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A staple of mainstream U.S. discourse is that the United States opposes tyranny and despotism and supports freedom and democracy around the world. Embracing murderous despots is something only Donald Trump did, but not normal, upstanding American Presidents. This belief about the U.S. role in the world permeates virtually every mainstream foreign policy discussion.
When the U.S. wants to start a new war — with Iraq, with Libya, with Syria, etc. — it accomplishes this by claiming that it is, at least in part, motivated by horror over the tyranny of the country’s leaders. When it wants to engineer regime change or support anti-democratic coups — in Venezuela, in Iran, in Bolivia, in Honduras — it uses the same justification. When the U.S. Government and its media partners want to increase the hostility and fear that Americans harbor for adversarial countries — for Russia, for China, for Cuba, For North Korea — it hauls out the same script: we are deeply disturbed by the human rights violations of that country’s government.
Yet it is hard to conjure a claim that is more obviously and laughably false than this one. The U.S. does not dislike autocratic and repressive governments. It loves them, and it has for decades. Installing and propping up despotic regimes has been the foundation of U.S. foreign policy since at least the end of World War II, and that approach continues to this day to be its primary instrument for advancing what it regards as its interests around the world. The U.S. for decades has counted among its closest allies and partners the world’s most barbaric autocrats, and that is still true.
Indeed, all other things being equal, when it comes to countries with important resources or geo-strategic value, the U.S. prefers autocracy to democracy because democracy is unpredictable and even dangerous, particularly in the many places around the world where anti-American sentiment among the population is high (often because of sustained U.S. interference in those countries, including propping up their dictators). There is no way for a rational person to acquire even the most minimal knowledge of U.S. history and current foreign policy and still believe the claim that the U.S. acts against other countries because it is angry or offended at human rights abuses perpetrated by those other governments.
What the U.S. hates and will act decisively and violently against is not dictatorship but disobedience. The formula is no more complex than this: any government that submits to U.S. decrees will be its ally and partner and will receive its support no matter how repressive, barbaric or despotic it is with its own population. Conversely, any government that defies U.S. decrees will be its adversary and enemy no matter how democratic it was in its ascension to power and in its governance.
In sum, human rights abuses are never the reason the U.S. acts against another country. Human rights abuses are the pretext the U.S. uses — the propagandistic script — to pretend that its brute force retaliation against noncompliant governments are in fact noble efforts to protect people.
The examples proving this to be true are far too long to chronicle in any one article. Entire books have been written demonstrating this. In May, journalist Vincent Bevins released an outstanding book entitled The Jakarta Method. As I wrote in my review of it, accompanied by an interview with the author:
The book primarily documents the indescribably horrific campaigns of mass murder and genocide the CIA sponsored in Indonesia as an instrument for destroying a nonaligned movement of nations who would be loyal to neither Washington nor Moscow. Critically, Bevins documents how the chilling success of that morally grotesque campaign led to its being barely discussed in U.S. discourse, but then also serving as the foundation and model for clandestine CIA interference campaigns in multiple other countries from Guatemala, Chile, and Brazil to the Philippines, Vietnam, and Central America: the Jakarta Method.
When people who want to believe in the core goodness of the U.S. role in the world are confronted with those facts, they often dismiss them by insisting that this was a relic of the Cold War, a necessary evil to stop the spread of Communism which no longer applies. But the fall of the Soviet Union did not even minimally retard this tactic of propping up and embracing the world’s worst despots. It remains the strategy of choice of the permanent bipartisan Washington class known as the U.S. Foreign Policy Community.
And nothing makes that point clearer than the long-standing and ongoing support the U.S. provides to the Saudi regime, one of the most savage and despotic tyrannies on the planet. As the Biden administration is now demonstrating, not even murdering a journalist with a large U.S. newspaper who resided in the U.S. can ruin or even weaken the tight, loyal friendship between the U.S. government and the Saudi monarchy, to say nothing of the brutal repression which Saudi monarchs have imposed on its own population for decades.
An intelligence report released by the U.S. Government on Friday claims what many have long assumed: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally and directly approved the gruesome murder in Turkey of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the subsequent carving up of his corpse with a buzzsaw for removal to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis continue to deny this allegation, but it is nonetheless the official and definitive conclusion of the U.S. Government.
But beyond a few trivial and inconsequential gestures (sanctioning a few Saudis and imposing a visa ban on a few dozen others), the Biden administration made clear that it intends to undertake no real retaliation. That is because, said The New York Times, “a consensus emerged inside the White House that the cost of such a breach, in terms of Saudi cooperation on counterterrorism and in confronting Iran, was simply too high.” Biden officials were also concerned, they claimed, that punishing the Saudis would push them closer to China.
Not only is the Biden administration not meaningfully punishing the Saudis, but they are actively protecting them. Without explanation, the U.S. withdrew its original report that contained the name of twenty-one Saudis it alleged had “participated in, ordered, or were otherwise complicit in or responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi” and replaced it with a different version of the report that only named eighteen — seemingly protecting the identity of three Saudi operative it believes to have participated in a horrific murder.
Even worse, the White House is concealing the names of the seventy-six Saudi operatives to whom they are applying visa bans for participating in Khashoggi’s assassination, absurdly citing “privacy” concerns — as though those who savagely murder and dismember a journalist are entitled to have their identities hidden.
Worse still, the U.S. is not imposing any sanctions on bin Salman himself, the person most responsible for Khashoggi’s death. When pressed on this refusal to sanction the Saudi leader on Sunday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki claimed — falsely — that “there have not been sanctions put in place for the leaders of foreign governments where we have diplomatic relations and even where we don’t have diplomatic relations.” As the foreign policy analyst Daniel Larison quickly noted, that is blatantly untrue: the U.S. has previously sanctioned multiple foreign leaders including Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, currently targeted personally with multiple sanctions, as well as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and the now-deceased Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe.
It cannot be disputed that Biden has quickly and radically violated his campaign pledge: “I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them, we were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them the pariah that they are.” As even CNN noted: “It was a far cry from a comment in November 2019, in which Biden promised to punish senior Saudi leaders in a way former President Donald Trump wouldn’t.” Even the new administration’s early announcement that they would cease helping the Saudis wage war in Yemen was accompanied by a vow to continue furnishing the Saudi regime with “defensive” weapons.
It is in instances such as now — when U.S. propaganda becomes so unsustainable because the government’s actions diverge so glaringly from the mythology, such that the contradictions cannot elude even the most partisan and gullible citizens — that White House officials are forced to be candid about how they really think and behave. When they see the Biden administration protecting one of the most despicable regimes on the planet, they are left with no choice: nobody will believe the standard fictions they typically spout, so they have to defend their real mentality to justify their behavior.
And so that is exactly what Psaki did on Monday when confronted with the glaring disparities between Biden’s campaign vows and their current reality of coddling the Saudi murderous despots. She admitted that the U.S. is willing to tolerate and support even the most barbaric tyrants. “There are areas where we have an important relationship with Saudi Arabia” and Biden, in refusing to harshly punish the Saudis, is “acting in the national interest of the United States.”
Now, there are some who believe that the U.S. should be indifferent to the human rights practices of other governments and should simply align and partner and even install and prop up whatever dictators are willing to serve U.S. interests, regardless of how tyrannical and repressive they are (what constitutes “U.S. interests,” and who typically benefits from their promotion, is an entirely separate question). In the past, many have advocated this view explicitly. Jeane Kirkpatrick catapulted to Cold War-era fame when she insisted that the U.S. should support pro-U.S. right-wing autocrats because they are preferable to left-wing ones. Henry Kissinger’s entire career as an academic and foreign policy official was based on his “realist” philosophy which was explicitly welcoming of despotic regimes that were of use to “U.S. interests” as defined by the ruling class.
At least if there is that sort of candor, the real scheme of motives can be engaged. But the laughably false conceit that the U.S. is motivated by a genuine and profound concern for the freedom and human rights of others around the world and that this noble sentiment is what animates its choices about who to attack, isolate and sanction, or befriend, support and arm, is so blatantly propagandistic that it is truly stunning that anyone continues to believe it.
And yet not only do they believe it, it is the predominant view in the mainstream press. It is the script that is non-ironically hauled out every time the U.S. wants to go to war with or bomb a new country and we are told that nobody can oppose this because the leaders being targeted are so very bad and tyrannical and the U.S. stands opposed to such evils.
Biden’s protection of bin Salman is not, to put it mildly, the first post-Cold-War example of the U.S. lavishing praise, support and protection on the world’s worst tyrants. President Obama sold the Saudis a record amount of weapons, and even cut short his state visit to India — the world’s largest democracy — to fly to Saudi Arabia along with top officials in both political parties to pay his respects to King Abdullah upon his death. Our Snowden reporting in 2014 revealed that the Obama-era NSA “significantly expanded its cooperative relationship with the Saudi Ministry of Interior, one of the world’s most repressive and abusive government agencies,” with one top secret memo heralding “a period of rejuvenation” for the NSA’s relationship with the Saudi Ministry of Defense
When she was Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton notoriously gushed about her close friendship with the brutal Egyptian strongman supported for 30 years by the U.S.: “I really consider President and Mrs. [Hosni] Mubarak to be friends of my family. So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.” As Mona Eltahawy noted in The New York Times: “Five American administrations, Democratic and Republican, supported the Mubarak regime.”
Both the Bush and Obama administrations took extraordinary steps to conceal what was known about Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attack. Indeed, one grand irony of the still-ongoing War on Terror is that the U.S. has bombed close to ten countries in its name — including ones with no conceivable relationship to that attack — yet continued to hug closer and closer the one country, Saudi Arabia, which even many D.C. elites believed had the closest proximity to it.
When President Trump hosted Egyptian dictator Gen. Abdul el-Sisi in the White House in 2017, and then did the same for the Bahraini autocrat (to whom Obama authorized arms sales as he was brutally crushing a domestic uprising), a huge outpouring of contrived indignation spewed forth from the media and various foreign policy analysts, as if it were some radical, heinous aberration from U.S. tradition, rather than a perfect expression of decades-old U.S. policy to embrace dictators. As I wrote at the time of Sisi’s Washington visit:
In the case of Egypt and Bahrain, the only new aspect of Trump’s conduct is that it’s more candid and revealing: rather than deceitfully feign concern for human rights while arming and propping up the world’s worst tyrants — as Obama and his predecessors did — Trump is dispensing with the pretense. The reason so many D.C. mavens are so upset with Trump isn’t because they hate his policies but rather despise his inability and/or unwillingness to prettify what the U.S. does in the world.
And all of this is to say nothing of the U.S.’s own despotic practices. The U.S. has instituted policies of torture, kidnapping, mass warrantless surveillance, and due-process-free floating prisons in the middle of the ocean where people remain in a cage for almost 20 years despite having never been charged with a crime. The Biden Justice Department is currently trying to imprison Julian Assange for life for the crime of publishing documents that revealed grave crimes by the U.S. government and its allies, and is attempting to do the same to Edward Snowden. One need not look toward the barbarism of U.S. allies to see what propagandistic dreck is the claim that the U.S. stands steadfastly opposed to authoritarianism in the world: just look at the U.S. Government itself.
And yet, somehow, not only do large numbers of Americans and most corporate journalists believe that mythology, they are well-trained to divert their attention away from the abuses of their own government and its allies — which they could do something about — and instead obsess over repression by governments adversarial to the U.S. (which they can do nothing to change). That’s what explains the U.S. media obsession with denouncing Putin and Maduro and Assad and Iran while devoting far less attention to the equal and often-more-severe abuses of their own government and its “allies and partners.” Nobody captured this dynamic and the motives behind it better than Noam Chomsky, when asked why he devotes so much time to the crimes of the U.S. and its allies rather than those of Russia and Venezuela and Iran and other U.S. adversaries:
My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that: namely, I can do something about it. So even if the US was responsible for 2% of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2% I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment.
That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.
But this propagandistic mythology that holds that the U.S. only embraces democrats and not despots is too valuable to renounce — even when, as Biden is doing now with the Saudis, the glaring falsity of it is rubbed in people’s faces. It remains a key ingredient to:
- justify wars and bombings (how can you oppose our bombing of Syria when Assad is such a monster or why would you object to our war in Libya given all the bad things Gaddafi does?);
- keep people satisfied with protracted and dangerous conflict with chosen adversaries (of course Russia is our enemy: look at what Putin does to journalists and dissidents);
- allow citizens to feel good and righteous about the U.S. Government (sure, we’re not perfect, but we don’t hang gays from cranes like they do in Iran); and, most importantly of all,
- distract Americans’ attention away from the crimes of their own ruling class (I’m too busy reading about what’s being done to Nalvany — by a government over which I exercise no influence — to care about the civil liberties abuses by the U.S. Government and those governments with whom it aligns and supports).
What’s most remarkable and alarming about all this is not how dangerous it is — though it is dangerous — but what it reveals about how easily propagandized the U.S. media class is. They can watch Biden hug and protect Mohammed bin Salman one minute, send General Sisi massive amounts of arms and money the next, announce that his DOJ will continue to pursue Assange’s imprisonment, and then somehow, after seeing all that, say and believe that we have to go to war with or bomb or sanction some other country because it’s the role of the U.S. to protect and defend freedom and human rights in the world. If the U.S. Government can get people to actually believe that, what can’t they get them to believe?