Drop the Perverse Wilsonianism and Get Out Now

by John R. MacArthur

NEW YORK -- NOT LONG before U.S. soldiers made news with their sadistic photo shoot of Iraqi prisoners, I dined with a small group of pedigreed New York liberals -- the ones known as "Bush haters" -- and a ghost.

The conversation followed a predictable course for the first hour or so -- contempt for the president pouring forth as freely as the wine -- so I didn't think twice about proposing a unilateral withdrawal of American troops: the very opposite of face-saving and a strategy labeled "cut and run" by Karl Rove.

Everyone at the table was old enough to remember the crazy rhetoric of Vietnam troop escalation, as well as the cruelly absurd policies of "de-escalation," "Vietnamization" and "peace with honor." So why the awkward silence when I had finished?

Suddenly the ghost spoke -- through the medium of a law-school professor, who informed me that America had a "moral obligation" to remain in Iraq. Before the medium could go on, his socially astute wife aborted the seance and we moved on to safer topics.

The ghost, I realized, was Woodrow Wilson, and, sadly, his notion of "moral obligation" dominates every debate on Iraq -- not Bush's lies about atomic-bomb threats; not the mounting corpses; not the foolish distraction from tracking al-Qaida; not the war profiteering by Bush's friends and patrons; not the violation of our Constitution and the Geneva Convention; not the waste of money that could rebuild our degraded public-school system; not even the lessons of Vietnam.

The Democratic "opposition" carps, but its presidential candidate suggests escalation: more troops (some in different uniforms) to "stabilize" a situation that cannot be stabilized.

Bush and his friends from Halliburton are busy looting Iraq to enrich their temporal bank accounts, but Wilsonian liberals remain preoccupied with their immortal souls. America's high-spirited volunteer army builds pyramids out of terrified naked detainees -- a kind of sexual My-Lai -- and John Kerry insists that "we cannot let the actions of a few overshadow the tremendous good work that thousands of soldiers are doing every day in Iraq and all over the world."

What will people say about us if we pull out? Last week, at a different gathering of Manhattan liberals, a Democratic congressman too young to remember Vietnam even told me that American "credibility" is at stake in Iraq: that "we can't leave . . . can't cut and run."

Who says we can't leave? Sir Woodrow of the 14 Points, that's who. Although my liberal acquaintances rarely invoke Wilson by name, I can always hear the pious, self-righteous and intolerant intellectual from Virginia creeping into their voices. So powerful is Wilson's faith-based ideology that he makes it hard for otherwise rational people to talk sense. But if ever there was a time to argue with Wilsonian dogma, it's now -- before too many more people die guarding gas stations and oil-field contractors.

Mainstream historians typically attribute Wilson's simplistic Manichean view of the world to his fervent Presbyterian beliefs -- what political historian Walter Karp summarized as "Wilson's tendency to regard himself as an instrument of Providence and to define personal greatness as some messianic act of salvation."

Karp himself thought that this characterization missed the point; he saw Wilson as fundamentally "vainglorious."

Whatever his psychological makeup, Wilson's relentless perversion of Enlightenment ideals struck a chord in predominantly Protestant America, this country having been formed partly on the Calvinist idea of an "elect" people.

At the same time, Wilson sought, at least in his rhetoric, to impose Rousseau and Paine's "rights of man" on the non-elect peoples of the world -- whether or not these noble savages wanted any part of them. "The world must be made safe for democracy," he cried in his war message to Congress in April 1917. "Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty."

Forcing democracy down the throats of tribal-based Arabs was probably not at the top of Wilson's agenda at the Peace Conference at Versailles, in 1919, but his lofty language masked the essential contradiction of ordering self-government at the point of a gun. (When they colonized Iraq, the British didn't hesitate to borrow Wilsonian rhetoric about "self-determination" and "liberation" from Turkish despotism.)

As Wilson put it during his first term, "I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!"

Wilson had made a test run of his "ideals" with his senseless and bloody interference in domestic Mexican politics at Vera Cruz, in 1914, but it was America's intervention in World War I that set the course of future U.S. foreign policy.

All but the most anglophilic Americans wanted to remain neutral in the European butchery; indeed, political self-interest compelled Wilson to campaign for re-election in 1916 on a promise to keep us out of the Great War. But Presbyterian vainglory intervened, and before long Wilson was leading "this great peaceful people into war" on the grounds that "the right is more precious than peace."

Wilson promised salvation: "To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes. . . . with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other."

Didn't the Wilsonian Bush haters, such as my dinner acquaintance, note President Bush's cynical invocation of St. Woodrow during his state visit to London last November? Referring to the "God-given [not secular-law-enforced] dignity of every person," Bush observed that "the last president to stay at Buckingham Palace was an idealist, without question."

Wilson, he recalled, with misplaced irony, "made a pledge; with typical American understatement, he vowed that right and justice would become the predominant and controlling force of the world."

Bush's smirking pieties fall flatter with each wasted life of an American soldier, with each dead Arab woman or child. But they also reveal both his grandiose identification with Wilson and his insincerity. Bush has no intention of establishing anything more than a puppet government in Iraq; in sheer effrontery, he has perhaps only one peer: Woodrow Wilson.

Although the true heirs of Wilson are the liberal Democrats, Bush has, by reflecting Wilson's heavenly glow, cleverly blocked the liberals from objecting to his corrupt Iraqi enterprise. "Journalist" and Bush proxy William Kristol explained the strategy to The New York Times: "If we have to make common cause with the more hawkish liberals and fight the conservatives [who favor withdrawal], that is fine with me."

Even severe critics of the Iraq fiasco, such as Peter W. Galbraith, feel obliged to endorse the smug Wilsonian premise of the invasion. Writing in the latest New York Review of Books, he flatly states that "except for a relatively small number of Saddam Hussein's fellow Sunni Arabs who worked for his regime, the peoples of Iraq are much better off today than they were under Saddam Hussein."

How can he be so sure? A recent USA Today poll found that 46 percent of the Iraqis surveyed felt that more harm than good had come of the invasion, with only 33 percent responding that more good than harm had been done. In addition, 57 percent said they thought the U.S. and British forces should leave promptly.

Unable to respond to pollsters are the uncounted thousands of dead Iraqi non-combatants. Are they better off today than they were under Saddam? It doesn't matter too much to the Wilsonians, since they always mean well when they spill blood.

We do have a moral obligation: to withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible, not build a Potemkin village called Democracy. The longer the United States stays, the worse things will get for everyone.

I understand that full-scale civil war between the Sunnis and Shi'ites may well break out after we leave, with or without U.N. peacekeepers. But if that happens, we must assume a second moral obligation: to accept as many refugees as possible, just as we did with some of the non-communist Vietnamese who fled Hanoi's advancing armies.

We welcomed President Thieu and Marshal Ky; we should even find a place for Ahmad Chalabi and the pornographic wardens of Abu Ghraib prison.

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper's Magazine.

Published on Tuesday, May 4, 2004 by the Providence Journal (Rhode Island)

"Two of the most unchristian impulses of all are those which took effect in the 19th century. The first impulse which came to the fore and gained an ever stronger hold of men's minds and emotions, was that of nationalism. Here we see the shadow of the old blood- principle. The Christian impulse towards universal humanity was completely overshadowed by the principle of nationalism, because the new way to bring this element of universal humanity to its own had not been found. The anti-Christian impulse makes its appearance first and foremost in the form of nationalism. The old Luciferic principle of the blood comes to life once again in nation- consciousness. We see a revolt against Christianity in the nationalism of the 19th century, which reached its apex in Woodrow Wilson's phrase about the self-determination of peoples, whereas the one and only reality befitting the present age would be to overcome nationalism, to eliminate it, and for men to be stirred by the impulse of the human universal."

Rudolf Steiner, 1920