the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2006 January 10


If there is one problem with the popular right-left political spectrum ― and let’s assume for the moment that there is just the one ― it is that the spectrum is one-dimensional. In their minds people identify a set of beliefs to define one extreme, and a set to define the other, and then attempt to place themselves and everyone else along the line between the two. They further proceed to assume that the other side believes the opposite of their own beliefs on every matter, and that anyone who opposes the other side is an ally on all matters, an ally of similar beliefs. And some, finally, will decide to oppose an idea simply because it comes from the other side ― which amounts to determining their own beliefs solely by contrast to their opponents, and even changing their beliefs solely by contrast to their opponents. Do the Nazis like poetry? Then poetry be damned.

George Bush encourages that sort of thing, with his fer-us-or-agin’-us attitude. Much of the world hears such a dichotomy and is repulsed by the thought of being with him, and this leads to the sharp division of the world into two kinds of people.

The first kind are those who believe Condoleezza Rice when she attempts to assure the world that the US does not torture and does not allow torture on its behalf. Of course, the US government is known to torture prisoners, and if it were not known to do so it could be assumed to do so anyway. Surely even rogue elements of the Swedish government torture prisoners. The most Rice could claim as far as physical torture is that her level of the government does not condone it. What she actually said was that ‘torture’ is a legal term, something already prohibited (and therefore different from the actions that the administration fought recently to keep Congress from criminalizing). When she said that the US does not torture, she meant, as she emphasized, that the US does not violate its own law on torture. But since the administration has just been shown to disregard statutory law on the grounds that the president’s authority under the constitution overrides any statutory restrictions, an assurance on law from Rice is worthless.

We could note that the constitution only makes the president commander in chief of the army, the navy, and the state militias, not of whatever in the country he feels like; and commanding the military no more implies the authority to order soldiers to defy statutes than administering the executive branch implies the authority to order bureaucrats to defy statutes. We are a constitutional ― a limited ― democracy. Our public officials are constrained by the constitution, and the president is constrained by Congress, because Congress makes the laws. Congress furthermore determines the scope of war powers, and determines when the US is at war, which legally, therefore, we are not. George Bush and his retainers are arguing for absolutism. They seem to be serious, and we should, on this matter at least, take them seriously. The administration believes that it determines US law by itself ― so of course they have not violated the law.

In sum, the administration’s position is this: that it does not violate US law on torture; but there should not be a statutory law prohibiting torture, and if there were such a law, the administration would not be bound by it. Or put yet another way: we want the right to torture, we have the right to torture, and we don’t do anything that we don’t have a right to do. The denial is positively Clintonian.

The second part of Rice’s assurance is that the US does not render individuals to the custody of states where they will be tortured. Most at issue are third-party renditions, where the receiving state has no connection to the suspect at all. These are states, by and large, notorious for torturing suspects in their custody. Rice states that, when necessary, the US asks these states for a credible assurance that they will not torture the suspects that we entrust to them. This is surely one assurance too far. If we have to ask them for such a promise, do we trust them to make it? But the real strain on credibility is the notion that the US government, which boasts of and may actually have the most competent security services in the world, and in any case has the most powerful, renders suspects to third-party states for no purpose other than their safe custody.

The United States turns terrorist suspects over to states known for practicing torture. These states do not have our economic resources, our technology, or our training. They do not want these suspects for crimes in their own jurisdictions. What possible reason could we have for doing this? What can these states do, or what will they do, that we cannot or will not do ourselves?

The second kind of people in the world, according to the spectrum, are those who believed Saddam Hussein when he attempted to assure the world that he had no weapons of mass destruction and was not pursuing them. To recap from three years ago, Saddam’s régime was given a final chance, after a decade of failure, to demonstrate that it had disarmed. The régime had actually used chemical weapons. Inspections by the United Nations had verified that it had also produced biological weapons and proscribed missiles, and was working on nuclear weapons. Years of the most blatant deception and obstructionism led to retaliatory air strikes by the US and allies in 1998, after which the UN inspectors were kicked out for good. When they left, Iraq was in possession of stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, which both the UN and Iraq itself acknowledged. In the following four years, there were no inspections, and right up to the moment of the invasion the régime produced no evidence that these stockpiles were destroyed. I never had any patience with those fence-sitting Democrats who demanded that the Bush administration “make the case” for the war, as though they could not as well educate themselves. And, as I have just said, the administration cannot be trusted to tell the truth. So it is worth mentioning that none of this information came from the Bush administration.

No stockpiles were found, as we all know. It has become common ― mostly as a matter of political credibility ― for all former believers to act contrite, agree that there had been no weapons, and claim to have argued for the war on other grounds. I cannot do that. Of course there were other, stronger grounds to overthrow this murderous mafia; but the weapons suspicion was legitimate nonetheless. The prevailing theory among the repentant is that Saddam ordered the destruction of the weapons, but continued stonewalling and deceiving so that the outside world would believe that he had the weapons. Supposedly this was done both to save face, and to maintain the deterrent effect that his possession of weapons produced. But would those purposes not have been better served by actually keeping the weapons? He had gone to a great deal of trouble to acquire the weapons in the first place, and to hide them from inspectors. With the inspectors gone, but the circumstances otherwise unchanged, why would he have suddenly lost interest in the actual possession of the weapons?

The easiest theory to believe instead is that the weapons were hidden, most likely underground, and then all those at lower and middle levels who had participated in the concealment were killed. Admittedly, for this theory to hold, we must presume a couple of things. The first is that Saddam was devious. The second is that he was willing to shoot a few hundred people. And standing against this theory is the idea that Saddam decided to disarm himself when no one was looking so that he could eventually embarrass George Bush with the fact ― but only if he were able to provoke Bush into an invasion by pretending to still have weapons. He was willing to gamble his dictatorship for a payoff of dubious value that would not be realized unless he actually lost the bet. As Joschka Fischer once said on the other side of the argument: excuse me, I am not convinced.

Are there just the two sides, then? I oppose the Sunni Arab chauvinists and global jihadis in Iraq who are murdering innocents, sometimes a hundred in a day. I know that they are doing so not out of misguided patriotism (even if many of them are locals). They are doing so, rather, because they, the two forces separately, are attempting to take over the country, and to rule it as a minority in the most barbaric way, and the killing of these particular innocents, mostly Shiite Arabs, is something they would be more than happy to do anyway, even if it did not serve their long-term political interests. These two groups are, in other guises, the Baath Party and al-Qaeda. They are murderers in the service of dreadful tyrannies, two different tyrannies that would fight for supremacy, but whose interim goals coincide: to create bloody chaos in Iraq and prevent the emergence of a liberal democratic government.

My opposition to these thugs, my refusal to explain away their grotesque actions and their outrageous ideologies by reference to local or regional injustices, does not mean I condone those injustices. The torture that the United States and its allies practice, the religious conservatism of the dominant parties in the new Iraq, the abuses of the new Iraqi police, the mild election fraud that took place in December ― these are all things that I also oppose. By my own perception, there was election fraud in the United States a year ago, and it returned to power a religious-conservative administration that had not been popularly elected in the first place. But I recognize as well that religious conservatism is popular almost everywhere, and is bound to be on the verge of an electoral majority, even in the cleanest of elections. In Iraq, the secular Shiites and the Sunni Arab chauvinists protested at real fraud in the elections; but it was not material to the outcome. The secular Shiites and the Sunni chauvinists overestimate their numbers. The Sunni Arabs, in particular, believe themselves to be a majority, or very nearly so, when in fact they are outnumbered by others four to one. They could never win an election in Iraq, or even in Baghdad province. That is partially why extremists among them are so determined to bomb their way back into power.

The most credible story to tell of Ariel Sharon’s last years in power ― since at this point they seem to be over ― is not a story of centrism, since that, too, presumes a single dimension. Sharon was, consistently throughout his career, a Zionist. He believed, as I do, that Jews cannot rely on others for their safety and continued existence, and must rely on themselves, and to achieve this they must have a state of their own. Jews are aboriginal to Palestine, while Arabs are not; and so a Jewish settlement program in Palestine, while perhaps ill-advised, was not inherently unjust. Very little of the early settlement, under Ottoman or British rule, was objectionable even by modern standards. And had the Arabs accepted the UN-proposed partition of Palestine, the idea of Greater Israel would have died there, and the Arabs, in addition to controlling the Arabian peninsula, North Africa, Mesopotamia, and the Levant, would have controlled half of Palestine as well.

Sharon, in any case, was a native-born Palestinian as well as a Jew. He would not have been moved by the argument that he was not entitled to continued residence in Palestine simply because his parents were not born there. And the violent hostility of the Arabs in Palestine and elsewhere to the Jews of Palestine surely contributed, if not formed, his own career of extremism. Yes, Sharon was guilty of violence and brutality towards Arabs, and his policies until recently were unforgiving, and perpetuated the cycle of retribution, in particular his previously-steadfast support of the colonization by Jews of the entirety of Palestine. His own guilt is not erased by the fact that he was raised in a violent and hostile environment and was acting at least initially for understandable reasons. But that places him no worse than level with those of his enemies who justify their own violent extremism, their murder of innocents, with reference to Sharon.

And in the end, he became an opponent of the colonization movement, and its own messianic (if I may call it so) extremism. He judged that the security of Israel was best served by disengagement ― the unilateral withdrawal of Jewish settlers from Arab-majority areas, and the erection of a wall between the two communities. He took personal responsibility for the forced removal of Jews from Gaza, and was to do the same for most of the West Bank as well. He was intolerant of Jewish zeal for Greater Israel, and at the same time intolerant of Arab tolerance of hostility towards Jews. He fought both sides at once. I cannot see how that made him a centrist, and certainly not how it made him a moderate. He was an extremist of a different sort. On the one hand were both Arab and Israeli chauvinists; on the other hand was Sharon, with his steely resolve to settle this matter now, without regard to the rejectionists, and without waiting for the harmony and rapprochement that may never come. I had not liked Sharon historically; but I supported his final project, and I am terribly dismayed that he will not be around to see it through. The loss of Sharon gives new life to the false dichotomy of extremes.

But nowhere is that idea rejuvenating as in Latin America. A new “leftist” movement has emerged, claiming to represent the common people; and to judge by several elections, many of the common people agree. The figurehead of this movement is Fidel Castro. The leader is Hugo Chávez. By itself that should be enough to prove that the movement is not democratic. Castro came to power by means of a coup, which against Batista was certainly no crime. But he and his comrades (including the real-life version of the hopelessly-idealized Che Guevara) immediately constructed a police state which stands to this day, making Cuba an island of Stalinism in a hemisphere that has enthusiastically embraced democracy. Castro has yet to hold an election. He still routinely imprisons and abuses dissidents. There is no freedom of expression in Cuba, and little freedom of any other sort.

Chávez attempted to come to power in a coup as well, but without the mitigating presence of a dictatorship. Chávez simply does not care for democracy. He will use it when possible, as in his own initial election six years after his putsch. He will also thwart it wherever possible. He has not instituted a police state; but dissent in Venezuela is not without cost, and its success is made as difficult as possible. Chávez knows that he is popular. And he wants his agenda to succeed; that is understandable. But he has no patience for competing ideas. And he is an unreformed coup-merchant. And, worst of all, he idolizes Fidel Castro. With that, he can yap about the people all he wants; he will never be on their side, because he is supporting the enslavement of the people of Cuba.

Joining them now is Evo Morales, the president-elect of Bolivia. Immediately upon election he paid obeisance to Castro, and then to Chávez. Morales is enchanted by the rhetoric and the stated policies of Chávez and Castro. He knows poverty and coca-growing firsthand. It figures, then, that he would be an opponent of capitalism and the War on Drugs, both of which are associated (justly) with the United States. He became an opponent of the United States. He looked about for allies, saw the enmity between the United States and the Castro-Chávez axis, heard the rhetoric of anti-imperialism, and signed up, no further questions asked. Right behind him, it seems, is Ollanta Humala, a strong challenger for the April presidential election in Perú. And the leftist presidents of Argentina and Brazil, Néstor Kirchner and Lula da Silva, have flirted with the axis as well, and embraced Chávez politically and economically.

It is known that the CIA helped Augusto Pinochet take power from an elected (albeit minority) government in Chile. Pinochet tortured and murdered his enemies and never, even after he lost power, did he lose the support of rightists in Chile or in the democratic states of the West. These are not fringe rightists either ― Margaret Thatcher stood by him long after her official duties may have “required” this support, and if her intelligence services did not actively assist him, they undoubtedly informed her of exactly what Pinochet was up to, as though anyone needed MI6 to figure that out. Pinochet did not just go after his enemies; he attacked their families also. After torturing and killing rival officer Alberto Bachelet, he arrested and tortured Bachelet’s wife and daughter. That daughter, socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet, is expected soon to be elected the president of Chile.

It will be a betrayal of everything she and her parents and her compatriots suffered for, if Bachelet takes Chile closer to the supposed leftists of Cuba and Venezuela. This Cold War mentality, the same which led to the US aiding and even creating rightist dictators to counter the tyranny of the Eastern bloc, must end. The West was wrong to contest Stalinism by the particular means it used. But ultimately a victory by the Stalinists would have been much worse. And those who genuinely oppose imperialism need to begin exercising their intellect as well as their indignation. Must we choose between Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro? Between Alberto Fujimori and Hugo Chávez? Between Yitzhak Shamir and Yasser Arafat? Between Ruhollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein? Between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin? It is a false choice; it is six of one thing, half a dozen of the same damned thing. The full scope of social and political questions has many dimensions. It is not a simple matter of points along a line between two recognized extremes. The supposed extremes in question are, to me, the same extreme, one end of a different line for each issue. I place myself on one extreme; on the other are those who will believe what is said by their allies and doubt what is said by their enemies, without subjecting either claim to the test of reason, asking what makes sense, and what accords with the facts as we know them, as we can perceive them. I place myself on one extreme; on the other are those who support the absolutist rule of an individual or a group, as in China, Russia, Cuba, Iran, Uzbekistan, Syria, Zimbabwe, or Laos, and deny all the atrocities committed to facilitate this rule. Those others are merely on the right or left halves of the wrong side of history. This is not a plague o’ both their houses; it is a plague o’ the one house, for convincing us it were two.

And when we talk about the “rightist” tyranny in one country, and the “leftist” tyranny in another, we are talking, in fact, about two points in Hell. And the point halfway between them ― well, it’s still Hell.


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