Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Rambo to the rescue 

British historian, Sir Max Hastings, agrees with Edward Luttwak that we should carpet-bomb them with DVDs:
"Yet would military failure [in Iraq] represent decisive defeat? Might not America ultimately prevail in Iraq by means in which armed forces play no part? Consider this proposition from Edward Luttwak, the maverick American strategy guru. In a recent speech to a British audience, he suggested that the US began to win the Vietnam war the day after its envoy was humiliatingly evacuated from the roof of the Saigon embassy in April 1975.

"The military conflict was lost -- but, argued Luttwak, the US began to achieve victory culturally and economically. Vietnam may still profess a commitment to communism, but in reality capitalism is taking hold at every level. American values, represented by corporatism and schools of management studies, are gaining sway over Vietnam as surely as they are every other nation possessed of education and aspirations to prosperity.

"Luttwak describes what is happening as the US acquiring a 'virtual empire,' founded upon cultural dominance -- a convincing proposition, certainly in the eyes of Osama bin Laden, who is attempting to mobilize the Muslim world to resist it. Al-Qaida is seeking to combat through terrorism a cultural invasion more effective than stealth bombers and Bradley fighting vehicles. Bill Gates and Steven Spielberg represent influences much harder to repel than a field army...

"I am not arguing that military power is redundant. But recent history suggests that America is less skilful in exploiting armed might to fulfil its national purposes than in wielding economic and cultural power, without a soldier in sight.

"To return to Iraq: even if the insurgents are successful in forcing the US to abandon its armed struggle, they have much less chance of prevailing against Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and their kind, who can sustain an occupation of Iraqi homes effortlessly now that satellite TV is almost universally available.

"I do not think the US armed forces will achieve their military purposes in Iraq. The American soldiers who have become pessimistic about the campaign they are waging are probably right. But in a long historic view, Microsoft and DreamWorks could achieve a dominance of Baghdad and a power over Iraqi society that eludes George Bush and his armored legions."
This is all nice culturotopian stuff, but does it make sense?

The spread of American popular culture around the world is, of course, good for the American (show) business; except, that is, when all those CDs and DVDs get pirated. Sometimes, this cultural invasion also has positive externalities, as when it engenders friendly attitude to the source of the pop cornucopia itself, the United States (as it did, for example, throughout the Soviet empire before 1989, although one could argue that the causation actually went the other way, with people coming to love Mickey Mouse and Rambo because these symbols stood for America which they already loved).

But there are no guarantees that listening to rap, watching Hollywood movies and reading John Grisham will make you fall in love with other "American" ideas such as freedom, democracy or free market. Often it doesn't happen like that at all, hence just as we are familiar with the proverbial anti-globalization protesters clad in designer clothes and living off the bounty of advanced capitalism, so there is nothing unusual about people throughout the world who love American bling-blings but hate America itself - be they jihadis working with their laptops and cell phones, or trendy Europeans complaining about the "American empire" while sipping Coke.

In this context, Hastings' talk about American pop culture "effortlessly sustaining occupation" and "achieving a dominance" of Iraq - or anywhere else for that matter - is somewhat meaningless. The world, after all, is full of countries whose people, whether they like it or not, are hooked on American fashion, music and movies. Does it translate into greater appreciation of the United States overall, and greater support for its actions? Not very often.

In any case, as I argued
elsewhere, the scary narrative of the overwhelming American cultural dominance around the world is a myth. But just because the reality behind "American cultural imperialism" is far less exciting than the rhetoric, it doesn't mean that the myth is any less powerful. In politics, after all, perception is in many ways more important than reality. And the perception that American pop culture is flooding the world invariably creates hostile counter-reaction, which means that, contrary to Hastings and Luttwak, more Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts might not necessarily translate into more positive American influence worldwide or greater security for America for that matter.

The counter-reaction might range from relatively harmless condescension to outright violence. Bin Laden attacked America on September 11 for a whole range of reasons, but there is no doubt that his jihad has a cultural aspect to it. Islamofascists and other assorted fanatics target America not because there aren't enough Snoop Doggy Dogg videos on local TV, but because there are too many. When fundamentalists speak of the United States as the "Great Satan" they don't mean that Uncle Sam wears horns under the top hat but that the United States is like the Old Testament devil - the Great Seducer, the serpent which tempts people with attractive but ultimately dangerous and soul destroying trinkets.

I'm not arguing against the spread of American popular culture, and neither am I arguing that such spread doesn't have many positive effects. But of itself it's not the solution to American security problems. In the end, despite all the costs, the heartache, and frequent ingratitude and disappointment, exporting freedom is a more worthwhile long-term policy than exporting Mickey Mouse.


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