Everything I Know About American Foreign Policy I Learned on Pine Ridge
Wednesday, 21 April 2010 17:40
Written by Sam Hurst
"Nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison."
It has been a season of frustration in Afghanistan. Immediately after President Hamid Karzai's heavily criticized re-election victory in November, a not-so-subtle warning emerged from Washington that American patience is not open ended. Consider the remarks of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the ABC News show "This Week": "Now that the [Afghan] election is finally over, we're looking to see tangible evidence that the government, led by the president but going all the way down to the local level, will be more responsive to the needs of the people...
We're going to be doing what we can to create an atmosphere in which the blood and treasure that the United States has committed to Afghanistan can be justified and can produce the kind of results that we're looking for." (http://blogs.abcnews.com/george/2009/11/afghanistan-clinton-says-no-civilian-aid-unless-expectations-met.html) President Karzai did not miss the signals. The United States intends to be the arbiter of who is "responsive to the needs of the people" in Afghanistan, and the U.S. Army will be the arbiter of "results".
Then, last week, after a private meeting with President Obama, Karzai struck back. In one of the most extraordinary moments in the history of the war, Karzi threatened to join forces with the Taliban if the United States didn't back off and quit criticizing his government. Not to be outflanked, U.S. diplomats responded with a whisper campaign that Karzai was unstable because he might be struggling with a heroin addiction. Karzai threatened to withdraw his approval for a long planned military offensive against the traditional Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
Meanwhile, on the military front, General Stanley McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategy ran headlong into a series of brutal headlines. American soldiers fired at a bus that failed to stop as a military convoy passed, killing four passengers and wounding eighteen innocent civilians. In a separate incident an American Special Forces unit killed two pregnant women in a raid on an Afghan village. McChrystal apologized and the local NATO commander showed up with two sheep and a personal apology to the aggrieved husband. Such is the ancient village etiquette of a hearts and minds strategy. (http://abcnews.go.com/WN/Afghanistan/special-forces-apologize-afghan-civilian-deaths-sheep/story?id=10320603). A week later a stray rocket killed ten civilians including five children in Helmund Province. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/15/world/asia/15afghan.html?scp=1&sq=errant%20us%20rocket&st=cse) Finally, Marines withdrew last week from their outpost overlooking the remote Korengal Valley, which they had valiantly held for five years against daily Taliban attacks, at a cost of 42 Marine lives, and many more civilians. General McChrystal explained that the NATO outpost had become "an irritant to the people" rather than a source of security.
What is the measure of our strategic position? The United States has overwhelming military force, but is unable to control events on the ground. American soldiers cannot speak the tribal languages and do not understand or respect local culture. We are suspicious of village religious leaders as enablers of terrorism. Our accomplishments are diminished by the brutality of our failures. The civilian population is poor and deeply traumatized by decades of war. Our local allies are inefficient, unpopular, and corrupt. We hold them in contempt as "unreliable partners" who do not appreciate the sacrifices we make in treasure and lives on their behalf.
Welcome to Pine Ridge!
War with the Lakota lasted twelve years (1865-1877). In the end, the United States Army held overwhelming power but could not control the people. An elaborate system of treaties and scrupulously mapped reservations was established to protect the Lakota from westward expansion. But we would not stop settlers, gold miners, and even Congress from stealing the Black Hills and millions of acres of treaty land. Billions of dollars of economic development has been invested in economic security. But the corruption has been so deep, for so long, that even federal auditors cannot explain how tribal resources were squandered and stolen by the BIA and private contractors. Christian missions and schools were created to transform tribal culture into modern American civilization. In exchange the Lakota got boarding schools that destroyed families, and a full bore assault on tribal culture, ceremony, and the authority of medicine men.
What is the legacy of more than a century of "nation building" on Pine Ridge? The highest unemployment in the nation (80%); economic stagnation; life expectancy that is thirty years lower than the white population in South Dakota (48 years for men, 52 years for women, compared to 80 years for whites); an epidemic of obesity, diabetes and heart disease; high suicide rates, alcoholism, and drug abuse among teenagers; under-funded, poorly staffed inferior schools; and chronically debt-ridden, failed government. It took us 140 years to create Pine Ridge. We are just getting started in Afghanistan. Listen up, President Karzai. This is our promise.
What is the common denominator between our experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pine Ridge (and, for that matter, Vietnam)? American policy makers have an ongoing problem with the concept of national sovereignty. Hillary Clinton's comment that the United States is the guardian of the interests of the Afghani people cuts to the heart of the matter. It is a theme repeated over and over again in American foreign policy from the Monroe Doctrine to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The paternalism and hubris has its roots in the concept of "American exceptionalism."
The anchor of exceptionalist idealism is a belief that the United States is a unique force for good in the world. (In its most extreme form, this unique force is inspired by God--as in Manifest Destiny).We are powerful but virtuous. We are noble. We are generous and benevolent. We do not use our power in the interest of land (the Dawes Act), or gold (the Black Hills), or oil (Oklahoma Indian Country and Iraq). We use our military superiority to serve democracy and freedom. When our soldiers are brutal or wanton, as inevitably happens in war (Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, My Lai, Abu Ghraib, Haditha), it is because of an accident, or a miscommunication, or poor intelligence, or, at worse, the rogue actions of the proverbial "few" renegade soldiers and mercenaries private contractors (we need our euphemisms). This belief in our unique mission to advance civilization requires, and even celebrates, an exaggeration of the faults of others and blindness about our own history. That is why no graduate program in American foreign policy or strategic studies begins with Native Americans. How often do our leaders tell us: "No sense wallowing in the past, we should look forward." We are loath to examine our own original sin. In turn, we stumble from one defeat to another, always blaming the faint hearts of our allies, those who are less exceptional than we. Take heart President Karzai. Red Cloud was an unreliable ally. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were war lords.
Sometimes the best way to pierce the façade of self-righteousness is to turn words on their head, and try to see the world through the eyes of the less exceptional, but nonetheless sovereign. In that spirit, consider a speech that Hamid Karzai might give to a loya jirga of Pashtun village elders about the troubled alliance with America.
"Brothers. I am fearful that our alliance with the Americans cannot last. Their enormous military power has made them weak. They do not seek solutions to problems. They seek domination. They put a low value on human life. They shoot at our buses and bomb our homes. But, amazingly, we do not have the worst of it. In America they are obsessed with guns. It is hard to understand how they keep their children safe. Home grown terrorists attack their schools, their churches and markets. They call it freedom. I have asked President Obama about this. He says he is powerless to change it. It is very strange.
They are corrupt beyond imagination. They are corrupt in their business affairs, eager to cheat each other. Even in their relations with us their work is shoddy and their contractors seem more preoccupied with stealing money than building projects that might actually serve Afghanistan.
They have an elaborate system of graft in which businesses buy and sell politicians for votes. It reaches to the highest levels of government. It is the way that President Obama himself was elected, and every member of Congress participates. It is shameful, but they seem content with the system.
Americans are an exotic people, hard to understand, but one of the most impossibly corrupt ways of doing business is for corporations to bribe politicians with millions of dollars and call it free speech. This is a low form of civilization, but their highest court actually gives license to the system. They are so accustomed to it that they do not even bother to hide it from their citizens. You know, corruption is endemic in their way of life. I have tried to talk to President Obama about this. I have told him it threatens our alliance, but he says there is nothing he can do about it. I have looked into his eyes and I believe I can trust him. But I wonder if he is a leader or a puppet.
I have been forced to confront President Obama about the excessive American market in illegal drugs. America is the largest heroin and cocaine market in the world, but President Obama seems unable to control it. The man is a weak ally. He complains constantly that he is trying his best, but there is nothing he can do. Should we believe him? His own people do not believe he is an American. They think he is from Kenya. They think he is a Muslim. This is because Americans have no families. Our children can recite their ancestors for a dozen generations. American children have no memory of family. It is very strange.
I do not know if the United States will hold together. They have a powerful Army, but it is reckless, and for all their power, they have a weak sense of themselves as a nation. The public is in rebellion against Washington. The Governor of Texas threatens to secede. Several states have threatened to reject federal laws. I do not know if they are a stable ally.
We continue to try...brothers. But we should all be aware. America is an untrustworthy, unstable ally."
Now that is something Red Cloud understood. America is an untrustworthy ally.