Of Paradise and Power
By Howard Zinn •
ZCommunications • February 9, 2004
I suppose it is part of the corruption of contemporary language that an analysis of American foreign policy by a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace should argue for the right of the United States to use military force, regardless of international law, and international opinion, whenever it unilaterally decides its “national interest” requires it. Robert Kagan’s book Of Paradise and Power is important, not because it’s logic is unassailable, or his values admirable, but because it serves as intellectual justification for the foreign policy of the United States, and therefore (as the New York Times reviewer put it) demands “serious attention”. That attention it has received, with the major media rushing to review it, mostly with admiration.
Kagan’s chief concern in Of Paradise and Power is that Europe (representing Paradise, an unrealistic place where diplomacy, compromise and law replace war as a solution for international problems) is suspicious of Power, wielded by a “realistic” United States.
He attributes this to the fact that Europe is militarily weak compared to the United States. As he puts it, someone facing a bear but armed only with a knife may think it more dangerous to attack the bear, whereas someone armed with a gun would not hesitate. “Why should he risk being mauled to death if he doesn’t have to?”
This is a convenient analogy for someone making a case for violent attack. Convenient, but based on a premise which Kagan does not examine: that the target of the hunter is truly a dangerous animal. But what if the target is a wounded bear, not really a threat, but whose death is desirable so the hunter can have its skin, or perhaps so that the hunter can show off his prowess. Might the hunter not lie about the danger posed by the bear in order to conceal his real motives, and justify destroying the animal?
All analogies are imperfect, but I would argue that mine is closer to the truth than Kagan’s: substitute for the hide of the bear the oil of the Middle East.
Unquestionably, Iraq was ruled by a brutal tyrant but that tyranny was not the primary reason given either by the Bush administration for going to war, or by Kagan, for defending the war. Kagan describes the threat, in the closing pages of his book, as “the threat posed by terrorism and weapons of mass destruction”.
As I write this, both the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and the claimed connection between Iraq and the terrorist act of 9-11 have been shown to be false. If Kagan wants to make this problem a general one, beyond Iraq, then he would have to be willing to wage war on any nation possessing nuclear weapons (eight of them, including Israel) and on any of the many nations that have given some kind of aid to terrorists. (Bush in his 2003 State of the Union spoke of tens of thousands of terrorists, operating in at least a dozen countries)
Kagan is correct in saying that “Europeans and Americans do not share a common view of the threat posed by terrorism and weapons of mass destruction”. But to attribute this to the weaker military position of Europe misses the point: Europe does not see the threat because it simply doesn’t believe the claim that Iraq posed an “imminent” threat. Kagan does not examine this crucial question. If he did he would have to explain why a nation of 40 million people facing a nation of 280 million, a nation devastated by two wars and ten years of sanctions facing a nation untouched by war, a nation with no nuclear weapons facing a nation with ten thousand nuclear weapons, constitutes a threat that has to be met by a brutal bombing campaign (“shock and awe”), followed by invasion and occupation.
He would have to explain why, if Iraq was such a threat, no nation near Iraq saw it as a threat and asked for help. He would have to explain why the rest of the world, not only in Europe but in Asia and Latin America, opposed the war, and why so many in those places saw Bush as the more serious threat to world peace than either Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden. Looking beyond Iraq, Kagan believes that it is the right of the United States to intervene with its military power regardless of international law, in violation of the U.N. Charter, and without, in the words of the Declaration of Independence “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”
He bases this right on a premise which he never examines, only declares without evidence: that the United States represents “the liberal democratic world”, that the Bush doctrine of using force for “regime change in despotic governments, and if necessary at the expense of international law and the UN Charter has sprung naturally out of the liberal, revolutionary American tradition” that the United States “has always tended towards the promotion of liberal principles”, that the U.S. may ignore international law in the pursuit of “morality and justice”.
Kagan must think that his readers either know no history or have historical amnesia. In the long history of U.S. national expansion, where is the dedication to “morality and justice”? What of the long and savage set of wars against the Indians to move into their lands? What of the act of aggression against the Mexicans to take half of their territory? What of the Spanish-American War, in which the U.S. used the excuse of regime change (ending Spanish tyranny) to establish its fifty-year control of Cuba? What of the brutal conquest of the Philippines, in which perhaps 600,000 Filipinos were killed? What of the repeated military interventions in Central America on behalf of United Fruit and other corporations, establishing not democracy but dictatorship all over the Caribbean?
What of the overthrow of democratically-elected governments in Iran, Guatemala, Chile, bringing military dictatorships to power and causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people? Where was the “morality and justice” in our invasion of Vietnam, the carpet-bombings, the napalm and cluster bombs, bringing about the deaths of several million people? What of the invasion of Panama, again with the excuse of “regime change” but really to establish U.S. control over the country and the canal. Europe, Kagan laments, has a different perception of “threat” than the U.S. For most of the book, one gets the impression that the Europeans simply don’t understand the threat, while the U.S. does. But at a certain point, Kagan acknowledges that “Iraq and other rogue statesâ€¦objectively had not posed the same level of threat to Europeans as they have to the United States.”
Kagan doesn’t ask why it is the U.S. that is uniquely threatened, why the U.S. was the object of the 9-1l attacks? He comes close to an answer when he says that since World War II “the United States took upon itself the burden of maintaining order in far-flung regions of the world – from East Asia to the Middle East, from which European power had largely withdrawn.” If for the words “maintaining order” we substitute “imperial domination” then it becomes clear that the U.S. was attacked, not because, as Bush absurdly claimed, the terrorists envied our liberty and democracy, but that the U.S. has replaced the older imperial powers. And imperial power is the historic enemy of the poor, mostly non-white people of the world.
To put it another way, the U.S. has become the “rogue state” of the world, and as such, angers millions of people in the world who have been victimized by its power, and out of whom a small number become terrorists.
It is not surprising that Kagan does not want to ask the important questions. His job is — like Henry Kissinger, like Condoleza Rice — to supply an intellectual justification, superficial as it is, for the bullying and violence of United States foreign policy. What is more troubling is the timidity of book reviewers in the mainstream press, who have for the most part been either obsequious in their praise, or mildly critical, a reaction they could only justify by failing themselves to challenge the crucial premises that underlie Kagan’s book.
Published by ZCommunications • February 9, 2004