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How to be a -- Whoops, the Only -- Superpower
Published on Friday, February 22, 2002 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
How to be a -- Whoops, the Only -- Superpower
by Rick Salutin
I believe I've found documentary evidence of what it means to be a superpower in the 21st century: Another country's "national newspaper" (The Globe, Feb. 15) prints an "analysis" headed, "U.S. options for dealing with Iraq." These are: tightening sanctions, arms inspections, covert action, aiding dissident groups, air strikes and war. The key here is not that "Getting rid of Hussein" -- as a headline puts it -- is the goal of U.S. policy. Lots of countries would like to eliminate other nations' leaders. The key is the implication -- unquestioned in the analysis -- that the U.S. alone can freely use any means to achieve its goals.

This becomes clear if you substitute any other country for the U.S. in the equation. The World Court found the U.S. guilty of terror in the 1980s against Nicaragua. The UN Security Council passed the same judgment, which the U.S. vetoed. This gave Nicaragua far more justification than the U.S. has had for its attacks on Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Panama, Grenada etc. Yet if Nicaragua had launched sanctions, covert action, air strikes or war against the U.S. -- well, it's unimaginable, and if you could manage to delude yourself into picturing it, it's unacceptable.

Noam Chomsky has made this point tirelessly. Terry Jones, once of Monty Python's Flying Circus, did it with a lighter touch in The Observer, citing the Irish case. "To prevent terrorism by dropping bombs on Iraq is such an obvious idea. . . . If only the U.K. had done something similar in Northern Ireland." It could have ordered the Irish Republic to hand over Gerry Adams and the rest of the IRA, or gone straight to high-altitude bombing of Dublin. The next step would be to hit nations that harbour and fund the IRA, especially the U.S., bombing Boston and the St. Patrick's Day parade on Fifth Avenue.

Let me linger a moment here. I don't believe The Globe necessarily approves of high-handed U.S. behaviour. Its editorials indicate otherwise. But it fails to register even a shudder or a demur in this case, as if thinking: They're going to do it anyway, so why waste breath. This kind of pass is one of the prerogatives of a superpower.

Or take another assumption applying only to the superpower: what you could call its extraterritorial prerogative. The U.S. has been barking orders at Iran about how it must behave in Central Asia, on its own border with Afghanistan. The U.S., half a world away, assumes the right to approve policies and whole regimes there, but how dare Iran try to bolster its allies and co-religionists right in the 'hood? This view is also reflected in most media coverage: either in agreement, or on the assumption that it cannot be otherwise. Only the anti-U.S. crazies ask: What is the U.S. doing with bases all over the globe?

And while I'm twitching, what about the argument from simplicity? This says that George W. Bush's view of reality as a fight between good and evil may be simple-minded and unsophisticated, but sometimes a simple man is needed. Ronald Reagan was a simple man, but he brought the evil Soviet empire to an end (if you buy that childlike version of why the USSR fell). The National Post's Mark Steyn writes, "At decisive points in world history, someone has to be simple." My question is, why does it have to be someone American? Mark Steyn says Churchill once played the part, but Churchill also said he'd dance with the devil if it brought Hitler down, which sounds a tad complex for George W. Bush. The problem with dividing the world between good and evil isn't that it's simple but that every national leader does it. None of them proclaim evil as their policy. So you have to bring some other criteria to bear; why do only the U.S. definitions receive a bye into the final, war-making round?

It's amazing what the U.S. gets away with not having to justify: its use of any means it chooses; its view that it's welcome everywhere, like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the Road movies of the 1940s and '50s; its good and its evil. And if an explanation is demanded anyway, it can then call on the backup troops among the intelligentsia, like our own Michael Ignatieff, currently a Harvard prof. In a New York Times review of a book on terror, he attempts to morally mitigate the deaths of innocents from bombing in Afghanistan by saying they "were killed during an exercise of legitimate self-defence by a state" -- but it's still unclear how those bombs defended American lives -- "in response to an act of war" -- yet Sept. 11 was a criminal act by members of a private organization -- "and were killed unintentionally despite good-faith efforts . . . to avoid doing so" -- but good-faith efforts don't get you off the moral hook when you know for certain your efforts will fail anyway and leave civilians dead.

Futile gesture: None of the above is anti-American. It is a specific set of criticisms of specific behaviours and responses to them.

© 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.


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