaster of potentially enormous proportions.

Barack Obama has drawn inspiration from Franklin Roosevelt’s arguments regarding the positive role the federal government can and should play in fostering both the public goods and the social safety net that modern capitalism requires. Yet in foreign policy, the liberal mood that brought Obama to office differs from Roosevelt’s liberal internationalism, as Lieven and Kupchan illustrate. After Vietnam and Iraq, this liberalism evolved into a different tradition, one more likely to oppose than support the activism in foreign affairs that Roosevelt advocated. Lieven and Kupchan are voices of this post-1960s liberalism. Theirs is a set of ideas stuck in an earlier time, unable to come to terms with the threat of radical Islamism, the specter of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of dangerous dictators, or the terrors that dictators can inflict on their own populations. The older liberalism of FDR and Harry Truman, shaped in the hot and cold wars of the twentieth century, remains essential in the face of today’s very real threats. President Obama’s decision to order the raid that ended in the death of Osama Bin Laden was clear evidence that however softly he has spoken about radical Islamist ideology, he was willing to use the full complement of American power to bring this Islamist terrorist and mass murderer to justice. It seems that there is more of the anti-totalitarian liberalism of FDR and Truman in Obama than either his supporters or critics expected.

Read more about Foreign PolicyMiddle Easttotalitarianism

Jeffrey Herf is professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland in College Park. He is the author most recently of Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World.

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