Every day, as the soggy rhetoric of the presidential candidates accumulates into an enormous pile of solid waste, we get more and more evidence of the failure of the American political system. The candidates for the job of leader of the most powerful country in the world have nothing important to say. On domestic issues, they offer platitudes about health care and Social Security and taxes, which are meaningless given the record of both political parties. And on foreign policy, utter silence.
That silence is what I want to talk about.
In domestic policy, there are enough slight differences among the candidates to make some liberals and progressives--desperate for hopeful signs--seize upon the most feeble of promises. Al Gore and Bill Bradley took wobbly steps toward covering some fraction of the 44 million uninsured people, but no candidate has proposed universal, nonprofit, government-guaranteed health care. George W. Bush and John McCain muttered unintelligibly about one or another tax plan, but no Republican or Democrat has talked about taxing the wealth and income of the super-rich in such a way as to make several trillion dollars available for housing, health, jobs, education.
But on foreign and military policy, there are not even mutterings about change. All the candidates vie with one another in presenting themselves as supporters of the Pentagon, desirous of building up our military strength. He is Mr. Universe--bulging ridiculously with muscles useful for nothing except winning contests and bullying the other kids on the block (it is important to be No. 1, important to maintain "credibility")--promising to buy more body-building equipment and asking all of us to pay for it.
How can we, if we have any self-respect, support candidates--Republican or Democrat--who have nothing to say about the fact that the United States, with 4 percent of the world's population, consumes 25 percent of its wealth? How can we support them when they have nothing to say about our obligation to the other 96 percent, many of whom are suffering as a result of American policy?
What is our obligation?
First, to follow the Hippocratic Oath and "Do No Harm." Instead, we are doing them much harm.
By depriving the Iraqi people of food, medicine and vital equipment, we are causing them enormous suffering under the pretense of "sending a message" to Saddam Hussein. It appears we have no other way to send a message but through killing people. How does this differ, except in scale, from the killings done by terrorists around the world, who also defend their acts by claiming their need to "send a message"?
We pretend we care about democracy in Cuba--we who have supported dictatorships all over Latin America for 100 years and in Cuba itself until Fidel Castro came to power. Truth is, we cannot bear the thought that Castro has defied us for 40 years, refusing to pay us the homage to which we are accustomed in this hemisphere. Castro has spurned the invitation to become a member of the world capitalist club, and that is, evidently, unforgivable. And so we impose an embargo on Cuba and make its people suffer.
Which candidate, Democrat or Republican, has had the decency to speak out on this embargo, and on the deprivation it has caused for the children of Cuba? What meaning has the phrase "human rights" if people are denied the necessities of life?
Which candidate, Democrat or Republican, has said a word about our obscene possession of thousands of nuclear weapons--while Washington goes into hysterics over the possibility that some country in the Middle East might someday have one nuclear bomb? None of them has the courage to say what common sense tells us and what someone so expert on military issues and so tied to the establishment as Paul Nitze (a former arms control adviser in the Reagan administration) has publicly said: "I see no compelling reason why we should not unilaterally get rid of our nuclear weapons ... . It is the presence of nuclear weapons that threatens our existence."
While the front pages report the latest solemn pronouncements of the candidates, professing their concern for the well-being of Americans, the inside pages report the brutal Russian assault on Chechnya, with barely a word from these candidates about the well-being of men, women and children who were huddled in the basements of Grozny, awaiting the next wave of bombings.
There have been a few lame expressions of protest from the Clinton administration, but it is careful not to offend the Russian leaders, and so, last October, the Toronto Sun reported: "In Moscow, standing next to her beaming Russian hosts, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright proclaimed, 'We are opposed to terrorism, meaning Islamic rebels in the Caucasus fighting Russian rule.'" We can't forget that Clinton supported the Russian war on Chechnya from 1994 to 1996, going so far (he does get carried away) as to compare Chechnya to the Confederacy of the Civil War, which had to be put down for the sake of the larger nation. Yeltsin as Lincoln--that was a bit of a stretch.
Is it possible that the various candidates--all supported by huge corporate wealth (it is expected that $3 billion will be spent on the elections)--do not dare challenge a foreign policy whose chief motivation is not human rights but business profit?
Behind the coldness to the people of Chechnya and Iraq, there is the crass matter of oil in that part of the world. Last November, Stephen Kinzer of The New York Times reported from Istanbul: "Four nations in the Caspian Sea region took a giant step today toward embracing one of President Clinton's cherished foreign policy projects, a pipeline that would assure Western control over the potentially vast oil and natural gas reserves ... and give the United States greater influence in the region." The word "cherished" suggests an emotional attachment one cannot find with regard to human rights in the Third World. Does Clinton equally "cherish" projects designed to eliminate hunger and illness? Do the current presidential candidates?
The World Health Organization has described the plight of 10 million people--dying of AIDS or tuberculosis--as "a silent genocide." The numbers make it as serious and frightening as Hitler's genocide, which our political leaders regularly deplore, at no cost to themselves. But no candidate proposes that we stop spending several hundreds of billions on the military, stop selling arms to countries all over the world, stop using land mines, stop training the officers of military dictatorships in the Third World--and start using that money to wipe out tuberculosis and stem the spread of AIDS.
Gore, speaking to the U.N. Security Council a few weeks ago, promised to increase up to $325 million the U.S. commitment to fight AIDS. This is a tinier commitment than that of other industrialized countries and less than the money spent for one fighter-bomber. And that sum pales in comparison with the $1.6 billion proposed by the Clinton administration for Colombia, ostensibly to fight the war on drugs but really to deal with rebellion.
Isuppose the problem is that people who are being bombed around the world, or people who are dying as the result of preventable illnesses, do not vote in American elections. Our political system is not sensitive to the needs of even of some of our own citizens who don't vote--the homeless, the imprisoned, the very poor--so how can we expect it to care a whit about people 5,000 miles from our voting booths, however miserable their situation?
Because our political system--bipartisan in its coldness to human rights--imposes a silence on these issues, it cannot be respected. It can only be protested against, challenged or, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, referring to a government that has violated its responsibility to its people, "altered or abolished." That's a tall order, but it can be prepared for by a multitude of short steps, in which citizens act, outside of the party system, to redress their grievances.