America’s Dismal Foreign Policy — and What to Do About It

America’s Dismal Foreign Policy — and What to Do About It

#Americas #Dismal #Foreign #Policy

“Just as the self-congratulatory domestic narrative centers on the ineluctable expansion of freedom ‘from sea to shining sea,’” Bacevich writes, “so, too, the narrative of America abroad emphasizes the spread of freedom to the far corners of the earth.” America’s account of its foreign policy, he notes, is “even less inclined than the domestic narrative to allow room for ambiguity and paradox,” and it excludes “disconcerting themes such as imperialism, militarism and the large-scale killing of noncombatants.” He finds a dissonance between windy rhetoric and harsh reality even in “the good war” 80 years ago, which was by no means so good for all Americans, or all countries.

Starting in 1942, Bacevich reminds us, Frank Capra made “Why We Fight,” a series of seven government-sponsored documentary movies that gave “a greatly simplified account of the origins of World War II” and described “a people deeply devoted to liberty and equality for all.” An addendum to those movies was called “The Negro Soldier,” and quite evaded the grotesque irony that America was fighting a war against the most hateful racial tyranny in history with a rigorously segregated Army, with that “Negro soldier” mostly kept in menial roles.

And maybe World War II has distorted the American perspective ever since. When President Biden speaks of “the strength and audacity that took us to victory in two world wars,” he forgets that the United States entered those wars belatedly (and in the second case involuntarily), and it succeeded largely thanks to the ordeals endured by others. The first war against Germany was won by the blood sacrifice of the French and British Armies, the second by the blood sacrifice of the Red Army, with American casualties modest by comparison, and the crucial American contribution in both cases financial. Since then, when has the United States actually won a war? From the stalemate in Korea to the latest failures it’s hard to see any clear victory.

What Americans have failed fully to recognize is what might be called the impotence of great might. In the heyday of the Cold War two vast superpowers faced each other, each armed with an immense array of nuclear warheads. It seemed that no other country could possibly prevail against either. But what actually happened? The Americans were humiliated in Vietnam by one ragtag peasant army and the Russians were humiliated in Afghanistan by another. And in both cases the effect on national self-confidence was grievous. The Afghan adventure destroyed the morale of the Red Army before precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union, and by the 1970s the U.S. Army in Vietnam could have been described in the words an 18th-century English general used of his own army, “in a state of licentiousness which must render it formidable to everyone but the enemy.”

Some of Bacevich’s points are the sharper for being personal: Recalling the atrocious use of defoliants in Vietnam, he adds ruefully that “the high incidence of prostate cancer among Vietnam veterans (myself included) has been traced to their probable exposure to Agent Orange.” “After the Apocalypse” is offered, he says, “not for my own contemporaries but for those who will inherit the muddle we have made.” And what a bunch we contemporaries are! Compare us with our predecessors. In my own country, every prime minister from 1940 to 1963 — Churchill, Attlee, Eden and Macmillan — had formerly served as an infantry officer in the Great War, whereas in 2003 we were taken into the Iraq war by Tony Blair and a government of more than a hundred ministers, not one of whom had ever performed any military service whatever.


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