Magazine article The Spectator

A World of Ignorance

Magazine article The Spectator

A World of Ignorance

Article excerpt

America's politicians are hopeless at understanding other countries - but they're not alone in that

Ever since the United States rose to great power status, it has displayed bouts of appalling ignorance about the politics and cultures of the rest of the world. Pick a region, any region, and one can find quotations and policies that demonstrate a breathtaking ability to think that other countries were just like the United States. During the Cold War, US policymakers continually misread the Pacific Rim.

In the 1940s, Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska vowed that 'with God's help, we will lift Shanghai up until it is just like Kansas City'. It turned out that the communists were more successful in that endeavour than Chiang Kai-Shek.

Lack of local knowledge has hampered America in the Middle East over the past decade. US policymakers were convinced prior to the second Gulf war that Ahmed Chalabi would be welcomed by Iraqis as their Thomas Jefferson. The entire 'axis of evil' speech posited that Iran and Iraq were acting in concert, despite their decade-long war in the 1980s. The Iraq Study Group found that, of the thousand employees at the US embassy in Iraq, six spoke Arabic. And this kind of ignorance was not limited to the Bush administration; it is shot through America's foreign policy community.

Since the days of George Kennan, Americans have fretted over the apparent asymmetry between the US and its rivals. Their argument is simple: the United States is an open society, which allows foreigners to see much of what remains opaque in the rest of the world. Anyone who has a decent command of the English language and an internet connection can access reams of useful information about American grand strategy and foreign policy. The same cannot be said of Russia, China or Iran, much less the hermit kingdoms of North Korea or Myanmar.

In his writings Kennan repeatedly argued that, with this information gap, the enemies of the United States possessed a crucial advantage.

The past year, however, has demonstrated that Kennan was wrong. Despite America's apparent openness, other countries' officials are just as inept in understanding the United States. The exposed Russian spy ring, for example, revealed some magical thinking on the part of Russia's intelligence services.

These agents were given deep cover assignments in the United States - in some cases for more than a decade. According to US federal prosecutors, the spies were directed to gather information on nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran, CIA leadership, and congressional politics. Based on the indictment, however, it appears that the Russian spies gathered nothing from the decade-long enterprise that a well-trained analyst couldn't have picked up by trolling the internet. The problem is that Russia's intelligence services believed that a secret cabal runs American foreign policy.

Similarly, the current Iranian leadership seems to have very little understanding of how the American government works. Hossein Shariatmadari, a key adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, recently told a reporter for the New Yorker that the green movement was a US-led conspiracy organised by, among others, the neoconservative thinktanker Michael Ledeen, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the billionaire George Soros. These three individuals agree on very little. They are more likely to form a new hip-hop group than successfully organise the Iranian reform movement. American pundits and policymakers have not read the tea leaves in Iran all that well, but Iranian analysts are just as deficient in their analysis of the United States.

Myriad national reactions to the decision of the pastor of a small, sad little church in Gainesville, Florida to threaten to burn Korans on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks were also revealing. Protestors and politicians in Afghanistan and Pakistan were understandably upset by Pastor Terry Jones's bigotry. …

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