David Rieff has a nice piece over at Democracy Journal where he takes aim at those who stubbornly insist that exporting American-style democracy is a sound foreign policy. Rieff effectively argues that those who still think the foreign policy of the post Cold War world remains viable are shameless hucksters for empire. He writes:

To put the matter even more pointedly, after all the harm the United States has done in the Arab Middle East over the course of the past decade—not least, the comparatively unremarked fact that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein seems to have led not to democracy but to a world-historical tragedy that will be remembered long after Saddam and Bush have become footnotes: the end of Christianity in Iraq, one of the oldest loci of the faith—the only sensible thing to conclude is that in fact Washington is very bad at promoting democracy, and that, desirable as democracy doubtless is, its gift is not and therefore must not be asserted by influential policy intellectuals to be within America’s grace and favor. And so, though I have no doubts about either Brooks’s or Perriello’s moral seriousness, nor that the world they would like to see would be a far better one than that which we inhabit today, when I read two former members of the U.S. government calling not for an end to democracy promotion and humanitarian military interventions by the United States, but for better forms of both, I really do want to ask them: “Have you no shame?”

And again:

If the debate is about American interests, then Brooks, Perriello, and those who share their view need to demonstrate why a democratic world order is necessary to the security of the United States. For despite the fact that this is so regularly claimed, it is anything but obvious. At the very least, there needs to be more consideration than democracy promotion advocates and partisans of humanitarian intervention have been willing to give of the costs as well as the benefits of the American project of fostering, to the extent it can do so prudently, a systematic, universal, global change of all political systems that are not yet democratic. That would require a commitment that is actually far more radical than regime changes in a few countries like Iraq or Afghanistan. Only the belief that in fact democracy is what the world wants already, and thus, morally speaking, we are pushing on an open door, could justify such a swollen ambition.

We have been down this road before, and its name is empire. If they follow Brooks and Perriello, American policy-makers will most likely declare our actions to be taken in the name of human rights, rather than what the French empire called France’s “civilizing mission,” or what Kipling called “The White Man’s Burden.” But at the risk of sounding like Gertrude Stein, an empire is an empire is an empire. At this point in history, surely it is time to consider instead whether the moral thing for us to do would be to stand down rather than double down.

As Rieff notes, there really aren’t dissenting voices among our policy-makers, and given the known costs, never mind the unknown ones or unintended consequences of the policy, the absence of such voices who recognize this call to endless war is a serious deficit in our politics.

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Jeffrey Polet
Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.


  1. It has always struck me as odd, not to say incoherent, that mainstream American conservatism extols the collapse of the Soviet Union while simultaneously holding to a foreign policy that does not seem to grant that the Cold War is, in fact, over as a result. It’s almost as if they believe that the Soviet collapse changed Russian foreign policy hardly at all, and that therefore we shouldn’t change ours much.

    Or perhaps we’re just projecting?

  2. God has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America, and it holds for us all the profit, all the glory, all the happiness possible to man.

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