The NY TIMES today devotes its premier placement [Front Page, far right column, above the fold] to the revelation that, in the words of their headline, "Key Harzai Aide in Graft Inquiry Linked to C.I.A. Said to be on Payroll. Conflicting Goals Seen for U.S. in Its Call to Fight Corruption."
A little historical perspective is useful in processing this somewhat less than astonishing bit of information. In the seventeenth century, France was far and away the richest and most powerful state in Europe. Louis XIV secretly underwrote many of the dynastic and territorial squabbles that had the various Kings, Princes, Electors, and Dukes of Europe at one another's throats. It was not uncommon for Louis actually to funnel cash to both sides of a conflict, as a way of ensuring that however the local struggle came out, France would retain its influence.
This is what empires do. Questions of justice, rectitude, honesty, and even ideology are always secondary to considerations of power. The imperial players tell themselves comforting bedtime stories about their commitment to some high purpose, whether that be the proselytizing of a religion, the bearing of The White Man's Burden, the spread of civilization, or the building of constitutional democracies among the benighted. I have no doubt that George W. Bush believed those stories, and I think it is becoming painfully clear that Barack Obama does as well.
What is needed is not a new story, but the forsaking of the underlying imperial ambitions. The United States has been on full wartime footing for seventy-five years now, ever more determinately pursuing those imperial goals. The much maligned C.I.A. is simply doing what it was created to do. One might as well criticize professional wrestlers for playing dirty.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
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It seems to me the NYTimes is (as usual) missing the point. Yes, it is problematic that the CIA is dealing with a corrupt Afghan politician. But of course the Times makes absolutely no mention of the fact that we ourselves are contributing to that corruption by paying off this politician in the first place.
Let's be clear about what's going on here: The CIA is covertly buying off a member of a sovereign government -- that's corruption. Our outrage does not stem from the fact that this man is corrupt. Rather, it's that we're not the only ones doing the corrupting. Is there no honor left among thieves?
What's remarkable is how entirely UNremarkable this revelation is. Those covert government actions that would have excited a media frenzy just three decades ago (if the Church Committee is any guide) seem now to be just another instance of "business as usual." Part of this is surely due to the undeniable decline of American journalism, but part is also the outcome of the widespread belief that America has the right -- if not the obligation -- to meddle in other countries' affairs.
The end result is that upon learning how an Afghan politician is taking bribes and kickbacks, our newspaper of record can say with unfeigned outrage: But we were there first!
This post reminded me of a great quote I once read in the beginning of one of G.A Cohen's papers. Particularly what you said in the second paragraph.
. . . the rulers of mankind . . . maintain side by side two standards of social ethics, without the risk of their colliding. Keeping one set of values for use, and another for display, they combine, without conscious insincerity, the moral satisfaction of idealistic principles with the material advantages of realistic practice.
-R. H. Tawney, Equality
Just thought I'd share.
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