America's Goliath task of explaining itself
BUENOS AIRES — Whenever I'm a host, I try to avoid politics, but I broke my own rule at a recent dinner party. I made an exception for Fidel.
Everything had been going well; then someone mentioned the US embargo of Cuba and presented Fidel Castro as a victim of US bullying. When I demurred, describing him as a classic liberator turned oppressor, it didn't go over well.
I've lived in Argentina since 2001, and I often chat with folks who vilify America's "domineering" trade embargo on Cuba. Though I point to Mr. Castro's repression, his champions seem to view a strangled press and an imprisoned citizenry as mere blemishes remedied by the regime's singular marvel - a medical system.
Repeatedly, I've been puzzled by these conversations, by the instinctive defensiveness down here for one of the Western Hemisphere's last remaining tyrants. It has taken four years for me to fully grasp the peculiar David-vs.-Goliath passion that so deeply stains perceptions of America and impels otherwise rational people to support figures like Castro.
Argentina is a warm, wonderful country, yet it's a challenging environment in which to venture an explanation of US foreign policy. It's a place where the 2002 Pew Global Attitudes Survey found only 34 percent of respondents viewing the US in a favorable light - a level of skepticism mirrored, to some degree, in public sentiment around the globe.
Recent American military interventions have created a stage upon which the US is cast as an oafish Philistine with a sadistic bent for torture while despots like Castro don the guise of heroic shepherd. Regrettably, this view is broadly representative of how foreign observers perceive America's relations not just with Cuba, but with the world at large.
America's reputation is sullied and torn; we've reached the nadir of an ugly four-year slide during which the Bush administration's arrogance, the doctrine of preemption, and laughable WMD intelligence have increased international skepticism of US intentions. And for millions of US expatriates, it is particularly clear that the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with recent allegations of Koranic desecration and new allegations of prisoner abuse, are fueling poisonous levels of anti-American feeling.
Justifying the invasion of Iraq and the horrors that followed may seem easy in a plush Washington think tank, but explaining it at a dinner table anywhere - I mean anywhere - else in the world is a Goliath task. Yet it's a task Americans must tackle in a world in which technology, travel, and globalization create ever more openings for international contact.
Understanding the emotional context of anti-American sentiment helps make sense of many inconsistencies in world opinion. Consider these contradictions: Despite decades of abuse at the hands of tyrants they only 20 years ago succeeded in discarding, Latin Americans still harbor support for Castro. Despite the Holocaust that stemmed from appeasing fascism in the '30s, European opinion continued to follow Chamberlain's strategy when it came to ousting Saddam Hussein. And, despite China's elimination of religious and democratic movements, Australians view China more favorably than the US - by 69 percent to 58 percent, according to a March poll.
The contradictory nature of these stances has much to do with an emotional response to US power.
All this leaves Americans abroad - except those with a talent for apology - facing colossal tasks: Buena suerte suggesting Cuba might be better off without Castro. Viel Glück suggesting a democratic Iraq just might work. Bonne chance justifying any military act or omission committed by America since its Civil War.
So what's a Yank to do? First, admit the problem: America is a bungling Philistine charged with arrogance, selfishness, flagrant human rights abuse, hypocrisy, and stinginess by the court of world opinion. News-day by news-day, the US is judged to be as dubious as a Simi Valley jury. So one's lone hope may be to proactively admit the obvious blunders then go macro with a blistering Johnnie Cochran argument that paints the truth on a very broad canvas. To prepare, consider these unapologetic rebuttals to the charges listed above:
Charge: America is an arrogant bully intervening around the globe for its own benefit.
Rebuttal: In the past 60 years, US policies and interventions have resulted in the liberation of roughly 750 million people in Eastern and Western Europe, South Korea, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Charge: The US acts only in its economic interests.
Rebuttal: Despite two so-called neocolonial expeditions to plunder Arab oil, the price hovers near record highs. US intervention in Kosovo, on behalf of an oppressed Muslim minority, came in a region that only goat herders and medieval historians consider strategic.
Charge: US soldiers are committing widespread acts of unspeakable cruelty.
Response: Yes, there have been damnable abuses, and it seems that amid the swirling controversy over abuse at Guantánamo and Bagram, we're likely to see more examples of such cruelty. A shamefaced condemnation is the only adequate response to individual abuses, yet America's military record remains worthy of spirited defense. A rational look at US wars and interventions of the past 60 years shows a pattern of liberation rather than imperialism or repression. By and large, under the stress of combat, US troops have shown restraint, professionalism, and compassion.
Charge: America often supports right-wing dictatorships while mouthing support for human rights and democracy.
Rebuttal: Support for autocrats like Chile's Augusto Pinochet is indefensible; but, it occurred in the context of a successful 40-year effort to contain and dismantle communism. Democracy flourishes in places once unimaginable. Though US policy wasn't the catalyst for change in every case, there's much to be said for its role. US support for Pakistani President Musharraf can be seen in a similar framework.
Charge: America is stingy.
Rebuttal: Private American philanthropy is also a powerful force for good. This year, Bill Gates pledged $750 million in support of the fight against childhood diseases - an amount that exceeds the Austrian government's budget for foreign aid. The US may rank nearly last in the world in percentage of national income spent on foreign aid, yet American taxpayers did provide $19 billion in aid in 2004 - double that of the closest European competition.
There is much room for criticism of US foreign policy, yet on balance one may fairly argue that absent the hysterics often clouding perceptions of current events, it's easy to see the historical outlines of a coherent project.
It's never easy to play the Philistine, so venture these rebuttals with care because, as any shepherd will tell you, giants make easy targets. I somehow suspect that Goliath fared as poorly as I do at dinner party tête-à-têtes; nevertheless, I think he'd agree that in the face of slings and arrows, the time for apologies has passed.
• Erik Ortman, who is a native of Cherry Hill, N.J., has lived in Japan and Argentina, where he has taught for the last four years at the American International School of Buenos Aires.