Conservative CRT Panic, Liberal "Human Rights" Foreign Policy Rhetoric, and the Dangers of "City on a Hill" Mythologies
At the end of the day, the U.S. has to be the good guys. If we’re not, the whole power arrangement doesn't really work.
A debate in Congress is underway over whether or not a proposed $650 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia—consisting primarily of air-to-air 280 AIM-120C-7/C-8 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) and 596 LAU-128 Missile Rail Launchers (MRL)—is “defensive,” as the Biden administration claims. Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) insist it is not, or that this distinction is not morally relevant, and are backing a joint resolution aimed at stopping the sale. Others, like Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), an erstwhile leader on the effort to end the Yemen war while Trump was in the White House, is hand-wringing over the issue, recently telling the Intercept his “position generally has been to support truly defensive weapons sales to the Saudis.”
If this back and forth seems familiar, it’s because it has many key similarities with a debate in September over whether or not Israel’s Iron Dome constitutes a “defensive” weapons system. Proponents of an additional $1 billion in U.S. funding for Iron Dome framed the missile receptor system as defensive, and anyone who opposed boosting its financing as thereby welcoming civilian deaths. Any broader discussion of the context—namely, Israel’s violent oppression of Palestinians—was absent from the dominant narrative. And those few representatives who opposed the funding, particularly Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the only Palestinian-American member of Congress, were demonized.
This semantics game is a fascinating window into the contradictions inherent in liberal imperialism, and the reverse-engineered justifications that come along with needing to reconcile routine, pompous statements about protecting human rights and democracy with the reality of imposing a violent and arbitrary global order largely designed to serve western capital interests. Because, ultimately, the story of how the U.S. rationalizes its lockstep support for its two most steadfast regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, is a story about language, moral sophistry, and, above all, the narratives we tell ourselves.
Recent discussions about so-called Critical Race Theory (CRT) shine some light on this narrative. Conservatives have found a powerful wedge issue on the subject by finding the most ostensibly extreme and sectarian efforts to combat white supremacy in education and painting the whole of the Democratic party with this brush. Without litigating the wisdom of “distancing” Democrats from these examples or simply bullying ahead and calling out the anti-CRT campaign for the racist moral panic it clearly is, it’s useful to understand why the campaign is so powerful, why it has so much purchase, and why it speaks to something at a gut level: Anti-racist readings of U.S. history challenge the basic premise that, no matter our faults or “mistakes” or transgressions back in the old timey black and white days, after all is said and done, the U.S.—not just as a people or even a country, but as an ideal—is ultimately good. We are basically a moral actor in the course of historical judgement, and any deviation from this line cuts at something deep in people’s souls.
Liberal responses to this, namely from prominent writers Matt Yglesias and Noah Smith, understand this basic premise of American “goodness,” and their political project is to simply tell a more “inclusive” version of this City On a Hill narrative, to posthumously conscript all progressive, anti-colonial, indigenous, radical traditions and people—presumably even those who explicitly considered their ideology anti-nationalist or even anti-American—into some essential American project. In a November 15 Substack post, Smith mocks the “version of ‘history’ that progressives want to teach young people” as a “cartoonish story in which America is the villain.” Ignoring, he argues “America’s deep and powerful tradition of anti-racism, the universalistic egalitarian ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the abolitionist movements that was present from the very beginning, the Founders’ conception of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants, America’s role in the ending of European colonialism.”
In this reading of history, both the enslaved person and enslaver, the Confederate Army general and Frederick Douglass, the Native American targeted for genocide and the white genocider, the colonizer and the colonized, can all be part of some coherent political project based largely on the tautology that anyone in North America south of the 49th parallel and north of the Rio Grande from 1619 to present is, was, and always has been part of some foreseen, and vaguely designed American Experience.
But this ignores large swaths of progressive traditions that very clearly rejected the label of American. In Smith’s model, are Industrial Workers of the World radicals of the early 20th century, who explicitly rejected nationalism and helped usher in labor reforms, part of this American fiber? Are the communist, overtly anti-American Black Panthers? Are runaway slaves who justifiably sided with the British during the War of 1812 to win and fight for their freedom? Are indigenous resistance struggles from the 17th century to today—the vast bulk of which do not and never did align with any “American project”—part of some patriot tradition? If this seems goofy, bordering on offensive, it’s because it is. Surely some movements opposed to racist institutions (some abolitionists and civil rights leaders, for example) viewed themselves as part of an American freedom tradition. But, a great deal did not. To the anti-CRT crowd and their liberal “more inclusive patriotism,” this doesn’t matter. Their narrative doesn’t have to make sense, it simply has to feel good. Like a Starbucks interior, or a Hallmark Christmas film, or a Lexus December to Remember commercial insisting you surprise your wife with a $90,000 SUV, the goal isn’t to convey coherent intellectual information—it's to provide a blanket of warm fuzziness.
This political need trumps any pedagogical or intellectual factor, much less moral one. The political necessity, according to those advocating this approach, of telling the drooling masses a grand fairytale has so much utility that those lobbying for it, to their credit, will sometimes tell you that it doesn’t matter if it's bullshit.
A similar phenomenon routinely plays out in foreign policy circles that portray themselves as liberal, but in fact coalesce around the same conservative principle that animates the reactionary hysteria about “critical race theory.” Even while ignoring the other 90% of the globe, if one homes in specifically on the so-called Middle East, what the U.S. does on a day-to-day basis very clearly has nothing to do with human rights or democracy promotion. The U.S. bombs (or helps bomb) half a dozen countries in the region; predator drones innocent people then absolves itself of misconduct; sanctions Iran, Lebanon, and Syria in a gratuitous and cruel fashion; props up the government killing tens of thousands in Yemen in a futile and entirely one-sided conflict; supports Gulf dictators who pillage and suppress their own populations; and—the crown jewel of our Middle East “foreign policy”—uniformly supports Israel in its dozens of war crimes it commits daily in an effort to subjugate the Palestinian people.
If the U.S., namely the supposedly more enlightened Biden Administration, actually wanted to advance the cause of human rights and democracy is could tomorrow:
Stop all support for, and participation in, Saudi and Israeli human rights abuses and publicly admonish them in all possible venues.
Immediately end all U.S. support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen, including all arms shipments and any material and political support for the Saudi blockade.
End all brutal sanctions regimes and bombings.
Stop financially and diplomatically backing the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.
Pull diplomatic support for Israel at the UN and cancel weapons sales to Israel.
These are all things the Biden administration could unilaterally do tomorrow but it doesn’t, ostensibly because it has to “balance” its values with “security concerns.” But what it really means is it has to calibrate the P.R. that it feeds its domestic population and millions of government workers with the cold reality of what its purpose is: shoring up American hegemony regardless of what horrific things it has to support to do so.
To do this, liberals distinguish themselves from the cartoonishly evil posture of former President Trump by insisting that they put “human rights” needs at the “center of their foreign policy.” But unlike when a country doesn’t have geopolitical utility—or worse yet, is hostile to our interests—this posture doesn’t manifest as sanctions or existential moral denouncements or bombings. It manifests as reverse-engineered moral sophistry clearly designed to reconcile public announcements about liberal ideals with the impossible-to-hide human rights abuses of their closest regional allies.
Let’s begin this sleight-of-hand with Saudi Arabia. When campaigning in 2019 and 2020 and attempting to win over a liberal base and, more importantly, an establishment press increasingly hostile to a Saudi regime that literally just butchered a Washington Post columnist, Biden insisted that he would change things with Saudi Arabia, saying in a November 2019 debate, “I would make it very clear we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to [Saudi Arabia]. We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.” And then in February 2021, Biden proclaimed that he was ending all support for “offensive operations” in Yemen, an announcement that was instantly trumpeted in the press as an end to U.S. involvement in the war.
Cut to November 2021, and the Biden White House has done exactly what shrewd observers knew it would: It’s positioned to sell Saudi Arabia $1.2 billion worth of weapons in his first year alone. But wait! The Biden White House insists they’re only “defensive weapons,” and thus consistent with the White House’s pledge not to go back to business as usual with the Saudis. The latest $650 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia is “in keeping with the President's commitment to support the territorial defense of Saudi Arabia,” a State Department spokesperson told the press earlier this month. Setting aside the fact that Biden claimed at a November 2019 Democratic debate that, if elected president, he would not sell any weapons to Saudi Arabia, the distinction between “offensive” and “defensive” weapons begins to evaporate in the context of a ruthless, aggressive war. As Spencer Ackerman notes over at his substack Forever Wars:
But even if the Saudis’ exclusive use of the air-to-air missiles is to shoot down Houthi drones—so-called AMRAAMs are not sensible weapons to aim at civilian targets for a variety of technical reasons, although look out below a successful interception, to say nothing of a miss—that doesn’t change the fact that Biden continues to arm one of the combatants in a war he has formally pledged to end. The war is what led the Houthis to get drones from Iran for reprisal attacks on the Saudis!
Beyond the circular logic of the war, the administration’s These-Are-Only-Defensive-Weapons argument is a porous membrane presenting itself as a solid wall. The “defensive weapons” free up resources the Saudis can route back into the war. Fundamentally, these word games demonstrate that Biden does not seek to impose any cost on Riyadh. The administration merely prefers the Yemen war be less egregious going forward.
In addition to arming one side in a conflict, there is reason to be concerned that the specific weapons transfer agreed to in the latest $650 million deal will be used to enforce the Saudi blockade of Yemen, which is cutting off vital medicine, food, and fuel, and pushing the country to famine. The State Department’s approval of the deal coincides exactly with Saudi Arabia’s refusal to lift its blockade. If the U.S. wanted to send a signal of support for this brutal Saudi policy in Yemen, the weapons sales are a giant green light, especially because the U.S. has a broad range of other options. At bare minimum—and we stress this is a low bar, because the U.S. should not be arming Saudi Arabia at all—the U.S. could use the weapons sale as leverage to force the monarchy to lift the blockade. Failure to even consider this kind of maneuver shows just how unconditional U.S. support for Saudi Arabia truly is. In this context, there is no world in which air-to-air missiles can be viewed as defensive. Part of how the blockade works, after all, is Saudi Arabia uses fear and intimidation to discourage commercial and humanitarian flights. The country’s arsenal is directly related to the militarization that broadly discourages aid from getting through.
Yet, dubious claims of “defense” are emerging as a key liberal talking point in favor of the weapons sale. In addition to Biden and Murphy, House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told the Intercept’s Sara Sirota that the AMRAAM can be considered a “defensive weapon,” then went on to defend the Saudi blockade as “not a formal blockade.” By leaning into this false category of “defensive” operations, liberal Democrats hope to sidestep responsibility for what is clearly and unambiguously a ballooning crisis of suffering and death, deemed the worst humanitarian crisis in the world before the Covid crisis began, and now reaching new levels as the pandemic adds to outbreaks of cholera and dengue fever. What the U.S. is doing to Yemen is so horrific, and so truly bipartisan, it is indefensible in its own right, so Democrats are trying to change the terms of the debate in hopes of preserving their moral image.
A similar sleight-of-hand was used over a debate about funding Israel’s so-called “Iron Dome” “defensive” weapons in September. Countless liberal lawmakers, pundits, and editorial boards insisted the $1 billion in addition funds supposedly for “replenishing” the Iron dome were simply a matter of “the Jewish state’s right to defend itself from Hamas and Hezbollah rockets” and nothing more. Congressional progressives opposing Iron Dome were accused of wanting to simply watch Jews suffer.
The framing of the Iron Dome funding, like White House P.R. for the Saudi weapons deals, is specifically set up to bait liberals into looking like they’re opposing “purely defensive” weapons systems. Increasingly, this is how U.S. largesse is being framed and distributed by design: After all, who could oppose poor innocent civilians defending themselves?
While superficially appealing, after a cursory review of this logic, one quickly realizes these distinctions do not exist in any other context. When the U.S. condemns Russia for arming Syria, or China for arming North Korea, it does not say it can do so but only for “defensive weapons.” The idea that providing “defensive weapons” doesn’t constitute an endorsement of—or backing for—an offensive war and all the human rights abuses this entails is belied by the fact that the U.S. doesn’t, and would never, permit Raytheon and Lockheed Martin to sell “defensive” weapons to Hamas, Iran, China, or Venezuela.
If tomorrow, Rep. Illan Omar (D-Minn.) came out and supported selling an Iron Dome-like system to the people of Gaza so they could take down Israeli rockets, she would be raked over the coals by every major network and pundit nonstop for days for endorsing Hamas. But by opposing the Iron Dome for Israel, she’s accused of wanting to see Israelis die for the lolz and, we are told, backing Iron Dome is not per se an endorsement of Israel or its apartheid system. None of this makes any sense, but again, it doesn’t have to. These frameworks and carve outs exist not just to confuse and box-in progressive lawmakers, but to maintain the pretense of the U.S. as a beacon of human rights.
Those managing U.S. empire, like all Americans, need a story to tell themselves. The 2.86 million people who work at the Pentagon, the 45,000 who work for the State Department, the 22,000 who work for the CIA, go home every night, kiss their kids on the forehead, watch Netflix, fall asleep, wake up in the morning, stand at the mirror to brush their teeth, and need to generally feel good about what they do. They cannot function in their professional capacity—indeed no one can—without a broad belief that what they do is for the benefit of humanity. Just as their counterparts in countries our media broadly views as evil—Russia, Iran, and China—do. None of these people view what they do as supporting harm or human rights abuses, and to the extent they do, it’s only reluctantly and towards a more noble end.
They, like all Americans, need a story. It doesn’t matter if the story is true. Indeed, a totally blackhearted cynic could even argue it’s the job of politicians and government officials to weave moral narratives for their lowly government workers. IBM, Facebook, Dupont all do some version of it for their employees, organizing corporate getaways to Breckenridge with mission statements and social welfare statements. Why shouldn’t the State Department be any different? And why, by extension, should the government not feed its broader population a bunch of cozy foundation myths? Why shouldn't the American education system motivate its citizens by telling them a romantic tale of a high-minded political project that they, by the grace of god, are unique among nations?
As the contradictions heighten, as America’s structural racism churns on with only cosmetic changes, as our inequality widens, and our various hypocrisies overseas grow more glaring and more difficult to explain away, the need for “city on a hill” narratives—both domestically from the right and in foreign policy circles from liberals and conservatives—will only grow more desperate. As such, efforts to recruit reporters and commentators into selling these Noble Lies will grow more acute. But, at least in theory, our fidelity ought not be to nationalist projects concerned with social cohesion and beating the evil Chinese or Russians, that begin from a place of making people feel good. It should be material reality, regardless of where it takes us, or how poorly it flatters our national vanity.