Another mark of increasing age, though I suppose I should be pleased at this one, was a request to deliver a memorial lecture. The topic given to me was ‘The March of Folly’, which led me to look up the origin of the phrase. I knew it was the title of a book by the popular American historian Barbara Tuchman, but I had thought this was the one she wrote about the beginnings of the First World War, chronicling the headlong rush into a war that could have been avoided, and which destroyed the world its perpetrators thought to perpetuate.
In fact ‘The March of Folly’ is a later book, based on the idea that folly is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Tuchman deals with four examples of this, beginning with the decision of the Trojans to take into their city the horse left on the beach by the Greeks who had pretended to abandon their attempt to conquer Troy. She goes on to discuss the policies of the Popes who precipitated the Reformation, and then the British blunders that led to the independence of the United States. Finally, and at length, she deals with the American disaster in Vietnam.
All very interesting subjects, and I should now read the book. But it gave me a focus for this new series, which will look at recent political history in the context of folly in the Tuchman sense. I will not confine myself to governments alone, since the whole picture demands looking also at what others in the political arena engage in. And the series will be different from the lecture, which will have to be tightly focused. But these articles will I hope provide some food for thought, and with luck some changes in approach – assuming, that is, that those who decide, and those who influence decision making, both read and think.
I will begin however in an area where obviously I cannot hope for influence, since I shall talk about the folly of the West in persecuting us for achieving what it pretends it desires, namely the eradication of terrorism. But from the Sri Lankan perspective it is essential to consider this too, for the mess the current government is in springs largely from its unthinking acceptance of Western mythology. Some in the government, and even perhaps the Prime Minister, have begun to realize how badly they blundered way back in 2015, but he has no idea how to reverse gear effectively, and he certainly cannot even begin to do this while Mangala Samaraweera continues to run foreign affairs and bleat helplessly in Geneva.
We need to begin with the sheer cynicism with which the West treated us in 2009. In the preceding eight years, under George Bush, the United States had been relatively positive about us, and certainly its ambassador Bob Blake was more balanced than the spivvy British High Commissioner Dominic Chilcott, or the ineffably patronizing, also British, European Union Head of Mission, Julian Wilson.
But in 2009 Bob changed, and explained to one of my staff that he now served a different government. Sadly foreign policy running was made there by Hillary Clinton whom Barack Obama had made his Secretary of State. This was disastrous for Sri Lanka, which had been relieved when she failed to get the Democrat nomination, given that we knew that the terrorist diaspora were congratulating themselves on having won favour with her after massive contributions to her campaign.
So she did her worst, aided and abetted by sanctimonious hypocrites like Susan Rice and Samantha Power, and the dominatrix they sent to Geneva, Eileen Donahoe. These bleeding hearts, as a leading official in the Bush Administration called them, were powerless to change factors such as Guantanamo which they had bewailed under Bush, so they turned their fire on easy targets like Sri Lanka (indeed he told me that if we just did a few things to keep them happy, they could then be diverted to an even easier target such as Djibouti).
Why were they doing this? First of course was the commitments Hillary Clinton had, according to the diaspora, made to them. Second was their attempt to show genuine proponents of human rights that they were doing something. Through their rhetoric about Sri Lanka, aided and abetted by less obviously manipulative government funded entities such as Human Rights Watch, they could divert attention from their misdeeds in places such as Libya and Syria, and their support for fundamentalist terrorists in those places. Third was the feeling that Sri Lanka under Mahinda Rajapaksa was not prepared to become a cog in a US machine, yet another willing agent of the domination they wished to perpetuate.
I could understand then Mahinda’s point when I told him that a few simple measures would relieve the pressure. He told me that, whatever he did, they would hate him. Given how badly the West had behaved in Geneva, the Americans included from 2009 on, he was correct. But where he failed was in keeping India on board. Indeed he was manipulated by his principle adviser on foreign affairs at the time – not G L Peiris, who was also an easily manipulated cipher – into thinking that India was the real enemy, not the West, after India sadly supported the West’s resolution of March 2012.
But that is another story. To return to what the West was up to, the sad part, the folly, is that their strategy was entirely counter productive. Whereas, given that Sri Lankans in positions of influence find their comfort zone in the West, given that the West is our most important market, Sri Lanka, if treated well, would have been a helpful ally. But this would not have entailed unthinking adherence to a Western agenda, for we would not have been hostile to others under Western duress. And this was perhaps the sticking point, for foolishly the West wants total subservience, not simply support for its own vital interests.
Total domination is what – leaving aside in the oddly included Trojan Horse episode – the protagonists in Barbara Tuchman’s book wanted. But what authoritarians down the ages have failed to recognize is that, when such efforts at domination fail, the reaction is total rejection, not the general camaraderie with everyone that is the preferred, and most profitable, path for the comparatively weak.
Another fiasco as far as the rationale for Western hypocrisy went was the brilliance with which the diaspora dumped their patrons when they failed. After putting all their eggs in the Clinton basket in 2008, they were fortunate that Obama, in his desire for wider acceptance, gave her so much authority (which we later gathered had contributed to the fiasco in Libya, where he had not initially supported the overthrow of Gaddafi). In 2016 Clinton lost and it was the Trump the diaspora had striven to defeat who won, with no hope of the return of the harridan. But almost immediately they abandoned the fallen woman and set up Tamils for Trump, which will doubtless soon convince him that they were heart and soul behind him from the start.
This certainly happened in Britain. The terrorist diaspora worked incredibly hard for the Labour party, and indeed David Milliband, as Foreign Secretary, explained to the Americans who were not as bitter about Sri Lanka initially that this was for electoral considerations. But when in 2010 Labour lost, Tamils emerged as strong supporters of David Cameron (with Sri Lanka incidentally having contributed to this easy transition by having failed to appoint a new High Commissioner for months, so that the opportunity to establish good relations with the new government was squandered).
But where I think the West shot itself most seriously in the foot was in losing the chance to understand how to deal effectively with terrorism without decimation of the civilians amidst whom terrorists operate. Any objective examination of what we did makes it clear that we took care of civilians as best possible within the context of the Tigers using them as human shields. We provided health and education facilities throughout, including transporting to hospitals in government territory those in need of medical help (all it would seem, given that we took along even more who were described by the ICRC as bystanders).
Essential food was available, as is obvious from the stocks of grain that the Tigers used to build barricades. And the hundreds of thousands who fled to government territory when we created an opportunity for this, in April 2009, when the Tigers were trying to sacrifice everyone, makes it clear that the civilians had not gone willingly as was claimed. Indeed the failure of aid agencies to persuade the Tigers to allow their workers to leave with them makes clear the intransigence of the Tigers as well as the hypocrisy of those agencies who did nothing about the thousands of ordinary people the Tigers were forcibly keeping.
But perhaps I am naïve in thinking the West actually cares about civilians. Certainly the number of civilians who have suffered in the wars they have been relentlessly waging in the Middle East, the flippancy with which they admit that drones have destroyed the innocent, their continuing protection of the wicked who support them, suggest that they do not care a hoot for the values they use to undermine countries they do not like.
And yet, that too is counter productive. As they found with so many tyrants they supported who then switched over, it is only alliances based on principles that can be relied on. And even when they can be sure that there will be no abandoning of the West, as with Israel or the fascist regime they have now installed in the Ukraine, the price they have to pay in continuing support for increasingly vicious behavior rises all the time. Any except the most bigoted must realize that, with every excess the United States permits Israel, disenchantment with the West increases, and this will soon change even the stance of what are seen as devoted allies – whose excesses, it should be noted, the West continues to endorse.
But, Barbara Tuchman noted, the march of folly will continue until disaster occurs. The worry now though is that that disaster will engulf others too, and those who have in no way contributed to the mess will also suffer. It will be no consolation that the perpetrators of the disaster will suffer what for them will be a minor setback.
Ceylon Today 21 March 2017 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170101CT20170331.php?id=17574