After 9/11, As Hal Brands observes in his study of post-World War II American grand strategy1, the “general presumption” took hold in the Bush Administration and beyond “that action— even dramatic and potentially disruptive action— was now less dangerous than inaction.”
Among the generally unobserved, minor ironies of the election campaign is the manner in which Trump apologists, especially certain types of “American Conservative” paleo-cons, self-styled “republican constitutionalists,” and diverse fellow travelers all the way extending to everyday “Deplorables” have adopted the same idea – in other words, a primary if not the primary strategic rationale of the despised Neocons and Globalists. That rationale was that the American predicament following and as exposed by the 9/11 attacks was so dire that embarking upon an unlikely and risky stratagem would still be preferable to holding steady. In a world viewed as replete with unprecedented, “gathering” dangers, amidst a cycle or vicious spiral of lethal and morally unsustainable political-military dysfunction, one might therefore, indeed must, support the best of bad options even if highly uncertain about its prospects, or frequently uncomfortable with supporting rhetoric and allies, or strongly skeptical regarding inadequately tested (or not testable) political-military premises, such as the capacity of a “light-footprint” expeditionary force to stabilize a post-“regime change” environment, or of an only superficially committed political class and electorate to stay the course in the face of setbacks.
Operation Iraqi Freedom did not, after all, de-stabilize the Middle East by accident: De-stabilization – of dictatorships, terrorist networks, hostile regimes – was a stated, primary intention. Brands also observes the intoxicating optimism on the flip side of “best-bad”-ism:
As Rumsfeld put it, the post-9/ 11 era provided “the kind of opportunities that World War II offered, to refashion much of the world.”
The liabilities of this mind-set would become evident in due course. At the outset, though, the president and his advisers were buoyed by a sense of mission and purpose. “We have an opportunity to restructure the world toward freedom,” the president told advisers, “and we have to get it right.”2
The general idea suggests a common, even natural and logical response to a desperate predicament. For that reason, as many have noted, it is a handy item on the demagogue’s workbench – a kind of catastrophizing hammer. In short, the underlying rationale has often operated both as an effective political argument and as a functional strategic premise.
The American Greatness set have adopted similar presumptions, if some less optimistically than others: We think what we’re advocating has a better chance than the usual nay-sayers nay-say it does, but even if they’re as right this time as they have recently been wrong, what do we or fill-in-the-blank really have to lose? How could things be any worse? Donald J. Trump has used almost these exact words in numerous connections. Daniel McCarthy, Editor of The American Conservative, applied the same logic in explaining his formal endorsement:
Whether Trump succeeds or fails as a president, he will force American politics to make a choice between globalism and the nation. With Clinton there will be no choice, only more of the same disastrous policies we have seen under both of the last two presidents.
A neocon McCarthy ca. 2002-3 might have put his thinking this way:
Whether the invasion of Iraq succeeds or fails, it will force Iraq and the world to make a choice between tyranny and liberal democracy. Under the fracturing containment regime, there will be only more of the same disastrous results.
The proponent of American Greatness “Publius Decius Mus,” at the outset of his notorious essay on “The Flight 93 Election,” by which he meant the presidential election of 2016, not any previous one – was more self-consciously dramatic: “A Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto,” he wrote. “With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.”
Such writers, like their nominee, his followers in social media, and even many NeverTrump conservatives unable to the shake the old reactionary habits, are indulging and inflaming the same impulses among the mass of Trump supporters once exploited by the architects of that other effort at “regime change.” New mind-set, same as the old mind-set, with an overlapping constituency: One may expect, in due course, parallel liabilities.
- What Good Is Grand Strategy?: Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush (p. 164). Cornell University Press. Kindle Edition. [↩]
- Ibid, pp. 164-5 [↩]