Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Most Dreaded Nation Status

In a recent exchange with Christopher Hitchens, Eric Alterman referred to surveys showing that Europeans think Mr. Bush is more dangerous than Osama Ben Laden. Alterman criticized the administration policies that had led to this perception but was quick to assure everybody that he didn’t share the opinion himself. I presume he was observing the current taboo that mandates piety about American leaders, but I suppose it’s just possible he was sincere. In that case, one has to ask how anybody could doubt that George Bush is not more dangerous than Ben Laden?

My point is not polemical. I’m not looking for new ways to deplore Mr. Bush. I have plenty of those already. What’s at stake is the need for some clarity about obvious realities. Whatever the personal characteristics of Ben Laden or Castro or even the poufy-haired supreme leader of the North Koreans, their actual power to harm is sharply limited by the poverty and military weakness of the organizations they lead. Mr. Bush, by contrast, could incinerate five continents in half an hour. Since the dangerousness of a regime is the product of its capacity to inflict harm and the malevolence or stupidity of its policies and our country is a thousand times more capable than its enemies, our leaders would have to me a thousand times wiser or more moral just to break even. QED.

It is an undisputed maxim of sound strategy that we should prepare to deal with what the enemy can do, not what we think he wants to do. I apply this principle to my own country and its current master. Intentions are not facts of the same order as capabilities; they are often inscrutable and can always be dissembled. Besides, to say that America would never play the bully is to ignore a great deal of historical experience, especially the parts relating to the business end of the Monroe Doctrine. To date, America’s reputation, especially in America, owes a lot to the general ignorance of history and the fact that we’ve mostly played the villain to marginal and despised people and inflicte horrors on nations that had previously acted horribly themselves. I am particularly skeptical of the seldom-articulated but frequently reasoned from premise that America has an especially virtuous national character that guarantees it will not act as badly as all the other empires of history. National character is not unchanging. The Italians used to be Romans; and two hundred years ago it was the French who the military beasts, the Germans who were the people of the poets and thinkers. Unless you believe in divine providence, why should you think that the Americans, whose culture and germplasm is an amalgam of every people on the planet, are somehow above falling into the normal sins of the Nations? The only thing beyond dispute is this: if we go on a rampage, it will be some rampage.

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