Reprinted from The Libertarian Institute.
U.S. administrations have repeatedly condemned foreign adversaries for engaging in ethnic cleansing of minority populations. That has been an explicit grievance against the People’s Republic of China (PRC) because of Beijing’s treatment of its Uygur population in Xinjiang province, and against Syria and Iran because of their conduct toward Kurdish inhabitants. Serbian authorities in both Bosnia and Kosovo became high-profile targets of Washington’s outrage because of their alleged ethnic cleansing campaigns directed against Muslim populations. In the latter case, Bill Clinton’s administration cited that factor as the most important justification for the U.S.-NATO air wars against Serbs in 1995 (Bosnia) and 1999 (Kosovo).
U.S. leaders have adopted a very different stance, however, whenever Washington’s allies or dependents behave in that fashion. Such hypocrisy became evident most recently when Joe Biden’s White House reacted with nonchalance as Azerbaijan’s military forces attacked and expelled Armenian residents from their long-standing enclave inside Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh. The principal policy statement came from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and it treated the episode as akin to a humanitarian crisis caused by a natural disaster. “The United States is deeply concerned about reports on the humanitarian conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh and calls for unimpeded access for international humanitarian organizations.” The administration not only failed to explicitly condemn the brazen case of ethnic cleansing, it (along with Israel) had been providing arms aid to Azerbaijan.
It was hardly coincidental that the Azeris are important political and security clients of Turkey, while both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh had close economic and military ties with Moscow. This episode offered an ideal opportunity for Washington to placate an increasingly restless Turkey and help take down two Russian clients. Considerations of justice and international law seemed to play little role in the U.S decision. Russia, bogged down in its stalemated war in Ukraine, was in no position to protect its Armenian allies.
The United States and Turkey thus scored a geo-strategic victory and further eroded the Kremlin’s power in Russia’s near abroad. However, both countries were accomplices in a clear case of ethnic cleansing that has led to the expulsion of more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians from the enclave as of October 2, 2023. This episode has to be especially painful for all Armenians, given the history of Turkish oppression that culminated in the Ottoman government’s orchestration of the Armenian genocide during World War I that claimed the lives of at least 664,000 victims and involved the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of other Armenian inhabitants.
It is not the first time that Washington appeared to be content when an ethnic cleansing campaign benefited fellow NATO member Turkey. In July 1974, Richard Nixon’s administration – and especially Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – did little more than make insincere clucking sounds of disapproval when Turkish forces invaded the Republic of Cyprus and took control of the northern third of that country. Kissinger and Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, remained indifferent even as Turkey expelled Greek Cypriot residents from the conquered territories. An angry Congress did impose sanctions on Ankara, but pro-Turkish elements in the executive branch worked assiduously during the following years to neutralize those sanctions and even restore military aid to Turkey. Ankara also proceeded to establish a puppet state, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, and bring in thousands of settlers from mainland Turkey.
The Cyprus episode is a flagrant case of ethnic cleansing, now about to enter its sixth decade. But one will look in vain for explicit, strong statements from U.S. leaders condemning Turkey’s behavior. Washington’s outrage is in short supply when a foreign ally or client is the guilty party.
Another graphic example of such double standards was the stance that U.S. government and its media allies took regarding the ethnic cleansing of Serbs at the hands of the Croatian government in the mid-1990s and the newly minted country of Kosovo at the end of that decade. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer was one of few high-profile critics to point out the hypocrisy with respect to the events in Croatia. “In four days of blitzkrieg by the Croatian army, 150,000 Serbs living in the Krajina region of Croatia were ethnically cleansed, sent running for their lives to Bosnia and Serbia.” Those Serbs were not recent arrivals; most of them had family roots in Krajina going back many generations.
Krauthammer asked some highly pertinent questions. “In the face of what U.N. observers in Croatia call the largest instance of ethnic cleansing in the entire Balkan wars, where were the moralists who for years have been so loudly decrying the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia’s Muslims? Where were the cries for blood, the demand for arms, the call to action on behalf of today’s pitiful victims? Where were the columnists, the senators, the other posturers who excoriate the West for standing by when Bosnian Muslims are victimized and are silent when the victim of the day is Serb?”
A similar posture of indifference on the part of the U.S. government and the corporate news media was apparent with respect to the “reverse ethnic cleansing” that took place following NATO’s victory in Kosovo. More than 240,000 refugees – not just Serbs, but other ethnic minorities as well – were displaced from Kosovo. The Kosovo Liberation Army’s ethnic cleansing campaign took place on NATO’s watch, while thousands of alliance troops already occupying the province stood by and did nothing to prevent or reverse it.
The U.S. double standard has been apparent as well with respect to Israel’s “slow motion” ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homes on the occupied West Bank. For decades, Israeli governments have confiscated land – even portions long inhabited by Palestinian families – and turned those plots over to Jewish settlers. The once predominantly Palestinian West Bank now resembles a geographic Swiss cheese, with nearly 250 settler enclaves and a network of roads on which Palestinian inhabitants are legally impeded from using. Checkpoints and other barriers underscore the status disparity between the two populations. Militant settlers are stepping up their campaign to displace Palestinian residents.
Washington’s criticisms of Israel’s actions have been tepid (at best) over the years, and even such anemic statements have declined in frequency. The new surge of violence between Israel and Palestinian fighters in Gaza will likely assure even greater U.S. rote loyalty to the Israeli position on all issues.
Such repeated examples of hypocrisy bring discredit onto U.S. policymakers. Expelling people from their homes because of their ethnicity should be profoundly offensive no matter who does it. If the offender is a U.S. ally or client, Washington is especially obligated to condemn the behavior and not act as an enabler. The U.S. record regarding ethnic cleansing has been both cynical and shameful.
Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute. He also held various senior policy posts during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute. Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).