American Culture

Scholars and Rogues Nonfiction: The Price of Ignorance by Fred Skolnik

Americans do not know very much about the world. Historically this is partly a result of distance and isolation and partly a result of arrogance. The arrogance comes into play when Americans consider the importance or relevance of what other people are doing, since it goes without saying that Americans do everything better than everyone else. Why individual Americans find it necessary to identify with the idea of America’s greatness may be sought in their need to bolster their self-esteem in the absence of personal distinction and in their feelings of insignificance in the shadow of the American Dream. The consequence of this arrogance and the ignorance it engenders may be found in the results of America’s involvement in armed conflicts around the world.

It would perhaps not be so bad if this ignorance afflicted only ordinary Americans, or if it afflicted only journalists, who seldom speak the languages of the countries they report from and comment on and therefore have no real way of understanding the culture, religion, history and politics of these countries. (A historian operating on journalistic standards would simply be laughed off the stage.) It might also not be so bad if this ignorance afflicted only politicians, who cannot be expected to be scholars, as long as they were being advised by people who did understand the world and as long as they possessed the modicum of perspective necessary to evaluate such advice. However, the ignorance is general and consequently decision makers make catastrophic decisions, from Vietnam to Iraq, from the idea of exporting democracy to the Third World to their understanding of what the Arab Spring would unleash.

Leaving aside the intelligence failure in Iraq with regard to weapons of mass destruction, it may be said without exaggeration that America went into Iraq, just as it had gone into Vietnam, without the slightest idea what it was getting into. That is to say, it had no way to evaluate what the Sunni and Shiite response would be to the fall of Saddam and the presence of the American army. It also had no idea how to fight an irregular war against insurgent groups fueled by the ideology of radical Islam. The result was 4,000 dead Americans and a situation of complete chaos.

Some Secretaries of State, like Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice, have been scholars and some have not. It has made very little difference, for the simple reason that none of them can know everything. The people who should know everything were, among others, the 35,000 employees of the State Department. Of these, getting back to Iraq and the Middle East in general, fewer than ten were fluent in Arabic. This is, quite simply, incredible. It made it impossible for America to understand what was happening in the Middle East and to know how to act there. It makes, in fact, Benghazi entirely comprehensible. Similar dilemmas present themselves all around the world, from China to Russia and from Iran to North Korea.

The debate in America about how America should act in the world, from the days of Vietnam to the present, has unfortunately always revolved around questions of morality, attacking, on the left, the notion of American “exceptionalism,” or the use of excessive force, or the presumptuousness of trying to be the world’s policeman. Such arguments have done more harm than good, only succeeding in provoking defenses of American morality on the right and deflecting the debate from the real issue, which is America’s capability, and preparedness. After all, when a course of action is disqualified on the grounds that it cannot succeed, there is no real need to debate its morality other than on a theoretical or academic level. When the focus is on morality, on the other hand, the debate must always be inconclusive and the defenders of aggressive war will never be challenged on the likelihood of its success. The war in Vietnam was probably prolonged by years because there was no one among its opponents, in the Johnson years, who thought or was able to make out an informed case for its futility and thereby shift the public debate to the plane of America’s military capabilities.

America will not be able to contend with radical Islam in any effective way until it understands it, and it will not be able to understand it until it overcomes its ignorance about the world and its peoples, which may be irrelevant when you are dropping bombs on their heads but becomes a real obstacle when the rules of conventional warfare no longer apply and you find yourself facing guerrillas, insurgents or terrorists fighting out of deep inner conviction that you are incapable of assessing or even recognizing. What Americans in their arrogance are also incapable of recognizing is that these ragheads are their equals as fighting men in terms of training, discipline and motivation. Such ignorance, and arrogance guarantees that Americans will experience such horrors in the current century as cannot even be imagined.