The Virus of the Mind: Imperialism, Syria, and Selective Accountability

Who’s to Blame?

Years ago, when I was a freshman in college, I remember having a conversation with a young Republican. I can’t remember the context or how the subject came up, but we were discussing the blameworthiness of those implicated in the escalation of the Vietnam War. “It all began with Kennedy,” he claimed while I insisted that Eisenhower was actually the one to blame for having propped up the French in Indochina. It was the Republicans’ fault not the Democrats!

I wish I could say that we were two philosophers searching for the truth, but the only truth we were out for was a predetermined one: that your party, not mine, is responsible for the world’s problems. (Oh, no! My party would never be responsible for such atrocities!) It was a disingenuous conversation because we each walked in with an agenda. Years later, it’s a conversation that often comes to mind when I feel as though I’m sliding into Democratic Apologetics.

Since then, I’d like to imagine that I’ve grown. Now I understand that when it comes to the foreign policy of the United States it’s not fair to blame any particular leader since, in assigning blame, it has the potential to infinitely regress. Sure, both Kennedy and Eisenhower each had a finger in the Vietnam pie, but the problem is not with any one man but with an idea: Imperialism. The struggle is against an idea that goes as far back as the Monroe Doctrine. And this idea more than just bad policy – it’s a virus of the mind that through corporate greed and market forces drive us into conflict we’d all do better stepping away from.

On this long history, I’ll defer to Howard Zinn. In this excerpt from A People’s History (p. 408) he’s alluding to the competing narratives over why the United States entered in World War II. In particular, the notion that there was a spirit of heroism that drove us to fight Fascism for the good of all mankind and a country’s right to self-determination.

For the United States to step forward as a defender of helpless countries matched its image in American high school history textbooks, but not its record in world affairs. It had opposed the Hatian revolution for independence from France at the start of the nineteenth century. It had instigated a war with Mexico and taken half of that country. It had pretended to help Cuba win freedom from Spain, and then planted itself in Cuba with a military base, investments, and rights of intervention. It had seized Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and fought a brutal war to subjugate the Filipinos. It had “opened” Japan to its trade with gunboats and threats. It had declared an Open Door Policy in China as a means of assuring that the United States would have opportunities equal to other imperial powers in exploiting China. It had sent troops to Peking with other nations, to assert Western supremacy in china, and kept them there for over thirty years.

While demanding an Open Door in China, it had insisted (with the Monroe Doctrine and many military interventions) on a Closed Door in Latin America — that is, closed to everyone but the United States. It had engineered a revolution against Colombia and created the “independent” state of Panama in order to build and control the Canal. It sent five thousand marines to Nicaragua in 1926 to counter a revolution, and kept a force there for several years. It intervened in the Dominican Republic for the fourth time in 1916 and kept troops there for eight years. It intervened for the second time in Haiti in 1915 and kept troops there for nineteen years. Between 1900 and 1933, the United States intervened in Cuba four times, in Nicaragua twice, in Panama six times, in Guatemala once, in Honduras seven times. By 1924 the finances of half of the twenty Latin American states were being directed to some extent by the United States. By 1935, over half of U.S. steel and cotton exports were being sold in Latin America.

… And this only takes us up until World War II, but of course the story doesn’t end there: there’s still Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua again, and many others.

Now there’s talk of Syria.

On Syria

Let me start by stating that this blog post won’t encapsulate my full views on the situation in Syria (if only because the issue is complex and fixing the world won’t happen in 1700 words). Generally speaking, though, I do believe something must be done on strictly humanitarian grounds. Regardless as to who unleashed chemical weapons, they were unleashed on civilians and this will only exacerbate the refugee crisis in the region. I do not believe the United States should take “forceful action,” which is the war-drum euphemism for Tomahawk Missiles. (Frankly, anyone who thinks that the only action is war should be embarrassed).

Lastly, what’s happening in Syria is a re-balancing of sectarian power: it was western colonial powers that drew the borders and it was the west that propped up minority ethnic/religious groups to control the majority.What we’re seeing now is the inevitable consequence of the aforementioned virus of the mind. That’s it.

Selective Morality, Selective Accountability

One of the most prevalent arguments for a unilateral attack on Syria is – as everyone knows – that country’s use of chemical weapons. The numbers coming from the administration claim that the 1,400 deaths have crossed a “red line.” The problem though is that these numbers are in dispute and may have been exaggerated by rebel groups to encourage intervention. Even so, regardless as to how we may count the dead, the real point is that a government used chemical weapons. This violates not only international law but also the international “norm” against their use.

Personally, this argument in defense of the “norm” is the most persuasive I’ve heard so far. As someone who believes in the virtues of international law, the truth is that international law holds as much weight as a bag of feathers. Any time a government is willing to pretend the bag holds brick is a good thing. Unfortunately, though, the only practical value of international law is its use as a rhetorical tool by governments used to (selectively) justify our actions. It is the banner we roll out at our convenience so we may claim a position of morality (even though our goals may be anything but). The moment our intentions change we roll the banner up and visit the archives of the United Nations to find a new one. The reason why I say this is because – on chemical weapons – this is exactly what the United States has done.

Citing only our experiences with Iraq, we haven’t been afraid to change our tune when it’s most convenient. For example, during the Iraq-Iran War because our interests lied in an Iraq victory we passed along intelligence to Saddam Hussein. We did this knowing that he would use nerve gas, but we turned the other way.

The intelligence included imagery and maps about Iranian troop movements, as well as the locations of Iranian logistics facilities and details about Iranian air defenses. The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on U.S. satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence. These attacks helped to tilt the war in Iraq’s favor and bring Iran to the negotiating table, and they ensured that the Reagan administration’s long-standing policy of securing an Iraqi victory would succeed. But they were also the last in a series of chemical strikes stretching back several years that the Reagan administration knew about and didn’t disclose.

Eventually, Iraq went on to win the war because of our support. Two years later, in defense of the oil economy, we ourselves would go to war with Iraq after he invaded Kuwait. Following our victory, over the next decade we kept Iraq under close watch through the UN to make sure Hussein did not obtain Weapons of Mass Destruction (such as chemical weapons). By 2003, though, based upon false evidence, the US invaded under a series of ever-changing banners: Hussein was violating international law, he was sponsoring attacks against us, it’s preemptive self-defense, and/or it’s about democracy. By 2005, it was apparent that the United States used chemical weapons to liberate the city of Fallujah.

The U.S. government has now admitted its troops used white phosphorus as an incendiary weapon against Iraqis during the assault on Fallujah a year ago.

Chemical weapons experts say such attacks are in violation of international law banning the use of chemical weapons.

Peter Kaiser, of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said, “Chemicals used against humans or animals that cause harm or death through the toxic properties of the chemical are considered chemical weapons.”

White phosphorus is often compared to napalm because it combusts spontaneously when exposed to oxygen and can burn right through skin to the bone.

By 2009, the new president said that rather than pursue members of the last administration he was going to look-forward and start a new chapter in the history of the United States. That same year he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Two years later (2011) the Iraq war was over and the Arab Spring was spreading across the Near- and Middle-East, including Syria. In 2013, chemical weapons were used in Syria and now it’s time to hold the guilty accountable.

With all of this said, it’s hard for me to take the war hawks seriously. As our elected officials proclaim the virtues of international law and their abhorrence of chemical warfare, I’m furious. Speaking like religious preachers, they carefully choose their words to emphasize the Just and Moral Cause. Yet, beneath it all, is – as before – that damn virus of the mind: what’s good for the United States is good for the region and what isn’t is bad for the world. Supposedly, it’s also our job to tell the difference – so, selectively, we dust off the old banners and roll them out, ignorant of the irony.

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