Running through all of U.S. foreign policy is one basic flaw: a total lack of empathy for other nations and cultures. I don’t mean by this statement that our government doesn’t calculate that if we do A, then the other country will react by doing B. Obviously, diplomats, policy strategists, and the medal-laden occupants of the five-sided complex in D.C. DO game out theoretical causes and effects. I’d argue that diplomats have a somewhat higher accuracy rate with their predictions, but that’s open to debate (for reference, see Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, as one example).
There’s a Grand-Canyon-sized chasm between sitting in a well-appointed room in Washington, playing chess with a globe, however, and actually understanding a culture other than ours (which is why those theories crash and burn in practice). Not having such intimate comprehension is an almost universal error among empires, though. The Brits failed to believe that the independent mindset of the leaders in the Colonies in the 1770s would win out; they assumed that loyalty to the crown would prevail. They were largely ignorant of India under the Raj, as well, and were forced to grant independence. Napoleon and Hitler both made the mistake of underestimating the determination of Russians to fight for their land. I’m painting in broad strokes here, using generalizations, but I think the circumstances of these examples are similar: empires + insufferable hubris —-> ruin.
The Roman Empire was a notable exception to the above rule, lasting 500 years, having evolved from the Roman Republic, which had existed for the previous 500 years. Although the Empire had sunken to a state of corruption and near-oligarchy at the end, it was ultimately destroyed from outside. The reason that the Romans were able to control large swathes of Europe, northern Africa, and parts of the Middle East for centuries was that they followed a simple principle: collect tribute from a conquered state, but leave it largely alone, to practice its own religion and retain its original culture. Rome did embark on infrastructure projects, but it made no attempt to superimpose its customs and mores. If Caesar was rendered unto, that was enough.
As has been pointed out in myriad forums over the last decade or so, the United States has not “won” a war since 1945, though not for lack of pouring lives and money into the conflicts it initiates or joins. The French made little or no headway in Vietnam in the 1950s, essentially fading out of a country in turmoil. Then the U.S. took up the gauntlet, under the infamous domino theory, a late-20th-century version of, “fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.” With no understanding of that Asian culture, and zero effective examination of the French failure, the U.S. waded in with its carriers and planes and bombs and napalm, raining down destruction on the jungles and rice paddies, spreading the conflict into neighboring Cambodia and Laos. What Robert McNamara and his war-era successors didn’t take into account was that, not only were the Vietnamese they opposed fighting for their homes, their form of warfare could ultimately not be overcome. That is, guerilla attacks and low-tech weaponry proved to be a match for U.S. firepower. The Vietnamese didn’t conduct war on the terms that the United States did, which was the same lesson that the Continental Army taught the British.
And the same lesson that the Afghanis taught first the British, then the Soviets, and then the Americans. The leaders of our country seem to have a limitless capacity for NOT learning from history. The U.S. military and spy agencies helped the Taliban stalemate the U.S.S.R., but subsequently developed amnesia when they ginned up their own invasion in 2001. They didn’t care about the culture of the mountains and small farms; they discounted the constantly-shifting web of alliances; they never even conceived the idea that Afghanis would not want their society to be controlled and Americanized. By definition, the American Way MUST be the best way, just as British rule was so much “better” for the benighted heathens of India. [I’m leaving out the religious aspects here, but suffice it to say that the Catholic empire has always been similarly tone-deaf in terms of subduing non-Catholics, as an example.] Without any appreciation for the long and rich history of Afghanistan, or its traditions, or its passions, the boys in the tailored uniforms decided that they could simply swoop in, and with overwhelming force and fireworks, subjugate the Afghanis, kill the terrorists, and impose their preferred way of governing. Obviously, that certainty was trampled and buried, but Afghani civilians paid the price for the U.S.’ overweening arrogance.
The same can be said of Iraq. I’d bet that the percentage of the old-[mostly]-white-male shot-callers in the MIC who’ve studied the differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites is vanishingly small. No, nobody ever bothered to read those intelligence analyses. Instead, Dick Cheney and Donnie Rumsfeld, lusting to implement their PNAC ambitions to rule the non-Western world, leading Bush II by the nose, just declared that the U.S. was going to take down a ruler that those same men had propped up a decade before. Because oil, because control, because End of Days scenarios, because daddy issues. The balancing act among the factions in Iraq that Saddam had implemented with an iron fist was discarded, with no strategy to replace it. Sacred sites that had existed for millennia were destroyed or despoiled. If the various sects were even considered, it was only a lip-service affair. The Kurds, who were the most pro-Western of the groups in Iraq, were abandoned, their desire for their own part of the country ignored. The MIC left the entire nation in a shambles, amid wrecked infrastructure and, again, hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. But the generals didn’t care, because the Iraqis were there and the generals were here.
The debacles of the last six decades could be chalked up to a collective failure of imagination, and indeed, that did happen. Nevertheless, the sheer dearth of information was the insurmountable handicap, but not because it had to be so. Analysts all over the country — and worldwide, if our allies’ experts are counted — continuously accumulate mountains of details and knowledge about every area of the planet. Speakers of native languages contribute their grasps of cultures, histories, and beliefs. It’s a matter of taking those volumes of facts and informed opinions into account. But the guys in charge aren’t interested in knowing their “adversaries,” because they’ve invented reasons for those enmities, and facts just get in the way. In short, they simply DO NOT CARE. Their reasons supersede the simple truth that Vietnamese, Iraqis, Afganis, Yemenis, Syrians, Somalis, and the inhabitants of all the other nations the U.S. has devastated are people, too, with families, homes, farms, businesses, and customs. Why understand when one can simply bomb?
The lack of empathy, another facet of American exceptionalism, will doom our empire, in the end. And rightfully so.