How Do We Choose a Villain?
June 20, 2011 1 Comment
There has been harsh criticism of the US’s foreign policy even before it was apparent that no weapons of mass destruction were going to be found in Iraq.
To this day many polemists, perhaps the most famous one is Noam Chomsky are quick to point out the double standards or hypocrisy of the past and present US governments. Although it is not only the US that is accused of hypocrisy, since it is the largest economy and has the most powerful army, it is usually the one leading the world strategy and bearing the brunt of being chastised.
A blog is probably not the right platform to recount all of the US’s past “mistakes”, but it is worth looking at the motivation behind events in the last 10 years.
One of the biggest criticisms is the reason for actions against foreign countries. For example, sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear plan, sanctions against Iran’s nuclear plan, war in Afghanistan, war in Iraq, intervention in Libya and more importantly not enough intervention in other countries such as Darfur, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Congo …etc.
Many criticizers point out that it is absurd for the US to go against nuclear ambitions of some countries, while having nuclear itself or the reluctance to put Israel through the same scrutiny. It is also absurd to arm a certain group or topple a certain dictator in the name of democracy and human rights, but happily accept and work alongside a “friendly” dictator, which tramples on the same human rights.
Theoretically all these criticisms are valid. Looked at academically and independently, they would be hard to defend and plenty of scholars and politicians have gained fame and money pointing that out.
However in my opinion this is where the subtle difference lays.
There is no doubt that the Western world has become very wary of war and more liberal in its political orientation (although we are seeing this slowly changing in parts of Europe such as Finland, Netherland..etc.). At least in the intellectual communities and on the street there is still a sense of guilt because of Europe’s past, which involves years of colonization and all the negative things that come with it. South Africa is possibly the most recent example and has the biggest impact, as in its case, the wound is still bleeding as black Africans are still striving for economic freedom and Nelson Mandela is around to tell us about the horrors of Apartheid first hand. However South Africa is only one amongst many. Anyone who has the privilege to travel to exotic places such as the Caribbean, India, Australia, Africa…etc., doesn’t have to look very deep to see the marks left by the Western world. Evidence of oppressed indigenous cultures and exploitation could be found in abundance.
The liberal orientation manifests itself in the public being very suspicious about any political intervention in foreign countries. Any efforts to “build a country” are often seen as attempts in modern colonization in the sense of making money on the expense of another, while exploiting their natural reserves and taking advantage of their less advanced infrastructure and/or naivety. Many conflicts are seen as bullying regimes into playing ball and removing any obstacles to trade.
While one could interpret the data in this way and conclude that this is the true motivation, there is a more convincing explanation that stands the test of reality better. The claim that it is all about the money is only half right. It would be more correct to say it is all about the money and the balance of power. The US’s actions have always been about preserving the status quo of the world’s power balance, which in return secures its economy.
For example, 9/11 was an event that shook America and threatened to destabilize the US economy. The US knew before 9/11 about the Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, but they never acted upon this, since it didn’t pose a real threat to the world’s power balance, just the same as they never addressed militant activity in other parts of the Middle East. However when 9/11 cut through right to the heart of America’s conscious and economy the US decided to change the regime and stop the support, which they believed would end up in further attacks on the same scale.
In Iraq the first Gulf War in 1990 was not about the weapons of mass destruction. Rather it was about an unpredictable Arab leader, Saddam Hussein, invading another country and threatening the world economy by trying to change the terms of the game, which would affect commerce amongst other things. The next time around in 2003 it was the same unpredictable leader raising his head again and this time aiding terrorists and expressing aspirations of attaining weapons that could change world powers.
North Korea is another example of a regime intent of changing the power balance in the world. In the Korean War in 1950, North Korea was backed by China, while South Korea was backed by the US. North Korea winning the war would have changed the balance of power and in a similar way today, a powerful North Korea still poses a risk to the world’s power balance. Moreover, the fact that the Korean leader is an unpredictable character, who the US believes is capable of using nuclear power, puts him even more as a threat to the US economy and a loose force that has to be neutralized in order to maintain the status quo.
Iran is probably one of the most interesting out of all the examples. Apart from the extreme religious views of the regime, which is a threat in itself to the Western way of life, if ever vigorously exported to Europe and the US. Iran poses another threat to the US, since nuclear capabilities would make it the super power amongst the Arab countries in the region, some of these Arab nations have close economic ties with the US. A new power order could change trade trends as well as make the region much more flammable, which could potentially cause the US economy to ground to a halt. Therefore it is essential for the US that Iran does not obtain this advantage. However on the other hand, stopping Iran by force would not be easy and is also a path that might affect the economy and ignite a bigger conflict. This is why so far, the US has only been using sanctions, which in essence are a way to control the flames around that conflict. While keeping the conflict on a low heat for now, the US is doing something, but reserving the choice to turn up the flames to a full military operation, which is what I believe they would do, when all options have been exhausted and time would run out.
When Iran’s nuclear aspirations are mentioned it is often compared with Israel’s ambiguous nuclear capabilities, which the US and EU seem tolerant of. This is a somewhat strange situation, since in Israel’s case the nuclear capability is already part of the equation, therefore taking it away could disrupt the balance. Israel has never confirmed their nuclear capability nor signed the non-proliferation treaty, its official stance on nuclear weapon has always been that whether it really has it or not, is not important, rather, the deterrence it creates, which helps preserve a ceasefire with its neighbouring countries. The US and much of the Western world, seem to subscribe to this claim.
Unlike the conflicts mentioned, other conflicts which are taking place in the world have not had a response from the US or alternatively the EU. The reason for it is probably because war is a very expensive venture and when there is no significant gain or loss predicted or a successful outcome projected, governments would rather run a mile from it. It is hard for any government to justify taking much needed money and instead of investing it in the country, investing it in an over-sea operation. As justified as it may be, this would put any government in a huge disadvantage in the following elections. This probably why there has not been much intervention in massacres in African or Asia Pacific countries, where the leaders have been just as ruthless and the death toll has been much higher than in the most discussed conflicts in the Middle East. Why the UN has not led an action against these atrocities is a completely different discussion, which could be summarised as “short term politics over global values”
As mentioned before war is a very expensive venture and governments’ goal is essentially to be re-elected, this often leads to the country that has led the war to be the first to act, in order to gain economically from the new situation. This manifests itself with establishing new economic ties with the country, bringing in workforce from home to undertake work in the country and so on. This aspect has also been criticized, sometimes unjustifiably distorted to imply that this was the motivation for an intervention in the first place.
The one aspect which has not been adequately dealt with is why governments cannot be open about their motivation for going to war. Why did the US and EU base their military effort in Iraq mainly on the assumptions that there are weapons of mass destruction. The only reasons I could find for this is the liberal orientation of the public, which as mentioned earlier, the public is already suspicious and does not tend to support military action easily. Another reason could be the level of engagement of the public. The governments and their PR advisors are under the impression that people cannot follow complex theories and only relate to situations where they can clearly see how they would be affected, so the governments need to focus on the main points rather than try to push a complex theory. Also, in order to maintain advantage the government can make limited usage of information they have, in order to sway public opinion. For example, the US knew about the secret nuclear plant in Iran long before Iran went public, however the US never thought to “out” them and use it as part of a PR campaign.
It is important to mention that sometimes governments get it wrong, they align with the wrong side or underestimate an event. We should judge the quality of the government on its ability to predict and act correctly in these situations (unfortunately it takes time to be able to asses a situation correctly) and it seems that we are going to have many opportunities to do so, as there is a very strong force of change sweeping the middle East and Africa.