Americans: The Missionary Position
By Steve Weissman
Thursday 22 July 2004
Left, right, or center, Americans like to believe we have a mission, that "the shining city on a hill" - as Ronald Reagan quoted our Pilgrim Fathers - stands as a universal beacon to the world.
Yes, we fight furiously among ourselves over what the mission is - whether to promote global democracy or world order; free speech or unregulated, Enron-friendly markets; an avenging, evangelical God or religious freedom, including the right to reject all gods. But, red-state or blue in our hot-button beliefs, most of us think that America should do good by spreading those beliefs to the world beyond.
The French, among whom I now live and work, feel a similar calling. Inspired by the French Revolution of 1789, they still speak of their "civilizing mission" to spread universal Reason and the Rights of Man. Their missionary zeal - like our own - adds enormous strength to the way they walk in the world, even though they lack our military and economic muscle.
No surprise, neither country sees itself as the other sees it. Americans laugh at the poetic French proclamations, seeing them as merely a pretext to grab the riches of former African colonies and sell nuclear equipment to the likes of Saddam Hussein. Likewise, the French scorn American pretensions, dismissing Washington's talk of bringing democracy to the Middle East as hypocritical hype for grabbing oil, building bases, and doling out billion-dollar contracts to politically wired American corporations. I love hearing friends here talk of "Alibourtonne" and chant "no war for hoil."
Most often, I find myself caught in the middle, upsetting both sides of the trans-Atlantic divide. A journalistic skeptic, I expect pretense and hypocrisy, ours as well as theirs, but consider it small beer. French people might well believe what they say about doing good in the world, and so might Americans, especially those who saw the present war primarily as a way to end the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.
I first wrote and made films about Saddam at the start of the 1980s, warning of his nuclear ambitions before Israeli planes rocketed his French-supplied reactor. I also told how he brutalized his own people, reporting what Donald Rumsfeld and the Reagan Administration no doubt knew - and disregarded - when they decided to help Saddam gas Iranian troops by supplying satellite intelligence on their whereabouts. (See Steve Weissman, "Will Rummy Rat on Saddam?")
As a result, I easily understood why well-meaning, often liberal Americans wanted to drive Saddam from power. I did too. But how could anyone believe that Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush should do the driving? Or that they would - or could - replace Saddam with a democratic regime? Or that Iraqis, having long ago gotten rid of the Brits, would now put up with American rulers, no matter how well camouflaged by native bearers?
Think of all the small "d" democrats - like the New York Time's Thomas Friedman or my old British colleague Christopher Hitchens - who joined with Team Bush to trash centuries of hard-won international law and sell a pre-emptive war against a country that posed no immediate threat to us or our allies. In their rush to do good at all costs, these otherwise prescient pundits forgot the first rule of reality. Their wishes, their democratic fantasies, were never going to shape what Pentagon contactors, oil men, soldiers, spies, and torturers would do. Cheerleaders should know their limits.
Democrats and sensible Republicans in the House and Senate did no better. Once they gave the hell-bent Bush his Iraqi go-ahead, they lost their say. Then, after Iraq turned sour, they gave him added power to do what he will in Iran, which the White House is now tying to the butchers of 9/11 with intelligence the CIA disputes.
(I can just hear the Presidential conversation. "Did I say Iraq backed al-Qaeda?" he asks with a boyish grin. "Oh, heck, I meant Iran. I always get those two mixed up.")
Should Mr. Bush win in November, or possibly as a pre-election surprise, I fully expect a commando raid or Israeli-style aerial attack on Iran's suspected nuclear facilities, either from Washington or - with a wink and nod - from Tel Aviv. The question is no longer if, but when. Punish Iran for 9/11, even if played as non-existent a role as Iraq. Pre-emptively destroy their nuclear program, whether civilian or military. And bring democracy to the Iranian people, whatever that might mean and whether they want it or not. All hail America's new mission in the Middle East.
Will Congress debate an Act of War, as the Constitution and West Virginia's Senator Robert Byrd demand? How old-fashioned that would be. As always, most of the hacks in Congress can only duck in fear, whether of Presidential bullying, lied-to voters, or terror-bent Islamic Fools of God.
Pumping up America's missionary urge with fear and lies makes a potent mix, as we should have learned from Vietnam. Sadly, we did not, or we might have avoided the mess Mr. Bush has made.
Just as today's neo-conservatives helped push Washington to war and tried to sell the expatriate Ahmed Chalabi as the new Iraqi leader, an earlier group - the Vietnam Lobby - imposed the Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem as president of largely Buddhist South Vietnam, an entirely new country that Washington essentially invented. The lobby then sold Americans on the need to defend a bogus democracy.
According to the Pentagon Papers, the CIA sent trained infiltrators into the Communist north to wage a psychological terror campaign that helped scare nearly a million, mostly Catholic refugees to flee south, where the Agency hoped they would create a power base for Diem. One of the scary psy-war leaflets showed what would happen to Hanoi after a nuclear attack. Working closely with the Agency, the Vietnam Lobby publicized the refugees' flight from "the Communist Hell" to build American public support for Diem.
Perhaps the lobby's best-known face was a handsome, young Catholic doctor named Tom Dooley, who participated in "Operation Passage to Freedom" while still a lieutenant junior grade in the Navy Medical Corps. Pat Boone and Albert Schweitzer rolled into one, Dr. Dooley went back to Southeast Asia as a medical missionary, working closely with the CIA and writing books and articles that told Americans most of what they knew about the region's "struggle for freedom."
Tom Dooley sold fear of a Communist take-over, lied about who was pulling his strings, and played to America's missionary urge. It worked brilliantly. He became America's most famous modern-day saint, building popular support for years of death and destruction in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
To paraphrase one of his most famous lines, America was just trying "to do what we can for people who ain't got it so good."
Strange as it now seems, the Iraqi mission started with same idealistic thrust, getting rid of a tyrant and building democracy. But instead of Tom Dooley as poster child, we ended up with Pvt. Lynndie England the prison guard and the torture of children at Abu Ghraib.
Don't blame the idealism. The blunder was in foolishly looking to Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush - or McNamara, Kennedy, and Johnson - as the agent for doing good in someone else's country. Whether as world cop or global gift-giver, Great Powers have their own political, military, economic, and even religious agenda, which runs roughshod over what smaller, weaker countries might want for themselves. Blame the reality of power. Blame our stubborn refusal to see it, which courts only disaster, both for us and the people who "ain't got it so good."
The English novelist Graham Greene saw the pitfalls as early as the 1950s, when in "The Quiet American" he described a truly idealistic CIA man blowing up women and children to bring democracy to Vietnam.
"Innocence," warned Greene, "is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm."
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.