The American philosopher Santayana remarked â€œthose who do not know their history are condemned to repeat itâ€. As the Bush administration continues on its almost unquestioning support for the policies of the Sharon government, it appears that history, sadly, is about to repeat itself on those who do not know it.
In this case, however, the history in question is not so remote as to be dismissed as archaic or irrelevant. Just over a decade ago the US was coming to the end of a half-century of foreign policy-making in which every action was coloured by the demands of the Cold War. McCarthyism had only a brief reign of terror domestically, but its effects throughout the world were felt for the remainder of the century. Guatemala, Cuba, Vietnam, Chile, Cambodia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan. For every Frances Farmer there was an Allende or an Arbenz.
Events in these places, and elsewhere, were automatically assumed to have an insoluble and overriding Cold War connection. Local, national, religious, economic factors were dismissed as secondary, despite the often decisive evidence to the contrary. This lead to the involvement of the USA in unnecessary and unsavoury interference in the affairs of other states, compounding the critiques offered by the left in the western world, and leading to unease among US allies in Europe and elsewhere. A similar situation abounds today, albeit without the cement of the Cold War adversary to ensure ultimate unity between the US and its allies. The Cold War connotations assumed by the State Dept. and others were invariably nowhere near as prominent as the other factors listed above. Thus, the USA misunderstood the nationalist and post-colonial logic behind the rise of the Communists in Vietnam, seeing only the non-existent hand of Moscow in the rise of the Vietcong. The same logic led the USA to depose the democratically-elected President of Chile, the socialist Salvador Allende, and facilitate the coup of the disgraced General Augusto Pinochet. In Afghanistan financial and military aid was given, via Pakistan, to the mujihadeen fighting the Soviets throughout the 1980â€™s. Once the Soviets withdrew, the USA dropped the issue leaving the protagonists to fight it out in a civil war that spawned the Taliban.
Nowadays, the terrorism/non-terrorist dichotomy looms large in the American foreign policy mindset. In Colombia, the FARC are rightly demonised, while state-sponsored paramilitaries using the same terror tactics are permitted, as they fight on the side of the state against terrorism Human rights abuses and virtual genocide by the Russian state are tolerated in Chechnya, due to its rebels having proven Al-qaeda connections. Similarly, the Cold War saw the USA allying with repression in Indonesia, assenting to the invasion of the former Portuguese colony of east Timor in 1975, as well as support for the ultra-megalomaniac and murderer Mobutu in Zaire. Why? They were allies in the Cold War. Just as now, the Sharon government are allies in the War On Terror, ditto for Pakistanâ€™s military dictatorship. Not only are there moral inconsistencies at work here, there remains evidence of a serious wilful blindness that is now ingrained in US foreign policy, a carry-over from the Cold war that is apparently ingrained in US foreign policy thinking.
Such was the Manicheanism of US foreign policy during the Cold War, and such is its guise post 9/11. Instead of reds under the bed, the ideologues and hawks now have terrorists in their head. Instead of McCarthyism, there is a herd-mentality clampdown on freedom of speech and civil liberties within the USA. As the President put it, â€œif you are not with us you are against usâ€. Anyone dissenting against the tenor of the war on terror, be that by issuing doubt about the treatment of POWâ€™s in Guantanamo Bay, if that they be, or by questioning the wisdom of the apparent desire to attack Iraq at the soonest given opportunity, is deemed treacherous. American public and media consciousness has acquired a consensus that brooks no dissent and amounts to publicly-sanctioned implicit censorship. An understandable reaction to being attacked has deformed into an irrationality that threatens permissive assent to clumsy and dangerous foreign policy decisions at the White House.
The Bush speech on Palestine must be read in this context. As an ally in the War on Terror, Israelâ€™s alignment of Arafat with Bin Laden had met with the approval of the White House. Therefore, Washingtonâ€™s image, or imagining, of the current intifada and the Israeli riposte is one of legitimate self-defence versus terrorism. Domestically, American right-wing or conservative think-tanks, academics and media outlets have compounded the ascendancy gained since the election of the republican President in January 2001. In terms of the Middle East, this amounts to a bifurcated prism, where a cartoonish good versus evil paradigm derived from the war on terror is imposed on a long-running and complex conflict. Not only does this amount to a blandishment of the roots of the conflict, it places the worldâ€™s most powerful state in an intellectually-deprived and indefensible position before the whole world. When coupled with unilateralist blunders such as the derailing of the Kyoto Protocol and the threats to the International Criminal Court, the Bush speech on Palestine appears to be little more than Washingtonâ€™s exhortation of Israeli policy, not to mention a unilateral interference in the affairs of a nascent sovereign state, albeit one which is utterly downtrodden at the moment. But such actions are defensible by the logic of the war on Terror, and its antecedent mentality that predicated US intervention in a host of states throughout the Cold War.
The notion of blowback has been a powerful quasi-ideology within the foreign policy establishment . Blowback, of course, is the notion, proven in a few cases, that once the USA withdraws from or neglects a country or region that it engaged for ideological reasons then that entity spawns a reactive force contrary to US interests. The withdrawal from Afghanistan facilitated the rise of the Taliban, the end of the Iran-Iraq war allowed the erstwhile US ally Saddam turn on Kuwait, post-Cold War state failure in Somalia led to an ignominious US intervention, and so on. However, it seems that the greatest and potentially most debilitating blowback is internal to the USA. Neglect of US foreign policy assumptions has led to blowback in terms of American perceptions of the world around them. The same half-truths and intellectual glibness about America and its enemies have merely lain dormant since the fall of the USSR, only to be reawakened on the discovery of another formidable adversary. Just as the USA dropped certain countries and regions with the closing of the Cold War, it left unreformed the ideas that misinformed much of this same foreign policy. The continuation of the same dualism that coloured US foreign policy action throughout the Cold War might well prove to be the most serious form of blowback yet. This will be the case should the USA be led into more unilateralist and clumsy initiatives such as the Bush speech on Palestine, where diplomacy is set within a finite context of a war on terrorism.
Cold War actions were taken in light of a global rival in an apparent zero-sum game where no chances could be taken on the provenance of any potentially anti-western movement. The errors this pressure-ridden context spawned seem facile in retrospect, as do the concomitant critiques delivered from the safety of the present. Criticism of American policy during the Cold War belongs in history books, or even the program of the International Criminal Court, should it acquire the effectiveness intended for it. Opening old wounds rarely serves any good purpose. However when the same mistakes that caused such damage are being repeated in a new context, then perhaps re-opening of these wounds is needed to prevent fresh ones from being inflicted.