Tag: nationalism

A Case for Nationalism

Sorry, clickbait! But admit, it, after an apology of race science in Quillette or “The Case for Colonialism” in TWQ you probably rage-clicked on the thumbnail to let me have it. Periodic IR Twitter flares over teaching “Stoddard light” (i.e., Huntington) also show that not all scholars are aware of racialized origins of world order, existing color lines in global capitalism, or even “race relations” pedigree of IR as a discipline. This post is about a case for teaching about nationalism because it seems like different versions of racist primordial rhetoric just won’t die.

As a blog post by John Jackson made it clear, race science is a vampire science that comes back every so often [Twilight joke edited]. I see from time to time some type of “IQ difference” and “levels of criminality” arguments coming up among students because these arguments are essentially polished up turds from the 19th century anthroposociology and Social Darwinism that keep stinking up even supposedly an academic debate through mainstreaming of far-right rhetoric around the world. If a “Leader of the Free World” can say that “Mexicans are rapists” and “they bring drugs and crime” on prime-time television while the news dutifully resort to both-sidism and place chyrons with direct quotes, is our last hope education?

I have taught a course on theories of nationalism for several years now and we always start with the primordial stuff: blood, speech, custom, region, and religion. At this point, I invite students to create a ‘fake nation” in groups. This usually yields a very fun and diverse set of nations from island matriarchate with coconut cult to unicorn-blooded mermaid atheists. This exercise, of course, does not reverse or heal all the prejudice that might have collected in the backs of the minds of students (I have another 13 sessions for that) but at least it gives them an opportunity to reflect on the artificial nature of nation-building projects.

Another important session is on the role of collective memory and politics of commemoration. Especially on the undergraduate level where high school memories are not that far off, it’s important to reflect what was chosen to remember and what was chosen to forget in history books, why certain public holidays make the cut, and how national projects begin in the everyday, often unnoticed practices of creating a “culture”. But, as Huntington’s resilience on the syllabi shows, “culture” still serves as an ontological category that elevates constructed differences to political ones. So, after 14 sessions of talking imagined communities, “scientific” racism, and ontological security among others, I rarely get the boiler plate “Western civilization” in the exam answers, but how do I know the vaccination against racism has been successful?

As Paul Musgrave noted, right-wing media tells me that I can turn my students into socialists, but my experience tells me that I can’t even make them do the reading. So, what can we as political scientists do to inoculate against racism and xenophobia? What should we encourage the students to read? Because I don’t want to see the vampire science rise again.


What would Benedict Anderson say about Trump?

I’ve been watching the current debate over nationalism with some interest. Donald Trump identified himself as a nationalist in the run-up to the mid-term elections. He contrasted this with his foes, for whom he used the problematic term “globalist.” Many saw this as a concerning move, especially paired with Trump’s alarmist rhetoric over a caravan of Central American migrants. It also prompted a response from France’s President Macron, criticizing nationalism as a “betrayal of patriotism.” This got me thinking of my graduate studies, which involved a good amount of reading on nationalism (intended to help conceptualize religious contention). And it made me go back to one of my favorite books of all time, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities

Imagined Communities is one of those books that is referenced more often than read. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen an article mention Anderson’s concept of imagined communities in passing without really engaging with it or even seeming to really understand. Anderson argued the nation is a modern concept, an “imagined political community..imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” He argued it emerged from cultural and social developments that undermined the hold of the “religious community” and “dynastic realm” over individuals’ identities. So (a quick aside) no, it is not just an “imagined community,” it is a particular type of community with a particular conception of its place in time and space.

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We Shall Overspread

While there is a big debate in the US about the old monuments, Russia is erecting new ones. Starting with the eye sore of a Kalashnikov statue in Moscow that had a bit of a glitch of sporting a German rifle instead of the famous Russian export and finishing with a “monument to manspreading” aka Russian Emperor Alexander the Third in Crimea’s Yalta. While manspreading is a great metaphor for the “Crimea reunification”, let’s put aside the Ukrainian side of the issue and take a closer look at the schmock du jour.

Alexander the Third statue is seated somewhat uncomfortably on what looks like a pile of manure, with his hands on a sword and the words “Russia’s only allies are its army and fleet” engraved on the base of the monument. During the unveiling ceremony that was attended by President Putin, the emperor was lauded as the “Peacemaker” who

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Trump, Brexit, and nationalist authority

In this, the first of a sequence of posts addressing Brexit in one way or another, I want to take a look at the shifting systems of authority in the current political climate and comment on how they might impact international relations into the future.

At the time of the Brexit vote, commentators and news reports drew parallels between the British decision to the leave the EU and the tumult of the US elections, particularly the rise of Donald Trump. Many pointed to the resurgence of nationalism, but here I want to argue that while the concept of nationalism as a practice of identity certainly sheds light on both Brexit and the rise of Trump, it also obscures some importance differences. In particular, part of nationalism is an aspect of governance, and in particular an embodied system of authority. In the case of Brexit, authority remained at the institutional level but shifted in aggregation, from the supernational to the national level. Continue reading


Can You Pass the Cricket (errr.. Soccer) Test?

Its World Cup season again.  That time a year when I start getting interview requests about soccer/football, fandom, and loyalty.  The assumption for many seems to be if you are a citizen of a state, you must give a certain amount of loyalty to said state.  Fixed nationalism for many is an assumption.  With global immigration patterns and international connectivity, these sorts of ideas can no longer be assumptions.

This leads us back to the mythical test of national loyalties.  Can you pass your local cricket test? It’s a simple proposition, basically, do you support your national team above all others. Developed due to Lord Tebbit’s famous cricket test, the contention by the politician wasduck soccer that new British immigrants were disloyal to the country and evidence for this was that the immigrants support their former home’s national team over the English cricket team.  The claim continues to be made especially in light of the influx of those of Latin American decent into the United States.

Loyalty is a difficult question.  American audiences are always amazed to see Latin American teams descend on American cities by the tens of thousands to see the Mexican National Team, Bolivian, or any other prominent Latin American team play in the US.  The reason these teams do so is simple, they are ready avenues to revenue given the relative affluence of the market and the loyalty of the audience to the nation of their birth.

For some this is shocking.  For someone like me, it is certainly understandable.  Why is it that we do not question loyalties developed at birth to political parties, religions, or even cars, yet we question it when Latinos continue to express an attachment to the teams of their birth.  This development makes a lot sense from the perspective of a political protest.  Rooting for a sports team can be a safe place to protest.  It is an allowed expression of nationality.  This practice is not necessarily a challenge to the state, just an expression of pride.

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On the “Reality of Nations”

This is a guest post by Peter S. Henne. Peter is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University. He formerly worked as a national security consultant. His research focuses on terrorism and religious conflict; he has also written on the role of faith in US foreign policy. During 2012-2013 he will be a fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia

Are some nations more real than others? Does it matter? Wednesday on MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe,” Joe Klein was a guest, discussing the current showdown over Iran’s nuclear program. Klein is a smart and reasonable man, and most of what he said made sense. But he made a few almost throw-away comments about ‘real’ versus ‘fake’ nations thatóin my mind at leastówere a bit disturbing.

The segment is available here, and the two comments are 8:35 and 9:40 (counting down on the MSNBC video player). In explaining why we shouldn’t attack Iran over its nuclear weapons, he said it is a ‘real’ country unlike many others in the region, with a strong sense of identity and history. When the conversation turned to Pakistan, he contrasted it with the real-ness of Iran in explaining why its possession of nuclear weapons is more concerning than Iran’s.

Again, I don’t necessarily disagree. The people of Iran are not rabid America-haters, and its leadersówhile ideologically-drivenóare not crazy. Moreover, Iran has a long and proud history, going back to the Persian Empire. Likewise, Pakistan has had a difficult history due to its multiethnic composition and often-poor leadership, as I’ve noted before. What got me was the real-versus-fake distinction. To be fair, he meant that Iran existed as a political entity before the modern era, while Pakistan was formed through post-colonial demarcation and the efforts of political figures like Muhammad Ali Jinnah after World War II. But the extension of this argument is that countries with a pre-modern existence will likely be more stable and friendly to the United States, while those of more recent genesis will not.

Whether or not Klein meant it, he interjected himself into a long-running debate over the origin of nations. The classic view of nations as eternally-existing entities is, while prevalent in popular discussions, not in line with contemporary scholarship. Gellner, Anderson, Kedourie and others demonstrated how nations emerged from various processes of modernity, such as industrialization, the spread of vernacular languages or political manipulation by elites. In Gellner’s words, many nations do not have a navel; they emerged fully-formed from modernity, not pre-modern social groups. Of course, many disagree with this, most prominently Anthony Smith, who argues that pre-modern ‘ethnies’ set the stage for modern nationalism. But both sides agree that whether a contemporary nation arose from pre-modern social groups or the disruptive processes of modernity, once established none are any more ‘real’ than others; nations are based on the intersubjective beliefs of their members, not objective characteristics like land or genetics.

Just to recap: Klein’s implication was that some nations are ‘real’ by virtue of pre-modern existence, and others are not as they emerged more recently. The latter group is more likely to experience instability and violence. In discussion of political reform in the Middle East, or plans to resolve the post-invasion chaos of Iraq, the supposed ‘fake-ness’ of countries in the region factored into assessments of what will happen and what to do about conflicts there. If the countries are ‘fake,’ then can a stable political system ever arise? Should we just help create new countries that are somehow less ‘fake?’ It’s actually an interesting corollary of the ‘ancient hatreds’ argument; some groups have been fighting for thousands of years, and try as we might to resolve their conflicts with shiny democratic institutions, there’s nothing we can do. In this case, the argument is: if some nations were never meant to be, then we can never really expect them to develop into stable democracies.

Now, again, to be fair, Klein made these comments on a morning show. He’s a smart guy, but was giving a blurb on TV, not an academic lecture. And as an academic, I admit I share academia’s often-irrational irritation with pundits who simplify scholarly debates. But Klein’s attitude, which I’m sure is shared by others in the punditocracy and policy community, is potentially dangerous. Multi-ethnic states born of modernity can work out well, like the United States. States with ancient histories can be disruptive internationally, like Iran. And the fact that Pakistan is less than a hundred years old doesn’t mean ‘real’ Pakistanis don’t exist.

I guess it’s a little much to expect pundits to peruse Imagined Communities before appearing on the morning talk shows, but it would be nice.


Scottish Secessionism

My colleague, Charles King, has a great piece (gated) in Foreign Affairs on what the success of the Scottish National Party says about secesssionist movements everywhere.

Opinion polls suggest that the Scots are unlikely to approve independence outright. Instead, they will probably settle for some form of “enhanced devolution,” an increase in the considerable policymaking power granted to Scotland over the last decade and a half. But the rise of Salmond’s SNP has sent an unexpected shudder through British political life. The outcome of Scotland’s vote will also reverberate throughout Europe, setting a precedent for dealing with fundamental questions of governance and sovereignty. What kinds of units deserve self-determination, especially when they base their claim not on minority rights but on the simple desire to do things their own way? What options are open to democratic polities that seek to counter secession when military force is unimaginable? The question of Scotland’s future is not just about the durability of the United Kingdom. It is also about the uses of quiet maximalism — the way in which astute regional parties, aided by creaky central institutions and unimpassioned opponents, can unbuild a workable country while no one seems to be looking.

I’ll note that a good deal of the Scottish-based SF I’ve read recently presumes an independent Scotland, which is interesting in of itself. Also seems relevant to Quebec, where a more social-democratic leaning enclave exists within a polity that is less so.

The questions of democratic self-determination here really are thorny; I wonders if and how the discussion would be different if Scotland (for example) weren’t a pre-existing administrative unit.


Outrage Blogging Continues: Aliya Mustafina

Andrew Sullivan’s blog has been running a series of reader reactions on the subject of the Olympics and nationalism. A recent entry:

Gabby Douglas’ gold medal is being hailed all over the place as a first for an African-American gymnast. But I believe it’s actually much more than that: Gabby is the first black athlete from anywhere to win the title, and one of very few to compete for it. I’m a good liberal, and all for the term “African-American” in its proper context, but in this case it seems to shrink the scale of Ms. Douglas’s first – and America’s. (Afro.com covers it here.) The fact that our country, while imperfect, is one where a traditionally elite (and still of course expensive) sport is open to anyone with the chops to win, gives me enormous pride. Seeing our multi-hued team of talented, determined young women – their families must have originally come here from all over the place – take apart the monochromatic, over-made-up, bawling Russians – that’s where I get my Olympic jingoism on. America f[–]k yeah.

Monochromatic? I guess “they” all look alike, eh? The Russian team captain, Aliya Mustafina, as her name makes clear, is ethnically Tatar. Recall that the Russian Federation is a multiethnic political community. Indeed, the Tatar’s faced significant discrimination and oppression during periods of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and continue to face hurdles outside of the Republic of Tatarstan–although, I should note, Mutafina’s father and sister are also successful elite athletes.


Scenes from the National Museum of Scotland, Part the Second

In my previous post I mentioned the recent broadside against Brave for its anti-Pictish discourse and representations. I’m not being fair, of course, as its author, Melissa McEwan, doesn’t use the term “Pict” any time during her essay. Which is interesting, insofar as Brave is saturated with Pictish symbols. As an astute commentator notes:

The Scots are represented not as a homogeneous group but as a diverse people, including ethnic differences from Pictish, Celtic, and Viking ancestries. While you may choose to see this as an Othering, it is a step above the kind of racial elisions that tend to happen with Native Americans in films (since that got mentioned.)

Regardless, the original post and subsequent exchanges illustrate nicely what happens when there’s a kernel of truth heaped beneath the crazy, but the crazy emerges triumphant.

Of course, one persons’ serious of ethnic slurs is another’s nationalist myth making. Hence I was not terribly surprised to learn that the National Museum of Scotland has embraced Brave wholeheartedly.

So while McEwan (who, naturally enough, admits to never having seen the film) complains about the stereotyping “Scottish people” as using “silly instruments,” the embedded link makes clear she has bagpipes in mind.  Bagpipes, which I hardly consider “silly,” are in Brave. But I first thought, rather naïvely in retrospect, that the discussion was sophisticated enough such that she was referring to the carnyx (the rightmost picture above), which makes a prominent appearance in the film.

Listen to a Carynx.

But to return to my main point, about how one person’s ethno-chauvinist mockery of a not-so-oppressed American minority is another person’s nationalist myth-making, let us return to the National Museum. There, a significant chunk of the symbolic repertoire on display in Brave finds itself presented at the cultural origins of the Scottish nation. Lest their be any doubt about that, consider the sign pictured below.

In conclusion. Meh.

A postscript: I enjoyed Brave and all that, but for a series that combines excellent narrative, strong characterization, moral ambiguity, excitement, suspense, deep research, and the kind of exoticicizing of white ethnic “others” that would make McEwan’s head explode, check out Nancy Farmer’s Sea of Trolls series. 

Baseball and American Foreign Policy

Not long ago, Robert Elias, a Professor of Politics at University of San Francisco (and editor of Peace Review), published The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy & Promoted the American Way Abroad (The New Press, 2010). Unfortunately, I have not yet had a chance to obtain a copy of the book — or read it. However, thanks to my SABR membership, I learned this week of his related article “Baseball and American Foreign Policy,” which came out in Transatlantica in 2011 (but was just published on-line this month).

As both a baseball fan and an academic who has taught a course on “Globalization (And Baseball),” I am certainly interested in the thesis Elias develops:

In America’s efforts to expand its frontiers, it soon looked overseas. Baseball was enlisted in America’s imperial quests and it helped colonize other lands, from the Caribbean to Asia to the Pacific. The game was regularly part of U.S. “civilizing missions” launched abroad, either militarily or economically, and sometimes bolstered by the forces of “muscular Christianity.” Baseball was used to sell and export the American way. It took its place in the globalization of the world, even if Americanization was more so the objective. In America’s foreign diplomacy, baseball was often regarded as the nation’s “moral equivalent of war.” And at home, baseball was used to promote patriotism and nationalism.

In the article, for example, Elias reviews the role baseball has played in America’s various wars and military interventions. Generally, in fact, Elias argues that baseball has long “promoted nationalism and patriotism, and closely associated itself with American militarism.”
Specifically, he argues that organized baseball played an important role in overcoming the Vietnam syndrome by helping to promote jingoism during the first Persian Gulf War. This fall 2001 video may help explain the author’s point in the context of September 11:

Elias claims that Bush “later reported the pitch as the highlight of his presidency.” In the text, of course, Elias makes a much richer argument about the interplay between baseball and post-9/11 America:

After the terrorist attacks, [Baseball Commissioner Bud] Selig ordered all baseball games postponed. Yet he also invoked [Franklin] Roosevelt’s “green light” for baseball, claiming the sport was too central to the national fabric to stop the games completely. Instead, MLB embraced the flag and led the call to “support the troops.” Having the games soon proceed indicated, symbolically, that America was functioning and would be fighting back…

Virtually every major league ballpark was awash with patriotic gestures. Moments of silence were religiously observed, and patriotic music punctuated games. Fields and stands were blanketed with red, white and blue. Silent auctions were held and benefit games were played for the Red Cross. Players wore caps honoring New York’s police, firefighters and emergency crews, and visited shelters and fire houses. Fans held candles, prayed and sang, and chanted “USA! USA!” Yankee Stadium held a memorial service, Mets players raised money for the Twin Towers Relief Fund, and Diamondback players visited “ground zero.” The terrorist attacks immediately politicized baseball. President Bush “used baseball as a major patriotic statement” at the World Series and elsewhere. Maverick Media, the President’s image maker, later repackaged footage from Bush’s baseball appearances, playing them repeatedly during his reelection campaign.

Much of the rest of the article discusses the role baseball played in other dimensions of American foreign policy — espionage, diplomacy, globalization, etc. He also devotes some attention to the way baseball has dealt with dissent.

Référence électronique
Robert Elias, « Baseball and American Foreign Policy », Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2011, mis en ligne le 10 juin 2012, Consulté le 16 juin 2012. URL : https://transatlantica.revues.org/5478.


Happy Canada Day!

For Canada Day I wanted to post my favourite Canadian short film ever – The Sweater by Sheldon Cohen. It’s based on the story by Roch Carrier (who narrates with the most awesome Quebecois accent ever). It’s so popular among both Anglo and Franco-Canadians that they printed an excerpt on our $5 Bill.

I just feel that it really helps to understand what Canada “is” because we’re so often defined by what we’re not.

Quite frankly, we make Constitutional Monarchy look pretty sexy.

And here is some Stan Rogers. Because he’s awesome.

PS: Go Leafs Go!


“Kosovo is no better than us….”

The fallout continues:

“If things are not going in the direction of actually halting settlement activities, if things are not going in the direction of continuous and serious negotiations, then we should take the step and announce our independence unilaterally,” Mr Abed Rabbo told Reuters.

Palestinian leader Abbas and Israeli PM Olmert in Jerusalem 19 February
Abbas and Olmert met but there is no news of progress

“Kosovo is not better than us. We deserve independence even before Kosovo, and we ask for the backing of the United States and the European Union for our independence,” he added.


Kosovo declares independence

The BBC:

Kosovo’s parliament has unanimously endorsed a declaration of independence from Serbia, in an historic session.

The declaration, read by Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, said Kosovo would be a democratic country that respected the rights of all ethnic communities.

The US and a number of EU countries are expected to recognise Kosovo on Monday.

Serbia’s PM denounced the US for helping create a “false state”. Serbia’s ally, Russia, called for an urgent UN Security Council meeting.

Correspondents say the potential for trouble between Kosovo’s Serbs and ethnic Albanians is enormous.

Serbia’s Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica blamed the US which he said was “ready to violate the international order for its own military interests”.

“Today, this policy of force thinks that it has triumphed by establishing a false state,” Mr Kostunica said.

“Kosovo is Serbia,” Mr Kostunica said, repeating a well-known nationalist Serb saying.

The Washington Post:

Kosovo’s parliament declared the disputed territory a nation on Sunday, mounting a historic bid to become an “independent and democratic state” backed by the U.S. and European allies but bitterly contested by Serbia and Russia.

Serbia immediately denounced the declaration as illegal, and Russia also rejected it, demanding an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

President Bush said the U.S. would work to prevent violence after the declaration and the European Union appealed for calm, mindful of the risk that the declaration could plunge the turbulent Balkans back into instability.

“Kosovo is a republic _ an independent, democratic and sovereign state,” Kosovo’s parliament speaker Jakup Krasniqi said as the chamber burst into applause. Across the capital, Pristina, revelers danced in the streets, fired guns into the air and waved red and black Albanian flags in jubilation at the birth of the world’s newest country.

Sunday’s declaration was carefully orchestrated with the U.S. and key European powers, and Kosovo was counting on swift international recognition that could come as early as Monday, when EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels, Belgium.

Doug Muir thinks independence is the “least bad” outcome. The Serbian Church disagrees, calling for a “state of war.” For once, the Georgians agree with the Russians.

And, in fact:

The breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are planning to ask Russia and the UN to recognise their independence following the declaration of independence by Kosovo, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.

“In the near future, Abkhazia will appeal to the Russian parliament and the UN security council with a request to recognise its independence,” self-declared Abkhaz president Sergei Bagapsh was quoted as saying by Interfax.

“South Ossetia will in the near future appeal to the Commonwealth of Independent States and the UN with a request to recognise our independence,” South Ossetian president Eduard Kokoity was quoted as saying by the news agency, referring to a grouping of ex-Soviet states that includes Russia.

Both leaders said the moves were prompted by Kosovo’s decision to declare independence today.

Who will recognize Kosovo?

Diplomats said about 20 EU nations — led by Britain, France, Germany and Italy — are keen to recognize Kosovo’s break from Serbia. However, Cyprus, Greece, Spain, Romania are vehemently against it. Slovakia, too, has voiced doubts but could move toward recognizing Kosovo’s statehood, diplomats said.

And over what timeframe?

Not very many advocates of national self-determination actually get states.I expect we’ll be studying this case, and dealing with its effects, for a while.

Chirol has pictures of the celebrations in Germany.

Sofia Echo has a decent backgrounder.



Reconstructing nationalism

Nicole Itano of the Christian Science Monitor reports on a fascinating project that seeks to change the parameters of national identity in the Balkans:

In this still-fragile region, history is often served up as a nationalistic tale that highlights the wrongs perpetrated by others. Now a group of historians from across the region is trying to change the way the past is taught in southeast Europe – from Croatia to Turkey – in an effort to encourage reconciliation rather than division.

“History plays an important role in shaping national identity,” said Christina Koulouri, the editor of a series of new history textbooks and a professor of history at the University of the Peloponnese in Greece. “We want to change history teaching because we are concerned about the joint future of the Balkans and we think mutual understanding can be promoted through better history teaching.”

More than 60 scholars and teachers from around the Balkans have joined to create a new series of history books that tackle some of the most controversial periods in the region. The books, which are being translated into 10 regional languages, present history from various perspectives and excerpt historical documents to challenge interpretations of key events like the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

Most students, Ms. Koulouri says, know little about their neighbors, despite the region’s intertwined past and the relative youth of most of the countries that exist today. Schools typically use government-issued texts in which wars – and there have been many in the region over the centuries – are portrayed in “us versus them” terms with ancient wrongs visited again and again.

The Joint History Project, run by the Greek-based Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe (CDRSEE), has translated the books into Greek, Serbian, and Albanian, and has begun training teachers how to use them.

Dubravka Stojanovic, a professor of history at the University of Belgrade, has witnessed first hand how history is used for political means. Under
Slobodan Milosevic, the country’s textbooks were changed in 1993, during the Bosnian war.

“The aim of that change was to show that the peoples in ex-Yugoslavia lived in constant conflict since the 12th century or so,” she says. “The intention was to show that the war was something normal; that it was the normal state of things for Serbians and Croats to hate each other.”

Now, says Dr. Stojanovic, who is editor of the Serbian editions of the series and who helped organize some of the first teacher-training efforts in Serbia, the texts are being changed again, this time to vilify communists.

The project has run into some problems, particularly in Serbia.

I’m reminded, of course, of struggles over history textbooks in Japan and the United States (the fact that groups tried to get the “Out of India” theory into US textbooks is kind of disturbing, but no less so then attempts to exclude mentions of Japanese internment or cast the Civil War as a struggle over “States’ Rights”).

So, dear readers, any thoughts about the Balkan history project? Or what about your own favorite examples of identity construction through textbooks?


Blame America Last

We have all heard the charge before that some in the public sphere always “Blame America First” whenever there is a negative outcome in world politics. Critics charge that these folks are quick to find some connection, however remote or irrational, between American action (or inaction) and the ills of the world. To be fair this characterization is obviously a stereotype, however it isn’t entirely inaccurate. There are certainly some voices that consistently (though not always) go to great lengths to assign blame to American policies.

However, we rarely see the flip-side of the “Blame America First” argument mentioned: “Blame America Last”. Those who subscribe to this view go to great lengths to deny any responsibility when it comes to American action or inaction. American policy makers are seen as consistently noble and capable, doing what they can in a selfless attempt to make the world a better place—any negative outcomes cannot be assigned to our policy makers since a) their motives were noble and who, after all, can blame a noble man for trying, and b) the outcome was destined to be bad; the situation was determined by forces outside the control of American capabilities.

In this morning’s Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer puts forth just such a “Blame American Last” argument in his attempt to explain why Iraq is crumbling. Does he blame the Republican administration for its flawed strategy and handling of the war? No. Does he blame Democrats for creating dissention and doubt at home by their mere mention of troop redeployments and pull-outs? Oddly, no. Does he blame the Iraqis themselves for their inability to create a stable ruling coalition that can govern for the greater good and establish national stability? Yes. Krauthammer states that:

“…unless the Iraqis can put together a government of unitary purpose and resolute action, the simple objective of this war — to leave behind a self-sustaining democratic government — is not attainable.”

I have to somewhat agree with Krauthammer on this point. Where we would diverge–and diverge sharply–is the imlpication that this failure does not lie with the current administration.

To absolve the Bush administration is to ignore that many of the reasons Krauthammer puts forth for why establishing a stable government that acts in the national, not sectarian, interest were known to policy makers well before March of 2003. Krauthammer’s foundational claim is that “the root problem lies with Iraqis and their political culture”. To underscore that claim he provides a number of observations and examples of this defective political culture. Here are just a few:

  • The problem is the allegiance of the Iraqi troops. Some serve the abstraction called Iraq. But many swear fealty to political parties, religious sects or militia leaders.
  • [T]he problem here is Iraq’s particular political culture, raped and ruined by 30 years of Hussein’s totalitarianism.
  • What was left in its wake was a social desert, a dearth of the trust and good will and sheer human capital required for democratic governance. All that was left for the individual Iraqi to attach himself to was the mosque or clan or militia.
  • At this earliest stage of democratic development, Iraqi national consciousness is as yet too weak and the culture of compromise too undeveloped to produce an effective government enjoying broad allegiance.
  • It was never certain whether the long-oppressed Shiites would have enough sense of nation and sense of compromise to govern rather than rule

I find it hard to argue with Krauthammer on many of these points. However, all these points do, in the end, is undermine the overall point of the article–that the Iraqis themselves are to blame for their lot and there is little the administration could have or can do to bring about a different outcome.

Many who thought that the Iraqi operation was both unecessary and unwise repeatedly warned that the probability of establishing a stable Iraqi democracy in the short term by US intervention was neglible mostly due to preexisting conditions on the ground. We were well aware of these preexisting conditions–sectarian animosity, lack of experience with democratic institutions and political culture, Stalin-like dictatorship that cultivated a culture of distrust and violence amongst Iraqis (particularly different religous and ethnic sects)–and the difficulties they can pose to the establishment of democracy. Combine that with the shoddy record of establishing democracy through military intervention as well as the existence of a skilled transnational group able to stoke the fires of sectarian distrust and violence and the probability of success nosedives.

Krauthammer might be right–that going forward only the Iraqis themselves can alter the current course of the country. But the idea that the administration has no role to play in the current status quo is absurd and myopic (just the sort of essay I have come to expect from Mr. Krauthammer). No doubt that the region, the world, and US interests will be damaged if the country continues on its present path, drawing in its numerous neighbors in a bloody, prolonged civil conflict. But the responsibility for creating the conditions under which such a scenario could develop rests with the current administration. It is their failure of vision to honestly asses the chances for establishing a stable regime in the wake of Saddam’s fall.


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