Small World: Unruly youth and our discontent

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht
BN Columnist

Ferguson and Hong Kong, Egypt and Syria, Tehran and Palestine, Ukraine and Iraq and Turkey. The list is long. These are the sites of youth-led demonstrations or violent confrontations with regimes. What do these places have in common, if anything? Should there be a common U.S. policy for dealing with them?
As we look around the globe, Washington still thinks it is challenged by enemies like those we fought in two world wars and in Korea and prepared for in the Cold War — wars with nations that have proper (if weaker) armies, air forces and navies. We actually fought one of those state enemies when we attacked Saddam’s Iraq. But that conflict quickly became one of our more frequent sorts of engagement — a struggle against guerrillas, who oppose us or against groups waging civil strife.
We have engaged persistently with these “forces,” but have never emerged triumphant. Too hard to figure out the roots of their conflicts and how we can influence outcomes. Ill equipped with languages and cultural understanding, we are easily misled and manipulated by those with selfish purposes.
One thing these internal quarrels have in common is that the young combatants are not confused by acknowledged ignorance or doubts. They are certain they have the right answers. Those who differ from them are, accordingly, fraudulent and traitors. Compromise is not mentioned in their manuals. Patience is not classed as a virtue.
Of course, the differences between various rebels are huge: Hong Kong protestors are non-violent; ISIS celebrate themselves as cold-blooded terrorists; Ferguson rioters revel in looting. And the responses of besieged governments differ as well: civil war in Syria, patient (less and less so) waiting in Hong Kong; U.S. bombing raids in Syria and Iraq. We shall eventually see whether slogging away at civil war works or whether bombs kill innocents and, thus, recruit new fighters to join ISIS or like-minded America haters.
Of all the Middle Eastern regimes under siege, probably Iran has fared best and is the most stable. Its revolution having faded, Tehran remains rough and determined to preserve order and continuity. Grudgingly, it extends some small measure of respect to minor opponents. Egypt, Turkey and Israel appear to their enemies as oppressors and will be resisted as such. The latter two appear to the Kurds and Palestinians as foreign masters who can never be accepted. While deploring the regimes’ harsh tactics, Washington tries to maintain some distance from them.
So what lessons should we draw from this unfortunate history of our involvement? What should be the American role in these internal struggles? In two words: Stand clear. We should have learned that we cannot prevail; trying to do so only adds to the bitterness and frustration and the death of thousands of ordinary folk. To look closely into the internal strife of others should lead us to recognize that the United States has little real national interest in most conceivable outcomes.
What then of rebellions at home, which compromise our core interests as a world leader? How should we respond to the Ferguson and similar uprisings? Plainly, there are a host of factors that have led to the riots. Racism, poor economic conditions, weak educational preparation — these root causes, unhappily, are long standing and cannot be easily and quickly fixed.
In the present circumstances, it seems to me, President Obama has taken the right approach. He has talked as a concerned citizen to people across the spectrum in this crisis of race relations. And he is attacking the one element that can be set right with intelligent effort: Bitter Black-police relations. The first stage must be to recognize there is a problem. Then, dealing with it through diversity recruitment and training becomes an obvious necessity for both sides. It can be done. Persistent effort will make a difference.
Finally, a last and, to me, obvious lesson on dealing with civil strife abroad: What can’t be changed must be endured. No modern citizen, Western or Eastern, wants to see the Taliban or ISIS exercise power. But neither that citizen nor his government should inflict the ruin on ordinary lives that futile and endless fighting will bring.
Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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