By Professor Lawrence Davidson
Dr. Susan Elizabeth Rice (D. Phil. Oxford, 1990) is United States Ambassador at the United Nations. She is a professional diplomat and foreign policy consultant as well as a protégée of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Rice, who is unrelated to Condoleezza Rice, had a reputation of being a free thinker and a stubborn defender of what she thought to be proper and right. This tendency to be independent of mind meant she had trouble with other older career diplomats when, in the second Clinton administration, she served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. No doubt she soon learned that, in the world of diplomacy as in most well established bureaucracies, too much independent thinking makes you a square peg surrounded by round holes. In the long term one either conforms or leaves for a more accommodating career (usually in academia). It appears that Dr. Rice has done the former.
Evidence of this choice came on 28 October 2010 when Ambassador Rice stepped out of the UN Security Council chamber in New York and began scolding the Syrian government for a “flagrant disregard” of Lebanese sovereignty. Syria is supposedly doing this by “continuing to provide increasingly sophisticated weapons to Lebanese militias, including Hezbollah….” Dr. Rice’s charge is only superficially true and that is where she left it. For instance, she omitted the context of the situation and the whole recent history of the country of Lebanon. She made no mention of Lebanon’s right wing factions and the role of the United States and France in supporting their continuing divisive independence. She did not deem to mention that Lebanon’s horrible history of civil wars was finally brought to an end only with Syrian intervention. And, she did not tell of Hizbollah’s role as protector of the country’s majority Shi’ite population as well as defender of the entire nation from the rapacity of the United States’ main ally, Israel. No, she did not put things in perspective, but rather got her orders from Washington to play the sovereignty card and thereby distort things for the sake of a highly partisan American position. And so, like a good soldier, she carried out those orders. She is now an official team player.
And what of those who gave the orders? No doubt Jeffrey Feltman, the pro-Israel Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, had a hand in this. He too has made a career of disregarding the context of situations. The question I would like to ask both Ambassador Rice and Secretary Feltman is, when did the United States government start taking seriously any state’s sovereignty other than its own or its allies? Neither could answer this question seriously (at least not in public) for to do so would reveal that they are loyal agents of a government that practices a murderous hypocrisy. For example, consider just a few recent historical events (there are of course many more) involving the U.S. and the issue of other people’s national sovereignty.
1. On 4 August 1964 President Lyndon Johnson told the American people that U.S. naval ships had twice been attacked in international waters by the North Vietnamese navy. As it turned out Johnson’s address was knowingly inaccurate and misleading. There had been only one engagement and not two, and the real engagement had come about as a result of U.S. sponsored and supported South Vietnamese commando attacks along the North Vietnamese coast. Nonetheless, the announcement was used to get the Tonkin Gulf Resolution out of Congress and this led to the dramatic escalation of what would become the Vietnam War. Johnson, who imagined he was in a fight with international communism , would have scornfully laughed if, at that time, anyone had mentioned the sacrosanct nature of Vietnamese sovereignty (North or South). It was irrelevant as he proceeded to set the U.S. on a course that largely destroyed Vietnam and killed approximately two million of its people.
2. In 1982 President Ronald Reagan began a covert program to support the overthrow of the left leaning democratically elected government of Nicaragua. This involved military and financial aid to the Contras, a coalition of right wing guerrilla groups that became known for their brutality and human rights violations. By 1986 the Congress had forbade any further aid to the Contras just because they were such barbarians. But Reagan, just like Johnson, was sure he was in a fight with international communism, and so he continued to aid the Contras illegally and this led to the Iran-Contra Affair. In the process, Reagan never gave serious thought to Nicaraguan sovereignty. An estimated fifty thousand people died as a result of Reagan’s Contra policy.
3. From 1998 through 2004 both the Clinton and Bush administrations built up the claim that Iraq possessed dangerous levels of weapons of mass destruction (wmd) despite the fact that United Nations weapons inspectors deployed in Iraq could never find them. The truth is that Iraq had given up its wmd programs in the mid 1990s and both administrations had intelligence evidence of that fact. Nonetheless, they chose not to credit that information and instead persisted in misleading the American people. By doing so they gained support for an embargo of Iraq that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi children. Finally, in March of 2003, using scare tactics that again involved alleged wmds, the Congress was brought to support President Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Only in April of 2005, with the U.S. in control of the country and having completed an exhaustive hunt for such weapons, did the CIA report that nothing of significance was to be been found. As with Vietnam, Iraq was invaded on a contrived pretext and its sovereignty was a none issue. Subsequently Iraq was largely destroyed and civilian deaths probably exceed half a million.
Just what sort of career is it that leads its practitioners to follow the orders of those promoting policies that kill millions? In other words, just what have Dr. Rice and Mr. Feltman gotten themselves into? These are very serious questions for they and their bosses are the Pied Pipers the general population invariably follows, and sometimes right off a high cliff. How does this happen to Rice, to Feltman, and to us? Here are some possible answers:
A. We have never grown out of our in-group/out-group view of things. There is a “hard-wired” evolutionary aspect to this. As the cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley reminds us, “our [evolutionary] forebears had a tendency to treat members of out-groups…with contempt and sometimes murderous aggression” (see his short book, Emotions: A Brief History, 2004, p. 29). He represents this as an instinctual tendency. Yet, human beings are not necessarily slaves to these impulses and, if we chose, we can control them. But to do so is made all the harder by the fact that government bureaucracies and military organizations, among many others, function as profoundly persuasive in-groups. They encase their employees and members in lines of command and concepts of loyalty that turn them from independent thinking beings into the followers of commands–the tools of someone else’s thinking. Of course, we do not normally think of our government and our military in this way. But both history and sociology suggests that they do shape our behavior in just this sort of dangerous fashion. For we are communal creatures and this is one of the costs of being so, unless we control the tendency toward in-group myopia. It is exactly this myopia that both Susan Rice and Jeffrey Feltman have bought into.
B. The majority of people are easily manipulated due to their wholly understandable but nonetheless dangerous ignorance of matters beyond their local sphere. How do you know that this or that out-group is dangerous? How do you know that Syria is a threat to Lebanese sovereignty or that Hezbollah is a “terrorist organization”? The vast majority of us know it because our government officials and media spokespersons tell us so. We assume that these people actually know what they are talking about, that they have no hidden agendas, that they do not lie or mislead us. How many of us consider the possibility that they, the officials and spokespersons, have themselves been misled or corrupted by special interest groups and lobbies? Some of us do, but not enough to matter. Most of us assume the honesty of the “experts” or just never really think about this problem at all. And, it is this naive act of faith, that the rest of us have bought into.
None of this represents a new problem. Indeed, it is age old, but that is no excuse. To the extent that the above propositions are true, we must face facts and seek ways to moderate their impact. There are many tools to this end. One of them is education of which we could make much better use in teaching our children to value tolerance and diversity, just as we now teach them to value nationalism and patriotism. But first there has to be a general recognition of the need to do so. Will that ever come about? I have no prophetic answer to this question, but there was a 19th century Russian poet who once said that “providence has given human wisdom the choice between two fates: either hope and agitation, or hopelessness and quiescence.” I vote for the former.
Lawrence Davidson is a Professor of Middle East History at West Chester University in West ChesterPennsylvania.He is the author of America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood (University Press of Florida, 2001), Islamic Fundamentalism (Greenwood Press, 2003), and, co-author with Arthur Goldschmidt of the Concise History of the Middle East, 8th and 9th Editions (Westview Press, 2006 and 2009). His latest book is entitled Foreign Policy, Inc.: Privatizing American National Interest (University of Kentucky Press, 2009). Professor Davidson travels often and widely in the Middle East. He also has taken on the role of public intellectual in order to explain to American audiences the impact of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Davidson is a regular contributor to Opinion Maker