Politics & Policy

Moral Inversion in U.S. Foreign Policy

The wrong U.S. responses to the Mideast upheavals are not just perverse, they’re dangerous.

It is a curious pattern. When Qaddafi and Assad came under attack, our elites — foreign-affairs journals, major media, government officials — warned of dire destabilizing consequences if they should fall. When Ben Ali and Mubarak came under attack, our elites said their downfall was inevitable and warned of dire destabilizing consequences if they failed to leave.

A normal instinct would be to rejoice at the prospect of the fall of foes and to warn of dire consequences if our friends fall. Our actual behavior — nearly universal behavior across all high-level sectors, from media to government to NGOs — has been the exact opposite.

An indiscriminate neutral peace-lover would oppose (and a neutral revolution-lover favor) all the revolutions equally. We have not been neutralist; we have been on the other side.

Specific reasons can be given for the response in each instance, but it would be a mistake to dwell on them; it would amount to joining in a self-mystification. The pattern is what counts. It is what reveals the operationally significant cause: the pre-existing orientation. Case-specific explanations are always available for any policy going in either direction; when they are selected to fit a pre-set orientation, they tell nothing about the actual motivation.

The pattern is obvious: against our friends and our interests. It is as if we are so scared of the accusations of having a normal double standard in our own favor that we lean over backwards and adopt a double standard against ourselves. The Qaddafi and Assad regimes have been brutal tyrannies, and often brutally hostile to us. Ben Ali and Mubarak were mild, stable, modernizing rulers, solid actors for peace, and our reliable friends. The case could not be clearer for treating the latter pair better than the former. We have done the opposite. We need to ask: Why?

I am dealing here only with the urgently important current examples. However, for analytical purposes, it is important to realize that this is not a new phenomenon at all. There are repeated examples of it, providing ample social-science confirmation of the immediate causal determinant: an inversion of attitudes toward friend and foe. I remember well, as an old Sovietologist, how in the 1980s there was some scholarly speculation on the problems and instabilities that an end of Communism could bring; yet at the same time it was taboo to discuss an end to Communism as a scenario to plan for, much less wish for. How to explain this seeming contradiction?

Only a few scholars broke the taboo, notably Alexander Yanov, a Soviet refugee; and under his inspiration, I did likewise. We both did it under the cover of discussing how to prepare for dealing constructively with the dangers it would present, not of explicitly calling for it. President Reagan broke the taboo more completely, saying that Communism should and would end soon; and he was almost unanimously labeled a dangerous, ignorant rube for it. No one apologized when he proved right. He and his adviser Richard Pipes were actually accused of intending to start a nuclear war to end Communism. Reagan joked about the slander; the slanderers, relentless from their unanimous perch in the media, managed to portray this as a confirmation that they were right, and succeeded in getting him to apologize to them for it. Pipes suffered the same slander from Washington Star and Post columnist Mary McGrory, among others; Reagan eventually had to let Pipes go. There were real costs: The West was unprepared for dealing with the emerging new issues when Communism was coming to an end in 1989–91, and got around only to a half-hearted program of help in 1992.

But let us come back to the question: Why the contradiction — speculating on the dangers in a demise of the Soviet regime, but not on the opportunities in it? It seems the operational cause was the very fact that it was an enemy regime. Change the object to a friendly and much milder regime, like that of, say, Ferdinand Marcos, and the behavior was the opposite: Practically everyone welcomed his overthrow; no one expressed concern about instability from it, or about our “dangerous,” “belligerent” attitude toward him, or proclaimed his “moral equivalence” to us as an antidote to our “arrogance.”

Even al-Jazeera noticed our double standard in Qaddafi’s favor, compared to the way we treated Mubarak and Ben Ali. But it could not draw the obvious conclusion: that it was a double standard against ourselves. It tried instead to fit it into its usual practice of accusing us of self-interested double standards. Secretary Clinton, fearing this accusation, argued against intervention lest we fit into the Arab Street narrative about our acting with double standards in our own interest. It was a revealing comment on what it is that is feared in our official conscience. Later we did intervene, our misdirected conscience protected by stipulations that are meant to neuter the action — and that bring a real moral cost in stalemate and protracted killing.

When the Qaddafi and Assad regimes fight back, it is said that this shows they have some support in society. When the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes — much broader-based regimes (a Western polling agency found at the height of the Egyptian demonstrations that Mubarak and Suleiman were the preferred presidential candidates of a full third of the population) — yield to our insistence that they shouldn’t put up a fight, we say they have no support.

When Mubarak mentions the obvious fact that the opposition includes our enemies, we brand anyone who says anything at all against the Muslim Brotherhood as an agent of Mubarak’s fearmongering. When Qaddafi says his opponents are al-Qaeda, Secretary Clinton wonders aloud for weeks on end if this is true, and uses it as a reason not to intervene.

Mubarak and Ben Ali, having fallen, are persecuted personally. We join in some of the persecution.

Mubarak’s party is forced to disband, in order to appease the street crowd, which seems more and more like a vengeful mob; so is Ben Ali’s party. We do not oppose these anti-democratic actions, or even criticize them; instead, some of our democracy-promotion structures, which have been training the revolutionaries, explain such “distancing” actions as necessary for revolutionary “success.” President Obama meanwhile makes demands for unbanning the Islamist organizations and letting them participate fully in politics.

In other words: We insist on full involvement of our enemies in the name of democracy, but we accept, even encourage, the undemocratic exclusion of our friends. It is as if, after 1945, we had banned the German moderate parties, not the Nazis.

We know the Muslim Brotherhood well; the evidence of its enmity is ample: enmity to ourselves specifically, and enmity ideologically to the liberal norms that make democracy something positive for human freedom and development. Our media and leadership have avoided this basic point, instead endlessly repeating the line that Americans have a “simplistic” “narrative” against the Muslim Brotherhood, and that “it’s more complicated.” Of course things are always “more complicated” than any overall conclusion. The question is: Why do we pull out this “more complicated” line on highly select occasions, usually to excuse our enemies? Are we afraid of seeing the forest and prefer to have the trees get in the way? Is there a “culture wars” aspect — do some people feel it confirms their status as elite if they call the American people “crude” and “simplistic”?

It is important that we figure out the reasons for our behavior. Why do we vilify benign rulers and excuse malicious ones? Why do we treat friends worse than enemies? Why, in sum, do we think with an inverted mind and act with an inverted morality?

It matters. It does harm on a global scale. It is not just a minor social-status game.

One explanation is that some people feel guilty for anything done by rulers who are our friends. Our intelligentsia, like our enemies abroad, call our friends our “puppets” and blame us for what they do, or are said to do. (In the present case, it is worth reminding ourselves that the Mubarak regime, regularly called a “U.S. puppet” in recent months, was an outgrowth of the Nasser-Sadat regime. That regime was created by Nasser’s army-based coup; it was anti-Western nationalist, and was based always on the army. Sadat turned the regime from sentimental, self-destructive anti-Western nationalism to pursuit of Egypt’s actual national interest. That is the reason why he was assassinated by the Islamists; and why anti-Western nationalists and Islamists have called him — and Mubarak, who continued his policy — a U.S. puppet.)

It is the opposite with regimes that are unfriendly to us; we feel able to ignore our guilt for their crimes, no matter what our role in creating or sustaining them. Carter felt guilty for the thousands of Communists imprisoned by the Shah, but felt no guilt when they — and many more thousands of others — were shot by the Ayatollah. The Ayatollah was our enemy; our enemies wouldn’t blame us for his sins; so why feel guilty for him? Wasn’t it a proof of our sinless selflessness that we helped bring him to power? But it was not selfless, just self-destructive. There was a selfish pride in feeling selfless. There was sin in facilitating — for the selfish purpose of avoiding accusations from our enemies — a massive increase in cruelty, and damage to the entire world order.

This is not an unusual situation. It is the ordinary one. The West is the core of the world order. It is also the most evolved and mildly governed society in the world. The regimes friendly to it are, as a rule, the ones that play a constructive role in the world order and, in most cases, the more mildly governed ones in their region. Feeling guilty over their shortcomings, and guiltless over the far worse evils of the less Western-oriented forces in their regions, is bound to lead time after time to moral inversion; and with it, to actual policies that are morally criminal as well as self-damaging.

This wrong sensibility explains the paradoxical dishonesty of the media on double standards — seizing on any pretext, no matter how feeble, for accusing us of a double standard in our favor; ignoring it when we lack such a normal double standard, or when we apply a harmful double standard against ourselves.

But what is the source of this perversion of the moral sensibility? It raises difficult questions because it keeps recurring, impervious to the experience of the evil it does both to our own country and to the world at large. Is it motivated only by feelings of guilt for “our” sins, or by aggressiveness against our society, which is called “us” but viewed as the enemy? Is there an element of projection, expiating a sense of personal guilt by punishing one’s society at large?

The phenomenon was analyzed decades ago by several major scholars. Prof. Jeane Kirkpatrick, in her essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” James Burnham, former philosophy professor, in the chapters on “Guilt” and “The Dialectic of Liberalism” in The Suicide of the West: how recent liberal doctrine implies an inexpiable Western guilt before the Third World; how liberal society tends to identify with the Left as “us,” feeling bad when crossing the Left, feeling good when attacking the Right and the West, proposing indirect strategies for the West that consist in the here and now of attacking the interests of “our side.” Prof. Paul Hollander, in Understanding Anti-Americanism: our cultivation of negative self-image, which affects the society’s future. Prof. Lewis Feuer, a Freudian socio-psychologist, in The Conflict of Generations and subsequent books: the inward redirection of the normal stock of societal aggressiveness; the alienation of the societal superego to the Left; the inducing of guilt in the mainstream.

Do we need to reread their works? Do we need a new Lewis Feuer to update the analysis of our self-damage? Do we need a new Jeane Kirkpatrick to rouse society against the “blame America first” mentality?

Only by understanding our mental inversion can we figure out how to right it. And we need to right it. Before our eyes in the Middle East, it is having exceedingly dangerous consequences.

— Ira Straus is executive director of The Democracy International, and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. The views expressed here are his own.

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