Training Wheels: The Fatal Flaw in U.S. Foreign Policy

Put them on? Take them off? The dilemma of US foreign policy "experts"
Put them on? Take them off? The dilemma of US foreign policy “experts”

W.J. Astore

You read it here first: the fatal flaw in U.S. foreign policy is training wheels.  Yes, those supplemental wheels you add to your child’s bike when she’s first trying to learn how to balance herself as she pedals.

How so?  Listen closely to America’s leaders as they talk about helping Iraqis, Afghans, and other peoples.  A common expression they use is training wheels, which they visualize themselves as affixing to or removing from the Iraqi or Afghan governmental bike.  Because the idea of democracy is apparently so new and novel to foreign peoples, and because these foreigners basically act like so many children when it comes to governing themselves equitably, the U.S. must treat them like so many unskilled and tippy children on bikes.  We must affix training wheels to their bikes of state, and at the proper moment – a moment that only American adults can determine – those training wheels must then be removed.

Sounds simple – or is it?

Some examples suggest it’s not so simple.   In January 2004, President George W. Bush told his fellow Republicans that Iraqis were ready to “take the training wheels off” and assume some responsibility for their own self-government.  Yet a decade later in June 2014, retired General Michael Hayden, formerly head of the NSA and CIA, claimed that America “took the training wheels off the new Iraqi government far too early,” and by “too early” Hayden meant 2011, not seven years earlier in 2004.

Another American “adult” in the room, retired General Anthony Zinni, formerly commander of US Central Command, disagreed with Hayden, saying in December 2014 that those training wheels were still very much on in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, and that it was now high time for us to take them off.   That may have surprised Vice President Joe Biden, who said back in November 2010 that it was time for Afghans to remove their governmental training wheels, and if they didn’t, “Daddy” would do it for them.

In fact, those were Biden’s exact words on Larry King Live:  “Daddy is going to start to take the training wheels off … next July [2011], so you [Afghan leaders had] better practice riding.”  That admonition from their American “Daddy” in 2010 has failed over the last half-decade to inspire Afghan leaders to pedal smartly for American-style democracy.

And there’s the rub.  You don’t win foreign peoples to your side by treating them like so many unskilled and tippy children.  You don’t condescend to them by comparing their efforts to children trying to learn to ride a bike for the first time.  And you certainly don’t shake a finger at them that “Daddy” has lost patience and is going to remove the training wheels, whether they’re ready or not.

So, how do Americans respond when their Iraqi or Afghan “children” get angry at “Daddy” for messing with their training wheels?  Whether oblivious or indifferent to their own condescension, Americans respond by treating their foreign “children” as ingrates.  “Ingratitude, the vilest weed that grows,” to cite Eugene O’Neill’s play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, generates anger – and violence.

Dammit, why can’t these foreign “kids” learn to ride their democratic bikes?  Time to cut their allowance (in this case, American aid).  Or perhaps it’s even time for a good ass whooping with Daddy’s belt (in this case, drones firing Hellfire missiles).

Those foreign ingrates!  We gave them everything — lots of money, lots of aid, American troops and advisers, even “training wheels” for their bikes of democracy — and they still despise us.  Why?

I’ll tell you why.  They don’t hate us for our freedoms, as former President George W. Bush once claimed.  But they may very well despise us for our training wheels – and for all the smugness and paternalism and condescension they represent.

What Americans Value

There's no shortage of tanks in the USA
There’s no shortage of tanks in the USA

W.J. Astore

A sentiment attributed to Vice President Joe Biden is, Show me what’s in your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.  These words resonate with me whenever I consider the yearly budget for the Department of Defense (DoD), Homeland Security, the Department of Energy (which handles nuclear weapons), and the various intelligence agencies (roughly 17; that’s why they form a community).

When you add up what we spend on defense, homeland security, “overseas contingency operations” (wars), nuclear weapons, and intelligence and surveillance operations, the sum approaches $750 billion dollars each and every year, consuming more than two-thirds of the federal government’s discretionary spending.

Here are some figures for Fiscal Year 2015 (FY15):

Defense: “Base” budget of $496 billion

Afghan War (not part of “defense”): $85 billion

VA: $65 billion

Homeland Security: $38 billion

Nuclear Weapons: $12 billion

FBI and Cyber Security (part of Justice Department budget): $18 billion

Total: $714 billion

Some of the budget of the State Department and for foreign aid supports weapons and training (“foreign military sales”), bringing us to roughly three-quarters of a trillion dollars, each and every year, on the military, intelligence, security, weapons, and wars.

How much do we spend at the federal level on education, interior, and transportation?  Roughly $95 billion.

When a government spends almost eight times as much on its military, security, wars, weapons, and the like as it does on educating its youth, fixing its roads and bridges and related infrastructure, and maintaining its national parks and land, is there any question what that country ultimately values?

Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.  Sobering words. Sobering — and scary.