So here we are

by John Holbo on April 1, 2008

I’ve been wondering when the ‘we are not torturers the media should stop spreading lies’ meme would smoothly transition to the ‘obviously we are torturers why is the media peddling old news?’ meme. It’s been a slow train a comin’, but here it is.

{ 74 comments }

1

John Holbo 04.01.08 at 1:31 am

The comments are a special kind of wonderful as well. Shorter version: “Isn’t it a bit awkward that we’re torturers?” “No! Jimmy Carter bungled the hostage rescue!”

2

HH 04.01.08 at 2:11 am

Germany went from the front rank of civilization to unspeakable barbarism in one generation. America is headed in the same direction. If times get really tough for us, we ain’t seen nothing yet. Halliburton has built the processing camps already in this country. They are waiting for their inmates.

I will be haunted by the photograph of the grinning American servicewoman at Abu Ghraib making a thumbs up sign over the corpse of a tortured Iraqi for as long as I live.

The picture is here: http://www.antiwar.com/photos/perm/dead-iraqi2.jpg

3

"Q" the Enchanter 04.01.08 at 2:18 am

I know. I mean, if I see one more book about the Holocaust… Sheesh!

4

Anon 04.01.08 at 2:20 am

Did the “it’s old news” thing originate with the Bush Administration? I don’t remember previous administrations using it at all.

It’s suuuuuuch a disgusting trope – insultingly illogical, and at the same time childishly smug, defiant and condescending.

5

Henry (not the famous one) 04.01.08 at 3:02 am

Different order of denial, but same attitude: when George H.W. Bush was questioned by reporters in New Hampshire in 1988 about the Iowa caucuses, where he had been beaten by both Dole and Robertson a few days earlier, he brushed it off by saying “That’s history.” As in “dead,” “defunct,” “meaningless,” “forgotten.”

Entertaining story, particularly when you relate it to people who actually think of history as meaningful.

6

Jim Harrison 04.01.08 at 3:18 am

The Germans didn’t go from the front rank of civilization to unspeakable barbarism in one generation. As Norbert Elias explains in his book “The Germans,” the uncivilizing process began in the middle of the 19th Century as the middle class opted for empire and violence in lieu of political liberty. It took a good 75 years for a nation of poets and thinkers to transform itself into the a nation of monsters and henchmen. We’ve been barbarizing ourselves in the same incremental fashion since World War II when the ghastliness of our enemies seemed to justify atrocities like the fire bombing of civilian neighborhoods. Problem is, Schrecklichkeit easily becomes habitual; and it is easier and easier to find excuses for why shock and awe, aggressive war, and torture are necessary or glamorous in the course of a dispute with a third-rate power. By now a good 30% of the population enthusiastically supports our growing national sociopathy, and another 30% is simply complacent. The comment sections on right-wing sites may not sound quite fascist yet, but they certainly sound like Kaiser Wilhelm. We’re getting there.

7

JP Stormcrow 04.01.08 at 3:45 am

And two posts earlier his comment is even more succinctly to the point:

Damn … they must have gone a little too light on this dirtbag, considering he didn’t give up the goods and is now playing the propaganda game. Oh well, maybe next time!

8

Cryptic Ned 04.01.08 at 4:21 am

hh certainly comments here a lot.

He should read the New Yorker article about that grinning woman, in last week’s issue.

9

Charles S 04.01.08 at 4:33 am

ned,

I’m not hh, but The New Yorker story ensures even more that I will never be able to get the photo of the woman grinning over the corpse out of my head. She was clearly a deeply decent human being drawn into an utterly monstrous machine, completely overwhelmed by the monstrosity, aware that it was monstrous, but not really able to do anything except participate and document her participation. Her letters home are bizarre and terrifying, as she simultaneously tries to minimize the evil she is participating in and cry out about it.

10

jlr 04.01.08 at 4:42 am

jim harrison: The Germans were amateurs in the 19th/early 20th century Empire business. Have we forgotten Britain and France, not to mention the United States. Belgium had everyone beat in the barbarism game. The worst the Germans can be accused of prior to the Nazis, that didn’t also apply to every other power, is empire envy. I think we have to look elsewhere than the simple fact of imperialism for the roots of their barbarism and ours.

But I think you’re right in that we have to look at our justifications, the stories that we tell ourselves. The difference between the British imperial endeavor and the German imperial endeavor (such as it was) lies in the respective attitudes. The British wrapped their selfish motives in the rhetoric of the White Man’s Burden, that they were doing a favor to the natives by expanding their empire, and many of them truly believed it. The Germans simply believed that they were owed an empire.

But curiously, by wrapping themselves in a hypocritical and self-justifying lie, thus seemingly compounding the sin, the British were far less corrupted by it that the Germans, who forthrightly acknowledged their sense of entitlement.

I do not in any way want to justify our reprehensible imperialism, barbarism, and moral turpitude, but I think that the United States is still in the same camp as the British were. We’ve invented a myth disguising our selfishness, and by doing so I think we have actually kept the U.S. from becoming as corrupted as the Germans became. So far we’ve only reached a more moderate, British level of corruption.

11

Righteous Bubba 04.01.08 at 4:57 am

Robert Jay Lifton’s book on Nazi doctors seems worth a plug here. I didn’t buy all of the psychology when I read it last (quite a while ago) but when we’re at our lowest I think this is the kind of horrifying book we deserve to read.

12

lemuel pitkin 04.01.08 at 5:26 am

My favorite exchange is where someone notes that Murat Kurnaz is innocent, and one of the regulars shoots back, “Innocent of what?” In a demented way it’s quite brilliant. I’m still not sure what the right response is.

13

jj 04.01.08 at 6:49 am

April Fools to all the April Fools, including myself, sitting here splitting hairs over the comparative degree of brutality between the British and German imperial ambition. The Germans and the Russians and the Chinese and the Japanese had less than a century to modernize their societies or face the alternative of colonial domination. The Europeans and, by extension, the US had more than five centuries to achieve the same results, through colonial domination. I know I’m oversimplifying the contrast for dramatic effect, but the transition from a feudal, labor-intensive, agricultural economy to a modern, capital-intensive, industrial economy generates a massive population of useless labor which, according to the historical circumstances of any given cultural group, derives its utility from a limited variety of available, brutal alternatives. Communism and fascism are the two extreme sides of the same coin, and the name of that coin is capitalism. Roman fascism. Early Cristian communism. The history of Western brutality is indivisible from the history of Western civilization.

14

Jim Harrison 04.01.08 at 7:27 am

I wouldn’t want to understate the barbarity of the British Empire–one of the first history books I ever read had a plate illustrating how the Great Mutiny was put down by strapping the sepoys to cannons and blowing them to pieces–but I agree with Elias that the German case was rather different than the English or French because the general coarsening and self-brutalization of Germany culture wasn’t just a side-effect of empire. Indeed, as jlr points out above, the Germans were late comers to imperialism. Their ghastly behavior in Southwest Africa and China was much more a reflection of something that was going on internally. As Nietzsche understood, even though he was part of the process himself, the self-assertion of the 2nd Reich went hand in hand with a cheapening of the intellectual life of the country that opted for a premeditated and rather ersatz machismo. Granted that the tendency to glorify blood and iron during the period leading up to WWII was hardly confined to Germany, it reached some kind of maximum there.

America isn’t Germany, and I don’t think that we will retrace its trajectory–indeed, because of our enormous military power, things could end even more badly. I’m just suggesting that, as in the German instance, the irrationality of our foreign policy is similarly from beneath by a cultural process that values will over thought and regards humane sentiments with utter contempt.

15

Dave 04.01.08 at 7:52 am

Without wishing to be an apologist for imperialism, I’d note that blowing someone apart with a cannon is actually a pretty instantaneous, and thus effectively painless, death. While you cannot argue that the spectacular qualities are not gruesome, so too at the time was the customary fashion of hanging, which could take a lot longer…

Spectacular execution is not torture, and execution is what armed rebels against an occupying power could expect 150 years ago, in British India or anywhere else. There’s no point over-contextualising the consciously innovative brutalities of the present by slipping into a comparison with the accepted brutalities of the past. Unless, of course, it is your mission to proclaim that, because pretty much anything has gone at some point, anything continues to go now.

16

Ben Alpers 04.01.08 at 8:42 am

It’s also worth recalling that support for torture has been thoroughly bipartisan. One quarter of the Senate Democratic caucus voted for the Military Commissions Act in the fall of 2006, which, among other things, attempted to give torture the cover of law.

Seven Democratic candidates for Senate that fall had voted for the MCA in the Senate or the House: Bill Nelson, Ben Nelson, Bob Menendez, Harold Ford, Tom Carper, Debbie Stabenow, and Sherrod Brown. Yet there was no concerted effort on the part of Democrats, or even progressive Democrats, to oppose these candidates (some progressives, it’s true, withheld support for Ford due to his more generally conservative views). In short, plenty of people who consider themselves absolutely anti-torture were willing to relativize their opposition to torture and trade it for a generally progressive record on other issues (in the case of Sherrod Brown) or simply for the possibility of a Democratic majority in the Senate.

17

novakant 04.01.08 at 9:12 am

While I am diametrically opposed to everything that Mr. Riehl and his gang stand for, I was a bit surprised that apparently many people in the US hadn’t heard of the Kurnaz case until the 60 Minutes doc aired a couple of days ago.

That’s a tricky one Jim Harrison. I don’t agree that German intellectual life (or more precisely intellectual life in the German language) as a whole was consumed by imperialism, barbarism and machismo – it was much too diverse and vibrant right up until 1933.

I think one needs too differentiate a bit more between intellectuals/writers/artists and the educated middle class in this regard, though they cannot be neatly separated either. Thomas Mann is an interesting case here, especially his Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen.

18

abb1 04.01.08 at 9:29 am

I don’t think it takes 75 years to demonize and dehumanize a group of people; probably a couple of years max, assuming well-coordinated media campaign. Probably can be done in a couple of months, actually. It’s easy. And once it’s done, torture ‘n stuff is the natural consequence.

19

Brownie 04.01.08 at 9:49 am

Isn’t the USA the most benevolent superpower in history? As imperialism goes, it doesn’t get much more virtuous (notwithstanding the obvious exceptions).

True, the competition leaves a lot to be desired but that’s neither America’s fault nor an argument to the contrary.

20

Dave 04.01.08 at 10:39 am

@19: I think it rather more the case that the post-1945 US hegemony has occurred at a point in time when humanitarianism has had more influence on public policy [Western public policy at least] than ever previously. Thus it is largely coincidental that such a claim might be made. [And it might be made only notwithstanding a long record of support for death-squads, dictators and various other forms of Latin-American, African and Asian chicanery.] The USA of 1790-1860, alternating between expanding the geographical scope of slavery, and committing acts which fall very precisely within the technical definition of genocide against the Native American population, would not fare so well.

But you know all this, you are just being facetious.

21

abb1 04.01.08 at 10:52 am

humanitarianism has had more influence on public policy

Yeah, the WWII was a bit of a shock to everybody, especially the Europeans; made it a bit harder to hate-monger efficiently. But it’s all forgotten now, or twisted beyond recognition. Now it’s all about bad guys, good guys and righteous victims. Pretty much the opposite of humanitarianism.

22

donpaskini 04.01.08 at 11:27 am

I think the comments thread must be an early April fool. I reached this conclusion when I got to the comment that waterboarding wasn’t so bad because it was just ‘having water splashed in your face’.

23

A. Y. Mous 04.01.08 at 11:43 am

Tiring and tired. Just be done with it already. Delenda est Americana.

24

Great Zamfir 04.01.08 at 11:56 am

“And it might be made only notwithstanding a long record of support for death-squads, dictators and various other forms of Latin-American, African and Asian chicanery.”

I just realized that with this caveat, the British , Spanish, Dutch and most other European colonial empires were also quite virtuous.

25

Dave 04.01.08 at 12:16 pm

Absolutely. The requirement to hold power to some kind of ‘moral standard’ has had a very shaky grasp on relevance for most of history – though also a long history of its own, as in ‘just war’ theory, etc. But for the most part, power does what power wants. This is not the significant part. That part is whether it is possible to stop such abuses, or necessary to acquiesce in them. And on that, I think you’ll find, debate continues. Shockingly, for those who don’t know the wider context, deplorably, for those who do, but vehemently nonetheless.

26

Steve LaBonne 04.01.08 at 12:28 pm

Dave- precisely why I want us to divest ourselves of our empire and beat imperial notions out of our heads. Empire is inevitably a morally degrading thing. And in the 21st century, with profound challenges facing our species that can only be dealt with by global cooperation, it can no longer even be defended cynically on the grounds of expediency- it’s become thoroughly dysfunctional.

27

jlr 04.01.08 at 12:59 pm

Steve LaBonne: “profound challenges facing our species that can only be dealt with by global cooperation”

Sadly, I first read that as ‘global corporation’.

28

Dave 04.01.08 at 1:09 pm

The march of Halliblackwateroncom….

29

Brownie 04.01.08 at 1:14 pm

I think it rather more the case that the post-1945 US hegemony has occurred at a point in time when humanitarianism has had more influence on public policy [Western public policy at least] than ever previously. Thus it is largely coincidental that such a claim might be made.

So you’re saying that whoever emerged as the west’s post-1945 superpower, things would have turned out pretty much the same? Maybe so, but I’m less interested in disputing that (assuming I dispute it at all) than I am in illustrating the absurdity of comparisons with Nazi Germany or any other imperial power that history can throw up.

You wrote earlier:

There’s no point over-contextualising the consciously innovative brutalities of the present by slipping into a comparison with the accepted brutalities of the past. Unless, of course, it is your mission to proclaim that, because pretty much anything has gone at some point, anything continues to go now.

Not forgetting the alternative motivation to make false moral equivalences and pretend that “imperialism” is the same as it ever was.

30

Steve LaBonne 04.01.08 at 1:31 pm

Sadly, I first read that as ‘global corporation’.

And even more sadly, that may be a more likely outcome than the word I used…

31

Doug T 04.01.08 at 1:43 pm

Regarding an earlier post drawing the line from empire to atrocity in Germany, I’d recommend the short book “Exterminate all The Brutes” by Sven Lindqvist, for a disturbing and powerful argument on the horrors of colonialism.

Under this argument, the question is not so much the uniqueness of the German problem, but why it was that only Germany imported their colonial policy of murder, brutality, and genocide into their continental policy. (I don’t know enough about Russia’s imperial policy to know how much continuity there was from it to the Gulag.)

32

Dave 04.01.08 at 1:43 pm

Brownie, you didn’t get it, did you? There’s no historical evidence to suggest that the USA, had it acquired hegemonic power at a different historical juncture, would have acted any differently from the range of states that shared, and continue to share, its broad cultural heritage, and which did produce brutal imperial regimes. Notwithstanding the rants of the Ward Churchill crowd, in the cold light of day, the westwards expansion of the USA in the C19 was an act of genocide. There is no unique virtue to be found in that history.

Now, hopefully, the USA, like GB, France, Germany, the Spanish, the Dutch, etc, has advanced to the point where deliberate genocide on that scale is no longer conceivable as an act of state policy. Hopefully. But there’s nothing *super-super shiny special* about the USA that makes that definitively, absolutely so, outside the larger, post-1945 Universal Human Rights consensus. And if that *really* breaks down, stars help us if it does, all bets are off.

33

Z 04.01.08 at 2:00 pm

Even after 1945, France fought a series of vicious colonial wars (Madagascar, Indochina, Algeria, various adventures in East Africa…). During the same time frame, the US fought a number of wars (Korea, at least the part fought in North Korea, Vietnam, various adventures in Latin America and the Caribbeans, Afghanistan, Iraq…). I am not sure that the American record is significantly better than the French one and that the comparison validates the most benign superpower proposition of Brownie.

Before 1945, Americans conquered by force a whole continent, wiping out millions of native inhabitants. This cannot be considered much more benevolent that the behavior of France, Britain, Belgium or the Netherlands pre-1945. On the whole, I’d say that no superpower has a markedly better record than any other.

Let me also join the chorus of lamentations at seeing the casual way torture is treated in today’s United States.

34

yabonn 04.01.08 at 2:11 pm

On a related note, the Fafblog is back.

35

lemuel pitkin 04.01.08 at 2:24 pm

Tiring and tired. Just be done with it already. Delenda est Americana.

Change that last word to Islam and you’d fit right in over at Riehl’s place.

One precondition of what happened to Kurnaz and so many others is the mindset that sees the world in terms of good and bad nationalities. As various people here have noted, it’s the *system* that matters, not the specific personnel at the top of it.

36

christian h. 04.01.08 at 2:33 pm

What lemuel said.

37

HH 04.01.08 at 2:35 pm

Please note that Karl Rove is currently paid tens of thousands of dollars each time he speaks before a hall full of pasty Rove wannabes at an American university.

American academics eagerly vouched for their patriotism and fanned the flames of the WAR ON TERROR that Rove conjured up, just as they eagerly expelled their unfortunate colleagues who failed to sign loyalty oaths in the 1950s.

American militarism and exceptionalism are alive and well on campuses all over the United States, and the academic community is largely absent from the “controversy” over whether America has been overzealous in prosecuting its war against the “evil ones.”

Douglas Feith, the famous “stupidest fucking guy on the planet” is on the faculty at Georgetown. His title is “Professor and Distinguished Practitioner in National Security Policy.” Yet any PhD with even the faintest knowledge of Weimar Germany and the Reichstag fire would recognize the setting, the characters, and the dialog. Has there ever been a greater collective failure of courage in our intellectual community?

It is not just the unwashed rabble of TeeVee America that enabled Torture-R-Us; it is many of the best and the brightest of our “intelligentsia.”

38

Joshua W. Burton 04.01.08 at 2:37 pm

Even after 1945, France fought a series of vicious colonial wars . . . .

France has African torture to answer for as recently as 2003, on the very first EU-led adventurism outside Christendom.

39

jlr 04.01.08 at 2:49 pm

It’s hard to hold out any nation-state at any time in history as a moral exemplar. The current foreign-policy behavior of the United States is inexcusable, but the U.S. has done far worse and weathered far worse moral crises in the past, and come out for the most part better for it (as perverse as that may sound). Certainly it has come out with a greater consciousness about its behavior and a generally lower threshold for accepting its own moral turpitude. No, the progress has not been monotonically increasing, but I consider that fact that ‘only’ 40% of the population is not acquiescing or complacent toward our behavior to be heartening, not discouraging.

40

Hidari 04.01.08 at 3:15 pm

Even by the astonishingly low moral standards of imperial powers, it is not by any event clear to me that the current US adminstration is particularly benevolent, let alone ‘the most benevolent superpower in history’. What about the Persians, for example, especially when they were the ‘Achaemenid Empire’? No saints, but no regular history of genocide either. Or what about the Chinese in the Song and Tang dynasties? Or some of the Indian Empires? Or, to really weight the scales, what about the Islamic Empires between about the year 900 and the year 1500 (approx).* These were ‘superpowers’ if the word has any meaning, and they were brutal enough, but to reiterate, they did not engage regularly in the mass extermination, rape and pillage of other countries/cultures, an accusation that can be pointed at the Spanish, Belgian, German, British and American Empires with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

*With the possible exception of the invasion of India, although death toll figures here are HIGHLY controversial.

41

Brownie 04.01.08 at 3:42 pm

Brownie, you didn’t get it, did you? There’s no historical evidence to suggest that the USA, had it acquired hegemonic power at a different historical juncture, would have acted any differently from the range of states that shared, and continue to share, its broad cultural heritage, and which did produce brutal imperial regimes…

But there’s nothing super-super shiny special about the USA…

I think you’ve assumed rather too much about what motivated me to make my original comment. I certainly don’t subscribe to the notion that the US is possessed of some inherent and unique moral virtue that means she and she alone is immune to the worst of imperialist tendencies. I think you oversimplify matters, but for sake of argument I’ll happily accept that the dominant western power in the later part of the 20th century and early part of this would behave pretty much the way the US has, whoever it was.

But then, the dominant narrative in contemporary centre/centre-left circles is hardly that the US is uniquely virtuous in exercising its superpower status – or just slightly better than what has come before – but rather that her wilful malevolence is restricted only by the limits of her power. It’s the sort of thinking that leads otherwise sensible people to write palpable nonsense like: “Germany went from the front rank of civilization to unspeakable barbarism in one generation. America is headed in the same direction.”

I was calling out the absurdity of such claims and asking us to refelct on the US’s status as the most benign superpower the human race has yet produced is a good way of doing that, whatever the prevailing influences that make this so.

I could list a 100 misgivings about the way the US conducts her foreign policy and I despair at the justification for the use of torture and the naked stupidity of Guantanamo, etc., but when push comes to shove, I’m rather glad that the US IS a superpower. I get the distinct impression that this is not a view shared by many of those who would today self-describe as progressive and it’s this line of reasoning that leaves me non-plussed.

If you close your eyes for a second and imagine a world in which the US is just a larger and warmer version of Sweden, what do you see? I know what I see, which is why I just keep those eyes closed for a second.

This all sounds like rather obvious and insubstantial puff, but I’m never surprised by the number of people I encounter for whom this simple exercise would prove most enlightening.

42

Righteous Bubba 04.01.08 at 3:57 pm

I could list a 100 misgivings about the way the US conducts her foreign policy and I despair at the justification for the use of torture and the naked stupidity of Guantanamo, etc., but when push comes to shove, I’m rather glad that the US IS a superpower.

Why?

43

lemuel pitkin 04.01.08 at 4:29 pm

If you close your eyes for a second and imagine a world in which the US is just a larger and warmer version of Sweden, what do you see?

I see a world where I and my (hypothetical) children are much more likely to lead happy, secure, fulfilling lives. And yes, I’m American.

44

HH 04.01.08 at 4:36 pm

If you close your eyes for a second and imagine a world in which the US is just a larger and warmer version of Sweden

I see a nation that does not have 28 million people receivnig food stamps.

I see a nation that does not spend more than the rest of the world combined on weapons and war.

I see a nation that does not threaten others with pre-emptive attack by nuclear weapons.

I see a nation in which the majority of the population does not believe in Creationism.

I see a nation in which torture and war crimes are not tolerated.

I see a nation that does not believe in punishing the poor because of their economic status.

I see a nation that is not racist.

I see a nation that leads the world in environmental conservation.

I see a nation that equalizes educational opportunity.

I see a nation that is admired by all other countries.

45

Steve LaBonne 04.01.08 at 5:04 pm

the US’s status as the most benign superpower the human race has yet produced

Thank God I had lunch early and had time to digest it before reading that.

Heckuva job, brownie!

46

mpowell 04.01.08 at 5:37 pm

Brownie, you start with a reasonable observation, but then you take it in the wrong direction.

The United States is moving in the wrong direction. Torture is now acceptable. You argument doesn’t do anything to refute this. We may be doing okay now, but where will we be in 50 years?

Secondly, why do we need to be a superpower? What if we were just the most powerful? We could substantially cut back on military spending and limit our imperial abilities and I think this would be a good thing. Would you disagree with that? Or do you mean something else?

47

geo 04.01.08 at 6:14 pm

If you close your eyes for a second and imagine a world in which the US is just a larger and warmer version of Sweden, what do you see? I know what I see

Sorry, Brownie, but this seems so ridiculous and provocative that I can’t help piling on. What do you see?

48

John Protevi 04.01.08 at 6:32 pm

If you close your eyes for a second and imagine a world in which the US is just a larger and warmer version of Sweden, what do you see?

Perhaps the iron Volvo in a velvet glove that is Liberal Fascism?

49

Righteous Bubba 04.01.08 at 6:36 pm

Maybe we can get Sweden to invade North Korea to show us how it’s done.

50

Steve LaBonne 04.01.08 at 6:39 pm

Perhaps the iron Volvo in a velvet glove that is Liberal Fascism?

Wouldn’t that be an iron Volvo in a velvet car bra?

51

Fats Durston 04.01.08 at 6:48 pm

If you close your eyes for a second and imagine a world in which the US is just a larger and warmer version of Sweden, what do you see?

Perhaps the iron Volvo in a velvet glove that is Liberal Fascism?

A hockey skate stamping on a human face — forever?

52

Jim Harrison 04.01.08 at 8:24 pm

The dangerousness of a country is, I presume, proportionate to the product of its propensity to do bad things and its ability to do bad things. I don’t think the U.S. is particularly deplorable relative to previous hegemonic powers. Indeed, in many respects our behavior has been quite admirable, though that seems to be changing and our record was always rather worse than we imagine it to be because of the nonstop tub-thumping patriotism we subject ourselves to. The problem, however, is not that we are an evil empire but that we are an empire with an enormous power to do violence on everyone and a decreasing reluctance to use it. Complacency about torture and arbitrary detention of foreigners is a bad sign. In the wake of the recent troubles in Basra, lots of right-wing and liberal imperialists pointed out that none of the trouble would have taken place if only we had taken out this or that militia leader earlier, which, apparently, we always have a right to do because anybody who opposes us is automatically a terrorist. Really,these guys talk about foreign policy like characters in the Sopranos. But Tony didn’t have Predators and cruise missiles. Of course acting like thugs is SOP in colonial wars, but let us not forget that these same people are talking about putting out a hit on Iran.

Recipe for the end of the world: take a superpower whose economic and cultural power is in decline but whose military remains terrifyingly powerful. Using violence to maintain dominion is going to be a mighty tempting option. Of course, the world may luck out and, as Emmanuel Todd suggests, the U.S. may limit its acting out to beating up on hapless third rate powers; but what if our obviously none-too-bright leaders miscalculate and try to push around the wrong wog?

53

Sebastian Holsclaw 04.01.08 at 8:35 pm

“I think it rather more the case that the post-1945 US hegemony has occurred at a point in time when humanitarianism has had more influence on public policy [Western public policy at least] than ever previously. Thus it is largely coincidental that such a claim might be made.”

But that can’t quite be right because it suggests that if Germany and Italy had been in charge post-1945, that things wouldn’t have been very different. Or if Russia had been the sole super-power that things would have been as well off (unless you don’t think Russia is ‘Western’).

You can believe that the US has made a number of very bad decisions, and that it is moving in the wrong direction without thinking silly things like “it was a US-independent humanitarian moment”. It was a humanitarian moment in world history largely BECAUSE the US was the power left standing instead of Germany, or France, or Russia, or China, or Japan, or Italy (to pick the likely alternatives.

The US under Bush is clearly moving in the wrong direction. That doesn’t change any of the above.

54

Brownie 04.01.08 at 8:37 pm

mpowell,

Torture is now acceptable.

Not to the average American I know. Not to any of the three candidates who will come to occupy the Oval Office next year. I’m not downplaying the significance of the fact that it is deemed acceptable by the current incumbent, but this does not define America nor is it remotely an enduring characteristic of America’s post-war superpower status.

We may be doing okay now, but where will we be in 50 years?

My guess is that America won’t in any way, shape, or form resemble Nazi Germany, for example. There is nothing permanent or irreversible about any of the illiberal lurches made by the current administration.

Secondly, why do we need to be a superpower? What if we were just the most powerful? We could substantially cut back on military spending and limit our imperial abilities and I think this would be a good thing. Would you disagree with that? Or do you mean something else?

I wouldn’t necessarily disagree that this would be a ‘good thing’ assuming other countries that share liberal and democratic values stepped up to the plate. For example, I would have preferred that Milosevic had been dealt with by the NATO coutries that shared his continent. I would have preferred that a western Europe of comparable population, size and resources had the wherewithal and willigness to clear up a mess on its own back porch. The fact that this was only, belatedly, achieved using hardware predominantly supplied by the US, tells you more about the non-imperial, non-superpowers than it does about the US. Ditto for the first Gulf war fought under a UN banner with 80% of the troops supplied by you know who. It’s the usual case of no-one wanting the US to act like the world’s policeman except when they want her to.

There are lots of things I want for my children, but watching them grow up in a world with a docile, subdued and inhibited US isn’t one of them. I don’t derive immense pleasure that this should have to be so, but the alternative is even less palatable.

hh

I see a nation that is not racist.

You haven’t been to Sweden much, have you? No, I’m not suggesting Sweden is a ‘racist’ country any more than the US is a ‘racist’ country, but Sweden probalby has more – shall we say – race-related issues than any other western European country.

I see a nation that is admired by all other countries.

It seems you haven’t been to Denmark much, either.

steve labone,

Rather than scoff, you could always list the historical, global superpowers whose altruism puts the US to shame. That should make interesting reading.

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Righteous Bubba 04.01.08 at 8:42 pm

On torture:

nor is it remotely an enduring characteristic

Here’s hoping it doesn’t endure.

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mq 04.01.08 at 8:58 pm

Brownie, you’re being absurd. The idea that making the U.S. less militaristic and less aggressive would *harm* world peace just doesn’t pass the laugh test. What possible picture of our world leads you to that perception?

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mq 04.01.08 at 9:01 pm

watching them grow up in a world with a docile, subdued and inhibited US isn’t one of them.

It’s striking to me how often conservatives frame the world in terms of their fears of emasculation (docile, subdued?) instead of pragmatic concern with the facts.

but the alternative is even less palatable.

What alternative is that? One way or another, the U.S. will no longer be the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation at the end of this century. It can happen peacefully, or violently. If it happens peacefully, it’s a very healthy development, as wealthier and more prosperous world makes us all better off.

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mpowell 04.01.08 at 9:21 pm


I wouldn’t necessarily disagree that this would be a ‘good thing’ assuming other countries that share liberal and democratic values stepped up to the plate. For example, I would have preferred that Milosevic had been dealt with by the NATO coutries that shared his continent.

Ah, the decent left’s serbian red herring. Let’s just directly contrast Serbia to Iraq. Would I trade not going to war with Iraq with not intervening in Serbia? Absolutely. But let’s really get down to what we’re talking about here. The US could have done what they did in Serbia with what, 1/5 of their current defense spending? The United States has rarely served as the world’s policeman in an desirable way since the fall of th e USSR, and to any extent that it has, could have done so with less defense spending that would have resulted in fewer imperialistic projects on the side.

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Nell 04.01.08 at 10:06 pm

Interesting conjunction, the return of Fafblog (however temporary) and the appearance of “ho hum, torture, old news”. Reminds me very much of the Fafblog post that had the most impact on me:

It’s so easy to kind of sweep it all under your brain an think “Well theres nothin more to be said an nothin more to think about it” cause let’s face it nobody wants to think about their government participating in horror. An right now the level of torture talk has gone from “Torture: Bad!” to “Torture: Bad, But Not As Bad As Saddam Hussein” to “Torture: Bad, But What About Ticking Bombs?” to “Torture: Bad, But Not Necessarily Proof That The People Who Ordered Torture Are Bad” to “Torture: We Still Talkin Bout Torture?” to “Torture: Bad?” An before we get to “Torture: Sorta Like Mowin Your Lawn” I think we should try as hard as we can to wake up.

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HH 04.01.08 at 10:12 pm

Brownie seems to have developed a heckuva militaristic perspective for a nice civilized guy. Mighty America seems very picky about when and where it saves the world, having skipped opportunites in Rwanda, Darfur, and New Orleans. But, aggressors can be choosers, and geostrategic advantage seems to be a happy coincidence of our armed interventions.

The beauty of cover stories is that they cover everything disreputable underneath. Sometimes they wear out and must be discarded, as in the case of WMD in Iraq, but fortunately they are easily replaced.

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Hidari 04.01.08 at 10:19 pm

‘Not to any of the three candidates who will come to occupy the Oval Office next year. ‘

That is actually false, although Republicans don’t want you to know it. Yes it is true that McCain sometimes talked the talk. But when push came to shove (possibly literally) he didn’t walk the walk.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/13/washington/13cnd-cong.html?_r=1&hp&oref=slogin

‘There is nothing permanent or irreversible about any of the illiberal lurches made by the current administration.’

There wasn’t anything permanent or irreversible about the illiberal lurches made by the Nazis either. So what?

‘It’s the usual case of no-one wanting the US to act like the world’s policeman except when they want her to.’

Actually I would rather the world was the world’s policeman. Given that it ‘has to be’ an individual country (one of the many irreversible and non-voteable-on decisions that I wasn’t consulted about) why, to echo one of the posters above, does it have to be the US? Why not Sweden? Or, better still, Costa Rica?

‘Rather than scoff, you could always list the historical, global superpowers whose altruism puts the US to shame’.

Well there are many things wrong with the European Union, but it doesn’t seem to me to be obviously inferior in the ‘altruism’ stakes, and, in terms of its economic and social policies, in many respects it’s streets ahead of the US.

Incidentally, ‘liberals’ who have a bee in their bonnet about the former Yugoslavia might care to reflect that one of the many reasons the EU was not in a position to take military action against Milosevic was that in the late ‘eighties, the French and German toyed with the idea of an independent EU ‘army': which was quickly nixed by the US. ‘Pro-war liberals’ want to have it both ways: they point out that the US is the ‘only’ power capable of doing certain military things, without pointing out that this is because the US DECIDED to become the world’s superpower, for primarily economic (i.e. ‘selfish’, not altruistic) reasons and would move heaven and earth to stop any other power threatening that hegemony. They can then justify their continued pre-eminence by pointing out that the US and only the US can take military action across the globe. Which is true, but sorta to be expected, given that anyone who threatened this pre-eminence would be nuked.

I also wish that, giving how things turned out, that ‘liberals’ would stop trumpeting the illegal invasion of Yugoslavia, and the creation of the ‘Nato bases surrounded by gangsters’ we call ‘Kosova’ as if it was some kind of triumph for democracy.

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Brownie 04.01.08 at 11:13 pm

The idea that making the U.S. less militaristic and less aggressive would harm world peace just doesn’t pass the laugh test.

Which might explain why I never suggested such a thing. What is truly comic is the idea that an objective reader of my comments could infer a desire to see a more militaristic and agressive U.S.

One way or another, the U.S. will no longer be the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation at the end of this century.

Do you do lottery results, as well?

The US could have done what they did in Serbia with what, 1/5 of their current defense spending

Leaving aside the accuracy of this or what it would mean for operations elsewhere even if accurate, you kind of miss my point which was to ask how this wound up being a problem the US was (for the most part) asked to fix? It wasn’t pre-ordained that that road in Pristina would be named after Clinton and not a European leader, you know? The point is to consider why things worked out that way and not another rather than coming up with theories about how the US could still have prosecuted that war AND cut defence spending at the same time.

Mighty America seems very picky about when and where it saves the world, having skipped opportunites in Rwanda, Darfur, and New Orleans.

What’s this? Criticism for not being imperialist enough?

In the case of Rwanda, that nice Mr Clinton at least had the decency to describe US inaction in 94 as a stain on his presidency. In the case of Darfur, you’d be the first guy on the “No War in Africa” march, would you not? In the case of New Orleans, you’re just being silly.

When did you become a liberal interventionist, by the way?

Actually I would rather the world was the world’s policeman. — Hidari

Yeah, and I’d like an Aston Martin.

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HH 04.02.08 at 12:10 am

This brownie logic is definitely half-baked. One clue regarding the presence of a cover story is uneven coverage. The cover story that the USA is motivated by good cop impulses does not explain why it only seems to be a good cop when the cop gets to keep some of the loot at the crime scene. The US has a colossal base in the middle of the Balkans now as a result of bringing peace to that unhappy part of the world. Similarly, we have massive permanent bases in Iraq controlling about a third of the oil in the Mideast.

If there had been oil in Rwanda, we would have rolled the US cop car into there with lights flashing and guns blazing. But Brownie’s goal is not to establish any logical case, it is simply to demonstrate that the tattered cover stories for US Neo-Imperialism still conceal enough of our indecent power projection to fool most of the people most of the time. In this, he is correct.

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lemuel pitkin 04.02.08 at 12:45 am

If you close your eyes for a second and imagine a world in which the US is just a larger and warmer version of Sweden, what do you see? I know what I see

Sorry, Brownie, but this seems so ridiculous and provocative that I can’t help piling on. What do you see?

Did I miss the part where Brownie answered this question?

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HH 04.02.08 at 12:58 am

Did I miss the part where Brownie answered this question?

He sees a Swedenized America bereft of private jets, million-dollar Bar Mitzvahs, trans fats, gun shows, foreclosures, and a diabetes epidemic. He sees a boring society where Lilliputians tie down the Masters of the Universe by confiscating their earnings and blocking the creation of a hereditary aristocracy. Oh the horror!

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lemuel pitkin 04.02.08 at 1:05 am

Oh hh, calm down.

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HH 04.02.08 at 3:39 am

<iOh hh, calm down.

This is my calm side. Don’t get me excited.

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Hidari 04.02.08 at 7:27 am

‘Yeah, and I’d like an Aston Martin.’

Owning an Aston Martin is not, actually, that wildly improbable a dream.

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ajay 04.02.08 at 9:47 am

hh: The US has a colossal base in the middle of the Balkans now as a result of bringing peace to that unhappy part of the world.

If you’re talking about Camp Bondsteel, you should know that it doesn’t actually have a runway, and is thus useless from the point of view of power projection unless you want to project that power by truck. It also means that the base is supplied entirely by land (troops drive from the airhead at Able Sentry in Skopje, Macedonia).

I am also baffled as to why it should be so important to the US to put a base in Kosovo, when the US already had perfectly good bases (with runways) in Italy, Poland, Germany and Turkey. Where exactly can you reach from Kosovo that you can’t reach from there? Were they planning to threaten Bulgaria (by truck)? Was it vital to gain control over Kosovo’s lead mines?

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Alex 04.02.08 at 10:13 am

If there had been oil in Rwanda, we would have rolled the US cop car into there with lights flashing and guns blazing.

Er, the French cop car did indeed turn up, lights flashing, guns blazing, chartering a significant fraction of the world airfreight market in order to deploy…

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HH 04.02.08 at 12:29 pm

Owning an Aston Martin is not, actually, that wildly improbable a dream.

Especially when the hedge fund boyz start unloading their toys to pay their bills. I feel their pain.

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Barry 04.02.08 at 12:30 pm

“Did I miss the part where Brownie answered this question?”

Posted by lemuel pitkin

No. Of course, to a right-winger, it probably doesn’t need to be answered; it would quickly bring a wave of horror through the body of any right-winger who hears it.

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soru 04.02.08 at 12:37 pm

If there had been oil in Rwanda, we would have rolled the US cop car into there with lights flashing and guns blazing

A more likely response would be ‘do you want the eight or twelve-year support contract with these helicopter gunships?’

It seems to me to be a pretty unrecoverable error to try and understand the world in terms of good and bad countries. If you think in those terms, there is not really a way to colour the map black and white that is significantly wronger than any other.

As someone said above, in general systems matter, not so much personalities. But the systems are made of people, and under some systems a single person, like Mugabe in Zimbabwe or Bush in the US, can count for enough to be a bit of an exception.
And systems aren’t remotely limited to national borders: the common perception that a typical western civilian is in some sense ‘more responsible’ for Guantanamo than Rwanda is utterly without valid justification.

A better question is: “what do you think about the ‘US-Iraq-world@1975′ system, in comparison to the ‘US-Iraq-world@2008′ system?”

Which works? Which could be made to work, and at what cost? Which could be improved on, and how? Is there a completely different and better way fo doing things?

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engels 04.02.08 at 1:18 pm

Brownie, you sure do love the US. Have you every thought of moving there? I can promise you that the rest of us on the British Left will find some way to manage without you…

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