On God Complexes, Neoconservatives and Libya
~ by Sean Byrnes
As I imagine is the case in many religious services, the biblical readings of a Roman Catholic Mass in any given week tend to all relate to some central theme or themes. Drawn from various places in the Bible, the three readings inform each other and generally inspire the celebrant’s homily (when the priest isn’t schilling for some retreat, donations or something of that ilk). While these various elements almost invariably have an obvious connection to each other, it’s not as often that they seem immediately applicable to current events. Yet as I listened in Mass this weekend, I couldn’t help but make a connection between the readings and the low but ominous drumbeat for U.S. intervention in Libya. Regardless of what one may think of religion in general and Roman Catholicism in particular, the Bible this week offers, merely as literature, a lesson that most would acknowledge as timeless and that I would like to contend is quite timely.
In short, Adam and Eve destroy themselves with their desire to be like gods and Christ proves his divinity by refusing to use the power in his possession. A source of many of our nation’s problems in the past decade, and indeed for most of the twentieth century, has been a tendency to confuse our roles. As much as America bestrides the world like a colossus, we remain more akin to Adam than God. Yet, for at least the last sixty-five years, America’s leaders and many of its more prominent thinkers have thought otherwise. The lessons drawn from World War II and the 1930s were that America could accomplish anything when it put its mind to it. Greater danger appeared to lay in inaction than in misplaced effort. Not only could the United States construct a liberal world order, it could cure poverty, establish democracy throughout the globe and thus prevent war. With the same conceit that led Lyndon Johnson to claim that his “War on Poverty” could cure underdevelopment at home, “modernization” theorists in his administration – like Walt W. Rostow – believed that the United States could swiftly accelerate the development of the Third World with the proper application of money, knowledge and force. The assumption was that the globe was moving along a single track towards utopia (which, incidentally, looked much like the West) and the only real question was whether the United States would choose to be the engine.
Such thinking took its lumps during the Cold War, in Vietnam among other places, yet it endured into the 1990s and beyond. It can be seen in ill-fated attempts to play the benevolent God in places like Somalia and the effort to save the lives of some residents of the Balkans by killing others. Such misadventures cooled the Democratic Party’s fifty year old enthusiasm for saving the world, but the post 9-11 capture of the Republican party by neoconservatives ensured that the tradition continued. Though it seems somewhat absurd in retrospect, as little as eight years ago David Frum and Richard Perle argued that the United States could actually bring about an “end to evil.” Iraq and Afghanistan had their effect here, of course, but as debates about American policy toward the uprisings in the Middle East have shown, the desire to be like gods has not yet abated.
Bill Kristol, for example, offered a vintage performance this weekend on Fox News Sunday. Strenuously advocating for armed intervention, Kristol blithely ignored the arguments of his fellow panelists who worried that a “no-fly zone” could easily spiral out of control. As Ross Douthat ably pointed out in his New York Times op-ed this week, twice in the last two decades the U.S. has started an intervention with airplanes and ended it with ground troops. Indeed, if one were to be more general and say that limited armed interventions of any kind usually lead to more troop commitments later, the history is much longer than twenty years. Yet Kristol brushed aside such arguments, choosing instead to attack President Obama for weakness. “How can you stand up as President of the United States and say that Gaddafi must go,” he railed, “and then do nothing about it? It would be a horrible defeat for us” (you can see a video of his comments here). The underlying logic here apparently being, that whatever the President of the United States wants done in the world, can, and indeed, must be done. Even Cecil B. DeMille’s Pharaoh needed it to at least be written down first.
This is not to say that the United States does not have an important role to play in maintaining the liberal world order it established after World War II. Pax Americana has, by and large, proven to be a good thing. But we must realize that the United States cannot cure all ills. Armed interventions, however humanitarian in objective, are predicated upon violence. At the end of the day, there is only so much that can be solved by killing people. It is somewhat ironic that the illusion that America can save the world from itself is so often peddled by those labeled neoconservatives. The movement’s origins, after all, were among liberal thinkers increasingly skeptical of the government’s ability to effect social change at home. For some reason this healthy skepticism does not encompass foreign affairs. It should. Just as our national debt would seem to dictate the need for prudence in domestic spending, our over-commitment in two wars abroad mandates discretion diplomatically. Intervening in Libya would be a dubious proposition in the best of times, at present it borders on lunacy. Even the omnipotent Christ turned down the devil’s offer of worldly authority, at present we mere mortals would be wise to do the same.