April 2007

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Blog entries are in chronological order

April 2 - Strategic realities

As a crisis continues in the Persian Gulf, Iran holds 15 British sailors arrested for allegedly violating Iranian waters.  As expected, tough talk came from Great Britain, the US held military exercises near the Iranian border and beefed up its forces.  President Bush called the prisoners "hostages," and given that Iran is part of the President's "axis of evil," talk spreads of an impeding showdown with Iran.   I've read arguments from the right which claim that the West can't afford to look weak, that now is the time to send Iran a message in no uncertain terms: we are the major world power, don't mess with us.  Yet the reality is that we are in a position of relative weakness.   But the Iranians have to be careful not to overplay their hand.

Iran sits between Afghanistan and Iraq, and sits on the Persian gulf, through which much of the oil which drives the western economy depends.  From their vantage point they see a western force in Afghanistan that is losing ground and on the defensive.  In Iraq they see an on-going insurgency and if the "surge" is the most the US can throw at trying to subdue and control Iraq, they know they only have to bide their time and their influence will grow.  Meanwhile, this crisis has pushed oil prices ever higher, meaning Iran so far has benefited from this crisis in real, financial terms.

Simply, the US and Britain are already overstretched militarily, and the wars they are currently fighting are unpopular.  Iran knows this.  Moreover, Iran has the capacity to act in ways that can disrupt the western economy immensely, undermine any effort for stability in Iraq, and increase support for Hezbollah and other terror organizations outside the country.  The US could bomb and bomb Iran like we did to Serbia, but ultimately the backlash against that would be enormous, it would (like in Serbia) create at least short term solidarity between population and government, and increased world wide animosity to the United States.   Such a tactic would further fray alliances (especially if it results in very high oil prices), assuring we'd be going it alone, and the possibility that a war could spread to something that we could not handle and which would lead to major long term disruptions in our oil supply is very real.  Simply, our options are limited.

The crux of the issue is this: Iran will not give in to an ultimatum, and wants to be treated with respect.  That means agreeing to investigate the event, perhaps reach a deal on prisoner release, or do something to show that Iran is being taken seriously.  They believe they've been given orders and ultimatums from the West for too long, and they're not going to take it any more.   However, the western response was in the form of ultimatums and condemnations.  The possibility that Iran really did believe they were in Iranian waters wasn't taken seriously.  So Iran has hunkered down, citing British and American 'bad and undiplomatic behavior' for their unwillingness to find a way out.  The US and Britain fear that an assertive Iran will cause far worse problems than just 15 prisoners being held and shown on TV (which is contrary to the Geneva convention on prisoners of war, though Iran correctly notes that there isn't a state of war -- they see their own legal code as applying.)  They want to make sure the Iranians understand there are consequences of actions against the West.

So the standoff continues.  But Iran has weaknesses too.  In a period of globalization their markets are connected to the West, and financial sanctions are already stinging sectors of the Iranian economy whose support is needed by the government.  The oil weapon is a dangerous on; right now high prices benefit them, but a western economy in decline lowers world wide demand and could have a backlash.  Also, the Iranians do not want isolation, they aren't North Korea.  They ultimately want to be a player, and are upset by how in their view they are handed double standards: we can do nuclear research, they can't, etc.

This will end.  The British and the Iranians will find a way to meet half way, save some Iranian face, but allow the British and Americans to appear tough.  Much like the Chinese spy plane incident in 2001, when the US refused to apologize and China demanded one, this may have a mushy outcome.  In that case the US "expressed regret" which was translated to "apologizes" in Chinese.  Each side claimed victory.  The strategic realities are such that neither side benefits from war or a prolonged conflict.  But, of course, in the world of human action anything can happen.  Iran and Britain each have minimum requirements, and if those aren't meant this could go on for awhile.  Leaders on each side might miscalculate a move to pressure the other, and the result could be an escalation that cannot be controlled.  That's why these kind of events are dangerous; after all, few thought Franz Ferdinand's assassination would lead to World War I. 

Most important is that we come to grips with the strategic realities of the Mideast.  Gone is the unipolar moment; American power is less feared and America less loved and less respected than any time in the last century.   The Saudi example I talked about last week reflects this as well.  Foreign policy making is going to be a lot more difficult moving forward; we'll ultimately see that we need allies now more than ever, and we'll have to rethink our penchant for military action as a solution to tough problems.

April 3 - Heart and Mind

Teaching the course Children and War a couple of times, I've become convinced that political science, and academia in general, have an unhealthy skepticism about anything which is not understandable through logic and mental processes.  Sit in a graduate seminar and talk about wars, genocides, or poverty in the third world.  If you say "corrupt governments doom their people due to practices undercutting the spread of modernism" or "exploitation from western powers feeds a structure of core and periphery that prevents development," your point will be taken seriously.  Say "that's really sad," and you'll be met with an annoyed, "well yes, but it's reality, let's analyze it."

Fair enough, you might say.  Yeah, it's sad, but really what does that matter to those trying to figure out why it happens and what to do about it.  Shouldn't that sadness be put aside, or accepted as a motivation for taking on the issue, but not part of the analysis?  How does noting that something is "sad" help you analyze the situation?

Back in the early days of child psychology, many psychologists did experiments on children that by today's standards were brutal.  This included one case where babies were raised utterly without love.  They would be nursed, changed, and clothed by people who would show no emotion and make no eye contact.  Not surprisingly the children all turned out incapable of operating in society, often not able to speak or understand their world.  My first reaction, especially having children of my own, was to think "how on earth could a human do that, not show love to a baby or a child, and raise them that way?"  But, of course, that's emotion.  The people doing this study were scholars, they were analyzing. The babies were taken from street people in dire poverty, they wouldn't have had a life anyway, at least, the scholars presumably rationalized, they would get food and shelter.

Even now I've heard of psychology professors (not here!) who dismiss any kind of sentiment in talking about children or subjects as out of place -- we are analyzing objects, just use reason and the mind!    As I thought about this I had an epiphany: the reason sentiment matters is because it is the key to understanding ethics, and incorporating ethics in our behavior.  Moreover, the reason the West engages in such cruelty, allowing the holocaust, the sweat shops of the industrial revolution, the existence of poverty alongside opulence, is that we learn to operate primarily on how we think -- with our head, with reason -- in dealing with political and social matters.  Of course, in every day life, we really follow our sentiments.  People often hold the beliefs they hold not because they have truly compared all theories and chosen that which seemed more reasonable, but because, well, what they believe feels right for whatever reason.  Then people build rationalizations with reason for why they are right, and pretend that our biases and beliefs are grounded in something provable.

By not being up front about the role of sentiment two things happen: 1) people lose the ability to communicate with others about common ethical concerns because they create a reason-base language which makes it appear that the concerns of the other is not similar to their concern, meaning that ideological conflict replaces compromise; and 2) people learn to rationalize the results of the actions through reason, cutting off the usual check on ones' beliefs -- their empathic and emotional reaction to the consequences of their choice.  The disrespect given sentiment directly feeds an ability to coldly accept human suffering, and can even lead to rationalization of atrocities.  In academia, it leads to an emphasis on cause and effect, and a marginalization of ethics.  When ethics come in, it's often politicized and bureaucratic (get this passed the human subjects review board, and they have criteria to assess the proposal!).

How and in what ways can sentiment, or a balance of heart and mind be considered legitimate in academia?  Clearly if people just "write what they feel" it may be nice, but it would hardly add to the sum of world knowledge.  Reason and analysis is always going to be the stock in trade for academic discourse, and should be.   No, adding emotion is not the solution, and emotion itself can also be destructive -- fascism draws on negative emotions of fear and self-hatred.  Moreover, sentiment is there in what people choose to study and how they study it, it just gets hidden when the final draft puts things in rational form.  Since sentiment connects with ethics, the place to find the balance is when considering the ethical implications of a subject, and in thinking about what gets left out when one reasons -- in political science the focus gets to be on power, governments, and actors who cause political events.  The suffering that may be caused is not usually given real consideration beyond statistics or examples.   The way to bring sentiment in without losing the power of reason is through reflection.  Reflection is more than analysis, but it's critical assessment of what was said, invoking both the mind and the heart.   Reflect on that, if you will!   

April 4 - Good news from Iran

It looks like the crisis involving 15 detained British soldiers is going to end soon, with Iranian President Ahmadinejad announcing today that while they could try the soldiers for violating Iran's territorial waters, as a gesture of good will marking Iran's new year he would order their release.  This follows Iranian statements that the British tone had improved, backing away from demanding an apology.  Why did this crisis suddenly end (apparently -- obviously in that part of the world its always dangerous to count your chickens before they hatch).  A few theories:

1.  A quid pro quo.  The five Iranians arrested in Iraq last month, who Iran claims are diplomats but the US says are elite military personnel, might soon be released.  We'd deny the release was linked to this crisis, of course, but Iran would have successfully leveraged the crisis to get their people let go, perhaps having to agree not to spill the beans that the two were indeed linked.  If within a few weeks those other five are released, then that would be evidence for this theory.

2.  A desire to avoid a deepening crisis.  Iran may have miscalculated British resolve, and decided that given the environment, now was not the time to provoke the west or give any kind of reason for war.   They saw that the British and Americans were using this to paint Iran as an habitual trouble maker, and calculated that given recent improvements in relations with the Arab League and Saudi Arabia, this crisis was against their interest.  In such a case, better to apparently without cause suddenly announce their release as a good will gesture.

3.  They achieved their goal of putting the West on notice that they can and will act if they feel their interests are not being taken into account.  Moreover, it was important to resolve the crisis before it would appear that they were being forced against their will to back down. 

Meanwhile in Iraq things still look bleak.  While the "surge" is having some success in Baghdad, the insurgency has simply shifted to other parts of Iraq, some of which had been stable.  There is no reason to think they wouldn't have the capacity to move back to Baghdad.  Despite arrests of militants and insurgent leaders, it doesn't seem the "surge" is decapitating the insurgency or limiting violence (the last few weeks have seen continuing high number of Iraqi dead).   Some reports suggest that Ayatollah Sistani and Moqtada al Sadr have put aside their differences and decided to act to make sure that Shi'ite power remains secure (prevent the Americans from engineering an Allawi led secular bloc with some Shi'ites along with Kurds and Sunnis).  There is no sign that the Shi'ite militias are being weakened.  I want to think this can lead to some stability in Iraq, but the signs are not good.

Meanwhile in Syria Nancy Pelosi, who seems to be off to a really strong start as House Speaker (somewhat surprising since rookie speakers usually make more errors) is visiting Syria where she played diplomat, handing a leader from Israeli PM Olmert to Syrian President Assad.  That act alone undercuts criticisms from the White House about Pelosi's trip "sending the wrong message."  It seems world leaders are also starting to look past Bush, realizing that he is unpopular, America is playing a weak hand, and they have to prepare for a different sort of leader down the line.  The Democrats are pushing the President on Iraq spending and setting goals for leaving Iraq which the President is resisting.

Finally, Russian TV is reporting that the US is planning an attack against Iran soon.  Israeli intelligence claims Iran and Syria and engaged in defensive preparations (the Security head was clear to emphasize these were defensive and not offensive), suggesting they thought an attack likely this summer.   Israel's Prime Minister said that there was no foundation to think that, and warned Iran and Syria not to misinterpret actions as some kind of prelude to attack.  

So it's wait and see...but at least the British sailor crisis appears to be ending soon, and that is good news.

April 5 - The Bush Doldrums

First the Saudi King snubs him, and then follows by condemning American policy and working to improve Saudi-Iranian relations.  Then after Iran ceases British sailors Tony Blair charts his own course in responding to the British, pushing aside the notion this was an affront to the American led coalition.  In Europe, Russia and China diplomats often ignore or go past the US, where in the past they would seek American approval or involvement.  Most recently Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi held high level talks with Syrian President Assad, despite harsh rebukes from the White House.  She even was legitimated in her effort by being a courier of a diplomatic note from Israeli Prime Minister Olmert to Assad.  The Democratic Congress is pushing for goals for troop withdrawal, tying it to a bill that, if Bush vetos, will create difficulties in the Pentagon for financing the war.

In the past the White House was met with these kinds of challenges, the response would have been swift and effective:  Pelosi is undercutting American foreign policy by naively legitimizing dictators and calling for a policy that they want, in opposition to official US policy!    Congress is trying to choke the troops and put undue restrictions on Presidential action!   And for the trickier international issues, the US would lean on the Saudis, noting the importance of American military aid and our status as a primary oil customer, while we would use our economic clout to pressure China, Russia and EU states to cooperate.  The Iran crisis would have had a British-American duo fighting at the UN for specific consequences if Iran did not back down.

None of that works anymore.  I think the White House is a bit surprised that criticisms of Pelosi don't gain traction, or that the Saudis would pull such a dramatic change of policy, essentially repudiating the United States role in Iraq, and perhaps the Gulf (though, to be sure, you never know what the Saudis are up to).  Most Americans would generally side with a President over a war funding bill, especially one as pork laden and confusing as that which the Democrats passed.  But this time they are more upset that the Democrats didn't do more.  A Presidential veto of the bill also gives the Democrats the ammo to say it was Bush who is creating problems funding the Pentagon -- and given his poll numbers, most people no doubt will.  Add to that recent scandals about the Walter Reed Hospital and the firing of US attorneys, and everywhere you look President Bush seems to be suffering political defeat.

The question is whether or not President Bush is already a lame duck, disrespected and no longer trusted, or if it's just some second term doldrums, which can be remedied by creative ideas and changes in personnel.  I suspect it's the former.  George W. Bush came into his second term with a vision -- the ownership society -- which promised more individual autonomy, less government, and more personal responsibility.  But, just as Lyndon Baines Johnson sacrificed his great society to a war in a distant land, all of Bush's domestic goals and ideas were lost in the morass of Iraq.  Iraq came to define his Presidency, as Vietnam did Johnson's.  And as the public turned against each war, they turned against each President.  Johnson didn't run for re-election in 1968 because he knew the war overshadowed everything, and he could not lead in that context.  The public has lost trust in President Bush, and he finds himself in a position similar to that of LBJ in 1968 -- no matter what he tries, nothing seems to work.

The best option for the President is not to fight it out with the Democrats by hitting hard, nor is it to just give in and let the Democrats control the agenda.  Somehow he has to find a way to do what he came to do in 2001 -- to be a uniter, not a divider.  He has to make real compromises with the Congress, and find a way to work together on problems.   Otherwise, we'll drift, with political bickering and a long, long 2008 campaign dominating.  Can we afford to be rudderless right now?  Or is that maybe the best thing at this point?

April 6 - Forgiveness

(For those wanting something more political today, Juan Cole has an excellent column in The Nation today with a very good analysis of the dangers and a way out.  Cole is an expert on Shi'ite Islam and the region, and his blog offers insights from how the Arab media is covering the story, as well as other regional experts).

On Sunday morning the Easter bunny comes, spreading around chocolates and jelly beans.  Children get sugared up, and for most of the country spring weather will dominate (alas, we'll still have snow).   Christians celebrate their belief that Jesus rose from the dead after being crucified.  At the same time Jews celebrate the passover, their belief that God 'passed them over' when he killed all first born males in Egypt as a penalty for not freeing the Jews from slavery.  While Islam accepts the passover story, and believes Jesus to be a prophet, they don't believe he rose from the dead.  Nonetheless, Ahmadinejad on releasing the British prisoners last week did say it was an "Easter gift" to respect the religious beliefs of the British.

Not believing in any particular mythology, I try to look at these holidays a bit differently.  First, as with Christmas, I don't want to deny or disrespect the importance of the holiday for believers.  At the University of Minnesota once when I was registering for classes there was a big banner that said "Merry Christmas" on it.  "Does that offend you?" the student at the registration desk asked.  "No," I replied, puzzled.  "Oh," he said, "another Political Science grad student registered today and she lit in to me that this 'offensive' sign was up."  I shook my head.  Political correctness rears its ugly face!

Second, I also respect the cultural/traditional role of religious holidays.   There is something to be said for shared cultural celebrations.  And, as Christmas is a cultural celebration of peace, love, and joy, Easter I take as a celebration of forgiveness.  Christians believe that Jesus died so that God could forgive our sins if we believe.  I don't share that view, but I think the fundamental importance of forgiveness in the Christian faith is a powerful idea, and perhaps one reason why Christianity has prospered as a faith.

Forgiveness is powerful because it appears we are doing something for others -- we are forgiving them, when we could carry a grudge or try for revenge.  But if done right, it is also done for ourselves.  When one carries a grudge or seeks revenge, one is obsessing on a wrong that was done, or on anger to another person.  That gives that other person, or that wrong, continuing power over ones' emotion and life.  It creates anxiety and stress and eats away from within.  True forgiveness is not just refraining from being nasty back, but it requires that one really let go of any residue anger and resentment.  If one does that, then one has reclaimed for oneself the ability to remain centered and in control.  It liberates oneself from the negative affects of lingering anger.

Moreover, forgiveness has a social consequence -- people respect one who can forgive.  Those who have been forgiven, if they can let go of their guilt and lingering anger, often break out of a cycle of tit for tat and are able to look at their actions with a new light, perhaps finally understanding why what they did was perceived as a wrong.  Forgiveness is personally liberating, and can spread and bring peace and increased contentment to a community.  Again, the Christian emphasis on forgiveness is a truly admirable and powerful aspect of that great faith.

So on Easter, forgive those you've been resenting.  See this as the day of reflection and forgiveness.  With practice, it becomes easy; one realizes that by forgiving others one is better able to forgive oneself when the inevitable imperfections of human existence come out.  Rather than be obsessed by guilt and self-hatred, the ability to forgive oneself allows one to act with more joy and energy, forgiving others and ultimately playing a part in making the world a better place.  So happy Easter!

April 9 - Baseball memories

I've always been a Minnesota Twins fan; I used to listen to a majority of their games on the radio in the early seventies, and have a scrap book that has, among other things, a 1970 story of how the new Twins pitcher Bert Blyleven appears too young to shave.  I would keep score, follow Rod Carew's pursuit of the elusive .400 batting average, and collect baseball cards.  Alongside names like Oliva, Carew and Killebrew I can talk about Steve Brye, Bill Zepp, Ray Corbin and Dave Larouche.   Yet every year the Twins failed to get to the World Series.  In 1987 the Hrbek, Brunansky, Viola, Gaetti and Gagne gang finally led the Twins to their first world series victory, and after finishing in last place in 1990, the Twins made it to the 1991 World Series against the Atlanta Braves.

But unlike 1987, when I lived in Minneapolis and could follow the series in detail, I was living in Berlin, Germany in 1991.  The games started at about 1:30 AM German time, and the place I was staying had a TV that only got a few stations.  I was a bit disappointed -- the Twins have made it and I can't even watch it on TV!  But during that series -- seven games, during which I stayed up late, making some popcorn and listening to the games until they were over -- I re-learned the joy of listening to baseball on radio.

Vin Scully and Johnny Bench were covering the games, and I pulled them in on Armed Forces Radio.  Watching baseball on TV is a very different experience than listening on the radio.  Television commentators don't talk as much, not needing to paint a picture with words of what is happening.   Radio commentators, however, describe the scene fully, adding in tidbits like interesting stories about the players, similarities to past games, and strategic possibilities.  They enhance the excitement, and make it an exhilarating experience.  When Kirby Puckett homered off Charlie Leibrandt to win Game Six, the excitement was not just in the result, but in listening to the drama unfold.  Then when Jack Morris, the aging St. Paul native, battled through ten innings to win a 1-0 shut out, the drama was intensified by Vin Scully's skill at narration and information.

Listening to baseball on the radio is timeless.  It could be Kirby Puckett in 1991 or Bobby Thompson in 1951, the game is rendered the same when you listen.  You don't see the modern stadiums with diamond vision screens and state of the art uniforms.  It's just the game and players, strategy, talent, and individual effort.  Sitting in that small room on Buesselstrasse in Berlin late at night, eating popcorn, and sipping a German beer, I was engrossed in Jack Morris' monumental effort to hold on to a shut out and ultimately win the game 1-0 in ten innings. It is perhaps my most intense baseball memory, surpassing even Kirby Puckett's homerun the game before.  When both teams loaded the bases in the eighth but didn't score, the drama and suspense was unrivaled by any sports event I've experienced.  Vin Scully himself seemed emotionally drained by the game, and it translated to listeners.  Though dawn was breaking when it ended, I was too pumped up to fall asleep -- not only had the Twins won, but the experience of listening to such a performance on the radio had energized me.

When I got back home the next summer I watched the series which a friend had taped for me.  It was a bit disappointing, without Vin Scully's descriptions and stories, the games weren't quite as intense and interesting.   Of course, knowing the result takes something out of it as well. I realized that I was lucky to have been away; by being able to experience Scully and Bench describing the series I had a much fuller experience than if I had just been watching it with friends.   At that point I made a decision.  If given the opportunity, I'll see a game live, of course.  But absent that, I'll watch the TV but listen to the radio play by play.  Not every announcer is a Vin Scully, but baseball on radio is something special; it brings out all the historical, strategic, individual and quirky aspects of what may be the greatest sport in human history.  So enjoy the baseball season!

April 11 - The Middle East and us

I was surprised to read in the Financial Times that former Ambassador John Bolton considers the peaceful ending of the crisis involving the arrest of British sailors by Iran for allegedly trespassing Iranian waters to be a defeat for the West, and a major victory for Iran.  What planet is this guy on?  It looks to me like Britain refused to budge, Iran realized it overplayed its hand, pressure was brought down hard on Ahmadinejad to back down, and he did.  Britain admitted no wrong doing, made no apologies, promised no change of behavior, and simply had its demand met despite Iranian bluster that trails may be held and that Britain needs to negotiate.  This was by any rational analysis a clear victory for the British and an humiliation for President Ahmadinejad.

So why is Bolton, and many other neo-conservative commentators, all in a tizzy?  Why do some lambast the British troops for not treating the incident as if it were in a time of war and giving only name, rank and serial number?  The answer is that there are two fundamentally different understandings of reality out there about what's happening in the Mideast.

For the Bolton crowd, we're at war.  This is a long term war with Islamic extremism, and the danger isn't so much terrorism but economic collapse if either oil is withheld from western markets, or if China and other emerging states gain access to a supply of oil whose production may already have peaked.  Most of these folk are also adamantly pro-Israel, some out of ethnic allegiance, others because they see a strong Israel as an important military ally should "oil wars" break out in the case of competition for dwindling supplies of oil.  It's also no surprise that the President and Vice President are both intimately connected to the oil industry.

Before you dismiss this as another old 'blood for oil' canard, their position is not simply that they want to enrich their corporate buddies.  Rather, I believe they think the entire western economy, and indeed the stability of the country itself, would be threatened by a major disruption or increase of price of oil.  They know that we are far from transitioning to other energy alternatives, and many of those touted, such as hydrogen cells, are simply energy transfers and not a new source.  So in their minds, they are doggedly pursuing national interest and trying to face down the biggest threat to our society perhaps in history, frustrated that the media and public are putting obstacles to what they see as necessary.

Fundamental to this perspective is a view that is basically one where the world is driven by military rivalries and power politics for resources.  The idea that cooperation and diplomacy can settle this is dismissed as wimpy and dangerous.  Do you appease dictators?  Do you have diplomatic talks with terrorists?  No, for them this is about power because that is what drives the world.  There is one problem with their approach, however: if pursued, it is doomed to fail, and thus bring about the outcome they are trying to avoid.  They'll blame those who got in their way for the failure, but really, it's a strategy that cannot succeed.  Our economy is too vulnerable, and the possible weapons that could be used against us are not ones easily stopped with a strong military (and even relatively small Iraq has stretched the military to the breaking point; what would happen if there were increased terror and war throughout the region, with Chinese and Russian involvement?)

Like it or not, diplomacy and cooperation, as wimpy as they might sound to the militarists and power politicians, is the most rational course of action, and the one most likely to prevent or minimize the pain of tightening oil supplies.  This includes: 1) showing respect for Islam, and working to undercut the idea of a 'clash of civilizations'; 2) pursuit of better relations with not only all countries in the Mideast, but also China, Russia and others to try to build a framework to handle disputes that might arise over any future oil crisis; 3) recognition that we are not in control of the region, and cannot by force guarantee stability or the flow of oil; 4) work towards a true peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians; 5) position ourselves for a move away from a fossil fuel based economy (develop nuclear, solar, wind and other power, along with more oil drilling for make for a smooth transition); and 6) emphasize other avenues of economic and political cooperation in the region, including involving Mideast states in the development of alternative sources of energy.  Let them see potential profit outside of the oil addicted economy we now have.

The mindset of people like Bolton is hard to break, and in political campaigns the rhetoric used can fool voters.  But we have to be wise and look for politicians in each party who recognize the reality and won't stumble into a war that we cannot win.

April 12 - Surge pessimism

On March 21, I blogged about 'surge optimism,' looking at claims being made that the "surge" was working.  I concluded that it was likely to achieve a 'peace with honor moment,' giving a semblance of stability to Baghdad in order to allow the US to claim success and leave.  We would then wash our hands of what would come next.  Now, I'm thinking even that scenario may have been too optimistic, given recent news from Iraq.

Today a bomb went off in the Iraqi Parliament cafeteria, one of the most heavily protected buildings in the heavily fortified 'green zone.'  Clearly, the insurgents have a long reach.  Moreover, even as some neighborhoods in Baghdad become safer than they were, the rest of Iraq seems to be unraveling, including places that the US had tamed before such as Tal Afar, and places recently more peaceful, such as the south of the country.  Moreover, the insurgents have proven themselves capable of adapting very quickly, while the US military, like any big, bureaucratic organization, moves slowly, and its plans and tactics are transparent.  Any early successes of the surge were simply learning opportunities for the insurgents. 

There had been hope that with the Mahdi army lying low to avoid direct confrontation with American forces, al Sadr would lose clout and it would be easier to bush his movement into irrelevance.  Yet in calling for mass protests he shows he still commands respect, and there is evidence that his militia and others continue training in Iran, to be ready to act once the US leaves.  The history of ethnic conflict suggests that the hatreds aroused by the brutal ethnic killing of the past years won't simply go away with the pacification of a few Baghdad neighborhoods.

On top of that, the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan continues.  The Bush Administration, trying to figure out how to handle these two conflicts has tried to recruit a respected retired military leader to become a kind of 'War Czar,' to coordinate efforts.  After all, why should the Commander in Chief accept any such responsibility?  Alas, those approached for the job sensed "mission impossible," and despite appeals to their patriotic duty, said no.  All military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan are having their tours of duty extended -- this for an already overburdened military, suffering high levels of mental illness and fatigue through multiple tours of duty, and no real progress towards success.

The news from Iraq is grim; the US military is said to be spending millions to pay off the families of innocents killed (most Iraqis  would say murdered) by American military forces.  Yet the sectarian violence remains strong, even in Baghdad where the surge is supposed to bring stability.  The death of innocents at the hands of Americans, while far fewer than those killed in the Iraqi on Iraqi violence, are symbolic of the problem.  While sometimes anger and frustration lead to blatant murder, American soldiers usually only kill innocents because they don't know they are innocent -- they fear attacks or see something they think suspicious.  This means first that there is no real trust between the Iraqi people and American forces, and second it assures continuing and growing resentment by Iraqis of the outside force.  Thus, with two conflicts, an over extended military, continued sectarian and insurgent violence and no end in sight, there is very little to be optimistic about.  When Senator McCain talks about 'strolling through the market' the picture shows him surrounded by security -- dozens of soldiers, plus armored vehicles.  When Representative Pence compares it to a market in Indiana, he looks utterly ridiculous; trying to claim progress in Iraq quickly leads politicians into the realm of the surreal.  Even conservative Robert Novak claims news from Baghdad shows that the surge will not work.

General Pretorius notes that the surge can only work if it buys time for the government to develop a political solution; alas, any political scientist studying comparative politics will tell you that the level of corruption and ethnic division in Iraq and Iraqi governmental agencies is not something that gets fixed with a few laws -- and that with this kind of corruption grand compromises and political deals are usually cosmetic, there is no reason to be optimistic that al Maliki will or even truly wants to succeed in the way the US hopes.  And removing him and replacing him with a pro-American strongman like Allawi would only enhance the legitimacy of the insurgency, and risk turning Shi'ites massively against the government and the US.

Maybe all hell will break loose when we leave, maybe not.  All the choices seem bad.  But there is something irresponsible and arrogant about playing with the lives of both our soldiers and the Iraqi people in a desire not to have to accept a political failure.  The policy in Iraq has failed.  It's time to come home.

April 13 - Offensivity

I usually ignore a lot of the celebrity and legal stories that abound in our sensationalized media since, well, they are more noise than substance.  The firing of Don Imus for calling the Rutgers womens' basketball players "nappity headed ho's" or something like that, however, strikes me as troubling.

First: I firmly believe that being offended by something is a sign of personal weakness and low self-esteem.  Being offended is something that each individual has control over.  If someone calls me lots of names, fair, unfair or really over the top, my reaction will be to think 'poor bloke, he's angry and frustrated and trying to vent.'  (Well, I usually don't use the term 'bloke').  But I decide if the insults bother me.  If I am of low self-esteem and insecure, then insults will bother me because they will cut to any self-doubts I have.  But that would be my problem.  People who love to insult and attack are also showing signs of low self-esteem (the desire to cut down others in order to prop themselves up), and that is their problem, not mine.  If I know the insults aren't true, then why should I care if someone mutters them?   Why should the fact they have a problem affect me?  The Rutgers players would have been classy if they said "of course his comments didn't hurt us, they weren't about us, they were about his own stereotypes."

So let's go to the Imus issue.  Since this is political and racial, the issue is more than a personal insult.  The idea is that a public figure used racially insensitive comments in describing a womens' basketball team on the public air waves.  Criticism is certainly fair, and this should spark a discussion about the use of language and when/if some terms are appropriate.   Still, these comments mimicked or perhaps mocked the kind of language used in rap music, and didn't contain any blatantly offensive terms.  Immediately politicians and other public figures called for the head of Don Imus.  Jesse Jackson was incensed (wait a second, wasn't he the one who used the term 'Hymietown' to refer to New York?), so was Al Sharpton.  Rather than use this as an effort to address the issues of racial stereotypes and prejudices, they simply went after Imus personally.  This not only undercuts efforts to have a real discussion, but is an example of the "gotcha game" I talked about in my blog on November 1, 2006 

Politics is less about ideas, more about slash and destroy.  Someone does something politically incorrect, go after him or her personally.  Despite a long broadcasting career, get Imus fired for one stupid line.  Send chills into the public: watch what you say, if you have a moment of weakness or stupidity it'll be shoved in your face as the essence of who you are, and used to damage you in any way possible.  That is the mentality of the authoritarian, not a believer in liberty.

Moreover, this is a product of our culture, not our government or political system.  Sponsors pulled their ads, people were enraged, and everyone focused on the person, rather than thinking about the larger issues.  Being offended is chic; what I wrote above about taking offense being a kind of weakness is contrary to our culture norms.  Self-esteem isn't even really self-esteem any more.  Real self-esteem is rightful pride at being able to overcome obstacles and deal with life's hurdles.  It is built by life experience, and parents and teachers can help build it by not tearing kids down, and giving them praise when appropriate -- as they accomplish results.  Fake self-esteem comes from trying to protect people from any possible offense or negative reaction; it is built upon false praise, and results in a narcissism that gives way to self-doubt when real challenges arise.    Unfortunately too many parents still tear kids down with cutting comments and anger, while others simply try to praise whatever their kids do and protect them from any harm -- the so called 'helicopter parents.'

The Imus incident is indicative of a culture that puts appearance over substance, personal attack over communication and discussion, and lifts being offended from something that people should strive to overcome to a noble state of mind.   Reality doesn't matter, as long as your language is politically correct.  Even then, it depends on what color or ethnic group you are from; if the term Imus used had been in a rap song, it would have hardly been noticed.   That doesn't mean that Imus was at all correct in what he said; rather, this should have yielded a public discussion about the issues involved, with people learning to understand why this is insulting to some, and what racial issues underlay problems in American society.  Instead, it became just 'get Imus fired' and get some air time for a few politicians who thrive on righteous rage.

Of course, I'm a white male.  Many will likely simply dismiss what I wrote for that reason (a 'you can't understand because you're a white male.')  To that criticism I'd simply say that even white males often get insulted and derided, so learning to overcome being offended is not something I don't have to do.  Moreover, I understand the structural and political obstacles and bigotry that have gotten in the way of women and blacks trying to achieve equality in our society.  Those issues are real, and  Imus' insensitivity reflects the continuing prevalence of those problems.  But nothing in the reaction really addresses those issues.  It's just politician face time, personal revenge against the person who made the stupid remarks, and lots of noise.  It is this kind of reaction that prevents us from dealing with the underlying issues as well as we should, and focuses us on the superficial more than the structural.  We're not focused on justice and truth, but obsessed with offensivity.

April 16 - Separation of Powers

There has been considerable anger by Republicans and supporters of the war at the trip by Nancy Pelosi to Syria, as well as the recent funding bill that put a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq.   President Bush was clear that if military personnel suffered from funding short falls, the fault would be the Democrats.  Of course, that would only happen if he vetoes the bill, but his logic was that since Congress knows he'll veto it, it is their fault if the consequences are bad.

Using that kind of argument to deny responsibility for his actions seems a bit bizarre, but is based on an assumption: foreign policy is in the hands of the President, and if Congress sends mixed signals or ties the President's hands while military operations are under way, the President will have to veto such action.  Thus any attempt by Congress to do so is illegitimate, and they are responsible for any negative consequences.

There are few signs that this argument is convincing anyone; it works best if the President is popular and if his foreign policy is generally supported.  Now most people seem to want Congress to reign the President in and get us out of Iraq, so it's unlikely they'll rally to Bush's side on this.  But is Bush right?  Is Congress overstepping its bounds?   Many establishment figures suggest the President is right, even the Washington Post and New York Times have questioned the Democrats on the issue, and some believe they're going to ultimately pay for undercutting the policy, setting themselves up for blame when the inevitable happens (the US leaves Iraq and the policy is judged a failure).  Perhaps.  But my hope is that they are indicative of a new, activist legislative branch, one that will limit the powers of the President be his or her name Bush, Clinton, Obama or McCain, and one that will act whether the majority is Republican or Democrat.

Up until World War II the Congress could and did limit executive power significantly.  The fact is that Congress has the constitutional power to deny funds to a President to engage in military activities, and Congress is the only body able to declare war.  No war was declared in Iraq, and if the Congress believes that US policy there is harming our interests, it has the power and duty to use its constitutional right to withhold funding for those activities.  That power was purposefully given Congress by the founders to limit the power of the President.  Since World War II that power has been sacrificed by Congress for a variety of reasons.

First, the National Security Act of 1947 gave the executive branch expansive bureaucratic powers, and the Cold War meant that most information regarding foreign policy was held by the executive branch.  The legislative branch could question and investigate, but unless they knew what questions to ask or where to look, much of the information was out of their reach.  The media age put the President on television as the clear voice of America in the world, and fear of Communism led people to accept America playing a superpower role.  Power was centralized into a small group.  President Eisenhower saw the danger in this, he actually tried to break some of what Truman started, and warned Americans when he left office of a "military industrial complex" that would see expansion and military power as necessary to sustain their bureaucratic and corporate interests.   Ike appears to have been right.

Now is the time for Congress to re-assert its foreign policy powers.  Only Congress can declare war, that should mean something.  Congress funds the military, and has to approve almost all Presidential actions of consequence on the world stage.  An active Congress would mean a collaborative foreign policy, which would mean less secrecy, more open debate, and more compromise.  It would make it difficult to engage in some kind of effort to re-shape the Middle East or create some kind of pax Americana.  This would eliminate our imperial pretensions, however, well intended those who hold them may be (and I believe many are sincere in wanting to spread democracy and human rights -- I just think the means of using governmental and military power to do so will fail).  Instead, we'd become less active, less unilateral, more circumspect, and probably more cooperative.  That's the foreign policy we need now that the Cold War is over.  That's the foreign policy the founders would have us engage in, I believe.  And if Congress can muster the courage to actually use its constitutional powers and assertively define its role, then we can work to build a bipartisan effort to figure out how to define America's role for the new era.

The President now can only count on a society unified behind his or her policies if those policies work (and work quickly), and if the President is popular.   Yet in today's world that kind of Grenada like success is fleeting and more difficult to achieve.  Dealing with terrorism, Islamic extremism, or other rising potential threats will be difficult.  The only way to bring society together is to move away from the President-centric form of foreign policy and back to what the founders intended.

April 23 - Guns and Culture

Last year I noticed a couple people walking in front of my house carrying rifles.  It didn't unnerve me a bit because it was hunting season, and we live in a rural area.  In fact, in Maine gun ownership is high and crime is low.  The two have no link; guns aren't keeping people safe, but clearly aren't causing murder and crime to increase.

That's why I find the hyper-attention given the Virginia Tech shootings to be off base.  First, there seems to be a sense that someone has a responsibility to prevent this kind of thing from happening.  At one level, sure -- all institutions need plans to deal with emergencies, and be ready to handle the unexpected.  But the fact is that humans are psychologically capable of breaking and engaging in intense violence.  We've seen it all over the world: sectarian violence in Iraq, genocide in Rwanda (mostly with machetes rather than guns), killings by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and even our own penchant for military solutions to problems.  While we try to control it through strict rules of engagement, everyone knows that soldiers at times can't handle the pressure, and you get cases like Haditha (and probably many similar ones that don't come to light).

The discussion thus gets centered around whether or not we need new laws, or who is responsible.  Parents trot out their lawyers before the bodies are even buried, and the result is a perverse victory for a perpetrator who had otherwise felt shunned and unimportant in society.   I don't think strict gun control is an answer.  Maybe it would have prevented this person from getting access to weapons, maybe not.  But do we really want to let our legal system be controlled by what the craziest people do in very rare and extreme cases?  Of course, those who claim that if all had been armed and willing to defend themselves than all would have been fine are being even more bizarre in their illogic.  They seem to miss the violence that would occur if people in moments of rage and anger all had access to excessive and deadly force.  The gun haters and gun nuts are both abusing this situation to advance their political agendas.

And trying to blame the school for not notifying people or canceling classes sooner is the most disgusting form of 20-20 hindsight.  People don't deal with this kind of thing every day.   The answers aren't clear -- is there still a threat, is it better to have people in classes or everyone roaming freely...the uncertainties are immense and you can't expect action that in hindsight will appear perfect.

Trying to use laws to remedy cultural problems is of limited efficacy.  The problem of violence in our society is culture; Canada has high gun ownership as well, but low crime rates.  Moreover, the penchant for young people to revel in violence, fantasize about doing horrible things to others, and see it as a way out of their social alienation is also a part of our culture.  We have a militaristic culture which embraces war, violence, power, strength, and lack of emotion (usually defined as mental toughness) as the essence of identity.   Our culture learns to abstract, to ridicule notions of getting along and overcoming differences (you've heard people respond to calls for dialogue as 'wanting everyone to see Kumbiya,' or labeling someone trying to be conciliatory a 'Mr. Rogers.')  Thus the way alienated youth believe they can show heroism and be in a perverse way honored is to show excessive power, strength, and coldness. 

I don't think this is the dominant part of our culture; every day life, and subcultures throughout the country soften and alter how people look at these issues.  But high levels of domestic violence, crime, and cases like the Virginia tech shooting are evidence of a cultural problem.  Instead of looking closely at how we think and what kind of society we are, we seek to pass laws to remedy the symptoms of the deeper problem, or point the finger and blame someone.  Blaming is often a way of evading responsibility.  Individuals who blame usually are afraid of looking inside and confronting their own weaknesses.  A culture that emphases blame is one refusing to be self-critical, and thus likely to get locked into the same pattern of events.  We need to take a hard look at what kind of society we have, and what sort of cultural beliefs define who and what we are.  But that's hard.   Easier to find someone to blame, and then pass a few laws. 

April 24 - The Power of Calm

The feeling is familiar.  I'm racing above the speed limit trying to keep an appointment or make it to a meeting on time.  My pulse is moving quickly, I feel my stomach churning.  Then a slow moving car gets in front of me.  I avoid the impulse to ride their bumper and instead wait for a time to pass -- in that, I'm a much better driver than I was 20 years ago -- but inside I get even more agitated.  Finally I pass, but my body is anxious now, I'm not feeling centered, I've lost perspective.

The scenario can go two directions from here.  I might just continue the frustration and stress, boxed in a car trying to arrive on time.   That would drain and agitate me more, making me irritable, tired and mentally worn out when I arrive.  I would then probably spread this discontent by being short with others, or being self-absorbed when I could be helping someone else out.  Or I could shift focus.

In recent years, I've become pretty adept at shifting focus; I believe it's a skill that is doubly rewarding.  The key is to literally turn off your mind and body to the stresses around you.  Obviously, that doesn't mean you stop driving if you're in the car, but you push aside concerns about the time of an appointment, frustration or worry about something someone said or perhaps some financial situation.  Instead think only about the present moment.  The beauty of the countryside, even the colors of a counter top or if one is in a position to do so, the feel of the wind and the smells of the outdoors.  Just focus on what is here and now.  The effect is immediate and calming.  It can take one from stress to relaxation in less than ten seconds with practice.

At that point, recapture perspective.  If I'm five minutes later to a meeting, how will that really impact my reality over the long run?  And if I waste energy and thought on things I can't control, how will that weaken my capacity down the line?   If one is irritated with someone else, perspective allows you to "walk a mile in their shoes," trying to understand how they might be perceiving the situation or why they react the way they do.  With calm, comes understanding.  Then -- and this all can happen in less than a minute or two -- one can feel real joy.  The world is a beautiful place, problems are not worth obsessing about, and each moment is an experience worth appreciating!  To often we lose the joy of living in the present to either anxiety about the past or future, or worries and frustrations.  Sure, if one has numerous projects due and too much to do, this momentary escape may at first feel pointless.  The work still has to be done!  But anxiety and stress don't increase the pace of your ability to work, they just drain energy.   As long as one is doing what one can to get tasks done, that's all that can be expected. 

Accessing the power of calm is easy with practice, one just needs to know how to shift focus, how to turn off connection to the anxiety drivers that cause one to lose perspective.     I said it was doubly rewarding because beside providing the ability to experience the joy of the moment, it gives one more power over ones' choices -- instead of allowing ones' mood to be shaped by events and actions outside ones' control, it is under ones' own control.   That leads to clearer thinking and an ability to rise above the stresses of the day.  So, as we enter the final stress filled weeks of the semester, remember the power of calm!  It's real. 

April 25 - Tough Choices

The United States is on the verge of a major economic recession, a potential oil crisis, and continued bleeding from a "war" that increasingly looks not only un-winnable, but damaging to our national security and geopolitical position.  The current administration seems impotent to address these issues; even if they wanted to, they face a Congress focused more on partisan politics than the current situation.  If not in crisis we're in pre-crisis, and tough choices need to be made, both in foreign policy and domestic policy,  to get ourselves out of it.   Unfortunately, almost all of these things are politically dangerous, so it's unlikely they'll happen until events force a change.

In foreign policy a sea change is needed, a complete shift in our strategic assumptions and tactical methods.  The US cannot re-shape or dominate the Mideast, and in fact is no longer in a position to act as a guarantor of global stability and oil flows.  The balance of power has shifted to regional actors caught up in internal conflicts and struggles involving both states and non-state actors (like al qaeda).  The influence of China and Russia has grown as well, and with the US bogged down in Iraq, countries like Saudi Arabia are rethinking their strategic position.

This is a tough pill for most American decision makers to swallow.  Their generation is used to being "the leader of the free world/West," and have an internal belief in both the efficacy of American power and the inherent morality of our ends.   While there are parallels in the current situation with the realist shift taken by Nixon and Kissinger in the early seventies, the situation is more dramatic now given the real vulnerability of the West to oil supply cuts.   New strategic points: 1) military power should only be used as a last resort in the Mideast, given the probability that negative consequences will far outweigh any positive results; 2) the US has to deal with Islamic states with a sense of realism -- a recognition that we cannot expect them to govern to accord with our moral and political goals.  We have to focus on a mix of diplomacy and deterrence, treating even states like Iran with respect.  Yeah, their regime isn't very nice, but neither were Brezhnev and Mao when Nixon started dealing with them.  3) The US has to rebuild strategic alliances, recognizing that the basis will be partnership not leadership, multi-polarity not uni-polarity.   To those caught up in the metaphor of a major war or clash, this will sound like surrender.  But that's an emotional reaction, worries about 'we'll look weak' or 'our enemies will rejoice' are irrelevant.  It doesn't matter who rejoices, what matters is an effective policy to safeguard national interests.

Then we turn to our economy.  The dollar is plunging in value due to a massive current accounts deficit, with foreign ownership of US capital increasing.  That plus our dependence on oil -- which may soon see dramatic increases in prices due to increased demand alongside stagnant of even decreasing production -- means we are very vulnerable.  Like Achilles, we may look invincible with our huge military, technological success, and apparent affluence, but a major oil crisis could destroy our economic house of cards and we could easily go from boom to bust.   Such a collapse has happened before many times in history.   What we need to do won't be easy.  First, we need to cut our budget.  That means painful cuts at every level -- military spending, social welfare spending, entitlements, governmental bureaucracy, even things like health care and education which are already under-funded.  To those with me so far, this may cause a strong negative reaction -- I've gone from sounding like a progressive to sounding like one of those conservatives who rail against government spending.  I'm sorry, but the reality of the economic situation is such that I truly believe drastic measures and tough cuts are necessary.   We can take the lead and control how this happens, and try to make sure cuts do not cause needless suffering.  We need to be smart, creating opportunities with our resources rather than simply having government transfers.  I'm not sure how to do it, but we need to cut spending and increase taxes.  Energy use taxes (especially for gas and oil) need to be introduce to help people recognize that they can't rely on cheap energy.   That is a tough pill for most American decision makers, especially progressives, to swallow as well.  Both the right and the left have to confront a reality that calls into question their core assumptions.

There is one area where government spending has to increase: developing alternative energy sources.  We need to aggressively pursue alternates to oil, funding the effort through research grants and tax breaks innovative approaches.  We need to recognize that if we wait until oil gets too expensive, the initial investments in building solar panels, wind mills and the like will increase dramatically in price -- right when we'll be unable to afford it.  We need to prepare our economy for an oil shock before it hits.   We need to get our economic house in order -- bring down budget deficits and current account deficits, and decrease the vulnerability to outside forces including not just oil but also capital flight and even potential trade wars.  We need to stop an aggressive and counter productive foreign policy before we dig ourselves further into a hole. 

Am I being alarmist?  Perhaps.  Perhaps its easier to do the politically popular things and hope that these events don't happen.  Most hurricane warnings don't bring major devastation, so many people rationally choose to ride out the storm and play the odds.  But sometimes you get a Katrina and people wonder why something wasn't done to prepare, why weren't the warning signals heeded?   If you had gone into a Paris coffee house in 1913 and warned of two coming devastating wars, a depression, and the holocaust, they'd have laughed you out of the house -- Europe had seen a century of peace and increased prosperity.   Sure, there may be problems that nothing like that!  The point: we can't assume the good times will simply keep rolling because we're used to them.  We see the signals of danger ahead, we have time to act, but I doubt we have the will to make the tough choices necessary to prepare for some difficult times ahead.

April 26 - Lou Dobbs the anti-Journalist

Recently there was a rather minor incident at a Lewiston high school where some students taunted Somali Muslims by offering them ham steak.  The student who did that (he was goaded on by others, who later tried to make him stop) has been punished, admits wrong doing, and his family supports the schools' action.  Because the Somali students perceived it as religious bias, it automatically gets referred to the DA's office to review whether or not hate crime charges should be brought.  No decision has been made on that.  One reason for this is that due to the difficulty of integrating so many Somalis into a rather homogenous small New England city they want to make sure problems are dealt with right away to avoid violence down the line, especially in the schools.

Enter Lou Dobbs, riding his high horse of sarcasm and disdain for those who don't share his views on what "common sense" should dictate.  "What's going on in Maine," he asked bitingly on CNN last night, and then claimed that the Superintendent of schools in Lewiston was asking that the the DA consider this a hate crime and prosecute the 13 year old student.  Dobbs then gave a derisive lecture to the Superintendent, saying he should use this as a learning experience, allow the DA to do his job taking care of serious crimes, and insinuated that this action just brings America farther from a common sense approach to social problems. 

The day before, Fox news reported the same story, but picked up a satire of the story posted on a website with fake quotes.  The ham steak was turned into a ham sandwich, and the Principal was falsely quoted as saying things like "ham is not a toy," and suggesting ham sensitivity training.  False quotes were attributed to the DA and the victim, who the story claimed said that it was like being back in Somalia with bullets flying.  That fake story generated massive hate e-mails sent to the school in Lewiston, some with veiled threats.    AP is looking in to filing charges against the writer of the satire (who made it appear that it was simply an AP story).

Both Fox News and CNN's Lou Dobbs gave an incomplete and misleading report, even though Dobbs didn't cite the parody.  Dobbs made it sound like the school went out of its way to try to get charges filed against the student, and didn't get the whole picture.  Fox didn't even try to verify the story.   What this says about our media and society is troubling.  Sensationalism and "yellow journalism" dominate even the big news services.  Why would this kind of incident even make either major news network?  Why was its appeal not limited to the Lewiston Sun Journal, which covers local events?

The reason: pandering to anti-Muslim bigotry, cheap shots against local officials based on sensationalism rather than facts, and a quest for ratings.   The goal is not to promote understanding or even learn about what is happening, but to arouse emotions, anger, and antipathy.  This is anti-journalsim, boulevard trash.

April 27 - The War About the War

The Democratic candidates debated last night and given my general distance from electoral politics at this stage, I didn't pay much attention.  But given my concern about US foreign policy and belief that we are engaged in a disastrous course of action in Iraq, I have been following the politics around the Iraq war, and the Democratic effort to tie funding of the war to a plan for withdrawal from Iraq.

That's probably their safest political position.  Defunding the war outright would risk the current public mood, which trusts the Democrats on Iraq more than the President.  It would risk giving the President a chance to grab the high ground and paint the Congress as irresponsible.  Given the low popularity of the President at this time I'm not sure he could pull it off, but the Democrats don't want to risk that.  And, of course, not doing anything to get in the way of the President would make it appear they are doing nothing.  So they find a middle ground -- vote to start leaving Iraq knowing the President will veto it, and timing it in a way that it arouses the irritation of the White House.  White House attacks on the legislation and its timing give Congress a credible claim that their gesture wasn't empty -- if it was, why did the White House get so upset?

Meanwhile, the White House (though not all Republicans) have put their faith in the "surge," and use praise of General Petraeus to suggest that he's a kind of miracle worker.   They seem to have put all their hopes in this one tactic, and fear that lack of public support is the biggest danger to its success.  Alas, news about the "surge" is not good.  Violence remains high, and insurgent activity has moved elsewhere.  Insurgents adapt and learn, militias move and hide, knowing that this is probably America's last big push.

The arguments for staying in Iraq seem to be getting weaker.   The best is the recognition that our departure is a strategic victory for Iran, a country the Bush administration has been very hostile towards.   But that outcome has become unavoidable.  If we stay, Iran benefits as well.  They can use their connections with groups in Iraq to continually thwart us, they know that militarily we're too overstretched to provide an existential threat, and that if we tried, they could do a lot to mess us up too -- especially concerning oil and our economic Achilles' heal.  Moreover, that argument assumes that somehow we can create a situation where Iran does not benefit.  That would require a half a million troops and a full American commitment.  Even then, it might not work.  But that's not an option, given lack of domestic support for the war. 

The argument that al qaeda is fighting us in Iraq and we'll be surrendering to them is surreal and misguided.  First, the goal was to eliminate Saddam because that would make the terrorist threat less; that clearly failed.  But Al Qaeda in Iraq is not popular amongst Sunnis or the majority Shi'ites (indeed, they hate al qaeda), so the idea that al qaeda would somehow be empowered with our departure is wrong.  The only reason they're in Iraq is because we've given them easy targets and a method to weaken America and arouse anti-Americanism and extremism in the region.  Our presence in Iraq is a gift to them, they don't want us to leave -- they don't want to be facing Sunnis and Shi'ites who want them out of the country.

So what should the Democrats do?  I personally think that there are two problems in crafting a response.  First, given the reality of situations like those faced in Rwanda and Bosnia, we have to avoid a kind of absolute retreat from responsibility.  Second, we also have to make a transition to a regional and international effort in Iraq rather than simply leaving.  There is little the Democrat opposition can do on either front, though frankly I think travel by Congressional leaders to places like Syria and Iran can be helpful.  So at this point, I'd have to say the Democrats should defund the war, providing moneys for an orderly and safe withdrawal.  I doubt that will happen -- Republicans will likely get enough Democrats to ultimately approve a funding bill Bush will sign, but given my absolute pessimism about scenarios positing any kind of successful conclusion given current realities, I'd say we're better off changing policy.

Yet if it's just what Republicans call "cut and run," it probably won't be a much better option than staying.  The US has to truly alter its approach, and combine ending our major military effort (perhaps keeping open the possibility of participating in a UN mission) with work at regional and international diplomacy focused not on geopolitical rivalries or who is in the axis of evil, but on helping the Iraqi people avoid having the situation get worse rather than better.   The Saudi-Iranian dialogue recently shows there is regional will to do this.   I think we need to recognize that there are things beyond our control, things that even with our great military capacity we can't simply "fix," like a political and social system.  Thus the tempting image of a military victory and total success needs to be replaced by the messy image of compromise, diplomacy and uncertainty.  C'est la politique.

April 30 -  Iraq's meaning in context

The international system is undergoing a tremendous transformation, one that is risky and requires a different approach than that of the past.  Iraq symbolizes what's at stake.  I noted last week that the choice we seem to be given by American politicians -- either go for military victory under US leadership or pull out and let Iraqis handle their own mess -- is misguided.  We can't achieve a military success, but leaving Iraq to fester in its current state is unacceptable. 

Why is it that we can't find a creative option that will actually do good?  The problem lies primarily in the way politicians both in the US and in the international community think about these sorts of issues.  First, the American perspective tends to put a lot of trust in military power.  After all, we spend half the world's military budget and are the clear dominant superpower.  As Madeline Albright said, "what's the use in having a big army if you're not going to use it!"  This also leads to an American desire to control and dominate interventions in which it's a part.   We have the most invested and, as the NATO action in Kosovo demonstrates, collective decision making leads to a myriad of problems.  Second, Americans and people in the industrialized West in general have an ignorance of cultures and societies far different from their own.  We are so convinced by our ideals of human rights and democracy that we assume if given the chance, others will choose our way.  Finally, we focus on governments and policies, generally ignoring everyday life and average people -- the things that shape political culture.   Going into Iraq top officials did not truly understand the impact of corruption and religious division; knowledge of the differences between Sunni and Shi'ite (let alone the differences between Khomeinism and Sistani's perspective) was rare.  Those who had that knowledge were in mid-level bureaucracies, our system puts generalists in high decision making positions.

In the international community, states remain myopic in their perspective on problems.  Iraq is "America's problem," in the eyes of people around the world.  After all, we screwed up, why should they take any responsibility for the mess there now?  For its part, the US doesn't want to relinquish control and responsibility, since that might benefit states we don't like.  In America and most of the world Iraq remains an abstraction, a civil war or a quagmire, whose meaning and importance is judged in geopolitical calculations and regional/global balances of power.  The details about Iraq: the suffering that takes place (and which could increase should the US just leave), the culture of corruption that dooms every American and Iraqi governmental effort to create stable rule of law, and intense hatreds that violence has created are not seen as important.  Sectarian violence just gives images for news reports, but the daily reports of 50 to 150 (and rarely below or above that number) Iraqi deaths a day are generally ignored.   At base we look at the world through 20th century eyes, where world politics meant international relations, or relations between sovereign states.  What mattered were the states and governments, not the people.   The people were the responsibility of their individual states, not of the global community.

Those days are gone.  What happens in Iraq affects the region, even the world.  Anger about policies and conditions inspire terrorism.  We can't just blame it on Islamic extremism or Bin Laden's fascism, it emerges from a culture driven by rage and hopelessness.   We cannot "win," in Iraq, but we can't just "lose" either.  Yet the most likely solution: an internationalization and regionalization of the conflict combined with an end of American military operations remains distant.   Americans might stay on as part of a UN contingent -- though likely not, given the bad blood of the past years.  So the Bush Administration doesn't want to give up control, hoping that somehow they'll find the right formula, and the rest of the world doesn't want to take on part of the cost of helping create a stable Iraq.   It's not that states are focused on self-interest -- of course they are.  Governments haven't  come to grips with how to calculate self-interest in the age of globalization.  800,000 can be butchered in Rwanda while pleas of 450 peace keepers giving lurid details can be ignored; after all, why should an American or European die for someone else's problem?

That mentality won't work in the coming years.  Problems cross borders.   We will pay tomorrow for ignoring problems which fester today.  But even a country as powerful as the United States cannot handle these problems alone -- the cost of trying to "fix" Iraq, a small state weakened by war and sanctions, has been immense and the US is as far from success there as ever.   We are entering a world where we have to cooperatively work to help people globally overcome ethnic violence and poverty, or else we'll face the consequences.    But the way both the US and the rest of the world is responding to conditions in Iraq suggest that we still lack a creative effort to deal with a new era in global affairs.

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