Still Worried After All These Years

One of the great things about being an intellectual is that being proved wrong has no apparent effect on one’s career. If a businessman is frequently wrong, he goes out of business. Not so with intellectuals.
One of the most stunningly wrong books of all time was Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, published in 1987. Kennedy surveyed the rise and fall of great powers from 1500 to the present and concluded that powers fall because of a phenomenon he called “imperial overstretch”– the need to devote resources to maintaining an empire undermines the country’s economy and leads to its decline. While purporting to be a broad survey of history, the sole point of the book was to score political points against the Reagan administration’s foreign policies. Kennedy advocated a sort of Mondale-esque humility, as captured in Time’s review of his book: “Not everyone will welcome or accept Kennedy’s bittersweet verdict that the U.S. may become healthier in the long run by accepting its diminishing status gracefully.”
Great prediction, Professor Kennedy. What makes The Rise and Fall of Great Powers a classic of myopia, as opposed to just another liberal tract, is that Kennedy had before his eyes a perfect example of “imperial overstretch,” but was so blinded by his ideology that he couldn’t see it. That example, of course, was Russia. Just two years after Kennedy’s book was published, the Soviet Union imploded, in large part because its socialist economy could not sustain the financial demands of empire. But to this drama, unfolding before his eyes, Kennedy was oblivious. The axe he was grinding was a domestic one.
All of this is a prelude to Kennedy’s column in tomorrow’s Washington Post, titled “The Perils of Empire.” Kennedy is still worried about America’s imperial tendencies, which he now attributes to unnamed “neocons.” (Generally speaking, “neocon” means “Jewish Republican.”) Specifically, he purports to fear that we will invade Syria and Iran, as the “neocons” allegedly advocate (No example of such advocacy is provided, however.) This paragraph sums up Kennedy’s perspective as well as any:
“With all that is crying out for attention — from our inner cities to the slaughters in central Africa — can we really afford this missionary zeal to remake the Middle East in our own image? We could end up merely creating for ourselves ever more crumbling frontiers of insecurity. Successful in our Iraq military campaign, is it not time to rein in our own ‘forward’ school and be a little more modest in our aims, language, spending and relations with the international community? Just a few days ago, I was shocked when a Dutch journalist told me that many of his countrymen were now ‘scared’ of America. The Dutch. Scared.”
Actually, I think the Dutch scare rather easily, so I’m not as shocked as Kennedy seems to be. In any event, the right course, in Kennedy’s view, is one he describes as “minimalist:” “If it took a minimalist approach, the United States might just do its best to quell local disorders and feuding, encourage a multi-party political process, assist in relief aid and swiftly retire from the scene, handing things over to the locals plus U.N. agencies.”
Which sounds to me like a pretty tall order, and not very different from what the Administration seems to have in mind.
As with many intellectuals, though, it’s hard to tell just what Kennedy wants the Administration to do. See, for example, this column that Kennedy wrote for the Guardian on March 3, shortly before the start of the war. It is largely a “why do they hate us” hand-wringing session–hand-wringing is a Kennedy specialty–but it concludes with a plea for “real leadership,” “leadership marked by a breadth of vision,” “a leadership that spoke to the disadvantaged and weak everywhere, and that committed America to join other advantaged and strong nations in a common endeavour to help those who can scarce help themselves,” a leadership that “advocated transcendent human values [like] Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Kennedy [who] made hearts rise abroad.” So, like John Kennedy, we should be prepared to pay any price and bear any burden–but without, of course, a military budget that might “overstretch” us. And our policies should be “transcendant,” manifesting a “breadth of vision.” But on the other hand, they must also be “modest” and “minimalist.”
There is only one way to make sense out of these conflicting prescriptions: Professor Kennedy wants a Democratic administration, and as long as the Republicans are in power, he will criticize whatever they do from one perspective or another. Consistency is not a quality we demand from our intellectuals.

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