Hollywood Foreign Policy?
by Robert Weissberg
Issue 214– October 31, 2012
With the Cold War ending most Americans anticipated a peaceful world. Obviously, as events in Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan (probably forever), Libya, Syria and elsewhere sadly illustrate, deadly conflicts are as commonplace as ever. Predictably, Americans are uncomfortable with this strife, but uneasiness goes beyond the billions (if not trillions!) and loss of life. Ask the average person about these wars, and the response will be filled with words like “frustrating,” “exasperating” and “pointless.”
Let me try to explain why unease goes beyond financial cost and loss of life. Contemporary conflicts typically lack what film makers call a “rooting interest,” a clear-cut moral division, the white hats against the black hats, so to speak.
Americans are a generous, idealistic people. We didn’t loot Germany or Japan after the war; we quickly forgave, spent billions in re-building and this big-heartedness remains true today. This generosity is also reflected in our constant calls for human rights, political freedom, democracy, and protecting minorities. For nearly all Americans, foreign policy is about good vs. evil and the United States in unquestionably on the side of the angels. Recall the movies The Mouse That Roared—the Grand Duchy of Fenwick declared war on us believing that defeat would bring them massive US aid. Imagine Fenwick waging war on the Soviet Union?
This irrepressible moral perspective means that we instinctively look to help “the good guys.” This was a snap during the cold war. Back then the Soviet Union usually backed one side so we’d support the other and messy reality was happily simplified. No matter that in Angola “our” side was just as evil and corrupt as the commies; it was still a battle of good vs. evil.
This good versus bad mentality infuses our culture. It is integral to America’s Christian faith (God and Lucifer) while popular entertainment invariably depicts good versus bad with the good always winning. And this was equally true for old-fashioned cowboy and Indian movies and today’s earth fighting extraterrestrials flicks. As a boy I watched professional wrestling on TV and the script never varied—the bad ugly guy in black tights (perhaps called “Brutus”) fought dirty but, rest assured, he was ultimately defeated by the more handsome, abide-by-the-rules hero.
Unfortunately for Americans conditioned to see clear-cut good versus evil battles, today’s international strife is filled with ambiguities with nearly everybody wearing a black hat, albeit slightly different shades of black. This is true even when fighting terrorism in Afghanistan. Yes, al-Qaida are anti-American but who can embrace allies who are blatantly corrupt, will switch sides for a few dollars, are often apathetic regarding their own military responsibilities and enjoy a reputation for manufacturing and using drugs and pedophilia? I defy experts to certify “the good guys” in contemporary Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan let alone in more obscure hot spots like Mali, Burma or Sudan. We’ve spent billions to rebuild Iraq, the country has been in the news for over a decade, but who are today’s “good guys”? Who do we root for when Saudi Arabia sends troops to quell a Shia rebellion in Bahrain? Perhaps the sole exception today is Israel, and even here, many express moral doubts about the conflict.
Our moral perspective is especially troublesome since bad guys can easily fake it. Any Western educated closet extremist can tell anxious-to-believe Americans that he supports cultural pluralism, favors democratic elections, abhors religious fanaticism, and loves religious tolerance and all the rest to shake loose a few million in aid. If he can speak English and appears in a suit and tie, he instantly becomes our man in Kandahar, at least until he gets a better offer from the other side. We buy this charade since we want to believe that America supports “the good guys.”
Can we resist the lure of defeating evil even when there are no “good guys”? This is a critical question given how we reflexively spent fortunes (and lives) in ventures that often turn out badly. Obviously there are no simple solutions but that said, let me offer some suggestions, albeit unpopular ones.
Americans must acknowledge that 90% of the world rejects our valuing of human life. Indeed, our present-day high-sounding condemnation of mass killing is a relatively new virtue. A 19th century UN might have demanded international peace-keepers monitor our “Indian Wars.” Contemporary Syria is the norm, not a horrific exception to be reversed with US help. Stalin killed 20 million of his people; Mao as many as 40 million and these are only the most gruesome of countless genocidal campaigns (and recall America’s near total silence regarding this butchering). Human nature is a bad as ever; what has changed is the technology able to put killing on TV via the Internet (Assad’s father was far more brutal but this was pre-Internet).
Similarly, we must recognize the hard wired ubiquity of corruption, even among our allies. So, rather than demand honesty and invite disappointment (or worse), Americans should embrace the old adage about an honest politician as one who when bought, stays bought. Americans must also learn to scale back expectations about uplifting those mired in poverty and tyranny. It may be unspeakable in public, but trillions have been invested in Third World nations for miniscule progress. Foreign aid may even fuel violence and prop up dictators. Doubters should just visit Haiti to see the “progress.”
No doubt, many will reject this harsh realism. Truth be told, purely at a personal level there is more to be gained from unfretted, easy-to-express idealism. It is all too easy to give speeches to billionaire philanthropists about bringing democracy to everyone, re-making Uganda into Switzerland and helping the lamb lie down with the lion. Who wants to hear about intractable problems or, even worse, how well-intentioned, wildly applauded schemes can exacerbate already difficult situations, for example, boosting population to unsustainable levels via free vaccines. No job prospects there.
Is there any hope? Charles De Gaulle once said that France had no friends, only interests. Harsh but wise counsel. This is not a prescription for isolation or abandoning our proven friends. It says nothing about military budgets or strategy regarding Iran. It is a call to end misconstruing human nature, a naïve insistence that somewhere in an emerging disaster there must be some good people who will make the world a better place only if we can identify and help them. Time to abandon this fantasy—the world is not a Hollywood movie with a rooting interest.
Robert Weissberg holds a Ph.D. in Political Science, has authored 11 books, and has taught at Cornell University and the University of Illinois-Urbana; he still occasionally teaches a graduate seminar on elections at New York University. A rare academic, he had owned and operated a clothing store for fourteen year. A version of this originally appeared in Conservative Action Alerts.