Contrasting Views on US Nobility

Official Washington’s pundit class has renewed its op-ed barrage for a more robust U.S. intervention in Syria, citing the need to protect human rights. But many people around the world don’t share that view of noble American motives, including the Afghans who have some experience, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The latest in an escalating series of disagreements between Washington and Kabul as the U.S.-led military expedition winds down concerns customs duties. The coalition never paid any taxes on all the equipment it brought into Afghanistan over the past decade.

Under the terms of the agreement by which it did so — and similar to the rules tourists sometimes encounter when they bring an expensive camera or other gear with them to a foreign country — there was supposed to be paperwork to provide an accounting and an assurance that the same stuff that came in is also going out.

U.S. Marines setup an M224 60mm mortar during mission rehearsals on Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 20, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Kowshon Ye)

But most of the paperwork was never filed as coalition forces were busy ramping up their war effort. Now the Afghan government is saying that without papers, it wants a fine of $1,000 per truckload. Equipping a war that has gone on for this long involves a lot of truckloads — 70,000, according to the Afghans’ estimate.

This tiff should not have been surprising. The United States and its allies have made much of the idea that as they withdraw they are leaving behind a robust and independent Afghan government. We should expect any such government to drive hard bargains and to try to enforce rules.

Besides, the Afghan finance minister has a point when he says that much of the stuff brought into Afghanistan has been smuggled into the local economy with serious distortions as a result. More generally, this latest dispute is one more reflection of the inevitable frictions and resentments that arise from a sustained military occupation and its associated operations.

And yet, when something like this comes up there is always some annoyance as well as surprise on the American side. This is partly because of a repeatedly demonstrated tendency on the part of American policy-makers and the American public to underestimate those frictions and resentments before embarking on military expeditions.

It is also because, seeing our own motives as noble and unselfish, we expect the intended beneficiaries of our unselfishness to be grateful rather than to complain. This outlook was partly captured in a statement by the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James B. Cunningham, who said, “We have not spent blood and resources, alongside our Afghan comrades, in pursuit of any other purpose than a stable Afghanistan that can provide for the security of its people, strengthen its institutions, and pursue the future which its people deserve.”

This is part of a recurring pattern in U.S. foreign relations and Americans’ outlook toward them: being confident about the goodness of our own motives, we expect that people should like us, thank us and cooperate with us. It is a sentiment that former President George W. Bush once expressed at a press conference when, musing about anti-Americanism, he said, “I’m amazed that there’s such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us. I am — like most Americans, I just can’t believe it because I know how good we are.”

One problem with this outlook is that many foreigners see U.S. motives as much different and less noble, no matter how much effort the United States puts into public diplomacy to convince them otherwise. Another problem is that even foreigners who take a more benign view of U.S. objectives still have to worry about their own interests, which are never identical with those of the United States.

Moreover, even when genuine gratitude is felt it tends to be, as a function both of psychology and of the imperatives of statecraft, short-lived. The operative question more often is, “What have you done for me lately?”

We need to bear all of this in mind before embarking on any initiative overseas, even for humanitarian or other praiseworthy reasons.  And we should not expect to win permanent friends and long-lasting gratitude no matter how confident we may be about our good intentions.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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6 comments on “Contrasting Views on US Nobility

  1. lastcamp2 on said:

    It is hard to comment on this without being sarcastic. Who could believe the US objective was “…in pursuit of any other purpose than a stable Afghanistan that can provide for the security of its people, strengthen its institutions…?” I thought the invasion was to avenge 9/11 and pursue bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Suddenly it morphs into a humanitarian campaign for the exclusive benefit of the Afghan people?

    Will Afghanistan be left as stable, strong, and secure as, say, Iraq?

  2. Hillary on said:

    “Official Washington’s pundit class” is really the focused PNAC neocon club.
    .
    Remember how they blatantly told dumbed down America that a welcome with flowers was awaiting the US Invasion of Iraq.
    .
    As General Wesley Clark says here they had 7 Wars Planned soon after 9/11.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9RC1Mepk_Sw

  3. Mary Tracy on said:

    Upon taking office, the Bush administration immediately engaged in active negotiations with Taliban representatives (27) with meetings in Washington, DC, Berlin, and Islamabad. During this time the Taliban government hired Laila Helms, niece of former CIA director Richard Helms (28), as their go-between in negotiations with the US government.

    Dick Cheney, VP: Until 2000 – President of Halliburton (in position to build the Afghan pipeline).

    May 15, 2001: Regarding the placement of the Unocal Pipeline, a US Official delivered this ultimatum to the Taliban (via the Pakistani delegation acting as their interlocutors): “Either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs.” (Ref: Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie in “Forbidden Truth” (31) (Book’s Preface online-pdf format (32) )

    • TheAZCowBoy on said:

      As we see the (US/NATO) baby kilers ‘suing the Taliban for peace’ and the Taliban ‘not interested’ becauae there’s still more US/NATO blood ‘owed’ to the innocent Afghan men, women and children massacred by the infamous ‘Seal Team #6 killers of innocents. (On one mission they massacred two innocent Afghan and their wives and children and after discovering their mistake they returned to in the middle of the night to ‘dig the bullets out of the cadavers.’ Yassar AmericKKKa, you are sick, sick sick!

  4. TheAZCowBoy on said:

    US nobility, jajajaja. Murdering 1.4m civilians in Iraq shows very little nobility. Some 900,000 unprosecuted rapes and sodomizings either. The 450 tortured men, women and children at Ay Ghraib sez little about US nobility. But, the worse nobility was seeing a video of an Iraqi father that was forced to sodomize his 15 year old son at the point of an M-16 in the hands of a very sick MF’er about 21 from Georgia. The Nuremburh protocols would have sent Sec/Def Rumsfeld to the gallows to be followed by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Condileeza Rice. But, the worst part is seeing the American ‘sheeple’ criticizing war criminal AmeriKKKa (under their breaths – lest someone catch them being ‘unpatriotic.’).

  5. Morton Kurzweil on said:

    Nobility, the title of the Noble Qur’an, the nobility of Kings, Autocrats, self-styled saviors of morality in every religious or political pose, all are sold to the ignorant as an ethnic myth of superiority. The result is that people will kill in support or rejection of any artificial morality promoted by patriotism, self identity, power, or mob delusion.
    What is the equality, justice and freedom that the United States is giving away? It is not the equality, justice and freedom available to the citizens of the USA. The morality of the radical Republican conservatives denies the constitutional rights of all. Morality is based on an ethnic identity, not an ethical ideal.
    Britain carries the ‘white man’s burden’ to the inferior races of the world with modern weapons of war. Now, some moral morons believe in this proven road to disaster and continue to subvert the rights of all.