Last night I listened to this hourlong talk, with Q&A, by Andrew Bacevich, about his new book America’s War For The Greater Middle East: A Military History. It’s worth your time. Here, in a Politico essay from earlier this month, Bacevich lays out his thesis. Excerpt:
To understand the persistence of such illusions requires appreciating several assumptions that promote in Washington a deeply pernicious collective naiveté. Seldom explicitly articulated, these assumptions pervade the U.S. national security establishment.
The first assumption is that those responsible for formulating U.S. policy in the Greater Middle East—not only elected and appointed officials but also the military officers assigned to senior posts—are able to discern the historical forces at work in the region. But they can’t. The worldview to which individuals rotating through the upper reaches of the national security apparatus subscribe derives from a shared historical narrative, recounting the story of the 20th century as Americans have chosen to remember it. It centers on an epic competition between rival versions of modernity—liberalism vs. fascism vs. communism—and ends in vindication for “our” side. Ultimately, the right side of history prevailed. Presidents and Cabinet secretaries, generals and admirals see no reason why that narrative should not apply to a different locale and extend into the distant future.
In other words, they are blind to the possibility that in the Greater Middle East substantially different historical forces just might be at work.
A second assumption takes it for granted that as the sole global superpower the United States possesses not only the wisdom but also the wherewithal to control or direct such forces. In the 20th century, “our” side won because American industry and ingenuity produced not only superior military might but also a superior way of life based on consumption and choice—so at least Americans have been thoroughly conditioned to believe. A third assumption asserts that U.S. military power offers the most expeditious means of ensuring that universal freedom prevails—that the armed might of the United States, made manifest in the presence of airplanes, warships and fighting troops, serves as an irreplaceable facilitator or catalyst in moving history toward its foreordained destination.
That the commitment of American armed might could actually backfire and make matters worse is a proposition that few authorities in Washington are willing to entertain.
A final assumption counts on the inevitability of America’s purposes ultimately winning acceptance, even in the Islamic world. The subjects of U.S. benefactions will then obligingly submit to Washington’s requirements and warmly embrace American norms. If not today, then surely tomorrow, the United States will receive the plaudits and be granted the honors that liberators rightly deserve. Near-term disappointments can be discounted given the certainty that better outcomes lie just ahead.
None of these assumptions has any empirical basis. Each drips with hubris. Taken together, they sustain the absence of self-awareness that has become an American signature. Worse, they constitute a nearly insurmountable barrier to serious critical analysis. Yet the prevalence of these assumptions goes far toward explaining this key failing in the U.S. military effort: the absence of a consistent understanding of what the United States is fighting for and whom it is fighting against.
“Children stopped going to school, the women have become mental health patients, in my own house my four children, my daughter has mental problems, because of drones,” he said.
And the strikes are not fulfilling their aim, he argued.
“These drone attacks do not finish terrorists. When in one house two or three children and their mother or father are targeted by drone attacks, the whole household become terrorists against America,” he argued.
Ah yes, winning hearts and minds.
In listening to the Bacevich speech, and the follow-up Q&A, last night, something he said struck me with particular force. He said that American policy towards the Middle East is emblematic of a nation that does not believe it has limits.
In this view, America keeps making these catastrophic mistakes because we believe that wanting a certain outcome is enough to make it happen. We are rich enough, powerful enough, and, in our own minds, righteous enough that it should happen. It’s interesting to contemplate how this hubris plays out on the foreign policy and military fronts, while we also observe the same dynamic expressing itself socially and culturally.
For example, most of us, it appears, have come to the conclusion that biology does not matter, that it is nothing more than a conceptual barrier that prevents us from exercising our will, and can therefore be destroyed. Because freedom. We have come to believe that there are no moral strictures or structures (like, say, the natural family) that ought to bind us and guide our conduct.
In his recorded talk, Bacevich talks about the campus at Boston University, where he taught until his recent retirement, and how well Arab Muslim students from the Middle East did there. He said that we ought to have more of them here so that they can learn that “we are not their enemy.” I’m skeptical of that — not of having them here, but of them learning that we are not their enemy.
Aren’t we? On a cultural level, I mean. Certainly I would not defend Arab Islamic culture without reservation; for example, the way they treat women, in general. But come on, can we really say with a straight face that the hedonistic culture of the post-Christian West is no threat to their way of life? That they have nothing to fear from us, other than our drones and bombs?
We still think that the whole world should want to be just like us, and are mystified when others think we are degenerates. It’s all of a piece, this hubris.
UPDATE: A reader sends in this 2004 essay by a couple of Australian Evangelicals, commenting on the moral blindness of the United States, including her Christians, post-Abu Ghraib. The authors quoted President Bush and others saying that the horror of torture and human degradation that Americans foisted on those prisoners couldn’t be true, because Americans Aren’t That Kind Of People. Excerpt:
But the initial theological mistake, where America cannot really do wrong, makes them greatly to be feared. They will be unable to hold their fearsome armoury in check, and will fail to restore people they have broken, because like sinners everywhere they will not notice their past and future wickedness. Somewhere in here is the ‘arrogance’ and ‘folly’ that Jesus also said comes from the heart.