The Fallacy of ‘Tough-Guy-ism’

A basic tenet of “tough-guy-ism” is that throwing around U.S. military and economic muscle is the way to advance American global power. A corollary is that sensitivity toward world opinion is for sissies. But the reality is that the U.S. government undermines America’s influence with this arrogance, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

There is a moral deficit in the way much American discussion of foreign policy fails to take account of the perspectives and interests of foreigners that U.S. policy affects.

Marc Lynch noted this failure with regard to recent retrospective commentary about the Iraq War, Robert Wright has referred more generally to a chronic lack in this country of “moral imagination,” and Robert Golan-Vilella recently summarizedthe observations of both.

If we apply widely accepted principles of moral philosophy to the level of international relations, then taking better account than we usually do now of those foreign perspectives and interests would be the ethical thing to do.

An important further point, however, is that it also would be the right thing to do from a hard-boiled realist perspective that is tightly focused on U.S. interests and that some people might view (however incorrectly) as amoral. Paying insufficient attention to foreign interests, perspectives and sensibilities is wrong on this count as well as being wrong on ethical grounds.

Usually it is those critical of realism, including most conspicuously, but not limited to, today’s neoconservatives, who claim to be the ones who understand and practice a convergence between morality and power, and between values and interests. They tend to criticize realists for insufficiently incorporating values into an otherwise empty pursuit of power for power’s sake.

But these claims rest on unduly narrow interpretations both of values and of the effects on national interests. The values being asserted are more parochially American than is usually acknowledged. The neoconservative perspective, for example, rarely takes account of the value of justice as it usually is articulated throughout the Middle East.

This perspective also tends to limit its consideration of effects on national interests to direct, first-order (especially kinetic) effects, while failing to take adequate account of broader, longer-range, more indirect consequences.

Paying insufficient attention to foreign interests and perspectives has multiple negative consequences for U.S. interests. These consequences are no less important for being generally less readily apparent and less measurable than are the kinetic and other direct consequences that get more attention.

This attention gap can make it more difficult for the United States to accomplish whatever it is trying to accomplish overseas, because the support and understanding of a foreign population is needed to make a project succeed. If one is trying, for example, to establish a fairly stable representative democracy, as was the case in the Iraq War, this objective will be undermined by creating disaffection among Iraqis.

Outright resentment of the United States among foreign populations damages U.S. interests in further ways, with a resort to terrorism or other extremist violence by some subset of the resentful population being the most obvious but by no means the only such consequence.

Those bearing grudges may extend far beyond the foreigners directly affected by U.S. actions, to include many who are hundreds or thousands of miles away and learn of the actions through mass media and rumors.

Whenever populations acquire strongly negative sentiments, it necessarily affects what their governments do, even in authoritarian regimes. This means in the current instance less willingness by governments to cooperate with the United States in countless other endeavors.

Finally, the credibility of the United States usually gets damaged, especially its credibility whenever it says it is acting in other peoples’ best interests. That loss of credibility means still less willingness to cooperate on many other matters that may be important to Washington.

Often there are difficult choices or trade-offs between different practices, but this is not one of them. Morality and realism point in the same direction. The need to pay far greater heed to the interests, perceptions, objectives and sentiments of foreigners than Americans routinely do now is over-determined.

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.)

3 comments for “The Fallacy of ‘Tough-Guy-ism’

  1. Mary Tracy
    April 1, 2013 at 12:41

    –similar personality traits of Richard Nixon and N. Korea’s Kim Jong Un–

    Nixon: I still think we ought to take the North Vietnamese dikes out now. Will that drown people?
    Kissinger: About two hundred thousand people.
    Nixon: No, no, no, I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?
    Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much.
    Nixon: The nuclear bomb, does that bother you? … I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ-sakes.

    –in conversation with Henry Kissinger regarding Vietnam, as quoted in Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. (2002)

  2. rosemerry
    April 1, 2013 at 08:21

    “If one is trying, for example, to establish a fairly stable representative democracy, as was the case in the Iraq War”
    Like the first poster, my eyes immediately fell on this sentence. Surely you jest.The USA has never shown any interest in democracy at home or abroad, and if anything is learning how to be more incompetent with every invasion.

  3. Eddie
    March 31, 2013 at 18:06

    RE: “If one is trying, for example, to establish a fairly stable representative democracy, as was the case in the Iraq War….”
    Huh?? Mr. Pillar is going to posit THAT … even as a hypothetical?!! I know it’s easy to be cynical, but let’s be serious. Firstly, we all know that the Iraq war was not prosecuted with that even remotely in mind [it was ostensibly about getting rid of WMDs and/or a tyrant/dictator, and the tacit primary reasons were undoubtedly 1.) oil, 2.) Israel/Arab politics, 3.) GW Bush’s obscenely cynical desire to be a ‘war-time president’.]. Secondly, the US didn’t really WANT a functioning democracy in Iraq, since it was well understood that the Arabs in general do not support a lot of the US political positions vis-a-vis the Mideast (just look at the UN voting record for example), so putting a democracy in place would almost certainly elect an anti-US candidate (unless the US CIA and/or other covert operators were successful in subverting the democratic process, admittedly not a remote possibility, but not especially probable after having defeated Iraq in a limited war back in the early 90s). It’s like a 20-something guy in a bar telling a voluptuous girl that he just met that ‘I love you — let’s go back to my place and just talk’ – – – it’s a grossly huge exaggeration and his motives are clearly not the stated ones.

    Maybe all US motives have to be attributed to benevolence at “The National Interest’s Web” (the website where this article apparently first appeared), much like certain religions require practitioners (especially serious acolytes) to prefix or suffix every few sentences with an homage to their deity, but that doesn’t really fly at this website

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