The world cop is a criminal

Wednesday, August 5, 1992

By Harold Pinter

In his State of the Union message to Congress in January 1992, President George Bush declared that in this "defining moment" the world "recognised one sole and pre-eminent power, the United States". And because it is the "freest nation on earth", the world "trusts us with power ... They trust us to be fair, and restrained. They trust us to be on the side of decency. They trust us to do what's right."

The realities of US foreign policy since the second world war were set out in 1948 in an internal document by George Kennan, postwar head of the US State Department. "We must cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, democratisation. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans the better." There spoke an honest man.

How are such "power concepts" asserted? Clearly, the policeman's role is a powerful one. But attached to it are various obligations, such as protecting the weak against the aggressor. But above all a policeman is called upon to respect the law he embodies. If he breaks that law at will, or encourages others to do so, our trust in him is likely to waiver, shrink, even to die.

Many countries break the law they pretend to observe. Many commit atrocities. But there are few examples of their encouraging others to do this, and none aspire to be world policemen or pretend to possess a unique moral authority — or any moral authority at all, for that matter.

But the US has always seen itself as much more than an ordinary policeman. It has long understood itself to be the world's moral centre — the world's dad.

George Kennan's recommendations were remarkably direct. He referred to the term "democracy"with the contempt he actually felt for it. US diplomatic language rarely follows that course. It normally operates by using terms like "democracy", "freedom" and "Christian values" with great reverence. You use them while invading country A or engaging in "low intensity conflict" with country B. Low intensity conflict means you infect the heart of a country, sit back and watch the gangrene bloom. Then you go in front of the cameras in a clean shirt and nice tie and say "democracy" has prevailed.

When you are breaking international law — which you think applies to others but not you — you always say you're preserving democracy (it's like a nice piece of wrapping from Saks Fifth Avenue). But the truth is that assertions of independence and attempts to establish some framework of social justice — anywhere America considers its interests to be threatened — must be punished.

You can do that easily if you're big and tough, if you're heavyweight First you organise and subsidise a military force — whose sophisticated strategy includes blowing up school buses, raping nurses and gouging out people's eyes.("The Contras are the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers", said former US president Ronald Reagan.) Then you instruct the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and your "allies" to cut all aid to the country, and you do everything in your power to starve it to death.

When you're brought before the International Court of Justice — as the US was in 1986 over Nicaragua — and the court finds you guilty on eight counts of violating international law, you simply toss your head and say the matter is outside the province of the International Court.

There's no sweat. You carry on regardless because you know you're above the law and no-one can touch you. You know you can do whatever you damn well like and that the first in the queue to give you its supine support will be the United Kingdom.

After all, you broke international law by invading the Dominican Republic in 1965 and there wasn't a peep out of anyone. You invaded Grenada in 1984 and nobody said a word. You invaded Panama in 1989, closed the press, set up detention camps and left 3000-4000 dead, which you called 300, and nobody said a word.

Saddam Hussein undoubtedly made a note in his diary of the US invasions of Grenada and Panama and kept it for a rainy day. That rainy day came in 1990 when he broke international law himself. The US administration was "outraged". So they bulldozed the United Nations, treated Congress with total disregard, bribed everyone in sight, cancelled debts, slaughtered a few hundred thousand people in no time at all and left thousands more children to die slowly, and followed this with a glittering victory parade. And nobody said a word.

But nobody has ever said a word. The US has brought down real democratically elected governments with no trouble at all: Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973 for example, plunging both countries into hell.

The relationship of the US to its friendly dictators, on the other hand, has followed a classic pattern. You set him up, construct his torture chambers, send in your experts and advisers, he kills as many thousands of people as you think necessary, the people are subdued and everything is fine. There's a stable society, a stable economy, and you can do business.

Then the dictator gets too big for his boots, he doesn't do exactly what he's told, he's an embarrassment. So you bring him down and set up a civilian government which remains in league with the military — and at least there's still a free market and a fairly good growth rate. None of this helps the poverty-stricken millions. And none of this helps the dead.

The fact remains that the horror of the mass killings by General Pinochet's troops in the National Stadium in Santiago, Chile, is directly attributable to US foreign policy, as are the hundreds of esia, Guatemala, East Timor, Angola, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

It all adds up to a pretty impressive curriculum vitae — if you want to be a world policeman. You certainly know how to handle yourself in the street. Sadly, however, all these activities are criminal. You have a criminal record as long as your arm. And it has affected millions of people — those who dare question the endless plateau of poverty, disease, degradation and oppression which is their birthright. They used to be called communists. Now "poor" will do.

These people have for a very long time been subjected to a sustained, systematic, remorseless and quite clinical exercise of power which has always, and successfully, called itself something else.
[From the British socialist.]

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