James Mann Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Bush War Cabinet: Conversation with James Mann, Nitze School for Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, February 14, 2005 by Harry Kreisler

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Moralism and Military Power

What about the continuities in terms of this other dimension of the Vulcan philosophy, one of the elements you discussed, this Straussian-influenced idea of good and evil, of America's special place in the world, of the transformative quality of the American democratic ideal? Not all of those are Straussian ideas, but the disciples have played with them. They were apparent in some kind of incipient state, in the struggle about human rights and the Soviet Union. They came more and more to emerge in the Republican definition of how we won the Cold War. It's an idea that's present in some of Clinton's interventions, that we can go in there and clean up the house and create democracies, and so on. This is another continuous line that goes back to Wilson, if we want to go back long ago in American history, that reflects a continuity that is also implicit and that is not new with Bush. Is that a fair reading?

Definitely. The one piece of the history of this good-and-evil approach that I see is important that could have been on your list -- really, the key moment for this Manichean good and evil approach -- is Ronald Reagan branding the Soviet Union the "Evil Empire." American presidents had tended not to use language like that. Reagan was willing to do it, and that crystallized the willingness of American presidents, certainly more Reagan and the current George W. Bush than others. But that strand, particularly for the Republicans who tended to link this invocation of American ideals with the use of force, or threatened use of force, has been there right along since the early eighties, at least.

You speak of the Straussian theme. Look at the intellectual roots of some of the people in this administration. I trace in the book the evolution of Paul Wolfowitz, certainly the leading idea man for the neoconservatives in this administration. Wolfowitz, who was the son of a mathematician, had studied as an undergraduate with Alan Blume at Cornell University. Leo Strauss was an immigrant philosopher at the University of Chicago; Blume had studied with him. Blume writes that one of the greatest moments in his life was when Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire. Wolfowitz studied with [Blume]; he studied at the University of Chicago in graduate school. And although he didn't study directly under Leo Strauss, he took on Straussian ideas.

I guess, especially in the figure of Wolfowitz, what becomes important is that you are wedding this unmatched American power, primarily military, with a set of ideas that gives you a rationale for action in the world using military power. It all comes together rather nicely, it would seem.

Yes, yes. We need to bring in the neoconservatives. It's worth mentioning. By now, across the parlors of America, people talk about the neo-cons without really understanding what they are, where they came from. I find, sometimes, when I listen to people talk about neo-cons, that it's almost a tautology. You ask people, "What's a neo-con?" "A neo-con is someone who supported the war in Iraq." Well, not quite.

The neoconservatives -- I talked about this strain of thought in the seventies, of opposition to détente. There was a group of neoconservative intellectuals who certainly felt that the United States should be opposing détente, that it was a violation of American values to be accommodating the Soviet Union. But the idea of democracy was not quite part of it. As I try to describe in the book, the neoconservatives spent a lot of time attacking, criticizing, the Carter administration. Part of their critique, understandably from everything we've said, was they didn't like his policies towards the Soviet Union. But as part of that, they criticized Carter for pushing the Shah of Iran to democratize -- the opposite of their policies on the Middle East today.

As Ronald Reagan took office and in the early years of the Reagan administration, there were these submerged tensions -- I think people didn't see it at the time -- between Reagan and some of his supporters who wanted to challenge the Soviet Union but weren't interested in spreading democracy, and another group of people in his administration who took the democratic ideals seriously.

They all could agree on Eastern Europe, right? But [during] the late Reagan administration you get a huge division on the Philippines in which Reagan himself says, "I want to support Ferdinand Marcos," and several other people in his administration, including the neoconservatives, as a matter of principle say, "Look, if the United States is interested in democracy in Eastern Europe, it needs to be interested in democracy in Asia, too." That was a fundamental turning point for the neoconservatives, and you find from then on, increasingly, with the Philippines, South Korea, China, Burma (sometimes successfully; in the last two cases, certainly not successfully) they are pushing for democracy in Asia. It doesn't take long, of course, for them to be pushing for democracy in the Middle East as well.

Now the interesting thing is that by the end of this period, the Democratic party's response to the Vietnam War, which you discussed, is gone from the picture, basically. After the 2004 election, you wrote a very interesting article where you put on the table the notion that the Democrats failed to respond to two questions that follow from what the Republicans have done. One was, do they agree with the primacy of military power in our foreign policy? And [secondly], do they believe that our security is ensured by transforming failed, failing, and assorted other states into American-like democracies?

We don't have an answer to either of those two questions that you posed, and Kerry didn't answer those questions in 2004.

Yes, that was one of his failings. He failed to provide answers to these fundamental questions. I must say, this is a crude analogy, but it's almost like watching the Republicans in the thirties, forties, and fifties on Social Security, where they just didn't have an answer. Sometimes they would say they couldn't quite oppose, but they couldn't quite support. They just didn't know what to do. Well, I find on issues of 1) use of force, and 2) American values, the Democrats just haven't thought it through and come up with an alternative vision yet.

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