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  • Northern and Southern Approaches to War

    Posted by Lexington Green on February 27th, 2003 (All posts by )

    Rev. Sensing has posted this insightful essay in which he discusses what he calls the “Northern” and “Southern” approaches to war. He draws on the typology used by Walter Russell Mead, referring to Wilsonians and Jacksonians. He also seems to have in the back of his head the distinction between southern attitudes toward war and that of the “Greater New England” of the Yankee diaspora which is discussed brilliantly in David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed.

    But at one point Rev. Sensing says “Wilsonianism is not inbred is us and neither is Jacksonianism. Both are like coats that we shed or put on as best serves our interests.” This does not sit well with his better-founded Northern/Southern distinction. But I think I see where he has gone awry.

    Which groups in America support a war varies from war to war. Building a coalition often means that the leadership must appeal to different groups using different arguments, whether cynically or not. In this case, I think Bush has put both types of argument out all along, i.e. national security and prestige as against righting the world’s wrongs and, ahem, “nation building.” Nonetheless, while Bush has always said Saddam was evil, “regime change” always seemed more a means to “disarmament” than an end in itself.

    Nonetheless, Rev. Sensing is on to something when he notes that there seems to be a public shift toward the war, and that the basis for that support is shifting as well. What has happened is that the leadership in the Wilsonian/Yankee/Northern group has joined the war camp, less because they want to, than because they think it is now inevitable and they want to have some influence on what happens. The recent issue of the New Republic features many essays along these lines. As to the public rather than the elite, the Jacksonians (including the suburban “crabgrass Jacksonians” whom Walter Russell Mead delineated) have been in favor of war with Iraq as a matter of U.S. security, but not enthusiastically so, since the threat is somewhat remote and Jacksonians really want to make sure Osama is dead, then come home. Bush knows this, and he always hedges when he talks about how long we are staying in Iraq or how deep a commitment we are going to make to rebuilding the place.

    The thing that is interesting is that Bush is acquiring this grudging support from Liberal hawks without really asking them for it. Bush’s single-minded determination to destroy Saddam’s regime (or so it seems to be) is like a gravitational field which is dragging all kinds of unexpected objects into his orbit. (Bush can thank Tony Blair in large part for turning this into a crusade which has appeal to liberals. He has always taken that approach, whose antecedents lie in Gladstonian liberal imperialism.)

    So, as the left intelligentsia has started to buy in, and speak out for a war of liberation, the more liberal areas in the USA are becoming convinced, as they did in the case of Serbia, that there is a wrong to be righted. And they are supporting a war against Iraq despite their loathing for Bush. This group has a positive aversion to using military force if there is any American interest at stake, and it must feel that it is on the moral high ground before it will approve of the use of force. The very attenuated nature of the Iraqi threat, as against the overt nature of the evil of the regime, actually plays well to these liberal hawks. This phenomenon points out yet again the accuracy of Walter Russell Mead’s typology — liberals are divided into Wilsonians, who are willing under the right circumstances to use force, even massive force, and Jeffersonians, who in effect are never willing to use force abroad. The Left had its own “Vietnam Syndrome” — which really ended with Serbia. My peacenik father in law, a Vietnam-era war protester and leftist academic, was appalled that many of his friends supported the attack on Serbia. He, interestingly, is a product of a Midwestern, populist, isolationist upbringing – classic Jeffersonian origins. The alliance between the Wilsonian and Jeffersonian groups has come unglued. It can no longer be taken for granted. There is now a respectable left/liberal hawkish position, though it is so far a minority position. So, Wilsonianism and Jacksonianism are, if not “bred in us”, nonetheless enduring inclinations of certain regional, ethnic, and cultural communities – though few of us are pure exemplars of only one school (or Jeffersonians or Hamiltonians, either, for that matter). It is not so much that Americans “put them on or shed or put on as best serves our interests”. Rather, which arguments are advanced and which rationales are found to be compelling vary from war to war and from group to group. What we are seeing in this case is a President who has melded onto a primarily Jacksonian base of support an additional group of Wilsonian supporters, and thereby increased the overall support for the war. But in so doing he has also shifted the rationale for the war. In other words, Bush has gotten a certain influential portion of the the “liberal” community on board for the long post-war commitment. Bush will then be able to play this group off against the Jacksonian inclination to bring the boys home, with Saddam’s scalp on their belt, and not meddle too much in Iraq. All in all this has been an extraordinary demonstration of the deep continuities in American political life, and a demonstration of George W. Bush’s almost uncanny ability to navigate among them.