Friday, July 1

America do not break the Law of Leaving again

"Are you sufficiently recovered from Batchelor double whammy night to discuss the call for a timetable for US troop withdrawal from Iraq? The call is also coming from some on the GOP side of the congressional aisle.
Tom in Sioux City"

Dear Tom:
The calls are coming from Americans who are not in touch with how human nature impacts foreign relations. I could make this explanation easy by asking you to watch a 1970 film by Gillo Pontecorvo that got very little play in the United States, even though Marlon Brando had a lead role. The film is called "Burn!"

If you watch that film three times, then even if you know nothing about the Colonial period, you will know in your gut why the US would be loco to pull out of Iraq until that nation is fully on its feet.

More than any other film I've seen on the topic of Western colonialism, Burn! points up the profound sense of betrayal that colonized people felt when they realized the colonizers were cynically abusing the role of chieftain.

Peoples in old parts of the world are used to conquest. But in tribal societies the conquest is interpreted as saying, "I am the new chief." The chief has a father role; he can be a very cruel father but people accept conquest by according the conqueror the father role.

The European colonizers knew all that, but the colonizations were carried out greatly for business interests. So to the extent the colonizers adopted the chieftain role, it was a sham in many cases. They were intent on "managing" the locals, not being their dad.

I interject that I don't like to talk much about the Colonial period because we're in an era where it's important for peoples in the developing world to leave behind the Victim mentality. A lot of people in previously colonized lands have come to realize this. And it can be hard to talk about colonization without bringing up severe abuses of power, which distorts the real situation on the ground. Many of the tribes who were colonized probably wouldn't be here today without the Western imperialists stepping in.

However, it's critical for Americans to understand something of that period, and to realize that the worst anger against America has come not from our meddling but from a sense of betrayal when the US stepped in, then left before the job was done.

To this day, there are Pakistanis who cannot speak without their voices shaking in anger about the US leaving them in the lurch; this was after we finished with Afghanistan when the Soviets pulled out. Of course from our side it wasn't leaving them in the lurch. But I remember a Pakistani general saying that he was so furious at the US "betrayal" that he went straight out and joined a terror organization. Many in the Pak military did the same. Repeat the same story in Iraq and other places.

The US was always not so much intent on managing the peoples of the Middle East as propping up dictators, even though we went along with the West European management approach. People in the Middle East are not naive -- again, that region has known countless conquests. So they 'got' the part about the US need to prop up dictators. What they didn't get was the US coming to play rescuer than saying, "Goodbye, good luck" after shoving Saddam back over the line.

That is what Prince Bandar bin Sultan warned Bush about; he told him at the outset that if the US was going to invade Iraq they needed to see the job through.

If we pull out before the Iraqis get on their feet, our name will go down in infamy in the Middle East. The European business interests in that part of the world know this, so they are doing everything in their power to encourage the US to leave. This includes lobbying hard with US congressionals who want a troop pullout and/or who pander to those interests.

Odd how these Europeans so perfectly understood the need for the US to keep bases in Europe during the post-WW2 period while they sorted themselves out, but imperfectly understand why the US should remain a military presence in Iraq.

Of course we're making mistakes in Iraq and there's a lot of grumbling there about this. But here is a tip: the more grumbling you hear from the Iraqis, the more that means they've come to trust that the US will see the job through.

If this makes no sense, look to your heart to understand. What use is it to grumble to people you know don't give a damn about you, and who are just passing through? But once you come to trust that someone is in your life for the long haul, then you feel more free to express complaints. Isn't it so?

What's a little harder for Americans to grasp, because we are not a tribal society, is the expectations that go along with the role of the chieftain. Americans don't consider the president to be a fatherly role. This is because we have many fine distinctions in our culture about relationships outside the family; colleague, coworker, acquaintance, and so on. In the old parts of the world, there are still basically two: the Other, and Family.

So, the leader has to be fit into the family structure. If he doesn't like that role, that's too bad. It's the way things are. So either stay away -- which we can't do in Iraq because we are already involved -- or pay attention to the currents and eddies of the human heart.

The greatest anger is always directed at those we have taken into our heart, who have professed that we are in their heart -- and then turn their back on us. This anger is atavistic and accounts for some of the most brutal murders. They are called crimes of passion.

Our society has developed safety valves, including psychotherapy, to diffuse that limbic rage. But people in old parts of the world don't have that outlet. If they take you into their heart -- which is saying they take you into their family -- you need to be very, very careful about how and when you say goodbye.

Ancient cultures had elaborate leave-taking rituals for those who for one reason or another had to leave the tribe. The rituals were to assure that distance did not mean that the tribe was cast from the leave-taker's heart. I call this the Law of Leaving. Individuals and governments can be at great peril if they break that atavistic law.

All this is hard for Americans to hear because our culture is not based on a colonizing impulse. Very few Americans want to be in the Middle East. But now we are striking out on a new path. We are making commitments to engage in Middle Eastern societies in ways we've never done before. We have to accept what that means to the people we engage with. It means we are asking to be adopted into people's hearts. That is a very profound request. If people in that land come to care for us, God help us if we throw that back in their face, as we did in Pakistan -- and Afghanistan.

Again, Americans didn't think of walking away from those countries in that light. But we have to also think from the other side to understand how to proceed.

And again and again one must factor human nature into modern methods of decision making, in particular when it comes to foreign relations.

Oceans of grief could be avoided if policy makers asked themselves, "How would I like that, if it were done to me?"

To return to Iraq, at least the US military gave air support to the Iraqi Kurds after Saddam Hussein attempted genocide. The Kurds responded to the help, which was a long-term and very expensive commmitment, with genuinely loyal feeling toward the US. We should remember that lesson and what it implies.

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