John McCain has an op-ed in the New York Times criticizing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for recent comments suggesting that our foreign policy should be based only on our interests, not our stated principles. And he’s right to criticize that, but he displays some serious naivete or dishonesty in the process.
In a recent address to State Department employees, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said conditioning our foreign policy too heavily on values creates obstacles to advance our national interests. With those words, Secretary Tillerson sent a message to oppressed people everywhere: Don’t look to the United States for hope. Our values make us sympathetic to your plight, and, when it’s convenient, we might officially express that sympathy. But we make policy to serve our interests, which are not related to our values. So, if you happen to be in the way of our forging relationships with your oppressors that could serve our security and economic interests, good luck to you. You’re on your own.
There are those who will credit Mr. Tillerson’s point of view as a straightforward if graceless elucidation of a foreign policy based on realism. If by realism they mean policy that is rooted in the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, they couldn’t be more wrong.
I consider myself a realist. I have certainly seen my share of the world as it really is and not how I wish it would be. What I’ve learned is that it is foolish to view realism and idealism as incompatible or to consider our power and wealth as encumbered by the demands of justice, morality and conscience.
In the real world, as lived and experienced by real people, the demand for human rights and dignity, the longing for liberty and justice and opportunity, the hatred of oppression and corruption and cruelty is reality. By denying this experience, we deny the aspirations of billions of people, and invite their enduring resentment…
We are a country with a conscience. We have long believed moral concerns must be an essential part of our foreign policy, not a departure from it. We are the chief architect and defender of an international order governed by rules derived from our political and economic values. We have grown vastly wealthier and more powerful under those rules. More of humanity than ever before lives in freedom and out of poverty because of those rules.
Our values are our strength and greatest treasure. We are distinguished from other countries because we are not made from a land or tribe or particular race or creed, but from an ideal that liberty is the inalienable right of mankind and in accord with nature and nature’s Creator.
To view foreign policy as simply transactional is more dangerous than its proponents realize. Depriving the oppressed of a beacon of hope could lose us the world we have built and thrived in. It could cost our reputation in history as the nation distinct from all others in our achievements, our identity and our enduring influence on mankind. Our values are central to all three.
Is this is McCain’s idea of being a realist, one can only wonder what he would believe were he an idealist. His ideas about American foreign policy and history are as wildly unrealistic as they could possibly be. Tillerson’s comments were indeed dangerous, but they were nothing more than a restatement of what this country has done for the past 150 years (at least). We have never done much more than pay lip service to human rights; when our immediate, short-term interests — more accurately, those of the wealthy and powerful — were in conflict with those ideals, we’ve dropped them like a hot potato without a moment’s hesitation.
Do I really need to go into this entire history? All of the governments we’ve overthrown to install brutal dictators because they would do our bidding? If names like Pahlevi, Baptiste, Somoza, Pinochet, Montt, Duarte, Noriega, Marcos and many others don’t ring a bell, get thyself to the Google. We have launched completely unprovoked wars that have killed millions of innocent people on the basis of complete lies (the Gulf of Tonkin for Vietnam, Hussein’s non-existent WMD in Iraq, etc).
We have tortured and brutalized nations full of dark-skinned people (always dark-skinned people, never white people) for a century and a half while loudly proclaiming our commitment to human rights. It may be the greatest act of hypocrisy in modern times and it’s an act that the rest of the world has undoubtedly grown quite tired of. H.L. Mencken said that any decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under, and we have far more reason for such shame than most.
It’s especially ironic that McCain invokes his time as a POW during the Vietnam war in his op-ed. Vietnam may be the quintessential example of American foreign policy gone absolutely mad. LBJ lied to get us into the war, during which we killed 2-3 million people in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, not a single one of which posed any threat to us in any possible way.
McCain has used his own victimization at the hands of the Vietcong to fuel his political career, and what happened to him was indeed horrifying. But does he ever give a moment’s thought to the literally millions of victims of our decision to start the war that ended up victimizing him? Does he ever think to question the government that sent him to fight in that unjust, unnecessary war? Not that I can tell. He still thinks we did the right thing and he has supported every war since than, as far as I can recall. And he wants to talk about how our foreign policy should be based on human rights? Give me a break.