Arrogance and Hypocrisy in U.S. Foreign Policy

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Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States...

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President Obama has chosen to lecture Egyptian President Mubarak on the issue of human rights. This is another instance of American arrogance and hypocrisy, as traditional conservatives such as Pat Buchanan and libertarians such as Ron Paul, as well as some on the left, have pointed out. The U.S. has a shameful history of violation of rights and, regarding the American Indians, genocide. The U.S. Army engaged in brutal tactics during the Philippine War in the early twentieth century. In World War II, the U.S. forced thousands of Japanese-American citizens into what de facto were concentration camps–the fact that they were not as brutal as the German camps does not make what the United States did morally right. The U.S. engaged in saturation bombing of Tokyo in March 1945, killing over 100,000 people with the firestorm created from gasoline-laden bombs. The U.S. is the only country to have used nuclear weapons in combat. The U.S. and its allies, violating centuries of just war theory, demanded unconditional surrender of the Axis Powers in World War II. In Vietnam there were multiple instances of abuse by U.S. Army personnel against the Vietnamese people; Lt. Calley’s unit was not the only one to engage in rape or kill civilians. In Iraq and Afghanistan, torture was the official practice of U.S. military intelligence personnel as well as regular army personnel. The U.S. has not eschewed the first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict–not even with President Obama in power. And domestically, neither the FBI nor the ATF have clean human rights records, as FBI surveillance of American citizens and the ATF disasters at Ruby Ridge and Waco show. Now many countries engage in similar behaviors or worse–it may be the case, as blind patriots claim, that the U.S. has a better record on human rights than most other countries. But this does not justify our actions, nor does it justify the arrogance of President Obama in telling Mr. Mubarak how to run his country, especially since democracy in the Middle East tends to lead to radical Islamists coming into power. Perhaps Mr. Obama (and Mrs. Clinton) would prefer the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power in Egypt. If that happens, the powerkeg that is the Near East may explode.

In addition, U.S. policy holds that democracy is the best form of government for all nations. But as Aristotle recognized in his Politics, the best form of government for any state is going to depend on its history and traditions. But the U.S. continues to follow the neo-Puritanism of Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy and try to export “democracy” to the world–at the same time democracy is dying a slow death in the U.S. The rest of the world sees U.S. hypocrisy and hates us for it. The U.S. can do better than this–it can clean up its own house and avoid sticking its nose into every other country’s business. I hope such reform happens–but the secularist Puritan strand in American foreign policy is ingrained that I am pessimistic. We need more Ron Pauls, more Pat Buchanans, more true liberals such as Nat Hentoff, to join together in an effort to both stop U.S. abuses of human rights and also to encourage a “more humble” (as President G. W. Bush said in his pre-911 days) U.S. foreign policy.

Is Modern “Total War” Ethical?

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Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

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I just viewed an excellent PBS “American Experience” program, “The Bombing of Germany.” It detailed how in World War II the United States moved from a position of “precision bombing” of military targets to accept the British strategy of “terror bombing” of German (and later Japanese) cities. For a number of years I have struggled with the ethics of modern “total” warfare–the idea defended long ago by General Sherman that “war is hell” and thus targeting noncombatants is morally legitimate. Thus, the 45,000 civilians killed in World War II in Hamburg, the 40,000 (minimum) killed in Dresden, the 100,000 killed by the U.S. raid on Tokyo in March 1945, the 80,000 killed by the Hiroshima atomic bomb, and the 40,000 killed by the Nagasaki atomic bomb were, according to the “total war” theory, necessary casualties to win the war more quickly.

I am not interested in utilitarian arguments since I reject utilitarianism as a viable moral theory. But traditional just war theory (which I accept; at the theoretical level I am not a pacifist) has always made a distinction between combatants and noncombatants. Of course some noncombantants will be killed in any war, but it is the intentionally targeting of noncombatants that is morally repugnant. Just war theory has always considered noncombatants to be “innocent” in the sense that they are not directly killing their fellow human beings. Arguments that extend “guilt” to the entire population of a country waging war can only justify mass destruction of human life. Total war inevitably harms the characters of those who actively participate in such activities as terror bombing and intrinsically corrupt any society that engages in them. Granted, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and after Germany and Italy declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941, the U.S. had no choice but to fight. The United States kept the moral high ground until 1945; would that it had kept it until the end of the war. It now seems to me that modern fullscale war has crossed the threshold into immorality, even for the “innocent” state in what otherwise would be a just war. Thus, I now believe that full scale “total war” is intrinsically unethical.