"Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities."
Thus began the opening lines of what would become the infamous "Blood Telegram" by the last US Consul General to East Pakistan, the late Archer Blood. On December 16 the people of Bangladesh mark Victory Day; this year, the 44th anniversary of Bangladesh's Independence at the culmination of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. During that brutal nine month struggle, as many as 200,000 women were raped, ten million displaced, and anywhere from 300,000 to three million men, women, and children were killed. Hindus were systematically tortured and executed, as were tens of thousands of students, activists, trade unionists, community leaders, and anyone else condemned as potential threats to West Pakistani hegemony.
Genocide: Made in the USA
In the midst of a naked genocide the likes of which the world had not witnessed since the second World War, the internationally reviled West Pakistani regime could nevertheless rely on political, economic, and military support from two its staunchest allies--China and The United States. There are several explanations for the US's unbreakable support for the Pakistani military dictatorship. For starters, Nixon and Yahya Khan enjoyed a close personal relationship. I suppose racist, paranoid genocidaires naturally attract each other. Yet the overriding factor was existing geo-political alliances combined with neurotic fears of a "leftist domino effect" at the height of the Cold War-where the aspirations and futures of entire countries and their people were reduced pieces on a real politik chess board.
As part of this hyper-cynical game, an oft-overlooked reason for the US government's unwavering support to Pakistan's generals was the role that Yahya's regime played in acting as a covert channel for the 1972 US-China diplomatic breakthrough. The people of East Pakistan were in a very real sense sacrificed at the altar of diplomatic breakthroughs and foreign policy coups. Sound familiar? Our nuclear agreement with Iran should rightly be heralded as an invaluable diplomatic triumph which may well have prevented another warmongering misadventure in the Middle East. Yet-at what cost should it be achieved by ignoring the hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed and the millions more injured, disabled, and displaced? Without in any way comparing President Obama's foreign policy with the Nixon-Kissinger "Morals Dead Last" Doctrine, it seems that realpolitik often finds new yet familiar ways to rear its head.
Realpolitik: The Frankenstein's Monster of Foreign Policy
The tragedy of Bangladesh would repeat itself in countless nations across Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia in which the US would support reactionary regimes simply as a counterweight to perceived "pro-Soviet" forces. In the name of rolling back communism and Soviet domination, our nation pursued a foreign policy so steeped in zero-sum-game cynicism that even Machiavelli would have recoiled in shock. Indeed it is believed that our government even provided intelligence to the murderous security apparatuses of dictators like Suharto, Pinochet, and-yes you guessed it, Saddam Hussein-in order to allow them to systematically eliminate any potential opposition to their rule.
The consequences for far too many of these nations have been devastating. Over four decades later, Bangladesh still continues to bear many horrendous scars from Pakistan's Nixon-and-Kissinger-sponsored rape of a nation: Crippled leadership capacity from an inferior political and business class due to the staggering loss of human capital, to near-civil war levels of political strife with roots from the unresolved ghosts of 1971, and huge rates of physical and emotional trauma in the general population due to any lack of genuine accountability or even official acknowledgement. Likewise, the ultra-cynical overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz courtesy of the United Fruit Company would throw that nation into one of the most vicious and longest lasting civil wars in modern history and featured widespread acts of genocide against the indigenous Mayan population. The coup against Dr. Mohamed Mossadegh-whose only crime was daring to shake off British economic subjugation and imperialism by nationalizing his nation's oil industry under the radical idea that Iran's natural resources would benefit her people-has perhaps forever stunted what was then Iran's emergence as a pluralistic multiparty secular democracy in the Middle East.
Just three case studies from three different regions of the world demonstrates the hideous extent of the Cold War realpolitik's global and multigenerational victims.
Introspection over Political Demagoguery: A Sign of National Character
Outside of our nation's longstanding economic, political, and military subjugation of Latin America, America did not engage in the same type of systematic colonialism and outright imperialism that various European powers have for centuries. Thus for most global publics, our Cold War policies was akin to American foreign policy's "original sin." As the Soviet Union collapsed, so too did much of the world's public outrage against its own Cold War atrocities and travesties. As the Cold War's "victor" and sole remaining superpower, we have-perhaps unfairly-inherited the its legacies-and the traumatized resentment of countless millions of wronged citizens around the world.
Yet openly confronting our past-and offering apologies when necessary-is not a show of "weakness." Critical self-reflection is a demonstration of a nation's capacity for genuine introspection, magnanimity, and intellectual honesty-all of which are profound strengths. Just ask the brave historians and activists in Turkey who risk state harassment and even imprisonment to get their nation to recognize the Armenian genocide.
In a process not unlike maintaining personal relationships, forging meaningful partnerships with countries rests on confronting the mistakes of our past in order to lend context to our present- and to avoid reusing age-old "wisdoms" in order to wisely chart our future.
A "First, Do No Harm" Foreign Policy
As we move into the 21st Century, a world dominated by China should deeply worry human rights advocates everywhere. Indeed the Beijing regime not only systematically oppresses its own people, but has no problem conducting business with North Korea, Sudan, and other noxious regimes around the world. Russia's possible ascendancy is equally problematic, as the Kremlin continues to demonstrate that it is more far interested in harboring and pursuing neo-imperialist ambitions rather than honoring peoples' basic right to self-determination, including those of her neighbors.
As the current sole superpower, our nation has special obligations and responsibilities to not only the current international community, but future generations. Together we can establish and pursue a foreign policy which truly values human rights, dignity, and justice for all the world's citizens. We can leverage our economic and political clout to encourage better behavior from our allies with regards to respecting human rights, and to compel better behavior from our potential foes. We can resolve to use our military might not only to defend our citizens from any threats, but also to work with our allies around the world to conduct humanitarian interventions to prevent regimes from carrying out systematic and widespread atrocities.
Yet above all, we must first avoid facilitating oppression, suffering, and the pillaging of dwindling natural resources. We must decisively end our support to authoritarian regimes and dictatorships around the world. Like the medical pioneer Hippocrates, we must first resolve to do no harm to our fellow citizens in humanity.
Partnering with International Publics over National Vested Interests
In President Obama's 2011 State of the Union address, he repeatedly urged the need for America to "win the future." While he was primarily referring to solving domestic issues through the spirit of innovation, cooperation, and long-term vision, the same mantra can be applied to revamping the core nature of modern American foreign policy--which unfortunately seems to have evolved very little from its realpolitik Cold War roots. Rather than relying on only one-dimensional schemas focusing only on stability and security--such as viewing the various countries of the Arab and greater Muslim world as only vital energy partners and security assets in the War on Terror)--the entire notion of what is in America's national interest ought to be expanded to encompass a more holistic, proactive, and forward-thinking approach.
Maintaining vibrant and lasting relations with countries starts with cultivating meaningful and dynamic connections with their citizenry. It means not simply relying on lofty yet hollow platitudes, but actively upholding the core principles of democracy and people power by encouraging and upholding their peoples' inalienable democratic rights. Siding with the world's people-over regimes abroad and vested interests at home-is always a winning bet in the long run.
A 21st Century superpower should pursue a modern, forward-thinking, responsible 21st Century foreign policy. Anything less is to cheat both our own citizens and the world at large.
Dedicated to the late Archer Blood, Eric Griffel, Samuel Hoskinson, Scott Butcher, Desaix Myers, and countless others who put their conscience and principles before their careers in order to bring the world's attention to the anguish of Bangla-desh (and personally saved the lives of many of its people by sheltering them).