NY Times and the Myth of ‘U.S. Ideals’

There’s nothing quite like the demise of a U.S-allied dictator to get the Paper of Record talking about the “clash” between U.S. “ideals” and the actual policies the country carries out.

Meles Zenawi

Meles Zenawi

Today’s New York Times (8/22/12) carries the headline “Ethiopian Leader’s Death Highlights Gap Between U.S. Interests and Ideals,” under which Jeffrey Gettleman lays out the case that the United States kept Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi, who died early this week, in the “good guy” column despite our normally idealistic approach to world affairs. Gettleman writes that Zenawi

extracted prized intelligence, serious diplomatic support and millions of dollars in aid from the United States in exchange for his cooperation against militants in the volatile Horn of Africa, an area of prime concern for Washington.

But he was notoriously repressive, undermining President Obama’s maxim that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”

But, Gettlemen explains:

Despite being one of the United States’ closest allies on the continent, Mr. Meles repeatedly jailed dissidents and journalists, intimidated opponents and their supporters to win mind-bogglingly one-sided elections, and oversaw brutal campaigns in restive areas of the country where the Ethiopian military has raped and killed many civilians.

The real trick is the first word: “Despite.” Readers are supposed to see these as unusual characteristics for a leader backed by the United States, which of course would much rather the world be governed by those who respect international law and human rights.

That supposed commitment is difficult to locate. After his death, Gettleman reports,  Hillary Clinton

praised his “personal commitment” to lifting Ethiopia’s economy and “his role in promoting peace and security in the region.” But she made no mention of his rights record and gave only a veiled reference to supporting “democracy and human rights” in Ethiopia.

Gettleman deserves some sort of award for this passage:

Ethiopia is hardly alone in raising difficult questions on how the United States should balance interests and principles.

Saudi Arabia is an obvious example, a country where women are deprived of many rights and there is almost no religious freedom. Still, it remains one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East for a simple reason: oil.

In Africa, the United States cooperates with several governments that are essentially one-party states, dominated by a single man, despite a commitment to promoting democracy.

One could spend considerable time compiling a list of the tyrants, dictators and human rights abusers the United States has supported, from Suharto in Indonesia to Mubarak in Egypt. Or consider the Reagan-era policies of Latin America, which saw the United States supporting strongmen and fielding armies to overthrow governments we didn’t care for.

Elite institutions like the Times need to maintain the comfortable fiction that the United States has a unique and laudable commitment to spreading democracy and human rights. Most people with a passing knowledge of U.S. history would know that there are too many exceptions to this rule to make it a rule at all. Thus, every now and then, an article like this is written to demonstrate that there is in fact some awareness that the United States does not practice what it preaches. An effective propaganda system requires these small openings.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.