Journal: News & Comment

Monday, September 16, 2002
# 10:31:00 PM:

Lessons unlearned

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From The Age in Australia, via Doc Searls:

[In the Cold War,] because the United States did not attack the Soviet Union, space was left for an anti-Soviet Russian democratic populism under former president Boris Yeltsin. This also played a central part in the Soviet Union's collapse.

If, by contrast, the US had been seen by ordinary Russians to threaten Russia itself, there would have been a tendency for nationalists to rally behind the Soviet state, with disastrous consequences.

Today, we are told that the US wishes to bring democracy to the Arab world, which is a worthy goal. But does anyone really think a successful democracy can be imposed on the Arabs by armed force, especially when most Arabs see US strategy as guided by Israel, a state whose policies they regard with loathing?

[...] the truly crazy aspect of Bush administration policy [is that the] three forces targeted as enemies have all fought ferocious conflicts with each other. The Sunni fundamentalism represented by Osama bin Laden, the Shiah religious nationalism of the Iranians and the radical secular Arab nationalism of Saddam Hussein are not allies but natural enemies. To bring them together requires something approaching suicidal genius on the part of the US administration.

The article also mentions the Marshall Plan, which reminded me of the current controversy over Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's comments about the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Here's what he said:

I do think that the Western world is getting to be too rich in relation to the poor world. And necessarily, you know, we're looked upon us as being arrogant, self-satisfying, greedy, and with no limits. And the 11th of September is an occasion for me to realize that even more.

Some politicians, commentators, and relatives of 9/11 victims have excoriated Chrétien for that statement. Others, sometimes surprisingly, defended Chrétien, notably former Prime Minister Joe Clark of the Conservatives:

There is a direct relation between the roots of terror and the existence of poverty and despair. I don't think there's much disputing that.

Stephen Harper, leader of the opposition Canadian Alliance, was vehement that the prime minister should apologize, saying that his:

[...] comments [...] blaming the victim are shameful. What was behind the events of September 11 are the forces of evil and hatred. These must be resisted by free and democratic societies and their leaders. [...] There is no western responsibility here.

I think Harper's opinion, in particular, is a dangerous one. Yes, of course, the terrorists were evil and full of hate, and we must resist them. But that's too simplistic, and cuts off real thinking about the issue. Instead, let's go back 83 years, to the Treaty of Versailles, which established the terms of settlement after World War I. (Run with me here, this will make sense.)

Although its terms were not as extreme as some wanted, Versailles landed fierce punishments upon Germany, the loser of the War. The resulting gutting of German industry and the country's economy led to widespread unrest, poverty, and great resentment. One of those convinced that Germany had been stabbed in the back was Adolf Hitler. He resolved to do something about it, and the result was the deaths of tens of millions of people two decades later.

Few would have predicted that outcome, but the Allies learned their profound and bitter lesson after World War II. Instead of squeezing Germany and Japan, the losers this time, as punishment for their misdeeds, the U.S. helped rebuild their economies. The Marshall Plan in Europe included Germany, and Occupied Japan also received assistance. And now we have Audi, Lexus, Volkswagen, Toyota, Zeiss, Nikon, Grundig, and Sony.

While the situation in the Middle East and Central Asia is certainly different (some would say too different), the rationale behind post-WWII reconstruction was sound.

We cannot forget that. The U.S. is not to blame for September 11, any more than the Allies at Versailles were to blame for Hitler's genocidal Jew-hating and Aryan expansionism. Neither could have been predicted in advance. History is contingent, yes, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from it. The best way to fight terrorism is to drain the swamp -- to help alleviate the feelings of powerlessness, despair, and resentment that come from corruption, decay, and oppression and lead to indiscriminate ideological killing. Had Germany been rebuilt in 1919 instead of 1947, things might have been very different.

Jean Chrétien was not blaming the victim. Like all of us, he was asking, Why did this happen? What can we do to stop it from happening again? The answers are not simple. There may have been no direct western responsibility for the September 11 attacks. But that doesn't mean we have no responsibilities now. We had them before too, and we neglected them. Now it's time to pay attention.


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