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 Opinion

Let's talk a little now about public opinion, elite opinion, the media in the United States. I say these three things because a lot of the insights that you're bringing in our discussion to the foreign policy table don't penetrate public opinion. They often don't seem to even affect elite opinion. What are the factors that account for this weird situation that we're encountering, where our nationalism embodies a creed which calls for the kind of debate/dissent/discussion that we tend not to have on these issues?

It must be said: I don't know whether the American people are really more ignorant of international affairs than people of other countries. This has become a standard cliché and anti-American accusation. But actually, if you look at public opinion polls in other countries, too, the level of international knowledge is pretty low and always was. The difference is that [because] America is so much more powerful, this lack of knowledge has a much bigger impact.

It is also related to what I have called this particular form of American nationalism, this civil nationalism based on the American creed. (Not my phrase, by the way, I must stress; it's been used by many great American scholars.) But this does lead to a kind of conformism here, in which words like "democracy" and "liberty" can be used essentially to shut down public discussion, because they are seen as such a self-evident goods, not just for America, but for the rest of the world in general, that it's difficult to argue against them. Then when you add to that, unfortunately, within specific parts of academia, the decline of historical studies -- well, I would say that wouldn't I? -- the decline of historical studies ...

You're entitled to.

Thank you. ... the decline of historical studies, the decline of regional studies, and the rise, particularly in the area of international relations, of ideologies like rational choice theory, which simply, frankly, take American or Western culture and universalize it. The result is that even among people who should know better, there is a tremendous inability to see the world through the eyes of other cultures, to understand how other political cultures work, and, therefore, ultimately, to devise rational policies for dealing with these structures.

So there is this tendency both to live in what's been called the "eternal present," to universalize American values back into the past, but also to live in a universal America, in which everywhere should work like America, and if it doesn't, nobody quite knows how to deal with it.

I have a quote where you say, "The great majority of the American people are not nearly as militarist, imperialist, or aggressive as their German equivalents in 1914, but most German people in 1914 would at least have been able to find France on a map." That is one of your stronger statements with regard to this problem.

What is your take on the domestic politics and the way it's all coming together? When one reads your recent writings, one is left with a feeling that by focusing on the Middle East, by misunderstanding democracy and how it spreads, by an uncritical support of Israel, these things come together in a way that makes rational discourse impossible on some of these issues, or that they don't penetrate the debate. That would seem to be absolutely critical in how this tension within American nationalism is shaped in the future by any administration.

Yes. I'm afraid that that is reflected in the great difficulties that the Kerry campaign is finding in devising an alternative strategy to that of Bush, because they can't touch Israel, and in some ways, Kerry has been more supportive of Israel than Bush has. Because they can't touch Israel, it makes it much more difficult to deal rationally with other Middle Easter countries like Syria and Iran, which are potentially very strong allies of America in its struggle, both against al Qaeda and against the Iraqi Ba'ath. But because [those countries] are hostile to Israel, and especially in the U.S. Congress with the Syrian Accountability Act of last year, there's been adopted this front of absolutely rigid hostility to these states, which, once again, replicate the failings of America before the Vietnam War.

But, also, because it's impossible -- not impossible, one shouldn't say that. America is a pluralist society, and there are journals and even some television stations which do discuss these issues. But in Washington, where I live, the extreme difficulty of discussing sincerely some of these issues in the Middle East makes it very difficult.

You can't talk about the roots of Muslim anger with Israel. That requires, in turn, essentially demonizing Muslims. If their anger is completely irrational, completely wicked, then how can you talk honestly of democratizing these people if, in fact, you despise them? Which is not to say that there aren't extremely wicked, negative, regressive elements in Muslim culture, especially when it comes to attitudes to Israel. But you have to unpick these elements which must be combated from other sentiments which in other circumstances we would see as perfectly legitimate.

If you don't do that, then it's impossible to conduct any kind of serious dialogue with the Muslim world. And at that point, hopes of America leading the democratization of the Muslim world become worse than empty, they become almost a kind of Orwellian double-think.

What alternative strategy would you pose for moving forward on the war on terrorism, moving forward with regard to democratization and modernization in the Middle East?

I would say two things. Firstly, al Qaeda and its allies among the Sunni extremist revolutionary forces are hostile to every single existing Muslim state. Because they're not just terrorists, but also revolutionary, and because they are reactionary revolutionaries, they do want to take the Muslim world into a vanished [society] -- I would say not actually medieval, but back to the dark ages.

They've made this absolutely clear. They've tried to assassinate Musharraf in Pakistan, they want to overthrow the government of Indonesia, they want to overthrow the House of Saud, they're allied to groups which tried to assassinate Mubarak, they're allied to groups which tried to overthrow the government of Algeria, they're allied to revolutionary groups in Morocco, and so forth and so on, and, of course, Turkey as well.

Because they're Sunni extremists, they're also bitterly hostile to Iran. And because they are deep reactionaries, they're hostile to, once again, just about every elite and middle class in the Muslim world. They even regard Saudi Arabia -- with some reason, actually; the House of Saud is deeply decadent and Westernized.

If you look at the way the Taliban treated women and the whole Taliban state, it is directly opposed to the role for women established by the Shia Islamic revolution in Iran, which in some ways took women's rights backwards, but in other ways actually advanced the role of women in education, in science, in film, in many other areas. It is a kind of "separate and unequal" but still legitimate role for women in modernity.

What I'm trying to say is that if we concentrate on fighting against al Qaeda and its allies, we have a cornucopia of potential allies or actual allies in the Muslim world. But first [we must] identify our real enemies, concentrate on them, then seek allies against those enemies.

Even in the case of Iraq, which is more complicated, all the states surrounding Iraq are opposed either to the return of the Ba'ath, or to a triumph of al Qaeda and its allies, or to Iraq breaking up along territorial lines, or to Iraq plunging into anarchy. Any of those outcomes would be very, very bad for all the surrounding states. Once again, that gives us the chance to create a regional alliance to which we can then give the cover of the United Nations, or perhaps even the cover of the Arab League.

But it's no good just thinking of the UN as some kind of solution. The UN is not a solution, the UN is a process. The only power the UN has comes from its members. In this case, the only people with a really strong stake in what happens in Iraq are the neighbors of Iraq. They're the ones we have to appeal to, and adjust our other policies accordingly.

When it comes to democratization, what I'm afraid of is that this is a distraction from two issues. The first is the absolute need to bring about a just and stable peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Instead this is being used quite consciously and deliberately to put off thinking about this peace, because it's said we can't have peace between Israel and the Arab world until the whole of the Arab world is democratic, which means you can put it off indefinitely. The problem is that what's happening between Israel and the Palestinians is a tremendous obstacle to democratization because it inflames all the worst, most regressive aspects of Arab nationalism and Arab culture. So it's a Catch-22 situation.

The other thing that democratization is a distraction from is the need to spend really large sums of money developing the Muslim world economically. And not just that, but also by keeping our economies open to exports -- I'm saying this absolutely as much for Europe, or more, as I am for America -- to stimulate not by aid but by trade the economies of these societies. This is what we did in the Cold War. Both the Marshall Plan in Europe, and also American policies towards Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, later Taiwan and Malaysia, as part of first the Korean War and then the Vietnam War. We didn't talk about early democracy. We talked about the need to strengthen these societies economically and socially in order to turn them into bulwarks against communism, and as a result of that, albeit very slowly and belatedly, you did get a growth of democracy in these societies.

But this wasn't cheap for America. It involved sums of aid which are vastly greater than anything being talked about now with regard to the Middle East. It also meant that America had to make a clear geopolitical decision to keep its economy open to exports from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and it was above all this American openness which laid the basis for the development of these countries. So let's talk first about developing these places, and keep democracy as our long-term aim.

Next page: Conclusion

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