The Hokey-Pokey Hegemon

·14 min read

The Biden administration’s pursuit of a peaceful withdrawal from Afghanistan has occasioned a renewal of verbal hostilities between foreign-policy doves and hawks here on the home front. The doves want the United States out of long-running conflicts, pointing to misadventures like the Iraq War as evidence of how neoconservative aggression often courts catastrophe. The hawks argue that without a sustained U.S. military presence, the region is bound to become a safe haven for America’s enemies. Both sides are correct, but neither understands how this can be so.

You will recall the old story of the blind men and the elephant. Each of the blind men lays hold of a different part of the elephant and then describes what an elephant is like based on his sensory experience. The first blind man, feeling one of the elephant’s legs, concludes that elephants are sturdy, cylindrical creatures, about a foot in diameter. The second blind man disagrees. Holding the elephant’s tail, he argues that elephants are long, thin animals, not dissimilar to snakes. The third blind man is baffled. He has hold of an ear and thinks that elephants are thin, canvas-like things. You get the idea. Each of the blind men has hold of something true, but none of them apprehends the whole elephant.

Similarly, the doves and the hawks of America’s foreign-policy debates are correct in their analyses to one degree or another. They think they’re arguing over the very definition of America’s interests, but they just can’t see the whole elephant.

To wrap up the analogy before it overstays its welcome, the “elephant” in foreign-policy terms is a nation — the first in the history of the world — that is both a global geopolitical hegemon and a revolutionary democratic republic. Before the American Century, no power had ever attempted to be both of these things at once. And almost all of the intractable problems that have plagued American foreign policy over the past hundred years have been born of the tensions, paradoxes, and contradictions that accompany this precarious balancing act. To understand how the United States has tried to strike this balance — to be the world’s first democratic hegemon — we have to go back to the moment of its coming of age on the world stage.

At his last cabinet meeting as prime minister, before he traveled to Buckingham Palace to give notice of his resignation to the Queen, Sir Winston Churchill offered two pieces of advice to the assembled members of his government. First, he told them, somewhat cryptically, that “man is spirit.” Just what he meant by this can, perhaps, be gleaned from his wartime broadcast of June 16, 1941:

The destiny of mankind is not decided by material computation. When great causes are on the move in the world, stirring all men’s souls, drawing them from their firesides, casting aside comfort, wealth, and the pursuit of happiness in response to impulses at once awe-striking and irresistible, we learn that we are spirits, not animals, and that something is going on in space and time, and beyond space and time, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.

Churchill’s second piece of advice is the one pertinent to the matter at hand. He told his ministers, “Never be separated from the Americans.” He knew that a changing of the guard was in order. The United States would have to take up the geopolitical responsibilities of the British Empire, which had exhausted its last reserves of strength in the fight against Hitler. If the world order was still to be defined by a preference for liberty and the rule of law over naked despotism, a Pax Americana was needed to supplant the Pax Britannica.

The first two decades of America’s tenure as the new standard-bearer of freedom on the world stage went relatively smoothly, if at staggering expense. The reconstruction of West Germany and Japan was welcomed by the native populations of both countries, with little, if any, resistance from insurgents. In fact, most countries aided by the Marshall Plan were happy to pledge fealty to the liberal order in exchange for astonishing sums of cash. (This is one of the many reasons that the popularity of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the developing world should worry us today.) For the first 20 years after the war, the United States could, with certain exceptions, basically purchase a free world from the governments outside of the Warsaw Pact.

And then came Vietnam.

The Vietnam War marked the first occasion on which the tension between America’s democratic republican politics and its hegemonic status strained the country’s social cohesion to the breaking point. We can better understand why Vietnam was such a calamity when we compare the conduct of the United States with that of its hegemonic predecessor. At roughly the same time that the U.S. was preparing to escalate its involvement in Vietnam, the British Empire was faced with a similar insurgency halfway around the globe.

The British counterinsurgency against the Mau Mau terrorist group, which took place in colonial Kenya between 1952 and 1960, is still controversial today, and not without reason. “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it,” as Sherman said, and the imperial occupiers in Kenya certainly used repressive measures. Still, there can be no question of moral equivalence between the British administration and the Mau Mau, who were similar in many ways to the Viet Cong.

As a fully fledged imperial power, the British were not merely occupying Kenya with a military force, they were running the country. The government, the civil service, infrastructure, and education were all overseen by the Colonial Office. Consequently, the British did not conceive of defeating insurgents as an exclusively military matter. An entirely new political culture had to be established, stabilized, and inculcated into the population if free government were to endure.

The British had been fairly successful in this respect by the time the Mau Mau rebellion broke out. They had begun to broaden Kenya’s Legislative Council in 1948, and by 1951 Africans, Asians, and Arabs together had achieved parity with whites (14–14). But around the same time, the Mau Mau group had emerged, mostly out of the Kikuyu tribe, calling for the complete expulsion of whites from Kenya. According to Churchill’s private secretary, the brutality of the Mau Mau was “almost beyond belief, the burying alive of elderly Britons being only a minor manifestation.” However, like most terrorist groups, they saved their most egregious atrocities for the people they claimed to protect. Kikuyu were made to swear an oath of allegiance to the insurgents or be killed, and the Mau Mau murdered 18 black Africans for every white Briton.

If the British Colonial Office had responded to the Mau Mau insurgency by attempting to establish a functioning democracy in Kenya at that time, things would not have gone well. Unstable nations need a dependable and responsible constitutional settlement to bring sufficient order to civil society before democracy can flourish. By running the institutions of Kenya themselves and insulating them from the popular will, the British ensured the survival of ordered liberty in the region until the Mau Mau were defeated and the people sufficiently practiced in the habits and mores of freedom to rule themselves. Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, elected after the country was granted independence in 1963, himself conceded as much where the counterinsurgency was concerned. “Mau Mau was a disease which had been eradicated and must never be remembered again,” he said. Even Kenya’s great anticolonial icon, the novelist Chinua Achebe, conceded late in life, in his memoirs, that as a British colony, Kenya was “more or less, expertly run.” At every point in Kenya, the British prioritized liberty and the rule of law over democracy, and they admitted the latter into the political system only when they could be sure that it wouldn’t threaten either of the former. That is why they succeeded.

What’s more, imperial policy in Kenya wasn’t insulated from the popular will only of the Kenyan people, but of the British people too. As part of the permanent bureaucracy, the Colonial Office operated largely independently of incoming and outgoing administrations in Downing Street. Only when a full-on policy of decolonization was settled on by successive British governments did it begin to respond to popular appetite for withdrawal. For most of the empire’s history, its foreign interventions had been managed by men who didn’t have to answer to public sentiment in any meaningful way.

At every point where the British succeeded in Kenya, America failed in Vietnam. This is because the United States conceives of itself fundamentally as a revolutionary republic. Americans’ soul-deep aversion to imperial pretensions was born at the Founding and consolidated when the dreams of Manifest Destiny fell by the wayside. No patriotic American wants to think of his country as presiding over a global empire, and this republican consciousness has had concrete implications for American foreign policy.

During the Vietnam conflict, the United States was anxious to present itself not as an imperial counterinsurgent but as the ally of the free independent nation of South Vietnam. Consequently, the Kennedy and Johnson governments spent a lot of time, money, and lives pussyfooting around the conflict. At the beginning of the war, the U.S. government preferred to send “military advisers” to the South Vietnamese instead of invading with overwhelming force. Hapless bunglers like Robert McNamara would constantly pursue limited tactical strikes to be used as “methods of communication” between the American president and the North Vietnamese leadership. Both the language and the policy of conquest were totally absent.

Moreover, the United States showed no appetite for governing and administering those areas of North Vietnam that it had taken. The American military took no responsibility in conquered areas for constructing viable infrastructure, building schools, or establishing a criminal-justice system. The latter endeavor is a particularly important component of successful counterinsurgencies, because it allows the governing power to characterize insurgents as criminals rather than as military or political opponents. When done successfully, this is a powerful way to consolidate the legitimacy of the regime. (It formed the centerpiece of Operation Banner, Margaret Thatcher’s counterinsurgency policy in Northern Ireland during the 1980s.) But the extra-military imperial policies that the British had used to stabilize Kenya as a nation-state were anathema to the American policy-makers prosecuting the war in Vietnam. The root cultural causes of the war went unaddressed. Victory became a matter of perseverance: Which side was willing to sacrifice more soldiers?

This brings us to the other intractable problem for the United States: that its foreign policy is highly responsive to public opinion. Military intervention in foreign countries is often a long and drawn-out affair. Objectives can rarely be achieved within a single presidential administration, especially when anti-imperial reluctance arrests the social progress of the invaded nation at the point of perennial military occupation. In terms of domestic politics, it’s usually advantageous for the party out of power to campaign against foreign wars in which Americans are being killed. Public impatience with the demands of state-building (which often takes generations) then results in the accession of a presidential administration that seeks withdrawal before any kind of lasting stability has been established in the region. Put simply, American presidents often launch expensive, long-term geopolitical endeavors that voters are unwilling to underwrite.

This is what played out in Vietnam. There’s a consensus these days that the war was close to an unmitigated catastrophe. But the United States had achieved something approximating victory by late 1972. All parties signed the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, and it was agreed that in the future the United States would provide military aid to South Vietnam if the North’s aggression resurfaced.

But the next year came the Watergate scandal, and Democrats won the fall congressional elections in a landslide. On April 10, 1975, President Ford made an impassioned televised plea for Congress to honor the deal struck in Paris. But the Democrats reneged: They retracted America’s commitment to aid South Vietnam in the eventuality of another threat from North Vietnam. Just 20 days later, South Vietnam surrendered to the Communist invaders.

Vietnam is a case in point of how doves and hawks can both be right about American interventionism. The hawks are correct to say that if the United States had only honored its commitments in Vietnam until tempers in the region had settled, the peace could have held, and the rape of South Vietnam could have been averted. But the doves are correct to say that, by constitutional design, the United States simply cannot make the kind of long-term geopolitical commitments required for this kind of successful state-building: There is always a risk of the domestic political pendulum swinging back toward the anti-war party. American democracy makes it extremely difficult for the United States to see foreign interventions through to conclusion. As a result, the American military invades, destroys the enemy, and then withdraws, leaving a perilous power vacuum, as in South Vietnam in 1975.

Given the awful consequences that ensue when the United States makes war in a region that it then fails to rebuild, the argument for staying out in the first place is often persuasive. Add to that Americans’ reluctance to engage in the work of “rebuilding,” which is often thought to be imperial. The result is a policy of intervention reminiscent of the children’s song “The Hokey Pokey”: “You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out, you put your right foot in, and you shake it all about.”

The wars in the Middle East are only the most recent example of this in-and-out, shake-it-about trend. The United States invaded Iraq with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2003, but during the entire occupation, no American administration was established, and none of the work of building or rebuilding Iraqi institutions was carried out. U.S. forces occupied Iraq for years on end, killing terrorists wherever they found them. But having destroyed the previous social order, the U.S. replaced it with nothing at all. By 2008, the American public was bored of the enterprise, and Barack Obama won a mandate for eventual withdrawal.

It’s no wonder that this model of intervention has earned the United States the clichéd title of global policeman. And we know that when policemen retreat, thugs seize power. Witness the rise of ISIS after the United States retreated from Iraq. Given that premature withdrawal was always in the cards, it’s not preposterous to argue that Saddam was preferable to the hell unleashed by ISIS.

The United States has had a military presence in Afghanistan for almost as long as I’ve been alive. But as soon as the last American soldier leaves the country (assuming Biden’s withdrawal strategy is pursued) it will be as if we were never there. Our enemies, the Taliban, will still have a say in how the country is run, and they will gladly harbor terrorists who hope to harm American citizens. Here, again, the doves and the hawks are both right. America will suffer for not seeing the job through to conclusion; it will also suffer for taking the job in the first place under the illusion that a conclusion could ever be reached. American policy-makers will always have to answer to democratic pressure, and that pressure will always have an anti-imperialist bent.

Make no mistake, the age of colonialism is over, and good riddance. That the United States has managed to create a global order by flooding other countries with capital and culture instead of troops and tanks is miraculous. It’s a vast improvement on the long human history of conquest. But this tactic can work only where American influence is welcome. The federal government cannot (pace Barack Obama) buy off America’s sworn enemies with cash. It will always be necessary for superpowers to project hard power as well as soft power. It’s on this point, and this point alone, that America has found the tension between its revolutionary roots and its global ascendancy hard to reconcile. If Americans want to carry the torch of liberty from the patriot graves of Lexington and Shiloh across the seven seas to far-off lands, then they — hawks and doves alike — must have the courage to ask the big, conceptual question: How can the United States be a successful global hegemon without becoming an empire? Can there be an imperial republic, even in theory? Or is such a paradoxical idea destined to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions?

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