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The Temptations of Nationalism

Lawrence Bush
January 7, 2006

“America First” Versus Ruinous Empire

by Lawrence Bush
Prior to John Kerry’s defeat at the polls in November 2004, a powerful critique of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Bush Administration’s preemptive war doctrine was circulating through the country:

After the World Trade Center towers fell to earth on 9/11 . . . Le Monde ran the banner “We Are All Americans.” The world mourned as we buried our dead . . . Now . . . the United States, with little support from allies . . . is mired down in a guerrilla war in a nation that had nothing to do with that terror attack. . . .By October, Bush had begun to expand the list of America’s enemies beyond those who had a role in 9/11 to all rogue states with a history of sponsoring terrorists ... He had also begun to describe the war on terror ... [as] a moral imperative that transcended politics. . . .
The president then . . . assert[ed] a sovereign right to prevent any nation from ever acquiring the power to challenge the strategic supremacy of the United States . . . This Bush declaration — that we will brook no rival, ever again, that the future is one of permanent American hegemony — is a gauntlet thrown down to every rival and would-be world power and a challenge to lesser powers to unite against us. . . . But the president was not finished . . . “All nations that decide for aggression and terror will pay a price . . . We will lift this dark threat from our country and the world.”
Consider what the president is saying here. Every act of aggression, anywhere, can expect U.S. retaliation and every act of terror will bring an American reprisal . . . But when in all history has any nation been able to do this? . . . This is democratic imperialism. This will bleed, bankrupt, and isolate this republic.

Which critic of the war is speaking here? Howard Zinn? Naomi Klein? Noam Chomsky? Would you believe, Pat Buchanan?
Yes, Patrick J. Buchanan, rightwing syndicated columnist, TV commentator and advisor to Presidents Nixon and Reagan. Pat Buchanan, defender of accused Nazi war criminals and Holocaust revisionists, of South African apartheid and General Pinochet’s fascist rule in Chile. Pat Buchanan, opponent of multiculturalism, affirmative action, women’s reproductive rights, and liberal immigration policies, who regularly calls gays “sodomites.” Pat Buchanan, who has praised Adolf Hitler’s “great courage” and “extraordinary gifts,” and referred to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as “one of the most divisive men in contemporary history.”
Recently, I picked up Buchanan’s 2004 book, Where the Right Went Wrong. I was intrigued by its title and hoped to gain some insight into the vulnerabilities of the conservative movement. I was also curious to find out how Buchanan had managed to become the presidential candidate of the Reform Party in 2000 — the same party that backed Ralph Nader in 2004.
I suppose I was also feeling a bit adventurous. Jewish Currents and the Workmen’s Circle had just been mistakenly identified by Victor Navasky in The Nation (November 14, 2005) as “committed to conservative political and cultural activities.” (Oy gevald!) The venerable Mr. Navasky had assured me on the phone that the word “conservative” had not even appeared in his manuscript, and the Nation subsequently ran a correction — but the incident set me to thinking about the meaning “conservative,” “liberal” and “radical” in light of contemporary events.
Buchanan’s book does offer the most concise and condemnatory analysis of neoconservative foreign policy that I have read since the invasion of Iraq. He despises the neoconservatives (Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith, Bolton, Wurmser, Ledeen, and assorted others) as “a tiny movement, without a national constituency” and “marinated in conceit.” He considers them to be hijackers of U.S. foreign policy from its Reagan-era moorings of anti-Communist containment and self-interested alliance-building. The neoconservatives, Buchanan writes, have essentially discarded George Washington’s Farewell Address “admonition that we stay out of foreign wars and avoid ‘permanent alliances’ and ‘passionate attachments’ to nations not our own.” Instead, he writes, “intervention, wars for democracy, and a passionate attachment to Israel are what neoconservatism is all about.”

They do not want to narrow America’s list of enemies to those who attack us. They want to broaden the theater of war and multiply our enemies . . . it would be us against the Islamic world with Europe neutral and Asia rooting for our humiliation. . . . [Neoconservative] hubris may yet prove their undoing. And ours as well.

Buchanan attributes the invasion of Iraq, which he calls “the greatest strategic blunder in forty years,” to the neoncons’ capturing of George W. Bush’s not-so-brilliant mind, post 9/11, when their “War Party seemed desperate to get a Middle East war going before America had second thoughts.” He also blames the pro-war lobbying of Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders of the Likud party in Israel. “The war Netanyahu and the neocons want,” he quotes his own USA Today article of September 26th, 2001, “is the war bin Ladin wants, the war his murderers hoped to ignite when they sent those airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. If America wishes truly to be isolated, it will follow the neoconservative line.”

Back in 1990, Buchanan was branded an anti-Semite for similarly linking Likud and what he called “its amen corner” in the U.S. He is more careful with his language in Where the Right Went Wrong (though his comparison between Richard Perle and Charles Dickens’ Fagin character did make me squirm). While “many neocons are Jewish,” Buchanan writes, “most Jewish writers and intellectuals in America are liberals and many are among the sharper critics of neoconservatism. Even on the Right, not all Jewish writers are neocons, though support for Israel is broad and deep, and no more surprising than is opposition to abortion among Catholics, Mormons, and Evangelical Christians.”
Perhaps his portrayal of Israeli history and contemporary politics would prompt many American Jews to cry foul, yet his formulations could easily be expropriated by American Friends of Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom — or Jewish Currents:

Twenty-seven Israeli Air Force pilots have refused to obey “immoral orders” for air strikes on “populated civilian centers.” Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the occupied territories. . . . Four ex-chiefs of Shin Beit . . . have charged Sharon with leading Israel to ruin. . . . Ex-Justice Minister Yossi Beilin has negotiated a detailed accord with a former Palestinian minister on a two-state solution. Colin Powell wrote a letter of support. Where was President Bush? Why do we not tell these brave Israelis that they are not alone?
Israel is in an existential crisis. It can wall itself off and annex what it wants on the West Bank, and leave Palestinians in tiny, truncated, nonviable bantustans that will become the spawning pools of terror. Or it can give the Palestinians what Oslo, Camp David, Taba, and the “roadmap” promised: a homeland, a nation, and a state of their own.

Perhaps, too, his linking of neoconservatism to the “Greater Israel” ambitions of Likud is overblown. Certainly, the neocon-Israel connection has become the obsession of America’s hardcore anti-Jewish right, which portrays the U.S. as a blundering giant being led to disaster by scheming, self-interested Jews (see, for example, website of the anti-Jewish ADL: American Defense League). Buchanan cannot be held responsible, however, for those who twist his nationalism, and his sharp distrust of internationalism of any stripe — communist or corporatist, liberatory or imperialist — into old-fashioned hatred of the “International Jew.”

In essence, Buchanan is an “American First” populist conservative who believes that our country’s future depends upon a “return” to restrained foreign policy (China, he writes, should be ceded “hegemony over the South China Sea,” including Taiwan, for “how would that imperil the United States?”), sound currency, protection of our manufacturing industries, restricted immigration, Christian morality and “family values.” His sources of inspiration are the Founding Fathers, especially Alexander Hamilton — who believed, he writes, that “America’s political independence . . . could not survive without economic independence.” Buchanan considers economic globalization, as embodied by NAFTA, CAFTA and the International Monetary Fund, to be “economic treason” by corporations, and he was unique in the conservative movement in his opposition to NAFTA, which brought him into alliance with the AFL-CIO, Ralph Nader, and Ross Perot.
When it comes to domestic politics, his rhetoric turns ugly. He denounces what he calls the Supreme Court’s “remorseless campaign to de-Christianize the public life of the nation” and to “impose a social, cultural and moral revolution upon America,” dating back to Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954. He flails at homosexual marriages and the “destruction” of the American family by “the social, moral and cultural revolution that celebrated sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and women’s liberation . . . and gave us condoms in junior high, no-fault divorce, abortions on demand, and daycare for the survivors.” Buchanan seems driven, here, by some fantasy of a wholesome, pre-1960s America in which white people were the virtuous majority, class distinctions were irrelevant, marriages were happier, wives were never beaten, children were never abused, back-alley abortions were never obtained, gay people didn’t exist (or were properly closeted or suppressed), racial segregation preserved local community life, and people accused of crimes were never denied their rights.

Despite these atavistic social views and his controversial history, Buchanan’s nationalism can seem tempting at a time when our country’s future is being disassembled by the twin engines of imperial war and economic globalization. His anger about how the Bush Administration has cast our country into an imperial role — a role that is likely to bring our country to ruin — echoes that of our magazine:

George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and a handful of other armchair “warriors” . . . actually believe that the United States can and should shape the world through economic domination and military coercion. For three years, they have manipulated and lied to a country in shock and mourning from the September 11th attacks.
. . . Rather than tending to our country’s needs and wounds, they have cultivated our fears, squandered the compassion and concern of our allies, developed a cult of militarism, and created new enemies to replace every Al Qaeda member who gets killed or captured.
-- “Who the Hell Do We Think We Are”, Jewish Currents editorial, November-December, 2004

His patriotic sensibility, his allegiance to the Founding Fathers, and his view of Bush’s radical policies as a violation rather than a fulfillment of American history, have also been echoed in our magazine:

The American people would do well to contemplate the future that their president represents, and then examine the past to ask: What would George [Washington] do? . . . “Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all . . . Avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.
-- “George W. Versus George W”, Jewish Currents editorial, January-February, 2004

Yet the national identity that Buchanan envisions as an “American Firster” is a right-wing pipe dream. He views America’s preeminence in the world as the fruit of our virtuous national “character” and pays no mind to such factors as slavery, land conquest, robber-baron capitalism and hemispheric domination. He denounces the disloyalty of multinational corporations, which now make up fifty-two of the world’s largest hundred economies, but proposes no program for reigning in their power beyond protectionist tariffs and a gold-standard dollar. How far would Buchanan go to harness corporations to a strict nationalist government rule — and what would he name this, if not fascism?
Buchanan’s stands against American interventionism, moreover, have been anything but consistent: In the name of anti-communism, he has been perfectly willing to endorse U.S. support for the Chilean military coup, the “contra” war against Nicaragua, the apartheid regime in Pretoria, the U.S. “policing” actions in Grenada and Panama, etc. “America triumphed” in the Cold War, he writes, “by putting ‘moral clarity’ on the shelf and lining up allies without too-scrupulous an inspection of their humanitarian credentials.” It is the unsustainability of neoconservative foreign policy, rather than its immorality, that distresses him. For all his moralizing, his foreign policy views are strangely lacking in moral principle.

What principles might we invoke, therefore, to differentiate a progressive stand against American “empire” building from the temptations of nationalism offered by this strange bedfellow? Where the Right Went Wrong forced me back to basics.
The first guiding principle that I identified is the prevention of genocide. As a Jew, after all, I have long wished that there had been someone to force “regime change” in Nazi Germany before a well-armed Adolf Hitler could resist. Even during the war, however, when bombing the tracks to Auschwitz or other actions to wreck the machinery of the Holocaust would have been acceptable by international standards, the U.S. and its allies refused to pursue them. This exemplifies how U.S. foreign policy, even in the hands of a liberal president, has rarely been led by moral concerns, and why we should always view U.S. military interventions with great suspicion.
My second guiding principle is “self-determination,” as affirmed in the United Nations Charter. When the Clinton Administration, for example, sent troops to Haiti to defend the popularly elected Aristide government (a surprising reversal after decades of support for repressive Haitian dictatorships), I supported the action in the name of self-determination for the Haitian people. In most cases, however, “military intervention in support of self-determination” is oxymoronic or worse; George W. Bush, after all, has used the phrase to explain U.S. goals in Iraq. Self-determination also has uncertain relevance in many contemporary political situations. What does it mean in a situation like Somalia’s, where warlord rivalries caused mass famine (and the U.S. intervened), or in a situation like Rwanda’s, when one ethnic group sought to eliminate another (and the U.S. failed to intervene)?
My third guiding principle is the socialist concept of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” If I were convinced, for example, by advocates like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times that economic globalization will ultimately lift workers of the developing world out of poverty, I might be inclined to embrace globalization, even if it meant a lowered standard of living for American workers after our decades of relative privilege. I am more convinced, however, that globalization is about expanding the capitalist market and increasing corporate profits (especially by depressing wages) more than about “lifting all boats.” I am also savvy enough to know that a platform of sacrifice based on “the greatest good for the greatest number” will not win a mass American following — nor should it, as long as all the sacrifice is made only by workers while the wealthy class rakes in obscene profits.
The principle nevertheless establishes an important distinction between a progressive approach to globalization and Buchanan’s “America First” protectionism. “The greatest good for the greatest number” is a class-conscious principle that mandates the regulation of globalization through international labor and environmental law. It acknowledges the existence of global problems that can only be addressed through global solutions. Buchanan, for his part, fails even to mention in his book such international issues as environmental degradation; he pretends that the only problem that is international in scope is internationalism itself. “[T]he hidden agenda of the global economy,” he writes, “is global socialism, the steady transfer of the wealth of the West to the less fortunate of the earth.” Halevai! (If only!)
Similarly, Buchanan does not even acknowledge the existence of the United Nations in Where the Right Went Wrong. While this international body has been lost credibility in the Jewish community because of its many resolutions condemning Israel, and while the UN has much that needs fixing and enhancement, its scornful rejection by both Buchanan-type conservatives and neoconservatives demonstrates their shared contempt for planetary problem-solving — and the fundamental irrelevance of their views. Economics are international, diseases are international, environmental dangers are international — and Fortress America is impervious to none of it.

As humanitarian crises, religious and ethnic conflicts, armed rebellions, imperialist invasions, revolutions and counterrevolutions, terrorism and counterterrorism plunge our world into perpetual violence, I have difficulty justifying any of it, even in the name of my principles. In truth, the only honest way for me to evaluate war these days is to ask: Would I be willing to risk my own son’s or daughter’s life or limb for the cause in question? With overwhelmingly consistency, my answer is “No.”
Despite the temptations of nationalism, however, I remain an “International Jew” of the kind that nativist Americans have always decried. I feel pride in the symbols of my country, but I refuse to make them into idols or fetishes. I believe that we should solve our problems at home before trying to transform the world, but I also recognize that our wealth has been built, in part, through the exploitation of other peoples, who therefore have some claims upon us.
I am an active American citizen, but I am conscious that my own intimate “tribe,” the Jewish people, has always lived beyond the boundaries of any one country — and has always suffered when the demons of nationalism seized hold of our neighbors.
So I’m still a sucker for the Yiddish expression: “All the world is one town.”

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.