Wednesday, November 26, 2008

From Colony to Superpower: Americans' Blindness

Rob brings up a couple of points in his review of Chapter 3 in Herring's book that I want to expand upon.
While Rob rightfully points out the danger of drawing modern parallels for events that happened 200 years ago, broad comparisons can be useful.

In particular, Rob writes:

the Americans appeared genuinely incapable of believing that Indian violence and attacks stemmed from the behavior of settlers and the US government. Rather, British influence was blamed, virtually without evidence.

This is an important theme in the history of U.S. foreign relations. We have a complete blindness to our own doings. Maybe we're not that different from other countries in this regard, but we never see how our own actions create wars. 9/11 is the latest example. While not trivializing the horror of what happened on that day, the fact that most Americans saw our nation a completely innocent victim is disturbing. The idea that our own policies could somehow be at fault is beyond the pale of much American thought. We buy so strongly into our mythology of exceptionalism; if only other nations would follow our path, they too could be like the U.S. But this myth obscures the reality of American foreign policy abroad. Our support for corrupt anti-Democratic elements in South Vietnam surely has nothing to do with Tet! Having permanent bases in Saudi Arabia and consistently supporting Israel over Palestine is totally unrelated from 9/11! Mexican greed for their own land started the Mexican War; if only they let Texas have their totally unrealistic land claims, we wouldn't have to invade you! The Indians are savages and they are supported by the British perfidy. Our invasions of their land and wanton murder of their people are irrelevant!

I'd like to think that in a post-9/11, post-Iraq world, we are a bit more aware of our interactions with other nations. I'm quite skeptical however.

Rob also compares our unwillingness to recognize Haiti with the Cuban embargo. I think this comparison has utility so long as we don't place it within any kind of Caribbean policy framework. Certainly though, both nations have suffered for being in the Leviathan's sphere of influence. We (along with France to be fair) doomed Haiti to 200 years of extreme poverty. 99% of Americans have no clue about this history. We owe Haiti big time. Sending their refugees back while accepting Cubans is not only racist, but morally bankrupt. Our response to Cuba has had starkly different results. Cuba's not rich either. The embargo has something to do with that. Whereas we successfully isolated Haiti though, we have only isolated ourselves from the Cubans since no one else in the world respects our position on Cuba.

Moreover, rather than undermine Fidel Castro, we have reinforced his power, giving him an excuse for every one of his failures. On the other hand, from an social perspective, Castro did achieve great education and health care policies. On top of that, while his environmental policies have not been outstanding, they certainly have been no worse than that of his pro-American neighbors in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and other nations. Closing off U.S. investment to Cuba has saved the nation's beaches from total privatization and development. I'm not really confident that this won't change in the next 10 years, but it is a note in Castro's favor. In any case, U.S. control of their government would probably have not led to better lives for the Cubans in the last 50 years.

Note that I'm not really trying to defend Castro here, and certainly he needed to go 15 years ago at least. But he's still there largely because of the United States.