Regular readers will know that I mostly write about economics and European politics. This post is an exception: Today, I would like to talk about foreign policy.
More specifically, I would like to discuss the validity of what I like to call the hypocrisy argument (I don’t know whether there is an official name, but I like this one): The argument that the US has no right to intervene militarily against Country X, because the US itself has committed atrocities in Country Y.
There are several different variations. Some of the most popular include:
“Yeah sure, Saddam gassed the Kurds, but what right does the US have to complain about that? The US dropped napalm on Vietnam”
“Sure, Hamas are killing innocent Israelis – but that’s nothing compared to what the US did to the native Americans”
“The US has no right to occupy Afghanistan – OK, so the Talibans weren’t great when they were in government, but let’s not forget the US supported Pinochet”
Essentially, what the argument comes down to is that since the US isn’t by any means a perfect country, it has no right to wage wars against countries that violate human rights. By doing so, the United States is being a hypocrite.
To anyone who thinks that this is a valid argument against American neoconservatism, let me pose to you the following scenario:
You are walking down the street at night. All of a sudden, a man lounges himself at you and wrestles you down. This man makes his intentions clear – he isn’t interested in money, he is out to murder you.
Now imagine that in the midst of all this, a second man walks down the street. He is much bigger than the guy who is currently trying to murder you, and can easily stop him if he wants to. Do you think he should intervene? Unless you have a very strong death-wish, I imagine you do. Now, please imagine that the potential rescuer has himself committed murder in the past, but is now rehabilitated. Do you still think he should intervene?
You probably do. Whatever actions this man has taken in the past; right now under this scenario he is the only one who can save you, and whatever his past failures, you’d rather that he do.
That is the position that the people (in particular the ethnic minorities) who live in oppressive totalitarian states – like Iraq, pre-2003 – find themselves in today. There is only one country that can save them, and that country unfortunately doesn’t have a spotless history. But, if you were living in a totalitarian country, do you really think you’d care? If you were a Kurd about to be gassed by Saddam Hussein, do you think you would care about what the US did in Vietnam? If you’re a woman in Iran about to be stoned for the crime of having been raped, do you think you would care about the regrettable treatment of the Native Americans? I don’t think so – as long as someone saves you, you probably couldn’t care less what else they’ve done.
The only people who care about the “hypocrisy” of the US preventing other nations from doing what they themselves have done historically, are upper-middle class liberals who have never experienced any real danger in their lives. Anyone who has, understands that this argument is completely irrelevant.
The next question is; could this not apply to other countries?
Russia is the most recent example of a country that has intervened in another country, using that country’s (supposed) human rights violations as an excuse. Yet, Russia has historically committed more human rights abuses than anyone (save for China and North Korea perhaps). Hence, when they intervene in Ukraine – even assuming they are right about the plight of the Russian minority – they are certainly being hypocrites. And, let’s not forget, they’ve never seemed to care about the right to self-government for the people of Chechnya.
To understand the difference, we really just need to look at the US and compare it to Russia as it is today: Yes, the US has committed human rights violations against Native Americans less than 100 years ago – but the US is not imprisoning journalists today for speaking up against the regime. Russia is still to this very day an undemocratic country, and if they occupy a country (or even just a region like Crimea) then that country can be expected to soon turn totalitarian as well.
If Russia’s crimes were all in the past, then that would be one thing. But, as the political prisoners currently doing time in Siberia can testify, they are not.
Another difference are the circumstances that existed when the “crimes” were committed – the US intervention in Vietnam may not have been perfect, to say the least, from an ethical perspective; however no-one can seriously doubt that the US was trying to protect Vietnam from turning into a totalitarian communist state. The US didn’t intervene in Vietnam to annex Vietnam; but to protect half of Vietnam from being annexed by the other half of Vietnam. The United States is one of few countries (the UK being the only other example I can think of) that are willing to sacrifice its own young men & women for the sake of somebody else’s freedom.
Even when the US has supported (or, should we say, tolerated) seemingly bad regimes – Pinochet in Chile, Franco in Spain – they have done so to protect those countries from an even worse regime (that being a Soviet puppet regime). It is worth noticing that while the US supported, or at least tolerated, the apartheid regime in South Africa for a very long time, the US turned against the regime when they were confident of winning the cold war (and, having done that, they didn’t need the apartheid regime as a shield against communism anymore). None of the dictatorships that the US supported ever turned as oppressive as the communist dictatorships – do not get me wrong, Franco was a tyrant (and his modern-day successors are not a whole lot better), but Kim Jong-Il and Stalin were still a lot worse – whether measured by # of deaths, economic growth, or virtually any other variable.
And contrary to liberal daydreams, the US didn’t invade Iraq to steal their oil – the US imports less oil from Iraq today than it did, pre-invasion, and it pays for all the oil that it imports – paying for oil is btw a lot cheaper than occupying a country, so the whole concept never made sense in the first place; but then, liberals have never been known for being good at economics. The US didn’t go to Iraq to steal their oil, just like it didn’t go to South Vietnam to steal their bambu or to Germany to steal their sauerkrats.
When you stand up for freedom through military means, mistakes are bound to happen. It only takes one single soldier to commit a war crime, and when you invade a country, you tend to have so many soldiers that it’s more or less inevitable that one of them will misbehave. And, you are bound to become a hypocrite – fighting for human rights in one place, while some of your soldiers are violating human rights in another place.
At the end of the day, however, I think you have to look at the big picture – which is that the US is the one thing standing between us and global tyranny. It sounds dramatic, but seriously – tell me who would be holding back Russia & China & North Korea & Iran if not the United States? These evil nations – and I do believe that term is appropriate – are only restrained because Americans are willing to sacrifice their children so that other nations can live in freedom.
And personally, I’m happy that they’re willing to do that. Even if that makes them hypocrites.
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