ISIS and American Idealism: Is History Going Our Way?

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tags: ISIS, ISIL



David Kaiser, a historian, has taught at Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Williams College, and the Naval War College. He is the author of seven books, including, most recently, "No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War." He lives in Watertown, Mass.

Future historians, I suspect, will look at the United States’ current effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS while simultaneously insisting that President Assad of Syria must step down with some puzzlement. Foreign intervention in civil wars is nothing new. France and Sweden intervened in the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants in Germany in the early 17th century, France intervened in the American Revolution, and the United States has intervened in civil wars in Korea, Vietnam and the former Yugoslavia. But while in those previous cases, the intervening power took one side of the conflict, in this case, the United States now opposes both parties. How have we ended up in this position? The answer, I would suggest, goes back at least until the early 1990s, when the collapse of Communism convinced certain intellectuals and the US foreign policy establishment that history was inexorably moving our way.

A new era in world politics began in 1989, with the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union. In that year a political scientist named Francis Fukuyama, then serving as deputy director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, wrote a sensational article, “The End of History?,” in the conservative journal The National Interest. Communism was about to collapse, and Fukuyama argued tentatively that the world was entering a new era. “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history,” he wrote, “but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Within two years Soviet Communism and the Soviet Union itself were dead, and many thought Fukuyama had been proven right. He elaborated his ideas in a scholarly work, The End of History and the Last Man, which appeared in 1992.

Fukuyama had worked with prominent neoconservatives, and neconservatives in the Bush Administration wrote his fundamental idea into their 2002 National Security Strategy, a blueprint for US domination of the world based upon democratic principles. “The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism,” it began, “ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise. In the twenty-first century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity.” Like the Marxists over whom they believed they had triumphed, this view saw history moving in a definite direction, and those on the “right” side believed that they had a right, if not a duty, to push history in the right direction. President Bush repeatedly declared that the Middle East was ready for democracy, and decided to create oneby overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq. (Fukuyama, interestingly, declared in 2006 that the Bush Administration and neoconservatism had gone astray.) That did not lead, however, to democracy, but rather to a terrible religious civil war in Iraq, featuring the ethnic cleansing of about four million Iraqis under the noses of 150,000 American troops. The United States finally withdrew from Iraq after seven years of war, and the Shi’ite led Iraqi government has now lost authority over both the Kurdish and Sunni parts of the country, with ISIS moving into the Sunni areas...




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