As I began writing this piece I looked on the Internet at the Washington Post of July 5 and glanced at the lead-in to a report. It was “The elderly physician who exposed the government’s coverup of the SARS epidemic has been detained since June 1 and faces interrogation by the government.” OK, so it was a quick look; but my immediate thought was “What on earth has that psychotic savage Ashcroft done now?” which is a pretty grim reaction to a newspaper headline that, given a momentarily longer examination, was obviously about Beijing’s persecution of yet another innocent citizen.
When a foreigner can look at such words in a Washington newspaper and think, even fleetingly, for the tiniest moment, that they could possibly apply to the democracy that is the United States rather than the totalitarian state that is China, it is obvious there is something badly wrong with the way the Bush administration is conducting the affairs of the nation. Only four years ago, not one reader on earth would have imagined for an instant that such a sentence could possibly, in the furthest flights of fancy, apply to the United States of America.
No longer. Most of the peoples of the world (and many governments) now look with bewilderment and despair at the extraordinary embrace of autocratic, underhand and sinister control measures by the administration of a country that formerly practised and reveled in an open system of governance. After all, the basic American sense of decency, probity and honor actually forced the resignation of a president who betrayed the trust of the American people, an event that shook and impressed the world at large. Even the viciously partisan pursuit of Clinton for deceit about his grubby peccadilloes showed, albeit it in a mean-spirited party-political fashion, that presidents could not get away with telling lies.
But now the world’s democracies look at America and regard with horror the establishment’s ferocious protection of a president who not only tells lies but wages war on his own people by denying them freedoms supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution.
Foreign governments that welcome loss of freedom by ordinary Americans are those which, by inclination and through urgent desire to remain in unelected power, are themselves given to energetic suppression of protest and discontent. There are plenty of them, and many of their leaders are regarded as valuable allies by the White House which, through manipulation of laws and avoidance of democracy’s checks and balances, is giving encouragement and support to dictators everywhere.
The conduct of internal affairs by any government is a prime indicator of how it will approach the world as a whole, because a policy of repression at home is invariably complemented by an aggressive, intolerant and xenophobic attitude to those beyond its borders. This is happening in Bush America, where ludicrous instances of persecution of individuals caught up in Kafkaesque nightmares are becoming more frequent. Concurrent with this manifestation of internal autocracy there is fatuous and immature distrust of nations whose governments are reluctant to accept the Bush demand that they be “either with us or against us.”
In America there has been an explosion of unbelievably Alice-in-Wonderland, government-initiated, capricious prosecutions, relentlessly pursued by dedicated morons in the teeth of all evidence that their grounds for federal charges were deficient, imperfect and derisory. The victims, such as Professor Steven Kurtz of Buffalo, Captain James Yee of the Guantanamo Bay prison, and the lawyer Mr Brandon Mayfield (to name the high-profile cases), have gone through hell. Their lives have been destroyed by the Government of the United States. Rejoice, ye tyrants everywhere, because the Bush administration is providing you with precedent, aid and comfort in repression of your citizens.
Professor Kurtz (admittedly an eccentric of some magnitude; but what’s the matter with that?) is suffering a campaign of desperation to find the tiniest thing legally wrong about his actions. There is no possibility that he can be found guilty of any offence of substance, but Ashcroft and the FBI are still trying. No doubt they will get him on something or other, because, these days, under the Patriot Act, you can be clapped in jail for almost anything, providing those who charge you can state, without evidence being produced, that you are in some way possibly associated with terrorism.
The treason charges against Captain Yee collapsed ignominiously, but when it was realized that the court would throw them out he was unnecessarily and intentionally humiliated in front of his family by production of evidence of dalliance with a female colleague. His wife and small daughter were brought into the courtroom specifically to hear details of the affair. The people who did this are by any standards the scum of the earth. The sort of a person who arranges for a man to be discredited, degraded and shamed in front of his little daughter is fairly typical of the Bush administration zealots. If someone is even a minor threat to their credibility they must destroy him. And if they can’t destroy him, well, they make sure he suffers unto the next generation. Good Christian stuff, all this.
The macabre little piece of malevolent titillation about adultery (which is not indulged in by any God-fearing judge, bureaucrat or politician, of course) had nothing, nothing whatever, to do with the charges against Captain Yee that fell apart because they could not be supported in any way.
Production in court of the evidence of the woman with whom he had had an affair was designed specifically to crush and mortify Captain Yee and to destroy his family and make his daughter forever, throughout her whole life, ashamed of her father, courtesy of the Bush administration’s obsession with persecuting people who don’t conform to their ideology. This disgusting and deliberate act of vindictiveness on the part of individuals representing the US government had no bearing on the charges of treason against Captain Yee, which were, of course, laughed out of court.
So what the hell is happening to American justice? You have to remember that most of us foreigners used to think that if somebody went in front of a US court they would get, by and large, a pretty fair deal. Lots of foreigners, especially in countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, China, Russia, most of South America, Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran, and the entire African continent used to think that the American legal system was as fault-free as could be expected in this imperfect world. In their own countries the chances of a fair trial are uncertain, and in some places non-existent, and they regarded American legal procedures as being decidedly better than their own.
No more. Because Bush has destroyed international trust in America.
The bizarre and grotesque illegalities of Guantanamo Bay have altered world-wide perceptions of US justice. The appalling denial of basic human rights and contemptuous violation of international law regarding the helpless and suicidal victims of the Bush administration have caused despair among the countless millions who seek and are not given justice in their own countries. They had at least the hope that the example of America would encourage their own horrible governments to gradually introduce reforms to their legal systems. But the Supreme Court’s ruling about the non-persons in Guantanamo is being fought by the Pentagon which is using every ploy and ruse at its disposal to deny basic justice to these illegally-held captives. That is, the commander-in-chief is approving all moves by his military representatives to avoid decent treatment for the prisoners held in his name, none of whom has been charged with any crime. This is what happens to foreigners in the current climate of McCarthy-style fear and persecution.
But as the cases of Kurtz, Lee and Mayfield have shown, native-born Americans, too, had better not fall foul of the latter day McCarthy tendency, for suspicion of non-conformity is rife. The smelling-out, hanging and stoning to death of alleged witches in Salem in 1692 was evil, and is hideously relevant to current circumstances. As Paul Johnson wrote in his magnificent ‘History of the American People’, “The Salem trials can be seen as an example of the propensity of the American people to be convulsed by spasms of self-righteous rage against enemies, real or imaginary, of their society and way of living.”
The farcical and fanatical persecution of innocent citizens in the name of a warped patriotism that is colored by ignorance and mixed with deep-seated distrust of unfamiliar peoples is only too reminiscent of past periods of intolerance and spite. And this persecution of non-conformists has shown America’s enemies, to their satisfaction, that the US is what they declare it to be : a land in which rich, powerful barons rule the peasants with the connivance of religious bigots, a compliant media, and a jurisprudence that has been warped by its practitioners’ political allegiance. America’s friends, who are becoming fewer and fewer, despair because they cannot defend the juridical contradictions that are detracting from the nation’s formerly reasonable claim to be leader of the world in fairness and legal equability.
There is little wonder that current US foreign policy is regarded by so many countries as small-minded, parochial, vindictive, malevolent and puerile. The recent action by Bush in withdrawing US representatives from UN Peacekeeping missions is but one example of childish behavior, and behind the laughter and scorn among the nations providing contingents to UN forces round the world there is a degree of sadness that Bush has felt it necessary to indulge in schoolyard posturing in the interests of his election campaign. (I had some emails from UN friends at the time that were truly more in despair than anger; and the refrain was to the effect : “Doesn’t Washington realize the damage this is doing to the US position on almost everything?”)
It isn’t as if the US contributes many soldiers to UN peacekeeping operations. There has not been a ripple in the missions from which Americans have been summarily removed by the orders of Bush, because his unilateral action is trivial in terms of manpower support for peacekeeping. Of the 16 UN peacekeeping missions, involving 48,830 troops and 1823 military observers from 97 countries the US military contribution is . . . . well, how many? Have a guess.
A thousand, perhaps? (Remember there are 507 US police-qualified personnel with the UN in the Balkans, under contract to a private security firm.) Or maybe the figure is a bit higher. Perhaps two or three thousand (like India, Ghana and Nigeria), or even six or seven thousand (like Bangladesh and Pakistan), as would fit well with the convictions of a president who pronounced in his State of the Union Address in September 2002 that “The United States is committed to lasting institutions like the United Nations . . . [concerning which] international obligations are to be taken seriously. They are not to be undertaken symbolically to rally support for an ideal without furthering its attainment.”
So : if the Bush administration is serious about its international obligations, which by definition include international peacekeeping under the auspices of the UN, how many military personnel has it committed within the total of 50, 653 soldiers wearing blue berets in the 16 missions round the world?
There are 18 observers and 7 support personnel in uniform representing the United States in UN peacekeeping activities, and it was announced on July 2 that nine of the 25 would be withdrawn because there is a “risk not appropriate to our forces”, according to Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita. The risk of physical or any other danger is tiny, to the point of being non-existent. His claim is manifest rubbish. The real reason for this demonstration of immature petulance is the existence of the UN’s International Criminal Court (ICC), which is detested by Bush, as is every single international institution, agreement, accord or initiative that might even in some purely symbolic manner appear to detract from his control-freak obsession with appearing global boss-man.
The ICC represents an international attempt, modest and flawed as it is, to deal justice to those who would escape prosecution in their own country for monstrous crimes. It is a prime limitation to the Court’s power that it cannot deal with individuals who have already been subject to their own country’s legal procedures. Yet the paranoid Bush and his band of revolving-eyeballed zealots imagine the Court presents a threat to Americans. This is an incorrect contention that is patently absurd. But, always on the lookout for an opportunity for confrontation, the Bush administration has alienated its friends and cheered its enemies by fatuously fulminating that the Court is a menace to freedom. There was no need for this battering-ram approach. There could have been discussions, negotiations, compromise and agreement involving mutual respect for each other’s views.
But no. The Bush administration solution to all its problems (or what it perceives as problems), is to shriek “Bring ’em On” and brandish the biggest cudgel it can find, while malevolently denigrating and defaming those who seek to achieve civilized remedies for the ills that beset the world.
A paraphrased line from the character portrayed by Brando in ‘The Wild One’ is appropriate for the Bush administration’s foreign policy. When Bush and his arrogant screwballs are asked “What are you objecting against?” the inevitable snarling reply is “Whaddaya got?” It’s a slick riposte for an immature black-leather kid, but no way to present America to the world.
BRIAN CLOUGHLEY writes on military and political affairs. He can be reached through his website www.briancloughley.com