U.S. Credibility Takes Another Hit

By Fulton T. Armstrong

Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff / Foter.com / CC BY

Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff / Foter.com / CC BY

The domestic spying programs under the Bush and Obama Administrations further erode U.S. moral leadership in the hemisphere and probably beyond.  At crucial junctures since President Jimmy Carter made human rights a pillar of policy in Latin America, U.S. moral authority has been decisive in persuading regimes on the right and the left to open the way for pluralism and democracy.  Lecturing governments and militaries on the need to eschew torture, domestic spying, and other abuses, U.S. diplomats and politicians could have been charged with arrogance, but on these specific aspects of the U.S. government’s treatment of its own people, not serious hypocrisy. The U. S. had its racial and economic injustices, but trends were positive, and the country stood for the rule of law, skepticism of State Security officials’ penchant to use information for power, and a pretty solid respect for due process. Even before Carter, the Watergate scandal – and resulting resignation of the President and overhaul of the intelligence agencies – was a clarion signal that agencies created to monitor foreign affairs must keep their focus far off U.S. shores.

Latin American media have carried primarily factual stories revealing the “PRISM” program, which collects data from hundreds of millions of e-mails and other electronic communications each day and stores it for exploitation by targeters (now called “analysts”) on the lookout for alleged potential terrorists, based on secret profiling.  Some papers have reported that Director for National Intelligence Clapper lied to the U.S. Congress without batting an eyelash when asked directly if such activities were ongoing.  Coming after reports in recent years of the use of torture (and the impunity granted to the perpetrators), the so-called “extraordinary renditions” (and the cases in which kidnap victims were innocent), the use of “black prisons” (in which security services in new democracies were encouraged to circumvent their elected officials),drone attacks (even against U.S. citizens), and the continued detention of prisoners without trial at Guantanamo (giving human rights violations in Cuba a new meaning) have all been noted throughout Latin America.  PRISM may no longer be considered newsworthy.

The fact that British and American newspapers eventually brought the domestic spying programs to light may hearten some in Latin America, as evidence that an essential element of democracy – a probing press –shows signs of life despite reports of Justice Department harassment of the Associated Press and other media.  But sentient Latin Americans know the implications of PRISM – and what enterprising State Security “analysts” can do with years of data about even the most mundane aspects of potential targets’ lives.  The Obama Administration’s defense of PRISM as necessary to defend against supposed terrorists doesn’t sell well in a region that knows how information never sits unused.  The Bush Administration gave the Medal of Freedom to Colombian President Uribe, who deployed his secret intelligence agency to harass opponents and allowed his military to disappear thousands of youths.  The Obama Administration’s lectures to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador on the need to give more space to opponents – however warranted – ring sort of hollow when, in Latin Americans’ minds, it has nurtured its own Frankenstein state-security apparatus that lacks credible checks and balances.  Washington can argue that U.S. moral authority doesn’t matter, and that the “terrorist threat” it faces calls for extraordinary measures, but it will be a long time before an American statesman can wag his finger at a Latin American counterpart for doing the same thing.

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  1. This basically the same argument against waterboarding. The United States under the past two presidents seems intent on turning itself into all the things we have been decrying in other countries for decades. I’ve been telling people to think in terms of What Would Nixon Do (WWND) but this is even more pointed.

  2. I sense a disconnect here, a melancholy over the perceived loss of moral authority – a moral authority that has certainly never existed in my lifetime. Yes, North Americans want to believe that they offer some principled version of living that might act as a beacon for the rest of the world, but since at least the early years of the Cold War the United States has represented little more to the rest of the world than the unprincipled pursuit of self-interest. Carter here represents not a beacon of one version of Americanism, but a blip, an accidental president who came along because North Americans were thoroughly disgusted with King Richard.

    Yes, non-governmental Organizations have struggled against Human Rights abuses the world over since the 1970, but those NGOs were neither some sort North American monopoly nor could they have ever gotten off the ground without the concerted (and extraordinarily brave) actions of groups in Latin American and elsewhere that reached out to a global audience. This they did because leaders of groups like the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo understood explicitly that the intellectual authors of their victimhood were as much in Langley, Virginia as they were in the ESMA. If anything, they pushed North Americans (or at least some of them) to consider their own complicity in the genocides that were then taking place. I might add that the US continues to follow here. It was the Guardian, not the NYT, that broke this story. When the Wikileaks story broke, it was barely covered in the US.

    What strikes me as particularly odd is the fact that so few North Americans are exercised about the sheer scale of the spying. I hear some saying that it is the price we pay for living in an age of terror. I hear very few wondering who will watch the watchers, and fewer still wondering if the price of empire is worth it. Yes, North Americans live in a security state because this is the price you pay for making the rest of the world live in fear that one of your drones will rain terror from the sky. Why don’t we ask if all that is worth it?

    Of course, if you drive an SUV and live in the suburbs, you gotta have that oil.

    Remember Operación Condor anyone? Hank Kissinger would be so proud.

  3. Eric Hershberg

     /  June 21, 2013

    It seems likely, as Fulton suggests, that in Latin America revelations about the startlingly vast scale of surveillance being undertaken by U.S. security agencies and private contractors in their employ will have little effect beyond reinforcing the by now widely held view that American democracy leaves much to be desired, and indeed that our country may have become a place to avoid. In that context, the consequences of the revelations (and the histrionic responses that followed from numerous public officials of both major political parties) for the U.S. role in the region don’t go much beyond a further discrediting of any pressures from Washington for Latin American states to conduct their business more transparently or democratically. But that does not mean that the surveillance programs won’t disrupt very significant elements of the U.S. foreign policy agenda. I am struck, in particular, by how this complicates the already challenging prospects for a Transatlantic Free Trade accord, which many economists consider to be one of the few instruments available to meaningfully jump start growth in the sluggish advanced economies of North America and Western Europe. If they are right about that — and that’s a much longer discussion — then in its single-minded obsession with detecting and deterring potential terrorists, the American government has managed to undercut progress toward an objective that is far more relevant to the well being of its population, i.e. creating and sustaining prosperity. If EU public opinion was already skeptical of a trade agreement spanning the North Atlantic, it is all the more so today in light of what we are learning about state monitoring practices that understandably provoke revulsion.


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