Sunday, March 27, 2011

Of noble intentions in a cruel world

Daily Kos
by Laurence Lewis

When the Lesser Bush took office in 2001, Republicans rejoiced that "adults" once again would be in charge of foreign policy and national defense. These adults had spent the 1980s arming Saddam Hussein, even as he was gassing his own people. These adults had spent the 1980s arming the Afghan mujahideen, only to abandon them after they had expelled the Soviet Union, refusing to offer the sort of humanitarian aid that could have prevented the embrace of extremism that often comes with poverty and isolation. After returning to power, these adults ignored the screaming warnings before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, allowed the perpetrators of those attacks to get away, then launched two failed wars, including one against the very Saddam they had previously supported, and who was in no way involved in those terrorist attacks. Then even as they waged war on a nation that had never attacked the U.S., had never committed a terrorist attack against the U.S., and had no means of doing so, these adults embraced a Libyan despot who had actually been complicit in a terrorist attack that killed U.S. citizens, and then protected him from lawsuits stemming from that attack. Whatever Republicans mean by being adult, let's hope they don't soon have another opportunity to impose it on anyone else.

We would like to believe our foreign policy at least to some degree is predicated upon noble intentions. With Republicans in office, we know that isn't the case. But with Democrats in office, we hope for something better. We hope at least for some degree of focus on human rights. But realistically, that is rarely the case. President Clinton's military response to Serbia was as gruesome as are all such military responses, but it helped stop genocide. The response might have been better planned and coordinated, but without any response that genocide might have been completed. It took far too long for the European powers to engage, and Russia never was going to approve, but the military strikes on Serbia stopped genocide.

It was not about geopolitical positioning, nor was it an excuse for plundering valuable natural resources. It wasn't even a traditional Western religious crusade, as the perpetrators of the genocide were largely Christian and the victims largely Muslim. But even so, Republicans opposed the effort with the same determination that they supported the disastrous Bush misadventures in the Middle East and Central Asia. But even as the Western powers finally rose to the challenge of stopping the genocide in Europe, they sat idly by while another genocide saw hundreds of thousands of innocents hacked to death with machetes in Rwanda. Noble intentions apparently stopped at certain borders.

To the West, the current revolutionary movements in North Africa and the Middle East are challenging the results of centuries of careful political maneuvering and less careful political thinking. They are undermining assumptions and leaving many of the world's most powerful governments scrambling to figure out what to do. The uprising in Egypt first resulted in tentative Western support for the despotic government, then attempts to massage the revolution in the West's best interests, and only in the end did the aspirations of the protesters seem to gain some level of recognition and primacy. The governments of Bahrain and Yemen have been to some degree amenable to some of the West's less savory military and intel machinations, so the brutal suppression of their revolutionary movements is garnering little more than public scoldings. But Libya's tyrant is no real friend to anyone and was on the verge of engaging in wholesale slaughter, so a violent military response to prevent that slaughter was seemingly easy to justify.

But if human rights and support for democracy and freedom truly were the motivating factors, there is no reason we wouldn't be seeing a consistency of response to all these revolutionary movements, and to all elsewhere in the world. And hardly at all mentioned is that all these movements were inspired by Tunisia, and Tunisia was inspired by the depth of its government's corruption, which only came fully to Tunisian public consciousness with the release of the U.S. embassy cables by WikiLeaks; the release of which has made the founder of WikiLeaks an international outlaw, while the man accused of releasing the information is being subjected to treatment which in itself closes the circle by undermining any U.S. government claims to moral high ground or respect for human rights. Some are claiming we are seeing the birth of an Obama Doctrine: We are not. We are seeing situational responses based not on ideology or idealism, but on good old bad old unenlightened self-interest. Some good may come of it, such as the prevention of a likely bloodbath in Benghazi, but even that remains uncertain, because the strategy and end game remain unclear. The old trusim remains valid, even as it is ignored by a succession of governments from different parties in many nations, including our own: It is much easier to get into a war than to get out of one.

In a better world, there would be widely agreed upon standards and mechanisms defining the international community's responsibilities and governing its responses when nations invade one another, attack one another, or abuse their own citizens and residents. In reality, such an ideal sounds almost laughable and our own nation sells arms to one or both sides of just about every conflict around the globe. We are the world's number one arms merchant and our consumer economy relies upon the exploitation of labor and the environment in other nations to degrees that would be unthinkable at home but for the Republicans, who are so intrepidly attempting to level the field to the lowest common denominator.

Our governments support democratic movements mostly as excuses for geopolitical or economic gain while concurrently protecting and enabling despots who already serve our geopolitical or economic gain. There's nothing new or unique about that. We are not morally exceptional or divinely guided; we are merely very good at what everyone does and what everyone long has done. We are one of the last industrialized nations still to impose capital punishment. We have the world's largest prison population; our social safety net never was on par with those of our industrialized allies and increasingly even that is being shredded to tatters. So let's not kid ourselves about the intentions of our overseas adventures. The good very much is the exception: Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are the rule. But that doesn't mean we cannot dream. It doesn't mean we cannot aspire.

It sometimes seems hopeless. It sometimes seems we activists are helpless against impossible odds. But we cannot afford to be hopeless and we cannot afford to act helpless. To do so would be to concede. And that may at times be the conscious hope of those who would benefit from concession. Recognizing the ugliness of the political dynamics should not be about cynicism or apathy or nihilism. It should be about pragmatism. It should be about recognizing the difficulty of the task.

It is more discouraging to allow oneself to be duped than to be brutally and unwaveringly realistic. But the worst would be to let the facts and the totality of the task kill the best of what lies too often latent within all of us. If no one states and reiterates and aspires to ideals, true hope will indeed be lost. We can praise and support positive efforts by our governments and criticize and agitate against the negative, and always—always—be wary of those in power. But we must claim and cling to our ideals. We must dream of a day when policies will be based on the common good, in respect and awe of our common humanity. We would like to believe our foreign policy at least to some degree is predicated upon noble intentions, but only by continuing to hold all governments accountable will we ever even begin to make that seeming fantasy a reality.

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