Kristol, Nationalism, Nostalgia and World War I

by Jim Lobe

Just as this week marks the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, as noted Wednesday by Amb. Hunter, it also marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, the “Great War” that, among other things, began the long (and often bloody) process of dismantling the imperial system that had dominated the pre-war international system. The war had many causes, but historians have generally ranked excessive nationalism — and the militarism that went along with it — pretty high on the list. While reactionary and conservative forces in each country were clearly bullish on the war from the outset, the speed and enthusiasm with which liberals and socialists throughout Europe rallied to the cause, in spite of the universalist principles that they had long espoused, offered testimony to the extraordinary magnetism of the nationalist impulse.

As I have argued previously, most neoconservatives, despite their mainly opportunistic avowals of democracy and universal rights, are exceedingly nationalistic, not to say downright chauvinist, with regard both to the United States — whose moral “exceptionalism” they believe should exempt it from the constraints of international institutions (like the UN) and international law — and to Israel, which they routinely depict as a lonely island of “democracy” and “civilization” surrounded by a raging sea of barbarism and extremism, struggling against all odds simply to survive. Virtually any means the latter’s leaders deem necessary, including violations of the laws of war as documented by independent human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International (as we have seen over the past several weeks in the third Israeli war in Gaza in six years), to defeat its enemies are not only defensible, but, in the words of neocon princeling Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel, “just,” as well.

Coinciding with the Great War’s centenary, the expression of this kind of militaristic nationalism — and the mantras about “civilization” versus the “barbarism” or “terror” of the enemy — vividly recalls the rhetoric used by both the western imperialist powers whenever they encountered violent resistance by the “natives” as they conquered most of what is now referred to as the “Global South” from the “Age of Discovery” onwards, as well as the propaganda offices of the main combatants during the war itself (just check out the war posters) would seem potentially embarrassing to the core neocon messages about the exceptional nature of the United States and Israel.

And thus it was particularly notable when, in the very first issue of the Weekly Standard of 2014, Kristol carried out what might be called a pre-emptive strike against what he thought might prove to be a major theme — the futility and stupidity of nationalism and war — in this year’s commemoration of the Great War.  In the lead editorial entitled “Pro Patria,” he rued the impact of the war on the West’s morale, blaming it for what he called “civilizational decline” and quoting with approval the ode by Horace, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”), which had been bitterly denounced in a famous poem by Wilfred Owen, a British soldier-poet, as an “old lie.” Kristol warned:

This year, a century later, the commemorations of 1914 will tend to take that [Owen’s] rejection of piety and patriotism for granted. Or could this year mark a moment of questioning, even of reversal?

Today, after all, we see the full consequences of that rejection in a way Owen and his contemporaries could not. Can’t we acknowledge the meaning, recognize the power, and learn the lessons of 1914 without succumbing to an apparently inexorable gravitational pull toward a posture of ironic passivity or fatalistic regret in the face of civilizational decline. No sensitive person can fail to be moved by Owen’s powerful lament, and no intelligent person can ignore his chastening rebuke. But perhaps a century of increasingly unthinking bitter disgust with our heritage is enough.

Kristol goes on to contrast Owen’s denunciation of war and nationalism to the concluding stanza of the “Star-Spangled Banner” penned 200 years ago by Francis Scott Key in celebration of the Battle of Fort McHenry — “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just/ And this be our motto: “In God is our trust” — and asks:

A century after World War I, two centuries after Fort McHenry, do we dare take our bearings not from Owen’s bitter despair but from Francis Scott Key’s bold hope?

The essay, of course, raises not a few questions about what exactly Kristol — the quintessential chicken hawk — has in mind. No doubt he sees the “full consequences” of Owen’s attitude as including the reigning anti-war sentiment that facilitated the rise of Fascism and German Nazism in Europe in the 1930s, which, in turn, eventually resulted in an even greater war. But the “full consequences” also included the beginning of the end of European imperialism — a very oppressive system for the vast majority of the world’s population. Of course, true to his neoconservative worldview — and the fact that the State of Israel was made possible by that same system (the Balfour Declaration and all that) — Kristol clearly sees the decline of western imperialism (“civilizational decline”) as a great tragedy.

Similarly, Kristol’s celebration of the theo-nationalist spirit expressed in what became the US national anthem as an unreservedly healthy tonic for today’s popular disillusionment with wars, especially those in Afghanistan and Iraq, and over Libya, all of which he so ardently championed, is subject to different understandings. While he no doubt sees Key’s exhortation to “conquer” as applying solely today to the US, Israel, and “the West” more generally, there is no reason to think that the sentiment expressed therein is not shared by Palestinians, including Hamas militants, Arab nationalists, or, frankly, any jihadis who claim that God, or Allah, and justice are on their side. “Dulce et decorum est pro patria [and deus] mori” was not only a Roman proverb frequently invoked by denizens of the British Empire many centuries later; it’s been an inspiration to ardent nationalists and believers of all nations, creeds and religious persuasions, especially those, one might observe, who face tremendous odds in overcoming a far more powerful foreign oppressor. Indeed, is Horace’s (and Kristol’s) affirmation, conceptually at least, so very different from that line in the Islamic Resistance Movement’s (a/k/a Hamas) charter that asserts: “Death for the sake of Allah is its most coveted desire,” as was noted most disapprovingly just this week by Kristol’s fellow-Likudist, former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, in one of a flood of neocon and Israeli efforts to justify Israel’s hugely destructive campaign in Gaza?

For those who are more interested in Kristol’s notions of nationalism and its importance, it’s worth noting that he will be offering an intensive course entitled “The Case for Nationalism” on the subject from Dec. 8-12 for just $3,000 for non-Israelis. The course, which is co-sponsored by the Hertog Foundation — Roger Hertog is a board member of both the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and Commentary magazine, among other neoconservative associations — and the Tikvah Fund, whose faculty and speakers constitute a veritable who’s who of the Jewish neoconservative world, will take place at (and given his nostalgia for the British Empire, Kristol will love this) King George Street 44 in (West) Jerusalem.

Here’s the rather bewildering, not to mention historically and intellectually dubious (but rhetorically very Straussian), course description, which I necessarily quote at length:

Led by Dr. William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and one of the leading public intellectuals in America, this institute will examine the political and moral questions surrounding nationalism and nation-states. The course will begin by examining the case for and against nationalism, drawing upon some of the major works of modern political theory. It will then look in detail at three “regimes”—Europe, America, and modern Israel—drawing upon a mix of classic texts, speeches, and case studies.

In Europe, we see the dominant moral and political idea of our age—“human rights”—in its most advanced form. All persons everywhere are entitled to equal dignity and equal protections. The most dangerous threats to human rights—terror and empire, religious extremism, natural catastrophe, market dysfunction—all transcend national borders. Human rights cannot be secured by nations, and excessive national pride is a threat to the new ideal of the free, sovereign, cosmopolitan individual. The nation must be overcome and replaced by a centralized governing body that is large enough to protect global citizens from global threats.

In America, we see the ideals of universal liberty and natural rights combined with a belief in the exceptional character and special responsibilities of the American nation. Does American power serve the interests of world order? Do Americans believe in their own exceptionalism, or do they seek to become a nation among the nations?

The question of nationalism takes on special significance for citizens of Israel, the world’s only Jewish State. Zionism is a form of nationalism, and the founding of Israel represents the culmination of ancient longings for the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland. But it was also founded in partial response to World War II and the Shoah it perpetrated on European Jewry. If the intellectual architects of the European Union believe that the national form causes violence and stands in the way of a more harmonious world, the intellectual architects of the State of Israel believed the opposite—that only a state dedicated to the protection of the Jewish people will ensure their welfare and prosperity.

Taken together, these urgent questions invite us to think about the deepest meaning and true character of political life, returning us yet again to the great texts and thinkers who illuminated the problems of politics with greatest clarity and force.

Of course, the belief by the architects of the European Union that nationalism can contribute to violence and “stands in the way of a more harmonious world” is based in large part on the lessons drawn from both the Great War and its successor. And doesn’t a state “dedicated to the protection” of one people foster violence and stand in the way of a more harmonious world if that “protection” translates into actively defeating the legitimate national aspirations of another people, denying their own self-determination, and occupying them militarily and colonizing their territory in violation of international law? Isn’t that the kind of question we should be pondering in this centenary year?

If you can’t get to the seminar, Kristol’s latest editorial offers what I suppose is his much-abbreviated lesson in the form of an extended quotation by Douglas Murray, the associate director of the London-based Henry Jackson Society of which Kristol, among many other prominent US neoconservatives, is an “International Patron:”

Israel is surrounded by enemies, as we have been for much of our history. But today we like to think that enemies are a thing of the past. There are no enemies, just phobias we haven’t been cured of yet.

A gap may well be emerging. But not because Israel has drifted away from the West. Rather because today in much of the West, as we bask in the afterglow of our achievements?—?eager to enjoy our rights, but unwilling to defend them?—?it is the West that is, slowly but surely, drifting away from itself.

Today Israel is also distinguished by a deep sense of its values and ethics as well as a profound awareness of their source?—?things we also used to have. Deep questions of survival, the tragedy and triumph of the past, present and future remain the stuff of every Israeli house I have ever been to. .??.??.

[I]t is Israel that remains the truly western country. It is Israel which takes its history seriously, thinks deeply about where it is going and what it exists for. It is Israel which takes western values seriously and fights for the survival of those values. .??.??. [I]t is Israel that is still truly a western country. Far more than many parts of western Europe now are.

Wow. Today’s Israel apparently would have felt right at home in August 1914.

Photo: Willy Werner’s depiction of “Flanders Fields.” Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library/Canadian Press

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. Syria offered peace to Israel, year in and year out, for decades. Egypt is at peace with Israel. So is Jordan. Lebanon too, for that matter. “Surrounded by enemies” is code for “let Israel continue to oppress the Palestinians”.

  2. I’m surprised you didn’t mention Kristol’s role cheer leading us into the invasion of Iraq in 2003. There’s a few similarities between that and the outbreak of WWI.

    In 1914 there was a surge of nationalist pride as thousands came forward to enlist. Everyone wanted to do their part in the coming triumph of civilization over barbarianism.

    In 2003 there was a similar surge of resolve. A “coalition of the willing” intervened in Iraq to oust the evil dictator Saddam Huessein. He was building weapons of mass destruction and was threatening the civilized world. He had to go.

    In 1914 there was a “the early bird gets the worm” mentality. The experts were predicting the war would be over by Xmas. The faster you got yourself on the front lines, the better chance you had you would be telling war stories to your grandkids in your old age.

    In 2003 Kristol and the rest of his neocon gang was predicting the Iraq war will be over in two months. The invaders would be greeted as liberators and showered with roses, etc, when Saddam was gone.

    None of these optimistic predictions worked out. WWI’s “civilizational decline” has been replaced by “war weariness.”

    Which reminds me, Why is anybody still listening to Bill Kristol?

  3. Idiotic US invasion of Iraq was made possible by liar neocons who duped GW Bush.

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