Against the Beast: An Anti-Imperialist Reader
by John Nichols
The Lost Crusade
A review by Benjamin Schwarz
"Empire" is once again a fashionable term of opprobrium deployed by
domestic opponents of American foreign policy. This compendium of anti-imperialist
expression from the Founders to the present is often illuminating but, frustratingly,
obscures as much as it elucidates. John Nichols, The Nation's Washington
correspondent, admires the late William Appleman Williams, that insightful if
often gaseous New Left diplomatic historian, who always urged those on the left
to learn from conservatives. So, appropriately enough, the selections here are
in many ways ecumenical. The book will reveal to all too many progressive critics
of the Bush administration that Eugene Debs, Senator Burton "Bolshevik Burt"
Wheeler, and Gore Vidal share a foreign-policy tradition with such conservatives
as Senator Robert "Mr. Republican" Taft and Pat Buchanan. That tradition
has emphasized the limits of America's power; been wary of a universalist conception
of U.S. security interests; warned against excessive presidential power, secrecy,
and deception in foreign policy; and held that democracy can't be imposed by war,
that the United States cannot and should not remake the world in its image, and
that, to quote John Quincy Adams, America "goes not abroad in search of monsters
to destroy." (George Will, whose conservatism is getting the better of his
party loyalty, seems increasingly to be embracing this tradition.) Indeed, a reader
of much of this book would draw the same conclusion as Carl Oglesby, the president
of Students for a Democratic Society, who said during the Vietnam War that "the
old Right and the New Left are morally and politically coordinate" (alas,
not quoted by Nichols). But unlike Will, Nichols too often lets his political
prejudices get the better of his professed non-interventionism -- and in so doing
shirks his editorial responsibilities. Hence we're treated to the less than penetrating
sloganeering of Tim Robbins and Patti Smith regarding the war in Iraq; but in
a chapter devoted to post -- Cold War foreign policy Nichols skips from opposition
to the first President Bush's adventures in the Gulf to opposition to the second's.
Missing is any criticism of the foreign policies conducted during the eight-year
Democratic interregnum. Those policies may have been wise or foolish, but they
included nato enlargement, which was the most ambitious and far-reaching expansion
of the American "empire" since the beginning of the Cold War. They also
included a war -- justified by official arguments that were at best exaggerated
and misleading -- conducted absent congressional and UN authorization, against
a Yugoslav regime that, while thuggish, presented no threat to the United States
(and during which our British ally's commander protested to the future Democratic
presidential candidate General Wesley Clark that the latter's tough-guy tactics
threatened to "start World War III"). All these actions would appear
to be, and indeed were, grist for the anti-imperial mill -- but those protests
are omitted here, which makes one wonder if some progressives' opposition to "empire"
is determined less by principle than by politics. As an introduction to this foreign-policy
tradition, then, I'd recommend instead the eccentric Bill Kauffman's America
First! (1995), which is as much a cultural polemic as a political one. Perhaps
the most valuable quotation Nichols includes is Vidal's historical corrective:
"There is now a myth that the isolationists were pro-Hitler and anti-Semitic.
This is nonsense. Practically every Socialist in the country, starting with Norman
Thomas, was an isolationist." When supporters of the current administration
hurl the I-word (a bipartisan slur: the Clinton administration also used it),
thoughtful dissenters should quote Walter Lippmann (who, along with Charles Beard,
goes surprisingly unnoted by Nichols). During the Vietnam War he urged America
to "eschew the theory of a global and universal duty, which not only commits
it to unending wars of intervention, but intoxicates its thinking with the illusion
that it is a crusader for righteousness." Accused of neo-isolationism, Lippmann
retorted, "Compared to people who thought they could run the universe, or
at least the globe, I am a neo-isolationist and proud of it."
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