Litkicks Message Board Archive

Contradictory visions of American power

Posted to Poetry and Politics

19 Mar 03 By Ehsan Ahrari -

The American people have entirely different perspectives regarding their country's imminent invasion of Iraq than how it is being viewed in the Middle East or in other regions of the world. Those crucial perceptual differences explain why so many people in the United States support the ousting of Saddam Hussein, even without UN sanctions, while it is being opposed so overwhelmingly in other parts of the world. The irony of these differences of perceptions is that both sides are not off the mark. But how can both sides be right? At the risk of oversimplification, let me suggest that both sides are focused on different "evidence" in drawing conclusions.

Public opinion research has proven, time and again, that Americans pay little attention to world events, and that their comprehension of the ebb-and-flow of those events is superficial as well as malleable. That is one reason why American presidents have historically played a crucial role in "shaping" and "nurturing" public opinion regarding major issues of foreign policy. However, the role of a president to use the power of his "bully pulpit" starts to become shaky when the American mass media begin to dissect the official explanations and rhetoric related to a given major issue of foreign policy and raise questions about its stated rationale and correctness.

A classic example of this point may be established by examining America's involvement in Vietnam. The seeds of that involvement were sown in then-president John F Kennedy's inaugural speech of "paying any price and bearing any burden" to defend freedom and fight communism worldwide.

That rhetorical hyperbole took the US into the Vietnam imbroglio. One may recall the "domino theory" that was used as a rationale for the growing American force presence in Vietnam from 1963 through 1968, or so, and for the urgency of taking a stand against global communism. But with the continued protraction of the Vietnam conflict, the increasing number of American casualties, and, above all, the intense scrutiny regarding the pointlessness of that conflict by the American media were some of the major reasons why domestic support for that conflict transformed into a powerful peace movement. Consequently, the US had to redeploy its forces from South Vietnam under humiliating circumstances as the North Vietnamese communists took over the rest of that country. That was a conflict whose significance was arguably understood only inside the top echelons of the US government in the late 1950s and early- to mid- 1960s.

Compare that conflict and America's involvement in containing the communist regime of North Vietnam with the present politically charged environment leading to its invasion of Iraq. The chief difference between then and now is that the US was attacked by a group of terrorists on September 11, 2001. Thus, public opinion has remained highly vulnerable to all sorts of rhetorical linkages that the present administration is incessantly establishing between al-Qaeda terrorists and the Middle East. Saddam Hussein is the recent focal point, despite the highly questionable nature of linkages that President George W Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have attempted to establish between him and the al-Qaeda murderers. So, there is a significant amount of support inside the US for toppling Saddam even without UN support. There is little doubt that the American public has been persuaded into viewing the invasion of Iraq as a "necessary aspect" of ridding the world of the scourge of global terrorism.

In the meantime, the role of the American mass media as the "chief scrutinizer" of the governmental rhetoric on the issue of global terrorism and its linkages with Saddam's regime has been considerably neutralized since the September 11 attacks. As objective and as scrupulous the American media historically have been in probing governmental rhetoric on issues of foreign affairs, they have pretty much accepted the basic line that Saddam's imminent ouster, indeed, is part and parcel of America's vital national interests.

Then there is the fact the neoconservatives, inside and outside the government, have incessantly promoted an entirely different vision of the purpose of America's power in world affairs since the September 11 attacks. That vision clearly states that the US should no longer content itself by merely managing global conflicts. Rather, the lone superpower should unabashedly use its military and economic power to shape those conflicts, and, in the process, alter the regional balance of power in its favor. To add authority to the position advocated by the neoconservatives, two important government documents - the Quadrennial Defense Review of 2001 and the National Security Strategy of 2002 - have incorporated their perspectives.

These two documents argue that any potential adversaries should never be permitted to challenge the US's dominant global strategic position, and that no country should be allowed to gain military superiority over the lone superpower. Those documents also formally enshrined the doctrines of preemption, regime change and proactive counterproliferation in the realms of weapons of mass destruction. To be sure, these ideas are not entirely new. They were originally leaked as part of the thinking of mid-level US officials in 1992, when George H W Bush was in office. His administration, rightly and quickly, took the air out of such highly contentious visions of America's exercise of power, and assured the community of nations that the US would never consider adopting any of them. However, under the current administration, those very same concepts have become inseparable from US foreign policy.

The international community has become acutely aware of those proactive doctrines that are described as evidence of this country's "imperious" thinking outside the US. When they combine those official documents with what is about to happen in Iraq, and what is likely to happen next in North Korea, the international community is drawing conclusions that the invasion of Iraq is the beginning of an American empire. As the Los Angeles Times of March 16 notes, "They [the international community] worry that America's self-declared right to launch preemptive wars, its willingness to dismiss the United Nations, to shuck allies and make plans to invade and occupy another country - all amid talk of remaking the Mideast - are the beginning of the end of the post-World War II order and the start of an American imperium."

But for the American people, their country - the bastion of exceptionalism and democratic egalitarianism - can never be anything as hideous as an imperial power. Only events of coming weeks and months will provide clear evidence of which side is correctly reading the strategic purposes of America's global power in the near future.