Operation American Greatness

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.


  1. 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. []
  2. Ibid, pp. 164-5 []

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4 comments on “Operation American Greatness

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  1. Am I understanding you aright? We were led into the Iraq War–which, according to a well-nigh universal consensus or groupthink, had a more or less disastrous outcome–by a sense that no possible result of the war could be worse than the status quo ante, and now an analogous argument is being made for the election of Donald Trump (the election of Trump can’t eventuate in anything worse than the way things already are)–so we must elect instead one of the major proponents of the aforementioned and notorious Iraq War. We must elect a woman who accepted the argument that the invasion of Iraq couldn’t be any worse than the alternative courses of action, due to the hazards of the time–an argument of course that Daniel McCarthy didn’t make, but that Hillary did.

    Is your argument that Hillary–by virtue of having actually committed the error, having actually made the mistake (of believing the idea that a given state of affairs is so perilous that a worse state of affairs isn’t plausibly conceivable), which can only speculatively be imputed to the supporters of Donald Trump–is, like the Ancyent Marinere, a “sadder and a wiser man” and we can count on her to possess the wisdom born of repentance, despite her prior foray into the hubris of not standing “idly by” while dangers gather?

    You’ll forgive me, but there does seem to be a little something “off” about this line of thought.

    Build the Wall – Kill em All

    • Though I might dispute that Clinton ever qualified as a “major proponent” of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the only mention of her in the post was by “Decius.” I don’t believe that I, in observing the irony of the anti-Neocons embracing a “regime change” thesis, only for us rather than for the poor Iraqis, embraced the fallacy that the dubiousness of an argument for Trump must amount to a positive argument for his opponent.

      I also don’t think that “couldn’t be worse” is something “only speculatively… imputed” to Trump supporters. I referred to Trump’s own many statements of that type, which would be easy to document (e.g., his infamous, repeated “What have you got to lose?” during his African American “outreach” phase), and I quoted McCarthy and Decius. I could have added numerous other examples, drawn from twitter mentions, interviews at Trump rallies, or even exchanges at this blog with Tim Kowal some months ago.

      As for a President HRC’s likely foreign and military policy, I’d guess it would be informed by the Iraq War experience in toto, just as her support for the 2002 AUMF appears to have been informed by prior experience. As you may recall, I don’t personally choose to participate in the “well-night universal consensus or groupthink” either on the war decision or on the assumption that the counterfactual, no invasion in ’03, would certainly have produced a “better” outcome.

      All the same, I do think that the faultiness of the double last resort Trump argument – last resort argument for Trump, Trumpism itself as a last resort – since it is offered after stipulation to Trump and his movement’s otherwise disqualifying flaws, leaves us with the debater’s, or conservative’s, presumption of the status quo, which is best represented by the Democratic candidate in this cycle.

      The argument for Trump is put as a “regime change” argument. I don’t see much from the Trumpists resembling a practical or considered or even minimally responsible or even minimally credible or cogent plan for the new regime, or for coping intelligently with the much more likely result of the old regime’s continuation.

      • Electing Donald Trump by no means constitutes a “regime change” or even an attempt at a regime change. A regime change is just that, a change of regime–in other words, converting an oligarchy into a democracy, or a democracy into a monarchy, or (as in Iraq) a tyranny into a democracy. Voting for Donald Trump is, by definition, a continuation of the present democratic regime.

        Now, both his supporters and his opponents tend to imagine that the election of Donald Trump might usher in a dramatic shift in U.S. immigration, economic, and foreign policy–but dramatic shifts in each of those areas have occurred repeatedly throughout the history of the United States. Our current policies on these lines are themselves the result of a dramatic shift in U.S. policy in the wake of the Second World War and the ascension of the United States to “superpower” status. So major policy shifts are really nothing to wax apocalyptic about. We could have a lengthy discussion about dramatic policy shifts in U.S. history that make Donald Trump’s advocacy of a return to the standard U.S. policies of the pre-World War II era seem relatively tame.

        As to the claim that your exaggerated opposition to Donald Trump is emphatically not a register of support for Crooked Hillary and that it is “fallacious” of me to suggest that it is, I’ll leave it to those who may be reading along to assess whether or not the logical implication of your overwrought contempt for Donald Trump is that Hillary Clinton ought to be elected President instead. But by the lights of your original piece, whereby advocacy of the notion that the present state of affairs is so degenerate that no plausible alternative could make things worse is a kind of political sin or hamartia–and where your specific example of the hazards of this notion is support for the Iraq War–one is minded (again, by your own piece) to be skeptical of the idea that Hillary would be a wise choice for President.

        That support for Donald Trump is only speculatively subject to the terms of your analysis is due to the fact that we don’t actually know what the outcome of a Trump presidency would be like. For all we know (as opposed to all we speculate) the Trump presidency might prove to be successful–we just don’t know. By contrast, the outcome of the Iraq War is known–it isn’t a speculation.

        I don’t personally choose to participate in the “well-night universal consensus or groupthink” either on the war decision or on the assumption that the counterfactual, no invasion in ’03, would certainly have produced a “better” outcome.

        Well in that case, I’m not even sure what the purpose of your citation of the Iraq War’s origination in the sort of thinking that your piece clearly criticizes really amounts to and I think it testifies to a problem that haunts your negative stance regarding Mr. Trump–namely, it’s an intense predilection, a passion, frankly an instance of “groupthink”, that (at least occasionally) wants to masquerade as a point of sober political analysis.

        • By Trump’s own words, he is a “regime change” candidate. I refer you to his “closing ad,” just posted: https://ckmacleod.com/2016/11/05/donald-trumps-argument-america-youtube/ That he and his words are not to be taken seriously makes him an unconvincing regime change candidate in his own right, but supporters like Decius and McCarthy, or campaign CEO Bannon, continue to argue that the regime such as it is deserves to be changed, that, at minimum, Trump represents both a statement and some practical movement toward the regime change they seek. As I stated, I consider their embrace of this position, or the form of their argument, a “minor” irony. It centers on a set of stances they adopt. One need not accept any of their arguments to observe that the latter are mutually contradictory.

          As for my “negative stance” toward Trump, I have explained it many times and in different ways. I find Trumpism itself incompatible with the precepts of a liberal democratic regime. To the extent Trumpism succeeds, liberal democracy in the United States fails. To me, it is in no way surprising that this threat manifests itself in a particularly loathsome individual. I find it somewhat dismaying that a much larger number of people don’t from within a few seconds of exposure to him recognize his utter unfitness for any position of public trust at all, much less the presidency. Many may not take him or the election, or the public statement of support for him, very seriously, or they may treat other notions about the meaning of politics, political choice, political speech, and so on, as more important. In other words, a partisan Republican convinced that Trump will likely lose, or unconvinced that the presidency matters very much or ought to, might endorse (vote for) Trump for any number of reasons that do not equate with support for Trump in particular. That goes for the Decius-McCarthy type of supporter as well as for the conventional “hack” supporters – Rubio, Cruz, Priebus et al – who seem to support “the effect of relative Trump success,” not Trump himself. In that group may be many who hope, adapting Jonathan Chait’s formulation, to achieve libertarian ends by more or less authoritarian means, even if the former have relatively little to do with anything Trump himself has advocated (setting aside his customary inconsistencies).

          If my opposition seems too much a “passion” than a “sober analysis” to someone who signs his comments “Build the Wall – Kill em All,” it’s a cross I’ll have to bear. I also am happy to leave final judgment to the Symparanekromenoi or to history.

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Noted & Quoted


To take power, May had to pretend that she, too, dreams these impossible dreams. And that led her to embrace a phony populism in which the narrow and ambiguous majority who voted for Brexit under false pretences are be reimagined as “the people.”

This is not conservatism—it is pure Rousseau. The popular will had been established on that sacred referendum day. And it must not be defied or questioned. Hence, Theresa May’s allies in The Daily Mail using the language of the French revolutionary terror, characterizing recalcitrant judges and parliamentarians as “enemies of the people” and “saboteurs.”

This is why May called an election. Her decision to do so—when she had a working majority in parliament—has been seen by some as pure vanity. But it was the inevitable result of the volkish rhetoric she had adopted. A working majority was not enough—the unified people must have a unified parliament and a single, uncontested leader: one people, one parliament, one Queen Theresa to stand on the cliffs of Dover and shake her spear of sovereignty at the damn continentals.

...Brexit is thus far from being a done deal: it can’t be done without a reliable partner for the EU to negotiate with. There isn’t one now and there may not be one for quite some time—at least until after another election, but quite probably not even then. The reliance on a spurious notion of the “popular will” has left Britain with no clear notion of who “the people” are and what they really want.

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The most extraordinary paragraph in this op-ed, however, is this one:

The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.

...First — and this is so obvious I can’t believe I have to type out these words — the United States can’t simultaneously proclaim “America first” and then claim any kind of moral strength. Saying loudly and repeatedly that American values are not going to be a cornerstone of American foreign policy strips you of any moral power whatsoever.

The second and bigger problem is that the “embrace” of a Hobbesian vision of the world by the most powerful country in the world pretty much guarantees Hobbesian reciprocity by everyone else. Most international relations scholars would agree that there are parts of the world that fit this brutal description. But even realists don’t think it’s a good thing. Cooperation between the United States and its key partners and allies is not based entirely on realpolitik principles. It has helped foster a zone of stability across Europe, North America and the Pacific Rim that has lasted quite some time. In many issue areas, such as trade or counterterrorism or climate change, countries gain far more from cooperation than competition.

Furthermore, such an embrace of the Hobbesian worldview is, in many ways, anti-American.

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The rise of the military, if coupled with the undermining of civilian aspects of national power, demonstrates a spiritual exhaustion and a descent into Caesarism. Named after Julius Caesar — who replaced the Roman Republic with a dictatorship — Caesarism is roughly characterized by a charismatic strongman, popular with the masses, whose rule culminates in an exaggerated role for the military. America is moving in this direction. It isn’t that some civilian agencies don’t deserve paring down or even elimination, nor is it that the military and other security forces don’t deserve a boost to their financial resources. Rather, it is in the very logic, ideology, and lack of proportionality of Trump’s budget that American decline, decadence, and Caesarism are so apparent.

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State of the Discussion

CK MacLeod
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