The Ugly American Award

Years ago I read a book titled The Ugly American. The title’s reference was to the U.S. government and its unwillingness to understand another culture — in this case Viet Nam. Also, it referred to the central character, Homer Atkins, who was the “typical” American abroad: brash, loud, rude, and always calling attention to himself. As I say, the recollection is fuzzy.  But this stereotype may well fit a great many Americans abroad, though not all certainly. However, the characterization of this country as smug and ignorant of other cultures is spot on.

In any event, I think we should have a contest with an award for the ugliest American each year. My nomination for this year’s award is Rick Santorum. You remember Rick? He ran for President recently and his name is in the news again because he led the battle in the Senate against ratification of a United Nations treaty called “The Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities.”A well-written op-ed piece by Gail Collins in the New York Times tells us about the recent vote in the Senate on that item:

Santorum is still in there swinging. Lately, he’s been on a crusade against a dangerous attempt by the United Nations to help disabled people around the world. This week, he won! The Senate refused to ratify a U.N. treaty on the subject. The vote, which fell five short of the necessary two-thirds majority, came right after 89-year-old Bob Dole, the former Republican leader and disabled war veteran, was wheeled into the chamber to urge passage.

“We did it,” Santorum tweeted in triumph.

One does wonder where Santorum is coming from. He railed against the bill because he regarded it as “an assault on the family.” Apparently he is convinced that since the bill notes that “the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration” this translates into an assault on the (American) family. I must confess I fail to connect the dots. He is worried about home schooling and the right of parents to keep their kids out of schools where they might be taught sex education (horrors!) and what science really is. Santorum is famous for his support of the “intelligent design” theory of creationism which he has said is “a legitimate scientific theory” and ought to be taught in the schools. But none of this explains his actions on the U.N. treaty. I simply wonder: it is hard to get inside a deranged head. But it is no surprise to discover that the billions of dollars that support the Tea Party are pushing this agenda. As Collins notes at the close of her piece:

The big worry was, of course, offending the Tea Party. The same Tea Party that pounded Mitt Romney into the presidential candidate we came to know and reject over the past election season. The same Tea Party that keeps threatening to wage primaries against incumbents who don’t do what they’re told. The Tea Party who made those threats work so well in the last election that Indiana now has a totally unforeseen Democratic senator.

In any event, the treaty was not ratified, sending a message to the rest of the world that this country doesn’t care about persons with disabilities. This message coupled with our armed presence around the world, coupled (again) with those vacationing Americans who do behave like Homer Atkins — all of these things combine, I say, to further the image of Americans as unfeeling, militant, small-minded, self-absorbed idiots.

However, I want to post a disclaimer: while the majority of the Senate apparently fits that mold and a growing number of Americans do so as well (as mounting evidence seems to suggest), none of my blog readers are in that mold. I sincerely hope I am not, and most of my friends are not — to my knowledge. Indeed, I would hope that most Americans don’t fit such an ugly mold. But there it is thanks to people like Rick Santorum, my nominee for Ugly American of the Year.

Just Plain Wrong!

A recent NBC News story is a grim reminder of a chapter in this nation’s history that we prefer not to read. It tells about a recent death at the Guantanamo detention center where more than 200 prisoners remain 10 years after their capture as suspected (but not proven) terrorists. The story begins:

A Guantanamo detainee who died Saturday was a former hunger striker who had recently been placed in a disciplinary cell after splashing a guard with a “cocktail”– typically containing urine, a U.S. military official tells NBC News.

In itself the news is grim, especially since it was reported only because guards at the facility were concerned that word would leak out and their eyes would be even blacker. But not only their eyes but this nation’s eyes are blackened by the very existence of this facility where men are kept in stark conditions and denied the fundamental right of every human being to trail by jury.

We recall that President Obama promised that he would close the facility. It was a promise made, I dare say, without knowledge of the implications of such a step. Once elected he quickly came to realize that the closing of the facility and moving the prisoners to a secure facility in the United States and trying them in a civil court would prove difficult at best — especially with a Congress that was only interested in resisting every step the new President attempted to take.

But the fact remains that the prison remains open and men are still held in captivity (excuse me, “detained”) even though they have not been tried and found guilty. A brief look at Obama’s attempts to close the facility is instructive (as quoted from Wikipedia):

On January 22, 2009, President Barack Obama signed an order to suspend the proceedings of the Guantanamo military commission for 120 days and that the detention facility would be shut down within the year. On January 29, 2009, a military judge at Guantanamo rejected the White House request in the case of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, creating an unexpected challenge for the administration as it reviews how America puts Guantanamo detainees on trial On May 20, 2009, the United States Senate passed an amendment to the Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2009 (H.R. 2346) by a 90-6 vote to block funds needed for the transfer or release of prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. President Obama issued a Presidential memorandum dated December 15, 2009, ordering the preparation of the Thomson Correctional Center, Thomson, Illinois so as to enable the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners there. The Final Report of the Guantanamo Review Task Force dated January 22, 2010 published the results for the 240 detainees subject to the Review: 36 were the subject of active cases or investigations; 30 detainees from Yemen were designated for ‘conditional detention’ due to the security environment in Yemen; 126 detainees were approved for transfer; 48 detainees were determined ‘too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution’.

[Footnotes in the original article]

Needless to say, the detainees were never transferred to a facility in this country as the Congress simply will not allow it. The United Nations has sought to have the facility closed to no avail. And other nations have been harsh in their judgment of our treatment of these men, calling it a form of “torture” and a violation of human rights — pointing out that we are in violation of the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. Whether we agree with these criticisms or not, we must agree that this entire venture is something we cannot be proud of and would rather it had never happened — though “In a February 2012 poll 70% of Americans (53% liberal Democrats and 67% moderate or conservative Democrats) replied they approve the continued operation of Guantanamo.” If the poll is to be believed, it is even more embarrassing than the fact that the facility remains open.

Toothless Tigers

The situation in Syria goes from bad to worse. It is estimated that the government has been responsible for the death of at least 14,000 of its citizens. A recent story tells of the attempts to “broker” a peace settlement between groups that hate one another, a nearly impossible task. The story reads, in part,

GENEVA (AP) — An international conference on Saturday accepted a U.N.-brokered peace plan that calls for the creation of a transitional government in Syria, but at Russia’s insistence the compromise agreement left the door open to Syria’s president being part of it.

The story gives us a sense of the futility of this agreement: But even with Russia’s most explicit statement of support yet for a political transition in Syria, it is far from certain that the plan will have any real effect in curbing the violence. A key phrase in the agreement requires that the transitional governing body “shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent,” effectively giving the present government and the opposition veto power over each other.

In a word, neither side will agree to the agreement: one side wants Assad to remain as President, the other will not agree to any settlement of which he is a part. The U.N. sits in the middle attempting to get the two sides to agree to something (anything!) while all the time they know full well it will not happen. As one who has always advocated reason and restraint and who hates war and bloodshed, this situation is most disturbing. It would seem that increasingly violence is the only thing many people understand and an international group that lacks the power to back up its agreements is indeed a toothless tiger. The members can meet and come to a compromise of sorts, but the people in the streets will continue to kill one another. It’s not a new story, but it is unsettling to say the least.

Leibniz told us long ago that this was the “best of all possible worlds,” and he thought he had argued his point convincingly. But it takes a giant leap of faith to accept his argument. That was a leap Voltaire could not take and he ridiculed the notion in Candide — which he wrote after the earthquake at Lisbon killed thousands of men, women and children. There have been worse catastrophes and now that war includes war against civilians as well as combatants — a situation all civilized countries agreed would not happen when they signed the Geneva Accords — the earthquake seems a minor event. And, of course, our government, which signed those agreements, is very much a part of the problem sending drones into residential neighborhoods to “take out” known (or suspected) terrorists. Doesn’t this make us the terrorists?

One wonders where we have come and where this will lead. The world needs an international group with effective sanctioning powers and a world court with punitive powers as well. I am not an advocate of power except in the case that it will invariably lead to the resolution of conflict involving innocent victims. And I have always supported the idea of the United Nations: it’s important that people come together to discuss their differences. But I recognize that a debate society that makes agreements they cannot get the parties to buy into is not what the world needs in times of trouble. This is certainly the case in Syria. As the above story says in its final paragraph, The United Nations says violence in the country has worsened since a cease-fire deal in April, and the bloodshed appears to be taking on dangerous sectarian overtones, with growing numbers of Syrians targeted on account of their religion. The increasing militarization of both sides in the conflict has Syria heading toward civil war.

It does seem that the only thing people understand in the end is power. If people will not even sit down together then might does, in the end, make right. I cannot accept that even though it appears to be the case. Perhaps that is my leap of faith.

State of Nature

Thomas Hobbes imagined the state of nature to be a condition we were all in before the rise of political states. He described it as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The basic emotion shared by all in the state of nature is fear. The purpose of political states is to keep us all in awe of the Sovereign and therefore at peace with one another. While other political theorists, such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau borrowed the notion of a primitive state of humans prior to the formation of political states, none imagined the condition to be quite as unsettling as Hobbes did. For the most part, Hobbes’ notion was dismissed out of hand.

But what about the relationship among nation-states themselves? Might it not be possible to make a case that nations are in a state of nature such as Hobbes describes with respect to one another, though not quite so bleak? Just consider the current disposition of nuclear weapons among the nations and think what their possession means to the various nations that possess them — and especially to those who do not possess them. Also, consider the fact that concern over the possibility that bellicose nations such as Iran seem on the brink of having such weapons has struck fear in the rest of the world — a fear that has driven other nations to express outrage.

But, when you think about it, it may well be that the possession of nuclear weapons in large numbers is what keeps nations from one another’s throat. At least, that is a possibility, and our hope. But there is also the possibility that as nuclear weapons proliferate the likelihood that a nuclear exchange will take place increases. There are currently eight nations (possibly nine) with nuclear weapons in their possession — the United States leading the pack with 10,300 such weapons at last count (!). It is ironic that the nations that have yelled loudest at the thought that Iran might be in possession of nuclear weapons control the majority of such weapons worldwide. Ignoring the fact that this is the height of hypocrisy, concern is legitimate when a nation that has openly expressed its antipathy toward the rest of the world seems about to possess nuclear weapons.

The defense that Iran, or any other country, is simply developing nuclear capacity for peaceful purposes is irrelevant, since 4 out of 6 countries with nuclear power capacity also have nuclear weapons. One seems to lead to the other. Another way of looking at this is to note that the six countries with the most nuclear power plants control 97% of all nuclear weapons worldwide. But whether or not the fact that a country has nuclear power leads invariably to the possession of nuclear weapons, the world is correct in wanting to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and resist the attempts by any more countries to get them.

The mere possession of nuclear weapons in large numbers like those in the U.S. is morally indefensible. This is especially true when not long ago an American President was reportedly contemplating the use of “low yield” nuclear weapons as a first strike option in the Iraq war [Hint: Not the sitting President; his predecessor.]. It has generally been assumed that such weapons would only be regarded as deterrents to war, or at worst retaliatory, never as the first option in a war. The mere suggestion is marginally insane, as indeed is the buildup of such weaponry itself.

In any event, it is reasonable to say that nations in our nuclear age exist in a state of nature in relation to one another. Thus, one might well follow Hobbes in suggesting that what the world needs is a Sovereign, a world government with punitive powers to keep the nations at bay. If any single nation ever seriously considers the use of such weapons as a first-strike option, the case for such a world government is all the stronger. Hobbes insisted that bellicose individuals needed a Sovereign they would fear more than they feared one another.  As things now stand, the obvious choice to play this role is the United Nations, but at present, the United Nations is a toothless tiger. If we are to follow Hobbes’ lead, the tiger must be armed and fearsome and probably relocated in a neutral country.  Perhaps this is what the world needs to get along in a nuclear age.