Collapsing U.S. credibility

Condemning foreign governments for abusive acts while ignoring one's own is easy. But the U.S. leads the way

Published June 25, 2012 11:01AM (EDT)

(updated below)

Two Op-Eds in The New York Times this morning both warn of the precipitous decline of American credibility on matters of human rights and peace ushered in by the Obama presidency. Taken together, they explain much of why I've been writing what I've been writing over the last three years. The first is from Columbia Professor and cyber expert Misha Glenny, who explains the significance of the first ever deployment of cyberwarfare -- by the U.S. (first under Bush and accelerated under Obama), along with Israel, against Iran:

THE decision by the United States and Israel to develop and then deploy the Stuxnet computer worm against an Iranian nuclear facility late in George W. Bush’s presidency marked a significant and dangerous turning point in the gradual militarization of the Internet. Washington has begun to cross the Rubicon. If it continues, contemporary warfare will change fundamentally as we move into hazardous and uncharted territory.

It is one thing to write viruses and lock them away safely for future use should circumstances dictate it. It is quite another to deploy them in peacetime. Stuxnet has effectively fired the starting gun in a new arms race that is very likely to lead to the spread of similar and still more powerful offensive cyberweaponry across the Internet. Unlike nuclear or chemical weapons, however, countries are developing cyberweapons outside any regulatory framework. . . .

Stuxnet was originally deployed with the specific aim of infecting the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in Iran. This required sneaking a memory stick into the plant to introduce the virus to its private and secure "offline" network. But despite Natanz’s isolation, Stuxnet somehow escaped into the cyberwild, eventually affecting hundreds of thousands of systems worldwide.

This is one of the frightening dangers of an uncontrolled arms race in cyberspace; once released, virus developers generally lose control of their inventions, which will inevitably seek out and attack the networks of innocent parties. Moreover, all countries that possess an offensive cyber capability will be tempted to use it now that the first shot has been fired. . . .

The United States has long been a commendable leader in combating the spread of malicious computer code, known as malware, that pranksters, criminals, intelligence services and terrorist organizations have been using to further their own ends. But by introducing such pernicious viruses as Stuxnet and Flame, America has severely undermined its moral and political credibility.

He also explains that the Obama administration opposes any treaties to regulate all of this in part because it "might undermine its presumed superiority in the field of cyberweaponry and robotics," and because it claims Russia and China (but not, of course, the U.S.) would attempt to exploit such treaties to control the Internet.

In case anyone thinks he's being melodramatic in his warnings, the original New York Times article by David Sanger that confirmed U.S. responsibility for the cyber attack included this passage: "Mr. Obama, according to participants in the many Situation Room meetings on Olympic Games, was acutely aware that with every attack he was pushing the United States into new territory, much as his predecessors had with the first use of atomic weapons in the 1940s, of intercontinental missiles in the 1950s and of drones in the past decade." It also explained that America's maiden use of this new form of warfare "could enable other countries, terrorists or hackers to justify their own attacks."

The second is from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, an actually meritorious Nobel Peace Prize winner, who describes the record of his fellow Nobel laureate, the current President, in an Op-Ed entitled "A Cruel and Unusual Record":

Revelations that top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens, are only the most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation’s violation of human rights has extended. This development began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public. As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues. . . . .

It is disturbing that, instead of strengthening these principles, our government’s counterterrorism policies are now clearly violating at least 10 of the [Declaration on Human Rights'] 30 articles, including the prohibition against "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

Recent legislation has made legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or "associated forces," a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress (the law is currently being blocked by a federal judge). This law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, two other rights enshrined in the declaration.

In addition to American citizens’ being targeted for assassination or indefinite detention, recent laws have canceled the restraints in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to allow unprecedented violations of our rights to privacy through warrantless wiretapping and government mining of our electronic communications. . . .

Despite an arbitrary rule that any man killed by drones is declared an enemy terrorist, the death of nearby innocent women and children is accepted as inevitable. After more than 30 airstrikes on civilian homes this year in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has demanded that such attacks end, but the practice continues in areas of Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen that are not in any war zone. We don’t know how many hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed in these attacks, each one approved by the highest authorities in Washington. This would have been unthinkable in previous times.

These policies clearly affect American foreign policy. Top intelligence and military officials, as well as rights defenders in targeted areas, affirm that the great escalation in drone attacks has turned aggrieved families toward terrorist organizations, aroused civilian populations against us and permitted repressive governments to cite such actions to justify their own despotic behavior. . . .

At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.

One can reasonably object to Carter's Op-Ed on the ground that it romanticizes a non-existent American past (systematic human rights abuses are hardly a new development in the post-9/11 world), but what cannot be reasonably disputed is the trend he denounces. Note that the most egregious examples he cites -- assassinating U.S. citizens without due process, civilian-killing drone attacks, the indefinite detention provisions of the NDAA -- had some genesis under Bush but are hallmarks of Obama policy (his other example, the rapid erosion of constraints on government domestic surveillance, took place under both, with the full support of Obama). It's a remarkably scathing denunciation of the record of his own political party and its current leader.

Many American pundits and foreign policy experts love to depict themselves as crusaders for human rights, but it almost always takes the form of condemning other governments, never their own. There's no end to self-styled U.S. human rights moralizers who will oh-so-bravely (and inconsequentially) write one screed after the next about the oppressive acts of Syria, or Russia, or China, or Iran (the targets of their wrath are not just foreign governments, but usually ones serving the role as Current Enemy of the U.S. Government).

But when it comes to the human rights violations they can actually do something about -- the ones committed (or enabled) by their own government: the government for which they vote and to which they pay taxes and over which they are supposed to act as adversarial watchdogs -- they are largely silent. They prefer the cheap, easy, self-satisfying and pointless sermons (look over there at how terrible that foreign country is) to the much harder and more purposeful opposition to their own government's abuses (American commentators who devote substantial attention to the human rights abuses of other nations but the bulk of their time on their own government's are commendable rarities). As Noam Chomsky perfectly explained when asked why he focuses more of his time and energy on the human rights abuses of the U.S. and its allies than other countries:

My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it. So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.

Condemning the abusive acts of other countries while ignoring or sanctioning those of one's own government is indeed easy. It's cost-free. It's inconsequential. It's career-advancing (using purported human rights concerns to bash America's Enemies converts one into an eager, useful instrument of U.S. policy and a perpetuator of D.C. orthodoxy). And, most of all, it's self-affirming (those people over there are really bad, but not us, and by railing against them I show what a good and concerned person I am).

That's precisely why the prime dogma in U.S. political and media discourse on foreign policy is that serious human rights violations (along with Terrorism) are something that non-Westerners do, not the West (and certainly not the U.S.). What these two Op-Eds today demonstrate is that not only is this false, but the U.S. continues to be a key pioneer in these abuses. It's easy to distinguish American pundits and experts with a genuine commitment to human rights from those who feign concern by the extent to which they work against their own government's conduct.


UPDATE: A related point was made by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967, when he delivered an extraordinary speech designed to address complaints that his anti-war activism was distracting from his civil rights work, and he explained why the latter was impossible without the former (h/t Duncan Mitchel)

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action.

But they ask -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted.

Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

Last January, I wrote about King's speech and how it relates to current political activism.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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