Monday, May 16, 2011

Koppel On Democracy

Have you ever wondered what Ted Koppel’s political philosophy is? Me neither, but he shared a bit of it anyway on a blog in the Washington Post a few days ago. Apparently, having a serious face doesn’t make you a serious thinker:
“Democracy.” Let’s dump it; toss it on the scrap heap of history. The concept remains worthy, but the word is rapidly being exhausted of all residual value.

Democracy is much more than the elimination of an undemocratic leader. What we have seen this year, unfolding on our television screens and laptops, looks like democracy, but as any Parisian schoolchild can recount, the path from the barricades to a functioning parliament can be tortuous. After the Jacobin terror sent more than 14,000 victims to the guillotine, France (and most of Europe) got Napoleon, whose excesses ultimately led to a restoration of the monarchy. Five years from now, we are more likely to see another Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, or another Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, than to see a functioning representational government in any of the countries now undergoing the “Arab spring.”

Look closely. You’ll see the unspoken assumption here is that we Americans are exceptional. Almost alone among nations we got democracy right; everyone else seems to get it wrong, starting with those cheese-eating wimps in France. The Arabs, being unschooled in the Byzantine nuances of parliamentary government, will likely get it wrong too. Of course, it would be difficult to learn democracy if your country had been ruled for thirty years by a dictator who was armed and bankrolled by the United States, an untidy fact that Koppel tidily leaves out; and if, as he suggests, Egypt sees another Hosni Mubarak emerge within five years it will no doubt be because the US, wary of ‘instability’ in the region, will have decided to throw its support behind him.

The path from the barricades to a functioning parliament can indeed be torturous, particularly when the United States is standing squarely in the way. This is something that every Nicaraguan schoolchild can recount.

Since nobody else can seem to handle democracy, then, we should just drop it from all our foreign policy considerations. Face facts, dump idealism, and go all Bismarck on everyone. After all, we kind of do that anyway:

Truth be told, our government’s commitment to democracy in other countries is almost whimsically inconsistent: clearly greater in Libya than in Saudi Arabia, less in Bahrain than in Iran. We are constrained from actively promoting democracy in China by our enormous national interests there; but in Congo, where our interests are negligible and the outrages against democracy are constant, we do nothing.The misappropriation of the word is so great as to be silly.”
Whimsically inconsistent, he says. That’s cute. It reminds you of the famous British saying that their empire was acquired “in a fit of absentmindedness.” It neatly overlooks the calculated brutality and deceitfulness that infuses our, or any empire’s, foreign policy. It suggests that our intentions are always good and our blunders are all just innocent mistakes.

Our commitment to spreading democracy is, of course, thin, but it’s not because we’re “whimsically inconsistent.” On the contrary, the US is scrupulously, meticulously, predictably, depressingly, violently consistent: we support governments that obey our orders and serve our interests, period, tout court. If they happen to be democracies, great; if not, no problem. As long as they play ball with the US it’s all good. If they don’t, if they should choose to break out of our orbit and follow an independent path, then we hound and harass them, turn them into world pariahs, impose sanctions, and, if they’re a grave enough threat, meaning if they cut too deeply into profits, we mark them down for regime change. Their virtue is judged entirely on the basis of their obedience to Washington. Their particular form of government is irrelevant. Our attitude in this regard is best summed up by a remark that Franklin Roosevelt supposedly made about Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza: “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

So Koppel recommends that the US follow a policy of realpolitik in its foreign relations, but we already do. We always have. That we pursue our own interests to the exclusion of other considerations is so glaringly obvious, so childishly basic, that it boggles the mind that a so-called ‘serious’ journalist should be recommending it as if it’s some novel idea. Where has he been the last two-hundred years? Has he never heard of the Mexican War, the slaughter of the Indians, the Spanish-American War, the suppression and occupation of the Philippines, the forcible extortion of Panama from Colombia, the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran, Arbenz in Guatemala, and Allende in Chile? The list goes on and on, right down to the invasion of Iraq and the current bombing of Libya. Democracy doesn’t just take a back seat in US foreign policy, it gets thrown off the fuckin’ bus. This country has kicked, scratched, clawed, bitten, beaten, bloodied, lied to, cheated, bribed, stabbed, shot, poisoned, bombed or imprisoned anyone or anything that ever stood in its way. You don’t become the richest and most powerful nation in human history by being nice, peace-loving democrats. You get there by being the most ruthless sons-of-bitches on the planet.

This stuff is A, B, C; the history of American foreign policy 101. Anyone who hasn’t drank the Kool-Aid of the Washington Establishment and its legions of court historians knows this. It’s incontrovertible. How is it possible that Mr. Koppel, whose career has spanned a fair amount of recent American history, can be so obtuse? If he’s really that ignorant, we should adopt the British custom of referring to TV anchorman as “newsreaders” instead of journalists. On the other hand, I’ve heard Koppel deferentially refer to Henry Kissinger as Dr. Kissinger, so chances are his omissions aren’t completely innocent (as a general rule, whenever a serious TV journalist addresses Kissinger as “doctor,” what follows will be a load of bullshit).

But who cares about Ted Koppel? Not me. Not you. Not anyone who lives a sane, normal human existence. But I’d bet that the overwhelming majority of Koppel’s TV colleagues think just like him. The transparent propaganda that served as “news” during the run up to the Iraq invasion is proof enough. Should you require more, just look back on the fawning and triumphalist coverage of bin Laden’s assassination. Wolf Blitzer was positively swooning. All the anchors on the alphabet soup networks were. They acted like pubescent groupies at a pop concert. It was nauseating. If you got too caught up in the thrill of it all, you’d miss the fact that their coverage consisted almost entirely of interviewing public officials and treating their statements as holy writ. There was no context given except the one provided by Washington. The insipid journalists who presided over the whole overblown spectacle not only didn’t ask any critical questions, but seemed constitutionally incapable of doing so.

They’re not necessarily dishonest. It genuinely never occurs to them that the US sometimes wears the black hat and our leaders often lie. They’re true believers in Ted Koppel’s grade-school conception of America and its lofty role in world affairs, a viewpoint that exaggerates our virtues, ignores our crimes, and blames others for our mistakes. They are, weirdly enough, honest propagandists.

We need to dump them. Toss them on the scrap heap of history. The concept of TV journalism, embodied by people like Ted Koppel, remains a worthy concept, but it is rapidly being exhausted of all residual value.

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