by Corey Robin
May 2, 2004
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In 2000 I spent the tail end of the summer interviewing conservative patriarchs William F. Buckley and Irving Kristol. I was writing about the defections to the left of several younger right-wing intellectuals and wondered what the conservative movement's founding fathers thought of their wayward sons. But Buckley and Kristol were less interested in these ex-conservatives than they were in the sorry state of the movement and the uncertain fate of the United States as a global imperial power.
The end of communism and the triumph of capitalism, they suggested, were mixed blessings. Americans now possessed the most powerful empire in history. At the same time, they were possessed by one of the most anti-political ideologies in history: belief in the free market as a harmonious international order of voluntary exchange requiring little more from the state than the enforcement of laws and contracts. This ideology promoted self-interest over the national interest -- too bloodless a notion, Buckley and Kristol argued, upon which to found a national order, much less a global empire.
"The trouble with the emphasis in conservatism on the market," Buckley told me, "is that it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it's so repetitious. It's like sex." Kristol confessed to a yearning for an American empire: "What's the point of being the greatest, most powerful nation in the world and not having an imperial role?"
But because of its devotion to prosperity, he added, the United States lacked the fortitude and vision to wield imperial power. "It's too bad," Kristol lamented. "I think it would be natural for the United States . . . to play a far more dominant role in world affairs. . . to command and to give orders as to what is to be done. People need that. There are many parts of the world -- Africa in particular -- where an authority willing to use troops can make . . . a healthy difference." But not with public discussion dominated by accountants. "There's the Republican Party tying itself into knots. Over what?" he said. "I think it's disgusting that . . . presidential politics of the most important country in the world should revolve around prescriptions for elderly people."
Since 9/11, I've had many opportunities to recall these conversations. Sept. 11, we have been told, has restored to America's woozy civic culture a sense of depth and seriousness, of things "larger than ourselves." It has forced Americans to look beyond their borders, to understand at last the dangers that confront a world power. It has given the United States a coherent national purpose and a focus for imperial rule. A country that for a time seemed unwilling to face up to its international responsibilities is now prepared once again to bear any burden, pay any price, for freedom. This changed attitude, the argument goes, is good for the world. It is also good, spiritually, for the United States. It reminds us that freedom is a fighting faith rather than a cushy perch.
To understand this reaction to 9/11, we must examine the state of mind of American conservatives after the end of the Cold War. For neoconservatives, who had thrilled to the crusade against communism, all that was left of Ronald Reagan's legacy after the Cold War was a sunny entrepreneurialism, which found a welcome home in Bill Clinton's America. While neocons favor capitalism, they do not believe it is the highest achievement of civilization. Like their predecessors -- from Edmund Burke, Samuel Coleridge and Henry Adams to T.S. Eliot, Martin Heidegger and Michael Oakeshott -- today's conservatives prize mystery and vitality over calculation and technology. Such romantic sensibilities are inspired by questions of politics and, especially, of war. It is only natural, then, that the neocons would take up the call of empire, seeking a world that is about something more than money and markets.
Immediately following 9/11, intellectuals, politicians and pundits seized upon the terrorist strikes as a deliverance from the miasma Buckley and Kristol had been criticizing. Even commentators on the left saw the attacks as stirring a sleeping nation; Frank Rich announced in the New York Times that "this week's nightmare, it's now clear, has awakened us from a frivolous if not decadent decade-long dream."
What was that dream? The dream of prosperity. During the 1990s, conversative David Brooks wrote in Newsweek, we "renovated our kitchens, refurbished our home entertainment systems, invested in patio furniture, Jacuzzis and gas grills." This ethos had terrible consequences. It encouraged a "preoccupation with one's own petty affairs," Francis Fukuyama wrote in the Financial Times. It also had international repercussions. According to Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, the cult of peace and prosperity found expression in President Clinton's weak and distracted foreign policy, which made it "easier for someone like Osama bin Laden to rise up and say credibly, 'The Americans don't have the stomach to defend themselves. They won't take casualties to defend their interests. They are morally weak.' "
But after that day in September, the domestic scene was transformed. America was now "more mobilized, more conscious and therefore more alive," wrote Andrew Sullivan in the New York Times Magazine. Writers welcomed the moral electricity coursing through the body politic, restoring patriotism and bipartisan consensus.
Internationally, 9/11 forced the United States to reengage with the world, to assume the burden of empire without embarrassment or confusion. The mission of the United States was now clear to conservatives: to defend civilization and freedom against barbarism and terror. As Condoleezza Rice told Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker, "I think the difficulty has passed in defining a role. I think September 11 was one of those great earthquakes that clarify and sharpen." An America thought to be lulled by the charms of the market was now willing to sustain casualties on behalf of a U.S.-led global order.
The end of the Cold War unleashed a wave of triumphalism, but it also provoked among American elites an anxious uncertainty about U.S. foreign policy. How should the United States now define its world role? When should it intervene in foreign conflicts? How big a military should it field? The United States seemed to be suffering from a surfeit of power, which made it difficult to formulate principles for its use. As Cheney acknowledged in February 1992, when he was serving as the first President Bush's secretary of defense, "We've gained so much strategic depth that the threats to our security, now relatively distant, are harder to define."
When Clinton assumed office, he and his advisers concluded that the primary concerns of U.S. foreign policy were no longer military but economic. The great imperative was to organize a global economy where people could trade across borders. Clinton's vision reflected a conviction, common in the 1990s, that globalization had undermined the efficacy of military power and traditional empires. "Soft power" -- the cultural capital that made the United States so admired around the world -- was as important to national preeminence as military power.
For some conservatives, Clinton's promotion of free trade and free markets was anathema. Though conservatives reputedly favor wealth and prosperity, law and order, stability and routine -- all the comforts of bourgeois life -- they disdained Clinton for his pursuit of these very virtues. His quest for affluence, they argued, produced a society that lost its sense of depth and political meaning. "In that age of peace and prosperity," Brooks would write, "the top sitcom was 'Seinfeld,' a show about nothing."
Clinton's vision of a benign international order, conservatives argued, betrayed an unwillingness to take on a world of power and violence, of mysterious evil and unfathomable hatred. Coping with such a world requires pagan courage and barbaric virtu, qualities many conservatives embrace over the more prosaic goods of peace and prosperity. But there was another reason for the neocons' dissatisfaction. Clinton, they claimed, was reactive and haphazard rather than proactive and forceful.
Sept. 11 has given the neocons an opportunity to articulate, without embarrassment, the vision of imperial American power that they have been harboring for years. Unlike empires past, this one will be guided by a benevolent goal -- worldwide improvement -- and therefore will not generate the backlash previous empires have generated. As Rice told the New Yorker's Lemann, "Theoretically . . . when you have a great power like the United States it would not be long before you had other great powers rising to challenge it. And I think what you're seeing is that there's at least a predilection this time to move to productive and cooperative relations with the United States, rather than to try to balance the United States." Thus, imperial America will no longer have to "wait on events while dangers gather," as Bush put it in his 2002 State of the Union address. It will now "shape the environment." The goal is one Cheney outlined in the early 1990s: that no other power ever arise to challenge American preeminence.
For the Kristol-Buckley model conservatives, this is a heady moment, when their ambivalence -- not about capitalism per se, but about the culture of capitalism, the elevation of buying and selling above political virtues such as heroism and struggle -- may finally be resolved. No longer hamstrung by the numbing politics of affluence, they believe they can count on the public to respond to calls of sacrifice and destiny. With danger and security the watchwords of the day, the country will be newly sanctified. The American empire, they hope, will allow America to have its market without being deadened by it.
Though it is still too soon to make any definitive assessment, mounting evidence suggests that the American empire is encountering obstacles at home and abroad. Violence against the United States might not prove to be a problem, at least not in the short term; after all, other empires have weathered it for a time.
But the administration's vision is compelling only so long as it is successful. Because the neoconservatives' premise is that the United States can govern events -- and determine the outcome of history -- their vision cannot sustain the suggestion that events lie beyond their control. Ironically, insofar as the Bush administration avoids conflicts in which it might fail, say between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it forgoes the very logic of imperialism that it seeks to avow. As former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger has observed about the Middle East, Bush realizes "that simply to insert himself into this mess without any possibility of achieving any success is, in and of itself, dangerous because it would demonstrate that, in fact, we don't have any ability right now to control or affect events." This Catch-22 is no mere problem of logic or consistency; it betrays the essential fragility of the imperial position.
On the domestic front, there is little evidence that the political and cultural renewal imagined by many commentators is taking place. Even the slightest imposition is rejected in Congress even in this time of war. In March 2002, for example, 62 senators, including 19 Democrats, rejected higher fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, which would have reduced dependence upon Persian Gulf oil. Missouri Sen. Christopher Bond (R) declared, "I don't want to tell a mom in my home state that she should not get an SUV because Congress decided that would be a bad choice."
The fact that the war against terrorism has not yet imposed the sacrifices on the population that normally accompany national crusades has provoked occasional bouts of concern among politicians and cultural elites. "The danger, over the long term," wrote the New York Times's R. W. Apple, "is loss of interest. With much of the war to be conducted out of plain sight by commandos, diplomats and intelligence agents, will a nation that has spent decades in easy self-indulgence stay focused?"
The Bush administration initially looked for things for people to do -- not because there was much to be done, but because it feared that the ardor of ordinary Americans would grow cold. The best the administration came up with were Web sites and toll-free numbers that enterprising citizens could contact if they wanted to help the war effort. But the numbers were for groups such as Freedom Corps, enabling volunteers to become rural health workers, or Citizen Corps, which bolstered household emergency preparedness and expanded Neighborhood Watch groups. Now, with the war in Iraq going awry, the administration talks less about active involvement from ordinary Americans, happy to settle for their tacit support instead.
We thus face a dangerous situation. On the one hand we have neoconservative elites whose vision of American power is recklessly utopian. On the other hand we have a domestic population that shows little interest in any far-flung empire. The political order projected by Bush and his supporters in the media and academia is just that: a projection, which can only last so long as the United States is able to put down, with minimum casualties, challenges to its power. We may well be entering one of those Machiavellian moments discussed by historian J. G. A. Pocock a quarter-century ago, when a republic opts for the frisson of empire, and is forced to confront the fragility and finitude of all political forms, including its own.
Author's e-mail: CRobin@brooklyn.cuny.edu
Corey Robin is an assistant professor of political science at Brooklyn College at the City University of New York. This is a shorter version of an essay published in the Boston Review and in the forthcoming anthology "Cold War Triumphalism" (The New Press).