By Roland Watson
June 23, 2008

Excuse me for being naïve, but I thought World War II made a difference. At least that’s what I was taught, as an American and a member of the Baby Boomer generation. The fight against the Nazis and Imperial Japan, in which seventy million people died, was a turning point. It was a true “World War,” of right against wrong, and right had triumphed. It would be followed by a “World Peace.”

Of course, there were still many great challenges. Nuclear weapons had been unleashed, and Stalin ruled the Soviet Union and Mao would soon take control of China. Racism and sexism remained widespread. There was also at yet no hint of the rise of Extremist Islam, fueled by Mideast oil production, nor of an ecological catastrophe triggered by corporate exploitation and, ironically, postwar overpopulation
The honest optimism of the 50s and 60s was justified. A decisive victory had been achieved. Things were looking up.

This is certainly not the case now. In the world of international politics, as the tyrannies in Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe, North Korea and China illustrate, we have returned to the Age of Genghis Khan. There are no effective checks against aggression and conquest.

In these cases, excepting China and Tibet, the conquest is largely internal, but this does not invalidate the use of the term. Conquest is a regular feature of multiethnic dictatorships, by the majority group against the minorities. In any case, it would not be surprising to see a full-blown international adventure, or, as with the U.S. and Iraq, misadventure. The checks that are in place against this, foremost the United Nations Security Council, have comprehensively failed.

We have even seen an attempted repeat of the Holocaust, although not, of course, against the Jews. They have sworn Never Again, and mean it. However, an overt, systematic and rapid extermination was perpetrated in Rwanda, by the Hutu against the Tutsi, and similar although smaller scale efforts are in progress elsewhere (notably Sudan and Burma).

How could things fall apart so quickly? More to the point, who is to blame?

One reason why we are back where we started is that the people who fought in World War II, and led the way to victory, are for the most part gone. This reveals a telling fact about human nature: we only learn from the mistakes that we personally make, and the traumas we personally survive. It is not enough to hear about it from someone else, or to read it in a book. There is no substitute for experience.

The leaders of the Free World now have no such experience. Most importantly, they have not learned its lessons: the need to act decisively and with courage when faced with great peril.

Of course, you might say, what not just embrace the New-Old world order, especially if you are American and have the strongest military around? Genghis Khan and for that matter Alexander the Great are lionized. We can have an empire, too.

This was the position of the Neo-Conservatives, although one wonders why, if they wanted oil so much, they picked Iraq? Saudi Arabia and Kuwait would have been far easier targets, and with much greater reserves. Surely an acceptable rationale could have been devised. It would then have been relatively straightforward to cut deals with Russia and China, and launch a world of interlinked authoritarian centers, as envisioned by George Orwell in his work, 1984.

It didn’t work because the belief that there is a distinction between right and wrong, and that we should try our best to do right, is still strong in America. The country was founded on this idea, and it will take more than the efforts of a cabal of ideologues to change it. Moreover, the electoral system remains intact. With term limits in place, the longest any wannabe dictator can stay in power is eight years.

We are still left with the problem of leaders, though (including how to survive bad ones who are somehow able to manipulate the majority to elect them for eight years). A political leader’s job is difficult, to say the least. He or she has to make decisions that may – or will – put lives at risk, and to resist corrupting interests. The first is only acceptable in the narrowest of circumstances: to defend oneself, or, as this paper will argue, others who are deserving, and when the danger is clear, immediate and verified. The second is extremely broad: requests for special favors and treatment can come from any direction, and they all must be denied.

There are also the risks that come with the position itself. Power easily gives way to arrogance, which is an extremely dangerous combination, particularly for leaders who are untested.

Even more challenging is when different legitimate interests compete. Leaders then have to decide, which should take precedence? Most problematic of all are situations where a nation’s interests are in conflict with, or appear to be in conflict with, those of other nations or even the entire world.

The only way a leader can approach the wide-ranging and agonizing decisions with which he or she will be faced is to have a firm set of basic principles and then to apply them with rigor and determination. The starting point is never to do anything that clearly is wrong, whether there is a law against it or not. For instance, working with or otherwise supporting the dictators of other nations is always wrong. It makes your country complicit in the crimes they perpetrate upon their people.

An important and related issue is the question of characterization. In order to address a problem effectively, you first have to properly define it. The definition, a “war against terror,” for example, is inadequate. The real war the world faces in this regard is the war against extremist cells of Islam that use terror as their primary tactic. The appropriate strategy therefore is military defense against such cells, including in cooperation with the governments of any nations where they are resident, or unilaterally if such governments refuse to shut them down. At the same time, we need a direct and transparent communication between the political leaders of the West and the world’s Islamic leaders, on how Islam itself can purge its criminal elements.

Burma is another example of mischaracterization. The ruling regime has been engaged in war: a civil war against the people. The world should not legitimize this and act as if it is acceptable behavior for a sovereign nation. As mentioned above, a war within a country is still a war.

For four and a half decades, Burma’s military junta has ruthlessly subjugated the people, and imprisoned if not killed anyone who dissents. It has conducted numerous and ongoing ethnic cleansing campaigns against minority groups. Now, in the wake of a major cyclone, it is denying humanitarian relief, and instead seems intent on having the people die of starvation and disease. The Burmese army further is weak, with limited and unsophisticated weaponry; a decimated navy (due to the cyclone); known conflicts within the top leadership; low moral among ordinary soldiers (who in many cases are under-aged and were press-ganged into service); and not a single foreign ally, not even China, who would assist it directly were it attacked.

Why, then, where the distinction between right and wrong could not be clearer, and the task is so straightforward, won’t the world intervene to help the Burmese? The appropriate course of action is to equip the people to defend themselves, or, more directly, to intercede militarily and expel the tyrants. Are our leaders cowards, or is something else going on?

While it is true that the international community is not acting on Burma in deference to perceived geopolitical interests (everyone is kowtowing to China, and the U.S. is backing oil company Chevron and France and the EU TotalFinaElf), there is a deeper reason as well. There has never been a “humanitarian war.” It is considered politically unacceptable to put one’s soldiers’ lives at risk, in defense of others, unless national interests are at stake. For the U.S., even World War II involved many direct national interests, including the need to assist allies.

This precedent has not yet been set, nor, in a larger context, putting one’s national interests aside in preference to the overall interests of the world (witness the stalemate on global warming, and not only by America).

(Note: I disagree with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who in her article earlier this month in the New York Times, The End of Intervention, said that this precedent has already been established. She is mistaken. The cases she cites are weak – and, regarding those from the period that she was at State for President Clinton, self-serving. For Serbia and both Bosnia and Kosovo, European interests were at risk, hence Nato’s involvement. U.S. action in Somalia was small scale and short-lived. U.N. peacekeeping missions, in such places as Timor Leste and the Congo, are just that, “peacekeeping,” not interventions to end a war and through this to establish peace. The world is still waiting for a full commitment of the democratic powers to act decisively against wrong in an indisputably humanitarian setting, and where the stakes are great, in other words, where the suffering is severe and where there is a risk of extensive conflict and loss of troops. Indeed, for the conflict in Iraq to have been in any way justifiable, its basis should have been solely humanitarian. The removal of Saddam Hussein was well suited to be the first such precedent, but this opportunity was missed.)

If we are going to base our political organization on democracy, on representative democracy rather than direct, we must have strong, capable leaders. This is actually one of the system’s weakest points, because if our leaders fail, all of society may fail.

One proof of such leadership would be individuals who would be willing to set these precedents. Perhaps the most illustrative example of this quality in a leader was Abraham Lincoln, and the Emancipation Proclamation.

For America in the present day, Bush has been a bomb. He was misled by his associates, foremost Cheney, to believe that one party Republican rule was possible. Like all self-absorbed demagogues, he denied conflicting evidence and opinion and launched the disastrous conflict in Iraq. Then, with America preoccupied in an expensive fiasco, and with his term winding down, he apparently decided that there was no need to act on Burma, his strong words of support notwithstanding, or on other similar crises.

Fortunately, Bush is on the way out. His replacement is likely to be Barack Obama, who also is inexperienced, although he does not appear to be ethically tainted. The world looks to America for leadership, and while we would prefer that this not be the case – all nations of their own accord should choose to do what is right – with Russia under authoritarian leader Putin and China a full force and unrepentant dictatorship, the free world does need a national leader, one that has moral authority and also the power to back it up.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently said that it was criminal neglect for Burma’s junta, the SPDC, to deny humanitarian relief. We would counter that it is also criminal neglect for the United States and the other nations of the free world to allow this to occur.

Wouldn’t it be glorious for the first black president to set this new precedent, and in so doing follow in the footsteps of the man who freed the African-Americans?

A final question is: Are the people themselves powerless if they lack good leaders? The answer to this is, no, not at all. We can individually determine the appropriate course of action, and then push together collectively until it is taken. It is only in a few places, like Burma, where the conflict is so one-sided that outside assistance is required. But, in keeping with the request of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, we can use our liberty to help the Burmese win theirs, including by convincing our leaders, beginning with President Obama, to take the decisive steps that are required to create a true new world order.