The Return of the Quiet American
Anyone who has spent enough time in Washington or has even a cursory familiarity with the professional functionaries who staff the foreign policy and national security apparatus here will have encountered, at one time or another, well-intentioned, seemingly humble, painfully earnest bureaucrats who are certain that the rest of the world needs, indeed cries out for, “American leadership.” In the absence of such leadership, the world would surely descend into chaos—or so goes the prevailing thinking. And so the role these invariably well-educated, hyper-ambitious missionaries see for themselves takes on a kind of world-historical importance; their job becomes so much more than merely protecting and advancing U.S. national interests. Their mission, as they see it, is not so much to serve America; it is to save the world.
Graham Greene was perhaps the first to spot the phenomenon of the over-ambitious American missionary, whose good intentions were never quite enough to make up for the chaos and destruction their lavishly funded and scrupulously laid out plans inevitably unleashed. Greene’s novel, The Quiet American, published in 1955 just as the first Cold War was getting underway, should be required reading for anyone wishing to understand the mindset that has plagued American foreign policy for the last 70 years.
The story, set in Vietnam as the French were barely holding on and the Americans were stepping in, centers around the fraught relationship between a starry-eyed American idealist and U.S. intelligence operative, Alden Pyle, and a cynical, seen-it-all expatriate British journalist, Thomas Fowler. Fowler, an obvious stand-in for Greene, sees right through Pyle’s paeans to democracy and aw-shucks routine to what they really are: nonsense.
Fowler recalls “suffering through” Pyle’s lectures on the Far East and his “pronounced and aggravating views on what the United States was doing for the world.” Pyle was determined “to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world.” Fowler’s problem with Pyle was that the latter believed, quite sincerely, in his own bullshit. Around the same time (1952), the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was wrestling with the delusions of American innocence. In The Irony of American History, Niebuhr observed that “Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem are insufferable in their human contacts.” Greene clearly felt the same, and through Fowler expressed his view that “innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
Pyle is often thought to be based on a Col. Edward Landsdale, chief of the CIA’s Saigon Military Mission, who arrived in Vietnam in 1954 to work on counterinsurgency strategy centered around support for then-Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. Yet Greene insisted the real model for Pyle was a U.S. economic attaché named Leo Hochstetter who, according to an article in Foreign Policy, once lectured Greene on the “necessity of finding a ‘third force in Vietnam.’”
Be that as it may, it has long struck me that Pyle also bears a likeness to someone closer to our own time: the journalist, author, and former U.N. ambassador Samantha Power, whose confirmation hearing to become the next USAID administrator was held before the Senate Foreign Relation Committee (SFRC) on Tuesday morning.
Power’s transformation from crusading war correspondent (she and the execrable Christiana Amanpour deserve much credit, if that’s the word, for bamboozling the Clinton administration into getting tangled up in the Yugoslavian civil war in the mid-90s) to skilled bureaucratic infighter, who served as a member of President Obama’s national security council and later as his U.N. ambassador, has been nothing short of remarkable. Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide, A Problem from Hell, sharply criticized the U.S. government for repeatedly standing aside and allowing some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century to take place. Power, like the fictional Pyle, really seems to believe that there is only one country that has the wherewithal, duty, and moral right to wade in and solve the world’s problems: The United States of America.
And that is precisely why handing over the reigns of USAID to Power is so dangerous.
At the U.N., Power used her platform to push for regime change in Syria. Still worse, Power was one of the key Obama advisors urging support for the Saudi war on Yemen, a position from which she and her colleague, former NSC spokesman Ben Rhodes, have been at pains to distance themselves in recent years. Yet if she seems aware that support for the grotesque Saudi starvation campaign on Yemeni civilians is something of a stain on her record, when pressed by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul on Tuesday, she evinced not a shred of regret for her support for U.S. military interventions in Libya and Syria. These, she explained to Paul, were “hard choices.”
At USAID, Power will have a budget of roughly $20 billion and a far-flung and powerful bureaucracy at her disposal. This is particularly concerning because over the past decade or so, USAID expanded its writ, from funding humanitarian assistance programs to running shadowy regime-change operations backed by partnerships with Silicon Valley behemoths like Google. The targets for such operations will be countries that have chosen the “authoritarian model” as Power made clear to the SFRC on Tuesday. Power pledged, among other things, her “unequivocal” support for a renewal of the Global Magnitsky Act, a pet project of William Browder, a corrupt British hedge fund billionaire who renounced his American citizenship in order to avoid paying U.S. taxes. At her confirmation hearing Power expressed a desire to “multilateralize” the Act, in other words, to force allied nations into supporting the American sanctions regime, a regime which has done much to poison relations between the U.S. and our longstanding European allies France and Germany.
For years, the USAID Development Lab and third-party vendors who ostensibly specialize in humanitarian assistance, such as DAI, have increasingly turned their attention to fomenting civil unrest in order push regime change on targeted countries. Sometimes projects like this go very, very wrong, as it did in the case of Alan Gross’s misadventures in Cuba. And while you wouldn’t know it from Tuesday’s hearing, USAID has been operating as a quasi-intelligence operation with a healthy assist from their “partners” in Silicon Valley.
USAID will provide someone with Power’s well-established record as a liberal interventionist an unprecedented opportunity to pursue a strategy of regime-change operations globally. The question as to whether these adventures actually benefit U.S. national security is one that rarely, if ever, gets asked.
James W. Carden is a former advisor at the State Department who he has written for numerous publications including The National Interest, The Los Angeles Times, Quartz, and American Affairs.