Politics & Policy

Not Getting America

Misunderstanding the U.S.

Gamal Abdel-Nasser — the man who is perhaps most responsible for making Egypt, and the Arab world generally, the thriving, peaceful, and prosperous envy of the civilized world it is today — once said:

The genius of you Americans is that you never make clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves which make us wonder at the possibility that there may be something to them which we are missing.

Now, Nasser was the father of both Arab nationalism and Arab socialism, the self-evident genius of which we “stupid” Americans can barely comprehend. So it’s not shocking that he would have a hard time figuring out what and, more importantly, why we oddball and backwater Americans do what we do. Part of the problem is that people always gripe about the boss. No matter how brilliant and capable the guy in charge might be, unless that guy is you, you’re likely to say at one point or another “What the hell is he thinking?” This is human nature and, like it or not, that means it’s a fact of life.

Now, technically speaking, we aren’t actually the boss of the world. We’re just the richest, most powerful, and most influential country in the history of the planet. But the dynamic for much of the world is still basically the same; when, say, the U.N. charter hits the fan, all eyes turn to us, not to Brussels or Cairo.

The dynamic at home is very different however. Americans, of all political stripes, have serious problems with the idea of being the boss of the world. When Chad is in trouble, all American eyes do not got to America. In fact, since 95 percent of Americans have no idea where or what Chad is, their eyes don’t go anywhere at all.

But if you were to ask a typical American, “What should we do about Chad?” His most likely response would probably be “Chad who?” or “Is this about the Florida recount?” But after all that, he would say, “Let them figure it out for themselves?” or “Can’t someone else worry about Chad?”

There is no political ideology in the United States which is not influenced by this almost genetically programmed aversion to bossing the world around. Even the supposedly war-mongering neoconservatives and the mythic members of the Scoop Jackson wing (or is it a feather?) of the Democratic party have no desire to make Chad or Afghanistan or Israel or any place on the globe an American colony or — heaven forbid — a 51st state (though, personally, I do have my eye on some Canadian real estate).


This illustrates why, for example, the talk we hear from the paleo-Right and the anti-American Left and most places in-between about the American “empire” is so disingenuous. In fact, if you look really, really closely, you’ll discover that when American lefty intellectuals prattle about American imperialism it is mostly a metaphorical argument. They confuse our cultural dominance with the Roman Empire’s dominance, skipping right over the fact that the Roman Empire installed Roman governors, collected imperial taxes, imposed Roman law, conscripted colonial subjects into the Roman army (eventually), and generally considered Rome the supreme and final authority on any important question.

Sure, the U.S. has military bases all over the world — which are often compared to Roman garrisons — but unlike Roman garrisons their host countries can get rid of them by asking them to leave. The same holds true for our overly hyped “imperial” holdings, like Puerto Rico. They are one referendum away from independence.

Anyway, my point is simply this: Saying we rule the world doesn’t make it so. We don’t rule the world. We lead the world — this is a huge distinction to people who live outside the intellectual menagerie of an Ivy League English department. If the coolest guy in school wears a leather jacket and all the other kids follow suit, that’s hardly the same thing as the coolest guy forcing them at gunpoint to buy a leather jacket from him.

Now, the fact that we are not an empire, but could be one if we wanted to, confuses the dickens of all sorts of people. Indeed, some people find the idea so confusing they willfully refuse to believe it and just go on insisting we are an empire the way the guy in the Monty Python skit just kept insisting the parrot wasn’t dead. Other folks don’t use the word “empire” but they are just as confused about America’s behavior. Marxists, for example, have a hard time fathoming that America doesn’t behave according to their straight-line predictions about how a capitalistic “hegemon” should behave. So they mine the data. They ignore the inconvenient and misinterpret the unignorable.

Europeans who did have colonies and who did invade both their neighbors and distant lands for material gain — and, to be fair, for more ideologically complex motives — have a hard time computing that America isn’t behaving the way they did. They think they’ve evolved past us, that they are on the same road as us and are simply a few miles ahead of us on the path to enlightenment.

What they can’t grasp is that America took a different fork in the road a couple of centuries ago. We can argue about who’s on the high road or the low road now, but we’re on different roads. And judging from the fact that they keep running into ditches, forcing us to be their AAA service, I think they can’t tell us much we need to know (this terminates the extended road metaphor). Calling us an empire, Hitler-like, and the rest are simply examples of Europeans misapplying categories from their past onto the United States. America isn’t the European past, fellas, America will be the European future, if you’re lucky.

Similarly, Arab nationalists and Muslim fanatics believe that the United States wants to colonize the Middle East. They have some understandable reasons to think that, considering how they view Israel, the Shah of Iran, etc., and the degree to which their intellectual class has been poisoned by European intellectual fads. But just because you have evidence which points to a certain conclusion doesn’t mean that conclusion is correct. Richard Nixon reportedly once said that the world is obviously overcrowded because wherever he went he saw huge crowds. My wife feeds Cosmo the Wonderdog (too much) when we eat dinner. But that doesn’t mean Cosmo is right when he concludes we made the dinner for him.

Look: If America actually wanted to conquer and occupy Iraq, we would have done in it 1991. If we were the imperial nation that all of these buffoons think we are we would have done it back then. In fact, if we were the hegemonic bully all of these people imagine we are, we would have conquered the entire Middle East already. Trust me: It’s not the awe-inspiring might of the Arab world’s military juggernaut that has kept us from invading and conquering you guys. The only that stopped us is that we didn’t want to do it. In fact, I often wonder if the Arab world would rewrite its entire worldview if only it got enough self-esteem to realize that we don’t normally spend much time one way or another thinking about Arabs, the crusades, and the rest. We have better things to do.

Nevertheless, I confess I have sympathy for people who want to squeeze America into one prefabricated ideological category or another. America is hard to understand. It doesn’t surprise me that we look stupid in a complicated way to people like Nasser and his successors — because those people are blind to what really motivates us. If you don’t believe in freedom and democracy and free markets; if you think the only use for power is its utility for furthering your own ambitions then American foreign policy is going to look bizarre. And, if like so many Europeans, you believe that power and force are no longer necessary, that everything in the international arena can be settled by democratic debate or, better, intelligent conversation in the lobby of a four-star hotel, then American foreign policy will look pretty darned weird to you, too.

America is unique because it has the power to be an empire and has chosen not to be one. That choice wasn’t merely a hard-headed calculation of our self-interest. And it wasn’t an accident either. It was a moral choice, reinforced from one generation to the next. But because so many other nations failed that test, they assume nobody could pass it. Well, we did pass it and if we conquer Iraq we won’t turn it into a colony. Hopefully, we’ll teach it how to pass the same test.


The Latest