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Extreme Makeover: America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism
February 14, 2005 7:55 PM   Subscribe

For more than two centuries, nationalism in all its various forms—from the high-minded chauvinism of the British Empire to the virulent poison of Nazism—has been a familiar, and often negative, phenomenon. Emerging first in Europe, which it nearly destroyed and which has now apparently learned to control it, extreme nationalism still erupts from time to time in other parts of the world. The word "nationalism" never quite seemed to fit the United States, where continental vastness and enormous power have hitherto been tempered by an often-expressed distaste for empire and by the notion of world leadership by example. In the first years of the twenty-first century, however, in a dramatic departure from traditional policy, the spirit of unilateralism and militant nationalism began to dominate Washington's policies and attitudes toward the outside world.

Extreme Makeover - Brian Urquhart reviews America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism. And here is Gerald Rellick's take on the book. From Asia Source, a long and informative interview with Anatol Lievin. From the Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley's Conversations with History, A Conversation With Anatol Lieven. Also by Anatol Lieven, A Trap Of Their Own Making.
posted by y2karl (10 comments total)

 
You suggest that various practices and institutions put into place during the Cold War make the constant threat of war a virtual necessity for the American foreign policymaking and security establishment. This may account in part for why Islam came very quickly to replace communism as the great ideological enemy of the United States. Given that Islam has no locus, that there are a billion Muslims spread out across the world, how is the US security establishment likely to continue to deal with this kind of enemy?

I say in the book that what seems essential is not the imminent threat of war, but rather constant belief in the possibility of war. There are all these institutions and economic interests which were put in place by the Second World War and still more by the Cold War. Eisenhower's original phrase apparently was "military-industrial-academic-complex". There are so many people in my world of think tanks in American universities with a deep stake in all these foreign policy agendas...

Even if you narrow the war on terror down to Al Qaeda and its allies, which of course the Bush administration and Israeli lobby have deliberately and manifestly failed to do, even then one is speaking of a web, a network of many, many different groups and nodes in this web which sometimes cooperate, sometimes act independently, with varying degrees of relative importance. Zarqawi's group in Iraq, like the international forces fighting in Chechnya, are in no sense subordinate to Al Qaeda.

To combat these groups requires a really detailed and acute knowledge of the societies concerned. Something once again that America failed to generate in the case of Vietnam before going to war there, failed to generate about Iraq before going to war there, and is indeed failing to generate in the case of large parts of the Muslim world. It does seem that there is a natural pull towards concentration on alleged threats from states. This was especially clear after 9/11: the astonishing speed with which the Bush administration turned its attention from the actual terrorist perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to confront the "axis of evil" states and draw up plans for war with Iraq.

It is clearly much easier to threaten and invade Iraq than to think seriously about how to combat the appeal of groups like Al Qaeda and its allies in the Muslim world. Similarly it is much easier to concentrate on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons than having to think seriously about the Shia-Sunni relationship, or what to do about the Hezbollah in Lebanon. This is part of the built-in bias of military bureaucracies, but also owes much to the effects of the Cold War and the present intellectual configuration of American academia.

posted by y2karl at 7:59 PM on February 14, 2005


y2karl, why do you hate [COUNTRY OF CHOICE]?
posted by dougunderscorenelso at 8:01 PM on February 14, 2005


Thanks for the links (as usual). While his book doesn't seem to be saying anything that new, it says it in a way that is grounded and rationale, and more well put then anything I could say.
posted by iamck at 8:32 PM on February 14, 2005


It is clearly much easier to threaten and invade Iraq than to think seriously about how to combat the appeal of groups like Al Qaeda and its allies in the Muslim world. Similarly it is much easier to concentrate on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons than having to think seriously about the Shia-Sunni relationship, or what to do about the Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Lucid and important points, presented soberly. Too bad those points will fall on deaf ears.
posted by AlexReynolds at 8:49 PM on February 14, 2005


Holy tooltips, Batman!
posted by odinsdream at 9:05 PM on February 14, 2005


"The word "nationalism" never quite seemed to fit the United States, where continental vastness and enormous power have hitherto been tempered by an often-expressed distaste for empire and by the notion of world leadership by example."

Yes, praise God for giving us an unihabitated "continental vastness" to people and make productive!

But imperialism? Conquest? Subjugation? Never!
posted by orthogonality at 9:53 PM on February 14, 2005


AlexReynolds, can you elaborate on why you think the United States government pays so little attention to the connections between these groups? It stands to reason that many of the people involved with foreign policy are scholars of religion, international relations, and the like. These people must be well versed in the structure and the appeal of groups like Al Qaeda. Why aren't their voices heard?
posted by FissionChips at 10:06 PM on February 14, 2005


It stands to reason that many of the people involved with foreign policy are scholars of religion, international relations, and the like. These people must be well versed in the structure and the appeal of groups like Al Qaeda. Why aren't their voices heard?

Well, there are the four paragraphs from Lievin interview in Asia Source linked above, preceding the one Alex Reynolds quoted:

I say in the book that what seems essential is not the imminent threat of war, but rather constant belief in the possibility of war. There are all these institutions and economic interests which were put in place by the Second World War and still more by the Cold War. Eisenhower's original phrase apparently was "military-industrial-academic-complex". There are so many people in my world of think tanks in American universities with a deep stake in all these foreign policy agendas. In the book I also point out that - and this has been mentioned in other forms by people like James Mann, Richard Clarke, Paul O'Neill and others - one of the reasons why 9/11 was able to happen was that the security elites under Clinton, and very much under Bush, were not looking seriously at the terrorist threat because, due to their Cold War backgrounds, they were obsessed with the very much lesser threat from major rival states.

When the Bush administration came to power, they had radical anti-Chinese agendas of containing China, of rolling back China, of creating a new Cold War with China. On the other hand, now there is this tremendous effort, certainly among the neo-cons, to present Islam or the Muslim world as the new Cold War enemy. You see all this nonsense by people like Norman Podhoretz about the Fourth World War. The interesting thing is precisely because, as you say, Islam is not a superpower like the Soviet Union, nor does it represent a relatively clear set of social, economic, and political principles like communism. One is dealing with an extremely diverse world with different cultures and societies and multiple motivations.

Even if you narrow the war on terror down to Al Qaeda and its allies, which of course the Bush administration and Israeli lobby have deliberately and manifestly failed to do, even then one is speaking of a web, a network of many, many different groups and nodes in this web which sometimes cooperate, sometimes act independently, with varying degrees of relative importance. Zarqawi's group in Iraq, like the international forces fighting in Chechnya, are in no sense subordinate to Al Qaeda.

To combat these groups requires a really detailed and acute knowledge of the societies concerned. Something once again that America failed to generate in the case of Vietnam before going to war there, failed to generate about Iraq before going to war there, and is indeed failing to generate in the case of large parts of the Muslim world. It does seem that there is a natural pull towards concentration on alleged threats from states. This was especially clear after 9/11: the astonishing speed with which the Bush administration turned its attention from the actual terrorist perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to confront the "axis of evil" states and draw up plans for war with Iraq.

posted by y2karl at 11:57 PM on February 14, 2005


What a fascinating sounding book. I usually don't buy political books, because (from what I hear) they don't have an especially high special effects budget. In fact, from what I hear, they're not even compatible with my DVD player, so I don't know how I'd watch them, anyway.

But, while some may find these ideas to be nothing new, I think that his way of viewing the current political agenda as chauvinist and militant nationalism is intriguing and (at least) new to me. Nationalism is a notoriously difficult to understand and easy to misconstrue concept.

After the election, it was like the entire country became a wildly different place to me. Suddenly our political future became hopeless in my eyes. The republicans and hawks had somehow discovered political invincibility and secured a frightening amount of power, and I coudln't for the life of me understand what their secret was. How did they do it?

Suddenly I'm able to see the results of this last election not as the imposition of the will of ignorant homophobes on the American People but rather as the manipulation of a dissatisfied and scared people into a defensive and fiercely reactionary stance against an indefinable "other." This distinction is so unbelievably important, to my mind, for fellow liberals to understand. If this piece falls on deaf ears, as AlexReynolds claims, then it would be the ears of liberals that would most tragically be deaf to it. It's too easy to just blame the midwest and the south. The people who voted for Bush in November aren't the enemy. They're the ones who had their fear and depression turned against them. They're the ones who need help against this administration the most, maybe. At least within our country.

Thank you y2karl. This is one of the most enlightening fpps in recent memory for me.
posted by shmegegge at 4:17 AM on February 15, 2005


Fine post as usual, and it's nice to have you back.
I tried sending you an e-mail, but it got bounced back with "User mailbox exceeds allowed message count." Hope you're doing OK.
posted by languagehat at 7:13 AM on February 15, 2005


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