The Lone Ranger and the Continental Op: A manifesto
What a nation cannot imagine, it cannot accomplish. Americans cannot imagine states so disordered as to be beyond redemption that their ruin is inevitable. Sometimes a lasting low-intensity conflict is as good as it gets. Since the Pilgrim Fathers fled the Thirty Years War in 1620, America has conceived itself as a journey towards redemption. For the past century and more, America has confused the redemption of those individuals who choose to become Americans with the redemption of all the peoples of the world. That confusion is the mother of all the failures in America’s foreign policy.
America, still the world’s strongest power, is so immured in its own myths that it lacks a common language with the other powers of the world, emerging (China and India) or declining (Russia). That is true not only of the present administration, but of all three major currents in foreign policy thinking—“realist,” “Wilsonian idealist,” and neo-conservative. The sway of ideology is so strong that it is difficult to find in the public media analysis that is not warped by an unwholesome ideological agenda. If Americans do not understand the world, all the less do its competitors understand America, as I reported in the case of China last November and in the case of Russia over the years.
America has done more damage to its own interests in the past dozen years by blundering than its enemies ever have inflicted upon it. Today’s misunderstanding can turn into tomorrow’s mayhem. The world has need of a patch of neutral ground where journalists and policy-makers from different parts of the world can spar in good faith until they learn something from each other. From the ancient empires, America can learn that not all nations are destined to survive, and that their extinction can be a messy business. From America, the other nations can learn that self-interest is not enough: the beneficent view of man embedded in the American Founding is in a sense the standard to which successful nations must aspire in a globalized world.
Perhaps just such a discussion is occurring now at Chatham House, the home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs under so-called “Chatham House Rules” – not a word of what is said behind closed doors is revealed. I do not believe that is the case, for if the world had an elite that well understood the problems before it, we wouldn’t be in the present mess. The world doesn’t need another Chatham House, or Trilateral Commission, or other elite talking shop; it isn’t just that the emperor has no clothes, but that the empire has no tailors—or very few tailors, most of whom are retired.
The public media rather than the confidential conclave is the right venue. There is little to be learned by eavesdropping on diplomats; if anything, the Wikileaks Cablegate files revealed nothing except the State Department’s cluelessness. To change policy at this juncture in history one must change the culture. That is what I have been telling Americans since I first published in Asia Times Online fifteen years ago. My distinguished colleague Francesco Sisci, the first foreigner to earn a doctorate from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has made parallel arguments to the Chinese. It is a daunting task, but it must begin somewhere, and there is no place where it can begin. So we have to create one.
Laughing at one’s own cultural quirks is one of the grand themes of European literature,” I wrote in 2003. “Sadly, Americans cannot laugh at their own culture… there are no characteristically American jokes, for the simple reason that there are no American characteristics.” Except for one: We believe in happy endings. If there is an American national joke, it must be this: The Lone Ranger (a Western sort of knight errant) and Tonto (his faithful American Indian companion) ride through a deep valley, when suddenly an army of hostile Apaches appears on the ridges above them. “Kimosavee, looks like we’re in trouble,” says the Ranger. Tonto replies: “What do you mean ‘we’, paleface?” There are a number of characteristically American jokes about Disney cartoon characters, but they cannot be quoted in a family newspaper.
The Lone Ranger (along with any number of Americanized knights errant) is the paragon of popular American culture, fixing everybody’s troubles (“Everybody’s ‘cept mine,” sang the young Bob Dylan). Even Clint Eastwood’s brutal Man With No Name follows the protocol, rescuing damsels in distress in “For a Fistful of Dollars” (1964). That was a remake of Kurosawa’s 1961 film “Yojimbo,” and both derived from Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest, along with the Coen Brothers’ “Miller’s Crossing” (1990) and “Last Man Standing” (1996).
Hammett’s anti-hero, an operative for the Continental Detective Agency—simply the “Continental Op”—bears no resemblance to his screen incarnations, who have been softened and sugared to resemble the Lone Ranger. He instigates a gang war that purges a mining town of its rotten elements through dozens of murders. He doesn’t save the girl, a prostitute who has contributed to the carnage. On the contrary, he is partly responsible for her murder. He’s at no risk of regret at the deaths he occasioned, but worries that he come to enjoy the killing too much, and go “blood simple.” The Coen Brothers used the line as the title of their first movie, but turned his character into a simpering sentimentalist (played by Gabriel Bryne) when they took their turn at a screen version.
The Continental Op is the Lone Ranger’s antipode, the personification of precisely what Americans can’t bear to ponder: There are places (like Hammett’s fictional Personville) that are beyond redemption, and there is nothing to be done but erase the evil. Hollywood has been unable over nine decades to put the most characteristically American character in all of fiction on the screen, because Americans would turn away in revulsion. What America cannot imagine, America cannot execute.
The Continental Op has a method that corresponds to his mission: “Plans are all right sometimes … And sometimes just stirring things up is all right – if you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you’ll see what you want when it comes to the top.” America is too concerned with order. That is my principle objection to Henry Kissinger’s brilliant 2014 book “World Order.” Order is not always an attainable condition, and when it is not, disorder is a thing that is better to give than to receive.
In different ways, the Chinese and Russians understand this. The Chinese have been handling unruly barbarians on their border for thousands of years, and have no illusions about the survivability of backward cultures. Russia knows how to exploit disorder and force the burden of uncertainty onto its opponents (which explains why Russia has been far more effective in Ukraine than the United States).
Where is order attainable, and whose order is it? What are the economic, demographic and strategic boundary conditions for such order? And when is managed disorder as good as it gets? These questions precede any discussion of strategy, and they broadly are ignored by the ideologues who run the foreign policy of the West. We will not ignore them at Asia Times, and we will take no prisoners.
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