Years ago I visited a strip joint with a bunch of salesmen from my publishing company. A particularly attractive stripper propositioned one of my co-workers, who, as he explained later, refused her offer despite the reasonable price, not because he was especially scrupulous about such things—he’d just gotten a lap dance from the aforementioned girl—but because he figured that once he paid for it and had a good time, he’d soon become a regular customer of hookers. “Bad precedent.” The response to Mr. Bush’s speech reminded me of this little fragment of life wisdom because even the president’s critics obviously don’t think there was anything peculiar about imposing our will on a foreign nation, our innocence about the propriety of that sort of thing having been lost a long time ago now. While lots of commentators complain that bombing Iran or attacking Syria or murdering Sadr may be inadvisable from a cost-benefit point of view, very few, especially among the numerous tribe of the liberal hawks, evince any inhibition about the casual use of violence against non-Americans in their own countries. Of course, the novelty of this sociopathy is only relative—America has been treating the nations in its sphere of influence with contempt for well over a hundred years now—but it is new to extend the blessings of the Monroe Doctrine to any nation not strong enough to fend us off.
I’m no pacifist. If a country harbors people who have attacked the United States as Afghanistan did or if it invades a neighbor in a way that harms our interests, as Saddam did in the early 90s, I’ve got no problem with the use of military force. I also don’t endorse respect for the sovereignty of other countries on the basis of some a priori moral principle—as I once wrote, the Categorical Imperative is not a suicide pact. It is experience, not moral intuition, that teaches us why it is a dreadful idea to promote international lawlessness and how the loss of inhibitions by one great power often leads to general irresponsibility and misery. The trouble is, we’ve already traveled so far down the road, created so many dreadful precedents, that it is hard to see how we are going to recover a sense of decency in our foreign policy by simply acquiring new leaders. Our hubris has become habitual.