Idealism in Action

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To return to what I was saying in yesterday's post about the idea that Bush has taken democracy-promotion to a whole new level, another thing I point out in Heads in the Sand is that wrapping a foreign policy of aggressive militarism in the rhetoric of idealism isn't some awesome innovation of George W. Bush or Bill Kristol or Dick Cheney or anyone else. That's just what political leaders who want a foreign policy of aggressive militarism do.

Back during the days of Victorian imperialism, policies of conquest and subjugation were always justified in very high-minded terms. What Bush is doing is no different from that. Lately, some advocates of an imperial foreign policy for the United States have taken to admitting as much, writing admiringly about the high ideals and humanitarian aims of, e.g., the British Empire. I think all that's wrong as far as both the U.S. in Iraq and the British in India (or, back in the day, the U.S. in the Philippines) are concerned, but there's barely even any reason to doubt that it is or was insincere. It takes a certain kind of nationalistic hubris to think that a policy of domination is being undertaken for the good of the dominated, but hubris and egomania are hardly unknown traits in human psychology. Besides which, I think the evidence indicates that the kind of domination-oriented policies Bush is pursuing aren't even good for the would-be dominators. It's a huge screw-up.

What it's not, however, is a triumph of a new form of dreamy idealism -- "I should use my army to rule the world through fear and intimidation" is the oldest idea in the history of statecraft, it's just not a very good one.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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