[Marxism] Ideal Illusions

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jul 22 06:36:57 MDT 2011


Are Your Humanitarian Heartstrings Being Tugged in the Name of Empire?
By James Peck, Metropolitan Books

Editor's Note: Open up a newspaper, go online, watch cable news, and it 
won't take long to see reporting on human rights tragedies across the 

The stories can tug on your heartstrings, they can recount spectacular 
and tragic atrocities and bizarre ones as well. Take Africa -- Western 
media is blanketed with the plight of Tanzanian albinos, the persecution 
of gays by church and state in Uganda, the staggering rate of 48 rapes 
per hour in the Congo, or the potential for mass Christian genocide in 
South Sudan. Those stories touch us. And that's the whole point, as I've 
learned from James Peck's new book, Ideal Illusions.

These stories of human rights tragedies exploit our best aspirations in 
the name of the American imperial project, and the US has been funding 
this approach since the dawn of the Cold War. The media effect of 
filling a newspaper with human rights atrocities from the developing 
world functions to distract the audience from strategic and mineral 
designs the US and its allies have going in those countries, and to 
dilute the news coverage when their true aims come to light. The 
takeaway is that empire is the domain of storytellers as much as it is 
of Air Force generals.

In the case of Tanzania, it's notable that there has been very little 
attention to an ongoing violent struggle over a gold mine operated by a 
Canadian company called Barrick Gold while the plight of Tanzanian 
albinos, killed out of local superstition, made it into thousands of 
media venues. It's also notable that there has been practically zero 
coverage that the US has instituted a regional policy for the Congo and 
its neighbors ostensibly over so-called conflict minerals that finance 
violence "in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or an adjoining 
country (Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo Republic [a 
different nation than the DRC], Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and 
Zambia." Western mining companies are opening offices in these countries 
at a staggering pace.

Celebrities are tugged by their humanitarian heartstrings just like the 
rest of the public. Hollywood superstars like George Clooney and others 
teach American audiences how to hang their heads upon learning about the 
looming tragedy in Sudan, while the planners at the National Security 
Council scheme how to thwart Chinese designs for control of its oil 
resources. Clooney's human rights organization has just found evidence 
of three mass graves in Sudan. Are you sobbing yet?

How to react once you learn the history of why human rights stories from 
across the planet are thrust before your eyes in the pages of Newsweek, 
The New Yorker and countless other media outlets for the most cynical 
reasons imaginable? That's the question I was left with after finishing 
Peck's book. The following excerpt from Ideal Illusions takes us to the 
former Soviet Republics and the color revolutions that "liberated" them. 
It is well worth the read. -- Jan Frel, AlterNet Senior Editor


The folowing is an excerpt from IDEAL ILLUSIONS: How the U.S. Government 
Co-opted Human Rights by James Peck, published in March by Metropolitan 

National security managers and human rights leaders often call for the 
rule of law—yet what is it? A legal regime can implement a wide 
diversity of policies, after all. Laws do not just protect against 
unreasonable search and seizure or cruel and unusual punishment; they 
support markets, corporate rights, and, often, astronomical profits. 
They can also stipulate what can be privatized and how—not to mention 
ways of controlling local resources, mandates for wide-ranging health 
programs, the implementation of taxes to redistribute wealth, and so on.

In the human rights world, though, rule-of-law rhetoric often increases 
as interest in social transformation wanes. The words seldom appear in 
the same paragraph with “redistribution.” A focus on law suggests a 
calmer, gentler sense of change and transformation—of rules followed, 
bills enacted, and bitter political and economic debates diminished. As 
law prevails, radical economic change recedes; in the words of one 
observer, “political choices fade from view—as do choices among 
different economic ideas about how development happens or what it 
implies for social, political, or economic life.”

To assert that legal formalities increase rights, an argument is 
required—as to how, for example, assets in the hands of a foreigner 
rather than a local investor will encourage growth, or how property 
under the control of the title holder rather than the squatter will lead 
to economic growth or justice. Is due process served when 
interpretations of law stress the rights of those with inordinate power 
in a society? Is clarity of law always a benefit? Max Weber’s account of 
the English exception—the puzzle that industrial development arrived 
first in the nation with the most confusing and least formal system of 
property law and judicial procedure—comes to mind.

Along with a focus on the rule of law, groups like Amnesty and Human 
Rights Watch also began to adopt language similar to that of national 
security managers and World Bank publicists on “corruption,” “good 
governance,” and “transparency.” For example, in 2001 the executive 
director of Amnesty USA declared, “When it comes to business interests, 
the ‘rule of law’ encompasses three things: combating corruption, 
providing transparent regulations for the conduct of business, and 
guaranteeing the fair enforcement of contracts.”The policy of 
privatization and liberalization was embedded in the overlapping 
discourses. A human rights approach, explained one report, does not seek 
“to shut down global trade and investment, only to invoke broadly 
accepted rights to define the limits within which commerce should 
proceed.” Moreover, added another, “far-sighted companies” were coming 
to understand “that the same strong judiciary and rule of law needed to 
protect dissidents also safeguard their own commercial interests.” They 
were increasingly aware that human rights problems are “bad for 
business,” that a “healthy civil society and democratic society are the 
best guarantor of the long-term stability that business needs to 
thrive.” “Rogue” companies might still be a problem, but “for hard 
headed businesspeople, the smart move is to face up to global human 
rights standards early and make them work by making them stick.”Human 
Rights Watch pointed out that companies would “want something better 
than a kangaroo court” to deal with business issues. Amnesty 
International created a “corporate responsibility project.” “The 
observation that human rights are actually good for business,” the 
leader of Amnesty USA noted, fell into the category of “startling but 
true.” Washington agreed.

Major foundations espoused similarly rosy visions of NGOs, corporations, 
and the market coming together, with “NGO’s influencing economic forces 
(which means private forces) for the better—working with and within 
corporate structures in order to bring pressure for less exploitative 
ways of operating.” Former NGO officials were “becoming advisers to 
multinational corporations (MNCs), with MNCs approaching NGOs for 
‘certification,’ and campaigns for fairer trading and better terms for 
producer groups.” In 1998, the director of the Governance and Civil 
Society Unit of the Ford Foundation said, “I think the foreseeable 
future will be dominated by attempts to reshape capitalist processes to 
reduce their social and environmental costs while not killing incentives 
to growth.”

In all these areas, human rights organizations typically ended up once 
again judging specific situations, not the general organization and 
operation of American power. They came to accept transnational 
corporations, arguing that their operations could be infused with a 
rightsbased ethos; they insisted that the World Bank and the IMF could 
be turned from obstacles to indigenous democratic struggles into 
organizations relevant to human rights pursuits. Such institutions were 
criticized, often strongly, for “not factoring in human rights concerns” 
and for focusing on “narrow economic considerations.” What was talked 
about far less was whether these institutions could really adopt the 
changes human rights groups were advocating without altering their basic 
modes of operation.

The Color Revolutions

By the end of the 1990s, in Eastern Europe and in the Newly Independent 
States (NIS) of the former Soviet Union, an influx of NGOs and of 
nongovernmental financial support for opposition groups, selected media, 
and democratization programs signaled a quiet but obvious shift: the 
involvement of an increasing number of human rights activists in 
attempted “regime change.” George Soros, with his enormous funding, 
promoted this process throughout the region. The Soros Foundation in 
Ukraine stated it hoped through its programs “to distinguish the 
brightest minds in Ukraine and to promote the formation of an indigenous 
elite that will act as the critical mass in effecting the country’s 
transformation into a fully democratic, highly-developed state.” For 
much of the decade, Soros argued, the groups he supported “offered the 
only alternative vision to repressive state governments fomenting ethnic 
hostilities.” Unlike USAID, he had no need to be diplomatic: “If this 
isn’t meddling in the affairs of a foreign nation, I don’t know what 
is!” Soros’s role might not be “identical to the foreign policy of the 
U.S. government,” Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott commented, 
“but it’s compatible with it.”

Elsewhere, the National Democratic Institute (part of the NED) organized 
a briefing in October 1999 for some twenty Serbian opposition leaders in 
Budapest to persuade them that data provided by Bill Clinton’s polling 
firm showed Milosevic could be defeated in the coming election. United 
States–funded consultants played a crucial behind-the-scenes role in 
virtually every facet of the anti-Milosevic drive over the ensuing year, 
running tracking polls, training thousands of opposition activists, and 
helping to organize a vitally important parallel vote count. The United 
States also paid for the five thousand cans of spray paint student 
activists used to scrawl anti-Milosevic graffiti on walls across Serbia 
and the 2.5 million stickers with the slogan “He’s Finished” that became 
the revolution’s catchphrase. Ukrainian journalists were trained by 
American-supported groups to deliver “balanced fair reports” on the need 
to privatize—which of course meant advocacy of market reforms. Later, in 
Georgia, the United States brought in “democracy trainers” from Serbia, 
Croatia, Slovakia, and Russia to offer a rich assortment of lessons from 
the developing color revolutions—Serbia’s pro-democracy innovations of 
2000, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004, Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution 
of March 2005.

If public money fed into the color revolutions is not hard to trace, 
neither is the involvement of past and present national security 
managers. When Freedom House trained some one thousand poll observers in 
Ukraine (funded through NED), its chairman was James Woolsey, a former 
director of the CIA. U.S. Ambassador Richard Miles was deeply involved 
in anti-Milosevic operations; later, in Georgia, he worked to bring down 
Eduard Shevardnadze. Ten months after the success in Belgrade, the U.S. 
ambassador in Minsk, a veteran of comparable operations in Nicaragua, 
was involved in a similar campaign against Alexander Lukashenko, the 
authoritarian leader of Belarus. Washington’s public diplomacy in these 
and other instances was pervasive and impressive: “Overt democratic 
support where we can, covert activities where we must” might well be the 

Washington, in brief, was democracy’s friend. “We saw them marching for 
democracy through the streets of former capitals such as Kiev and 
Tbilisi,” recounts a glowing USAID account. “A vast outpouring of people 
reaching for democracy stunned the world. One picture summed it up: in 
the cold dark night of Tbilisi, Georgia, as people marched toward the 
seats of government to protest a fraudulent election, one firm hand held 
up a model of the Statue of Liberty. Millions are asking for the rights 
that statue represents: elections to choose their leaders and freedom of 
speech, press, and religion.”

“There is a conspiracy theory—that what happened was planned in D.C.,” 
USAID quotes a former mayor in Georgia. “It’s not true. What this 
assistance did, it made civil actors [come] alive, and when the critical 
moment came, we understood each other like a well-prepared soccer team.” 
The United States did not “cause” the color revolutions, argued another 
Ukrainian activist. Fallen rulers may blame “outside interference” for 
their defeats, but U.S. aid “only serves as a source of ideas and 
inspiration”—and funding. Or as USAID puts it: “It is only when citizens 
and local leaders in each country decide to change things that countries 
move from authoritarian rule towards democracy.”

The United States had a more subtle view of its role. The task, a USAID 
study said, was to keep the “donor assistance package” from looking like 
it had been externally imposed. “Legitimating means getting a buy-in 
from the appropriate people in the country to push the reform process 
forward.” The aim is to foster “the emergence of a well regarded ‘policy 
champion’ (an individual or group who believes in the policy) to take on 
leadership for the subsequent implementation tasks.” For intervention 
“to be smoothly implemented and successful,” the assistance to 
“stakeholders” must be “welcomed or ‘owned’ by those receiving it.” Of 
course, this is not always possible, the study conceded. Those on the 
“receiving end” may not actually have proposed the ideas in the first place.

Publicly, human rights organizations greeted the color revolutions with 
enthusiasm, supporting NGOs, advocating for a free media, and demanding 
electoral transparency. They praised the Czech Republic’s Velvet 
Revolution as the glorious precursor of those that followed. When the 
Orange Revolution shook Ukraine, “U.S. pressure for reform and support 
for Ukrainian civil society and political pluralism played a positive 
role,” Human Rights Watch declared. Human rights organizations defended 
United States–funded groups when they were repressed in several Central 
Asian countries, though usually with little reference to where their 
money came from. And when such information did become public, it was 
contrasted with the imperial meddling of the Kremlin, its double-dealing 
support for repressive dictators. One Human Rights Watch report detailed 
Vladimir Putin’s moves against NGOs in Russia; yet even though it began 
with Putin’s assertion that for some NGOs, “the priority is to receive 
financing from influential foreign foundations,” it offered barely a 
word about foreign funding.

After a color revolution, human rights groups often issued detailed 
reports on signs of repression in the new government, calls for greater 
democratization, demands for further reforms. But Western funding or 
military assistance were seldom considered much of an issue. Human 
rights leaders rarely commented on Washington’s obvious geopolitical 
considerations in promoting the color revolutions. (The great powers are 
“competing not only for influence” in the region, Anthony Lake, 
Clinton’s national security advisor, wrote, “but for oil and potential 
control over the pipelines that will carry the ‘black gold’ to the 
west.”) Nor did they balk at the number of former national security 
people advising such operations: Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, Henry 
Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, John Sununu, and so on.

One might well argue that there is nothing wrong with an American 
ambassador’s and various U.S. and EU groups’ participating in, even 
orchestrating, such democratizing efforts. And if things need to be done 
covertly now and then, well—it’s for a good cause; one can’t be an 
innocent in a world of thuggish, murderous regimes. The same might be 
said of a billionaire like George Soros (though it rarely is)—that it’s 
quite okay for him to promote his vision of democracy by committing 
funds to certain groups in a foreign country he sees moving in the right 
direction, regardless of what critics in that country might think.

Occasional qualms over such interventions are assuaged by the conviction 
that the government in question shouldn’t be jailing citizens who are 
seeking to promote political change and greater freedom. Even if 
Washington has its own agenda, the outcomes are still worth it. Thus the 
conviction quietly grows that there is no conflict between 
self-determination on the one hand and external funding, advice, and 
training on the other. That some local advocates of change oppose 
intervention (“Let us find our own way”) and don’t like having local 
leaders picked out as “human rights heroes” by their patrons in the West 
is rarely acknowledged.

Consider, for a moment, the situation in reverse. Let’s suppose the 
“democratization” model of social change had been applied by other 
countries to the civil rights mobilizations in the South in the 1950s 
and 1960s. Hundreds of NGOs move in, funded by France, India, England, 
Sweden, Cuba, and Israel. Critics of such foreign involvement are 
roundly dismissed in the international press as provincial supporters of 
the status quo. Certain black leaders are picked out and advised on how 
to organize and how to fight in the courts against a corrupt 
nontransparent local government. Individuals deemed suitable for global 
television are highlighted. Funding proposals proliferate. Foreign 
governments and NGOs call for local officials who are obstructing 
justice to be indicted. Certain state governors are accused of crimes 
against humanity for their brutal and illegal use of state power to 
block integration and their tacit acceptance of violent, even murderous 
police tactics.

Let us further suppose that leading foreign figures are not inclined to 
favor black power advocates like Malcolm X, denouncing them as opponents 
of human rights. Nor is there much empathetic understanding of protest 
traditions in the mold of W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, John Henry 
Brown, or even of Ghandian civil disobedience if it ends in violence. 
And what of foreign funds coming from quasi-governmental groups abroad? 
In point of fact, the paranoia over Communist influence was still high 
in Washington during these years and was used to justify surveillance of 
Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights groups.

The possibilities and the complexities in this analogy can be taken 
further, but the conclusion is clear. It is simply inconceivable that 
anything like this could take place, then or today, in the world’s most 
powerful country. American laws preclude it, the media would denounce 
foreign meddling, and Congress and the FBI would immediately investigate.

Excerpted from IDEAL ILLUSIONS: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human 
Rights by James Peck, published in March by Metropolitan Books, an 
imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2011 by James 
Peck. All rights reserved.

James Peck is the author of DEAL ILLUSIONS: How the U.S. Government 
Co-opted Human Rights, Metropolitan Books 2011.
© 2011 Metropolitan Books All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/151707/

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