How many Americans would be able to find Belarus on a map? I fancy myself as pretty well informed on foreign affairs, but it took me two tries to locate it. Yet Belarus is apparently so important that the United States Congress is currently preparing to pass a Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2011 in spite of the fact that it is supposed to be spending its time in figuring out how to agree on a new federal budget. The bill will “authorize assistance to promote democracy and civil society in Belarus. The legislation would affirm that the President should continue to support radio, television, and Internet broadcasting within the scope of increased support and funding for U.S. government and surrogate broadcasting into Belarus.”
To put the congressional action into some kind of context, it is not unlike Iran setting up a broadcasting center in northern Mexico to beam programming into the United States. As an American citizen and taxpayer, you might well ask yourself what interest our Congress has in directing foreign policy and wasting money on propaganda efforts, which are, according to our Constitution, the responsibility of the president and Department of State.
In a possible replay of the Georgia debacle that was helped along by Sen. John McCain back in 2008 intoning that “We are all Georgians,” Belarus is being targeted more so because of what it is than because of what it does. President Alexander Lukashenko is hardly a poster boy for political diversity, but he is no monster either. Belarus is constantly derided for being the last Soviet model regime in Europe, but its centralized economy and state industries are both productive and well run. The Belarusian people have universal decent medical care and free education through university level, which is more than one can say about the United States. Its economy is one of the strongest among the former Soviet states and the people generally support the status quo, including Lukashenko, but if the American Congress is to have its way, all of that must be changed.
And if you dig a little deeper, you would discover that Belarus is far from alone. During the past decade, a time period when the United States has believed in its manifest destiny to change the world over to make it a better place, Congress has been passing resolution after resolution on how other countries should behave. Many of the bills have sanctions attached to inflict real pain for non-compliance.
Just last week Belarus was not the only dish on the congressional menu. The House of Representatives also overwhelmingly passed a bill condemning any Palestinian attempt to declare statehood at the United Nations in September, falling in line with the Israeli viewpoint. It is likely that all aid will be cut off and other unspecified steps taken if the Palestinian leadership goes ahead with its plans. Only six congressmen voted no, including Ron Paul, who spoke against it and had also taken the floor to oppose the Belarus bill. Paul noted that interference by the United States in what are inevitably internal conflicts always turns out badly. It is difficult to make an argument against that point of view, but no one in Congress voting for the bill even tried to do so.
Congress has also been active in dealing with the threat from Damascus. On Tuesday the Tom Lantos Human Rights Hearing convened to discuss what to do about the Syrian regime, which may or may not be engaging in wholesale repression depending on who you believe. Lantos is dead, but while he lived he was considered a major conduit for illegal passage of classified information to the Israeli government. It is nice to see that his spirit lives on in the 112th Congress, particularly as Syria is a front line state that is considered an enemy by Tel Aviv. The Lantos meeting is co-sponsored by Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia, who is a major recipient of AIPAC funding.
In the past few years, Congress has passed a number of other resolutions and bills about many countries that it doesn’t like. Apart from Belarus, Syria, and Palestine, they have included Iran repeatedly, Lebanon, Somalia, Yemen, Russia, and Pakistan. Many of the targets of congressional bile are Muslim majority states that have somehow run afoul of Israel. One might well wonder what is going on in the head of the average congressmen to make him or her think that the United States has some preemptive right to interfere in the workings of a sovereign foreign nation, particularly when that nation does not directly threaten or even challenge the United States. One might also question the benefit that might be gained by goading foreign governments in full knowledge that the taunting will produce no good result, only making the foreign leadership angry and suspicious of anything that comes out of Washington.
Worse still, the White House, which once upon a time had some adult leadership, is even ahead of Congress in the “regime change” game. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Vilnius Lithuania at the end of June where she bragged that the U.S. government has spent $50 million in supporting Internet freedom and has trained more than 5,000 activists worldwide. When Hillary speaks of Internet freedom she is referring to developing technologies that enable people to access web services even when their governments make it illegal or technically difficult to do so. Her top adviser on the issue, Alec Ross, has called the Internet the “Che Guevara of the 21st Century,” attributing to the technology a great revolutionary force. The activists being trained with U.S. tax dollars are people who are adept at Twitter and other social networking sites and the theory being advanced by Clinton and others who agree with her, like Tom Friedman of The New York Times, is that chattering on the Internet will enable resistance groups to communicate and inevitably bring about social and political change.
Be careful what you wish for, Hillary. “Che Guevara” did not turn
out to be a friend of Washington. The United States government’s belief
that Twitter will change the world politically is an illusion, as much
a fraud as the conviction that Washington could fix Iraq and
Afghanistan by invading them. Disgruntled people in the streets who are
ready to die for a cause make revolutions, not social networks. There
is no evidence that the Internet played any large role in the recent
government changes in Tunisia and Egypt and what kind of government
will emerge in both those countries is far from certain.
It is conveniently forgotten that the Internet is an apolitical tool that is essentially a passive engine
which can be exploited by the user. It is not a model for social reconstruction
or political activism and using it does not necessarily make one long
for democracy. It works in two directions when one connects with a site
and begins to exchange information. Its anonymity means that when
you enter a discussion thread you do not know if the person you are
debating with is a college student or a government employee who has
created a false persona and who is deliberately feeding you misinformation.
Many nations — including the United States and Israel — have government departments that monitor Internet sites that are considered hostile and then take action by having
their own employees weigh in to confuse the participants and alter the
direction of the discussion. Sometimes they admit that they are
government employees but most often they do not. There are also
a number of private organizations, some of which are likewise funded
by Israel or the U.S., that do the same thing.
The complete freedom of the Internet
is also an illusion. A number of regimes that believe in controlling
their people have figured out that the Internet can also be a tool for
oppression. It is not very difficult to identify dissidents on
the various Internet websites if enough time and effort is committed
to the task. Identify the sites where they congregate and it is
a little like shooting fish in a barrel, leading to large scale arrests
such as took place in Syria recently. If you develop mechanisms
to shut down the Internet and also cell phones, the government could
quickly discover that the would-be protesters have become over-reliant
on the technologies and have no other way to communicate. End
of the revolution.
And then there is the problem of actual
exploitation through the net. Everyone is equally anonymous online,
which means that a neo-Nazi, ultra-religious, or racist group can peddle
its wares. At a time when governments in the Arab world are toppling
like tenpins, the groups that might rise to the top politically speaking
will be those who have a leadership and well defined objectives that
can exploit the social networks and other media to present a plausible
message, even if that message is essentially false. There is no
fact checker on the Internet. The danger of an extremist group
that has mastered the projection of an attractive image coming to power
is all too real. To put it another way, Hillary Clinton has absolutely
no idea how to control the forces that she might be unleashing.
The simple solution is for Washington to get out of the intervention game completely, whether it is by congressional bills and sanctions or by State Department manipulation of the Internet. No good will come out of any of it and there is always the danger of unintended consequences, meaning that something very bad might result, not unlike al-Qaeda being born in the effort to expel the Russians from Afghanistan. Leaving the Belarusians, Syrians, and Palestinians alone really is the best medicine.