Friday, March 11, 2016


At last night's GOP debate, Marco Rubio let slip a phrase about something called "human rights." What are those again? They certainly sound incongruous in this setting. This was, so far as I can recall, the first reference anywhere in any of these debates to the idea that human rights a) exist at all; and b) are a good thing. The phrase in context reads: "There has not been a single democratic opening; not a single change on the island in human rights. In fact, things are worse than they were before this opening." The island in question is Cuba -- this is the Miami debate the Thursday before the March 15th primaries, after all.

The remark appears in the debate transcript not long after another, quite different reference to Cuba. This one shows up in Rubio's sanguinary meditation on "the way you defeat terrorists.":
"[I]f we capture any of these terrorists alive, they're not going to have the right to remain silent. And they're not going to go to a courtroom in Manhattan. They're going to go to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and we will find out everything they know and we'll do so legally." 
Meaning indefinite detention, meaning no representation or court hearing. Is there also more than a little stink of "enhanced interrogation" in this pledge? Rubio's plan certainly doesn't recognize that suspects in terrorism cases -- and, oh right, they are suspects, since, you know, they are not permitted any legal process that might determine their guilt -- have any claim to constitutional protections. Indeed, he goes out of his way to deny it.

Human rights, it would seem, begin at borders controlled by Fidel and Raúl Castro, and end at the barbed-wire fence carving out the one corner of the Cuban mainland that belongs to the United States.

U.S. prison camps are not the the only place where human rights suddenly stop applying, though. They also would seem to be in no way binding on those Rubio refers to as the "Muslims [...] who are not radicals." On this list he includes the "Jordanian kingdom [...] the Saudis [...] the Gulf kingdoms [...] the Egyptians[.]" In short, the usual roster of Western-backed client states in the Arab world. The fact that these governments are known, variously, to behead their own citizens in mass executions, bomb civilians with U.S.-supplied weapons, and imprison political dissidents after show trials would seem to have no bearing on "human rights," because the only true violation is to fail to toe the Washington line. That crime -- and, of course, the fact that it produced a refugee population that votes in large numbers in a key primary state -- is evidently Rubio's true objection to the Cuban government's rights record.

This, however, was only one of many places in the last two nights' debates in which our candidates displayed a bizarrely Cold War version of hypocrisy on human rights. Once again, the world was divided between our enemies on the one hand-- Russia and China and Cuba -- who are to be condemned when they violate human rights, and our "friends and allies," on the other, who are held to an altogether different standard. The Republican candidates made many references last night to these "friends and allies," painting a bleak portrait in which these honest folks were in need, and the U.S. government had shamefully turned its back on them. One quickly intuited that they were not referring to Canada, Japan, or the governments of Western Europe. In case there was any remaining doubt as to who they had in mind, however, they soon named some names.

Here's John Kasich, for example:
"But look, I was there when, and saw it, when the Egyptian ambassador to the United States was in the Rose Garden bringing the Arab Muslim world to work with us to repel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. The fact is that if we're going to defeat ISIS, we're going to have to have these countries. And they are Egypt. And they are Saudi Arabia. And they are Jordan. And they are the Gulf states."
And we mustn't forget the increasingly apartheid state of Israel too, of course. It's pretty sad when these are the last of America's "friends and allies."

The fact that we don't want to upset our own client states and loyal monarchies -- since, after all -- they are generally all that stands between our economic interests and their own protesting subjects -- is also pretty much the only reason any of the candidates on stage could adduce for why, as president, they would be slightly less Islamophobic than Donald Trump. We were repeatedly told not to forget that there are also "good Muslims" out there. This was not a reference to refugees or democracy activists, of course, but to the convenient autocrats propping U.S. policy in the region (generally against the wishes of their own aspiring populace). Here's Ted Cruz last night:
"[T]he answer is not [to] scream, all Muslims [are] bad. Let me give you an example of a Muslim [...] we ought to be standing with, President el-Sisi of Egypt, a president of a Muslim country who is targeting radical Islamic terrorist [sic.] [...] He's hunting them down and stomping them."
Even in this roundly sociopathic election cycle, this remark still manages to stand out to me as particularly staggering. Shall we pause to remind ourselves of exactly what al-Sisi's campaign of "hunting down" and "stomping" "radical Islamic terrorist[s]" (read -- dissidents and members of the moderately conservative Muslim Brotherhood party) looks like? See the Raba'a massacre, the mass imprisonment and execution of dissidents, and other atrocities that have unfolded on al-Sisi's orders. Perhaps it wouldn't quite be fair to say that for Ted Cruz, the only "good Muslim" is a dead Muslim, but evidently he does think that the only good Muslim is one who kills thousands of other Muslims.

To temper any self-righteousness on the part of Democrats, for a moment, let us recall that our current President and State Department evidently agree with Cruz on this matter, if actions speak louder than words. They recently pledged to remove human rights conditions on military aid to Egypt.

The moderators had a special question prepared for Donald Trump about his seeming to "prais[e] authoritarian dictators." They had in mind his bizarre and unsettling remarks on Putin and the Tiananmen Square massacre in the 1980s being a show of "strength." Valid questions, to be sure, but one has to notice that our journalists on stage didn't seem to consider praising al-Sisi or the Saudi royal family to be in the same category. For some reason, these governments are not "authoritarian dictators." Why is that? The difference between them and the Chinese state could hardly be said to lie in their human rights records-- unless theirs is slightly worse. Is it possible it has rather more to do with the fact that they are unstinting U.S. clients and recipients of American military aid?

The moderators' questions to Donald Trump set Kasich up for a withering -- and wholly justified -- condemnation of the Tiananmen Square massacres. Says Kasich: 
"I think that the Chinese government butchered those kids. And when that guy stood in front -- that young man stood in front of that tank, we ought to build a statue of him over here when he faced down the Chinese government."
Yet no one asked him during the debate or since why he did not have similarly harsh words for the Egyptian government, and did not suggest we erect a statue to commemorate the more than 1,000 people who were slaughtered by the post-coup military government in Egypt in the summer of 2013, an incident surely akin to the Tiananmen massacre in its savagery. Human Rights Watch has accused al-Sisi of being one of the "principle architects" of the atrocity, by the way, and has called for his prosecution. The Raba'a massacre is presumably the kind of blood-letting that Ted Cruz has in mind when he commends al-Sisi for "hunting down" and "stomping" so-called "radical[s]."

These are some of the sadistic fantasies that got play at the GOP debate last night. Yet the coverage since has emphasized the relative "restraint" of the occasion -- it's comparatively "subdued" quality. It's true I suppose that there was less noise in this one, and fewer incidents of candidates talking over one another, but perhaps it turns out that when they all finally quiet down and speak their mind, we are left with something far worse: the actual worldview of the four men on stage.

Not that Hillary Clinton is much better. She had her own Cold War moral inversion at Wednesday night's debate. Via Glenn Greenwald, we learn that in the midst of an exchange with Sanders about U.S. policy in Latin America (a "testy" one, I'm sure, as the usual journalistic cliché would have it), she said:
“[I]f [your] values are that you oppress people, you disappear people, imprison people or even kill people for expressing their opinions, for expressing freedom of speech, that is not the kind of revolution of values that I ever want to see anywhere.”
What was the context for this? Clinton was not referring to the current post-coup government in Honduras that has received in recent years extensive "security" aid from the United States -- much of it from Secretary Clinton's State Department -- a government which presides over a country where last week a major environmental activist was assassinated in her home, possibly with the complicity of state actors, and where militarized police units have been responsible for threatening, stalking, assaulting, and bludgeoning human rights advocates and civilians. Clinton also was not referring to the U.S.-backed military regime in El Salvador in the 1980s whose actions first bequeathed to the English language the use of the word "to disappear" as a transitive verb -- i.e. the same way that Clinton uses it in her statement (According to Joan Didion's Salvador: "Desaparecer, or 'disappear,' in in Spanish both an intransitive and a transitive verb, and this flexibility has been adopted by those speaking English in El Salvador [...] there being no equivalent situation, and so no equivalent word, in English-speaking cultures.")

No, you see, it was Sanders who was condemning these governments, and U.S. foreign policy in Latin America more generally, with its tendency to support dictators and undermine democracy, and Clinton uttered these words while she was criticizing Sanders for exactly these views! The regime Clinton had in mind was the Cuban government, along with something Sanders had said that implied that the Castro regime, while deplorable, might have made some "progress on health care." This is the perfect case of Cold War hypocrisy on human rights. Clinton -- who, Greenwald reminds us, is a great admirer of Henry Kissinger, and great pals from her State Department days and from the current donor rolls of the Clinton Foundation with the Saudi royals and various other autocrats -- has somehow managed to make Sanders sound like the one who is insufficiently concerned with upholding human rights in U.S. foreign relations.

All I can say is thank God for Greenwald, thank God for Sanders, thank God for Chomsky. Indeed, I can think of no better words to close on than those contained in the best marginalia I ever found randomly inscribed in a Google Books scan, which I will leave you with today. It reads: "Thank God for avid reds."

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