The Cost of Humiliation

Foreign Policy Journal (November 21, 2010)

Never underestimate the cost of humiliation. For in war victory is never clean, because it empowers the vanquished, or their successors, to struggle in the future. Recent wars in Iraq, on the Afghanistan-Pakistan front and elsewhere confirm this enduring, though often unheeded, lesson of history. From Alexander the Great, the king of the Macedonian Empire, nearly two-and-a-half millennia ago to date, imperial powers far afield have sent their rampaging armies to conquer and to humiliate the populations of vast fertile lands, cradles of civilization, close to the four great rivers, the Nile, the Euphrates, the Indus and the Hwang He. What transpired forms a pattern.

They include modern Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the South Asian subcontinent, Pakistan and India in particular. Amid the extreme volatility in this region there has existed something consistent throughout the last two-and-a-half thousand years and before. Alexander’s campaign of conquest finally ran out of steam on the banks of the Hydaspes, modern-day Jhelum river. His rampaging troops became exhausted. They mutinied, refusing to march any further.

Elsewhere, clans in the Kunar and Swat valleys had put up extraordinary resistance, forewarning one of history’s greatest military geniuses. However, the message from those uprisings was not enough for Alexander to overcome his own hubris. After the Battle of Hydaspes, he retreated to Persia, leaving governors he appointed in charge. But they misbehaved. Alexander was exhausted, injured, his aura not the same. He became even more brutal. He retreated to Persia and died three years after. A remark attributed to Alexander: “I am dying from the treatment of too many physicians.”

The hills and valleys of Swat and Kunar, together with vast surrounding landscapes, have been subjected to repeated invasions through centuries. Today the soil is soaked in blood spilled in violence between invaders and defenders, communities and tribes, whose fortunes and failings have attracted eagle-eyed predators far and near. And the ground is fertile for agriculture as it is for resistance. Foreign armies have found this to their detriment time after time.

Imperial Britain learned this in the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839–1842) at the onset of the Great Game with Russia for influence in Central Asia, and in two subsequent wars (1878–1880 and 1919) in which the imperial armies suffered heavy losses. In the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919, the Afghans wrested control of foreign affairs from the British, and their country became truly independent.

Each episode of history has unintended consequences. The legacy of humiliation after losing parts of the Pashtun homeland and seeing them annexed to British India lives on as Pakistan’s northwestern region today, more than sixty years after the British left and the subcontinent was partitioned amid bloodshed. The Durand Line cuts through the Pashtun tribal land under a single-page agreement signed in 1893, when the colonial British government forced the Afghan king Abdur Rahman Khan to capitulate. The line separates Afghanistan and Pakistan today.

Afghanistan still does not recognize the border and few Pashtuns on either side care about it. Movement of people and goods, including drugs and weapons, continues unabated. The outside world describes much of it as smuggling, but for the region’s tribes it is business as usual. For centuries this is what they have done to survive in the vast and wild terrain. The decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and America’s occupation since 2001, have further reinforced the age-old sense of humiliation.

Subjugation by an external force renders victims helpless on one hand and consolidates their long-term resolve on the other. It breeds local resistance to the occupier and its culture. It results in the colonization of lands occupied by foreign troops, mercenaries, and those wearing civilian hats as administrators and advisers. They engage in activities to extract and sell local assets, manufactured and agricultural goods through market mechanisms created and managed by themselves, not by those who owned them in the first place. Or they use the location of occupied lands to extend their control further.

In Chapter V of The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli discussed three ways to hold newly-acquired states that once had their own sovereign laws. His methods were: by devastating them; going and living there in person; by letting them keep their own laws, extracting tribute and setting up an oligarchy which will keep the state friendly. Machiavelli’s The Prince is associated with corrupt, manipulative and totalitarian government.

Five centuries on, Machiavellianism, a mishmash of cunning and duplicity, lives on – despised if words of condemnation were to be believed, but witnessed in practice extensively. Since the end of the Cold War and Soviet communism, the terms of the United States-led military campaign for unrestrained access to petroleum and other strategic resources have altered dramatically. War today is fought for “freedom” against “terrorism” when both these central terms remain undefined. Definitions attempted are arbitrary, incoherent, irrational. The right to use unreserved force under the pretext of “self-defense” for the powerful has superseded the right to self-defense and resist for the underdog.

Thus we see the grotesque logic of brute military power and legal jargon; the rights of the Israeli state prevail over the basic rights of the Palestinians; Israel is allowed to have its clandestine nuclear weapons program, but no other country in the region; elections in Iran are “fraudulent” and the opposition there “suppressed” in the absence of evidence, but polls are “acceptable” in Afghanistan with plenty of evidence of fraud; high-altitude bombing in Afghanistan, Iraq, and cowardly drone attacks killing countless civilians posthumously described as “militants” or “terrorists” are justified in the “war on terror.” Rarely is there a mention of “night raids” – a euphemism for breaking into Afghans’ homes in the middle of the night that many people regard as a humiliating symbol of foreign occupation.

The Czech-born French writer Milan Kundera, twice expelled from the Communist Party before he was stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship, articulated the feeling of humiliation when he said, “The basis of shame is not some personal mistake of ours but the ignominy, the humiliation we feel that we must be what we are without any choice in the matter, and that this humiliation is seen by everyone.”

Loss of possessions is one thing, loss of dignity is quite another. And there exists an inverse relationship between humiliation and pride. Take away a people’s dignity and they will be ever more determined to take revenge in the form that their culture and values dictate when the opportunity comes.




The Loneliness of Barack Obama

Palestine Chronicle  (November 7, 2010)  

The moment when President Obama emerged at the White House to speak to the press (November 4), less than twenty-four hours after the Democratic Party’s midterm drubbing, provided the most telling picture. There was the president of the world’s most powerful country walking alone to the podium, admitting defeat just two years after an historic triumph so complete that it was hailed as a revolutionary event. As he stood uncomfortably to express contrition and promise that lessons would be learned, there was nobody from his administration standing with him to show support after a defeat as decisive as the victory was magnificent over the discredited Republican Party in 2008.

Vice President Joe Biden had appeared at election rallies as the president tried to enthuse voters in the final days of campaigning. However, the vice president was nowhere to be seen when Obama walked to the podium to face the world. Neither was the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. One of the oddities of this campaign, dominated by the economy, was the absence of debate on America’s foreign wars and their consequences, economic and otherwise. Talking to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, a vocal critic on the American left, Michael Moore, gave a penetrating explanation. The liberal political class had gone along with, even surrendered to, many of the neoconservative war policies in the last decade. Now the same liberal class lives with guilt, and does not want to talk about war because it has been an accomplice.

The heroin of the American neoliberals, Hillary Clinton, has long engaged in warmongering. For her, it would not make sense to appear with Obama in a moment of abject failure. It is safe to assume that her presidential ambition still flickers. In October, Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, had left the administration, saying he wanted to pursue his ambition to become mayor of Chicago. His term as Obama’s chief henchman has been an unmitigated disaster. A Jewish American with longstanding ties with Israel, Emanuel’s appointment after Obama’s election was greeted with dismay. Emanuel’s obsession with the art of wheeling-dealing was well known. His mastery of colorful and abusive language was no secret in Washington. His fascination with CIA drone attacks and phone calls to the agency’s director to find out “Who did we get today?” has been written about.

The Palestinians, the Iranians and others in the Middle East were not going to have faith in an Obama administration with someone like Emanuel playing a pivotal role. The collapse of Obama’s dream of resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and peace with the Muslim world, is partly Emanuel’s legacy. With Emanuel gone, neither the interim chief of staff Pete Rouse nor his deputies were by the president’s side when he spoke to the press following the midterm debacle. Not a single Democratic member of the old or new House, or the Senate, was to be seen with him, even a Senator not up for reelection; and not a member of the Democratic National Committee, which has its headquarters in Washington, DC.

Obama’s national security adviser, retired Marine Corp general James Jones, had also left in October. As war had not been part of the national debate in the midterm campaign, the incoming security adviser Thomas Donilon or Defense Secretary Robert Gates were not expected to be visible at the post-election news conference. In any case, Gates continues to threaten to leave the administration from time to time. More significant was the non-visibility of any member of President Obama’s economic team. In September, as the economy looked certain to be the dominant campaign issue and polling day drew closer, two of his leading advisers, Lawrence Summers and Christina Romer, had announced that they were leaving. On the day after the midterm debacle, President Obama stood all by himself to face questions about his handling of the economy.

After nearly an hour explaining the defeat, empathizing with the American people’s difficulties and offering to cooperate with the unbending and unbendable Republicans and tea partiers in the new Congress, Obama’s lone walk back into the Oval Office was symbolic of the wreckage lying around a president once known for his audacity of hope. America’s political establishment remains engaged in civil war. The country is deeply unhappy and polarized. And the leader chosen by the majority of Americans, no less because of overwhelming support from liberals and progressives, is ready to walk away from his troops toward the confronting army, alone, to compromise.