Who said the war is global? Our Maghreb friends.
On the way home from an international conference on the situation in Syria, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made weekend stopovers in Algiers and Rabat to offer a few words of encouragement to our friends in the Maghreb, the Arab West or, if you wish, the African North. She may have reached home by now, or she may still be in Rabat, which is the capital of Morocco. She digs the king. So do most Moroccans, according to Palace sources. However, regional observers are still debating what she meant by that these quick visits. Shopping in a souk? Photo op with the local bigs? Courtesy call? Nod of approval for getting through the Arab spring — if such it was — unscathed? Or implicit criticism for something they did — or did not do? It is a mysterious world out there, and the head of our diplomacy does not help make it less so with cryptic pronouncements about “partnership.”
But maybe she was keeping busy to avoid the fact that no one knows what to do about Syria. And about the Middle East. And about Afghanistan. A fine mess you have got us into, as Oliver Hardy used to say to his sidekick Stan Laurel. Though who the you is in this story remains less easy to define than you might think. Does anyone recall how, or even why, we have got involved in, evidently, a series of savage wars of peace? The phrase comes from Kipling, and if you look it up, you will see he was in favor, but somewhat skeptical of the concomitant nation-building. Nation-building is scarcely an American invention. The Victorians were bullish on this. It was the responsibility that came with Empire. Kipling shared the ethos, but he knew too much about the lands of the Empire — he grew up in India — to think it was just a matter of a few well-designed USAID boondoggles, excuse me infrastructure development projects. Actually, Karl Marx credited the Raj with the only serious progress the subcontinent experienced in centuries, if not millennia: railroads, abolition (at least on paper) of suttee (burning widows), among other improvements, were not to be scoffed.
But what is our goal? Establish freedom of religion in Afghanistan and Iraq? It does not seem to be in the cards. How about clean government? Or the right to dispose of printed matter as you wish, so long as it is your own book or magazine. If the goal was to overthrow the Taliban on the grounds they were our enemies’ friends, that happened 10 years ago and counting. If the goal was to cripple al Qaeda by decapitating its leadership, the war’s over. Kipling indicates that virtue is its own reward and you might as well expect ingratitude. You have to admit that at this moment, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is difficult not to feel he was on to something there.
Ever the optimists, we Americans like to believe that we can do things differently, with different consequences, however messy the road from A to B. The historical record actually supports this view, but only if you adopt an end-justifies-the-means outlook, and take the means to mean a hell of a long time, sometimes. Yes, Vietnam is arguably much better off today than it was before we intervened in its internal affairs a generation ago. That is the conclusion reached in The Father of All Things, a superbly written memoir of Tom Bissel’s journey to understand what the Vietnam experience was all about. It is a personal book which makes no claims to grand explanations such as, for example, Mr. Podhoretz and Mr. Mailer offered in Why We Were in Vietnam and Why Are We in Vietnam? (the battling Normans, what an episode that was in America’s culture wars!) Bissel’s father, a Marine officer, received a near-fatal injury, and for years he found it difficult to express to his son what he had lived through, what he felt about our failure to see our commitment to the Vietnamese through. Finally the two men visit Vietnam together and attain a certain peace of mind about how it all adds up. This book was a favorite of H. J. Kaplan, who never got over the failure of our mission there and expressed this sense of failure in some of the most poignant pages I have read on the subject. Of course, I am partial, but my point here is to recommend Bissel’s fine book.
Because, if we are to take our recent wars in some kind of stride, we had better be prepared to wait, and while we wait, “watch sloth and heathen folly/bring all your hope to nought.” So, looking back on the wars of the Victorian era and our own experience in Vietnam, let us at least find consolation — and strength — in the long view. War is the worst breakdown of everything, and it never ends as we expect it to when we march off with bagpipes and drums. Kipling again: “If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied.” But then, it never ends, either, which is why if you want peace, prepare for war — si vis pacem, para bellum, as they say in the airborne, among other places. War is in the cards until history really ends, pace Francis Fukuyama, which it will not until the Almighty brings the flood down on us again or, as the gospel song hints, the fire.
WHAT HAS ANY OF THIS got to do with our Madame Secretary? Well, she is trying to keep our national interests in focus and defend our way of life.
This should be kept in mind by extreme right-wing pundits who have criticized and even tormented Mrs. Clinton. They never got out of their system the visceral suspicions planted by the late lamented Senator from Wisconsin regarding the “striped pants set’s” true loyalties, and they see in the ex-first lady’s present job a confirmation of some of their most gruesome nightmares, the question is this: What have you got that is better? The Quai d’Orsay? Whitehall?
The Brits exhausted themselves with their Libyan adventure, and the French are determined to cut short their Afghan mission — where their soldiers have been superb, by the way — no matter who wins the next election, actually in a few weeks. Meanwhile, however, there has been all along a front in the war on terror; in fact it preceded the fronts that we opened in Mesopotamia and the wilder reaches of the subcontinent, and it threatens the viability of our liberal democratic allies in North Africa, not to mention our liberal democratic allies in sub-Saharan Africa. Hence Mme. Secretary’s exhausting journey across those sun-filled lands.
Wish I had been there. I would have reminded her to remind her hosts that, notwithstanding the setback at the Kasserine Pass, we have been there and done that in this region, and we will again if they cannot get their acts together. She is too nice to put it that way, has a mild temper and all. But the reality is this: their share in the global war on terror is to patrol the Sahara, keeping the evil men of al Qaeda, who here are called AQMI, out. Or at least confined to the dunes. Lately they have been sallying forth, raiding the countries that border on the desert, stirring up trouble in places like northern Nigeria, where a fundamentalist group called the boko haram (loose translation: down with the West) is threatening the democratic stability, hard-earned, of Africa’s most populous country.
In the east they have emerged from ravaged, pirate-den infested, gang-run Somalia, raiding and marauding in east Africa, notably Uganda and Kenya and Central African Republic, where in response we have sent advisors and special forces to help train and support our friends. In the west they raid and maraud in Mauritania, Mali, Niger. But what anyone will tell you in any of these countries is that nothing is as it seems. The Nigerian “fundamentalists” of boko haram may well exist, but it is by no means clear, even to the Nigerian authorities, that all the attacks on Christian churches or police stations or prominent public leaders are the work of “fundamentalists” (meaning Islamists). It could be the work of gangsters cashing in on disorder, or weak law enforcement, which is almost the same.
The results of the Arab Spring, have been very mixed. Whether democracy is the winner — democracy based on freedom, that is — is questionable. Civil wars in Yemen, Syria, Libya (where it is in abeyance), Islamists on the march in Egypt: we cannot say we have much reason to cheer yet. Tunisia, where it began a little more than a year ago, voted massively for an Islamist party, which thus far has been remarkably moderate, insisting on its respect for the separation of mosque-and-state tradition in the old Carthaginian realm. At the other end of the Maghreb, Morocco’s king did his best to pre-empt demands for change by getting ahead of them, moving the country from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy, whose evolution of course remains to be tested.
Mrs. Clinton did not linger in Algeria — scarcely a quick walk down the carpet to review an honor guard and murmur a few words in the direction of “self-determination for all peoples.” To what was that supposed to refer? The emergence of these countries, and Algeria in particular, from the colonial dark ages? But that was 50 years ago. The emergence of Algerians out of the straight jackets of authoritarian single-party regimes, complete with security polices — the dreaded mukahbarat! — and controlled media? But that was all over more than 20 years, when the ruling National Liberation Front gave up its political monopoly. Unfortunately, the Islamist National Salvation Front stepped into the beach and there followed several years of mayhem.
Algeria has a large Berber population, one of whose sub-groups, concentrated in the mountainous Kabylie region east of Algiers (and in Algiers itself) often has been a fount of discontent and protest. An autonomist movement in Kabylie, the MAK (Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie), and its provisional government, the Anavad Aqvayli Uadil, wrote Mrs. Clinton a letter warning her not to trust her hosts. It scarcely would have been protocol to acknowledge it, but one cannot help wondering what she thought of it.
“…America to us, Kabyles,” — they write to her — “is the incarnation of liberty. Liberty is the heart of democratic movements.” Now then. Jefferson could not say it better, could he? Without liberty, no democracy. This is something Democrats, according to certain writers in these pages who may be a bit overexcited, but that is their prerogative, tend to forget. They confuse democracy with freedom. Not the same thing at all. Give you democracy, take away your freedom.
Now when they notice this — the Democrats, I mean — do the conservatives give them the credit? No. They find some other flaw. But Hillary Clinton pointed out right away, landing at her next stop (Rabat), that the recent democratic exercise in Syria was a “sham.” She called it a “sham” as soon as she was on the tarmac.