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Sunday, January 09, 2005


The expertise of John Negroponte

I have commented on several occasions (see here) on the appointment of John Negroponte to the position of US Ambassador to Iraq, an appointment that, at the very least sends an appalling message on the priority of human rights in the Bush imagination, and at the very worst, augers ill for the for the future of human rights in Iraq.

Unfortunately, it appears that Negroponte might be more than just a public relations error – though the silence that surrounded his appointment damns the pro-war humanitarians – as Newsweek reports that US military planners contemplate the adoption of the ‘El Salvador’ model in Iraq. Death squads, in other words.

Ann Clwyd – and the pro-war left – should have learned the lesson that Saddam, amongst others, taught the USA. The enemy of my enemy is not my friend. Saddam, despite the guilt-by-association attacks of those who favoured war, is not my friend. But neither are a gang of old-style Cold Warriors who have spent the past 30 years demonstrating their contempt for the values of human rights, dignity and decency, allied to the new blood of Christian fundamentalists and the backed by the ahuman hand of self-interested big capital.

Thanks to Lenin’s Tomb for the link, who has posted commentary, including discussion of the brutality of the original ‘El Salvador’ model.

followed the link from Harry's Place. i left one more comment, but we should leave it at that. we can correspond here instead.

i don't think i agree with your assessment of El Salvador, and the fight against world communism(tm) at all. it seems to me that you are advocating that we in the USA should have surrendered the world to the Soviets simply because we were unwilling to get our hands dirty. i have to say that given what we know about the USSR now, our actions were on the whole, justified. that's about as good as it gets in the real world.

as for Saddam and our support of him. i think that when history has its say, we will understand that by aiding and abetting the viciousness of a secular jerk, we neutralized the ambitions of the religious jerk. at the same time, we kept Saddam busy. Sadly, when the USSR was around, we were unable to intervene directly an club them both into a well deserved coma. now we have the opportunity.

my email is attached to the Harry's Place comments should you need it.
I understand the realpolitik arguments for supporting Saddam and backing death squads, but I do not agree with them. If it was legitimate to support the torture and murder of people to prop up, say, Saddam's regime, then it surely exonerates Saddam for doing just that. After all, by your arguments, his depredations were necessary to combat the Communist revolution in the first instance, and, after the overthrow of the Shah, the Islamic revolution.

That you support these, yet still seek to punish the non-American perpetrators of these crimes, points to an amoral American exceptionalism. I.e. what America does in the pusuit of its ends is de facto right, even when they contradict its ends and demand the condemnation of events still supported in retrospect.

Your comments about 'keeping Saddam busy' speak of your utter indifference of the Iraqis themselves, except where they can be turned into tools for your own nationalist ambitions.

I doubt that I shoudl expect anything else from a contributor to a blog that regularly uses the dehumanising phrase, 'the turd world'.
i seem to contribute mostly here (lately) and Harry's Place. the only blog i read that uses the "Turd World" is Diplomadic, and i have never commented there.

before the fall of the Soviet Union we were stuck accepting certain realities. one of them was we could not go around aggressively spreading democracy, lest we run into the Soviets, who could make us pay for ruining their fun. we ended up, by our unwillingness to face nuclear war, standing by and watching millions be enslaved to the hammer and sickle, either directly or to client states like Cuba and Nicaragua.

not anymore. with no Bear to fear, we are capable of more. that is the ultimate standard with which to judge behavior. how well did we achieve what was possible. not how close to perfect did we get, but out of what we were capable of, how much did we do. without the Soviets limiting our capabilities, we are capable of more. it is a moral imperitive that we do more.

your "amoral American exceptionalism" is just doubletalk for double standard. the USA gets judged versus perfection while everyone else gets judged by reality.
Apologies, I thought you were recommending 'Diplomadic' as you were a contributor.

The US is not being judged against perfection, at least not by me. It is judged according to its own standards and values, or at least those it articulates as being its standards and values. It the past it has fallen short in way that, to an outsider, seems wicked. That it is less bad than those it opposes it not a sufficient argument for saying that it is good. I have made this argument before. US actions in Latin America during the Cold War seems to go much further than simply preventing Communist dictatorship, running right through to the establishment of right-wing oligarchal torture states. Importantly, these states were relatively unconcerned with distributing the wealth of the nations amongst the people of the nations, did not nationalise indutries or allow too much irritating democracy, and were happy to see the profits of the nations industries primarily swell the bank accounts of a few local strongmen and foreign corporations. These are not the standards and values that the US claimed to espouse at the time, so naturally, the US is judged harshly when considered against its public face.

Furthermore, there is the feeling that the US is a home of freedom, yet it disappoints, and sometimes is, as I have said above, seen to behave in a way that cannot be described as anything other than wicked. Consequently, if you are an Iraqi, or an Uzbecki, or a Chilean, it seems perfectly reasonable to look suspiciously, or even with hostility, at the US and its actions abroad. Here is a nation that stands on the principle of freedom, but it is one that was active in its support of governments that gassed your people, threw them out of helicopters or raped them with dogs, or boiled them alive, at least, were active in this support so long as it suited the interests of the US.

Now, you ask me and I will criticise many, indeed all, other governments too. But America is unique, especially now, in its global power. While many governments act in ways that can only be described as wicked, only the US can project this across the globe. Most nations only act within their borders, more or less. The government of the US has the power to affect the lives of all citizens on Earth in the course of fairly unspectacular, everyday behaviour, whether economically, culturally or militarily. That the US is a democracy is all well and good, for those within the US, but for those beyond the US it may as well be a dictatorship, for its power is unaccountable.
it's power is unnaccountable...

you forget. the USA government is accountable to those who really matter to that government. the Citizens. the USA does not exist for your benefit. if you want a say in the way things run here, move, get citizenship, and vote. the power of the USA is a result of the collective choices we have made over the centuries. it is not an accident, nor is it "providence." it is the end result of how we have chosen to organize ourselves both politically and economically. if your country lacks the power we have, it is simply because you have made different choices. to the extent that you have made those decisions to limit your own country's power, you are wrong. if you want to make global decisions, you have to be in a position to dictate terms. maybe you all should have thought of that when you were so intent on kicking the crap out of each other in the last 200 years. if you harbor dreams of Lilliputian world governments tying the USA up, remember that in order for that to happen, we have to first lie down. 9-11 prevented that from ever happening.
Sean, you misunderstand. The democracy of the USA legitimates the internal exercise of its power. When it exercises its power outside its borders, the fact that it is a democracy is more or less irrelevant. The people beyond the borders of the USA who are subject to the decisions of the USA have no (or proportionally very little) control or input over this exercise of power. This, whatever you feel are the benefits of this system, is best described as the dictatorial use of power - decisions are dictated, in this case, from the outside.

For example, consider a one party state. In The Party there is absolute democracy, but The Party governs the state by dictat, not democracy. Here, the democracy of The Party is irrelevant to the people of the state, as it is their relationship with the power that is exercised over them which characterises the form of government they endure.

Your comments on power are interesting, and sound frighteningly fascistic, in the sense that you see nothing wrong in domination by the powerful, as power is the legitimising 'virtue'. Consider converting your approach to US actions in the wider world to a domestic setting. Here, the powerful are justified in their power as a matter of course, and you would think nothing of a state organised in an undemocratic fashion, led by the powerful. Democracy is a means of empowering people in the decisions that affect their lives.

In previous posts you have argued that America's moral purpose is the spread of democracy. Your argument here appears to contradict this, suggesting that, in fact, you are happy with the unaccountable exercise of power over foreign peoples, just so long as a minority of the worlds most wealthy and powerful people do not dissent.

The UN is a means of preventing a state of international affairs that is governed solely by the exercise of self-interested power. That you think this is not only the way international affairs are, but that this should be the way international relations should be, you cast the democratising goal of the US in the mould of a fiction, a lie that legitimises war.
I see what you are saying here, i just don't agree with it. let's start with what i think is the most basic philosophical difference we seem to have. i don't think life is a cooperative game. (not to minimize here, but i can't think of a better word than "game" right now)it is a (very) competitive one.

it is clear that different species on the planet compete for habitat, prey, and reproductive opportunities. what is not immediately apparent is that the best (or worst, depending on your personal view) competitor is another organism of the same species. as social creatures, humans have organized themselves in such a way as to promote their own personal chances to "win" at this game. this competition now happens less on an individual level, and more on a group level. we organize our groups to provide the greatest competitive advantage.

part of our adaptation to the world consists of the particular way we organize ourselves politically. the USA has organized itself in a particular way, and is currently on top. we are the winners at this point in the game. this has some practical effects. those who see our success, and are interested in gaining the advantages of it can either move here and join our "team," or they can organize their team like we do, hoping that our success is repeatable. others, who have less "cooperative" ways of competing can do a number of things. since culture and politics is a war of ideas that translates into practical advantages on the ground, it would be a valid (in the sense that it would be effective) method of hobbling your adversary to spread bad ideas that sound appealing in his society. one such bad idea is the idea of groups having "rights."

let's be clear, there is no group that has any rights that are not posessed by everyone individually. this idea of group "rights" leads to the wacky idea of "national soverignity," as it is practiced today. sure, Iraq slaughters its subjects, but it is a legitimate government, recognized internationally, so therefore has certain "rights." the proper response to that statement is belly laughter, possibly with a bit of rolling around on the ground. since the government of Iraq did not represent its people, it had no legitimacy, and therfore could be disposed of in ANY way we saw fit. we have no obligation to liberate the place, though a strong moral case could be made to do so.

it is a bit of a stretch to attempt to justify that all those people who are affected by a decision should have a say in the decision, but i can see why you would make it. consider though, you did have a say. the problem is that your say was not backed up with enough force to make your opinion count. and that is a result of the long term decisions made by your government and the governments of your political allies. Britannia used to rule the waves. France used to field a world class Army. Italy makes Ferraris (how'd that get in there?) now the UK's navy is designed around submarine hunting, the French Army cannot legally be deployed outside France (Foreign Legion is foreign, not because of the foreigners, but because it can fight outside of France, and no Frenchman can legally be obligated to serve in it) and of course the Italians still make Ferraris. (laugh, damn it! i'm trying to inject a little humor, lest you think i dislike you or something) these decisions, and thousands of others have contributed to the point where no one is able to stop us from doing exactly as we please.

inside of our respective groups, claiming the status of "victim" works. it is effective in getting the coorcive power of government on your side in a debate about who will get their way. outside these groups, claiming the victim and expecting to get similar results does not work, mostly because there is no cooercive power outside of the Nation-state. what little power there is in the UN is primarily invested in status-quo. don't rock the boat. don't kick the crap out of that dictator and his cronies because that would "destabilize" the region.

have you ever noticed that the UN seems to use similar arguments to school teachers? don't beat the crap out of that bully, appeal to our authority. we'll fix things, honest! meanwhile you are still getting abused behind the teacher's back, and if you fight back, you get in just as much trouble. we all know that the ultimate answer is to beat the bully so badly that he never even considers looking crosseyed at you again. but when you are making that decision, can you be blamed for believing that while the teacher claims to be on your side, effectively she protects not you, but the bully? it is his actions that are free, and yours that are restricted.

i see the US as a case of my buddy Jeremy, writ large. Jeremy, in the fashion of many large boys, was the gentle giant. partly in his nature not to be aggressive, and partly because in school, the big guy is always the one in trouble for picking on the little guy. so smarmy little a**hole bully, with a chip on his shoulder, pushes the big guy around, knowing he is safe because the teachers will punish, not wrongdoing, but LOUD wrongdoing. little stuff can slide in under the radar. Jeremy is faced with the choice of allowing someone to make his life hell, or taking the punishment for defending himself.

the main difference here is this. the UN is toothless, and can't punish us. while you may have a point, that the US is unnacountable, the decisions made that set the situation up were not ours alone. your side had its say, and ultimately, the market decided. not, i hasten to add, in your favor.
oh, yeah, one other thing, power grows from the barrel of a gun. i agree with Mao on that one. the ultimate power is the ability to kill those who oppose you. you are free to use that power (try not to get personal with it! use it at the national level, not the personal level) those who oppose us are free to take their arguments to a higher court.
in case you missed it, the last million years of evolution have confirmed that violence is that higher court. it is what keeps the food chain running the way it does.
one should have a care that when he conciously chooses the role of sheep, he should make sure that there is a big dog nearby that will guard him. and he should have a care not to criticize that dog overmuch, lest the dog allow the sheep an example of his alternative.
"[V]iolence is that higher court. [I]t is what keeps the food chain running the way it does."

Sean, I don't have to tell you that, with a handful of very rare exceptions, people don't eat other people anymore. If we draw a food chain, human beings all occupy the same level. Even if they did not, it is hard to see how you claim to find the basis of morality in 'nature, red in tooth and claw'.

Your argument about bullies is laughable. If we didn't delegitimise the role of violence in our social organisation, then it would not be the good kid who triumphed in the playground, as it might in some Hollywood movie. Rather, the bully would run the school. You know Sean, the process of moving away from violence as a legitimate means of organising society is roughly described as civilisation.

We build institutions to place violence as far away from our interactions as possible. We frame laws, build law courts and employ the police. We build systems of government that at least attempt to create the impression that political power is shared between the people. The UN is this writ large, an attempt to delegitimise war, except as the last resort.

Now, your vision of society seeks to strip all this away, to celebrate the use of force as a means of shaping society as desired. This, I'm afraid, the the kind of 'triumph of the will', 'uberman' ideology that so inspired fascism and countless militaristic dictatorships since.

Celebrating American power as if this legitimates its actions and its social organisation is a foolish manner of argument, as in 1939 you would have been forced to accept that Germany must have the best social and economic system, as it was the most powerful, and in 1900 you would have been full of praise for Britain as it killed, tortured and raped its way round an empire. I dare say that in the 1960s and 1970s you would have been singing the praises of Soviet totalitarian Communism.

You seek a world where violence legitimates and where tax is thought of as murder. What you seek is barbarity, but with that you are happy as you are a member of the strongest tribe. I seek a world that delegitimates violence and seeks to organise society increasingly on the basis of the common good. This is not a utopian dream, as we do see murder as legitmate, we delegate the power of force to a government bound by institutions, laws and distributed political power. This end can be achieved on an international stage also.
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