Among the fascinations of politics are some oddities from various corners. Some are--fortunately--far from our daily experiences, but others are too close for complete comfort.
One concerns North Korea. It is widely viewed as one of the most unpleasant of places, with a regime that cares little for its people. There is widespread misery to the point of starvation, mass celebrations with a degree of inhuman discipline that rivals that of Nazi demonstrations in Nuremberg, levels of incarceration of those who don't fit that may go beyond levels of incarceration (for other reasons) in the United States, yet a capacity to have created nuclear weapons and to threaten international business conglomerates with its capacity to damage them via cyber warfare.
Where does a such repressive society that seems to care so little for its people get the creative talent necessary for such accomplishments?
Some of it is imported. Pakistanis and Iranians have helped with expertise and equipment.
The North Koreans are not all powerful. They have produced a nuclear explosion, but may not be ready to deliver a nuclear weapon on target, or to defend themselves against what will come in response. Their threat of cyber attack has brought a response that shut does its entire Internet based network. That might not be a great feat insofar as it is unlikely that most North Koreans are online.
Despite all of these reservations, North Korea has somehow managed to find and cultivate home grown talent despite all that would seem to work against it. They are ahead of Iran in nuclear competition, despite Iran's greater population, its greater degree of individual freedom, more widespread higher education, and much greater resources from oil.
The surge of radical Islam is another curiosity. It's closer to these fingers than North Korea, but the capacity of Israel's security services means that what may only be a few hundred miles between me and them is enough.
What's puzzling is the ascendance of a level of barbarism, capable of recruiting participants from western countries, long after mass bloodshed organized by major religious bodies had vanished.
Also curious is the capacity of the Syrian regime to hold off a total collapse. To be sure, it has the help of Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia, but managing that collection of supporters would appear to be difficult, especially in the light of opposition ranging from Saudi Arabia and neighboring Turkey to the United States.
Maps of areas controlled or hotly contested by opponents of the Assad regime, and numbers of refugees already in the millions indicate that Syria has joined Iraq and Lebanon in the category of failed states. Each is a different story, but none can claim a government that controls what purports to be its territory.
Somewhere in the mix of explanations for all of this is the failed policies of the United States.
There is considerable justification for the claim that America saved the world after Europe and Asia went off the rails in the 1930s and 1940s.
Since its commendable successes in the post-war period, however, the US has gone off the rails with misplaced intrusiveness and a failure to achieve its goals. Support of the corrupt regime in South Vietnam, then the recruitment of Islamists to do battle with Russia in Afghanistan were extreme expressions of anti-Communism, perhaps justified in a Cold War context, but poorly managed and producing more harm than good. Associated with both, and more prominent later has been a fanatic attachment to democracy as a value that could be imposed everywhere. It was also prominent in the folly of Iraq led by George W. Bush, then the Cairo speech and subsequent actions, most disastrously in Egypt, by the Obama administration.
Also on the negative side of US accomplishments is its allowing that miserable and hate-filled regime in North Korea to reach nuclear capability.
The invasion against Saddam Hussein and prolonged actions against Islamists in Afghanistan showed that the US could destroy a regime. Building institutions, including an effected army amidst foreign cultures has been way beyond the capacity of what considers itself a world leader.
What may be described as arrogance has been part of American culture from the get go.
The Puritans who colonized Massachusetts saw themselves as a New Jerusalem. The Monroe Doctrine, with a new and weak regime posing as a country that could dictate to Europe with respect to a large part of the world was more comic than real. Yet it has been taken seriously enough to be cited as a guide to US policy well into the 20th century. We can leave aside the endless dispute as to whether the doctrine made a positive contribution to anything south of the US.
Manifest destiny was the often cited theme of the country's western movement. If it was not the work of an organized religion, it had an element of cultural superiority and being in tune with higher powers while accompanied by slavery and the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans.
One can look to the Mormons for a view that is explicit in joining God to the US. In their doctrine, Christ appeared for a Second Coming in America, an angel got their community going in upstate New York, the American West is the newly Promised Land, and each of their leaders is a Prophet in touch with the Almighty.
Some may becoming even more certain that I have gone off the rails, criticizing the US for just about everything.
Again it seems necessary to assure my readers that I am not anti-American. Being an academic (and now retired) I've never been in a situation where I've been able, or even tempted to act against either of my countries.
A good part of my career was spent in research, teaching, and consulting in the field of state audit. That is the US GAO, the Israeli State Comptroller, and their equivalents in other countries. Finding fault is part of what I do.
Why do I criticize the US?
The best answer is because it is there, the most powerful and arguably the most intrusive of countries.
Israel is a favorite target of Americans and US officials. Being on the receiving end of aid, one can appreciate the generous assistance that has been provided, and take care that one's criticism is appropriate.
The obsessive concern of Americans for spreading the good word of their own success is worthy of focus. Democracy is ideal for those cultures in which it is suitable, but they do not include all of human creation. An intense commitment to Islam is one of the most prominent barriers, whose character has eluded American policymakers. Their shortsightedness has been apparent since they lit a fire under Islamic extremism in order to combat the Russians in Afghanistan, then sought to reform Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Egypt.
Especially disturbing here is the obsession of official Americans that Israel do more to satisfy Palestinians, against Palestinians' decades long record of rejection. Also the prominence of American academics and students in the Palestinian-led campaign in behalf of sanctions against Israel, including a boycott against me and my academic colleagues.
Among the most tantalizing of questions is why are Americans so inclined to reform others when their own society is among the most needy of reform. The contrast is especially great in the context of American wealth. Unlike countries of the Third World, the US has resources to pay for significant improvements.
The US is off the charts compared to other western democracies in violence, incarceration, and longevity. Thanks to Ferguson and other recent events, there is a growing list of articles that compare death by police in the United States with the equivalent statistics in other countries. While FBI reported over 400 incidents of death by police in a recent year, numbers for other democracies are six in Australia, two in England, and six in Germany. Googling Israel in this context brings up charges about how many civilians the IDF killed in Gaza, usually without noting Gaza's rockets fired toward Israeli civilians that set off what was closer to warfare than a police action.
In response to comments about US health care, I've heard from friends and relatives about their own good health experiences in the US, and the number of foreigners who come to the US for health care.
Someone with brains and money can find good treatment in any number of countries. There is considerable "medical tourism" to Israel, Britain's private sector (not the National Health Service), Germany, and Switzerland, as well as the US. India and Thailand have joined the list of destinations, with personnel and facilities like those in the west but at a fraction of the price.
What is missing to those who note the medical successes of themselves or acquaintances in the US is the general picture. The life expectancy of Americans is barely more than that of Cubans and residents of several other Third World countries. Sure, one can claim that the statistics reflect America's problematic population, poor habits, McDonalds and similar killers via tasty food, and a host of other factors.
Yet the functions of education as well as treatment associated with public policy in the field of health is, at the least, a subject that should concern Americans. They could also ponder issues of race, violence, drugs, and the cost of higher education that get in the way of so many Americans realizing the promise that they preach so forcefully to others.
The New Year is upon us, with its tradition of resolutions. As we know from long experience, it is easier to resolve than to implement. But this is yet another opportunity.