'The Ugly American' revisited (1)

A few days ago, at the very thick of a political discussion, someone in our chat group who had been denouncing the United States’ current foreign policy threw in her cyber-towel in disgust. “You guys could do yourselves a great favor if you took a little time and read ‘The Ugly American’… which I am sure most of you have not even heard of,” and having written that for us to view on the screen, she clicked away from the chat room.

My fingers silent, I couldn’t help but think… here is a book that is transcending time with a clear beginning but no apparent end! For America’s foreign policy has changed little since that book was written almost half a century ago. Walking that memory lane, I did remember, nostalgically, my introduction to that masterpiece- not in literary terms but in political wisdom and unfeigned goodwill.

As I was about to exit from graduate school and enter the world of international business, here was a book with a string of profiles that served as a reminder of what options we had, as Americans, in choosing our conduct in foreign lands. This book could have served as a manual for successful socio-political behavior or, at the very least, as a primer on respect and understanding of other human beings. It mattered little whether we became guests in any foreign land as part of the Foreign Service, the military stationed at some overseas base, or like me… conducting business beyond our borders on behalf of some American firm.

Vivid images came to mind of my initial exposure to those accentuated, yet un-caricatured, characters that appear throughout the book. A score of years after Burdick and Lederer had published their book, there I was, traveling across three continents, encountering those fictional, but true to the core, personages… my own Bings, Swifts and the rest. Sadly, I never got to meet any beautiful “ugly American,” the likes of Homer Atkins, except for a few well-intentioned young people from the Peace Corps. But I am sure that there were some… somewhere, and that America became much better regarded because of them.

How I remember the frustration and contained ire that possessed me then! There I was witnessing how the United States government was spending countless millions on the wrong aid projects, while overlooking efficient ones ripe for producing an economic multiplier effect. Pilot projects in Africa and South America that were sad jokes in both design and implementation; supposedly low-cost housing that ended up in the hands of the local upper middle class; military help that was used to keep the villains in power over the downtrodden castes. Only some parasitic American companies operating overseas, and the local power elite, took advantage of these tragicomic situations which did nothing for the people, but helped create a distorted image of what America stood for. A chosen few had been able to line their pockets, and it was all done under the pretense of fighting communism.

To those of us who either observed, or participated in those programs, it was always a mystery why these fiascos, more comedic than malevolent, were such well-kept secrets back in the States, particularly when many of these episodes were prominently exposed by the local press.

One can only ask: just where was the American press? And the answer might turn out to be… with the rest of the self-exiled Americans- at cocktail parties, white-tie dinners, or at a local pub. Much of the American “traditional press” operating overseas, at least that encountered in third world countries, often appeared embedded in the expatriate clique, more interested in the good and easy life than in investigative reporting. Yes, they proved to be worthy forerunners of those who were to serve the military in their embedded jaunt into Iraq three decades later.

America’s enemy of the fifties, theme to Burdick’s and Lederer’s writings, continues to be alive and well. It was not communism then, nor is it terrorism now… nor any other ism which we may be eager to blame. It is “us”. To a great extent, perhaps succumbing to an unwillingness to learn, we contribute to the unending struggle that seems to come our way. How we view ourselves in this world, a world that we share with others, will always determine our level of peace and tranquility; not our military overseas; not myriad agencies we may create to protect us domestically.

If and when Americans come to realize that we need to show the world that this nation is still one of freedom, one of promise, one of hope, our foreign policy will be easy to design and implement. For that, we need to demonstrate that we don’t look at the rest of the planet selfishly as our source of economic wealth. Nothing has really changed in that which MacWhite wrote in his letter, just prior to his resignation, to the Secretary of State “…to the extent that our foreign policy is humane and reasonable, it will be successful. To the extent that it is imperialistic and grandiose, it will fail.”