My opinion of November 2, 2001 on the effects of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center got some interesting responses. One of the first had me kicking myself: It's our dependency on the Oil Standard that has us involved in the Mideast to begin with. That's something I'm very well aware of. Indeed, I had an opinion piece on exactly that topic published in a local newspaper shortly before Desert Shield turned into Desert Storm in early 1991. Pity I didn't mention it this time around. If we got off the environment-polluting oil standard, we'd have virtually no national interest in that part of the world other than support for Israel (the only democracy there) and the Suez Canal. Humanitarian interest, sure, but nothing vital to our national survival. But that's a topic for another time.

     I also got a couple of responses of the mea culpa type, the same one given by so many well-meaning people. You know the one: "The terrorist attacks are our own fault because we support oppressive governments over there." I've got two answers to that. I'll simply throw out the first one and get it out of the way, it really is a different topic, then go into the second in more detail.

     If we stopped "supporting the oppressive governments over there," who would we buy the oil from? Those "oppressive governments" either own or control the oil. Please, don't give me some fatuous argument about how we could use our economic clout to make them clean up their acts. There are too many other countries that will buy their oil without such strings attached to the purchase. You see, nearly the entire developed and developing world is dependent on petroleum. Contrary to what some (many?) people believe, we aren't exploiting them, they've got us by the throat. Remember for a moment, if you will, what happened to our economy the last time OPEC raised oil prices. Come on, it's not that hard, it was only a few months ago. We were already in a recession, though most people didn't seem aware of it, but the sudden, great increase in the cost of energy hurt business all the way through, raised prices, cost jobs, and jolted us into the realization that we are in a recession.

     But enough about the oil, it really is a different topic.

     The implication of the mea culpa argument is, if we stopped supporting the oppressive governments, those countries would all suddenly morph into nice, comfortable, benign representative democracies -- just like ours.

     Not bloody likely, fella.

     Let me stop for a moment and say that I have believed for a very long time, since I was in high school if not earlier, that our government makes a mistake every time it supports a repressive government. During the Cold War any tinpot dictator who declared himself to be anti-Communist could get U.S. support. The way I saw it, that drove the people right into the hands of the Communists. Having said that, let me add that no country ever went Communist via a free and open vote, the Communists always gained control through force of arms. In supporting the wrong despots, we have often gotten ourselves into more trouble than necessary.

     Now, back to what I was saying.

     We Americans have a blind spot you can drive a whole planet through: Most of us suffer under the delusion that, given the chance, everybody will automatically become free people and turn their governments into representative democracies.

     Nothing could be farther from the truth. The modern democratic government is a historically recent development, it was invented little more than two centuries ago just a mile or so from where I sit as I write this. Since then, quite a few countries have adopted our form of government -- rather I should say, have attempted to. Fully half of the world's representative democracies don't work very well.

     France was the second nation to adopt representative democracy. It took them until the past generation to figure out how to make it work. Until then France was most often either ruled by a strongman (think Napoleon and DeGaulle) or by a series of governments that barely had time to get organized before they collapsed. England actually started earlier than we did, when the Barons rebelled against John Lackland during his regency. It wasn't until their American colonies rebelled and broke away that they began to figure out how to do it right. Even they don't have it down pat yet; they still have a monarch and a hereditary aristocracy. In the Western Hemisphere, every nation except Communist Cuba is a democracy. Other than the U.S. and Canada, almost all of them are; a) oppressive, b) military dictatorships, c) fragile and ineffective, or d) subject to frequent overthrow. Pick as many of the above as needed to describe whichever Latin American country you choose.

     The majority of the world's countries are dictatorships of one form or another, many meet the definition of what we call "oppressive."

     You see, it's tough to be a free people and make a democracy work. The first thing you need is an educated populace. Americans decry the state of our education system. So do I. Americans think it's awful that our primary and secondary students only place eighth or tenth or twentieth or whatever among the world's developed nations. I agree, we should teach our children well enough for them to rank first. Still, our school children rank in the top 10% in the world. Academically, that's high enough for honors.

     When you go outside the developed world you find education for the masses is pretty well nil. The majority of the world's population is, if literate at all, no better than semi-literate. That's not much of a basis for building a democratic state. In most/much of the world, access to information is limited. Hey, how much knowledge of geopolitics does a hard-scrabble farmer need? How much knowledge of world literature does a miner need? Does a cowherd actually need to watch BBC news or reruns of Ozzie and Harriet?

     If you want to build a democracy, as much as possible for the first two questions, yes to the third. If you want to keep them content under your dictatorship you have to keep them ignorant, so the answers are none, none, and no.

     We supported Bautista in Cuba, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, the Diem brothers in South Vietnam and got stung in each case. The same with the Samositas in Nicaragua. (Or was it the Sandinistas? One's as bad as the other, I've always had trouble telling them apart.) But we've never supported the worst, and the Twentieth Century had more than its share of them.

     We were opposed to Stalin, until the need to defeat the Nazis forced us to join hands with him. We returned to opposition after handing over Eastern Europe at the end of World War II. Mao Tse Tung had us effectively viewing China as "a big blank spot" on the map. We largely ignored Idi Amin in Uganda. We stood aside when Hanoi's intended puppet, Pol Pot, murdered a quarter of the population of Cambodia. When Slobodan Milosovic began to follow in the footsteps of those illustrious predecessors, we looked at the lessons of the past and stepped in with peace-keeping forces to stop him.

     While we do support many of the "oppressive" governments in the world, we don't support all of them. We do our best to contain the madman Saddam Hussain in Iraq and ignore the horrors he inflicts on his people. We stand aside while the Islamic fundamentalists who rule Sudan massacre the Christian majority in the south of the country and bring famine to all. We pretend the generals who turned exotic Burma into hellish Myanmar don't exist and ignore them. We washed our hands of the Taliban until their part in the World Trade Center attack came out. Then we joined forces with the armed opposition in Afghanistan and overthrew them. The list could go on, but to what end?

     We do "support the oppressive governments" in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But are the Sauds as bad as the Ayatollahs of Iran? Is the shaky government of Egypt worse than the police state of Syria?

     Take a hard look at the chunk of the world that runs from Morocco on the Atlantic coast of Africa to Indonesia abutting the Pacific. There are more than thirty nations in that area, only two of which are democracies -- Israel and India. Show me I'm wrong, just show me one nation that we don't support out of those more than thirty that is a democracy, one that has a free people, one that isn't a dictatorship, one that doesn't oppress its own people. That's all I'm asking for, just one example.

     Unless you can come up with that one example, don't tell me those people hate us because we support their oppressive government, and don't tell me the attacks and hatred are our own fault. Those non-democratic countries all have oppressive governments. Some more so, some less. Those we support are less oppressive than the average. It's the leaders who hate us, they hate us because we are free and free people are always a threat to dictators. The people in turn hate us because, being uneducated and ill-informed, they have no option but to believe their leaders -- not because we support "oppressive" governments.

Back to "Opinions"