2 February 2007:

William Pfaff on Manifest Destiny

While Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins try to convince the general public that religion is destructive and delusional, William Pfaff writes about the one true American faith that fuels public religion. Americans do not believe in God far more than the people of other industrialized nations do because they're pious. Americans believe in God because they're convinced (if we can posit a mode stronger than faith) that God believes in them. It is a practical and utilitarian arrangement. That it is also utterly metaphysical is beside the point. Everything that happens in the human mind is equally material and equally metaphysical. There is no distinction between the two. My belief in the pleasure of spending a week or two in Paris is simply not different from in your belief (if it is your belief) in the joy of eternal reunion with your loved ones - who, let's hope, loved you back just as much - in an afterworld.

So, it's no surprise: we Americans think we're special. At the beginning of the Cold War, we adopted the Fascist horror of "Bolshevism," regarding it as a plague worse than any known to mankind. We were lucky: George F Kennan persuaded the establishment in Washington that patient containment would starve Communist regimes, as indeed it did, for the most part. Instead of going after the Soviet Union and China directly, we supported their tributaries' adversaries, as, most regrettably, in Vietnam. We supported brutal tyrants, so long as they were not men of the Left. Marxist-Leninism crumbled to dust, but our hands were lathered in pitch.

This week's indispensable reading is William Pfaff's "Manifest Destiny: A New Direction for America," in the current New York Review of Books, and it is an excellent test for determining whether your outlook is faith- or reality-based. One thing that all faiths unashamedly do is to claim that their revelations trump reality, which is why all the common sense in the world is no defense against ideology. If your outlook is reality-based, you are going to wonder why William Pfaff's is not a household name. (He has been one in our household for some time.) The heir of Kennan's caution, a caution driven largely by humility but also by frank self-interest, Mr Pfaff is (calmly) horrified by the swelling hubris that has engendered our Iraqi misadventure and that threatens a far deadlier misadventure in Iran. Behind the floods of high-minded hogwash with which Washington protests that it only wants to spread the good things in life, there beats, as Mr Pfaff quotes Joseph Schumpeter, "an aggressiveness ... expansion for the sake of expanding." Our imperial model is new, but it is imperial all the same, and it signals, to any clear-headed mind, complete disaster. All right - it also forebodes the soul-sucking disappointment that hung over the United Kingdom for several decades after World War II, the loss of imperial pride.

As there is no part of Mr Pfaff's essay that is more worthy of quotation than any other, I've chosen what bloody-minded readers might take to be its weakest part, its "loser's tale" in Mr Pfaff's words. He recounts that he and Edmund Stillman, in the late Fifties,

circulated an argument that eventually became a magazine article and a book, suggesting that the American obsession with Soviet Communist power was turning the United States toward an American version of Marxist historicism and ideological messianism.


The 1950s, we concluded, were already a time of plural power centers and multiple interests, a system in which international power and ambition were increasingly expressed by independent state actors, a system in which the United States could flourish but the Soviet Union, in the long term, could not. We ended by recommending patience.

This went against much thinking of the period. In retrospect, it is the loser's tale, describing a road not taken. It might seem of little interest now, if the direction actually followed had not proven so disastrous. It seems scarcely imaginable that the present administration could shift course away from the interventionist military and political policies of recent decades, let alone its own highly aggressive version of them since 2001, unless it were forced to do so by (eminently possible) disaster in the Middle East. 

"... an American version of Marxist historicism": that's priceless. But while Mr Pfaff and his late colleague were well-enough connected to circulate their argument, they were not powerful enough to persuade. I would tweak with Mr Pfaff's modest statement: "This went against the prevailing faith of the period." That's what it was. It was a faith that held an essential connection between "Communism" and "Russia"; that it was a faith is proven by its expandability, in setting up an equivalent connection between "Communism" and "China." Our dread of "Communism" (our "Bolshevism") was so powerful a denaturant that it stripped its adherents, in our eyes. of all meaningful distinctions from one another.

How depressing, then, to take the measure of William Pfaff's Cassandra gift. His list of bad things that wouldn't have happened if the United States had pursued non-interventionist policies is not the longest that I've ever read, but no other list has ever worn me down as I read it.

Even Francis Fukuyama, a recovering neoconservative, acknowledges in a recent book that American economic and political policies today rest on an unearned claim to privilege, the American "belief in American exceptionalism that most non-Americans simply find not credible." Nor, he adds, is the claim tenable, since "it presupposes an extremely high level of competence" which the country does not demonstrate.

If that observation prompted you to think, "Aha! Lake Wobegon!" we're on the same page, then maybe you read Jim Holt's piece in the Times Magazine the weekend before last, "You Are What You Expect."

We live in a Lake Woebegon [sic] of the mind, it seems, where all the children are above average. Such ''optimism bias,'' as psychologists have labeled it, is hardly confined to our personal lives. In fact, as Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate in economics, and Jonathan Renshon argue in the current issue of Foreign Policy, it may help explain why hawkishness so often prevails at the national level. Wasn't the Iraq war expected by proponents to be ''fairly easy'' (John McCain) or ''a cakewalk'' (Kenneth Adelman)?

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