TCS Daily

Are the Jacksonians Sated?

By Michael Totten - March 22, 2004 12:00 AM

A curious thing seems to have happened since Saddam Hussein's regime was overthrown in Iraq. America no longer feels like a country at war.

It isn't over by a long shot. There's a bloody insurgency around Baghdad that still needs putting down. Al Qaeda is still out there somewhere, sinister and nebulous as ever. Afghanistan is mostly lawless, and we're still exchanging barbs with Iran and North Korea. But it feels different now. The barbarous acts of terror in Madrid had a far greater impact in Europe than in America. The Terror War has the vibe of a stand-off and a waiting game, not a shooting war. Iraq is ramshackle but free. Saddam Hussein is in prison. Osama bin Laden may be hiding under a rock somewhere, but most of us don't fear he's going to blow up our office on Monday.

Terror alerts may resume. Suicide bombs may continue exploding in Baghdad. Coalition forces may take still more casualties. But the first stage of the war against terrorism is finished.

America's Jacksonians have been sated.

Who are the Jacksonians?

In 1999 Walter Russell Mead wrote a celebrated essay for The National Interest called The Jacksonian Tradition where he described what he calls the four foreign policy traditions in the United States; Jacksonian, Wilsonian, Hamiltonian, and Jeffersonian.

Jeffersonians are principled pacifists. Hamiltonians seek a stable and orderly world made secure for the global economy. Wilsonians build international institutions that promote freedom and human rights. They also fight for a world that's safe for democracy. And finally there are Jacksonians, who are isolationist in peace time and ruthless in war time.

Jacksonians, when roused, fight unflinchingly to the finish. The very idea of a limited war is anathema. They demanded the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan in World War II, and they hardly blinked an eye at the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their complaint about the Vietnam War is that we didn't fight to win, not that we stayed on too long. When the first President Bush left Saddam Hussein in power after routing him in Kuwait, Americans of the Jacksonian persuasion were deeply unsatisfied.

After September 11, 2001, pin-point air strikes against terrorist camps in Afghanistan would have been woefully inadequate. Nothing short of the overthrow of the Taliban was acceptable. Though regime-change in Iraq was the brainchild of hawkish Wilsonian intellectuals, Jacksonians lent their support instinctively and overwhelmingly. They would no longer tolerate violations of the 1991 cease-fire they never thought Saddam deserved in the first place.

Most Jacksonians don't even know they're Jacksonians. They run on instinct, not ideology. They don't belong to a movement or an intellectual school of thought. They share a common temperament. Populist, independent, and fiercely patriotic. Rugged, self-reliant, and reflexively anti-authoritarian. Theirs is a cultural legacy from the frontier days. You can find them among gun enthusiasts in the countryside, middle-class home owners in the suburbs, and black neighborhoods in the cities.

President Bush's Middle East strategy is Wilsonian idealism in Jacksonian costume. Rhetorical flourishes like "good riddance" and "dead or alive" play well among Jacksonians, even as it drives more genteel Wilsonians and Jeffersonians to distraction.

Jacksonianism is the most publicly reviled of the four traditions. It often comes across as simple-minded, crude, and even brutish to Americans who adhere to one of the other three. It's the Jacksonian tradition European elites have in mind when they carp about gun-boat diplomacy and cowboy unilateralism. Yet without the Jacksonian spirit, America would not have defeated Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union. We would not be a super-power at all. It's understandable why so many intellectuals scoff at Jacksonian attitudes as crude and unsophisticated. But Jacksonians aren't supposed to be society's brain. They are its muscle and it guts.

Mead says their support in foreign policy is absolutely crucial.

"The United States cannot wage a major international war without Jacksonian support; once engaged, politicians cannot safely end the war except on Jacksonian terms."

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson offended Jacksonians with their half-measures against Iran and North Vietnam. Jacksonians punished George McGovern's anti-war presidential campaign in 1972 by re-electing Richard Nixon in a landslide. The first President Bush lost a great deal of Jacksonian respect when he left Saddam Hussein in power after the Gulf War.

Now that Saddam Hussein and the Taliban have been routed, the Jacksonians have mellowed. There isn't much of a push to open another front in a third country. They will remain mostly satisfied unless and until another violent event riles them up again. It could be another attack on America or one of our allies. Perhaps the wrong regime will acquire nuclear weapons. Maybe a moderate Muslim government will be overthrown by Islamofascist insurgents.

Until then, they're on hold. They sharply criticized the Spanish retreat from Iraq, but they have little specific to say in our own foreign policy debate. They aren't interested in the UN, multilateralism, democracy promotion, nation-building, or any other grand strategy. They are reactive, not proactive, and they are waiting to see who has the guts to mess with us next.

The Wilsonian Standoff

For most people, Jeffersonian pacifism is unthinkable after 9/11. Hamiltonian economic globalism is barely relevant to the problem of terrorism and Middle Eastern fanaticism. Now that Jacksonians are on the sidelines, post-Saddam foreign policy is ceded by default to the Wilsonian school.

Yet Wilsonianism itself has two separate wings, and the 2004 election is the battleground. Woodrow Wilson was a Democrat. Most Wilsonians are liberals. But the two wings of his namesake's tradition straddle today's political divide.

Neoconservatives are on the right, but they are neither Jacksonians nor Hamiltonians as one might expect. They are aggressive, hawkish, and forward-thinking Wilsonians. As Woodrow Wilson sent American troops to Europe to make the world safe for democracy, the neoconservatives push to liberalize and democratize the Middle East.

The Democrats, insofar as they have a foreign policy, stress the importance of multilateralism and the United Nations. This, too, is Wilsonian. Though Woodrow Wilson had nothing directly to do with it, the UN was created as a post-World War II improvement on his failed League of Nations that came before it.

So it really does seem that Wilson's ideas have won out. The argument now is about how to implement his vision. Should we coast along on the Wilsonian momentum from the past, as the Democrats wish to do? Or should we start on new projects, like democracy in the Middle East and reforming the UN, as the neoconservatives prefer?

John Kerry and George W. Bush are tied in the polls. It appears we could go either way, that the 2004 election might settle it.

But this is an illusion.

Mead writes:

"Although Wilsonians, Jeffersonians and the more delicately constructed Hamiltonians do not like to admit it, every American school needs Jacksonians to get what it wants.

If Mead is right, and history suggests that he is, Jacksonians will end the current standoff as soon as they're heard from again.

Neoconservative Wilsonian hawks easily found Jacksonian support in their quest to oust Saddam Hussein. Jacksonians respond to more dovish Wilsonians like John Kerry with indifference when they don't feel at risk, and with contempt when they feel we are in danger.

Dovish Wilsonians will have as hard a time winning the Terror War as they'll have winning the hearts and minds of Jacksonians. The armies of a terror-sponsoring state can be contained easily enough. But terrorists themselves can't be contained or deterred. UN resolutions will have no effect whatever on the fascistic political ideologies running rampant in the Middle East that spawn the terror threat in the first place.

If the dovish Wilsonians carry the argument in the short run, it will only take that much longer for Middle Eastern countries (aside from Iraq) to get the reform they need -- not only for their sake, but for ours. The terror culture in Syria, the West Bank, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan will continue to fester and even grow. The threat to America and our allies will not abate. Then Al Qaeda or some other terrorist gang will hit us again.

They will probably hit us again either way. Lord knows they're trying. When it happens, Jacksonian rage will crush the dovish wing of Wilsonianism no matter who sits in the White House.

Enjoy the lull while it lasts. It's the calm before the second storm.

Michael J. Totten writes from Portland, Oregon. Visit his Web site here.


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