The U.S. will not face reality about its foreign policy disasters but rather retreats to fantasy worlds that exist only in its own imagination, writes Michael Brenner.
When Pompey the Great made his triumphant return to Rome in 61 BCE from his stunning conquests in the East, a spectacular ceremony was planned. Pageantry on a grandiose scale was designed both to satisfy his outsized ego and to display superior status in his rivalry with Julius Caesar.
The centerpiece was to be a towering throne where a regally costumed Pompey would pass through a Victory arch installed for the occasion. A small problem arose, though, when a rehearsal showed that the throne was 4 feet taller than the height of the arch.
That is an apt metaphor for the uneasy position in which Uncle Sam finds himself these days. He proudly pronounces his enduring greatness from every lectern and altar in the land and pledges to hold his standing as global Number One forever and ever. Yet, America constantly bumps its head against an unaccommodating reality.
Instead of downsizing the monumental juggernaut or applying itself to a delicate raising of the arch, or lowering of the throne, the U.S. makes repeated attempts to fit through in a vain effort to bend the world to its mythology. Evocation of the concussion protocol is in order – but nobody wants to admit that sobering truth.
U.S. engagements in the world over the past 20 years reveal a grim record of failed ventures. Most have been caused by unrealistic goals, blinkered views of the field of action, overweening pride, an ignorance of foreign places and their history, and an unseemly readiness to take complacent comfort in fantasy worlds that exist only in its own imagination. In short, American foreign policy has been misguided – badly and consistently misguided.
The inevitable frustrations and failures owe equally to sheer incompetence. An endless string of errors – diplomatic, military and political – is as difficult for the nation to reconcile with its ‘can-do’ self-image as is the admission of the glaring discrepancy between the belief in the country’s providential mission and its increasingly evident ordinariness.
Vince Lombardi, the legendary American football coach, is often quoted as declaring: “Victory is not the most important thing; it’s the only thing.” That has been an implicit American motto from the beginning. However, in the global arena over the past generation, the U.S. has been setting records for failure and futility.
The Ever-Growing List of Debacles
1). The era began with the success of evicting al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and toppling their Taliban hosts. It’s been downhill ever since, at an accelerating pace – culminating with the crack-up at Kabul airport where the obtuseness and criminal irresponsibility of the Pentagon brass (abetted by the C.I.A.’s habitually faulty intelligence) produced a human and political disaster. The Taliban are back in power thanks to American misbegotten actions in seeking the liquidation of Taliban adherents who had fled their organization and retired to their homes in 2002, and our unbounded reliance on feuding clans of corrupt warlords.
Al-Qaeda evolved from a fanatical jihadist cadre numbering in the double figures to an international conglomerate with franchises in a dozen countries and a free-lance fan club operating in Western capitals. The alleged training camps and indoctrination centers had no more tangible existence than did Saddam Hussein’s WMD.
2). The Afghan fiasco pales compared to the multi-dimensional tragedy created by the Iraq invasion and occupation. The scorecard:
- Hundreds of thousands dead, wounded, orphaned.
- The fostering of sectarian blood-letting that institutionalizes the country’s political fragmentation.
- The massive destruction of economic infrastructure.
- The welding of ties between Shi’te majority governments in Iraq with Iran’s clerical regime (our avowed enemy – justified or not).
- Torture and abuse in dedicated camps that permanently blemished America’s cultivated image as the champion of human rights.
- The spawning of the Islamic state – conceived, organized and recruited in American prison camps – Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Camp Bucca foremost.
- The resulting mayhem in Iraq and Syria with deleterious effects across the region.
- One effect: the flood of refugees into Europe that fueled the rise of far-right and neo-fascist movements across Europe – disrupting political life in friendly countries and undermining the EU.
- In Syria, prioritizing the overthrow of Assad’s regime over the fight against the al-Qaeda affiliates who led the insurrection (a failure that is probably a success for Syria, for America and for the region).
3). Redoubling our unqualified support for Saudi Arabia under the leadership of the cocaine-addicted, megalomaniac Mohammed bin-Salman, otherwise known as the crown prince, thereby allying ourselves with the Sunni side in the historic contest between them and their Shi’a rivals. That led to the disgraceful policy (continuing to this day) of supporting and participating in the unwarranted assault on Yemen’s Houthis which has devastated the poorest country in the region, destroying lives in what amounts to massive ‘war crimes.’ Yet, a State Department official just last month declared Saudi Arabia “a force for progress” in the Middle East. The resulting shredding of what remains of the American pretense of being the custodian of human rights globally has made risible such events as Joe Biden’s League of Democracies summit.
4). Similar suffering and destruction inflicted on Somalia by American meddling and military intervention with no discernible U.S. interest at stake.Tearing up the Iran nuclear deal – and then setting onerous, unacceptable conditions for its resurrection. Steps counter-productive whether the U.S.’s goal is foreclosing any prospect of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon or regime change (Washington’s preferred solution).
An abysmal record unmatched since the infamous performance of the WW I generals on the Western front – equally honored with medals and laurels.
This long litany of failure and incompetence is overshadowed by the strategic blindness of treating Russia and China as implacable enemies. By doing so, Washington has not only obviated any alternative strategy for developing a stable, long-term relationship. It has also cemented a formidable power bloc that is now well able to contest the United States in whatever sphere it wants to cross swords with.
This mosaic of misconceived strategy and rampantly amateurish maneuvers strongly suggests that America’s foreign policy elites are living in a delusional world – dissociated from reality. That raises three basic questions: 1). what are the causes?; 2). why the uniformity of attitudes towards foreign affairs by the political class?; and 3). why is there so little dissent from policies that have produced a steady stream of abject setbacks?
The Roots of Delusion
Americans are struggling to draw into focus their exalted image of themselves and reality. They are not doing a very good job of it. The gap is wide and growing. That is due in good measure to what has been happening beyond the country’s shores as well as at home, and over which it lacks the skills and the means to exercise decisive influence.
The U.S. response has been one of avoidance and reaffirmation of thought and deed. It seems to fear that staring at reality squarely, will find reality staring back at it in a discomforting way.
Fading prowess is one of the most difficult things for humans to cope with – whether it be an individual or a nation. By nature, we prize our strength and competence; we dread decline and its intimations of extinction. This is especially so in the United States where for many the individual and the collective persona are inseparable.
No other country tries so relentlessly to live its legend as does the U.S. Today, events are occurring that contradict the American narrative of a nation with a unique destiny. That creates cognitive dissonance.
America’s exalted sense of self is rooted in the belief of being pace-setters and world beaters in every domain. The state of affairs sketched above — marked by impulsive enterprises that underline America’s foredoomed, audacious ambition to gain global dominance — does not represent rational strategic judgment.
It is the national equivalent of ostentatious iron-pumping by bodybuilders worried about losing muscle tone.
Psychologically, reality is avoided with overweening self-confidence coupled to material strength, perpetuating the national myths of a destiny to remain the world’s No. 1 forever, shaping the world system according to American principles and interests.
President Obama declaimed: “Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. Period. It’s not even close. It’s not even close!”
Is this meant as a revelation? What is the message? To whom is it intended? Words that are neither a prelude to action nor inspire others to act – nor even impart information – are just puffs of wind. As such, they are yet another avoidance device – a flight from reality.
The tension associated with such a nation encountering objective reality does not force heightened self-awareness, nor a change in behavior, when there is no opposition. Today, there is no foreign policy debate whatsoever.
In addition, America’s vassals in Europe and elsewhere have a national interest in preserving the warped American view of the world (Israel and Poland, for instance) or have been so denatured over the decades that they are incapable of doing anything other than follow Washington obediently – despite staring at a potentially fatal abyss with China and Russia.
Reality testing, in these circumstances, leads to conformity in viewing the world through the shared delusional prism – rather than a potential corrective.
An Insecure Americanism
Americanism provides a Unified Field Theory of self-identity, collective enterprise, and the Republic’s enduring meaning. When one element is felt to be in jeopardy, the integrity of the whole edifice becomes vulnerable. In the past, American mythology energized the country in ways that helped it to thrive. Today, it is a dangerous hallucinogen that traps Americans in a time warp more and more distant from reality.
There is a muted reflection of this strained condition in the evident truth that Americans have become an insecure people. They grow increasingly anxious about who they are, what they are worth and what life will be like down the road.
This is an individual and collective phenomenon. They are related insofar as self-identity and self-esteem are bound up with the civic religion of Americanism. To a considerable degree, it’s been like this since the very beginning.
A country that was “born against history” had no past to define and shape the present. A country that was born against tradition had no rooted and common sense of meaning and value that cut deeply into the national psyche. A country that was born against inherited place and position left each individual at once free to acquire status and obliged to do so for insignia of rank were few.
That changed over the course of the 20th century. Within just a few decades, America became a great world power, a superpower, a champion of democracy and freedom and the defender of the West against Soviet-led communism. It was the “heroic” century which culminated in the triumph of victory in the Cold War.
After the collapse of Communism, the United States ruled the roost. In its own eyes, this unique hyper-power had seen history confirm its anointed role as both model and agent for the construction of a better world. American “exceptionalism” now meant emulation of America – pure and simple.
That confirmation should have strengthened the belief in the pageant of progress. It should have given a boost to self-esteem. It should have compensated for the creeping insecurities associated with socio-economic-cultural changes within the United States. That has not proven to be the case.
Strenuous displays of patriotism have a contrived cast to them. They suggest strained efforts to overcome doubt more than they do genuine pride and conviction. National self-confidence is not demonstrated by gigantic flags seen everywhere from used car lots to hot sheet motels, the ubiquitous lapel pin, the loud and gaudy demonstrations of chauvinism at sporting matches, the bombast of shock jockeys, or the belittling and condescending treatment of other peoples.
Rather, those are sure signs of weakness, doubt and insecurity. The compulsive militarization of foreign relations fits the pattern; the same psychology is at work. A society that sees reality through the screen of violent video games is juvenile and immature.
A Dissociated State of Mind
America is close to a condition that approximates what the psychologists call “dissociation.” It is marked by an inability to see and to accept actualities as they are for deep seated emotional reasons.
It is defined as:
“Dissociation … is any of a wide array of experiences, ranging from a mild emotional detachment from the immediate surroundings, to a more severe disconnection from physical and emotional experiences. The major characteristic of all dissociative phenomena involves a detachment from reality, rather than a loss of reality as in psychosis. … Dissociation is commonly displayed on a continuum. In mild cases, dissociation can be regarded as a coping mechanism or defense mechanism in seeking to master, minimize or tolerate stress – including … conflict.”
Conflicts of purpose, conflict of aims, conflict of ideas, conflict between idealized reality and actual truth. Dissociative disorders are sometimes triggered by trauma (9/11?).
This psychological appraisal of the American body politic does not explain adequately, however, either the exaggerated response to a single (if singular) event confronting it with reality, or the intensity and acuteness of the delusional thinking in the absence of evidence from the real world. The objective truth is overwhelmed by the subjective virtual truths that shape their perception of reality.
What do these developments foretell for the United States’ relations with the rest of the world? The most obvious and important implication is that Americans will be ever more dependent on maintaining that sense of exceptionalism and superiority that is the foundation of their national personality.
A fragile psyche, weak in self-esteem and prowess, is sensitive to signs of its decline or ordinariness. Hence, the obsession with curbing China. Hence, the country will continue to exert itself energetically on the global stage rather than become progressively more selective in its engagements and choice of methods for fulfilling them.
Continuity is a lot easier than reorientation. It doesn’t demand fresh thinking and different skills. Quite frankly, today, the caliber of high and mid-level personnel would have to be upgraded. Less amateurism and careerism, more experience and sophisticated knowledge.
Equally, a U.S. president would have to seek out people with a different mindset. That is to say, a more nuanced view of the world, more acute awareness of other countries’ political culture and leadership, and a talent for dealing with other states on a basis other than the assumption of American superiority and prerogative.
Attempts to dictate the internal affairs of foreign countries would become the rare exception rather than the norm. Moreover, it is necessary to loosen the hold on the nation’s mind of dogmatic ideas as deeply rooted in the American experience as they are out of synch with today’s world.
All of this is a tall order. It appears to be beyond America.
Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. [email protected]