Gov’t has problem with promises

Larry Rogers

Larry Rogers

Since I teach social studies methods, I kid myself that anything that I read about that pops up in the news is somehow job-related. In this spirit, I read last week that Idi Amin had died.

He wasn’t a loss, having caused significant harm to large numbers of people during his misrule of Uganda, but his death made me think how geography and history intersect to make the world worse than it has to be.

Uganda, which once belonged (in the power sense, not the moral) to Great Britain, was once almost the solution to one of Great Britain’s other problems, for the British (I almost typed “brutish”) also controlled (or longed for control of) a growing part of the Middle East (a term, by the way, that was invented by an American admiral, not a Middle eastern person).

Led by Theodore Herzl and, later, Chaim Weizmann, Zionist organizations sprung up in the late 19th century. They advocated a Jewish return to the holy lands, a desire that was complicated by the fact that the lands in question were holy to several sets of people.

The Zionists especially pressured the British government to support their desires.

This pressure resulted in the 1917 Balfour Declaration that promised that a Jewish national homeland would be created in Palestine. As significant as the Balfour declaration was, that’s not my focus here.

My focus is on what the British tried to do years earlier. They tried to convince the Zionists to accept Uganda as a national homeland. The offer was quite expedient.

The British controlled Uganda, but didn’t value it much. They didn’t yet control the part of the Middle East that we know as Syria and Palestine, but could see the future value of it to them.

The Zionists refused to accept Uganda, pointing out that their ancient history hadn’t occurred in central Africa, but on the eastern Mediterranean. Not surprisingly, the Ugandans didn’t have a voice in the discussion.

Almost twenty years later, the British, having accepted reluctantly a Zionist presence in Palestine, and seeing significant problems in its future, offered the area to the United States as a mandate under the League of Nations. The American president, Woodrow Wilson, had the good sense to decline the offer, though I wonder what would have come of acceptance.

Not surprisingly, neither the Zionists nor the existing Palestinian Arab population had a voice in the discussion.

So what’s my point? Governments frequently make offers to other governments or NGOs or pressure groups out of expedience, not out of principle. Other people years later live lives that are worse or shorter than they have to be because of those unprincipled decisions.

We rarely learn about such decisions in high school. If we do, we learn about them in passing as one or two of a steady stream of unconnected factoids, which means that they bounce off us.

Although I wonder how many Americans can identify Idi Amin, I wonder more about how many Americans can describe adequately the nature of big power promises in the course of even the last century. It is the spirit of the two British promises about Uganda and Palestine that seems to sum up the complications of our world.

The road to hell is not paved with good intentions, but with selfish ones.