Saturday, July 03, 2004

Reflections on the 4th of July

Do you ever wonder why America's foreign policy so often seems to bite us in the ass? Why people that we give money, guns and bombs to so often end up our enemies? I'm thinking of Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, Manuel Noriega, and the Taliban. After all, we gave Saddam the chemical weapons he used on the Kurds.

The Atlantic Online has an interview with Niall Ferguson which supplies some of the metanarrative I've been wanting to explain America's poor performance as an imperial power.

Ferguson is a history professor and is actually a proponent of empire. He thinks the British empire was good for the UK and the rest of the world.

While Ferguson has written several books on this topic, in the interview he gives a thumbnail sketch of why America tends to prop up lousy dictators instead of building democratic institutions around the world.

Selected quotes:

Lobbing witty salvos at emasculated anti-imperialists (Americans, he says, would rather build shopping malls than nations) Ferguson openly fears that America will retreat from the world the way Europe has. He laments the "ideological embarrassment about being seen to wield power," and the "pusillanimous fear of military casualties." It's not that empires are all good, he says. It's just that the alternatives are worse. Ferguson fears that if the United States can't, or won't, set up proper, functioning governments in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, then no one will. The result could be a return to some form of ninth-century chaos, only this time with nuclear weapons.

* * * *

I was especially interested in the second phase, the "flawed assessment of indigenous sentiment." In your book, you point out that a third of Americans thought the Contras were fighting in Norway, and you discuss the lack of Arabic speakers in the CIA. And, of course, the invasion of Iraq was pushed by a President who had only been out of the country three times before taking office.

It's obviously a phenomenon that isn't peculiar to George W. Bush. A very large proportion of Americans don't have passports. But even more striking to me is the fact that the kind of people you might expect to be well-equipped to engage in what we rather euphemistically call nation-building—that's to say, the graduates of the elite universities—disproportionately avoid overseas engagements. The ambitions of the educational elite in this country are quite domestically focused. They really would rather be running a Wall Street law firm than governing Baghdad. And I think that's a fundamental social-cultural reason why the United States is bad at empire.

Right now in Iraq, the reliance on the military is almost complete. The British operation a hundred years ago was much more evenly divided between military and civilian administration. And indeed the civilians predominated. There aren't that many Jerry Bremers. This country doesn't produce people like him in large numbers. And you need to have hundreds of them to make a success of something like this. What's interesting is that in 1945 through to the early 1950s, when Germany and Japan were the targets of American quasi-imperial nation-building, the talent was there. And the reason the talent was there was the draft. By 1945, the American armed services were full of all kinds of diverse talents because of the sheer scale of World War Two. That meant you could turn to the army in Germany in 1945 and find economists and lawyers and people who had an understanding of business. In today's volunteer professional army you don't have those skills at all. You have people who are tremendously good at being soldiers and Marines. But they're not really trained to do the sorts of thing that you have to do once you've won a war. And they're the first to admit it. They're quite candid that they are practitioners of offensive military operations—killing bad guys is what they're trained to do. The business of constructing the rule of law and a functioning market economy is about as far removed from their expertise as you could get.

So do you think this cultural ignorance, or this insularity, is the Achilles heel of the American empire?

It's one of a couple weaknesses that are manifesting themselves more clearly with every passing day. I'm always careful how I phrase this, because it's all too easy to sound like a condescending European, or, worse, a condescending Brit. I don't mean to, because in fact I'm an Americanophile, and I want the American empire to succeed. I almost would avoid a term like ignorance, because it implies a certain smugness on the part of the person using it. But there clearly is an ignorance of history. There clearly isn't enough expertise with respect to the Arab world. That's undeniable. And there are other problems too—structural economic problems. The funds available for this operation are not limitless, because this is an empire based on borrowing. And the economic vulnerability is almost as serious a threat to the operation as the cultural limits of American empire. Part of the point of Colossus is to join up the story of American fiscal policy with the story of American foreign policy—two stories that are usually dealt with pretty separately.

Read the whole thing if you're interested.

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