NEW YORKAre we the world's policeman? Or are we an empire? The rest of the world has already made up its mind about us. The president of the Pew Research Center, whose latest poll of foreigners finds they hate the United Stats more than ever, says: "Obviously, when you get many more people saying that the U.S. [is as much of] a threat to world peace as ... Iran, it's a measure of how much [the war in Iraq] is sapping good will to the United States."
But we Americans remain deeply divided over American values and intentions, and it's high time that we got our story straight.
In 1975 Philip Agee published his explosive memoir of his career as a CIA operative, Inside the Company. The former black ops specialist provided proof for what critics had long suspected, that the United States government had assassinated popularly elected foreign leaders and propped up brutal right-wing dictatorships in countries such as Ecuador, Uruguay, Mexico and Argentina throughout the '60s and '70s. Published in the wake of Watergate and the forced resignation of Richard Nixon, disgust for the dirty dealings described by Agee contributed to a reformist wave that fed Jimmy Carter's successful 1976 bid for the presidency.
Upon taking office Carter declared "the soul of our foreign policy" to be concern for human rights. Carter recalled in a 1997 interview: "I announced that human rights would be a cornerstone or foundation of our entire foreign policy. So I officially designated every U.S. ambassador on earth to be my personal human rights representative, and to have the embassy be a haven for people who suffered from abuse by their own government. And every time a foreign leader met with me, they knew that human rights in their country would be on the agenda. And I think that this was one of the seminal changes that was brought to U.S. policy. And although in the first few weeks of his term my successor Ronald Reagan disavowed this policy and sent an emissary down to Argentina and to Chile and to Brazil--to the military dictators--and said, 'The human rights policy of Carter is over,' it was just a few months before he saw that the American people supported this human rights policy and that it was good for his administration. So after that he became a strong protector of human rights as well."
The media and the public interpreted Carter's human rights-based foreign policy as welcome, radical and sweeping. There were worrisome inconsistencies: Carter's State Department continued to arm and finance the violent dictators of Haiti, the Philippines and Iran. Nevertheless, the CIA was subjected to budget cuts and Congressional oversight. Subsequent U.S. military involvement in Panama, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq were wholly or in significant part marketed as attempts to liberate the oppressed and protect human rights. Carter and Reagan convinced Americans of all political stripes that defending the helpless, stopping genocide and overthrowing tyrants were our country's basic duties.
We still do. Even though 63 percent of Americans say they approve of their own government's use of torture, 86 percent continue to believe that "promoting and defending human rights in other countries" as a U.S. foreign policy goal is "important." An August 2002 Investor's Business Daily/Christian Science Monitor poll found that 81 percent think that "the impact the U.S. has on the rest of the world [on] democratic values and human rights" is a positive one.
If we're so nice, why do they hate us so much?
The trouble with putting human rights first is that we have do it all the time, in every case, even when it costs us economically. Integrity requires doing what is right even--especially--when it hurts.
Before Jimmy Carter, American foreign policy was a straightforward and cynical realpolitik. We fought in South Korea and South Vietnam as if we were moving pieces on a Cold War chessboard instead of blasting children to bits; the despotic regimes we defended there were more brutal than their enemies. Afterward, we became hypocrites. We went into Somalia, which controlled a strategic port of entry for oil tankers, but not Rwanda, which had no significant natural resources. We backed Saddam Hussein when Iraq granted lucrative oil concessions to politically connected multinationals and attacked him when he didn't.
A true human rights-based foreign policy would require "regime change" warfare against the biggest evildoers in the world, including those willing to do business with us. What we have now is a Chinese menu pick-one-from-column-A-and-one-from-column-B mishmash. We do whatever we want, then come up with a justification--human rights, WMDs, imminent danger--after the fact.
People liked us better when we didn't pretend to be nice.