Training Wheels: The Fatal Flaw in U.S. Foreign Policy

Put them on? Take them off? The dilemma of US foreign policy "experts"

Put them on? Take them off? The dilemma of US foreign policy “experts”

W.J. Astore

You read it here first: the fatal flaw in U.S. foreign policy is training wheels.  Yes, those supplemental wheels you add to your child’s bike when she’s first trying to learn how to balance herself as she pedals.

How so?  Listen closely to America’s leaders as they talk about helping Iraqis, Afghans, and other peoples.  A common expression they use is training wheels, which they visualize themselves as affixing to or removing from the Iraqi or Afghan governmental bike.  Because the idea of democracy is apparently so new and novel to foreign peoples, and because these foreigners basically act like so many children when it comes to governing themselves equitably, the U.S. must treat them like so many unskilled and tippy children on bikes.  We must affix training wheels to their bikes of state, and at the proper moment – a moment that only American adults can determine – those training wheels must then be removed.

Sounds simple – or is it?

Some examples suggest it’s not so simple.   In January 2004, President George W. Bush told his fellow Republicans that Iraqis were ready to “take the training wheels off” and assume some responsibility for their own self-government.  Yet a decade later in June 2014, retired General Michael Hayden, formerly head of the NSA and CIA, claimed that America “took the training wheels off the new Iraqi government far too early,” and by “too early” Hayden meant 2011, not seven years earlier in 2004.

Another American “adult” in the room, retired General Anthony Zinni, formerly commander of US Central Command, disagreed with Hayden, saying in December 2014 that those training wheels were still very much on in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, and that it was now high time for us to take them off.   That may have surprised Vice President Joe Biden, who said back in November 2010 that it was time for Afghans to remove their governmental training wheels, and if they didn’t, “Daddy” would do it for them.

In fact, those were Biden’s exact words on Larry King Live:  “Daddy is going to start to take the training wheels off … next July [2011], so you [Afghan leaders had] better practice riding.”  That admonition from their American “Daddy” in 2010 has failed over the last half-decade to inspire Afghan leaders to pedal smartly for American-style democracy.

And there’s the rub.  You don’t win foreign peoples to your side by treating them like so many unskilled and tippy children.  You don’t condescend to them by comparing their efforts to children trying to learn to ride a bike for the first time.  And you certainly don’t shake a finger at them that “Daddy” has lost patience and is going to remove the training wheels, whether they’re ready or not.

So, how do Americans respond when their Iraqi or Afghan “children” get angry at “Daddy” for messing with their training wheels?  Whether oblivious or indifferent to their own condescension, Americans respond by treating their foreign “children” as ingrates.  “Ingratitude, the vilest weed that grows,” to cite Eugene O’Neill’s play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, generates anger – and violence.

Dammit, why can’t these foreign “kids” learn to ride their democratic bikes?  Time to cut their allowance (in this case, American aid).  Or perhaps it’s even time for a good ass whooping with Daddy’s belt (in this case, drones firing Hellfire missiles).

Those foreign ingrates!  We gave them everything — lots of money, lots of aid, American troops and advisers, even “training wheels” for their bikes of democracy — and they still despise us.  Why?

I’ll tell you why.  They don’t hate us for our freedoms, as former President George W. Bush once claimed.  But they may very well despise us for our training wheels – and for all the smugness and paternalism and condescension they represent.

17 thoughts on “Training Wheels: The Fatal Flaw in U.S. Foreign Policy

  1. Aside from some domestic policies enacted during the Progressive Era, and the preponderance of decisions made related to Axis Power threat conditions during WWII, US foreign and domestic policy historically is average, to below, to well below, to preposterously piss poor.

  2. But of course the fundamental issue is how did Big Daddy come to be perched on foreign soil, training wheels and set of wrenches in hand? Through absolutely unjustified and illegal (if only there was an international body that could stand up to the US bullying colossus and punish it!) military interventions/invasions, of course. Based on fabricated “evidence” of evil-doing (Iraq) and just plain hubris that because Afghanistan allegedly had harbored an international criminal involved in the events of 9/11 the US had a “right” to invade and punish (Afghanistan).

    • Yes, Greg, that’s well put. How did “Daddy” come to be on hand with those training wheels and wrenches?

      Interestingly, I floated this article past a couple of mainstream sites. No takers. Even my fairly mild criticism of American paternalism is unacceptable in the mainstream press.

      We will never “win” (whatever that means) when we treat foreign peoples as children to be pushed or cajoled or even occasionally to be spoiled, e.g. with American money.

      Maya Angelou said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

      That’s as true on a macro-level (between nations) as it’s true on micro-level (between people). Our nation’s policies and leaders make foreign peoples feel like they’re inferior, that they’re being bossed around or talked down to, that they’re being treated like children. And they don’t forget that feeling.

    • greglaxer, it seems that again I agree with you. The Western world acted always as bullies with all the cultures beyond their own frontiers. We invaded, expropriated natural resources, destroyed their established boundaries according to our convenience and by so doing we mixed people that did not like each other due to differences in culture and religion. BUT, that to a point, could live in peace except for sporadic problems resolved with sticks and stones. We made a soup of letters that now has a bad taste for our own interests. Then we armed them with western weapons that kill, maim and destroy 1000 times more lives than the sticks and stones. Now we try to tell them while sitting at the top of our democratic throne that they are wrong. We, that after 2000+ years are still suffering of juvenile acne. It is the teenager telling their parents that they do not know what the truth is. Yes, further East they had incredible civilizations when we were learning to walk on our two legs. We are dealing with the cultural groups that were born from those civilizations. When we look at our calendar we are taking advantage of their incredible mathematicians and astronomers. When we were dealing with a flat earth thanks to our religious beliefs they probably had already visited whatever land there was beyond our western frontiers. Our arrogant ignorance created most of the troubles in the Middle and Far East and all Africa. We are white the supreme race. It does not matter that we are a mix of all the ethnic groups in the world. The pity is that we have done our best to destroy and forget all the good knowledge imprinted in our genetic memory helped by discrimination and religious beliefs. Let’s get out of their land and allow them to find their own way. But no, we cannot do it. We need their farm land to plant our palms (oil) ,our poppies (opium), our cotton, our rice and drill for our black gold (oil) It does not matter if we destroy their source of income and food and we make slaves of their children. It does not matter if we pollute the water of their rivers and the air they breathe and destroy their soil. We have USA EPA to protect our land, our rivers and air, over there, anything goes. We need them to buy our weapons. And we take their land as part of the payment through corrupted governments we put in place. Why any elected government they choose always fail?
      I cannot help but to remember the dream of our Founding Fathers. They were young and full of the ideals of youth. They made some errors but there is one principle that at my old age tells me they were right. They came from the corrupted Old Europe that had perfected the imperialism and they had seen the results, so they advised us to keep in our own land. Isolated of all the temptations that the power generates. But we did not listen. And a country born of a good idea became the follower of the masters of imperialism in the modern society. The problem is that we do not know it and still believe that we can be teachers of democracy from an imperialist throne.

      • If only the EPA was the terror of polluting corporations that the GOP would have us believe!! Every Republican presidential hopeful is tripping over him/herself to rant the loudest against the evils of regulation of businesses. And when the Dems are in office? Precious, precious little do they do that will actually benefit the environment. Tokenism, that’s all it is. Right, Mr. Obama? Mr. Gore?

  3. “They hate us for our freedoms.” Therefore, to protect us from such hatred, the U.S. government has taken our freedoms from us. Now that we have far fewer freedoms, “they” must not hate us so much now. It follows that when our own government has taken our last freedom from us, then “they” won’t hate us at all. Ah, to bask in the universal love and approval that everyone feels for the willing and happy American slave. The U.S. government may not have much of a record in training foreigners to fight and kill each other so that Americans won’t have to do the dirty work themselves, but it has a near perfect record of indoctrinating its own citizens in learned helplessness. Hence, for two minutes a day, let us simply recite:

    The Boobie Pledge of Subservience
    (from Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-literate retreat to Plato’s Cave)

    I offer my obedience
    I pledge undying love
    To any symbol formed to serve
    The needs of those above
    Who rightly feel that I deserve
    The fist inside the glove

    I stand and mumble publicly
    With fear upon my brow
    Lest some mistake my silence for
    An insufficient vow
    Let all who see and hear me know
    How easily I cow

    Authority need never fear
    I swear I know my place
    I pledge to take the gauntlet slapped
    Across my beaten face
    The Seizure Class knows I’ll accept
    Chastisement with good grace

    About such things as freedom, I
    Have not the slightest clue
    By birth and class it’s come to THEM
    I know that it’s THEIR due
    To hand me down instructions as
    To just what I must do

    And so I promise faithfully
    To play my scripted part
    Each day I’ll chant Two Minutes’ Hate
    To finish, from the start
    Until I love BIG BROTHER from
    The bottom of my heart

    I swear to do as I am told
    I will not think too deep
    I’ll huddle in conformity
    Just like the other sheep
    To take my whipping like a slave
    And utter not a peep

    I pledge to stand up every day
    Within my schoolroom class
    And mouth my mantras on demand
    Without backtalk or sass
    Until the program makes me a
    Compliant, docile ass

    I swear upon my loyalty
    To stuff my head with fat
    And place my nation “under” “GAWD!”
    Supinely prone and flat
    With me then going “down” “beneath”
    And “lower” “under” that

    I swear to go to Sunday School
    Upon the public dime
    Each morning in my homeroom class
    I’ll mouth my dreary rhyme
    And if I leave out words
    THEY can Indict me for my crime

    I pledge and vow and promise that
    I’ll swear from dusk to dawn
    And never fail to chant or moan;
    To never blink or yawn
    And with each cry of “GAWD IZ GRATE!”
    My own soul I will pawn

    The Papal bulls and fatwas tell
    Me all I need to know
    Which isn’t much because I see
    I’ve nowhere left to go
    I swear to never set my sails
    Against the winds that blow

    The Popes, Imams, and Rabbis tell
    Me what and where and how
    The master’s overseer tells
    Me which row I must plow;
    To toady, genuflect, and crawl;
    To grovel, scrape and bow

    I’ll train to “hurry up and wait”
    And do the Bulgar drills
    To stand at rapt attention dressed
    In military frills
    Just point me and I’ll drop the bomb
    No matter whom it kills

    I pledge and promise on my word
    To do the things I ought
    To work for lower wages
    So my labor comes to naught
    I swear to vote Republicrat
    To prove I can be bought

    The Party keeps us all at war
    Which makes us quake with fear
    And so we give up all those rights
    Our ancestors held dear
    Which saves our enemies the need
    To take them from us here

    But I won’t think of bygone days
    The past I’ll just rewrite
    I’ll call my history “old news”
    To make it pat and trite
    Which sleight of mind will help me keep
    Its lessons out of sight

    With this capitulation I
    Agree to sell my pride
    Before I even own it or
    It grows too big to slide
    Into the shabby, craven cave
    Wherein I must reside

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2005

    • Mike: Borrowing from you again, “You cannot do a wrong thing the ‘right’ way” — even when you add or subtract training wheels.

      Thanks again for the O’Neill reference.

      • Professor:

        I think that in the O’Neil play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the author had in mind an annoying habit of his father, a renowned Shakespearean actor, who would always quote memorized lines from plays he had done instead of coming up with something original or personal appropriate to the situation. The elder O’Neill’s quote about ingratitude most likely comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which features several famous scenes between Prospero, the erstwhile foreign “power” and Caliban, the wretched native of the island who comes to bitterly resent Prospero’s condescending treatment of him. My favorite [added emphasis mine]:


        I must eat my dinner.
        This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,
        Which thou takest from me. When thou camest first,
        Thou strokedst me and madest much of me, wouldst give me
        Water with berries in’t, and teach me how
        To name the bigger light, and how the less,
        That burn by day and night: and then I loved thee
        And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle,
        The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:
        Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
        Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
        For I am all the subjects that you have,
        Which first was mine own king
        : and here you sty me
        In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
        The rest o’ the island.


        Thou most lying slave,
        Whom stripes may move, not kindness! I have used thee,
        Filth as thou art, with human care, and lodged thee
        In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate
        The honour of my child.


        O ho, O ho! would’t had been done!
        Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else
        This isle with Calibans.


        Abhorred slave,
        Which any print of goodness wilt not take,
        Being capable of all ill! I pitied thee,
        Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
        One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,
        Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
        A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes
        With words that made them known. But thy vile race,
        Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which good natures
        Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou
        Deservedly confined into this rock,
        Who hadst deserved more than a prison.


        You taught me language; and my profit on’t
        Is, I know how to curse.
        The red plague rid you
        For learning me your language!

        Frances FitzGerald (F. Scott FitzGerald’s granddaughter) made good use of this Shakespearean allegory in her book Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (for my money, the best book ever written about America’s War on Southeast Asia), Ms FitzGerald noted:

        “In his study, Prospero and Caliban, the French ethnologist and psychologist Otare Mannoni, gives and interesting insight into this process [of Colonial domination]. His subject is colonial society in Madagascar, but much of his analysis seems to fit Vietnam, and understandably so, for the Madagascans, like the Vietnamese, were ancestor worshippers.”

        In my opinion, The Prospero-Caliban relationship fits not just the French in Madagascar, Algeria, and Vietnam, but the United States in China, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and now, Ukraine. Throughout history, many wise, perceptive, and literate persons have seen and explored this theme of imperial dominance and native ingratitude without any of this erudite wisdom penetrating one inch beneath the hidebound stupidity of American political — which now means corporate and militarist — “leadership.” My fellow Vietnam veteran, Daniel Ellsberg says that we ought not to call these people “stupid” but rather “clever people who have lost their minds.” But with all due respect to Mr Ellsberg, I have to go with Forrest Gump on this one: “Stupid is as stupid does.” Like him, my mother “always had a way of explaining things to me so that I could understand them.”

      • Hi Mike: Craziness? Stupidity? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s a form of willed blindness or indifference. I suppose the effects are the same, whatever we call it.

        Lack of empathy is a symptom. Our technocrats seemingly have no ability to put themselves in the shoes of others. Again, perhaps this is the way they stay “sane.” They’re simply indifferent to the suffering they cause. Or they console themselves with the vision they’ve done their best, and the fault is either in the foreigners or in the stars. It’s certainly never THEIR fault. Again, willed blindness to their responsibility and culpability. They never lose any sleep over what they’ve done.

        If they have any doubts, they console themselves with myths. Myths about good intentions, myths about bringing technology or democracy or some other form of goodness. Or perhaps they console themselves by imagining they were slaying dragons, e.g. communism or radical Islam.

        But why must we travel to foreign countries to slay dragons when the dragons are within us? An old theme, of course: The Heart of Darkness.

    • Glenn Greenwald also jumped all over this NYTimes story peddling an absurd — and factually false — absolution of the U.S. government for manufacturing, using, and supplying-to-others banned cluster munitions while claiming that it does not do so. The Times has since corrected the story, which demonstrates that, upon occasion, it will respond to criticism of its sloppy, lazy, credulous printing of government handout propaganda.

      Still, your point about “cognitive dissonance” and “motivated reasoning” in the “so-called ‘liberal’ media” deserves a great deal of expanded elucidation. Especially the use of the word “liberal” as a pejorative term used to discredit and intimidate any source of information deemed unwelcome by self-styled “conservatives.” I have in mind, specifically, the notorious case of Judith Miller, a “reporter” for the NYTimes who would accept and repeat anonymous leaks of self-serving lies from Vice President Dick Cheney regarding Iraq’s non-existent WMDs and “links to Al-Qaida”, etc. Cheney would then go on “liberal” media programs like Tim Russert’s Face the Nation and point to “even the liberal NYTimes” as sources validating his outrageous lies. Thus can the “conservative” excoriate and repudiate all media as “liberal” while simultaneously appealing to it for validation whenever convenient. I waited in vain for the likes of Mr Russert to ask even one of his “conservative” guests:

      “Since you condemn ‘the media’ as generally ‘liberal’ — meaning, one supposes, biased against you “conservatives” — then why would you appear on a media TV media program like this one and cite a print media source like the NYTimes as validation for your “conservative” claims? Shouldn’t the viewer of this program automatically reject anything they hear on Face the Nation or read in the NYTimes as automatically corrupt and unreliable? Conversely, if something said on Face the Nation or printed in the NYTimes supports your conservative claims, wouldn’t that make these media outlets ‘conservative’ and not ‘liberal’? Didn’t George Orwell refer to this kind of self-serving schizophrenia as “doublethink”?

      But Tim Russert died before ever asking any such questions of his frequent reactionary guests, not that I ever really supposed that he would. “Cognitive dissonance” and “motivated reasoning” indeed. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, if a man’s salary depends upon his not understanding the truth, it will prove difficult to get him to understand it. Some words to that effect should surely have adorned Mr Russert’s tombstone.

      • A priceless quotation by Sinclair. Of course, no reporter who’s willing to confront the powerful will ever moderate “Meet the Press” or ‘Face the Nation.” Moderators are carefully screened for “neutrality,” i.e. spinelessness.

        However, when given the proper signal, they will attack those who are not aligned with their corporate sponsors’ beliefs, e.g. the Russians, the Iranians, any journalist like Glenn Greenwald, and so forth.

      • Sorry for not properly crediting Tim Russert as moderator of Meet the Press. I suppose I mistakenly used Face the Nation, because I really never saw much difference in these types of “public interest” programs on commercial or cable TV.

  4. I think most public statements from U.S. authorities on foreign policy are entirely for domestic consumption. The quotes in the excellent article above seem entirely crafted to play well with the U.S. press, policy elites and (lastly) low information voters in the hopes of increasing the speaker’s power and prestige. Sort of like how for about a half century the various weapons systems, strategy etc. of the U.S. military have had little to do with any possible foreign threat but a lot to do with inter-service rivalries and fights by each branch to maintain their power and prestige and stop any possible cuts to their budgets.

    The other possibility is that they’re so dense that they think this is a perfectly reasonable way to speak to a nation that you’re ostensibly trying to bring into your orbit as a faithful ally. That wouldn’t really surprise me actually:-)

    • You’re right — and I do think it’s both. Never underestimate density in Washington, especially in the region of the aptly named Foggy Bottom.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s