Peace on Earth: The Prospects

Remember those quaint, nostalgic times when this season was associated with the phrase “Peace On Earth”? That is, way back in the days before our born-again leader with the proclaimed personal ear of God started ordering up wars the way other politicians ask for planning studies? Before our nation became so drunken with manufactured bogeymen and antiseptic media invasions and patriotic warmongering fever that war’s unpleasantness made it something people wished absolutely to avoid? When peace was considered a good thing, not the way of cowards?

I miss those days. A lot of us do.

With Saddam captured and weapons of mass destruction long-forgotten, the remaining justification for America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq is now the establishment of (Western) democracy in Iraq and in the Middle East. This, according to neocon logic, is the only true guarantor of peace and prosperity.

If nothing else, there’s a certain self-fulfilling logic to their assertion -- because if allowed, the neocons would keep waging wars until they got their Pax Americana. But that’s exactly the problem. They’re absolutely correct that people want and deserve the right to determine their own, and their societies’ own, fates.

But that right cannot be imposed at the end of a gun. Even more to the point, if a sign of stable democracy is the orderly transition of power even when the powerful don’t get what they want, it’s America, more than any other single force in the world, that’s standing in the way of global democracy. From trashing the United Nations to routinely breaking global treaties to mounting unilateral invasions, official U.S. policy is now to use force to get what we want, regardless of whether it’s what the majority of the world wants. That’s not democracy.

And so it is, as we celebrate a season of peace on earth, that the world’s most powerful nation is also associated with most of its record number of armed conflicts. Here’s a short list of some of the more notable:
Afghanistan, where U.S. troops present themselves as daily targets in bases across the country, bases ostensibly still devoted to hunting Al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants, but instead mostly focused on protecting themselves from rival warlord armies and gangs who resent their presence and who completely control the entire country save daylight hours in the capital city, Kabul. Meanwhile, the Taliban are quietly making a comeback -- and more “moderate” Taliban elements are working with U.S. forces, a sign of American desperation. And the daily lives of Afghan women are still horrific.

Most of the Islamic world, and a lot of the rest of it, considers the United States to be the force that makes the ongoing brutalization of Palestine possible. Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. aid, most of it military, even though Israel, with the world's fourth-largest military, hardly needs it. Much of the year's military action by Israel has focused on the civilian population of Palestine.

Now, with Ariel Sharon’s parliamentary power stronger than ever and a long, meandering wall being erected that makes the Berlin Wall look like garden fencing, the only hope for peace rests with the war-weariness of ordinary people on both sides of the conflict. Washington, the only power with enough leverage to force Israel to curb its brutal excesses, has done nothing to help. Hey, mind if I tear down your house and "settle" there? The Bible sez it’s OK.

In Central Africa, a brutal war, largely invisible to Americans, has now claimed a staggering four million lives since 1995. A confusing morass of invading armies and mercenaries -- where the forces of Rwanda or Uganda are, on a given day, either being trained by or outgunned by the forces of Bechtel and Halliburton -- has as its heart the mineral-laden eastern region of The Congo, which among other prizes has most of the world’s supply of several rare minerals used in the production of computer chips, keyboards, screens, and semiconductors. The riches wind up in American (corporate) pockets, the end products are bought mostly by American consumers, the guns come from America, and Washington is far more directly involved than virtually anybody realizes. But it’s Africa, so almost nobody here knows or cares.

Meanwhile, Washington continues to quietly expand its support of and direct work with the military (and paramilitaries) responsible for the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere: Colombia; provide political and economic support for Russia and Vladamir Putin’s regular genocidal assaults on civilians in Chechnya; establish bases and provide military, intelligence, and secret police training in Uzbekistan and other dictatorships across Central and Southwest Asia; deploy “War on Terror” troops throughout Indonesia and the Philippines and “War on Drugs” troops throughout the Andes; and provide arms and encouragement for the newest round of government-sponsored brutality in Nigeria.

And, of course, there’s Iraq -- where the U.S. is not only battling a steadily growing insurgency after having invaded the country without provocation this year, but has assumed active sponsorship of a terrorist group that is making regular incursions from Iraq across the border into Iran, and is issuing regular diplomatic threats against both Iran and Syria. Meanwhile, twice in the last two weeks the U.S. has withdrawn non-essential personnel from Saudi Arabia and faces ongoing fears of terror attacks throughout the Islamic world.

All told, the U.S. military is now active in some 60 countries around the world. The dozen or so examples above are among the most egregious -- and what is the U.S. doing killing people in even a dozen countries? -- but they have several factors in common: (1) No war has been declared against any government in any of them. (2) They are not on the same continent as the United States. (3) All target poor countries’ civilian populations. (4) In few of these cases have serious attempts been undertaken, especially by the U.S. government, to find a just and peaceful resolution to the situation. (5) Most Americans know very little about any of them, as national corporate reporting is generally either uncritical or, more commonly, nonexistent. The exception is Iraq, where the “factual” reporting is so markedly different from that in Britain and Europe that it might as well be describing a different conflict.

Does that feel like an overwhelming list? Here’s a useful counterweight:
This past year, on one day, tens of millions of ordinary people on every continent and in scores of countries gathered together, in national capitals and town squares, and demanded peace. Not asked for, not petitioned for, or recommended or begged. We demanded it.

Sweeping change rarely happens overnight. As such, it’s often not even obvious to people when they are in its midst. But the combat fatigue of ordinary Palestinians and Israelis is, in a way, a metaphor for a much larger trend. Over the last two decades, despotic governments of all kinds, in over 30 countries, Communist to fascist to military dictatorship, have fallen in the face of the demands of ordinary people to determine our own destinies. It happened in Russia and other former Soviet republics, in Indonesia, in El Salvador and Chile, across the former Communist bloc, in apartheid South Africa, in Serbia, even Mongolia. In nearly every case, the tyrants fell with little or no bloodshed.

Now, with extraordinary speed in our unipolar world, we’re seeing a second wave of nonviolent revolutions, one with a more explicitly economic component: rejection of the so-called “Washington consensus” that imposes neoliberal economic and political straitjackets so as to make poor countries poorer and to send their wealth to the banks and gated communities of North America, Europe, and Japan.

In the last three years, nearly every country in South America has had some sort of popular outpouring that either threw a Washington-friendly government out of power, or, in the case of Venezuela, kept a hostile one in power. This year, protests over a scheme to export its huge natural gas reserves to the U.S. collapsed the government of Bolivia. We’ve seen the collapse this year of World Trade Organization meetings in Cancun, throwing the WTO’s future into doubt, and a subsequent hemispheric “free trade” pact, the FTAA, stymied last month at talks in Miami.

The emergence of principled opposition by the South’s largest economies -- especially Brazil, under the leadership of its new, left-leaning president, Lula -- has given smaller countries the opportunity to stand up to Washington.

These developments represent the demands of ordinary people, as filtered upwards through their governments, that they be allowed to determine their own policies and futures. The past 12 months will be noted years hence as pivotal ones in the struggle for global economic justice.

The force at work is both so simple that politicians ignore it and so powerful that politicians cannot control it. It is hope, particularly the hope of ordinary people in all parts of the world. It is our hope for peace and for lives without fear of hunger and privation and a better future for our children and grandchildren.

Revolutions, the political scientists say, happen not when conditions are most desperate, but when hopes have been raised and are then threatened. And so it is today. The government of the United States, with its guns and its extraordinary wealth, represents not the hope but the threat.

We are the hope. And even as headlines and holiday toys ooze blood and war, the tens of millions who poured into the streets this year are still among us. Peace is afoot, and closer at hand than most of us realize, battering at the walls of fortress America. Power concedes nothing without a struggle, and fundamental change takes time -- but these days, the changes are coming faster than ever before.

Another favorite neocon axiom is that countries strongly linked in the global economy are far less likely to be ravaged by war. It’s true -- which is why the neocon fixation with a Chinese military “threat” is so laughable -- but what it means is that as the globe shrinks, no country is any longer an island unto itself.

The sooner the United States starts behaving like one country among many, rather than a global bully, the better the prospects for peace on earth become. The irony is that the post-9/11 bellicosity of the Bush Administration has been so extreme that in the long run it may lead more directly to a world with a common aversion to wars and empires.

If we’re willing, much of the rest of the world is ready. It’s in our hands. So here’s to peace on earth in 2004 and beyond.


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