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.

Iraq and Afghanistan Are Not Rubik’s Cubes

A Rubik's Cube
A Rubik’s Cube

W.J. Astore

A few years ago I was talking to an experienced U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, a battalion commander in Iraq.  He compared the Iraqi situation to a Rubik’s Cube – a puzzling array of shifting loyalties, interconnected tribes, and religious sects.  At the time, I thought it was a telling metaphor.

But the metaphor was misleading.  A Rubik’s Cube can be solved.  Iraq couldn’t.  Not by the U.S.  Why?  Because Iraq was and is an Iraqi problem, not an American puzzle.  The more we twisted and turned the Iraqi cube, the more we avoided the reality that the heavily militarized U.S. presence in Iraq was a large part of the problem.

Similarly, Afghanistan is an Afghan problem.  Our long-term, heavily militarized, presence there is ultimately not in the best interests of the vast majority of Afghan people.  Nor for that matter is it ultimately in the best interests of America.

This conclusion may seem deceptively simple, even simple-minded.  But it isn’t.  It requires us to be humble.  It requires us to recognize that other countries and people are not problems for us to solve.  And American officials are loath to do that.  They are loath to admit any limits either to their power or insight.

This ham-fisted puzzle-solving mentality was endemic to the American presence in Vietnam.  In a probing book review of Carl Oglesby’s Ravens in the Storm, Dan White cites Oglesby’s experiences talking with the Vietnamese journalist Cao Giao.  One passage in particular caught my attention:

“You Americans [Cao Giao said] like to say the Vietnam problem is complex.  But this is only an excuse to not face the truth.  The truth is that the Vietnam problem is not complex at all.  It is only impossible.  Do you see?  If it was complex, you could try to solve it.  But it is simple because it is impossible.  Because it is simple it cannot be solved.”

Iraq and Afghanistan (or Yemen or Somalia or Syria) are not complex puzzles.  They’re not Rubik’s Cubes to be flipped and turned and massaged until we get all the colors to line up for us.  They’re impossible.  They’re impossible for us, that is.  We can’t “solve” them, no matter how many billions of dollars we spend, no matter how many troop brigades we send, no matter how many weapons we sell to them.

The simple truth (that U.S. officialdom seeks to deny) is that we consume our own myths of global reach, global power, and global goodness.  In the process we reduce other peoples and nations to puzzles.  We play with them until we “solve” them to our satisfaction.  Or we grow bored and tired and throw them away like yesterday’s toys.

Other nations and peoples are not toys.  Nor are they complex puzzles.  Nor should it be puzzling when the peoples we’ve flipped and spun like so many Rubik’s Cubes seek redress – and revenge.

The Need for Fresh Thinking in National Security Policy

It's impossible for Washington to think outside of the Pentagonal Box
It’s impossible for Washington to think outside of the Pentagonal Box

Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel and professor of international relations, writing in January 2009 as Barack Obama took office as president, made the following cogent observation about the need for true “change” in Washington:

When it comes to national security, the standard navigational charts used to guide the ship of state are obsolete.  The assumptions, doctrines, habits, and routines falling under the rubric of “national security policy” have outlived their usefulness.  The antidote to the disappointments and failures of the Bush years, illustrated most vividly in the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not to try harder, but to think differently.  Only then will it become possible to avoid the patently self-destructive behavior that today finds Americans facing the prospect of perpetual conflict that neither our army nor our economy can sustain.

Of course, Obama promised “change,” but with respect to national security policy, the sum total of the last five years of his watch has simply been more of the same.

Admittedly, the war in Iraq finally ended (for U.S. troops, not for the Iraqi people), but that was only because the Iraqis themselves refused to countenance the eternal presence of our troops there (of course, our boondoggle of an embassy in Baghdad survives).  Obama didn’t get us out of Iraq; he acquiesced to a deal Bush had already struck with the Iraqis.

Meanwhile, the U.S. remains ensnared in Afghanistan, squandering lives and resources to the tune of $100 billion a year.  Vague promises are made of an American withdrawal in 2014, but with an “enduring presence” (God help us) for another ten years after that.  Under Obama, drone strikes have expanded and continue; the national security state remains fat as it ever was, garrisoning the globe and spying on the world (including, as we recently learned, American citizens); and various tough-talking “experts” in Congress continue to call for new military interventions in places like Iran and Syria.

Why has this happened?  One reason is that Obama and his team wanted to be reelected in 2012, so they embraced the Bush neo-conservative approach of a hyper-kinetic, interventionist, foreign policy.  Fresh thinking was nowhere to be found, since any downsizing of American military commitments or its national security apparatus would have exposed Obama to charges of being “soft” on (Muslim) terror.

With respect to a bloated national security apparatus and wasteful military interventions, change didn’t come in 2008.  It was a case, as The Who song says, of “Meet the new boss.  Same as the old boss.”  Nor is change coming, seemingly, in the future.  Americans remain wedded to a colossal national security state that neither the president nor the Congress appears willing to challenge, let alone change.

Fresh thinking is the one thing you can’t buy in Washington because it’s priceless.  And for the lack of it, we’re paying a very high price indeed.

Next Article: Some fresh thinking on where we should be headed.

W.J. Astore