What Kalesh Can Tell You About Washington’s Foreign Policy

“There were three people in civilian dress…They had a big stick with ropes at each end… I was asked to sit on the floor… At this time I am handcuffed and chained in my legs. The stick with the ropes was inserted through the folding of my knees…and the ropes were tied to my handcuffed hands. I became like a football… I was sitting/lying on the floor and these three devils… started kicking and beating me brutally with the rod… There are still marks… of that day on my body.”

The words are Kalesh’s, an Indian national, living in Saudi Arabia. He had been accused by Saudi authorities of theft and, like thousands of others picked up by the Saudi police, jailed incommunicado. Some of those who run afoul of Saudi authorities are executed — beheaded to be more precise; some flogged (including children); some have hands severed; some are tortured. Apostasy is a capital crime.

Think of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Harsh religious laws; beheadings; public executions and flogging; women in burqas. Now you know what Saudi Arabia is like. It’s Afghanistan under the Taliban, only with immense oil wealth, and all of that wealth in the hands of the Saud family.

There are no political parties, no trade unions, no independent human rights organizations.

So why is George W. Bush pledging America’s “eternal friendship” to this undemocratic, human rights monstrosity? You would think that a country that openly seeks regime change in Iraq and Zimbabwe and Belarus, and less openly in Venezuela — to promote democracy and human rights, we’re told — would be repulsed by, rather than vowing eternal friendship to, an implacable enemy of virtues Washington claims to hold in such high esteem.

Could it be that Washington’s paeans to democracy and human rights are just, gosh!, lip-service?

It kind of reminds you of the rich, conspicuously churchgoing, family-values touting family across town — the one with the neatly dressed kids, the father in impeccably tailored business suits, mother a paragon of maternal virtues — you know, the ones with the huge, wrought iron fence around their palatial home, and the armed guards patrolling the perimeter (more numerous since the fire-bombing last year.) And you wonder, why is it that dad keeps inviting those delegations of Hell’s Angels over for lunch, and vowing eternal friendship to them, especially when he’s always railing against motorcycle gangs and how the streets have to be cleaned up. You’d think maybe dad is the respectable face of a dirty business, and that he doesn’t really have a problem with motorcycle gangs at all; that his problem, really, is with gangs he doesn’t control.

Of course, it might be too that the groups dad calls gangs, aren’t gangs, but are just people dad likes to call gangs, because it’s so much easier to take tough action against non-subject people when you give them a menacing name. Which isn’t to say some people dad rails against aren’t gang-like, but maybe they became gang-like to defend themselves against dad’s unrelenting efforts to bring them under his dominion.

The Baghdad Gang

“I am familiar with the arguments against taking action in the case of Saddam Hussein,” remarked US Vice-President Dick Cheney a few days ago. “Some concede that Saddam is evil, power hungry and a menace, but that until he crosses the threshold of actually possessing nuclear weapons we should rule out any pre-emptive action. That logic seems to me to be deeply flawed. The argument comes down to this: Yes, Saddam is as dangerous as we say he is, we just need to let him get stronger before we do anything about it. Yet if we did wait until that moment, Saddam would simply be emboldened and it would become harder for us to gather friends and allies to oppose him.”

Cheney uses the arguments of the administration’s critics, especially those of a “progressive” bent, against them. “Yes, you agree that Saddam is a thug. So, something must be done.” If you’ve ever learned Judo, you’ll appreciate Cheney’s move. Use your opponent’s strength against him. Now the argument gets down to: How should we intervene to stop this thug?, not “whether” we should intervene. Point to the Veep.

Buying into the fundamental assumptions of those in power is not uncommon, even by those who would seem to be implacably opposed to some injurious or threatening course of action proposed by officials. Those who want to appear to be reasonable and conciliatory and prefer negotiation and compromise to confrontation are particularly apt to become ensnared. Conciliation is vastly overrated; confrontation under-appreciated.

I recall a public meeting in my community, called to express dissatisfaction with cutbacks to public education. Speaker after speaker stood and beseeched the government representative. “Please don’t cut back too quickly,” they said. Cowed by the mantra that “the status quo is not an option,” the speakers bought in, or at least, acquiesced holus bolus to the government’s fundamental claim: that cutbacks were inevitable. Cutbacks weren’t, in any way, inevitable; they were a choice, and one that favored the affluent, who would be favored with munificent tax cuts at the expense of public schools. Capitulating on this fundamental issue meant that all discussion revolved around tactical issues of how rapidly the cuts would be made. Presumably, the same people would complain to their executioner that beheading was acceptable, as long as their heads weren’t cut off too quickly. A conciliatory, non-confrontational orientation may let you keep your head a few minutes longer, but it won’t keep it firmly attached to your shoulders.

Thereafter, the government’s job of dismantling public education became much easier. Accepting deep cuts as necessary and unavoidable, those hurt by the cuts began to struggle amongst themselves for access to rapidly — and unnecessarily — diminishing resources: suburban school boards fought urban school boards; parents of special needs children fought parents of children without special needs, and so on. Always, the arguments were expressed as, “It’s unethical to cut this but not that”; not, “It’s unethical to make cuts, period.”

Many progressives opposed to NATO’s naked, unprovoked aggression against Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999 fell into the same trap. It was standard operating procedure to denounce Yugoslavia’s then president Slobodan Milosevic in various invidious ways. This is part of the conciliatory orientation. Go a certain distance toward accepting your opponent’s views, to show you’re willing to give ground. So, Slobo was called a thug, a dictator, a warlord. Evidence to show Milosevic was any of these things was scarce, but it became obligatory to express distaste for him, the price of admission to the community of decent human beings. You could safely accuse the Yugoslav leader of all kinds of monumentally heinous crimes, because everyone else was (also without any evidence), but the idea was in the air, part of the Zeitgeist, and therefore unassailable and something that “everyone knows,” the same way everyone once knew that imbalances of bodily humors caused disease. No one was going to call you on it, and moreover, if you opposed NATO’s orgy of violence over Belgrade it was considered indispensable to create the impression you weren’t, in opposing the war, apologizing for Milosevic’s alleged crimes. The problem was once you acquiesced to the claim Milosevic was Hitler redivivus, bombing the tar out of Yugoslavia didn’t seem like such a bad thing to do. Misguided maybe, but NATO’s heart was in the right place.

Cheney, in some boardroom somewhere, may have made the same case for attacking Yugoslavia that he’s made for leveling Baghdad. “I am familiar with the arguments against taking action in the case of Slobodan Milosevic. Some concede that Slobo is evil, power hungry and a menace, but that until he crosses the threshold of actually implementing his own version of the Final Solution against ethnic Albanians we should rule out any pre-emptive action. That logic seems to me to be deeply flawed. The argument comes down to this: Yes, Slobo is as dangerous as we say he is, we just need to let him get stronger before we do anything about it. Yet if we did wait until that moment, Slobo would simply be emboldened and it would become harder for us to gather friends and allies to oppose him.”

That was the pro-military intervention logic. The logic of many progressives opposed to war proceeded along the following lines, to one degree or another: “Yes, Slobo’s a bad guy, and we must stop him, but war isn’t the way. Let’s funnel money and support to the opposition to oust him.” This view too was decidedly pro-interventionist, as much in the orbit of “regime change” as Bush’s “Saddam must go” policy and, significantly, much favored by American progressives, who, when you get down to it, are often every bit as much American as their non-progressive compatriots in being committed to the view that the United States has a right and obligation to robustly meddle in the affairs of other people.

To be sure, national boundaries should be no obstacle to letting horrible crimes pass unopposed, but it’s astonishingly naive to think that US intervention in the affairs of other countries has, in even the remotest way, any connection to concerns about deterring atrocities, rooting out injustice, promoting democracy and safeguarding human rights. Washington’s unwavering support for such monstrous regimes as that of Saudi Arabia, or for a long line of dictators, from the Shah to Pinochet, Salazar to Pakistan’s current president Musharraf, or for racist, brutal countries like Israel, should have long ago popped the bubble of illusion. Sadly, it hasn’t, for the desire to appear credible, to avoid confrontation, or to tactically yield ground, means that fundamental interventionist assumptions advanced in support of the geopolitical aims of the American elite continue to be accepted, and once accepted, the discussion always comes down to this: Why of course we must intervene; the question is, how? Crimes committed abroad must be opposed, but Washington is the last place one should look to for direction on where those crimes are taking place. Kalesh could tell you that.

Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.