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December 7, 2001
History Lessons
What Bush should have learned from the Cold War.
Zbigniew Brzezinski tours the Afghan border with Pakistan’s minister of defense in 1979.

ow often have you heard something or someone dismissively referred to as “history”? In modern popular parlance, this honorable vocable means over with, finished, irrelevant. But American ignorance of history and contempt for its uses is far more dangerous today than Francis Fukuyama’s silly regurgitations about the end of it—particularly with a historically ignorant president in the White House.

The problems of Afghanistan and Islamic fundamentalism—and thus the current war—are direct legacies of the Cold War. And the United States is now repeating many of the same mistakes it made then. Consider: For decades we treated the peoples of the Muslim world as mere pawns in the conflict with the Soviet Union. We installed the Shah of Iran on his Peacock Throne and supported his brutal police state for decades as a buffer against Moscow; the revolution that deposed him created a nation governed by ayatollahs. Then we supported Saddam Hussein as a counter to Soviet diplomacy and as a buffer against fundamentalist Iran—only now, after he has slaughtered several million of his own and other peoples, he is our enemy.

We allied ourselves with hereditary despots from Morocco to the Arab Peninsula—and the result was a wave of Islamic fundamentalism, which these regimes financed to bribe their peoples into quiescence, and whose ummist extremists fertilized the resentments that allowed the bin Ladens of this world to recruit so successfully. From Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt to Zia al-Haq in Pakistan to Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines to Suharto in Indonesia, the Cold War led us to embrace corrupt authoritarians who kept their peoples impoverished and treated human rights as a joke—and in all these countries, the result was the growth of armed Islamist rebellions whose shock troops fit neatly into al-Qaeda’s organigram. And the list goes on.

n today’s world, Bush’s precipitous militarization of the campaign against terrorism has propelled the United States headlong into a coalition with a collection of folks every bit as unsavory as those we coddled in the Cold War. And once again, our shortsighted tactical manipulations presage problems that will come back to haunt us in the long term.

Take Afghanistan. There is a marvelous piece of video that CNN recently reran of Zbigniew Brzezinski—Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser—addressing a crowd of blank-faced mujahedin somewhere in the Afghan mountains at the height of the war against the Soviet invaders. From behind his Ray-Bans, Brzezinski—with Warren Christopher in tow—hollers in English to the turbaned guerrillas that “God is on your side.” His audience certainly believed that God was on their side—they became the Taliban.

Now we are once again meddling in Afghanistan’s byzantine politics without really knowing what we’re doing. U.S. minders strolled the halls of the secluded schloss on the outskirts of Bonn where Afghans met to sign a piece of paper establishing an “interim government”—but that agreement is no more a guarantee of “peace” in their bedeviled country than was the paper waved by Neville Chamberlain in 1938. Of the four delegations in Bonn, the U.S.-backed “Rome group” of exiles supporting King Zahir was composed of people who haven’t been in the country for years and are essentially creatures of the CIA and the State Department; the Cyprus delegation of long-term exiles was controlled by the hardliners in Iran; the Pashtun delegation was put together not in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan. And the delegation of the Northern Alliance contained none of the warlords who have actual power on the ground.

The Bonn meeting’s choice of Hamid Karzai as the interim government’s head is a sign of U.S. and Pakistani arm-twisting. Karzai not only has been a longtime CIA collaborator who spent part of his exile in Pakistan, but his clan has historic ties to Zahir Shah. Although he’s one of the few Pashtun leaders with a real record of opposing the Taliban, even he wasn’t in Bonn. When actual control of the country is divided between dozens of fractious military commanders of various loyalties, bandit chiefs and tribal leaders who change allegiances whenever they’re purchased, the notion that the new “government” he heads will be able to make anything stick is questionable. Karzai’s announcement, as In These Times went to press, that Mullah Omar could go free after his surrender pleases Pakistan (and its many Pashtuns) but enrages Washington. Whose man is he?

The Northern Alliance too may not turn out to be as tilted toward Washington as the Bush administration pretends. The Alliance’s military chief, General Fahim, is a Russian asset—he worked closely with the KGB when he was a high-ranking intelligence officer in Kabul for the Communist Najibullah regime before its overthrow in 1992. And the tanks, helicopters, arms and munitions used by the Alliance to defeat the Taliban were provided largely by Russia, not the United States.

Right-wing nationalist Vladimir Putin’s goals in Afghanistan are unlikely to be the same as ours. As a senior Russian Defense Ministry official anonymously told Le Monde in late November, “Moscow’s interest and action in Afghanistan and the surrounding region will be dictated in large part by the attitude of the Russian oil and gas monopolies” that helped make Putin president. (Remember that in the mid-’90s, America’s previous “ally,” Boris Yeltsin, opposed U.S. plans for a pipeline linking Afghanistan’s vast gas and petroleum resources to the Indian Ocean via Pakistan.) The Alliance may have welcomed Russian troops back into Kabul on a “humanitarian” mission, but the Pashtuns hate them with a vengeance—quite literally, after the horrors inflicted on them during the Soviet occupation.

Bush’s militarization of the campaign against terrorism not only has provided Moscow with an excuse to re-enter the “great game” in Afghanistan, but it also gave Ariel Sharon—the war criminal of the Sabra and Shatila massacres—political cover to escalate his war against the Palestinian Authority. Just as it was Sharon’s deliberately provocative visit to the Dome of the Rock that launched the second intifada, so Sharon’s state terrorism—assassination of Palestinian leaders, the bulldozing of Palestinian homes—provoked the terrorist atrocities when suicide bombers blew themselves up in Jerusalem and Haifa, the kind of riposte Sharon knew was inevitable.

Sharon’s repeated calls for Yasser Arafat to command “seven days of peace” before Israel would return to the negotiating table is cynical hypocrisy. The New York Times and others around the world have reported how Israeli intelligence told Sharon that Arafat is simply unable to control the terrorists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, whose appeal to frustrated public opinion is now greater than Arafat’s own in the wake of Sharon’s expansionist policies. Now, with a green light from the Bush White House, Sharon has started a bombing campaign aimed at the Palestinian Authority’s police and at Arafat’s personal guard—precisely the organs Arafat would need to have any hope of combating the terrorists in his midst. That’s one reason all 10 Labor Party members of Sharon’s coalition cabinet boycotted the vote to “treat the Palestinian Authority like the U.S. treats the Taliban,” as Sharon’s spokesman put it. When Arafat is eliminated—either politically or physically—by Palestinian fundamentalists and secular hardliners, as Sharon hopes, that will lead to an all-out Israeli-Palestinian war—which Sharon thinks he can win, but which would sunder Bush’s anti-terror coalition as Muslim countries are called upon to take sides.

ush’s coalition has already been undermined by his expansion of U.S. war aims to include eliminating Saddam Hussein’s capacity to use weapons of mass destruction. Warnings not to attack Iraq are coming not just from the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, the Egyptians and others in the Islamic world whose support is critical to dismantling terrorism’s global reach. Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder has declared publicly that a new war on Iraq would set the entire Middle East aflame, and most of our European allies—except for Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and England’s Tony Blair—agree. Even Blair’s government, however, has let it be known that only irrefutable proof Saddam was involved in the September 11 horrors could justify an attack on him. But, as Shimon Peres told the Bushies on his last visit to Washington, the Israeli Mossad—which is infinitely better informed on the Middle East than the CIA—could not find an Iraqi connection.

A new air campaign against Iraq would not eliminate any remaining or new weapons of mass destruction Saddam may have—after all, damage assessments after the Gulf War showed that only 40 percent of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction had been hit effectively. The Gulf War also proved that air power alone will not topple the Ba’ath regime. As The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh recently put it on CNN: “Every U.S. bomb that falls on Iraq makes it easier for Saddam to hold onto power.”

Surely diplomacy should at least be tried before a new war on Iraq—with its incendiary consequences for Islamist terrorism—is launched. But Bush’s “good vs. evil” mindset allows for no such option, even though there are signs that a deal is possible. On November 16, the New York Times reported that Iraq had rejected a deal to lift sanctions in exchange for renewed weapons inspections. But as conservative columnist Robert Novak reported, “Ambassador Mohammed Aldouri, Iraq’s representative at the UN, immediately wrote the Times denying its account, [and] implied that Iraq would be open to [such] a deal. ... The letter was never published.”

With Bush’s coalition as yet unwilling to back a war on Iraq, his ad seriatum military strategy will likely next target Somalia and Sudan (perhaps Lebanon or Syria) once the U.S. declares its military campaign in Afghanistan over. That would give the administration time to try to forge a new anti-Saddam alliance so as to create a fresh wave of American jingoism to benefit Bush’s re-election. But the Gulf War waged by Bush père and a decade of sanctions that punished the Iraqi people—killing perhaps as many as a million Iraqi children—only stoked the fires of Islamist terrorism and gave the likes of bin Laden new propaganda weapons. This, too, is a lesson that history teaches us. We will ignore it at our peril.


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