Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Icarus Syndrome

I have found a new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, by Peter Beinart which treats the US tendency to be hubristic or overly, delusionally ambitious in the realm of foreign affairs. Beinart treats three examples of this, the hubris of reason [Woodrow Wilson], the hubris of toughness [LBJ and Vietnam] and the hubris of dominance [George W. Bush and the war on terror]. It is, for the most part, a very good book which illuminates the character of American foreign policy in a way that I find accurate and useful. His concluding chapter is a bit too conventional for my tastes but, overall, this is an excellent book. Here is one, lengthy quote from the book the section on George W. Bush and the Iraq adventure:

"Soon Americans and Iraqis were engaged in a darkly comic, savagely violent, dialogue of the deaf. In the center of Baghdad, behind seventeen-foot-high concrete walls topped with razor wire, the CPA created the Green Zone, an Epcot America where the televisions played Fox, the radios blared classic rock, the recreation officers taught yoga and salsa dancing, and the stores sold Cheetos, Dr. Pepper, booze, protein powder, and T-shirts reading 'Who's Your Baghdaddy?' At the cafeteria in Saddam's former Republican Palance, well-mannered South Asian workers served cheeseburgers, hot dogs, grits, fried chicken, and freedom fries. The menu, which had a distinctly southern flavor, included large quantities of pork, which Iraqi Muslim might have found offensive to prepare. But that wasn't an issue, since Iraqis weren't permitted to work in the dining hall for fear that they would poison the food.

"When the Americans ventured into 'the red zone' - otherwise known as Iraq - they passed through the looking glass, into a parched, dust-brown riddle of a country where American logic often seemed turned upside down. When the Americans set about building an army to replace the one they had disbanded, they dubbed it the New Iraqi Corps, on NIC, only to later learn that in Iraqi Arabic 'nic' resembles the word for 'fuck.' When a visiting administration official toured Iraq's streets, he was pleased to see kids flash him the thumbs-up sign, only to be told that in Iraq a raised thumb was the equivalent of a raised middle finger. U.S. officials talked incessantly about freedom. (At one CPA briefing, an Iraqi journalist asked an American general why U.S. helicopters flew so low to the ground, scaring local children. 'What we would tell the children of Iraq,' the general said, 'is that the noise they hear is the sound of freedom.') But Arabic-speakers noticed that when the Iraqis spoke back, they talked less about 'freedom' ('hurriya') - which according to George Bush all people desired like food and water - than 'justice' ('adil'), which had a more confrontational ring. 'Marines are from Mars, Iraqis are from Venus,' wrote one major in an email to friends. 'I started to realize,' noted the Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent, Anthony Shadid, 'how little any of us - journalists, policy makers, citizens - really understood about Iraq."

Ah, but when you are convinced that your "values" are universal, that all you need do is to bring other people into contact with these values and they will become infected with them, then knowledge of the local culture, the local language, the local way of being in the world, is irrelevant. All will change, almost overnight, once these values are released into the air. And, when this doesn't happen, then application of force is required because you/we are dealing with reprobates who must and should be forced into the "promised land."

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