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It takes a good deal of time to realize the full impact of any large and sudden change in foreign policy, and this is especially true of the kind of sudden, violent interventions often undertaken by the United States since the end of World War ll.
In the case of Mr. Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, it took the best part of a decade for results to unfold: a beautiful, peaceful country was reduced to despair and savagery by bombing, a coup, invasions, and a politically-motivated holocaust.
The men responsible for destabilizing Cambodia in the name of expedient policy were not only ten thousand miles removed from the misery they created, they were soon gone from office, busying themselves with memoirs justifying their deeds to others also ten thousand miles removed. In all cases, the stench never quite reached their nostrils.
The most important antecedent of the War against Terror was another expedient, violent policy – the recruitment, training, and supply of Islamic fighters for a proxy war against the Soviet Union during the 1980s. Once America’s immediate goal had been met in that war – that is, inflicting maximum damage on the Soviet Union – the mess created in achieving it was of no interest. Just as was the case in Cambodia. And just as was the case in many lesser American interventions from Chile to El Salvador.
Part of the behavior exhibited in these examples is a direct extension from American domestic life – enjoy your beer and toss the can for someone else to pick up. Only in foreign affairs, it’s other people’s lives being tossed.
The impact of intervention in Afghanistan during the 1980s has only been realized more than a decade after the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The Afghan people have experienced more than a decade of anarchy, tribal warfare, and the Taliban’s coming to power as a result (Despite the Taliban’s obvious shortcomings as a government, they came to power to end the violence that Americans, after arming everyone to the teeth, couldn’t be bothered about, and they did succeed at least in cleaning up America’s carelessly tossed trash).
The War against Terror itself will have many unforeseen results. This very fact was one of the soundest arguments against proceeding in the fashion that Mr. Bush has done, without ever attempting to use diplomacy or international institutions to bring to justice those responsible for terrible acts. Now, with the fairly rapid collapse of the Taliban, the Bush people are having a difficult time controlling a tendency to smirk, but the savage work of B-52s does seem an odd thing to smirk about.
The first clearly discernable victims of carpet-bombing Afghanistan and overthrowing its government (other than dead and starving Afghan peasants, streams of refugees, murdered prisoners of war, and a new bunch of thugs in power – none of which appear to be of great concern to Americans or their government) are the Palestinians.
Mr. Bush’s actions in Afghanistan have made it almost impossible for him to resist the bloody-minded Mr. Sharon. After all, Bush’s approach to terror originating out of Afghanistan is the Israeli model: you destroy things and kill people even if their only connection with an attack is shared geography.
The absurdity of the policy is made clear by analogy. Imagine the American government bombing the city of Buffalo, New York, because that is where Timothy McVeigh grew up. Or bulldozing the homes of his relatives.
The futility of the policy is obvious from Israel’s decades-long experiment on unwilling subjects. She has succeeded only in raising new generations of bitter enemies – groups like Hamas or Islamic Jihad, more fanatical than the PLO, are in large part creatures of Israeli policy.
Despite extremely harsh practices, Israel has never succeeded in silencing such opposition groups in territories she herself occupied. Despite a lifetime’s experience in brutality, Mr. Sharon is not able to stop desperate young men from committing kamikaze acts in the heart of Israel. Yet we have Mr. Sharon’s demand that Mr. Arafat, with his pitiful resources and unstable political environment, do so as a pre-condition even for talking. At the same time, Mr. Sharon labels Mr. Arafat “irrelevant,” proceeds with a policy of serial assassination in the West Bank, and blows up the tiny bit of infrastructure that gives Arafat’s government any sense of authority.
This is plainly irrational, yet Mr. Bush is in no position to say so. Mr. Sharon has very pointedly made the comparison between the two situations, Bush bombing Afghanistan and Sharon bombing the West Bank and Gaza. Of course, there are many differences in the two situations, starting with the fact that the Palestinians live under conditions that most Americans would never tolerate without making full use of Second-Amendment rights. But the differences are too complex to explain to a broad political audience, while the gross parallels are obvious to everyone – facts which work in Mr. Sharon’s favor.
In the long term, Mr. Sharon’s approach is hopeless, but hopeless policies can do a lot of damage in the meantime. The Palestinians are not going to disappear or become, as so many of Israel’s leaders have wished them to be, absorbed by Jordan. Israel with her policy of settlements in the West Bank has always talked of having “facts on the ground,” but there are no more convincing facts on the ground than a few million people with a high birth rate.
And a few million people living with no hope, right next to a few million people who regard them darkly only as something to contain while themselves living in considerable comfort, is by definition a volatile and dangerous situation. Israel controls this situation, just as South Africa did in very similar circumstances (even more so, since the Palestinians are a minority rather than a great majority). It seems almost sarcasm to write or speak, as most of our press does, of two “partners” in a “peace process” and how one of them, the Palestinians, has utterly failed its responsibilities.
A viable Palestinian state with generous Israeli assistance for its economic success is the only intelligible concept of peace. But it seems impossible that the statesmanship required can ever come from a man with as much blood on his hands as Mr. Sharon, or from his nemesis, the Nixonesque Mr. Netanyahu who waits grinning darkly in the wings. And it seems equally impossible that Mr. Bush, purring with satisfaction over the immediate results of his nasty work in Afghanistan, can rise to what is required of an American president with any pretensions to genuine leadership in the world.
John Chuckman is a columnist for YellowTimes. His last story for CounterPunch was High-Tech Puritanism.