- The Washington Times - Monday, June 13, 2005

AMERICAN RIGHT OR WRONG: AN ANATOMY OF AMERICAN NATIONALISM

By Anatol Lieven

Oxford University Press, $30, 274 pages

Anatol Lieven has a problem. He detests the Bush administration’s foreign policy, and he believes that no sensible person could support the president’s approach. Thus, in “America Right or Wrong,” Mr. Lieven proposes three explanations for the misguided foreign policy thinking of many Americans.

First, he finds in the U.S. political culture a peculiarly American strain of “embittered” nationalism. Mr. Lieven argues that Americans who support current U.S. foreign policies are infused with a “bellicose” nationalism that has been a principal catalyst for an overreaction to the events of September 11. The result has been a “catastrophic” expansion of the war against terrorism with unnecessary military action in Iraq and a mistaken embrace of Israeli policies as well. This type of nationalism repels others; this “wounded and vengeful” nationalism could also trigger a political upheaval and brings forth a fascist regime, in the author’s view.

Second, Mr. Lieven plumbs the depths of pseudosociology to explain why so many Americans support policies with which he disagrees. For example, he suggests that the American nationalism he dislikes is “an expression of social, economic ethnic and, above all, racial anxieties.” Thus, many of those who oppose international treaties such as the Kyoto agreement do so, in the author’s words, because the treaties are viewed “as plots by hostile and deceitful aliens.” Getting further carried away, Mr. Lieven argues that these conservatives are possessed by a “cultural hysteria and paranoia which has gripped large sections of white middle-class churchgoing Middle America.”

Third, the author uses psychological theories to reinforce his thesis. He argues that large numbers of Americans “feel defeated,” and that the domestic anxieties this feeling generates spill over into attitudes toward the outside world, giving many Americans “their curiously embittered and mean-spirited edge.” He suggests that, following the theories of leftist guru Theodor A. Adorno, these same Americans may have “authoritarian personalities” that lead them to their mistaken worldview.

In Mr. Lieven’s worldview, one apparently has to be intolerant, belligerent and xenophobic in order to offer supporttotheBush administration’s foreign policy. But the author’s attempts to explain the roots of Red State support for the president fail. His analysis of American political culture and his facile sociological and psychological theories display no subtlety or nuance, and can only be taken as an unintended caricature of the thinking of liberal elitism.

Mr. Lieven’s substantive critique of the Bush administration’s foreign policies offers nothing particularly original. Among other things, the author accuses the administration of “indifference” with respect to Afghanistan, despite the fact that the Afghan elections and the emergence of a democratically elected leadership could only have developed as a result of strong U.S. efforts, including persuading other nations and NATO to take an active role in that nation.

Inpassageswritten months ago, Mr. Lieven condemns the administration’s support for Ariel Sharon’s plan for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

Unfortunately for the author, it turns out that this approach is now accepted by all key players including the Europeans as useful. The author also argues that Israel is a severe liability to the United States, and he advocates using the threat of severe reductions of U.S. diplomatic, economic and military support. It is in fact difficult to imagine anything more counterproductive to a genuine and lasting Middle East peace than undercutting Israel’s sense of security.

Despite his scathing critique of administration policies, Mr. Lieven has surprisingly little to offer, except such anodyne suggestions as that the U.S. should “restrain the excesses of capitalism and reshape the economy to serve the American people; and make America once again a leader by consent, concerned for the health, stability and longevity of the current international system.”

Even a book that is flawed substantively might be a good read. Unfortunately, the author’s prose is overwrought, overlong, ponderous and turgid. The book is a graduate thesis on steroids, and Mr. Lieven never uses one word where 10 will suffice. Perhaps the publisher was on a tight budget. There is no evidence at all that an editor participated in this book’s preparation. In theory, a thoughtful critique of current U.S. international policies can be written. However, “America Right or Wrong” demonstrates that such a book remains to be written.

Bruce Weinrod, a Washington lawyer, and was deputy assistant secretary of defense from 1989 until 1993.


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