The United States and “Evil Enemy States”

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There has always been a strand of Puritanism in American thought that survives in part as a Manichean division between good and evil. Rather than seeing the United States as a mixture of good and evil, many Americans see it as “the good guy” in the world with no major faults. Individuals who disagree are labeled as “unpatriotic,” told to “go to Russia,” or are called “America-haters.” Although I do not deny that there are individuals and groups of people who hate their country, not every critic of American practices hates the United States. Nor is someone who points out that there is much good in countries considered to be enemies of the United States, such as Iran. Many Americans want an overpowering, evil enemy state because many Americans are more Manichean, believing in sharp lines between good and evil, than they are Christian. Christianity recognizes that no being created by God is totally evil–traditionally, since evil is a lack of good, and thus a lack of being, a totally evil being could not exist. If Americans of all stripes are honest with themselves, they will see that they are capable of great evil. Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford psychologist who ran the Stanford Prison Experiment, showed how “good” people can turn evil when they have great power (as prison guards) over others (in this case, students who played the “prisoner” role). He notes the power of situational factors that can lead to a good person torturing and even killing innocent human beings.

Reinhold Niebuhr recognized that groups are capable of great evil just as individuals are, and Zimbardo’s work showed this to be the case. Nation-states are groups of people, and in any group unethical practices can arise that lead to people doing things that are evil under group pressure. No nation is immune to this. Was the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” as President Reagan affirmed? I would say “Yes,” with the qualification that there was good even in the old Soviet Union, and evil in the United States of America. In the War between the States, Generals Sherman and Sheridan engaged in the first modern war (with Lincoln’s endorsement)–both these generals and President Lincoln believed that war should be engaged against the civilian population. The brutality with which federal troops put down the anti-draft riots in New York as well as Sherman’s March to the Sea are evidence of the results. The United States Army was brutal in the Philippines war in the early part of the twentieth century, mowing down men, women, and children. The United States Army Air Corps engaged in the saturation bombing of Tokyo in March 1945, and of course Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs. President Roosevelt placed thousands of Japanese-American citizens in internment camps. In the Vietnam War, the United States dropped more tonnage of bombs than it did in the whole of World War II. The atrocities and torture in Iraq and Afghanistan (and in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba) are well known–torture has not been totally eschewed as the official policy of the United States, and the U.S. still sends prisoners to other countries to be tortured. Civil liberties, from the genocide of the American Indians to the mistreatment of the Irish, the Chinese, and of African-Americans, have not been uniformly honored in the United States. Does this mean the United States is an evil country? I do not think it is as evil as a totalitarian society such as the old Soviet Union or China under Chairman Mao, but it does mean that the notion of the United States as the paragon of virtue and (during the Cold War) the Soviet Union as the epitome of evil is a Manichean view that does not reflect the good and evil mixture found in all nation-states.

President George W. Bush held a simplistic, Manichean view of the world that many Americans eagerly followed. Saddam’s Iraq was an evil state, and the good United States was obligated to attack the evil state (at first for the alleged but missing “weapons of mass destruction” and then to “save the Iraqi people from Saddam”). Americans’ hubris was expanded by its view that it was the hero country liberating the Iraqi people from a Satanic dictator. Now Iran is the enemy, and the Neoconservative war cries are loud–and Americans are buying into the new lie as well. Yes, Iran’s president holds an evil position in his denial of the Holocaust. Nothing can justify his views, nor his support of the radical religious groups that have held the country hostage since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. However, Iran also has a working democracy, unlike many other states in the region, including states the United States supports. Israel has a vital interest in what Iraq does, and if Israel wants to defend its vital interests militarily, that is Israel’s task, not that of the United States. However, the Neoconservatives are appealing to American Manicheanism and demonizing Iran as the new “evil empire.” Hopefully Americans will see that all people are “fallen,” as well as all nation-states, and any positing of “We good, they bad” is misleading and leads to unnecessary wars and bad foreign policy decisions.

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The Budget Crisis: Facing Limitations

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Despite liberal claims to the contrary, the United States does not have unlimited resources for government programs. Even in a floating currency market, the supply of money is finite, and printing more merely lowers its value. The massive spending at the end of G. W. Bush’s term and throughout Mr. Obama’s term is unconscionable. Mr. Obama’s budget was dominated by bailouts of Wall Street, the stimulus, and funding for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, as a social democrat he increased spending for entitlement programs. Now the country is near bankruptcy, and despite the deal over the current budget, it will remain in a precarious state for generations because of the mistakes of this generation. Members of both parties–and even Mr. Obama–realize that deep cuts must be made in federal spending. Those cuts should include both domestic programs and “national defense” (i.e., war) programs. The current welfare-warfare state will end–either by choice of elected officials or by a ruined economy.

Robert E. Lee rightly predicted the rise of the modern American state when he said something to the effect that the American empire would eventually become a tyranny at home and aggressive abroad. Indeed, Congress came close to ruling with dictatorial power after the War for Southern Independence. One vote failed to convict President Andrew Johnson, and with Supreme Court rulings in the 1870s the ruins of the Old Republic were preserved for a time. With the rise of industrialism and eventually the domination of industrialism, with its uprooting of families and breaking of traditional ties, the government stepped in to care for the unfortunate, a work that had previously been carried out by the local community, family and friends, and churches. The mood in the country was optimistic, and the problems of industrialism’s mistreatment of workers were remedied by the government (by child labor laws, for example). During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt supported massive government programs–the extent to which they eased or prolonged the Depression is still debated. In an America which believed both in the perfectibility of man and in unlimited resources, massive government programs seemed to be the solution to social problems caused by the industrial state. As late as the mid-60s, the welfare state expanded exponentially under Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” The United States economy was still basking in the post World War II glow, something that would come crashing down with the 1973-74 recession. Instead of mankind being perfectible, government programs made many people worse morally and worse economically, permanently dependent on the state. Instead of having unlimited resources, the budget deficit ballooned, with only a brief respite during Mr. Clinton’s presidency due to the money saved by the U.S. not fighting the Cold War. However, George W. Bush and a Republican Congress, whom one might expect to show fiscal responsibility, did not, and domestic spending rapidly increased. In addition, the needless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cost the country in both lives and money. Mr. Obama tried to continue to fight the wars but with massive increases in domestic spending–and thus we come to the present disaster. If the welfare state does not control its spending, it will collapse–then what happens to the millions of people dependent on government aid? That is the choice the President and Congress face–to either get spending under control or to continue spending and place the United States on a permanent “bad credit” status, leading to exploding interest rates, sharply lower stocks, and an economic depression. This is really no choice at all. The American empire will fall–either by voluntary choice or by economic realities. Americans will realize their own finitude. Perhaps this will lead to a less aggressive America, and one with a smaller government that is less intrusive in everyday life.

Bush Still Doesn’t Get It

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Former President George W. Bush is out of hiding and into the limelight again as he promotes his new book. From the interviews I have read, there isn’t much new that redeems his poor performance as president. One positive is that he appears to question (just a little) the wisdom of the “Patriot Act.” And he admits that pushing belief in Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” was a mistake. How many people died for that mistake?

Bush admits his mistake in not foreseeing the economic crisis. He and his advisers ought to have seen the mortgage crisis coming. Either someone did not warn Mr. Bush who should have warned him or he ignored the warnings he did receive. In either case, it was the Administration’s almost complete deregulation of the banking industry that allowed financial institutions to make so many bad loans–the government policy of forcing banks to loan to the poor does not, by itself, explain the extent of the crisis. Mr. Bush bears some responsibility.

Despite appointing two excellent Supreme Court justices, overall, Mr. Bush’s presidency must go down as an abysmal failure. The good he did was outweighed by two wars, excessive defense and excessive domestic spending, and the collapse of the economy. His dependence on Neoconservative advisers such as Vice-President Dick Cheney virtually destroyed his presidency. Sadly, Bush still doesn’t “get it.” Perhaps one day he’ll swallow his ego and take more responsibility for the damage he did to the United States and to other countries.

Mr. Bush is unapologetic on torture, claiming that waterboarding gave the United States and Great Britain some useful intelligence. Thus Mr. Bush still supports a practice that is now almost universally acknowledged as evil and barbaric. Unfortunately his successor hasn’t closed the door on torture–so the post-911 madness of America continues.

Bush gives his policies credit for there being no more attacks on the U.S. before the end of his term as President. This reminds me of a story (from Ann McGovern’s book Ghostly Fun) about a man who hired a wrinkled old witch holding a broom outside his front door. His wife, horrified, asked him why. His reply: “To scare the elephants away.” His wife said, “But there aren’t any elephants around here!” Then her husband says, “See! It works!” There are too many causal factors that could have prevented a post 9-11 attack for Bush to give himself credit. But this is one president who has no problem with failing to restrain his ego.

Apparently Mr. Bush had asked the Pentagon to draw up war plans for Iran. Thank God that war did not materialize, though I would not put it beyond Mr. Obama to start one. Iran is years away from developing a nuclear weapon. Unlike Israel, it has signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. And although I find Iran’s president to be morally reprehensible, that does not justify war with Iran. Mr. Bush, consistent with the neoconservatives, rarely found a war he didn’t like.

Mr. Bush did considerable damage to the Republican Party; it is only because of the ineptitude and radical ideas of President Obama that the Republicans gained so many seats in Congress this year.

Advice to the Tea Party Movement–Don’t Let the Warmongers Win

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There are a growing number of individuals in the Tea Party movement who are moving toward the traditional conservative position of American staying out of foreign entanglements unless such are clearly in the national interest of the United States. But there are two groups who aim to stop this trend.

The first group is a subset of the Tea Party movement–Evangelical Christians who, influenced by Biblical apocalyptic imagery, support every American intervention in the Near East as bringing about a fulfillment of Bible prophecy. As I have argued elsewhere in this blog, their position is based on a flawed interpretation of the Book of Revelation and other apocalyptic Biblical literature. Sarah Palin may have been influenced by this line of thought, as evidenced by her tendency to blindly support Israel. Let’s hope that her common sense kicks in and that she does not move the Tea Party movement into a warmongering direction.

The other group threatens the Tea Party from the outside–the Neoconservatives. These individuals are the ideological descendants of a group of former Trotskyte Marxists who later defected from Marxism to the Democratic Party. These virulent anticommunists teamed up with Hubert Humphrey and Henry “Scoop” Jackson during the 1960s. But in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, culmulating with the Democratic nomination going to George McGovern in 1972, these anticommunist liberals turned against the Democratic Party. They joined the Republican Party in droves and, over time, gained influence in the National Review and other conservative publications. They retained their basic liberal orientation on domestic economic issues, supporting the post-Roosevelt, post-Lyndon Johnson welfare state, although some of them tend to be more conservative on social issues such as abortion. Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard is a neoconservative, as are Charles Krauthammer, Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Bennett, and to some extent Newt Gingrich. These individuals have supported the free spending of the welfare state, and have also supported the notion of the United States as an empire. They have accepted the Wilsonian view that the United States should spread democracy to the world. Iraq is an example of the disaster that can occur when neoconservative doctrine becomes U.S. policy.

The neoconservatives almost destroyed President Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal, and they succeeded in destroying the administration of George W. Bush. Their destructive doctrine of the “noble lie,” borrowed from Leo Strauss who in turn borrowed it from Plato, states that the ruling elite can lie to the general public so the public will support their “wise” policies. Does this make the lies about “weapons of mass destruction” more understandable?

The neoconservatives have recently attacked the tendency in the Tea Party movement that backs off from the “American Empire” model of U. S. foreign policy. The neocons sharply disagree with the notion that U. S. involvement in foreign wars endanger freedom (witness the “Patriot Act,” a term of doublespeak if there ever was one). Tea Party members are waking up to realize that the biggest threat to their freedom is not the terrorists, but the welfare-warfare state. The Tea Party should, with all its might, resist the attacks of the neoconservatives, who are accusing the Tea Party of “abandoning conservatism.” But the Neoconservatives are the ones who have abandoned conservatism. If the Tea Party truly becomes a party that frowns on unnecessary U. S. military interventions, it will provide a refreshing alternative to neoconservatives in the Republican Party and to Evangelicals who are misled by a faulty theory of Biblical interpretation. But if the Tea Party gives into pressure and supports a warmongering stance, it will not ultimately succeed in transforming the political landscape of the United States, and that would be tragic. The Tea Party may be the last opportunity to forge a genuine conservative, noninterventionist movement in the United States, and I pray it goes that direction.