One Word Defines U.S. Foreign Policy: Hubris

Like Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard," Our Hubristic Leaders Are Always Ready for their Close-up

Like Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard,” Our Hubristic Leaders Are Always Ready for their Close-up

W.J. Astore

When Hannah Arendt, the famous German-American political philosopher, criticized American involvement in the Vietnam War, she said that our foreign policy “experts” fell prey to using excessive means to achieve minor aims in a region of marginal interest to the United States.  You could say the same of most of America’s foreign interventions since 1945.  We are a superpower with a boundless propensity for meddling in world affairs.  We waste enormous amounts of money and resources intervening in areas that are of marginal importance to our national security.

There are many reasons for these wasteful interventions, of course.  The military-industrial-Congressional complex plays its role. Presidents love to intervene as a sign of “strength.” Natural resources, especially oil, are usually in play.  The usual motives, in short: profit, power, greed.

But perhaps the root cause of our mistakes can be traced to hubris, our prideful belief that we can remake other societies and peoples in our image.  Our hubris leads us to undervalue legitimate cultural differences, and to underestimate the difficulties involved in bridging those distances.  Because we underestimate the difficulties, we rush in with money and troops, only to find that the problems we encounter — and often exacerbate — are not amenable to being solved with money and troops.  Nevertheless, once we’ve committed our prestige, we believe that we can’t withdraw without losing face.  So we commit even more money and troops and prestige, until our folly can no longer be denied, even to ourselves.  After which, sadly, we usually search for scapegoats.

Rarely do we stop to think that some problems simply can’t be solved with massive infusions of money and troops.  Indeed, infusions of the same often exacerbate the very problems we claim we’re trying to solve.

The way out, to paraphrase Arendt, is to commit only those means necessary to secure our major aims in regions of vital interest to the U.S.

Such an approach requires humility as well as moderation. Our foreign policy types will need to stop strutting the world stage as if they own it.  Our leaders will need to stop vamping like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, declaiming “I am big.  It’s the pictures that got small.” (If only they had her style.)

“Look at them in the front offices.  The masterminds!”  Yes, Gloria Swanson had it right. Our foreign policy “masterminds” need to learn some humility.  Either that, or America will be among the smashed idols of history.

12 thoughts on “One Word Defines U.S. Foreign Policy: Hubris

  1. A very insightful analysis of our country’s decline in public and nternational morality, Thank you. I do wonder though whether the group “we” which implies that our citizenry are, as a collective, part of this show of “hubris”is a fair statement. We vote but the people who pay the politicians the most seem to get their way, not the people who vote. for them
    We also argue in this blog that our citizens are ill informed by our media and mislead by our politicians and that our democracy (representation) is shredded. If that is the case shouldn’t we be putting the blame , not on ‘we’, but directly on our President and Congress and the corporate owned and controlled media and shills who deny the facts to our citizenry?

    • Yes, the powerful are more to blame than the powerless. But all should shoulder a little blame — We are supposed to be responsible citizens, not deadbeat ones.

    • The answer to that question is a definite YES. The media deserves the most blame, since it’s their duty to inform the citizenry of the facts; so, if they fail to do their duty, they must assume blame for the situation this nation is in. An uninformed, ignorant citizenry is unable to make the right decisions at the polls; thus, cannot be blamed when those they elect do wrong.

  2. First a quick rebuttal to Col. Astore, then I am compelled to comment on the dreaded subject of George W. Bush (yikes!!). “…[T]he way out…is to commit only those means necessary to secure OUR major aims in REGIONS OF VITAL INTEREST to the U.S.” (my emphases added–GL). Your indoctrination as an officer in the US Air Force is showing, Col. Astore! Your statement implies that the US government and its armed forces are actually capable of acting in the interest of we, the people rather than the imperialist ruling class. It’s the latter who get to determine what is “of vital interest” to THEIR benefit. This is a thoroughly Establishment stance and NOT a contrary perspective at all.

    On to the dreaded subject. While wisely mostly keeping out of public view, #43 has suddenly erupted as a portrait painter (see recent issues of NY Times), of all things. Today’s (5 April 2014) Times showed what I take to be a self-portrait. Dubya must have a good deal of talent in this arena, for he has managed to present himself as an intelligent, thoughtful, serious-looking individual. No sign of that irritating smirk he so often wore in public. Also on the topic of G.W.B., I recently watched the Bonus Material that accompanies the DVDs of Oliver Stone’s HBO project, “Untold History of the United States.” I was astounded by an excerpt from a candidates’ debate with Albert Albert Gore, Jr. from the 2000 campaign. (You see, I didn’t have the stomach to have watched that stuff back then; Gore turned me off and I wasn’t aware of the threat Bush posed.) Little George was surprisingly sharp that night as he castigated Gore for being the type likely to go off engaging in “nation building” abroad. In retrospect, of course, with Iraq in ruins and Afghanistan still “benefiting” from the US “nation-building” presence, enthusiastically inherited by Obummer, the irony of such an accusation is colossal. I wish I could comment on Errol Morris’s new documentary, his interview with Donald Rumsfeld, but all I can say is I look forward to seeing it on DVD, as I no longer patronize movie theaters. Sing us a song of “known unknowns,” dear old Rummy…

    • Well my perspective is contrary to yours, GL. But what can we say if you’re correct? That the ship of state has been hijacked and that the hijackers have only their own mercenary motives at mind? In that case, all we can do is disarm the hijackers and thrown them overboard. How do we do this? Sounds like a revolution is required. Recall the words of Thomas Jefferson: Is it time to refresh the Tree of Liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants? Grab your torch and pitchfork, GL. To the ramparts and barricades! Liberty or death!

      • Yes, absolutely “the ship of state has been hijacked,” but gradually and in plain sight of an uncomprehending, apathetic public. The “Doomsday Preppers” would have you believe total anarchy in the streets is just around the corner. But there is no revolutionary consciousness in this country, and so there will be no revolution…anytime soon. “Occupy Wall Street” got some momentum going, but they refused to adopt a program with specific demands. Afraid to be condemned as “revolutionaries,” I guess. But things change. Everything changes. In the meantime, conditions will simply continue to deteriorate. Sorry I don’t have a sunnier forecast to make.

  3. Unfortunately the rich in their quest for total power given to them by their political minions who stacked the supreme court with proto fascists and have now made it easier to hijack our nation. This is driving the nation into economic disaster for the citizenry and inevitably they will arise in rebellion. The rich never seem to learn from history. And the poor never seem to learn until it is too late.

  4. This same hubris is exhibited internally, upon the nation’s citizens and their lawful commerce…. IRS, EPA, NPS, ACE, BLM, DHS, BATF, DOJ, etc.

  5. Elites who know better and are acting for their own profit quite cynically, do pander deceitfully to the American people encouraging in us our “hubris, our prideful belief that we can remake other societies and peoples in our image.” So we are certainly complicit in being rather willingly manipulated by them through appeals to our vanity that we are “exceptional.”

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