The Mounting Cost of America-centricity

Among reports last week on the latest bombings in Iraq and the sub-prime crisis in the US, NineMSN ran the following compelling headline:
US reality TV star attacks Macca’s employee.

With NBC’s Mark Philippoussis’ Age Of Love ‘reality’ dating series fresh in mind (if that reference escapes you, be thankful), naturally I clicked on the link, wondering whether The Poo was having serving problems in Maccas as well as on court. But no, the ‘star’ was Trisha Cummings, some American bimbo visiting Bondi as part of a reality tv show. Piqued at missing out on a free promotional icecream sample at MacDonalds, she had unleashed a tirade of racial abuse at an employee she blamed for her privation. Here is a direct quote from Ms Bimbo herself:

“I’m like, ‘well I’d take the fuckin’ Crunchie one but I don’t know what it tastes like because you wouldn’t give me a sample’. I’m like, you know what, keep the money, maybe take some English lessons — I’m leaving cause you don’t know how to speak English.”

Not so remarkable. I guess there are far worse instances of racial bigotry and plenty of ugly Aussies abroad (and at home) who match this American twit’s brattish and obnoxious behaviour on any given day.

But it struck me that there is something typically America-centric about the assumption underlying her outburst. That is, that American attitudes and values are transferable across national borders.

There is no reticence for this gal, no careful treading as a visitor on foreign shores. Thus, there is no suggestion of remorse in our bimbo’s retrospective recall of her tanty; on the contrary, she retains a sense of righteous indignation. Why wouldn’t you, when you cart your home country perspective with you wherever on the globe you roam?

Extend this America-centric thinking a little further, and you relocate Tardis-style from Bondi to the White House. Or Iraq.

Before I elaborate, it is timely to declare that I am not an America-phobe. It is tediously fashionable to heap scorn on America – mandatory, in fact, for any leftie from the standard mould. I distance myself from these irritating ideological clones, though my politics lean left.

Further, I reject the massively popular view that Bush is an idiot. The media delights in every stammer, stumble and gaff that he makes – and he has provided a rich vein of material throughout his two terms in office, it must be said – but in my view, it is dim and naïve to privilege gleefully one-sided journalism and truth by popular agreement as fact.

If Bush is not stupid, then what? He is insular, at times ignorant. His thinking is hostage to Christian fundamentalism, which is viewed as simplistic by liberals and intellectuals. The idiot tag is probably less attributable to his fundamentalist beliefs, though, than to his mispronunciation and frequently imprecise choice of words, especially in press conferences, which he handles notoriously badly. He seems to flood with anxiety when confronted with a baying crowd of journos, and my perception is that his freezes, gaffs and lexical blunders arise from this, rather than stupidity. (Whether a President who suffers from acute performance anxiety has the demeanour to effectively lead the most powerful nation on earth…well, that is another matter).

But back to America-centric thinking. Just as Trisha, like, Cummings crossed hemispheres to Australia without leaving home in her head and made an obnoxious ass of herself as a result, the American Government has embarked on a Quixotic campaign to bring democracy to the Middle East without the slightest inkling, it seems, that the values they esteem as “right” with absolutist conviction may not always travel well. In their crusading zeal, they seem unable to even contemplate the possibility that democracy is not necessarily the best system for all societies in all stages of development. Or that Iraqis who do not embrace democracy as a precious gift from America can be other than misguided rabble or evil enemies in the war against terror.

Frankly, were I not securely sheltered in my status as a very small poppy indeed – beneath the radar, as it were – I would feel isolated and apprehensive in outing this possibility. Why do I use the term ‘outing’? Because while a few brave commentators have expressed doubt about the portability of democracy as a system of government, none to my knowledge have gone a step further and challenged its very validity in some national contexts. To do so amounts to heresy in the “free-thinking” West and risks howling accusations of facism, or support thereof.

If I am to own up to heresy, I might as well make a full confession that at least cuts off the fascist charge at the pass. In my 60s counter-culture-influenced youth, I held a romantic torch for communism – not the Soviet totalitarian version, but a simplistic cartoonish brand of self-customised Marxism. I will spare myself the embarrassment of divulging further details. In any case, subsequent visits to communist East Berlin and Hungary (also part of the Eastern Bloc at the time) cured me of my folly.

Yet, I have a German friend who expresses great nostalgia for the sense of community he enjoyed growing up in Dresden under communism. Further, he claims that many other former East Germans are disillusioned with the reality of their deliverance from Marxist evil. These are people who have lived under both systems, and their views – doubtless astonishing to most Westerners, including me – cannot and should not be dismissed. To do so without investigating their reasoning and seeking an understanding of their attitude and related formative experiences would be blinkered and arrogant.

America-centricity does not even admit the need for investigating or understanding other national and cultural perspectives – the insularity that blinkers Bush is a national phenomenon.

When the Americans crashed their way into Iraq the plan was to excise the malignant cancer of the Saddam dictatorship as quickly and painlessly as possible, and to see the patient through a speedy rehabilitation. The gratitude of the Iraqi people was assumed. The liberators would leave as heroic benefactors, detracting from the credibility of Al Qeda and others who had painted them as monsters. Iraq in new blooming health would be the sudden envy of other Arab nations, a shining model that would pave the way for the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East.

This fairy tale is an expression of America-centricity, built on the conviction that democracy and American values are the way, the truth and the light, and that fighting the good fight in Iraq would prove it. Scratch an Arab, and an American complete with democratic values would be revealed beneath.

The reality as I see it is unpalatable, but here it is.

Saddam was an appalling tyrant who ruled by fear and terror, and the groups and dissidents that suffered most under his regime suffered terribly. But the Iraqi people as a whole suffered far more from the US-led UN-imposed post-Desert Storm sanctions than from Saddam’s dictatorship, not to mention the havoc wrought by the US “liberation” and its ongoing aftermath. And most indigestible is the uncomfortable reality that unlike the US, the Saddam regime understood the region and its people intimately and kept Iraq more stable than the Americans can now even dream of doing.

The question inevitably arises as to the morality of taking no action to slay a tyrannical dragon when action is possible. I’d contend that it depends on the dragon and the location of his lair. Hitler was a threat to the freedom of the whole of Europe, and tomorrow the world, and had to be stopped. Saddam was no threat outside his borders, having had any expansionist ambitions cruelled by the disastrous outcomes of the war with Iran and the US-repelled invasion of Kuwait.

The WMD ruse was always a ruse. There were doubtless multiple motivations behind the US Iraq campaign, but I do not believe that genuine fear of direct WMD attack by Iraq of the US or even Israel was ever one of them. Iran’s weaponry is far more sophisticated, as is frankly acknowledged today, and Iran would have been the obvious target, rather than Iraq, if WMDs were really the primary issue.

The noble objective to rid Iraq of a dictatorship and set up a model for Middle East democracy in its place, if indeed that truly was intended as the crowning achievement of the Iraq campaign, has been subverted by the terrorists, who have utilised their devastatingly effective guerrilla tactics and local knowledge to wrong-foot the lumbering American giant every step of the way since the “fall” of Baghdad. The Americans are paying a high cost for their ignorance of the complexities of Iraqi culture, and particularly of the depth of the ancestral divides that obstruct any real prospect of national unity. Further, as they now admit, they have vastly underestimated the regional resistance to their occupation and their capacity to contain it.

If the clock could be turned back, I wonder what proportion of the Iraqi people would choose the current situation over Saddam’s regime. I doubt the Americans would care. Given their time over again, they would not be poking sticks at the hornet’s nest that is Iraq. They’d be keeping the hell outta there.

America is now caught in an un-winnable fight in a region it does not understand. Force-feeding democracy – in itself a contradiction – cannot work. No exit strategy is in place, and it is now difficult to imagine any way out that will spare either America and its Allies, or Iraq, immeasurable further damage, let alone rectify that already done. This is the price of America-centricity and the unchecked assumptions and ignorance of other cultures that are symptoms of such insularity.

It is America’s right to defend and protect democratic ideals and Western values, and to use its military power to support allies under threat of attack. But to forcibly impose its political will on an entire nation – dictatorship notwithstanding – that is not a threat to its homeland or allies smacks of a righteous moral absolutism that is little different from that the terrorist enemy draws upon in perpetrating unspeakably immoral acts of violence on innocents.

Let there be no doubt that my allegiances are with America in its fight to rid the world of the scourge of terrorism. Flawed though its practice is, I believe in democracy and the freedoms that come with it. Those freedoms do not, in my view, include the forcible imposition of democratic systems of government on other nations.

Democratic nations, starting with America, need to get clear on where their ideological confines begin and end. While this remains blurred, so does the distinction between the mindsets of America and its allies and that of the terrorists they are seeking to nullify.

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