U.S. has distorted self-image
Cultural products and government propaganda, such as Hollywood movies and bio-terror drills during the first Gulf War, are what construct the public’s perspective of the nation’s role in the global arena. Yet Rambo never really freed the Afghans, and contrary to our belief about ourselves of being the heroic saviors of the oppressed, we actually abandoned them after the defeat of the Soviets. Would it be presumptuous, then, to believe our support of the Mujahideen was based on self-interest?
A critical look in the mirror will reveal otherwise, and there is a schism between the reality of our international attitude and our romantic self-image.
How many of us know that some say the Rambo movies were in fact used in Sierra Leone to convince child soldiers to brutally murder people? Our surprise at learning this says something about our global awareness. And, of course, we were never under the threat of bio-terror attacks by Saddam Hussein, since he did not even have long-range attack capability.
Clearly there is widespread ignorance of international affairs amongst Americans. The consequence is that we were blinded to the threat of the onslaught on Sept. 11 and ended up suspecting Hussein’s involvement. Our reaction to Sept. 11 epitomizes the problem: instead of properly identifying our enemy – and hence creating effective defense strategies – we acted on our lack of knowledge.
We simply believed that those who hated us were irrational because it conflicted with our self-image as people who stood for freedom and justice. That line of thinking is easy, but not useful.
Unfortunately, human beings naturally gravitate toward easy theories.
Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, that you must understand your enemies in order to defeat them. Centuries later we have failed to grasp this basic principle. Today’s reality requires critical thinking on our part. We need to be open to all possibilities, including the idea of foreign policy – that is, how we deal with the rest of the world. A scrupulous look is needed at our historic attitude toward other nations in order to give context to current world events and dynamics in the international arena.
For example, the Marshall Plan, which was offered to the Europeans as a means of rebuilding their economy, came with regulations that gave us wide influence over them.
The Cold War proved to be the best thing that happened to us as it gave us an opponent that provided balance. This bipolar system made us the supreme leader of the free world, allowing us tremendous influence and economic concessions over large swathes of it. We supported many dictatorships, all in the name of containing the communist threat. The fact that U.S. investors benefited from the free markets instituted by the brutal Chilean tyrant Augusto Pinochet, for instance, was brushed under the rug.
From this pragmatic foreign policy emerged ideas to create the Taliban, to support and encourage agents such as Osama Bin Laden and to finance and supply Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran. We followed this realist strategy even under the great liberal, President Clinton.
Madeline Albright, Clinton’s secretary of state, broadcast an interview via CNN all over the world in which she said it was worth 500,000 Iraqi children’s deaths to contain Hussein. Therefore, I was not surprised to learn it was Arabs who flew those planes into our towers.
The bottom line, however, is that I understand our foreign policy usually successfully achieves its primary objectives: maintaining our security and power. But the important point is that I realize our proclaimed cause of freedom and democracy is a distant second, if that. I am not complaining, but there is a change I would argue for: an enlightened American public that sees the entire picture. We need to know the costs of our freedom and prosperity, so that we are not caught unsuspectingly the next time someone we have angered targets us.
Ahmad, a political science senior, can be reached via [email protected].