Saturday 28 June 2014

The rat and the mongoose: a modern fable

No, this did not happen ‘a long time ago, in a galaxy far-far away’.  It happened in the Hawaiian archipelago; and it all started towards the end of the 19th century.
Brought as natural pest exterminators, the mongooses soon proved to be just another pest.
Brought as natural rat exterminators, the mongooses soon proved to be just another pest...
At the time, Caribbean plantation owners were tired of their relentless war against field rats – the rodents were eating into their precious sugar cane crops.  Come 1872, a chap called W.B. Espaut had an original idea: why not bring over a few Indian mongooses – those unpretentious mammals known as enthusiastic rat hunters?  Espaut travelled to India, had some mongooses captured and brought them to Jamaica.  Proud of his achievement, the fellow even wrote a journal article, praising the mongoose as the best thing since sliced bread.  The carnivorous mammals had, it seems, multiplied and prospered.  They ate lots of rats, but also, explained Espaut with satisfaction,
"snakes, lizards, crabs, toads and the grubs of many beetles and caterpillars have been destroyed."
This unreserved praise grabbed the attention of Hawaiian sugar cane planters, who also suffered from the rats.  Bringing mongooses to Hawaii as natural pest exterminators seemed such an elegant idea.  True, around 1883 some wise Hawaiian farmer wrote a letter to the ‘Planters Monthly’, urging caution:
"Whether it would be wise to introduce the animal to these Islands may be a question. It would be important to first learn more of the nature of the creature, for they may prove an evil."
But who listens to such prophecies of doom?  Why work hard to hunt or trap the rats, when one could simply let the mongooses do away with them?  ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’.  Long live the alliance between man and mongoose!
...while the rats continued to multiply and prosper.
...while the rats continued to multiply and prosper.
The problem – it soon turned out – was that the mongooses did not just kill rats; they killed birds, ate eggs, insects, useful reptiles, even small deer fawns.  True, the mongooses also hunted and killed lots of rats; but they did not kill them all.  In fact, the rodents continued to multiply – and so did the mongooses.  Worse, both rats and mongooses carry a disease called leptospirosis, which can be lethal to humans.  To cut a long story short, rather than getting rid of one pest, the hapless Hawaiians ended up with two.  To this day, they still have to use poison and traps – only now they fight both rats and mongooses.
Given his childhood spent in Hawaii, one would expect US President Barack Obama to be familiar with that historic blunder.  Which would be useful, because there’s an important lesson to be learned from it.

These days, a gang of religious fanatics has taken control of large swathes of what used to be called Syria and Iraq.  They see themselves as God’s deputies on earth, and are intent on bringing the joys of medieval-style Sunni Islam to everybody – or else.  In short – they’re a pest.  And a dangerous one, too: they have already killed untold thousands of people – mostly Shi’a Muslims and Alawites.
So what’s to be done?  USA, UK or NATO could, of course, intervene militarily.  But getting involved in yet another war in the House of Islam is unpopular with the Western public; and fighting ISIS would mightily displease the Sunni oil sheikhs who pass for ‘allies’ of the West in the Middle East.
Which is why the idea of subcontracting the ISIS problem to Iran got floated.  After all, the Shi’a Islamic Republic is the only thing Sunni fanatics hate even more than liberal democracy.  ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’.  Or ‘fight fire with fire’.  Or any of the other similarly shallow clichés politicians use to justify morally repugnant acts.
US Secretary of State John Kerry lost no time before discussing the matter with the mullahs’ regime.  Asked whether military cooperation was in the cards, Kerry answered:
"I wouldn't rule out anything that would be constructive to providing real stability."
Stability??  What about morality?  What about common sense?  Isn’t this the same regime that held American diplomats hostage – in violation of age-old rules of human behaviour?  Isn’t this the same regime guilty of mass murdering innocent people, both in Iran and abroad?
But the idea of fighting the ISIS pest by supporting the equally malignant mullahs is not just nauseatingly immoral – it is also incredibly stupid.  Yes, ‘stupid’ is the only way to characterise those who endlessly repeat the same mistakes, never seeming to learn from them.  Did we not commit precisely this type of mistakes – several times already??  Did the West not back with money, weaponry and 'moral' support (both directly and via Saudi Arabia) the Afghan jihadis against the Soviet pest – only to ‘reap’ Taliban and their Al-Qaida ‘guests’?  Did the West not aid Iraq’s ruthless dictator Saddam Hussein against the Iranian ‘common foe’ and did not that Middle Eastern version of Frankenstein later haunt ushis people and the entire region?  In fact, even the mullahs’ nuclear programme – which the West is now struggling in extremis to contain – was born out of Islamic Iran’s fear of an Iraq backed by the West and armed with weapons of mass destruction.  So what do Messrs. Obama and Kerry suppose it’ll happen this time, if the West is now seen to back a potentially nuclear Iran in its clash with Sunni extremists?  Where do they reckon, for instance, that the Sunni, nuclear Pakistan will stand, vis-à-vis of such conflict??
This is not ‘realpolitik’; it’s just a really, really bad idea.  As ill-conceived as bringing the mongoose to fight rats – but infinitely more damaging.  Like the hapless Hawaiian farmers, we are sure to end up with two pests.  Nuclear-armed ones, to boot!

1 comment:

  1. Well done and creatively constructed analogy - very sad that there is no strategic thought in the mighty USA