This article was last modified on November 21, 2008.

Empire Strikes First: Pakistan and Syria

While this column has thus far remained focused on past American foreign policy blunders, possible war crimes and incidents overlooked or downplayed by the American media, this month we must face an issue that is blindingly obvious and constantly current. Often, decisions made by those in power are accepted by the governed people, not because the ideas themselves are of value, but simply because the populace has a blind devotion to patriotism (read: nationalism). But not all policies are good, and nothing is good simply by virtue of being from the same country as the citizen looking on. Goodness must be earned through merit, not bestowed arbitrarily.

Under the Bush Doctrine, our military has increasingly turned to cross-border raids in order to carry on their global war on terror (GWOT) outside of the battlegrounds in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the point of view of a so-called patriot, these acts are justified — a little trespassing in order to eradicate international terrorism seems common sense. But from an objective angle things might seem a little different. Legal concepts like sovereignty, addressed here many times before, hold dominion over common sense, as does the rule of law. Fighting terrorism in all its forms is an important and valiant task, but there are rules to follow and reasons behind those rules.

Objective observers rely on what is known as the Principle of Universality. Spoken plainly, any action taken by a country is to be considered proper conduct if it would be acceptable for any other country in a similar situation. This principle is derived from the words of philosopher Immanuel Kant, who said we should act such that our actions are a universal rule. American foreign policy relies heavily on the idea that our military can act in such a way that would be unacceptable for another country. The recent strikes in Pakistan and cross-border raids in Syria are but only a few of the most recent examples.

The American military has repeatedly fired across the Afghanistan border into Pakistan with the intention of hitting terrorist targets in the mountainous tribal regions. These strikes have occurred no less than twenty times since August. Apologists could point to Pakistan’s relative acceptance of such strikes and to the low civilian body count to justify such transgressions. But on November 19, a missile strike came outside the lawless region, causing Pakistan to call the attack a “grave provocation” that “will bring a strong response”. Civilians are alleged to have died. While there is no reason to believe Pakistan would retaliate against America for these acts, international law should not be broken simply because no punishment is forthcoming.

A similar situation is now unfolding in Syria. In late October, four American helicopters flew five miles into Syria to destroy a farm where suspected militants were hiding. Local Syrians claim those killed were “innocent day laborers” and the Syrian government has called the attack an act of “criminal and terrorist aggression.” Like Pakistan, there is no reason to believe Syria will retaliate, but popular support for the GWOT in both countries has seen a measurable decline among the civilian population. The governments of these violated nations also have less reason to trust our government and intentions, and may feel threatened. Weakened diplomacy can, in turn, lead to reduced security.

Let’s now conduct a thought experiment, taking the viewpoint of Russia. Suppose alleged terrorists, perhaps Siberian separatists, flee Russia and take up residence in Wasilla, Alaska. Rather than call on America to arrest and deport such criminals, the Russians fly across the Bering Strait and bomb a suspected terrorist safe house. In the process, a nearby church and three Alaskans become “collateral damage”. Or even suppose the Mexican government entered Texas to terminate their criminals, perhaps some Zapatistas, without American consent. Machine gun fire was unleashed in the streets of El Paso. We would do more than decry these “provocations” and “acts of aggression” — all hell would break loose.

I contacted the various Wisconsin political parties to gauge their thoughts on the current strategies employed in the GWOT. While the Republicans did not respond, their position can be inferred by the ongoing tactics or from the words of a woman who was almost vice president, Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin. During the vice presidential debates, she declared that “America is a nation of exceptionalism” and “represent[s] a perfect ideal”, a view she says John McCain shares. Her choice of words is telling, as the term “American exceptionalism” is often used derisively to criticize the arrogance of American power over weaker countries. Does might make right? Palin and McCain seem to think so.

What about the incoming party? Alec Loftus, of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, directed me to the August 2007 words of President-elect Obama wherein Syria is said to have continued “support for terror” and Pakistan is noted as a “sanctuary” for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban where they are “training new recruits”. These words, combined with Obama’s past calls for potential cross-border strikes into Pakistan, suggest we will see little military change in the region for years to come.

But real change is being called for by others. The Green Party, according to Ronald Hardy, “has called for the United States to recognize the sovereignty of nation-states and their right of self determination. Our government does not have the right to justify pre-emptive invasion of another country on the grounds that the other country might be harboring a terrorist or terrorist cell. When American military action takes precedence over International Law, the United States becomes a rogue nation acting like an Empire.”

Likewise, Jim Maas of the Libertarian Party tells me that “Libertarians oppose initiation of force by our government [and] would end the current U.S. government policy of foreign interventions. We believe international borders must be respected and that no country is exempt from international law, especially our own. The response to terrorism should be to return to the advice of our Founding Fathers, who proposed trade and friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none. Libertarians would dismantle the empire and bring our military forces home from all 130 countries where they are stationed.” The Socialist Party had not responded by deadline. Should they or the Republican Party respond, their position will be outlined in a future column.

International law exists for a reason, and while it may not be perfect — few laws are — it stands firmly as a guiding force towards peace and justice in this world. Our current administration has soiled the underclothes of international law, and when the new leadership emerges next month, we can expect more of the same. If America is to be a place of freedom, hope and equality, isn’t it time we start treating ourselves as equals to the citizens of this world?

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