Last week, I attended events hosted by several campus organizations for Social Injustice and Genocide Awareness Week. A constant refrain at each was the question, “Why isn’t the United States doing something to help these people?” As the world’s dominant military power, one of its richest nations — and more than anything else, because of our sheer arrogance — people intuitively seek to hold our foreign policy to high moral standards.
We are the ones people look to when oppressive governments are killing protestors, or when millions of people are displaced into refugee camps. It is a credit to the American people that many citizens do devote their lives and their money to helping these people. However, the sad truth is that in many cases the humanitarian crises that aid groups are combating were caused, in whole or in part, by the actions of the U.S. government.
The U.S. government consists of people — people who are probably all good, conscientious global citizens. But as an institution, it is guided by a complex set of geopolitical and economic factors that sometimes include public opinion, but never include morality.
Therefore, it is only occasionally that the United States will act in such a way that incidental human rights goals are achieved — the current aggression in Libya will hopefully be one of those cases. It is only a slight generalization to say that modern U.S. foreign policy is a subtler version of the blunt land grabs of the 19th century, like the Spanish-American War, which earned us ownership of Puerto Rico in 1898.
Modern foreign policy prefers to install or support local dictatorships that are friendly to U.S. business interests, rather than take over territory directly. The desired effect of such actions is always to ensure that governments of important countries maintain policies that disenfranchise their own people. In essence, the government must set policies that remove hurdles and lower costs for the businesses that lobby the U.S. government regarding foreign policy.
This takes different forms in different contexts. In some places that means oppressive labor laws and sweatshop wages. In others, it means allowing leaking oil to poison whole communities while profits are pumped abroad. It very often means lax regulations and low tax rates. Employees aren’t paid living wages, and the profits of their labor don’t even benefit people in their own country. Corrupt, oppressive governments and multinational corporations win and the working class everywhere loses.
That the U.S. government seeks business-friendly regimes abroad is illustrated by its treatment of progressive regimes. On several occasions, the United States has attempted to overthrow populist regimes — for example, in Cuba in 1961 and Venezuela in 2002. Populist governments have been successfully overthrown in many less fortunate countries, including Guatemala in 1954 and Panama in 1981.
Overthrowing and giving military aid to oppressive governments are now tried and true methods, much to the detriment of the indigenous and working class the world over. U.S. taxpayer money funds oppressive regimes in Saudi Arabia as well as the whole-scale genocide of Palestinians by the Israeli military. It funded Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attacks on Kurdish villages in 1988.
Of course, U.S. foreign policy is by no means limited to military aid and covert operations. Expensive, prolonged wars like Iraq and Afghanistan have wrought untold damage to civil society in those countries. They also constitute massive transfers of wealth from the public to military contractors. The distribution of military contracts is often done without a public bidding process, enabling favoritism and corruption. Many contracts are never even filled.
That the American soldiers fighting and dying in these wars — to protect the pocketbooks of the rich — are overwhelmingly poor again illustrates the cruel irony of the system. The people of the working class in the U.S. sacrifice their incomes and their lives so the rich can oppress the working class abroad.
Direct U.S. military spending and donations of military material to allied governments constitute a massive theft from American taxpayers by the military industry and are one of the most significant forces motivating human rights violations abroad.
This money — over one trillion dollars annually — should be used in ways that benefit the American people. It should most emphatically not be used to oppress and terrorize our brothers and sisters around the world. I always laugh when I hear the United States and its allies say that they are concerned with “fighting terrorism,” because they themselves are so invested in perpetrating it.
Estimates put military spending at between 20 to 50 percent of federal taxes. If you are someone who pays these taxes, war tax resistance is something you should seriously consider. AlterNet.org has an excellent guide. Writing protest letters to Congress may seem Sisyphean, but it can be effective if enough people like you take the time to do it. No matter how corrupt our government may be, it’s important to remember that we still elect them, and it’s still our money they’re spending. Ultimately, we do have the power to stop these atrocities.