October 10, 2007

"No one will ever believe you..."

I liked very much this comment that Mike Plaiss made to this post about our having, from time to time, an idealistic foreign policy...

For anyone interested in a long-winded anecdote that is relevant to this discussion, here it is:

I used to teach English as a Second Language (ESL), and had the very good fortune to have many smart and intellectually minded students. We had countless conversations about world events, the countries they came from, etc. I did most of the learning in that class. I would even go as far as to say that most of what I think I know about the world outside the US came from those conversations. (I have dozens of stories a lot like this one.)

This was all right in the middle of the war in Bosnia (but before we got involved). In fact, I had several students from there, several from Eastern Europe, and a few from the Middle East. Debate had already begun in the US as whether we should get involved. All of my students, including the ones from Bosnia, were sure that the US would NOT get involved. One student from Syria, one of the teacher’s assistants, was pretty adamant about it – “Why would you? You have nothing to gain.”

I had developed a lot of credibility with this group because I actually knew where their countries were, and even a little bit about their histories. (Yes, it is sad to say that they were truly shocked that an American knew where Odessa was, as an example.) So it got their attention when I told them to not be so sure – the US may well get involved.

“Why?”, they asked. “To stop the killing”, I answered. The Syrian scoffed (loudly), and everyone was shaking their heads in disbelief, and a few were laughing. But, like I said, I had developed a lot of credibility with them by this point and they were all fascinated and wanted to know more about my thoughts. Keep in mind that all of these people had only been in the US for a few weeks or months, and I had language barriers to deal with, but I did my best to explain to them that this is the way Americans are. If we believed that genocide was, in fact, occurring in Europe (did my best to explain why that mattered), and that there was something we could do about, that we may well go to war to stop it.

Apparently I did a pretty good job because even the Syrian seemed convinced that this may be so. I could see the wheels turning in their heads as they re-evaluated their thoughts. Then the Syrian, who by the way was an extremely smart young man (he was in college and intended to go to med school), said something that I will never forget.

He said, “Well, then you have a bigger problem on your hands.” I had no idea what that meant, so I asked, “What do you mean?” “No one will ever believe it. No one will ever believe you would go to war for such a reason. So if you do it (go to war), they’re going to come up with their own reasons as to why you really did it. This would be terrible for the United States.”

So yes, going to war, even for truly altruistic reasons, can do great damage to the reputation of the US.

Ah well. As Mencken, or maybe not him, said, War is God's way of teaching Americans geography...

Posted by John Weidner at October 10, 2007 10:54 AM
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