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Foreign Relations: The Overwhelming Grey Area

Thursday, February 26, 2004

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  • McNamara during the Cuban Missile Crisis (Lyndon Johnson library photo)

    McNamara during the Cuban Missile Crisis (Lyndon Johnson library photo)

Written by Kyle Lambert

Earlier this week I watched a film entitled “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons of Robert McNamara”, a very smart and insightful documentary about the behind-the-scenes events leading up to, and during, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War. McNamara served as U.S. Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson in the 1960’s and was a very influential figure behind both events which defined American foreign policy during the Cold War. When listening to McNamara, I could only get the impression that the man was being pulled like a knot from both ends. While McNamara was certainly not a cold-blooded puppetmaster ala Kissinger, he was still implicated in a number of the decisions which led to the catastrophic events of the Vietnam War.

Now I don’t mean to simply offer a history lesson. What “Fog of War” demonstrated was the, pardon the pun, intensely foggy nature of international politics. There is rarely a right and a wrong and most often, parties on either side truly believe that the actions which they take are the best ones. The state of mind of the most influential figures on the international stage is what truly dictates all outcomes. If George Bush didn’t desire to be a powerful figure he wouldn’t listen to the Roves and Wolfowitzs of the world, those who think that their friends deserve unfettered access to Iraqi oil, the war in Iraq would never have happened. In the case of McNamara, he quite obviously believed that the American capitalist way of life was superior (keep in mind he served as President of the Ford Motor Company) and that Soviet communism must be stopped. So while he may not have been prepared to order coups of democratic governments, McNamara did still believe that his country and the so-called American way of life could not fail.

The McNamara case is, as I’ve mentioned, only an example of an overall problem. Social activists around the world agree that the corporate interests that dominate the “American way” are ruining the world at a more rapid pace than ever. However, it is not so simple as to describe everyone who drives a car or who doesn’t vote Green or NDP as a bad person. The vast majority of North Americans have only ever been taught that liberal democratic capitalism is the way to go, and all those foreign ideas like socialism fail because they are weak. Even the working class people of Canada and the U.S., those who are victimized by the system in which they live, maintain this illusion of grandeur about their world. That very notion, the masking agent that is our capitalist system, is what drives our leaders on the international stage. They too are a product of their own system.

It is very easy to simply say that Paul Martin is greedy and cares only about his own bottom line. In fact, I made that same argument myself in an earlier column. However, I made the hyperbolic statement more for effect than as substance. While I believe that Martin does care most about his chequebook because he thinks that those who make the most money are ultimately the most successful and “best” in their society. Martin, much like Mulroney before him and the Bush family in the U.S., believes that because he is wealthy he best knows how to operate a country. In the minds of such people, they are better prepared to make grand impacting decisions because they are wealthy. While I do not remotely agree with such a notion, one cannot dispute its existence. We live in a world which is a rich peoples’ playground. Diamonds are valued as status symbols, even if the price for their extraction is a bloody civil war and the enslavement of children as soldiers in Africa.

I’ve recently written about what approaches, in my opinion, need to be taken by social activists in order to make a real difference. This argument goes one step further. One of McNamara’s Lessons was called “Empathize with your enemy”, exactly what activists need to be. It is not nearly enough to throw rocks at a McDonalds and shout slogans at the corporate elite. If we are to defeat the system which we so heavily despise, we must first understand the minds of those who operate it. Robert McNamara wasn’t a bad person, he was a product of a bad system. He did believe in the development of the third world, but thought that working for the World Bank was the best way to achieve that development. It is the mental aspect of the system which most heavily dominates the people within it. Unless we begin to understand that side of the equation, the problem will never be solved.

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