9-11 and “The Ugly American”

This September 11 marked 17 years since al-Qaida terrorists took passenger planes and crashed them almost simultaneously into New York City’s World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in Virginia. Their attempt to crash a commercial plane in Washington, D.C. was thwarted when passengers fought for control, causing it to plummet into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Nine-eleven was only the second time terrorists from outside of the U.S. had carried out an attack within the nation. In 1993 a bomb planted in a truck exploded outside the World Trade Center North Tower.

Such attacks might have never happened if the U.S. had used a vastly different approach to counter terrorism, one that focused less on military solutions and more on encouraging and supporting governments that are honest and democratic. That’s according to a recent report, sponsored by the U.S.Institute for Peace. The writing and compilation of the report was led by former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean (R) and former U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana (D). Both men were also in charge of the 9-11 Commission Report.

The new report says that the U.S. should  strengthen what it calls “fragile states ”  against violent extremism, not only in the Middle East, but in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.

“As rich as we are, we’re limited in our resources,” Kean told NPR in an “All Things Considered” interview. “What we’re proposing here, which is strengthening fragile states, is an awful lot cheaper than using our troops.”

“Fragile states are the incubator of extremism,” added Hamilton during the same interview. “It’s a very tough challenge, because what you’re fundamentally trying to do is to remake societies.”

Hamilton explained that the report wasn’t calling for “nation building” in fragile countries. “The key, in a word, is to improve governance, to reduce corruption, to reduce repression, because where you have corruption, governments that don’t meet the needs of the people, you have the breeding ground for extremism.”

Variations of this strategy have been tried before, and it failed, most notably in Vietnam. The problem with implementing it is that one has to know a lot about the countries, their people, their cultures, their religions, and their politics, not just impose one’s own ideas on those countries regarding what they must do to become “democracies.”

A novel published in 1958, “The Ugly American,” spoke to how U.S. diplomats and foreign policy has generally not made much effort to understand the nations and their people they’re ostensibly “helping.” The novel, written by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, follows a U.S. engineer living in the fictional Southeast Asian country of “Sarkhan,” a stand-in for Vietnam, Thailand or Burma. The engineer immerses himself in the country’s people, learns the languages and the customs, and eventually figures out that instead of giving them what he thinks they should want, he should collaborate with the people to give them what they need. It also builds national self-determination when the  “helper” nation stands back after teaching the people how to use what they’ve been given, then gets out of the way.

But  a succession of U.S. governments has taken on the attitude of “We know what’s best for you, so shut up and do as you’re told.” Rather than modeling democratic values, too many U.S. diplomats have exemplified white privilege on a roll. In their arrogance, they insist that their hosts learn English. They insist on being served American food like that which they eat at home. They insist on being racists toward the residents of their host countries, and otherwise disrespecting their hosts.

And during the Cold War, the U.S. would simply send troops into a given country and overthrow governments it didn’t like, replacing the leaders the people had selected with right-wing despots that the U.S. could control. As long as the replacements promised to prevent Communism from taking over their countries, the U.S. would turn a blind eye to human rights and civil rights abuses conducted by their dictator puppets against the given countries’ people.

With that kind of history, people in the Middle East and Africa may not have much of a reason to trust the U.S. They may not trust al-Qaida and Islamic State-types either, so they find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place, especially if they have to depend on assistance from the unpresident and his administration. This unpresident has tried to impose a ban on Muslims from entering the U.S. He refuses to read and learn anything about the countries he’s supposed to be “helping.” He knows nothing about the history or politics of African or Middle East nations,  except to pronounce them “shit holes.” He wouldn’t know a Sikh man from a Muslim man since sometimes they both wear turbans.

Additionally, the unpresident is notorious for ignoring expert advice. He would probably want to send troops, and lots of them, to attack the extremists and “crush” them. One would hope he reads the new report, or has someone read it to him, to explain that there are other options for defeating terrorism and “winning the hearts and minds” of people in Africa and the Middle East. But I doubt it. He is the 21st Century version of “The Ugly American.”

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