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The U.S. preens, and a conservative laments

Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions, Clyde Prestowitz, Basic Books: 328 pp., $26

June 08, 2003|Warren I. Cohen | Warren I. Cohen is distinguished university professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Probably best known as a Reagan administration trade negotiator and a prominent Japan-basher of the late 1980s, Clyde Prestowitz, presumably a conservative Republican, has written a textbook for Democratic presidential candidates.

Regular readers of the Nation will be familiar with most of the arguments in "Rogue Nation." Prestowitz attacks virtually all of the policies of the Bush administration, especially its unilateralist foreign policy. Horrified by President Bush's West Point speech justifying preventive war and his threat to any would-be challengers to American dominance, he is outraged by the arrogance, hypocrisy and stupidity underlying American actions and the loss of the goodwill generated by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Most of his policy recommendations could have been written by Jimmy Carter. None of them will appeal to the Bush team.

To be sure, Prestowitz throws in a few asides to bolster his claim to being a "real" conservative. He sneers at the "professional leftists" -- and college kids in their Nikes -- demonstrating in Seattle against globalization. He mocks the Greens of Europe, the "anticapitalist left" in search of an issue after the discrediting of communism. And he manages slaps at Ted Turner and Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine and Jerry Brown, all favorite targets of red-meat conservatives. But he is quick to concede that globalization has created genuine problems, both at home and in the developing world, and he insists that the United States reverse itself once more and sign the Kyoto Treaty on global warming.

What, then, is Prestowitz's idea of real conservativism? It certainly has no room for the missionary zeal of a Paul Wolfowitz or Robert Kagan or for the assault on American civil liberties underway in the name of national security. Deriding the Bush administration's calls for tax cuts and its refusal to consider the draft, Prestowitz contends that "traditional conservatives have always been careful to balance the budget and to insist on each citizen's responsibility to perform civic duties." He notes that Bush's idea of civic duty is to urge Americans to go shopping to help the economy. For Prestowitz, the essential element of real conservatism is a demand for limited government -- a government that respects historical liberties and separation of church and state, a government that avoids imperialist adventures.

Prestowitz does not doubt that American leaders have been well-intentioned. He believes that the world is better off because the United States prevailed over the Soviet Union and especially because of the generous economic policies Washington pursued at the end of World War II. The Bretton Woods system, the Marshall Plan, America's open door to the world's exports all generated enormous wealth worldwide. The critical point is that prior administrations defined the national interest broadly. Men such as Dean Acheson and George Marshall understood the need to aid in the reconstruction and development of the nation's friends and were less prone to maximize American interests. More often than not they understood the value of working with allies rather than acting unilaterally.

Central to the problems with current policy is the concept of American exceptionalism, the idea that the U.S. operates on a higher moral level than any other state -- and thus can do no wrong -- and that its political, economic and social systems should be the model for the world. Prestowitz suggests that other peoples committed to democracy and economic and social justice might come closer to the ideal than Americans. Certainly no other developed nation has a comparable gap between rich and poor.

More to the point, he notes countless low points in America's recent history, such as when the U.S. supported brutal dictators such as Synghman Rhee, Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan in Korea, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Joseph Mobutu in Zaire, Suharto in Indonesia, Greek colonels and an assortment of Guatemalan generals. He is sympathetic to the Arab view that Washington is hypocritical in its policies toward Israel. Americans mute the fact that the Israelis have weapons of mass destruction and oppress the Palestinians while we're invading Iraq and criticizing other Arab states for undemocratic behavior. Even if we applaud Ariel Sharon's recent statesmanlike gestures, how could anyone call him a man of peace? Prestowitz offers myriad reasons for why other peoples do not view the U.S. as a nation whose interventions are always benign. It's time, he says, to see ourselves as others see us.

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