Commentary: Illusion of the profound


MOSCOW, April 9 (UPI) -- A year ago, U.S.-led coalition forces toppled the statute of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. The past two years have seen a remarkable shift in U.S. foreign policy. Parallel to this shift is Russia's changing foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin. It is said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it. This could also be applied to those who are ignorant of great literature. Reading Soren Kierkegaard, George Orwell, and Fyodor Dostoevsky speak volumes as to how both the United States and Russia understand (or misunderstand) history.

Kierkegaard once said the most dangerous mental faults are laziness and impatience. To him, laziness of mind meant reluctance to confront unfamiliar, multifaceted and refractory realities; and impatience leads to fascination with supposedly all-encompassing theories in lieu of engaging in thought and sound judgment. In short, those who succumb to laziness and impatience are drawn to relate themselves to an imagined universal instead of a real particular.


Does this sound familiar? It should: Laziness and impatience are the two leading elements of America's new developing foreign policy, and the delusion lurking behind them is the messianic idea the United States can remake the world -- and that the world, in its heart of hearts, wants to be so remade. Russia, on the other hand -- a country that once held itself up as a similar messiah -- is pursuing a foreign policy of prudence and moderation.

The U.S.-led war against Iraq, with the apparent abject failure of its "shock and awe" campaign, is an example of laziness and impatience in action. American expectations to the contrary notwithstanding, the Iraqis have thus far refused to be shocked and awed. The upsurge in violence in Iraq this week may be an indication Iraqis have only just started to fight.

It is laziness because the Bush administration is refusing to come to terms with the brutal facts of how American foreign policy has played a major role in the creation of the modern Middle East and the resultant responsibility for the situation it bears. That the West's historical thwarting of Arab nationalist and/or socialist lines of development has inspired some to turn to Islamic fundamentalism, even terrorism. This administration is simply refusing to think about the complexity of the world.


The impatience of the Bush circle is even worse. Impatience with a world unwilling to fall into step behind them seems to be the reason they are willing to abandon a half-century of international law and embrace the doctrine of pre-emptive war. This has transformed the United States into a country that is greatly mistrusted and even feared -- and may very well undermine its own values of democracy and freedom at home. Surely, it will make them unattractive for export.

America's new laziness and impatience come from a dangerous belief it is the answer to the world's problems. However noble the ideal of saving the world may be, beliefs such as this wreaked havoc in the last century. Fascism and communism tried to profoundly change the world, and both left catastrophe in their wake. Both these forms of totalitarianism resorted to preventive war because both were also impatient to reorder the world.

It was Orwell who warned us about those who are obsessed with idea of the "the lure of the profound." This occurs when a concept is raised to the level of the absolute and becomes not just a strategic or tactical guide to action, but an abstraction to be imposed on a recalcitrant, contradictory reality with which it does not coincide. This renders the concept ineffective and even ruinous. Trying to realize the profound is a task for mystics and visionaries, not politicians.


Following the lure of the profound was disastrous for the Soviet Union. Reinventing the world using Marxist-Leninist ideology as a guidepost in any and all situations bankrupted the Soviet Union and left Russia with an identity crisis that may take a generation or more to resolve.

Russia's new foreign policy of "romantic pragmatism" is the antithesis of the Soviet Union's obsession with engineering the human condition. Russia is in the process of finding its new place in the world at the same time as it undergoes a daunting restructuring process, the eventual success of which is far from certain. Its legacy of bullying and ideological obsessions notwithstanding, Russia is now a country interested in international diplomacy. Even if this is only due to its current relative weakness, it is commendable when compared with the U.S. reluctance to work with other nations.

President George W. Bush's vision for the world derives from ideological fixation and an inability to learn from the failures of the past. It is far from certain that Iraq or other Arab countries desire to adopt American institutions and ideas, however much Bush may have convinced himself that they passionately crave them. Why a country like the United States should have the right to force its institutions on countries in this region is never addressed. In any case, the United States will never be able to really assert de facto imperial control over one of the world's dominant cultures for long.


Maybe it will turn out that the United States is only interested in oil after all, as so many claim. Most likely, however, material benefits that may accrue to the United States because of this war will intertwine with Bush's microscopic understanding of history and resultant ideology. Being able to influence international petroleum prices more effectively will most likely become the short-term rationale used by the U.S. administration to legitimize its flailing toward the profound in the eyes of nonbelievers in the Bush doctrine.

While this reach for the profound may help foster a sense of Arab identity, it is likely to dilute that of the United States. Forcing other people to be free is not a strategy that will reinforce domestic institutions. Democracy at home accepts diversity, and not tolerating it abroad has an eventual corrosive internal effect. The U.S. pre-emptive war doctrine is a time bomb ticking away on the home front. Al-Qaida Osama bin Laden has not been found, weapons of mass destruction have not been found, and the Bush administration has been forced to admit it lied to itself, the American people, and the world.

Dostoevsky described those who succumb to the lure of the profound as "being in the bondage of advanced ideas." Eventually, the ideas he was referring to resulted in a century of tragedy and enormous suffering. Laziness and impatience foster the illusion that one can force history, and both are reasons to despise those who succumb to them. Despite their easy allure, laziness and impatience are probably the last two human character traits that can be expected to create a better world.


(Peter Lavelle is a Moscow-based analyst and author of the electronic newsletter on Russia "Untimely Thoughts" (

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