“Speak softly…and carry a big stick” —Harry Truman on US Foreign Pol;icy
On April 14th, President Joe Biden announced that by September 11th the United States will withdraw the remaining 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. After 20 years, in which 2,488 Americans died and another 20,722 were wounded, this supposed ‘punishment of terrorists responsible for 9/11’ has cost almost as many lives as the 3,011 who died on that day—not to mention $1,000,000,000,000.
For all their military muscle, America seems singularly ineffectual in applying it for long-term effect. After flexing such muscle to good effect in two world wars, they now seem to think a 12-guage is the best way to dispatch a bumble bee. Their record of success in brush-fire wars since Korea has been poor, especially considering post-war administration, once shooting stopped.
In lesser conflicts, where subtlety and cultural sensitivity might have helped, not only is America’s track record appalling, but their insistence on knowing best, on not learning from others makes the British Raj seem the acma of enlightened reason by comparison.
Despite principled statements against colonialism during early days, from 1823’s Monroe Doctrine, the USA has held a conviction that action is justified in interfering where its interests seem under threat. Not content with United Fruit dominating Central America or detaching Panama from Colombia to facilitate building the Panama Canal, it was soon practicing heavy-handed interference beyond the Americas.
The Kingdom of Hawaii was subsumed to ease access to China, where the US was as active with legations and missionaries as colonial empires in exploiting markets, importing labour and in bringing down the final Qing dynasty. The US created the Spanish-American War, fighting a repressive colonial war in the Philippines and running Cuba as an offshore Las Vegas. The latter eventually led to Castro and Communism on their doorstep. A century on, they still retain Guam and Puerto Rico as colonies, not states.
Post-WW2 hegemony and “Reds-under-the-beds” paranoia of the Cold War excused interference anywhere by posing as global defender of democratic freedom. Yet actions by the CIA and ‘special advisers’ fostered resentment, and not just in Samoza’s Nicaragua, Pinochet’s Chile, the Shah’s Iran or Nguyen’s South Vietnam. Not only did this tarnish America;s image but none of those regimes survived.
The USA seems arrogant enough to pursue their interests around the globe by force where they can ad subterfuge where they can’t. Patience and humility do not appear as tactics in their global playbook. This places their pride and faith in their armed forces as their main foreign policy tool. In this, they are formidable, and little different from Russia.
Following the WW2 diktat of being “fustest with the mostest” the ‘shock and awe’ deployed in the Second Gulf War got the job done in record time. Their ability to slice and dice Saddam’s formidable Iraqi forces was impressive. But Iraq is the only example since Korea when the enemy dared to stand and the Pentagon’s high-tech toys had full reign.
In every other conflict, America’s formidable force has been chasing shadows at great cost and to little real effect. Congress and the Pentagon invariably spin results to justify the $718bn annual defence spend. However, victory is not about munition loads or body counts. By those measures, America lost its War of Independence.
Victory is determined by long-term results achieved. Were American forces only ever engaged in Gulf War type conflicts, they would prevail and Pentagon profligacy would be justified. However, conflicts over the last 70 years in which America has been involved have failed to secure victory, even if the military conflict was won. It started in Korea, where unconventional tactics by the Chinese PLA almost destroyed the US 2nd division, despite formidable logistics and airpower.
This worsened in the decade of the Vietnam War, when everything short of nuclear weapons were thrown at the Viet Cong and Saigon still fell to them in 1975. Confidence that helicopters, firepower and air superiority would avoid what had happened to the French ten years earlier proved ilusory. However, what made victory unattainable was how Vietnamese people and culture were treated in a manner bordering on racist, which domed what was essentially an occupying power. “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” pretty much sums up the futility.
This impotence of military might in the face of a sullen, if not hostile populace has been the downfall of American deployment ever since. They have constantly been frustrated by Mao Tse Tung’s adage that “the guerilla smins amomgst the people as a fish swims through the sea”.
And so it was: Marines in Lebanon in 1982; 25,000 tropps in Somalia in 1992. Neither achieved anything beyond casualties and resentment. At first, 2003’s Second Gulf War was a military tour de force, erasing Iraq’s armed forces in 48 hours. But then fighting continud through the occupation for the next eight years. Even where the US let others put boots on the ground and only provided air support: anti-Ghadaffi rebels in Lybia; anti-Assad rebels in syria; anti-ISIS Kurds in Islamic State, the places remain vortexes of human tragedy, along with Iraq and Afghanistan, where imminent withdrawal will precipitate similar vortexes.
President Truman’s wise adage seems forgotten. If America insists on interfering around the world, it will need to learn the use of some subtler device than their ‘big stick’, because ot palpably does not work. While the Pentagon and CIA may be necessary to make America secure, it is in dire need of a third, more subtle tool that is not American multinationals, whose approach is too steeped in American culture and values.
America’s pride in its military muscle is shared by its friends and Allies. But elsewhere, its preparedness to use it has caused resentment, which is exacerbated by US corporations who ket their culture ride roughshod over local sensibilities. Though CIA activity usually manages to keep below public radar, the mere fact of its presence does not help. What is needed is a re-thinking of the Peace Corps, but without the clean-cut cultural ignorance that makes you think they are all Mormon missionaries.
Thoough many Americans actually descibe themselves as “Italian-American” or “Korean-American” their awareness of cultural roots, or even language, is usually minimal. But, if languages—especially non-European—were more integral to school education and “gap years” in the appopriate country were encouraged and augmented by an Erasmus-style university student exchange, a significant part of the American public might gin insight into cultures other than (and equally valid as) their own. The presence of so may young Amricans abroad would go far in reducing resentments. It’s much harder to dislike a country when you have friends there. America is a country built by people from all over the world. It’s time to tie it back into the world.
American culture does encircle the world, and there are many who would either participate in or emulate it. But they are greatly outnumbered by the millions who resent the manner in which it throws its considerable weight around. But, worse than that, is the blatant exploitation of the money-trough supplied to Iraq and Afghanistan by American multinationals like Schlumberger and other directorships of Rumsfeld, Cheney et al. Neither state was sufficiently advanced to be yanked into the 21st century in one step and America was too impatient and ill-informed to adjust its intervention accordingly.
It wasn’t always so. Post-WW2, the Germans were advanced enough to take the Marshal Plan and rebuild their country, without it being modelled on Macdonald’s. MacArthur was enlightened enough to guide the Japanese into doing their version of the same. How can as advanced a country as America have forgotten so much in those seventy years?
America itself has not been threatened since The Alamo in 1836. Far from being plucky underdogs, within 12 years, they gained two giant states (California & Texas), plus five others annexed by the Union at Mexico’s expense. What the Pentagon frames as ‘defense’ is actually projection of self-interest anywhere they choose. If you’re going to spend the equivalent of the entire UK government budget each year, would it not be sensible to spend it on ‘weaponry’ more effective to the task and—heaven forbid—much cheaper? Such as a New Peace Corps, heritage language initiative and global Erasmus schenes.
Scrapping a couple of carriers or air wings would provide funding. Avoiding 20 years of another Afghanistan should provide at least $1 trillion.