Com­men­tary Usa – nei­ther moral equiv­a­lence, nor ‘a shin­ing city on a hill’

The Baltic Times - - COMMENTARY - Kes­tutis girnius

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.

Kes­tutis Girnius

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