Go back to May 1996, when Leslie Stahl of “60 Minutes” sat down with Madeleine Albright, the then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “We have heard that a half million children have died,” Stahl said, referring to the reported impact of United Nations sanctions on Iraq. “I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And — and you know, is the price worth it?”
To which the dead-eyed Albright replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”
Half a million dead kids. Worth it. A now-infamous statement, which was much-quoted across the Middle East, yet provoked no public outcry in the United States at the time: no banner headlines, no scathing op-eds, no political fallout whatsoever. In fact, the very next year, the much-lauded Albright was promoted to secretary of state. It would take the former Clinton administration official seven long years to show even an ounce of regret or contrition for her outrageous remark, finally calling it “crazy” and a “terrible mistake” in her 2003 memoir, “Madam Secretary.”
Now, fast-forward to March 2018.
“All the damage that would come from a war [with North Korea] would be worth it in terms of long-term stability and national security,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said in an interview with CNN last week.
What would that “damage” look like? Whether nuclear or non-nuclear, multiple studies and surveys of experts suggest millions of innocent North Koreans, South Koreans, and Japanese could be killed in such a conflict, making the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan look like minor skirmishes in comparison.
Top U.S. officials seem to agree. Listen to Defense Secretary James Mattis, speaking to CBS News in May 2017: “A conflict in North Korea … would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”
Listen to Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in July 2017: “It would be a loss of life unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes. Anyone who has been alive since World War II has never seen the loss of life that could occur if there’s a conflict on the Korean peninsula.”
Yet Graham, a former Air Force colonel and self-styled GOP “moderate,” thinks this unprecedented “loss of life” — millions of innocent men, women, and children shot, bombed, burned, starved, and gassed to death — would be “worth it.”
Why? Because non-American blood is cheap. Because non-American lives are considered collateral damage. Because the non-American victims of American bombs and bullets in faraway war zones — Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan — are what the British historian Mark Curtis calls “unpeople”: those whose “lives are deemed worthless, expendable in pursuit of power and commercial gain.”
Does that sound hyperbolic? Well, listen again to the Republican senator from South Carolina, who has form when it comes to calling for the killing of innocent civilians on the Korean peninsula. “If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un], it will be over there,” Graham told NBC’s “Today” show last August. “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here. And [Donald Trump’s] told me that to my face.” Graham continued: “That may be provocative, but not really. When you’re president of the United States, where does your allegiance lie? To the people of the United States.”
But what about an allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, which grants Congress, not the president, the power to declare war? Or to international law, which forbids one country from attacking another? (“To initiate a war of aggression,” concluded the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946, “is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”)
Above all else, how about an allegiance to basic morals and ethics? How in good conscience can any democratic politician demand the deliberate killing of millions of innocent human beings in a preventive — not a preemptive — war and then suggest that such a death toll would somehow be “worth it?” How is that not the mindset of a terrorist? Or of a sociopath?
Yet whether or not Graham is “out of his damn mind,” to quote former Obama-era National Security Council official Tommy Vietor, is besides the point. As Albright’s 1996 interview so vividly illustrated, showing indifference to the dark-skinned victims of U.S. wars, sanctions, and arms sales has always been a bipartisan habit in Washington, D.C. Remember: Dozens of top Democrats, including presidential candidates such as John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, lined up to endorse President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and later ignored the growing number of Iraqi civilian casualties. “As difficult as [the Iraq war] was,” Leon Panetta, Obama’s defense secretary, nonchalantly remarked in 2011, “I think the price has been worth it.”
There’s that L’Oréal line again: Iraq, apparently, was “worth it.” For the record: In 2015, a detailed report co-authored by Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Global Survival, and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War concluded that at least 1.3 million people, and possibly “in excess of two million” people, had died as a result of the U.S.-led wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
So to be fair to Lindsey Graham, what’s another couple of million dead on the Korean peninsula?
Listening to U.S hawks breezily describe the devastating destruction of countries other than their own as “worth it,” in the name of “democracy” or “national security” or “stability,” provides us with an insight into their imperial and, yes, racist view of rest of the world. It is also a reminder of how political rhetoric is regularly deployed to justify, or even cover up, actions that would be deemed war crimes or acts of terror if they were carried out by anyone other than the United States. To borrow a line from George Orwell, the language of Graham, Albright, Panetta, and the rest “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”