Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sense, Security and Soft Power

Last week I was reading a story about US President Barak Obama when suddenly it hit me bang smack in the face - the craziness!

Obama was praising the increased security of US airports this year, no doubt prompted by the public outcry over intrusive TSA pat-downs and pornographic body-scanners. Well of course US airports are safer, sir - security has increased a thousandfold since 9/11. The security industry has become a burgeoning monster, with an endless spawn of bloated companies funded by the US government. The official US military and *cough!* defence budget this year is over a trillion dollars! And meanwhile, of course, the government in Washington is giving itself ever-increasing powers to wiretap US citizens, lock them up without trial, and even kill them.

But you probably know all that.

What hit me was this: I suddenly asked myself where the USA might be today if the Bush administration had reacted quite differently to 9/11? In the days after the attack, if you remember, people across the USA were loudly asking "Why do they hate us?" I suspect few of those people really wanted to know the answer. And of course, the government was in no hurry to explain.

"They hate our freedoms!" Bush cried. That was good enough for the mob: it was time to go and kill some foreigners!

But what if the US government had acknowledged the truth? What if there had been a bit more serious public discussion of Bin Laden's list of grievances? What if average citizens had earnestly tried to understand how "God's own" USA might appear to citizens living under US-backed repressive regimes in Africa or the Middle East? What if the US government and media had agreed that violent terrorist attacks like 9/11, inexcusable though they may be, are a near-inevitable form of payback for the worst aspects of US foreign policy around the globe?

And then what if they had decided to combat further terrorist attacks, not by waging war and cranking up national security to ever more absurd levels, but by implementing a kinder, gentler foreign policy, where all that talk about "freem and moxy" actually meant something?

Remember, there was huge global sympathy for the USA after 9/11, and it was a perfect opportunity for Washington to focus on what they call "Soft Power". Instead we got "Shock and Awe", two un-winnable wars, millions dead, mutilated, and displaced, and a crazy new "Long War" on terrorism (which is basically just a recipe for throwing endless money at the US military-industrial-security complex).

And then I thought about the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communist Russia, and another historic lost opportunity for US "Soft Power". At that time, rather than offering a hand to confused citizens stepping out from behind the Iron Curtain, Washington seemed more intent on rubbing their noses in their government's ideological defeat. Self-interest and financial imperatives ruled, when compassion and generosity might have produced better long-term outcomes. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the US president's name back then was also Bush.

Now I know what you are thinking. Who really believes all that hokum about "Truth, justice and the American Way!"? This ain't no comic book, right? And who says the US government didn't pull off 9/11 themselves anyway? Hunh?

Sure, we can all be cynical (and probably should). But sometimes it's worth taking a peek through our jaded world-weariness and thinking: "There must be a better way!" It's sometimes worth looking back at critical historic junctures and asking if we took the right path or the wrong one. Like John Lennon said, "Imagine..."

Of course, if the USA had taken the "Soft Power" approach and modified its foreign policies after 9/11, there would still be the potential for terrorist attacks. "Haters gonna hate," as the kids say these days. But there would be much less reason to hate the USA. There would be much less reason for this crazy overdose of "security" at airports and everywhere else. The world would be a better place, and the US economy might not be a slow-motion train-wreck right now.

Why didn't it happen, then? Well, because the people making the decisions in Washington are not interested in peace. The show is being run by Big Business, and Big Business is in the business of war big time. So there was really never any question that the "soft power" approach would even be considered. But it's nice sometimes to just imagine that things really could be a bit different if the world was not so crazy.

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