Washington’s Outrage and Excuses

Sometimes it seems that if not for double standards, Official Washington would have no standards at all – especially when it comes to outrage against some “strongmen” and excuses for others, as Lawrence Davidson describes.

By Lawrence Davidson

The United States has been, and continues to be, selective about which foreign strongmen it does and does not support. Among the latter, there have been Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela (who was not as autocratic as publicly portrayed), Fidel Castro in Cuba, and Vladimir Putin in Russia. These are just a few of those recent rulers who have drawn the wrath of the “democratic” exemplars in Washington. That wrath often includes economic strangulation, CIA plots and even invasion.

In the meantime, another group of autocrats is well tolerated by the U.S. Among this group are Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and various European rightwing politicos such as Viktor Orban of Hungary. Each of these strongmen shows little tolerance for dissent and a ready willingness to exploit racially tinged nationalism.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Nov. 21, 2012. [State Department photo]

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Nov. 21, 2012. [State Department photo]

What is behind Washington’s double standards – its contrasting reactions to one set of regimes as against another? Often American politicians will talk about promoting democracy and claim that the dictators they support have a better chance of evolving in a democratic direction than those they oppose. It might be that these politicians actually believe this to be the case, at least at the moment they make these declarations. But there is no historical evidence that their claims are true. This argument is largely a face-saving one. Other underlying reasons exist for the choices they make.

Here are a few of those probable reasons:

The friend/enemy of our friend/enemy is our friend/enemy. In this scenario the primary friend of the U.S. is Israel and the primary enemy is Russia. The secondary friend/enemy countries are the decidedly undemocratic Egypt and Syria. Egypt became a friend of the U.S. once Anwar Sadat made a peace treaty with Israel in March of 1979. Syria, on the other hand, has always been hostile to Israel and it has remained an enemy state. No democratic motivation is to be found here.

Cold War positioning rationale. After World War II Turkey became a “strategic asset” by virtue of its proximity to the Soviet Union and its willingness to house U.S. air bases and missile launchers. The repeated interference of the Turkish military in civilian politics was of no consequence to Washington. Present-day East European governments, increasingly autocratic in nature, seem to be considered by many in the Pentagon as “post Cold War” assets on the border of a Russia that never ceased to be an enemy. For a whole subset of Americans (militarists and neoconservatives), the Cold War never really did end.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh on March 30, 2012. [State Department photo]

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh on March 30, 2012. [State Department photo]

Resource assets rationale. Autocracies such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait fall into this category. The U.S. assumes a role of a supportive ally in exchange for stable and affordable worldwide oil prices. Sunni suppression of Shiite and other minorities in these countries is immaterial.

What happens if such resource-rich regimes do an about-face and are no longer cooperative with the United States? Well, you have your answer in Iran. Here the U.S. was once completely supportive of the Shah, but he was replaced by hostile ayatollahs in 1979. So friendliness has given way to tactics of economic isolation and CIA plots. Again, democracy has little to do with anything in these cases.

The classic left vs. right rationale.  Finally, there is the historically entrenched U.S. tradition that economically cooperative autocratic regimes are acceptable allies. “Cooperative” here means rulers who engage in friendly capitalist behavior: tolerate private enterprise and safeguard the property of foreign investors. Such an economic stance pre-dates the Cold War and has always been more important than political freedoms.

President Ronald Reagan meeting with Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt.

President Ronald Reagan meeting with Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt.

Those who act this way, such as Chile under Augusto Pinochet or Argentina under its brutal regime of military rule, get a free pass when they suppress democracy and civil rights. However, other regimes, such as those in Cuba under Castro and Venezuela under Chavez are treated differently. In the case of Venezuela, democracy was in fact practiced, but because of its socialist-leaning economic policies, Washington tried very hard to destroy the country’s government. For those interested in the evolution of this classic U.S. foreign policy, its history is explained in detail in my book, Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest.

Democracy and the “Other”

By prioritizing traditional alliances, control of resources and economic ideology, the U.S. turns a blind eye to other aspects of autocratic behavior that contradict its own avowed values, thereby setting up a vivid display of foreign policy hypocrisy. An example is the issue of democracy and the “Other.”

Since the 1960s the United States has been struggling with its racist impulses. That is, most of its population knows that discrimination against the “Other” is wrong. They can recognize it in the country’s voting laws, in the behavior of its police, and in the attitude of a political candidate like Donald Trump. Official steps, even if they are agonizingly slow and subject to periodic reversals, are taken to dampen down, if not overcome, such public biases. You would think that such sensitivity would carry over into foreign affairs. Yet the opposite is true.

Many of the autocratic leaders the U.S. favors have risen to power, at least in part, through instilling fear of the “Other” – those who threaten the fantasies of an eternal national character, pure blood, and the status of a God-chosen people. For instance, Washington’s premier ally in the Middle East, Israel, is a state that, at best, can be described as an officially discriminatory democracy where bias against the “Other” (in this case the Palestinians and other non-Jews) is legally sanctioned.

Chile's Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who seized power in a U.S.-backed coup in 1973 and helped create Operation Condor, a campaign of assassinations across Latin America and even into the United States. Pinochet died in 2006.

Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who seized power in a U.S.-backed coup in 1973 and helped create Operation Condor, a campaign of assassinations across Latin America and even into the United States. Pinochet died in 2006.

In the case of Europe, the present rising popularity of the right wing and its authoritarian leaders is directly derived from a fear of the “Other.” This, in turn, has been stimulated by a refugee crisis that the United States and its allies helped to create.

The destruction of Iraq was a catalyst that let loose forces that have also overwhelmed Syria and Libya and set in motion the deluge of refugees moving out of the Middle East and North Africa toward Europe. The U.S. government accepts the anti-democratic rightwing autocrats who now exploit a fear of hundreds of thousands of displaced persons for which Washington is, in large part, responsible.

The end of the Cold War did not put to rest the West’s militaristic ideological forces. Indeed it gave them a boost. Those pushing “neoconservative” foreign policies are still well represented within U.S. government bureaucracies. Their policies are based on fantasies of “regime change” and remaking the world so it comes under the permanent influence of the United States. Democracy, however, is not now, nor has it ever been, the end game of this process.

Instead, U.S. foreign affairs have been designed to spread capitalist economic practices that facilitate the prosperity of its own “ruling” class. Along the way, the U.S, seeks resource reliability for itself and its trading partners, security for its traditional allies and strategic advantage over old enemies.

In all these pursuits, the United States has long ago contented itself with what Jonathan Freedland once called the “sonofabitch school of foreign policy.” In other words, Washington doesn’t care if its cooperating allies are murderers, corrupt thieves, racists and the like. They might be bastards of the first order, but it is OK as long as they are “our bastards.” Such is the company we keep.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

image_pdfimage_print

7 comments for “Washington’s Outrage and Excuses

  1. N Dalton
    August 17, 2016 at 19:13

    The process of Israeli territorial expansion throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem has greatly accelerated in recent years, surrounded by the Israeli soldiers who protect violent settler-vigilantes as they assault and harass Palestinian farmers at work in their fields, beat Arab children on their way to school , pelt Palestinian housewives as they hang their laundry and then invade and defecate in Palestinian mosques and churches.

    Israels strategic goal is to impose Greater Israel on the region: to take over all of historical Palestine, expell the entire non-Jewish population and subsidize Jews-only settlements (for settler-immigrants, often from the US and former USSR). While bulldozers and tanks have dispossessed Palestinians in the West Bank for decades, the launching of thousands of missiles and bombs have become the weapons of choice for uprooting and eliminating the Palestinians in Gaza. In just eight days, Israels latest blitzkrieg resulted in the killing of 168 Palestinians (42 children and 100 civilians), the wounding of 1,235, the destruction of over 1,350 buildings and the further traumatizing of over 1.7 million children, women and men fenced in the worlds largest concentration camp.

    In other words, Washington doesn’t care if its cooperating allies are murderers, corrupt thieves, racists and the like. They might be bastards of the first order, but it is OK as long as they are “our bastards.”
    Such is the company we keep.

  2. Abe
    August 16, 2016 at 14:17

    “It’s clear that at this stage even those readers who haven’t been following the recent geopolitical events closely start asking the question: why, despite the billions of dollars allocated on the so-called ‘War on Terror’ no visible result has been reached so far by the Western allies in the fight against ISIS? Where do all these funds go and haven’t they been used by the US political and military establishment for the sake personal gain, instead of putting in place a comprehensive mechanism to fight the terror?

    “[…] in spite of Washington’s official rhetoric about the fight against terrorism, radical militants continue receiving new weapons, money and supplies, which has already resulted in a considerable boost in their morale that allowed ISIS to launch a counter-offensive. Weapons and funds keep flowing from states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which incriminates the United States big time. The Pentagon and the CIA in recent years have sent truckloads of weapons to Syria, while saying that they were designated to the members of the so-called ‘moderate opposition’, yet time and time again those weapons end up in the hands of radical militants, affiliated with the Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda and ISIS. And Washington has been fully aware of this fact”

    Obama Administration – the Faithful Accomplice of ISIS
    By Jean Perier
    http://journal-neo.org/2016/08/16/obama-administration-the-faithful-accomplice-of-isis/

  3. Bill Bodden
    August 16, 2016 at 13:56

    We would all do well to pay attention to Professor Davidson’s essay, but it is also a variation on a theme that has been told many times before. Only the names are different.

    • Peter Loeb
      August 17, 2016 at 07:04

      DAVIDSON’S PERCEPTIVE SUMMARY…

      Lawrence Davidson has once again made an excellent contribution in his
      summary of foreign policy events. Tragically, there appears to be no
      exit at this time.

      One can only underline Bill Bodden’s comment that “it had been made
      many times before.” Sometimes the names are NOT different
      at all. Analyses in detail are in Joyce and Gabriel Kolko’s THE LIMITS
      OF POWER: THE US AND THE WORLD 1945-1954. This landmark
      work provides the background not only of the effects of US policies
      but of the goals and objectives. A careful scrutiny of this work reveals
      a more profound comprehension. It is amazing how this triumphal
      dissection has not aged. The definition of some terms are different
      in light of today’s foreign policy realities. This commenter is on his third
      reading and continues to learn each time.

      In general the Kolkos’ underline and provide considerable depth to
      Lawrence Davidson’s views as expressed above.

      —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  4. Bill Bodden
    August 16, 2016 at 13:50

    It might be that these politicians actually believe this to be the case, at least at the moment they make these declarations. But there is no historical evidence that their claims are true. This argument is largely a face-saving one.

    The naive citizens who support these politicians may believe what they are told, but the odds are heavily in favor of the politicians knowing they are lying. If not, in addition to their being corrupt and morally bankrupt they are psychologically unfit for holding their offices. Their argument may be face-saving, but it is also a bald-faced lie.

  5. M2
    August 16, 2016 at 10:38
    • Joe Tedesky
      August 16, 2016 at 10:47

      Here is something to read in regard to the violations being imposed upon the good people of eastern Ukraine.

      https://slavyangrad.org

Comments are closed.