Training Wheels: The Fatal Flaw in U.S. Foreign Policy

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Training Wheels: The Fatal Flaw in U.S. Foreign Policy

U.S. paternalism is a failure. An enormous one. (Image: genius.com)

You read it here first: the fatal flaw in U.S. foreign policy is training wheels.  Yes, those supplemental wheels you add to your child's bike when she's first trying to learn how to balance herself as she pedals.

How so?  Listen closely to America's leaders as they talk about helping Iraqis, Afghans, and other peoples.  A common expression they use is training wheels, which they visualize themselves as affixing to or removing from the Iraqi or Afghan governmental bike.

Because the idea of democracy is apparently so new and novel to foreign peoples, and because these foreigners basically act like so many children when it comes to governing themselves equitably, the U.S. must treat them like so many unskilled and tippy children on bikes.  We must affix training wheels to their bikes of state, and at the proper moment -- a moment that only American adults can determine -- those training wheels must then be removed.

Sounds simple -- or is it?

Some examples suggest it's not so simple.   In January 2004, President George W. Bush told his fellow Republicans that Iraqis were ready to "take the training wheels off" and assume some responsibility for their own self-government.  Yet a decade later in June 2014, retired General Michael Hayden, formerly head of the NSA and CIA, claimed that America "took the training wheels off the new Iraqi government far too early," and by "too early" Hayden meant 2011, not seven years earlier in 2004.

Another American "adult" in the room, retired General Anthony Zinni, formerly commander of U.S. Central Command, disagreed with Hayden, saying in December 2014 that those training wheels were still very much on in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, and that it was now high time for us to take them off.   That may have surprised Vice President Joe Biden, who said back in November 2010 that it was time for Afghans to remove their governmental training wheels, and if they didn't, "Daddy" would do it for them.

In fact, those were Biden's exact words on Larry King Live:  "Daddy is going to start to take the training wheels off ... next July [2011], so you [Afghan leaders had] better practice riding."  That admonition from their American "Daddy" in 2010 has failed over the last half-decade to inspire Afghan leaders to pedal smartly for American-style democracy.

And there's the rub.  You don't win foreign peoples to your side by treating them like so many unskilled and tippy children.  You don't condescend to them by comparing their efforts to children trying to learn to ride a bike for the first time.  And you certainly don't shake a finger at them that "Daddy" has lost patience and is going to remove the training wheels, whether they're ready or not.

So, how do Americans respond when their Iraqi or Afghan "children" get angry at "Daddy" for messing with their training wheels?  Whether oblivious or indifferent to their own condescension, Americans respond by treating their foreign "children" as ingrates.  "Ingratitude, the vilest weed that grows," to cite Eugene O'Neill's play, Long Day's Journey Into Night, generates anger -- and violence.

Dammit, why can't these foreign "kids" learn to ride their democratic bikes?  Time to cut their allowance (in this case, American aid).  Or perhaps it's even time for a good ass whooping with Daddy's belt (in this case, drones firing Hellfire missiles).

Those foreign ingrates!  We gave them everything -- lots of money, lots of aid, American troops and advisers, even "training wheels" for their bikes of democracy -- and they still despise us.  Why?

I'll tell you why.  They don't hate us for our freedoms, as former President George W. Bush once claimed.  But they may very well despise us for our training wheels -- and for all the smugness and paternalism and condescension they represent.

William Astore

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular.  He welcomes reader comments at wjastore@gmail.com. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Astore discusses the difficulty of speaking one’s mind in the military, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

 

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