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Are the Neoconservatives America's Jacobins?
October 29, 2007

Yesterday, historian François Furstenberg of the University of Montreal wrote in the New York Times of the numerous parallels between the Bush Administration's response to September 11th, 2001, and the Jacobin response to the fall of the Bastille on July 14th, 1789. (For the full text of Prof. Furstenberg's op ed piece, go here.

The key characteristic uniting the two historically removed groups is a world vision that divides all of mankind into two irreconcilable groups: the defenders of "liberty" and its enemies. This black-and-white moral vision led both camps into disastrous "pre-emptive" wars, expansion of the surveillance state, and other anti-democratic measures. Professor Furstenberg noted trenchantly that the word "terrorist" came from the Reign of Terror, and was used not to describe those who "hate freedom" or non-state actors, but those who used ruled during this terrible time, and felt free to use every weapon in the arsenal of state power to defeat, or at least terrorize, their enemies.

In today's New York Times, Paul Krugman followed up with an op ed piece excoriating the irrational and paranoid delusions currently driving the Neoconservative insistence on a military strike against Iran. (For Krugman's piece, go here. Among Krugman's points are the ludicrous attempts to paint a picture of a unitary Islamic movement seeking world domination with its power center in Tehran, and the knee-jerk invocation of Munich and "appeasement" as the sole lesson to be learned from history.

As I pointed out in my Weekly commentary of 8-27-07, this abuse of historical analogy has had catastrophic consequences for our foreign policy. To quote Jeffrey Record, a professor of strategy at the United States Air Force's Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama:
Sound strategy involves differentiation of threats and prioritizing of enemies. Lumping terrorist organizations, weak states that harbor and assist them, and rogue states together into a monolithic threat impairs the ability to discriminate and risks diversionary applications of attention and resources. During the first two decades of the Cold War, the United States treated communism as a centrally directed international monolith. In so doing, it failed not only to discern critical national antagonisms within the communist world, but also failed to recognize that communist insurgencies in the decolonizing Third World were first and foremost the product of unique local circumstances, requiring tailored rather than one-size-fits-all responses. The result of this strategic myopia was intervention and defeat in Vietnam. Failure to differentiate the threats posed by Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda is, likewise, a recipe for policy failure. (emphasis added)
Also, the hard right's "universalist" view of our adversaries is key to their mindset, and goes back at least to the Cold War. (For how it affected our strategy in Latin America, see my Weekly commentaries for 8-13-07 and 8-20-07).

Regrettably, this same irrational paranoia is surfacing again in Central America. During a trip to Guatemala in 2005, President Bush stated he was "preoccupied by the proliferation of pressure groups in Central America, predominantly aligned with the left, who are putting the stability of democracy at risk." He was cagily vague about just who these pressure groups might be, but one can only assume they are unions, human rights groups, leftist political parties and other entities opposing the cynically corrupt, blatantly oppressive, and increasingly violent regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala (see my Weekly commentaries for 7-30-07, 9-24-07, and 10-22-07)—in other words, the Bush administration and its allies fear those who refuse to lie down in the face of the many, often brutal injustices they see in their own countries. The fact that Bush sees such efforts as "destabilizing" reveals much about how conservatives view governance in general and its Latin America incarnation in particular. They continue to favor entrenched elites who dictate the course of events with unchallenged hegemony, regardless of how unjust, corrupt, or even criminal those elites have become. And the unifying bogeyman is Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, whose increased ties with Iran will permit the neoconservatives in their heedless paranoia to patch together a ludicrous worldwide threat on the basis of nothing but their nightmarish fears (never without a tantalizing hint of truth) and their delusions of invigorating, self-validating power, most righteously expressed through violence—just like the Jacobins.

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