Children crying in Gaza

Children crying following the Israeli bombing of Khan Yunis, Gaza on October 15, 2023.

(Photo by Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

The Problem With Complicity

The majority of Americans cannot accept their complicity because they cannot face the truth about the country to which their identity is so tightly bound.

There is a problem with accusing ordinary Americans with complicity in the consequences of their government’s foreign policy. The problem is not with the validity of the accusation. Although Americans have been repeatedly misled by the foreign policy establishment, their complicity in the immense suffering wrought by this establishment is indefeasible. First and foremost a moral accusation, aimed at rousing empathy and a sense of ethical obligation, the problem with complicity is that it is ineffective in catalyzing a critical mass of Americans to wake up and challenge the foreign policy status quo. The accusation has helped mobilize a moral minority, but it has not worked with the majority.

There are two principal reasons for this failure. First, in order to be motivated by charges of complicity we must feel empathy for those in whose suffering we are complicit. But these people (from Palestine to Iraq to Chile to East Timur) tend to live far away and often share little connection with ourselves. The capacity for empathy is here impeded by cultural distance. This is a universal impediment. But it is perhaps particularly acute in the United States, our immense power having long shielded us from the imperatives of cross-cultural empathy and understanding. There are many people who manage to overcome this impediment, their empathy towards the suffering of others driving them to incredible acts of protest and solidarity. Sadly, such people are in the minority.

The second reason that the charge of complicity is ineffective is that accepting complicity requires accepting the reality of what we are complicit in, viz., the enormity of suffering for which our country is, wholly or in part, responsible. Facing this responsibility can be incredibly painful. Trained from birth to believe in American exceptionalism and intrinsic goodness, most of us flee from the awful truth that the country we love has been, as often as not, a global chaos agent. When the reality of complicity becomes impossible to deny, the effect on the psyche can be truly catastrophic. To truly contemplate the extent of our complicity opens us to the tragic fate of airman Aaron Bushnell, whose final words before self-immolation were that he could ‘not remain complicit’ in America’s support for genocide.

The majority of Americans cannot accept their complicity because they cannot bridge this cultural distance and cannot face this truth about the country to which their identity is so tightly bound—a truth whose enormity, if acknowledged, threatens us with mental breakdown and despair. At some level sensing this possibility, most cannot face the steamroller of apocalypse that is the American foreign policy establishment. This is the steamroller that has already destroyed much of the Middle East; that is facilitating a genocide in Palestine (while escalating tensions towards a regional war); that is barreling towards catastrophic conflict with China; that has rolled back protections against nuclear war; that is destroying the credibility of international institutions like the UN; that has welcomed the utter devastation of Ukraine for the sake of “containing” (i.e., destabilizing) Russia. If we do not stop the steamroller soon, if we do not stamp out the American death cult before it turns truly suicidal, we will lose our country to the plutocratic fascism that is already gripping the national throat.

If moral appeals are insufficient to rouse Americans to the extreme threat posed by the steamroller, what might rouse them instead? The answer is self-interest. The appeal to self-interest is morally inferior to the charge of complicity. But it is more efficacious. Even if people cannot bring themselves to feel what Susan Sontag called “the pain of others,” even if they cannot accept responsibility for their government’s role in precipitating this pain, they can still be stirred if they sense that these policies are also harming themselves and those for whom they feel more intuitive empathy.

The self-interest of ordinary Americans is rarely invoked in debates over US foreign policy, however, save in vague claims about protecting our “freedom” or saving us from terror or the revanchism of Vladimir Putin (a man who, we are led to believe, will soon march, shirtless and saddled on a bear, from the Donbas to Krakow to London to West Virginia). Rarer still are frank discussions about the economic and security risks posed to ordinary Americans by their government’s foreign policy—ordinary Americans whose stock portfolios do not wax with war, who are not employed by the lobbying groups and think tanks funded by the arms industry, and who are on the hook for the more than $13 trillion spent this century on the American war machine.

The reasons for the minimization of self-interest in debates over foreign policy are obvious. For decades, the animating ideology of US global power has been liberal humanitarianism. This ideology works only insofar as its promoters can claim that rabid interventionism and war profiteering are in fact expressions of a selfless, almost millenarian desire to bring the world, by the barrel of a gun if necessary, towards liberal democracy. Thus we are saving the world from authoritarianism or terrorism, or we are making it safe for democracy or freedom or free trade. We are, in short, always working towards the salvation of the world. Lest anyone think that our motives are insincere, lest anyone suggest that only a privileged elite benefits from US interventionism, or that what appears as humanitarianism is in actuality a crusader complex—lest any such accusations arise, the foreign policy establishment must be able to pretend that its raison d’être is, first and foremost, the peace and prosperity of all humankind.

By centering foreign policy debates around such lofty ideals, the foreign policy establishment can avoid acknowledging the truth: the truth that we are poorer, less respected, less influential, and less safe today than we were, not only on September 6, 2001, but on December 31, 1991. Far from improving the lot of ordinary Americans, the immense sums spent on national “defense” have done little but destroy the lives of millions abroad while squandering so many possibilities for national renewal at home. As genocidal extermination continues in Gaza, as we reach an inflection point in the war in Ukraine, and as we sleep walk towards catastrophe in Asia and the Middle East, it is incumbent upon us to break through the conspiracy of silence on the subject self-interest: the self-interest of “real America,” of “the 99%.”

How do we do this? We do it by developing ever more persuasive arguments that highlight the immense damage that our foreign policy establishment has done to our economic well-being and national security. We do it by asking each other whether we wish to live in a country where the annual budget for national “defense” has exceeded $850 billion, even as as many as 13% percent of the population is “food insecure” (i.e., hungry), real wages have been stagnant for fifty years, wealth inequality has skyrocketed, longevity and educational achievement has declined, and deaths of despair have soared—including among veterans, who are killing themselves at a rate of nearly 17 people per day.

Finally, we need to ask our fellow Americans whether they wish to live in a world where their government is increasingly isolated on the world stage, is shredding the “rules based order” tenuously established after WWII, is increasing the threat of nuclear armageddon, and is flaunting the human and political rights of non-Americans (and sometimes of Americans themselves). We must ask these questions, and we must propose answers backed-up by reasoned argument and researched data. We must convince our fellow Americans, not of their (again, incontrovertible) complicity, but of the fact that an unchecked, unethical, and frankly psychopathic foreign policy establishment serves none of our own interests as Americans: our interests of living in a prosperous society, a respected nation, and a peaceful world.

One day, Americans will be forced to deal, en masse, with the tragic fact that, as Frederick Douglas once put it, “there is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States.” Until then, and if we wish to build a majoritarian movement that can put an end to these practices today, the appeal to self-interest is our best hope.

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