When Hannah Arendt, the famous German-American political philosopher, criticized American involvement in the Vietnam War, she said that our foreign policy “experts” fell prey to using excessive means to achieve minor aims in a region of marginal interest to the United States. You could say the same of most of America’s foreign interventions since 1945. We are a superpower with a boundless propensity for meddling in world affairs. We waste enormous amounts of money and resources intervening in areas that are of marginal importance to our national security.
There are many reasons for these wasteful interventions, of course. The military-industrial-Congressional complex plays its role. Presidents love to intervene as a sign of “strength.” Natural resources, especially oil, are usually in play. The usual motives, in short: profit, power, greed.
But perhaps the root cause of our mistakes can be traced to hubris, our prideful belief that we can remake other societies and peoples in our image. Our hubris leads us to undervalue legitimate cultural differences, and to underestimate the difficulties involved in bridging those distances. Because we underestimate the difficulties, we rush in with money and troops, only to find that the problems we encounter — and often exacerbate — are not amenable to being solved with money and troops. Nevertheless, once we’ve committed our prestige, we believe that we can’t withdraw without losing face. So we commit even more money and troops and prestige, until our folly can no longer be denied, even to ourselves. After which, sadly, we usually search for scapegoats.
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Rarely do we stop to think that some problems simply can’t be solved with massive infusions of money and troops. Indeed, infusions of the same often exacerbate the very problems we claim we’re trying to solve.
The way out, to paraphrase Arendt, is to commit only those means necessary to secure our major aims in regions of vital interest to the U.S.
Such an approach requires humility as well as moderation. Our foreign policy types will need to stop strutting the world stage as if they own it. Our leaders will need to stop vamping like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, declaiming “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” (If only they had her style.)
“Look at them in the front offices. The masterminds!” Yes, Gloria Swanson had it right. Our foreign policy “masterminds” need to learn some humility. Either that, or America will be among the smashed idols of history.