Increasingly, Americans are asking why are we in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eventually, protests similar to those of Vietnam in late 1960s will develop. In holding back, the nation is showing a reluctance to undermine the morale of our military, not an approval of the policies of our government.
In past articles in the OBSERVER I reviewed strategic and economic issues involved in the Middle East fiasco. In this issue I would like to look at how righteousness has overcome common sense in our foreign policy.
The reader may recall that, after having been re-elected, president G.W.Bush sounded almost messianic in his speeches, as if his second term had been given some divine mission. This probably concealed a feeling of relief that the errors of the first term would remain hidden for another four years and, it being his last term, he could do as he pleased.
Comparing the United States to the rest of the world, Americans generally confuse Democracy with the “American Way of Life”. The basic difference lies in the origin of this country – it has been founded by people seeking freedom from autocratic regimes. In Europe, the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere the autocratic rulers were emperors, kings, princes, tribal leaders etc. Over thousands of years entire nations have been imbued with obedience to that form of government and vast sectors of populations have found comfort in that format. Something an average American cannot comprehend.
To this day there are Germans fondly recalling the definite rule of the Nazis; vast numbers of Russians miss Stalin etc. People had become used to living within strict political and economic confines; as a reward, they could count on permanent employment, vacations and pensions and other perks. Some people, having grown up under such a regime have little appreciation for American style of freedom. I’m sure that in Iraq there are many who quietly miss Saddam’s regime, since it gave them a feeling of stability.
At the time when the Polish government was Communist, I encountered a young Polish couple who had grown up there and immigrated here. They eventually went back, quite disgusted with the life we appreciate. They could not face the many personal responsibilities typical of American daily life. They were used to having jobs which they could not lose even if they did not work hard. They missed the regime organized parties and gatherings, free medical service, allotments of goods through factory stores, vacations at spas run by the government etc. They were not convinced Communists, but they appreciated the perks. They knew that as long as they did not get involved in politics contrary to the “party line”, they were safe. One of their major complaints was the pace of American life where, in their opinion, people had little time to take it easy. The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe rudely ended that lifestyle for millions.
The American Way of Life can be deadly to primitive nations with deep traditions. Case in point is American Samoa, a U.S. Territory since 1904. The Polynesian population lived primitive lives by fishing etc.; they were known for good health and very strong family ties. After World War II, Washington decided that life there was substandard and brought in welfare, Social Security and other entitlements. People quickly found out that all they had to do was “collect”, became lazy with widespread alcoholism and disease and families fell apart. Many Samoans emigrated to mainland U.S., further affecting the social structure.
Taking a humorous look at a local civilization clash in “Cannery Row”, writer John Steinbeck portrayed a single mother with numerous kids, surviving healthily on a diet of tortillas and beans. Taking pity on her, a bunch of local hobos started to surreptitiously provide the family with pilfered “regular” food. As a result, the children became sick until a return to the previous diet restored their health. The message here is that not everything is good for everybody. Same goes for the American Way of Life.
As a nation we must stop looking at other countries, especially those of the “Third World” in terms of the American Way of Life. We are currently paying a bitter price in Iraq for trying to impose our values on a nation which would rather continue its traditional lifestyle.
Instead of just liberating Iraq from a despot, our leaders decided to rebuild its political system from scratch. The current insurgency is being bolstered by the lack of understanding Washington has shown to the national pride and also the intelligence of that nation. This is not Somalia. As a result we have not only aggravated the Iraqis, but have provoked national and religious resistance to American influence throughout the Middle East and Asia.
Another example of political ignorance and asinine obstinacy has been our relationship with Cuba. Certainly it could not be our objection to the Communist style of regime, since we are on the best of terms with Communist China and Vietnam. If our presidents had shown more common sense, we would have normalized relations with Cuba decades ago. Castro would have been out of power a long time ago. As is, our policy makes Castro a political martyr and an inspiration for anti-American factions all over Latin America.
What Americans overlook is that before Castro, Cuba was the stomping ground for the American mob, insulting the intelligentsia and allowing a corrupt regime to exploit the population. Our government backed that regime, as we had at one time or another, Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran and other oppressors. From what I have been able to glean from the media, Cubans under Castro may not have all the freedom and comforts, but they are educated, provided with health service and a feeling of permanency. Deep inside, most Cubans feel proud; I’m certain that with Castro gone, they will strive to establish their own version of social democracy, but they would resist having a government imposed by American interests.
It is our ostracism of Castro that is not only keeping him in power and a hero in the eyes of our enemies, but allowing the cancer of anti-Americanism to spread throughout Latin America. Our political and economical adversaries do not miss that, as we can see from the Chinese encroachment into Panama and Venezuela.
Our liberals shed tears over the lack of civil rights of the Chinese under the Communist regime. However, in historic perspective, the Chinese have never had it so good. Centuries of slaughter, famine, warlord conflicts, opium dependency (courtesy of the West) and, more recently, Japanese invasion and early excesses of the Mao regime, left China in moral ruin. While still Communist, the present regime at least offers the Chinese stability and prospects of a better life. Civil rights will eventually evolve. Russia, on the other hand, having jumped into “democracy” quickly, appears to be sliding back under an autocratic regime.
Americans must stop viewing the world through the glasses of the American Way of Life. From the start of WWII in 1939 until immigration to U.S. in 1959 I had experienced a very wide range of living conditions and people. What I have learned is that happiness is in the eyes of the beholder. A fellow hiker recently returned from Europe and told me of having repeatedly encountered people of various ages bumming their ways along the trails and cities, working here and there, or relying on human kindness for sustenance. He found them happy with their freedom.
Hurricane Katrina has uprooted many people who have lived in poverty for generations; many of them probably long to return to their ways of life and blissful ignorance of material needs an average American craves.
The belief in the superiority of the American Way of Life sets Americans apart from other cultures, often creating a chasm of distrust. During my ten years in Cairo, Egypt I observed, with amazement, how little Americans interacted with the general populace. Fear of diseases and dependency on the comforts such as appliances steered Americans into enclaves, which cut them off from contact with natives. In later years the same things happened during the heydays of the Shah in Iran and, to this day in Pakistan. This contributes to the anti-Americanism in many countries, where many view us as rich exploiters.
How infectious the concept of the American Way of Life can be is illustrated by the example of Liberia. To refresh the reader’s memory, Liberia was established in 1822 as a settlement for freed American slaves; it declared independence in 1847 and has been the oldest African republic.
In a report on Liberian politics, entitled “George Weah’s New Game” (New York Times Magazine of August 21, 2005) author Andrew Rice wrote the following, “Liberia’s trials began with the coup in 1980. But the origins of its disaster were always there, embedded in its founding irony. The freed slaves who fled America to escape inequality came to Africa and ruled as capriciously as any white colonial regime. With their plantation manners and light brown complexions, the American immigrants disdained the darker-skinned indigenous people. Liberia’s constitution excluded all but the free slaves’ descendants from the rights of citizenship. Intermarriage with the natives was discouraged. The colonists, less than 5 percent of the population, came to form an impenetrable elite, mimicking the culture of the antebellum South. Until the 1970’s, Liberian leaders still dressed in top hats and tails.”
It is high time for Americans to realize that the destiny of our country does not lie in converting the rest of the world to our ways and views. Nor should we revert to the insularism of post World War I. We must place the interests of our country first, but also recognize the rights of others to arrive at their own solutions. Remember the old proverb, “One man’s bread is another man’s poison”.