This article makes me a sad panda… a tiny rebel alliance–the kind we glorify in all our action movies here in the States–is fighting a ruthless, American-backed, violent Ethopian regime.
Now, I’m new to this situation, in the Horn of Africa. Until recently I was like most Americans in sort of considering Africa a country, a *$&^!ed country, and not realizing it’s actually a continent full of arbitrary borders drawn up by the British and the French way back when. (Yes, I mean, I always knew it was a continent, but still…)
But I’ve read, in the New York Times, about the situation in Ethopia and Somalia. Tell me if my summary is wrong: the American-backed, Christian, Ethopian establishment is fighting the militant Islamists in Somalia to maintain control in that area, to maintain their occupation of Somalia. (Portland, Oregon–my beloved city–houses many refugees from that bloody conflict.) My reaction was something like: I don’t like the militant Islamists one bit, and it scares me that they’re going around the world talking about vile American influence, when us Americans are actually quite kind, liberal people who generally don’t believe in the hideous international military misadventures committed in their name.
However, you can’t change a country on that fundamental a level. You’re not going to be able to march in and change Somalia from being a nation in which the militant Islamists are popular to being a peaceful, Christian nation full of churches and K-Marts (that never say “Happy Holidays”). If anything, you’ll just ignite nationalist tendencies and set back the cause of human rights by driving people to more violent forms of Islam raither than the more peaceful, mainstream variety. I got the impression that “Islamism” is sort of the lingua franca in Somalia, and while that scares me, it’s not something that you can just march in and change. If the Somalis ever drive the Ethopian army from their soil, I’d be surprised if Somalia didn’t start up a brutal regime of its own (it always happens). But, I’m not sure military intervention can stop that, rather than harm the natural process of a nation’s development. Indeed, all war does is strengthen and legitimize violent rebels and push the national dialogue further towards violence and extremism.
That isn’t to say military intervention is never useful… (I’m a Quaker, so I rather dislike it.) If we have a limited amount of money, though, to spend on our adventures in the world, I have to feel that…
Maybe we need a change of attitude. I think that we, in the US, have believed for a long time that we can essentially rule the world, we can have our fingers in every pie, and every conflict anywhere in the world will always have a side backed by the US (and that side, as in Ethiopia and Somalia, may not be all that pleasant). I think there are good, well-meaning people in the Bush administration who think that there’s no way we can stop supporting the Ethopian army, no matter how brutal they are, because otherwise, Somalia would descend into “Islamism.” I would doubt that we can prevent that, I would doubt that it’s our right to do so, and I would doubt that our efforts are helping rather than hurting. I also wish–as the conservatives often cry–that we would have some incontrovertible standard of decency… we don’t support armies that do X, period. We don’t support torture, indiscriminate killing, religious persecution, etc… I wish we could say that, essentially, with a straight face, with sincerity. I wish we had the nerve to say, at some point, “you’ve done too many bad things, you’re on your own.” But also, I think the conservative dream–a righteous one, but misguided–of a state-by-state pacification of the entire world is harmful, ludicrous, and counterproductive… you can’t make a country more peaceful by military force. All war does is legitimize thugs… that’s why it ought to be a last resort, and not the kind of rush it was in Iraq (rather than a careful, reasoned approach to the threat Saddam posed to the entire world, and not just us).
(I’m not saying our soldiers are “thugs,” I just think that when we declare war on a country we legitimize its thugs by making them look like soldiers. That’s why I wish we never took a military approach to 9.11… al Qaida, before then, was both dangerous and pathetic. They were criminals bent on overthrowing every world government that didn’t conform to its brand of radical Islam, a criterion met by the Taliban and few others. It would have been hard to win the enormous show of support they’ve had by ordinary, young Arabs after 9.11 if we hadn’t legitimized them as an enemy by declaring war rather than persecuting them as criminals, and given them their most powerful recruiting tool possible–the romance of a battle against pervading Western influence–which has been a setback for human rights worldwide.)
So, I have to wonder. With limited money to spend on the world, and the general ineffectiveness of military intervention in even the worst situations, perhaps our military budget ought to be spent on, instead of trying to change the world in broad strokes, trying to prevent the worst atrocities from happening. The genocide in Darfur is an obvious example… I have no idea why our troops aren’t on the ground in full force there, no matter what the government of Sudan says. That’s the sort of thing we should care about. I would vastly prefer that to any attempts to overthrow leaders or change the nature of countries, no matter how brutal that nature may be. Overthrowing Saddam is the kind of delicate operation we performed with an icepick and a sledgehammer… when we try to change entire countries like that, the unintended consequences are enormous and often horrifying. Trying to change the world like this… it hasn’t worked, it never works, I’ve never seen democracy flower following American bombs. (…Actually, I take that back. Germany and Japan are famous for their successful occupations and periods of rebuilding, and for their Comeback Kid rebounds into the international scene. I would say they met two criteria–a clear and imminent danger to the United States, and an enormous and sincere commitment to the region by us in the form of the Marshall Plan–but I’m a bleeding-heart liberal, what do I know.) Perhaps we should be like Spider-Man, more judicious, finding where atrocities are happening and going to happen and stopping them. There’s an enormous ethic to going around the world playing superhero, an ethic I felt we violated with our unilateral approach to Iraq (and subsequent attempts to dissolve the government and army and turn the country into a neoconservative playground, a testbed for a hyper-liberal economy without any concern for the welfare of the Iraqi people or of the differences or nuances between Iraq and the United States). You can’t change the world, not in a night, anyway, or in one conflict… you can’t just back one side in a war and feel like you’ve done the right thing. But we can change the world, one good deed at a time…
I have to wonder, thinking about our enormously bloated military budget its many nasty international side-effects, if we ought to be more frugal, more judicious in our military spending. Maybe we ought to find the places where we know it would help, and apply it, rather than justify our thorough, ’round-the-globe military presence by saying, “well, if we weren’t there, country X would descend into madness!” We have to consider the ethic that we can’t just fix a foreign country, and when we can do something it has to be done carefully and methodically, with delicate precision, and we have to take care to win the hearts and minds of the people rather than just rack up numbers in a meaningless military battle that has nothing to do with who will win the ultimate political situation in a country.
I wonder if, instead of leaping gung-ho at things we may or may not be able to accomplish, delicate situations like in Ethopia and Somalia, if we should start with things we definately can accomplish–stopping the genocide in Darfur in its tracks, for one–and go from there… we can’t just take a direct “those guys are bad” policy, that’s an abdication of our responsibility to see color and nuance in the international scene. Our claims to be pacifying the world are hollow if we cannot fight the more obvious battles… and being stuck in Iraq has brought down our military effectiveness drastically. I worry that Iran is laughing at us as it builds up a nuclear stockpile. We look silly. We look damned ridiculous… and we have to put a stop to that.
I’ve said before, and I still believe this, that the Marshall Plan to the extreme is the only thing we can do in Iraq that can do any good… I think that the new commanders in Iraq and our new Secretary of Defense really are taking a nuanced and considered approach to the war, rather than the heinously bumbling legacy of Rumsfeld and company. It looks vaguely effective but I’m not sure how much it will work overall… a smarter military is one component, an important component, but only one. I’d like to see the military in Iraq evolve into something more like a civilian police force, again, trying to prevent the worst things from happening and then building up from there. In the meantime, nation-building is serious work and it takes quite the financial commitment… the war in Iraq is over, as far as I’m concerned. We’ve overthrown Saddam, toppled his statue and done everything we can to fight the insurgents… if we keep framing this as a fight against the terra-ists then the only logical conclusion is for us to nuke Iraq outright, to fight to the last man, and I think that’s a bad idea. Instead, the military must hold down the fort while we rebuild and make Iraq a nicer, safer, more livable place. I know that’s a pipe dream, but we’ve thrown so many hundreds of billlions at this problem to no avail already, so we should at least try my way before we give up. (And I know I said we can’t just fix other countries, but though Iraq is not like Germany or Japan in that those countries actually posed an immediate threat to us, we could at least get some kind of Marshall Plan underway before we pack our bags and head home. By the way, that’s the most important thing: we are going to leave sooner or later, and the sooner, the better. Bush is still pretending like he can fight this war forever… Whatever pragmatic solutions need to be put into place before we leave, we need to be in that mindset of we are leaving, inevitably, and we need to put those solutions into place fast.)
(And I think those solutions need to be more infastructural than military, making sure Iraq can support an economy, education and such, secular education for all, imports and exports, industry, opportunity, technology, etc…. all those things require basic things like running water and electricity, and functioning roads. We can’t end the Iraqi civil war since we’re not players in it, but we could at least create conditions for it to end more easily. Shiites and Sunnis really did live in peace before now, even while Saddam oppressed the Shiites and slaughtered the Kurds. The vacuum we created by dismantling the Iraqi government had pit brother against brother, rich against poor, Sunni against Shiite and we have only ourselves to blame. Anyway….)
Yes, again, I have sympathy for Obama’s position that if other peoples want to have a civil war, we can’t throw away our childrens’ lives to stop it… all we can do, I think, is stop the worst atrocities from happening; or, at least, we have the moral obligation to do so, and any other attempts to save the world will be hollow if we do not. I wish our government did not think it could rule or fix the world, but that’s been its mindset since our victory in World War II.
Meanwhile, what happened to the UN? My impression is that it’s basically run, now, by the countries its supposed to be persecuting, that each country (including us) that is abusing human rights claims that human rights somehow apply to other countries, but not them. Anyway… yes… I hope, like the conservatives, that we can establish some standard of decency, in Iraq, Somalia, Ethopia, and here at home… I also hope that the conservatives begin giving this standard some decisive action rather than just more talk.
EDIT: I want to be clear that I’m not endorsing the rebels in Ethopia… remember, I’m a Quaker, I don’t like violence. I just hope we remember that these are the kinds of rebels we glorify in our culture… I’m all for a moderate, considered approach, I just hope we don’t villify the rebels as “terrorists” without taking into consideration the excesses of the brutal Ethiopian regime (the one, you know, that we support with weapons, financing and intelligence).