On Thursday, the New York Times published an opinion piece by retired admiral and special forces commander William McRaven. In the essay, titled “Our Republic Is Under Attack From the President,” McRaven condemns Donald Trump for failing to understand the United States’ international role as “the good guys” who step in against “oppression, tyranny or despotism” because of “our ideals of universal freedom and equality.” The men and women of the U.S. military, McRaven writes, have always operated as “champions of justice” and “protectors of the less fortunate”—as, in his telling, have America’s intelligence agencies, diplomatic corps, and press—but, under Trump’s leadership, are losing their moral authority.
McRaven’s account of American beneficence is bitterly undermined by any number of historic events, including the most recent major military conflict the United States was involved in, the Iraq war—an unprovoked disaster, justified through a disinformation campaign abetted by journalists and intelligence agencies, in which hundreds of thousands of “less fortunate” foreign civilians lost their lives to no clear end. The admiral’s column is the kind of self-deluding post-WWII propaganda that U.S. establishment figures of both parties delivered in public for decades while surreptitiously supporting anti-democratic and abusive regimes around the world for various reasons of military, political, and economic convenience. (Click here for a throwback laugh.)
That said, the U.S. and the world would benefit if more public figures took after William McRaven and began hypocritically professing this kind of BS again.
Consider only the events of past several weeks. Trump double-crossed the Kurds, the ethnic minority group whose militias have fought on the side of Americans in Iraq several times, selling them out to Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ethnic cleansing operation. (The president dismissed the Kurds’ long alliance with the U.S. by complaining at a press conference that “they didn’t help us in the Second World War” or “with Normandy.”) At nearly the same time, he announced that U.S. forces would be sent to Saudi Arabia—whose last major act on the international stage was kidnapping and murdering U.S.-based dissident Jamal Khashoggi—to protect the country from encroachment by Iran. (Trump has defended the U.S. by claiming that the Saudis have agreed to “pay fully” for “the cost of our soldiers” and has previously implied he is not particularly concerned about Khashoggi’s murder because the Middle East is, in general, a “vicious, hostile place.”)
Meanwhile, the National Basketball Association’s leading figures were busy apologizing for a since-deleted tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey that expressed solidarity with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. When Chinese government–affiliated companies that do business with the NBA objected, the league issued a statement that described Morey’s act as “regrettable” and emphasized that his endorsement of the protest “does not represent” the NBA’s position on the matter. LeBron James criticized Morey for not being “educated on the situation at hand” and said that while “we do have freedom of speech [in the U.S.] … there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too.” James subsequently tweeted that he was particularly upset at Morey for having made a gesture of support for Hong Kong’s democracy while James and other NBA players were preparing to spend time in China for a preseason promotional tour.
These decisions by Trump and the NBA have strengthened the positions of some of the world’s most violent and abusive regimes, but that part of the story isn’t a novelty. The U.S.’s military alliance with Saudi Arabia and economic alliance with China go back many decades. What’s new is that no one in this story is pretending that human rights and democracy are American interests. When U.S. forces massed in Saudi Arabia and invaded Iraq in the 1990s, it was under the official project of rescuing the people of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein; when Iraqi forces were defeated, the U.S. pulled back (and was shamed into establishing a protective no-fly zone in Kurdistan). The diplomatic thaw with China was premised on the idea of enlightening the country about the benefits of open capitalism so that political liberalization would follow. Various Cold War proxy conflicts and economic engagements were justified as necessary fortifications against the encroachment of totalitarian communism.
This alleged collective commitment to a liberal world order, though often compromised and contradicted by American actions, had benefits. The United States’ support contributed to rising standards of living and political tolerance in Europe, South Korea, Japan, and Israel. When American leaders got caught doing something that was out of line with their ostensible mission, they often suffered for it, and when foreign regimes committed human rights atrocities, it could hurt those countries’ standing with the U.S. and its allies. Iran-Contra was a secret operation for a reason; the presidents who launched the Iraq and Vietnam wars left office disgraced and unpopular. Part of the U.S. civil rights movement’s case to white Americans was that Jim Crow was an embarrassment to the U.S. internationally, and that belated concession to principle served as an example when South Africa dismantled apartheid after years of foreign pressure. Multiple U.S. administrations pressed Israel to accommodate Palestinian demands for self-government, while the State Department often worked to secure the release and protection of foreign dissidents. These outcomes did not depend on American leaders personally believing in, let alone faithfully practicing, “American values.” But they depended on leaders at least acting as if the public believed that they should.
Now, Trump explains that America doesn’t need to be in northern Syria anymore because it has “control of the oil” in the region, and that Saudi Arabia is an important partner because it “pays cash” for American weapons. NBA commissioner Adam Silver—a noted Democratic Party donor who worked, in his youth, as an aide to a Democratic congressman and as a clerk for a federal judge who almost became attorney general under Bill Clinton—has gone out of his way to not address the merits of his Chinese partners’ support for the crackdown in Hong Kong. Trump has met with and praised foreign leaders like Erdogan, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose political movements prioritize extrajudicial violence and ethnic purity, and he’s praised them because they don’t let internal opposition or minority rights limit their prerogatives. Israel, in recent years, has redirected itself toward becoming an explicit ethnic apartheid state, with the White House’s encouragement.
The president and the NBA are betting that the public will accept the acquisition of resources, market share, and dominance as sufficient motive for any behavior. If they are right, the advocates of the liberal order have no one to blame but themselves for having let the gap between their words and actions become too wide. In the 1990s, for example, American establishment institutions were at best blind to and at worst complicit in the creation of the “oligarch” class in Russia, as organized crime figures and corrupt politicians looted the former Soviet Union under the guise of “economic reform.” Those oligarchs now support a non-democratic government whose chief foreign policy aim is to support leaders abroad, like Trump, who reject “ideals of universal freedom and equality” and do things like defend the assassination of journalists on the grounds that “our country does plenty of killing also.” In China, American corporations and policymakers talked for years about broad-mindedness and engagement while exploiting cheap labor, enriching an authoritarian kleptocracy, and supplying technology to an all-encompassing surveillance state. If Trump has forgotten that there’s supposed to be a connection between free markets and free societies, it’s because William McRaven’s predecessors forgot it first.