AMERICA THE VIRTUOUS. Crisis of democracy and the quest for empire. By Claes G. Ryn. 240pp. Transaction. $34.95. – 0 76580 219 8
Why did President George W. Bush abandon US multilateralism of the post-Second World War era? Why did he turn his back on his promise during his presidential campaign for a more humble foreign policy, eschewing “nation-building”? The superficial answer is the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC.
These attacks gave Bush’s political handler, Karl Rove, the opportunity to rescue the President from the controversy surrounding his election by wrapping him in the flag. The real answer, according to Professor Claes G. Ryn in America the Virtuous:
Crisis of democracy and the quest for empire, is the rise of a new Jacobin ideology, which has captured the Bush administration and formerly conservative media, such as the Wall Street Journal editorial page, National Review, the Washington Times and Fox News.
Known to the world as neo-conservativism, this ideology is radical, not conservative.
It appears to be conservative because, unlike cultural Marxists who find endless social and moral vices in American values and institutions, neo-conservatives find virtue.
Neo-conservatives make universal claims for American principles.
For example, Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind wrote:
“When we Americans speak seriously about politics, we mean that our principles of freedom and equality and the rights based on them are rational and everywhere applicable.
World War II was really an educational project undertaken to force those who did not accept these principles to do so”.
“There is a value system that cannot be compromised, and that is the values we praise.
And if the values are good enough for our people, they ought to be good enough for others”.
The claim of universality gives American principles a monopoly on virtue, which makes the ideology militant, since with the monopoly comes an obligation to remake the world in the American image.
Those who resist the imposition of virtue do so because they are “evil”.
It becomes America’s purpose and responsibility to rid the world of evil.
As President Bush sees it, “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil”.
But, as Ryn argues, “a monopolistic ideological universalism that scorns historically formed societies is a potential source of unending war and great disasters”.
Neo-conservatives do not appreciate or understand Western civilization as a human achievement resulting from centuries of struggle to create moral character.
Self-restraint, empathy and mutual respect are necessary for pluralistic societies.
Neo-Jacobin morality, however, is divorced from moral character, personal conduct and the civilized treatment of others, instead expressing itself in benevolent sentiments toward abstractions.
Human diversity is not a value comparable to “making the world safe for democracy” or “liberating women from the Muslim yoke”.
Neo-Jacobin morality seeks to achieve a uniform unipolar world; and, as the neo-conservative Ben Wattenberg put it: “Remember this about American Purpose: a unipolar world is fine, if America is the uni”.
The neo-conservative monopoly on virtue melds with the American superpower’s monopoly on power to imbue neo-conservatives with enormous self-confidence.
“America is no mere international citizen.
It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome.
Accordingly, America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will”.
Krauthammer’s declaration that “the US can reshape, indeed remake, reality on its own” is nothing short of megalomaniacal.
Ryn argues that Americans across the political spectrum find aspects of the neo-Jacobin message attractive without understanding where it leads.
The neo-Jacobin quest for American world supremacy appeals to nationalistic patriots, to conservatives who bemoan “value-relativism”, to liberals imbued with a sense of government purpose, to leftists who like the stress on revolution, to macho types whose response to September 11 is to “kick butt”, to people fearful of terrorist plots, to global business and financial interests, to do-gooders anxious to spread democracy and women’s rights, and to people who enjoy power and success vicariously, like fans of champion sports teams.
But what many regard as a necessary or remedial dose of national assertiveness is, Ryn argues, the beginning of an imposition of ideological unity demanded by abstract righteousness.
Neo-conservatives have demonstrated coercive tendencies (and a belief in their moral superiority) by their attempts to preempt debate and to silence critics of the US invasion of Iraq.
Writing in The American Conservative (December 1), a new magazine attempting to provide a conservative challenge to neo-conservatism, Doug Bandow, a syndicated columnist and former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, described the vitriol “routinely spewed by conservatives when I argued against war with Iraq over the last year.
Conservative papers stopped running my column; conservative Web sites removed it from their archives”.
Bandow’s use of “conservative” suggests that he underappreciates the extent of the neo- conservative revolution.
Neo-conservatives brand critics of the invasion as unpatriotic and accuse them of treason.
Professor Ryn is correct that American conservatism has all but disappeared.
For many years I was associated with National Review, but when I wrote that the US invasion of Iraq was a strategic blunder, I was dropped from the masthead.
Ryn shows how neo-conservative scholars, such as Harry Jaffa, have worked to redefine the American Revolution as a revolutionary break from the past like the French Revolution, whereas in fact the American Revolution was a demand by Americans to enjoy the rights of Englishmen, and the American Founding Fathers had none of the Messianic ambitions of Robespierre.
Neo-conservative scholars celebrate the powerful centralized state created by President Abraham Lincoln and the War Between the States: Jaffa is tireless in his admiration and defence of Lincoln’s “energy in the executive”.
Ryn locates the origin of neo-Jacobinism in the political philosopher Leo Strauss, a professor for many years at the University of Chicago.
Strauss died in 1973, but his disciples include Jaffa, Bloom, Walter Berns, Martin Diamond and Harvey Mansfield.
Ryn attributes the dissimulation and manipulation associated with the neo-conservatives’ case for invading Iraq to Strauss’s teachings that superior intellectuals must use sycophancy and craftiness in order to protect themselves from ignorant common people and to guide rulers along the correct path.
Ryn writes that neo-conservative professors have “transmitted their ideas to many thousands of students, many of whom think of themselves as belonging to a distinct intellectual elite.
A high percentage of them have gravitated to college and university faculties, think tanks, journalism and government, and many have reached very high positions”.
Formerly conservative media are now in neo-conservative hands, and neo-conservatives control the military and foreign policy of the Bush administration and write the President’s speeches.
The alternative voice to the new Jacobins is that of postmodernism and cultural Marxism. This voice, strongest in the universities, is hostile to America and works against enculturation of its youth in traditional American values.
As cultural Marxism does not resonate with the general population, it is not a political check on the neo-conservatives.
The political Left’s agenda is domestic: a strong welfare state to guarantee equal outcomes.
The neo-Jacobin agenda is a strong state that can dominate the world.
What the two intellectual camps have in common is ambition unchecked by intellectual humility and moral self-control.
As Ryn observes, this is a recipe for tyranny.
He argues that America is in peril because decline in character and intensifying plebiscitary pressures rob American representative institutions of restraining and deliberative functions.
The kind of leadership that the American system was created to provide can no longer thrive:
With the deterioration of the institutional supports for critical detachment and deliberation, responsible decision-making has become increasingly difficult…. Rare is the politician who would risk unpopularity or media censure by stating uncomfortable truths.
Successful politicians tend to be individuals lacking in deeper knowledge and insight.
They are “pragmatists” without well-considered convictions of their own who are willing to go with the flow.
Prominent figures such as America’s Bill Clinton and Britain’s Tony Blair are examples of politicians of technocratic managerial disposition who are driven far less by an intellectually and historically grounded vision for their society than by personal ambition and political convenience.
Weak and visionless politicians operating in hollowed-out institutions are poor competitors with an ideological movement confident of its purpose and moral superiority.
Claes Ryn fears the rise of a coercive state determined to impose like-mindedness on its citizens and the world.
However, the same pragmatic politicians who have no interests except their own re- election might, in fact, save us from the world the neo-Jacobins have in mind.
Neo-conservative overconfidence has turned their Iraq adventure into a political liability. Concerned only with Bush’s re-election, Karl Rove wants the US out of Iraq before November 2004. If he prevails, Iraq will not be the first step in the neo-conservative plan, described by Norman Podhoretz in Commentary magazine, for US conquest of the Muslim Middle East. The deracination of Islam in order to achieve Francis Fukuyama’s dictum that “liberalism is the only ideology with the right to citizenship in today’s world” will fade away as another pipe dream of ahistorical intellectuals.
As Europe resisted the French Revolution, Muslims are resisting the American superpower. Although most Americans are unaware of it, their best hope is that Iraqi insurgents succeed in driving the US out of Iraq, thus destroying Bush’s re-election.
Pragmatic politicians will learn the lesson that neo-Jacobin ambitions are a danger to political success, a lesson that will rescue us from “unending war and great disasters”.