Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox
Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby live on in the recollections of elderly Americans and the literary record of the United States, but those creations of Joel Chandler Harris are unlikely to be found in print today because they belong to an age when slavery was part of American remembered experience, and Harris’s Uncle Remus, the old slave telling children his tales of animal adventures did not offend.
The sinister Br’er Fox and the wily Br’er Rabbit are in fact classical figures of folklore, traceable back to African legend and surviving into the twenty-first century under other names in animated Hollywood cartoons.
The Tar Baby is exactly what he is called: a lump of tar roughly shaped and crudely dressed by Br’er Fox to resemble a baby and attract the attention of passers-by, who if they touch it find themselves stuck to it, and unable to unstick themselves from its gluey grasp until becoming the prey of the hungry fox. Uncle Remus’s rabbit escapes by tricking the fox into throwing him into a briar patch, where he easily escapes, having been born amidst the briars.
All of which may be taken to remind present-day Americans of Afghanistan and the Middle East, the latter a well-known and profitable tar-patch. The New York Times provides another editorial this week warning against the briars of endemic corruption offered American and United Nations officials by Afghanistan’s new government. This tells of the new Afghan government’s President Ashraf Ghani’s recent demand that the United Nations Development Program hand over management of its multi-million dollar Law and Order Trust Fund that pays the salaries and pensions of Afghanistan’s police agencies. The inspector-general of American reconstruction funding has already complained of suspected fraud and swindle at Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry.
In Iraq, the debacle last year of the Iraq army’s attempt to check the momentum of the attacking self-proclaimed Islamic State has unanimously been attributed to the corruption that rots the competence of that American-trained army. It is commonplace for officers to steal the pay of soldiers they command; promotion even to the higher levels of command can be won by bribing superior officers; and procurement of supplies and equipment too often involves fraud (as equally happens in the American Army’s use of contractors and local suppliers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locations in the region). It is a commonplace that the Global American War on Terror that has been waged since 2001 has seen colossal waste and swindle by American contractors and mafias that makes robbers abroad amateurs.
In Washington in recent years corruption has tended to be ignored because America’s foreign wars were scheduled to end in 2014 and 2015, the corruption with it. This has been delusion. The midterm elections last fall revealed that masses of Americans by now are convinced that America’s leaders (military and Congressional leaders included) have parked the nation in the midst of seemingly perpetual war against Muslims. And perpetual corruption, as the editorial writer plausibly assumes.
I have proposed in this space several times that intervention in these wars has to be called off, for the participants’ sake as well as that of the United States, and of the NATO allies who have so credulously tramped along at Washington’s demand, sacrificing their own men in causes that realists have long recognized as lost.
In the current Washington journal The American Conservative (January-February 2015), I make the argument that the crisis in Islamic society dates from its loss of unity in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, its parceling up into discrete colonial states or mandated territories (by the “international community” of 1918-1922, the League of Nations), and the Muslims’ repeated efforts to find a new unity – the most recent of which we see happening today.
I argue that foreigners cannot achieve peace and unity for them. They must find their own equivalent of the Europeans’ settlement of Europe’s terrible Thirty Years’ War between Protestant and Catholics. That was in 1648, the Westphalian Settlement — which created a new international system of national sovereignties and religious realms which endured until the twentieth century.
Is it possible that this can be achieved by Islamic society, and the United States and Europe retreat from Islamic wars? The tale with which I began, that of the folk-wisdom incorporated into the story of the Tar Baby and Br’er Rabbit, applies to the Middle Eastern wars from which the United States and the West want to retreat, but again and again find themselves caught deep in the tar.
A political realist must recognize that the United States is most unlikely to leave Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Taliban – who are standing in the shadows today, ready to take over. Congress and the Warhawks will not let it depart. The Taliban will not let it go. Daesh – the aspirant New Caliphate – will not let the United States abandon Mesopotamia without evidence that it was Islamic warriors who drove out the infidels.
Finally, Israel will not let the United States leave. So long as Israel occupies Palestine, and the Islamic societies defend the Holy Land, Israel will not let the United States go home.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
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