Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hard Power, Soft Power, and the Failure of American Foreign Policy

Looking at my last two posts, mentioning a friend killed by terrorists and a brother stuck in Afghanistan (who will be relieved by my other younger brother), I have decided to finally address a topic which has been on my mind for the last ten years. In the President's speech on action in Libya (link to Crooks and Liars, because the transcript is up there), the President had this anecdote:

That's the kind of leadership we have shown in Libya. Of course, even when we act as part of a coalition, the risks of any military action will be high. Those risks were realized when one of our planes malfunctioned over Libya. Yet when one of our airmen parachuted to the ground, in a country whose leader has so often demonized the United States - in a region that has such a difficult history with our country - this American did not find enemies. Instead, he was met by people who embraced him. One young Libyan who came to his aid said, "We are your friends. We are so grateful to these men who are protecting the skies."

If there is one aspect of American Exceptionalism which cannot be denied, it is the overwhelming victory of the American pop culture juggernaut. American culture has world-wide appeal... American music forms have worldwide popularity, American taste in clothing is embraced throughout the world, and English is the lingua franca of business and technology, and knowledge of English is a signifier of cultural "savvy" throughout the world. The dominance of American popular culture is so complete that even Saddam Hussein, no lover of the U.S. after the unfortunate events of 1991, used a version of an American pop song (albeit an Arabic version by a Syrian singer) in his "re-election campaign" of 2002.

Despite the various military misadventures of the past five decades, Americans are pretty much granted a "mulligan" throughout the world. I often wonder how things would have turned out if we had engaged the people of the developing world as equals, rather than fodder for the Military/Industrial Complex and sources of plunder. Notably, the greatest sin of the Eisenhower administration was the overthrow of the democratically-elected Mosaddegh government of Iran, and the installation of the Shah much to the benefit of B.P. So, rather than exporting freedom and rock-and/or-roll, we were making deals with medieval-style autocrats. Our continued support of the Shah led to the eventual rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini (Shah of Shahs is a good overview of the revolution). So, instead of Iranians in the late 70's waving posters of this guy:

they were waving pictures of this guy:

The United States has relied on hard power, its military might, its blood and treasure, at the expense of relying on soft power, the seemingly unstoppable hegemony of its cultural institutions. Even while the U.S./U.S.S.R. Cold War was at its height, Western pop culture was clandestinely embraced in Soviet Russia. Given a choice between Lenin and Lennon, how would a typical teenager respond? Instead we pursued proxy wars which have resulted in blowback to this day. Pursuit of our proxy "Battle to the Death" with the U.S.S.R., reached its height in the 80's, with the long conflict in Afghanistan (if the Afghan conflict was Russia's Vietnam, what the hell is our Afghan conflict, our meta-Vietnam?) and pro-jihad right wing fever dreams even infiltrated U.S. pop-culture. It is often said that the Afghan conflict led to the demise of the Soviet Union... the problem is that there was no humanitarian assistance to either the Afghans or the Russians. There was a time when U.S. foreign policy included aid to enemies, in the wake of the Afghan conflict, we wouldn't even help allies.

Pursuing a ten-year proxy war with our Iranian "enemies" (in which, bizarrely, we armed both sides) led to some awkward moments which were largely ignored by the U.S. media, much to our detriment:

Yeah, instead of sending blue jeans and hi-fi LPs to the Fertile Crescent, we sent bombs and poison gas precursor chemicals. Even after an actual U.S.-led invasion and years of crushing sanctions, the Iraqi people were willing to give us a "mulligan", thinking that the second U.S.
invasion would usher in a new era of "Democracy, whisky, and sexy." I am trying to locate video of the "Democracy, Whisky, Sexy" guy, but can't find any on the t00bz. I wonder what happened to him, and I sincerely hope that he got out alive, and is now living free, drinking Jameson's with supermodels... but I know that's a pipe dream.

Well, we didn't give them democracy, nor did we give them whiskey, and we sure as hell didn't give them sexy. The worst thing about post-invasion Iraq is that there was a lull before the insurgency began in earnest, a breathless period during which the Iraqi people waited to see what the removal of Saddam Hussein would bring... and we blew it. We didn't bring jobs and infrastructure, much less democracy, whisky, and sexy. The post-invasion Coalition Provisional Authority was staffed with cronies and ideologues, more interested in bringing a stock market and a flat tax to Iraq than in bringing potable water and non-flat buildings.

By failing to utilize our unstoppable soft-power, and by using the "every problem a nail" approach, we have brought untold misery to people in the developing world. Our post-WW2 moral failures (starting with the coddling of Franco), and our fear-based foreign policy, combined with our insatiable greed for natural resources (who'd have thought that possessing abundant natural wealth would be a curse for a nation, rather than a boon?) and the insatiable greed of military contractors, have led to an untenable situation in which the U.S. is on the brink of financial ruin, Americans are entangled in three theaters of war, and hapless peasants are crushed under the heels of home-grown tyrants and foreign occupiers.

If only we had sent poodle skirts and 45s to Iran, instead of spooks and assassins...


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I wonder if we aren't wearing our passes out.

No one else is killing their airline industry like we are...

Substance McGravitas said...

Part of the soft power that's breaking through is a very-hard-to-fetter internet. It's something to be proud of.

Smut Clyde said...

they were waving pictures of this guy:

He has an enticingly large forehead.

Hamish Mack said...

Imperial Life in the Emerald City has astonishing stories of the CPA's imbecility

fish said...

This is far too rational. Are you sure you are not Swedish or something? it seems very unAmerican.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Part of the soft power that's breaking through is a very-hard-to-fetter internet. It's something to be proud of.

Yeah, but attempts to quash "net neutrality" may mess this up. Damn, authoritarians really do their damnedest to fuck up everything they can.

This is far too rational. Are you sure you are not Swedish or something? it seems very unAmerican.

When did I ever say I was American?

Brando said...

The other thing is we tend to paint these "they embraced our wounded soldier/downed airman" stories as "they really do like Americans," when in fact what they like is the guy removing the asshole that we or some other Western power often put in place to begin with. There just tend to be more stories about Americans because we tend to be the ones bombing those authoritarian messes we created.