Saturday, June 7, 2008

In Loco Parentis

One of my favorite books about parenting and teens carries the brilliant title, Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall. This is one of those rare instances when you can judge the book by its title. One central theme of this wonderful little book is that teens are struggling with the lingering specter of dependency which defined their relationship with parents during childhood, and the regression back into which they simultaneously crave and dread. They need parents to remain authoritative, to keep them safe and nourished --physically and emotionally-- yet are compelled by their march toward adulthood to rail against that protection...even as they would feel devastatingly betrayed and abandoned were it ever actually to be withdrawn. So they constantly engage in pointless arguments in order to remain connected, while simultaneously reinforcing their need for a sense of autonomy. They push their parents away, then drag them along with them.

It was this dynamic which kept intruding on my mind as I read this editorial from The Australian, via TigerHawk, about anti-Americanism in the world. This section in particular stood out for me:

There is a teenaged immaturity about the rest of the world's relationship with the US. Whenever a serious crisis erupts somewhere, our dependence on the US becomes obvious, and many hate the US because of it. That the hatred is irrational is beside the point.

We can denounce the Yanks for being Muslim-hating flouters of international law while demanding the US rescue Bosnian Muslims from Serbia without UN authority. We can be disgusted by crass American materialism and ridiculous stockpiling of worldly goods yet also be the first to demand material help from the US when disaster strikes.

The really unfortunate part about this adolescent love-hate relationship with the US is that, unlike most teenagers, many never seem to grow out of it. Within each new generation is a vicious strain of irrational anti-Americanism. But unlike a parent, the US could just get sick of it all and walk away.

Now, it may seem terribly condescending and more than a touch arrogant to compare other sovereign nations of the world to petulant teen-agers, and the US as some beleaguered parent figure acting for their own good. To some extent this would be a valid criticism. What can I say: no metaphor is perfect. Still, it is hard not to entertain such notions when the US does so very much across the globe to rescue victims of natural and human-made disasters, only to be the subject of such withering vitriol and disdain. The doublethink required for one to rail that the US is a meddlesome Imperialist power...then to turn around and slam it for being provincial and stingy and self-serving on the world stage has a distinctly adolescent flavor to it, and it was a relief to read this editorial and see that I am not the only one to have made this connection. US carrier groups and medical ships are the first to arrive and offer desperately-needed assistance after tsunamis and cyclones, while the UN struggles over the wording of a resolution of intent to consider the case for assigning a committee to study the feasibility of rendering aid at the earliest opportunity...then takes the time to complain that the US is callously arrogating to itself the "moral authority" to offer help. Meanwhile, the press wrings its hands over the hypothesized ulterior motives of positioning military assets in this place at this time.

Following the fall of the USSR, the US emerged as the sole superpower in the world, possessing the most formidable blue water navy, and thus the ability to project power (and also aid) on a global basis. Love it or hate it, this is the reality. As I wrote earlier on another subject, the Cold War saw the de-emphasis of conventional military power among those nations which fell under the US and Soviet umbrellas. That long-standing bipolar power balance --harrowing as it was at times-- afforded distinct advantages to those nations which rationally judged that they were duly shielded from aggression by their respective centers of gravity in that protracted standoff. Western Europe in particular turned its attentions inward, developing a system of social programs which it was able to fund quite generously in the relative absence of military spending on anything remotely approximating the level of that expended by the US. Much of Eastern Europe, under the control of Moscow, had the Red Army to "protect" it. When the latter imploded, the ensuing pandemonium ultimately created situations into which the US found it necessary to project its power for humanitarian and stability operations. Legitimate conversations can be had about the 'legality' and long-term advantages of the US' action in the former Yugoslavia. Tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians can join in that conversation, seeing as they were rescued from wholesale slaughter in the process. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the disarray in the former Second World which followed the fall of the Soviet Union was but one of the arenas into which the US was, alone, able to wade in and contain the chaos.

However, it is this very unipolarity which has engendered such profound ambivalence. For one thing, there was throughout the Cold War a certain tacit understanding among the world's more unfree regimes that they would be left more or less alone as long as they stayed out of the Soviet sphere of influence. They may have been tyrannical bastards, but at least they were our tyrannical bastards. These conditions no longer pertain, and this has made many of the aforementioned bastards exceedingly nervous (and rightly so!). On another front, though, a rather more subtle phenomenon has emerged: The US is now seen as a relatively unchecked would-be global hegemon, a military and economic powerhouse now unfettered by a countervailing force, and thus free to pursue its interests as it sees fit. The member nations of the UN have consistently clambered to position themselves as a counterweight to American power, and the EU arguably exists in large part in order to re-create some semblance of the Soviet leash on that power. But against what exactly is it that they feel so urgently in need of protection?

Hardly a day goes by that I don't encounter some article or editorial or blog post crying out against "American Empire." I'm still not exactly sure what that is supposed to mean. As I was writing this, I was reminded of an article I read some time ago. It took some digging, but I finally turned it up. I hope the author will forgive this lengthy excerpt:

America has got to be the strangest empire ever known to man. In every war we've fought, we've either returned the land we've taken, or paid for what we've kept. When fighting overseas, rather than force conquered countries to pay homage, and obey our dictates, we strive to assist them in reconstruction, and building free and self-ruling nations. We do these things at great cost in both lives and funding, for no return other than the hope that it will bring free trade and more allies in the future.

You could make the argument that America has territories, but even that line of debate is flawed. All the territories now under American control have the option of remaining territories, petitioning to become states once they've reached a certain size, or petitioning for independence as the Philippines did after World War II. These territories are given non-voting representation in our government, and voting rights in the Presidential Primaries. They derive benefits from their affiliation with the US, rather than the other way around.

An empire, by its nature, seeks to spread its dominion as far and wide as possible, forcing its rules and laws on those they conquer. An empire usually engages in wars of aggression, without provocation, to expand its territory. It demands tribute, and obedience from its subjects. Not once, in recent American history has that been the case. While some may argue that the battle in Iraq is an example of this kind of imperialism, you will note that the hue and cry in this country is not about how much money we are demanding from the Iraqi people in tribute. It is not about the unreasonable demands we've made that the Iraqi people follow our laws and make themselves subject to our governmental rule. The complaint is that we are spending too much, and not demanding enough. Seems to me, this isn't any way to run an empire.

Indeed. If anything, the US and the Coalition Provisional Authority spent the months after the ouster of Saddam's Baathist regime falling all over itself to transfer sovereignty to the people of Iraq as quickly as could be. Similarly, one of the first things which the US and its allies did after routing the Taliban in Afghanistan was to install a sovereign government, which was subsequently legitimized by popular elections (much to the chagrin of Osama bin Laden, who had dreamed of a Soviet occupation, redux, in which to bleed the US as the USSR had been exsanguinated before them). Going back still further, to the period following the end of WW2, the nation of Germany, which can very legitimately be said to have been conquered, might very well have expected severe punitive actions and administration under an Imperial American Proconsul. Instead, it got the Berlin Airlift, whose goal was to protect the citizens of West Berlin --desperate and starving under a Soviet blockade-- from ruin, and to ensure the reconstitution of the German economy for the benefit of Europe as a whole. Similarly, Japan was placed under a sweeping and comprehensive (some might even say draconian) American occupation government, in order to defang and liberalize its highly militaristic society...only to have that government handed right back to the Japanese people, who proceeded to undergo a profound economic and cultural renaissance which continues to this times to our cost.

History is replete with examples of American power being utilized for the purposes of nurturing (and in some cases creating) free societies with which diplomatic and trade relations can be established, to mutual benefit. Have we overreached at times? Of course. My intent here is not to paint the US as some kind of sainted figure, devoid of blemishes and even outright sins. However, on balance, it is difficult for me to find in our history over the better part of the last century any examples of the sort of behavior which would warrant the virulent anti-Americanism which we see with such tedious frequency.

So, given the apparent lack of objective bases for that level of animus, it seems reasonable to look to less rational motives, which brings me back to the comparison with adolescence. Strange as it may seem, given the relative youth of the United States as a nation, nonetheless it stands as the oldest continuously existent republic in the world (after San Marino, anyway). While often derided as childish and impetuous, in point of fact, the US is the grown-up on the scene. It is to the US that other nations look when Something Needs To Be Done, only to berate it when its performance does not meet whatever arbitrary and shifting criteria of perfection those nations set. Adolescents are notorious for for setting impossible standards for their parents to meet, since that facilitates a compromise between their tacit knowledge that they are unable to fend for themselves, and the resentment of that dependency which so threatens their emerging adult identities.

The US was chastised for "unilateral" action in Iraq after engaging in a months-long gavotte at the UN in which it sued for the privilege to enforce the multiple binding resolutions by the UN Security Council which Saddam had been routinely and brazenly flouting for over a decade. Threatened by a veto by nations which had been doing covert and illegal business with Saddam himself, the US went ahead and led a coalition to defend its interests by enforcing the rules which the UN claimed the authority (while lacking the will) to enforce itself. For its trouble, the US has been upbraided for "Cowboy Diplomacy" and accused of "war crimes" by nations for whom the use of that term to refer to another is the very definition of chutzpah. Adolescents are master negotiators, who demand the right to establish the parameters of what is "fair," and insist that those legalistic constructs be adhered to without deviation...until they find themselves on the receiving end of their penalties. Thus can a teen rail against the confiscation of her favorite bong on the grounds that her privacy had been violated.

Dealt a horrific blow in September, 2001, the US embarked on a global effort to pluck the rotten fruits and dig up the blighted roots of international terrorism which threatened not only itself but every nation of the free world. Utilizing military (conventional and Special Forces), diplomatic, and economic means, the US has been assailing the various perpetrators and enablers of terrorism at home and broad, and has been making real progress. Denizens of the Transnational Left -- whose liberal beliefs and freedoms would be the very first casualties should our foes prevail-- describe this effort in terms of "endless war," "assault on civil liberties," "hubristic imperialism," and a host of other bumper stickers. Europe's style of 'dealing' with terrorism --at best treat it as a law enforcement matter, and at worst attempt to buy off the perpetrators and their sponsors through concessions to redress the "root causes" of their grievances-- offers precious little in the way of realistic deterrent value, given, for example, the depth of many European nations' business dealings with Iran's Mullahcracy. They accuse the US of spoiling their party, insisting that they would have matters well in hand were it not for the boorish Americans' ham-handed meddling. This reminds me of nothing more than an addiction-prone teen's rage against his parents' firm efforts to come between him and a group of coke-dealing 'friends.'

I'm sure that many of my teen-aged clients would want to hurl a lamp at my head for saying this, but I can scarcely imagine a worse outcome for them than their parents taking them at their word when they say that they would be better off if "they just left me alone." Parents are not infallible, and there are many cases (trust me!) when they err far to the side of excessive micromanagement. However, the opposite extreme is arguably worse since teens, while possessing many of the superficial characteristics of adulthood, are nonetheless still not fully formed for truly independent functioning in this ever-increasingly complex and demanding society. They will constantly push and test the limits of the 'container' offered by their parents...but they do this in order to discover that there are limits, and to use those limits as the scaffolding which will help them learn how to organize their energies against the day when the scaffold is removed. Pushing against limits, and discovering that there are none there to push back is the psychological analogue of stepping off a precipice, fully expecting that there will be a ledge there, and finding out -- too late-- that there is nothing but the void.

Similarly, the liberty and security which permit European-style Transnational Progressives to explore the boundaries of that liberty, and of their idealistic visions of How The World Ought to Be, are free to flourish because The World As It Is, with its merciless Hobbesian logic of might as right is diligently held in check. Were the isolationists of the Left (and their strange bedfellows on the Paleoconservative and Libertarian Right) to get their wish, and see the US "bring the boys [and girls] back home," I have no doubt that they would reap the whirlwind. For, unwelcome as it may be made to feel, there is simply no greater guarantor than the US military against the ambitions of tyrants and terrorists. There is no more lucrative trading partner than the US economy (yes, even now). There is no more effective source of aid and comfort in times of disaster than the American aid agencies and military and the private largess of the American people. Indeed, the few occasions when the US has been unable to be of invaluable help in times of crisis have generally been when it has been actively thwarted in its efforts by anti-American recalcitrance. What amazes me is the capacity of those who are seemingly most invested in reviling the United States to ignore or repress the cognitive dissonance which arises from the fact that, with very few exceptions, the supposedly arrogant and venal US has steadfastly respected the sovereign right to self-determination of even its most vocal and pernicious critics. If the US embodied even a fraction of the evil which is so often attributed to it, can any reasonable person truly believe that it would not simply have withdrawn from the UN, set about conscripting a huge percentage of its population into an Imperial Military (versus maintaining a professional force of volunteers who sign up of their own free and well-informed will), and simply crushed dissent across the globe?

Having defeated the Soviet Union in a civilizational clash of wills, the US finds itself in a position of immense power. But, like Uncle Ben said, "With great power comes great responsibility." The US should definitely not hold itself to be above scrutiny, nor become complacent and cavalier with its power (any parent who creeps from authoritative to merely authoritarian has lost a crucial patch of the high ground). But nor should it be expected to sacrifice its responsibilities in a vainly self-effacing effort to undermine its own power because that power makes others uncomfortable. To do so would be to unduly indulge the essentially irrational impulses of those who would stand to lose the most if the US were to simply take them at their word. For, like a teen who would be well and truly lost if her parents were to give up on her, the established and emerging democracies of the world would find themselves in grave jeopardy from an atomic-armed, Hezbollah-wielding Iran, a much-emboldened al Qaeda, an unchecked Hugo Chavez, and a horde of other would-be bullies and conquerors if the US were to abdicate its role as control rod in the world's great nuclear family.

If reading these words makes you a little uncomfortable, then that is a good thing; the sense that one is acting as a surrogate parent for others has been a prime rationalization for all manner of excesses throughout history. At the end of the day, sovereign nations are responsible for their own destinies, and a metaphor should never be mistaken for a reality. But if you can read these words and not see anything past the images of "manifest destiny," or "white man's burden," etc., then you have been overexposed to a very dangerous flavor of Kool Aid. For, imperfect and evolving as it is (and should be!) the US currently occupies an indispensable role in the developmental process of the human species beyond the zero-sum tribalism which has been its legacy from the savannas of its infancy. No one hopes more fervently than I do that the centrality of that role will drop away as we move through adolescence toward an adulthood in which a broader community of strong, stable democracies shares responsibility for reining in the errant throwbacks which will always exist among us. That day has not yet arrived.

But you try explaining that to these kids today.

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