FROM THE MOUTHS OF BABES
I’ve written before that much of American foreign policy is determined by domestic attitudes and politics, in a society driven by the fantasies of adults who never want to grow up, rather than by the complex realities of the world.
How else do you explain the perverse and destructive nature of so many of America’s intervention in the world after World War II? Like big, thoughtless kids kicking at colonies of birds’ nests, destroying lives and community without noticing anything much more than the exhilarating time they’ve had doing it.
Meanwhile, where great power might really have achieved something worthwhile, generally it has gone unused. I refer to the several genocides that occurred in the last third of the Twentieth Century, not using that word genocide loosely as it often is used in America but to describe massive, blood-soaked horror inflicted on a class or type of people. Indonesia, Cambodia, and Rwanda – each of these involved upwards of half a million people being slaughtered by their own countrymen. In each case, America never lifted a finger.
The rivers of Indonesia ran red and thick with gore at the end of Mr. Sukarno’s regime, but the American government thought that was fine since it was presumed members of the Communist party that were having their throats cut en masse.
Cambodia’s agony, brought on by America’s destabilizing secret bombing and invasions during the Vietnam War, was also fine since it only demonstrated the inhumanity of Communists and the validity of the paranoid “domino theory,” it being the intervention of war-weary Vietnam that mercifully ended the “killing fields”
There is no consistency here at all. In one genocide, Communists were being killed. In the other, Communists were doing the killing. Perhaps the State Department took to heart Emerson’s line about a “foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds.” The same philosophy undoubtedly prevailed in the several instances of America’s overturning unfriendly democracies and installing friendly brutal thugs. America only likes democracies that yield acceptable results.
Consistency did show up in the attitude towards Rwanda. After all, that was Africa, and who the hell cares about Africa?
There are many perverse and not-widely-understood aspects to this relationship between foreign affairs and domestic attitudes and politics. One of the most interesting was suggested to me by an off-handed remark in a letter from a reader in Holland. Americans can’t even keep peace and order in their own cities. What makes them think they are capable of doing it anywhere else?
Indeed, and that might explain the philosophy of “we destroy, you rebuild as best you can” so characteristic of America’s interventions. The big kid can climb aboard his supersonic plane and, almost like pushing the buttons on a fancy video-game, make flashes and puffs of smoke rise from tiny structures far below with even tinier, ant-like dots running in all directions. Some Americans are capable of mustering that much interest. Besides, you get to be called a hero for doing that.
The immense arrogance of a term like “regime change” is lost on America. Much of the world, in American eyes, just resembles beat-up, ugly ghettos run by gangs that can’t speak English, anyway. Why would anyone complain if we blew some of them up? This is the world as seen by American suburbanites cruising along in shiny, four-ton SUVs from “gated communities” to gated corporate headquarters, showing no interest in the scenes that rush by between one island of security and another. All that “stuff” in between might just as well be China or Egypt or Iraq.
America is a country that has almost no experience of war, except during the Civil War, and that was a very long time ago and was pretty much limited to one region of the country. America has never seen a city reduced to the rubble of Berlin or Tokyo after World War II, peopled by phantoms flitting about desperate to find any scrap of something useful or edible. It has never had to deal with millions of displaced persons who’ve lost everything, even their identification papers. Or had to endure a siege like that of Leningrad where tens of thousands of frozen corpses were stacked like logs in the streets as the living were reduced to conditions resembling the Stone Age. It has certainly never experienced the remorseless rape and pillage of a foreign army sweeping through its towns and cities. It never had to bury millions of its own.
Even in the gigantic upheaval of World War II, America’s loss of life amounted to just over one-half of one percent of the fifty million souls who perished.
So when decisions are made to bomb the homes and factories of others, killing and maiming thousands of people far away, most Americans have no experience. It’s all a little abstract. The job of politicians to decide.
And being immersed in concerns like whether they’ll be able to find just the right doll for little Kaitlyn’s birthday, they show little inclination to imagine what it would be like to feel the ground shudder hundreds of times between the screams of bombs and dying neighbors. Hell, who wants to think about things like that after a tough day at the office?
Another interesting aspect of this relationship between foreign policies and domestic matters reflects America’s attitude towards its own national government. Basically, since the nation’s beginnings, Americans have hated having a national government. Americans would never even have won the Revolutionary War without the immense assistance of the French. Many contemporary observers tell us how indifferent Americans had become to events in the last years. M. Duportail wrote that there was more excitement about the American Revolution in the cafes of Paris than he found in America. Washington spent most of his time writing desperate letters pleading for help, letters that often fell on deaf ears.
The proximate cause of the American Revolution, Britain’s imposition of taxes designed to help pay its vast expenses in securing victory over the French in the Seven Years War (a.k.a., the French and Indian War), a war which greatly benefited American colonists, reflected the colonists’ hatred of paying taxes. And little has changed in two and a quarter centuries. There are many Americans who view Washington as the distant capital of an occupying Roman power.
They have matured to this extent since the Revolution: they are willing to pay taxes for the military, although not much else.
This strange arrangement has a profound effect on foreign affairs. With many Americans taking little interest in foreign events and little interest in national government, a great deal of “maneuver room” is afforded to the nation’s power establishment. Their actions are effectively not subject to quite the scrutiny you might expect in an ostensibly democratic country. That is one reason a country that has so many of the characteristics of a democracy is capable of the kind of shameful things abroad you might expect from oligarchs or juntas.
This effect is further enhanced by the way in which elections are financed. Those who pay the bills are heard, and they are anything but a majority of Americans. And the country’s major popular information sources are owned by a relatively small number of powerful groups whose interests tend to be with the jingoistic and imperial.
It is often only intense international pressure which prevents America from doing some truly destructive and stupid things, just as on more than one occasion during the Cold War, Washington stood fully ready to use atomic weapons. One can only hope that international pressure has been sufficient to prevent the moral and intellectual mediocrity that now occupies the White House from launching an action whose long-term consequences may be just as terrible and unforgiving as the use of atomic weapons.