Ukraine is on our minds and pretty much all of us — except some alternate-universe Trumpites — are hoping that Ukraine holds out as a sovereign liberal democracy. The United States is helping Ukraine, especially with President Joe Biden’s leadership in NATO and with the armaments and funding we have sent to Ukraine. It is remarkable that we are in near consensus about this, across the political spectrum. However, we need to be careful that we don’t cultivate a sense of triumphalism in moral leadership in the defense of Ukraine. We have no grounds to make that claim.
In our country, we have a warped political democracy. Access to the ballot, especially for poor, Black and brown citizens, is contested every day. In our country, we don’t strive or contest for social democracy and economic democracy. We don’t provide universal affordable health care. In our country, daycare for infants and toddlers is beyond the reach of working class families and pushes against the monthly budgets of the middle class. In our state, community college tuition in 1980 was the equivalent of $800 a year in today’s dollars. Now, it is more than $4,000. We have allowed internet access, which should be a public utility, to be dominated by monopoly corporations. Household expenses for AT&T and Xfinity are triple what we paid for communications before the internet. The majority of retirees get a monthly Social Security check of $1,700 or less for their economic survival.
In short, we don’t have a liberal democracy in our country, one that enables life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For millions of us, it is the pursuit of just trying to make ends meet.
Liberal democracy includes respect for the sovereignty and autonomy of other people in other countries. That is why we are supporting Ukraine. Looking in the mirror, that is the principle we have violated over and over again around the world. We enabled a coup in 1954 for the benefit of oil corporations against the democratically elected leadership in Iran that resulted in a long autocracy for the Shah of Iran and the longer reign, up to the present, of the Islamic Republic. We engineered a coup in Guatemala in 1954 at the behest of the banana corporations, taking out the democratically elected president. We refused to allow an election in Vietnam and instead embarked on a 15-year war against the Vietnamese people. Our war crimes there cannot be forgotten.
In Vietnam, we instituted chemical warfare, defoliating millions of acres of trees, poisoning the water supply and dropping almost 400,000 tons of napalm bombs, creating immediate and decades-long death and disfigurement for the Vietnamese people. American soldiers brutally killed more than 500 people — women, children and old men — in the village of My Lai on March 16, 1968. More than 3 million Vietnamese lost their lives in this war, as did 58,000 American troops.
But we didn’t seem to learn from Vietnam. Instead, we fomented the 1973 coup in Chile, deposing the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and setting in place a military dictatorship for more than two decades. We invaded and occupied the tiny, Tacoma-sized country of Grenada in 1983. We embarked on the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 on completely false pretense, resulting in half a million Iraqi deaths and 4,491 American military deaths, as well as the Abu Ghraib torture chambers run by the American military. And, of course, there was our occupation of and retreat from Afghanistan.
The Biden administration is supportive of the International Criminal Court (ICC) considering the war crimes committed by Russia. The ICC is the only permanent international court with jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for the international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. However, the United States has no standing in the ICC: we voted against its establishment in 1998. Former President George Bush was worried about being considered for war crimes as a result of the Iraq occupation, and so Congress passed a law to oppose any possible future jurisdiction of the court or its tribunals on U.S. leaders. Those actions were the antithesis of liberal democracy.
So, yes, we should be all in for Ukraine, but let’s do this with some humility, acknowledging our history of violating sovereignty around the world, not in defense of democracy, but more to create the landing pad for global corporate capitalism. Only then can we truly defend Ukraine’s liberal democracy.
Read more of the Apr. 27-May 3, 2022 issue.