Jeffrey Sachs accuses the world’s leading military power of upholding international law only for others.
What rulers crave most is deniability. But with the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by his own government, the poisoning of former Russian spies living in the United Kingdom, and whispers that the head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, may have been executed in China, the curtain has been slipping more than usual of late. In Riyadh, Moscow, and even Beijing, the political class is scrambling to cover up its lethal ways.
Andrew Jackson, was a cold-blooded murderer, slaveowner, and ethnic cleanser of native Americans. For Harry Truman, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima spared him the likely high cost of invading Japan. But the second atomic bombing, of Nagasaki, was utterly indefensible and took place through sheer bureaucratic momentum: the bombing apparently occurred without Truman’s explicit order.
.. Since 1947, the deniability of presidential murder has been facilitated by the CIA, which has served as a secret army (and sometime death squad) for American presidents. The CIA has been a party to murders and mayhem in all parts of the world, with almost no oversight or accountability for its countless assassinations. It is possible, though not definitively proved, that the CIA even assassinated UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.
.. Many mass killings by presidents have involved the conventional military. Lyndon Johnson escalated US military intervention in Vietnam on the pretext of a North Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened. Richard Nixon went further: by carpet-bombing Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, he sought to instill in the Soviet Union the fear that he was an irrational leader capable of anything. (Nixon’s willingness to implement his “madman theory” is perhaps the self-fulfilling proof of his madness.) In the end, the Johnson-Nixon American war in Indochina cost millions of innocent lives. There was never a true accounting, and perhaps the opposite: plenty of precedents for later mass killings by US forces.
.. The mass killings in Iraq under George W. Bush are of course better known, because the US-led war there was made for TV. A supposedly civilized country engaged in “shock and awe” to overthrow another country’s government on utterly false pretenses. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died as a result.
Barack Obama was widely attacked by the right for being too soft, yet he, too, notched up quite a death toll. His administration repeatedly approved drone attacks that killed not only terrorists, but also innocents and US citizens who opposed America’s bloody wars in Muslim countries. He signed the presidential finding authorizing the CIA to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in overthrowing the Syrian government. That “covert” operation (hardly discussed in the polite pages of the New York Times) led to an ongoing civil war that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and millions displaced from their homes. He used NATO airstrikes to overthrow Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, resulting in a failed state and ongoing violence.
.. Under Trump, the US has abetted Saudi Arabia’s mass murder (including of children) in Yemen by selling it bombs and advanced weapons with almost no awareness, oversight, or accountability by the Congress or the public. Murder committed out of view of the media is almost no longer murder at all.
When the curtain slips, as with the Khashoggi killing, we briefly see the world as it is. A Washington Post columnist is lured to a brutal death and dismembered by America’s close “ally.” The American-Israeli-Saudi big lie that Iran is at the center of global terrorism, a claim refuted by the data, is briefly threatened by the embarrassing disclosure of Khashoggi’s grisly end. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ostensibly ordered the operation, is put in charge of the “investigation” of the case; the Saudis duly cashier a few senior officials; and Trump, a master of non-stop lies, parrots official Saudi tall tales about a rogue operation.
A few government and business leaders have postponed visits to Saudi Arabia. The list of announced withdrawals from a glitzy investment conference is a who’s who of America’s military-industrial complex: top Wall Street bankers, CEOs of major media companies, and senior officials of military contractors, such as Airbus’s defense chief.
.. Political scientists should test the following hypothesis: countries led by presidents (as in the US) and non-constitutional monarchs (as in Saudi Arabia), rather than by parliaments and prime ministers, are especially vulnerable to murderous politics. Parliaments provide no guarantees of restraint, but one-man rule in foreign policy, as in the US and Saudi Arabia, almost guarantees massive bloodletting.
TYLER COWEN: To pick a success from the past, let me mention Poland. In my opinion, Poland has gone very well. It’s a great country. It’s been a success. If I made the following claim, would you agree with it? That you, Jeffrey Sachs, have done more for economic liberty through the medium and history of Poland than almost any other economist alive today? True or false?
.. In 1989, I made recommendations for Poland. I said several unusual things, like “Don’t pay your debts, get debt cancellation. You need emergency, a billion dollars on this date,” and so forth. Everything I recommended actually ended up happening with US government support.
.. Then in Russia two years later I was asked by Gorbachev and then by Yeltsin to help them, because they saw what was happening in Poland. They liked that. They wanted something similar. So I said exactly the same things, and the US government kept saying, “No, no way, no way.” I kept saying, “But that kept working there.”
I didn’t understand it in some deep sense for a long, long time, how weird this was. I knew it wasn’t the difference of economic advice. I understand what a financial crisis is.
TYLER COWEN: Culturally weird, you mean.
JEFFREY SACHS: No, how weird it was in the historical moment that things that had worked extremely well, had shown themselves, where I had had Brent Scowcroft and Bob Dole and others strongly supporting it, all of a sudden just no support from Washington. The IMF saying, “We’re not going to do this.” I said, “But, Richard Urban, you did that two years ago in Poland.” “We’re not going to do it.” “Why?” Flat.
OK. What’s the lesson of this? Quite important, actually. It’s a little bit off-topic, but very important. We didn’t want to help Russia in 1991. We wanted our unipolar world. I didn’t know that at the time.
.. I had had Brent Scowcroft and Bob Dole and others strongly supporting it, all of a sudden just no support from Washington. The IMF saying, “We’re not going to do this.” I said, “But, Richard Urban, you did that two years ago in Poland.” “We’re not going to do it.” “Why?” Flat.
.. What I didn’t understand was everything I said about Poland was immediately accepted because it was good advice and because Poland was going to be a bulwark of NATO. Everything I said about Russia didn’t matter whether it was good advice or not. Russia was on the other side.
TYLER COWEN: But China did it without us, without American help for the most part. What is it about Russia that meant Russia couldn’t do it? The problem was not like a Khrushchev-Kennedy dialog. But Russia must have failed in some other way where China more or less did not. What is that element?
.. JEFFREY SACHS: Many things. First of all, Russia faced in 1991 an extremely acute financial crisis. If you haven’t lived through a deep, deep, deep financial crisis, it’s hard to understand what it is.
.. But there’s a big difference of being a urban industrial, broken, Soviet economy.
TYLER COWEN: Which was deindustrializing eventually anyway.
JEFFREY SACHS: Which had so overgrown the investor heavy industry, and it was in a lot of collapse, versus being an agrarian, impoverished country, as China was in 1978. The pathways were bound to be very, very different. The geography is different, by the way, because China’s just filled with people who could do low-cost labor right at the ports on the east coast of China.
Whereas for Russia, it’s almost basically a landlocked landmass that was running off of petroleum which had collapsed in global price, which had collapsed in the physical facilities in the countryside, with collapsing steel mills, collapsing everything.
.. Syria had a huge drought, the biggest in its modern history, from 2006 to ’10. It led to many social ramifications that contributed to the explosion of violence starting in 2011.
This fact of these ecological crises turning into social catastrophes, I think, is a very real phenomenon. We should not presume that somehow we’ll just be able to handle this stuff. I’m told constantly, “Crisis leads to innovation and solution.” The truth is that’s sometimes true, and sometimes crisis leads to catastrophe.
.. Just a final word about that. We have so much statistical machinery to ask the question, “What can you learn from this dataset?” That’s the wrong question because the dataset is always a tiny, tiny fraction of what you can know about the problem that you’re studying.
If you want to know about the problem, get out there and learn about it. Don’t think that you’re going to find it in your dataset. For that we need a different kind of epistemological approach and a different kind of teaching approach as well.
I want our students out on the hospital wards, as it were