The Crusader State

The historian Walter McDougall, author of Promised Land, Crusader State, and a critic of foreign policy hubris, reflects on how his views have marginalized him among conservatives. It all began after his speech, “The Crusader State in the 21st Century,” which likened contemporary American interventionists to Medieval popes:

Both could make geopolitical arguments on their behalf: the Crusades, after all, were a long-delayed counteroffensive against Arab jihads. But both promoted forms of “assertive multilateralism” on behalf of “regime change” in hopes of solidifying and sanctifying their home fronts while forcibly exporting their civilization. But pious intentions did not prevent the crusading knights from wreaking death, destruction, and havoc at ruinous cost, including collateral massacres of non-combatant Muslims, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. Worse still, the Crusades became a self-perpetuating, transnational, political-economic system justified by “the revolutionary idea that Christendom had an intrinsic right to extend its sovereignty over all who did not recognize the rule of the Roman Church.”

With high irony I suggested the audience substitute America for Church and Democracy for Christianity to imagine how our modern crusaders could spawn perpetual war for perpetual peace—like Oceania in George Orwell’s 1984—and exhaust their own countries in the process. Much of the audience gave my talk a standing ovation, but an angry minority did not. Some were devout Catholics who took offense that I would liken Urban II to the sleazy Clinton! The rest appeared to be earnest young Straussians in whose neoconservative Weltanschauung my Burkean conservatism was heresy.