'Whatever Mistakes We Have Made'
Editor’s Note: Though eloquent and nuanced, President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech whitewashed the post-World War II history of U.S. military interventions and covert actions that have killed millions of people and overthrown democracies that have resisted U.S. dictates and desires, from Iran to Chile.
Facing political criticism from the Right for having apologized at all for past U.S. transgressions, Obama circumscribed the bloody truth within a five-word clause, “whatever mistakes we have made.” In this guest essay, Nicolas J S Davies expands on that phrase:
The history of war has long included that of politicians who justify war in the name of peace.
After ordering the deaths of thousands or millions of people, they insist on tormenting the distraught survivors with disingenuous hand-wringing, mythological history and self-congratulation.
They demonize their victims, marginalize their suffering, and never apologize.
On Thursday in Oslo, after less than a year in office, President Obama took his place among this parade of the most cynical of historical figures.
Before directly addressing the specific role of the United States, Mr. Obama framed the history of warfare in the context of "just war" theory.
What he did not explain was that it was the bloody and catastrophic results of such "moral" justifications for war that brought the modern world to the brink of destruction and led it to instead adopt explicit international treaties and the binding prohibitions on the "threat or use of force" contained in the United Nations Charter.
As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told Congress on his return from the Yalta conference, his proposal for the United Nations "ought to spell the end of the system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the spheres of influence, the balances of power, and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries - and have always failed. We propose to substitute for all these a universal organization in which all peace-loving nations will finally have a chance to join."
Or, as Richard Barnet wrote in Roots of War in 1972, "It is exactly because moral standards are so difficult to apply wisely to foreign policy issues that it becomes necessary for survival to submit to objective, even arbitrary standards. There are some things that should not be done, whatever the circumstances or however plausible the provocation.
“The rules of war and the limitations on national sovereignty in the United Nations Charter were developed out of the shared experience of nations that a world where everything is permitted is not worth living in."
History of U.S. Wars
After taking up a third of his Nobel speech with his elaborate effort to dangerously reframe the whole question of war and peace, Mr. Obama finally addressed the history of war-making by his own country, the United States.
"Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms," Obama said.
"We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest -- because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity."
But this claim of selfless American nobility is contradicted by analysts and historians of all political stripes, even on the Right and among the most aggressive neoconservatives.
Jonah Goldberg of National Review quotes his neoconservative colleague Michael Ledeen describing U.S. interventions as the necessary coercive component of a gangsterish foreign policy based on unequal economic relationships:
"Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."
Or, when confronted with U.S. responsibility for the Kurdish refugee crisis in Iraq and Iran in 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously told investigators from the House Intelligence Committee that, "Covert action should not be confused with missionary work."
William Blum provides exhaustive detail of 55 U.S. military and CIA interventions since 1945 in his excellent book Killing Hope. This or any other thorough review of the historical record makes it clear that most of these interventions brought neither freedom nor prosperity to their victims.
On the contrary, they were mainly designed to overthrow governments that were too responsive to the needs and will of their own people and insufficiently responsive to American geostrategic and commercial interests.
Motivations may sometimes be subject to interpretation, but open violations of international law and the deaths and suffering of billions of people speak for themselves.
Ghosts of War Crimes Past
Was Mr. Obama really unaware of the millions of ghosts standing as silent witnesses to his empty words, whispering in Vietnamese, Arabic, Spanish, Haitian Creole and a dozen other languages?
Obama also claimed that U.S. interventions in other countries are designed to bring “stability” and “security.” But killing people and blowing up their homes and infrastructure does not bring stability or security.
On the contrary, those acts of violence bring death, terrible injuries, devastation and chaos. The use of military force is destructive by definition.
The fact that people and societies eventually recover from war does not mean that war or those who engage in it deserve credit for their victims’ recovery.
Only a drunk driver who is still very drunk would take credit when a person he injured finally emerged from the hospital and rehabilitation. U.S. claims for the benefits of military occupation and aerial bombardment rest on the same absurd and faulty logic.
President Obama went on to expound on one of the central myths of the American way of war. He claimed, "I believe that all nations, strong and weak alike, must adhere to standards that govern the use of force."
He went on later, "we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct... I believe that the United States must be a standard bearer in the conduct of war."
Last week, in Obama with Blood on his Hands, I described how, contrary to Mr. Obama's posturing, the United States is far behind the rest of the world in its commitment to the standards and conduct required by the Geneva Conventions and other binding treaties on the conduct of war.
U.S. military commanders consistently fail to make the most fundamental distinction between combatants and civilians that is at the heart of the laws of war.
They issue a wide variety of illegal orders that include "weapons free" (formerly "free fire") rules of engagement; orders to "kill all military age males"; air strikes on buildings where combatants have taken cover among large numbers of civilians; and brutal collective punishment of civilian populations.
U.S. forces are trained to "dead-check" or kill wounded resistance fighters, and prohibitions on torture are consistently ignored.
The People on War survey conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1999 demonstrated that American war crimes are rooted in the attitudes of the general population.
Whereas 75 percent of people in other countries understand that military forces "must attack only other combatants and leave civilians alone", as required by the 4th Geneva Convention, only 52 percent of Americans accept this position.
The ICRC report found that, "Across a wide range of questions, in fact, American attitudes towards attacks on civilians were much more lax" than those of people in other countries.
People on War found similar disparities in American attitudes to torture, the treatment of prisoners of war and disrespect for the value of the Geneva Conventions themselves.
Obama's claim that there is something morally superior about the way the United States fights its wars is either an extremely dangerous illusion or a cynical smokescreen. [You can find more details of the deadly consequences of American violations of the laws of war in my previous article.
President Obama did offer a constructive suggestion on how "nations that break rules and laws" like the United States should be dealt with:
"I believe that we must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to change behavior - for if we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something. Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure - and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one."
Of course, the problem is that, when the world does stand together as one, as in opposing the U.S. and British invasion of Iraq for instance, the present structure of the U.N. Security Council permits one or two of its permanent members to veto any effort to constrain them.
In contrast with their leaders, a majority of Americans have long believed that the U.N. Charter should be amended so that no one country, not even their own, can veto a resolution that is supported by a super-majority of the other 14 members.
This would be a valuable step toward a more representative international order and the kind of "alternative to violence" that the President claims to seek.
And, because "regimes that break the rules must be held accountable", the United States should restore its recognition of the binding jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
The U.S. withdrew from the jurisdiction of the ICJ after it ruled that the United States was engaged in aggression against Nicaragua in 1986. Nobody can simultaneously claim to uphold the law and to be unaccountable to it.
If Mr. Obama wants to take meaningful steps on the question of accountability for war crimes, there are several other important steps he can take:
The U.S. Justice Department and military Judge Advocates General should initiate serious investigations of American war crimes. And the United States should ratify the Treaty of Rome that established the International Criminal Court (ICC), instead of scheming to undermine it.
President Obama finished his speech with a long and quite eloquent plea for peace that might have been inspiring coming from someone other than the President of the world's most aggressive military power and biggest weapons manufacturer.
The world already has billions of such pleas for peace, coming from the hearts of people all over the world. What we need from the President of the United States is not another hypocritical speech but action to respond to those pleas.
This means ending U.S. wars and occupations, radically reassessing the genuine defense needs of his country, bringing his government into compliance with its international treaty commitments and enforcing its own laws.
Nicolas J S Davies is the author of Blood on our hands: the American invasion and destruction of Iraq, due out in March. He is a writer and activist in Miami, where he coordinates the Miami chapter of Progressive Democrats of America (www.pdamerica.org).
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