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Insights: Politics

As the World Turns Americans, including our leaders, need to wake up to peoples and countries outside our borders
Richard Reeves
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Spacey, Jan/Feb 02

"The first thing we have to do is learn how to pronounce these names," said Charlie Rose, who is about the best thing we have on television these days. The names of places like Kabul and Peshawar and men like Burhanuddin Rabbani and Pervez Musharraf did not seem to roll easily off the tongues of the panel of pundits Rose had assembled one night to explain what television likes to call America's new war in South and Central Asia.

I wondered if he was kidding. But listening to my fellow talking heads, I realized Charlie was serious. PESH-a-war as in "mesh" and "car" seemed to be the preferred pronunciation for the North-West Frontier Province city that Pakistanis call Pe-SHOWER. Then, four weeks into the war, there was our secretary of state's references to Ka-BOOL, the capital of Afghanistan. It's actually plain old "Cobble."

I knew how to pronounce the words, and so was in small vogue on television, because I once lived in Pakistan and even wrote a book called Passage to Peshawar. That was in the early 1980s. I was there (and back many times over the years) because my wife, Catherine O'Neill, the founder of the Women's Commission for Women and Children Refugees, was working in the refugee camps outside Peshawar.

In that book, I told a story that took place in Chitral, a village on the Pakistan side of the Hindu Kush, the mountain range between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The place is not far from the lands of the Kalash Kafir, the "black infidels," where Rudyard Kipling had set his tale The Man Who Would Be King, though he had never been able to reach the place himself. The land is too rugged and is closed off from the world by snows from December to June.

One day in 1983, I was standing at the head of the Shani Bazaar, the main street of the village, watching men armed with Kalishnikov submachine guns and old Lee Enfield rifles coming through a mountain pass from the Afghanistan side, where war was raging against the Soviet Union. Many of them wore turbans, but just as many wore blue-gray synthetic fur hats taken from the bodies of Red Army soldiers they had killed. I was with a man who called himself Major Mulk, whose family had ruled this part of the mountains for centuries, since polo was invented here, or so they say. Their version, they told me, was played with the heads of defeated invaders.

I asked Mulk if the Afghan mujahideen, the fighters of the holy war, men armed and trained by his country and mine to kill Russians, were a problem for Pakistanis. "No, not yet," he said. Then he continued: "The government of Pakistan spent a long time persuading the people of Chitral to give up their guns, and finally they did. Now the Afghans come with guns. But no, it is not a problem. Not yet, because they are looking that way."

He pointed toward Afghanistan. Then he dropped his arm and said: "It's all very far away from you in America, isn't it?" I didn't answer and he continued: "But it is not as far as you think."

He was right, of course. Eighteen years later they were in my village, Manhattan.

In those years, with nearly 3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, men with money and a militant religious agenda had set up 15,000 madrassas, small religious schools where boy refugees were trained for jihad. One million fighters, their room, board and brainwashing paid for by zealous Saudi Arabians and, also, by American money channeled through the mosques and intelligence services of Pakistan.

Then there came a day when some of them decided to come and kill us.

They hated us. Their reasons were many, beginning with the fact that we were rich and secure and optimistic, and they were none of those things. But that did not matter to us, because we paid attention to them and their problems only as long as we needed the oil of their masters and the zeal of their masses to kill Russians. We turned away when the Soviets left Afghanistan, defeated, in 1988, and then the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall less than a year later.

"The End of History" we called it, the title too good to be true. It was a 1992 essay by Frances Fukuyama celebrating the triumph of the good and the just, liberal democracy and free market capitalism. We were "The Only Superpower." "The Indispensible Nation."

"What we are witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government…," he wrote to great applause. "The present form of social and political organization is completely satisfying to human beings in their most essential characteristics."

There were few cheers, though, from the places and people we left behind. No matter. Sooner or later they would see the benefits of "globalization." They would love us then and, of course, want to be like us. Now, conflict ended, we had our moat of missiles and we could finally turn inward again and glory in our own simple goodness. We could, and did, elect presidents who could barely pronounce French names -- must less Arabic slogans -- governors of Southwestern states who had rarely been outside the comfortable walls around all that is American, good and true. We elected members of Congress who had never had a passport -- and were damned proud of it! The American press closed its foreign bureaus and used the money to cover other stories: stocks, fitness, miracle drugs and Jennifer Aniston.

Meanwhile, back in the caves, among the believers and others left behind in the growth of the American empire, fundamentalist preachers, Osama bin Laden and others, found their recruits for a war against both their own ruling families and the Americans ruling a world that had no place for them. They saw America as interested only in cheap oil and the freedom of an expanded Israel. As for us, we barely noticed the "ragheads." If they had called themselves communists, we would have been ready for them. But they didn't, and our guard was down.

None of this is really new. We are a self-created nation driven to defend our own masterwork. Being an American is not a matter of geography or bloodlines, it's a matter of ideas, the rejection of Old World standards we thought corrupt. Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who came here in 1831 taking notes for his own masterwork, Democracy in America, spotted that, and had it rammed down his throat. He wrote in his diary: "For fifty years, the inhabitants of the United States have been repeatedly and constantly told that they are the only religious, enlightened and free people…they have an immensely high opinion of themselves and are not far from believing that they form a species apart from the rest of the human race." That in 1831.

By now, it has been 220 years of self-love. The second of our recent provincial leaders, the one from Texas, George W. Bush, went into the Air Force National Guard in 1968, ready to fight if the Viet Cong got to Fort Worth. He checked the "No" box when asked if he would accept overseas assignment, tried the Tequila in Mexico, and visited his father once in China. When self-proclaimed holy warriors did reach and destroy the World Trade Center, the leader of the Free World, which he seemed to think was the whole world, said he was shocked to learn that there were people out there who hated the United States and all that it stands for.

Actually, for a governor of Texas, that was progress. One of his predecessors, John Connally, serving as secretary of the treasury in 1971, offered his staff this bit of philosophy: "I'll tell you my policy toward foreigners: screw them before they screw you." In between there was the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who had gone to England once, in case the Viet Cong got to Oxford, but except for that stayed home. Later, as president, he preferred firing the odd Tomahawk missile to actually risking the loss of voters in uniform.

That triumphant isolationism was the people's choice right up until September 11, 2001. In national polling that ended on September 5, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Pew Research Center found that 54 percent of respondents declared that what happened in other parts of the world had "little or no impact on their lives." Thirty-nine percent said that the United States should "not get too involved" in foreign affairs.

Attitudes have obviously changed since the United States was attacked on September 11, but we still do not seem comfortable with the idea of empire. Perhaps we are not cut out for this line of work. As emperors, we are different from the Romans or the Mongols, the Ottoman Turks or the Victorian British. Unlike our dominant predecessors, we not only expect the world to do things our way, we expect them to love us at the same time.

Now we know some of them hate us. Many fear us. Many envy us. Yet, most, in my experience, admire us greatly and like us, at least one-on-one. But the only superpower has been minding a world of mutual ignorance. It is amazing, for instance, that we are being called infidels -- in the broadest definition of that word. In truth, the United States is perhaps the most religious country in the world, or at least in the "developed" world.

So what should we do? My answer is pretty simple: if we show a real interest in the lives and hopes of people around the world, they will reciprocate in kind. Pay attention, America.

 

Richard Reeves is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and syndicated columnist.

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