Victims are very powerful people. Two of America’s greatest victims are Bill and Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton was the victim of a right-wing conspiracy; he didn’t bring any of his problems on himself. Hillary was the victim of her husband and his infidelities. She would talk about women’s empowerment to feminist groups, but when then-U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) walked over to her side of the stage during their senatorial debate, she became the poor victim of an angry man.
In the Middle East, there are no aggressors, only victims. I was watching TV at the beginning of the Intifada, which turned three years old this week, and I saw a perfect example of this. A group of Palestinians was carrying one of their fallen brethren wrapped in the Palestinian flag in front of Western television crews. He was the victim of the Israeli military and its harsh tactics. By accident, however, they dropped him, and their P.R. move was exposed. The man turned out not to be dead at all; his comrades helped him back up, and they carried on playing the role of victims.
The Israelis are also victims because they have to endure terrorism. They ignore a few important facts, such as the incredible strength of the Israeli army and that Israel’s per-capita gross domestic product is about four to five times higher than that of its Arab neighbors.
Using their line of thinking, neither side is to blame for the violence in the Middle East.
The United States is a victim too. We were the victims of a terrorist attack on Sept. 11, and this justified attacking Afghanistan. In that case, we actually were the victims; poor foreign policy decisions are no reason to kill 3,000 people. But we should be careful about how far we extend our victim mentality from Sept. 11. It is not easy for the most powerful country in the history of the world to pass as a victim.
But the Bush administration played the victim card when it was making its case to invade Iraq. It tried to connect al-Qaida with Saddam Hussein by saying that a Qaida official had been in Baghdad before the attacks. But we were not victims of Saddam Hussein even though on balance, I think it was still worth overthrowing him. We controlled the northern and southern portions of his country and whenever he got out of line, we bombed him with advanced fighter planes. The administration ignored these facts and said we were Saddam’s victims because he was building very scary weapons that could kill Americans.
The Bush administration understands how powerful the United States is as much as any other administration in recent memory. Administration officials ooze masculinity; no one in this White House watches Bravo. Everyone exercises regularly, and then they play cowboy at the Texas ranch, wearing flannels and blue jeans. Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, who has close ties to the administration, is an advocate of a more “muscular” foreign policy; working together with allies and building coalitions are not for these people, so you have to laugh when they whine about being victims.
U.S. foreign policy is too often based on this type of fear and desperation, instead of the country’s strengths: its ideas and prosperity. But the administration doesn’t have the energy to craft and then try to implement a comprehensive and thoughtful foreign policy. Like all the other “victims” around the world, it would rather galvanize support for a narrow agenda by hyping our vulnerabilities.
The far right in Israeli society will do this to gain backing for its radical plans to expand the size of its country. Palestinian radicals will do the same so that they never have to take responsibility for their own strife and Hillary Clinton will garner sympathy in order to ease her path to the White House. Pretending to play the victim is the best way to get moderates on board an agenda that cannot be sold at face value.
When you have the moral high ground and people feel bad for you, you can get away with taking actions that perceived aggressors cannot because nothing is ever the victim’s fault. Playing the victim is so easy.
Pesick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.