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Yesterday's homilies thrown to the bin

Yesterday's homilies thrown to the bin

Author: Sandeep Gopalan
Publication: The Statesman
Date: November 17, 2001

Introduction: US foreign policy blunders myopically on as hitherto abhorrent regimes are embraced as close allies, the blood on their hands wiped with haste, writes Sandeep Gopalan. The hold that these despots have over the alienated zealots is tenuous at best. Geographical borders are only impermeable on maps, terrorists anywhere are a threat everywhere.

Greatness is a tremendous burden. As America indulges in repeated assertions of its own greatness, allowing the word's tonic quality to soothe residual doubts, one wonders, if it is so great after all.

Its allies in Operation Enduring Freedom include Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait, and many others whose people would dearly cherish freedom, enduring or ephemeral, from their despotic rulers. Yet, US foreign policy blunders myopically on, refusing the unique opportunity presented by the horrific events of 11 September. With one fell swoop, hitherto abhorrent regimes were embraced as close allies, the blood on their hands wiped with haste.

It was forgotten that the military regime m Pakistan had been sanctioned for its cowardly coup against a democratically elected government, that a Saudi regime loathed by its subjects oiled the wheels of terrorist commerce in poorer Muslim societies, that tin-pot dictatorships in the former Soviet Union could not be trusted, and that the dearth of enduring freedom in these societies fed terror.

In fact, so shameful was the volte-face, that Britain, one of the key architects of the Commonwealth's ostracism of Pakistan after the coup, rushed to embrace the military regime, throwing to the bin yesterday's homilies on democracy.

By engaging in opportunistic alliances, the USA has merely postponed the full sweep of tenor. As the earthy proverb says, "If you lie with dogs, you wake up with fleas". The mollycoddling of tyrannical regimes and the endeavour to strengthen their sinews on a dollar diet condemn their subjects to continued deprivation and pushes them to the fringes of radicalism in search for a voice. People in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and everywhere else crave freedom as dearly as anyone in England or the USA. The thirst for liberty is the essence of the human condition. It is as inescapable as the urge to survive. By courting the enemies of the people, the USA is making enemies where none exist. The average Pakistani now loathes the USA as much as he does General Pervez Musharraf, just as the poor Iraqi, buffeted by the bullets of both Saddam Hussein and Uncle Sam, cannot tell them apart.

The fundamental folly of US foreign policy in appeasing despotic regimes and breeding hatred across the globe stems from the patronising misconception that governments determine the zeitgeist.

The fallacy of that belief is manifest. Alienating people while pleasing despots can only serve us as long as those despots last. As recent events have shown, the hold that these despots have over the alienated zealots is tenuous at best. In a world where geographical borders are only impermeable on maps, terrorists anywhere are a threat everywhere.

American foreign policy must address the root of the problem. Despotism breeds alienation and erodes the stake that people have in civil society. Denied an opportunity to participate, the voiceless Saudi, Palestinian, and Pakistani all turn to religious fanaticism to find expression. Their ire is as much against America as against their own rulers. Commingle that with the otherness that America represents, and the easier opportunity to express frustration presented by a freer society, America becomes the prime target.

Much like Roman emperors who distracted their subjects from their many peccadilloes with the stench of blood at the Coliseum, the modern day despot happily fans this hatred of America, safe in the knowledge that his hold on power is safe as long as popular ire is at a surrogate villain.

America must not be a victim of this cynical manipulation. Greatness is not created by reiteration. Nor is it a concomitant of economic prosperity. America's greatness lies in its unyielding commitment to freedom and democracy. It rests in the strength of its institutions and in the power of its ballots to humble rulers.

America's war on terror will not be won by unholy alliances with tyrants who terrorise their subjects. It can only be won by reaching out to oppressed people all over the world, and investing them with a stake "in civil society." Taxpayers demand to know why their money, in the guise of economic aid is Battening despots, and feeding their armies. If aid must be provided, let it flow to pro-democracy groups, political parties, and non-governmental organisations. Foreign policy can no longer be confined to the ivory tower. Common people have more at stake than ever before in making sure that America's foreign policy receives as much scrutiny as the debate on the tax cut. Expediently misguided follies have culminated in anthrax scares and will do so unless the hypocrisies inherent in our approach to the world are corrected.

Policy makers have shown a perverse aversion to side with the forces of moderation. Mohammed Khatami's Iran bears little resemblance to Ayatollah Khomeini's. Yet America treats it with equal disdain. Libya's Muammar Gadaffi is only marginally different from Pakistan's Musharraf America's treatment of the two is vastly different. Political parties in fledgling democracies must be supported. Groups fighting despots must be nurtured with economic aid. America must support reform efforts in backward areas.

The costs of these efforts will be far less than the costs of propping up dictators. For every dollar in economic aid that is diverted by our despotic allies into their Swiss Bank accounts, an American friend could be created in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and in every other breeding ground for terror. The torch of liberty would ignite economic opportunity and burn hatred. These times are pregnant with promise. Our politics should not be a cynical pursuit of the possible. It must he fuelled by an urge to make the impossible, possible.

It is axiomatic that Americans would not tolerate a tyrannical regime in the USA. There is no reason to do so elsewhere. The commitment to democracy must transcend borders. What is sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander. In the export of liberty and democracy lies America's true greatness.

(The author is a Rhodes scholar and doctoral candidate at Oxford University.)

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