A New Manifest Destiny

Thursday, February 8th, 2007

Half a million people marching against the war seem to be cursed to have their numbers reported as “tens of thousands” in the mainstream media for reasons that strike me as similar to the reeling U.S. auto industry’s ongoing reliance on monster SUV sales (and didn’t Ford make headlines by hemorrhaging almost $13 billion last year?).

That is, the human race has slipped, developmentally, from the grasp of the institutions that attempt to contain and define it. What a muddle. We’re flowing instinctively toward survival — toward a sustainable, global society, as free of war and dehumanized enemies as it is of reliance on fossil fuels — but those in power can’t bear it, can’t understand it, and keep selling us the past.

How else do you explain the sort of zombie life George Bush’s war on terror enjoys in the corridors of official thought — where, for instance, the insanity of “troop surge” is given polite, respectful deference — well after its lifeblood of public support has bled into the sand?

If the United States were the sort of democracy it affects to be, the war would be over — except for reparations, international peacekeeping and impeachment. Instead, the end is just beginning, dimly recognized and commented upon: Hmm, the November elections may have indicated voter anger . . .

And here and there a loose cannon goes off, with the congressional howls of outrage as likely to be Republican as Democrat.

Baghdad “is not ours to secure. We have never understood that!” cried Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) in a GQ interview. “. . . ‘Win or lose in Iraq.’ Wait a minute! There is no win or loss for us. The Iraqis will determine how this turns out. We can help them with our blood and our treasure and our standing, but in the end they have to deal with the sectarian problems. That is what’s consuming that country. It’s not al-Qaida. It’s not the terrorists. That’s not the main problem over there. It’s a civil war!”

What’s missing is a coherent, sustaining vision of who we are, something that ignites our passion and self-interest, which politicians could serve up in their stump speeches: a new manifest destiny, you might say, one that isn’t based on greed and conquest and isn’t, at its core, irrational. Without it we’re vulnerable to the politics of fear and platitude (Pearl Harbor! Iwo Jima!) and the covert agenda of the defense establishment. We need this before the next George Bush comes along.

Right now, this vision is the void at the center of our geopolitical thought. For instance, Edward Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C., writing in the February Harper’s about the futility of our counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq, notes:

“Perfectly ordinary regular armed forces, with no counterinsurgency doctrine or training whatsoever, have in the past regularly defeated insurgents, by using a number of well-proven methods. It is enough to consider these methods to see why the armed forces of the United States or any other democratic country cannot possibly use them.”

The politics of occupation are simple and brutal, he points out, citing the examples of the Roman and Ottoman empires, among others. They ruled vast territories for centuries by out-terrorizing any rebellion that showed its face. The emissaries of empire leaned on local civilian leaders to surrender the rebels on pain of death and had no compunction against wholesale slaughter of recalcitrant populations, if necessary.

Indeed, “A massacre once in a while remained an effective warning for decades,” Luttwak writes, and, quoting Tacitus, recalls the opinion a chieftain in the British Isles had of Rome: “They make a wasteland and call it peace.”

But I take issue with Luttwak’s contention that, “By contrast, the capacity of American armed forces to inflict collective punishments does not extend much beyond curfews and other such restrictions” — as though our problem in Iraq is that we’re wimps!

History will judge the American occupation far more harshly than that. From the shock-and-awe bombing campaign to widespread torture to rampant war crimes (investigated only if there’s publicity) to the leveling of Fallujah, we’ve more than shown our willingness to make a wasteland and call it . . . democracy.

The problem is, the tactics of the Romans and the Turks (and the Nazis) no longer work quite so well. While, as the Bush presidency abundantly demonstrates, modern, First World democracies have a ruthless, barbarian strain that is very much capable of expressing itself, the general population can’t tolerate it. Today’s militarists, to their chagrin, must align themselves with the PR industry and wage war with a smiley-face. The fickle public may still relish victory, but it doesn’t like blood.

The past and the future are at a standoff. The old interests have plenty of weapons and a big noise machine for spreading their message, but sooner or later their lies, like their SUVs, will run out of gas. A new manifest destiny is just around the corner; the greatest uncertainty is who will define it.