Archive for February, 2007

Believing Our Own Hype

Thursday, February 8th, 2007

America’s failure in Iraq stems partly from errors and half-truths in our own cultural narrative, e.g.:

  • America is the richest country in the world.
  • America is a liberator.
  • America exemplifies liberty and justice.
  • Guns are a fundamental right.
  • Celebrate diversity.
  • Vietnam taught that you can’t win a guerrilla war.

To expand on that:

“America is the richest country in the world.” False. The statement confuses prosperity, which we have in abundance, with wealth, which we lack. On an equity basis, America, as the world’s largest net debtor, is actually the poorest country in the world. Support for the invasion was predicated on a mistaken idea that we can afford it. In the short run this is true, in exactly the same way that you could go out right now and buy a car with your credit card. The pain comes later. We are financially overextended, and our top priority is to fix that. We should think locally, focusing on productivity growth, until we fix our trade and budget deficits.

“America is a liberator.” False. What we did during World War II was so amazing that the global halo persists to this day. But it has not really been true since the Marshall Plan (if it was indeed ever true). America is just another nation, with just another set of national interests. This “liberator” concept is hype that confuses people worldwide, especially here, and undermines our reputation for truthfulness. Believing our own hype here led directly to the misapprehension that we would be welcomed as occupiers in Iraq.

“America exemplifies liberty and justice.” This was more or less true from 1965-2001, compared to other nations. Thereafter, ironically, as we have crowed ever louder about our example to the world, liberty and justice have eroded here and abroad — and everyone in the world knows it but us. This has led us to believe mistakenly that our moral authority permits us to take unilateral geopolitical action without consequences. Oops — there were consequences.

“Guns are a fundamental right.” Here, domestic politics caused brain damage to foreign policy. In 2003, the U.S. could easily have disarmed the entire nation of Iraq, making it effortless to tell friend from foe: anyone armed and out of uniform is a foe. Instead, civilians are permitted to run around with Kalashnikovs. Why? Almost certainly because of the imperative back home that we shall not take civilians’ guns away.

“Celebrate diversity.” Half true. Diversity is good, but celebrating it is often bad. To state this another way, ethnic and religious diversity benefits America economically and culturally, but petty tribalism causes self-segregation. Entrenched over generations, self-segregation destroys nations. Petty tribalism is instinctive. As a result, many people, particularly the uneducated, have a tendency to slip into it in the absence of mitigating forces. Re-instill those mitigating forces, and tribalism fades: note how ethnic civil wars often end when leadership makes it illegal for public institutions to organize by ethnic affiliation, essentially making it impossible to “celebrate” diversity politically. Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore is a good example: beginning around 1960, you could create any kind of political party you wanted, as long as it was not affiliated with the Malay and Chinese ethnic groups that dominate the country. By institutionalizing the tendency to ignore ethnic affiliation, Lee ended the internecine civil warfare that had dogged post-colonial Singapore. By contrast, in today’s Iraq, it seemed natural for American policymakers — ignorant of history, and accustomed to “celebrating” diversity back home — to permit Sunni, Shia and Kurdish political parties. Combine this with civilian AK-47 ownership, and you have instant civil war.

“Vietnam taught that you can’t win a guerrilla war.” Wrong. Vietnam taught that you can’t win a guerrilla war MILITARILY. It taught that you can’t back a corrupt government and expect popular support. And it taught that you may have to compromise politically to regain peace. Great Britain understood this 150 years ago, and resorted to playing warlords against each other to maintain order. Not pretty, but consider the alternatives in Iraq right now.

Time to stop believing our own hype, stop mindlessly repeating domestic buzz phrases, and instead see things as they are.