February 2 - Iraq and conservative principles
A short entry today due to lack of time, but in reading over commentary about Iraq, the President's "surge" plan (surging up to late 2005 troop levels) and angry denouncements of the effort by Democrats and many Republicans to voice disapproval of the President's plan seems surreal. How can one not see that this effort to somehow create a stable Iraqi democracy has failed completely? How can one brush aside the fact that in Afghanistan the Taliban have taken control of another town formerly held by the British. How can not recognize that the Iraq war was a huge strategic blunder, and that every step of the way war critics, whether Pat Buchanan on the right or Howard Dean on the left have had better predictions and more accurate analyses than the wishful thinking from so many politicians?
Trying to transform Iraq into a stable liberal democracy friendly to the US was, as I noted just recently on January 29th (Why Iraq Cannot be 'won') an impossible task. What strikes me as odd is that Republicans and conservatives are usually better than Democrats and liberals at recognizing the fact that big government social engineering operations designed to transform a political culture almost never succeed. This whole effort (at least since May 2003) is the kind of thing conservatives usually oppose. Social engineering. Big government trying to 'improve and perfect' society to achieve some greater good through governmental force and power. If conservatives (at least more libertarian minded ones) wanted, they could use the Iraq war as a strong argument against trusting government.
Consider: governmental officials made decisions on wishful thinking, disregarding what they didn't want to hear, they used their power to try to destroy and discredit anyone who got in their way, they refused to learn from failures, and instead tried to use yet more power and money to try to socially engineer another culture, and in so doing hundreds of thousands have died, and a country thrown in chaos.
Hey, conservatives and libertarians, fearful about Democrats bringing back the era of big government, the Iraq war is a perfect argument against governmental power. It's a great example of how governments are prone to incompetence and wishful thinking, often at a severe cost in both tax payer dollars and lives. George W. Bush isn't a conservative, he's a radical idealist, neo-conservatives are militarist liberals. Conservatives, while there is still time, make Iraq your own issue. The left is in disarray in how to deal with it, ranging from principled anti-war types to political power hounds who want to see how the wind is blowing. You at least have an ideological argument as to why this policy failed, you've always argued against big government force to try to socially engineer culture! Come on, conservatives, look deep into your beliefs and ask yourselves if this war really fits what it means to be a conservative. I think it's time the country, left, right, and independent came together and said, "hey, time to wake up and end this mess as soon as possible."
February 5 - Freedom and Paternalism
I was riding my bicycle down the Rhein river back in 1992 on a warm winter day. Ever since I was about 12 years old I ride as much as possible without having my hands on the handle bars. So I thought nothing of riding by a police officer who was walking the neighboring walking path with my hands at my side. Suddenly he was yelling at me and ordering me to stop. 'Am I going to fast, is there something wrong with my bike,' I was wondering. He was accusing me of trying to provoke him and it looked like he was going to give me a ticket (which I didn't have the extra money to pay).
Finally I just interrupted him and apologized, but said I didn't know what I did wrong, and if he could tell me. He recognized that my accent wasn't German so he asked where I was from. He then asked if we in the US had laws stating that one hand had to be on the handle bar. I looked surprised, and said no, and promised him that if that were the law here I would ride with at least one hand on the handle bar. Satisfied that I was apologetic and that my error was not meant to provoke him but was of cultural difference, he let me go on my way. That was one of many laws in Germany that seemed odd. You can't mow your lawn on Sundays, and during the week only at certain times. Up until recently, there were no department or grocery stores opened on Sundays, most Saturdays, or evenings after 6:30. (That's been liberalized, but it's still restrictive, Sunday shopping is still verboten in much of the country).
I realized that, especially after growing up in South Dakota, where we are if anything more protective of our individual freedoms than any other part of the country, the biggest cultural difference that living in Europe provided was that there were far too many paternalistic laws. They don't have the legalism that we have (during the Italy trip students were amazed at the lack of handicapped access, and dangerous places open to the public -- thankfully Europe isn't as litigious and legalistic about such things as we are), but little limits on individual choice are everywhere.
Yet as I look around in 2007 and compare things to 30 years ago, it's pretty clear we're going down that path. Mandatory child seats. Mandatory seat belt laws. Ghettoizing smokers and in Bangor they were thinking of a law to make it illegal for parents to smoke while their kids are in the car. (I'm a non-smoker who grew up with smoking parents; it never really bothered me). I could go on and on, but I think I make my point. In general I think of the world I grew up in back in the 1970s and it felt more free. If in high school I didn't want the lunch there was always the snack bar where I could buy a hot dog, a Suzy Q and a coke. Now there is an effort to rid schools of junk food. And don't get me started with the use of language -- that can be especially bad in academia, as people seem to want to find wording that won't offend anyone. It seems insane at times!
Don't get me wrong, I don't advocate abandoning seat belts and child seats, blowing smoke in children's faces, or Suzy Q's for lunch (though Saturday I did have a DQ blizzard for lunch, and our three year old a hot fudge Sunday -- luckily, we weren't arrested). But there is a philosophical issue here. Do we really want to try to deal with social and cultural problems by simply making laws? Do we want government to dictate the level of risk in our personal lives? Where do we draw the line. Will every "danger" faced by children or concerning our health lead to a new law? After all, kids in the 1970s were healthier than kids today; I doubt it's the existence of junk food in the schools that creates the new epidemic of obesity and lack of exercise. I know, I know. Society pays the cost when people die in an accident, children aren't able to take care of themselves so guidelines need to be set for parents, and the cost of an unhealthy and obese society is immense. There is rationale for these laws. Fundamentally, though, I think turning to the power of government to deal with these issues via laws that limit individual liberty is a mistake.
It's not the glaring mistake that the Iraq war was. And, since I know I could live (in many ways would love to live) in Germany, it's not enough to harm my happiness or quality of life. But that combined with our litigious nature as a society is a weakness which worries me. But if they try to deny my right to ride my bicycle with no hands...
February 7 - Post Pax Americana
If you ask American foreign policy decision makers about the double standards in American foreign policy (we can invade without UN authorization, but others can't, we can have and build new WMD, but others should not, etc.), one answer is commonly given. The United States is the guarantor of global stability (and earlier a hindrance to Communist expansion). As such, we have certain responsibilities that other states do not. This carries a price tag -- the world turns to us when there is trouble -- and to handle the difficulties we need to have special privileges and capacities. This isn't for our sake, but necessary to fulfill our role in assuring stability and order.
Of course, that is a self-serving view, hiding many of the economic and political perks that America and Americans (individuals, corporations, etc.) get from dominating the system, but to the extent that the post-WWII era in the west has been stable, one can argue that in 1945 a Pax Americana replaced the Pax Britannica that had collapsed in 1914. Although this isn't usually called "empire," (even leftist academics like Immanuel Wallenstein prefer the term 'hegemony'), the role is often compared to not only imperial Great Britain, but even the Pax Romana of the old Roman empire.
Those days are fading, America's ability to play that kind of role is being rapidly eroded. Not only are China and India rising (China proved last month that it could knock down high flying satellites, and in fact plans a moon landing within a few years), but America's economic vulnerabilities have increased dramatically. A weak dollar, massive dollar reserves held by potential competitor states, an addiction to oil, a huge current accounts deficit, and a growing wealth gap at home suggests that there could be economic stagnation, or worse, around the corner.
Militarily, Americans are facing a world with growing threats, and the realization that despite spending half the world's military budget, we aren't in a position to deal with these threats in a traditional military manner. In Iraq we learned that winning a war isn't enough; to succeed there we'd have to create a new and stable political system in a society riveted with sectarian violence and corruption. That isn't going to happen. The idea of attacking Iran over their nuclear program has been discussed increasingly in the media. But while some ominously warn that Iranian influence in Iraq is growing so much that there is fear that Iraq will become a client state to Iran, and that therefore we need to "eliminate" the Iranian problem, how can one do it? A war against Iran given how stretched US military resources are is unthinkable. Attacking nuclear sites might slow down their progress, but could create a backlash that hurts reform efforts in Iran and strengthens hardliners. I'm sure some in Washington fantasize about regime change in Iran, believing that if we learn from the mistakes in Iraq we could pull it off, but that would be a road to disaster, and the military almost certainly would stand in the way of that kind of effort.
With North Korea we rely on China for pressure. The US tried and failed to create a coup in Venezuela, and the Chavez regime is fostering an alternative to the American model in the region -- an alternative that has grown immensely in popularity. Europe, put off by America's weird denial (now thankfully dropped by a President who realizes that trying to deny a scientific consensus looks silly) of global warming combined with unilateralism and Iraq debacle, is increasingly moving towards a post-Atlantic era, emphasizing ties with China, Russia and Africa. While some Americans say that we are "at war" with Islamic extremism, and shrilly claim Europe is being "conquered" by Islam, Europeans recognize that moderate Islam is not a threat, and efforts at home to integrate the Islamic community and abroad to work with Muslim states undercuts extremism far better than some "war."
So slowly the US is pushed to the margins, considered a pariah state by some. American power is feared less than anytime since WWII, America's military has been disgraced by Haditha, Abu Ghraib and other atrocities. Those are tiny, tiny, factions of what otherwise remains a professional and disciplined military, but in this world of 24 news and sensationalism, a few bad apples have a disproportionate impact. America is not admired or respected like it once was; many see America as the greatest threat to world peace. Predictably, states once our allies actively work to undercut US policy. So we move towards the era of post Pax Americana. This can be peaceful or violent, it depends on the choices we make. The most important thing is to recognize the reality of this change; nothing is more dangerous than trying to hold on to a position of hegemony or empire when the capacity to do so no longer exists. If we do that, it will certainly lead to disaster for the United States.
February 8 - Divide Iraq
I've been amazed by the reports on the depth and ferocity of the sectarian violence in Iraq. One of the reasons the President's "surge" won't work is that it is based on the belief that America is fighting a counter-insurgency. The insurgency, however, isn't the real problem, it is not what is standing between the current chaos and stability in Iraq. Sectarian violence this deep, this entrenched in government and with a variety of militias (not just the Mahdi army but also the Badr brigade of SICRI, etc.) does not get overcome easily.
And, of course, in places like Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda the civil wars are over; in Iraq the sectarian violence has been increasing in scope. Not only that, but the corruption at every level of Iraqi society undercuts efforts to create the kind of governmental authority to stomp out the violence. Not only that, but the American counter-insurgency effort risks primarily helping the Shi'ite majority dominate the Sunni minority. Given the amount of violence by Shi'ite militias against Sunnis, this could add to the humanitarian crisis, anger Sunni Arab states, and benefit Iran, who already has close ties with some of the most influence Shi'ite political organizations (and militias). After all, there are already numerous charges that what the Shi'ite militias are attempting an ethnic cleansing of Baghdad.
There are many reasons why it appeared to most experts that a divided Iraq was not an option. Turkey vehemently opposes the creation of a Kurdistan, and fighting could break out over oil revenues and oil fields. Yet just as in Yugoslavia the conditions on the ground forced a rethinking of whether or not that state could stay together, it's appearing more and more likely that Iraq simply is broken beyond repair.
Dividing Iraq into three countries (or perhaps three autonomous regions in a confederal Iraqi state) would require a number of difficult agreements: 1) oil revenues distribution and the disposition of oil fields would have to be agreed upon; 2) reasonable borders would have to be developed; and 3) an effort made to protect minority rights in the newly created regions or perhaps states. Finally, this is probably something that the Iraqis can't do on their own, though it also is outside the scope of what the United States can accomplish. Trying to reach this kind of deal would require a regional effort involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Jordan. Ultimately anything like this would require such a multilateral effort since Sunni-Shi'ite rivalries could otherwise explode into regional violence.
In this, the Israeli-Palestinian issue also matters. The main reason the United States is so hostile to Iranian involvement is that a powerful Iran with Lebanese Hezbollah as a proxy creates a true threat to Israel. The fact Israel couldn't defeat Hezbollah last summer has evoked a sense of foreboding that this could be a more serious threat to Israel than the Arab-Israeli wars of the 20th century. Israel sees any strengthening of Iran (especially its close ties with the Iraqi government) as enhancing that threat, and officials in the Bush Administration believe strongly in the importance of supporting Israel. Though some in the administration still think that regime change via military action in Iran would go a long way to solving these regional problems, given the failure in Iraq that would be an exceedingly risky strategy at best.
The bottom line is that the cultural and political realities of the region can't be fixed by force, and the effort to do so will likely only exacerbate them, especially given America's limited capacity to act. Rather than trying to reshape and transform the region to something easy to handle, we have to recognize that some problems have no solutions. Sometimes you need to put forward a process and go step by step, not seeking complete peace and resolution, but just making sure that war doesn't come today, and that the effort is being made to improve the situation. The way to do that is to start talking to each other; if you're talking to each other, you are less likely to start shooting each other.
February 9 - The beauty of Cold
The last two weeks have been intensely cold by Maine standards. By Minnesota and South Dakota standards (where I lived most of my life before Maine) it's just typical winter weather. Having a nice taste of constant, cold weather reminds me that I love winter, and I love cold. Back when I was a child/teen I'd make a point to bundle up and go for long walks whenever the temperature dipped below minus 30 (it never gets that cold in Maine, unfortunately).
Cold is beautiful on a variety of levels. First, from inside a nice cozy house, one feels especially warm and comfortable knowing that outside there are harsh conditions. The hot cocoa tastes better, the sofa softer, and the atmosphere cozier when it's below zero outside. From that comfort, the outside appears simply fantastic. Deep blue skies, white snow covering the yard, the stark winter landscape. Out in the winter there is little as beautiful as cross country ski trails twisting through the woods. Sure, in summer you have trees, flowers, and streams, but there is something supremely beautiful about winter.
Downhill skiing is as close to a religious experience as one can have doing sports. Moving in control yet with speed, surrounded by beauty on a mountain, hearing the skis glide on the snow is exhilarating. Yet while winter landscapes offer an unparalleled beauty, I mean it when I say cold is beautiful. For my entire life, I've had an aversion to hats and gloves. Sure, while skiing, shoveling, or spending long times in the cold one has to wear them, but I've always liked feeling that cold on my face and my head, I even enjoy feeling my hands chill to a point where it nears painful (growing up in this kind of climate, I know when the cold actually becomes dangerous -- none of what I'm saying refers to conditions that threaten frost bite). The Bud Grant quote (he was the coach of the Minnesota Vikings back when they played outdoors) "cold is a state of mind" comes to me a lot. You can be in the cold and let it take you over, feeling miserable, wanting desperately to get inside, or you can embrace the experience of cold, and how it makes you feel.
Cold is a painless way to really feel alive and connected to nature. Cold is a sensation that seems to bring clarity to thought and vision, the world feels different. More than anything else, though, cold is a metaphor for life. Cold can be taken as dangerous (and indeed it can be), something to be avoided, something causing discomfort, something one flees. One can look at cold as limiting, making cars harder to start, requiring more effort to go out, and potentially freezing pipes and creating ice dams on roofs which can do damage. There are many reasons one can look at cold as a pain, something nature gives us out of ill will, which we have to tolerate.
But if one simply accepts that there are tasks, risks, and problems with every aspect of life and deals with them as they come, one can truly embrace and enjoy cold. Oh, the beauty and experience one would lose if one were to get some encumbered by the problems cold weather brings that they can't experience it joyfully! And that is true about almost all of life; one can let the problems and difficulties of daily tasks, stressful changes, the dull routine, or sudden crises and problems bring one down. And, of course, sometimes tragedy strikes and sadness is inevitable. But most of the time we hold ourselves back from a truly joyful experience with life by being so taken by all the little difficulties and inconveniences, or the precautions and tasks, that we lose sight of the joy of everyday life. Learning to love cold is learning to live.
February 12 - A War We Could Lose
I have argued that the US cannot win in Iraq because the war has already been won, and the current effort is not so much a war but an attempt at social engineering a political culture. So in that sense, I wouldn't say the US will lose a war in Iraq when we finally leave. We may lose face, lose power, lose prestige, lose moral standing, lose money and lose a lot of life, but we won't lose a war.
There is, however, a potential war the US could lose, and that is with Iran. To be sure, it is very unlikely that the US will actually try to invade and conquer Iran like it did Iraq; that task is too difficult and immense. A war with Iran would be on a lower scale. But first, let's think about what the current administration is saying and doing.
Over the past few weeks rhetorical pressure has increased on Iran, the Iranian government is charged with helping insurgents in Iraq (presumably this would be the Shi'ite militias, not Sunni or al qaeda insurgents) and spreading discontent. Iranian diplomats have been arrested, Iran claims terrorized, and pundits with close ties to the administration are writing articles about the need to confront Iran, with hints at coming military action. All of this creates the sense that the Administration is preparing a case for war (bombing nuclear research sites at a minimum) and trying to increase tension and uncertainty.
Reality does not always equal appearance in the world of international politics, however. The US realizes that right now we have an extremely weak hand in dealing with Iran; Condoleezza Rice has refused to negotiate with them because 'we have nothing they want,' and we'd be "supplicants." With Russia's Putin speaking out starkly against American foreign policy, pressures in Afghanistan growing, and an overstretched military, the President has to know that America's weight and capacity to act is curtailed by reality. Countries like China, Russia, and even some EU states can quietly subvert our policies with no cost themselves given American weakness. In that context, how then can the US pressure Iran? The only way is to convince them we're crazy enough to think about attacking them, and hope that even if they think we're bluffing, they don't want to take that risk. Combine that with a potential carrot of more western trade and reduced tension, and perhaps Iran can indeed be made to give more than they would otherwise wish to.
On the other hand, it could be that the US wants a limited strike against Iranian nuclear targets, and hopes for a pretext to do so. This kind of rhetorical barrage is a rather clumsy way to do that; it won't fool anyone, and given the credibility problems of the Administration these days, would be too transparent to be effective.
However, I do not underestimate the ability of the current Administration to believe in their own illusions of power and idealism. They may succumb to the temptation to say "it's Iran that has prevented Iraq from becoming what we thought it would, if we have the courage to deal with Iran, then we'll get the spread of democracy and change in the Mideast." The method would likely be a mix of military attacks (mostly air and special operations, not an all out invasion), economic pressure, and attempts to attack Iranian interests in Iraq. The hope would be that this will lead to weakness in the Iranian government and reformers and others dissatisfied with the theocracy will create if not change, at least enough instability to handicap Iran's ability to be a regional power.
Such an effort would not only fail, but would open up the United States to counter measures from Iran that we could not handle. Oil prices could be driven up, and there could be some direct attacks on American interests. More likely would be that the Iranian regime would remain in charge and in fact use this to generate anti-American support. This would reinforce anti-Americanism amongst Shi'ites in Iraq, lead to more Iranian support for Hezbollah, and ultimately the US would have to go to war with Iran or leave an even messier situation in place. A war with Iran is one we could lose. Short of using nuclear weapons, the Iranians could engage in a strategy of long term guerrilla operations prepared in advance, using their terrain, population, and secrecy to make it impossible for the US to project power. Moreover American wishful thinking about Iranian opposition is a poor foundation upon which to build a policy. More likely (especially if this takes us into 2009 and a new Administration), the US would leave to defeat of its policies in both Iraq and Iran. That would be the end of the American era; the US will still be able to defend itself and its economy could still be strong, but the era when one could think of global dominance and unipolarity would be unequivocally over.
Of course, Iraq without extension to Iran already marks the end of America as the dominant superpower. Yet if we get out of Iraq soon enough without more damage done, and then return to our real values, much of what has been damaged could be repaired. Given that the President doesn't seem to care what Congress or the public say or think, one has to hope that this noise on Iran is bluff and bluster. Otherwise, we could be being led to a disaster much worse than the failed policy in Iraq.
February 13 - Love, American Style
As Valentine's day approaches I remember a debate from graduate school where a young woman from Asia argued in favor of arranged marriages. She said that Americans are fixated on romance -- the idea of falling head over heals in love with someone, feeling the rush of anticipation of being together, lost in the hormones and emotions of romantic love. Then, of course, that dissipates. The feeling is never the same even a year, let along ten or twenty years after than initial rush. So Americans end up yearning for the emotion, or they find out too late that the emotion was all they were in love with, and once it's gone, they feel little or nothing for the person they are either married to or in a relationship with.
An arranged marriage starts with a different premise. First, commitment is your first step. You commit to someone your family has chosen, and you reconcile yourself to the fact that you will have a family with and work with this person as your partner forever. You may get romantic love right away, or it may never be quite the same thing Americans seem to experience, but over time love grows, and that love is more rooted and strong than the whispy faux love that hormones and emotions bring early in a relationship. In her opinion American couples were less happy than most arranged couples she knew of; our commitment is to ourselves and our emotions, not to another person.
The counter response we gave was first: Who wants to have no say over the person you'll spend your whole life with -- what if you are arranged to marry a molester or someone cruel? She said that in most arranged marriages the family really investigates the person and his (or her) family; that parents who love their children are better at choosing someone good for a teen. After all, how many young men and women end up with cruel, abusive people with whom they fell in love, and how often does the rush emotions of early love hide the fact that the future partner might be, if not abusive, perhaps lazy and going nowhere in love. With experience, and unclouded by emotion, the family can choose better.
Another response from us was what if ones' family has a very different view on life than the child? If a progressive free thinking young woman has strict fundamentalist religious parents, she might not like the kind of man they choose. True, she replied, but she thought that was something more common in America, in traditional cultures you tend not to have that kind of fanaticism, and families are closer. She didn't think American families were all that close, we are too individualistic.
We have divorce rates of over 50%. Our pop culture celebrates affairs, dishonesty, and mistrust. Our individualism causes most of us to focus on what we get from the other person in terms of happiness and satisfaction (or money and stuff), not on what we give. Our love of romance often causes us to neglect or discount the importance and sometimes difficulty of commitment. I'm not one of those who opposes Valentines' day. Love and romance are an amazing part of life, and it's always good to set apart some time to celebrate that, no matter how long a couple has been together. But while I am too individualistic to support arranged marriages, my grad school colleague had a point: without commitment, romantic love is transient, deceptive, and even dangerous. How many people get led astray from the path right for them by falling for the wrong person, or being seduced away from a committed relationship?
So on Valentine's Day, as people celebrate the romance of their relationships, I think it's good to remember that commitment and deep connection with ones' spouse or partner is the most beautiful, powerful, and meaningful expression of true love. So Happy Valentine's Day!
February 16 - Failure has its advantages
Human nature seems to be that we like to learn the hard way. Self-destructive behaviors, whether smoking, over eating, using credit cards, or avoiding exercise seem to continue until one is forced to confront hard consequences. People also don't like to give up their views about the world until reality forces hard choices -- and even then, most people find ways to cling to their beliefs. To me the key in learning to live well and understand the world is to avoid falling into that trip, to be self-critical enough and disciplined enough to learn from mistakes and recognize a wrong path. That takes a sense of self-esteem and confidence, otherwise, change is too threatening.
The same is true for collective actions, such as foreign policy. In a blog entry awhile back I was amazed that an Israeli general had used the American "victory" in Kosovo as a template for Israel's war against Hezbollah. Kosovo really showed the weakness of air power to achieve a political objective, and should have been a warning to America and other powers not to underestimate the power of local culture and politics to thwart outside objectives. Clinton and NATO stayed united and managed to force Serbia to finally give in, but they had expected a quick and rather painless victory.
I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the United States needs a painful failure in Iraq to learn the lesson of the limits of power before its too late. I do not say that with any kind of happiness. This failure has already cost likely hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, near 4000 American lives (especially if you count contractors with soldiers) and disrupted families here and there. A lot of people would like a sense that this was worth something, a consoling thought given the price paid. But while one can understand the psychological motivation for that, world politics, ethics and national interest cannot be held hostage to such sentiment.
Great powers, especially when unchecked by a counter power (e.g., a unipolar system like this one has been called) are tempted to try to use their power to expand their wealth, spread their ideals, and enhance their power. It seems self-evidently good to the citizens who see themselves as spreading civilization or human rights. The Romans always considered their wars defensive, and believed that those conquered benefited from inclusion into the empire. American policy makers and pundits like to view the US as a major force for stability and good, using power to try to stop dictators and spread markets and democracy. How can one oppose that?
Alas, all is not as it appears. Not only are there major interests involved (states without oil or geopolitical importance don't get the same attention by any means), but the tools for these idealistic goals involve killing, maiming, destroying, and hurting the psychological development of a generation of children. If authoritarianism is a disease, this kind of cure is like a full frontal lobotomy to counter a personality disorder. The "cure" is worse than the disease. That doesn't mean we have to do nothing in the face of repression, but we have other options than launch wars (and, of course, we tolerate repression from allies who act in our interest -- an hypocrisy the world sees).
Failure in Iraq should stop us before we try to bite off an even bigger task with more disastrous consequences, such as attacking Iran or confronting China or Russia. At this point, even more dramatically than Kosovo, failure is obvious and evident. The goals were not achieved, and now the President is looking for a face saving way out. If he finds one, we run the risk that people will start thinking that "it was harder than expected but we succeeded" and not learn the lesson of the limits and cost of trying to project power through military means when not absolutely necessary. To those who say "failure is not an option," I say we've already failed and we're just looking for a face saving way out. That should not be an option. We need to confront reality, learn the lessons, and not find a way to pretend that what happened wasn't the disaster it was. That isn't a popular thing to say, to many it is politically incorrect, but like the obese person who needs to suffer that minor heart attack to get the message that his lifestyle is counter productive, we need to be directly and forcefully reminded of the limits and cost (in lives, money, prestige) of trying to use military means to shape political results. (And that's not even getting into the ethical issues!)
February 20 - Children change your life
I have two blog topics ready to go -- one defending Putin from the criticism he's receiving for being too authoritarian (focusing on a larger view off Russian history and culture), and one comparing some core values of the world's main religious faiths. But instead I'll have a personal blog entry (I try to avoid those as my life really isn't interesting to most people except myself) on what children to do your life.
Yesterday we started a transition to a new day care. That is tough. The Augusta YMCA is superb, with a new building, a swimming pool, and great teachers. But we're moving to Farmington (gotta cut oil consumption by 20% to please the President, ending the Augusta-Farmington commute should do it!) and so we had to find a new day care. Unfortunately we have to commute with the kids until we settle on a new house, so it'll be, uh, interesting. Yesterday the transition started, and Dana, the one year old, had a tough time. He was crying constantly, as I stayed in his room and got to know the teachers. Ryan, who is a chatterbox with a lot of energy, got into playing with his new friends, and was thrilled that this day care has "little cars" (hot wheels and matchbox), something the old one didn't allow. Yet Dana was having such a tough time that we had to leave by 10:00.
Then it was to McDonalds, a place I vowed never to go to with kids. Yet they have a playground. And our house in Augusta was being shown at 11:00 and we didn't want to barge in on that. So it's ordering, feeding, and taking care of two energetic boys, realizing that the good created by having a playground overcame the dislike I have for McDonalds' food! The rest of the day was totally taken over by trying to play with and watch the boys. When Dana was upset he demanded all my time, and I gave in and put Caillou (a children's show taped on DVR) for Ryan. It was impossible to do any work, or even send out an e-mail (I tried, I had my laptop in on the floor besides the blocks, but of course, both kids were far more interested in that so it got put away). Then I got the kids fed and bathed by the time Natasha got back from her first day at work at her new job, and we both dealt with the evening routine, getting them to bed by 7:30.
Today I was again at day care for two and a half hours, but found out one of the teachers is from Bavaria, and was able to look at the routine; the new place isn't the old YMCA (no pool, not a new building), but it seems like the staff is good and their activities fun. Dana settled down a bit, and now I'm away to get a few things done before getting them at 2:00.
This is just one of many stories I (and most parents) could tell. Lives are taken over by kids. It can be an illness, difficult behavior, or just the need to play and entertain them, but ones' entire life and set of routines gets sacrificed, at least at this point. Since they are at day care, we rarely go out, every evening and every weekend is dominated by playing with and taking care of kids. When one of us gets a break, it's to do house work or a necessary errand. Tired after the kids are in bed (knowing we'll be awakened during the night -- last night I went up twice to Dana's room and ended up sleeping two hours in Ryan's after he came down and asked me to lay with him awhile) we maybe watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on the DVR. Perhaps some Russian TV (I rarely find time to watch the German station), talk about our plans for the move, and get to bed by 10:00, ready to get up and do it again. And again. And again. The routine does not end because the kids are there. Except for a conference or out of town meeting, we don't get a break (and of course that doubles the work for the one staying home). And when that happens I find myself enjoying just sitting in the airport and being alone -- almost like a normal person again!
Yet for all that, nothing has changed my life for the better than having children. It is worth every inconvenience and annoyance for what they bring to life. Though personally I think parents should make the choice to have children carefully, and make sure they are prepared to be committed. But my perspective is fuller, the future of the planet and country matter more than ever, I empathize deeper with stories involving children, whether those wounded in Iraq or slapped hard in the face by some "parent" (more like a monster) in a store for simply not behaving perfectly. I noticed that shortly after Ryan was born, when while driving to work I heard a news report about an infant left in a day care bus who died and found myself imagining the scene, with tears running down my face. All from a short news report on the way to work. The story would have made me sad before kids; after kids, I could feel that emotion far more intensely.
Life seems more meaningful, yet I also have an expanded sense of fate. Life is as it must be. For all the dangers and injustices, there is a greater purpose or essence that connects life, and means that whatever happens, from the worst tragedy to just having to run to day care to pick up a sick child, I have a stronger than ever faith in something more. And, I guess, that's a good segue to the topic on core values in major religions, which I'll do tomorrow (though if there is no entry tomorrow, it will probably because something came up involving the kids).
February 21 - Religious values
One of the challenges of raising children is how to teach them about religion and faith when one does not adhere to any particular religious tradition oneself. I am not Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Zoarastrian, Wiccan, or anything. But I do have strong spiritual beliefs, and I think learning about and learning to respect various religious faiths is important. But I'm not going to send the boys to a Sunday School, nor am I going to join a church. It'll be my responsibility to teach about religion and spirituality.
In thinking about this, I figure there are three important topics to learn: a) religious history (the development of various religions, their traditions, and core beliefs); b) theology (comparing and contrasting the beliefs of different religions; and c) spirituality (investigating ones' own ideas and thoughts about the issues addressed by religions). A and B will be easy. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are a family of faiths, linked with similar core values. There are even strong parallels between things like Jihad and Just War Theory (and how each can be abused). The eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.) form another family of religions, and that's enough to cover for kids growing up.
On spirituality, it strikes me that all faiths share some common values. I was talking with a Muslim friend the other day about raising kids and how easy it is to worry about things. She said that she believes that everything works out as it must, everything happens for a reason and we need to become comfortable accepting that. We agreed that our choices are our own, and we must take responsibility for what we choose, and we can work to try to improve things and be a force for good in the world, but the results of our actions are outside our control, and we need to accept that. This makes it easier to deal with problems or failed plans in life, and it helps one not worry so much about everything that can go wrong in the lives of ones' children.
Having been raised a Christian, I know that this view is very close to the traditional Christian view as well, though both faiths speak of the "will of God," while I see a larger connected universal consciousness of which we are all a part as the reason. I suspect, however, that one core value of religious teachings, besides the general moral lessons, is that we should not stress out and worry about all that can go wrong, and not let our happiness depend upon what others do or the twists and turns of fate. Happiness comes from something outside the material world, either from a God or ones' spirit.
Moreover in most religions this world is not something to obsess over. "The next life is the true life," or "be in the world but not of the world" and a variety of different beliefs point to a core value that while we are here for a reason, this life isn't the essence of existence. To truly accept that is liberating, and makes it easier to follow moral values. Why lie, cheat and steal and worry about what one has in a transient life which will certainly end, with each individual existence tiny in comparison to eternity? Would it not be better to reflect and do what one believes is good and right, with faith that this is the path to happiness? Most religions tie this to some kind of covenant with a God: follow spiritual laws and you will be rewarded. But the goal of a reward isn't really necessary; simply accepting that this life is a small part of ones' existence is enough.
Alas, fundamentalists of all faiths seem to ignore these deep, spiritual values and focus on temporal minutiae. Don't let gays marry! Get back and keep the promised land! Eliminate the infidels from the holy land! Kill and destroy in the name of ones' faith (all religions get perverted to justify that!) Perhaps that's because religion is given like a parent promising punishment and reward to children -- to really be effective people have to truly believe and internalize the core values so often ignored.
And that will be my goal in teaching about the spiritual side of religion. I'll explain my beliefs as well as others of various religions (including Deism, which I find intriguing, and various new age theories which I find a bit whacky). My children, of course, can and should choose for themselves just what they want to believe. But I think a strong case should be made that every parent, besides teaching kids to have pride in their work, be kind to others, and learn about the world, should help kids understand some fundamental core values shared by virtually all faiths: 1) take responsibility for your choices and do what you can to help others, but recognize that reality unfolds as it must, and accept that; and 2) recognize that while this life has meaning, it isn't the core essence of existence, and it's not important to amass wealth or prestige, but more important to learn about life and have some fun. Life can be very beautiful and joyous if its nature is kept in perspective.
February 22 - Tsar Vladimir
Lately the pundits have been moaning about Russia's "return to authoritarianism," claiming that Russian President Vlaidmir Putin is showing his true colors as an ex-KGB agent focused on control rather than freedom. The argument is that Russia's reforms and path to democracy is being stymied by the return of the old guard, no longer Communist, but not truly democratic. When Putin dares to criticize American foreign policy, the attacks against him multiply.
To understand Putin's rule and why it may be the best thing for Russia at this time, one needs a sense of history. The Tsarist era from Peter the Great (who assumed power in 1689, sharing it with his very different half brother Ivan for awhile) to the last Tsar, Nicholas II, was defined by efforts to westernize and modernize, contrasted with other efforts to protect Russian tradition and Tsarist authority. The modernizers, however, had one overarching concern: not to let Russia slip into anarchy and instability. They liked western ideas, but feared messing too profoundly with Russia's cultural attitudes.
So progress has always been associated with control and authority; to change the culture and introduce new concepts, it would be dangerous to simply let go and see what happens. And there is good reason to consider that view accurate.
There have been at least two periods of time when Russia's leadership essentially lost control. One was after World War I. Due to revolution, civil war and the difficulty in taking control of an entire country, the Bolsheviks allowed considerable experimentation and even freedom in the 1920s. This was creating dissent and unrest, both from hard core Communists who disliked the fact that life was getting "bourgeois" under the New Economic Policy (NEP), and from liberals, anarchists and radicals who wanted anything from multi-party elections to the dissolution of the state. All this came to a halt with the rule of Joseph Stalin. Stalin was looked to in order to restore order, stop the economic collapse, and create a sense of stability. He did that. But he did it with repression, murder, and complete bureaucratization of Russian life. In essence, he shut out the West and isolated Russia and ultimately the communist block. In some ways he was acting like previous Tsars, such as Nicholas I after crushing the Decembrist revolt in 1825, or Alexander III after the murder of his father, Alexander II, by an anarchist. But Stalin's methods were far more brutal, as ideology allowed him to go beyond the traditional limits of power Tsars felt obligated to accept.
The next period of chaos was that of the Yeltsin years. A Russia not ready for democracy and capitalism suddenly was wide open. Speculators became enormously wealthy, but due to the culture of corruption and cronyism, the market did not function as a true market should. Instead corrupt deals simply assured that a class of new Russians would have massive wealth, while average Russians, especially those not living in the major cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow, were worse off. Yeltsin, so heroic in standing up to the Communist coup in 1991, bumbled through his apparently drunken Presidency, leaving Russia essentially rudderless.
Enter Vladimir Putin, 47 years old when he took power on January 1, 2000. Putin quickly restored order, brought the so called oligarchs into line, confronting some directly and proving he was not so awed by their wealth that he would not put them in prison if they did not respect Putin's rule and Russian law, and undertook a vigorous rebuilding of the state apparatus. But he did not do this according to the model set by the repressive Tsars; rather, he was constantly looking westward, building contacts with European states, and working to improve such things as Russian business practices and standards. He has been pragmatic with his reforms, not trying to single handedly end all corruption and remake the system -- that wouldn't work. He is a leader reminiscent of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander I, and Alexander II: Using authority to try to move Russia forward.
So we in the West shouldn't expect Russia to suddenly conform to our ideals of what a state should be like. It takes time to build a stable democracy, and one has to work to slowly reform not just a governmental organization, but a political culture. This is how we slowly built our democracy (overcoming slavery, separate but equal, lack of womens' suffrage, etc.) and Russia will build their style of modern democracy over time in their way. From where they are, with intense poverty in the countryside, corruption and organized crime still rampant, and a political culture still split between a connection to the West and a desire to retain Russian exceptionalism, the only way to move forward is to avoid letting things fall apart.
February 26 - Cheneyland
As much as I oppose current American foreign policy, I've never found myself disliking President Bush. In fact, based solely on public perceptions, I'd probably prefer to hang out with him than with Bill Clinton. I'd always be expecting Clinton to interject, "by the way, I have a nice 2005 Toyota Camry you can have at a price that's a steal..." But Vice President Cheney is another story; either he is a grey cloud of angry arrogance, heartless in regard to the impact of policies, or he plays such a character on TV for political purposes.
Back in 2000 when then candidate Bush announced Cheney as his running mate, my heart sank. I was hopeful that Bush's "compassionate conservatism" and his desire for a "humble foreign policy" was sincere. I had distrusted Cheney since the first Gulf War, when as Secretary of Defense he not only pushed aside opinions from the Pentagon against war (esp. Generals Powell and Schwarzkopf) but was the most adamant in saying the President could do what he wanted without consulting or getting approval from Congress. Luckily the first President Bush rejected a lot of his advice, but I did not want Cheney to be a 'heartbeat away from the President.'
Lately, though, Cheney seems to be in his own world. As deaths pile up in Iraq with the country divided and the coalition shattering, he maintains that Iraq was an "remarkable achievement." He accuses those doing what one does in a democracy -- debating whether or not this policy is correct -- of siding with al qaeda. It's either support the Administration or you're a terrorist hugger! In 2005 he infamously said that the insurgency in Iraq was in its last throes, and earlier noted we'd be greeted as liberators and likely the whole affair wouldn't take longer than a half a year. In short, he seems to be in another world, Cheneyland, where the Administration is successfully pursuing a war on terror with Iraq the center, while sniveling cowards try to undercut their policy and give victory to al qaeda. Can he really believe this all?
As much as its tempting to consider Cheney this dark cloud of arrogance and evil, I suspect he's playing politics. He knows his approval ratings are low and he's not running for anything. He also knows that in foreign policy "good cop/bad cop" often works. John Foster Dulles and Dwight Eisenhower played that sort of game effectively, and his apparent militarism buys President Bush more room to maneuver, and perhaps more good will when he avoids the Cheneyesque extremes. Beyond that, there is a population of hard core pro-war hawks who are energized by that kind of red meat rhetoric. The Administration needs to make sure that this population does not "lose the faith," because they need their support. Cheney is in his element on the talk radio circuit and probably realizes that his image is set now anyway, he may as well play the part. Why give the left any satisfaction?
Still, while I dismiss much of Cheney's rhetoric as political spin, one aspect of his influence on the White House has been troubling, and its precisely what I worried about in 2000. He is a firm believer in Presidential power, and has consistently sought to minimize Congressional involvement. You can see his influence on the way the White House has gone on its own in the so called war on terror, and has used things like signing statements to alter the meaning of Congressional actions. I suspect he believes that in this dangerous world you need a strong central government able to act in the national interest without contraints from Congress or public opinion. Yet that kind of belief has been behind every authoritarian power grab, and usually the gain in "effective central control" is offset by the loss in the public's freedom and ability to have a policy voice.
Moreover, America's core values rest on separation of power. Over the years the executive has consistently amassed more power and authority, while Congress and especially the states have lost. This shift is, I think, one of the reasons why America has become more aggressive in foreign policy, and why politics has become more about money and sound bites than reasoned debate. Blogs and even newscasts increasingly have talking heads (or clattering keyboards) screaming insults and accusations rather than analyzing issues and (gasp) taking seriously the other sides' position. Yet neither political party has a desire to return power to the states, or shift governmental power away from the executive branch. The Democrats overtly talk about more power to the federal government on policies, while the Republicans when in power seem to outdo the Democrats despite rhetoric to the contrary.
Change policy, change leadership, change direction, but unless we put an end to this increasing centralization we'll have abuses of power and temptations to use power in destructive and dangerous ways. And that, more than wild rhetoric about Iraq or Speaker Pelosi is the real danger of living in Cheneyland.
February 27 - Al Gore and Richard Nixon
In 1960 Richard M. Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy in the closest election in American history. Many still wonder if perhaps Kennedy didn't steal the election, looking at allegations that results were manipulated in Texas and Illinois. Nixon was considered fundamentally flawed. The press didn't like him, he lacked charisma, and seemed grumpy and bitter compared to the glamorous Kennedy. Nixon then lost a bid to become governor, bitterly said "you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore" to the press, and it seemed obvious that his political career was over.
Yet eight years later, things changed. Kennedy's brash idealism and willingness to use American power to more forcefully confront communism led to a disastrous war in Vietnam. After his assassination, Lyndon Johnson, a Texas rancher, tried in vain to figure out how to win that war, and ultimately saw his approval plummet to the point that he decided not to seek re-election in 1968. His VP, Hubert Humphrey, ran as a Democrat, but could not break with the pro-war stance of his boss.
And somehow, defying all odds, Richard Nixon emerged as the Republican challenger. His "peace with honor" slogan resonated with a public who wanted out of the war, but didn't want American humiliated. He also brought back memories of a more stable decade, the 1950s, and he won an extremely close election. And, though his flaws did bring us Watergate, he managed to get the US out of Vietnam (albeit too slowly) and his policies of detente likely set up a peaceful end of the Cold War.
In 2000 Al Gore lost an election in which he won the popular vote, with severe controversy over ballot counting in Florida. He was ridiculed in the press during the campaign, and the talk radio crowd had a field day teasing him about growing a beard, gaining weight, and seeming 'lost.' (Personally the weight gain reinforced my view that Jonathan Frakes and Al Gore are a lot a like). But with his Oscar winning almost universally acclaimed movie An Inconvenient Truth, his consistent criticism of the Iraq war, and his contacts within the party, he may be able to come out on top in a crowded Democratic field, much like Nixon did within the GOP in 1968.
If so, Gore would be in a position to do what Nixon did as well -- pull America back from a disastrous bout of foreign policy idealism and interventionism and develop a more realistic and effective approach to global affairs. Gore also might be the best hope to get politicians to take environmental issues seriously. If anything, his eight years seem to have taught him to do what he believes in rather than worry about the latest polls or focus groups. Losing isn't so bad; if he had not lost in 2000, he'd not have his Oscar after all!
No, I'm not endorsing Gore, I just find his potential candidacy intriguing, and the potential parallels to Nixon interesting (but if he's elected he should make sure not to try to cover up any scandals). I still remember talking about the Democratic Presidential candidates when I was living in Germany in late 1991 saying "the only two I know I don't like are Clinton and Gore." And there are intriguing potential candidates on the Republican side, such as Chuck Hagel. The next President needs to be someone who is willing to break with politics as usual, make some changes, and take initiative on issues involving the environment, globalization, and technology. And, as always, to me the person is more important than the party, or even many of the policies. I would like a President I believe is sincere and not enamored with power and politics. In 2000 I would have said Gore would not be that person. In 2004 I argued that neither a Clinton nor a Gore is best for the country, we need something for the future, not from the past. But given the field at this point, I find Gore an interesting choice for the Democratic side.
February 28 - Assumptions about military power
In studying European politics, particularly European foreign policy, I'm struck by how the two sides of the Atlantic have fundamentally different assumptions about foreign policy. In the US people tend to believe that military power is a very useful tool to achieve foreign policy goals, and are willing to use it. Thus the US spends far more on military spending than Europe (indeed, the US spends half the world's military budget), and thus approaches issues like Iraq, Iran, and other hot spots by trying diplomacy, but making sure the military option is "on the table."
In Europe, trust for military solutions tends to be far less, and they spend (as a percentage of GDP) just over half of what the US spends on military preparations. The US complains that they "need to do more," and Americans seem exasperated that they do not. Yet the reason they don't spend more is because they don't see the world in the same way Americans do. They see the use of military force as a last resort when all options fail, the lessons of World War II and failed colonialism still guide policy perspectives.
I'm convinced that the European perspective (and, of course this is a gross generalization) is more accurate than the American perspective. I think perhaps because we're so powerful we fall into the trap of believing that military might is more useful than it actually is. Consider our wars since WWII: Korea, Vietnam, Iraq I, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq II. In Korea the effort to roll back communism and unite the country took what could have been a short, quick victory if we were just liberating the South and made it a three year war with the result being a divided country to this day. In Vietnam the US suffered a defeat after almost a decade at war, a very traumatic episode for this country. In Kosovo what was supposed to be a few days of bombing to get the Serbs to sign the Rambouillet accord turned into nearly 80 days of bombing before Serbia gave up control of the province. Most of the suffering, either from NATO bombs or Serb ethnic cleansing took place after the war started. It was sold as a success because Serbia gave in, but compared to the situation before March 25, 1999 and to the goals of the operation, it was a failure with dangerous near-disasters such as the bombing of the Chinese embassy.
Then there is Iraq '91. The war seems a success; we had the international community with us, Iraq left Kuwait, and unlike Korea forty years earlier, we didn't risk snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by moving north (and don't let Iraq '03 fool you -- taking Iraq in 1991 would have been far, far more difficult -- Iraq was much stronger at that point, and the US not as technically advanced as it would be in '03). But it marked the point where al qaeda and Islamic extremists determined we were an enemy, it left Saddam in power, and strengthened Iran, which is at its core much more powerful than Iraq ever could have hoped to become. A victory, but very limited -- and multinational.
Afghanistan and Iraq '03 are continuing, Afghanistan seems to be getting worse, with a bombing aimed at Vice President Cheney showing how bold and capable the Taliban remains. They control sections of the south and seem to be gaining strength. In Iraq despite continued hope from the Administration and the pro-war side, the situation on the ground is ugly. Sectarian violence was unleashed by the anarchy following the removal of Saddam, with an average of over 100 Iraqis killed each day.
So it seems evident that military power is actually a poor tool when dealing with difficult political situations. It works best when the goals are limited: liberating Kuwait from Iraq or South Korea from North Korea were rather successful. But when the goals get bigger -- to spread democracy, roll back Communism, force a country to accept a different arrangement for one of its provinces -- the task becomes more difficult if not impossible to achieve through military force. Moreover the disadvantages left in the wake of the use of force looks to be greater than the benefit gained, especially in obvious failures such as Vietnam and the attempt to take back North Korea. Even the success of 1991 is marred with long term negative consequences. The politicians and leaders in the US need to seriously rethink their assumptions about the usefulness of military force as a foreign policy tool. One bad assumption can cause a host of problems. If one tries to solve the problem by questioning the strategy or tactics rather than altering the core assumptions, that can make matters worse. We need to do this before its too late, since reality has a way of punishing those who do not learn from their experiences.