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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Arrogance of Power

I’ve just finished reading The Arrogance of Power by Senator J William Fulbright, which is at once both timely and dated. Written in 1966, it is first and foremost a critique of US foreign policy, especially our involvement in Vietnam. In that regard, it’s an interesting look at a variety of ‘what-might-have-been’ options that have since been rendered moot by history.

Where the book is timely is in Fulbright’s treatment of the conflict inherent in the dual nature of the American character. He describes this dualism along the lines of humanitarian vs. puritanical, which lately seems to have been simplified to the level of team colors - blue vs. red - now that radical Islam has replaced communism as the core threat to the nation. Of course the extremity of the 9/11 attacks is vastly different from anything that preceded our involvement in Vietnam, but when one separates (as I think one should) Iraq from 9/11, we can see Iraq as just the sort of Vietnam-style intervention that Fulbright advises against.

The Iraq-Vietnam parallel emerges when we view our involvement in Iraq as a policy based on a reverse domino theory (if Iraq becomes democratic then other middle eastern countries will follow) instigated by the puritanical impulses in our nature, which want to fight evil, spread the word and save the world, by force if necessary. With this in mind, Fulbright’s book becomes an excellent jumping off point for studying a dangerous tendency in our national character that when combined with extreme power creates a self-destructive arrogance that unchecked can lead to ruin.

Fulbright argues that the puritan mindset carries a tendency to allow fear to guide decision-making when dealing with our enemies. This fear, Fulbright argues, is a major factor in our implementation of short-sighted and self-defeating policies such as intervening in foreign nations when our interests might be better served by not intervening, to take my-way-or-the-highway positions, to break our own laws, to violate our standards of conduct, to intimidate our citizens, and refuse to engage in real thought about the roots of the problems we face. In the sixties, it was fear of communism that led to the above problems; today, it is fear of radical Islam. We have much to be afraid of today, but I agree with Fulbright that we should let reason and our laws dictate our policies.

In this regard, I think Fulbright’s book provides contemporary readers with a useful tool for analyzing the mindset that led to our invasion of Iraq, which I think Fulbright would say was a direct result of the arrogance of power that plants "delusions of grandeur in the minds of otherwise sensible people and otherwise sensible nations," causing them to engage in policies where more is bitten off than can be chewed, followed by an unwillingness to recognize mistakes.

Unfortunately, the answer to the Iraq question will not be found in a forty-year-old book. It will require much debate including questions about why we went in; however, the arrogance of our current leadership has led us to a place where debate has been reduced to with-us or against-us divisions in which a significant number of Americans have bought the line - the myth - that might makes right and that dissent is somehow unpatriotic when in fact it is, as Fulbright correctly asserts, the highest patriotism.

As Fulbright tried to remind Americans in 1966, we can change polices and directions but only if we see clearly the ways in which flawed polices contribute to and exacerbate our problems. Unfortunately too many of us, so hurt by 9/11 and carrying a hope that our service men and women will not have died in vain, are unwilling even to consider the possibility that we aren’t always right in our actions, that sometimes a great nation such as ours can make terrible errors in judgement and do unspeakable damage when driven by fear rather than reason.

Sometimes a great nation must admit and face its errors and then work realistically to correct them rather than continue them. That ability to see reality for what it is rather than what we want it to be is one of the few things that can save a nation from its own sense of greatness, allowing its people to understand that they can live peacefully and play a part in lifting up mankind by not trying to forcefully remake the world in their image. This would take great humility of the kind that Fulbright advocates and that George Bush promised back in 2000 but never delivered.

Perhaps, Fulbright suggests to those readers of the mid-60s, it is time to listen to the humanitarian side of the American character and vigorously question the ideas and policies advocated by our puritanical half. In this regard, I think he is still correct and The Arrogance of Power still very timely.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Jessica said...

Fulbright was an astute thinker, a decent politician, and a visionary in education.

His advice to listen to the humanitarian side of the American character is well noted. But that's nothing new. People the world over are "question[ing] the ideas and policies" put forth by Bush, followed by Blair and others.

I agree that an international policy guided by fear leads to the most frightening scenarios of all:
to break our own laws, to violate our standards of conduct, to intimidate our citizens . . .

So where does that leave us now?

8:25 AM  
Blogger James said...

I didn't know much about Fulbright (and still don't). The book's title just grabbed my attention, but after reading the book, I wish there were people such as him in government now who would come forward with serious and thoughtful criticism and ideas as he did.

As to questioning ideas and policies, that needs to happen here, particularly on the Republican side of things as they are the ones who have allowed their man to run amok. The Democrats have not been able to do much, and sadly they seem to have excelled at doing it. I think this is in part due to the fact that we've forgotten meaning and the value of having a loyal opposition.

Perhaps this country needs divided government to provide checks and balances.

2:06 PM  

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