Commentary Usa – neither moral equivalence, nor ‘a shining city on a hill’
Several weeks ago, President Donald Trump caused outrage, when he suggested that the US and Russia did not differ all that much. In response to an interviewer’s claim that President Vladimir Putin was a killer, Trump responded, “We’ve got a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump’s remarks elicited an outburst of criticism even among fellow Republicans. Senator John Mccain asserted that there is no moral equivalence between that “butcher and thug, and KGB colonel, and the United States of America, the country that Ronald Reagan used to call a shining city on a hill.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch Mcconnell of Kentucky denied any equivalence between the way the U.S. and the Russians conducted themselves, adding that he did not intend “to critique the president’s every utterance, but I do think America is exceptional.” Former ambassador to Russia Michael Mcfaul was similarly critical. There is no equivalency between the ways US and Russia fight, and the US does not poison opposition leaders.
Trump’s critics have a point. Opposition leaders in the US need not be concerned about their safety; they will not be killed, poisoned, silenced or jailed on trumpedup charges. During its two wars in Chechnya, and now in Syria, Russia consistently violated international law and just war principles by directly targeting civilians and using disproportionate force.
In the last 40 years, Washington has taken great care to respect the laws of war. Yes, civilians are killed, but they are not direct targets. Attacks that cause civilian casualties are investigated carefully, although few soldiers are punished. During the Vietnam War matters were different. The US widely used napalm, a hideous weapon that many countries want banned, and set up so-called ‘free-fire zones,’ in which anyone present was considered an enemy combatant liable to attack, as if a government decree could make the killing of civilians legal and moral. Many innocent Vietnamese were murdered, not only during such massacres as My-lai, but also through the Phoenix program that sought to identify and ‘neutralize’ Vietcong operatives and supporters. Approximately 82,000 individuals were identified, and between a third and a half were killed.
The US no longer fights this way, although there is discussion whether it fights differently or fights different wars, i.e., against relatively weak opponents, who are not a threat to national security and can be defeated without resorting to massive and indiscriminate force. I believe that Washington wages war differently, although just a week ago, the Pentagon admitted that it used depleted uranium anti-tank rounds on two occasions in 2015 against targets in Syria.
That there is no moral equivalence between Russia and the US is hardly a sterling achievement and a source of pride. All EU countries can make the same claim. The more important question is how the US fares in satisfying more exacting criteria. The belief in American uniqueness and moral superiority seems to be ingrained in the country’s political DNA. Mccain invoked the image of the city on the hill, Mcconnell mentioned American exceptionalism, and both did so spontaneously without any prompting. America and its exceptionalism are uttered in one breath. Such responses are so hackneyed that they elicit no response. But they should. Imagine how we would react if Polish or Hungarian leaders made similar remarks, if F. Hollande spoke of France’s civilizing mission, or A. Merkel called Germany the indispensable nation. Such would be interpreted as a distasteful and unjustified burst of vanity and chauvinism, hardly the discourse of serious statesmen.
America’s self-celebration should be a cause of concern, for it blunts self-criticism and eases the way for unjustified actions. The US respects the norms of just war theory that prescribe how soldiers should fight. But it fights too often, flaunting the principles that determine when a country can go to war, and use force against another sovereign state. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo and Serbia, Libya, attacked targets in Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Pakistan. The invasion of Iraq was an illegal and immoral attack on a sovereign nation, justified by spurious claims about weapons of mass destruction, whose falsity was evident to the hundreds of thousands of Europeans who protested against it.
The attack on Kosovo and Serbia is also questionable. It was not sanctioned by the UN Security Council. Just war theory states that because of its horrors, war must be a last resort, embarked upon reluctantly when diplomatic, political and economic measures have failed. But at the negotiations in Rambouillet, the US made demands that it knew to be unacceptable to Serbia, such as the right of NATO troops to travel throughout Serbia. In his book on the start of World War I The Sleepwalkers, the eminent historian Christopher Clark notes that the notorious ultimatum that the Austrian-hungarian Empire made to Serbia in 1914 ‘pales by comparison’ to the demands of NATO in 1999. Henry Kissinger called Rambouillet ‘a provocation, an excuse to start bombing.’
The UN Security Council passed a resolution approving a ‘no-fly zone’ over Libya and the use of all necessary measures to protect civilians. But NATO violated both the letter and the spirit of the resolution, continuing its attacks even after government forces had been completely routed and were no longer a threat to civilians. They desisted only after Qaddafi had been hunted down and killed. It is not surprising that Russia and China, both of whom abstained during the voting, have vetoed all resolutions on Syria.
As the most powerful nation in the world, the US has special obligations and rights to act. The fight against international terrorism would have little chance of success without US leadership, although there should be more serious discussion about the legality of drone strikes in countries that have not given approval. President Obama has been severely criticized for not being sufficiently forceful and for ‘leading from behind.’ Such compunctions are foreign to Trump. It would be disheartening if he and his critics joined hands in forging a foreign policy that would not always heed the rights of other states.
Kestutis Girnius is a Lithuanian journalist and political analyst of US descent.