Dancing With the Devil (Cont.)
After I posted my piece on Sy Hersh’s observations regarding Pakistan, I got to thinking about why I found them so provocative. After all, we all knew how much of a twisted little fellow Musharraf is, and how precarious his situation there is. (For those who don’t, all you need to know is that Musharraf stole power a few years back, but the main opposition to him comes from groups that want to turn Pakistan into a hard-core Taliban-style Islamic republic, so our government props up Musharraf to keep them from taking power and getting hold of Pakistan’s not-inconsiderable nuclear arsenal.) We also know our government’s justification for propping up Musharraf — the old “the devil you know” argument. In other words, sure he’s a tinpot dictator, but he’s our tinpot dictator, and that’s better than having someone else’s take over.
This line of reasoning always gets my blood boiling. You may remember, back when al-Qaeda hit New York and Washington, it was quite common for dazed Americans to ask each other “why do they hate us so much?”. Having spent some time in the Middle East myself (Air Force brat, stationed in Egypt from 1982-1985), I said that I knew exactly why they hated us so much, and it had nothing to do with President Bush’s simplistic “they hate us because they hate democracy and baseball and apple pie” explanation. The truth is exactly the opposite, they hate us because they want democracy — and because we keep them from having it!
Back during the Cold War, you see, we had one overriding objective in foreign policy: keep the Russians down. Every other consideration took a back seat. This meant that we made some decisions that, in retrospect, look pretty puzzling considering our rhetoric. For example, we intervened in countries like Chile to overthrow and assassinate democratically elected leaders who we felt would push their countries away from us and towards the Soviets. Conversely, we propped up local dictators, strongmen, and other thugs, as long as they promised to remain on our side. Oppress your own people? Rob them blind while you stuff your Swiss bank accounts with their savings? No problem! Just pledge not to go Red and we’ll keep you rolling in military and economic aid beyond your wildest dreams.
(As a side note, another decision we made at the same time was that we would build an army of rabid Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan, arm them heavily, teach them how to fight guerrilla wars, then point them towards the Russians, who were then occupying Afghanistan. Great plan! Until the Russians left and we stiffed them on aid for rebuilding their country. One of those fundamentalist soldiers we stiffed was a young man named Osama bin Laden.)
So, who were the visionary Arab leaders picked by the U.S. to carry its flag in the Cold War? Among this stellar crop were:
- Hosni Mubarak in Egypt;
- the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia;
- … and, of course, Saddam Hussein in Iraq. (That’s Donald Rumsfeld he’s shaking hands with in the pic. Smile, Don!)
These “leaders” then proceeded to use the shiny new weapons they got each year from Uncle Sam to keep their own people from getting too uppity. We’ve all heard about Hussein gassing his own people (with U.S.-supplied chemical weapons, natch), but you don’t hear as much about Mubarak’s strongarm tactics against anyone who opposes him or the Saudis’ abysmal human rights record.
So, for fifty years, we’ve been paying strongmen to keep the countries of the Middle East in line for us. We never particularly cared how they did it, as long as they delivered results. The result has been that a region which sits on top of the most valuable natural resources in the world is home to absolutely incredible levels of poverty, sickness, illiteracy, and poor life expectancy. For the average Arab in these states, if you try to live within the system you’re doomed to a life that’s nasty, brutish, and short — and if you speak out and try to change things, it gets a lot shorter.
And as far as you can see, the reason why things are the way they are is because that’s how America — the only superpower, remember — wants them to be. America wants you poor; America wants you stupid; America wants you oppressed. If they didn’t, why would they bankroll the people doing the oppression? But you can’t speak out — there’s no way to participate in political opposition without having the evil eye of the dictator fall upon you. And then you find one lonely group that, in the shadows, is trying to bring down that dictator. They tell you they care about your future. They want you to be educated, healthy, happy. Maybe you think they’re a little extreme for your tastes — they want a state that puts the dictates of the Koran into law, a la Afghanistan under the Taliban — but who else is speaking out for you?
That’s why they hate us, folks, and that’s why they lash out against us — because they feel that we’re the reason they’re suffering. And in a lot of ways, we are.
So, what does all this have to do with Musharraf and Pakistan? Well, Musharraf is another of these two-bit thugs keeping himself at the trough at the expense of his people. But, we feel, we can’t let his government fall, or else he’ll be replaced by radical Islamists — there’s no doubt they’d win if a fair election were held in Pakistan today. So, we do whatever it takes — including letting the cream of al-Qaeda off scot free — to prop him up; and in doing so, we create more radical Islamists out of ordinary Pakistanis who feel the Islamists are the only way available towards a better life; which makes supporting Musharraf more essential; which breeds more Islamists, and so on.
The key fact in that kind of a system is that it can’t last forever; eventually things will boil over in Pakistan — the people will get fed up and toss Musharraf out. The real question is, who will be writing the plans for what happens when that day comes? If our only policy is “support Musharraf”, it won’t be us — just like our shortsighted policy of “support the Shah” came around to bite us when the Iranians threw him out and instituted an Islamic republic which was essentially closed to America for twenty years, and which is only now beginning to liberalize and ease up on its people. If such a situation were to emerge in Pakistan — a country with not just one nuclear bomb, but forty or more, being seized by a hard-line party with a grudge against the U.S. — the consequences could be dramatic and terrible.
That’s the challenge we SHOULD be facing right now — how to drain out the poison we’ve injected into these countries. But instead, we’ve chosen to focus on ousting Saddam Hussein — and even in that case, we’re stressing the need to knock off the man rather than to build a structure that allows Iraqis to lead a better life. And even if we did talk more about that, could you blame the Iraqis for being skeptical, after we put Hussein in power and then gave him the gas he used to massacre his own people? Why should they believe we suddenly give a damn about their best interests?
President Bush is fond of lecturing us that we should support the war because not doing so means we haven’t learned the lessons of history. I would suggest that he go back to history class. If there’s a historical analogy to be made here, it’s not to equate Saddam Hussein with Hitler during the years of appeasement — after all, Hussein’s one attempt to expand his territory since the end of the Iran/Iraq war was smacked down decisively in 1991, and he’s been content to stay within his own borders since. Rather, the parallels we should be looking at date back to 1919, when the victorious Allies of World War One imposed their will on Germany through the Treaty of Versailles, which imposed crippling economic sanctions and humiliating diplomatic provisions onto the defeated Germans. The result was that Germany spent the next ten years stewing in resentment against the Allies, and looking for someone who would have the courage to stand up for Germany. When that someone finally came along in the person of Adolf Hitler, many sober, reasonable Germans decided that, while they might not agree with his rabid anti-semitism, they would go along with him if he was the only one going the direction they wanted to go — towards a proud and prosperous Germany. (The West learned its lesson after suffering a second world war, approaching Germany with Marshall Aid and other prosperity-building measures to help fortify it against the rise of a new demagogue.)
When the treaty was signed, only John Maynard Keynes saw clearly the dark direction it was pointing Europe towards, writing in his landmark book “The Economic Consequences of the Peace” that
Men will not always die quietly. For starvation, which brings to some lethargy and a helpless despair, drives other temperaments to the nervous instability of hysteria and to a mad despair. And these in their distress may overturn the remnants of organisation, and submerge civilisation itself in their attempts to satisfy desperately the overwhelming needs of the individual. This is the danger against which all our resources and courage and idealism must now co-operate.
As we turn our weapons on Iraq without a clear articulation of what we will do when they fall silent to improve the life of the average Iraqi — and what we will do for his brothers and sisters in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and our other nominal “allies” whose despotic rulers breed hatred for us every day — one wonders where to find a modern-day Keynes to point out to the powerful the folly of their course, and to call for us to marshal our resources and courage and idealism again. It’s a role that so far nobody has been willing, or able, to fulfill.