American Power and Principles – Irreconcilable odds

Can America ever be fair or at least learn to be so? This question has repeatedly featured whenever American internal and foreign policies are discussed. The vexed problem of fairness, justice and equity has plagued various US administrations, not excluding the current Bush one.

Indeed post September 11 has attracted more attention to what many perceive, quite correctly in my opinion, that US policies governing its power and principles are at odds. The current debate between two academics, one from Wits, John Stremlau and the other from UWC, Peter Vale in the pages of the Mail & Guardian is a manifestation of this gulf.

Vale argues that their exchanges are not insignificant differences that could be settled in the footnotes of academia. “However, because the real world in constituted by the understandings that anchor scholarship, the divide between Stremlau and myself goes to the heart not only of South African but also of American foreign policy”, says Vale in his rebuttal of the Wits head of International studies. (M&G, January 25 to 31 2002)

My own earlier debate with Stremlau on SABC TV following the September 11 attacks, alarmed me that an academic of his stature could rationalise American double standards.

Only on the basis of recognising American society as a nation of nations, will it dawn on US policy makers as well as politicians that in today’s monopolar international system, non-alignment in regional conflicts should be what characterises American foreign policy. Instead the scenario on the ground suggests that these concerns are dismissed with contempt. Is it not because of alignment on the preferences of one belligerent actor which results not only in antagonising other regional players, but also in alienating one component of its domestic national fabric?

One wonders whether today, almost five months after the attacks and at a time when more countries are expressing displeasure at the inhumane treatment being meted out to al-Qaeeda and Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay, there will be open and unfettered debate in US circles. Will they for instance, canvass a broad spectrum of public opinion on whether yesterday’s event justifies isolationism, unilateralism, multilateralism or interventionism? Will they review and agree to overhaul American foreign policy in the Middle East?

In a marked departure from the mainstream American press which has been spouting an abundance of patriotism, the Boston Globe’s Derrick Z Jackson has courageously challenged his compatriots to no longer ignore the fact that “we are helping the Israeli police and military to outkill Palestinians by more than 3-to-1 margin.” He argues that if terrorism out of the Middle East is to stop, America must stop fuelling the spiral of violence with its “lopsided support of Israel.” America has to stop turning a blind eye to Israel’s use of American weapons to kill Palestinians.

To further illustrate how far America has moved away from its founding principles in pursuance of power, it is necessary to identify this imbalance. The most damning example is the extent of aid that Israel receives from the US – in excess of $81 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service. In addition Israel has 320 American-made F-16 fighter planes, more than any other nation in the world, except the US of course.

While Palestinian children are criminalized for throwing rocks, Israel has to-date not been seriously criticised for using its 50 American-made Apache helicopters (with orders for 29 more) to attack Palestinians with laser-guided missiles.

Until the imbalances in American policies are confronted, Stremlau and his fellow liberal internationalists will be chasing symptoms, not solutions, as Peter Vale points out, instead of constructing a language of global politics, academics and the movie industry have competed to identify the next most plausible enemy to the American way. Now that this enemy has been identified as “global terrorism” with Islam as its “ideological patron,” one may be forgiven for naively believing that the US administration is a friend of Muslims, especially of the oppressed type.

In his memoirs, Present at the Creation, former American Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote that the UN Charter was a condensed version of American political philosophy. The current menacing posture adopted by the US, especially the images of shackled Afghani prisoners of war in Cuba, does not provide any hope that America is inclined to reconcile its power with its principles.

(Mr. Iqbal Jasarat is Chairman of the Media Review Network, which is an advocacy group based in Pretoria, South Africa.)