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America and its dangerous men

  • Published at 12:04 am May 23rd, 2019
Oval Office
The Oval Office has a lot on its conscience BIGSTOCK

The hostile diplomacy of the United States is bad news for the rest of the world

American foreign policy has, in modern times, quite often been marred by the predominance of dangerous men in terms of formulation and implementation. 

In these present times, the influence of John Bolton on US diplomacy gives off a bad signal of how advisers and cabinet members can sometimes bring governments and indeed countries to grief. Bolton is not the first man to have pushed an administration into a tight corner through an exercise of bellicosity. There are all the others we recall, when we delve into the role the US has played abroad in our times.

A good reference here is the overweening presence of John Foster Dulles in the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s. As secretary of state between 1953 and 1959, he was in the centre of American policy vis-à-vis the Cold War, his hawkish behaviour a pattern that was to limit America’s perceptions of the world beyond its frontiers. 

Dulles was implacably opposed to China taking its place in the global community and would not conceive of a situation where realpolitik in the aftermath of the fall of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces in 1949 needed to be acknowledged. At the height of the Geneva Conference on Indo-China in 1954, Dulles pointedly walked away from Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai when the latter, with an outstretched hand, advanced to greet the American.Dulles’s legacy, if ever there was one, was to peel away, for by the time he died in 1959, the winds of change, as British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was to put it, had begun to blow globally. 

But change was to be really one of symbolism rather than substance in the Kennedy administration. The best and the brightest were what President Kennedy sought to bring into his government, and among these men of perceived talent was Robert McNamara. 

As defense secretary, McNamara’s influence increased enormously in the administration of Kennedy’s successor, whose penchant for a demonstration of American power in Vietnam was whetted by McNamara’s advocacy of increased troops’ commitment in the divided, war-torn country. 

All the way from 1964, when Lyndon Johnson was elected to the White House in his own right, to 1967 -- McNamara argued that the more American soldiers were sent to Vietnam, the faster would the defeat of the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong occur. McNamara’s dangerous policies were loudly echoed by General William Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam.

In the end, both men took the path out of Vietnam policy -- McNamara by his growing realization that the war could not be won by his methods and, therefore, leaving the administration and taking up new responsibilities as president of the World Bank in 1968, and Westmoreland was replaced and called back home. McNamara’s policy, with Westmoreland’s support, would cost America hugely in terms of casualties on the battlefield, and political reverberations at home. But if McNamara’s departure was a sign of rationality returning to US policy, it would turn out to be an illusion. 

Other dangerous men, in the forms of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, would take charge and would prolong the war by five more years. The two men sanctioned a bombing of a neutral Cambodia, thereby widening the war and adding to the destruction not only of Vietnam but also of American credibility. 

North Vietnam would withstand the pain of US bombing raids on Hanoi and Hai Phong, enough for its soldiers to intensify the pressure on US and South Vietnamese forces and march into Saigon in April 1975. America’s dangerous men had brought about America’s defeat in the rice fields of distant Asia.

Nixon and Kissinger posed a grave threat not only to stability in Asia but also to Latin America when they went out on a limb to destroy the democratically elected government of President Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. 

In 1975, Kissinger and the Ford administration did nothing to stop Indonesia’s General Suharto from annexing East Timor and precipitating a crisis that would convulse Southeast Asia for years. 

To be sure, it has been American policy in the modern era to bring its influence to bear on other nations in the area of diplomacy, but men like McNamara and Kissinger clearly believed that a use of force or a show of force abroad would help achieve Washington’s overseas goals. 

Such an approach almost invariably foundered on the rock of reality. Even so, men like Kissinger were not to turn a new leaf once their policies collapsed. The consistency with which the Nixon and Ford administrations went into the crude task of undermining the Bangladesh government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, to the point of withholding food aid during the 1974 famine, and quietly giving the nod to the coup of August 1975 make for some morbid readings in history.

Men shaping new dangers emerged in the George W Bush administration. These men, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, would destroy Afghanistan and encourage President Bush into war against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein on the basis of the lie that the Iraqi leader was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. 

On the watch of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, Afghanistan and Iraq would mutate into smouldering ruins, the ramifications of which are yet being felt. But these lessons of history are being cast to the winds with John Bolton and Mike Pompeo pressing for war against Iran, again on spurious grounds. 

The Trump administration has walked away from the Paris climate deal, is intent on upending politics in Venezuela, and has ripped the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement out of diplomacy’s page. For President Trump to massage the pathological hate Bolton and Pompeo nurture in their souls for Iran can only lead America into a new quagmire. Dulles, McNamara, Kissinger, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bolton, and Pompeo are men who, in their practice of hostile diplomacy, have a world going up in smoke. Such men are dangerous. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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