Dr. Ivan Eland has a great op-ed on what the US needs to do in regards to the situation in Syria, but what I found even more pertinent were his criticisms of US hypocrisy overseas:
The United States sometimes likes to stay above the fray while secretly fueling conflicts indirectly and accusing rival countries of stoking the conflict by supporting the bad guys. For example, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently accused the Russians of providing offensive weapons to the Assad regime. The Pentagon immediately started backpedaling by saying that attack helicopters being sent from Russia to Syria were not new but were probably old ones being repaired. The Russians then stated that the only arms contracts they had with Syria were for defensive weapons, such as air defenses. The American media of course gave a pass to the deceptive pronouncement by Clinton.
Bashar al-Assad is a brutal ruler who has so far killed more than 10,000 civilians in his own country. And the United States may be generally correct in criticizing Russian support for him. But even that is hypocritical, because the U.S. has supported governments that killed far more people—for example, in the 1980s, the U.S.-backed government of El Salvador killed 65,000 of its own people, many execution-style.
Also, the United States has directly killed more innocents than Assad ever has. In Vietnam, U.S. carpet bombing and other types of attacks killed millions of civilians and rivaled the wanton Nazi destruction in the Balkans during World War II. In the Korean War, the United States targeted dams in North Korea to flood cropland, thus inducing starvation among the people in order to hamper the North Korean war effort.
Conservatives often like to pretend that they favor limited government, but their blind support for US policies overseas highlights their true desires. Conservatives and liberals alike hide behind libertarian rhetoric when it is politically necessary (like when the other party is in the White House). This is because the American public is broadly libertarian and doesn’t like being told what to do, so why can’t somebody like former Governor Gary Johnson – who represents the best of both the Left and the Right – gain more traction in the national political process?
I think the issue that both the Left and the Right have with libertarians is foreign policy. Put simply: conservatives and liberals despise being told what to do by members of the other party, but both think it is okay to go around the world telling others what to do. This hypocrisy on the part of conservatives and liberals alike is often ignored or, when it cannot be ignored any longer – like when two airplanes flew into our commercial buildings – is draped in the most demagogic of rhetoric and propaganda.
I don’t buy the argument that we sometimes feel guilty for (1) being so rich or (2) for not intervening in the Holocaust earlier. If any of these two explanations were relevant then there would be US troops in the Congo Basin and the Darfur today.
The simple fact of the matter is that Americans are hypocritical when it comes to foreign policy, and for a few reasons.
Policymakers have more leeway in foreign affairs because Americans don’t like being told what to do but don’t mind telling others what to do. When a Republican-controlled congress drafts a bill authorizing the state to do as it pleases in the name of security, Democrats lividly protest such measures as unconstitutional. When a Democrat-controlled White House authorizes the state to take control of a couple of auto manufacturing firms, Republicans lividly protest such measures as unconstitutional. The minorities are right in both cases, of course, but when Washington decides to impose its will on factions outside of constitutional jurisdiction there is hardly a peep from either side of the aisle. Disgusting!
Another reason liberals and conservatives are supportive of empire has to do with willful ignorance. Americans generally distrust government at home, especially when the other party is in power, but when it comes to foreign policy Americans simply stick their heads into the sand. Oftentimes this cowardly ignorance comes back to bite the republic in the ass. Do I really need to bring up some case studies? Many Americans on both the Left and the Right – despite their libertarian inclinations – cannot stand criticism of their government from overseas either. It is one thing to have some pride and respect for the polity one lives in, of course, but it is quite another to remain in a willful state of ignorance about the nasty deeds that one’s government does in one’s name overseas.
Americans do not pay as much attention to foreign affairs as people in other states do. We never have and probably never will. The institutions of federalism, private property, free trade and individualism have given us opportunities that people in most other areas of the world can only dream about. As such, there is also a component of literal ignorance in foreign affairs in American life. This is a curious feature of American culture, and one that makes me smile when I think of the place where I was born. It doesn’t mean that critical thinking should be thrown out the window, though.
Conservatives and liberals alike often bring up morality into their arguments for bombing and occupying other regions of the world. They cite the Holocaust or our prosperity as reasons to go to war for another’s sake. The fact that other people may not want the republic’s help often escapes them, and the fact that – as I mentioned earlier – the US rarely succeeds at preventing catastrophes anyway does not seem to make a dent in the myth of American exceptionalism. Look at it this way: how many people in foreign states have welcomed the US military into their lands? A percentage of a population will do.
At the end of the day this hypocrisy can be traced to the elites that run the two parties here in the republic. Both factions think of themselves as above the law. Since they cannot impose their views on everybody else here at home and thanks to a deeply-embedded culture of adherence to the rule of law, they must turn their eyes towards the rest of the world. Thinking of themselves as above the law only enhances the hypocrisy of their actions, and this hypocrisy is in turn hidden beneath the thin veneer of diplomacy, Realpolitik, and pseudo-morality.
I do think there are cases where the US has to go to war, but those cases are few and far between and they should be undertaken with the utmost care so that such wars are not hypocritical. Indeed, as I stated in an earlier, lengthier post:
It would be nice, though, if the politicians and the intellectuals who advocate on behalf of these interventions would at least submit their expertise and their knowledge and their ideas – no matter how beautiful they are – to the cumbersome inanities of the rule of law and the messy process of constitutional government. I think the world would be a much safer, wealthier, and healthier place if this were the case.
I might also add a less hypocritical, demagogic one as well. Would Syrians truly benefit from a US bombing campaign in their country? It is a question that more Americans should be asking themselves, especially in light of the current war on terror and the expansion of Washington’s domestic security apparatus.