Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Absolution Dodge

Matthew Kaminski stubs his toe on a tautology and cries out Eureka! His purported epiphany is that Barack Obama will not, by virtue of his election and tenure as President, eradicate anti-Americanism. Kaminski's penetrating insight also uncovers the little known fact that anti-Americanism existed before President Bush, and will persist after President Obama. Remarkable.

The banality of this thesis has not limited its frequent use across a number of subject areas by the usual Bush administration apologists. Anne Applebaum offered one such example, and a similarly constructed argument has been used to describe the persistence of terrorism and extremism. While the basic premises underlying each of these painfully obvious observations (that Bush did not create these problems, nor can Obama eradicate them) doesn't really warrant mention, there is a method to this intellectual drabness.

The pundits that use this simplistic formulation are usually doing so in order to shield unwise and flawed foreign policy choices from criticism. The recognition of the durability of some level of anti-Americanism/extremism/terrorism quickly morphs into a fatalistic call to inaction. "Why change our foreign policy when nothing is going to completely extinguish anti-Americanism, extremism or terrorism everywhere?" As if complete eradication is the only viable goal, and as if the intensity of the anti-Americanism that exists in the world - and whether or not it leads to radicalization or cooperation with radicals - is irrelevant.

Many purveyors of this faux-wisdom go even further than bemoaning the lack of total solutions by attempting to altogether de-link the anti-Americanism/extremism/terrorism from any past, present or future actions on our part. Instead, these the source of these phenomena is attributed to some vague combination of jealousy, envy and the inevitable hostility directed at the lone superpower.

While there undoubtedly is, and always will be, some of this baseless animosity toward America, attributing the lion's share of anti-Americanism to these caprices is wrongheaded - though it has its uses when seeking to dismiss legitimate concerns of blowback from present or future foreign policy endeavors (such as, say, military confrontation with Iran). If they hate us for our freedoms, what does it matter if we bomb another Muslim country? Kaminski put it this way:

[O]ur earnest assertion of our superior ontological uniqueness--not to mention its reality in and of itself--is exactly what always grated on the unfriendlies grouped together under the banner of anti-Americanism.

Anne Applebaum describes it this way:

[H]atred for what [America] was believed to stand for – capitalism, globalisation, militarism, Zionism, Hollywood or McDonald’s, depending on your point of view...

While she at least alludes to the interplay of foreign policy decisions and anti-American sentiment ("militarism, Zionism"), these elements are dismissed as illusory or, at least, inconsequential grievances. This highly sanitized and romanticized view of America's history (and present policies) is a pernicious myth that deprives its adherents of the perspective necessary to appreciate some (not all!) of the sources of hostility. It's this type of myopia that confounds the many pundits that argue that, rather than hurl insults (and shoes) at President Bush, the ungrateful Iraqi people should thank him. For some useful history, why not peruse the CIA's Greatest Assassinations Coups Dirty Wars Hits, or review American imperialism in the Western Hemisphere. For starters.

At the risk of stating my own tautology, this "all or nothing/blameless" view is not conducive to crafting good policy. While some level of anti-Americanism/extremism/terrorism will exist no matter what policies US Presidents (past, present and future) adopt, that does not mean that our policies cannot have a positive impact on the degrees of each and that we should not consider this outcome in our decision making process. Even small adjustments in the intensity and pervasiveness of anti-Americanism/extremism can be meaningful.

While counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine is all the rage in military circles these days, its broader lessons are mostly ignored by the crowd that counsels against paying attention to foreign hearts and minds. Francis Fukuyama, to his credit, pointed out the obvious back in 2004:

But the [al-Qaeda] radicals swim in a much larger sea of Muslims-1.2 billion of them, more or less-who are not yet implacable enemies of the United States. If one has any doubts about this, one has only to look at the first of the United Nations Development Program's two Arab Human Development reports, which contained a poll asking whether respondents would like to emigrate to the United States if they had the opportunity. In virtually every Arab country, a majority of respondents said yes. On the other hand, recent Pew surveys of global public opinion show that positive feelings about the United States in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and other supposedly friendly Muslim countries has sunk to disastrously low levels. What these data taken as a whole suggest is that for the broad mass of public opinion in Muslim countries, we are disliked or hated not for what we are, but rather for what we do. What they do not like is a familiar list of complaints about our foreign policy that we somehow continue to fail to take seriously: our lack of concern for the plight of the Palestinians, our hypocritical support for dictators in Muslim countries, and now our occupation of Iraq.

The War on Terror is, in other words, a classic counter-insurgency war, except that it is one being played out on a global scale. There are genuine bad guys out there who are much more bitter ideological enemies than the Soviets ever were, but their success depends on the attitudes of the broader populations around them who can be alternatively supportive, hostile or indifferent-depending on how we play our cards.

Jonathan Rauch:

The Iraq adventure fueled a precipitous decline in America’s image abroad, and Bush’s pugnacious style during his first term and his tin ear for foreign opinion made a bad situation worse. This is more than just a public-relations problem. National prestige is diplomatic capital; the more unpopular America becomes, the higher the price of foreign support. Mark Malloch Brown, the UN’s deputy secretary-general, recently said that suspicion of the United States has grown to the point where “many otherwise quite moderate countries” are inclined to oppose anything we favor.

As James Fallows notes, Osama bin Laden is certainly paying attention to the impact our policies have on anti-Americanism and relations with allies and neutral states:

The final destructive response helping al-Qaeda has been America’s estrangement from its allies and diminution of its traditionally vast "soft power" [ed: or "influence" as the kool kids are calling it these days] "America’s cause is doomed unless it regains the moral high ground," Sir Richard Dearlove, the former director of Britain’s secret intelligence agency, MI-6, told me. He pointed out that by the end of the Cold War there was no dispute worldwide about which side held the moral high ground—and that this made his work as a spymaster far easier. "Potential recruits would come to us because they believed in the cause," he said. A senior army officer from a country whose forces are fighting alongside America's in Iraq similarly told me that America "simply has to recapture its moral authority."

As referenced above, it is a widely documented fact that anti-Americanism has surged worldwide under the tenure of George Bush (from Europe and South American to the Middle East and Asia), as have the number of terrorist incidents. Bush's policies are not the sole impetus for those spikes, but they are a major contributing factor. Such heightened levels of anti-Americanism hinder our ability to achieve a wide range of objectives, and reduce our security at home and abroad.

While undoing the damage done under Bush is a worthy goal, merely rolling back anti-Americanism/extremism/terrorism to the levels that existed the day that Bush entered office is not sufficient. There is room for progress beyond merely repairing the legacy of Bush (pushing for meaningful progress in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for example). Beyond that, we need to rethink our role in the world, and the privileges of power that we have oft abused.

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