Thursday, January 14, 2010

Image and American security

"Leaders will often take steps--such as demonizing the enemy and mobilizing the armed forces and industry--to ease the process of waging war."
--Elizabeth Stanley, Security Studies, Georgetown University

Given the need for warmakers to properly demonize an enemy before most troops will kill them, before most citizens will support war and before most politicians will back the warmakers, it would seem like the potential victims would want to do everything possible to make that demonization difficult at best.

Examining the image of Americans in the minds of others around the world is a way to learn how it is possible for jihadis to get on airplanes and turn them into guided missiles. What is their image of Americans? How did they get that image? Are there ways to change that image so that Americans are not regarded as legitimate targets by these people?

American leaders are too focused on our image as it is presented to foreign heads of state rather than civil society in its various aspects. The most salient example is, of course, Saudi Arabia, where the heads of state--the leaders of the royal family--are nominal allies of the US. Civil society, on the other hand, hates the US, in part because they hate their own corrupt government.

We as a nation have proceeded on this basis far too long in far too many places. It was at the root of American imperialism, when we often installed military dictators and gave them all the military hardware and training they needed to suppress their own people. Our sordid history creating banana republics in Central America shows how far back this practice goes and explains the hatred for America that so much of the world feels. We vastly outspend all other nations on exporting armed threats, invasion and occupation.

But historically many people have also appreciated America. Why the 'double vision'?

I believe it's despite American tourism to some degree, and because of American volunteerism. We provide the majority of volunteers who go out internationally to try to help others. Those who do so from entirely altruistic motivations (not including the religious ones who have a proselytizing agenda) have created an image of well meaning, generous Americans, a contrast with the US military, which is also ubiquitous. The military has guns, the NGO volunteers do not. The military is resented, the volunteers are not (unless they are those religious zealots).

So in the end, I think, it's the nonviolent presence of US volunteers in so many countries that creates an ambivalence, a split viewpoint, in which the American people are loved and the American government and its armed agents are highly resented. Perhaps it's time to reassess how we portray ourselves to the world. Stop sending out uniformed, armed agents of death and domination and increase our outreach by volunteers who come to help but not threaten. That would enhance US security far better than trying to crush everyone with plenty of collateral damage to create even more who mean us harm.

The Christmas Tree Bomber in Portland fits directly into this. He was created by the FBI in the sense that they took his juvenile ideation and helped him bring it to the cusp of fruition. If we did that with every knuckleheaded adolescent boy, we'd have slews of fake nukes ready to vaporize everything from Mecca to Missouri. But now, watch, we will start hearing about drones used in Somalia to hunt terrorists and because of the this set-up, there won't be much of a peep of outrage.


Stanley, Elizabeth A. (2009). Paths to peace: Domestic coalition shifts, war termination and the Korean War. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, p. 189.

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