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Propaganda value

By James Ruhland
web posted May 10, 2004

Overlooked last week in the uproar of Abu Ghraib was yet another display of American arrogance. When the government of Sudan was elected to the UN Human Rights commission, U.S. representative Sichan Siv said "The United States is perplexed and dismayed by the decision to put forward Sudan -- a country that massacres its own African citizens -- for election to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights" and then walked out of the vote in yet another display of American unilateralism and contempt for the international community.

Which only goes to show that unilateralism in the face of the international community is no vice. It's useful to pair these two episodes, one that received blanket coverage worldwide and another that received almost none. It isn't that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners should not receive attention, but global outrage can be highly selective. This is because for many what is important is not so much a principled concern for human rights, but an opportunity to criticize the United States. They see this issue in terms of its propaganda value. That is why there are such double standards – Sudan elected to the UN's Human Rights Commission in the same week that the world is condemning America for the behavior of some of our soldiers. The pictures showing American soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners allows many both at home and abroad to say what they always wanted to anyhow, that America is no better than its foes.

Even countries that insist they are America's allies are quick to believe the worst about our government, while they are full of understanding for other governments with far worse human rights records. Overlooked is the fact that the real distinction between America and countries which receive far less scrutiny is that we punish people for such behavior that many other governments reward. The difference between America and its enemies is that while Palestinians and Islamist terrorists are proud of killing women and children or decapitating Jewish journalists like Daniel Pearl, we apologize for the abuse of people by Americans. But somehow sophisticated world opinion rationalizes the former and describes those who inspire such attacks as "spiritual leaders" (of Hamas, for example), but no American apology is ever good enough.

European governments that are full of outrage over Abu Ghraib often want America to tone down its condemnation of regimes that encourage torture as an instrument of control because it harms dialogue with them, upsets relations or isn't "even-handed". International condemnation of such regimes is muted or absent altogether, quite the converse of their overblown fury at the United States. That really displays a distinction between the America they can condemn in the most strident terms and the dictatorial regimes that are coddled by comparison. They know that harsh criticism of America brings no negative consequences while governments that are too critical of practices in China or Iran might lose commercial deals of economic importance, and media organizations might lose "access" they consider vital. This is why CNN, to name just one example, ignored savage violations of human rights in Ba'athist Iraq in order to maintain their access to officials in that brutal regime, and why France and Russia turned a blind eye to the same in exchange for lucrative oil deals. They mute their criticisms of far worse behavior in the world and show near indifference to the election of a genocidal regime to the UN's Human Rights commission, while demanding American deference to that institution's "moral authority". They engage in moral preening so long as there is nothing really at stake, because all the criticism aimed at the U.S. government as uniquely reprehensible is a sign that those making the charges don't really believe the outlandish accusations. They know they won't suffer for it the way they would for expressing harsh condemnation of truly despicable regimes. It is the international version of Americans who loudly and vocally proclaim that their dissent is being stifled, knowing they will face none of the things that routinely happen to dissidents in other countries.

A lot of conservative Americans see this, but the reaction of some is to minimize the reprehensible nature of what happened at Abu Ghraib. We need to be careful to avoid responding to the hypocrisy of all too many of America's critics with hypocrisy of our own. I've heard some compare it to fraternity hazing, but this minimizes the abuse. The distinction we need to make is a clear one: Americans are not perfect, but when wrongdoing occurs, our nation responds properly. There was no cover up here. Indeed the Department of Defense "scooped" the media and the world on this, reporting the investigation of Abu Ghraib in January, long before it before it became an international cause celeb. What makes America an easy target is our faults are publicly scrutinized, revealed to all both at home and abroad. This is a virtue not a vice as it allows us to correct things that other nations often bury and hide.

As Donald Rumsfeld said in House testimony, "America is not what's wrong with the world." But apparently that's not what the world thinks. Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds wrote that "there are dark moments, however, when I wonder if the world doesn't hate us because we hold the moral high ground, and if many wouldn't breathe a secret sigh of relief if we started living down to their standards." Such dark moments can lead to another temptation that lures some conservative Americans, isolationism. The desire to "come home, America" when faced with a world that ignores and forgets the good we do to create benefits they share in at little cost, a world that prefers to castigate America at every opportunity, a world where even supposed friends are quicker to criticize than understand.

It is a desire to say "fine" and leave them to their fates can be strong. Those fates would be dire, but we would have to live in the resulting world as well. The very behavior of the global village that we find so repugnant is why we need to remain engaged. Absent our leadership the hypocritically lax standards of much of the world would become the governing norm. It is the efforts of America and its closest allies which creates an international climate vital not just to the people of other countries but to ourselves as well. We have to live in no matter and will be faced with whatever norms of international behavior exist. In the absence of another nation that would not only fill our international role but promote the same values we would suffer if we withdrew. So we must continue to bear the burden and pay the price – even when that is the contempt of our so-called allies and friends.

We would be better advised to make a stronger effort at telling our side of the story to the world, not just on Abu Ghraib but on every issue. To that end, we should bring back the United States Information Agency. But small-government conservatives should understand better than anyone that this is not a job for the government alone. One of the isolationist reactions to the rest of the world that is indulged in even by conservatives who favor an active foreign policy is to tune it out and decide that it is not worth the effort to try and persuade foreign audiences, that the effort to engage in debate and counter-argument with them is pointless. They devote efforts to engage in the battle of ideas at home but not abroad. It is true that the devoted anti-Americans are not open to reasoned debate and persuasion, but there are many in the world whose views of America would be different if we didn't cede the discussion to the vocal polemicists who despise us. This is a lesson that too many conservatives who admire Ronald Reagan seem to have forgotten. The people of Eastern Europe were endlessly propagandized to hate our country, but Reagan was unflagging in his efforts to counter this propaganda and defeat it by engaging in rhetorical battle with our enemies. That needs to be part of our response here and conservatives need to emulate his example.

We must also not forget that our integrity is not determined by their behavior. Sure, the heated outrage of so many of America's critics is overblown to the point of self-parody. That says a lot about the type of people they are. But it does not determine the type of people we are. Only our own reaction to the despicable acts of a few American soldiers determines that. We show our respect for the vast majority of America's military personnel, the ones who serve with honor, by clearly distinguishing them from the few who dishonor the uniform and the flag. We cannot allow excuses and rationalizations to stand in the way of justice. This will show that we mean what we say about the rule of law. Americans are not perfect and Americans are not either, but we punish wrongdoing rather than turning a blind eye to it or excusing it the way so many often do.

James Ruhland writes Porphyrogenitus.net and will be entering the U.S. Army this week.

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