WikiLeaks: The Three Faces of Uncle Sam
Know Thine Enemy is the famed dictum of the renowned Chinese military thinker Sun Tzu. He took for granted something even more crucial: know thyself. Yet, Americans routinely ignore that latter counsel – at their growing peril.
That uncomfortable truth becomes abundantly clear when immersing oneself in the dense cable traffic revealed to us by WikiLeaks. Their exposure of the mindset and outlook of the country's policy-makers and diplomats is more telling than any of the details. For it reveals who we are, who we think we are, and how that self conception is out of line with both world realities and others' perceptions of us.
Most striking is the unstated but pervasive belief that the United States is wiser, more skillful and dedicated than anybody else. Therefore, it is natural that America rules the roost. Our serial failures of judgment and action, at home as well as abroad, have left not a trace of modesty on our conduct.
That hubris has a number of practical meanings: One is the conviction that Washington should set the policy direction for allies and friends, jerk them back into line when they show a tendency to stray or are unresponsive to American leads, and cultivate a corps of informers and helpmates from among the native elites. Access to antechambers of imperial power and favors magisterially bestowed are the coin in which they are paid.
Examples of successful efforts by the United States to maintain order in the ranks include: the incessant pressure to expand troop commitments in Afghanistan; cajoling that borders on coercion to accept Guantanamo alumni whom we've abused for eight years only to be faced with the dilemma of where to safely dispose of these unwanted innocent nobodies; demands that the SWIFT banking clearinghouse hand over legally protected private data; and insistence on the right to overfly and use airport facilities on the sovereign territories of other nations whenever the US deems it necessary as part of some dark mission or other.
Washington does not accept 'no' as an answer whether it is made on strategic, ethical or domestic political grounds. The last is the object of frequent disparaging remarks dutifully dispatched to apolitical and guileless superiors back in Washington.
A second manifestation is the disparagement of anyone else's opinion. In the hundred or so cables and excerpts that I've looked at, I have yet to find one instance of a visiting Assistant or Under Secretary of State or resident Ambassador seeking out interpretations or assessments of situations – much less encouraging their interlocutors to offer policy advice. The sole aim of these meetings seemingly is to test their foreign counterparts' fidelity to the Washington line and to sniff out any dangerous deviations.
The outstanding case in point is Turkey from which emanated literally hundreds of cables on the theme that the Erdogan government was showing increasing signs of unreliability and independence (almost synonymous) on matters ranging from Iran to Iraq to Central Asia. The sophisticated, well-developed Turkish perspective on the region's intersecting problems was dismissed out of hand as of little interest, despite the country's half millennium domination of, and affinity with the neighborhood they inhabit. And despite our own woeful record there.
Another cardinal feature of the prevailing American attitude, about which we exhibit no self awareness, is the reflex to divide foreigners into the two categories of "pro-American" or "anti-American." This Manichean carry-over from the Cold war days has been given new life by the obsession with the 'war on terror' which overshadows all else just the way the life-and-death struggle against Godless Communism did in the old days.
So Mr. Nicholas Sarkozy, while still a minister under Jacques Chirac, is identified as a very eager would-be friend of the United States who could be counted on to shed Gallic ant-American attitudes. His purring around the Americans' ankles is rewarded, and encouraged, with stroking and a tickling of his ears. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, instinctively 'pro-American,' nonetheless is a bit of an irritant because she has the distressing habit of thinking for herself, if only occasionally, on matters like the propriety of the American kidnapping and torture of a German citizen. She also is not assertive enough in instructing her voters why today's historic challenge to FREEDOM comes from Taliban mullahs and their Pashtun peasant followers.
Equally vexing was Merkel's lack of enthusiasm for the Missile Shield whose military utility was as obscure to her as is its potential to estrange Russia was evident. Hence, Merkel was temporarily located in limbo according to the two-cell political map of American strategists.
The aforementioned Erdogan is repeatedly labeled as a candidate to join the 'anti-American category.' His most grievous sin is the cultivation of commercial and political ties with Teheran. This reprehensible behavior is ascribed to the propensities of the Islamic AKP party which he leads as well as the worrisome fact that he is himself is a believing, practicing Muslim. His religious orientation is more troubling than that of the Saudis et al for two reasons: the former have proven themselves loyal pro-Americans, and Erdogan personifies backsliding from the secular, pro-American elites with whom Washington was accustomed to doing business.
There is no self consciousness that America's own leading politicians all seem to 'find Christ' on the eve of the Iowa caucuses and make a show of having a personal communication channel to their Christian Deity. Perhaps even more troubling is what this view of Erdogan says about Washington's ignorance of elementary truths of Turkish domestic politics.
For the AKP, the fundamentalist Iranian regime was a distinct electoral liability since it gave a bad name to the mixing of politics and Islam and perpetuated voters' fears about a political party uninhibited about affirming Turkey's predominantly Muslim identity. Religion has been a repellant factor, not a magnetic one in the current government's approach to Iran. Whether such ignorance is offset by the acquired knowledge of Erdogan's DNA profile or Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's e-Bay password remains to be seen.
A third feature of the American mindset is set in stark relief by the Wikileak cables. It is the identity in our officials' minds of the American national interest with the world's interest. In instance after instance, they declare the cavalier premise that Washington's foreign policy serves the well-being of the international community. Indeed, any other worldview that does not accept this premise is illegitimate – selfish and dangerous, too.
That applies not only to hostile governments like that of Iran, or independent minded countries like Russia. It applies as well to putative partners like the Pakistanis. Our officials are unrelenting in insisting that they have a better sense of what is in Pakistan's interests than do General Kayani and members of the political elite less deferential than the compliant President Asif Ali Zardari. Here is an instance where an uncommonly astute Ambassador, Ann Patterson, writes cogent analyses explaining why the surmise conceit is dead wrong. Indeed, she makes the compelling case that our own self-defined goals are less likely to be realized following the current course of Washington's polices in AfPak than if we adjusted them in accordance with Kayani's reading of political realities in his country. Patterson somehow has escaped being placed in the 'anti-American' category – as far as we know.
There is another singular feature of how the United States sees itself that takes shape as we read these cables. It is the extraordinary sense of entitlement. An entitlement endowed by 9/11. It hallows all those other characteristic American traits with a robe of righteousness. Our unique virtue, our superior wisdom, our mission to save the world, our right to judge and to proclaim, our authority to set new rules or to break old ones – all is rendered true and just by the calamity that we have endured. America feels that it has found in 9/11 a diplomatic ace that wittingly or not matches the Israelis' use of the Holocaust. It is not at all clear, though, that it serves us well.
Michael Brenner is a professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. He blogs at Media in Politics.