Quote of the month:
"Intuition is often mistaken, but not altogether." - Mason Cooley (b.
1927), U.S. aphorist. City Aphorisms, Ninth Selection, New York (1992).
What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, by
columns, a liberal (oh no!) British paper that often rationally criticizes
US foreign policy.
of the Rational:
Essays About Nature
& Humanist Web
As often when I begin a column that I think might be particularly offensive to
some readers (apparently, some readers will find a way to be offended by almost
anything I say each month, but I can do little about that), I will begin this
one with a couple of disclaimers. You are about to read some disturbing things
about the United States of America. This does not imply: a) that I don’t
appreciate the US as the only experiment in history of a country established on
the rational principles of the Enlightenment; nor: b) that I have any sympathy
whatsoever for tyrants and dictators, be they Saddam Hussein or Augusto
This said, let me make a case for the idea that the United States is, in
fact, the ultimate “rogue” state and that it—therefore—cannot use the label on
other nations as an excuse to attack them (at least, not rationally). Let’s
start from the basics: the Oxford dictionary defines rogue (first meaning) as:
“Dishonest or unprincipled person; mischievous child.” I assume we can transfer
this definition to the level of state, though that raises interesting
philosophical questions about the “character” of a nation which we will need to
set aside for now.
Here, then, is my evidence for the conclusion that the US is the mother of
all modern rogue states. First, arguing for a pre-emptive strike against
another sovereign nation is in direct violation of the United Nations charter,
and therefore puts the US outside of the international community. To vow to
abide by a certain code of conduct and then refuse to do so when it is
inconvenient for oneself surely qualifies as “mischievous” behavior.
Second, the US has consistently avoided joining the international community
in a number of treaties that have—ironically—seen it side with “rogue” states
such as Libya, Iran, and Iraq (in other words, seen from outside, we look a lot
like part of the “axis of evil”). Examples include: back-pedaling on the Kyoto
accord on the environment; refusing to join the anti-land mine treaty; refusing
to join and actively sabotaging the international tribunal. It is “dishonest”
and “unprincipled” to ask for other people to respect international law and
then arrogate for one self the right to violate it.
Third, the US has recently announced that it will allocate funds to train
anti-Iraqi militias recruited among the many dissenting minorities harassed by
Saddam Hussein. How, exactly, is this not equivalent to setting up a terrorist
training camp? Is it just because these people will be doing the dirty work for
and not against the US? Because we are right and they are wrong? I am reminded
of a Star Trek—Next Generation episode (one of the highest sources of my
enlightenment) in which an otherwise seldom judgmental Captain Picard is
reproaching a defecting Romulan general for his past military actions against
the Federation. The general reminds Picard that one people’s butch is another
people’s hero. What should distinguish the US as a democracy are not only its
principles, but the way they are defended. If the end justifies the means, then
the US is moving perilously close to the sort of behavior that it condemns in
Which brings me to the fourth point: surely our impending aggression of Iraq
cannot seriously be framed as a defense of democracy. Doing so would be another
example of dishonesty and lack of principles. If the US is really interested in
democracy, why on earth is it attacking puny Iraq while at the same time give
permanent most favorite nation status to China? Have we forgotten Tien An Mein?
Do we really think that the Chinese leaders threat their people better than
Hussein? And don’t we know for sure (as opposed to speculating) that the
Chinese do have plenty of weapons of mass destruction? I am not, of course,
suggesting that the US declare war to China, just that it be a bit more
consistent (principled, not rogue) in its foreign policy.
Now, being a rogue state in the sense in which the US surely is can, and has
been, defended on rational principles. Robert Kaplan, for example, has written
a book entitled Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, in
which he makes the argument that the US, as the only superpower in the world,
should behave outside of international law. Indeed, Kaplan criticizes most
American politicians for being held back (ironically, I would add) by their
Christian ethos. Instead, he claims, they should embrace Machiavelli’s “pagan”
attitude and do what needs to be done.
Kaplan’s dichotomy is, I think, the real conundrum that the US has to
resolve during the 21st century. Does the US want to be seen by the rest of the
world as a principled nation, fighting fairly for what it sees is right, or as
a Machiavellian entity willing to lie and cheat to get whatever it feels is due
it? Think about it really hard, because this will determine how history will
see the US and, more importantly, is already affecting the lives of millions of
people on this planet.