Tuesday, August 18, 2009

War, death, destruction? It must be America’s fault …

The following was first published in The National on 18 August 2009.

As a US citizen travelling and living abroad, one grows accustomed to being treated with dislike, distaste, disdain or some combination of the three. To many, we are uncouth, arrogant warmongers who trample through the world oblivious to the pain and suffering we leave in our wake. Partly, these feelings are born of disappointment: America, many feel, has failed to live up to its promise. The great democratic experiment, the beacon of human rights and free speech to the world, is a big, fat hypocrite.

Even if we examine only recent events, the litany of grievances is long. The US condemns human rights violations throughout the world, but we apparently ignore 60 years of Palestinian suffering. We tout the virtues of democracy, but prop up dictators and autocrats. We condemn the actions of groups such as Hizbollah, Hamas, the Taliban and other so-called non-state actors, but forget that their existence is due in part to our own military primacy. And although religious freedom is enshrined in our constitution, we harbour prejudices towards Muslims, labelling them terrorists. And, worst of all, we are too ignorant even to realise the wrongs our nation is inflicting on the world.

True, Americans, by and large, know little of the world beyond our own borders. It is a function of our national wealth and our geography. We fail to grasp the implications of detaining an international movie star such as Shahrukh Khan because no one in introverted America knew who he was. And this drives the rest of the world mad.

Like Marie Antoinette, the average American stays locked in a palace solving the world’s problems with cake. But it’s hard to hate a Marie Antoinette who doesn’t know any better, which is why Americans hear the oft-repeated line from new acquaintances abroad: “I love Americans, but hate America.”

I heard this over and over when I went to a friend’s wedding in Pakistan, a country that nurtures an especially deep-seated dislike for the United States. It’s not hard to see why.

The war in Afghanistan has spilled over violently into Pakistan. Until his recent death, the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud waged a bitter war to unseat the Pakistani government with an army of religious zealots and thousands of kilos of high explosives. Faced with this threat, the only help Islamabad got was a scolding from Washington that it needed to do more to stop him.

Naturally, most Americans would feel that criticisms of their country are unjustified, even ungrateful. The United States Agency for International Development alone has a budget of $20 billion and a mandate to solve the world’s problems.

Even in this age of globalisation, most Americans are isolationist by nature. We would prefer to leave the world to its own devices. At the same time, we look upon the Old World with condescending pity, and feel the weight of our national good fortune. Thus we are easily aroused when called to right the world’s injustices. If the US were a person, it would be a teenager with a trust fund: opinionated but woefully ignorant, well-meaning but gratingly condescending, generous but with a sense of entitlement that ruins the sentiment.

While some of the criticisms of the US are valid, at worst it is only partly to blame. Yes, the absence of an effective post-invasion strategy in Afghanistan allowed a resurgence of the Taliban. Yes, a lack of understanding in Washington of the intricacies of tribal politics means they often fail to navigate through complex inter-relationships with the necessary nuance and subtlety.

But while Pakistan did not create the Taliban, and arguably neither did the US, it certainly did little to solve the problem. Its misguided military policies foster groups such as the Taliban for use as potential irregular forces against its enemies.

The Pakistani government’s neglect of the country’s largely ungoverned hinterlands has created a no-man’s land where extremist organisations can hide and recruit from a disenfranchised population. Yet the country is so blindly nationalistic in its policy-making, it even went so far as to quietly support the Taliban under Pervez Musharraf because it viewed Indian involvement in Afghanistan’s reconstruction efforts as an assault on Pakistan’s western borders.

Of course, it’s hard to argue this when you’re in Islamabad, especially when the person you’re arguing with is feeding you: that’s not cowardice, just good manners.

Much of the blame the US received, deserved and otherwise, is a result of being the only superpower left after the dust settled on the Cold War. As the US president Harry Truman famously said: “The buck stops here.”

Other countries may decry US attempts to police the world, but who else is going to do it? No one else can, and the alternative is to revert to a time when countries settled their issues on the battlefield. The wars of today are not existential clashes between global behemoths. Rather they are small wars, with small casualties.

Undoubtedly America has committed many wrongs in its brief history, but it has also changed the course of history. If you are going to blame America for foisting democratic values on others and trampling over cultural sensibilities, you must also give it credit for putting human rights and free speech on the global agenda.

This is all a matter of perception and image as much as reality. America invented the modern public relations industry. Maybe now is a good time to put it to use.