There’s that lay definition of mental illness where you come to believe you’re the only sane person left in the room. I think that’s where I am right now.
In last week’s address to State Department employees, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated out loud what has been America’s foreign policy forever, the idea that basing our policy too heavily on values creates obstacles to advancing our national interests. Tillerson basically restated the Kissinger line of realpolitik, which is what the U.S. had been doing since WWII even without a snooty name to it: offering lip service to rights and human values and democracy as expedients while supporting scum bag dictators as they fit our real needs.
That’s how you got the CIA overthrowing regimes in Iran and throughout Central and South America, why the US supported terrible autocrats in South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and where the roots of American backstopping of non-democratic regimes such as in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria lay. The plan was pretty clear: make nice speeches (“Women’s rights are human rights”) in China calling out America’s adversaries while doing nothing to promote those same ideals in America’s allies in places like Saudi Arabia.
But as with so many traditional American travesties that have long existed but were not spoken of pre-Trump, things are different now. And so in a full-on flag waving Op-Ed, America’s Crusty Old Man McCain uncorked a lengthy rebuttal to Tillerson’s plain speaking. McCain got in every cliché from the oldest John Wayne movies to the latest Chevy truck commercials in standing up for ‘Merica the world’s human rights policer. Here’s a taste of what he wrote:
Human rights exist above the state and beyond history… They inhabit the human heart, and from there, though they may be abridged, they can never be extinguished. We are a country with a conscience. We have long believed moral concerns must be an essential part of our foreign policy, not a departure from it. We are the chief architect and defender of an international order governed by rules derived from our political and economic values. Our values are our strength and greatest treasure. We are distinguished from other countries because we are not made from a land or tribe or particular race or creed, but from an ideal that liberty is the inalienable right of mankind and in accord with nature and nature’s Creator.
Depriving the oppressed of a beacon of hope could lose us the world we have built and thrived in. It could cost our reputation in history as the nation distinct from all others in our achievements, our identity and our enduring influence on mankind. Our values are central to all three.
I can’t be the only one stunned by the irony here.
McCain’s seminal experience – surviving as a prisoner of war under torture in North Vietnam – was as part of a horrific war the U.S. waged against the agrarian nation in Vietnam for… no clear purpose. Millions of civilians were killed to “free” them, with aerial bombing taking away their rights to life in the crudest fashion. The Vietnamese people voted after WWII to become a single (Communist) nation, and the United States intervened to put a stop to that. Every single prediction of the time that was made to justify that war turned out to be wrong; Vietnam today prospers, and continues to seek ways to join closer to the world system McCain imagines the US created as something akin to an act of God.
But don’t believe me. Let’s ask the relatives of those killed and maimed by America in Vietnam if they agree with McCain that “We are a country with a conscience.”
After that, let’s chat up some of the Koreans tortured by the U.S.-supported dictator Chung-hee Park, or Filipinos under U.S.-supported Ferdinand Marcos, or the families of those murdered by American drones across the Mideast. Or maybe those still currently under American torture at Guantanamo. Let’s ask the ghosts of those killed by American weapons in (deep breath) Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Haiti, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Chile, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Grenada… oh, you go look up the rest. Or call John McCain’s office and ask his staff for a complete list.
And of course I’m focusing on foreign policy hypocrisy here. But America the nation of conscience practices hypocrisy at home as well. Despite being among the wealthiest nations globally, America stands alone without a comprehensive health care system. And so suffers 6.1 deaths for every 1,000 live births, higher than Hungary, Poland, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Finland and Japan had less than half the rate of the United States. America has the highest rates of incarceration in the world, and stands by as 1 out of 5 children live short of food. Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries. Our elections are undemocratic mish-mashes of gerrymandering, voter fraud, foreign hackers, and the influence of massive amounts of corporate money and payoffs. America clung to slavery as a economic foundational element long after most of the world moved forward.
The truth? You can’t handle the truth. The truth is the United States maintains a bloody, warist, hypocritical record that would at least find a touch of purity in admitting we conduct our foreign policy with the greatest of self-interest. The only question left is to ask who is crazier at this point: McCain, who may believe the hogwash he is peddling, or the Americans who read it uncritically.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.