“Look, let me be clear,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry, signaling he was about to obfuscate. “The United States doesn’t ever trade its concern for human rights for any other objective,” he continued, in Egypt, alongside the foreign minister for an allied government led by a general who jailed his democratically elected predecessor after staging a coup d’état. “It’s always a concern. It’s an honest concern.”
Perhaps it is a concern, on some level—US allies torturing and murdering their political opponents can of course pose a public relations nightmare, sometimes necessitating the installation of a new proxy—but we know “human rights” is not the United States of America’s overriding concern because there John Kerry was, way, way back in June 2014, promising Egypt’s latest military regime that “the Apaches will come and that they will come very, very soon.” The promised Apaches are military attack helicopters which are to be used for “counter-terrorism” operations in a country where opposing the military regime is conflated with terrorism; where, indeed, a day before Kerry publicly committed to delivering more weapons of mass murder, the Egyptian regime mass-sentenced to death more than 180 supporters of its chief political rival, the Muslim Brotherhood.
But this all a little banal, isn’t it, pointing out that the US commitment to human rights is mostly rhetorical dressing for the routine violation of them by America and its allies? The odd thing is that, while the official rhetoric and broader narrative in the mainstream press maintains that the dedication to protecting human rights is sincere, US officials are quoted in those same outlets flouting legal protections for human rights.
“The Obama administration has waived the conditional human rights string attached to Egypt’s $1.3 billion in US military support for 2013,” the Associated Press reported last summer. In the two months that followed, the Egyptian regime slaughtered 1,150 demonstrators, according to Human Rights Watch.
Even the official White House website observes that the United States has often been guilty of “overlooking the human rights abuses of our own allies,” though it claims Jimmy Carter changed all that. But that’s not true at all: the Carter doctrine, after all, was all about oil, not human rights, with the former president declaring that the real problem with the Soviet Union’s efforts to “dominate Afghanistan” was not its killing of Afghans, but the “grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil.” Defending that flow, Carter declared, was in “the vital interests of the United States of America.” Human rights in Saudi Arabia? The US probably wouldn’t object if Saudi rulers let up a little on the brutality and over-the-top misogyny, but it’s not a vital interest that they do.
Again, this is all out in the open. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “defended U.S.-Uzbek cooperation a day after Human Rights Watch called on her to oppose military assistance to Uzbekistan’s authoritarian government,” AP reported in the fall of 2011. Clinton disregarded those human rights concerns, with a CNN headline announcing a few months later: “Waiver to help Afghan war supply route.” A State Department spokesperson explained that the waiver of human rights restrictions on aid to Uzbekistan was needed “for US national security interests.”
In 2012, President Obama himself waived restrictions on the US arming regimes that use child soldiers. “I hereby determine that it is in the national interest of the United States to waive the application of the prohibition . . . of the [Child Soldiers Prevention Act] with respect to Libya, South Sudan, and Yemen.”
In July 2014, meanwhile, the United States was the only country to vote against opening up a war crimes investigation to examine Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip. In August, the Appropriates Committee in the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow the US to aid countries where there has been a military coup d’état if the “provision of assistance is vital to the national security interests of the United States.” The language, according to the Washington Post, had previously been requested by the Obama administration, which previously evaded such restrictions in Honduras by pretending it wasn’t sure if a coup d’état had in fact occurred when in fact it knew that it did.
And in September, Obama waived sanctions “against Malaysia and Thailand” – two US allies, the latter led by a military regime that overthrew an elected government – “for failing to meet minimum standards in combating human trafficking.
You get it, right? I mean, come on. You get it. The United States, contra John Kerry often trades its purported human rights concerns for “national security interests,” meaning: the interests of those rich and powerful enough to affect US national security (not the millions of money-less slobs who took to the streets to protest the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for instance). The US does care about human rights, but only insofar as the violation of them threatens the stability of their oil-delivering proxy – or if the violations occur within an enemy nation, in which case the “realpolitik” that rationalizes US support for Saudi Arabia turns into grandstanding about the awfulness of life in objectively superior Iran. Then there’s the whole matter of the US directly destroying human societies from Iraq to Indonesia.
And yet, so many adopt a dual track approach to justifying US foreign policy. On the one hand, we’re justified bombing the hell out of Iraq – does it matter the year? – because we care about Rights and if you don’t think we do why don’t you move to somewhere where they don’t, like Iraq. On the other hand: LOL, hippie, the world’s a rough place and if you think America can get by with just a “commitment to peace” and a Niko Case album, you don’t understand How The World Works. It’s at best pedantry, then, to point out that the US government’s commitment to not-being-terrible is at best rhetorical; at worst, it’s anti-American.
But let me be clear, as politicians often say when they plan on being anything but: When John Kerry claims the US “doesn’t ever trade its concern for human rights for any other objective,” he is obviously, unequivocally, not telling the truth; he is misstating the truth; he is lying. Indeed, it is stunning that a guy who came to prominence by protesting the war in Vietnam could say such a thing with a straight face, even if it’s normal now for public figures of a certain age to have their capacity for more than one facial expression medically treated away (this is a joke about Botox).
What’s more interesting, however, is not the lying – that’s what people with power tend do: lie – but the fact that it’s right there, in the papers, that the United States government waives its oft-vaunted concern for human rights with mundane regularity. The routine violation of this country’s rumored principles (a funny thing for a nation-state to have) is on full display for all curious to see, yet those who point out this hypocrisy often find themselves relegated to the political fringe. US support for state-sponsored terror – from Indonesia to Guatemala, from Saudi Arabia to South America – is a fact that most in the foreign policy establishment, from the Pentagon to the think tanks, will defend if pressed, but prefer not be discussed in front of the public, which needn’t trouble itself with the truth behind all that pretty talk of liberation; they might become confused and start wondering why half their income tax only seems to produce dead bodies.
It’s elitism, I think, which explains why so often official lying is met with a smirk from those who no better in the press corps but rarely finds itself debunked in a mainstream press account. Violating human rights may not be the right thing to do, but it is the serious thing to do – one of the tough choices our leaders must make – but it’s not something the rest of need trouble ourselves thinking much about. And everybody sort of knows all that talk of Values that brings a tear to the patriot’s eye is just dressing on the dead foreigner salad, yeah?
Like America’s uncompromising commitment to human rights, Santa isn’t real either – but don’t go being a dick and telling the kids that. Fortunately, the kids often figure things out on their own; those in charge underestimate them at their peril. There’s no helping being born American, but there’s a cure for ignorance. And as one gets older, one begins to understand that it’s usually the adults who are to blame for putting nonsense into a child’s mind.
Charles Davis is an independent journalist who has covered Congress for public radio and Inter Press Service.