In response to Colonel Lang's observations on the way that Karzai has pulled the wool over Obama's eyes on the prospects of maintaining an American troop presence in Afghanistan, you raised the question of why, 'after more than a decade of deep immersion in the Islamic world,' American policymakers are still 'so dense.' And you asked whether the problem was simply at the 'senior policy-making level', or whether it also extends to the 'experts' who brief and write papers for those actually making policy.<p>At the risk of lapsing into platitude or egregious error, due to the thinness of my knowledge, let me hazard some reflections in response to your questions.
American self-images reflect certain particular Western intellectual traditions. One of these, republican thought, is classical in origin and initially emerges from reflections in one troubled polity, fifteenth-century Italy, about another: Rome at the time of the transition to imperial rule. In it, a pessimistic view of human nature has ambivalent implications. On the one hand, it leads to an immense suspicion of unchecked power. Controlling power is portrayed in part as a matter of balance - having opposing social forces, such as patricians and plebeians in the Roman republic, as well as different parts of government, limit each other - and partly a cultural matter, with an overwhelming emphasis on republican virtu.
Confronted either by internal anarchy or external threat, however, checks on power may threaten the survival of a polity. The Roman answer to this had been the notion of the dictator - a figure released from normal constraints on power, but only temporarily. The eventual outcome, as Rome faced the problems of managing an empire, was that the dictator became Imperator, a permanent absolute ruler. Accordingly, suspicion of imperial entanglements is common in republican thought. So also is ambivalence about democracy, as the fear commonly lurks that the unchecked power of the people can lead to the rule of an Imperator. Republicans - whatever their social origin - are commonly acutely suspicious of mob emotion: Shakespeare and Ben Jonson being obvious examples.
Another current is biblical in origin, and emerges from sixteenth- and seventeenth- century British developments of a Protestant vision of God's will as active in history, and knowable - which always had millenarian overtones and potentialities. Of their nature, both the original Christian development of the biblical vision and its secular transformations are, and have to be, universalistic: they can only be coherent if they are held to be universally valid.<p>Moreover, the obstacles to the realisation of the sacred project - be it religious or secular - are naturally to be interpreted as being either evil will or ignorance: accordingly, characteristic modes of action of adherents of such visions are righteous violence, and the administration of instruction to the ignorant. The antinomian temptation - the belief that the moral law is not binding on the elect - is also recurrent. The parallels with Marxism-Leninism - which also involves a secular transformation of the Christian vision of God's will as active in history - will be evident.
The configuration of forces which emerged as a result of the war of 1939-45 in large measure pushed the United States into a quasi-imperial role. However, overcoming the reluctance of very many Americans to assume the burdens this role entailed required portraying the world in terms of a globalisation of the American nationalist secularisation of the Protestant vision, notably in the key NSC 68 paper of April 1950.
From the time when Charles Bohlen waged a rearguard action against NSC 68 in 1950-51, a school of American experts on the Soviet Union argued that the tradition of interpretation which grew out of that paper portrayed the - very real - threat from Soviet power in quite unrealistically apocalyptic terms. However, they were largely marginalised by the adherents of the NSC 68 tradition - and, tragically, these succeeded in securing widespread acceptance, in both the United States and Britain, for the view that they had been vindicated by the retreat and collapse of Soviet power.
The triumphalism which emerged as a result of this retreat and collapse appears to have shifted the balance among the 'clerisy' in the United States further towards uncritical acceptance of nationalist visions. One effect is that the kind of threat inflation which was applied to the Soviet Union has been applied, in a far more dramatic fashion, to the threat from Islamist terrorism. Another effect is to tighten a set of blinkers making it difficult for policymakers and many analysts - in the United States, and also in Britain - to think seriously about societies different from their own
A republican vision of the place of the United States in the world does not require, to be sustained, that one takes any specific view of developments in, say, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria - or indeed the former Soviet space, and China. It leads naturally to the view that policy-making should be based upon expertise about specific situations. And indeed, a committed republican can quite consistently argue that, in situation where the conditions for constitutional government are not present, authoritarian rule - even indeed tyrannical rule - may be preferable to the likely alternatives.
Attempting to make sense of alien societies through the lens imposed by the American nationalist vision, by contrast, has implications which make misunderstanding almost inevitable. One is that there is immense pressure to interpret the realities of alien societies in ways that sustain the assumptions which are necessary to validate the nationalist vision. Another is that people in these societies who accept, or profess to accept, the vision are commonly regarded as the proper source of information on them. Not infrequently, however, such people are naïve, and sometimes they are not naïve at all, but simply playing on the gullibility of Americans - or Britons - who are willing, or even anxious, to be duped. The most spectacular case is of course that of Ahmad Chalabi, but the pattern is recurrent.
The fact that so much of the contemporary American 'clerisy' is nationalist, rather than republican, is reflected in the teleological assumptions of much 'political science' writing about which the owner of this blog has repeatedly complained. It is also reflected in the insouciance with which many appear to view the erosion of checks on power, in order to facilitate fatuous responses to a grotesquely inflated terrorist threat.
As regards Obama, it appears difficult to identify in him many traces of the republican suspicion of power. The implicit assumption behind so much of what he says and does - not least the ghastly sessions pricking names for remote-control assassination with John Brennan - is that he, and the United States, can be trusted with absolute power, because their virtue is self-evident. david Habakkuk