By Alan Caruba
I never fail to be astonished by the amount of corruption there is in the world. It is a very human trait whether it was royalty asserting that they ruled by God’s choice until their subjects rose up against them or modern day despots encountering the same fate.
Sarah Chayes has authored “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security” ($26.95, W.W. Norton) and it is quite timely when you consider that corruption ignited the “Arab Spring”, first in Tunisia when a peddler grew so tired of the police asking for bribes that he set himself afire in protest. Its dictator’s wife openly displayed the nation’s stolen wealth for which they were driven from power. In Egypt there was a similar response when the public tired of the looting of the state treasury by Mubarak’s son. Revolts from Libya to Syria have been generated by the same cause.
Corruption in the Middle East has a long history, but it is worldwide and, depending on the nation, is either tolerated as part of the way the culture does business or resisted by governments who understand that it undermines their legitimacy. Throw a dart at the map of the world and you are likely to hit a nation where corruption is influencing current events. As Chayes notes, “Time and again U.S. officials are blindsided by major developments in countries where they work. Too often they are insensible to the perspectives and aspirations of population.”
A classic example is Afghanistan where both the Soviet Union and the U.S. ran into such ingrained corruption that it undermined their objectives, the former to turn it into a satellite and the latter to turn it into a modern, democratic government. Chayes cites Afghanistan as a classic example of why the Taliban emerged as a jihadist movement. Corruption in the form of bribes, kick-backs, cronyism, is so deeply engrained in Afghanistan that it generated a movement to replace it with sharia law by Islamists.
“If the very Afghan officials by whose sides they planned to combat extremists were generating those extremists themselves—by having men shake down travelers and taking a cut, or leaving bills unpaid, or by providing judiciously selected ‘intelligence’ to engineer a night-raid against a rival trafficking network—it was too big a paradox to take in. NATO officers,” said Chayes, “did not want to know.”
“The corruption networks” in Afghanistan, writes Chayes, “were just too vertically integrated: any move against any official, no matter how lowly, would reverberate all the way up the chain to Karzai.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, Afghanistan had been a constitutional monarchy with a national assembly and local elders affording a check on executive power. “Citizens expected a decent education from their government, health care, even employment in state-owned industries.” That changed when Hamid Karzai took over. At that point government became a criminal enterprise.
The 9/11 attack prompted the U.S. to invade to drive out al Qaeda, but it also led to its staying on to fight the perceived enemies of Afghanistan. They—otherwise known as the Taliban—were being generated in part by the desire to drive out the corrupt Karzai administration.
What we tend to forget about the “Arab Spring” was that “millions of Arabs chose a constructive way to force change. They chose political revolution—a peaceful, civic, inclusive, and responsible form of revolt—directed square at their own leaderships, not at Western countries, not even those seen as regime allies.”
This is not to suggest that Islamism hasn’t degraded from its opposition to widespread corruption into organizations seeking to take control over the nations where it has spread. It has and this is most evidence in the incredibly corrupt nation of Nigeria where since 2009 Boko Haram has developed terrorism to new heights of barbarity—if that is possible.
An oil-rich nation, the billions that it generates have gone missing thanks to the administration of Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan. The police in Nigeria are hated as much as Boko Haram and, as we have seen, have not demonstrated any ability to eliminate the terrorist organization.
Why would any police officer or member of the armed forces want to die for a corrupt, kleptocratic administration? This was true back in the days when the U.S. was fighting in Vietnam, true when the Iraqi armed forces fled from those of the Islamic State, and it explains why even the active participation of U.S. forces does not result in victory against the terrorist organizations.
Why then should we be surprised that many throughout the Middle East have turned to Islam to address the problems they encounter from the corruption of their governments? “Lured by militant advocates of a religious ordering of human affairs, they will seek to roll back four hundred years of political history.”
In the West, we regard those regions of the world where corruption is rampant as backward. We can be forgiven for forgetting that our ancestors in England, the Netherlands, and parts of France laid the groundwork for modern democracy by their efforts to curb the corruption of the monarchies that enjoyed the good life at the expense of their subjects.
By the time the Founders came together to create the U.S. Constitution, they had been well-schooled and experienced in what it would require to keep corruption at bay with a government whose powers were limited and divided among executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
We are their beneficiaries, but that does not mean we have defeated corruption. The vast entitlement programs are just one example of the way millions are secured illegally by deception and disbursement. Other forms of corruption are addressed in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that forbids the use of bribery by corporations doing business in foreign nations.
The U.S. is not alone, however. Just as occurred in 2008, the too close relationship of the banking community and government led to financial crises in Ireland and Iceland. The public’s rejection of corruption in Ukraine led to its current civil unrest.
The role of corruption in the nations experiencing Islamic terrorism cannot be underestimated. Its role in the conduct of the world’s affairs is huge and a constant threat whose many forms must be understood, addressed, and eliminated to the greatest degree possible.
© Alan Caruba, 2015