Human Rights Starts at Home

Let me tell you a story about Bret Stephens. Until COVID, I used to run into him several times a year, usually when we debated each other. Once, I mentioned that my father was in poor health. After that, Bret asked after my father every time.

Those interactions illustrate a truth I’ve learned over and over in my life: There’s no simple relationship between political ideology and personal decency. I completely disagree with Bret’s views on foreign policy—and will devote much of this newsletter to explaining why. And I like him nonetheless. If you’re a leftie who is snorting right now, ask yourself whether you’d be happy living in a world where people saw you as nothing more than the sum of your political views. There is such a world. It’s called Twitter. It consists of pundits and politicians endlessly trying to body-slam their ideological opponents, usually without recognizing them as anything more than two-dimensional villains. It’s an interesting place to visit. But it’s certainly not a place I’d want to live.

Last week, Bret made an argument that I think is wrong in important ways. The Times titled his column, “Dissidents First: A Foreign Policy Doctrine for the Biden Administration.” But the column wasn’t about dissidents in general. It was about dissidents in countries that are hostile to the United States. The column focused on Aleksei Navalny, who the Russian government tried to murder and has now jailed. It went on to mention dissidents in other US adversaries: China, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. It didn’t mention any dissidents held by US allies.

A few decades back, Noam Chomsky made almost the exact opposite argument. Pressed in 1988 by a young David Frum, who alleged that he cared more about people killed by America’s friends than its enemies, Chomsky pleaded guilty. “It’s a very simple ethical point,” he explained, “You’re responsible for the predictable consequences of your actions. You’re not responsible for the predictable consequences of someone else’s actions.” Chomsky’s claim was that Americans should care more about abuses committed by America’s government—and those governments that America arms and funds—than about abuses committed by America’s adversaries. “Every corpse is a corpse,” he argued, “but there are some that you can effect and there are others you can’t do much about.”

In service of his argument, Chomsky offered an example. He noted that Andrei Sakharov, the great Soviet dissident, didn’t focus his activism on atrocities committed by the West. “What he talks about,” Chomsky explained, “is Soviet atrocities and that’s right because those are the ones that he’s responsible for.” We could say the same about Navalny. When reporters crowd around him, they don’t ask his views about America’s role in the humanitarian catastrophes in Gaza or Yemen. And if they did, we wouldn’t care all that much about his answers because we recognize that he can’t do much about those things, and doesn’t bear much responsibility for them. There are Chinese dissidents—people who have fought heroically against the Chinese Communist Party­—who cheer on Donald Trump. (It’s a disturbing and fascinating phenomena). I disagree with them profoundly. But I still consider them heroes because, as Chinese, the place in which they face their true moral test is not the United States, but China. And, in China, they are fighting tyranny.

I find Chomsky’s argument convincing. So while I agree with Bret that Biden should stress human rights in his foreign policy, I think his greatest obligation is to combat those human rights abuses for the US bears the greatest responsibility.

I’d start with America’s role as the world’s second largest contributor to climate change, which according to the World Health Organization, kills roughly 150,000 people per year. From there I’d move to people killed and wounded by the US military. According to Brown University’s Costs of War project, in 2019 US airstrikes killed 700 civilians in Afghanistan alone. Almost twenty years after 9/11, the Defense Department’s inspector general has just launched its first broad investigation of war crimes by US special forces. How serious are those war crimes? Well, New York Times reporter Dave Phillips last week noted that a similar investigation by the (much smaller) Australian military—which has fought alongside the US in Afghanistan and Iraq—"revealed dozens of illegal killings and a warrior culture in the ranks that drove S.A.S. commandos to glorify atrocities.” When Philips asked a high-ranking US special forces officer to describe the difference between US and Australian behavior, the officer replied, “The Australians have been investigated.” 

After that inner rung—people the US harms directly—I’d look at the people America harms indirectly through its weapons sales. Between 2015 and 2019, the United States was by far the largest arms exporter in the world—selling weapons to 96 separate countries. The largest purchaser of US weapons: Saudi Arabia, whose war in Yemen has helped create what the UN calls the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis.” The largest recipient of US “foreign military financing” (essentially, a prepaid credit card to buy US weapons): Israel, whose blockade has helped make Gaza “unlivable,” accord to the UN. The second largest recipient: Egypt, whose military—according to Human Rights Watch employs “intimidation, violence, and arrests against political opponents, civil society activists, and many others who have simply voiced mild criticism of the government.”

I’m not suggesting that Americans shouldn’t care about Navalny or about the Uighurs suffering what the Biden administration has rightly called “genocide” in China. We should. Navalny’s allies have reportedly compiled a list of Vladimir Putin’s cronies who they think the US should blacklist. Uighur activists have pushed for the US to punish companies that use Uighur slave-labor. These targeted sanctions make sense, if only to buoy people fighting bravely for freedom.

But the harsh truth is that, as Chomsky suggested, America doesn’t have much influence over what happens in China or Russia. As University of Memphis political scientist Dursun Peksen pointed out in a recent review of the literature on sanctions, they’re most effective when they enjoy broad multilateral support, when they impose serious economic costs and when they’re directed against allies rather than adversaries. Given China’s economic clout, it’s extremely unlikely the US could assemble a global coalition willing to impose sanctions comprehensive enough to change Beijing’s behavior in Xinjiang. The European Union, America’s most natural partner for such an effort, just signed a massive trade deal with the Chinese government. When it comes to Russia, the Europeans have proved willing to impose sanctions on Putin for seizing Crimea. But those sanctions haven’t forced him to give it back to Ukraine. And it’s even less likely that sanctions would change Russian or Chinese behavior at home, where both Putin and Xi see political dissent as a threat to their control. Peksen notes that sanctions aimed at toppling regimes are even less effective than those aimed at changing policies.

The US doesn’t have unlimited leverage over its allies either. If the US stops selling Riyadh the weapons it has used to bludgeon Yemen, Riyadh could buy them from Moscow instead. But, as Peksen notes, economic pressure on allies is on balance more effective. Moreover, culpability can’t be reduced purely to effectiveness. If someone wants to buy my gun to kill an innocent person, I should refuse to sell it to him even if he can buy a gun somewhere else.

What this logic suggests is that while the US government should support Navalny, it should devote even more attention to dissidents like Bobi Wine in Uganda, Ahmed Mansour in the United Arab Emirates and Issa Amro in Israel—whose oppression the US is helping to underwrite. The US should also acknowledge the way our human rights violations embolden our adversaries to carry out abuses of their own. In a brilliant and harrowing essay, Australian academic David Brophy recently charted the way China has borrowed from America’s post-9/11 rhetoric about Islamic radicalization to justify putting Uighurs in concentration camps. The New York Times in 2019 obtained secret Chinese Communist Party documents, which reveal that Xi “urged the party to emulate aspects of America’s ‘war on terror’” in Xinjiang. (This may be a good moment to the note that despite massive evidence that the US tortured prisoners there, it still hasn’t closed Guantanamo Bay).

Critics might argue that there’s a realpolitik argument for focusing on the human rights abuses of adversaries. As Bret puts it, “Dissidents matter to the U.S. strategically.” Helping them can weaken America’s foes. But even strategically, I don’t think this argument works. If you believe a crucial element of America’s “soft power” advantage over Moscow and Beijing is the perception (however attenuated) that the US cares about human rights, the best way to bolster that advantage is by championing human rights in the places where America has real influence. By contrast, lecturing Russia and China about Navalny and Xinjiang while overlooking America’s role in horrors like Yemen and Gaza simply confirms the perception that US policymakers are hypocrites. Hawks have spent the last forty years mocking Jimmy Carter, but there’s reason to believe that his concern for human rights abuses by US allies as well as adversaries played a role in the eventual fall of the Soviet empire.   

In foreign policy, as in life, moral purity and moral consistency are impossible. Human rights will always compete with, and often lose out to, other concerns. But in foreign policy, as in life, while it’s often easier to lecture others on their failings, we usually achieve the greatest progress when we confront our own.

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Hope to see you then,

Peter