How to Spin a Genocide

The Rios Montt trial set back a month and will now likely collapse, a sad day for international justice. But for neoconservatives, the decision is good news, because Reagan’s shady connections with Montt have been exposed (for the few willing to discover them). And yet some on the right are still trying to protect Montt and Reagan – here’s how you spin a genocide.

J. Michael Waller calls blaming the U.S. “easy propaganda.” He writes in the New York Times that,

The Rios Montt prosecution was less about justice and more about using the courts to wage political propaganda campaigns to settle old scores. Rios Montt’s real crime was not genocide, according to prevailing logic, but his political beliefs… shouldn’t former insurgents who committed war crimes in the 1980s also face justice?

We’ll hear more “blame the insurgents” arguments later, but for now, let’s take a look at how the United Nations Commission for Historical Clarification report on the atrocities. They find that U.S. backed government forces, not the rebels, committed 93 percent of the crimes.

The Washington Office of Latin America reports,

Ríos Montt has long been identified by human rights activists in Guatemala and internationally as the man in charge during the period of the most notorious human rights abuses committed during Guatemala’s civil war; massacres and targeted attacks on indigenous Mayan communities were widespread during his regime. Ríos Montt’s trial and conviction are a vindication for the victims and their families, as well as a re-assertion of the principle that indiscriminate attacks on civilian communities during wartime can never be justified.

But it was really Montt’s political views that sunk him.

In Foreign Policy, Jose Cardenas defends Reagan in a similar way, downplaying the crimes, and saying that Reagan’s “gamble” just didn’t pan out. He writes:

If someone wants to argue that the Reagan administration’s policy gamble on Ríos Montt to quell the violence did not pan out, then that’s one thing (history books are full of such examples). But to equate it with aiding and abetting “genocide” is beyond the pale. In fact, it is more evidence of an ideological agenda than any noble search for accountability.

In this retelling, we have a United States that merely supported, with the intent of quelling violence, a fascist dictator. Reagan, it’s worth noting, said of Montt:

I know that President Rios Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice. My administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts.

Let’s turn again to the most authoritative source we have on the crimes – the UN Report. Rather than fingering the U.S. as merely a financial supporter, the report argues that many of the crimes originated from U.S. doctrines. From the report:

In the case of Guatemala, military assistance was directed towards reinforcing the national intelligence apparatus and for training the officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques, key factors which had significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation.

Later on:

Anti-communism and the National Security Doctrine (DSN) formed part of the anti-Soviet strategy of the United States in Latin America. In Guatemala, these were first expressed as anti-reformist, then anti-democratic policies, culminating in criminal counterinsurgency.

From the right we have a story of the Reagan administration being entirely unaware of the abuses and seeking a means of quelling the violence. From the truth commission we get an entirely different story: U.S. National Security Doctrine actively encouraged violence.

Continue reading “How to Spin a Genocide”

How Scandalous Are These Scandals, Anyway?

With the manufactured Benghazi scandal tying with the IRS for the story that the right is pretending is a story, it’s worth looking back at what a real scandal looks like. Most people think of Watergate when they think “scandal” but by Nixon standards, Watergate is just a little icing on the cake.

The premise behind the Benghazi scandal is that the President failed to label the attack an “act of terror,” and misled Americans about the attack; both for political reasons. Some Conservatives are even calling for impeachment. Aside from the dubious nature of the allegations, it may be worth asking the right to examine the plank lodged in its eye before inventing a speck in the President’s.

Consider, for instance, Nixon sabotaging the Paris Peace Accords for blatantly political reasons. Christopher Hitchens wrote in his compact but explosive expose on Kissinger, The Trials of Henry Kissinger,

In the fall of 1968, Richard Nixon and some of his emissaries and underlings set out to sabotage the Paris peace negotiations on Vietnam. The means they chose were simple: they privately assured the South Vietnamese military rulers that an incoming Republican regime would offer them a better deal than would a Democratic one. In this way, they undercut both the talks themselves and the electoral strategy of Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The tactic “worked,” in that the South Vietnamese junta withdrew from the talks on the eve of the election, thereby destroying the peace initiative on which the Democrats had based their campaign.

The recently released Johnson tapes confirm that not only is Nixon partially responsible for the tens of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese who needlessly died after the talks fell apart, but Johnson was aware of the “treason.”

And what about the Iran-Contra affair? Even today, many Americans may be surprised at just what the Reagan administration did: high level officials secretly sold weapons to Iran through Israel (to get hostages freed for political purposes) and then used the money to illegally fund the Contras in Nicaragua. After tens of thousands of innocent civilians were maimed by the guerrilla forces that were fighting against the elected government of Nicaragua, the Nicaraguans took the U.S. to the World Court and won. The court found the U.S. guilty of “hereof which involve the use of force, has acted, against the Republic of Nicaragua, in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to use force against another State.” Reagan ignored the decision and the U.S. used its position on the Security Council to block any enforcement of the judgement.

But, what about the IRS targeting Tea Party groups? Well, a little paperwork certainly is annoying, but it’s hardly the worst thing the U.S. government has done to political enemies. Consider COINTELPRO, the FBI’s program to disrupt domestic political organizations. The program included reporting members of the Socialist Workers Party to their bosses, a “war” against to discredit Rev. King Jr. and after spending years subverting the Black Panthers, evenually assassinating a Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton. Read that twice.

We could discuss Ford giving Suharto a go ahead to invade East Timor, Operation MONGOOSE, the recent discovery that the U.S. killed enemies of the Pakistani government for access to airspace, but the larger point remains: the Benghazi “scandal” is a product of the right-wing echo chamber, not legitimate outrage over truly nefarious actions. Those who follow hyperlinks will note with despair that most of my sources come from foreign media, where most of the reporting on real scandals occurs. The American media (with the exception of outlets like free of commercial censorship) will largely report on minor scandals, leaving the good stuff to be buried decades in the future. Even today, most Americans know of Watergate, but few know of COINTELPRO and the Paris Accords.

Sean McElwee has previously written for The Day and The Norwich Bulletin and on and He is a writer for The Moderate Voice. Visit his blog at

Saving Nietzsche and Ourselves

Nietzsche is incorrectly often associated with fascism, especially Nazism. When he descended into insanity, his sister Elizabeth took control of his works and selectively edited them to support the Third Reich. This is a shame, because Nietzche wrote many prescient passages in his early aphoristic days.  In The Wanderer and His Shadow, Nietzsche writes, “No government admits any more that it keeps an army to satisfy occasionally the desire for conquest. Rather the army is supposed to serve for defense, and one invokes the morality that approves of self-defense.”

Nietzsche-274x300This insight elucidates American foreign policy. How many foolish ventures have begun in the “national defense”? From the domino theory to the Bush doctrine to drone strikes, American foreign engagements have always been cloaked under the guise of “defense.” Nietzsche’s unfair assessment is particularly appalling since he held antithetical views. He hopes for the day when,

“a people, disgusted by wars and victories and by the highest development of a military order and intelligence, and accustomed to make the heaviest sacrifices for these things, will explain of its own free will, ‘We break the sword’ and will smash its entire military establishment down to its lowest foundations. Rendering oneself un-armed on hone had been the best-armed, out of a height of feeling-that is the means to real peace…”

Rather than being a rabid fascist, Nietzsche was a sensitive pacifist. Before he lost control of his mental faculties Nietzsche saw a horse being violently flogged, he ran to the horse and threw his arms around the beast to protect it. And he may well be right. Paul Collier finds that violent conflict is one of the greatest inhibitors to economic growth. Costa Rica and Iceland are doing fine without a standing army.

But it’s doubtful we’ll soon disband our army and convert our guns into plowshares. As Nietzsche notes:

Our liberal representatives, as is well known, lack time for reflecting on the nature of man: else they would know that they work in vain when they work for ‘a gradual decrease of the military burden.’ Rather the tree of war-glory can only be destroyed all at once by a stroke of lightning…”

Could there be a better description of the half-assed mutual disarmament? But could Nietzsche imagine that the man who sanctioned the Indonesian invasion of East Timor and the man who plans weekly signature strikes on small villages would both be awarded an international prize for peace?

The US Perpetrates a Boston Bombing Weekly in Pakistan, Yemen & Afghanistan

Tribesmen sit with Sadaullah Khan, who lost both legs and one eye in a 2009 drone strike on his house (Reuters)
Sadaullah Khan lost both legs and one eye in a 2009 drone strike on his house (Reuters)

The Boston Bombings left three dead and more than 100 injured and some have suggested circumventing the rule of law to prosecute the perpetrator. Yet, in Pakistan the unconstitutional drone war continues to kill innocents. On April 14, between 4 and 6 Pakistanis died in drone strike and numerous civilians were injured. Another strike three days later killed 5 more and injured several. Yet there are no protests in America to capture the responsible party, nor will there ever be justice. The people of Waziristan live in constant fear, and face bombings like that of Boston almost weekly.

The two April strikes both involved significant amounts of terror, with drones “hovering over the area” for long periods of time, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. These drone strikes, contrary to administration claims, rarely target “high-level” members of terrorist organizations, and often “militants” include young boys aged 10-16.

Only recently have we begun to learn of the shady covert drone war. Mark Mazzeti’s recent The Way of the Knifedetails the beginning: the United States became the lapdog of the Pakistani government, performing a drone strike to kill Nek Muhammed in exchange for access to the airspace.

While the government acknowledges that trials would be preferable for the rule of law, this heavily redacted report gives the true reason for the targeted killing program: it’s cleaner, simpler and less embarrassing to just off the suspected terrorists. The government uses mafia logic – why waste time and energy risking the rule of law when you can just swoop in and launch a smart bomb?

Farea al-Muslimini testified this week to United State Senate about the “psychological fear and terror” that his village faces daily after a recent drone strike. He argues that while the strike may be cleaner for the United States government, on the ground it leaves significant psychological scarring. He said,“The drone strike [in my village] and its impact tore my heart, much as the tragic bombings in Boston last week tore your hearts and also mine.”

While we mourn the horrific events in Boston, we must remember that our government perpetrates a Boston bombing weekly in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Sean McElwee has previously written for The Day and The Norwich Bulletin and on and He is a writer for The Moderate Voice.

I Should Be Happy About the Drone Debate, But I’m Not

During my junior year of college I was interning at a news show and we were filming a bit on 47th street when a young Pakistani man walked up to me. He said that he and some friends were holding a vigil for those who had died in a recent drone killing, and wanted to know how to get press coverage. I didn’t know the number, but a co-worker did, and gave it to him. I was in a public policy class at the time, and we were talking about drones, back when the debate was very inchoate, most newspapers just took the government estimates for civilian deaths, which we have now learned were, and still are sorely underestimated.

Now, everyone’s talking about drones. Rand Paul is filibustering on the House floor, Eric Holder is drawing fire for his suggestion that Americans may be at risk and the possibility of surveillance is regularly being raised. But I can’t help thinking that the national debate is sorely ethnic centered. I searched through transcripts of Rand Paul’s filibuster for references to Pakistan, and I found some, about a dozen, but out of hours of speaking a dozen isn’t very many, especially since there have been no Americans killed on American soil, and thousands of Pakistanis killed while walking to work – it seems like their plight should be at the center of the debate. Drone strikes aren’t immoral if they kill Americans – they’re immoral.

I used Google Trends and data from The New American Foundation to create the following chart. The number of Pakistanis killed by drones each year is set to a baseline of the highest year (2010) and compared to the number of searches for the word "drones." What can be clearly seen is that while drone deaths in Pakistan reached their height in 2010, and later, in 2011 the year that both Anwar al-Aulaqi and his son were killed in drone strikes interest in the subject barely budged. It wasn’t until early in 2013, when the mere specter of white American being killed on American soil that Americans showed any interest.


This is a shame, but it’s not an unprecedented one: Americans cared little about the plight of the East Timorese, the Rwandan genocide raised interest only afterward and American troops were pulled from Somalia after nineteen American troops died. Most Americans know how many American soldiers died in the War in Iraq (about 4,500) but few are concerned that some 100,000 Iraqis did.

Americans who are concerned about the President’s (drone strikes started under Bush’s watch) authority to be judge, jury and executioner, should be concerned whether the victim is white or brown, Christian or Muslim, American or Pakistani. That’s why the current debate shouldn’t really excite anyone concerned about American imperial hegemony. After his filibuster, Paul received a short letter from Holder: "Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil? The answer is no." He then withdrew his opposition to Brennan’s nomination. So drones are only a problem if an American can hypothetically be killed on American soil. That’s a shame.

Sean A. McElwee graduated from The King’s College with a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics in 2013. He lives in Connecticut and his pieces have been published in The Day and The Norwich Bulletin and on and He is a writer for The Moderate Voice.