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Monday, March 04, 2019

The long con of the neocons

The recent Congressional testimony by genocide abettor and perjuror Elliott Abrams has brought his case to some attention, thanks to pointed questioning by Ilhan Omar, one of the most exciting and legitimately democratic Representatives in recent memory.

Which means, of course, small-minded backlash from the centrist Washington cognoscenti, as detailed in a good thread by Intercept writer Jon Schwarz.

It's easy to take potshots at a blatantly evil agent of murder like Elliott Abrams, but much more interesting is the question of why generally decent people tolerate someone as dangerous and destructive as Abrams or, say, Henry Kissinger, who was the featured speaker of MIT's inauguration of its new college for computer science last week.

Part of the defense of Abrams is that while his worst episodes are bad, his typical episode in decades of foreign policy work has been pretty vanilla.

Which is exactly what you'd expect. Everyone's a fierce advocate for human rights etc when there's nothing on the line, and most of the time, speaking at conferences or writing position papers or cultivating our relationship with Latvia or whatever, there isn't much on the line.

That's precisely why it matters so much what you do when the stakes are actually high. It's when you learn that a huge economic trade partner is collecting millions of religious minorities in concentration camps, say. It's when you learn that the right wing rebels whom you supply with weapons to destabilize a socialist ally of the Soviet Union are not just fighting against socialist troops, they're tracking down labor organizers and cutting off the heads of their entire families.

(In a very real sense, the migrant caravans that come to the US from Central Americal -- from the very countries he destabilized -- is the work of Elliott Abrams.)

Abrams' public, surface answer is pablum about human rights and the pains of establishing a democracy. But look behind the surface to the actual communications that mean something, where power is actually being wielded, and you'll find that democracy is just a side effect. It's easily discarded as a principle every single time that it comes in conflict with American military and economic control.

Abrams's real feelings about human rights are probably like Kissinger's feelings, as revealed (after painstaking pressure for decades by journalists and academics) in declassified documents. In 1973, when the US backed coup in Chile was kidnapping, torturing and murdering liberals, the US embassy wired frantically from Santiago de Chile in an effort to stop it. Not to stop the coup, mind you, just to have the military seize power from the democratically elected moderate socialist government without so much murder and torture. In reply, Kissinger scrawled back "Cut out the political science lectures".

For people like Abrams and Kissinger, kidnapping, murder and torture simply aren't part of their calculus, unless they mean they or an ally will get caught and punished for it.

Is that wrong? Are these realpolitik hawks wrong? I can't say with certainty. The few honest among them will say "Our north star was stopping the Soviets from ruling the world, and we did that by sowing chaos and murder in every democracy that didn't reject them. We can't know if it was worth it, because some of the most important actions have unknowable net consequences."

"That meant selling out Americans by letting our allies smuggle drugs to our cities to fundraise; it meant funding the rape and murder of children; it meant assassinating progressives, tearing the social fabric, leaving generations of chaos, fear, and nihilistic violence."

"But we think on the whole it was the right decision, because the Soviets had no third world empire to milk, and the USSR collapsed. We don't actually know if American imperialism is better for the world than Soviet imperialism, but it's certainly better for American wealth and power."

Even putting aside our different values and goals, I can't say if I had been in these policymakers' position, my decisions would have produced greater net justice in the world, though I do think it's likely; and I think a guiding moral principle should be to prefer to save a life concretely, even if i means risking more in the future with low certainty.

Humility in the face of the unknown is, of course, supposed to be a conservative principle, and it's telling that it's nearly impossible to find a conservative who is critical of the massively speculative social engineering project that America's aggressive imperialists carried out in Kissinger and Abrams's time.

You can pick a random progressive thinker on foreign policy, and they'll have a morally consistent philosophy that doesn't require a lifetime of lies to pursue. Not so with the neoconservatives, who lead two working lives, one essentially a long con and the other a wielding of power in its most raw and inhuman form. What we do with that fact to conclude what's right is up to each of us, but there it is.

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