Successive governments in the United States and their European allies have for many decades maintained that they hold the moral high ground. They portray themselves as champions of progress and civilization, warriors of peace and democracy, and liberators of the people of the world. They put on confident faces, deliver well-versed speeches, and eloquently talk the rhetoric of freedom and human rights.
There would be no problem with this image if it had even a hint of reality to it. It is a set of illusions that are constantly produced and reproduced by these regimes to cover up the truth. Even a fleeting glance at the history of the last few decades reveals how Western regimes, especially the one in Washington, have been systematically engaged in countless crimes, cruelties, and atrocities worldwide. American forces killed thousands of people in Afghanistan in the initial attack in October 2001, and when asked how many, General Tommy Franks simply said “we don’t do body counts.” Then came the invasion of Iraq on entirely false pretexts, where hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed and it was dubbed “Operation Iraqi Freedom”! Now we have the war against terrorism on multiple fronts and it has become far too common to hear of inhumane abuses and torture of prisoners, indiscriminate drone strikes, and far-reaching spying and meddling in other countries’ internal affairs. These painful examples represent only the tip of the iceberg in the Western 21st century. What is surprising, however, is that while almost everyone in the world knows about such abuses, Western regimes continue their empty rhetoric forcefully and shamelessly. How can they do that?
Some of these scandalous practices are so strongly supported by well-documented evidence that Western regimes cannot use their usual tactics of denial and misrepresentation to obfuscate the truth. In such cases, we hear them say that, for instance, the American or British foreign policy at the time was exploitative or interventionist. But here is the crucial question: what has changed in the mindset of Western officials from the time of those scandalous actions to the current time? What has changed that they expect people to believe they now really mean what they say?
In the wake of the Arab Spring, then British Prime Minister David Cameron had said, “For decades, some have argued that stability required highly controlling regimes, and that reform and openness would put that stability at risk. So, the argument went, countries like Britain faced a choice between our interests and our values. And to be honest, we should acknowledge that sometimes we have made such calculations in the past.”
His statement alluded to change, a break from the time when they were sacrificing values for interests. But at the same time, British and other Western governments have continued their strong support for ruthless, autocratic Arabian regimes because it serves their interests. They simply turn a blind eye, for example, to the brutal Saudi-led war on the impoverished people of Yemen, which has created a human catastrophe that is unparalleled in modern times. So, in reality nothing has changed. If short-sighted, opportunistic pursuit of self-interest was the logic of decision making that led to all the earlier scandalous cases, we see absolutely no evidence that would suggest that today Western regimes are following a different logic.
A case in point is the incessant US fuss over Iran’s nuclear program. Islamic Iran has repeatedly stated that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes. To allay any fears, it has allowed intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Such monitoring exceeds inspections of the facilities of any other country in the world.
Given the Islamic logic of decision making in contemporary Iran, the highest religious and political authority of the country, the Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei, has issued a fatwa (Islamic legal opinion) stating that developing, producing, holding, and using nuclear weapons are against Islamic teachings and thus strictly forbidden. Additionally, Iran has signed and followed every international protocol and agreement against nuclear weapons. Further, in 2015 Iran compromised and accepted even more limitations on its peaceful nuclear program in an unprecedented multilateral agreement (called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States — plus Germany and the European Union.
On the other side, the United States, which together with its European allies call themselves the “international community,” have not upheld their side of the deal, and instead used a variety of sanctions to exert economic pressure on Iran to force it to comply with new demands beyond the requirements of the JCPOA and international law. Also, in 2017 the US unilaterally pulled out of the agreement and started to reimpose more sanctions on Iran, boasting, “The right amount of uranium enrichment for the world’s largest state sponsor of terror [sic] is zero.” Isn’t it ironic? The only country that has actually dropped nuclear bombs on civilian populations, and still holds stockpiles of thousands of nuclear weapons should be expressing concern that another country might be after building a nuclear weapon.
What has changed in the logic of the US government from the time they decided in August 1945 to drop atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the present time? Are we supposed to simply believe that they have suddenly turned into caring and compassionate human beings? Are we supposed to forget the unwavering support that Western regimes continuously give to nuclear-armed Israel, and simply believe them when they say they are after peace in the Muslim East?
So, we know that the self-celebratory and self-congratulatory rhetoric employed by Western regimes is a set of illusions. But we should also remind ourselves that it is not just a set of harmless illusions that we can enjoy like a good fiction book. Under the cover of these illusions, the same Western regimes supported the creation of armed groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS when it served their interests (fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan and attempting to topple the Syrian government respectively), and they are still playing dangerous games in the region. It would be extremely naïve to believe that they are fighting terrorists for the sake of peace and humanity. In reality, they are cherry-picking those terrorists who work for their interests over other terrorists and non-terrorists.
That is how we, the people of the world, are paying a very high price behind the veil of these illusions. We are paying with our resources, our labor, our dignity, our freedom, our lives, and our future. These are very costly illusions.
Dr. Masoud Shadnam is Senior Assistant Professor at MacEwan University in Canada. His research lies in the intersection of business, sociology, and philosophy. He is critical of the widespread blind obsession with performance, and prefers to inquire about the inconvenient, eclipsed aspects of organizational life. His articles have appeared in the Academy of Management Review, Organization, Journal of Business Ethics, Business Ethics Quarterly, Journal of Management Inquiry, Journal of Leadership Studies, and International Review of Sociology.