The Bush administration’s ideological rhetoric concerning US policy in the Middle East has become separated from the policy itself to an extent almost reminiscent of the former Soviet Union. According to the rhetoric, the US has adopted democratisation as the core of its political strategy and made a clean break with its past strategy of propping up local dictatorships and playing one country and ethno-religious group against another.
In practice -- especially since the latest conflict in Lebanon -- US strategy relies entirely on the ability of pro-American authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to control the anger of their populations at US and Israeli policies. To help keep these Sunni regimes in line, Washington relies on their fear of an expansion of Iranian and Shia influence. This is precisely the dominant US strategy of the past generation, except for periods when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq replaced Iran as the chief regional bogeyman. President George W. Bush’s language of democracy is also accompanied by utter contempt for the views of potential voters in the region.
This glaring clash between rhetoric and reality is odd, but much odder is the degree to which it has gone un-remarked by the US political class and even most of the media. Of course, criticisms have been raised on both the left and right. But the Democratic party and the US media have not made nearly as much of this contradiction, and the dangers it embodies, as one might have expected.
One reason why so much of the US goes along unquestioningly with Mr. Bush’s rhetoric concerns the nature of American nationalism. The belief that it is the US’s national right, duty and destiny to spread "democracy" and "freedom" in the world is ingrained in most Americans from early childhood. This belief stems from the faith in the constitution, law and democracy that forms the so-called "American creed," the foundation of America’s collective national identity. In the words of the great American historian Richard -Hofstadter: "It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one."
This American creed shares with Soviet communism the belief that it is applicable not just to its host nation, but to all mankind. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that the Americans "are unanimous upon the general principles that ought to rule human society;" and this is no less true at the start of the 21st century than it was in the 1830s.
The nationalist myths attendant on the creed include a widespread belief that America is exceptional in its allegiance to democracy and freedom and that America is, therefore, exceptionally good. Because America is exceptionally good, it both deserves to be exceptionally powerful and by nature cannot use its power for evil ends. The creed is therefore also a foundation of belief in America’s innate innocence. So, if as has often been said, Mr. Bush occupies a kind of ideological bubble, it is a bubble made of steel and he shares it with tens or even hundreds of millions of other Americans.
Of course, much of the strengths of these beliefs about America’s mission come from the fact that in the past they have proved true: in Germany and Japan after 1945 and eastern Europe in the 1990s. The creed also makes the US exercise of direct empire less likely, for it enforces at least a surface respect for democracy and self-determination.
But the core problem for American mainstream thinkers and voters is that because their perceptions are drawn from ingrained beliefs, not empirical study, they cannot easily learn from evidence, experience or the views of ordinary people elsewhere in the world. Nor can they easily distinguish one historical case from another: Poland from Ukraine, post-war Japan from the contemporary Middle East.
Americans’ sense of national mission resembles, to an extent, the belief of the great European imperial nations of the past that they were spreading "civilisation" and "progress" to the rest of the world. Like those beliefs, it embodies elements of reality along with those of lies and hypocrisy. But neither evidence nor the views of the outside world count for much, given the depth of the nationalist belief itself. European nations in the 20th century had these nationalist faiths beaten out of them by repeated catastrophes. We can only hope that Americans will learn from their examples before it is too late.