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October 04, 2007

We're From the United States, and We're Here to Help
Posted by David Shorr

I think I stumbled onto a cognitive frame the other day. Now Lorelei and Heather know a lot more about frames than I do; I think Lorelei actually studied social psychology. But as I read the comments of my University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point on-line students, I noticed what looked to me like a frame. It goes like this: the rest of the world always looks to the United States for help, but when we get involved, they never appreciate us.

Let me quickly add that this viewpoint (a composite of several students' comments) was not linked to a political orientation, which is what made me think it was a frame. To paraphrase Eric Burdon, "I'm just a superpower whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood." It's the response of bewilderment: no matter how we try to help, we only end up being criticized. You can see how it's only a short hop from here to seeing the rest of the world as jealous of us.

So then there was this story on Morning Edition last week about the Army's counterinsurgency efforts in Diyala. In it we hear an American officer get exasperated with an Iaqi over the local population's failure to finger the insurgents. For the officer, the Iraqi was refusing to do his part for his country and effectively covering for the violent traitors in their midst. These people won't even help protect their own country from terrorists! Of course, from the Iraqi's vantage, he's trying to lay low and avoid being assassinated for collaborating.

And there you have it. The real issue of course being what the local population -- or any other nation, for that matter -- really wants and what pressures they're under. It's probably not help, if it's not what they're looking for. Which triggered another thought. Has anyone else noticed how the Europeans refer to their aid programs as 'development cooperation?' Maybe they're onto something.


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We're going to continue to find these attitudes among young people so long as we insist on teaching our children the ... well ... children's version of US history.

The superhero complex seems to be very common, in my experience, among the "millenial" generation. They see the US as Spider-man: great power, great responsibility, a rescuer of damsals and children everywhere, and unjustly villified by malevolent enemies and uncomprehending, envious friends.

Far be it from me to suggest a tendency of posters on this site to yearn for the time when the United States is more like Europe. So I won't.

I would point out that the American officer quoted on NPR was right. The Iraqi lies low to protect himself from assassination, and will end up being ruled by terrorists. He's not doing "what he really wants." He's doing what the terrorists really want, because if he doesn't the terrorists will kill him. Welcome to the world of self-determination.

Is there a way around this? I've suggested here before that there probably isn't in Iraq; maybe there never was, but there certainly isn't now. What about other countries? There is an argument to be made -- and in some places it looks like a pretty good argument -- that what local populations really want and what the people who rule them really want are radically different, and there is no good reason for the United States to try to help the one in defiance of the other.

The other problem, of course, is the question of what local populations do want. There are cases -- the Arab world by itself is full of them -- in which what they want are things we can't give them, like the blood of their enemies or the wealth of the global economy without the work the global economy requires. We can always try to persuade them to want something else, and in some places that might be worth something to us. I suggest we have a good idea going in of what we think it is worth to us, and if the answer is "not much" that we keep our distance. Maybe it was that conclusion that the UW-Stevens Point students were working their way toward.

This reminds me of the related meme: why do they hate us?
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