Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
The Quiet American
By Uri Avnery
Gush Shalom, January 11, 2010
THE QUIET AMERICAN was the hero of Graham Greene’s novel about
the first Vietnam War, the one fought by the French.
He was a
young and naïve American, a professor’s son, who had enjoyed a good
education at Harvard, an idealist with all the best intentions. When he
was sent to Vietnam, he wanted to help the natives to overcome the two
evils as he saw them: French colonialism and Communism. Knowing absolutely
nothing about the country in which he was acting, he caused a disaster.
The book ends with a massacre, the outcome of his misguided efforts. He
illustrated the old saying: “The road to hell is paved with good
Since this book was written, 54 years have passed,
but it seems that the Quiet American has not changed a bit. He is still an
idealist (at least, in his own view of himself), still wants to bring
redemption to foreign and far-away peoples about whom he knows nothing,
still causes terrible disasters: in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now, it seems,
THE IRAQI example is the simplest one.
American soldiers were sent there to overthrow the tyrannical regime of
Saddam Hussein. There were, of course, also some less altruistic
objectives, such as taking control of the Iraqi oil resources and
stationing an American garrison in the heart of the Middle Eastern oil
region. But for the American public, the adventure was presented as an
idealistic enterprise to topple a bloody dictator, who was menacing the
world with nuclear bombs.
That was six years ago, and the war is
still going on. Barack Obama, who opposed the war right from the start,
promised to lead the Americans out of there. In the meantime, in spite of
all the talking, no end is in sight.
Why? Because the real
decision-makers in Washington had no idea of the country which they wanted
to liberate and help to live happily ever after.
Iraq was from the
beginning an artificial state. The British masters glued together several
Ottoman provinces to suit their own colonial interests. They crowned a
Sunni Arab as king over the Kurds, who are not Arab, and the Shiites, who
are not Sunni. Only a succession of dictators, each of them more brutal
than his predecessor, prevented the state from falling apart.
Washington planners were not interested in the history, demography or
geography of the country which they entered with brutal force. The way it
looked to them, it was quite simple: One had to topple the tyrant,
establish democratic institutions on the American model, conduct free
elections, and everything else would fall into place by itself.
Contrary to their expectations, they were not received with flowers.
Neither did they discover Saddam’s terrible atom bomb. Like the proverbial
elephant in the porcelain shop, they shattered everything, destroyed the
country and got bogged in a swamp.
After years of bloody military
operations that led nowhere, they found a temporary remedy. To hell with
idealism, to hell with the lofty aims, to hell with all military doctrines
– they’re now simply buying off the tribal chiefs, who constitute the
reality of Iraq.
The Quiet American has no idea how to get out. He
knows that if he does, the country may well disintegrate in mutual
TWO YEARS before entering the Iraqi swamp, the
Americans invaded the Afghan quagmire.
Why? Because an
organization called al-Qaeda (“the basis”) had claimed responsibility for
the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York. Al-Qaeda’s chiefs were in
Afghanistan, their training camps were there. To the Americans, everything
was clear – there was no need for second thoughts (neither, for that
matter, for first thoughts.)
If they had had any knowledge of the
country they were about to invade, they might have, perhaps, hesitated.
Afghanistan has always been a graveyard for invaders. Mighty empires had
escaped from there with their tails between their legs. Unlike flat Iraq,
Afghanistan is a country of mountains, a paradise for guerrillas. It
is the home of several different peoples and uncounted tribes, each one
fiercely jealous of its independence.
planners were not really interested. For them, it seems, all countries are
the same, and so are all societies. In Afghanistan, too, American-style
democracy must be established, free and fair elections must be held, and
hoppla – everything else will sort itself out.
entered the shop without knocking and achieved a resounding victory. The
Air Force pounded, the army conquered without problems, al-Qaeda
disappeared like a ghost, the Taliban (“religious pupils”) ran away. Women
could again appear in the streets without covering their hair, girls could
attend schools, the opium fields flourished again, and so did Washington’s
protégés in Kabul.
However - the war goes on, year after year, the
number of American dead is rising inexorably. What for? Nobody knows. It
seems as if the war has acquired a life of its own, without aim, without
An American could well ask himself: What the hell are we
THE IMMEDIATE aim, the expulsion of al-Qaeda
from Afghanistan, has ostensibly been achieved. Al-Qaeda is not there – if
it ever really was there.
I wrote once that al-Qaeda is an America
invention and that Osama Bin-Laden has been sent by Hollywood’s Central
Casting to play the role. He is simply too good to be true.
was, of course, a bit of an exaggeration. But not altogether. The US is
always in need of a world-wide enemy. In the past it was International
Communism, whose agents were lurking behind every tree and under every
floor tile. But, alas, the Soviet Union and its minions had collapsed,
there was an urgent need for an enemy to fill the void. This was found in
the shape of the world-wide jihad of al-Qaeda. The crushing of “World
Terrorism” became the overriding American aim.
That aim is
nonsense. Terrorism is nothing but an instrument of war. It is used by
organizations that are vastly different from each other, which are
fighting in vastly different countries for vastly different objectives. A
war on “International Terror” is like a war on “International Artillery”
or “International Navy”.
A world-embracing movement led by Osama
Bin-Laden just does not exist. Thanks to the Americans, al-Qaeda has
become a prestige brand in the guerrilla market, much like McDonald’s and
Armani in the world of fast food and fashion. Every militant Islamist
organization can appropriate the name for itself, even without a franchise
American client regimes, who used to brand all
their local enemies as “communist” in order to procure the help of their
patrons, now brand them as “al-Qaeda terrorists”.
where Bin-Laden is – if he is at all – and there is no proof of his being
in Afghanistan. Some believe that he is in neighboring Pakistan. And even
if he were hiding in Afghanistan – what justification is there for
conducting a war and killing thousands of people in order to hunt down one
Some say: OK, so there is no Bin-Laden.
But the Taliban have to be prevented from coming back.
god’s sake? What business is it of the US who rules Afghanistan? One can
loathe religious fanatics in general and the Taliban in particular – but
is this a reason for an endless war?
If the Afghans themselves
prefer the Taliban to the opium dealers who are in power in Kabul, it is
their business. It seems that they do, judging by the fact that the
Taliban are again in control of most of the country. That is no good
reason for a Vietnam-style war.
But how do you get out? Obama
does not know. During the election campaign he promised, with a
candidate’s foolhardiness, to enlarge the war there, as a compensation for
leaving Iraq. Now he is stuck in both places – and in the near future, it
seems, he will be stuck in a third war, too.
DURING THE last
few days, the name of Yemen has been cropping up more and more often.
Yemen – a second Afghanistan, a third Vietnam.
The elephant is
raring to enter another shop. And this time, too, it doesn’t care about
I know very little about Yemen, but enough to
understand that only a madman would want to be sucked in there. It is
another artificial state, composed of two different parts – the country of
Sanaa in the North and the (former British) South. Most of the country is
mountainous terrain, ruled by bellicose tribes guarding their
independence. Like Afghanistan, it is an ideal region for guerrilla
There, too, is an organization that has adopted the
grandiose name of “Al-Qaeda of the Arab Peninsula” (after the Yemenite
militants united with their Saudi brothers). But its chiefs are interested
in world revolution much less than in the intrigues and battles of the
tribes among themselves and against the “central” government, a reality
with a history of thousands of years. Only a complete fool would lay his
head on this bed.
The name Yemen means “country on the right”. (If
one looks towards Mecca from the West, Yemen is on the right side and
Syria on the left.) The right side also connotes happiness, and the name
of Yemen is connected to al-Yamana, an Arabic word for being happy. The
Romans called it Arabia Felix (“Happy Arabia”) because it was rich through
trading in spices.
(By the way, Obama may be interested to hear
that another leader of a superpower, Caesar Augustus, once tried to invade
Yemen and was trounced.)
If the Quiet American, in his usual
mixture of idealism and ignorance, decides to bring democracy and all the
other goodies there, that will be the end of this happiness. The Americans
will sink into another quagmire, tens of thousands of people will be
killed, and it will all end in disaster.
IT MAY well be that
the problem is rooted – inter alia – in the architecture of Washington DC.
This city is full of huge buildings populated with the ministries and
other offices of the only superpower in the world. The people working
there feel the tremendous might of their empire. They look upon the tribal
chiefs of Afghanistan and Yemen as a rhinoceros looks down at the ants
that rush around between its feet. The Rhino walks over them without
noticing. But the ants survive.
Altogether, the Quiet American
resembles Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust, who defines himself as the
force that “always wants the bad and always creates the good”. Only the
other way round.