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REFLECTIONS: On Recent History

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections This is known as backing into a column, taking the long way round to say what I want to say. For I need to clear up some relatively recent history lessons that seem to be clogging the American memory, even that of our president and his policymakers who I believe are making some terrible mistakes, perhaps because they have too little hindsight.

It’s a story about how enemies became friends and vice versa, and why we’re in endless wars of someone else’s choosing, and a dangerous standoff with a nation that represents one of the oldest civilizations on earth.

Even as a teenager on the streets of Brooklyn, I was deeply interested in foreign affairs. I lived in a polyglot, mostly Jewish neighborhood with its share of socialists, communists, liberals, Trotskyites, a few misguided Republicans and ardent unionists who worked in the garment trades.

Like the adults, who argued politics on the nearby boardwalk, we kids gathered on the streets to talk about what was going on in the world. We knew quite a lot, for the world was in the midst of a slow motion explosion towards total war.

We had listened to the reports of the Japanese rape of Nanking in the Thirties. We had relatives who had gone off to fight for the Loyalists and against the Nazis in Spain 1937. We heard what the Nazis were doing to Jews. We argued over the 1939 Soviet-German non-aggression pact that made war inevitable.

Some Soviet sympathizers among us said the Russians were merely protecting themselves for the inevitable showdown with Hitler. In our own way, my friends, Bobby, Irwin, Howie and I were quite sophisticated. Several of them later went to fight in World War II and Korea.

Our elementary and high schools’ civic classes kept us up on the progress of the European war and at our graduation from P.S. 225, we sang the songs of the American military (Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder, Anchors Aweigh, The Caissons Go Rolling Along, along with the British, French, Soviet and Chinese national anthems.)

As I think I’ve related, I was in high school when the United States joined the Soviets, the British and French to fight the Germans and Japanese. But for Jews, Germany was the real enemy. When I wasn’t out picking up and delivering clothes, I followed the war in Europe on the map my friend Itzik, the presser, had pinned to the wall at the Manhattan Beach tailors Sinowitz & Lesser where we worked.

Years later, after a couple of years in the Army during the Korean War, I kept my nose into foreign affairs as a young reporter for the Houston Chronicle, interviewing such luminaries as the then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, J. William Fulbright, William Buckley and Socialist leader Norman Thomas.

I got an even more impressive education in foreign and national security affairs during my year as a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1962-3, where I studied with Henry Kissinger who became Secretary of State and National Security adviser under Richard Nixon, and with Jerry Ford and Mort Halperin who was to join the Clinton administration and a host of academics who taught and wrote about the Cold War era Soviet Union, the history of its communist party, the rise of Mao Tse Tung and the leaders of Africa struggling to emerge from colonialism.

I was privileged to attend a luncheon with Soviet journalists in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. They were as frightened as we were at the possibility of nuclear war.

But the most cogent lesson for today came from Professor Stanley Hoffman who taught a course entitled “War,” which surveyed man’s greatest folly from the Peloponnesian War, between Athens and Sparta (431-404 BCE) to Korea. We read Pericles’ famous funeral oration, which has been compared to the Gettsysburg Address, which mourned the Athenian dead but cautioned that war should not be so loved as to consume the society and democracy that was ancient Athens.

I have recounted my own knowledge so that I can add some context to three conflicts of today that threaten to consume our democracy.

Much of our democratic ways have already disappeared. Does anyone remember the background of our dangerous standoff with Iran, nee Persia? In 1953, the United States was frightened that democracy had broken out in Iran, which is rich in oil and has a long border with our then arch enemy, the Soviet Union, which was friendly with Iran.

The popularly elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossaddeq, was not exactly pro-Soviet but he was a secular nationalist, backed by communists. But the Iranian parliament committed the sin of nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, 85 percent of whose profits went to the British. The U.S. could not abide that in a country bordering on and friendly with our enemy.

Mossaddeq visited Washington and assured the U.S. that the oil dispute could be settled. He got support from the Truman administration. But with the Cold War at its height and the Korean War raging, Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, through the CIA operating out of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, set about to destabilize the Mossaddeq government and succeeded in staging a coup and jailing the prime minister.

In 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called it a “setback for democratic government.” But here was another case in which the U.S. was not prepared to live with democratic government. (Think of Chile and Salvador Allende).

The U.S. promptly installed the former monarch, the Shah, a thoroughly corrupt but westernized despot who took billions from Washington, including arms, to live in a lavish life style while he cracked down on the fundamentalist clergy and the youth.

On New Year’s Day, 1978, Jimmy Carter toasted the Shah’s “brilliant leadership” And when the Shah, who was emotionally fragile, became terminally ill, Carter invited him to the U.S. for treatment.

That, as much as anything set off the 1979 revolution in the streets of Iran which brought the fundamentalist clergy under Ayatollah Khomeini back to Iran from exile in France to rule Iran as a theocracy.

It was not surprising when, later that year, the young revolutionaries who remembered 1953 and helped oust the Shah, attacked the hated U.S. Embassy and took 444 hostages with one aim - to embarrass the United States and kill the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The crisis ended, as you know, the moment Ronald Reagan was sworn in. But the U.S. wasn’t through punishing Iran, its former friend.

In 1980, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran and after the initial success of the invasion, Iran repulsed the Iraqis and the two nations settled down to a devastating and bloody eight year conflict. But because Iran had been so hostile to the U.S., and it bordered the Soviet Union and had all that oil, the Reagan administration recognized Iraq in 1984. The Soviets had supported a U.N. cease-fire demand and cut off aid to both countries. But the U.S. defied the U.N and took side - against Iran.

I have a picture dated December 20, 1983, when special U.S. envoy Donald Rumsfeld met with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and promised American support for Iraq. More than that, the U.S. gave Hussein billions in economic aid, tactical and intelligence support and some weapons of mass destruction - the chemical agents, anthrax, West Nile fever, botulism - which was used against Iraqi Kurds. That aid continued through 1992.

That cozy relationship helped give Saddam Hussein the mistaken impression that his invasion of Kuwait could go unchallenged. Indeed, the U.S. representative in Baghdad, April Glaspie, was criticized because she had not warned Iraq strongly enough to stop Hussein's threatened takeover of the oil fields of Kuwait.

The elder George Bush hesitated before he was goaded by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to show some spine. I was covering this story when Secretary of State James Baker formed the coalition, including key Arab states, to push Iraq out of Kuwait. He and the elder Bush kept their promise to the coalition by pulling away from Baghdad and leaving Saddam Hussein in power once Kuwait was saved.

Soon, our former friend, Iraq, became our convenient enemy, although it did nothing to threaten the U.S. But it enabled Bush’s prodigal son to complete his father’s war, against the advice of Baker and other advisors to Bush I.

The only weapons of mass destruction Iraq had were those the U.S. gave it. But since 2003, the folly of the war against a former friend has cost more than 5,000 American lives, 31,000 wounded, an estimated $2 trillion and countless Iraqi dead and maimed. And it’s still not over.

But the war in Iraq was of a piece and a sequel with the long war we have fought in Afghanistan, for both have their roots in the Cold War. Afghanistan, another land that borders the Soviet Union, had been on more or less friendly relations with the Russians since 1920. The pro-Soviet regime in Kabul rankled the U.S., but it was a period of stability in Afghanistan with women achieving a measure of western style freedom. But as in Iran and Iraq, the fundamentalist Muslims of the mujahadeen, which became the Taliban, resisted this westernization – with help from Robert Gates’s CIA.

When the Kabul regime and its People’s Democratic Party were threatened, the Soviets (provoked by the U.S.) invaded in 1979. Jimmy Carter ordered the U.S. to help the mujahadeen which were romanticized by American correspondents.

You know the rest. The future Taliban, was supplied with Stinger missiles by the U.S. and ultimately the Soviets were forced to withdraw in 1989, leaving the Democratic forces there with no defenses against the Taliban.

In the wake of the Soviet withdrawal, which was celebrated by the U.S., the Taliban gave Afghanistan a taste of 12th century government, re-enslaving women, wiping out democratic values and the best of Afghanistan’s past glories. In the vacuum, Osama Ben Laden was free to do his dirty work and killed one of his rivals.

POST 9/11
Then came 9/11 and the U.S. reaction was like an irrational spasm, a great temper tantrum. Instead of treating it as an horrible crime, the U.S. declared war on a nation. Instead of using our intelligence sources to go after the criminal perpetrators, the richest nation on earth sent bombs and missiles against the poorest of nations and its innocents. We and they are still dying - for no reason.

Because part of the band of jihadist guerrillas, which the U.S. had sponsored, lived in Afghanistan, Americans were eager to bomb that misbegotten country “back to the stone age,” as if it weren’t already there.

And instead of treating the 9/11 attack as a terrible part of the war against American policy, the U.S. launched this endless war on terrorism which has consumed parts of our democratic traditions as well as our treasure and countless lives. By conservative estimates, the actual cost of the wars on terrorism since 2001 is more than $1.2 trillion; Iraq, $736 billion; Afghanistan, $286 billion - and still counting.

Even now, Dan Froomkin reports in the Huffington Post, the U.S., with 137,000 troops in Afghanistan, intends to remain there for at least another four years in spite of mounting evidence that Afghanistan cannot be saved from itself. In the past, the Soviets left Afghanistan, the British left Afghanistan when it was no longer tenable, and the French left Algeria. We have lost 1,200 men and women to the Taliban and casualties mount higher every month, along with suicides.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote on July 29,

“The war in Afghanistan will consume more money this year than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War–combined....The war on terror, including Iraq and Afghanistan has been, by far, the costliest war in American history aside from World War II...

“One legacy of the 9/11 attacks was a distortion of American policy...Under Mr. Obama, we are now spending more money on the military, adjusting for inflation, than in the peak of the Cold War, Vietnam War or Korean War.

“Our battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined...The military has more people in its marching bands than the State Department has diplomats. The intelligence apparatus is so bloated that, according to the Washington Post, the number of people with ‘top secret’ clearance is 1.5 times the population of the District of Columbia.”

With so many people gathering information on millions of us, including our phone calls and e-mails, and with so many people in uniform here and throughout the world, Barack Obama’s war on terrorism without end, despite his best intentions, may have become a greater danger to American democracy than the plotting of any terrorist.

Remember Pericles: “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

Or perhaps the last Rubaiyat quatrain of the great Persian poet, mathematician and astronomer, Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), would be appropriate:

The Moving Finger writes: and having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ms. Sue Dough Nym: A New Old Me


Thanks for the synopsis of this situation where we find ourselves. It is important to keep it in context of how we got here. It does make a person shake their head and think what a terrible, terrible waste.

I know you were shortening the fall of the Shah but having read some books about what it was like in Iran under the Shah and how even the intellectuals welcomed Khomeni's return, some of what happened was not just our fault but also because of the brutality of his regime. If he had not had his torturers and prisons, he might have lost power sooner, who knows. It was though what turned the country against him. It was what he was pressured to let up on, but when the iron fist loosens, it usually doesn't bode well for it. The people though who actually wanted Khomeni didn't have a clue what was coming and how difficult life would soon become for them.

In a personal narrative mode, you probably read 'Reading Lolita in Tehran' and saw the documentary film by the woman who welcomed Khomeni before finding she would be driven from her own country which led to her making this film about the Shah's widow putting it altogether. Too often people are encouraged to accept something worse for what they have seen as an evil and it gets them deeper into a morass that is impossible later to pull out of.

Good perspective and history lesson, Saul.

I have all but given up making sense of Obama's continuance of the Bush administration's war on the Middle East. Granted, I don't sit in the Oval Office so not privileged to the secret information presidents receive, but I am disappointed to say the least.

Another excellent post, Saul. I have e-mailed it to others and posted it on Facebook. Everyone should learn from history or we are "doomed to repeat it."

Sing it Saul! We who can see our democracy eroded as the national spriit is shaken must never stop speaking up!

Thank you for sharing this information, Saul. Your vast knowledge is a treasure and I think you are correct that this current administration lacks a depth of hindsight. Yours is a perspective that we could all benefit from if only the government knew how to understand its value and utilize it.

I sense a foreboding in reading this string of historical events, however. We have some things to answer for and it seems instead of learning our lessons, we obstinately continue to dig a deeper hole to fall into. In reading this I'm reminded that these are precarious days for democracy and, while I hope for the best, I have to say I will not be surprised should we suffer even more losses.

I agree! Speak up!

I often think of the lines from Shelly's Ozymandias -

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

and wonder how soon our civilization will be headed for its final collapse.

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