Well, two posts ago, my friend Mercurious has gone off on a self-described rant on the subject of U.S. –Syria relations—and for a change he makes total sense. He also seems to have struck a nerve with the readership. As a designated know-it-all (professor) I can’t resist my itchy fingers…I’ve got to try to work through something regarding our very problematic place in the geo-political world. As an early commentator so appropriately asked: where do we go from here?
Where indeed? American foreign policy has a long history of getting itself into complicated situations that when analyzed later have beginnings that are difficult to understand and exits that are almost impossible to comprehend. The situation in Syria is only the most recent/current of these dilemmas. If we “connect the dots” of post WWII foreign policy, is there anything we can see as an illuminating pattern?
If pressed about where to look for root problems with our view of the world and their influence on foreign policy decisions, I would offer two seemingly unrelated observations:
• We can be a wonderfully, maddeningly optimistic people;
• We have, over our time as a nation, fetishized freedom.
Clearly these take some explaining. First things first.
Even people who roundly dislike the United States tend to be amazed , even awed by our general optimism that every problem can be solved and the energy that radiates from such a world-view. If they are not awed, they are certainly impressed (either positively or negatively, but they are impressed nonetheless). It’s one of the fundamental keys to our greatness as a nation.
So what’s the problem with optimism? Optimism becomes a problem when the critical mass of citizens (and subsequently their elected leaders) become convinced that there must be a solution for every social, political, or military ill in the world and, hence, if we are to be a great nation (or if a person is to be looked at as a great leader) SOLUTIONS MUST BE FOUND.
I sympathize with the disgust Mercurious feels when he observes the reprehensible conduct of Assad (who by most accounts is mild and reasonable in comparison with his father, who reigned over Syria for decades.) He’s a terrible guy; so is the Taliban; so was Gadhafi; and yes, Saddam was an absolute horror; (for that matter “our man” Karzai is no stand-up man in Afghanistan.) We’re doing not a lot about Assad; we did a little bit in Libya; we expended vast amounts of life and treasure in Iraq; ditto Afghanistan.
The question to ask is: did our huge interventions result in appropriately greater social, political and personal progress than did our minimal interventions? It simply doesn’t make sense to invest massive amounts of precious resources for little (or no?) net gain. Yet we do it. Time and time again. We assume that if we invest the kind of resources overseas comparable to what we might invest domestically, that comparable progress will be made.
Why? Because we are optimists. I share the amazement that we went to Vietnam in the absence of precious natural resources (such as oil.) Why did we then? As another commentator observed, the “domino theory” was dubious. Might many of the “best and brightest” who got us into that mess genuinely have thought that they could make things better? It would be consistent with our Achilles heal: optimism.
And what was going to make things better in Vietnam? Among other things, we were going to save them from their “oppressor”, Ho Chi Minh (who was a natural hero to many). Why oppressive? He was a communist. Why is communism so oppressive? It takes away freedom.
This takes us to our second point: if you look at both our domestic and our foreign policy, the abstract idea of “freedom” can be heard loudly and seen clearly. It lies underneath our inability to understand how Vladimir Putin has been able to consolidate power. How can this happen, we ask? He has taken away so much freedom from his citizens. The answer—seen without looking through the strangely colored glasses of the cult of freedom—is obvious: Russians, as a group, value other things—particularly stability—more than freedom.
The “Arab Spring” obtained such a lofty name because we assumed that the arrival of freedom for these previously dominated populations would bring a flowering of civic engagement, cooperative decision-making, and social well being. We assumed that freedom would be the solution; we were optimistic. We were wrong. It appears that many in Egypt question whether the freedom implicit in democratic elections is worth the cost of theocratic oppression. The army taking power does not confer freedom; it can confer stability and many, if not most, Egyptians seem to value stability. We don’t seem to understand this, though.
There is good reason for the prominence of freedom in our national psyche: it is woven through so many of our foundational national myths that by now it is impossible for us not to consider it among the things that make us a great, distinctive nation. But just as a person has to guard against the assumption that others are going to view the world the way we do, nations must guard against the assumption that others are going to value what we value with the same intensity.
But we can and do fall prey to this way of thinking. A small, subtle example of this can be seem with the issue of security cameras in a city I dearly love: London. Many of us as freedom-loving Americans react with shock and disgust when presented with the statistics outlining just how many security cameras are at work in London. “What about your freedom?” we ask Brits incredulously. Amazing as it sounds, Londoners seem to prefer personal safety to our somewhat abstract notion of “freedom.” How can you enjoy freedom if you are in fear of your life?
Good question, unfortunately the fetish of freedom in America doesn’t seem to be hindered by such practical considerations. We’re more interested in the freedom as an abstraction.
The ultimate absurd devotion to the fetish of freedom in the abstract is seen in America’s devotion to what is normally called “second amendment rights.” Sandy Hook with its bloody devastation made barely a dent in our national conversation regarding gun violence; the Maryland mall shooting over the weekend will be yesterday’s news by the end of the 48-hour news cycle. We won’t be hearing about how gun violence infringes on our practical freedom to be safe for very long; what we will be hearing is more and more of a seemingly endless flow of verbiage starting with the word “freedom” and ending with the words “second amendment.”
There is large sub-component of our society that is seemingly more invested in an abstract notion of “freedom” (and unrestricted access to guns, which apparently serves as a symbol for this abstract freedom) than they are in the practical and real freedom of being safe from gun violence. This abstract notion of “freedom” seems to be getting in the way of more rational approaches to a significant social and political problem.
So what is the bottom line? I’d love to see a political culture in which a bit of world-weary wisdom is viewed as a good quality for leadership—wisdom that regrettably accepts that, sometimes, there is just probably no good answer. And lacking good answers, maybe we can put our can-do optimism on hold for a while and just wait. I’d love to see an America that sees freedom as our incredible, distinctive luxury and legacy, but doesn’t offer it or force it on others as some social cure-all.
This fetish for freedom may great for us, but we’re a very privileged nation. We were founded by people who viewed religious liberty as something worth fighting (or at least travelling long distances) for. For us it is quite prominent on our hierarchy of needs; but for others, economic opportunity, social stability or personal safety might be placed higher. When someone starts thinking so much about something that it consistently gets in the way of clear thinking and healthy decision- making, it can be regarded as a fetish (potentially, anyway).
Mercurious has made a fetish of Scarlett Johansson; America has made a fetish of freedom. Freedom is great, but it won’t solve all problems—especially those problems for which there is no solution.