A nationalism without precedent

By Erik Tarloff

Financial Times

Published: October 25 2004

America Right or Wrong
An Anatomy of American Nationalism

By Anatol Lieven

Oxford University Press, HarperCollins $30, 18.99

Hand-written on a sign at a rally for George W. Bush last month was the slogan: "If Jesus weren't a Jew, he'd be an American."

So much confusion, so much imbecility, contained within one smallish square of cardboard. Its incoherence is enough to make one's hair hurt. But Anatol Lieven is unlikely to have found it surprising.

His new book, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, is an analysis of American nationalism, with particular emphasis on the country's fundamentalist religiosity and its solipsistic assertiveness. He delineates traditions of assumed moral and spiritual superiority, unapologetic ignorance and heedless bumptiousness running through American history and playing a determinative role in its contemporary policy.

Lieven's is only the latest in a long list of books published this year assailing the Bush foreign policy. The sheer number of these testifies to the radical nature of that policy, if not necessarily to its failure (although it is certainly suggestive in this latter respect).

The books tend to cover the same ground, presenting the same overarching indictments and adducing more or less the same bill of particulars. Insofar as they differ, the difference is rarely more than a matter of emphasis.

Lieven has chosen to emphasise the tradition of American nationalism. He is an erudite and impassioned guide to this issue, but he may have erected an intellectual construct more intricate than the facts merit or require.

He posits two opposed tendencies in American civil life: what he terms its thesis, a generous and encompassing nationalism that celebrates tolerance, diversity and liberty; and its antithesis, a wary, intolerant suspicion - even paranoia - that finds any manifestation of otherness threatening and contemptible. He regards both tendencies as potentially dangerous, although the antithesis is the more intrinsically hateful and the more predictably destructive of the two.

His historical survey is responsible, scholarly and frequently illuminating, but I do question how specifically American these two trends really are. Surely most countries, parliamentary democracies included, have experienced spasms of reaction in response to military defeat and economic difficulty. And surely most great military powers have at times embraced a self-glorifying, messianic vision of their role in the world, if only to justify the expenditure of blood and treasure. Alexandrine Macedon surely did, and post-Republic Rome, and Napoleonic France, and Hitler's Reich.

These are not role models from which social democrats will derive comfort, but I am not taking issue with Lieven's politics, rather with the utility of his analytical framework. I find his world view far more sympathetic than say, Niall Ferguson's imperial enthusiasms.

Lieven is no doubt correct that the two traditions on which he focuses have been factors in American political debate from the nation's inception. But the truth is they have not, by and large, been decisive factors. Not until now. They were advocated, at least in their extreme form, by voices on the fringes of political discourse. Something changed after the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001. Mr Lieven's book aspires to a universality that is, I think, misleading; it is unimaginable that he would have been moved to write it in the absence of the Bush administration.

The political effects of 9/11 were the equivalent of a date-rape drug. Americans effectively lost the will to offer political resistance. They imbued their unelected president with a strength and wisdom he did not possess. They relinquished critical judgment. They acquiesced in policies they would otherwise have abominated. And those in power, a coterie of ideologues unrepresentative of mainstream American thinking, took full advantage of the opportunities offered.

The litany of abuses is surely familiar to everyone by now. The US authorities imprisoned thousands without regard to due process and maintained the right to hold their prisoners indefinitely, often under barbaric conditions. They manufactured and distorted evidence in order to lie the nation into an unnecessary war. They gave Israel a free hand in its dealings with Palestinians and winked at the undemocratic policies pursued by the president of Russia, both in the name of opposing terrorism. They prepared legal arguments defending the American president's right to authorise torture and secretly acted on those arguments without overtly invoking them.

These policies are appalling, uncivilised, grotesque. They remain a source of grave anxiety to anyone who cares about human rights. But they are also - and this is crucial - without historical precedent. Despite the extended intellectual lineage from which such policies may derive, no previous administration in US history has attempted anything comparable. Lieven's history is sound in its details, but he has not persuaded me of its pertinence.

I am writing these words a fortnight before the American presidential election, the outcome of which is still very much in doubt. This datum is not irrelevant to the book under discussion and far from irrelevant to my reaction to it. I believe Lieven has written his book in response to a specific phenomenon: the collective hysteria that followed the events of 9/11 and the Bush administration policies that have been enabled by that hysteria.

Lieven has elected to treat this phenomenon as a logical outgrowth of America's history. To me, the evidence suggests it resulted, rather, from a series of unforeseeable and almost random events. Nevertheless, I concede that if Mr Bush is re-elected - a prospect at this juncture rather more likely than not - it will constitute a retroactive national ratification of these policies. No one then will have the luxury of treating the Bush administration as an aberration. And in the process, Lieven's book will have acquired a retrospective validity.

The writer is a London-based novelist and critic