Monday, September 17, 2012

Professor Walter A. McDougall's Burkean Conservatism

Professor Walter A. McDougall
Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations
University of Pennsylvania
Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute

I've not blogged on my old history professor Walter McDougall in a long while, partly because he's been so publicly quiet, so silent working on his next book that he only recently broke his silence to present a paper titled "Nightmares of an I.R. Professor" in which he relates the following anecdote:
[E]arly in 2012 a young specialist on the Middle East posted a blog about NATO air strikes in defense of the popular revolt in Libya against Muammar Qaddafi. The White House, eager to reassure Americans that the operation was not the prelude to another costly war and nation-building project in the Muslim world, called the President's posture "leading from behind." The blogger wondered whether this modest, multilateral, and limited-liability intervention might signal a full-fledged Obama Doctrine that repealed the proud, unilateral, and rhetorically limitless (George W.) Bush Doctrine. He then recalled a "fabulous book" titled Promised Land, Crusader State, which seemed newly relevant in the wake of the Iraqi and Afghan wars, and wondered "what would Walter McDougall think?"

That query was disconcerting since the "would" made it sound like McDougall was already dead.
That young blogger might not have known, but I knew McDougall wasn't dead, else I'd already have heard about his demise. I did wonder, however, what he thinks about the recent events in Libya, given that he's a Burkean conservative skeptical about intervening in the political affairs of foreign countries, which didn't make him popular with Neoconservatives even before 9/11:
My own new status as a pariah became painfully obvious in Spring 1999 when I addressed The Philadelphia Society on the subject "The Crusader State in the 21st Century." Joking that they asked me to speak about something I hoped would not exist in an era that had not yet begun, I used the occasion to draw spooky parallels between contemporary American interventionists and Medieval popes! Both could make geopolitical arguments on their behalf: the Crusades, after all, were a long-delayed counteroffensive against Arab jihads. But both promoted forms of "assertive multilateralism" on behalf of "regime change" in hopes of solidifying and sanctifying their home fronts while forcibly exporting their civilization. But pious intentions did not prevent the crusading knights from wreaking death, destruction, and havoc at ruinous cost, including collateral massacres of non-combatant Muslims, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. Worse still, the Crusades became a self-perpetuating, transnational, political-economic system justified by "the revolutionary idea that Christendom had an intrinsic right to extend its sovereignty over all who did not recognize the rule of the Roman Church." With high irony I suggested the audience substitute America for Church and Democracy for Christianity to imagine how our modern crusaders could spawn perpetual war for perpetual peace -- like Oceania in George Orwell's 1984 -- and exhaust their own countries in the process. Much of the audience gave my talk a standing ovation, but an angry minority did not. Some were devout Catholics who took offense that I would liken Urban II to the sleazy Clinton! The rest appeared to be earnest young Straussians in whose neoconservative Weltanschauung my Burkean conservatism was heresy.
From these words, one might expect that McDougall will have opposed even leading from behind, and perhaps he did oppose it, though I do not know this for a fact. Also, since he says nothing of the recent events in Libya, including the murder of Ambassador Stevens, then I suspect that his recent talk took place before all of these unsettling developments. Perhaps he would say what he said after his reference to the "butcher's bill" the US has had to pay for its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq:
By now you can guess "what McDougall would think."

McDougall is thinking, "I told you so!"
I imagine that's more or less what he's also thinking about Libya, even if we have been "leading from behind."

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