Blowback and the (Reasonably) Good Guys

In two recent posts (here and here), I have noted that the Bush Administration's policies regarding torture and the treatment of prisoners suspected of terrorist activity (especially in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, but extending also to rendition programs and hidden CIA prisons) have led to a loss of U.S. stature in the world. This loss of stature has the effects both of making it more difficult for the U.S. to gain the cooperation of other nations and of actually increasing the deaths of American soldiers (because our policies perversely encourage people to join anti-American groups that attack and kill our troops based in Iraq). I thus concluded that Bush's misguided policies did not merely prevent Americans from feeling good about ourselves in some abstract sense but affirmatively harmed us in tangible ways. It is important, I argued, for us to become "the good guys" once again.

Earlier this week, in "Blowback," Mike offered a very sobering set of observations in reply to my posts. Referring to Stephen Kinzer's book Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, Mike pointed out that the long, sordid history of U.S. intervention around the world hardly leaves room for us to imagine a lost age of innocence before Bush when we were ever truly the good guys. Installing the dictatorship of the Shah in Iran, overthrowing Allende in Chile, supporting the contras in Nicaragua, etc., etc., hardly make for a list of proud achievements to which Americans can point as proof that we have unerringly been on the side of good. To this list of foreign policy malfeasance I would add such domestic atrocities as our treatment of the American Indians (perhaps most memorably the "Trail of Tears") and, of course, the long history of slavery and its aftermath. (Other examples abound, including the internment of Japanese American citizens during WWII.)

While Mike notes graciously that "
Neil is not entirely wrong in characterizing the U.S. as the good guys," I find it interesting that, even though I am fully aware of this shameful history of the U.S.'s malevolent actions both domestically and abroad, I felt (and to some degree still feel) comfortable describing America in the years before Bush as the good guys. Not only did I feel comfortable saying so with a straight face, moreover, I did so without even consciously thinking about all of the evidence to the contrary. The act of compartmentalizing our bad acts is thus, at least for me, pre-cognitive. What explains this -- other than the obvious possibility that I am simply an America-love-it-or-leave-it stooge, a Frank Burns of the law school set?

Part of the answer is, as Mike points out, that we are relatively better than authoritarian states in the way we handle our foreign ventures. We (no longer) countenance genocide, and we now pay serious attention to reducing (but obviously not eliminating) civilian deaths. Carpet bombing, for example, is not something that we have practiced recently. Even so, this remains true at the end of the Bush regime. That is, while Bush's policies are worse than the policies in place immediately prior to Bush's presidency, his policies also do not constitute genocide or the toleration of hundreds of thousands of deaths as "collateral damage." Even Bush's acts of omission, particularly with respect to Darfur, are hardly a major change from Clinton's failure to act in Rwanda.

If it were possible to quantify the "degree of horribleness," if you will, we might describe pre-Bush policies and Bush's policies as being within a multiple or so of each other (perhaps less), whereas the difference between recent policies and our worst acts of the past is arguably a matter of orders of magnitude. There are many parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, but thankfully the body count (of both soldiers and civilians) is not close even on an annualized basis. The steps backward since 2001 have been important, but they thankfully have not wiped out the progress that we have made in recent decades.

There have always been countries and peoples who can point to very plausible reasons for their hatred of the U.S. We have never been the good guys to everyone, and maybe not even to most people. It is probably impossible for any country to achieve such a status. Even so, it was possible before Bush to look at the positives of our history and the upward trajectory that it represents with some measure of pride, even taking into account the negatives and vowing never to let them happen again. Not reverting to being as terrible as we once were is a good thing, but it is not a defense for Bush's policies. His policies have harmed our interests, our soldiers, and many innocent people around the world. Whether we were ever good guys, we can certainly be better than this.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan