Chaos afflicting the world’s trouble spots — Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Nigeria and South Sudan, among others — challenges the customary faith that Americans place in the efficacy of democratic values. Americans might be tempted to join in with Rodney King: Why can’t we all just get along?
The story of the life of Nouri al-Maliki, contained in an article by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker magazine, helps show how the experience of other people shapes how they view the world and why it is different from how Americans usually see it.
Al-Maliki, prime minister of Iraq, is a Shiite Muslim, the sect that, during the rule of Saddam Hussein, suffered severe persecution. Even before the rise of Saddam, the Sunni-dominated Baath Party had jailed al-Maliki’s grandfather and father, who were Shiite activists.
In 1979 Saddam came to power, executing thousands of Shiite dissidents. Al-Maliki became an accountant, but he was also head of a local cell of the Islamist Dawa Party. When Baath police raided his office, they seized everyone there and executed them within a few days. Then they raided al-Maliki’s house, seizing two of his brothers and a cousin, executing 67 people in all. But they didn’t find al-Maliki.
Al-Maliki spent years in exile, but the sorry history of his country continued. Saddam launched the Iran-Iraq War in 1979, which lasted eight years and killed more than 1 million people. But there was more. After Saddam invaded Kuwait, the United States responded with the first Gulf War, driving Iraqi troops out of Kuwait and encouraging an uprising by Iraq’s Shiites. The uprising followed, but the United States failed to provide support, and Saddam slaughtered about 150,000 Iraqis, mostly Shiites.
Al-Maliki continued to take part in a Shiite insurgency inside Iraq, and Saddam responded with more mass killings. The war between Baathist Sunnis and the Shiites continued unabated. When the United States invaded in 2003, driving out Saddam and extirpating the Baath Party, al-Maliki was ready to return, and eventually the United States turned to him to exercise leadership.
After the exit of U.S. troops from Iraq, al-Maliki has disappointed U.S. policymakers with his continued hostility toward Sunnis in Iraq. The revival of a Sunni insurgency in the Fallujah region is a sign that the war that has been underway since the 1960s is still underway.
Politics in many parts of the world are about power and survival. Sometimes the United States makes matters worse by blundering in with an arrogant assumption that it knows better. Instead, the chaos of Iraq has been replicated in Syria where Sunnis and Shiites are destroying the country.
We say that Iraq or Syria needs another Mandela or King or Gandhi. But the appearance of such a leader is rare. All three depended on a framework of laws and a democratic conscience to which they could appeal.
Americans are removed by two oceans from the rest of the world, and we assume, after glancing at the map, that the world comprises discrete areas, tinted blue or pink or yellow, and discrete peoples. But as author Robert Kaplan has written in numerous books, we are living in a world where the power of nations is frequently undermined by failed leadership, political deterioration and environmental strains, leading to the rise of political groups that range across borders. The borders of the Middle East are in some ways dissolving, as they are in Africa.
Ukraine has its own sorry history — the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians by Stalin in the 1930s and the catastrophe of World War II. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian leaders have more or less pillaged the nation and destroyed its institutions. Russian special forces are now inside Ukraine engaged in hostilities with the Ukrainian military.
These stories all have a long back story and actors with motivations that have little to do with the aims of the United States. Americans nurture a justified faith that democratic values are best for prosperity, happiness, freedom and stability. We try to create space for those values to prosper where they can. But restraint and modesty on the part of the United States are also required. We cannot undo the past.
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