Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition

In This Review

Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition

By Robert W. Merry
Simon & Schuster, 2005
320 pp. $26.00

This provocative and challenging book, one of the best and most thoughtful of a recent mini-spate of critiques of the Bush foreign policy from conservative realists, argues that Washington's current democratic zeal is misguided and misplaced. Islamic civilization, Merry argues, is fundamentally different from Western civilization. Democracy may not work in the Islamic world at all; if it does, it is more likely to empower radicals than to consolidate moderate rule. For Merry, Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West is a better guide to the future than Thomas Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree.

Although Merry views Western civilization as deeply misguided and the West as in inexorable decline, he argues that the United States has no alternative but to ally with Europe and Russia against the hostile lands beyond; he also calls for reduced immigration from the Islamic world as the clash of civilizations deepens. If nothing else, this book helps remind us just how elastic the term "realism" is and how much ideological baggage the theory normally carries: Merry calls himself a realist, but his proposed policies are shaped by complex, controversial, and by no means self-evidently true philosophical arguments about the nature of history. He is a Spenglerian declinist and a cultural determinist confronting the slow eclipse of the West. ("Great nations don't become adversaries to the countries of their heritage.") This is a respectable, honorable, and possibly even an accurate reading of world history, but it seems unlikely that either political party in this nation of optimists will embrace such a rigorous pessimism anytime soon.

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