"No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free -- honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless. – Abraham Lincoln, Message to Congress, 1862

The reference to other nations is by no means incidental to Lincoln's understanding of what was at stake in America's conflict. In history's ongoing struggle between despotism and self-government, he was prepared to believe that America was earth's "last best hope"-not as the world's economic colossus or imperial hegemon but as an exemplar of what politics, with all its limitations, can accomplish. – Jean Bethke Elshtain

My way of living leads me to be about the courts of justice; and there, I have sometimes seen a good lawyer, struggling for his client's neck, in a desperate case, employing every artifice to work round, befog, and cover up, with many words, some point arising in the case, which he dared not admit, and yet could not deny. Party bias may help to make it appear so; but with all the allowance I can make for such bias, it still does appear to me, that just such, and from just such necessity, is the President's struggle in this case. – Abraham Lincoln, Speech on the War with Mexico, 1848

LI was reading James Chace’s review of John Gaddis’ brief for Bush’s foreign policy in the NYRB yesterday, when we came across the “last best hope of the earth” quotation, and realized something: we'd been seeing that phrase a lot. The more we thought about it, the more we thought that the use and misuse of this phrase tells us a lot about the neo-con use and misuse of history. The neo-cons, it seems, have gotten into Lincoln’s phrase like termites getting into a house. Elshtain is typical of the lot. The quote above is from the exile Clinton years, where the longing for a grand purpose -- in other words, Machtlust -- was in the air.

Notice how Elshtain uses it to defend an imperialist view of America’s destiny. Notice, too, that the spiritual heirs of Jeff Davis, having taken over the present GOP, have decided to take over its past, too. In the context of Lincoln’s message to Congress, it is hard to see the message that Elshtain implies: that of considering America eschatologically justified in pursuing a messianic foreign policy. One recalls that the Abraham Lincoln Elshtain is remaking in the image of an anti-communist stalwart was, in reality, the Congressman who lost his seat by strongly and stoutly opposing the Mexican war.

The Mexican war is, in fact, a much better analogy to the imperialist adventure in Iraq than the Civil War. One should recall that the original Texas revolt against Mexico was motivated, in part, by a genuine desire to throw off the yoke of Mexico’s tyrant, Santa Ana, and, in part, by a genuine desire to throw off the yoke of that Mexican law that forbade slavery. The Truth goes marching on.

In any case, if we took Elshtain’s distortion of Lincoln’s words at face value, we ought to ask: how true are they? Is America the earth’s last best hope?

The short answer is no. Not the last – many hopes have arisen since the civil war. Gandhi, for instance, not only provided a definite hope for mankind, but turned – not to Abraham Lincoln, but to Tolstoy and Ruskin. And Gandhi’s example, in turn, became the great hope of – the Civil Rights movement in the heart of the last great hope itself, America, which was toiling in the maze of official apartheid up through the sixties.

Did the US bring hope to Central and South America since the time of Lincoln? No. It has brought tyranny, mass murder, and mass exploitation. The record of US imperialism in Central America is comparable to Stalin’s record of “liberation” in Eastern Europe – a dismal chronicle of small killings and large thefts. And that policy has left behind the same impoverishment. Did the US bring hope to Europe? Yes. In World War I and II, the U.S., both from policy and from the domestic renewal of the democratic temperament, used its force against the worst of the earth’s forces. The Cold War is a much more mixed story. The struggle between superpower’s tempered the American tendency to obnoxiousness (see Central and South America, above). From force of circumstance, America favored global policies that were certainly to the advantage of Europe.
Our reference to struggle brings out another point lost in the messianic drool of such as Elshtain. To talk of America as the bearer of moral, or universal, interests is much like talking about some tech company as the bearer of scientific advances. It is a misunderstanding of the role of competition in the whole system. We understand that companies work best when they compete, and work worst when they monopolize. Likewise, when the U.S. monopolizes, as it has done in South and Central America, it rapidly degenerates into an oppressor. Like other imperial oppressors, it justifies its extortions and the blind triumph of its advantage by an appeal to universal, or moral, values. In reality, those values only serve particular national interest. Conservatives, who are skeptical of the Gnostic elevation of the state to the status of some mystical representative of reason, do characteristically tread a dialectical circuit that brings them, in pursuit of their own sense of order, to their own form of gnosticism – a patriotism that assumes exactly the same role as that accorded the state by liberal thinkers. You can see this happening with Burke, as he moves from opposition to the French Revolution to support for Pitt’s ideological war against the French Revolution. The principles that cause Burke to decry the power grab of the ‘theorizers” in the Reflections fall to the rhetoric of a crusade that can only be justified on the grounds of “theory” – and so Burke undermined his own position, and supported acts of the state which brought to an end the traditional English order for which he fought.

The moral frivolousness of the war in Iraq requires two delusions. One is the delusion that America is a moral, instead of a political, entity. The other, and dependent delusion is that America thus represents the desire, or the hopes, of the Iraqi people. And so Americans shield themselves from the emotional and political results of slaughtering masses of Iraqi civilians in pursuit of a goals that are, really, of no business to this country – for instance, the war against the ‘thuggish’ Sadr on behalf of the ‘thuggish’ Allawi. In his wildest dreams, Lincoln couldn’t have imagined that the last best hope on earth would leave the scorching mark of its inspiration on the town of Najaf, located in a far away Ottoman province. The triumph of the filibusters in the GOP is one of the sadder signs of our political degeneracy.