January 2, 2017
A History of U.S. Foreign Affairs in Which Grandiose Ambitions Trump Realism
By David E. Sanger
Less than a year later George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, and began some of the grandest, and least successful, American experiments in shaping other societies since the Marshall Plan after World War II. By the time of his second Inaugural Address, Bush was fully converted — he saw America as on a mission. “It is the policy of the United States,” he declared, “to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.” There was no prioritizing of American national interests. “When you stand for your liberty,” he promised, “we will stand with you.”
Today as another president-elect prepares to take office, he sounds like the George W. Bush who made us coffee in his country kitchen that morning. In two interviews earlier this year, Donald J. Trump told me and Maggie Haberman that he, too, rejected nation-building. He was about “America first,” he said, and that meant sending few American troops abroad except to kill terrorists, and a new, transactional relationship with longtime allies to assure they pay their fair share. Iraq was a “disaster,” which, he said, Barack Obama had worsened.
Credit Stephen Jaffe/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Walter A. McDougall, a Professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania who has taken on some of the broadest themes in American society and won a Pulitzer for his brilliant history of the American space program, warns in “The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy” that once in office American presidents are often “susceptible to a utopian temptation.” They adopt a language that he describes as “American civil religion,” wrapping adventurism in a gauzy, semireligious haze. Democracy becomes an export.
In the 19th century, as he describes the history, this was mostly limited to the American continent. But when Manifest Destiny was fulfilled, global destiny beckoned. So from Theodore Roosevelt’s empire-building to Kennedy’s “pay any price” and Reagan’s shining-city-on-a-hill, America kept recommitting itself to remaking the world.
This is not a new theme. Walter Russell Mead’s “Special Providence,” published just after the 9/11 attacks, made a convincing case about how different imaginings of American exceptionalism were used to justify adventures abroad, for good and ill.
But McDougall’s study — and his argument that “civil religion” has often trumped a serious discussion of American national interests — comes at a moment when the pendulum of public opinion has swung far in the other direction. Trump owes his election, in part, to his ability to sell a story of an America that builds up a fearsome defensive force but uses it only against outsiders who threaten our safety at home, or our cyber networks. The failed experiments of the past 15 years have, for the moment at least, put Americans in a defensive crouch, if not an isolationist mood. No politician, Democrat or Republican, dares to make the argument today that it is our divine mission to bring liberty to the world. Has the impulse passed for good? History suggests it will be back.
McDougall is at his most convincing describing how American civil religion episodically drove the country’s thinking, from the early days of the Republic to Truman. He’s at his least persuasive explaining more recent times, and it can be argued that he fundamentally misses how a cold-eyed view of America’s national interests became the defining element of Obama’s foreign policy. For if we were truly following the command to stand with liberty, we would have 100,000 troops in Syria.
McDougall starts with founders like Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1812 that the “acquisition of Canada” would be “a mere matter of marching,” and would represent “the final expulsion of England from the American continent.” That turned out to be a more complicated task than Jefferson had in mind. But his vision was driven more by military necessity than some sense of religious fervor to spread the American model.
Not quite a century later, though, God and American destiny were fully merged. Trying to figure out what to do with the Philippines, President McKinley decided that the best choice was to annex the territory and “by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.” In a Memorial Day address at Arlington National Cemetery in 1902, Theodore Roosevelt said America had fought in the Philippines in a “triumph of civilization over forces which stand for the black chaos of savagery and barbarism.”
Franklin Roosevelt’s false isolationism — a cover for his secret preparations for entering the war — gave way as he met Winston Churchill off Newfoundland and the two men “held hands on Sunday and sang Anglican hymns,” a show of solidarity in the battle for survival they knew was at hand. And throughout the Cold War, McDougall argues, the battle against Communism was wrapped not only in the flag, but in some kind of atomic theology. Truman, he notes, “was no theologian. He was not even a very good Southern Baptist, to judge from his fondness for bourbon, poker and profanity.” But when it came to the stewardship of nuclear weapons, he said, “We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that he may guide us to use it in his ways and for his purposes.”
In the course of one of our campaign interviews, Trump told me that it was during the 1950s — when American civil religion was at its peak — that the country was at its strongest, and that the ’50s are the era he has in mind when he vows to make us “great again.” This gets to the internal dissonance in McDougall’s argument. He makes a convincing case that civil religion was used to justify American power. But that is different from saying that it guided how that power was used.
The nuclear arms race, begun by Truman and accelerated by Eisenhower and Kennedy, came less out of religious fervor than out of a conviction that national survival depended on having the biggest arsenal. The “domino theory” that justified the failed intervention in Vietnam was also about the perception of American vital interests. The same was true for the 2003 invasion of Iraq: It was first and foremost a campaign to disarm Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction. Only when it turned out there were no such weapons did liberating the oppressed Iraqis become Bush’s primary objective.
The hawk wing of Obama’s team — Leon Panetta, Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus — is long gone. They all lost the fight to get Obama to intercede on behalf of the Syrian rebels. Their replacements are facing the harsh reality that sometimes America has little choice but to use its military. They all messed up in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria and contributed to the return of Russia in the Middle East. This is President Emeritus Barack H.Obama’s foreign policy legacy. How will President-Elect Donald J. Trump deal with it? –Din Merican
And what about Barack Obama? In McDougall’s telling, there is little difference between Obama and his predecessor; it was Obama who “echoed Bush in pledging support for ‘democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East.’ ”
Perhaps, but to a reporter covering his presidency, Obama seemed largely immune from civil-religion disease. His actions spoke of a very different philosophy. The Obama Doctrine was all about the “light footprint” — drones, Special Forces and cyber attacks — that defended American interests but occupied no territory, and put few troops at risk. We could not seize, hold and build; only local forces could do that. That explains Obama’s hesitancy to intervene in Syria, even when upward of a half million Syrians were dying in a civil war, or to put an occupation force in Libya. He has even hesitated to retaliate against Russia for attempting to influence the American presidential election — the holy underpinning of the democratic process.
American foreign policy has certainly been influenced by civil religion over the centuries. But the last president didn’t step into that church, and the next one is still figuring it out.
David E. Sanger covers national security for The Times and is the author, most recently, of “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power.”
A version of this review appears in print on January 1, 2017, on Page BR8 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Nation-Building’s Siren Song.