What Are The Rules?

Years ago I interviewed someone who had traveled all over Central and Eastern Europe and Central and South Asia studying states and civil wars and how and why states failed. ‘People ask me what’s worse, an authoritarian state or no state,’ he said. ‘I’ve been in both. No state is worse.’ I suppose he was saying when there are rules, no matter how cruel or arbitrary, one knows how to avoid punishment, but when there are no rules but only raw power, it makes you even more helpless.

The United States operates on rules that are exceedingly difficult to figure out. Sure, there are some things– like independent development, like Cuba or Nicaragua or Vietnam tried– that bring instant punishment. Insubordination obviously doesn’t pay. But how much subordination, and what kind, does pay? For the most part, there are mixed signals.

Imagine the confusion, for example, of a government in Africa, like Zimbabwe. It follows all the advice of the World Bank and the IMF. It privatizes, it deregulates, it liberalizes. And it gets nothing but poverty and unrest in return.

Imagine the confusion of a Colombian peasant who somehow obtained a textbook from the Chicago School of Economics. The textbook tells this farmer that a rational economic agent pursues her competitive advantage by producing the item that earns the most gains. Priced out of growing bananas, yucca, rice, corn, or any other legal crop by subsidized US agribusinesses in unprotected local markets, then, the peasant turns to a crop that can earn her a living– coca leaf. And receives aerial fumigation in return.

The government in India must wonder what it has to do to get some love from the US. ‘You wanted us to be capitalist’, they must be asking, ‘we’re capitalist! You wanted us to open up our vast market? It’s open! You can patent crops our farmers have developed over centuries of care, you can introduce biotechnology, you can exploit our labour force cheaply.

You wanted us to hate Muslims? We’re encouraging hatred of Muslims! You want us to fight the mujahaddin? We’re fighting them with a low-intensity war in Kashmir! Hell, we even try to be like you– we set off nuclear bombs, we intervened in Sri Lanka’s civil war. But instead of showing the world how much you appreciate our bending over backwards for you, you set up your bases in Pakistan!’

And Pakistan, think of how confused they must be. That government helped the US funnel untold amounts of military aid into Afghanistan for the mujahaddin to fight the Russians there. Pakistan helped set up the Taliban while the US watched. Then at great risk, Pakistan turned against the Taliban at the US’s urging, in exchange for promises of help against India in Kashmir, a say in the post-Taliban Afghani regime, and debt relief.

Well they got some debt relief, at least.

Saddam Hussein saw Iraq destroyed because he didn’t understand the lack of rules. After fighting a terribly destructive war with Iran, using poison gas on the Kurds, piling up dangerous weapons, and suppressing his own population with nothing but support from the US, he must have concluded that there would be nothing wrong with invading Kuwait.

He was so wrong that he couldn’t even negotiate Iraq out of it. But in his case it wasn’t a misstep that removed him from power. He’s presiding over a brutalized population slowly dying of sanctions and bombing, too weak to overthrow him.

And then there are the regimes and armies that succeed beyond their wildest dreams.

Israel, who has a nuclear arsenal, whose actions cause the US problems throughout the Middle East, those oil-producing countries the US tries to stay so close to, and still receives unconditional support and more military aid than any other country.

The Kosovo Liberation Army, who can’t have been anything but surprised after seeing the indifference of the US to Bosnia’s suffering at the hands of Yugoslavia, the indifference or hostility of the US to all kinds of similar armies all over the world.

Imagine their surprise when they found the US bombing their enemies and supporting them in 1999. And then imagine their surprise when they returned more recently to the list of terrorists because of their actions in Macedonia.

And now, of course, there’s the Northern Alliance.

Could they have dreamed of returning to impunity in Kabul, with shiny new uniforms and equipment and rations and intelligence, coordination, and carpet bombing of their enemies to see them through?

Maybe they could have. Some of them are the mujahaddin who received US support to fight the Russians. The US didn’t object when the mujahaddin enacted a massacre in a mixed boys and girls school. The US didn’t say much when the Northern Alliance raped and murdered their way through Kabul in the 1990s. US support does not depend on whether they violate human rights or not, on whether they follow economic dogmas or not, on whether they commit terrorism or not.

In any case, if the Northern Alliance ever returns to the terrorist list, they won’t suffer the worst of it. Galeano said it– in these types of battles, it’s always the people who get killed. If there is a hard-and-fast rule in all this, that’s it.

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