With Our History, Spinning America's Image Isn't Enough





Mr. Palaima is Dickson Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin where he teaches war and violence studies.

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The historian Tacitus explained the secret of the peace that prevailed in the early Roman Empire. Romans used their military might to create a desert, then called it peace.

The Bush administration is now seeking a Pax Americana through nearly unilateral use of military power based on a similar principle: Make a desert and call for a public relations campaign.

Admittedly, this is several stages better than what we did with bombs, artillery, napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam. As the fictional Capt. Willard in Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" describes it, "We cut 'em in half with a machine gun and give 'em a Band-Aid."

It is both admirable and surreal that President Bush wants us all to do our part at improving the image of Americans abroad. Yet it is symptomatic of our age that he has called upon his longtime adviser Karen Hughes to help produce this extreme makeover.

Image is close to everything now in our domestic politics, business and life in general. So it was perhaps inevitable that our commander-in-chief would extend the power of positive advertising to foreign policy as well. But it strikes me as either myopic or hubristic to ask the nearly 50 percent of American citizens who did not want him to continue his policies as president to participate in this bit of Wag-the-Dog-ism. And how about the two-thirds of Americans who think our military is bogged down in Iraq, and the 60% who think the war is not worth fighting (Washington Post-ABC poll)? And that is with an all-volunteer force that does not force most families to worry about their children being drafted into the war, and with most Americans being in cloud-cuckooland about the catastrophic state of our economy, our consumer debt, our balance of trade deficit, and the precarious weakness of our dollar.

It is my experience living and traveling abroad extensively for more than 30 years that foreigners are less concerned about our image than they are about our essence and the actions our government takes, often in concert with our international corporate interests. They know the kind of beauty that the president is aiming for is only skin deep.

The president's gambit is, however, consistent with the value our culture places on seeming rather than being. Let's start with something trivial: television. The craze for makeover shows is but one symptom of our addiction to unreality. Have you ever wondered what the lives of the common people who appear on "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" will look like when, to use Captain Willard's metaphor, the temporary Band-Aid of high-end products and consumer goods falls off? How many of these just plain folks can afford to return, on their own dollars, to the chic styling salons, accessory boutiques, designer clothiers and gourmet food stores that made them over?

This is not a trivial analogy. Our sensibilities and our ways of viewing the world begin at home. Foreigners do not have our short attention spans when it comes to remembering our extreme makeovers of North and South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. We backed a murderous coup, backed "democratic elections" that we knew to be corrupt, propped up the corrupt regime the elections "legitimized," dabbed on massive bombing (128,000 tons of bombs during one year of Operation Rolling Thunder alone), extended the war surreptitiously into neighboring countries and then abandoned our "allies" when the cost became too much for us.

We could add the human misery caused by our foreign-policy decisions in Chile, El Salvador, Argentina, Paraguay, and Guatemala-we could extend the list-over the past 40 years as further proof we truly are what Carlos Fuentes says we are: "los Estados Unidos de Amnesia." Most American citizens don't even know about our history of supporting repressive regimes and torturers who can provide stability for business interests. Michael J. Sullivan, American Adventurism Abroad (Praeger 2004), studies 30 cases of American foreign intervention between 1947 and 1999. Twenty-six ended up in 'disasters' for the local population- over 500 years of disrupted politics, 180 years of exacerbated war and 6,600,000 deaths minimally, with ten invasion attempts, ten coups and nine supported assassinations.

The Iraqi makeover is still under way. It has mostly slipped from the front pages, and its beauty lies mainly in the eyes of neoconservative beholders among the forty percent who think it might be worth fighting.

Still, foreigners, especially those who have suffered under repressive governments we have overtly or covertly supported, know enough to distinguish between our government's policies and the behavior of Americans abroad. They can shrug off American tourists passing quickly through their countries with little knowledge of cultural history or foreign languages, visiting cathedrals as if they were at home in a shopping mall.

Thirteen years ago, I taught in Austria and visited the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau in the company of an American Jewish colleague. As we toured the installations of dehumanization and death and the museum that documented what camp prisoners suffered, we also witnessed vulgar behavior by American families that made us understand why some residents of the modern town of Dachau think of the camp and museum as little more than a "Disneyland of Horror" for tourists.

I recommend that Hughes put at the top of her reading list for all Americans James Bradley's award-winning "Flags of Our Fathers" and his follow-up, "Flyboys." Bradley is the son of an Iwo Jima flag-raiser and a reverent patriot. He spoke last June 12th in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian Museum's Flag Day Family Festival. His account of the cynical manipulation of the Iwo Jima flag-raiser image and of America's murderous foreign policy in the Philippines at the turn of the last century proves that true patriotism tolerates, and needs, no spin - and explains why the rest of the world thinks we need a legitimate makeover.

After that, we can turn to more sober analyses of our foreign policy history, like Mr. Sullivan's. Then we can send abroad American as goodwill ambassadors who at least know what the shameful history is that we are supposed to be spinning.


A shorter version of this piece appeared in the Austin American-Statesman June 10, 2005.


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omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Spinning the neocons and their policies did achieve results in the USA with the reelection of President Bush .
Presently with mounting American casualties in Iraq, and lately in Afghanistan, and the outcome of the Iranian presidential elections it is bound to suffer from a diminishing return syndrome.
Whether that will lead to a major political reappraisal of US policies before the Middle East ( Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the occupied Palestinian territories once again) explodes, though highly unlikely , remains to be seen.
The same success earlier met by American spinners of neocon policies IN AMERICA with the American public could in no way be replicated OUTSIDE AMERICA with the nations LIVING the realities of its policies!
To be flooded with neocon media messages on colour TV screens in the comfort of their living rooms , or air conditioned churches and business lunches, is something very different from living in the recent daily hell of post American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq or the 35 years long hell brought upon the people in the occupied Palestinian territories by AIPAC drawn American policies.
What is more all their neighbours , compatriots and co-reliongists are carefully watching the real policies behind the IMAGE spin!


Palaima's statement:

"It is my experience living and traveling abroad extensively for more than 30 years that foreigners are less concerned about our image than they are about our essence and the actions our government takes, often in concert with our international corporate interests."

is , if anything, a under statement of how the world in general, and the Arab/Moslem world in particular, view America and how it will receive and perceive its image spin!


omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

So you are hated for the things you do not do or for what you are!
As far as self delusion and wishful thinking goes you seem to be doing a good job, Mr Friedman.
Whether that is in America's interest is, of course, a different question !
Did it ever occur to you that America is hated for things it acctually did and still do such as :
-supporting Israel politically, economically and miltarily to the point that made it the regional super power intent on retaining occupied territories in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon.
-invading and destroying Iraq
-supporting the most corrupt and most despotic regimes
To name only a few of the things America DID and you still DO in the Arab world.
Is it really in America's interest to preach that you are hated for your wealth and power, as comfortable as that may be,or is that a way to divert attention from the real reasons ?
America better listen to nonFriedmans to know more about the real world!


edwin s reynolds - 7/5/2005

Sergio Ramirez are you an historian?


Grant W Jones - 7/2/2005

"just put Vietnam, Cambodia and our bombing campaigns in both alone."

Huh? What?


Sergio Ramirez - 7/2/2005

One of the most curious things about Classicists is that, although they have the richest field to work in, they are constantly trying to be topical. This sometimes has disastrous consequences--as Professor Palaima's attempts at contemporary critique show us.
Blaming Pol Pot on America, even indirectly, shows an alarming lack of historical knowledge--especially of the role played by France and China in that particular circumstance.


Thomas G. Palaima - 7/2/2005

just put Vietnam, Cambodia and our bombing campaigns in both alone. Just around Khe San we dropped in conventional bombs the equivalent of several atomic bombs.

The conservative estimates are 2 million dead in Vietnam, 155,000 in Cambodia. And our destabilization of Cambodia brought in Pol Pot and Co. and another 2 miliion dead. The Romans were amateurs when it came to mass killing.


Thomas G. Palaima - 7/1/2005

Indeed. When I was on Cyprus recently, a very distniguished and now semi-retired friend who was in formal dealings with the British from the 195-0's onward, said wherever there was trouble inthe world the British colonialists probbaly were at the root. I think the US has atken over really since ca. 1960, jsut as they took over from the Ffrench in SE Asia and the Brits explicitly in Greece in 1947.

Tom


edwin s reynolds - 6/30/2005

Why do wing-nut conservatives hate Aamerica?
Why do neo-cons hate the Armed Forces?
Why do conservatives hate cause and effect?
Why do posters accuse an author of logical fallacies when they engage in outright fallacies themselves?
Why do conservatives confuse free-markets with religion.
Why does this discussion board sound like a blog freeped by wing-nut trolls.
Why are lunatics running the asylum?
Why would any sane person engage wing-nuts in a rational discussion? hmmmm this is a tough one.

see wikipedia for obscure references.

ex.From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
In the context of the Internet, a troll is a message that is inflammatory or hostile, which by effect or design causes a disruptions in discourse, or a person posting such messages. Trolling can be described as a breaching experiment, which, because of the use of an alternate persona, allows for normal social boundaries and rules of etiquette to be tested or otherwise broken, without serious consequences.


Edward Siegler - 6/29/2005

Your assesment is a sobering one, N. Like Mr. Palaima and many others, I'm disturbed by the rise in anti-American sentiment and would very much like to see it receed. We have to ask ourselves honestly, however, why some corners of the world may have held America in higher regard in the past and not simply engage in wistful nostalgia for a mythical past of widespread love for America that has never really existed. True, after sacrificing 400,000 men and countless billions to save and then reconstruct Western Europe in '40s, America was seen favorably. Similarly, after spilling the blood of 50,000 Americans over the course of 3 years in Korea, the South Koreans were very grateful (but the North Koreans hate our guts for it with the same intensity today as they did in 1953). Would America be willing to make the same kinds of sacrifices today? I don't think so.

To be sure, the Iraq War has exacerbated anti-Americanism significantly. But to hope that once Bush leaves office and American troops leave Iraq this anti-Americanism will abate is an unlikely one. America has been hated in many corners of the world, including Latin America, the Middle East and China, long before Iraq and will almost certainly continue to be hated in the future.

Some argue that if America injected a healthy dose of morality into its foreign policy then anti-Americanism would abate. I find this argument flimsy at best. International relations are primarily governed by realpolitic and this is unlikely to change. Pressuring governments on human rights and democratic reforms (the two things really being one and the same)is the right thing to do and I would like to see it happen more often and with strong international support. However most nations have strong motivations not to interfere in other countries' affairs - this is most dramatically evident in the near universal unwillingness to act shown towards outbreaks of genocide. The most recent example is Darfur, but a hasty American withdrawal from Iraq may well trigger the next case - leaving Iraq without the means to combat the insurgency is likely to result in a genocide directed at the Sunnis by the Shiites.

Palaima argues that America should apologize for its past misdeeds. I agree. But what's notable here is that has been attempt to do just this recently. At the ceremonies commemerating the end of World War II, Bush amazingly apologized for the Yalta accords, which helped recognize the Soviet's tyrannical rule over Eastern Europe. This gesture resulted in very warm feelings on the part of many Eastern Europeaners (and yours truly is one). On the other hand, Condoleeza Rice's remarks to the effect that the U.S. would not longer cozy up with autocracies, delivered in Egypt, was largely met with boos and hisses. How do you explain the difference? That the U.S. has been moral towards Eastern Europe but not the Middle East?

Like Palaima, I have lived in Europe. But every time I find myself wishing for a return to an era of America-love, I remember the anti-American sentiment that burned wildly there in the '80s. They sometimes blamed it all on Reagan at the time, but the fact is people need their prejudices and whipping boys. This is an age-old phenomenon: We define ourselves in part by defining who we are not and to do this we need an enemy, preferably one that is an easy target. There is also a need to determine who has the status of victim. In the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, it is the Palestinians who have been given this status. As a result Israel has become the bad guy and its relations with the rest of the world are at an all-time low. Meanwhile the insurgents are given a free pass for their atrocities while any misdeeds by America are cause for the gravest condemnation.

So if only Israel would be nice and play fair with the Palestinians and America would cut off relations with nasty regimes and get rid of George Bush everyone would be happy again, right?

Anti-Americanism, like anti-Semetism, is a form of prejudice. There is limited value in examining why American or Israeli behavior is causing these phenomenon. It's like asking ourselves what we've done to deserve 9-11.


John H. Lederer - 6/29/2005

Why only last week Karl talked with me.

"John, don't you think crticizing the government is unpatriotic?"

"Sure Karl. Downright traitorous. I was uncomfortable when you did it. I am uncomfortable now."

"And isn't it important to make decisions without deliberation?"

"Sure Karl. Go with your feelings. Government decisions should be a touchy feely sort of thing"

"Worst of all is supporting human values like freedom, independence, and self worth."

"Right Karl. You had better rein in GW. He keeps saying words like that,"


So,..of course, Prof, Palaima is right. He is undoubtedly also right in his conclusion that most bad things in the world are the result of U.S. policy, and most good, happenstance.




Amin Ali Golmohamad - 6/29/2005

Hey ppl, I found a detailed and usually unheard viewpoint on the war in iraq that may be relevant to the blog. Please don't take it as my view or as one I support or reject, I only think it will give food for thought and help enrich the conversation.

http://english.pravda.ru/mailbox/22/101/399/15691_Iraq.html


N. Friedman - 6/29/2005

Professor,

We are sometimes hated for doing bad things and we can, in some instances, do something about such acts.

The main - albeit not the only - reason we are hated is that we are rich and powerful, something we are unlikely to give up. Some of the time we are hatred because the rulers of many countries deflect hatred onto us as a governing technique - the way, for example, Arab leaders allow and foment criticism and hatred of Israel but not their own countries - but we can do nothing about that.

We are hated in the Arab and Muslim regions because we support, in some instances, corrupt and hated governments and that is something we can, to a small extent, try to do something about. But we are also and mainly hated in the Muslim and particularly the Arab regions because we are in the way of the Islamists and because we do not help the Arabs destroy the Israelis. I doubt we would join the Arab and Muslim Jihad as it would, in the end, be bad for us.




John Cameron - 6/29/2005

Unfortunately our Prime Minister followed Bush to illegal pre emptive war in Iraq against the will of citizens.
Whenever wherever worldly armed conflict arises predicably the spectre of Uncle Sam materialises.
War a folly/malady of fools.
Respectfully,j.c.oz.


edwin s reynolds - 6/29/2005

my prayers to your son and family.


Thomas G. Palaima - 6/29/2005


Unlike Karl Rove, I do not think that criticism of government policy and urging caution in deliberation and working fo humanistic (aka liberal) values for all citizens is unpatriotic.

I also do not demonize the United States, nor do I claim it is responsible for all the world's ills, all the world's bad regimes and so on. My article simply adddresses TWO issues:

1. Why, as even the Bush administration admits by making the suggestion that we citizens have to help improve America's image, our image IS bad.

2. What must be done about this.

What must be done is to recognize past mistakes and present tendencies.

Why our image is bad is our hsitory of supporting oppressive, non-democratic regimes in pursuit of economic interests.

I have lived abroad about five yeears total of my life: Austria, Sweden, Greece, Turkey. I love the US best. But I love it less now than at any time in my life. Policies that increase income disparity, decrease necessary governmental action for social good in all sorts of areas, unilateralism in foreign affairs.....

But it is still a country wwhere we can all debate as we are doing now.

TGP


Thomas G. Palaima - 6/29/2005

Unlike Karl Rove, I do not think that criticism of government policy and urging caution in deliberation and working fo humaanisstic (aka liberal) values for all citizens is unpatriotic.

I also do not demonize the United States, nor do I claim it is responsible for all the world's ills, all the world's bad regimes and so on. My article simply adddresses three issues:

1. Why, as even the Bush administration admits by making the suggestion that we citizens have to help improve America's image, our image IS bad.

2. What must be done about this.

What must be done is to recognize past mistakes and present tendencies.

Why our image is bad is our hsitory of supporting oppressive, non-democratic regimes in pursuit of economic interests.

I have lived abroad about five yeears total of my life: Austria, Sweden, Greece, Turkey. I love the US best. But I love it less now than at any time in my life. Policies that increase income disparity, decrease necessary governmental action for social good in all sorts of areas, uniulateralism in foreign affairs.....

But it is still a country wwhere we can all debate as we are doing now.

TGP



Thomas G. Palaima - 6/29/2005

Our thoughts are with you and him.

Tom


Thomas G. Palaima - 6/29/2005

Sensible, perceptive and accurate. Thank you.

Tom


Thomas G. Palaima - 6/29/2005

What does the war in Iraq even at this point have to do with Al Qaeda, Bin Laden.

I am NOT a pacifist. I agree with veterans like Bill Broyles who know we need a strong army, run morally, and used wisely, because the world has bad guys.

But it should be a citizen army. This the wrong kind of army, the wrong war, a senseless waste of lives, and I even would assert that our leadership is at least obtuse to moral considerations, if not worse.





Sergio Ramirez - 6/29/2005

I wish him a safe and speedy return.


N. Friedman - 6/28/2005

John,

I did not intend my post to be "objective." I intended to state my opinion.


Kevin Black - 6/28/2005

"I suspect that few left-winger children fill the ranks". My son is deploying in October with the 101st Airborne, he is, as I am, a liberal Democrat who despises Bush and this needless war.


Grant W Jones - 6/28/2005

Not that you care, but on 14 June 1985 Robert Stethem was aboard hijacked TWA 847. He was murdered by Moslem terrorists because he was an American serviceman, Navy stationed in Greece. I'm sure you consider this just "blowback" for the Vietnam War.

http://50thstar.blogspot.com/2005/06/robert-stethem-and-iraq-war.html

As for the Roman's "provincial wars," the United States is hardly pursueing the methods used to pacify Judea in the 1st century.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Jewish_Revolt


John Chapman - 6/28/2005

To me, your post is not as objective as it appears, even embellished with its Latin quote. And I don't believe Professor Palaima specifically said the United States has everything to do with the problems in the world. Only that our country under this, and other administrations, has managed to aggravate and stir up more trouble when there was already trouble to begin with. When things went right it was foreign policy with more diplomacy than you find today. The 9/11 excuse has been used for everything it's worth and more.


Frederick Thomas - 6/28/2005


Mr. Friedman

Thank you for attempting to engage and convince, rather than comdemn, as unfortunately often happens here.

There are only a few left, it seems, who follow the enlightenment precept of logical engagement, well described by Hume, Smith, Kames, Hutcheson et alia.

This approach is the essential component of truly free societies. Your remarks are dead on and intended to deflect heated rhetoric with cool facts and syllogisms, as the founding fathers argued with each other. This approach distinguishes the American revolution, with its unity, from the French with its rolling heads.

As one the the two living former public school students of Latin remaining, (Mrs. Richardson, second period, long time ago,) I have a small bone to pick: it's "post hoc ergo propter hoc", or "after that therefore because of that". Replace "-ctor" with "pter" and you have it.

www.datanation.com/fallacies/posthoc.htm

Thanks again for a refreshingly cool and logical post.


edwin s reynolds - 6/28/2005

To the freepers: I think he, but i may be wrong in interpeting Mr. Palaima, was making an arguement based on historical analogy not spin. Because of differing historical contexts comparisons can be problematic.

Most wingnuts do not appear to understand the difference between arguement and spin. Spin is inherently intellectually dishonest, a manipulation of evidence. An arguement based on evidence-correct or not-is hopefully an attempt to reach some type of honest conclusion, correct or not.

Interpretion is in the eye of the beholder whether politically left or right. Mr. Palaimas' historical analogies may not be perfect, but his conclusion and arguement are dead on. No matter how the radical right may spin current or historical events their revolution has been a disaster. Ideology, whether marxist or free-market fundamentalism is an intellectual teleological trap.


Sergio Alejandro M?ndez - 6/28/2005

Edward:

You may have a point after all. The US is not different than any other country of the world: they all allie with undemocratic/dictatorial regimens. The difference between the US and the rest of the world, is that the rest of the world is not trying to sell the idea they are the "defenders of freedom and democracy" while they support such govermentes. Don´t you think?


Sergio Alejandro M?ndez - 6/28/2005

Edward:

You may have a point after all. The US is not different than any other country of the world: they all allie with undemocratic/dictatorial regimens. The difference between the US and the rest of the world, is that the rest of the world is not trying to sell the idea they are the "defenders of freedom and democracy" while they support such govermentes. Don´t you think?


Sergio Alejandro M?ndez - 6/28/2005

Edward:

You may have a point after all. The US is not different than any other country of the world: they all allie with undemocratic/dictatorial regimens. The difference between the US and the rest of the world, is that the rest of the world is not trying to sell the idea they are the "defenders of freedom and democracy" while they support such govermentes. Don´t you think?


Edward Siegler - 6/28/2005

That was an interesting passage. I understand that reading T.E. Lawrence is all the rage among coalition personel in Iraq today. There are many contrasts between the situation Lawrence describes and what is occurring today. I'll only mention one: Unlike in the 20's, Iraqis are now signing up in large numbers to join the military. It's usefull to recall how the episode Lawrence describes turned out: Iraq's Sunni Arabs were installed as absolute rulers over the Shitte and Kurd majority. This is a position that the Sunnis would still like to have. The problem is that the 80% of Iraq that would not benefit from such an arrangement will not allow it. Thus the fighting. The following is an excellent source on current developements in Iraq:

http://www.strategypage.com/fyeo/qndguide/default.asp?target=Iraq


N. Friedman - 6/28/2005

Professor Palaima,

In logic, there is the notion of post
hoc ergo proctor hoc
. I trust you have heard that before.

Now, the US has something to do with some of what is wrong in the world but not all of what is wrong. And we are not alone in causing troubles - when, in fact, we do which is, moreover, not all of the time. Much of what the US does is rather good. And, moreover, most of what is wrong in many parts of the world begins there, not in the US.

You make the US sound as if it were omnipotent. It is not. We are not responsible for all the world's bad regimes. We have had next to nothing to do with Syria for generations yet its government is not noticeably different from those we have had something to do with over the years.

Consider also what went right. The US, by means of its foreign policy, prevented the USSR from becoming the world's dominant power. And the noxious ideology of the USSR was, for practical purposes, defeated. All of that occurred, moreover, without a general war - something the Europeans could not manage regarding Nazi Germany's efforts. When historians look back - not the current crop of historians but those without an ideological stake in what is said -, they will marvel that the USSR was confronted throughout the world without that leading to general war and, moreover, with one party prevailing.

Which is to say, your theory is really not the whole story if it tells a real story at all.

Post hoc ergo proctor hoc!!!


John Chapman - 6/28/2005

Sergio is right, it is not all left-wingers who fill the ranks. However, those who fill the ranks do not come from the class that makes or influences the laws of this land unlike the citizen-army of WWII. And I suspect that the upper-class and the political class of America, especially conservative politicians, have none of their children fighting in Iraq. What’s odd is that the army can’t find enough people to fight the Iraq war when the majority of Americans who voted for Bush, thus endorsing the war, should be running to the army recruiting stations. But that’s not happening, is it? What’s the real difference between a whining liberal in Iraq and a right-winger who avoids it altogether? It’s impossible to compare since issues of cowardice, wisdom, or personal agendas cross all political lines.


Ben W. Brumfield - 6/28/2005

I'm honestly curious why you choose 1947 as the beginning of our foreign policy having "lost our way". Any particular event that makes you choose '47 instead of '45 or '49?


Charles Edward Heisler - 6/28/2005

Good comment Sergio. I suspect that few left-winger children fill the ranks, after all, who could stand a regiment filled with troopers whining "That's not fair!" all the time?


Sergio Ramirez - 6/28/2005

I wonder about this constant refrain about how those on the right or "neocons" don't enlist their children in the military. Having done one very unsatisfying four year term in the Navy, I can assure you that it is certainly NOT left-wingers who fill the ranks!


Charles Edward Heisler - 6/27/2005

Ok, sometimes mistakes are/were made--however, what do Johnson and King imply when a direct and deadly attack is made on America. Acting in the "national interest" is absolutely the responsibility of government in a democracy. There is nothing inherently wrong in taking actions to preserve and protect one's citizens first, last, and always and if that includes backing disreputable governments in other countries, so be it. There is, Thomas, a reality that exists for all of us that resides outside ideal codes of conduct when we are endangered. I assume all American administrations do the best that can be done at the time and under the conditions that exist at the time.


Thomas G. Palaima - 6/27/2005

Dachau and the other concentration camps were liberated in 1945. Since 1947 our inteerveentions in foreign countries are well-documented to have been hardly the sort to give us a reputation as liberators abroad. To wit:

US fights not for freedom
Tom Palaima
London Times Higher Education Supplement
Published: 28 January 2005

Title: Overconfidence and War
Author: Dominic D.P. Johnson
Reviewer: Tom Palaima
Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 0 674 01576 2
Pages: 280
Price: £17.95

Title: American Adventurism Abroad
Author: Michael J. Sullivan III
Reviewer: Tom Palaima
Publisher: Praeger
ISBN: 0 275 97276 3
Pages: 197
Price: £48.99

On April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, Martin Luther King, winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964, explained why he was against the Vietnam War and how it affected the civil rights movement in the US. His speech was a veritable sermon addressed to "my fellow Americans who, with me, bear the greatest responsibility in ending a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on (two) continents". It is remembered now for one phrase among the reasons King gave for breaking his silence about the war: "I knew I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettoes without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today - my own government."

If you are interested in the controversial issues in Michael Sullivan's American Adventurism Abroad and Dominic Johnson's Overconfidence and War, King's classic speech is worth rereading. It lays out the thinking of a prominent political leader - albeit a very special sort of political leader - on many of the same issues. King's thoughts challenge Sullivan's and Johnson's and our own. His eloquent reasoning is informed by hard experience and by an intelligent understanding of history. He reminds us that leaders can advocate alternatives to war and violence and challenge those who hold and wield wealth and power. But doing so can make them dead very fast.

Like Sullivan, King reviews American involvement in foreign affairs since the Second World War, not just in Southeast Asia, but in South America and Africa. It is sobering that Vietnam is only 11th on Sullivan's chronological list of 30 test cases of American foreign interventions between 1947 and 2001.

In April 1967, the US was just getting the hang of purveying violence worldwide. Still, the intensive bombing of North Vietnam, Operation Rolling Thunder, was two years along. Much of its eventual total payload of 643,000 tons of bombs had been delivered, 300 American planes had been shot down, and the General Accounting Office calculated that the US was spending $6.60 to inflict every dollar's worth of damage.

King called for "a true revolution of values", already discerning the pattern that Sullivan's 19 subsequent test cases now confirm. It is Sullivan's thesis that American use of overt or covert force around the world has not spread democracy or other idealised values. Rather, from the Truman Doctrine onwards, American foreign policy has aimed at making the world safe for capitalists who, in King's words, "take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries" involved.

Democracy is messy and unstable. It can nationalise industries, tax profits, permit unions, and regulate wages, working conditions and environmental standards. The US has preferred military regimes in places such as Greece, the Congo, Guatemala and Chile, and monarchies in Iran and Kuwait.

In ten of Sullivan's cases, the US used combat troops. In nine, it provoked coups leading to military takeovers. In nine, it assisted in assassinations of foreign leaders. In nine, it tolerated overkill to the point of genocide. The US has chosen whether or not to get involved according to its own geopolitical, often economic, interests. Want proof? Roméo Dallaire, force commander of the United Nations peace-keeping operation in Rwanda in 1993-94, has written a sickening account (Shake Hands with the Devil) of how quickly the US and other developed nations lose interest in human rights when the humans in question live in a country that has no exploitable natural resources or regional strategic value.

King also addressed Johnson's big question: "Why do political leaders and their nations choose to go to war?" Johnson's thesis is that our political leaders rise to power by natural selection. They are selected for a key adaptive psychological trait from our evolutionary past: overconfidence.

According to Johnson's "positive illusions theory", overconfidence in social groups and in leaders leads to four intervening phenomena that affect decisions about war: one, overestimation of one's own side; two, underestimation of the enemy; three, neglect of intelligence; and four, the sum of the opposing side's estimates of winning being greater than one. The probability of choosing to go to war or of continuing to fight a war is conditioned primarily by the types of government involved and the degree to which serious debate takes place. Constitutional checks and balances and open debate are the main restraints on "positive illusions".

Johnson, like King, explains the complex social and psychological dynamics that affect the decision-making of leaders and groups during crises surrounding war. Johnson uses four test cases: the First World War, the Munich Crisis in September 1938, the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 and the Vietnam War. Johnson also analyses Iraq, 2003, in an obvious postscript chapter. The four primary test cases strike a balance. In two, the outcome was war and the continuation of war despite the clear folly of the strategies being used. In the other two, war was averted, at least temporarily.

Johnson's test cases allow for maximum variability and complexity in intervening phenomena and controlling factors. As far as the limited scale of his book permits, he examines for each case a range of alternative factors (such as "groupthink", ignorance of critical information, and domestic political motives and constraints) and alternative explanatory theories (such as rational choice theory and neorealism). Even when these are taken into account, there is still room for "positive illusions" as a factor in decision-making about war.

As with most historical test-case studies, there is a positive residue from reading Johnson and Sullivan, quite apart from the arguments they advance.

Sullivan's book delivers one of the great cynical straight lines in the wicked comedy of human history. His narrative moves chronologically by presidential periods. By the time he reaches "the Nixon-Ford realist consolidations 1969-76", he has already covered 14 interventions leading mainly to dictatorships or military rule. These interventions cost 4 million human lives in civil and racial warfare, "disappearances" of individuals under right-wing regimes, and American-supported military actions. But Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy, according to Sullivan, marked a "redefinition of America's role in the world and a shift from its historic idealist advancing of America's values".

Indeed. The 15,000-lb. bomb known as the Daisy Cutter, which produced casualties over a 400m radius, was first dropped in 1970 in the new age of realpolitik. It fell on what President Lyndon Johnson, in the era of idealistic foreign policy, called "that raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country".

If your tastes are more in line with Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, you may read here and there in Overconfidence and War things like this. State Department official (1961-66) and presidential security adviser (1966-69) Walt Rostow, a hawkish advocate of bombing, suppressed a report by the Policy Planning Council. Its strong arguments that bombing would not work never reached the President. Rostow had advanced so far up the evolutionary ladder of positive-illusionary thinking that in 1968 he could declare, with no apparent irony, that "history will salute us".

If you really want to salute progress in human evolution and feel better about the effects of positive illusions, read the speeches of Martin Luther King.

Tom Palaima teaches classics and war and violence studies at the University of Texas at Austin, US.


Thomas G. Palaima - 6/27/2005

I cannot follow your logic.

Even the title of Wolfe's book tells us we have lost our way.

Our foreign interventions 1947-2001 prove that.

What does our foreign policy have to do with the attractiveness of our domestic life to immigrants? Our foreign policy does not mean that our standard of living and our domestic freedoms are not better than those of most countries from which our immigrants, legal and illegal, are coming. Ironically, our support of repressive regimes in support of business interests means that the non-elites in foreign countries are often worse off politically and economically because of our interveentions. That means that our anti-democratic foreign policy makes immigration to our democracy, such as it is, more attractive.

TGp


Thomas G. Palaima - 6/27/2005

Who has 'fucked with' the US unilaterally since Pearl Harbor?

The Romans had to fight many provincial wars.


edwin s reynolds - 6/27/2005

"America has obviously made many mistakes, and nowhere is this more evident than in Latin America." Other than this statement, you have only outlined rationalizations and justifications that are based on certain assumptions. Exceptionalist America + dangerous world= smack-down realpolitik. It is important to understand cause and effect relationships and hardcore denial of consequences-intended or not- is not a path to good policy choices. I miss the old GOP rhetoric of personal and political responsibility. Denial is neither a river in Egypt nor Iraq. The world would probably not love us, and really that is not the point, but maybe we might escape some of "doomed to repeat them" lessons of history. A more sober and mature assessment of our role historically might give us the possibilty to love ourselves. The report by T.E. Lawrence is illustrative. The British seem have a better understanding of their own complex history.


A Report on Mesopotamia by T.E. Lawrence
By Ex.-Lieut.-Col. T.E. Lawrence
Sunday Times
August 22, 1920
[Mr. Lawrence, whose organization and direction of the Hedjaz against the Turks was one of the outstanding romances of the war, has written this article at our request in order that the public may be fully informed of our Mesopotamian commitments.]

The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.

The sins of commission are those of the British civil authorities in Mesopotamia (especially of three 'colonels') who were given a free hand by London. They are controlled from no Department of State, but from the empty space which divides the Foreign Office from te India Office. They availed themselves of the necessary discretion of war-time to carry over their dangerous independence into times of peace. They contest every suggestion of real self- government sent them from home. A recent proclamation about autonomy circulated with unction from Baghdad was drafted and published out there in a hurry, to forestall a more liberal statement in preparation in London, 'Self-determination papers' favourable to England were extorted in Mesopotamia in 1919 by official pressure, by aeroplane demonstrations, by deportations to India.

The Cabinet cannot disclaim all responsibility. They receive little more news than the public: they should have insisted on more, and better. They have sent draft after draft of reinforcements, without enquiry. When conditions became too bad to endure longer, they decided to send out as High commissioner the original author of the present system, with a conciliatory message to the Arabs that his heart and policy have completely changed.*

Yet our published policy has not changed, and does not need changing. It is that there has been a deplorable contrast between our profession and our practice. We said we went to Mesopotamia to defeat Turkey. We said we stayed to deliver the Arabs from the oppression of the Turkish Government, and to make available for the world its resources of corn and oil. We spent nearly a million men and nearly a thousand million of money to these ends. This year we are spending ninety-two thousand men and fifty millions of money on the same objects.

Our government is worse than the old Turkish system. They kept fourteen thousand local conscripts embodied, and killed a yearly average of two hundred Arabs in maintaining peace. We keep ninety thousand men, with aeroplanes, armoured cars, gunboats, and armoured trains. We have killed about ten thousand Arabs in this rising this summer. We cannot hope to maintain such an average: it is a poor country, sparsely peopled; but Abd el Hamid would applaud his masters, if he saw us working. We are told the object of the rising was political, we are not told what the local people want. It may be what the Cabinet has promised them. A Minister in the House of Lords said that we must have so many troops because the local people will not enlist. On Friday the Government announce the death of some local levies defending their British officers, and say that the services of these men have not yet been sufficiently recognized because they are too few (adding the characteristic Baghdad touch that they are men of bad character). There are seven thousand of them, just half the old Turkish force of occupation. Properly officered and distributed, they would relieve half our army there. Cromer controlled Egypt's six million people with five thousand British troops; Colonel Wilson fails to control Mesopotamia's three million people with ninety thousand troops.

We have not reached the limit of our military commitments. Four weeks ago the staff in Mesopotamia drew up a memorandum asking for four more divisions. I believe it was forwarded to the War Office, which has now sent three brigades from India. If the North-West Frontier cannot be further denuded, where is the balance to come from? Meanwhile, our unfortunate troops, Indian and British, under hard conditions of climate and supply, are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the wilfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Baghdad. General Dyer was relieved of his command in India for a much smaller error, but the responsibility in this case is not on the Army, which has acted only at the request of the civil authorities. The War Office has made every effort to reduce our forces, but the decisions of the Cabinet have been against them.

The Government in Baghdad have been hanging Arabs in that town for political offences, which they call rebellion. The Arabs are not at war with us. Are these illegal executions to provoke the Arabs to reprisals on the three hundred British prisoners they hold? And, if so, is it that their punishment may be more severe, or is it to persuade our other troops to fight to the last?

We say we are in Mesopotamia to develop it for the benefit of the world. All experts say that the labour supply is the ruling factor in its development. How far will the killing of ten thousand villagers and townspeople this summer hinder the production of wheat, cotton, and oil? How long will we permit millions of pounds, thousands of Imperial troops, and tens of thousands of Arabs to be sacrificed on behalf of colonial administration which can benefit nobody but its administrators?

*Sir Percy Cox was to return as High Commissioner in October, 1920 to form a provisional Government.



Edward Siegler - 6/27/2005

Beginning with a widely abused quote from Tacitus (and abusing it yet again)and then ending with a call for the "sober analysis" of American foreign policy, this essay would have been much more successful if it had stuck to slamming American popular culture and not using it in a pathetic attempt to explain America's role in the world. Sorry, Mr. Palaima, I just can't take your rant seriously.

Tacitus was referring to the brutal subjugation of Rome's enemies for the purpose of territorial aggrandizement. Drawing a parallel between this and the Iraq War streches the truth to the breaking point. Try reading the Annals of Imperial Rome before you expropriate one of its observations for your own tendentious purposes, otherwise you'll look like a fool. By the way, Iraq was part of a desert long before 2003.

The references to Vietnam would be a lot more believable if other American wars were mentioned. Apparently Palaima has no use for a war that America didn't lose. Korea was turned into a "desert that we called peace" as well. Fifty thousand Americans and approximately one million Koreans died in the course of three years. And Four hundred thousand Americans died fighting World War II, which left Europe another "desert that we called peace." Only these horrendous tolls of dead American soldiers purchased the goodwill of the countries who where saved - at least for a while. Why not mention these conflicts? Is it that they have the mantle of just wars and so don't fit in with the author's preconceived notions?

The use of the makeover TV shows as an analogy for U.S. foreign policy is cute, but falls flat as an example of anything else than human vanity. Are Americans the only people on earth who are concerned with appearance? Regardless, ask the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait (going back to 1991, if that episode is even remembered now - Americans aren't the only ones with historical amnesia), among other places, if American intervention was a matter of creating Potemkin villages and upgrading the superficial image of these countries for the purposes of domestic political consumption. I doubt they'll answer in the affirmative.

It's amazing that the article quotes the latest opinion polls indicating that Americans are tiring of the Iraq War, and then recalls the Cambodian genocide, which took place after the U.S. left its allies in South East Asia twisting in the wind. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that Americans want to turn the channel from Iraq to a different reality show, and won't be bothered one bit if another genocide breaks out in South West Asia - this time perpetuated by Iraq's Shiites against the Sunnis. This is a likely outcome if U.S. forces are withdrawn before Iraq can handle it's own security. And I'm not sure what the point is of insulting the economic intellegence of Americans when the rest of the world isn't in much better shape.

America has obviously made many mistakes, and nowhere is this more evident than in Latin America. But to pretend that every other country in the world refuses to have relationships with nasty regimes is simply false. The Cold War resulted in many alliances with right-wing dictatorships simply because they were right-wing and not communist. Similarly, World War II resulted in a major alliance between the democracies of the West and Stalin - a dictator of a similar calibre of evil to that of our enemy. This was a matter of realpolitic over idealism. America is now attempting to turn towards idealism and away from realpolitic, but will not be able to "makeover" the whole world. By virtue of existing on this planet, the U.S. will continue to have relationships with unsavory regimes - and be implicated their crimes. But get this: So will the rest of the world. To pretend otherwise is foolish.

Palaima's experience of "living and traveling abroad extensively for more than 30 years" has apparently not taught him that "foreigners" are much same as we are: Primarily motivated by perceived self-interest and largely focused on their own situations. Certainly after spilling enormous blood and treasure to save the skins of Western Europeans and South Koreans, to give just two examples, these people were favorably impressed. Now, as economic competitors with the U.S., and without an enemy that requires U.S. military aid to contain, Americans aren't quite so beloved anymore (but never really were). But I forgot - if we would only face up to our "shameful history" the world would start loving us again. Sure.




Lisa Kazmier - 6/27/2005

Wing-nuts, eh? I like it. I see 'em here already. Apparently "taking responsibility" is not their job, since it's the same thing to them as "hating America." Like enlisting their children, it's for some other person while they merely go rah-rah on the sidelines.


Charles Edward Heisler - 6/27/2005

"No matter how many young people are killed and maimed, we are going to win the war. It is as if, those who have suffered will arise from the dead, at some magical time. It is hard to believe that more Americans are not marching in the street. In fact we are the ones who are under attack, as our rights are being slowly taken away. Once the War on Iraq is ended, their is going to be a war on Americans."


Anita, does it occur to you that when war is waged that lives are lost? No one expected the dead to rise in 1865, 1918, 1945 -- we persevere because we must, there is no other alternative except to be held hostage by third world terrorists for the rest of our existence. Why does that simple fact not occur to you?
As for the tripe about "waging war on Americans" I can only say "nonsense", no "American" has had his right trampled on by this administration in any way form or fashion and I get mightly tired of the sky is falling routine from folks that haven't felt or seen one patch of it descend from above! We cannot argue about "what might happen" in a necessary war like we were some bunch of anti-nuke activists (who always talk about what could instead of what is), this is real stuff Anita, we were attacked by bad guys, they still want to attack you Anita, they will not respect your "rights" Anita, their Supreme Court is some ignorant teenager in a Corolla loaded with explosives.
Finally, it does no good for the "struggling" to continue to struggle when their financial well being is tied directly to an economy that can be devastated by more 9/11 attacks. The American Dream does not include standing passive and vunerable to those who have announced an intent and actually have attacked America.
But, of course, Anita you have the answer about how the Bush Administration has failed America because...? Oh, that's right, because you think that your rights have been violated and you are just sure that when the war on terror is over that you will be attacked by the Bush Administration. "No matter how many young people are killed and maimed, we are going to win the war. It is as if, those who have suffered will arise from the dead, at some magical time. It is hard to believe that more Americans are not marching in the street. In fact we are the ones who are under attack, as our rights are being slowly taken away. Once the War on Iraq is ended, their is going to be a war on Americans."


Anita, does it occur to you that when war is waged that lives are lost? No one expected the dead to rise in 1865, 1918, 1945 -- we persevere because we must, there is no other alternative except to be held hostage by third world terrorists for the rest of our existence. Why does that simple fact not occur to you?
As for the tripe about "waging war on Americans" I can only say "nonsense", no "American" has had his right trampled on by this administration in any way form or fashion and I get mightly tired of the sky is falling routine from folks that haven't felt or seen one patch of it descend from above! We cannot argue about "what might happen" in a necessary war like we were some bunch of anti-nuke activists (who always talk about what could instead of what is), this is real stuff Anita, we were attacked by bad guys, they still want to attack you Anita, they will not respect your "rights" Anita, their Supreme Court is some ignorant teenager in a Corolla loaded with explosives.
Finally, it does no good for the "struggling" to continue to struggle when their financial well being is tied directly to an economy that can be devastated by more 9/11 attacks. The American Dream does not include standing passive and vunerable to those who have announced an intent and actually have attacked America.
But, of course, Anita you have the answer about how the Bush Administration has failed America because...? Oh, that's right, because you think that your rights have been violated and you are just sure that when the war on terror is over that you will be attacked by the Bush Administration. It will be called the War on Inanity and many intellectuals and academics will be rounded up and thrown into logic classes. Where do I sign up for a tour of duty in this one????


Grant W Jones - 6/27/2005

Palaima writes, "The Bush administration is now seeking a Pax Americana through nearly unilateral use of military power based on a similar principle: Make a desert and call for a public relations campaign."

Actually, Bush could make a large desert very quickly if he chose.

http://navysite.de/ssbn/ssbn726.htm
http://navysite.de/weapons/trident.htm

What desert has been created in Iraq or Afghanistan. Oh yes, trying to make a functioning democracy where none has ever existed is the same as annihilating Carthage. If America were Rome, nobody would fuck with us. Palaima's analogy is beyond stupid.

Since Palaima, the historian, has forgotten:

http://www.likeanorb.com/wtc/index.php?Number=9


edwin s reynolds - 6/27/2005

Thanks for the essay, it is sure to draw the usual rage from the wing-nuts who troll this site. Their incapacity to take responsibility, as Americans, for the historical actions we have taken is stunning. It will be difficult for historians in the future not to interpret current events as a radical consevative revolution. This administration continually spins this radical change as normative. The utter denial of their actions is akin to a horribly abusive parent or spouse who beats them and then denies the event ever occurred. So rage on patriotic wing-nuts, and by the way, have you or your children enlisted yet to fight for the new Empire?


Anita L Wills - 6/27/2005

I do a lot of research on our Colonial Past, and there is a lot of tale spinning there as well. This is especially true when it comes to Native/European Contact. I have a document written by then Governor Spotswood (Virginia), dated Nov. 17, 1711. In the letter Governor Spotswood refers to a meeting he had with the Indian Chiefs, and how he wants them to bring their children to the College of William and Mary. Each Chief is to bring two children to the College, as hostages.

He was upset that the Tuscarora and Nottoway, had not joined in to fight against the tribes out of South Carolina. In other words he felt that the tribes in Virginia should have participated in the massacre of the tribes in South Carolina. In one part of the letter he states that, "Delivering their children as hostages will not only prove the most effectual security for their fidelity, but may be a good step towards the conversion of that whole Nation to the Christian faith, and I could not hope for a more favorable conjuncture to make this demand than now, when they are under great apprehensions of our resentment for the late barbaritys committed in Carolina (when the Natives fought back against attacks on them), and the impression made on them by the appearance of so great a force as I then showed them."
After reading the documents my impression was that the children of the Chiefs were considered hostages, by Europeans. However, this was not the impression they gave to the Chiefs, who were told the children were to be educated at an, Indian School, in the College of William and Mary.

On the Colonial Williamsburg website the story is told from a totally different perspective. They state that the Children sent to the College of William and Mary were captives taken by the Virginia Indians. This is what I call tale spinning, and changing the facts of history. Yet, we do it all of the time, especially with the present Administration.

No matter how many young people are killed and maimed, we are going to win the war. It is as if, those who have suffered will arise from the dead, at some magical time. It is hard to believe that more Americans are not marching in the street. In fact we are the ones who are under attack, as our rights are being slowly taken away. Once the War on Iraq is ended, their is going to be a war on Americans. Maybe we too, are becoming expendable, in this so-called war on terror.

Instead of, A Tale of Two Cities", we are now in, "A Tale of Two America." One is the America of Bush and his regime, and the other is the America of those who are struggling to pay bills, raise families, and live the American Dream.


Anita L Wills - 6/27/2005


Charles Edward Heisler - 6/27/2005

Nice diatribe, sorry that you did not factor in 9/11 and the following impact on America, Americans, and the Bush Administration. I guess you were simply too busy finding examples to support your rant to discuss this rather influential moment in American history.
Oh well, guess those "vulgar" American families at Dachau simply used up all your sympathy for we ignoramuses.
As my children would say "Give me a break!"


Charles Lee Geshekter - 6/27/2005

All decent, self-respecting, self-flagellating students and professors of American history must, perforce, insist that Thomas Palaima's article be made required reading for anyone who desires to immigrate to the United States.

Surely, after reading Palaima's spin on American history, these immigrants will reconsider ever leaving their homelands, right?

Meantime, for a sensible and learned antidote to Palaima's dismissive style and glib shrillness one can read Alan Wolfe, *Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It* (Princeton University Press, 2005)

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