Monday, November 28, 2005

Seeing the Clouds from Both Sides

One of our cultural shortcomings is a disinclination toward studying history in anything but its barest outlines. With each generation this tendency gets worse, especially after the vested interests in the MSM get finished with the material.

On our blogroll, you’ll notice the World History Blog. The Baron found it and we immediately added it to the list. To my knowledge, no one else is attempting this in the blogosphere. It’s not only good material for adults, but would be a welcome resource for homeschoolers or parents concerned about their children’s woeful history “education” in school.

The site features both the prominent stories of their time and the obscure tales that don’t get told elsewhere. A recent feature offers two links to the history of Panama. One lesson you can take away from it is that the caliber of our Senate chamber hasn’t improved much. No wonder the esteemed Senator Ted Stevens from Alaska threatened to resign and “ be carried out on a stretcher” if the vote on the Bridge to Nowhere didn’t fund this pig project. He had precedent on his side, in the Senatorial goings-on that led to the building of the Panama Canal, and in fact to the creation of the state of Panama itself. It’s not a pretty story:
     In 1900, a group of investors led by William Nelson Cromwell, the founder of the prestigious New York law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, and the banker J.P. Morgan, created a secret syndicate of Wall Street financiers and politicians to buy the shares of the bankrupt French Panama Canal Company, which owned the right to build the Panama Canal, from thousands of small shareholders throughout Europe. They invested about $3.5 million and gained control of the company.
The covert investors then spent the next three years getting the United States government to buy the holdings for $40 million, the payment of which would flow back to them. In order to do this, they first had to defeat an entrenched Nicaragua lobby. Nicaragua was the preferred route for the canal because of its two big lakes, and also because the French had already tried to build a canal in Panama but had failed miserably.
And the U.S. was already on its way to building the canal in Nicaragua. The House of Representatives unanimously passed a Nicaragua canal bill, a treaty was signed with Nicaragua, President McKinley had already signed the bill, and the excavation had already began in Nicaragua. It was a done deal—until Cromwell arrived on Capitol Hill and began throwing money around.
Senator Mark Dollar Hanna, who was at that time the chair of the Republican Party and probably the most powerful man in America, received $60,000, at the time the largest donation to any politician.
In return, Hanna began a campaign to build the canal in Panama instead. U.S. policy was reversed, and in 1902, Congress decided that the Canal was to go through Panama.
Only one problem—Panama was at the time a province of Colombia, and the United States needed Colombia's approval to move ahead. Teddy Roosevelt sent Cromwell, who stood to benefit financially from the deal, to negotiate with Colombia. Colombia balked, demanding more money. Cromwell decided to circumvent Colombia, and to instead get Panama to secede and create it's own country—which it did…
The whole story, laid out by Ovidio Diaz Espino in How Wall Street Created a Nation: J.P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt and the Panama Canal, is contradicted by one of the book’s reviewers, Roberto N Méndez, a professor of economics at Panama's National University:
     His [Diaz’] purpose seems to be convincing us that Panama's independence was an episode characterized solely by the selfish-ness, corruption and cowardice of its participants. But in doing so Ovidio-Díaz contradicts himself, and seems to forget that all historical events are the result of interactions between positive and negative elements, which in one way or another contribute to the material and spiritual advancement of the people..
This whole imbroglio brings to mind the present-day machinations behind the discrediting of Ahmad Chalabi for his role in the Iraq war and his on-going political life in the new Iraqi government. First he was the good guy, then he was the villain, and now he’s being resurrected again. In the latest print edition of The National Review, Michael Rubin lays it out for us in “Iraq’s Comeback Kid”:
    …in the months before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Chalabi returned to Iraq. And after liberation, he became an irritant to Washington policymakers. While Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer sought to run Iraq by diktat, Chalabi agitated for direct elections and restoration of Iraqi sovereignty. He clashed with Meghan O’Sullivan, now deputy national security adviser for Iraq, when she worked to undermine and eventually reverse de-Baathification. He undercut White House attempts to internationalize responsibility for Iraq in the months prior to the 2004 U.S. elections when his Governing Council auditing commission began to investigate the UN Oil-for-Food scandal.
In a West Wing meeting, then–national security adviser Condoleezza Rice called Chalabi’s opposition to the ill-fated Fallujah Brigade “unhelpful.” Soon afterward, she directed her staff to outline ways to “marginalize” Chalabi. There followed espionage and counterfeiting charges — the former never seriously pursued by the FBI and the latter thrown out of an Iraqi court. Following the June 28, 2004, transfer of sovereignty in Iraq, John Negroponte — then U.S. ambassador to Iraq and now the director of national intelligence — refused to meet Chalabi. Cut off from U.S. patronage and without any serious Iraqi base, the analysts said, Chalabi would fade away.
Of course we know now that he didn’t “fade away.” Reading of his sudden persona-non-grata status in the post-war Iraqi negotiations, I wondered what political machinations had been put into play and if we would ever be told why he was cast into the outer darkness so suddenly. Rubin tells us how he came back, despite the bad-mouthing he got inside the Beltway:
     Unlike those of other Iraqi figures embraced by various bureaucracies in Washington, Chalabi’s fortunes have not depended on U.S. patronage. His survival — and, indeed, his recent ascent against the obstacles thrown in his path by Washington — underlines the failures of diplomats and intelligence analysts to put aside departmental agendas to provide the White House with an objective and accurate analysis of the sources of legitimacy inside Iraq.
Rubin faults the young and untested security officers in the CIA. They are in their twenties and thirties, and most lack any in-depth understanding of Iraq’s cultural system. Obviously, Chalabi doesn’t:
     Chalabi’s grandfather built modern Kadhimiya, a sprawling Shiite town that has since been absorbed into modern Baghdad; his father was president of the Iraqi senate during the monarchy. Genealogy gives gravitas. In contrast, even as Iraqis suffered under Saddam Hussein’s rule, they expressed disdain for Saddam with reference to his uncertain paternity. (In post-liberation Iraq, the CIA’s blind eye toward genealogy has been evident in its embrace of powerful Baathist families — the Bunias and al-Janabis, for example — even as many Iraqis dismiss such figures as déclassé and embarrassing beneficiaries of Saddam’s largesse.)
According to Mr. Rubin, Iraq functions with a system of religious patronage which has no parallel in this country — though one might add that such similarities could have been found in the Middle Ages in much of Europe. But CIA security analysts don’t study history, do they? Like the rest of the American political system, they stay safely in the Green Zone, probably the largest filter in Iraq:
     The sources of Chalabi’s legitimacy have remained constant. What has changed is the growing realization that neither Langley nor Foggy Bottom has accurately assessed the Iraqi political scene. Part of the problem may be that reality did not mesh with their political agendas, but a far more serious American handicap has been an inability, more than two and a half years after the fall of Saddam, to understand the sources of legitimacy in Iraq. Washington may run the Green Zone but, for Chalabi, it is the rest of the country that matters.
And if our Senators have their way, that Green Zone is going to be dismantled and our “security analysts”/CIA will return to Langley no wiser than when they left. As for Foggy Bottom, no one really expects them to learn anything. How does an entity which believes it knows everything already have any room to take in new information?

Do we know why it was named The Green Zone? Is it because those ensconced inside are inexperienced and lack knowledge? That’s certainly one definition of “green,” isn’t it?


Thomas von der Trave said...

The British secret services used to recruit their recruiters among the dons of Oxbridge. These professors and tutors would then pick the brightest linguists, historians and other up-and-coming scholars among the current crop of students and make the first overtures on behalf of His/Her Majesty's clandestine offices. Thus there was never a shortage of people who could speak the languages, read the texts and mingle with the people.

Of course, that wouldn't work for us because the majority of profs in the U.S. would run screaming to the press if the CIA even suggested that they might want to keep an eye peeled for suitable candidates.

Now, seducing them into becoming the next Robert Fisk, that's another matter...

hank_F_M said...


If you like world History Blog you will probably like


airforcewife said...

Oooh, that is spot on something that drives my husband insane (although he is only 30 and thus in the age range you mentioned as being too young).

We are total history nuts, and read enough to make others think we are too odd for words. And in his line of work, too much reading should not be something that sets someone apart...

I blame our obsessions with my father's yearning to be the font of all knowledge in regards to the history of everything. The man used to quiz me about historical events on long car drives.

For my own homeschooling I use sonlight. It does an amazing job of presenting history in depth.

Dymphna said...

airforce wife:

The Baron's Boy has a strong grasp of history also. It just seemed to come to him naturally. He's extremely literate about the main events, though I don't think he's delved yet into political history. His main interest is military history and strategists...

The primary source materials are important; in high school he was fortunate to have a retired Navy man who insisted the kids read.

Dymphna said...

Hank F_M_

Far Outliers looks fascinating! If I didn't have to go pack for the hospital I'd read more of it. Some meaty things there...that review of the French book, for one, and the Sino stuff, of which I know zilch.