August 9, 2014

The Big Lie Americans Tell Themselves

This article, excerpted below, originally appeared in Foreign Policy on August 9, 2014. It was republished in Newsday and The Chicago Tribune ("The American Lie about Genocide") and the Minneapolis StarTribune ("U.S. Intervention in Northern Iraq: Incoherent") on August 11;  the Sun-Sentinel ("The American Lie about Genocide") on August 12; Dawn (Pakistan) ("The American Lie about Genocide"), O Globo (Brazil) ("A Generation of Americans Believe that America Has Always Fought Genocide") and The Peninsula Qatar ("This is the American Lie on Genocide") on August 13; the Yomiuri Shimbun's Japan News ("U.S. Record of Stopping Genocide Dismal") on August 14; The News Lens (Taiwan) ("America's Biggest Lie") on August 16; and the St. Paul Pioneer Press ("Why Do Americans Believe that Genocide Prevention Has Been a Core National Interest?"), Tulsa World ("America's Longstanding Lie on Genocide") and Arkansas Online ("Do We Care about Preventing Genocide?") on August 17. 

With few exceptions, the U.S. response to grave humanitarian crisis since it emerged as a major power in the 1870s have ranged from tacit support and indifference to post-facto condemnation. Probably the first example was in the 1880s,when then President Chester A. Arthur recognized and supported Belgian King Leopold's claims to the Congo. Leopold's brutal rule -- indiscriminate violence against local populations, collective punishment, and mutilations, led to the death of several million Congolese, if not more. Despite decades of lobbying for the United States to take a strong position against Leopold, Washington remained reluctant. Teddy Roosevelt, president from 1901 to 1909, said "it was a literal physical impossibility to interfere" and called the idea of campaigning for intervention "imbecile."

In subsequent decades, U.S. presidents more isolationist than Roosevelt refused to stop Japanese atrocities in East Asia, Turkey's genocide in Armenia, or European colonizers' large-scale killing of civilians in places like Southeast Asia. Joseph Stalin's forced deportation of some 6 million minorities in the Soviet Union in the 1930s -- ethnic cleansing in its truest sense -- did not diminish the admiration for him by some in the highest levels of U.S. government, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt's vice president Henry A. Wallace (who later tried to make amends by publishing an article called "Where I Was Wrong").

What about the Holocaust? U.S. war efforts certainly contributed to the defeat of Nazi Germany and put an end to the most horrifyingly industrialized genocide in history. But American popular lore often overlooks the fact that on December 11, 1941, Adolf Hitler first declared war on the United States -- and not vice versa. The United States' humanitarian intentions -- despite having learned about Auschwitz and other concentration camps -- were an afterthought.

It gets worse. The United States managed to win the Cold War against the Soviet Union while preserving its moral high ground. But that period may have marked a nadir for the United States when it came to genocide and ethnic cleansing. As Princeton professor Gary J. Bass documents in his 2013 book The Blood Telegram, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger tacitly supported the Pakistan military's ethnic cleansing in East Pakistan in the early 1970s, which led to the deaths of at least 300,000 people. It wasn't until an opportunistic intervention by India in 1971 -- which the United Nations overwhelming condemned -- that the mass killings stopped.

And when the Khmer Rouge conducted its reign of terror in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, leading to the death of up to 25 percent of its roughly 7 million people -- proportionally the largest genocide of the 20th century -- Washington remained aloof. Because of its then geopolitical interests at the time with regards to opening up to China and spurning the USSR and Vietnam, Washington opted for a policy of non-intervention, a morally indefensible stance. The United States was even critical of the 1978-1979 invasion of Cambodia by a pro-Soviet Vietnam that ended Pol Pot's reign.

Similarly, when Saddam Hussein used chemical and conventional weapons to kill estimated 100,000 ethnic Kurds in Iraq in 1988, Washington -- having recently made overtures to Baghdad, with which it then had a common adversary in Iran -- did not even impose sanctions much less intervene.