Where Hope Becomes Desperation

by Henry Precht

Katmandu, Baltimore, the Mediterranean Sea, Yemen, Syria—it has been a grim week of news from around the globe. If we looked a bit further back for the same kind of dark headlines, we could add the migration of Latinos toward our southwest states and violent demonstrations against police treatment of Blacks in a variety of American cities.

Is there a common thread to this series of events, some of them acts of nature and all made worse by the actions of men? Katmandu was the scene of a devastating earthquake. Predicted for 80 years by geologists, the disaster caught the nation of Nepal unprepared, with buildings that could not stand up to the strain and without adequate infrastructure that might have facilitated aid to the stricken. A corrupt and less-than-democratic government failed to meet the needs of its citizens.

That was the case in other disasters where governments have proved unable to understand much less respond effectively to the needs of its citizens. Poverty and its byproduct, senseless violence, are common themes in today’s world. Worst yet, at home and abroad societies are gripped by a paralyzing hopelessness.

This void of expectations for a better life drives young people—mostly men—to make their way across the Sahara to Libya where they pay outrageous fees to smugglers who promise to haul them across the Mediterranean to a new beginning in Europe. That those promises lead instead to death on the high seas does not discourage others from desperately making the attempt.

A similar lack of hope describes the condition of African-Americans who inhabit our inner cities. Tragically, they burn and loot, adding to the miseries of their communities. Race, of course, is a huge factor. But there’s an economic class aspect as well. The sociologist Robert Putnam in his new book Our Kids depicts societies here that once considered the wellbeing of all their members their responsibility. Now they have become separated into divisions where the rich take care of themselves behind high walls and in private schools, leaving the lower orders to fend for themselves. Rather than lend a helping hand to alleviate these problems, Congress cuts food stamps in order to reduce taxes for those who hardly need a benefit.

Meanwhile, hawks in and out of Congress urge the US to prolong its combat engagements in the Middle East and to support and lead proxies where we can: Ukraine, Yemen, Syria. Their memories are short. They forget that Washington has relied on proxies who later turned on the US. Think of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein whose army we assisted while it was gassing Kurds and Iranians in the 1980s and against whom we fought some 20 years later.

Think of our support and manipulation of Islamic groups to fight the USSR in Afghanistan only to find that we had to battle our creation, the Taliban, a decade or so later. Think of our support for the enemies of Syria’s Assad who became the Islamic State dedicated to our destruction. We took the easy road of destroying the dictatorship of Libya’s Qaddafi, heedless of what might follow him. The resulting chaos of the fragmented successor regimes now running/ruining Libya make the country the natural departure point for African migrants embarking for Europe. Their deaths at sea are a direct consequence of our ignorant intervention. A more thoughtful Washington should learn from these lessons before deciding to support Saudi Arabia’s vendetta against Yemen and its unknowable outcome.

A wiser—a more conservative—approach would be to shift energies and resources from distant zones of conflict (which usually we can only aggravate) to the home front which has been badly neglected for too many years. Rather than fussing over how schools and student tests are administered, we instead should devote abundant resources to education for those who most need help.

Similarly, we ought to improve and extend health care rather than try to roll back the legislative clock. And our masters should construct a tax system that is fair and promotes a more equitable society. A nation that is badly sundered between rich and the rest will lose hope and never achieve the greatness of its potential.

Photo: Earthquake damage in Nepal courtesy of SIM Central and Southeast Asia via Flickr

Henry Precht

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, worked mainly in the Middle East. His assignments included the Arab-Israel Desk after the 1967 war, four years in Tehran as political-military officer, in charge of the State Department Iran Desk during the revolution and hostage crisis, and two tours in Egypt – Alexandria in the 1960s and deputy ambassador in Cairo 1981-85. Precht speaks and writes on the region, and has published a book of short stories, A Diplomat’s Progress.



  1. Words from the wise. Will any of the changes spoken of see the reality of implementation? Perhaps if the planners were shipped off as the first migration to Mars. The corruption gripping the U.S. today, like a cancer, may be to late to eliminate, a dying empire due to the greed of the oligarchs and the sycophant wannabes. From the Supreme Court 5, Roberts legacy, giving money, citizenship equal to humans.

  2. Bravo. My hat is off to you, Mr. Precht. I wish Washington possessed an ounce of your wisdom and then perhaps it would not continue to squander trillions of dollars on militant, intrusive, subversive, belligerent and reckless policies that have brought us nothing but disgrace, blowback and additional costs, all the while with certain members of our political establishment crying “not enough!”

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