November 16, 2004

Our National Interest Will Be the World's (Again)!

Power matters, both the exercise of power by the United States and the ability of others to exercise it. Yet many in the United States are (and have always been) uncomfortable with the notions of power politics, great powers, and power balances. In an extreme form, this discomfort leads to a reflexive appeal instead to notions of international law and norms, and the belief that the support of many states -- or even better, of institutions like the United Nations -- is essential to the legitimate exercise of power. The "national interest" is replaced with "humanitarian interests" or the interests of "the international community." The belief that the United States is exercising power legitimately only when it is doing so on behalf of someone or something else was deeply rooted in Wilsonian thought, and there are strong echoes of it in the Clinton administration. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with doing something that benefits all humanity, but that is, in a sense, a second-order effect. America's pursuit of the national interest will create conditions that promote freedom, markets, and peace. Its pursuit of national interests after World War II led to a more prosperous and democratic world. This can happen again.

Condoleeza Rice, back in 2000, writing in the august pages of Foreign Affairs.

By the by, don't let my facetious tone fool you. I think Condi, then and now, is spot on re: her deep skepticism of wooly-headed multilateralist cheerleaders who too often appear to insist "that the United States is exercising power legitimately only when it is doing so on behalf of someone or something else..."

But it's dangerous, of course, to assume our national interest is always destined to be the world's. When Condi wrote, back in 2000, that "this could happen again," none of us knew that one Manhattan morning would force upon the U.S. the critical mission of spearheading a massive decades long campaign against international terror. But we must be careful to not too breezily assume that our new banner is the world's writ large. It may, to a fashion, be Russia's (Chechnya), China's (Xinjiang), Israel's (Hamas, Jihad Islami), India's (Kashmir), among others.

But others still see our prosecution of the war on terror as a somewhat indiscriminate war against Islam. We might intuitively smell out the hyperbole in that contention sitting down in Kalorama, Belgravia, and the Upper East Side. But the world looks different on the streets of Cairo, Fallujah, or Riyadh. And not everyone in the whole region, it bears mentioning, is some horrific jihadist hell-bent on destroying us. We need to work to win hearts and minds there, people. This means, yes, more "nuance", here and there. For instance, believe it or not, Iran is not the single source of all evil in the world today (Michael Leeden notwithstanding). So let's keep some of the Danton-like excesses to a minimum, I say. Surtout pas the zele. To "faster, please"; I say "smarter, please."

And, er, allegedly killing unarmed Iraqis in mosques ain't smart. Not that Rummy will give a damn, of course. Cuz, you know, "stuff happens". It happens at Abu Ghraib. It happens when an insurgency is advantaged by having too few troops in theater. It happens when you don't secure weapons sites. And on and on. But this is a boring list by now, no? There simply is no accountability for Don Rumsfeld, is there? I'll shut up with my sour grapes, promise!

UPDATE: I'm toying with disabling comments (or opening them up less often). Why? Oh, maybe it is the moonbats that emerge whenever you talk about the Arab-Israeli peace process. Or the sometimes obscene comments that need to be deleted. Or that someone, fresh from 3 weeks in Albania, is kind enough to dispense lessons about the Balkans to me (where I lived for some two years). And so on. Status quo, for now. But I'm tired enough between a demanding day job and nocturnal blogging to have to consider dispensing with comments to eliminate the hassle. That said, I often feel I have some of the smartest commenters in the blogosphere--indeed the the comments are sometimes worth reading more than the original posts. What to do? (No time for some "registration' scheme," at the moment, I'm afraid).

Posted by Gregory at November 16, 2004 05:02 AM

Greg, I realize that pouring over Condi's Achesonian musings of circa 2000 are like a comfort blanket right now, but it might be more au courant to read NSS '02.

Posted by: praktike at November 16, 2004 05:51 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Before you get your panties all in a twist about the Marine's killing of the "prisoner," see: (a tip of the Hatlo hat to LGF)

With regards to Muslims and "nuance": I recently spent three weeks in Albania (the poorest country in Europe, with about a 40% unemployment rate), which is nominally 70% Muslim and in which, according to Gallup, the US has a 95% approval rating. I heard more than once from the Albanians I visited something to the effect: "We know terrorism. Our government terrorized us for 45 years. Terrorism has infected the Balkans. Terrorism is awful, it's evil. And the United States is the only country doing something about it."

I'm beginning to think that "nuance" is a parlor game for us in the west who have the time and the leisure to prop up our feet on the couch. The world looks different to the residents of Tiranė, Elbasan, Korēe, Voskopojė, Berat, and Pogradec.

Posted by: Mike in Oregon at November 16, 2004 06:33 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg --

Regarding the Marine, the story posted on CNN, if correct, would tend to exonerate him. Tellingly, the NBC pool reporter witheld information from the squad (about the Mosque and the prisoners he'd seen the prior day) and has written in his own blog that he's "not one of them."

Much the same happened in the Pacfic theatre (Japanese soldiers would play "possum" and throw hand grenades or shoot at medics or approaching Marines/Soldiers, to the point where Japanese bodies were run over with tanks to prevent this) and the European theatre (Germans would pretend to surrender then shoot at GIs). Notably, the Iraqi terrorists have been booby trapping bodies or pretending to be dead or surrendering then blowing themselves and US soldiers up. A Marine was tragically killed not far from that Mosque at the same time in that manner.

The Media will likely eviscerate themselves over this, NBC is going to look bad, maybe worse than "fake but accurate" CBS. I've seen the video, the Marine doesn't appear to have done anything wrong (coming in on the tail end of a firefight with the guy not surrendering just playing possum).

Look for the Democratic Party to complete their assisted suicide (with the media) by falling all over this after lionizing Kerry for doing essentially the same in Vietnam.

Posted by: Jim Rockford at November 16, 2004 08:17 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The shooting incident will be investigated, of course, and that is right. But how many of those who scream loudest now would not have the terrorists locked up in Guantanamo either?

Unlike Abu Ghraib, this happened in the heat of battle. Such things have happened in any fight against a merciless enemy. Given the unspeakable atrocities the insurgents have committed, the torture, mutilation and murder of hostages and prisoners, their reliance on booby traps, human shields and fake surrenders (how often have we heard abouth these things?) - what do we expect? No, I am not saying we should copy our enemies and that is not what happened here. I am saying we ask so much of our soldiers that we should sometimes check our judgment.

I am not comfortable with this. No one should be, but that is exactly the point. These are the soldiers who are doing the dirty but necessary work for us - the killing - and we will not find better ones. I am one of those who supported sending them there.

Posted by: werner at November 16, 2004 10:25 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I am not prepared to either criticize that Marine nor care about the jihadi dispatched in the Mosque/bunker. This ploy has been used by dishonorable combatants since the beginning of time. Our soldiers are under no obligation to put themselves at unnecessary risk to save an illegal combatant who is hell-bent on killing and dying. To ask them to "take one" for some Western notion of decency while our enemy mutilates old women in Mosque/torture chambers is absurd. Civilians sitting safely in their Lazy Boy recliners have neither the understanding of the reality of combat in Fallujah nor the moral right to sit in judgement of warriors. Those who can't handle the horror of war should avert their gaze while soldiers do their grisly work. That Marine deserves nothing less than our thanks for doing what most of us either can't nor won't.

Posted by: lugh lampfhota at November 16, 2004 12:05 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

During WWII, after various atrocities, American troops adopted an unofficial "no prisoners" policy toward SS soldiers. Not towards regular Wehrmacht soldiers, just the SS.

Today, jihadists use shoot from mosques and hospitals and schools, use ambulances for smuggling, disguise themselves as UN workers, pretend to surrender in order to ambush soldiers, take hostages, routinely and by official policy torture and murder hostages, kill aid workers, and so on.

The parallels are obvious, and a certain amount of reaction is understandable. Not praiseworthy, and definitely not to be encouraged, but entirely understandable. I hope that as this is investigated we bear that in mind.

Posted by: pst314 at November 16, 2004 03:10 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Sorry that problems with comments have you tired and frustrated. I hope you can find a satisfactory solution.

Posted by: pst314 at November 16, 2004 03:14 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Why not eliminate comments, but post e-mails that you believe are especially incisive or well-written? This is your website, so it's more than fair that you serve as the filter.
Hopefully you could post them in a separate window attached to each post, like the one you use for comments. (I'd prefer this to Sullivan's method, where responses are on the letters page instead of being attached to the original post.)

Posted by: Myaeger at November 16, 2004 03:25 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


NSSC 2002 is a profoundly realistic document. It deals primarily with the need to maintain American primacy in a world of transnational terrorism. What is left unmentioned, as it is the Elephant in the Room, is the rise of Chinese economic, political, and military (especially naval) power. That wasn't spoken of quite forthrightly, but it is the central strategic problem of our time.

How do the two biggest dogs in the Pacific coexist without fighting over the trade routes to Japan? Hopefully, statecraft can help China through its nationalist Wilhelmine phase.

One shouldn't be fooled by the Wilsonianism of the transforming power of democracy. We are pursuing our national interest in so undermining the ideological underpinnings of Islamic Fascism. In the long run, the same democratic campaign may, repeat may, moderate any Chinese martial impulses in the Pacific.

Far better than propping up tinhorn fascisti or oil princelings in my book.

Posted by: section9 at November 16, 2004 04:09 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Muslim terrorists are slowly getting us to understand that killing them in large numbers is the only possible way to deal with them. This is not news to the many people (survivors) in the Muslim world who already have several decades of experience with these people, and have themselves been able to find no better and indeed no other effective response.

Posted by: ZR at November 16, 2004 05:00 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg, your comment section is your own, and if you decide to kill it I can't blame you. Perhaps, for my part, I should be gentler in my chidings.

As for section9, the principal difference I see between NSS02 and Condi's Foreign Affairs piece is that the former is replete with calls for dominance and sneers at the very notion of an international community--not the use of scare quotes.

Regarding China, this administration has fiddled while China has advanced its interests and built up considerable goodwill in Asia. The balancing is beginning. The question going forward is: how will China develop? Will it be friendly or not? I'd prefer to make peacefully rising China I reality, and I fear that the strategy outlined in NSS02 is a recipe for another Cold War.

Posted by: praktike at November 16, 2004 06:04 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Hi Greg, whether you do disable comments or not, please consider adding trackbacks. Especially if you do disable them. It's a vital way to create discussion in a way that fosters more discussion.

Posted by: just me at November 16, 2004 07:43 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


I enjoy your site immensely, though I think I came to it too late in life to discover the source of your dislike for Don Rumsfeld. It seems a bit on the irrational side from my perspective. Why should the SecDef resign every time some low-level soldier/marine does something extracurricular (at least so long as there's no evidence suggesting that the Pentagon was encouraging such conduct)? Surely you realize that many of the "scandals"--just like many of the "setbacks," "quagmires" etc.--that we've seen in this war are really just a function of having 24/7 satellite TV coverage for the first time in history. (I know that there was extensive coverage of Gulf War I and the Balkans campaign, but neither involved significant ground operations, much less counterinsurgency operations) If you really expect absolute perfection from even the finest military in the world, you're going to be continually disappointed. Remember, "SNAFU" was coined by the US armed forces.

Posted by: mike at November 16, 2004 09:06 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

One of the hallmarks of Liberal/Leftist thought is a notion borrowed from Marxism: Power is evil, the exercise of power is always illegitimate. Once this unarticulated moral premise is factored in much of the opposition to the United States in general and to the policies of the Bush administration in particular make more sense. As the US is the most powerful nation in the world it is the most evil, all its actions, as exercises of power are illegitimate and must be opposed on principle.

Posted by: Tamquam L. Rugiens at November 17, 2004 12:39 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Nice to see Greg praising Condi's deep skepticism of wooly-headed multilateralist cheerleaders.

Pity that he doesn't evince the same skepticism toward the anti-Pentagon media's periodic attempts to change the dominant meme from the routing of the jihadi fascists to "war crimes." Lt. John Kerry took a different view when he was engaged in combat in 1969; so does any soldier I've come across.

Regarding media memes, the Fallujah = Stalingrad meme having fizzled and the Ha ha, Zarqawi Got Away! meme having gone nowhere due to our evident determination to carry the fight to Mosul and elsewhere, I predict the next big Meme du Jour will be Iraqi Elections Are Illegitimate.

To be followed, as in the Afghan example, by changing the subject.

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