Thursday, February 19, 2009

The imperial imperative of leadership

The United States is a lot like the Roman Empire, according to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, but that’s not a bad thing! he argues in a staggeringly silly op/ed for The Washington Post:
Our brigade combat teams are not the legions of old. . . . But we in the U.S. military are likewise held to a high standard. Like the early Romans, we are expected to do the right thing, and when we don't, to make it right again.
I have a feeling much of the world would prefer the U.S. government to, say, mind its own business and not attack and occupy other countries in the first place, rather than continuing the oxymoronic quest to "make . . . right again" what it has already shown itself woefully incapable of making right the first time. That said, it is refreshing to hear the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff echoing the likes of Gore Vidal in drawing the obvious comparison between the U.S. and the ancient Romans.

But Mullen is not one to see comparisons between the U.S. and the Roman Empire as a critique of Washington’s reckless and brutal subjugation of foreign, impoverished peoples. Rather, Mullen sees the similarities as a good thing. In his piece, he recounts an apocryphal tale about the Romans’ kind and meek treatment of the Locrians after the latter complained about widespread abuses (like slavery) committed against them by the local Roman authorities, suggesting the U.S. would act likewise. While other occupied peoples would presumably not petition their occupiers for redress of their grievances, the Romans had a “reputation for equanimity and fairness”, Mullen writes. “Such were the responsibilities of leadership.”

It never appears to occur to Mullen that perhaps the Romans would not have needed to respond in such an equanimous manner had they not occupied the Locrians territory in the first place, seeing as how there would have been no occasion for a Roman kleptocracy to enslave them. But Mullen, like much of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, has no fundamental problem with the U.S. invading and occupying other countries -- obviously -- so it likely never occurred to him that the Romans’ (alleged) reputation for kindness in foreign affairs might be incongruous with their well-documented history of invading and occupying their peaceful neighbors.

When he isn’t regurgitating politically convenient and questionable historical analogies, Mullen simply chooses to skip over uncomfortable episodes in U.S. history. After discussing the need to view the war in Afghanistan through a “regional lens”, he bemoans the lack of trust -- nay, the existence of a “trust deficit” -- between U.S. and Pakistani military officials:
Any effective strategy must be inclusive of the security challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan, if not also the countries surrounding them.
Looking through that regional lens is difficult given our trust deficit with Pakistan. A whole generation of Pakistani military officers either doesn't know the United States, doesn't trust us or both. What they do know is that military aid restrictions went into effect under the Pressler Amendment in 1990. We basically cut them off for 12 years, and in the process cut ourselves off.
As one Pakistani official put it recently, "The U.S. abandoned Pakistan, and that mutual distrust didn't allow and still in many ways does not allow both parties to find a common strategy to defeat terrorism."
What Mullen doesn’t write is that the Pressler Amendment only called for cutting off aid in the event that Pakistan covertly developed nuclear weapons, as it did with a wink and a nod from the Reagan administration throughout the 1980s, eventually forcing the first Bush administration to acknowledge as much and enact the amendment's restrictions. Meanwhile, for what great purpose was that aid to Pakistan being put to use? Mostly funding the Afghan mujahideen -- aka bin Laden and friends -- through the Pakistani intelligence service while propping up an authoritarian military dictator. Truly God’s work.

Mullen concludes thusly:
We don't always get it right. But like the early Romans, we strive in the end to make it right. We strive to earn trust. And that makes all the difference.
Yes, the fact that the U.S. doesn’t always “get it right”, but strives to do so I’m sure “makes all the difference” to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead as a result of an illegal and ill-considered war of aggression. And some people have the nerve to think Americans are arrogant . . .

No comments:

Post a Comment