“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
An illiberal democracy deprives citizens of real knowledge about the activities of those who exercise power. It does so by restricting freedom of expression and opinion, and distorting information. So when the Trump administration slams the UN Human Rights Council (OHCHR) for its “obsession with Israel” – meaning that the OHCHR criticises Israel’s discriminatory policies against Palestinians – suspect misdirection or even a cover up.
US deputy assistant secretary of state Erin Barclay told OHCHR last week, “My government will be considering the council’s actions with an eye toward reform to more fully achieve the council’s mission to protect and promote human rights.”
This is not the first time a member of the Trump administration has alleged that the OHCHR unfairly targets Israel for violations of human rights, claiming that far worse abuses are perpetrated by regimes in Syria, North Korea, and Iran.
With no sign of irony, Barclay also said, “When it comes to human rights, no country should be free from scrutiny, but neither should any democratic country be regularly subjected to unfair, unbalanced and unfounded bias.”
Conflating “scrutiny” with “bias” is a tactic the Trump administration uses to confuse the public and to deflect criticism. Similarly, the words “immigrants”, “refugees” and “terrorists” often appear in the same sentence in Trump newspeak. In fact, the administration views immigration mainly through the lens of counter-terrorism and national security, so that the unwary are led to assume that they must be one and the same.
Trump may be taking lessons from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who, in February, told Fox News’ “Hannity” that his country and the United States have a “grand mission” to confront the threat of a nuclear Iran. Netanyahu claimed that Iran is planning intercontinental ballistic missiles which can reach the USA, that the country’s leaders believe they are “destined to govern the world”, and “anybody that doesn’t agree with them, they’ll be able to subjugate or kill, and they’re working on the means to achieve that.”
Elsewhere, at the recent Munich Security conference, Israeli Defence minister Avigdor Liberman named “Iran and Iranian proxies” as the biggest single threat to the Middle East. He accused Iran of holding parades in Tehran featuring ballistic missiles with Hebrew inscriptions reading “Israel must be wiped out.” This is a distortion of a story investigated by Politifact, which concluded that there was a single, isolated incident (with slightly different wording) during an Iranian ballistic missile launch in 2016.
So, here is the great question. With the US government already spending $600 billion dollars a year on its military – more than the next seven biggest spenders combined, including China and Russia – and with the White House requesting a hike of $54 billion for 2018, who is the enemy? The increase in military spending includes more money for shipbuilding, military aircraft, and establishing “a more robust presence in key international waterways and choke points” such as the Strait of Hormuz and South China Sea. All of which points to Iran and China.
It would be suicidal to challenge China. And if the US were to attack Iran, it risks further alienating Russia since those countries collude in preventing the US from having any influence in Central Asia. At the same time, there are rumours that the Trump administration is seeking ways to break Russia’s military and diplomatic alliance with Iran in a bid both to end the Syrian conflict and to bolster the fight against Islamic State.
On the spectrum of illiberal democracy, Trump may not be a dictator, but he is creating a form of government in which informed opinion is ridiculed and public debate sabotaged by misinformation. If he succeeds in creating a new international order based on such a model, as Roberto Savio points out in “Trump Marks the End of a Cycle” (IPS News, 21 February 2017), “We should start to worry, because war will not be far away.”