Sunday, November 13

One long summer day

I think most American adults understand by now that we spent the 1990s putting off pressing Washington to retool for the post-Cold War era, and that 9/11 was a sign we'd put things off too long. Knowing this doesn't make it easier to get through the vast and complex readjustment period, which includes a war.

I suspect no small part of the anger that's arisen among Americans about the war and related issues is rooted in impatience stemming from an uniformed assessment. We are not just engaged in a war with terrorists; we are living through the end of an era and the start of a new one.

The state of American-led institutions such as the United Nations, World Bank, NATO; the European Union and OPEC; the international monetary system; the end of the European colonialist period -- these and many other situations converged and entwined with ones that led President Bush to declare a new "axis of evil."

All this entwining is not good news for the Type-A personalities and those who like to solve one problem before moving to another. There seems at this point to be no solution, just another unraveling of another skein that leads to another ball of yarn.

Case in point: governments in developing nations set up a howl about repaying debts to the G8 nations, then it turns out that about 30% of the debt they incurred represented loan money stolen through government corruption. Meanwhile, the culprits absconded to Switzerland or wherever, or they're dead from a coup, and the legacy they left behind is a country in ruins.

If you ask, "Now they're getting around to complaining they were robbed; why didn't they do that a quarter century ago?" -- Well, it did no good to complain a quarter century ago. Indeed, it's only since 9/11 that the US government has mustered any real will to fight corruption; before that it was only token protests, token anti-corruption measures. Even today, it's like pulling teeth.

Yet once that particular ball of yarn started unraveling, governments perceived how their tolerance for corruption led to well-financed terrorists armed to the teeth.

In short, we are having to change long-entrenched 'cultures' in Washington and other developed-world capitals. And we are having to get involved with developing nations on a level we never did before.

This does not mean America is 'responsible' for the failures of the poorest nations. And none of it makes us responsible for terrorism and widescale corruption. But as the world's only superpower nation it's fallen to America to improvise a path through an uncharted era.

I've seen progress since I launched this blog in November 2004 -- in fact, so much progress it's heartening. It can take years for people to sort out things in their mind but once they get the general idea, things can move very fast.

Before sorting out must come putting attention on a situation. The impetus for many Americans to pay attention, to get involved in following world events, has been the war. The war has its good days and bad, yet there has been an a perceptible shift in opinion across the globe since the war began:

People the world over are coming to realize that you do not have to accept corruption as an inevitable fact of life; that terrorism feeds on despotism; and that democracy means you are responsible, not Them.

All the rest is slug work: pushing and pulling, prodding and nudging. Success is measured in shoring up a centimeter's worth of progress. That's how it will go for us day after day, year after year -- abroad and at home.

Women's rights is the issue I put at the top of the agenda; if roughly half a country's voting-age population can't vote, or is intimidated into parroting the male vote, you can't expect to find a large enough pool of human resources in the country to make democratic government work out in practice.

American consumers need to acknowledge the dark side of the globalized era in trade. They need to get very discriminating with their spending power and very vocal when they see American businesses betraying fundamental American principles in their eagerness to cut business deals with despots.

Consumers need to confront American businesses that act as corroborators with despotic regimes. They also need to confront American officials, academics and media figures who 'normalize' the betrayal of American principles on the lie that people living under despots are not quite ready for democracy.

The Secretary of State and the President can't do it all; a lecture on human rights goes in one ear and out the other when despotic governments see Americans eagerly buying their stuff. It's a big world; there are plenty of developing countries that are struggling to make democracy work and which have laws respecting human rights. These are countries we should buy from.

Yet the greatest persuader is to clean up our own house; we need greater external oversight of our international lending and aid institutions. If the World Bank continues to refuse an independent audit of the books, withhold US replenishments and start a USA development bank that adheres to the strictest auditing procedures.

Similarly, we need to find out how many USD billions were stolen from the American taxpayer (and the Russian people) during the 1990s as part of US aid deals with Russia -- and the part that USAID and US congressionals and lobbyists played in this grand theft.

Any such investigation will lead to the World Bank and the US Department of State, and will be very embarrassing to the American government. Yet we need to send a strong message that the American people have zero tolerance for corruption. This will pay off in countless ways. When people in other countries see Americans are serious about battling corruption, they will get up the will to make the same demands on their own governments.

Again, a few people can't do it all. If Paul Wolfowitz is to make genuinely effective changes at the World Bank, the mandarins who run the place -- and the US congressionals who serve their interests -- need to know he's got the American people at his back.

John Bolton is pushing hard for UN reforms but it helps if the mandarins who run that place see the American public cheering him on.

Americans also need to get more articulate about arguing the democracy doctrine with European allies who defend multilateralism at the expense of human rights. Let's face it, Europe's welfare system means that a lot more Europeans than Americans have time to delve into the philosophy of government and foreign policy.

There are a lot of Europeans (and Middle Easterners) who are university students for life. The American worker is at a disadvantage here. Between commuting, raising a family, working one or two jobs and taking night business courses, many Americans don't have the time to stay abreast of international affairs, much less analyze the fine points of the Chirac school of foreign policy.

But where there's a will, there's a way. One way is to become a regular listener of the John Batchelor program. This is also an investment of time because his show (including station and news breaks) runs three hours (and a fourth hour in the Washington, DC area).

Yet the length of his show allows him to provide an in-depth, coherent picture of the modern era. After several weeks of listening to his show (I joined the audience in 2003 during the first week of the Iraq invasion), I realized that the war on terror was akin to the elephant in the fable of the Twelve Blind Men.

The Talking Heads who held forth on nationally broadcast television and their press counterparts were looking at the war though the lens of their specialized area of knowledge, which effectively blinded them -- and their audience -- to the war's scope and roots.

I realized John Batchelor's show was as much a school for the mentally blind as a news program. "It's all connected," he would tell his audience back then. He was right.

The politics of oil, a world still in transit from the post-Soviet era, the history of the Middle East, the emergence of the European Union as a power, the decay of the United Nations, the tragedy of Africa, the complex history of Islam, Israel's struggle against its enemies, China and India as emerging powers, rivalries between European allies and their relationship to the US, failures and triumphs of globalization, Muslim terrorist organizations, Middle Eastern and Central Asian governments, Beltway Wars, the vastly changed US military and post 9/11 battles to modernize America's intelligence agencies and foreign office, battles in the US Congress....

All of this was not thrown at the audience in the piecemeal, disjointed fashion one finds by taking in TV news or reading newspapers. John Batchelor integrated the themes, wrested order out of the jumble of war news reports. At the same time, he defined America's challenges in the early 21st century and analyzed the war in that context.

John's empirical approach is not good news for the Democrat or Republican party machines, which run on agendas rather than facts on the ground. But I guarantee that after you listen to his show for six months you will astound your circle with your grasp of world and domestic affairs. The problem is eking out the time to listen.

One way might be listener clubs, in the manner of book or hobby clubs. One member of the club could agree to listen during a specific hour, or listen on a designated night, then report at the end of the week to the rest of the club.

Another aid is John's website, which features links to newspaper articles related to topics under discussion, and John's published reviews of books he discusses on the show. The links are found under the "Current Intelligence" section on the home page.

While these are not a substitute for listening to the show, they point you to excellent news reports on current events that need watching, and important trends.

John's show also provides, over time, many tips on good news sources, and he features some of the world's top mainstream media reporters. Listening to his show is an education in becoming a more discriminating news consumer.

Another strategy, which is so simple I'm surprised a TV producer hasn't thought of it, is to develop a sports 'scorecard' approach to following international news. This is an approach that a foreign policy club might want to use.

Make up a chart of major organizations, e.g., World Bank, IMF, UN, BIS, NATO, OPEC, etc. List their stated goals for the year, and check in routinely to see what they're up to, and score their efforts.

Same with major annual meetings (e. g, G8, World Bank).

Same with major US policy initiatives (e.g., Six Party Talks with North Korea) and check in regularly to see what's up and score.

Same with major issues in world regions.

The beauty of the scorecard approach is that helps build a coherent picture of world events. The problem with the nightly TV news is that it is event driven (and to a great extent, picture driven). This means the viewer is getting a jumble of impressions about a situation. However, if you already have a coherent picture of the situation, it's easier to fit the current reports into a pattern that leads to deeper understanding instead of confusion.

Another strategy is simply practice at following and discussing international news. If you seek out people who enjoy talking about such matters then of course your conversation level and interest will rise.

Finally, you need to muster patience. Whether it's the Cold War tribe still dug in at the State Department, or a tribe in the Middle East or wherever -- stuck in the mud tribes are all pretty much the same, at root, in their outlook.

The world outside our shores is mostly a bunch of really old clans and tribes, which didn't have the advantage of picking up and heading for the New World when things got really awful. They stayed in one place, century after century, millennium after millennium, and hacked things out as best they could.

The upshot is a bunch of stubborn, proud peoples who know they need to change, understand they need help from the most developed nations, but don't want to be bossed around by a bunch of youngsters.

When Americans throw up their hands about this, I tell them to take two viewings of Cold Comfort Farm and call me in the morning. The movie is a British comedy; a send-up of the feudal-minded farmers who managed to resist the passage of time.

None of us should be expected to display the superhuman tenacity, patience and cheerfulness of the film's thoroughly modern, city-bred heroine, as she nudges her country relatives into the modern age. It's okay to shout at the top of your lungs, "We have our own problems to deal with!"

Many a time -- many, many a time has Pundita done that. But I am reminded of something President Bush's father once said: "Ninety percent of winning is showing up."

You just need to stay in there and keep nudging because people are not stupid; eventually, they get it. Very few of the world's people are conditioned to the kind of robotic behavior that makes a suicide bomber. As for the rest -- it's just a bunch of people. If you dig into the history, you understand how people came to act as they do.

For example, many Americans are hopping mad at the Saudis for setting up a network of Muslim fundamentalist schools around the world. Hello, the American government breathed down the Saudis' neck to blow USD billions of petrodollars on setting up those networks.

Have you forgotten the Green Belt? The Cold War? Fighting the Godless Commies around the globe? Or maybe you are too young to know about that. Yes, the Saudis were instrumental in helping the NATO alliance win the Cold War.

So now we want the Saudis to fix those Muslim schools so they promote democracy, and ditch the radical stuff. The Saudis are waiting for signs that the Bush democracy doctrine outlasts his presidency. Being very knowledgeable about the way things work in Washington they are betting it will be right back to business as usual, as soon as Bush cleans out his desk.

"Business as usual" means a high tolerance for anti-democratic governments, and backing phony democracy revolutions that ramrod an American puppet into power. This, on the theory that stability serves American interests better than genuine democracy.

So we need to surprise the Saudi rulers. Doing so is not glamorous work. It requires patience and persistence, and a willingness to engage with each other and foreigners about their concerns -- and ours -- with regard to making the democracy doctrine work. And it takes a lot of listening.

I just received an email from a reader who asked, "How do you know so much?"

Partly through long practice at Common Sense Reasoning, which I discussed once on this blog. Asking yourself, "How would I feel if I were in that person's position?" won't always give you the right answer, but it creates a mental bridge to help you across the unknown.

But mostly through asking questions and listening to answers in the manner of a small child hanging on the words of a parent. Thus, I've had countless thousands of teachers in my life.

You can't fill up a full cup; in the same manner you can't learn anything if you know it all. Whatever wisdom I gained is not through book learning; I gained it by experience and a willingness to play the role of the Fool to others' Wise Person.

I spent many years taking instruction from peoples all around the world. Thus, today I cannot be beaten in a debate about democracy. When I tire, I remember that I am debating on behalf of all those believed they did not struggle in vain for a life of dignity.

The more you learn about individual instances of human cruelty and suffering, the more it's necessary to keep looking over your shoulder to see how far we've come as a race. Then you see humanity's troubles are but a thunderstorm's brief appearance on one long summer day.

Okay; now -- really and truly -- it's time for Pundita to take that vacation, or sabbatical, or whatever it will turn out to be. I will not be able to answer any more letters for a time.

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