America’s resilience and success has, at least, partly been based on the American people’s willingness to change and adjust to new situations. Realizing a position---social, political, or economic---had been wrong or had become inappropriate for changing conditions and values, they have displayed the wisdom of accepting what they had only recently considered unacceptable.
This laudable trait has not, or only marginally, ben applied to America’s foreign policy.
Yet, the world has gone through enormous changes, urging Washington to rethink its approach to the Third World.
After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union found their relations frozen in an ideological confrontation that dictated America’s behavior toward the rest of the world. As Winston Churchill had put it “an iron curtain” had fallen, dividing the world into two hostile spheres of interest. This division instigating the Cold War.
At the periphery of the two hostile blocks was the so-called Third World, underdeveloped, poor countries, most of which had recently been freed from colonial subjugation.
The contest between the communist and capitalist camps compelled Washington to concentrate on assisting Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, and a number of South East Asian countries from becoming victims of Soviet expansionist strategies. The formation of NATO, the inclusion of West Germany in that military organization, and the bloody Korean war are instances of the American determination to block the Soviet Union from infusing communism in the area where freedom and democracy was taking roots, countries which had begun thriving economically and succeeding in stabilizing their currencies.
Soviet leaders were shocked over their failure to spread communism among the working classes of the industrialized First World.
When Nikita Khrushchev assumed power in the Soviet Union, he turned his country’s attention away from the advanced industrial nations, concentrating its focus on the Third World. He made an effort to present Soviet Russia as the benevolent protector of the poverty-stricken nations.
In response, Washington changed its approach to the Third World. It was not a serious policy transformation. Money was spent without seriously trying to make a lasting economic difference in the receiving countries. And it wasn’t spent meaningfully to improve the life of the people. Without insisting on political and social reforms, the funds were channeled through the governments’ repressive institutions, making corrupt officials wealthy.
The Russians had a more controlled and hands-on approach. While project planning and execution was difficult in those countries due to lack of local infrastructure and trained personnel, Soviet personnel did plow through the problems and finished what they had started. Often they did the job without, or with little, wastage. This required them to send a large number of their own people to the receiving countries, something the U.S. suspected as attempts at influencing the locals. And so it probably was---partly.
The general population in those countries often interpreted Westered lax supervision of projects and uncontrolled handling of financing them as disdain for their country and disregard for their well-being. Western disinterest---or what was perceived as such---had caused more hard feelings toward the U.S. and its allies than appreciation for what their expenditures and work did for the peoples’ involved.
In the1960s, some Third World countries adopted socialist measures. Third World Socialism, an adverse attitude toward private enterprise, became the norm in many underdeveloped countries. Government policies and rhetoric aimed at creating hostile emotions among the broader population for the business-owning sector. In some cases, laws were enacted to limit private companies to a certain gross revenue. Firms that exceeded that limit were partly nationalized to make them conform with the newly decreed laws.
The 1970s was the peak of Soviet expansion in the Third World. America’s Vietnam war came to a harrowing conclusion. Countries such as Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Egypt and others openly identified with the communist camp.
In the waning days of the 1970s, the Red Army invading Afghanistan, the first time after World War II it had entered a country outside the Soviet Block.
A year after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan Ronald Reagan entered the White House. He realized that the Soviet Union could be hurt in Afghanistan and was prepared to risk a major confrontation with the communist state by helping the Afghan resistance. He almost singlehandedly---most of Washington establishment did not believe the Soviet Union would ever leave Afghanistan---forced upon the administration a massive covert operation in support of the Afghan Mujahidin.
As the Red Army got increasingly bogged down in Afghanistan, President Reagan saw two possibilities: First the war there offered the U.S. an opportunity to pay back the Russians for their support of the Vietnamese communists during the Vietnam war. Second, he perceived, somewhat vaguely but correctly, that the cost of the Afghan war could bankrupt the Russians. While arming the Afghan resistance, he also initiated a costly arms-race with the Soviet Union.
As the result of the costly war in Afghanistan and the pace of keeping up with the arms race the U.S. had imposed on it, the Soviet Union collapsed under its own bankrupt economy.
The end of the Afghan war of resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan brought to the foreground the next phase of trouble that would confront the United States. The war had been given a strong religious motivation by declaring it the war of believers in God against the godless communist philosophy. No doubt this was a strong motivational factor. However, over the years it also made many Moslems believe that at this moment in time they were the chosen people to sacrifice their lives for God’s cause. Especially, their somewhat bombastic leaders came to believe that they were truly the chosen few and would be celebrated on the world stage as leaders who saved the world for God.
As is often the case, things happened differently. Two things transpired.
First, drunk with its unexpected success of winning the long-running Cold War, American policymakers lost interest in the Third World and determined it would be more efficient to invest its monetary and human resources in the recently-freed communist countries of Europe and Asia. In that vein, Washington abandoned Afghanistan and left that physically broken and financially broke country to its own devices.
Second, the Mujahidin’s victorious entrance into Kabul soon turned ignominious. The self-declared holy men behaved ungodly when they got their country back. They embarked on a vicious civil war for power over a destroyed country and destitute people.
Washington, tired of dealing with the intractable Afghans, left it to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to pacify Afghanistan.
With Saudi Arabia’s financial support, Pakistan organized thousands of Afghan men and the Taliban came into being. The only world these young men knew was the limited and unsatisfactory life of the refugee camps in Pakistan. The only education they’d had was Wahhabi Islam---a backward and fiercely self-righteous form of Islam---that Arab teachers in Arab-financed Madrassas had taught them.
Except for a small area in the north of Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden had won a country that provided him the space he needed to train his fighters and plot his degenerate plans.
Money never seemed to have been a problem. Disaffected rich Arabs, of whom there are plenty, found it, for one reason or another, useful to financially back those extremists.
Thus, the first ill-omened steps were taken towards the dark day now known as 9/11.
The division and deadly hostility between the two blocks of communism versus capitalism no longer exists, The Third World has become the notorious center of tension and confrontations. These elemental changes require the United States to rethink some long-established approaches in its foreign policy.
The war in Afghanistan is the longest war in the history of the United States and has cost the American taxpayer over $ 1 trillion. According to recent reports, the Taliban govern in over 40 percent of the country’s districts.
Fearing the government’s collapse or the eruption of another all-encompassing civil war, the U.S. finds itself locked in in a virtually endless and expensive situation of keeping at least 10,000 American soldiers in that country and having to subsidize an aimless, ineffective, and corruption-ridden government.
The war in Iraq has destroyed a country and plunged it into a civil war with no end in sight. Syria lies in ruins and millions of Syrians have taken the hard and often degrading predicament of becoming refugees.
Al Qaeda is not dead. It is active in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. ISIS, a new wildly savage terrorist organization, operates in the Arab World and Afghanistan.
Fearful of Iranian expansionist designs and growing Shia influence in the larger Middle East, Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-majority country, has started a war against a Shia uprising in Yemen, a war it financially cannot afford and militarily will not win. This direct Saudi interference will cause terrorist organizations, which the Saudi royal family had kept away from its country by secret monetary bribes, will likely discontinue that agreement taking their destructive activities inside Saudi Arabia.
If history is a guide, the likely disruptions and uncertainties within Saudi Arabia will cause the general public, which abhors the corrupt and oppressive royal government, to rise. And the U.S., which has been supporting the Saudi Regime since the late 1940s, will have another civil war---which should be none of its business---to deal with.
After the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, American foreign policy has not been on the right side of history. The deadly confrontation between the opposing ideologies of communism and capitalism had come to an end. The pressure to gain allies in the Third World in disregard of the way their governments governed and treated their people had evaporated. The Cold War was won. The U.S. emerged as the supreme power in the world.
That was the time to cease working with oppressive regimes. That was the time to act against corruption. That was the time to communicate with the people in those countries, letting them know in clear, unmistakable terms that America did not approve of their governments.
It now is high time for the United States to send forth the word that it will only support governments that respect---not just in words but also in deed---human rights, the rule of law, freedom of expression, and pluralist institutions.
The support of dictatorships in the Third World has almost always drawn the U.S. in local wars, caused unnecessary military expenses and enormous costs in subsidies. It’s time to put an end to all that.
In fact, the U.S. can neither afford that policy financially nor humanly. It is the largest debtor nation among the advanced, industrial nations. It can pay for its massive trade deficits only because of the dollar’s unique position of an internationally accepted clearing currency. That may not last forever. To prevent that from happening or to be prepared for that moment, the U.S. should bring its expenses under control, strengthen its industrial base, and live within its means.
From a human point of view, it must identify with the people of the Third World rather than supporting regimes which, according to American laws, are criminal enterprises. Stability and progress has always been and will always rest with the people.
The step that American foreign policy must take is to accept those backward people as humans equal to its own citizens and the citizens of the First World. Words are not enough and the Third World populations don’t believe them anyway. Action must speak the language of this necessary and just change.
Nasir Shansab has maintained homes, business interests and dual citizenship in both the United States and Afghanistan for the past three decades.
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