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Dark Destiny?

William Pfaff decries American foreign policy in a way that may give readers, left and right, pause.

By 9.3.10

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The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy
By William Pfaff
(Walker & Co., 240 pages, $25)

It was hardly necessary, but William Pfaff warns us anyway that some of the unconventional thinking in his new book "may give the reader pause" In fact, giving pause his been his specialty throughout his 50-odd years as a foreign affairs commentator.

Pfaff continues to write as a "realist" from his expatriate base in Paris, apparently unconcerned by the reaction he invites from both right and left.

His main complaint in The Irony of Manifest Destiny, his ninth book, is that the avowed American objective of exporting universal democracy amounts to a secular utopian gambit. As such, it is an "intellectually unsustainable idea as well as politically impossible to achieve, hence a cause for global concern."

Pfaff's argument builds on an emerging body of thought from other analysts, including Thomas Corothers' 2008 Foreign Affairs article and David Reiff's book At the Point of a Gun.

For balance, he acknowledges that he speaks for a minority view. "Republicans generally as well as neoconservatives and a great many people from the liberal camp remain supporters of the idea that the world's destiny is democracy." But he is convinced this road leads nowhere. "It is evident," he writes, "that democracy on the American model is not going to be made to prevail in the contemporary world."

The conduct of U.S. foreign policy, he believes, has been "breathtaking in its ignorance of history" and disastrous for targeted countries as well as the United States itself.

Pfaff takes his title from the old slogan of the 19th century when the United States was forcing its coast-to-coast geographical unity. That destiny seemed manifest, at least to Americans. Since the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, however, the concept has been "reimagined as a divinely ordained mission to humanity and is now essential to the American myth".

He sketches 250 years of history in somewhat polemical terms, concluding that a Wilsonian global federation of democracies is "unrealistic and has virtually no chance of succeeding".

In recent decades, he says, the idea became more dangerous as it was recast to authorize "aggressive international intervention, and when necessary preemption, to destroy obstacles to the American vision of the future".

Today, he asserts, moral constraints have been relaxed and "nothing is prohibited other than what we prohibit ourselves." Ethical values, he maintains, "have been subordinated to an ideology of national triumphalism".

Pfaff wondered how we became so deluded, and set about in this book to pinpoint the shift in Western thought that made is possible. He found the fault line in the Enlightenment of 18th century Europe, when religious domination of governance was cast aside in favor of secular utopianism.

"The Enlightenment created a Western intellectual and moral structure that was expected to rest on reason, scientific knowledge and secular progress, but in this case [U.S. foreign policy] does not.

Perhaps anticipating a critical outcry, Pfaff is quick to acknowledge that this book, probably the last of his long career, is "inevitably the work of sweeping journalistic generalizations." Enlightenment scholars will be nodding in agreement. Some of his assertions seem sweeping indeed, notably his lack of nuance in his account of the history of Western thought and his failure to support his theses with references from Enlightenment luminaries such as Denis Diderot, or at least Voltaire.

Pfaff also seems a bit cavalier in his condemnation of the current U.S. mission, scarcely mentioning the medieval justice systems of the Taliban and what that means for modern Afghans -- brutality and suppression of women. He approvingly quotes the late George Kennan as saying the world has its share of unstable governments, "But so what? We are not their keepers. We never will be."

 In one of the more startling passages, Pfaff minimizes the dangers of Muslim fundamentalists. "I seem to be one of the very few Americans who do not believe in the enormity of the Islamic radical threat," he writes. Islamic terrorism is nothing more than a passing phenomenon, "neither unprecedented nor specific to the present period" except in relation to oil resources and the existence of Israel.

Pfaff concludes with a catalogue of disasters that would never have happened if U.S. policy had been non-interventionist -- Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Pol Pot's genocide, Iran's theocracy, and of course Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the end of this extended essay, Pfaff is unequivocal. "America's colossally militarized but morally nugatory global mission… has lacked from the very beginning an attainable goal. It cannot succeed."

An iconoclast to the end, Pfaff uses his erudition and his command of language to make his case in ringing tones. But the value of this slim volume resides more in his provocative treatment of familiar issues rather than any plan to grapple with solutions. The book reads like the testament of a distant sage who wants to leave behind his personal views on how the United States lost its way. Perhaps he is hopeful that future generations will take heed. If so, Bill Pfaff turns out to be an optimist after all.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.