December 1 - A Decade of Illusions
Now six years into the first decade of the 21st century it may be possible to look back and categorize just what the 1990s were all about. I'm increasingly convinced that it will be remembered as the decade of illusions, starting with the victory over Iraq in 1991, and defined by massive budget surpluses, cheap oil, a roaring stock market, and an illusion that American power was such that the country was invulnerable and poised for a century of growth and prosperity.
The scenes we remember from the 90s seem almost trivial. Sure, there is the drama of the first Gulf War, and who can forget the Time magazine cover of the refugees fleeing Kosovo. But much of the 90s seemed to be about fluff. The OJ Simpson case, talk radio, Monica Lewinsky, and Republican attempts to take down Clinton over issues that had little to do with anything of substance. Clinton himself seemed more show than substance, talking a great talk, but unable to intervene in Rwanda or use the decade of cheap oil and balanced budgets to prepare the country for the future.
As oil prices plummeted, we had a chance to invest significant sums of money into research on alternate energy sources, and fund efforts to build more energy efficient cities and towns. Instead we bought SUVs and partied on the highways. Now we are faced with the prospect of permanent energy crises and shortages in coming years, utterly unprepared and apparently unwilling to prepare. If peak oil theorists are right (see blogs from November 20th and 21st), it could even mean civilizational collapse.
The victory over Iraq in 1991 seemed so complete and unquestioned that the idea we'd be bogged down against Iraq at some point in the future would have been laughable. Our military was powerful, and could defeat the fourth largest land army in the world with hardly any casualties -- and most of the soldiers killed were killed by friendly fire. The debacle in Kosovo should have showed us that this sense of military power was an illusion -- defeating armies does not create political and social realities -- but Clinton was a master at papering over difficulties, and soon the country was sold on the idea that Kosovo was a victory. The Soviet Union was gone, no country was close to us in military power, we were invulnerable and many started dreaming that the judicious use of our power could reshape the Middle East and perhaps create a world that would follow western and American ideals. It was fashionable to consider us the "new Rome."
In the 2000 election campaign candidate Bush promised tax cuts because budget surpluses were so large that all the tax cuts would do is cut down future surpluses. Economists were warning that paying down the debt too quickly would be counter productive. Who'd have thought that a few years later our deficits would again be in record territory, and debt would double? As the stock market soared throughout the decade people thought the future would be one where anyone could be rich. On the day Nasdaq hit 5011 TV pundit James Cramer predicted it would soon get to 8000 and then soar higher. Other pundits talked about Dow 60,000 or even Dow 100,000. The new economy was leading us into a world of plenty and prosperity, only those dumb enough not to invest would miss out. March 11, 2000 was the high point for the stock market, it's collapse started long before 9-11. The Dow has only recently reached its 2000 level, the Nasdaq remains just above 2200. Slowly our illusions are being shattered by reality. Even the housing market bubble, which persevered through 2005, is finally popping.
For me the 90's began on January 16, 1991 with the start of the war against Iraq, and ended on September 11, 2001. I recall on the 4th of July 1991 as I observed fireworks along the Mississippi river in Minneapolis (amusingly when the first pops were heard bats flew out of the trees and scared people there in a very brief scene reminisicient of Hitchcock's 'The Birds'), wondering if, in this post-war euphoria of having "kicked Saddam's ass" we might not have set ourselves up for real long term problems -- that we were in a world of false confidence. The illusions of the 90s made me think that those concerns were misplaced -- the US seemed to be moving onward and upward. But on September 11, 2001 the first of those illusions -- our invulnerability -- was shattered. We are now coming face to face with reality.
December 4 - Saving Iraq
Iraq has been on my mind a lot this weekend. As the US signals a major policy shift and the country drifts into a civil war that has a devastating impact on civilians it is not enough for the US to simply find a way to disengage. Those who opposed going to war were right, but just leaving without anything in place has by now become a dangerous option. So how to move forward?
First of all, we need to be up front: the United States bears most of the responsibility for how things have disintegrated in Iraq. We were warned before the war this kind of result was possible -- Kofi Annan himself warned of possible civil war -- and yet we rushed to war, absent a UN mandate, ignoring all efforts to find a peaceful way to resolve the dispute, with a faith that military victory over Saddam plus money for reconstruction would yield a stable American ally. It was a fantasy based on a belief American power as capable of shaping world events, making the world safe for freedom and markets. And to those who would complain 'you're just blaming America,' well, sometimes our policies create disasters and it is the mark of an honorable and honest nation when its people can accept that responsibility rather than evading. Our government started this chain of events despite warnings. But we are not capable of fixing Iraq or solving the problems generated.
The United States needs to find the courage to admit error -- not just tactical errors of how the war was fought, but the error of choosing war in the way we did. Our government needs to do what politicians are loathe to do -- own up to mistakes and acknowledge the profound consequences of these errors. We then need to invite the United Nations Security Council to craft a solution for Iraq based not on American goals or ideas, but on truly international efforts to build a plan for bringing Iraq back from chaos.
The international community then needs to do its part. The only way to save Iraq is to make it an international priority. The only way to do that is to make it a true United Nations operation not dictated to by the US, and perhaps embracing states and policies that are contrary to American wishes. The main focus now must be to stop the violence and create a framework for stability. It could be partition, it could be consociationalism, it could entail a major UN force, but the human cost of this continuing conflict is too great to tolerate. This also means that countries of the EU, and states like Russia, China and others with significant military strength have to be ready to make sacrifices. They can't rely on the United States to fix Iraq because our presence is part of the problem. Moreover, while any intervening force should have the capacity for military action, the relative impotence of the American military in countering the violence in Iraq demonstrates that this kind of problem does not have a military solution. The UN force would have the advantage that it would not be a natural target to as many populations as the Americans are, and if major powers were represented, they could exert collective political force on various Iraqi factions.
Of course, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan can all play constructive roles. Forget the Iran and Syria bashing. The importance of the 'threat' from those two states has been overblown, and power games with minor regional actors is trumped by the need to stop a human catastrophe -- again, one that our policies unleashed. Only if the US can show humility, and the rest of the world can take responsibility, can Iraq be saved. Otherwise, we may be talking about the Iraqi genocide down the line.
Will that happen? Too many Americans are still clinging to the illusion we can fix things if only we get the right plan, or the proper set of new ideas. Superpowers rarely show humility, often under the inane pretense that this will 'embolden our enemies.' The rest of the world, however, has a poor track record in confronting evils when it requires sacrifice. The EU will point to Afghanistan, Lebanon and Kosovo, and say they are over stretched. Russia and China will be distrusted due to oil politics. People will make excuses and point to other countries who should do the job. Unless somehow there is true will across the international community to do something, nothing will get done. That won't happen as long as the US takes ownership of the Iraq situation, but even if the US is wise enough to back down, it still might not happen.
So we're left with the fact that this is beyond America's capacity to fix, though Americans would like to. It is within the capacity of the international community to save Iraq, but they may not have the will. The victim is not Iraq, but Iraqi civilians who live every day in conditions we can hardly imagine. The result will be yet another 'lesson of history,' tragic, yet common.
December 5 - The Illusion of Power
I wrote last week that the 90s were the "decade of illusions" as almost all the conventional wisdoms of the decade get disproven in the new century. But the most damning and damaging illusion was the one that said America was at its peak of power, able to alter world affairs to its will now that the Soviet Union was gone.
Shortly after the end of the Cold War Charles Krauthammer wrote a piece entitled America's Unipolar Moment, in which he argued that we were entering a rare period where one major power stood above the rest, and that if we used our power wisely, we could secure an international system friendly to American values. As the nineties continued and it was clear that no one could match American military power (we spend over half the world's military budget), Krauthammer noted that imperialism was not necessarily bad, and speculation grew that perhaps this wasn't a unipolar moment, but a unipolar era.
While most shied away from the word imperialism, many pundits and scholars were intrigued by this vision. The group championing it the hardest were the so-called neo-conservatives. The title is a bit of a misnomer, as their approach was idealistic and even liberal. It harkened back to JFK's "Grand Design" (gee, where did his policies get us?), and saw a America able to use its awesome power not for conquest and dictatorial control like Napoleon and Hitler, but rather to spread freedom, democracy and markets. Never before had the world seen such power concentrated in the hands of a state bent not on control, but on expanding liberty. With this power we could not only help bring freedom and prosperity to the world, but we could undercut emerging competitors, ranging from Islamic extremism to Chinese authoritarianism.
Think of it! History has created this unique situation where there is a dominant world power bent on expanding individual rights and wealth rather than establishing control and exploitation! Religious folk might believe this is the mission god intended for America; we only need be bold enough to use that power. On its face, it's a very seductive and compelling argument.
Alas, in the nineties Clinton proved he was no JFK; he continued the foreign policy realism of his predecessor, and ignored the neo-conservatives who urged him to use Operation Desert Fox (bombing of Iraq in 1998) to launch a full invasion to oust Saddam. Iraq was key, they argued, if the US could take out Saddam and establish democracy in Iraq it would show the world not only what American power could accomplish, but also that our power was benevolent, and we had the will to use it. Clinton, recognizing that the American public was not in the mood for such policies, rejected the idea.
After 9-11 the neo-conservatives finally got to launch their project, beginning on March 20, 2003 with the invasion of Iraq (they saw Afghanistan as a sidelight, Iraq would be the demonstration of American power, will, and benevolence). When Saddam fell, they celebrated, certain that they were succeeding in an effort to create and shape history. The neo-conservative view had a kind of missionary zeal, which may explain why they find it so hard to part with this notion that American power can fix the world. The vision is so seductively compelling that it's hard to accept that it simply isn't possible.
The illusion has been shattered. American power can overthrow a dictator, but it can't spread tolerance, liberty, or even markets. Corruption, ethnic divisions, distrust of foreign invaders, and suspicion from the rest of the world has made it clear that American power, as awesome as it appears, is limited. Moreover, the neo-conservatives were mostly theorists thinking in abstract terms about grand ambitions. They didn't think about the consequences of military action, namely the death and destruction that hits a population hard, and creates resentment and anger while destroying the social fabric of a society. That happened when we intervened in Vietnam and Cambodia, it's happening now in Iraq. The grand ambitions were based on a grand illusion. And, as compelling as such illusions might be, believing them can lead to disaster.
December 7 - Captain America
The fact the United States is a superpower is so much a part of our culture that most Americans don't even perceive how their thinking is shaped by our status. It comes through in double standards: the international community had better not dare tell us what to do in running our own affairs, but we can make demands on others and intervene when they don't meet our standards. It comes through in attitudes towards war: war is something noble fought on distant shores in order to "help" other peoples. Finally it comes through in our insistence that we have found the right form of government and society, and all others aspire or should aspire to it. It reminds me of a comment of a Malaysian student once, when I asked her if she liked being in America, "It's great here," she said, "everyone is friendly and open. The only irritating thing is that Americans seem to think that inside every foreigner is a little American wanting to come out."
65 years ago today our path towards superpower began. To be sure, the US had started towards world involvement by embracing imperialism and the Spanish-American war. William Randolf Hearst discovered that jingoism and war sells newspapers. Our conquest of native Indian tribes was much like European colonialism: rooted in a racist belief in the superiority of European stock, and a natural right to conquer and possess the land simply because we could. While the Spanish-American war had been an absolute victory, troubles afterward in pacifying the Philippines had left a bit of a sour taste, as Americans reconsidered if imperialism made sense.
Then World War I came, and it was only late in the war when the Germans launched unrestricted submarine warfare and tried to goad Mexico into joining their cause that America entered. The victory was quick after that, and many Americans thought we did it right. We avoided conflict as long as we could so when it came to us we were stronger than those who started it and were exhausted. When Woodrow Wilson tried to inject American idealism into creating a new international order, the American people demurred. When the Germans took France in 1940 and launched an invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, most Americans believed strongly that we should not get involved in those fights -- the Europeans had a sick system with wild ideologies. Let them destroy themselves if they want.
Some American elites were already thinking differently. The economic process we now call globalization was already underway, and despite the depression, they recognized economic and political links that could not keep America isolated from the rest of the planet. Idealists still yearned for Wilson's view of using American ideals and power to support an international system. But most people thought it best to stay out of conflicts unless we had no other choice.
December 7, 1941 saw the conflict brought to us, with the attack on the American military base at Pearl Harbor. This direct attack had an immediate impact, as Americans were united that we could not be attacked by another state without responding. As Germany pledged solidarity with Japan and declared war on the US, it was easy to bring America into World War II. Then after the war, President Truman accomplished what Woodrow Wilson could not, bringing the US into international institutions such as the UN and NATO, and building with the National Security Act of 1947 the governmental capacity to be a superpower. Like WWI, however, we had joined late and our territory had been spared. This also gave us awesome economic power, and left us the only one in shape to try to rebuild and defend Europe.
Since then we've seen the good and bad of super power politics. Europe was defended from communism, perhaps less due to a strong NATO and more due to the economic recovery largely engineered by the United States. The Cold War found the US in situations where we didn't follow our values -- overthrowing democratically elected governments in coups that installed brutal dictators, or getting sucked into a war in Vietnam. Yet it also saw communism fail, and Europe move away from war towards peace and prosperity. America became extremely wealthy as well, though of course global wealth is concentrated in the industrialized world.
Now I think we need to take stock and assess our foreign policy. Do we want to be "Captain America," a superpower trying to lead the world? Should a style of isolationism return? After all, it arguably worked for us in the past. Or do the current times call for a different approach in general to foreign policy. My short answer: the end of the Cold War means that American foreign policy needs to be completely reconsidered and recast. Institutions like NATO, the UN, and the WTO need to be overhauled for a different era. Threats and enemies now are not major powers, but often non-state actors. Though nearly everyone agrees that the nature of world politics has been transformed, there are vast disagreements on what this should mean for American foreign policy.
I'll go into all that at a later date. For now, though, it's time to retire Captain America. 65 years is a good run since that horrible Hawaii morning. We have much to be proud of and much to be ashamed about -- that's the nature of superpower politics. The realities of the current world call for something new.
December 8 - Reality bites
With all the discussion of the Iraq study group conclusions in the past few days, a few things seem clear: the days of denial on Iraq are over. No one can say that we are 'making progress,' that things are 'slowly getting better,' or that Iraqis are taking more and more of the responsibility. No one can point to handing over of security duties to Iraqis in peaceful regions as part of a kind of linear progress. Iraq's situation is, as the report notes, grave and things are getting worse.
My own belief is that the US cannot succeed in Iraq alone. Some pundits, their minds lost in a kind of World War II nostalgia, think that since we are the world's biggest military power we need simply find the will to win. Send more troops! Quote Winston Churchill! Focus on real victory! Alas, that's not possible. First, we did win the war. The war was over in April 2003 when Saddam fell. Militaries can win wars, they can't shape political systems. A military can take sides in a sectarian dispute but rarely can stop two sides from fighting each other, especially if the two sides have diverse militias and tactics and practice the tactics of an insurgent rather than of a military. Let's say we put in 1,000,000 soldiers and pacified the country. Then what? The same resentments and angers would be under the surface, waiting to explode the next time things were loosened up. Of course, that isn't even an option anyway since there is no way the American public would tolerate that kind of force being sent.
The political reality is that the Americans were sold the Iraq war on false pretenses, and the price quoted was low. The product is not what expected, and the cost is through the roof. When salesmen operate that way, they lose their credibility. The Bush Administration has lost the capacity to sell this war as being anything but a fiasco.
So what to do? The Bush Administration has taken the first step: to at long last, accept reality. One theme in my blogs for over a year is my frustration and exasperation over all those who tried to claim continuing progress in Iraq or that things were improving when things have been disintegrating since late 2003. I don't think they can do that any more. They have to admit that this is a failure, our strategy is not working, our ability to shape outcomes in the region is minimal, and things need to change.
We can debate what needs to be done. McCain thinks more troops are needed, others want a time table for withdrawal. I put my idea forward in Saving Iraq on my December 4th blog. And, of course, we have the recommendations from the Iraq Study Group, and soon the Pentagon and State Department will put forward their own proposals. Last week a leaked memo from Donald Rumsfeld also noted the current approach wasn't working, and he played with new ideas. The incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates admitted that we were not winning in Iraq (though he also said we weren't losing).
All this is music to my airs. It is so refreshing to see the Washington establishment finally coming face to face with reality, the state of denial which has until recently prevailed was reaching a kind of surreal absurdity. It's like overcoming an addiction: you can't solve the problem until you admit you have a problem. President Bush still seems hesitant, but even he can't resist the wave. "The situation is grave and deteriorating."
Reality bites. It can hurt, it can sting, it can kill. But if you try to live in denial of reality, things get even worse. I still don't think they fully appreciate the limited options facing the United States quite yet, but they've taken the first step. It's about time.
December 12 - Into Oblivion?
When history is written, it may be said that Osama Bin Laden's attack on the US was a complete success. By shifting the Americans to an offensive, unilateralist foreign policy, they created a storm that engulfed the entire Mideast, brought down western economies, and destroyed the old order. To be sure, I doubt Bin Laden's long term goal of an Islamic puritan state is possible, but looking at the Mideast now, the signs are ominous. The Bush Administration may be waking up to reality too late.
The focus now has become Lebanon, and the effort of Hezbollah (a Shi'ite extremist organization, backed by Iran and Syria) to parlay its success (or at least its appearance of success) against Israel last summer into a bid for power. Iran's noises in Lebanon and activities in Iraq are probably simply a message to the West and Israel to back off its nuclear program -- a message of 'you hit us and we can make things very bad for you.' But what if Iran is suffering from the kind of hubris over their ability to shape results like the Americans suffered in 2003? They may have fanciful dreams of an ascendant Hezbollah able to join Syria and Hamas to finally topple the Jewish state of Israel. They would use the oil card to neutralize the West, already exhausted and in no mood for war after the Iraqi debacle. They would fail, ultimately, but there has never been a time since the early years of Israel where the idea of destroying the Jewish state could be imaged with some credibility.
But there is a problem with that scenario, and we can see what that problem might mean by looking at Iraq. Iran is Persia, and there is a long distrust by Arabs of Persians, including Iraqi Shi'ites. Faith trumps nation in the Mideast so Iraqi Shi'ites can overlook Iran's Persian roots (about half the population is Persian, there are a variety of other ethnic groups), but farther West the majority are Sunni.
Syria is interesting. It's government is Baathist, which is secular, but the religion is Alawite, which is a branch of Shi'ism, creating a link with Iran. The majority of the population, however, is Sunni, and kept in line by Assad's authoritarian regime. Lebanon is about 45% Shi'ite, with the Shi'ites the fastest growing population. Yet the Sunnis in Lebanon distrust Hezbollah and the Syrian government, as of course do the Christians. Some kind of Iranian power play would rely on anti-Israeli sentiment to overcome the sectarian differences within the populations of Lebanon and Syria. But if things went bad for the Iranian plot (and they almost certainly would) it wouldn't take much to get the Sunnis fighting against both the Assad government and Iranian influence.
Saudi Arabia, not exactly a military power, sees the rise of Shi'ite power as a potential threat. Iraq has turned into a nightmare scenario where Sunnis and Shi'ites are butchering each other, while in Iran the hardliners have grabbed power, something that probably would not have happened absent the US invasion. Although officially anti-Israel, the Saudis are pragmatists, and no doubt would fear the threat of Shi'ism more; the Wahabist form of the Sunni religion, dominant in Saudi Arabia, does not even consider Shi'ites to be true Muslims. Add to that the fact that al qaeda is an extremist Sunni form of Islam, one that opposes the Shi'ite vision, and that network would not want a Hezbollah.
Add all this together and the entire region could be poised for civil war. It would be a civil war within the entire Mideast; Iraq's civil war is just a foretaste. And, while some might see it as a blessing for Israel if the Arabs are fighting each other, each side would be tempted to try to hurt Israel in order to claim the mantel of leadership for themselves. The Americans would be in no position to go in and clean up such a mess, Iraq is even too much for the US. The international community would be helpless as well, this would have to play itself out in an excruciatingly painful and deadly manner. The US would see oil prices skyrocket, as security and terror against oil fields and pipelines would become common; and it is unlikely the West could simply secure oil fields without causing a backlash even more damaging to the West.
This path to oblivion is only one possible future. But the stakes in Iraq are far greater than just President Bush's legacy, or Iraq's future. This isn't something that a military operation can solve either; in fact, our military presence has accentuated the danger. The way to avoid this kind of future is to first recognize that Syria understands its difficult situation, allied with Iran, but fearing a Sunni backlash in Lebanon and at home. By shutting Syria out diplomatically, the US has pushed Assad into relying on Iran; I doubt the Syrians see that as the preferred option, but our policies have made that their only viable option. True diplomatic engagement with Syria on the issues of Israel, Iraq and Lebanon can create another path for Assad, one not as dangerous as being in bed with the Iranians. If that were to bear fruit, the Iranians would sense a shift in their position, and recognize that their best outcome is to be a regional power with status. That would require playing the game by the rules. They may not give up their nuclear weapons, but they could be open to cooperation on a variety of fronts. Ultimately they do not want a collapse in the region either, they would only undertake a power play against Israel if they really thought it could work.
If we didn't rely on Mideast oil, this wouldn't mean so much. But our economy does need what they produce, and the effort to use military means to create political systems in the region that would be stable and willing to sell oil in a secure manner has failed in Iraq. It was a pipe dream to begin with. Now we have to deal with the tough issue of recognizing the need for stability, and the need to try to talk with and potentially work with states that have been seen as enemy or rogue states. But the future of Israel, our economy, and tens of millions of lives in the Mideast depend on our ability to change course.
December 13 - Joy, peace and love
I like Christmas carols. I enjoy the religious ones, the light ones, and basically anything that evokes the mood of the season. I enjoy the fact that at this time of the year one can talk about love, peace, and 'joy to the world' without having it dismissed as corny. In our cynical age, anyone who tries to focus on humanity over abstractions and "winning" conflicts or competition is considered naive, and dismissed as simply wanting to go sing Kumbiya.
I have long ago decided that the belief that Jesus was the son of God and had come to save the world from its sins is just a myth. I suspect he was a wise teacher, and the best of his ideas do inspire great deeds, even if as a religion Christianity has a sordid past. So I don't mind celebrating his birth, or saying "Merry Christmas." But the role of religion in modern life is a tough issue. My rejection of Christianity exists alongside admiration for many of its core values. Can one have a strong belief in love, joy, and peace without some kind of religious grounding?
The short answer is "of course." All one has to do is say, "this is the value I hold," one doesn't have to ground it in faith, reason, or anything other than that person's subjective judgment. And if enough people agree that "these are the values we'll hold," then a society or community can reflect shared values, grounded or ungrounded in some kind of dogma or ideology. But without a compelling message, how can one persuade others it makes sense to hold certain values, especially if they might go against short term self-interest. Don't you need a religion to say "turn the other cheek," or "love your enemies," or "be kind to those who hurt you?" Those are some of the Christian teachings I find insightful and true, but how compelling are they once you remove any kind of deistic authority from their content?
Last weekend we went sledding with the boys in the woods. The snow glistened as it clung to the trees, sparkling a multitude of barely discernable colors under its thick white essence. The woods smelled fresh, the air was clear and bright, and it felt magical. In moments like that, I get a sense that there is something more to existence than the materialist games we play.
When students learn about the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia, they almost all feel emotion and pain over what they are learning about. When they heard a local Cambodian genocide survivor speak last year, there was almost universal empathy among the 300 who had gathered; people were weeping, stunned, and extremely saddened by hearing her experience. There is some kind of core empathy amongst humans, I'm convinced of that. When I travel and experience the natural friendliness and helpfulness of people, there is a fundamental connection between humans. Clearly social structures and individual experiences can break this down. But even in the genocides the story is often the same; after a short time killers have something turn off inside, they are capable of anything, they shut down the part of them which connects with others. If they didn't do that, they couldn't live with themselves. That's probably one reason why mental illness is so prevalent among Vets after returning from combat. They have to turn on what was turned off, and that can bring painful confrontations with what one experienced.
Religion, it seems to me, emerged as a way to express the kind of natural knowledge people have of that core connectedness and empathy (otherwise known as love) across humanity. We can't explain it rationally, or see it in nature the way we see flowers grow or weather patterns shift. But it is part of each of us. Teachers who can enunciate that sense of empathy often become revered, and perhaps they themselves recognize that the message is coming from so deep within that they think it is from without. And no matter how much our social structures, customs, and practices might subvert or steer away from those core values, they remain something that almost everyone has to admire. Those who don't have to ridicule and belittle such thinking, perhaps because they don't want to feel it's pull inside of them.
Ultimately, of course, despite the evidence I see about our common bonds, this isn't anything that one can prove. I still have to have faith that we are connected, perhaps as humans, perhaps across reality. So it is a kind of religious and spiritual belief, even if not one connected to particular myths. It is universal and not exclusive. It is, frankly, a belief that the core values of love, peace, and joy exist for all humans who accept them. Yet too many people find it impossible to live joyfully, too many are willing to sacrifice peace for power or ideology, and too many are afraid to love, even to love themselves (and if one should love ones' enemy as oneself, one has to love oneself). Christmas is hopefully a time more people find a way to tune out the cultural noise and tune in to the message of peace, love and joy. Merry Christmas!
December 15 - Unity
Every once in a while my blogs move from politics to philosophy -- philosophy as in the big "meaning of life" questions. One reason for that is that my entire life has been in part a preoccupation with trying to understand what this world is all about. I've explored religions, studied philosophy, and am fascinated by modern physics and science. I know enough to know that all I can do is give a 'best guess,' and keep thinking and learning. We have no certainty in these questions, but that's what makes them fun. So I'll write where I am now, recognizing that if you come to this blog in a few years, I may have amended and altered my views in various ways.
In philosophical terms I'm an absolute idealist, meaning that I believe that all we have is experience, and that experience is an experience of the mind. (The most compelling philosopher on this is Bishop Berkeley -- he even got a Star Trek character addicted to the holodeck named after him). I may see a telephone, a computer, a desk; I may hear my colleagues talking about next years' schedules in the hall, but the idea that there is a material world in which physical forces are driving all of this is an illusion. It might be true, but it doesn't need to be. And the response given to Berkeley by Samuel Johnson -- that he could refute his philosophy by kicking a large stone -- is no refutation. Still all one does is feel the stone against the foot, and hear and see in your mind the illusion of the stone bouncing on the ground. Even a more direct "jump off a cliff and see what happens" challenge meets the same fate: even the experience of a fall and of injury or death still is within the mind. We make assumptions that the experience is caused by an outside world because we interpret our senses to detect an outside world, but that's a leap of faith.
Consider what the outside world appears to be: mostly empty. It is definitely an illusion of both site and touch that my computer pad is solid, and I'm hitting it with solid fingers. Go to the atomic and subatomic level, and at best all that exists is ripples in the various fields that make up reality. The fields themselves are not defined by existing matter, but by probabilities of where particles (or ripples in the fields) might exist. Most is just 'empty space,' the particles so tiny and the distances between them so vast.
Beyond absolute idealism, I also have a neo-Platonist perspective, and am especially fond of the ideas of Plotinus, who wrote before Augustine took neo-Platonist thought and melded it to Christianity. I don't want to spend a lot of time going into Plotinus' system, so I'll just cut to the chase, the parts of it I find compelling. First, he argues that reality is at base a unified whole, something he labels "the One." There also is a divine intellect which perceives perfect forms (such as posited by Plato), and common human intellects which connect and become one with the divine intellect whenever we glimpse a perfect form or idea. Human souls earn to be part of the divine intellect (for Augustine this would be the 'mind of God') but find it hard, since we are seduced by the materialist and mundane aspects of every day life. We become addicted to our daily routines and our material world, losing sight of who and what we really are.
For Plotinus, all is really part of the One, but the One itself is beyond existence; it is incomprehensible. (To use the terms of modern physics, it is outside space time; perfectly unified and simple, yet encompassing space-time). We can't comprehend this because we only have materialist analogies to use, and the One is not an essence that can be described our materialist language. (Back to science: how can we comprehend something outside our limited space-time universe, since we can only understand reality in terms of space-time. Space-time itself is a created and completed unified entity, even though we experience it as an unfolding and developing system). We are all part of this unified whole, and in fact each of is, in a sense, part of each other. What separates us is perspective. We all experience reality from different perspectives, so we believe that other "selves" are completely different entities, rather than different aspects of the true self. Perspective is not just distance and angle, but every aspect of experience, and in fact perhaps every possible experience (if you get into quantum probabilities).
Merge these two together, and we end up with a sense of unity. All is one, but yet perspective creates different experiences. Physicality is an illusion of separation and difference, caused by our varied perspectives. We want to be at home -- unified as part of the One, though at one level we cannot ever truly be separate, as the One is all that is. Those statements seem contradictory because the One is not something our language can explain; it is incomprehensible. Moreover, I find this actually closer to where modern physics seems to be heading than other more traditional views of reality.
Where I go from here gets even more speculative. Because of my absolute idealism, I end up believing we have greater control over our life experiences and our ability to experience joy in life than those who think that happiness comes from some kind of mastery of or luck in a series of external events. But this also leads me to some fundamental ethical beliefs: that whenever anyone suffers, it is also an aspect of myself which suffers. Whenever anyone does horrific acts, those are acts an aspect of myself is capable of doing. Whenever I help or anyone helps someone, an aspect of myself is being helped. That's a little over simplified and sounds solipsistic, and I'm still struggling with what this means for living life in the world of experience. Maybe, though I should just put Plotinus and Berkeley aside and read some more Machiavelli to get my mind back into the "real world." ☺
December 18 - The Gambler?
President Bush appears set to send an extra 30,000 troops to Iraq and defy conventional wisdom -- including my own expectations -- and for the time, at least, reject the Iraq Study Group findings. While some hawks compare him to Churchill or Truman in sticking to a war despite unpopularity, it could also be that he's more like a gambler who has lost so much that he figures he has nothing left to lose, and may as well bet all he has left on a chance that he'll get lucky. Most of the time, that only makes things worse. So which is it -- Harry Truman or Kenny Rogers?
The Gambler: Many of the neo-conservatives have yet to admit that they were wrong; they only believe the wrong tactics were used. Thus he hold on to the fantasy that a tactical change can turn everything around. President Bush embraces the gamble because if he leaves Iraq he knows he faces an abyss: he will be known forever as the President who engineered the Iraq fiasco. If he can somehow fix things, somehow make Iraq a real, viable democracy, defeat major insurgent groups and militias, then he can claim victory. If Iraq gets better down the line, he can take credit for it. The allure of avoiding the 'worst President' lists and claiming a legacy is so strong that the gamble appears worth it.
The Realist: Or, alternatively, it could be that the White House is in fear of the kind of regional instability discussed I talked about on my December 12th entry. In this scenario, the White House and President Bush is coldly realistic about the situation in Iraq, recognizes that the invasion went wrong, but are convinced that if the US leaves "the wrong way" the region could explode into violence that could overthrow pro-western regimes, risk oil supplies, and kill tens of thousands. Since it's clear that the public has no desire for a long costly war, and it's questionable whether or not the US could actually create a stable outcome even with massive military force, the option to hit the insurgency and militias hard and then orchestrate a hand over to the Iraqis seems preferable to either leaving quickly or staying for a long time.
My hunch is that realism has taken over, and that the surge we'll soon see is a prelude to if not ending at least significantly reducing America's presence in Iraq. Personnel changes (especially Robert Gates replacing Donald Rumsfeld), democratic support for a surge of forces, and the general buzz around the topic suggests this is meant not to increase America's involvement, but to be the beginning of the end. For a brief period the neo-conservatives will be happy, but if indeed this is a realist and not a gambler's course, they will end up disappointed.
The neo-conservatives have fallen into the trap of believing their own rhetoric, thinking that leaving Iraq is tantamount to defeat, and that the US will pay a heavy price as emboldened enemies plot further attacks against the US and Israel. Their world view demands the US play a major role using military power to shape the international system for the next century, and to secure oil supplies for the coming decades. If Iraq is a fiasco, then this role is rejected and the neo-conservatives will have lost everything. Thus they pledge total support for a Bush gamble -- to lose this would be to risk total defeat.
That's reality in the prism of DC power; all is about abstract calculations, power, political games, and winning or losing. The lives that are at risk, both American and Iraqi, are really of secondary concern, and easily dismissed by positing some abstract greater good that America will achieve (earlier it was 'get rid of Saddam,' now it's 'weaken Islamic extremism'). The historical and cultural realities of Iraq which make this mission impossible to achieve are ignored; they have bought into a universalism which posits western values as true, transcending culture and historical development. Once you get the bad guys out of the picture, they believe, then democracy will grow because democracy and markets are the natural state. So instead of seeing the Sunni-Shi'ite fight as a predictable outcome given the cultural and political history of the region, it's a few bad guys -- Baathists, al qaeda types or extremists -- who are provoking this to stop freedom. Such a comforting fantasy feeds into the idea that if simply increase the troops and win (defeat the bad guys), then things might fall into place. Despite the rhetoric from the White House, I doubt President Bush believes this any more.
Perhaps being the world's only superpower after the Cold War this kind of episode was inevitable. Perhaps any great power would be tempted to create the world in it's image, especially with a threat like that which arose on 9-11-01. I don't know what the best course of action in the short term in Iraq would be, but one lesson from this entire conflict is that the United States is not as powerful as once thought, nor can we shape the world on our own. We need to embrace internationalism, cooperative institution building, and use diplomacy to build partnerships and solve problems. Everyone knows the US has a huge military and we've not been shy about using it. That fact will strengthen America's hand in negotiations. But military power used recklessly does more harm than good. Hopefully we've learned that lesson in Iraq.
December 19 - Iran's democracy is not dead
The voting for the Iranian “Council of Experts,” an 86 member body that among other things chooses the Supreme Leader (and could remove him) has given a victory to the moderates of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's party. Given reports that the Ayatollah Khameini is ill, and that the far right was hoping to get someone of their ilk installed as the next Supreme Leader, this is good news. It suggests that moderate factions will still hold considerable power in Iran, and can check the policies of the hardliners. This almost assures that the next Supreme Leader will not be anti-democratic; if the hardliners had won this election, Iran's struggle to create a democracy would be in jeopardy.
Moreover, it appears that the right wing of Ahmadinejad did far worse in local and regional elections than expected; the Iranian people are clearly not in favor of a radical, puritanical regime. Either reformers or conservatives opposing Ahmadinejad did very well, perhaps reacting to how the Iranian President has focused on foreign policy and things like the holocaust convention rather than bread and butter issues at home. He got elected in part because of his promises on the economy.
This means a number of things:
1) Iran is still one of the more democratic countries in the region. As much as there are limits to who can be a candidate, and what can be done and said, the elections are real, contested, and those in power can lose;
2) The Iranian people are still on a path towards liberalizing their country, albeit slowly. The protests against Ahmadinejad and the discontent of students and others suggests many Iranians want change. However, there is also a large group supporting the conservatives, and efforts at a sudden revolution or uprising to create regime change, something many neo-conservatives espouse, would be extremely likely to fail. If Iran is to emerge as more modern and liberal, it will be through a slow process whereby an Islamic democracy defines Islamic modernism and Islamic liberalism. This is a project that spans generations;
3) There is a new possibility of dialogue with Iran. The hardliners position of strength is now slightly weakened, and they know it. The US doesn’t have to fear that no matter what we discuss, religious fanatics will take Iran where they want. Clearly, that’s not necessarily the case; and finally
4) the power of anti-Americanism to shape election outcomes is fading. Iranians still aren’t in favor of the US being in the region, but they also welcome the Shi’ite “liberation” in Iraq, and recognize that the US is in a bind. A weakened and humbled America, which is how they see us, is harder to hate than an aggressive and arrogant America.
Iraq's violence is still at a peak, there are still vast uncertainties in the region. But the Iranian elections show that the real path to change is slow and peaceful, not quick and by force.
December 24 - 2006 reflections, and on to Italy!
2006 was in many ways a year of transitions, or perhaps a "wake up" year. To many of us, the situation in Iraq has been a clear failure since late 2003; it got bad then, and has gotten steadily worse. Yet until this year, the country could remain in denial. People bought images of "purple thumbs" and movement on the paper work of Iraq's political system (the constitution and laws) as signs of success, and dismissed the continuing and increasing violence as bad guys who wanted to stop the drive to democracy. So seductive was that illusion that it took hold in the mindset of vast parts of the American political and media spectrum, a substrata of the culture that feeds itself scripts and interpretations that are taken as true by dint of their constant repetition. And if reality doesn't agree? Well, they dismiss that as an appearance that will change. Yet it did not.
So the year is ending with a real sense of uncertainty in terms of America's political situation, the war in Iraq, and even the economy. In the past, the White House at least appeared to want to stick to its policy no matter what, but that's changing. President Bush has been waffling on Iraq, no doubt because he is surprised by how intractable the situation is, he doesn't want to admit the inevitable: that the war was a mistake that has left hundreds of thousands dead, and that American lives have not only been lost in vain, but American soldiers have been made killers. That happens in war, but when it happens in a pointless, unnecessary war the people at the top are culpable of grieve error. President Bush doesn't want that to define his Presidency, but he will not be able to prevent it. It still boggles my mind how long so many were able to ignore the obvious; this shows the power of the human desire to avoid cognitive dissonance -- and perhaps a bit of it was emotional too, not wanting to admit they were wrong and those "anti-war types" were actually right.
The Democrats sweep into office as the American public, at least, ceased buying the rhetoric about Iraq. Now the pundit class of hawks claims that Americans "lack the will" to "do what is necessary." No. Americans have the wisdom to recognize that when you make a mistake, admit it, and chart a new path. We'll see in the coming weeks or months if President Bush has the inner strength to break with the last six years and truly chart a new course. I have my doubts. After all, most Democrats are themselves still in a kind of denial of how bad the situation in Iraq really is.
The housing bubble officially popped, though in most markets 2006 was a slow leakage rather than a pop. But the boom is over, and those people with interest only mortgages, or who borrowed to the max on inflated equity are finding themselves in trouble. No longer can you simply spend money based on what seemed like a constant and unstoppable increase in a home's value. Reality is starting to hit people in the pocket books as well. Oil is up to a steady price over $55 (currently over $60), and the reality of high oil prices is having structural effects on the economy. SUV sales and production is down, air travel more expensive, and consumer spending on other goods decreased. Moreover, the dollar is starting to slide quickly, which may even signal an end to the denial we've been in about maintaining a current accounts deficit of over 6%. People now are seeing America on the wrong track, doubting our ability to influence the world, shocked by how disliked and disrespected we are in most of the world, and concerned that besides not being loved or respected, we're not really even feared either.
Americans are taking a good look at the situation and assessing what went wrong, and what to do next. 2007 and beyond we'll see how those issues get dealt with, but 2006 is the year when we woke up to reality, and realized we need to look at just who we are and what we're doing. And while some still say the answer is to go all out and see ourselves in some kind of total war with "Islamic fascism," that is starting to sound shrill and silly, given the relatively unpopularity of Islamic extremism in even the Muslim world -- witness the Iranian elections discussed yesterday, or the unpopularity even among Sunnis of "al qaeda in Iraq." 2006 is a turning point. That is a cause for optimism, but not celebration. Hard choices and actions lay ahead.
For me, though, it's on to Italy, as I'm part of a course with four professors, leading 41 students on a tour from Venice to Florence to Rome, with day trips to a variety places from Mantova to Pompeii. That means this is my last blog entry until at the earliest January 11, my last 2006 blog. Everyone have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I'll drink a toast to you all from San Marco piazza in Venice on New Year's eve!