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Washington's Imperial Attitude: We Talk About Countries Like We Own Them

It's the norm for U.S. civilian and military leaders to talk about what other countries "must do" -- but it's a radical and dangerous mindset.
 
 
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A front-page New York Times headline last week put the matter politely indeed: "In Pakistan, U.S. Courts Leader of Opposition." And nobody thought it was strange at all.

In fact, it's the sort of thing you can read just about any time when it comes to American policy in Pakistan or, for that matter, Afghanistan. It's just the norm on a planet on which it's assumed that American civilian and military leaders can issue pronunciamentos about what other countries must do; publicly demand various actions of ruling groups; opt for specific leaders, and then, when they disappoint, attempt to replace them; and use what was once called "foreign aid," now taxpayer dollars largely funneled through the Pentagon, to bribe those who are hard to convince.

Last week as well, in a prime-time news conference, President Obama said of Pakistan: "We want to respect their sovereignty, but we also recognize that we have huge strategic interests, huge national security interests in making sure that Pakistan is stable and that you don't end up having a nuclear-armed militant state."

To the extent that this statement was commented on, it was praised here for its restraint and good sense. Yet, thought about a moment, what the president actually said went something like this: When it comes to U.S. respect for Pakistan's sovereignty, this country has more important fish to fry. A look at the historical record indicates that Washington has, in fact, been frying those "fish" for at least the last four decades without particular regard for Pakistani sensibilities.

In a week in which the presidents of both Pakistan and Afghanistan have, like two satraps, dutifully trekked to the U.S. capital to be called on the carpet by Obama and his national security team, Washington officials have been issuing one shrill statement after another about what U.S. media reports regularly term the "dire situation" in Pakistan.

Of course, to put this in perspective, we now live in a thoroughly ramped-up atmosphere in which "American national security" -- defined to include just about anything unsettling that occurs anywhere on Earth -- is the eternal preoccupation of a vast national security bureaucracy. Its bread and butter increasingly seems to be worst-case scenarios (perfect for our 24/7 media to pounce on) in which something truly catastrophic is always about to happen to us, and every "situation" is a "crisis." In the hothouse atmosphere of Washington, the result can be a feeding frenzy in which doomsday scenarios pour out. Though we don't recognize it as such, this is a kind of everyday extremism.

Being Hysterical in Washington

As the recent release of more Justice Department torture memos (which were also, in effect, torture manuals) reminds us, we've just passed through eight years of such obvious extremism that the present everyday extremity of Washington and its national security mindset seems almost a relief.

We naturally grasp the extremity of the Taliban -- those floggings, beheadings, school burnings, bans on music, the medieval attitude toward women's role in the world -- but our own extremity is in no way evident to us. So Obama's statement on Pakistani sovereignty is reported as the height of sobriety, even when what lies behind it is an expanding "covert" air war and assassination campaign by unmanned aerial drones over the Pakistani tribal lands, which has reportedly killed hundreds of bystanders and helped unsettle the region.

Let's stop here and consider another bit of news that few of us seem to find strange. Mark Lander and Elizabeth Bumiller of the New York Times offered this tidbit out of an overheated Washington last week: "President Obama and his top advisers have been meeting almost daily to discuss options for helping the Pakistani government and military repel the [Taliban] offensive." Imagine that. Almost daily . It's this kind of atmosphere that naturally produces the bureaucratic equivalent of mass hysteria.

 
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