Much as I hesitate to introduce yet another post with a plug for LNL, the interview with Chas Freeman last night obliges me to take the risk. Now retired, he was, as well as holding many other distinguished positions, US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. Terrific speaker . . . . . low key, intelligent, well informed with a humour so dry as to almost be invisible.
I was curious about this fellow and so had a look on Google. Found a few interesting things, amongst which was this transcript of a speech given late last year to the United States Information Agency Alumni Association. In it, he sums up the radical deterioration in the US position in the last five years particularly well, I thought, and does so as an insider. The title of this post is the one he used for that talk. Indeed, his opening words were:
“We are gathered together to reflect upon our country’s adoption of Caligula’s motto for effective foreign policy — ODERINT DUM METUANT — ‘let them hate us, as long as they fear us.’ As we do so, let us observe a brief moment of silence for the United States Information Agency and also for our republic, both of which long stood for a different approach.”
Although he takes care to trace the decline in America’s influence and reputation to well before the current administration, there’s no doubt things have taken a sharp turn for the worse on its watch. The post 9/11 American descent into a kind of serial irrationality, one that also found slight echoes here, he puts down to “the equivalent of a national nervous breakdown”. I think that’s right. Certainly measured judgement, openness to reality and awareness of the aspirations and viewpoints of others largely vanished on that day and have not yet reappeared. This despite the rebuke handed out to the White House and the Republicans in the recent election.
It’s particularly alarming that the cognitive dissonance so apparent in US policy vis a vis Iraq is, even in the face of overwhelming public dissatisfaction with that benighted enterprise, flourishing around the question of what to do about Iran. If anything, the principle Democratic candidates appear more bloodthirsty than the administration. As Freeman pungently puts it:
“Both Republicans and Democrats seem to consider that statecraft boils down to two options: appeasement; or sanctions followed by military assault. Both behave as though national security and grand strategy require no more than a military component and as though feeding the military-industrial complex is the only way to secure our nation. Both praise our armed forces, ignore their cavils about excessive reliance on the use of force, count on them to attempt forlorn tasks, lament their sacrifices, and blithely propose still more feckless tasks and ill-considered deployments for them. Together, our two parties are well along in destroying the finest military the world has ever seen. “
Critical though they are to the health of a democracy, the separation of powers and checks and balances Cam discussed in his earlier post on “Democracy and Empire” may in fact have limited application when the entire body politic is in thrall to an essentially emotional, fear based state. While some Americans are in the process of slowly emerging from this largely self-induced nightmare, it seems the political leadership lags far behind, obsessed with not appearing weak, belligerent to a fault and almost entirely impervious to rational analysis. Despite the manifest failure of current policy, and the frantic scrambling to find a solution to the resulting impasse, it would seem an attack on Iran can’t with confidence be ruled out. Truly extraordinary.
Freeman attempts, at the end of this talk, to sum up the present dilemma and propose in broad terms the way forward:
“We have lost international support not because foreigners hate our values but because they believe we are repudiating them and behaving contrary to them. To prevail, we must remember who we are and what we stand for. If we can rediscover and reaffirm the identity and values that made our republic so great, we will find much support abroad, including among those in the Muslim world we now wrongly dismiss as enemies rather than friends.
To rediscover public diplomacy and to practice it successfully, in other words, we must repudiate Caligula’s maxim and replace it with our traditional respect for the opinion of mankind. I do not think it is beyond us to do so. We are a far better and more courageous people than we currently appear. But when we do restore ourselves to mental balance, we will, I fear, find that decades are required – it will take decades – to rebuild the appeal and influence our post-9/11 psychoses took a mere five years to destroy.”
That seems about right. The fear I can’t quite shake is that the lingering madness which still seems to infect American political judgement will prove sufficiently strong to drive them, and us, over a cliff.