The Incompetent American (or, the "Ugly American" on Steroids)

It took the White House’s cadre of political geniuses all of ten days to collect their thoughts and react… not to Katrina’s destruction or people’s suffering but, to the public opinion hurricane blowing from all quarters except, as one would expect, the “Fedeyin Bush” (his no-matter-what religious-political base). On September 8 the show was on with an “all hands on deck” atmosphere. A little late one would think to mask incompetence with PR visibility and political doubletalk.

Although some level of incompetence in government is universally expected, it started accelerating towards its pinnacle in the US after the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to install Bush in the presidency. From that point on, the “incompetent American” has taken form, evolving rapidly from that predecessor of two generations before, during the Cold War, the “ugly American.”

Two years ago, during the early days of Iraq’s occupation, I wrote two columns in my Behind the Mirror series which might be worth revisiting today in light of the on-going transformation, or evolution, from the “ugly American”- which only affected American incompetence in foreign affairs, to today’s “incompetent American”- which brings that incompetence to the home front as well.

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“The Ugly American” (1) [ August 10, 2003 ]

A few days ago, at the very thick of a political discussion, someone in our [Internet] 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.”

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“The Ugly American” (2) [ August 17, 2003 ]



American foreign policy at this early stage of the 21st Century does not seem much different from that of a half a century ago. Except, of course, now that the pugnacious competition with the USSR is out of the way, Americans need not speak softly while carrying a big stick. Dubya, the pupil, has made Teddy [ Roosevelt ], the teacher, proud.

America ’s unchallenged military power more than makes up for any ineptitude shown in conducting foreign policy, either strategically or in tactical ways. When one has the upper hand, it is easy to shrug off any exposé of arrogance, incompetence or corruption. After all, America is no longer in a position to be judged or placed in a predicament where it must defend its actions. Washington has frocked itself with enough military might to demand the right to judge the world, and not be judged by it.

Truth be acknowledged, American foreign policy has been one and the same from time immemorial. Our politicians have always made it clear, to Americans and to the rest of the world, that when it comes to foreign affairs, Americans, whether Democrats or Republicans, stand united; notwithstanding the fact that over one-third of the population is not affiliated to either party. And our foreign policy, unwritten for the eyes of the world to see, but punctured in Braille by our government’s actions, has been simple and to the point: American interests, anyplace in the world, will be defended at any and all costs. And those interests have most often proven to be of the economic variety.

Never mind social justice, the ideals of democracy, or being good neighbors. These are nice aims, but nonetheless goals which are subservient to the holiest of the holy: the defense of American interests. If in the process of accomplishing such goal, democracy and/or social justice are collaterally achieved, consider it a bonus. But if those things, lofty as they are, have to be sacrificed to attain the principal objective… so be it. Unfortunately, history shows the latter happening on a continuous, repetitive basis.

To ask American politicians to review the United States ’ place in the world, and draft a policy of principles to be followed, is antithetical to what we have come to expect from them. Politicians, at least here in these United States , prove time and again to their constituents that they have one short-term goal, and that is re-election. Development of a foreign policy that deals with the dynamics of an ever-changing international political scene is a task for true statesmen with knowledge, courage and heart; individuals with a vision of a safe and prosperous America in harmony with other nations of the world; individuals who have Americans’ best interests at heart, not theirs. But instead of statesmen from the land of the free, our foreign policy is being written in the Land of Oz. The Wizard, megaphone in hand, and heralding deceit, is leading the cheers of support for a third string foreign policy which will only score by reaching the goalposts of rancor towards our nation.

Which may leave us to ponder… had we developed a fair and unbiased treatment of many nations and groups in the world, and made that a prominent part of American foreign policy, would the United States have experienced terrorism in the same vein that it has?

Within the context of a sane foreign policy, we could look back to the time of “The Ugly American” as diplomacy’s good old days. At least then, we lived with the constant challenge of changing some of our ways, if for no other reason than to improve our score in the competition we faced on a constant basis from the Soviet Union .

Right now, when there seems to be so much more at stake, self-examination as to the criticisms of yesterday seems to carry very little weight. Nothing much has changed in terms of behavioral patterns, and the criticisms thrown at Americans back in the 1950’s, are alive and well today: lack of respect for other cultures and peoples; pride in our mono-linguistic forte; and arrogance often directly proportional to our ignorance.

But none of those things which brought a diplomatic call to arms from Burdick and Lederer had the current effect of rallying people throughout the world against us, tyrannical and democratic nations, former friends and foes… fear and dislike for the United States kneaded into one loaf of leavened hate. Arrogance has now reached epic proportions, and reckless, unilateral actions have become the rubric of the Bush administration.

No matter how many people I talk to from around the world, none that I know having a personal bone to pick with the United States, the same questions keep being asked… which remain unanswered: “If Americans are into empire building, where is the imperial plan?”, or, “Do the blueprints for things to come resemble the helter-skelter approach that has been taken, first with Afghanistan, then with Iraq?”

It is obvious by any reasonable standard that those at the helm in Washington do not have a clue how to plan for the people in their own nation. Not when judged by the crumbling economic infra-structure, or by the limping, deficient general/social well-being that should accrue the citizens of a first-rate industrialized nation. In this light, it seems absurd, and somewhat laughable, for the neo-conservative cadre in Washington to be fantasizing in ways to unduly influence the world.

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This transformation from “ugly” to “incompetent” is now starting to give the American citizenry food for thought. It’s more than just questionable behavior in Washington that will affect other people in the world… now the incompetence in government is directly and visibly affecting all of us here at home.

Where does the incompetence lie? Well spread throughout this neocon government, but most ostensibly at the very top- above Rummy [Rumsfeld], Brownie [FEMA’s Brown] and countless other master clowns. At the throne in Washington … or rather, at the person who’s sitting on it: George W. Bush. And incompetence at that level is the worst calamity that can befall a people, a nation.

Incompetence, history shows us, becomes harmful in direct proportion to the power of the Incompetent… or, at least, that’s the thesis I subscribe to. God pity the governed, then, when the Incompetent has the reins of government! Our man at bat, Dubya, who is the archetype of the “incompetent American,” gives us yet another example in the demonstration of that thesis.

Two strikes so far for this president (Iraq and Katrina)… while the next pitch, coming in the rounded shape of an economy full of bubbles, is approaching home plate at 120+ miles per hour. Don’t count on Dubya to hit a homerun here, not even a foul ball. This will be the third strike, not just for our hitter on steroids, but the nation as a whole.

The era of the “ugly American” is finally over, buried… history. We have entered a new age with Bush, that of the “incompetent American,” an updated version of the “ugly American”… this time on steroids.