Saturday, July 22, 2006

Strength and Silverbacks


I don't pretend to be an expert in anthropology, but in my recollection of the documentaries I've seen about the great apes there is an alpha male who controls his family, and who attempts to drive off any males who might threaten his position before they become large and strong enough to do so. This has given rise to the image of the 800 pound gorilla - fighting as necessary, sometimes to the death, but keeping his family in line and competitors out of his territory primarily through displays of grunting, growling, and physical strength. It is important, of course, for the alpha male not to "look weak" because this might inspire a potential competitor to try to literally knock him off his throne.

I am not sure if this is the model that people like William Kristol intend to follow when they express their never-ending fears that if the U.S. does one particular thing or the other it will "look weak". People like Kristol seem to use this argument to shape a particular course of action - it becomes an argument of convenience where any course of action they endorse makes the U.S. "look strong", and anything else makes the U.S. "look weak". Unfortunately, these arguments seem to have been fully embraced by the White House, which (despite having tried to make us "look strong" through an invasion of Iraq, the aftermath of which is now said to make us "look weak") seems petrified of "looking weak".

I could argue first that these notions of "strength" are less thoughtful than those of the literal 800-pound gorilla, who attempts to rule over his family until he is frail and elderly by never involving himself in a fight he can't decisively win. The pre-9/11 complaints of the U.S. as an 800-pound gorilla were more in line with perceptions of an alpha male gorilla - with the strongest military in the world, the U.S. had a lot of weight to throw around (even without firing a shot). This seemingly aggravated some on the right who took the position that it is worthless to have a strong military unless you used it - but there is no question but that the U.S. was perceived as strong. Perhaps no moreso than by those on the right who wished us to engage in active military intervention in a number of nations, including Iraq, so we could bend or force the rest of the world into the image we desired. (You know... like Kristol's club, PNAC.)

Yet it seems that it is the Kristol/PNAC approach to the world that makes the U.S. seem weak. They confuse the power of having a might military force at your disposal with the power of that mighty military. We kicked Iraq's door down in a most impressive manner - but the manner in which the Bush Administration subsequently drove us into a ditch in its handling of the occupation (Kristol's metaphor) now supposedly make us "look weak". So we have to attack additional nations, like Syria and Iran, so we can again "look strong". It has been noted that this presupposes that we can control the perceptions of others - a valid point. But on a more mundane level, perhaps the problem is that the easiest way to look strong is to intimidate your way to victory without having to physically fight. And perhaps the real problem is that once you "look weak" in the outcome of even a single fight, your image is diminished and (as Mike Tyson will attest) can't be restored even through a string of additional fights against easier opponents.

Perhaps Kristol's vision of geopolitics derives from listening to Kenny Rogers songs, where the good guy always wins.

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