Fantasies of Virtue

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was posted on The Agonist on July 29th, 2009

In his article in The Atlantic dated 1 July 2009 entitled To Catch a Tiger, Robert D Kaplan acknowledged the success of the Sri Lankan government in defeating the Tamil Tigers

Kaplan admits that tiny, cash-strapped Sri Lanka, generally thought of as ”third world” or ”developing”, has succeeded where the mighty USA has failed. The man who dominated Sri Lankan life for the worse for thirty years, Vellupillai Prabakharan, leader of the Tamil Tigers, is dead, while Osama Bin Laden is still living, a free man.

Kaplan asks if the US can learn from Sri Lanka’s success but answers:

”These are methods the U.S. should never use.”

The Sri Lankan government defeated, within its own sovereign borders, with the support of its electorate, what Kaplan admits to be a terrorist group ”among the best organized and most ruthless to have emerged anywhere since the Second World War”. The US has for long used and continues to use even more brutal methods than those condemned by Kaplan.

The birth of the American nation was mired in the genocide of the indigenous races and its development depended on slavery. In his book, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920, Jackson Lears describes how many Americans embraced militaristic fantasies of national rebirth through war and empire. US soldiers were awarded medals in 1890 for firing Hotchkiss cannons at unarmed Indians at Wounded Knee. When Filipinos resisted US imperial claims, the US Army “civilized” them with indiscriminate slaughter as Mark Twain put it “Maxim Guns and Hymn Books”.

America is today an imperial power with military bases instead of colonies. George Orwell commented in 1943, ”It is difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now Occupied Territory.” Citizens of many nations today get that same feeling. Those populations hosting US bases are expected to be grateful that the bases are contributing to democracy and freedom, but instead feel exploited because the bases are used to control trade, resources, local supplies of cheap labor, and the political, economic, and social life of host countries. They also force them to support American imperialism, including foreign wars, despite harmful fallout to local populations.

There are 38 U.S. military facilities on Okinawa. They account for 78 percent of the bases in Japan and use up 30 percent of the land mass of the island. The U.S. military bases on Okinawa also cover over 40 percent of the arable soil, once some of the best agricultural land in Japan.

Figures up to 1998, show that since 1972, 4,905 crimes were committed against Japanese people by U.S. military personnel, their dependents and U.S. civilian contractors and employees. More than ten percent of these crimes involved serious crimes of murder, robbery or rape. In most cases, the Japanese authorities were not allowed to arrest or question the alleged perpetrators.

Possibly the most famous case was in 1995, when three U.S. soldiers abducted and raped a young schoolgirl. This provoked massive protests. One demonstration drew a crowd of over 92,000, demanding the bases be removed and that the soldiers be turned over to the Japanese authorities for trial. This was never done.

The US is the only nation ever to have used nuclear weapons. They dropped atomic bombs  on civilians. 90,000 (this is the low estimate) died immediately at Hiroshima. The estimate for Nagasaki is 20,000.

During the Vietnam War up to 5 million civilians (including citizens of Laos and Cambodia) lost their lives.

On May 26, 2009, a report by Australian law professor Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, was published. The report focused mainly on transgressions during the Bush administration’s”war on terror”. The report found that accountability in the U.S. has been “deplorable.” Few would doubt that the USA has killed innocent civilians and used torture in Iraq. According to The Lancet, the US adventure in Iraq has led to a death toll in excess of 650,000 and four million civilians have been displaced.

The CIA has kidnapped people and outsourced their torture. Torture is illegal under international law; the Obama administration is reluctant to face the issue, but supports calls for Sri Lanka to be investigated for war crimes.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, civilians continue to die because of US air attacks. Kaplan dismisses this: “The Americans have carefully targeted select al-Qaeda members and, in the process, killed a few, at the most, dozens of civilians among whom the fighters were surrounded.” Small drone attack – not many babies or wedding guests killed. Sri Lankans feel that, in a world where innocent Afghan and Pakistanis are killed on a regular basis by unmanned Predator drones in the name of fighting terrorism, the west should not preach to Sri Lanka.

President Obama said:”If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban, or allows al-Qaeda to go unchallenged, that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.  For the Afghan people, a return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralysed economy, and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people, especially women and girls. The return in force of al-Qaeda terrorists who would accompany the core Taliban leadership would cast Afghanistan under the shadow of perpetual violence.”

Sri Lanka had an even greater interest in avoiding falling to the Tigers. As Kaplan points out 3,000 died on 9/11; perhaps as many as 100,000 Sri Lankans have died because of the Tigers.

The most worrying thing for those of us not fortunate to be US citizens is the delusional nature of US policy. As Rory Stewart wrote recently in the London Review of Books, ”It papers over the weakness of the international community: our lack of knowledge, power and legitimacy. It conceals the conflicts between our interests: between giving aid to Afghans and killing terrorists. It assumes that Afghanistan is predictable. It is a language that exploits tautologies and negations to suggest inexorable solutions. It makes our policy seem a moral obligation, makes failure unacceptable, and alternatives inconceivable.”

Ian Birrell wrote about elections in Afghanistan in the Independent: ”Once again, we are chasing a chimera, falling for the myth of democracy rather than the reality. Buttressed by our own history, we see the ballot box as the ultimate expression of democracy… The dream is back on. Meanwhile, warlords wash the blood from their hands and dress up as democrats, doing deals to carve up the country… At the end of the process, there will still be some tribal tensions, gangsterism and poppy fields. Even to get to this point will cost billions. It will take many years. And sadly, there will be scores more teenage soldiers slaughtered and maimed. ”

There is an assumption that the US has a moral justification and obligation to intervene in other nations’ affairs. There is also the fantasy that it has the capability to address terrorism and, simultaneously, support ill-defined humanitarian objectives. The US is not as tough and powerful or as humane as thinks. It is unlikely that it can defeat the Taliban forever. In trying to make its fantasies real, it causes havoc and suffering.

Who could dare to argue that “morality” is a bad thing? Morality can be dangerous in politics, particularly if it is not clearly thought out, if it is just used as a buzz concept, part of the jargon. Blair and Bush told many lies (a justifiable immorality?) about Iraq and ended up with Saddam’s “evil” as the only justification for the mess. Saddam was killed; Prabakharan was killed. Large numbers of people were killed in Iraq but the purpose was noble wasn’t it? President Rajapaksa could also argue that difficult decisions had to be taken in order to achieve the ultimate good of ending the horror wrought by the Tamil Tigers.

There are certainly very real concerns about human rights and freedom of speech in Sri Lanka. However, Kaplan should look at the beam in the USA’s eye before calling attention to the mote in Sri Lanka’s. The Obama administration said it could continue to imprison non-U.S. citizens indefinitely even if they have been acquitted of terrorism charges by a U.S. military commission.

“In fact, there are no useful pointers to be gleaned from the Sri Lankan government’s victory.” I hope that Kaplan is correct and that the US does not try to learn from the Sri Lankan experience.

One lesson that might be learnt is that even those Sri Lankans who were dubious about the government’s decision to pursue the military option, are relieved, Tamils among them, that the venture has been successful.

Does the fact that those accusing Sri Lanka of war crimes are not free of guilt themselves, mean the issue should be ignored? Some would argue that a full investigation of war crimes would be a distraction from the reconciliation process. Others argue that the bitterness felt by many of the Tamil community will make reconciliation impossible if this issue is not addressed.

Other  countries such as South Africa, Rwanda, Chile and Northern Ireland are sometimes cited. Sri Lanka does not have direct parallels with any of these countries.Whatever discrimination and violence Sri Lankan Tamils may have suffered, Sri Lanka is not an apartheid society like South Africa, Palestine or even Louisiana. Whatever notion the western media might convey, Sri Lanka’s entire Tamil population has not been confined to a narrow strip of beach being bombarded by a racist government intent on genocide; the entire Tamil population is not currently imprisoned in concentration camps prior to extermination. Tamils are spread throughout the country and generally live normal lives. Many of them are prosperous and influential. Some held senior positions in government until the Tigers killed them.

In Chile, General Pinochet overthrew a democratically elected government; in Sri Lanka a democratically elected government increased its popularity with the voters by overthrowing a totalitarian, fascist, military dictatorship in part of its internationally recognised sovereign territory and intends to restore democracy to that area.
In Northern Ireland, peace was achieved through negotiation when both sides became exhausted and accepted that neither could win. The IRA gave up its goal of a united Ireland. The LTTE went into every negotiation with an uncompromising demand for nothing short of a separate homeland, comprising two-thirds of the territory of Sri Lanka.

Reconciliation will be difficult but it is possible. Sri Lanka needs help in this process rather than sanctimonious lectures.