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Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2002

THE WEST WON'T LEARN

More aid, more regrets later


The main response to Sept. 11 among Western conservatives and rightwingers has been a flinty resolve to eliminate "terrorists" worldwide, root and branch. But progressives also argue that eliminating poverty will solve the problem. Give them more bread, it is implied, and their anti-Western angst will disappear.

Japan, predictably, tries to go in both directions, gladly joining the U.S. "war on terrorism" while actively seeking a leading role in Afghanistan reconstruction.

But so-called terrorism never had much to do with poverty. If people in the Third World want to use force against their governments or the West, that is because of perceived injustice.

Large outpourings of aid will just add to the long history of aid waste and corruption. Tokyo has little knowledge of Afghanistan, and is even turning away the Afghan refugees who could help it there. When disorder breaks out, as is already happening, and Japanese aid officials come under attack, Tokyo will soon cry foul.

Put it down to immaturity or paternalism, but our pundits never seem able to understand the motives for Third World militancy. The United States still fumes over anti-Americanism in Iran and the 1979 attack on its Tehran embassy. Few seem interested in the squalid history of U.S. support for the brutal repression by the pre-1979 regime, much of it orchestrated by that embassy.

Nor do they self-reflect much on the U.S. role in encouraging Iraq's 1980 aggression against Iran, which indirectly led to the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which led to the turmoil over Iraq today and the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia.

In Algeria the West has gone back on its own democratic principles by endorsing the cruel suppression of an Islamic victory won in a fair election. Elsewhere in the Islamic world -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Iraq, Morocco -- the West has repeatedly denied its own principles to intervene in what it saw as its own interests. Over Palestine the Western record is atrocious.

In Afghanistan, yesterday's freedom fighters are bizarrely branded as today's terrorists. The sight of top U.S. officials calling the Taliban regime evil because it suppressed women, when it was the U.S. that took the lead in overthrowing the one Afghan regime that actively tried to liberate women, goes beyond the bizarre.

The claims that Osama bin Ladin and his followers were motivated solely by blind Islamic fanaticism are firmly contradicted by captured materials that make it clear that the long history of Western meddling in Middle East affairs, over Palestine especially, was the main reason for the Sept. 11 attack.

One needs only to look at the backgrounds of those involved in that attack to confirm that poverty in Afghanistan was not the issue. Apart from anything else, not one of them is an Afghan. For the most part, these were proud people from a proud civilization, angry at what has happened to it.

Nor is the hardliners' elimination strategy likely to be more successful. The U.S. may like to brush off as "collateral" the destruction and civilian casualties caused by its ruthless bombing of key targets in Afghanistan, while denouncing as "cowardly terror" the civilian casualties caused by Islamic militant attacks on key U.S. targets.

It may get vicarious delight in having its victims on the run, hiding in caves or put in cages for trial as "unlawful combatants" -- a term conveniently used both by the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II to justify policies of savage executions and retaliations against attacks by resistance forces.

It forgets that there is a large Islamic audience for this performance. For every American enjoying a burst of nationalistic pride, there could be a dozen or more on the other side determined to get revenge. "Draining the terrorist swamp" as the hardliners put it could be a very messy business.

The U.S. rightwing taunts the progressives who wrongly predicted a Vietnam-style defeat for the U.S. in Afghanistan. But the parallels with Vietnam remain. It is easy to bomb a regime out of existence. But rebels with a cause, weapons and a sympathetic population in a distant nation are a very different thing.

Nor does it help much by calling the enemy cowardly. As in Vietnam, people willing to endure extreme hardship and die for their cause do not need lectures on bravery from opponents who drop their lethal B-52 loads safely from great heights and whose main concern is to get back to base in time for the steak dinner and the Filipino band.

As in Vietnam, nationalistic resentment at the sight of Western troops trying incompetently to prop up a weak regime will fuel a resistance movement. The Western public may soon, once again, be asking why men and materials have to be wasted to defend incompetent and corrupt foreigners in a remote part of the world. It, too, will want out.

Meanwhile, the swamp drainers may come under constant guerrilla- style attack worldwide. Here, there can be no out. The attacks could continue for as long as the U.S. has an overseas presence, and the causes of Middle Eastern injustice remain ignored.

In any war, misunderstanding and underestimating the enemy is the father of defeat. That is why the West lost out in Indochina, where the "enemy" initially was also seen as a handful of cowardly fanatics who would easily be eliminated by a powerful, freedom-loving U.S.

When it is all over in Afghanistan, some may regret more time was not spent trying to answer the one sensible response to Sept. 11. It was from the American child who reportedly asked, "Daddy, why do they hate us so much?" Fortunately it was not censored.

Gregory Clark is honorary president of Tama University, and a member of the "Private Discussion Committee" set up in September by the Foreign Minister, Makiko Tanaka, to discuss international affairs.


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