Thursday, July 21, 2005 +

Conversations with Anatole Lieven

From American Nationalism: Conversation wth Anatole Lieven

Harry Kreisler: . . . what are the particular policy aims of the Bush administration in the way that it has responded to 9/11? It would seem that Afghanistan was a nuanced balancing of these forces; but when we move on to the Iraq war, there seems to be another policy agenda in choosing Iraq and looking to reorder the Middle East. Talk about how you see the play of forces at work to give us specific policies within this overall context of the tension between the two forms of nationalism.

Anatole Lieven: I strongly supported the war in Afghanistan after 9/11. I felt that we simply had no choice. I say "we" -- I'm British, of course; but I strongly favored British participation in that war. Britain offered 25,000 troops. The Bush administration actually turned them down, but I was completely supportive of that [war]. I believed we had no choice. Having spent a considerable time in that region, I also believed very strongly that the forces represented by the Taliban and al Qaeda are a serious threat, not only to us, but to surrounding states and societies, and to the progress of the entire region.

So I had no problem with the war in Afghanistan. My problem has been the way in which the tremendous long-term effort which was absolutely necessary and is known to be necessary after the overthrow of the Taliban to stabilize Afghan society, to develop it, to lay some kind of foundation for a successful future Afghan state has been grossly neglected, precisely because the war against terrorism was diverted into a completely new field, and against a completely new target, namely the Ba'ath regime in Iraq, which was as different from the Taliban and al Qaeda as one could possibly imagine.

Now, that is not saying in any way that the Ba'ath regime in Iraq was not a savage and at least would-be totalitarian one. The Ba'ath are a mixture of communism and fascism. They're ultra-nationalists. They're national socialists, if you will. But it's also a modernizing ideology, like communism and fascism. It's all about developing the state as a modern state with modern armies, but also with modern services to the population. And above all, from its inception, Ba'ath nationalism, like Nazism or fascism, by the way, or communism, were savagely anti-religious. The leading founding ideologue of the Ba'ath was a Christian, Michel Aflaq, and like his equivalents in Europe, he hated the world of religion because he saw it as precisely hampering progress, dividing the nation. The most savage repressions by the Ba'ath in the past were not just of Kurds and not just of Shias, but also, based in Iraq and Syria, precisely of religious fundamentalist groups now allied to al Qaeda.

So the lumping of this regime together with al Qaeda, and then on top of that to add Iran -- Shia Iran -- to the "axis of evil," which, of course, has been violently opposed both to the Ba'ath and to al Qaeda and the Taliban -- ! I mean, Iran went to the brink of war with the Taliban in 1999. To have lumped these together is an error as great and as potentially tragic as that which led America into Vietnam.

It's frankly quite inexcusable, given the facts about the Muslim world in the Middle East, which are known to every serious expert on the subject. As a result of this invasion of Iraq, it should by now be quite obvious that, tragically, we have handed the enemies of the West and the terrorist groups a tremendous success.

From AsiaSource Interview of Anatole Lieven

Nermeen Shaikh: In several articles and in your book [America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism], you point out that unlike in previous empires, the vast majority of ordinary Americans do not think of themselves as imperialist, or as possessing an empire. At the same time, you mention repeatedly the extent to which the American population is unaware of the policies pursued in its name, is indeed alarmingly ignorant of world affairs. Given this, how could they conceive of the United States as an imperial power? And why is the perception of "ordinary" Americans relevant to understanding the place of America in the world today?

Anatole Lieven:
If I remember rightly, according to a poll in Britain in the 1930s, a very small proportion of the British population could remember the name of more than two British colonies. They could remember maybe India and Australia, or probably they remembered the white colonies, but most of them could not remember the name of a single African colony. No one would ever have used that as an argument that the British people did not believe in empire; they were just ignorant.

In the book, I quote C. Vann Woodward on this subject, another great American critic of the past, whose insights I wanted to try to revive for contemporary Americans. Woodward talked about the American people as being bellicose but not militarist, and I think it is also true that they are bellicose but not imperialist. That said, this kind of bellicosity, this instinctive reaction to lash out if attacked or even if insulted, has been repeatedly, and by the way quite explicitly on the part of the neo-cons, used as a way of whipping up nationalist anger, and nationalist commitment to what are in fact imperialist projects.

This is a very old tradition in imperialism. In my book, I cite many examples from history to show that in general even at the height of the Western empires, ordinary Western people were not really very interested in great imperial projects if they were going to be expensive. They liked the idea of power and glory but they were very dubious about losing lives and spending large amounts of money to go out and conquer bits of Africa and so forth. If they could be convinced that this was not simply an imperialist project, but rather part of national rivalry with France or Germany, then it was possible to generate much more support.

In some ways, the American people do fit into this tradition. It is quite clear, for example, that even most of the ones who do consider themselves imperialist would be dead against the reintroduction of conscription in America. Even if it were proved to them that conscription was absolutely necessary in order to maintain America's imperial power in the world, they would not be persuaded. Equally the assorted jackasses who bray in the media about the American empire and the need for great sacrifices in its cause have shown no very ardent desire to go and serve themselves in Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere else.

There is therefore a good deal of lack of underlying commitment to American power on the part of Americans themselves. More commitment certainly than exists almost anywhere else in the world by now but still not enough to generate a really full-scale imperial project. This also explains in part the relative pragmatism of the Bush administration in some areas of the world. After all even this administration recognizes that it cannot simultaneously run its present program in the Middle East and risk war with China and radically alienate Russia. If there were war with China or with North Korea then America would have to reintroduce conscription. Then the end of the American imperial project would be very close indeed.

. . .

Nermeen Shaikh: Looking beyond the publicly stated goals for the American invasion of Iraq, you said that the neo-conservative nationalists were all more or less unanimous in their agreement on one basic plan: "unilateral world domination through absolute military superiority". To what extent did the Iraq invasion have the intended results and what is the likelihood that such policies will continue to be pursued in the second term of the Bush presidency?

Anatole Lieven: Iraq has been a disaster for their aims. They have gotten away with it of course in that they have been re-elected but it is perfectly obvious that they cannot launch another war of choice, another invasion of Iran, say. They simply do not have the troops. With almost 150,000 men pinned down in Iraq, they could not launch another war on that scale without introducing conscription. That would tear American society apart and for the first time since Vietnam lead to a significant anti-imperialist movement in this country. It would also, for the first time, lead to really serious questions about what America is doing in the Middle East at all.

From that point of view, Iraq really has not worked out as they had anticipated and has greatly reduced their plans. After all, in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, all the neo-cons were going around saying: "Next stop: Iran". Or Syria. This kind of rhetoric has not disappeared completely - they are still refusing to talk to the Iranians - but the agenda on Iran has really narrowed just to the issue of nuclear weapons. So Iraq has had a major effect in this respect.

Nermeen Shaikh: You have said that, "The younger intelligentsia [in the United States] has also been stripped of any real knowledge of the outside world by academic neglect of history and regional studies in favour of disciplines which are often no more than a crass projection of American assumptions and prejudices.. This has reduced still further their capacity for serious analysis of their own country and its actions." In addition, you point out the very close links that exist between relevant university departments and government institutions. What are the implications of this?

Anatole Lieven: Well it contributes enormously to the conformism when it comes to debates like that about the Iraq war or about Israel. As Henry Kissinger pointed out almost thirty years ago, too many people in the academic world are either defending previous records when in government or aiming to be in the next administration. This is not a situation likely to produce radical critiques or really strong alternative policies. These people are not at all anxious to say something which will either lead to them not being selected or to their being vetoed by a Senate committee.

I used to think that it is wonderful that the American state can recruit from people in academia but I have come to find it deeply corrupting. I almost prefer the British system now, of career civil servants who serve one administration after another. But one needs a strong ethos of the independence of the civil service and a very strong ethos that people cannot be sacked or penalized for political views as long as they maintain the discipline of their service. This actually leaves the public debate in the UK freer than in the US, particularly in the strange, solipsistic world of Washington DC. It is amazing in a republic with a strong tradition of individualism and cultural egalitarianism, that in DC the sense of hierarchy, of sometimes obsequious deference, of the court game, who is in, who out, dominates everything just as much as it did in an early medieval court. It does contribute to this lack of debate in America.

This is compounded by the tremendously strong power of American national myths. As previous American authors like Loren Baritz pointed out, Vietnam knocked these myths off their pedestal, but many Americans spent a whole generation resuscitating them. Reagan was elected very much to do just that, to restore America's image of itself. It would seem that these myths are so important to America's national identity and image of itself that the American political and intellectual establishment is simply incapable in the end of seriously examining them and asking what flaws they may embody. Of course, there are dissidents - even some very senior ones like Senator Fulbright; but it is striking how little influence they seem to have had in the long run.

In consequence, there are all these people running around Washington - very much among the Democratic intellectual elites as well as the Republicans - who really believe that all America has to do is try harder to generate and display a sense of will. If only America wants something badly enough, anything can be achieved. Any society in the world can be transformed, irrespective of the wishes and traditions of its people. Any country can become not just a democracy, but a pro-American democracy, irrespective of its own national interests or ideals.

This is part of a deep inability to see America as others see it. It is incredible but again and again I have found myself at meetings discussing Russia and China in Washington at which I have been the only person to point out that America does after all have its own sphere of influence in Central America and the Caribbean. Not just that, but a sphere of influence which is not doing very well either economically, or to a great extent, in terms of real democracy either. The rest of the world sees this perfectly well, and as a result, develops a belief in American hypocrisy which is itself very bad for American prestige and influence.

After all, how much did Haiti get after floods which killed thousands of people and devastated the country? Peanuts. A mere fifty million dollars or so from America. And Haiti is only a few hundred miles from America's own shores. Haiti also has a very large population here in the US and they got virtually nothing. Yet when I point this out to people in DC, and suggest that pouring money into the Middle East when countries close to America's shores and within America's old sphere of influence are suffering so badly, they often become furious. There is this strange moral bubble, it seems, and of course it is particularly bad in Washington, but then again, outside Washington and the universities, nobody thinks about these issues at all!