HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

June 25, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Bumbling

My local newspaper this morning had an article about Afghanistan and how we should not forget about it even though Iraq is more in the news. The piece jogged me into recollecting that the number of clans, tribes and ethnic groups in that country is bewildering, and that the relationships among them are impossible to get straight in the mind because they change every day -- with former enemies becoming allies and former friends transmogrifying into devils overnight. Finding patterns to explain the recent history of the region is extremely difficult and it is made even more exasperating by outside forces who want to use Afghanistan for their own purposes.

Into that tangle six years ago bumbled the United States, strewing money and weapons everywhere, directed by a man who believes he can create a workable foreign policy by dividing the world into good guys and bad guys and smiting the latter while leaving the former to take care of themselves.

Disjointed processes in that vein make it hard not to believe that the American nation is on a path of degeneration. Actually, that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing were it not that the route the nation follows invariably influences the well-being of the people. I wish we could somehow pull the two apart but that seems not to be how history functions.

Since pure separation isn't possible, I'd like for the American people to own and direct the nation, rather than the other way around, the latter being the Dick Cheney doctrine of patriotism. "Owned by the Fatherland," seems to be his motto. As long as it directs our affairs, the well-being of the people will be more and more discounted in the interest of what the Bush administration calls honor and glory and everybody else in the world calls militaristic domination.

My paper this morning forgot to remind its readers that regardless of imperial ambition, the Afghans can stand to stay in Afghanistan longer than we can. And when we finally make up an excuse for leaving they will still have their rivalries to sort out, that is if they can stumble through the rusting junk of war with enough energy to decide, finally, what they want for themselves.


Democracy's Future

The principal democratic challenge in the 21st Century is to get the people of powerful, wealthy nations to care about the well-being of people in the poverty-stricken areas of the world. Right now, in the United States, that caring is virtually nonexistent, as the American treatment of Iraq and Afghanistan over the past two decades amply demonstrates. Americans, for example, would far rather denounce the Taliban as a moral abomination than to face the truth that their government has helped create the conditions that made something like the Taliban inevitable. The Taliban didn't spring out of nothing. They came from decades of treating Afghanistan as little more than pawn in the war between the great powers. Those years of war have left the country devastated, with no infrastructure, virtually no medical care, few schools except those run by ignorant religious fanatics, major portions of the country still seeded with land mines, economic activity based primarily on the drug trade, and an infant death rate that exceeds by ten times the rate in other poor countries. The Taliban are far less the causer of things than they are the result of misguided policies by the major political players who see nothing wrong in grinding up the lives of people in small countries in order to pursue their grandiose schemes. And as long as the citizens of the so-called democratic countries let the schemers get away with it, out of the way places will continue to writhe in misery, sending out waves of hatred that sometimes eventuate in events pompous politicians then are eager to denounce as terrorism.

Democratic electorates have to learn that no matter how rich a country may be, it can't get away with oppressive, dismissive policies forever. Sooner or later, those policies will come back to haunt those who pride themselves on being the virtuous people of the world. There are few signs at the moment that the lesson is taking hold. And, until it does, the notion that the most powerful nations are also democratic remains a sham.


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