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TGIF: The American Disease

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If the purpose of U.S. intervention in the affairs of other countries is really to help suffering people, the program has a fatal flaw. (This should surprise no one familiar with other government programs.) The flaw is that the U.S. government does opposition movements no favors when it gives credibility to the charge that those movements are tools of foreign — particularly American — interests. I call this taint the American disease.

Opposition movements have a hard enough time fighting authoritarian regimes without the U.S. government’s “help.”

After so many years of U.S. intervention throughout the world, one reasonably suspects that whenever opposition arises in a country not allied with the United States, that opposition is assisted by the American administration, even if the dirty work is done by so-called nongovernmental organizations, such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which is involved in Ukraine. “NED was created in 1983,” Robert Parry writes, “to do in relative openness what the CIA had long done in secret, nurture pro-U.S. operatives under the umbrella of ‘promoting democracy.’” Headed by Carl Gershman, Parry notes, “NED had 65 projects operating in [Ukraine] — training ‘activists,’ supporting ‘journalists’ and organizing business groups, according to its latest report.”

In other words, Ukrainian Russophiles were not out of their minds in believing that the not-so-hidden hand of the United States was behind the recent turmoil and regime change. From Iran and Guatemala in 1953, to Chile in 1973, to Egypt in 2013, it was hardly the first time something like that happened. (I’m not counting outright military invasions and occupations, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

Americans don’t like foreigners meddling in their politics. Let’s recall how upset people were when they thought the Chinese were doing just that via foreign donations during the Clinton-Gore years. Why would people in other countries like intrusion of a much more extreme form — regime change, IMF impositions, phony privatization, kleptocratic cronyism, and the rest of the “neoliberal” program?

One of the tragic consequences of this sordid American history is that even a genuine liberal movement opposing a truly odious regime will be tainted by a suspected American connection, furnishing propaganda with which rulers can fan the flames of nationalism. The American record in foreign affairs, that is, has been and continues to be an obstacle to the advancement of liberty abroad.

I’ve been thinking about this matter ever since I read a Newsweek interview with Stephen F. Cohen, the veteran Russia scholar associated with Princeton and New York universities. Cohen is one of the few prominent and knowledgeable commentators urging us to look at the full context of what is going on with Ukraine, Crimea, Russia, the United States, and NATO, rather than reflexively demonizing President Vladimir Putin and Russia. As happens too often in American discussions of foreign affairs, Cohen was condemned merely for trying to see American policy from the perspective of those on the receiving end. “Putin’s not innocent,” Cohen said, “but we can’t get out of this unless we share some of the responsibility.”

What seized my attention, however, was not what he said about the Ukraine crisis, but what he said about the American reaction to the Russian LGBT propaganda law, passed by the Duma and signed by Putin last year, which criminalizes the distribution of “propaganda” in support of “non-traditional sexual relationships” to minors. As Wikipedia states,

[T]he statute was criticized for its vague wording, and for being an effective ban on promoting the rights and culture of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. The law was also criticized for leading to an increase and justification of violence against LGBT people, while the implications of the laws in relation to the then-upcoming Winter Olympics being hosted by Sochi were also cause for concern, as the Olympic Charter contains language explicitly barring various forms of discrimination.

The American officials who loudly protested and snubbed Putin at the Olympics, Cohen said, did not help the gay community in Russia, whatever their intentions:

The Russian law was a stupid law, because, first of all, legally it’s not enforceable. Secondly, it incites homophobia.

But the fact is there is no substantial popular opinion in Russia that favors gay rights. None. Nor was there any here 30 or 40 years ago. I don’t remember any Russians coming over here and telling American gays how to fight for their rights.

I grew up in the segregated South. I don’t recall any Russians coming over here and telling black folk how to get their rights. This is a universal rule. You win your rights in your own country or you never have them. All we’ve done is made it worse [for Russian gays]. As my gay friends in Russia say, “Yesterday I was a f****t [slang term for a homosexual]; now I’m an American f****t.” It’s just made things worse for gays there. And sensible gays, politically conscious gays in Russia, will tell you that.

Asked by Newsweek if he thinks things are worse for gay people now, Cohen responded,

I don’t think it, I know it. I can give you the names of Russian legislators who told me that they wanted to get rid of [the law] and wanted to talk to Putin. But you can’t do that when you turn it into another barricade between America and Russia. Do you think this Ukrainian thing is going to be good for Russian gays? [Emphasis added.]

When reminded that conditions for gays are “dire” in Russia, Cohen said,

I didn’t say they were doing fine. But how is that our concern? Are we supposed to form a brigade and go there and liberate Russian gays? You win your rights whether you’re a black person or a Jew or a gay or a person of Islamic descent in this country by fighting for them. That’s the way it works in a democracy.

Why is it America’s job to go over there and sort out the gay problem when 85 percent of Russians think they should have no rights? They’ve got to struggle at home and most intelligent gays know that. That happened in this country over and over and over again.

By the way, before we get too sanctimonious, I read in the New York Times that violent acts against gays in New York City doubled in 2013 over 2012. Can we clean up our own house first?

Cohen is neither a libertarian nor a conservative of the pro-civil-liberties, noninterventionist variety. But he has this exactly right. We here in America cannot live in liberty with a government equipped to meddle in foreign countries — even for what appear to be worthy causes; moreover, the meddling does not help others. The only thing I’d add is that the appearance of a worthy cause is just that: an appearance. In fact, U.S. intervention is motivated by the ruling elite’s hegemonic and economic interests.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.