The term “ugly American” was coined in the 1950s and was meant to convey the stereotypical attitude of Americans abroad following our victory in World War II. We were the winners and By God we were the richest and most powerful people on earth. This gave us the authority to stomp around the planet, spreading the American dollar in public aid and private extravagance, and instructing other political leaders how to behave. The protagonist of William Lederer’s 1958 novel, The Ugly American, was actually a sympathetic character, a do-gooder of the 1950s’ Saigon, South Vietnam, who inadvertently did more harm than good. In the letters column of The Wall Street Journal this morning, I recalled some of the origins of our involvement in Vietnam and my own youthful support, as a liberal Democrat/Catholic, for President Kennedy’s do-good initiative there. We knew what was best for Ngo Dinh Diem, the Catholic president of South Vietnam and a protégé of Francis Cardinal Spellman. Our best intentions blew up in our faces as the best-and-the-brightest economic blueprints we shoved down Diem’s throat in 1961 undermined the political economy and drew us into the dreadful undertow.
The do-good, save-the-world impulse always seems to be associated with the rich and the powerful, which eventually translates into the arrogance of power. Attorney General Janet Reno was in a do-good mood in April 1993, when she ordered the storming of the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco. There were reports, incorrect it turned out, that the children therein were being sexually molested. When the ineptness of the FBI caused the deaths of the 80 Davidians, children included, the government should have suspended those responsible and conducted full-scale hearings. The slap on the wrist to Larry A. Potts, the FBI official responsible for the fiasco, helped kindle the paranoia on the right that led to the tragic events in Oklahoma City. Incredibly, Agent Potts has now been promoted to the No. 2 post in the FBI, which can only have the effect of inflaming the paranoia on the right. On the margin, there is certain to be another Timothy McVeigh brewing out there, noting the elevation of Potts as a further declaration of war by the federal government against honest, religious ordinary citizens. How can the Attorney General and FBI Director be so blind? This is the nature of the Ugly American.
On Meet the Press yesterday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich had to be coaxed by Tim Russert into a mild criticism of the decision to elevate Agent Potts, indicating it might get in the way of the antiterrorist legislation in the pipeline. Where Newt is attentive to the problems of domestic paranoia, left and right, he is not nearly attuned to the international arrogance of the federal government. Both he and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole are much too quick when it comes to Alice in Wonderland off-with-their-heads proclamations overseas. Their bluster and threats regarding Moscow’s sale of two nuclear reactors to Iran, a country that is already paranoid about the United States, The Great Satan, is typical Ugly American. Then again, Gingrich and Dole only are helping President Clinton make a bigger mess of an issue that began with stupid demands on Boris Yeltsin that he cancel sale of the reactors to Iran. The national press corp as usual behaves disgracefully, with only a stray comment here or there to indicate Clinton blundered again -- this time because of the ineptness of Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary.
What’s going on? Way back in the 1970s, we talked the Shah of Iran into buying two light-water nuclear reactors, construction of which was suspended at the time of the Shah’s overthrow by the Ayatollah. Iran now wishes to complete the project by purchase of two reactors of similar design from Russia for $1 billion. The reactors are of the kind we have now arranged for North Korea to construct, in order to allay our suspicions that Pyongyang was trying to build a nuclear bomb from the plutonium they might extract from the fuel rods in their heavy reactors. Iran, signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, is entitled to purchase nuclear reactors for power purposes and has sunk the costs of the old project. Do they intend to build a nuclear weapon? Nuclear scientists generally ridicule the idea that either Iran or North Korea would even attempt to build a plutonium bomb, an incredibly difficult job when compared to whacking one out of enriched uranium. There seem to be, though, a few bureaucrats in the Energy Department appointed back in the Carter Administration, who have an aversion to plutonium, the only kind of bomb that can be fashioned from the spent fuel rods of the reactors we are talking about. Iran in any case has said it would give the Russians back the spent fuel rods, for which they have no use.
Meanwhile, environmentalists are pointing out that the Energy Department is refusing to buy the tons of enriched uranium we said we would buy from the Russian stockpiles, haggling over the price with the private consortium in Moscow that controls the stuff. Inasmuch as it would be far easier for Iranian crazies to get their hands on the enriched uranium than to do a plutonium bomb, it would seem prudent that we would take it off the market and burn it up in our power plants, if the environmentalists would agree. As in Waco, bad science and bumbling bureaucrats combine with uninformed political leadership. We make the Russians mad and the Iranians madder than ever.
The Ugly American is also at work in our trade dispute with Japan, another national disgrace driven by partisan politics and a Clinton Administration in short pants. Any fool can look at the dispute and realize the Japanese government can not and should not bow to the demands of the United States government, demands that Tokyo order its private citizens to buy more auto parts from Detroit! We are now in the position of rooting for the dispute to go to the new World Trade Organization to be adjudicated, and hoping the WTO will have no difficulty ruling against us. Thus, we find ourselves dragged into a reliance on international bureaucrats for simple commercial justice. The costs in lawyers and accountants will be staggering when compared to a simple Golden Rule on trade. Where are Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole and Phil Gramm when we need them to denounce the Clinton Administration for its conduct in Japan? Alas, the Beltway manual, written in the 1930s, says that beating up on Japan is always good politics.
We are in an unusual political period, to say the least. We have a divided government in the world’s only superpower, with a minority President who seems to have absolutely no idea what he’s doing from one day to the next. We have a fledgling Republican Congress, the first in 40 years, with the self-assigned task of straightening out the nation’s economy and its finances -- while handcuffed to computers programmed with obsolete economics and finance. We have a field of Republican presidential candidates making up foreign policy as they read the newspapers and watch the polls. It gets to be pretty ugly at times, fellow Americans. All we have to fall back upon is our democracy, which is what brought us to this state of wealth and power to begin with.