Anatol Lieven Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

American Nationalism: Conversation with Anatol Lieven, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for Peace, May 6, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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American Nationalism

There seems to an inability on our part to understand both the nationalism of others in some of these places we're talking about, and also our own nationalism. Do those two misperceptions feed into each other?

Perhaps they do. Since most Americans don't realize that they do have a nationalism and that it is so strong, perhaps it does make it more difficult for Americans to appreciate and understand the force of other peoples' nationalism. Though, one must say on the other hand that in general, all nationalists (it's almost a part of the syndrome) find it very difficult to see the world through other peoples' eyes.

What then is the role of American nationalism in our present efforts to create an American empire? That seems to be what we are doing, although there is something in our culture that wants to deny we're doing that, that is, trying to create an empire, especially in the Middle East.

Yes. It's not a classical territorial empire, and America doesn't want to rule the Middle East like Britain ruled India. It's more an indirect empire, like some of the seaborne empires in the past, where you have military bases and you have a network of client states who do what you want without you having to rule over them directly. That's the ambition. The problem happens when, as in Afghanistan or Iraq, if your client is weak, so divided (partly because of what you, yourself, have done), you have to step in directly and rule the place.

There are two forms of American nationalism which play a role in the American empire. Both have been very much exploited by the Bush administration in order to provide the domestic energy which backs this drive to empire, because ordinary Americans would not, I think, support a program which was explicitly imperial. There's a very deep belief in America, historically, that America is not an empire and should not be an empire. The only people who talk openly about an America empire are a relatively small number of mostly neoconservative intellectuals. But on the one hand you have this almost religious belief in American democracy and human rights and the rule of law, what's been called the American creed. This contributes to a messianic belief in America's right, duty, and ability to spread this form of civilization through the world -- something which is very characteristic in the past of the French, the British, and if you go further back, the Romans and the Chinese. They all have this belief in their right and duty to spread their higher civilization to other people.

The other form of American nationalism is much more bellicose. It's about defending the nation -- it's not just defending the nation against attack, but also reacting very violently even to the threats of attack or even to what is seen as attacks on American honor or credibility, or verbal attacks on America. This kind of nationalism has often been historically linked to forms of either explicit or implicit racism. This second kind of nationalism provides much of the military energy of America, it makes America a country that is willing to fight much more than any other developed country today. This is one of the things that makes America the classically nationalist place.

The problem is that in the perception by the rest of the world, this kind of American nationalism crashes head on into [the perception of] America as a country which is trying to spread peaceful, stable, liberal democracy, human rights, and so forth. This unfortunately produces perceptions of American hypocrisy and unreliability, and undermines this American creed, which is a critical foundation of the legitimacy of American leadership in the world.

So building on what you just said, 9/11, as an attack on the American homeland, essentially rejiggered the tension in American nationalism between the American creed and a narrower, maybe we could call it a Jacksonian nationalism, after President Jackson.

The question then becomes, what are the particular policy aims of the Bush administration in the way that it has responded to 9/11? It would seem that Afghanistan was a nuanced balancing of these forces; but when we move on to the Iraq war, there seems to be another policy agenda in choosing Iraq and looking to reorder the Middle East. Talk about how you see the play of forces at work to give us specific policies within this overall context of the tension between the two forms of nationalism.

I strongly supported the war in Afghanistan after 9/11. I felt that we simply had no choice. I say "we" -- I'm British, of course; but I strongly favored British participation in that war. Britain offered 25,000 troops. The Bush administration actually turned them down, but I was completely supportive of that [war]. I believed we had no choice. Having spent a considerable time in that region, I also believed very strongly that the forces represented by the Taliban and al Qaeda are a serious threat, not only to us, but to surrounding states and societies, and to the progress of the entire region.

So I had no problem with the war in Afghanistan. My problem has been the way in which the tremendous long-term effort which was absolutely necessary and is known to be necessary after the overthrow of the Taliban to stabilize Afghan society, to develop it, to lay some kind of foundation for a successful future Afghan state has been grossly neglected, precisely because the war against terrorism was diverted into a completely new field, and against a completely new target, namely the Ba'ath regime in Iraq, which was as different from the Taliban and al Qaeda as one could possibly imagine.

Now, that is not saying in any way that the Ba'ath regime in Iraq was not a savage and at least would-be totalitarian one. The Ba'ath are a mixture of communism and fascism. They're ultra-nationalists. They're national socialists, if you will. But it's also a modernizing ideology, like communism and fascism. It's all about developing the state as a modern state with modern armies, but also with modern services to the population. And above all, from its inception, Ba'ath nationalism, like Nazism or fascism, by the way, or communism, were savagely anti-religious. The leading founding ideologue of the Ba'ath was a Christian, Michel Aflaq, and like his equivalents in Europe, he hated the world of religion because he saw it as precisely hampering progress, dividing the nation. The most savage repressions by the Ba'ath in the past were not just of Kurds and not just of Shias, but also, based in Iraq and Syria, precisely of religious fundamentalist groups now allied to al Qaeda.

So the lumping of this regime together with al Qaeda, and then on top of that to add Iran -- Shia Iran -- to the "axis of evil," which, of course, has been violently opposed both to the Ba'ath and to al Qaeda and the Taliban -- ! I mean, Iran went to the brink of war with the Taliban in 1999. To have lumped these together is an error as great and as potentially tragic as that which led America into Vietnam.

It's frankly quite inexcusable, given the facts about the Muslim world in the Middle East, which are known to every serious expert on the subject. As a result of this invasion of Iraq, it should by now be quite obvious that, tragically, we have handed the enemies of the West and the terrorist groups a tremendous success.

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