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Series: What America Needs to Do to Achieve Its Foreign Policy Goals ... Concerning Public Ignorance (6)

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Mr. Polk taught at Harvard from 1955 to 1961 when he was appointed a member of the Policy Planning Council of the US State Department. In 1965 he became professor of history at the University of Chicago and founded its Middle Eastern Studies Center. Subsequently, he also became president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. Among his books are The United States and the Arab World, The Elusive Peace: The Middle East in the Twentieth Century, Neighbors and Strangers: the Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs and the just-published Understanding Iraq. Other of his writings can be accessed on www.williampolk.com.

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Click here to read the other articles in this series.

The United States is upheld and given its character by a tripod: one leg is the popular participation in government; the second leg is an informed public; and the third is the economy. I will touch on these only briefly as they are generally familiar.

Popular participation is not only embedded in the Constitution but is practiced in our neighborhoods and towns. Very few other societies are so participatory as America’s. As citizens we are accustomed to strike out on our own, to assemble to express our opinions and to form associations to act outside government to solve local problems. This is America’s greatest strength.

Unfortunately, we have not been so successful in creating an informed public although we have been repeated warned of the consequences of our failure. Thomas Jefferson put it succulently in 1816 when he wrote “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Poll after study illustrates how bad our educational system is. Even college students are woefully ignorant of even where countries are. 1 When we, as citizens, vote for those who today almost literally run the world, we need to know more than where countries are; we need to understand at least the rudiments of their history, politics and culture. Yet studies show that even college graduates cannot describe neighboring Mexico and Canada. Africa and Asia are, literally, beyond the pale.

To make matters worse, an attack has been mounted in our colleges and universities to silence those whose avocation it is to teach us about other peoples and other cultures. Called “Campus Watch,”2 it aims to implant in America a form of denunciation for unorthodox opinions – getting students to “report” on teachers -- that its creators among the Neoconservatives must have learned from Communist Russia, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. It is profoundly “un-American,” destructive and detrimental to our national health and security. We Americans are a microcosm of the world community: we come in all colors, believe in all religions, speak all languages – we are, as our motto proclaims, e pluribus. In our quest for unum, we would be the poorer for forgetting our roots and ceasing to enjoy our differences. It is our diversity which makes our country rich and varied and which enables peoples all over the world to empathize with us.

It isn’t only schools that are deficient in giving us what we need to prosper in the world. In large areas of the country newspapers pay little attention to world or national events and television offers little more. Perhaps there are sound commercial reasons for this since approximately 50 million Americans cannot read above a primary school level. So, dulled by television snippets of news, politicians’ “photo opportunities” and radio “sound bites,” the American public appears to have little appetite for analysis of complex issues.

Almost worse, in the flow of news, there is little memory so what is reported one day is drowned out by subsequent events or simply dropped from coverage. This makes achieving a coherent account of any situation almost impossible for the average reader.3 Taken together, the schools, the press and the government create a contrast between what we actually know and what we need to know frightens and appalls our allies and gives comfort to our enemies.

The third leg of the tripod that upholds America is the economy. Today, we can see that strength melting before our eyes. Were it not for the Chinese willingness to fund our rapidly growing debt, the dollar would be near collapse. Respected, conservative and experienced businessmen agree with former Secretary of Commerce (in the Nixon administration) Peter Peterson that “to commit America to a broader role [in foreign affairs] while remaining blindly ignorant of the ultimate cost of doing so is sheer folly.”4 He points out that as of last year, the United States was borrowing $540 billion – the figure has now risen to $666 billion -- yearly from the rest of the world and that such men as former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin doubt that we can escape a crisis and doubt that “the US current account deficit is sustainable at current levels for much longer than five more years.” The total national debt America had accumulated in its whole history when Mr. Bush was elected is expected to double during his time in office.5 A forum of financial experts pointed out that “ respected credit agency recently noted that by 2026, barring a change in our fiscal policy, US Treasury bills – once the world’s de facto gold standard – will be classified as junk bonds.”6

It is or should be crystal clear that if America does not get its own economic house in order, regardless of what else it does, it will not be able to continue to play a major role in world affairs.

1 A National Geographic Society survey showed that only 13% of American college students could find Iraq on a map on the eve of the 2003 war. As a former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Crowe, wryly remarked, “Wars are God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” Another study found that one in each 10 young Americans could not find even America on a blank map of the world. (The Christian Science Monitor, January 21, 2003).

2 Viewable under www.campus-watch.org Similar to the way that the McCarthyites attacked specialists on China who (correctly) predicted the fall of Chiang Kai-shek, Martin Kramer has attacked specialists on the Middle East in the Department of State (in Ivory Towers in the Sand, Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy) while Daniel Pipes, astonishingly recently appointed to the board of the United States Institute of Peace, has orchestrated campaigns against professors in American universities who have been critical of American and Israeli policy in the Middle East. Inspired by Pipes and Kramer, Senator Rick Santorum has written a bill which only George Orwell could have imagined, entitled “Ideological Diversity to cut federal funding from colleges and universities that permit teachers and students from criticizing Israeli policies. Santorum’s colleague Sam Brownback wants to go even further, to create what would amount to an ideological police force. (Michael C. Piper, www.americanfreepress.net April 21, 2003).

3 See Michael Massing, “Unfit to Print?” (The New York Review of Books, June 24, 2004).

4 “Riding for a Fall,” (Foreign Affairs, September/October 2004).

5 Nicholas D. Kristof, “Glide Path to Ruin,” (New York Times, June 25, 2005).

6 (Harper’s Magazine June 2005).


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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I have been rather critical of previous installments in this series. This article, however, is spot on. In American history, the early twenty-first century support for a blunder-ridden and deceit-based presidential administration appears destined to rival the bloody defense of slavery and racism against blacks, the Red Scare after World War I, the mass internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, and McCarthyism as one more example of mass stupidity undergirding disastrous and shameful political policies.


Grant W Jones - 9/19/2005

I had missed this, citing the American Free Press.

Now I need to go take a shower.

http://moonbatcentral.com/wordpress/?p=1329


Mike Schoenberg - 8/29/2005

In the 60's there were two books that came out crtical of U.S. foreign policy. One was titled Nation of Sheep and the Other was The Ugly American. The latter had to do with our hubris in South East Asia and all I can say as Prof. Polk has also been saying in this series is that so little has changed except that the rise in the conservative outlook has added a dangerous touch to the future of our country.