Woodrow Wilson is famous for irritating the Europeans. After WWI, when England, France, and the US met to decide the status of post war Europe, Wilson kept insisting on draping practical political objectives and national self interest in the high flown language of moral crusade. Historians always cite as an example George Clemenceau, who when asked about Wilson’s “14 points” for peace replied “God Almighty had only ten!” Wilson didn’t just want stability, he wanted uplift and nobility and moral purity. Clemenceau found Wilson’s lectures boring, and must have wondered “does he believe this stuff? Or is this some kind of dodge?”
Often this kind of thing is cast as “innocence” and Americans are accused of being perpetually “innocent,” or maybe as willfully innocent, unwilling to see their own motives clearly. We don’t just go in to protect our own security, or for rubber plantations in the Philippines, or pineapples in Hawaii, we go in for the universal global cause of “freedom.” We didn’t invade Mexico to get more land, we did it for the cause of civilization itself!
Here’s a famous example, John Gast’s 1872 painting American Progress, in which Indians are being painlessly displaced by the march of technology and enlightenment. It’s not about wanting their land; it’s bigger than that.
This is more or less, I think, what Wilson imagined when he was talking with Clemenceau.
The problem with Syria, plain and simple, is that the Assad regime has chemical weapons, and we, meaning particularly us and Israel 1, don’t want them to fall into “the wrong hands.” That was the concern over a year ago, when the Syrian civil war appeared to be part of a “arab spring,” and it’s the concern now, whatever pieties you hear about chemical attacks and Munich and appeasement and international credibility. If the Assad regime falls, we don’t want hostile non-state actors to get their hands on chemical weapons.
That’s a reasonable motive, and a reasonable goal, but it’s entirely devoid of the raw material of moral self-flattery. We don’t really care about the Syrian people–we didn’t care when several years of famine caused widespread starvation, and we didn’t and don’t care about conventional weapons that kill far more people just as dead as chemical weapons. We didn’t care when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iraq, but suddenly in 2002 we cared deeply about hypothetical chemical weapons he did not have and had not used. Beware of pretext.
For a remarkably clear eyed, historically informed analysis of the situation in Syria read William Polk’s take, published by James Fallows in The Atlantic. I doubt Assad used chemical weapons–he had nothing to gain by it. I suspect some other faction that wants US involvement made the chemical attack, and the moral crisis of chemical weapons is being used to beard another instance of pure self-interest.
The larger historical question is why–why is it necessary to drape self-interest in platitude? This has always been a very religious country, and even non-believers have liked the rhetoric of moral crusade.
But it’s also true that the biggest challenge facing “free market” rhetoric, or the classical liberalism of early capitalism, was making self-interest appear moral. That was Adam Smith’s great accomplishment in The Wealth of Nations: casting individual self aggrandizement as a principle of moral order. Smith argued that human selfishness would produce stability and efficiency and happiness, not strife and exploitation and chaos. To do this, he had to imagine larger systems of meaning. He had to invent “the market” and imagine it as something outside of culture. He had to connect market relations to larger, more nebulous ideas about “liberty” and “individualism.” The good thing about unregulated exchange was not that it made people rich, it was that it promoted “liberty” and progress. He had to make selfishness seem utopian.
So maybe that’s why we have to wade through a lot of self-righteous twaddle before we end up, as I suspect we will end up, putting American soldiers on the ground in Syria.
- but not just Israel. None of the leaders of neighboring Arab states want yahoos with chemical weapons running around nearby either. ↩