The unrest and violence that has erupted in more than a dozen countries across North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia has refocused Americans' attention on two different but not disconnected historical movements in the Muslim world. The first is the campaign of terror launched by Osama bin Laden and an alliance of militant Islamic warriors who have sought to expel the West from Muslim lands, oust pro-Western dictators and unify those lands as a single Islamic nation for over 15 years. This movement, initially supported by America and its allies when it was used to dislodge the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in the 1980s, metastasized into the Al Qaeda terror groups that eventually attacked the United States on 9/11. The toll in American blood and treasure has been over 10,000 lives and trillions of dollars in damages and the cost of U.S. led wars.
This year will long be remembered and analyzed by scholars and students for the so-called “Arab Spring” sweeping the Arab world from North Africa across to the Arabian Peninsula. Simmering tensions in a dozen countries boiled over in protests and revolts toppling several regimes – Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – and pushing others to the brink. In the Persian Gulf Iran is playing an outsized role, threatening the neighborhood: sponsoring terrorism, building nuclear weapons, and dominating the scene in Iraq as America is shown the door by Baghdad. Meanwhile, 44 years of conflict and occupation in Israel-Palestine shows no signs of a solution. Indeed the threat of an American veto to a Palestinian statehood bid in the United Nations illuminates Washington’s dilemma of balancing interests versus America’s principles.
WOW is right! The 12th Window on the World, Tennessee Tech’s annual global awareness festival that celebrates, at once, international unity and diversity was center stage on campus this weekend. The Roaden University Center, festooned with scores of country flags that symbolize the origins of many Tech students and faculty, was filled with hundreds of people working and thousands of people visiting the music and dance performances, art displays, shopping kiosks, food courts, children’s activities, and country table displays. The atmosphere, as always, was electric as people moved about to take it all in – to enjoy it all and to learn something about every corner of the world.
The tide of revolt that has swept the Arab World in the last two months has been stunning in scope, intensity and importance. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf autocratic regimes have been shaken and some have fallen in an historic reformation of how Arab countries will manage their affairs. This transformation, dubbed an “Arab Spring,” has also stunned foreign policy making institutions in the United States as America’s values and interests are increasingly at odds with each other.
The throngs of Egyptians who have taken to the streets in the Arab world’s most populous country are shaking the foundations of regimes across North Africa and the Middle East with scant hope America will emerge from this new crisis with a winning hand, much less breaking even.
The images are from another place and time, grainy, black and white photos among an archive of American experiences from “back in the day” and they appear in my mind when I think about the word “polio.” One of these ancient photos is of a warehouse-sized room filled with row after row of capsules each containing a person, like some strange 1950s era sci-fi movie. Dozens of nurses in old-style uniforms and caps are buzzing around the tubes. The capsules have viewing windows, access ports, gauges and dials and at one end a pressurized seal where each patient’s head extends outside the tube. The scores of tubes in the image are iron-lungs, the much feared last resort treatment for the thousands and thousands of Americans afflicted with polio who, because of paralysis, were unable to breath on their own. Their lives were extended through the pumps that provided negative air pressure, taking over the function of their ineffective diaphragms.
Indifference to global developments is not a new phenomenon in America’s public life. In recounting the story of the Council on Foreign Relations, Colorado College political scientist David Hendrickson, writing in “Foreign Affairs,” noted the relative ignorance among officials and the public about the world. Of the former he said the U.S. State Department, in the wake of World War I, lacked the “detailed knowledge of European conditions that would be required for redrawing, as fairly as could be done, the map of the world.” Of the citizenry of the day, he said “American domestic opinion was returning with a vengeance, to the insular habits that had long characterized it,” citing as evidence the “Philadelphia Record’s” comment in 1928 that, “The American people don’t give a hoot in a rainbarrel who controls north China.”