Small World: The history trap


Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

It’s a great and tragic mistake that whoever it was who designed the Holy Land and the surrounding region did not equip its inhabitants and meddlers therein with a huge time erasure mechanism so that when history goes wrong it can be undone and restarted. If we could just turn events off, wait a moment or two and turn the flow back on again. Get a fresh start, as the computer repairman instructs us.

Click, click…click, click.

We should probably go back to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, but forget about the Romans and Cleopatra or the Crusades: There’s enough work cleaning up the various imperialisms of the 19th and 20th centuries — especially the British-French boundary drawing, divvying-up exercise at the end of World War I — and then the U.S.-Russian proxy tussles after World War II.

But to the point: this spate of wishful thinking is occasioned by the royal and semi-fascist messes the United States presently finds itself bound up with. Nowhere else on the globe does Washington find itself hooked up with regimes which are so distant from our values and goals and which, taking our many kindnesses in their haughty and dismissive stride, ignore our ideas and requests. Look around the region.

For decades we have had a mutually beneficial thing with Saudi Arabia: They keep the oil flowing, we defend them (from foes mainly imaginary). They’re hardly democratic or observant of human rights ideals, but they do stand for stability. Of late, however, there’s a new, dark element on their sands, which threatens the region and us. The extreme, fundamentalist Wahhabi sect of Islam supports the Saudi monarchy (despite its obvious defects) in exchange for financing and projection of their schools and mosques from Pakistan to Kosovo. Probably the most dangerous farm team system for terrorist youth in the world. The Sunni Wahhabis hate the Shia (Iran) and so we have Saudi Arabia and its Gulf friends funding the Islamic State in its war against Iran’s friends in Syria and fighting a murderous war (using our aid) in desperately poor Yemen. (Oh, if we could but start over and avoid over-commitments!)

Meanwhile, our (more or less) archenemy Iran is far in advance over Saudi Arabia in education, elements of democracy, opportunities for women and other features of a modern state. Far from ideal, to be sure. Washington used to be close to Tehran — too close as the revolution proved. But now, I submit, it is a better fit for our regional policy than Saudi Arabia. Again, the weight of history impedes sensible policy.

From Iran one moves to Israel, the two sworn enemies. Israel’s aggressive regime, we learn, almost struck Iran militarily over the threat of a developing nuclear weapons program. (In my view, a false, fabricated alarm from leaders who require an enemy for domestic political reasons.) For decades the United States nudged Israel towards ending its occupation of Palestine and starting an accommodation with its Arab neighbors — in response we hear from Jerusalem only fake rhetoric and violence. Now, Prime Minister Netanyahu has taken an outspoken fascist as his Defense Minister. A history of coaxing and generous aid has netted us a toxic partner.

Which brings us to Egypt, a country we have also showered with aid (though not as generously as prosperous Israel.) And the payoff? A military regime more cruel than any in the nation’s history. Funded by Saudi Arabia, Egypt could come to haunt us in the years ahead if it goes the way of Syria or Libya. Those two countries are kind of like Bre’r Rabbit’s briar patch — you take a little swing and pretty soon you’re snared by history and can’t struggle free. If we were able to erase history, undoing the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq would be biggest forms of present relief.

And surely guided by hindsight, we would have done better with Turkey, which helped build up the Islamic state and keep Kurds beaten down.

I could go on describing how history has distorted the future and dashed dreams. But let a single sentence sum up: We have been betrayed by those we trusted and relied on; we have been better served by those (Iran) we denigrate. Is it any wonder that President Obama wants to pivot U.S. policy toward Asia?

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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