Monday, March 26, 2007

The logic of moral equivalence

Former American UN Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick has rejected the “logic” of “moral equivalence” in this manner: “(I)t is a short step from having demonstrated that a country like the United States is not a law-abiding society to demonstrating that it is lost and that it is like any other lawless society. The Soviets can always claim ‘We are no worse than you. Even if we are a lawless society, you too are a lawless society, we are no worse than you.’”

Kirkpatrick was in part responding to criticisms during the Cold War to the effect that “there was an uncanny resemblance between the superpowers,” that “if governments assign to themselves the right to change the governments of other sovereign states, there can be no peace in this world,” and eventually that could be “the most dangerous age which the human race has ever known.” At that time Kirkpatrick attributed the shaping of those criticisms, taken up even by “our allies and ourselves,” to the Soviet’s “very complex, comprehensive, multifaceted strategy” of assault on liberal democratic legitimacy, hence the conclusion “inexorably arrived at, that there is, at best, not a dime's worth of difference between these two regimes.”

But there’s in fact a serious difference according to Kirkpatrick: The soviets “make truth, and not only truth, but reality, dependent on power relations,” i.e., truth and reality are defined or exploited “by those people who hold power.”

In Kirkpatrick’s framework, holding US to its own values, which she believed to be essentially utopian, may not “result in anything but chronic, continuous self-debasement, self-criticism, and finally, self-disgust”; for that matter, US faces a difficult challenge to “simultaneously affirm our values and accept their relevance to our practice” while denying what ought to be utopian as “measuring rods” for actual practices. As a card-carrying neoconservative, Kirkpatrick argued that we should not allow others (the communist, in particular) who “criticize liberal democratic societies measure our practices by our standards and deny the relevance of their practices to judgments concerning the moral worth of our own society. (Italics mine). She called the soviet design as Orwellian “Newspeak” where words, relationships, and events are continually manipulated as part of the process of “redefinition, falsification, and utopianism” (check an older entry of mine here for one example of equivalent manipulation). The concept of superpower equivalence, based on the premise of superpower rivalry, is therefore said to be misleading; for, viewing the US and the Soviet Union as contending for the world, a symmetry that is uncalled for is thereby suggested between their goals: to dominate the world.

“The fact is, of course, that we do not seek to dominate the world,” put in plainer terms by the former ambassador who was also a political scientist. “We do not seek colonies. We do, in fact, seek to foster a world of independent nations.”

Eschewing utopianism Kirkpatrick concluded with her own newspeak of exceptionalism while adroitly avoiding to express it categorically. “It is very important to understand that not only are questions of politics involved here, but also the most basic questions of morality and meaning” which the US defends while imperialistic power (then referring to the USSR) withdraws from.

Renowned historian Howard Zinn poses a different frame of reference: It is the “inability to think outside the boundaries of nationalism” that makes US think it is an exception to certain universal rules. “We are penned in by the arrogant idea that this country is the center of the universe, exceptionally virtuous, admirable, superior.”

Arguably, the common sense of ordinary people active in civil societies around the globe is reining in at different levels abuses of power. For example, the Permanent People’s Tribunal in The Hague found guilty on March 25, 2007 Philippine President Arroyo together with US President George W. Bush of charges of human rights violations, among others; whereas Time magazine reported March 26, 2007 that student-activists at Amir Kabir University of Technology in Tehran have upstaged Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and against hardliners, pragmatic Iranians are “tilting toward less confrontation, more negotiation” so as to “win political benefits from the West.”

The question remains: Can American political leadership ever be held accountable not to some utopian but universally acknowledged political and social values and principles such as the rule of international law, equal application of laws, government by the consent of the governed, right to self-determination, or simply the just punishment of crimes as understood by civilized societies?

Never mind for now the bygone policy of extermination of the American Indians, the colonization “to civilize” the “half-devil and half-child” in the Philippines, the napalm bombing of Vietnam, the mass killings in Indonesia, or the untold atrocities in Nicaragua which have documented an overwhelming record of “redefinition, falsification, and utopianism” by people who hold power. Or that Reagan in 1985, on the White House lawn, giving a positive definition (or spin) of a supposedly false logic to suit his jihad in Afghanistan, unabashedly introduced the Afghan mujahideens (the precursors of Al Qaeda) as “the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers.”

Let’s just take as example the ongoing “crusade” in Iraq - the rationale for it is still being re-defined or re-written to date - and vet it based on the following proposition of former US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who was chief prosecutor for the US at the Nuremberg Trials: “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

Another Nuremberg prosecutor, Benjamin Ferencz, now 87, whose works have influenced the body of international laws on war crimes, believes a “prima facie case can be made that the United States is guilty of the supreme crime against humanity, that being an illegal war of aggression against a sovereign nation.”

A summary of Ferencz’ position, using the UN Charter as the “measuring rod” is as follows:
The United Nations charter has a provision which was agreed to by the United States formulated by the United States in fact, after World War II. It says that from now on, no nation can use armed force without the permission of the U.N. Security Council. They can use force in connection with self-defense, but a country can’t use force in anticipation of self-defense. Regarding Iraq, the last Security Council resolution essentially said, ‘Look, send the weapons inspectors out to Iraq, have them come back and tell us what they’ve found -- then we’ll figure out what we’re going to do. The U.S. was impatient, and decided to invade Iraq -- which was all pre-arranged of course. So, the United States went to war, in violation of the charter.
Foremost American intellectual Noam Chomsky similarly invokes the “new regime of international law” as the relevant value measurement in the practice or conduct of international relations:
After World War II, a new regime of international law was instituted. Its provisions on laws of war are codified in the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg principles, adopted by the General Assembly. The Charter bars the threat or use of force unless authorized by the Security Council or, under Article 51, in self-defense against armed attack until the Security Council acts.
There is however a simpler antithesis to the rejection of moral equivalence: it is not tit for tat or an eye for an eye but the ancient Golden Rule that, unquestionably, involves “the most basic questions of morality and meaning” transcending the boundaries virtually of all cultures and religions. Jesus said it best: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. With this “utopia,” the human race can march together toward the common cause for global peace, human rights and justice.


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