Michael KreponApogees of Dream-Catching

Before wars exhaust America’s patience and treasury, they can generate even more far-reaching aspirations. Higher purposes vary. During the Spanish-American War, President William McKinley felt obliged to set his sights beyond Cuba in order to uplift, civilize, and Christianize Filipinos. World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars. When World War II followed soon thereafter, Washington set to work creating an ambitious network of institutions to prevent World War III.

These initiatives remain models of success that subsequent Presidents have found themselves shorn of the means or conditions to emulate. Washington’s construction efforts have gotten smaller ever since. Fighting prolonged wars in the wrong places accelerate diminishment. Nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq may actually be harder than creating NATO and the United Nations after World War II.

The George W. Bush administration’s war of choice in Iraq is now coming to an end nine years, more than a trillion dollars, and countless victims after its initiation. The “global war on terror” lent itself to such unbounded grief and excess. Only now is the Obama administration beginning to correlate diminished means to more realistic ends in dealing with violent extremism.

The twin apogees of dream-catching during the Bush administration were surely its 2002 National Security Strategy and the President’s second inaugural address. For those with short memories, here are some snippets from the 2002 National Security Strategy:

In a world that is safe, people will be able to make their own lives better. We will defend the peace by fighting terrorists and tyrants….

Our enemies have openly declared that they are seeking weapons of mass destruction, and evidence indicates that they are doing so with determination… America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed… History will judge harshly those who saw this coming danger but failed to act. In the new world we have entered, the only path to peace and security is the path of action….

The United States will use this moment of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe. We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world.

And here are excerpts from President Bush’s 2005 inaugural address:

The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands….

The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world….

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world…..

America’s influence is not unlimited, but fortunately for the oppressed, America’s influence is considerable and we will use it confidently in freedom’s cause.

These passages now read like an antiquarian text. Faint echoes can be found in presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s foreign-policy vagaries, but most of us are sadder and wiser now. Just ten years ago, however, the United States was strong, solvent, and set off-kilter by nineteen hijackers. Americans were called upon to defend and protect against poisonous thinking in ways that created more of it. A conservative Republican president, enabled by unparalleled power-projection capabilities and a malleable Congress, undertook two military campaigns that required great sacrifices of soldiers but not of those who wished them well. Growing US divisions and insolvency were the natural result.

This missionary and muscular US response to 9/11 — Wilsonianism on steroids – appears likely to produce no more than tenuous rewards. Despite the heroic efforts of US military forces, the sorrows of Iraq have by no means run their course. Whatever the travails to come, this country of great potential and enduring factionalism will at least be rid of Saddam Hussein & Sons. As for Afghanistan, another trillion-dollar expedition, it does not take a crystal ball to foresee that US sacrifices will only marginally help prevent the return of history.


  1. Sharif (History)

    Apropos foreign lobbying, and entangling alliances etc., George Washington had some important words which may be of interest to the pro-Israel and anti-Iran lobbies:



    ” […………….]
    In the execution of such a plan nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated.—The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.—Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur.—Hence frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed and bloody contests.—The Nation prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to War the Government, contrary to the best calculations of policy.—The Government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject;—at other times, it makes the animosity of the Nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives.—The peace often, sometimes perhaps the Liberty, Nations has been the victim.— 31
    So likewise a passionate attachment of one Nation for another produces a variety of evils.—Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite Nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the Nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained; and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld; and it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens, (who devote themselves to the favorite Nation) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity:—gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, and the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.— 32
    As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent Patriot.—How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practise the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils! Such an attachment of a small or weak, towards a great and powerful nation, dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter. 33
    Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence, I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens, the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake; since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican Government.—But that jealousy, to be useful, must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it.—Excessive partiality for one foreign nation, and excessive dislike of another, cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real Patriots, who may resist the intrigues of the favourite, are liable to become suspected and odious; while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests. 34
    The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign Nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little Political connection as possible.—So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith.—Here let us stop.

  2. Dan Joyner (History)

    Great post, Michael. This should be a NYT op-ed.

    • krepon (History)

      ACW.com is the new New York Times for our issues.
      Many thanks,

  3. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    With the collapse of the Soviet Union the United States lost strategic focus. Lacking strategic focus the US confused the tactical for the strategic. We acted as if acts of terrorism posed an existential threat to the nation. This confusion pushed us to act outside our interests. Iraq, Abu-Gahrib, stealing defeat from the jaws of victory in Afghanistan, kidnapping, re-opening and use of former Warsaw Pact prisons, the establishment of an internal security aparat that looks an awful lot like the KGB, national phone tapping, national internet monitoring, the establishment of dissident groups like Wiki-leaks, travel as a privilege instead of a right, and of course the fact that the US now operates death squads that assassinate American citizens at the command of the executive branch. If the goal really was national security we should take take stock and ask ourselves, after all that, are we secure? Is an a United States 14 thousands billion dollars in debit more secure than an America only 4 thousands billion dollars in debt? Is America more secure when for the foreseeable a future America cannot raise war spending absent a real crisis, than an America that can raise spending at will? Is an America with unemployment at 10 – 20 % more secure than an America with unemployment at 3 or 6%? Can an America dealing with all these issues focus one one of the real issues that really can destroy the United States? Can the United States better deal with the issues and disposition of strategic weaponry than it could 10 years ago? We as a nation have lost all sense of proportion and we’re reaping the benefits of our confusion between the strategic and the tactical.

  4. Ed Hathaway (History)

    “…great sacrifices of soldiers but not of those who wished them well.” George W. Bush sitting in the front row at the World Series is surely the preeminent example. Some of us might not enjoy the game, thinking of the wounded and dead, but that’s just some of us…

  5. Anjaan (History)

    Everything about America is great, except its foreign policies. Starting from the disaster in Vietnam, to the blatant meddling in the Latin America, to the short sighted Reagan Administration calling the today’s Afghan fundamentalist Muslim terrorists as the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers, to the naked greed driven invasion of Iraq by the Cheney-Bush & company, the list is long …. ! It has been a series of utterly immoral and unethical Foreign policy considerations over a period of four decades, bringing about disaster on this great nation and its great people.

  6. kme (History)

    That is a very charitable assessment of McKinley’s motives in the Philippines. A more cynical observer might say that it had more to do with giving the USA the ability to fight in the western Pacific on short supply lines.

    As for Christianization, the Filipinos are overwhelmingly Catholic, a state of affairs which appears to owe a lot more to their Spanish colonial masters than their US ones.

    • krepon (History)

      Good points.
      The “Christianize” phraseology was part of the public justification at the time.

  7. jeannick (History)

    Washington’s farewell adress ( written with Hamilton )

    “Hence likewise they will avoid the necessity of those overgrown Military establishments,
    which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty,
    and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican Liberty. ”

    Eisenhower’s farewell adress

    “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence,
    whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.
    The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

  8. Lugo (History)

    The great continuity of national security policy between Bush and Obama – indeed, for all practical purposes, their policies are identical – ought to call into question your claim that Bush was “conservative”. Either Bush was not a conservative, or Obama is a conservative, take your pick.

    “This missionary and muscular US response to 9/11 — Wilsonianism on steroids – appears likely to produce no more than tenuous rewards. Despite the heroic efforts of US military forces, the sorrows of Iraq have by no means run their course. Whatever the travails to come, this country of great potential and enduring factionalism will at least be rid of Saddam Hussein & Sons. As for Afghanistan, another trillion dollar expedition, it does not take a crystal ball to foresee that US sacrifices will only marginally help prevent the return of history.”

    And Libya? Do we need a crystal ball to foresee that our (decisively important) support for the overthrow of Kaddafi is likely to lead to at most tenuous rewards, and that the sorrows of Libya have only just begun, thanks in large part to us?