Thursday, May 11, 2017

Bogeyman Foreign Policy

In an article in the Boston Globe Stephen Kinzer rehearsed the history of the current crisis with North Korea which not only has an arsenal of atomic weapons but is coming close to developing intermediate range missiles which, armed with nuclear warheads, could reach the United States. There is a great deal of huffing and puffing on the part of the Trump administration but not much action because there is not a lot they can do. Kinzer believes that we could only persuade the Chinese, who have a great deal of influence in North Korea, to put pressure on that government if we were willing to withdraw all troops from the Korean Peninsula thereby ensuring the Chinese that they would not have possibly hostile soldiers on their borders.
Kinzer traces the current crisis to the Carter administration when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The US wanted to base military units to fight the Soviets in Pakistan and the Pakistanis were willing to allow that. But their price was the permission to develop their own atomic weapons. The US had previously made major efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. That involved the US making sure that Pakistan would not be able to have its own nuclear weapons program. We had been very serious about that all along but being in a complete tizzy about the Soviets in Afghanistan, we reversed policy and allowed the Pakistani nuclear program to go forward.
Contrary to what had been agreed, Pakistan shared its nuclear technology with the North Koreans who then also became an atomic power. We see now that that was a disastrous choice on our part. We had been right to resist nuclear proliferation. Changing policy on that was a serious error that led us to the present impasse with North Korea.
At the same time, of course, we armed the mujahedin, the guerrilla fighters against the Soviets who, after the American invasion of Afghanistan, turned against us and morphed into Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda.
Our near hysteria about the Soviet Union led us to arm countries and guerrilla movements against us. The serious troubles we have in the Middle East and in North Korea are largely self created and self-inflicted.
Both are due to the peculiar characteristics of the Cold War. Today we have serious disagreements with the Chinese and we try to resolve those as best as we can, using threats as well as promises as one does in foreign affairs. But in the Cold War there were not only disagreements between us and Russia, there was a whole other issue: Communism.
The Chinese call themselves Communists but that does not bother anybody, probably because they are the most unlikely Communists anybody has seen in a long time. But Russian communism was used to whip up intense hysteria in the United States. In the 1950s Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin had the entire country believing that communist agents had infiltrated many public and private institutions. State employees and employees of many universities were forced to sign loyalty oaths, attesting to their firm belief in capitalism.
The country survived and Sen. McCarthy died soon afterwards but the fear of communism did not abate. We were willing to do anything whatsoever to fight the Communists. Russia was not just another country, a developing country at that, Russia was the "Evil Empire." It was the dark opponent of Star Wars and other movies. Rational policy considerations were not enough to defeat it.
This sort of magical thinking, "Bogeyman Foreign Policy" has caused serious problems for us and continues to do so. Our conduct in Vietnam, supporting French colonialism until 1954 and then refusing to deal with North Vietnam, whose founding document quoted our Declaration of Independence, because they were “Communists” laid Vietnam to waste and took the life of 54,000 American soldiers. We were blinded by the myth of evil and intransigent communism. We were not fighting a real government—North Vietnam-- but a myth—International Communism.
The “Evil Empire” collapsed in 1989. It was immediately replaced by international terrorism, and now by immigrants demonized like communism and terrorism before them. Immigrants are criminals. Immigrants are a shady presence; they take jobs away from Americans at the same time as they drain government coffers by drawing on social services. Immigrants are not like us, they are a threat to our way of life and our traditions. We must protect ourselves against immigrants at all costs, even if that means radically scaling back services for Americans who are poor and sick, or for the elderly who, after a long life of hard work find themselves in poverty.
Citing facts against the myth of the immigrant threat is useless. The immigrant bogeyman is too real in people's mind. It cannot be chased away by ordinary facts.
But the conclusion is only too obvious: once we indulge in Bogeyman Foreign Policy we encounter serious and perhaps irreparable losses. We should think twice about letting ourselves be terrified by imaginary threats. But in the clutches of Bogeyman Foreign Policy we cannot think straight. We frighten ourselves with bogeymen of our own invention.
Politicians encourage the creation of  bogeymen. Voters terrified of communism or immigrants  choose representatives who are "tough" on communism or immigration. They do not pay attention to the political candidate's other qualifications, or lack thereof. Fairly incompetent candidates get elected simply because they never stop talking about bogeyman threats.