Shades of Evil

Posted January 6, 2010

Categories: Articles

Who would have thought that the evil team bent on destroying the world would be composed entirely of people of color? In the imagination of Hollywood, after all, the bad guys are now white guys like the scientists gone bad in Spiderman or those jokers in Batman or the military privateers of Avatar. Occasionally, scriptwriters will dust off a rogue Russian or sprinkle a few Arab terrorists in the mix or persuade Forest Whitaker to play Idi Amin. But for the most part, post-Arendt, we now associate evil with banality, and there is nothing more banal than plain vanilla.

So what do we make of the cover of Foreign Policy magazine’s latest issue? Designed like a film poster, the title reads: The Committee to Destroy the World. The five stars line up below this provocative description, with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as the headliner. Behind him are Kim Jong Il of North Korea, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Than Shwe of Burma, and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. Inside the issue, only one white guy merits inclusion in what the editors call a list of “bad dude dictators and general coconut heads.” But the bad boy of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, doesn’t make it onto the front cover.

Foreign Policy dresses up its annual Failed States Index as a brave exercise in truth-telling. “We take the opportunity to cast some blame, point some fingers, and name some names,” editor Susan Glasser writes. “And unfortunately, there are many Bad Guys to go around, from cynical dictators to greedy multinational corporations to opportunistic world powers.” I eagerly thumb through the issue to see about these corporations and world powers.

But all I find is the United Nations, pirates, and China. Oh, there’s Paul Wolfowitz. But instead of being on the cover along with Kim Jong Il, Wolfowitz is an author! And, embarrassment of embarrassments, he’s the only one to name corporations ExxonMobil and Devon Energy, for being unforthcoming about their revenues. And, really, he only points half a finger: “Perhaps these companies have nothing to hide.” Hey Paul, how about a little self-criticism about Iraq and the failed states you helped along the way with World Bank loans? But no, just a plea for transparency, as if Wolfowitz were Mr. Full Disclosure when he served in top posts.

The other targets are pretty conventional. Mo Ibrahim complains about corruption, Bruce Babbitt rails against resource extractors, and Raymond Offenheiser complains about paramilitaries. Boubacar Boris Diop pillories the French (but hey, it’s easy to dump on the French). And Robert Kaplan, who specializes in transforming clichés into inanities (or is it the other way around?), identifies geography as a factor in failed states.

As for the rest, it’s all what Foreign Policy calls “general coconut heads,” which suggests that tropical states have a special affinity for dictators and Foreign Policy writers a special weakness for racist slurs (or maybe I’m reading too much into the reference to a brown-skinned “nut”). States have failed because of bad guys and the bad countries (China) and institutions (UN) that coddle them. During the Cold War, we supposedly needed some of these thugs on our side, and occasionally we still do (like Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, whose 2006 invasion of Somalia we supported or Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, whom we supply with millions of dollars in arms every year). But today, Foreign Policy implies, we should keep our white gloves clean and have nothing to do with these despots. Or, if we do associate with them, for god’s sake don’t mention the connections in polite company!

So, in all of this courageous finger-pointing, why don’t our foreign policy mandarins look a little closer to home? Afghanistan is No. 6 on the list of failed states, but you can’t tell from the index that the United States rained destruction on the country and devoted precious little to repairing the damage. NATO forces, according to the annotation, are “trying to direct Afghanistan’s future.” That sounds pretty benign – imagine Raul Castro simply “directing Cuba’s future” like he’s about to put out a Hollywood feature.

Iraq, meanwhile, is No. 7, and there’s no mention of how the United States pulled the dagger of Saddam Hussein out of the injured country and then watched it bleed to death. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have poured out of Iraq and don’t look likely to return anytime soon. In a terrible irony for the evangelical-minded Bush administration, many of these refugees are Iraqi Christians who fled after the invasion and the subsequent upsurge in sectarian strife.

Yes, China does its fair share of propping up dictatorships. Its leaders obviously learned their realpolitik from masters like Henry Kissinger, who welcomed the country into the international community in 1972 when Mao had added senility to his despotism and China was veering perilously close to failed-state status as a result of the Cultural Revolution. Sometimes the ends of resource extraction and balance-of-power politics, as the Harvard professor cum secretary of state cum war criminal taught, justifies pretty much any means, and China has expertly internalized this lesson.

But why no articles in this boldly provocative Foreign Policy issue on U.S. arms exports, for which we earn the dubious honor of being No. 1 in the world? Or perhaps Washington is simply selling these arms to countries that benignly dump them into the ocean to build up coral reefs? Or on how U.S. efforts to undermine international treaties – the International Criminal Court, the Law of the Seas, the treaty on cluster munitions – are just a way to keep the black helicopters at bay and prevent a world government run by the Antichrist. And let’s not even go into the fertile territory of corporate crime – Blackwater/Xe, BP, Big Pharma, and so on. After all, that might offend advertisers like Shell, which has a full-page spread in this summer issue.

Let me be clear: I wouldn’t replace the five emissaries of the Non-Aligned Movement on the Foreign Policy cover with a quintet of white guys in suits. Multiculturalism has prospered nowhere more than in the corporate world, the upper reaches of government, and the military. Ron Brown was the key figure behind the surge in arms exports during the Clinton administration; Condoleezza Rice has a lot to answer for in terms of her tenure in the Bush administration. Corporate hacks and militarists come in all flavors and colors.

Let me be double clear: The badfellas in this Foreign Policy issue are no saints. They are all eminently indictable (along with Henry Kissinger and Paul Wolfowitz). But the cartoonish quality of the magazine’s coverage, adopted no doubt to appeal to the younger and the hipper, suggests that foreign policy is black and white. Looking at the negative of this picture – the United States is behind all evil in the world – is just as misleading. Perhaps the only people in the world who truly believe in U.S. omnipotence are conspiracy theorists on the left (it’s one of the reasons they make the transition to far-right politics so seamlessly). The reality is a whole lot grayer. For instance, Kissinger is a war criminal, but the détente with China has ultimately benefited both countries.

Some conservatives like to dismiss the critiques of the American left by saying that we only see U.S. fingerprints on the murder weapons. Sure, we have our blind spots, too. We should be more evenhanded in our critiques of the abuses of those leaders who claim some leftist lineage (the Castros, Hu Jintao). But as Americans we have a special responsibility to challenge the policies of our country, because that’s what self-government is about. Rather than focus on the remote (the leaders of distant lands), we focus on the mote (in our own American eyes). Our foreign policy – and Foreign Policy – could perhaps benefit from a little more honest introspection.

Greek Tragedies

Those pleasure-loving Greeks have it all: warm climate, lots of ouzo, and generous vacations. Of course they went deep into debt. Such are the wages of sin. The Greeks are the welfare queens of the Mediterranean, and dissipated royalty should always suffer such reversals of fortune.

Hold on, argues Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Walden Bello. This narrative of “living beyond their means,” while containing a modicum of truth, is fundamentally flawed. “The Greek crisis essentially stems from the same frenzied drive of finance capital to draw profits from the massive indiscriminate extension of credit that led to the implosion of Wall Street,” he writes in Greece: Same Tragedy, Different Scripts. “In their drive to raise more and more profits from lending, Europe’s banks poured an estimated $2.5 trillion into what are now the most troubled European economies: Ireland, Greece, Belgium, Portugal, and Spain.”

The relationship between the United States and Israel has all the makings of a Greek tragedy. U.S. strategic support of Israel has encouraged some of the latter’s more intransigent policies. Devotion to Israel, particularly among right-wing evangelicals, has helped push U.S. foreign policy in a more militaristic direction. But, as FPIF analyst Shibil Siddiqi argues in The Divergence of America and Israel, the alliance is starting to break apart.

The United States wants to ensure that Israel doesn’t ignite a regional conflict with Iran, Syria, or Hezbollah. “The second reason for American concern is Israel’s development of relative autonomy itself,” Siddiqi writes. “This goes against both American grand strategy in the Middle East as well as its fundamental security doctrines of maintaining hegemony. Israel’s emergence as a regional hegemon acting outside of an American framework is completely unacceptable.” You can also read a 60-Second Expert version of the article, if you’re pressed for time.

The World Comes to Shanghai

China has a succession of coming-out parties of late. First came the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, and now it’s Shanghai’s turn with the World Expo. “Entry into the WTO in 2001 amplified China’s multifaceted impact on the outside world and vice versa,” writes FPIF contributor Josh Leon in Shanghai’s Expo Vision. “The following year, an outward-looking Shanghai successfully bid for the Expo. The mega-event has since been dubbed the ‘economic Olympics.’ Perhaps only in today’s China would the stars of state power and global capitalism align for such a massive undertaking. Moreover, the Chinese market has proven a powerful spur for the Expo’s 200-plus participants eager to wager taxpayer dollars on the unorthodox diplomacy of pavilion entertainment.”

Also as part of our Fiesta coverage this week we have reviews of two documentaries, a new book of poetry on human rights, and a mural of the BP tragedy.

We’ve written about Vietnamese-American muralist Huong before. She recently returned to Washington, with a new set of murals depicting the twin horrors of the earthquake in Haiti and the mess in the Gulf of Mexico. “Huong told me that her goal is to paint history as it happens,” writes FPIF contributor Anna Kalinina in Bleeding in the Gulf. “When the magnitude 7.0 earthquake tore through Haiti on January 12, 2010, Huong started painting that very evening. A week after oil started leaking into the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, she began working on a new section of the mural dedicated to the disaster. Huong’s remarkable response times to the Haitian earthquake and the BP spill attest to the fact that she works with a passionate sense of urgency.”

The Insular Empire depicts America’s relationship with the Mariana Islands, which enjoy all the responsibilities of citizenship and few of the privileges. The residents of Guam, the largest island, fight and die in U.S. wars and endure the presence of a huge military base. But they can’t vote. “This effectively colonial relationship contravenes all principle of self-determination and democracy, core American values,” writes FPIF contributor Andrew Feldman in his review. “Worse, the Department of Defense is currently planning a military buildup in Guam that would drastically expand bases, damage the land, and further restrict areas that inhabitants have access to. Without any real representation, the Chamorro are powerless to stop it.”

In the documentary Camp Victory, meanwhile, the U.S. hearts and minds campaign doesn’t even seem to have won over the Afghan soldiers fighting alongside their U.S. counterparts. “One of the more illuminating scenes in Camp Victory shows a line of new recruits looking apathetic and somewhat bewildered as their American advisors direct them through the physical training exercises,” writes FPIF contributor Hannah Gurman in her review. “The shout, ‘Come on, one more push-up!’ from the American trainers is met with a good-humored laugh followed by no thank you. If this were a U.S. feature film, Jack Black, not Richard Gere, would play the part of the new recruit.”

Finally, Alicia Gregory looks at a new collection of poems on the theme of human rights. “Mainstream media’s coverage of social ills has desensitized us to the horrors reported in the headlines,” she writes in her review of I Go to the Ruined Place. “The language of poetry, with its precision and specificity, pushes readers to confront the ugly side of human nature that is often concealed in banal, bureaucratic phrases. In the introduction, [poets] Kwasny and Smoker use the terms ‘alternative set of procedures’ and ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ as examples of the hollow, abstract language used to describe torture.”

FPIF, July 20, 2010

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