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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, March 8th, 2005


 

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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