The relationship between American intellectuals and political leaders was not confined to the Democratic Party. The most recent example of this alliance between an intellectual and political elite can be found in President George W. Bush’s administration, with its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the expansion of the welfare state in education and Medicare. These policies were created, supported, and justified by neo-conservatives, who, during the Cold War, were anti-communist, pro-free-market, and supporters of traditional cultural values.4 For neo-conservatives, democracy was a superior form of government because it protected human liberty; and other regimes that curtailed human freedom, like the Soviet Union, were deemed evil. Regimes therefore were evaluated and ordered, with democracy as the best, totalitarian as the worst, and authoritarian governments as somewhere in between.5 For the neo-conservatives, the United States should have prevented the Soviet Union from spreading totalitarian regimes around the world as well as have promoted democratic ones (or in conditions when it was not possible, supported authoritarian ones).
This sense of American exceptionalism — the United States had a unique role to play in the protection and spread of freedom throughout the world — was shared and encouraged by American intellectuals, including neo-conservative thinkers.6 According to them, the United States’ commitment to liberal democracy, a free-market economy, and the spreading of these ideals throughout the world made it exceptional. As the exemplar nation that promoted democracy and capitalism, the United States was seen as part of an ideology of exceptionalism and progress that became attractive to intellectuals and political elites, whether they were from the left or right. As I will show later, for Nisbet the notions that democracy was inherently the best form of regime or that progress could occur in the realm of history were flatly rejected.
The form of government mattered less than its relationship to intermediate institutions to Nisbet; and the idea that the state could promote freedom in the name of progress was considered by him silly, for the concept of progress itself had become distorted into an ideology that justified the state’s centralization of power. After the United States was attacked by Al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001, the Bush administration was in a position to centralize more power in the national government because the state was at war. In the name of national security, civil liberties were curtailed, the national bureaucracy expanded, and another war was justified. Rather than being immune to the state’s drive for war, the United States under the Bush Administration was merely another example of a state that expanded its power in an ideology of exceptionalism and progress. As Nisbet noted, ideologies were the justifications of a centralized, bureaucratic, national state. This transformation began in war time conditions and has been sustained by subsequent wars in order support the state’s ideology. The problem for society was that wars can be justified on ideology as fed by intellectuals rather than evidence.
The Bush doctrine that emerged after September 11, 2001, “called for offensive operations, including preemptive war against terrorists and their abetters, more specifically against the regimes that had sponsored, encouraged, or merely tolerated any ‘terrorist group of global reach.’”7 Like Wilson, Bush’s foreign policy contained a moral component in the promotion of democracy, as in the case of Iraq. The most articulate justification of the Iraq War can be found in the national security presidential directive entitled “Iraq: Goals, Objectives, and Strategy” that the President signed on August 29, 2002.8 The United States’ objectives were to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, to prevent Iraq from being a threat to regional stability, to liberate the Iraqi people from tyranny, and to create a society based on pluralism and democracy. Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz believed that “it was necessary and it would be relatively easy” to topple Saddam Hussein because, in Vice President Dick Cheney’s words, the United States would be “greeted as liberators.”9
This ideology of exceptionalism and progress — that the rest of the world eventually would become part of the liberal democratic and capitalist order — was the centerpiece to the neo-conservative’s ideology. Fukuyama’s variation of the modernization thesis in The End of History and the Last Man predicted that all societies were converging into a single order of democracy and capitalism. Although there has been some disagreement among these thinkers about how much the United States should promote democracy around the world, the underlying belief remained the same. Of course, this ideology has been questioned by the Iraqi War’s aftermath: weapons of mass destruction were not discovered, regional instability has become greater in the Middle East after the American invasion, and the Iraqi people are engaged in a civil war, in which the United States military is entangled. Worst of all, the number of international terrorists and threats to the United States are on the rise, as the “Iraq conflict has become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.”10
Underlying this ideology was a belief that humans, specifically bureaucrats, can direct events in a progressive and directional fashion. With respect to war, the “revolution in military affairs” (RMA), or more commonly known as the Rumsfeld doctrine, was the latest manifestation of the belief that bureaucracies can guide, direct, and control human events. Proponents of RMA believed that technology was the primary driver of change in war. By providing superior information to leaders, the RMA would enable political and military leaders to make better decisions on the battlefield.11 The cultivation of character and training of soldiers was secondary to investment in technology, weaponry, and information systems.
The United States’ quick and relatively low-cost defeat of Iraq seemed to justify the RMA, but the subsequent insurgency and civil war exposed the flaws of this doctrine. The problem of the doctrine was that the enemy became indistinguishable from civilians, thereby negating the American technological or informational advantage. Furthermore, the use of asymmetrical weaponry such as suicide bombers undermined the United States advantage in conventional weapons. The insurgency had to be fought in neighborhoods, from door-to-door instead of from the sky or sea where missiles could be launched. The virtues of prudence, discretion, and courage were more necessary in combating this type of conflict than weapon systems or transformation doctrine.
The blending of civilians and combatants, the use of low technology weaponry, and the propaganda of ideas in a decentralized network was known as “fourth generation warfare.”12 Most of the post–World War II conflicts the United States has been engaged have been fourth-generational: Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. What determined the outcome of this type of conflict was will instead of technology, with subnational actors, manipulation of the media, and the cooperation of civilians as the main theaters of battle. Organizations like Al-Qaeda and the insurgent groups in Iraq have used this type of warfare with great success. What the United States military needed to do was become more flexible in its organization and responses to the enemy. In other words, the United States must abandon the RMA and focus more on training of the infantry, media propaganda, and nation-building. Philosophically speaking, the underlying belief that the centralized state, with its vast and impersonal bureaucracy can control and direct events, must be replaced with intermediate institutions and individual decisions.
The suggestions of fourth-generation war advocates coincided with Nisbet’s ideas on bureaucracy, intermediate institutions, and progress. Instead of relying upon the command-and-control of the Pentagon, the United States military should trust the intermediate institutions of battalions, media groups, and non-governmental organizations to make decisions in a battle that was defined not by certainty of information but by contingency of events. In order that these institutions to make the correct and prudent decisions, the United States will have to invest into training and cultivation of character in its soldiers, which again is most effective among small groups with their local sentiments and attachments. But for this to be accomplished, the idea that humans solely can direct history in the name of progress must first be dismissed.
The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom by Robert A. Nisbet (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1953; San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1990). (QC)
“Foreward” to The American Family and the State, edited by Joseph R. Peden and Fred Glahe (San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute, 1986). (AS)
“Conservatism and Sociology,” The American Journal of Sociology 48 (September 1952), 167-175. (CS)
The Degradation of Academic Dogma: The University in America, 1945-1970 (New York: Basic Books, 1971). (DA)
“The French Revolution and the Rise of Sociology in France,” The American Journal of Sociology 49 (November 1943), 156-64. (FS)
History of the Idea of Progress (New York: Basic Books, 1980). (HP)
The Making of Modern Society (New York: NYU Press, 1986). (MM)
The Present Age: Progress and Authority in Modern America (New York: Harper and Row, 1988). (PA)
Sociology as an Art Form (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976). (SA)
The Social Bond: An Introduction to the Study of Society (New York: Knopf, 1970). (SB)
Social Change and History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969). (SC)
The Social Philosophers: Community and Conflict in Western Thought (New York: Washington Square Press, 1982). (SP)
The Sociological Tradition (New York: Basic Books, 1966). (ST)
Twilight of Authority (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975). (TA)
Tradition and Revolt: Historical and Sociological Essays (New York: Random House, 1968). (TR)
4. Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1978); Kristol, Irving. Two Cheers for Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1978); Podhoretz, Norman. The Present Danger (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980).
5. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, “Dictatorship and Double Standards,” Commentary (November 1979).
6. Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006); Walter A. McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997); Tony Smith, America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 1994).
7. Charles Kesler, “Democracy and the Bush Doctrine,” Claremont Review of Books 5: 1 (Winter, 2004), 18.
8. Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), 154-55.
9. Ibid., 21-22; Vice President Dick Cheney’s interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press, September 10, 2006.
10. “Declassified Key Judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate ‘Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States’ dated April 2006” at www.dni.gov/press_releases/Decalssfied_NIE_Key_Judgments.pdf; also see Anonymous, Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror (Washington DC: Brassey’s, Inc. 2004).
11. Max Boot, War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today (New York: Gotham Books, 2006); Frederick W. Kagan, Finding the Target: The Transformation of the American Military Policy (New York: Encounter Books, 2006).
12. Col. Thomas X.Hammes, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the Twenty-First Century (St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2006); F. B. Osinga, Science, Strategy and War, The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2006).
This article was originally entitled, “War, Progress, and Sociology in the Age of Ideology,” in The Political Science Reviewer 36:1 (2007): 311-43.