One Word Defines U.S. Foreign Policy: Hubris

Like Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard," Our Hubristic Leaders Are Always Ready for their Close-up
Like Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard,” Our Hubristic Leaders Are Always Ready for their Close-up

W.J. Astore

When Hannah Arendt, the famous German-American political philosopher, criticized American involvement in the Vietnam War, she said that our foreign policy “experts” fell prey to using excessive means to achieve minor aims in a region of marginal interest to the United States.  You could say the same of most of America’s foreign interventions since 1945.  We are a superpower with a boundless propensity for meddling in world affairs.  We waste enormous amounts of money and resources intervening in areas that are of marginal importance to our national security.

There are many reasons for these wasteful interventions, of course.  The military-industrial-Congressional complex plays its role. Presidents love to intervene as a sign of “strength.” Natural resources, especially oil, are usually in play.  The usual motives, in short: profit, power, greed.

But perhaps the root cause of our mistakes can be traced to hubris, our prideful belief that we can remake other societies and peoples in our image.  Our hubris leads us to undervalue legitimate cultural differences, and to underestimate the difficulties involved in bridging those distances.  Because we underestimate the difficulties, we rush in with money and troops, only to find that the problems we encounter — and often exacerbate — are not amenable to being solved with money and troops.  Nevertheless, once we’ve committed our prestige, we believe that we can’t withdraw without losing face.  So we commit even more money and troops and prestige, until our folly can no longer be denied, even to ourselves.  After which, sadly, we usually search for scapegoats.

Rarely do we stop to think that some problems simply can’t be solved with massive infusions of money and troops.  Indeed, infusions of the same often exacerbate the very problems we claim we’re trying to solve.

The way out, to paraphrase Arendt, is to commit only those means necessary to secure our major aims in regions of vital interest to the U.S.

Such an approach requires humility as well as moderation. Our foreign policy types will need to stop strutting the world stage as if they own it.  Our leaders will need to stop vamping like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, declaiming “I am big.  It’s the pictures that got small.” (If only they had her style.)

“Look at them in the front offices.  The masterminds!”  Yes, Gloria Swanson had it right. Our foreign policy “masterminds” need to learn some humility.  Either that, or America will be among the smashed idols of history.

17 thoughts on “One Word Defines U.S. Foreign Policy: Hubris

  1. A very insightful analysis of our country’s decline in public and nternational morality, Thank you. I do wonder though whether the group “we” which implies that our citizenry are, as a collective, part of this show of “hubris”is a fair statement. We vote but the people who pay the politicians the most seem to get their way, not the people who vote. for them
    We also argue in this blog that our citizens are ill informed by our media and mislead by our politicians and that our democracy (representation) is shredded. If that is the case shouldn’t we be putting the blame , not on ‘we’, but directly on our President and Congress and the corporate owned and controlled media and shills who deny the facts to our citizenry?

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    1. Yes, the powerful are more to blame than the powerless. But all should shoulder a little blame — We are supposed to be responsible citizens, not deadbeat ones.

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    2. The answer to that question is a definite YES. The media deserves the most blame, since it’s their duty to inform the citizenry of the facts; so, if they fail to do their duty, they must assume blame for the situation this nation is in. An uninformed, ignorant citizenry is unable to make the right decisions at the polls; thus, cannot be blamed when those they elect do wrong.

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  2. First a quick rebuttal to Col. Astore, then I am compelled to comment on the dreaded subject of George W. Bush (yikes!!). “…[T]he way out…is to commit only those means necessary to secure OUR major aims in REGIONS OF VITAL INTEREST to the U.S.” (my emphases added–GL). Your indoctrination as an officer in the US Air Force is showing, Col. Astore! Your statement implies that the US government and its armed forces are actually capable of acting in the interest of we, the people rather than the imperialist ruling class. It’s the latter who get to determine what is “of vital interest” to THEIR benefit. This is a thoroughly Establishment stance and NOT a contrary perspective at all.

    On to the dreaded subject. While wisely mostly keeping out of public view, #43 has suddenly erupted as a portrait painter (see recent issues of NY Times), of all things. Today’s (5 April 2014) Times showed what I take to be a self-portrait. Dubya must have a good deal of talent in this arena, for he has managed to present himself as an intelligent, thoughtful, serious-looking individual. No sign of that irritating smirk he so often wore in public. Also on the topic of G.W.B., I recently watched the Bonus Material that accompanies the DVDs of Oliver Stone’s HBO project, “Untold History of the United States.” I was astounded by an excerpt from a candidates’ debate with Albert Albert Gore, Jr. from the 2000 campaign. (You see, I didn’t have the stomach to have watched that stuff back then; Gore turned me off and I wasn’t aware of the threat Bush posed.) Little George was surprisingly sharp that night as he castigated Gore for being the type likely to go off engaging in “nation building” abroad. In retrospect, of course, with Iraq in ruins and Afghanistan still “benefiting” from the US “nation-building” presence, enthusiastically inherited by Obummer, the irony of such an accusation is colossal. I wish I could comment on Errol Morris’s new documentary, his interview with Donald Rumsfeld, but all I can say is I look forward to seeing it on DVD, as I no longer patronize movie theaters. Sing us a song of “known unknowns,” dear old Rummy…

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    1. Well my perspective is contrary to yours, GL. But what can we say if you’re correct? That the ship of state has been hijacked and that the hijackers have only their own mercenary motives at mind? In that case, all we can do is disarm the hijackers and thrown them overboard. How do we do this? Sounds like a revolution is required. Recall the words of Thomas Jefferson: Is it time to refresh the Tree of Liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants? Grab your torch and pitchfork, GL. To the ramparts and barricades! Liberty or death!

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      1. Yes, absolutely “the ship of state has been hijacked,” but gradually and in plain sight of an uncomprehending, apathetic public. The “Doomsday Preppers” would have you believe total anarchy in the streets is just around the corner. But there is no revolutionary consciousness in this country, and so there will be no revolution…anytime soon. “Occupy Wall Street” got some momentum going, but they refused to adopt a program with specific demands. Afraid to be condemned as “revolutionaries,” I guess. But things change. Everything changes. In the meantime, conditions will simply continue to deteriorate. Sorry I don’t have a sunnier forecast to make.

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  3. Unfortunately the rich in their quest for total power given to them by their political minions who stacked the supreme court with proto fascists and have now made it easier to hijack our nation. This is driving the nation into economic disaster for the citizenry and inevitably they will arise in rebellion. The rich never seem to learn from history. And the poor never seem to learn until it is too late.

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  4. This same hubris is exhibited internally, upon the nation’s citizens and their lawful commerce…. IRS, EPA, NPS, ACE, BLM, DHS, BATF, DOJ, etc.

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  5. Elites who know better and are acting for their own profit quite cynically, do pander deceitfully to the American people encouraging in us our “hubris, our prideful belief that we can remake other societies and peoples in our image.” So we are certainly complicit in being rather willingly manipulated by them through appeals to our vanity that we are “exceptional.”

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  6. Reblogged this on Bracing Views and commented:

    Andrew Bacevich has a new article at TomDispatch.com in which he highlights the bankruptcy of US strategy in the Greater Middle East. Here’s an excerpt: “We have it on highest authority: the recent killing of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan marks ‘an important milestone.’ So the president of the United States has declared, with that claim duly echoed and implicitly endorsed by media commentary — the New York Times reporting, for example, that Mansour’s death leaves the Taliban leadership ‘shocked’ and ‘shaken.’

    “But a question remains: A milestone toward what exactly?

    “Toward victory? Peace? Reconciliation? At the very least, toward the prospect of the violence abating? Merely posing the question is to imply that U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Islamic world serve some larger purpose.

    “Yet for years now that has not been the case. The assassination of Mansour instead joins a long list of previous milestones, turning points, and landmarks briefly heralded as significant achievements only to prove much less than advertised.”

    He concludes this way: “Try this thought experiment. Imagine the opposing candidates in a presidential campaign each refusing to accept war as the new normal. Imagine them actually taking stock of the broader fight that’s been ongoing for decades now. Imagine them offering alternatives to armed conflicts that just drag on and on. Now that would be a milestone.”

    But we won’t be seeing that milestone. Why? One word: hubris. Like a bunch of bad actors, US leaders will continue to hog the world stage, hamming it up even as they bomb (pun intended). No matter what, they can’t vacate the stage until they’re thrown off of it. They are as delusional as Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard,” but without her style.

    Here’s the link to Bacevich’s article: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176147/

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  7. No disagreement that the rich and powerful interests and a lazy, beholden media are in part responsible for allowing US Hubris to prevail in our foreign policy. But a very important contributor is a large part of the US citizenry that is ignorant and racist. Ignorant of basic civics, history, and world cultural geography. Racist in that no (fill in the blank with a racist term) is going push the US of A around, no sir!

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    1. Fair points. Ignorance, for sure. Racist? Sometimes. And sometimes it’s just pigheaded nationalism, which people mistake for patriotism.

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  8. Reading through the late Chalmers Johnson’s epic “Blowback” trilogy, I came upon the following quote from Hannah Arendt:

    “Some years ago,” she wrote, “reporting the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem, I spoke of the ‘banality of evil’ and meant with this no theory or doctrine but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was perhaps an extraordinary shallowness. However monstrous the deeds were, the doer was neither monstrous nor demonic, and the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” — Nemesis: the Last Days of the American Republic (2006), p. 21

    Professor Johnson goes on to comment on Arendt’s observation:

    “Arendt was trying to locate Eichmann’s conscience. She called him a “desk murderer,” an equally apt term for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld – for anyone, in fact, who orders remote-control killing of the modern sort – the bombardment of a country that lacks any form of air defense, the firing of cruise missiles from a warship at sea into countries unable to respond, such as Iraq, Sudan, or Afghanistan, or, say, the unleashing of a hellfire missile from a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle controlled by “pilots” thousands of miles from the prospective target.” — Nemesis: the Last Days of the American Republic (2006), p. 21

    Then, he asks:

    How do ordinary people become desk murderers? First they must lose the ability to think because, according to Arendt, “thinking conditions men against evil doing.” Nemesis, p. 22

    Finally, Professor Johnson adds:

    “No Pentagon civilian or American officer above the rank of lieutenant colonel has so far been prosecuted for the policies that led to Abu Ghraib and other acts of torture and murder in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, another proof that, as a consequence of our half century of devotion to war, we unintentionally abandoned our republican checks on the activities of public officials and elevated the military to a position that places it, in actual practice, beyond the law. In so doing, what we have created is a large corps of desk murderers in our executive branch and in the highest ranks of our armed forces.” Nemesis, pp. 22-23

    So, we now hear that our desk-murderer-in-chief, Barack Obama, along with his “large corps of desk murderers in our executive branch and in the highest ranks of our armed forces,” have conspired to drone-murderer an Afghan person driving in a car somewhere in Pakistan, a country with which the United States is not at war but whose “national sovereignty” appears subject to the whim of one man (or possibly, woman) at a desk somewhere in Washington D.C., U.S.A. Unfortunately, this large corps of desk murderers also killed the innocent driver of the car, leaving his daughter and three sons without a father to provide for them. Of course, according to desk murderer Obama’s many legal minions, the dead driver and passenger of the incinerated car can always come back from the grave and posthumously prove their innocence, should they wish to do so at some later, as yet unspecified, date.

    With all this in mind, fellow Crimestoppers, I would have to say that the United States of America presently has a “government” run by not only shallow, soulless, militarists who cannot think or excercise moral judgements, but semantically challenged morons who appear certifiably insane, as well. “The last Days of the Republic,” indeed.

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    1. Yes — For Eichmann, Jews were an abstraction as well as a menace — simply something to get rid of. Don’t think about it — just do it. Just exploit them while killing them (and get a promotion to boot).

      We see something similar at work in the “war on terror.” People become abstractions. Thus the cab driver becomes “collateral damage” — an abstraction. Ho hum.

      Arendt was right: evil can be banal. It can become a routine, a bureaucratic process, done at a “safe” distance, by chair-bound paper-pushers.

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