The phrase “cowboy diplomacy” gained some real momentum earlier this year, during those heady days just before the invasion of Iraq when the United Nations was an obsolete institution (since then, invasions being expensive, the UN’s magically become relevant again). Google “cowboy diplomacy” and stand back: the sheer volume of citations has bullied the phrase into usage as surely as “cowboy hat” and “cowboy boot” sauntered into the lexicon back in 1895, under circumstances less frenetic than ours, I’m sure. But the latest cowboy term is no simple common noun. Deployed with equal parts amusement and anger, “cowboy diplomacy” refers, of course, to the Bush administration’s “unilateralism”—another obscuring and misdirecting euphemism. (What is a “unilateralist,” after all, but a person with the military might to destroy most of humanity, someone who believes it is his prerogative to wield that power whenever he sees fit?)
Cowboy diplomacy, however, is more complex. The inky classes have, for the most part, used the phrase glibly and unthoughtfully and devoid of any context, historical or otherwise. It has a pleasing, folksy ring, and may produce in some readers a definitively positive reaction. Cowboys, after all, are tough fellows who get things done and get them done well. They possess “know-how.” They’ve got Guts, they’ve got Principles and they’ve got The Guts to stand by Those Principles. I use capital letters here not for facetious Hunter S. Thompson–like reasons, but because this notion of the talented, savvy, upright cowboy has become such an icon of American culture that it deserves separation and elevation above such items as boots and hats. Editorialists who label the present president a “cowboy diplomat,” therefore, merely give his policies a backhanded compliment. All jammed up with myths and references and received truths—the West, the American Dream, Destiny, Freedom—the word “cowboy” is as loaded (forgive me) as an outlaw’s six-shooter.
Bush the Western Character is a political entity, formulated in the first place for mass political appeal. He is, after all, “from” Texas. (By way of Connecticut, summers in Kennebunkport and a decade’s worth of key bumps at Andover, Yale and Harvard, it is worth remembering.) He has this ranch. Domesticated animals live there. While ranching it, he likes to dress in unpresidential shirtsleeves. He wears embroidered leather boots with heels high as a footstool. Whatever his famously maladroit use of the English language, and the glee with which it has at times been recorded, he has cultivated a colloquial rhetoric without compare. He strives, in other words, to “talk straight.” Talking about Osama bin Laden, for instance, about a week following September 11, Bush remarked, “There’s an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’” He seemed to have uttered this as if the sheriff-outlaw cliché of the wanted poster was not brain-numbingly familiar at all, but some rare archeological treasure he had unearthed from his days as owner of a baseball team called the Texas Rangers.
There are elements of cartoon in the man, to be sure, but to needle about in the scrim of his Image is more than a failure of the imagination. The advice of New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley—“Go West, young man”—has been strangely ignored.
So I took Greeley up on his guidance and picked up a novel a few weeks ago entitled The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, written by a one-hit wonder named Owen Wister. Published in 1902, the novel is considered by people who study these matters the first Western ever written, the first fiction to depict the “ethos” of the “American West,” a theme and setting by now so familiar that they’ve ceased to describe an ethos, and have become over the intervening century nothing but pure advertisement.
Aesthetically speaking, The Virginian is a piece of shit, one of those novels that exert far more influence as cultural or historical documents than as legitimate works of the imagination. It is not at all a stretch to say that Wister’s book had a powerful impact on the development of the American Character, which has since been used to sell everything from Marlboro Reds to Ford pickups to plots in San Fernando Valley housing developments to presidential campaigns. A bestseller, The Virginian was read by millions, even adapted for Broadway to raging success. And back when technology had yet to move all that far beyond Gutenberg, few other media existed to drown out Wister’s words. The novel set down a set of archetypes (individualist heroes, winners who succeed by honest effort and ethical brains) by which we now understand, probably in a subconscious way, that our own personal dreams (for the good life, for freedom from worry and pain, dreams that are natural and decent) should remain in lockstep with the dreams of the state. But dreams are sometimes not so decent. As we well know, the state has a tendency to go about what it calls protecting its citizens by means that can get a little cynical, and eventually a little acquisitive, just like the citizens themselves. With individuals the vice is called greed; with states it is known as empire.
Allow me to offer a brief, book-report-like summary of The Virginian’s plot, begging your pardon for the Cliffs Notes tone. The narrator, a tenderfoot Easterner, well educated and urban and indistinctly professional, arrives in Medicine Bow, in the Wyoming Territory, sometime in the 1870s,0to take his holiday on the ranch of a friend named Judge Henry. While there, the narrator comes into the acquaintance of a singular “cow-puncher,” identified throughout the book only as “the Virginian,” born in the western part of that state—one would surmise the Shenandoah Valley—but from an early age an itinerant ranch hand in Wyoming and environs. His past is never described in full, although at one point late in the book the narrator makes a sole unexplained reference to the Virginian’s previous life as an “outlaw.” But that was long ago, and he has now fully reformed. He is mysterious, he is taciturn among outsiders, he is whip-smart (the nineteenth-century corollary, I’m judging, of street smart), he is cunning, he is of high moral character but with a penchant for creating harmless mischief, he is master of all things Western—colt breaking, cattle driving, animal lassoing, tracking, hunting, pistol shooting, card playing, whiskey drinking, woman finding. He is also tall and Hollywood handsome and in possession of a disarming Virginia purl. He is, in short, the Western Ideal. Soon he falls in love with a young frontier schoolmarm, of slightly downwardly mobile aristocratic Vermont stock, the proud descendants of a Signer. In Wyoming the schoolmarm is a fish out of water, just like our narrator. Of course she’s hardheaded and difficult and also beautiful. Boy meets girl, girl spurns boy, girl realizes she loves boy, etc., etc. Let the Romantic Comedy ensue.
President Bush’s immediate reaction to 9/11 was to say, famously, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” This nascent formulation of the Bush doctrine, the most contentious element of his foreign policy by far, has led to a load of presidential rhetoric that really has more in common with the philosophical underpinnings of imperium than the right of a sovereign state to defend itself against aggression, despite the administration’s many claims to the contrary.
When the president made his first fully-formed public articulation of the Bush doctrine, as the commencement speaker at West Point in June 2002, he said, according to the White House transcript of the speech, “Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree. (Applause.) Different circumstances require different methods, but not different moralities. (Applause.) Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time and in every place . . . We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name. (Applause.) By confronting evil and lawless regimes, we do not create a problem, we reveal a problem. And we will lead the world in opposing it. (Applause.)” Apparently the president has never read Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God Is Within You.”
Later on in his West Point speech, Bush intoned, “There is no clash of civilizations.” On the surface, he was making the same nod toward political correctness that he’d been making since his advisors told him to cool it with his initial post-9/11 references to “crusades” and make clear the distinction between terrorist bands, whom the US is trying to defend itself against, and the religion of Islam. As the US wages its war on terror, Bush claims to be arguing, there is no clash between the West and Islam, because all rational people, whatever their religion, whatever their geography, want freedom, want the ability to pursue “the good life.” But what Bush really meant when he said that there was no clash is that our world possesses only one civilization; in August he told a group of American Legionnaires in St. Louis, “No nation can be neutral in the struggle between civilization and chaos.” The first sentence of Bush’s National Security Strategy document, the official policy statement of the doctrine, reads, “The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.” A single sustainable model, which, of course, means the United States, the West. All else is chaos. With only one model, therefore, with only one true and right civilization in the world, Bush is correct when he says there can be no clash. There can only be acts of civilizing. In essence, this is the Bush doctrine, and it’s not an oversimplification.
To employ an idiom the Virginian would approve of, my way or the highway. Back in the Wyoming Territory, the Virginian has been promoted to ranch foreman by Judge Henry. In one of his first acts of civilizing, the Virginian is forced to hunt down and hang a few horse rustlers, among them an old drinking and whoremongering comrade from his youth, who chose the corrupt when the Virginian chose the honorable. When the prim New England schoolmarm finds out about this bit of private justice, she flips out, horrified by its incivility and brutality. Because this jeopardizes her love for the Virginian, the square-minded, straight-shooting Judge Henry arrives in her rooms to council the schoolmarm on the ways of the frontier—and their necessity.
Forgetting for a moment the climactic sundown shootout between the book’s antagonists—the first such mano-a-mano gunfight in fiction—this dialogue between Judge Henry and the schoolmarm represents, for our purposes, the crux of the book. First, the Judge makes a distinction between two of the more common categories of lynching. He says, “For in all sincerity I see no likeness in principle whatever between burning Southern negroes in public and hanging Wyoming horse-thieves in private. I consider the burning a proof that the South is semi-barbarous, and the hanging a proof that Wyoming is determined to become civilized.” Never mind that the Southern black man was lynched not for crime but for race. Next, the Judge Socratically forces out of the schoolmarm the dubious conclusion that because the Constitution, and therefore the court system, came into being through the work of “delegates” elected by “ordinary citizens” (I believe you had to be a white male property owner to vote back then, but that’s historically moot, I suppose), that because of this state of affairs, it is right and proper for ordinary citizens, in certain dire circumstances, to take back what they had conferred to the government in the first place—the Hobbesian compact Indian given. Judge Henry then drops the rhetorical hammer. “In Wyoming the law has been letting our cattle-thieves go for two years. We are in a very bad way, and we are trying to make that way a little better until civilization can reach us. At present we lie beyond its pale.” Evidently a cadre of wealthy, powerful rustlers has been buying off the Wyoming courts. The Judge continues, “And so when your ordinary citizen sees this, and sees that he has placed justice in a dead hand, he must take justice back into his own hands where it was once at the beginning of all things. Call this primitive, if you will. But so far from being a defiance of the law, it is an assertion of it—the fundamental assertion of self-governing men, upon whom our whole social fabric is based.”
So the schoolmarm, in the face of such unassailable logic, concedes the necessity of Western justice, but is moved to say—her initial misgivings having melted into an inarticulate expression of feminine sentiment—“It is all terrible to me.” To which the clear-headed Judge replies, “Yes; and so is capital punishment terrible. And so is war. And perhaps some day we shall do without them. But they are none of them so terrible as unchecked theft and murder would be.” You foolish girl. Go forth and love your man, for he is the Civilizer of the West.
Wister dedicated his novel to Theodore Roosevelt, a Harvard classmate, lifelong chum and guiding editorial spirit: “Some of these pages you have seen, some you have praised, one stands new-written because you blamed it; and all, my dear critic, beg leave to remind you of their author’s changeless admiration.” Roosevelt, pre-president, as a young man only a decade out of Harvard, published between 1889 and 1896 The Winning of the West, a four-volume history of the American frontier in the late eighteenth century. Portions of the manuscripts he wrote from his ranch in the Dakota Territory, not far from the spot where his monumental visage now rises beside Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. Of course Roosevelt, born in New York’s Flatiron district, was a rabid enthusiast of the West, and in his history he glorified the pursuits of the Allegheny backwoodsmen, precursors to the cowboys of Wyoming. He wrote, “The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages, though it is apt to be also the most terrible and inhuman. The rude, fierce settler who drives the savage from the land lays all civilized mankind under a debt to him.” Later Roosevelt intones, “It is of incalculable importance that America, Australia, and Siberia should pass out of the hands of their red, black, and yellow aboriginal owners, and become the heritage of the dominant world races.”
I must say that I laughed out loud when I read that passage, it being so at odds with the current PC imperatives of American life. But a lot of the sentiment communicated by Roosevelt (and his admiring chum Wister) remains deep inside our collective thinking. The Winning of the West mapped out for the culture the meaning of America’s Destiny—which Wister, in his bestselling novel, broadcast and popularized. By the time the last of Roosevelt’s volumes hit bookstores, this destiny was more than manifest: the conquering and civilizing of the country all the way to the Pacific (and eventually beyond), in order to protect American interests and values from the disruptive influence of the “savage.” Empire is always justified under the moral rubric of bringing modernity to the backward, but never since maybe the East India Company has its true motivation been employed with any honesty: namely, the backward never use their resources for proper financial gain.
Roosevelt’s 1904 expansion of the Monroe doctrine declared the US’s exclusive right to adjudicate, as it saw fit, international affairs in the Western hemisphere. As with James Monroe and his original pronouncement, Roosevelt wanted Europe’s big boys the hell out of Dodge, but whereas Monroe wanted merely to keep the hemisphere free from European intervention, Roosevelt sought to justify American intervention. In this way, the so-called Roosevelt corollary enabled—through a little revolution stoking in Panama, which soon won its independence from Colombia—the building of the Canal. But it also had the affect of setting precedent, and once world power shifted squarely into the hands of the United States a few decades later, Washington’s role as international constable already had the force of dogma.
The right to preemptive war, the central tenet of the Bush doctrine, represents the latest and most radical step in the evolution of this century-old dogma. Indeed, the most radical foreign policy innovation, period, since the United Nations was formed fifty-eight years ago. The UN’s basic duty is to prohibit the use of military force across international boundaries unless in self-defense against armed aggression by another state. Unlike its milquetoast predecessor, the League of Nations, the UN also has the power to enforce that prohibition. Thus when Iraq overran Kuwait, war occurred to push Iraq out. It is not a flawless system, of course. What happens when a stateless mega-terrorist such as Osama bin Laden threatens the security of a sovereign nation? That’s a big and tricky question, and the answer from the Bush administration has been to say, as Dick Cheney stated in February 2002, “The United States, and only the United States, can see this effort through to victory.”
How the US “sees” its way to “victory” is as undeniably utopian as Brigham Young’s vision of Mormon statehood. The Bush administration knows this, and has therefore denied it. In his West Point speech, the president said, “America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish.” But those are just words, for a moment later he went on to say, “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.” Many commentators have wrung their hands raw over that passage, for it suggests how mind-blowingly ambitious the Bush doctrine really is: it implicitly declares its intentions as a kind of world domination. If the goal of Osama bin Laden is to destroy, through acts of terrorism, the modern system of sovereign secular nationhood delimited by territory and replace it with a boundary-less world ruled over by a single ideology, he could not have picked a better partner in this task than the Bush administration. Instead of terrorism, the Bush administration will use preemptive strikes, or the threat of them. We have the best model, and if you don’t fall in line, prepare to become civilized. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re connected to bin Laden or al-Qaeda or not, as proved by the second Iraq War and the rhetorical figment of the “axis of evil.” The only axis that connects all these various threats is their common status as uncivilized places—uncivilized in the sense that they fail to imitate the “single sustainable model for national success.”
Halfway through The Virginian, a character called Shorty emerges. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Shorty is spineless, gutless, yellow. But he means well. He loves his horse, for example. Wanting the easy money, however, he falls in with the wrong crowd, a group of cattle rustlers headed by the Virginian’s arch enemy, name of Trampas. When the Virginian and his Easterner friend, the narrator, stumble upon the rustlers somewhere in the Tetons, Trampas, the better to make his escape, kills the hapless Shorty, who has given away their position with yet another act of incompetence.
Musing on Shorty’s ineptitude just before the Brooklynite’s murder, the Virginian tells the narrator, “Now back East you can be middling and get along. But if you go to try a thing on in this Western country, you’ve got to do it well. You’ve got to deal cyards [sic] well; you’ve got to steal well; and if you claim to be quick with your gun, you must be quick, for you’re a public temptation, and some man will not resist trying to prove he is the quicker. You must break all the Commandments well in this Western country, and Shorty should have stayed in Brooklyn, for he will be a novice his livelong days.”
To talk straight: the Bush administration thinks it is the upstanding Virginian—but its actions are the inept transgressions of a Shorty. I do think the president and his advisors truly believe it when they say that American free enterprise (because that’s the model we’re talking about) can make the world a better place. But to believe that it’s possible for a single nation, with its own internal and therefore singular imperatives and difficulties, to set this dignity-creating and happiness-pursuing system down on the world is, well, pretty utopian.
On the other hand, one doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder about some things. Cheney’s Halliburton. US companies alone receiving contracts to rebuild a ravaged Iraq. That bugaboo Big Oil. Ugly press leaks jeopardizing the CIA spook wife of an administration critic. A total of zero weapons of mass destruction, the ostensible reason for war in the first place, catalogued in the former caches of Hussein. Next year’s presidential elections. The Bush administration’s total unwillingness to extend to the UN even a modicum of control or oversight in Iraq, despite the president’s September histrionics at the Security Council, Upper East Side. Follow the money, the investigative cliché goes. You can follow it all the way to the setting sun.
The rise of shape-shifting and unprecedentedly deadly terrorist networks (along with the first foreign attack on American soil since the War of 1812) has necessitated a major rethinking of the role of the United States in the post–Cold War world. But the Bush doctrine takes a giant leap backward, into the realm of Teddy and Greeley and Mr. Wister. Like Judge Henry, Bush feels he has the authority to break the rules in order to enforce them, and, like Judge Henry, he believes that this rule-breaking will lead to “civilization.” Although the doctrine does make an attempt to deal with the world, it is at bottom hyper-isolationist, a continuation of the administration’s pre-9/11 foreign policy, when it spurned the world in so many different ways—the Kyoto environmental treaty, anti-ballistic missile accords, the International Criminal Court, etc. Of course Americans have always looked at the world through an American-made frame, but Bush and his doctrine have turned that outlook into actionable strategy. The doctrine seeks to keep the world out of the US’s business by making the world the business of the US alone. It is, in a sense, a Roosevelt Corollary for every hemisphere.
In other words, you should understand this: The quick-money ethos of the American West—epitomized by Shorty, by Trampas—lives just as prominently in the bedrooms of the American neighborhood as does Wister’s opposite, and positive, ethos—the hard-working individualist, the square-minded settler, the breaker of rules for a greater cause—the Virginian. Gold rushes, cardsharps, religious cults, movie deals. Go West, young man, and get rich. The American Dream lies just as much within the purview of the coke dealer as the CPA, the black-hearted cattle rustler as the honest ranch foreman. The question, then, might be this: To which does Bush pledge his allegiance? If one were a Manichean, one would answer “evil” or one would answer “good.” Translated to Hollywood, black hat or white. Of course it’s probably both. Of course it might be the wrong question. “It is only the great mediocrity that goes to law in these personal matters,” Owen Wister wrote in apology of his hero’s showdown with Trampas, who publicly ridiculed the Virginian at a saloon and threatened him with force. The Virginian would have nothing at all to do with mediocrity, and neither does the United States. Out on the Western street, false façades encompassing the action, the Virginian fired second. He didn’t miss. The Bush administration doesn’t aim to miss either, but its matters do not reside in private and, Trampas-wise, it’ll be damn sure to fire first.