Putting the 'Mis' in Imperial Misadventures

It’s time to consider whether the popular wisdom, in trying to get a handle on the history of US interventionism, has failed to understand the American character. My conclusion: Yes. Come along on a magical trip involving monarchical counterfactuals, Jacksonian revisionism, Andrew, Ross, and, of course, Kagan and Co….

Andrew’s reaction to Ross’s reaction to Kagan seems sensible enough at first blush. Ross:

If America is by its very nature prone to foreign misadventures – and I think [Bob] Kagan somewhat overstates this case, but for the sake of argument let’s concede the point – then surely the task of policymakers and intellectuals, in the wake of one such misadventure, is to draw lessons from What Went Wrong that might be profitably applied to future debates and crises, and that might strengthen the (weak) hand of the anti-interventionist camp the next time war fever grips the nation.


I find the idea that non-interventionism has a permanently weak hand in American politics an odd one. Until the second Iraq war, my entire adult lifetime in America was defined in part by the “Vietnam Syndrome.” And you can’t understand American foreign policy since 1974 without seeing the “Powell Doctrine” front and center. America, moreover, has not attempted an actual, permanent empire in the Arab Middle East until now. If any region can cure a great power of the imperial temptation, it is Arabia.

But, at second blush, the Arab Middle East has in fact been a great satisfaction and bulwark for imperial powers — specifically, and to the embarrassment of pan-Arabists everywhere, the Turks and the Persians. The situation is belied by the typical and accurate complaint of anti-imperialist Westerners that Britain and France ‘carved up’ Arabia in the wake of Ottoman suzerainty: a step better would have been exclusively British empire; even better, a single, integral imperial territory reaching from Suez to Kuwait. Imagine the inconvenience, skulduggery, paranoia, and petty despotism that could have been deleted from decolonialization there — in a unitary Arab state that held more in common structurally with India (after Pakistan) than Africa.

All of which is to suggest that whatever the US is doing in the Middle East, ‘empire’ hardly seems like the right word. But the reason why that’s so isn’t because the US isn’t doing ‘something imperial’ out there in Iraq. It’s because the US doesn’t do empire very well. Every fiber of the American being is uncomfortable with the day to day discipline and the general attitude behind proper imperial administration. We ought to ask why it is that some of our quasi-colonial adventures look to us like misadventures. It’s one thing to say our occupation of the Philippines, for instance, was criminal or illegal or a massive violation of human rights. But by colonial or even plain geopolitical standards, it was a success. Is there something particularly American about deeming the Philippine occupation a misadventure anyway?

I think so. The final reason why America is ‘by its very nature prone to foreign misadventures’ involves a perennial American judgment that when it mucks about in foreign places it is more or less therefore on a misadventure. This seems to me to be the real narrative split between Jacksonians and Hamiltonians : those in the first category have sustained a longstanding interest in ‘domestic imperialism’, specifically with an eye toward erasing or rendering cosmetic the regional divisions between North and South. For those in the second category, by contrast (and, yes, we’re dealing with a somewhat silly but still powerful heuristic here), it’s ‘adventurism’ in the American interior that seemed a constant distraction and far lesser priority, with Atlantic activity the standing order of the day.

If the Hamiltonians had their way, in place of a President Jackson the United States would have found itself with someone very closely resembling an American Louis-Philippe — a progressive, bourgeois ‘King of the Americans’ who had come of political age doing a lot of visiting among Continental eminences and embarked on colonial programmes popular with aristocratic liberals worried about the softening effects of their own commercial predilections (i.e., Tocqueville). Only with a suitably lengthy, even unbroken, Hamiltonian lineage would an American Louis-Philippe (Charles Francis Adams? ) have risen to aim the restless acquisitive energy of his citizen-subjects abroad. Instead, given the irruption of Jackson, the fundamental American interest in looking — and moving — West was settled. It is true that a specifically Southern Jacksonianism developed, keen on moving South for slaving purposes . But the elevation of the never terribly serious Southern interest in Caribbean colonialism past the point of amateurism and entrepreneurialism cashed out only in the conquest of Cuba, a fleeting episode made possible only by the reversion of Southern patriotism and Southern militarism into its natural American Nationalist attitude.

It is in the nature of that attitude, contrary to what today’s Hamiltonian ‘National Greatness’ Americans pretend, to look upon engagements abroad as foolheaded distractions from the main event: the flourishing of Great America from sea to shining sea. The central problem with most critiques of neoconservative American historiography is a certain blindness to the real character of ‘Jacksonianism’ — patriotic, nationalist, expansionist, and isolationist as it is. Recognizing this amalgam for what it is, contradictory as it might seem from our distorted present perspective, permits us, among other things, to better understand the story behind our apparently contradictory public opinion concerning the Iraq misadventure. The Hamiltonians are still the minority party, and the force of the American attitude remains dedicated to the war as a matter of patriotic nationalism while simultaneously distrusting and tiring of it as a matter of splendid isolationism.

Yet it’s America’s unparalleled history of stunningly effective expansionism, as everyone knows, which enabled and secured the splendor of its isolation. So external intervention in what can at least be gainfully spun as the national interest occupies an awkward yet largely sustainable halfway position between Jacksonianism and Hamiltonianism — it’s a damned misadventure, but it’s our misadventure. To fail to read this motto in the American feeling about Iraq specifically and in the American character generally is to guarantee an incomplete and misleading picture of the future of American interventionism.

Crossposted at Postmodern Conservative.