It is barely a month into 2020, and the world has changed.
In the past month, we have seen our nation on the brink of war with Iran. We have seen the United Kingdom sever its ties with the European Union—an institution that helped mend the political rifts and mutual injuries of the post-war continent. We have seen Australia burn, bearing the brunt of climate change.
Aside from the issue of Iran, which has since been walked back, these issues are far away, both geographically and metaphorically speaking. For the American college student, with more immediate issues like student loans and access to healthcare after 26, it’s easy to think that focusing on these issues is a waste of time, unlikely to change anything, and that our efforts are better spent on domestic issues where we might have an impact. With a failed impeachment decided largely along partisan lines and the integrity of the Iowa Caucus called into question, it can seem more important than ever to focus our attention inwards.
However intuitive, I suggest that this line of thinking is dangerous. Not only that, I believe that it has been the dominant line of thinking throughout American history and, as such, is one factor for our current predicaments. In my experience, while Americans are divided on the question of whether or not our invasion of Iraq was justified in the first place, the general consensus is that our continued presence there has been largely mismanaged. The same is true, in my experience, for Afghanistan.
In 2003, while the international community debated war with Iraq, news media in the United States often treated Iraq’s possession of WMDs as a matter of fact by way of omission. Coverage would mention that countries such as France and Germany objected to invasion, but would fail to mention that the objection was on the basis that intelligence suggesting the presence of WMDs was unvetted. French media, as would make sense, acknowledged the reason for the nation’s objection.
I wasn’t even five years old when we invaded Iraq. However, the invasion is my earliest memory of the wider world outside of my family. I remember my grandparents watching the news on TV, and remember my grandfather explaining the invasion to me in simple, age-appropriate terms. One perhaps the only concrete thing I remember is my grandfather being upset that France was not joining us in invasion. To this day he refers to the country as a “load of cowards.” I suspect, unfortunately, that his assessment is still shared by many who lived through the invasion.
By the time I was old enough to truly care about the Iraq war, the crux of the conflict had shifted from invading the country to containing the aftermath. This affected my perception of the war profoundly. I could not, in good faith, agree with my grandfather. The French, in the end, were right. They were smarter than us, predicted the consequences better than us, and for as long as I can remember we have been stuck in the country. Unable to win, unable to leave. Colin Powell was right, “You break it, you own it.”
I don’t share this story to dwell on the past or to judge the generations before me with the benefit of hindsight. Instead, I share this story to illustrate how the medias’ coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom may have limited public outcry. Rather than presenting French criticisms of the invasion in a manner that encouraged my grandfather to consider those criticisms in earnest, the media painted him a picture of a country unwilling to help us in a noble pursuit. This, I think, was the real reason we are stuck in Iraq: the public pressure to listen to the Security Council simply wasn’t there in volume, and the media did not encourage what little pressure there was. This is not to say that there was no public pressure, but rather that for every anti-war protester there was also a person calling for french fries to be renamed “freedom fries.”
This is where I think our generation has the potential to change things. Whereas our parents and grandparents by and large eschewed an international perspective, we can and, in my experience do, embrace it. When I talk to my fellow students, even those outside the political science program, about current events I hear about things going on all over the world. I’ve learned more about Southeast Asia in conversation with classmates and friends than I did in 12 years of public education. The reasons for this are complex, as most cultural shifts are, and will likely be debated by scholars for a long time to come. Fifty years later I still see articles attempting to explain the genesis of the hippy movement. Still, is suspect that for all of its faults the internet has allowed us to connect with people around the globe. While national identity is still important, it does not dictate who we talk to.
I think this cultural change, whatever it is, is working for the better. Yes, we walked to the edge of war with Iran, but then we took a step back. Not to reduce a complex situation down to a single cause, but I think one factor in this is a gradual, collective shift towards global mindedness. Not even the most hawkish of my relatives seemed to want war, and I think the White House could sense that this time the public was not on their side.
The domestic media was more critical this time around. Few outlets seemed to be sugarcoating the consequences of war with Iran. But I don’t think we can count on that being true going forward. If anything, I suspect the media was more concerned with the way the Iran war was looking to start, a missile strike without congressional approval, than the prospect of war in and of itself. For that reason I implore my generation to begin seeking out foreign news sources. This is not to say that simply reading foreign news sources will make you enlightened, no media ought to be consumed uncritically. Rather, I believe that when foreign media is blended with domestic into a healthy diet of media consumption, our picture of the world becomes a little more complete. And trying to have a complete picture of the world is important; our actions on the world stage have consequences, and those consequences have a way of sticking with us.