Thursday, August 28, 2008
Writing at The American Interest, John Lewis Gaddis suggests that a "return to our roots is called for" as a means of sustaining our "national greatness". Specifically, he starts off by asking the related questions of what constitutes a presidential doctrine, and whether President Bush can be said to have a doctrine.
Gaddis concludes that Bush "may have proclaimed a doctrine for the 21st century comparable to the Monroe Doctrine in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and to the Truman Doctrine during the Cold War". That doctrine, if it was one, Bush stated succinctly in his Second Inaugural Address:
[I]t is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.It is this policy Gaddis wishes to examine in his article. The examination is lengthy, interesting at times, frustrating at others, and ultimately unsatisfying.
Gaddis, a historian by profession, hints at the answer early on in his essay when commenting on the fact that President Bush reads quite a bit of history himself:
"Well, so Bush reads history", one might reasonably observe at this point. "Isn't it more important to find out how he uses it?" It is indeed, and I doubt that anybody will be in a position to answer that question definitively until the oral histories get recorded, the memoirs get written, and the archives open. But I can say this on the basis of direct observation: President Bush is interested -- as no other occupant of the White House has been for quite a long time -- in how the past can provide guidance for the future.The question of how a leader uses history is vitally important, but I beg to differ that one need wait -- setting aside the question, "For how long?" -- for how events will play themselves out to answer that question.
Two aspects of how a leader might use his knowledge of history leap to my mind as being important here. First, there is the ethical matter of what said leader intends to do with his power, for which we already have a mountain of evidence against Bush. The interested reader may follow the link to learn why I regard Bush as a failure in his proper role as a protector of individual rights due to his altruist ethics and collectivist politics.
Second, there is the interpretive matter of what a leader will learn from the historical data he considers. Both will be influenced by the philosophical ideas -- implicit and explicit -- and psycho-epistemology of the leader. In Bush's case, I suspect that both are sent off course by his defective compass of compassionate conservatism. It is his interpretation of history I will examine more closely here. It is further hampered by how modern historians approach American history.
In a note of disclosure after his essay, Gaddis notes that he has served Bush at least once in an advisory role.
I suggested including the idea of ending tyranny in a session with the President’s speechwriters on January 10, 2005. Correlations, however, are not causes.Fair enough. Let's assume Gaddis did not help Bush formulate his policy. But let's take Gaddis as a typical modern historian, as an example of how the historical record is being transmitted to Bush for his subsequent interpretation.
Gaddis examines the history of both the ideas of spreading "democracy" (a term he never defines and ends up misusing) and of ending tyranny, as well as some past American doctrines of foreign policy. Here is an example, from his look at the Monroe Doctrine:
The Monroe Doctrine reflected a long American tradition -- extending well back into the 18th century -- of associating liberty, prosperity and security with continental expansion. Its principal author, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, related that history to the crisis caused by the apparent intention of European monarchs -- Great Britain's excepted -- to reestablish their colonies in the Western Hemisphere after Napoleon's defeat. The course Adams set was that "the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintained, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers." Its feasibility lay in the fact that the British tacitly agreed with that policy and were willing to use their navy to enforce it. The Monroe Doctrine was unilateral, as presidential doctrines must be. But it was based upon a realistic calculation of power within the international system, as all doctrines should be.A young America takes advantage of England's desire not to have strong rivals in Europe to keep from having powerful, hostile neighbors in close proximity. That was a master stroke, and it certainly prevented tyranny in the Americas from being established by European colonial powers, but Gaddis fixates on "ending tyranny" as the end purpose of the doctrine.
To him, a Doctrine, "[draws] on a long history, ... relate[s] that history to a current crisis, and in doing so ... set[s] a course the nation could feasibly navigate into the future." So far, so good, but later in his essay, it becomes clear that he confuses the immediate end of many doctrines (of opposing tyranny) with the goal of protecting the American people from foreign threats. Here is what he says as he critiques the Bush policy/doctrine: "So if ending tyranny is what you want to accomplish, promoting democracy in and of itself may not be enough. Something more seems to be required."
That America has a long tradition of opposing tyranny is clear from this essay, but why she does is strangely absent. Our Founding Fathers were not after "national greatness" when they rebelled against England, but the ability to live their lives freely in the pursuit of their own happiness. They understood that a proper government would protect their ability to do so and that part of that protection entailed it being strong enough to thwart invasion by foreign aggressors.
In the context of the original purpose of the founding of this nation, then, we see that national strength is certainly a desirable thing -- because it enables us to live our lives as free men. To the extent that our government is good (or "great"), then, it is serving its proper role. (And as for the call for America to "return to its roots", full protection of individual rights is the only thing it is proper to call for in a political context.)
Whether a nation is a "democracy" (or, more properly, generally respects individual rights) or is a tyranny is of secondary concern at most to our government. (And if we must topple a tyranny in some way to ensure our security, the benefits enjoyed by its former victims are a happy side-effect.) Tyrannies are natural enemies of freedom (and thus, of America). No wonder we have had, as a matter of self-preservation, to oppose them throughout our history!
So to claim that America has a "tradition" of opposing tyranny, while ignoring the roots of that tradition in the allied rational self-interests of her citizens is to make a gross interpretive error. It strips opposition to tyranny of its crucial context in political philosophy, and having done so, allows it to be subordinated to such altruistic ends as "national greatness", by which it should be apparent by now means something like "adherence to God's will" to a theocrat immersed in such an interpretation.
Our government exists, in the context of foreign policy, solely to protect us from harm by foreign powers. It certainly does not exist in order to force its own citizens to sacrifice their own lives and treasure to save others from tyranny.
If Gaddis is a typical modern historian, and I think he probably is, then his failure to consider the importance of philosophical ideas in shaping history is helping leaders like Bush evade (or get away with ignoring) crucial aspects of our history even as they go about misusing what they learn of our history for their own tyrannical ends.
A leader whose sole purpose is anything other than the protection of your individual rights is either a tyrant or is paving the way for one. True national greatness is not a goal to which the individual is subordinate, but the result of protecting all individual citizens.