Restoring American Credibility

The U.S. has a credibility problem made the more difficult as it learns how to deal with the new rulers of Afghanistan, who also have a credibility problem. American pundits whine that the Taliban know nothing of human rights and inflict barbarian social standards on women and children. That would be bad enough, but they also dislike music, entertainment, laughter, and other unseemly behavior. When you pause to think about it, they’re not much different from American Puritans of the early colonial era, but that’s for another time. The point is, the U.S. also has a credibility problem. We cannot rely on the Afghans’ word to be more tolerant and inclusive. But our creditability lies in our human rights record by operation of secret prisons, to torturing incarcerated prisoners, bombing funerals and weddings, and trying to force a new way of democratic life on the people through military force. That’s a part of the Afghan legacy most of us would prefer to ignore because it’s so antithetical to all that we say we believe in. Indeed it is, but there it is and we have to face it.

If that was our only credibility problem, it might not be so bad, but it isn’t. I can’t lay a finger on when our international credibility began to fray, but the big tear came with the Iraq War that was entered intro through lies and deliberately manufactured rumors about weapons of mass destruction and Iraq’s alleged involvement in 9/11. The blatant reality of those lies was soon made known to the entire world, which brought into the open the question of whether the word of the United States could be trusted. What saved us, at least in part, was the general feeling that President Bush was an affable nice guy who simply got in over his head. Contrary to Republican blather, the Obama years did much to restore America’s International standing, even if it was increasingly clear that the Afghan War needed to be ended.  All that changed with the advent of Trump’s administration that tromped over diplomatic  protocol, abused leaders of allied nations, cozied up to dictators of nations intent on doing America harm. Making it worse, Trump demonstrated that Americans were capable of electing to the presidency a functionally illiterate with a junior high grasp of history and an inability to communicate with anything more sophisticated than aggressive insults and fantastical promises he obviously had no intention or ability to deliver on. 

It’s a problem the Biden administration has to wrestle with. There’s no way around it. It can’t be wished away.

The first step to restoration of American credibility is recognition that good ends can’t be achieved through violent means. Violent means may be necessary to stop even more violent attacks, but they can’t do more than that. To achieve good ends requires something more. Consider one of the times in human history that that was understood, the end of World War II. Wise minds understood that the best hope for  enduring peace was to help Germany and Japan recover social stability and economic prosperity. The same went for other nations that suffered the inhuman destruction of war. It meant knowing and honoring the existing institutions and cultural practices that were central to each nation. As scripture commands, when one’s enemies are hungry, feed them; when they are thirsty, give them something to drink. Among our many failings in Afghanistan, we were unable to learn, understand, and honor the cultural way and institutions of the land, to use that knowledge and understanding to provide resources needed for them to rebuild their societies enabling them to participate in a 21st century world as authentic Afghans.

As a side note, having listened to a multitude of military experts and representatives opining about Afghanistan, it’s become clear that it’s hard for people well trained in military ways to envision other tools and means other than their own. 

Rebuilding diplomatic relationships with other nations is another much needed step. It means more than restoring a well trained and highly motivated foreign service. It means that national leadership has to adopt a public narrative that is less obscure and evasive. I know that’s the core of diplomatic speak, but it leads the pubic to be suspicious of hidden agendas not in their best interests, and therefore to be publicly opposed.  At the same time, it means avoiding ‘Trumpspeak’ that threatens like a schoolyard bully. Forthright honesty can be expressed without pandering or threatening. Mistakes can be honestly admitted without groveling.  Moreover, too often, I suspect, our diplomatic efforts have been harnessed to corporate trading opportunities that, however useful, are not always in the best interest of other pressing needs: environmental protection, labor conditions, public health, etc. The United States of America does not end in ‘Inc’.

My fear is that Trump’s bellicose blundering continues to be popular among too many voters and Members of Congress. It’s something I have a hard time grasping, but juvenile cowboy mentality is beneath our dignity, and a sure way to undermine whatever credibility we retain.

2 thoughts on “Restoring American Credibility”

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful piece. As with all other nations, the US’s primary goal in diplomacy is to advance national interests, period. We will speak of human rights concerns, but only when it benefits our own national agenda. As an example, we need look no further than Palestine. Clearly Israel is an apartheid state focused on ethnic cleansing. It has nuclear weapons. And yet we turn a blind eye to both realities, as we previously did with South Africa. One of the great delusions in the American story is that we are somehow different from other nations. The same pride, arrogance, will to power, worship of Mammon, and desire for self-preservation regardless of consequences to others infect us in the same way as others. Like any virus, it is no respecter of national boundaries. Until we repudiate the concept of American exceptionalism and experience more humiliation, it is difficult to imagine significant change in American policy and practice.

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