Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Boy Who Cried Wolfowitz

In the past six months I've probably seen a dozen pieces saying essentially the same thing as this article in Tuesday's International Herald Trib.

Once upon a time the U.S. secretary of state went to the UN Security Council and cried, "Wolf!" He said that the evil Saddam Hussein had been building weapons of mass destruction and posed an immediate threat to the United States and the world. Over 1,000 American deaths later, there are no WMDs to be found.

Wrong, of course, but let it pass. From there the article recites the usual litany. The 2003 State of the Union uranium claim, "exposed as phony early on." Wrong, too, but let that pass.

The United States cried wolf, and the world shuddered and watched as the most powerful country threw its weight around and took over Iraq and all of its resources, including its future.

There were no weapons of mass destruction, but there was oil and the possibility of redrawing the map of the Middle East to suit the narrow interests of the few. The few who cried wolf in the name of the American republic. The world wondered if it could ever believe the United States again.

All the usual paranoid nonsense. The same people who have said all their adult lives that the U.S. can never be trusted, is never worth trusting, the same people who can recite chapter and verse on Chile and Nicaragua and Vietnam and Wounded Knee, now claim that the U.S. squandered a vast reserve of "moral authority" that they always denied it ever had. They've told anyone who would listen that the U.S. is a greedy criminal hyper-violent corporate-ruled empire. But it's a scandal -- and George W. Bush's fault -- that the world actually believes them.

In this case, the old double standard is put to service in the interest of blaming the suffering in Darfur on the Americans.

Yes, you read that right. Arab militias, backed by an Islamic fundamentalist government which has a major arms deal with Russia, perpetrate the massacres. The U.S. presses the U.N. to act, but the French and Chinese, with huge investments in Sudan's oil industry, keep pulling the teeth of any resolution that reaches the Security Council. Both China and Russia, meanwhile, want to reserve the right to handle their own restive ethnic minorities the way the Sudanese are. Temporary Security Council members like Pakistan and Algeria won't break with the Arab League, which wants to downplay the whole matter and prevent anything that looks like an intervention.

In this crazy world we inhabit, that is America's fault. Because, you see, "the people of Darfur cannot count on the international community to save them from genocide because the country most outspoken against Khartoum is a country that lost its credibility because it cried wolf."

What's depressing is that this nuttiness isn't spewing from some aloof Euro-intelligensia type or a conspiracy-mad "Asia Times" columnist; it's written by the "executive director of Africa Action, the oldest Africa advocacy organization in the United States." So, theoretically, this is someone who has long-term firsthand knowledge of the spirit and complexity of the American people and political scene, as well as a someone whose first mission is to help Africans. Yet all that goes out the window for the sake of a fixation with the "Boy Who Cried Wolf."

The trouble with the boy who cried wolf fable is that it presents a world where "the boy" has all the power. The sheep are, well, they're sheep. Even the wolf is obeying his natural instincts and is blameless. The people in the village do nothing until the boy sounds the alarm. They're presumably baking muffins or playing two-deck canasta, or doing whatever it is villagers in fairy tales do when they're off-camera.

Those stories they told you in Sunday school are homilies. They're morality tales for 50-year-olds. They do not stand in for a mentally muscular geopolitical vision.
There's one power, and one villain, and they unite in the boy. That's the world-view of a lot of people. The odd part is, this false fable-world is claimed by people who also claim not to want to live in that world.

Yet I think I understand that. There's a great convenience in a world haunted by a monster. Hrothgar's great hall in "Beowulf" is dreary and deteriorated. His men -- some blame-shifters and idle boasters like Unferth -- have been sleeping in outbuildings for 12 years: wise men brooding and helpless while the monster reigns. By the time the hero arrives to kill the beast not everyone in Denmark is glad to see him. Everything is simple when all failures are fault of the monster. People who like simple worlds, but are daunted by the complexity and tragedy of living in this real one, can play at being villagers in The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

"Any of the 135 states that are signatories to the 1948 Convention on Genocide could demand international intervention."

But, apparently, only one of them is capable of doing it. I thought that the unilateral world was the nightmare of the anti-Americans. So do something about it, you one-hundred-thirty-four others. Push America off to the sidelines, sit us in the time-out chair and get off your butts and solve a damn problem on your own for once. We won't stop you. France? Germany? Kofi Annan? Go get 'em, tiger. I hope it works out better than it did in Somalia and Rwanda and Bosnia, but go for it.

Oh, and thanks to the author for reminding us all of the better rationale for the legal war against Saddam Hussein. The U.S. government didn't go the "human rights" route for whatever reason, no doubt in part because of the embarrassing truth that it neglected to topple Saddam long ago, and actively propped him for years.

I think that was a mistake. I thought so, and said so, ever since I met Kurdish refugees in Germany in 1979. Plenty of people in the U.S. were calling Saddam a killer all along and denouncing the Western administrations that played ball with him. I seem to be the only one in my acquaintance who is still saying that. To the rest, the only thing worse than the U.S. backing Saddam is the U.S. not backing Saddam. It upsets the "Boy Who Cried Wolf" world.

I'd have said, suck up the humiliation of admitting we were wrong, or that we made a really ugly choice out of necessity. If you've done wrong, don't wallow in it; get up and do right instead. And it would be fair to expect people to understand that 9/11 was, among other things, a great growing-up moment for this country. Like in the other fairy tales, the more complex ones, where the protagonist learns through loss and the weak boy emerges as a man in full.

Having made a mistake for years doesn't require you to keep making it -- unless you're the world's designated Boy Who Cried Wolf. If he stops being the villain, there's no more fable. Then outside America people have to think. And sometimes act.

"But the Security Council procrastinated, preoccupied as it was with Iraq."

Oh, fer chrissakes. The Security Council was done with Iraq in April 2003, after it failed to stop the U.S. and its allies from going to war. That's about the time Darfur moved up the agenda. In the year and a half since then, the U.N. has been incapable of doing anything about Sudan? I never knew preventing the Americans and their allies from overthrowing a dictator was so exhausting. It seems the rest of the world had to take a pill and go lie down for a few years.

Honestly, if the Security Council can't handle more than one issue at a time, it really is as lame as its worst critics say.

Once upon a time, Washington could have exercised its clout as the most powerful nation in the world and handily won over the support of these recalcitrant members. But now, the country that cried wolf has lost the moral authority it needs to rally its global neighbors to real action against genocide in Darfur.

Wait a minute. You "win over" other nations with "clout"? You "rally" them with "power"? And "clout" + "power" = "moral authority"? There are a number of ways to understand this paragraph, but they don't reflect well on the author. Perhaps he thinks bullying equals "moral authority."

Or perhaps he wrote himself into a spot where he had to offer a glowing vision of America as a nation with freedoms worth admiring, a force for good in the world (only for one clause, just long enough to say, "and then it threw it all away") but he just can't bring himself to write anything so positive. He wouldn't be the first, gods know. So the farthest he can go toward expressing America's "virtues" is to write in terms of naked power.

And is genocide really something that the rest of the world won't care about unless the Americans do?

But none of that matters, because the writer is just hurrying past that fleeting vision of a decent America to get to the happy reality that the rest of the world is now off the hook for anything bad that will occur anywhere from now till doomsday.

Thus the war in Iraq has now claimed another 50,000 victims -- this time in Sudan. ... In the tale of the boy who cried wolf, it was the boy himself who suffered the consequences of his actions. This time, it's two million people in Darfur.

The author of this article wants action, swift and sure, to stem the genocide, and he wanted it yesterday. I understand that; Darfur is a crime. Yet he won't leave the comforting myth-world of the "Boy Who Cried Wolf." He wants to be able to kick the Americans for doing nothing, and at the same time scold them for losing their power to do something, and at the same time absolve the rest of the world of any responsibility for itself, and at the same time damn the United States for thinking the rest of the world can't take care of itself.

In the end, to this Africa advocate, the slaughtered Africans of Darfur are just sheep in a story that is all about the boy.