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Taking us to the brink

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Since the tumultuous events of Sept. 11, the world has been a different place. Now that we seem to be poised to go to war with Iraq, many people are wondering why. How did it come to this?

One man seems to have put his finger on the issues—and offers both an explanation and solution.

Gwynne Dyer—historian, lecturer, journalist, broadcaster, and columnist—has been touring Canada and parts of the United States, bringing with him his unique perspective on the current situation.

Last Thursday afternoon, he was at Fort Frances High School and carefully laid out his theory to a group of spellbound students.

As a man who holds degrees from universities in Canada, the United States, and Great Britain, and who has served in the navies of all three countries, the Newfoundland-born Dyer is in a unique position to see things from a global perspective.

His twice-weekly column is published in more than 175 newspapers and in a dozen languages worldwide.

In his latest project, a lecture entitled “The world Turned Upside Down,” Dyer is suggesting that despite of the seriousness of our current state of affairs, the world actually is a better place now than it has ever been.

He has, however, grave concerns regarding decisions being made today in Washington, London, and Ottawa. Dyer says he not only believes the war is unnecessary, but it actually may set back the cause of peace in the Middle East.

For those who missed his lecture, here is the gist of it.

Dyer says it all goes back to Sept. 11, but the series of events that culminated on that dark day actually began nearly 80 years ago with the conquest and colonialization of what we have come to think of as the Arab world by European intruders.

“The last century was the worst in Arab history,” said Dyer. “Eighty years ago, European armies rolled in and conquered the whole Arab world, carved it up, and parcelled it out among themselves.

This came as an immense blow to the Arab culture, which has a proud and noble history dating back centuries. Less than 1,000 years ago, the Arab culture was the most advanced in the world: in art, science, architecture, medicine, and philosophy, it was light years ahead of the Europeans, who Dyer says “were still clanking around in metal suits believing the world was flat.”

After the Second World War, the Arabs—empowered by their new-found oil wealth—were able to finally throw the Europeans out of their land.

Then came the second great blow.

With the establishment of the state of Israel, the Arabs found themselves with a group of unwelcome intruders once again in their midst—effectively bisecting their land. To the Arabs, says Dyer, Israel is nothing more than “a European country parachuted into the Arab world”—not a nation with a legitimate claim to the land themselves.

Five times over the next 50 years, the Arabs went to war with Israel and five times they had their heads handed to them. More humiliation. Here was a country, says Dyer, composed of Europeans, armed and financed by the West, bringing more shame down on the Arabs.

“This engendered huge amounts of rage and self-hatred,” he said. The governments in power—all dictatorships—were unable to either defeat the Israelis or provide a decent standard of living for the majority of their people.

There came a point where Arabs began asking themselves how such a thing could happen. The answer, for some, was that God was displeased with them. They had done something wrong and if they could but put it right, all would be well.

This simplistic philosophy did not appeal to the general population, but it did take root in the minds of a small but dangerous minority who became determined to take their fellow Arabs back with them through the ages—by force if necessary—to a simpler time.

By turning their backs on all Western influences, this handful of fanatics came to believe all their problems would be solved. This philosophy, which Dyer refers to as Islamism, was the founding principle of al-Qaida.

“They [Al-Qaida] claim they can use this extreme form of religion as a lever to change the world,” Dyer said.

Such ideas found little support at home, however. All over the Middle East, harsh totalitarian regimes sprang up and while people were unhappy under their governments, they were equally skeptical of the Islamists.

“Only one in six or seven Arabs believe that,” said Dyer. The remainder are content to sit on the sidelines and let their brutal governments and equally brutal Islamists fight each other.

Dyer stressed the Islamist fringe is not a Muslim issue but an Arab one. “Other Muslims [non-Arabs] don’t think this way because they don’t have the same problems,” he explained.

Having no luck at home, Al-Qaida decided to try to establish Islamist regimes elsewhere.

In 1979, Osama bin Laden, the son of a wealthy Saudi construction magnate, went to Afghanistan to help the Islamist revolutionaries there (the Taliban) fight the Soviet Union, which had invaded that country.

After 10 years of guerrilla fighting, the Taliban succeeded in throwing the Soviet’s out and established the first Islamist government. Al-Qaida was rewarded for its help by being allowed to stay there while it planned the overthrow of governments back in the Middle East.

But the people back home still wanted nothing to do with Al-Qaida. Something had to be done to draw millions of people into the streets to bring down the secular governments.

The best way to accomplish that, they reasoned, was to goad America into attacking them.

So, in 1998, Al-Qaida attacked two American embassies in Africa with powerful truck bombs. More than 200 people died, including 24 Americans, and 5,000 were injured.

Back in Washington, then U.S. President Bill Clinton had his own problems. In 10 days, he was to appear before a Congressional hearing concerning his sworn testimony regarding his relationship with one Monica Lewinsky.

Clinton needed a distraction and the embassy attacks provided a good one.

Based on what Dyer called “absolutely lousy” intelligence, Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes all over the Middle East, which resulted in the deaths of many innocent people, but did no real damage to Al-Qaida.

Bin Laden watched all this and was struck by an intriguing thought: if 24 deaths could cause the Americans to lash out so blindly and kill so many Arabs, what if we go to America and kill thousands of Americans?

Surely that will drive them berserk and they will slaughter thousands of Arabs, thereby bringing about the Islamist revolution he so desperately wanted.

When the Twin Towers fell in New York City that fateful day, Al-Qaida assumed U.S. President George W. Bush would react the way Clinton did, but Bush had the advantage of having people in his Cabinet—Dick Chaney, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld—who also were part of his father’s administration 10 years earlier.

These men had a greater understanding of the politics of the Middle East and persuaded Bush not to “do the first thing that comes to your mind,” as Dyer put it.

Instead, the Bush administration did its homework and traced Al-Qaida to its home in Afghanistan. Armed with this information and general sympathy from around the world, Bush had no trouble persuading the United Nations to sanction a war to oust the Taliban from power and track down Al-Qaida.

By early 2002, the job in Afghanistan was done and that, says Dyer, is where it should have ended.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Kabul.

Prior to the attacks of Sept. 11, Bush was sitting at historic lows in the popularity polls for a first-term president in his first year in office. Within two weeks, his popularity shot up to 90 percent and remained there until after the Afghanistan campaign.

With the mid-term Congressional elections coming in November, Bush’s advisors suggested the American public needed a new enemy upon which to focus until after the Republicans regained control of the Senate.

“I woke up one morning and heard this expression, ‘Axis of Evil,’ and thought, ‘What is that all about?’” Dyer said.

What it’s about, said Dyer, is three countries with absolutely nothing in common except each—at one time—had been a thorn in the side of the United States.

Bush chose to focus the majority of his campaign on Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the American people bought it. With this new enemy firmly fixed in the consciousness of an American public still reeling from the attacks of Sept. 11, the Republicans rolled to victory in the mid-term elections and regained control of the Upper House.

Why, therefore, is war fever still pitched so high?

“Once you start a cart like this rolling down the track, a whole lot of people with a whole lot of baggage start climbing aboard,” said Dyer.

In this case, there was no shortage of passengers. The big oil executives with visions of huge stock options, the defence contractors who always make money during war, and the powerful Israeli lobby in Washington who wanted nothing better than to be rid of one more nasty threat in the Middle East were all onside and the momentum generated was too much to stop.

“Essentially, Bush talked himself into this war and now he can’t back out,” concluded Dyer.

The coming war, said Dyer will be unlike the last one or any America or Canada has seen since the Second World War. “This one, unfortunately, is going to be different and I’m afraid we [Canada] are going to be there,” predicted Dyer.

“The last war in Iraq was fought in the desert at long range, but this time it will be a street fight,” he said. “Armies hate street-fighting because you take a lot of casualties. You can’t use all your high-tech toys, so it’s more of a level playing field.

“Every building could contain a sniper or a guy with an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] while Saddam is safely hiding in one of hundreds of bunkers he has all over Baghdad,” he said.

“The alternative is to stand off and blow up those buildings with the snipers and the bombers, but in so doing, you kill thousands of innocent civilians who also happen to live there.”

Another complication is Israel. Dyer believes Saddam will launch an attack against that country as soon as hostilities begin in the hopes of drawing it into the conflict—to “change the optics,” as he put it.

This, too, plays into al-Qaida hands since it could help rally those thousands of revolutionaries they have been trying to find for so long.

All is not lost, however. Dyer said he doesn’t believe the conflict will expand beyond the Middle East. “World War III has been cancelled,” he quipped. “You can all go home now.”

Dyer believes the crisis will be contained because, unlike as recently as 20 years ago, there are no ideological superpowers facing each other over a phalanx of nuclear weapons.

“For the first time in history, the majority of governments in the world are democracies,” he said. “Historically, democracies do not fight each other.”

The West’s traditional enemies, the Soviet Union and its block of allies, are all now democracies. All over the world, said Dyer, quiet democratic revolutions are taking place without bloodshed.

“Nobody predicted this. Nobody saw it coming, but it happened. I believe, given time, the Arabs will look at the world around them and do the same thing.

“All we have to do is leave them alone and they’ll get there on their own, eventually.”

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