Wednesday, May 12, 2004

True or False

I've been corresponding with a young fellow from Spain, who got in touch with me via the etymology dictionary. Although we share word-lore, we mostly talk about world politics, which is natural in these times.

I don't want to mine a personal correspondence for blog material, but he laid out to me a list of reasons for world suspicion of American power. It's a list I have seen many times before. This is based on what I wrote in response, but it is here not as correspondence, rather as a general response to a common list of canards about American power and history:

Criticism: Power breeds resentment. All great powers in history are resented and criticized.

Answer: This is true, but this is a reflex, and human beings are not animals. We are not slaves to reflex, especially when we have minds that can distinguish one situation from another. And I see too few anti-Americans make that distinction. They see what America does, and they're against it, without needing to know any more.

Criticism: Look at what you did to the Native Americans.

Answer: I love this one. It always kicks off the chronological European recital of America's crimes. As if every murder committed on the continent of North America was, de facto, done by citizens of the United States.

And so, in the twisted European view of history, Cortez strides into Tenochtitlan in MacArthur's tinted sunglasses and corn-cob pipe, waving the stars and stripes, his pockets stuffed with dollar bills. Put down that Chomsky book for a minute and think! You see what happens when the inner anti-Americanism burns so fiercely? The smoke rises and clouds your vision.

By the time the Americans got control of their destiny, in 1783, the number of Indians who had inhabited the continent in 1492 had been slashed by two-thirds or more, by disease, wars, and starvation brought about by colonial policies directed from European capitals and enforced by European military might. Only in the last years of their rule in America did the British adopt a slightly more humane policy toward the Indians, because they found them useful allies in their struggle with the French over Canada -- and because the natives were useful in restraining the growth of the obstreperous colonials.

After the United States took over self-government, their Indian policy largely consisted of removing the natives from the better lands onto the worse ones. Certainly an inhumane treatment, but arguably better than the general European treatment that had prevailed before that, which was to enslave and kill them.

The Indian removal, especially in the decades after the American Civil War, when the frontier collapsed and then closed, cleared the way for millions of immigrants from -- you guessed it -- Europe! When the Sioux got chased off the prairies, their places were taken not so much by native-born Americans but by Norwegians and Germans and Hungarians -- the surplus lives of an overpopulated Europe, which found an outlet in the United States and thus staved off the inevitable famines and revolutions that would have taken place if all these people had stayed home.

Criticism: America stole half of Mexico in 1848, in a war started under false pretences.

Answer: Yes, the Mexican War was a great big land-grab. Jemmy Polk mastered the trick that has been useful to American presidents since then: the way to coax the country into a war that many of its people don't want. He maneuvered U.S. troops into a place where they got shot at by the enemy, and the people at home then rallied to the boys in uniform.

[The delicious irony is, a young congressman from Illinois saw through the ruse and condemned it eloquently. And 15 years later that same man, now President Lincoln, used the same trick, to the same effect, at Fort Sumter.]

Yet what was the bigger picture? Mexico was deep in debt to France and Britain. In 1836, France had bombarded, blockaded, and raided Mexico's coast over a demand for 600,000 pesos. A decade later, the Mexican government was in discussion about having its British debt forgiven in exchange for giving the British the province of Upper California (which it probably knew it was destined to lose anyhow, to the Americans, the Russians, the British, or even the Mormons).

The British -- who were then the great power of the world -- coveted the excellent deep-water harbors of San Francisco and San Diego. Polk and his advisors (Buchanan, Slidell, etc.) knew all this, and rightly foresaw that it would be a disaster for the United States if the west coast of the continent fell into the hands of its European rivals, who wanted to keep America weak. So they acted.

It doesn't make it less of a land-grab, from the Mexican perspective, but it puts it in the context of a global game, then dominated by European powers. Typical anti-American tunnel vision, however, presents the United States at all times in history as the world's great superpower, capable of forcing its whims on everyone.

Criticism: American intervened in the Caribbean basin and Central America, over and over, usually to protect American business interests.

Answer: A great deal of selfish bullying, of course, much like that going on in the same years all over Asia and Africa, at the hands of Europeans. So Americans are no better and no worse than Europeans. Where does this leave us? How does this end up in Chirac having a right to lecture me about my evil nation?

Criticism: American failure to stand up to dictators like Spain's Franco allowed them to persist.

Answer: For most of its history, the U.S. has been trying desperately not to be involved in European wars. But pardon me for seeing a double standard here. In the eyes of the world, America does exactly two things wrong: 1. It intervenes in the affairs of other nations, and 2. It fails to intervene in the affairs of other nations.

Criticism: Americans allied themselves with dictators in the Cold War and fought wars against communist insurgents in the Third World.

Answer: No doubt we kept friendship with some truly odious characters then. It was a struggle to the death between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and it turned into a situation where "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

It's called realpolitik. It's an ugly business, but it's one that Europeans used to be good at. In fact, they invented it. Then they got too noble to even think of doing such a thing (except with Saddam). Which creates another burden for the United States, which sometimes deals realistically with the situations it finds (alliances with Afghan warlords to oppose the Taliban allow the country to be conquered with a minimum loss of life on both sides). Now we have to be scolded by Europeans at the same time.

European descriptions of the Cold War seem to have a false simplicity: America on one side, and all the poor and oppressed people of the world on the other. Left out of this equation is the Soviet Bloc. Stalin? Remember him? A dangerous enemy, which the West defeated by boxing it in and letting its economy lock up. It was a messy kind of war, and many innocents suffered, but at the end the world is better.

Perhaps you've heard of the tens of millions of dead, and the ethnic slaughter of everyone from the Crimean Tartars to the Cambodian intellectuals. If you don't believe me, you can go to Poland, Prague, or Hungary today and ask them if they were better off under Russian rule. Yet the same European intellectuals who spat hatred at America in the 1960s and 1970s told us the East was a paradise of freedom, a much better place to live. Their descendants have learned nothing, and hold up Islamofascists and Palestinian bus bombers as heroes of the anti-American cause.

Criticism: All these people who have suffered at American hands will never trust or support the U.S.

Answer: Not true. Look at the Kurds. They have suffered much and have us to thank for it. When we decided to use Saddam as a bulwark against Iran's fundamentalist Islam, we left the Kurds at his mercy, and he gassed and bombed them on a horrific scale. I met Kurds in Europe in 1979 who were fleeing that genocide, and I promised myself to do what I could for them.

Now look at them. They've got a flourishing enclave, protected by American power, and they're as happy as can be. In the recent public opinion survey of Iraqis, not one Kurd, out of thousands surveyed, said his life was worse off now than before the overthrow of Saddam. Do they forget what happened to them in the 1970s? No, of course not. But they understand realpolitik, and they also are more interested in attaining their goal of autonomy than in holding a grudge against the one power willing and able to help them get it.

Not all the criticisms can be so easily turned aside.

Criticism: The U.S. props up corrupt and repressive Middle Eastern regimes.

Answer: Valid criticism. If it was up to me, that would not happen. It's a mistake. During the Cold War, certain Soviet satellites tried to put some distance between themselves and Russian dictatorship (Romania, Yugoslavia) without giving up their own repressive Soviet-style leadership. The U.S. rightly kept its distance from them, which allowed us to continue to be seen by the repressed people of Eastern Europe as the champion of their freedom.

Criticism: America has more self-interest than altruism in its Middle Eastern policies. It didn't liberate Kuwait; it returned it to its dictators.

Answer: Partially right. Putting those cowardly medieval tyrants back on the throne of Kuwait in 1991 was a big mistake, and the more time passes the more tragic it looks. But don't blame the Americans entirely for that. It was a U.N. operation. The U.N. didn't ask for a new Kuwaiti government, based on popular support. Also, the "multilateral" coalition included many Arab states that would never have permitted the U.S. to start shuffling governments in Arab nations. The first Gulf War was an object lesson in the failure of multilateralism and U.N. leadership.

Criticism: The U.S. Middle Eastern policy, whether it has good motives or not, is tainted by the U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

Answer: Absolutely right. One of the good outcomes of the Iraq war was that the U.S. now can pull itself away from Saudi Arabia, our false friend. But to really get where I want us to be, the U.S. has to stop being reliant on Middle Eastern oil. And that, unfortunately, is a culture change that I don't think my fellow citizens are ready to make. We'll never really succeed in the world without a better energy policy, and as much as I want to see that, I don't.

We're tearing ourselves apart over this election, but it doesn't make a difference whether Kerry or Bush sits in the White House; we keep buying those goddamned SUVs, and that limits what any president can reasonably do in the world.

On the other hand, even if we cut ourselves off from Middle Eastern oil tomorrow, I don't think it would convince anyone of our good intentions. Crafty pundits would invent some new nefarious Yankee (or Jewish) self-interest that would be THE REAL REASON for every U.S. policy.