Earlier this week, the New York Times published an op-ed by Jimmy Carter, in which the former president bemoans the fact that "the United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights."
Carter is disturbed by the recent exposure of a Presidential "Kill List," viewing it as the latest evidence of the USA's mounting disdain for human rights, a process that, according to our friend from Georgia, began on September 12, 2001.
Now, before we start to list the centuries-long litany of American crimes – slavery and genocide being most prominent – let us first point out that Carter, in his time as an ex-president, has been very active in all sorts of good causes, at home and abroad. He's even managed to summon up the courage to call Israel's occupation of Palestinian land what it is – a system of apartheid (although one wishes that Carter had taken a similar stand against South African apartheid during his presidency, instead of aiding the South Africans as they fomented civil war in newly-independent Angola). Carter is a liberal's liberal.
And that's the problem. Carter's op-ed is a perfect example of the limitations and blindspots of American liberalism. Chief among these deficiencies is a lack of pattern recognition. When Carter writes, "while the country has made mistakes in the past, the widespread abuse of human rights over the last decade has been a dramatic change from the past," we have to ask exactly what past he's referring to here.
It couldn't be the Clinton years. The hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died needlessly because American-backed sanctions against their country left them unable to get proper healthcare, sanitation, or nutrition (when asked about those deaths, liberal interventionist Madeleine Albright would declare "we think the price is worth it") would weigh heavily against that being the demarcation between "widespread human rights abuse" and "global champion of human rights." So would the ruinous bombings of Yugoslavia, or the multitude of Russians and other residents of the former eastern bloc states who were killed by free-market shock therapy (a therapy that led to one of the largest and fastest shortening of life expectancy in recorded history), or any of a multitude of other crimes.
Rewinding through the rest of the 20th century is no good either, as Vietnam, Grenada, the Dominican Republic, and a host of other unprovoked invasions would seem to mar the record, as would the non-stop support of various tyrants and torturers that fill the interstices between American wars. Even the American contribution to the destruction of fascism in WWII sits uncomfortably next to the fact that many of the defeated fascists and collaborators were restored to power by the Allies immediately following the war, as in Greece, Italy, and South Korea.
It would be tiresome to backtrack through American history all the way to 1776. Two paragraphs of more recent crimes is grim enough. Hopefully, the reader can forgive the absence of a complete history of atrocities and a dearth of attention to domestic oppression of the non-white population.
The problem is that somehow liberals are able to overlook all of these crimes, and when confronted with one that is absolutely inescapable – such as American involvement in Vietnam – they only shake their heads and say "we had good intentions, but somehow mistakes were made and we lost our way." Today, you can substitute Afghanistan for Vietnam, as many liberals still seem to regard that invasion as "the right war."
It's this attitude, that the USA is some kind of clumsy but well-intentioned giant, stumbling around trying to right wrongs but inadvertently causing more trouble, that allows liberals like Carter to be shocked and indignant about torture, assassinations, indefinite detention, and other unpleasant practices of the national security state. It is this worldview that prevents liberals from truly challenging the root of the problems they decry. Carter, in his op-ed, seems to believe that if the United States just stops drone assassinations then Washington will suddenly "regain moral leadership" and all will be right with the world.
Combating the sort of historical blindness and aversion to pattern-recognitions inherent in liberalism is a necessary first step toward creating a more realistic view of the world and an analysis of how to solve the problems it faces. Liberalism is as good as a band-aid on a sucking chest wound when it comes to solving the very real problems of global war, poverty, and illness, and until it is no longer the dominant position from which criticisms are made, any progress made will be fitful, stumbling, and constantly vulnerable to being rolled back.