Monday, September 28, 2009

The Problem with American Influence

United States foreign policy seems to now be stumbling at challenges it once faced much more effectively. The current difficulties in places such as Iran, Afghanistan and even in Somalia are clear reflections of our not having sufficient influence to support the goals of our international policies, and more troubling, this appears to be more the general case rather than a few unfortunate exceptions.


A quick note from MeanMesa: Please excuse the "font and size problems" with this post! We have a fabulous new computer -- generously supplied to us by one of our most frequent visitors -- but we are still experiencing a few operational problems. We hope you will be able to enjoy this latest post anyway! It's all here, just mixed a bit... We'll do better soon!


And yet, we see an approach quite removed from that we have been pursuing yielding significant and durable models of social and political influence in places where our own efforts have become dismal failures. In Gaza, the thoroughly questionable politics of the Hamas Party has successfully “sold” itself to the voting population, including the idea of its self-destructive aggression against Israel, with a package of modest public services as a redeeming “sweetener” in the mix. The influence of Hamas services rather easily crowded out the service neglecting corruption of the Fatah, the local party being groomed as our favorite partner.

Regardless of our impression of the relative value of peace compared to conflict, the daily, personal efforts of Hamas representatives distributing food and providing even a modicum of health care became a very effective foundation in the politics of the place. Palestinian voters were clearly willing to “live with” the Hamas rockets flying into Israel – and the predictable results – in favor of continuing this “on the ground” social support effort.

Iran's Hezbollah has performed equally well in the wreckage of Lebanon. Perhaps with substantial additional resources from neighboring Syria made available for its program of social services there, the party has demonstrated a very tangible ability to attract large parts of the Islamic population. That cultural loyalty remains in place today, even after the last violent incursion of the IDF as it attempted to suppress Hezbollah rockets launched from behind Lebanon's border into Israel.

Other examples of insufficient American influence, still developing at this present moment, are also plentiful. In fact, we can characterize almost all international difficulties in a common frame when they are viewed in this sense. Afghanistan is another revealing case which can be quickly added to those in the Gaza and Lebanon.

However, this posting is not about the specific difficulties of our foreign policy. It is about influence.

After subjecting Afghanistan to eight years in a military “meat grinder,” our influence is rapidly descending to an unsupportable nadir. In some important features, the citizens of Afghanistan are suffering the same hardships as the residents of Gaza or Lebanon. During the US occupation, those hardships have increased, not improved. Between the destruction of years of military violence and the apparent – at least in the eyes of many Afghans – support of government corruption by the NATO occupiers, there have been few successes in advancing the qualities of basic Afghan life.

In Iraq, a similar situation prevails, even in the improved security positions there. Years of violent military action coupled with claims of improved security have yet to provide fundamentals to the residents of much of Iraq. There are still grinding deficiencies in even the simplest public services such as water, sewer and electricity. The Iraqi government appears to be slightly less corrupt than the government of Afghanistan, but the hardships of life in both places seem to simply continue.

How can a military undertaking, especially an anti-insurgency strategy, expect to garner popular support when the public faces such static conditions of neglect? Further, in both countries, the United States has paid a gruesome wage for not having public support. During the worst period of the Iraqi occupation, a widely cooperating public could have provided intelligence of such great value that the military conditions would have been immensely improved. The same can be said for our efforts in Afghanistan.

Now, a few billions of the money the late autocrat borrowed for these wars was actually allocated to restoring some of these fundamental services. Yet, the material improvements remained little more than ludicrous public relations gambits for domestic consumption here in the US. Additionally, we can see that our local adversaries in both cases place a high value on denying us the tactical advantages such improvements, if they were actually ever completed, might bring. Al Quaeda in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan have both undertaken dangerous and risky – to them – missions to destroy such infrastructure when it might have increased our influence in a local region.

And if the Al Quaeda and Taliban were not enough of a destructive influence, all those insurgent goals were further amplified by outrageous corruption. Even good projects wound up with cracking foundations, doors which wouldn't close and pipes that leaked the first time water entered them. Such defects can not be blamed on military insurgency activities. No, these are the products of corruption and greed. Under the prevailing regimes in both Iraq and Afghanistan, what the insurgents can't destroy will fall apart predictably enough thanks to the corrupt extraction of everything that can possibly be removed from the project and added to someone's pocket book.

By the way, all that corruption and greed was not perpetrated solely by the locals, either. Yes, the contractors we hired to perform this work were already adequately corrupt to reliably sabotage the outcome, but it's now clear that the “watchdogs” we placed in charge of finding and correcting such corruption were just as corrupt as the contractors. The Bush Autocracy seemed to have enough energy to literally “search the world over” for something that, although it might have looked like a low bid, was actually simply someone willing to quietly participate in massive payola.

The Rumsfeldt Defense Department was unable to tell the difference between an electrical grid or a sewer system that actually functioned and another one which didn't. After all, every disastrous reconstruction project could be conveniently blamed on “security issues.”

Now, all those disasters are “coming home to roost.” We find ourselves seriously handicapped when it comes to popular support and cooperation – influence – which might have been based on improvements in the quality of life for those we claim to be committed to helping. We also see the equally uncomfortable, comparable results of similar, successful activities in places such as Gaza and Lebanon. Hamas and Hezbollah improved the conditions of public life in those places, and today, both enjoy significant support – they have influence.

There remains yet one final observation. This influence we are discussing cannot be “purchased” over night. Yes, Bremer, the American Viceroy in Iraq, was delivering multi-million dollar pallet loads of US $100 bills to practically everyone who would stand still long enough to take it during the early days of that war, but even that largess turned out to be severely lacking much effect in terms of generating noticeable popular support – influence of the kind that would assist US military intelligence efforts, for example, in locating IEDs being buried in the roads.

Consistent with historical US foreign policy traditions, we wound up with what turned out to be a very seedy collection of paid off nobodies who still couldn't be trusted. Although cast in a slightly different light, the same outcome seems to be prevailing in Afghanistan where we sponsor a similar situation in which the primary paths to prosperity remain a sickening mix of bribes, heroin making and brazen corruption. In both cases our reputation with the precise local citizens who could help us the most, frankly, sucks.

This is the basic paradigm we have consistently held for decades. Being suspicious of our basic natures, we have been plagued with the idea that influence can only be bought, not earned. Our behavior has, unremarkably, grown to complete this self-fulfilling, prophetic lack of self-esteem. Firmly founded on the principle that our essential natures were not up to the task of influencing anyone, we made sure that our actual natures followed suit. We habitually unleashed the most unsavory of our fellow Americans – miscreants ranging from the fascist United Fruit in Latin America to the Exxons and Chevrons unleashed decades ago all around the Middle East – with carte blanch marching orders implying that the ends of corporate profits justified any means necessary to gain them. We backed up that disastrous proposal by promising that we, as a nation, would assiduously avoid ever looking at those methods.

Now, it's pay back time. And that dramatic claim turns out to be much more than simply drama! Our traditional approach worked well enough in the delivery of the loyalty – or at least, the complicity -- of untrustworthy local criminals and other sociopaths cultivated by our “capitalists,” but failed miserably and in many cases, permanently, to create a foundation of popular influence. All the wealth extracted by those medieval, untethered, savage American plutocrats now rests comfortably in trust funds for their idiot progeny while we face the perpetually lingering distrust and hatred for those old crimes absent any of the influence we so sorely need right now.

It's no surprise that those same “trust fund” brats are spewing forth with monumental divisiveness and war mongering now. Because they think everyone is just as vacuous, avaricious and sterile as they are, they mistrust the entire process of “having a decent reputation” and the popular support it makes possible. Viceroy Bremer embodied this outlook to an unimaginable degree with his scheme to “buy friends” in Iraq with millions of US dollars. (His real face emerged when he attempted to corrupt his new prize from the autocracy, the IMF, by illicitly promoting his mistress.)

Anything goes.

Is MeanMesa careening “off the tracks” with this idea? You know, are there REALLY a clutch of billionaire monsters subverting a major part of the American ideal? Although the evidence is so voluminous that an eighteen wheeler couldn't carry a fifth of the books already written about it, consider the following two excerpts:

Wealth Inequality and Class

In 2004, the wealthiest 25% of US households owned 87% ($43.6 trillion) of the country’s wealth, while the bottom quartile held no net wealth at all. The middle 50% of the country held 13% or $6.5 trillion of the total household net wealth. The previous data are taken from analysis of the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) which over samples wealthy households. This over sampling more accurately represents the true wealth distribution [since most of the wealth is concentrated at the top]. This data shows that the top 25% of American society holds on average a net wealth of $1,556,801 which is 33 times more than those of the lower middle class, or the 25th-50th percentile.

World's richest 1% own 40%

of all wealth, UN reports

The richest 1% of adults in the world own 40% of the planet's wealth, according to the largest study yet of wealth distribution. The report also finds that those in financial services and the Internet sectors predominate among the super rich.

Europe, the US and some Asia Pacific nations account for most of the extremely wealthy. More than a third live in the US. Japan accounts for 27% of the total, the UK for 6% and France for 5%.

The UK is also third in terms of per capita wealth. UK residents are found to have on average $127,000 (£64,000) each in assets, with Japanese and American citizens having, respectively, $181,000 and $144,000. All data relate to the year 2000.

Gurdjieff said, “The man with a full belly cannot understand the man who is hungry.” We seem intent on repeatedly proving this annually.

Are these folks really the good citizens they pretend to be? Granted, the major part of these ugly, flippant thugs is now busy injecting more and more grotesque, half-baked ideology into the Republican party, but we can be comforted by the fact that they consider such an undertaking little more than a hobby. They are beyond even the savage greed of the neo-cons, their convenient puppets.

The domestic evidence of this curse has emerged a little in the health care debate. The well established plutocrats are simply calling the “cards” they bought and paid for in the Senate. Americans are not to be permitted a chance to purchase any sort of health care which cannot be looted to add to their already immense wealth. However, be assured, the stench ranges far and wide beyond health care to defense suppliers, Wall Street bankers and stinky contractors such as Blackwater and Halliburton, toward an odorous, toxic cloud filled with innumerable others.

In all those foreign countries where we wish we had a better reputation and more influence, we encounter the generational victims of the same petty criminals. Even more the case than in the US where distractions are plentiful and memory much more short lived, those folks seem to have an uncanny – and enduring – memory of the way they were treated.

MeanMesa presumes that our national image might be rehabilitated, but any counter insurgency plan in a nation filled with victims of the plutocracy's previous attention (i.e. Saudi Arabia, Iraq), will, of necessity, be based more on fleeting theoretical dreams than any likely popular support or assistance. But, we might ask, what about those who live places without resources or other treasures which might have caught the eye of these looters? Places such as Afghanistan? Absent the regional treasure which might have caught the eyes of our American billionaires, perhaps we still have the remnant of positive reputations in these “less fortunate” places which could yet yield the popular support we need for our present day military adventures.

Sorry. When there is no “prize” to be exploited, our US government still has all the bad habits it would have held just as if there had been a “prize” of some sort. For the poorer places where we wish to leverage our influence in favor of more purely ideological ambitions, such as Afghanistan, it turns out that we have already “soiled the chair” by acting with hubris just as outrageous as our policy toward and our treatment of those places where there were “prizes.” Sometimes, influence turns out to be a very valuable "prize."

Aren't we a lovable lot? It is at this point that our American neo-cons, accompanied by the predictable chorus of hill billies, bigots and other illiterate freaks, will place the blame for our intractable lack of influence squarely on the shoulders of our new President. Of course, this would never be an actual problem. Although no one else pays much attention to them, they still continue to obsessively believe and inspire each other.

So, how will we restore our influence sufficiently to re-establish our ability to successfully pursue our policy aims? We can begin with a single, very important idea. Our military efforts in Iraq, today, consume just under a billion dollars every twenty-four hours. We all now realize the sobering truth about how much influence all that cash, along with the presence of a 120,000 plus American troops, will buy us in that same twenty-four hours. Or, for that matter, also consider how much influence our massive occupation forces, along with their costs, “purchase” for us in Afghanistan.

Now, let's consider a short, fictional history where the United States actually wound up having some solid influence. There is nothing special about Tanzania, but it will serve just as well as innumerable other opportunities to explain just how this is done.

Step one, park all the bombers and battleships. MeanMesa is not particularly pacifist or isolationist. That stuff has a purpose in this world. It is intended for use in ways which keep us safe. It is not intended as a means to facilitate the Iraq Hydrocarbon Treaty with Chevron.

In Tanzania, that same billion dollars – when well managed – could build all sorts of things. Let's make a list. If clinics cost $100,000 each and another $100,000 per year to staff, equip and operate for each one, and schools (Have you ever seen a Tanzanian school?) cost $100,000 each and cost $50,000 per year to staff, equip and operate for each one, and a university $15,000,000 to build and another $3,000,000 per year to staff, equip and operate, our daily Iraq “price tag” would produce the following:

200 clinics and their cost of operation for ten years = $220,000,000

(220 Mn)

200 schools and their cost of operation for ten years = $120,000,000 (120 Mn)

2 universities and their cost of operation for ten years = $120,000,000 (120 Mn)

"Let's see. Add the twelve, carry the five, divide by ten andyour total comes to $460 million! "

Of the $1,000,000,000 (1 Bn, or, 1,000 Mn) “one day in Iraq” budget, we would have over half remaining!

That is how we wind up with influence. If we want influence, we know how to get it.

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