U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Rice has just excoriated Moscow and Beijing in most undiplomatic terms over their refusal to sign up to Washington’s latest attempt to differentiate “good” from “evil” in the Muslim world. Truth be told, in this case, I happen to agree with Washington: Assad does, as Washington claims, deserve to be fired for his horrifying human rights violations. It is, as Ambassador Rice, said, “disgusting” for the world to tolerate such behavior…just as it was “disgusting” for “Washington to tolerate, if not encourage,” Israel’s slaughter of Lebanese in 2006 …just as is also “disgusting” the complete evasion by Washington decision-makers of any moral judgments concerning their threats to launch (or “allow,” via Tel Aviv) an unprovoked and potentially genocidal military attack on Iran for having the temerity to consider the future possibility of developing weapons that might in the distant future balance the weapons Israel already possesses.
Thus, there is a far larger story here than today’s arbitrary policy by this or that global power toward tiny Syria. The U.N. spat over Syria reflects lessons learned in Moscow and Beijing over the years watching how the self-appointed leader of the world behaves. Chickens come home to roost, and in this case U.S. chickens have dealt the U.S. a defeat. The U.S. is in fact the big elephant in the room (not overly to mix the metaphorical residents of the international political zoo), and what it does…and says…has vast influence over the world that mankind is creating and thus over the long-term security of both the American people and everyone else. If morality, human rights, and civil rights constitute constraints on U.S. behavior that Washington accepts for long-term moral reasons, that helps create one kind of world. If, instead, they are merely rhetorical swords to be lifted in anger when momentarily convenient, everyone else will get the message, and that will help create a very different kind of world.
The whole idea of human rights comes from the West and even there is only hanging on by its fingernails in the face of demands by rich right-wingers and more than a few fundamentalists to engage in what they, from their mansions or pulpits, are pleased to call “realism.” Bashar al-Assad’s attack on Homs cannot but remind every thinking citizen on this planet of the U.S. attack on Fallujah, the Russian attack on Grozniy, and the Israeli attacks on South Lebanon (2006)--in which Israel effectively practiced ethnic cleansing of the region–and Gaza (2009). In each case, overwhelming force was barbarically employed against a civilian population for arbitrary tactical purposes without regard for morality by whatever power happened to be involved. Washington of course judged some of these events to be “good,” others “evil,” as convenient. Given the resultant absence of any moral consistency in U.S. foreign policy, how can Russians or Chinese be expected to accept American ideals about human rights when those ideals are judged to conflict with the short-term interests of those ruling elites?
Western Morality & Tactical Convenience: The Lebanon Example
The standard Western version is that the July 2006 invasion was justified by legitimate outrage over capture of two Israeli soldiers at the border. The posture is cynical fraud. The US and Israel, and the West generally, have little objection to capture of soldiers, or even to the far more severe crime of kidnapping civilians (or of course to killing civilians). That had been Israeli practice in Lebanon for many years, and no one ever suggested that Israel should therefore be invaded and largely destroyed. [Noam Chomsky, “On the U.S.-Israeli Invasion of Lebanon.”]
The wealthy, conservative elite–comfortable with the privileges it has stolen through its “realistic” (i.e., calculating, self-serving) two-sided policy of impoverishing the middle class via “globalization” or invasion–does occasionally identify a genuine bad guy to go after. Saddam was obviously one, and Assad, despite certain indications to the contrary after he replaced his father, certainly does at the moment appear to be another. But the nasty behavior of these gentlemen fundamentally has little to do with Washington’s attitude toward them, as is made clear by Washington’s “inability” to see the Saudi-enforced pillage of Bahrain or its failure to make a clear moral judgment about Israel’s barbaric destruction of southern Lebanon during the summer of 2006.
Indeed, the record of U.S. violations of its own principles is now a horrifyingly long one. Financially, under the banner of what is now called “globalization,” which really means the globalization of a financial system designed by and for the benefit of U.S. corporations, the approach focuses on a combination of American manipulation of economics to steal the national wealth of other societies plus physical violence (massacre of protesters, kidnappings, torture) by local lackeys. The historical record extents from the CIA-sponsored overthrow of Iran’s emerging secular democratic movement in the early 1950s through the overthrow of Chile’s democracy in a U.S.-facilitated coup by the murderous General Pinochet and the exploitation of Mexico in the 1980s and the carefully manipulated fire-sale theft of (ally!) South Korea’s major corporations during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis* up to the takeover of much of Iraq’s oil industry with the aid of U.S.-written laws carefully penned during the short but effect period of U.S. colonization. When the boys on Wall Street and their allies at the IMF fall short, outright invasion (e.g., Iraq) enforces the globalization campaign…which brings us to Iran and the current pressure against Iran’s ally Syria.
Yes, watching Damascus slaughter its citizens is sickening as was watching Israel slaughter the helpless residents of Gaza or South Lebanon, not to mention the crimes of Saddam against the Kurds back when Saddam was a valued lackey of the Reagan Administration. While his slaughter of his own people may be what appals those American citizens who want Washington to overthrow Assad, what gets the goat of Washington decision-makers is Assad’s insistence on supporting Iran’s quest for an independent (Read: anti-globalization) foreign policy. Almost all Americans with the patience to read this far will surely be confused (and angry), so, to get to the point, imagine the confusion of others contemplating Washington’s behavior! How can you possibly expect Moscow and Beijing to understand the moral foundations underpinning Washington’s identification of “good” and “evil?”
Having seen Washington support Israeli barbarism against Lebanon and Palestine and its own financial destruction of one country after another (leaving, for example, some 20,000,000 people unemployed in Asia after 1997 alone and essentially destroying the middle classes of Chile, Argentina, Indonesia, South Korea, and Iraq), if Moscow and Beijing now consider it convenient for strategic reasons to support a murderous Syrian dictator or, in the event, a vicious, fundamentalist Iranian regime looking for fame and fortune, well, our colleagues in Moscow and Beijing are just copying good, old American “realism.” Perhaps the interests of the American people (the 99%) would be better served if their elected representatives would teach the rest of the world a different lesson.
The public debate between the “national security through force” (realism/conservatism/imperialism) advocates and the advocates of a moral foreign policy (human rights/negotiation with adversaries/compromise/equality) is frequently posed in the U.S. as an argument between “realists” and “idealists.” This is a self-defeating misconception that endangers long-term U.S. national security in a world that is getting much too big for the U.S. to control and much too complex for any American to rule wisely. A truly realistic approach to security must begin to recognize that ignoring ideals imposes serious costs and following the rules derived from idealism (be they logical precepts such as “always talk to opponents because when you talk, you learn” or formal rules such as international law) even when adhering to ideals may require relinquishing tactical advantages offers valuable long-term advantages. It is, to be blunt, much cheaper to negotiate a deal with, say, a nuclear-armed Russia or a China that holds hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars that it could dump on the market or an Iran that could drive oil prices through the roof and fight an almost endless asymmetric battle than it is to fight a war (be it a military or a financial conflict).__________________
* On the Asian Financial Crisis, see Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (Picador, New York, 2007), 332-353; Ask A Korean; “How the IMF Helped Create and Worsen the Asian Financial Crisis.“