America's misunderstanding

Daily: Daily Times
Date: 21.12.16

Americans — the citizens of the US — face a problem in understanding the issues ravaging
foreign lands, not only because of the absence of domestic counterparts and even
analogies of such issues in the American (or the US’) national experience, but also because
the input to the foreign policy has come from other than intelligence sources such as pre-
conceived notions of the policy makers. This is the central idea of Paul R. Pillar’s book,
“Why America misunderstands the world: National experience and roots of misperception,”
published in 2016. Pillar is a researcher at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown
University, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. When Pillar retired
in 2005, he had served for about twenty-eight years in several senior positions with the CIA
and the National Intelligence Council. This opinion piece intends to discuss Pillar’s certain
ideas expressed in the book.

For the sake of understanding, the book can be divided into two halves, the coalescing of
which determines the contours of the American foreign policy. One half of the book says
that the perspectives acquired by American people through their shared national
experience, encompassing both triumphs and tragedies, offered by geography and history
over the years under the rubric of American exceptionalism, construct a perception or
opinion which governs America’s decisions and behavior (or actions) towards the rest of the
world. The obverse side of the argument is that whatever has not been experienced by
Americans is not understood by them.

Perception is essential to becoming conventional wisdom for engendering a policy, as Pillar
writes on page 5, “Whether vociferous minorities or other threatening elements have
shaped a broader popular perception or not, that perception can acquire significance for a
policy that goes beyond the mere counting of votes or the placating of a lobby. Prevailing
public perceptions can become conventional wisdom that elites, as well as the general
public routinely, accept.”

Pillar opines that two main factors influence the perception building. The first factor is the
Manichean tendency of American society to see things in the context of “good and evil” by
putting itself in the attire of “good” while the rest of the world in “evil” which is united to work
against America, as Pillar writes on page 164: “The American tendencies to see the world in
Manichean terms as divided between good guys and bad guys [i.e. the “either with us or
with the terrorists” rhetoric] and to overestimate unity among the bad guys lead similarly to
self-reinforcing cycles.” The second factor is the bogey erected by the policy makers to
serve their purpose, as Pillar writes on page 120: “This ‘war’ [i.e. the war on terror,
launched by neoconservatives] would be in the minds of Americans the latest chapter in
their nation’s history of periodic monster-slaying forays overseas. Considering themselves
to be at war reduced the cognitive dissonance that would have come from being extensively
and expensively engaged overseas during what was supposed to be peacetime.”

The other half of the book says that the intelligence input has played a rather insignificant
role in guiding major decisions in the American foreign policy. The obverse side of the
argument is that the foreign policy is influenced by multiple private sources, other than the
intelligence bureaucracy.

Pillar laments that there is present a gap of understanding between American policymakers
and the intelligence bureaucracy, as Pillar writes on page 4: “The United States has large
bureaucracies, after all, charged with using hard facts and analysis to deliver to [the] policy
makers [who are also American citizens] accurate pictures of the foreign problems they
must confront. But on the big U.S. foreign-policy decisions over the past several decades,
the bureaucracies and in particular the intelligence agencies have had almost no influence.
Far more important have been the conceptions that decision makers bring with them to the
job and involve their sense of how the world works and their preconceptions based on past
personal experiences.”

Related to pre-conceived ideas of American policy makers, Pillar further shed light from
page 36 to 39: “It is no accident that the modern American statespersons who have been
most adept with (sic) continental-style multipolar, all-azimuth, balance-of-power international
politics have come out of that European milieu, including the German-born Heinz (later
Henry) Kissinger and the Polish-born Zbigniew Brzezinski. They owe their orientation in this
regard to their personal origins as well as to their political science training. The less
insightful tendencies in the public discourse, however, imposed political constraints on the
policy makers, leading to feckless rounds of sanctions and retribution.” Here, Pillar is saying
that the (Central) European background of the policy makers — who are mostly political
appointees — have adversely affected the American foreign policy. Second, the gap of
understanding is serving more harm to America than benefit; the Iraq war, as mentioned on
page 44, is a living example. Thirdly, if the input given by the CIA had been valued, the
American foreign policy could have been formulated on a better footing and the level of
misunderstanding about America in the rest of the world would have been minimum.

Pillar bemoans that there was a grand failure of American foreign policy makers because,
as mentioned on page 138 and 139, “The image of a monolithic Communist bloc with a
single grand strategy was a grand misperception. The presumption of a grand global
Communist objective later led to American misinterpretation of some other Soviet actions ...
[T]he same Soviet Union that had been an ally in World War II was now the chief adversary
in the Cold War.” On page 140, Pillar cites examples to elucidate this point. For instance, in
1971, the combination of Richard Nixon and Kissinger was about to plunge the US into a
confrontation with the former Soviet Union on the question of East Pakistan emerging as
Bangladesh. Afterwards, the combination of Jimmy Carter and Brzezinski became
successful in pitting America against the former Soviet Union on the question of the Soviet
intervention in Afghanistan in 1979.

Taken the messages of these paragraphs together, Pillar has not only delivered a scathing
charge sheet on Kissinger and Brzezinski, but also on their protectors who are none other
than American presidents. Secondly, Pillar has conveyed the reasons for America’s
misunderstanding the rest of the world expressed through formulating faulty foreign policies
which invite troubles for America. Interestingly, this half of the book gives a clue to
understanding American President-elect Donald Trump’s favourable posture toward Russia.

In short, Pillar is saying unequivocally that when America misunderstands the rest of the
world, the problem of misunderstanding lies more within America than outside.

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