U.S. Foreign Policy: February 2008 Archives

Watching Occupation Dreamland, a 2005 documentary about the war in Iraq, it occurred to me that the effects of the citizen/noncitizen dynamic we've seen in the U.S. with inhumane and unjust treatment of immigrants in places like Don Hutto, New Bedford, and Oklahoma--presumption of guilt, inhumane treatment of noncitizens, fear and demonization of outsiders, and racism--are exponentially more devastating in Iraq in a war setting. 

Iraqis have been arrested and locked up without charge or trial.  They have been beaten, tortured, raped, and killed by their ostensible protectors--U.S. soldiers and contractors--very few of whom have faced serious consequences for their actions.

What few procedural guarantees exist for noncitizens in the U.S. are almost entirely lacking in Iraq. 

I recently read two remarkable books, and I’d like to talk about them both, in separate posts.  The first is What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, the story of one of Sudan’s Lost Boys as told by Dave Eggers.  The second is The Devil’s Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea.  Both these books became bestsellers, and have been reviewed and discussed extensively elsewhere.  I write about them now because I only read them a little while ago. 

Each of these books revived for me an experience I used to have commonly as a child, but much less frequently in adulthood.  I would pick up a book and not be able to focus on anything else until I had finished it.  I would read on the bus to school, under my desk [clarifying: the book, not me] during class, and often during lunch break.  Late at night I would sneak to my bedroom doorway to read by the light in the hall, which was ostensibly left on to comfort my siblings and I from nighttime terrors.  On Saturdays, I would shut myself in the bathroom for hours to read and avoid my chores.  On Sundays, I resented the three hours that church took away from my books.  As an adult, I read primarily nonfiction, and much more slowly given the multiplying demands on my time, and I thought maybe I had lost that childhood compulsion completely.  But with each of these books, the hunger to continue the story continued until I had read both of them in the same week.  This I find a little strange, considering that either one could be the most depressing book I have ever read. 

Francis Fukuyama recently reviewed Samantha Power's new book, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World. From the review:

In the wake of the Iraq debacle, the idea that strong countries like the United States should use their power to defend human rights or promote democracy around the world has become widely discredited. From an overmilitarized foreign policy, we are in danger of going to the opposite extreme, forgetting the lessons of the 1990s that hard power is sometimes needed to resolve political conflicts, and that we do not yet have an adequate set of international institutions to deploy it legitimately and effectively.

I take exception to one of the premises above. The U.S. does not use its power primarily to defend human rights or promote democracy. It has never done so. The U.S. acts in its own interest--the fabled "national interest" (as perceived by the ruling elites)--first, last, and always. From time to time, U.S. leaders see U.S. interests as concordant with those of defending human rights and promoting democracy, and act accordingly. But this is always incidental to the real goals of promoting national prosperity and security, and just as often the real goals conflict with the stated goals of saving others from themselves/promoting democracy, stated goals which are themselves often in tension with each other.

One lesson of the 1990s is that sovereign nations cannot be expected to act on their own to further the interests of noncitizens at some unquantifiable risk to their own interests. They simply won't do it absent a more formal institutional structure for using multilateral military force than now exists. Any political leadership that does make significant sacrifices for noncitizens at the expense of citizens will soon find itself out of a job if that country's democratic processes are functioning well, and rightly so, based on the existing parameters of sovereign government and international politics.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the U.S. Foreign Policy category from February 2008.

U.S. Foreign Policy: January 2008 is the previous archive.

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