All it took was a half-burnt pile of trash to turn America from the noble, heroic savior of the Afghan people into the hated, conqueror from the West, and the infidel nation committing crimes against Islam, burning the holy Quran outside Bagram Air Base in the capital of Afghanistan. Inside a nation of extremes, there are a few things that despite Billions of dollars of aid and countless lives sacrificed in the name of liberation from an oppressive Taliban regime, nobody can get away with, and burning the word of God happens to be one of them.
What does one do if he finds himself in the shoes of the commander in chief of the military personnel responsible for committing such atrocities? That answer is the same as it is for any number of CEOs who hide behind PR departments when their people upset their customers; damage control and lots of it. So when Afghan President Hamid Karzai, responding to popular outrage over the incident, clinging to power by the thinnest of threads, demands a public trial for the guilty perpetrators of this act; President Obama apologizes and promises to investigate the matter.
Meanwhile, Americans who have seen their embassies bombed, soldiers killed, flag burned and any number of offenses carried out by the Afghan people are scratching their heads wondering when the Afghan government is going to reciprocate and root out the guilty parties who committed those crimes. The whole mess crystallizes a problem that has been quietly fomenting in the background of American Foreign Policy since before 9/11. America, being the nation of peace-loving, war-mongers we are, have been cast the role of reluctant conqueror and carefully balanced a desire to maintain world order with a strong distaste for being perceived as a “bad guy” by the rest of the world. Afghanistan is just the latest example of this identity conflict and it’s getting out of hand.
America represents a lot of things to the people of other nations. It exports its ideas, technology, corporations and culture. In many cases the process of exporting these things to other people around the world is welcome. Not many people are complaining about the newest Disney Pixar film that comes from America. The American Government, most recently led by the Obama Administration inherited the role of exporter of a number of things that it wishes it didn’t have to be responsible for. Namely, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the tense standoff between the Western Allies and Iran and North Korea over nuclear weapons. In response, like the good people over at Disney, American foreign policy has to appear to be in the interest of everyone; that is, everyone but America.
Under the guise of the United Nations, American foreign policy has been successful in deposing the dictators of a number of hostile nations. Namely, Libya in the Fall of 2011. However, when it comes to the more thorny issues where the interests of other members of the UN Security Council, Russia and China are at odds with American interests, such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria, America’s favorable image is tough to maintain at best. So, why doesn’t America go off on it’s own and deal with these threats in the same manner as it did under the Bush Administration, directly and with force as with Iraq in 2003? The answer is an identity crisis of foreign policy.
Some Americans are truly good, altruistic and firmly opposed to causing any harm on any nation or people who have not harmed them directly. This is the identity image that the US Government would like to show the rest of the world, even as it is flying unmanned drones overhead, engaged in illicit investigations, and sending spies to infiltrate all areas of governance abroad. Then there are the other Americans, the ones who are flying the drones,
bribing contributing the campaigns of the elected officials who authorize illicit investigations and those who are constantly under siege from all manner of espionage originating outside America’s shores. These are the people who silently pull the strings of foreign policy and their aims are often in direct opposition to the public face of American Foreign policy.
Nowhere else, is this two faced approach more clear, than in the case of Bradley Manning, the 23 year old Army Intelligence officer who handed over hundreds of thousands of top secret files and transmissions between US State and Defense Department officials, which showed the not-so-soft side of America’s warm and fuzzy approach to their foreign diplomat counterparts and so-called allies to wikileaks.org, the non-profit website devoted to free speech and exposing the dark corners of the world’s biggest cover-ups. In this unprecedented act, the curtain was pulled open, exposing the hairy legs of an unfriendly, uncooperative, and downright belittling foreign policy that while publicly unexposed in the media, has been an all too familiar face to the enemies of state who have challenged the goals of American foreign policy over time.
So why all the subterfuge? Are Americans that naive to believe that their elected officials and appointed ambassadors and volunteer soldiers are confronting the enemy with the same level of respect for their basic human rights and respecting their sovereignty and dignity in the same way that they expect their public officials to treat citizens at home? I guess that is the message behind all of the empty promises of justice for Quran burning perpetrators and those who would urinate on the dead in combat. Americans believe in their own self created good-guy myth and any chance that we have at undertaking meaningful efforts to get what we want by embracing a bifurcated approach to foreign policy is sheer wishful thinking.
If the recent backlash in Afghanistan against Americans who failed to live up to their squeaky clean image (imagined or otherwise) is any indicator for the success of the two-faced posture the US has adopted, there is much to be desired when it comes to the effectiveness it has achieved. America’s current and future leaders have a simple, but potentially painful choice; adopt a more honest approach, or risk continued foreign policy failures like the Afghanistan where peace and acceptance of the values America wishes to impose are no closer to being achieved today than they were more than ten years ago when it’s intervention started.
So what does that actually mean?
Americans need find a sensible compromise between choosing whether or not to intervene in the affairs of another state, and it needs to be perfectly clear in it’s intentions of conquest, or it should just stay home and mind it’s own business. Either America is going to stand up for freedom, democracy and liberty for all and fight the injustices of illegitimate regimes wherever they oppress their populations, and see to it that when they leave a country, they leave it in a position of partnership and prosperity, or it’s going to have to let the rest of the world fight it’s own conflicts. Obviously by doing the former, it would require a stronger commitment of resources, including the lives of soldiers and non-combatants, and it flies in the face of the image that Americans would like the rest of the world to picture when they think of them, but what’s at stake if America doesn’t choose a route of honest engagement? The very credibility of America when it comes to all future dealings with foreign nations.
Americans have the ability to still come out as the good guys, even when intervening in a conflict unilaterally against opposing regimes in other countries, but we must stay the course and remain fully committed to truly helping people achieve a better standard of living than the one they had under their former ruling regime. The standard for this type of improvement needs to be higher as well. If America wants to bomb a country into the stone age, it had better be prepared to rebuild it back into the space age. In order for that to happen, Americans need to stop hiding from the responsibilities that come with being a conquering nation. If we’re going into a country with boots on the ground, we had better be prepared to raise the stars and stripes and say so long to any notion that the new sovereign puppet regime will be able to invent a better wheel when it comes to the rule of law than good old Uncle Sam.
For example, in Iraq, America basically joined a religious civil war that was being won very lopsidedly by the minority ruling, Sunni Baathist Regime. While having good intentions in turning the sovereignty over to the people of Iraq, and trying to form a majority-rules democracy where the Iraqi people could decide their own laws and system of governance, what happened was a classic case where the majority is in the process of taking revenge upon their former repressors and violence and conflict are a daily ritual in the nascent state. Had the US stayed in Iraq, and extended its own institutions, or at least duplicated them more closely, protecting the rights of all Iraqis in the process, a much different set of stakes would exist for that nation. However, a prolonged presence costs money, and since America doesn’t want to look like a bad guy, no institutions or treaties were ever agreed upon as a condition of the turnover to pay for continued or former occupation and support by American liberators. This could quite possibly have been one of the biggest blunders in the history of American Foreign Policy.
Iraq isn’t America’s only problem in the Middle East either. The conflicts in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Iraq all have involved a measure of religious conflict to them and invariably the two sides have been the Shiites and Sunnis or some version of fundamentalist Islamic factions against more liberal Muslims. Despite every attempt the Western Allied victor nations of World War II have made to segment the populations of these religious factions into nation states, they continue to hold their religious allegiances in higher regard than their national citizenship. As a result, the Western approach to dealing with nation states that house these warring factions has been inadequate to say the least. If there is one major flaw to the Western approach to foreign relations it is it’s inability to deal with conflicts that transcend nation states, especially without violating it’s own highly valued principles of sovereignty of states. While the age old rivalry between the two Muslim factions spreads across a resource rich region, the Western attempts to intervene do nothing to meaningfully engage the principal actors behind the different groups perpetrating atrocities on their fellow human beings.
As long as the nation states of the Middle East do not embrace the same value structure that Western countries hold central to their value system and rely upon as a framework for building law and institutional order, the two regions will be fundamentally incompatible in many significant regards. Western nations rely on equality, liberty and protection of individual rights for citizens to feel as though they have a fair and balanced government presiding over their societies. As long as these traits, which in most circumstances run counter to religious beliefs of hard line fundamentalist Islamic interpreting regimes, are absent from the governing process of the areas of conflict, there will be no peaceful prosperity for the people of those states. This is a strongly held belief of many Americans, including those in charge of establishing foreign policy, so why is that not more explicitly stated as a core principal of engagement for all nations in the region?
If America’s economic interests are best served by compatible liberal democracies, that afford the right of citizens to engage in world markets for trade and commerce, it should stop beating the drum of liberty and freedom for all as it’s headline cause for intervening in the affairs of other states and take up the mantle of creating government frameworks as it’s chief stated goal. As long as the two objectives run in the same direction, America is more than willing to put on it’s charming face of liberator and freedom fighter for the oppressed, but only insofar as it is convenient to maintain both objectives at the same time. This is extremely toxic to America’s credibility. Instead of propping up dictatorships who maintain order and installing puppet regimes like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan who truly lack the people’s support, if America wants to achieve it’s long term goals of prosperous liberal economies where cesspools of religious conflict and inequality currently reside, it is going to have to take the gloves off and be willing to remain true to its unstated and unpopular intentions and maintain the unpopular job of nation-building until it’s done.
Take post-war Japan as a prime example. After a long and bitter war that cost millions of lives across the Pacific, American forces bombed the unstoppable Japanese military machine into submission. A formal surrender of the ruling regime took place and America took control over the island nation. What followed was many years of coordinated intervention into the constitution, the military capabilities and the economic practices and basic rights of the Japanese society. America, seeing the strategic importance of a strong, liberal economic trading partner in Asia, recognized the value of finishing the job it started when it decided to engage in open war against Japan. Today, Japan is one of America’s closest allies and at one point it was one of our greatest enemies. Nobody is going to argue that using nuclear weapons is the best way to achieve foreign policy initiatives, however, when dealing with the fallout that accompanies regime change following armed conflict, the same circumstances exist. Ignoring the needs of the people who are precariously transitioning between a former ruling power and a new one is always going to be a delicate process requiring the support of external resources. Whether those resources come from states who agree with American policy objectives or not, should not be a subject for debate given the tremendous stakes of allowing outside intervention to undermine all of the sacrifice that accompanies these sorts of interventions.
Moving America from a nation of unwilling conquerors to a nation-building state that engages in lasting interventions that result in the kinds of permanent changes to societies for the better is not as far away as one might think. Forget the financial crisis that has stretched balance sheets of sovereign allies in the West and all of the resistance that comes from pacifist segments of the voting public. When faced with a direct attack on American soil by forces from the embattled Middle East or elsewhere, Americans will act and they will act decisively. If 9/11 taught us anything about America, it is that it is still a nation who can rally behind a cause. In anticipation of another attack or series of attacks committed by non-state actors, America needs to get it’s act together and start looking at the bigger picture of foreign policy. The failed engagements of multiple aggressive regimes who are adopting more powerful weapons and supporting stronger capabilities of attacking Americans on their own turf should be a warning sign for anyone who thinks that saying one thing and doing another is going to prevent these attacks from happening. Instead of responding to confrontations in a reactive, unprepared and objective-less manner, Americans need to get on the same page and start taking responsibility for their true objectives. Otherwise, we risk being relegated to history’s laughing stock of former world powers who gained and lost empires without so much as a shot fired in defense of them.