Monday, March 14, 2011

Libya and Moral Equivalency

Last Friday’s issue of the International Herald Tribune carries this brief letter from a reader in England:

Has a tyrant shooting at his own people committed a greater crime than a democratically-elected government making war on a faraway people?
Ho HO! How ironic! How avant garde! And how utterly useless toward finding a solution to the emergency facing the Libyan people.

Since this Englishman is clearly referring to the war in Iraq, the answer to his rhetorical question must be an emphatic “yes.” One need not minimize the catastrophe and tragedy of the Iraq war to recognize this: at no point did the government of either the U.S. or Britain “make war on the Iraqi people” in the same way that Colonel Moammar Gaddafi is now ordering the murder of his own people for the sake of his own hold on power.

Anyone who follows international politics is familiar with this endless moral equivalency game. It is a symptom of the present era. In our time, the crackpots and mass murderers are not dominating the world from Rome, Berlin or Moscow; they are on the periphery of the world order, occupying pathetic little hills like Tripoli, Pyongyang and Khartoum. Real, world-changing, system-reinforcing power lies with the democratically-elected governments of the West. As a result, the earnest missteps and occasional crimes of the West are almost always more destructive than the lunacy- and greed-driven policies of the world’s rogue regimes.

And so, every time the conscience of the West is aroused enough to propose intervening on the behalf of some beleaguered people, whether the Darfurians, the Kosovars, the Iraqis or the Libyans, we must endure endless taunts of “Yeah, but you guys did…” and endless warnings of, “Don’t intervene, or (insert dictator’s name) will claim he’s resisting the imperialist West and solidify his popular support.” The sad thing is, those warnings are probably pretty accurate. I have not met any Syrians critical of the genocidal Sudanese central government, only Syrians critical of the U.S. for trying to take Sudan’s oil.

Nevertheless, there is an element of truth in our friend’s letter. The status of America’s government as “democratically-elected” gives cover to actions that we would find reprehensible on the part of, say, China or Iran.

Almost every Arab dictatorship, including the fallen regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Zine Ben Ali, is/was on the receiving end of American military aid. (I live in one of the few exceptions.) After thirty years of pariah status, Gaddafi himself wormed his way into the embrace of the West after the Iraq War, made a few key concessions, and joined the club. Gaddafi is using American military equipment to attack his own people. Twenty years ago, almost the same story played out in Latin America. The U.S. propped up murderous dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Brazil, and many, many more countries. Travel over to Asia, and we can add the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea, South Vietnam, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to the list of U.S. clients. This is just off the top of my head.

Why is this? The answer, I am convinced, is not that the American government is run by evil men with curly mustaches cackling evilly behind giant computer screens as they crush the hope of freedom for peoples around the world. There is no grand conspiracy; only a self-perpetuating system. Every president inherits a global system that the United States sit atop, the world’s only superpower. No matter what his ideals or goals, every president’s first goal is to maintain the U.S.’s superpower status. That’s as natural an instinct as self-preservation. As a result, the components of that system – including alliances with dictators – are maintained and human rights go overlooked.

My dad told me last night that my views have changed a lot recently. This is true. It’s not that I’ve become convinced on anything new; it’s that I’ve become unconvinced of a lot of things I used to be convinced of. But here are two things I firmly believe: 1) Americans have GOT to keep a closer watch on their government’s foreign policy. 2) Gaddafi has got to go.

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