The Color of Failed States

Who would have thought that the evil team bent on destroying the world would be composed entirely of people of color? In the imagination of Hollywood, after all, the bad guys are now white guys like the scientists gone bad in Spiderman or those jokers in Batman or the military privateers of Avatar. Occasionally, scriptwriters will dust off a rogue Russian or sprinkle a few Arab terrorists in the mix or persuade Forest Whitaker to play Idi Amin. But for the most part, post-Arendt, we now associate evil with banality, and there is nothing more banal than plain vanilla.

So what do we make of the cover of Foreign Policy magazine's latest issue? Designed like a film poster, the title reads: The Committee to Destroy the World. The five stars line up below this provocative description, with Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe as the headliner. Behind him are Kim Jong Il of North Korea, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Than Shwe of Burma, and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. Inside the issue, only one white guy merits inclusion in what the editors call a list of "bad dude dictators and general coconut heads." But the bad boy of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, doesn't make it onto the front cover.

Foreign Policy dresses up its annual Failed States Index as a brave exercise in truth-telling. "We take the opportunity to cast some blame, point some fingers, and name some names," editor Susan Glasser writes. "And unfortunately, there are many Bad Guys to go around, from cynical dictators to greedy multinational corporations to opportunistic world powers." I eagerly thumb through the issue to see about these corporations and world powers.

But all I find is the United Nations, pirates, and China. Oh, there's Paul Wolfowitz. But instead of being on the cover along with Kim Jong Il, Wolfowitz is an author! And, embarrassment of embarrassments, he's the only one to name corporations ExxonMobil and Devon Energy, for being unforthcoming about their revenues. And, really, he only points half a finger: "Perhaps these companies have nothing to hide." Hey Paul, how about a little self-criticism about Iraq and the failed states you helped along the way with World Bank loans? But no, just a plea for transparency, as if Wolfowitz were Mr. Full Disclosure when he served in top posts.

The other targets are pretty conventional. Mo Ibrahim complains about corruption, Bruce Babbitt rails against resource extractors, and Raymond Offenheiser complains about paramilitaries. Boubacar Boris Diop pillories the French (but hey, it's easy to dump on the French). And Robert Kaplan, who specializes in transforming cliches into inanities (or is it the other way around?), identifies geography as a factor in failed states.

As for the rest, it's all what Foreign Policy calls "general coconut heads," which suggests that tropical states have a special affinity for dictators and Foreign Policy writers a special weakness for racist slurs (or maybe I'm reading too much into the reference to a brown-skinned "nut"). States have failed because of bad guys and the bad countries (China) and institutions (UN) that coddle them. During the Cold War, we supposedly needed some of these thugs on our side, and occasionally we still do (like Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, whose 2006 invasion of Somalia we supported or Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, whom we supply with millions of dollars in arms every year). But today, Foreign Policy implies, we should keep our white gloves clean and have nothing to do with these despots. Or, if we do associate with them, for god's sake don't mention the connections in polite company!

So, in all of this courageous finger-pointing, why don't our foreign policy mandarins look a little closer to home? Afghanistan is No. 6 on the list of failed states, but you can't tell from the index that the United States rained destruction on the country and devoted precious little to repairing the damage. NATO forces, according to the annotation, are "trying to direct Afghanistan's future." That sounds pretty benign -- imagine Raul Castro simply "directing Cuba's future" like he's about to put out a Hollywood feature.

Iraq, meanwhile, is No. 7, and there's no mention of how the United States pulled the dagger of Saddam Hussein out of the injured country and then watched it bleed to death. Around two million refugees have poured out of Iraq, and most don't look likely to return anytime soon. In a terrible irony for the evangelical-minded Bush administration, some of these refugees are Iraqi Christians who fled after the invasion and the subsequent upsurge in sectarian strife.

Yes, China does its fair share of propping up dictatorships. Its leaders obviously learned their realpolitik from masters like Henry Kissinger, who welcomed the country into the international community in 1972 when Mao had added senility to his despotism and China was veering perilously close to failed-state status as a result of the Cultural Revolution. Sometimes the ends of resource extraction and balance-of-power politics, as the Harvard professor cum secretary of state cum war criminal taught, justifies pretty much any means, and China has expertly internalized this lesson.

But why no articles in this boldly provocative Foreign Policy issue on U.S. arms exports, for which we earn the dubious honor of being No. 1 in the world? Or perhaps Washington is simply selling these arms to countries that benignly dump them into the ocean to build up coral reefs? Or on how U.S. efforts to undermine international treaties - the International Criminal Court, the Law of the Seas, the treaty on cluster munitions - are just a way to keep the black helicopters at bay and prevent a world government run by the Antichrist. And let's not even go into the fertile territory of corporate crime -- Blackwater/Xe, BP, Big Pharma, and so on. After all, that might offend advertisers like Shell, which has a full-page spread in this summer issue.

Let me be clear: I wouldn't replace the five emissaries of the Non-Aligned Movement on the Foreign Policy cover with a quintet of white guys in suits. Multiculturalism has prospered nowhere more than in the corporate world, the upper reaches of government, and the military. Ron Brown was the key figure behind the surge in arms exports during the Clinton administration; Condoleezza Rice has a lot to answer for in terms of her tenure in the Bush administration. Corporate hacks and militarists come in all flavors and colors.

Let me be double clear: The badfellas in this Foreign Policy issue are no saints. They are all eminently indictable (along with Henry Kissinger and Paul Wolfowitz). But the cartoonish quality of the magazine's coverage, adopted no doubt to appeal to the younger and the hipper, suggests that foreign policy is black and white. Looking at the negative of this picture -- the United States is behind all evil in the world -- is just as misleading. Perhaps the only people in the world who truly believe in U.S. omnipotence are conspiracy theorists on the left (it's one of the reasons they make the transition to far-right politics so seamlessly). The reality is a whole lot grayer. For instance, Kissinger is a war criminal, but the detente with China has ultimately benefited both countries.

Some conservatives like to dismiss the critiques of the American left by saying that we only see U.S. fingerprints on the murder weapons. Sure, we have our blind spots, too. We should be more evenhanded in our critiques of the abuses of those leaders who claim some leftist lineage (the Castros, Hu Jintao). But as Americans we have a special responsibility to challenge the policies of our country, because that's what self-government is about. Rather than focus on the remote (the leaders of distant lands), we focus on the mote (in our own American eyes). Our foreign policy -- and Foreign Policy -- could perhaps benefit from a little more honest introspection.

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