Entries are in chronological order
January 12 - Back from Italia!
There is nothing more satisfying than teaching travel courses, and watching as students experience and learn about another culture and country for the first time. Our Italy trip included four faculty members (Art History, Music, Literature, and my Poli-Sci contribution), and 41 students, though the President of the university was one of the 41. It was a fantastic experience. I will likely be posting my travel journal soon, and blog entries this month will likely be inspired by ideas from that trip.
However, due to a lot of work to do before classes begin, as well as personal things to take care of, it'll probably be January 17th before I start my blog again on a daily basis. A few observations for now, however -- brief snippets -- about what has happened since my last blog entry.
1. Saddam's execution. It amazes me that everything about this "war" seems to end up going bad. Even the execution of Saddam, which one might think would be a boost to support for the President or the US role in Iraq, ends up being botched and creates a negative reaction.
2. Bush's plan: Wishful thinking does not make policy. Iraq's problems are structural and cannot be solved militarily. All this 'surge' means is more people will be killed and nothing really will change, except perhaps Bush can find a 'peace with honor' moment to get out before the 2008 election cycle. Still, it must be hard for an administration to admit they were wrong, especially after it has cost so much in terms of life and resources.
3. The Democrats in Congress: It is good there will be actual oversight, and real debate. The Democrats have to find a set of core values and ideals that will create a compelling message to the American people. To do this, they have to shift from a focus on special interest groups and traditional "liberal" ideals, and embrace creative approaches that don't just throw money at problems or increase the size and scope of government. The balance of power is with the centrists, hopefully creative centrists, not just 'compromisers.'
Now it is back to reality, and a lot of work to do before the semester starts next week. So check back on the 17th, I plan to start regular blogging at that point.
January 17 - A Peace With Honor moment?
President Richard M. Nixon's campaign slogan on Vietnam was "peace with honor." In other words, end the war, but do so in a way that wasn't humiliating to the United States. He did that in part by diplomatically bypassing N. Vietnam and dealing with China and the USSR, and in part by increasing bombing while removing troops. This created a situation where the US could sign a peace treaty and save face. It was an illusion -- the north easily took the south in 1975 -- but Nixon believed it important to have a face saving end to US involvement in the war. President Bush may be attempting to create his own 'peace with honor' moment.
President Bush last week launched a supposed “new way forward” for Iraq, including a surge of 21,000 American troops, bringing the level roughly to the number of troops in Iraq just over a year ago (thus not much of a surge). The plan is for these troops to help bring stability to Baghdad, focusing on the Sunni insurgents and the small pockets of “al qaeda in Iraq.” Meanwhile the Iraqi government vows to deal with Shi’ite militias, including al-Sadr’s Mahdi army. It appears the US will not be confronting the Mahdi army directly, because to do so would require far greater troop levels, and would be extremely dangerous and deadly.
This is not a strategy to “win” in Iraq; perhaps the realization has hit that the situation there is not something that can yield a victory. The US won the war in 2003, the process of bringing stability to a divided state with authoritarian traditions is not something that you can win win military power. Moreover, the insurgents have time on their side. As the assault on Fallujah showed, insurgents tend not to take a stand against the military, but melt away, only to fight on their terms another day. With the elections and opinion polls showing a clear desire of Americans to disengage from Iraq, and even Republicans increasingly critical of the Administration, why does Bush want to increase troops? Does he simply not care about the public, and is he in denial about the reality in Iraq? Perhaps, but this could also be designed to create a Nixonion “peace with honor" moment. Not a victory, but a retreat in conditions that appear to have avoided defeat.
The US can’t rely on the Iraqis. Insurgents from all groups have infiltrated every level of government, the police and the new Iraqi military. There are no secrets, every insurgent group and militia knows what’s happening and when. Most have allies that have some role in the implementation of policy. But it could be that Prime Minister al-Maliki has his own plan, in league with Shi’ite militias.
Maliki came to office with the backing of Muqtada al Sadr, seen by Americans as one of the most dangerous figures in Iraq, leading the Mahdi army militia (though his control over his militia may be fraying). Maliki has been loathe to act against al Sadr, and has even prevented American action against the Mahdi army. Sadr wants the Americans out, and increasingly Maliki and the Iraqi government realize that unless the Americans go, their ability to be seen as something other than puppets to the “colonial masters” is non-existent. They need the US to go. Moreover, the Shi’ites are a majority in Iraq, the Sunni insurgents a small minority, they likely feel confident that they can govern without US military support.
So what if Maliki and al-Sadr decided to give the Americans a face saving way out? Surge troops to somehow win some stability. This would be directed at Sunni nationalists and al qaeda, two groups opposed by most Shi’ites and al Sadr. At the same time the Iraqi military will claim success against the Shi’ite militias. Those loyal to the political leaders will simply blend into the social scenery. The Iraqi military will have no massive disarmament campaign or battles, but simply claim success at establishing control. The militias will, in other words, become invisible for awhile.
At that point of relative calm, perhaps after victories over Sunni groups in various parts of Baghdad, President Bush will claim that the surge worked, and now the Iraqis are in a position to handle security. It won’t be easy, and the US may have to provide assistance at times, but a major US presence is no longer needed. Indeed, the Iraqis may demand the US start leaving. Over time, the militias will reappear, fights between Shi’ites and Sunnis will continue, and ultimately the situation will play itself out as it must. But at least the US will be gone. In the US it will be clear that Iraq was not only a failure, but a mission that was ill thought out and unnecessary. The US will be leaving en masse by 2008, and the Presidential candidates who are successful (early bet: Obama or Edwards vs. Huckabee) will be those who can distance themselves from the difficult Iraq debates. In some ways 2008 may be like 1976, with the country yearning for a new direction.
Perhaps President Bush needs a face saving way out. Admitting that the killing and dying was in vain and for no good cause is very difficult. President Bush, like LBJ in the Vietnam era, would be accepting moral culpability for a lot of needless death and suffering. And if this can get us extricated from the Iraq fiasco, then we have to hope it works. Still, a lot more Americans and Iraqis will die because of this policy choice. I do not think those deaths are necessary, and it’s yet another example of how politicians play with lives, rationalizing it with politics, strategy, and ambition. I would rather save lives than save face.
January 18 - Meanwhile in Iran...
Although you won't hear much about this from those who demonize Iran, the fact that it is a democracy (albeit a limited one) is creating interesting political developments. President Ahmadinejad, who many in this country consider very dangerous, and whose rather wild rhetoric is paraded as an example of what Iranian intentions are, continues to find himself under attack and weakened. Not only did his fundamentalist allies lose big in elections last month (essentially assuring that there won't be a radical fundamentalist as the next Supreme Leader of the Guardian Council, and weakening the fundamentalist grip on government), but he is facing an internal revolt by even conservatives against his policies.
Ahmadinejad has failed to deliver on his economic promises, meaning unemployment and a stagnant economy remain major problems. The game of nuclear chicken he is playing with the West strikes some as being an unnecessary distraction while Iran has to deal with internal difficulties. Moreover, within Iran there is a sense that Ahmadinejad could overplay Iran's new position of power and create a constellation of Sunni Arab states willing to engage in punitive actions against them.
In a weird way, Ahmadinejad can be compared to President Bush. Like Bush, he sees himself on a mission which he considers self-evidently good: to fight against western influences in the Islamic world, and rekindle religious piety. Like Bush, he is over estimating his power, and the ability and willingness of other actors to do things to stymie his efforts. Like Bush, he misread his popularity (for Bush it was after 9-11, for Ahmadinejad it was in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq) while Iranians were in a patriotic fervor, and has not done much to prevent approval for his Presidency from plummeting. Like Bush he has engaged in unnecessarily provocative rhetoric: are threats by Bush against the 'axis of evil' really fundamentally less provocative than statements Ahmadinejad has made about Israel?
Iranian intellectuals are especially put off by Ahmadinejad's anti-intellectual populism (this includes Islamic conservative intellectuals), and many believe that the goal of becoming a major regional power with valuable connections to China and Russia is being endangered by needless provcation of the Americans and the Sunni Arab world. After all, America is a in quagmire in Iraq, and Iran doesn't really need to kick mud in our faces. Iran is gaining a fellow Shi'ite state as an ally in the new Iraq, there is no need to do things that create fear in the Sunni Arab world. Yes, they need nuclear energy for a long term modern economy, but the EU and Russia have given them options to do that without confronting world opinion. Why not accept it and gain the trust, business deals, and support of neighbors (and undercut US efforts to build a coalition against them)?
It is true that Iran's pursuit of nuclear power is not fundamentally different than Israel's successful acquisition of nuclear weapons. One can understand the Iranians believing they are being subject to a double standard, and that as long as they lack a deterrent, their status as a true regional power can be questioned. But most Iranians care little about Israel; Iranians are not Arab.
So the pressure is building for Ahmadinejad to stop being bombastic in foreign affairs and to focus more on problems at home. I suspect that pressure will work; the President of Iran is not any kind of dictatorial post, and there is even talk of impeachment. But if the US were to attack Iran or Iranian facilities, all bets are off. Ahmadinejad could again play the nationalist card, and use anger at the US (which would be similar to the anger Americans felt on 9-11) to regain support. But as it is, we need to recognize the complexity of Iran's political system, and the diverse views that have clout there. A simplistic "Iran evil" view that far too many pundits and politicians espouse is dead wrong.
January 19 - Afghan surge
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates apparently is ready to ask for more troops to combat an expected Taliban offensive in the coming months. Under Secretary Rumsfeld, Afghanistan was almost a taboo subject. People knew things were going bad, but didn't want to put the problems in Afghanistan in full public view. Not only would that highlight the fact that we chose to go to war against Iraq before Afghanistan was really stable, but also raise doubts about the whole war on terror. Since Afghanistan was a NATO effort, the idea appeared to have been to let the Europeans bare responsibility for it and the US would keep its distance. But that, of course, was untenable for the long run. Now we're hearing about the problems commanders in the field were forced to be quiet about in the past, and there is a new openness about just how little our ally Pakistan is doing or perhaps can do against the Taliban and al qaeda.
The problem is that the Europeans have been unwilling to take the responsibility for Afghanistan that the US hoped they would. In part it is because they lack the capacity, given the myriad of different NATO and peace keeping missions European states are involved in, but it is also in part because of the unpopularity of the US and America's war in Iraq. The feeling by a lot of Europeans is that more European involvement in Afghanistan directly aids the US effort in Iraq. So while massive air power helped stop the last Taliban offensive, there is real fear that the movement is gaining strength and support. They are also being funded by a huge opium industry which has re-emerged in Afghanistan. The 30,000 or so troops there now are not enough to do more than put out fires, especially since a majority of them are not where the Taliban is growing strong, and European states are unwilling to redeploy to those dangerous regions (see the blog entry of November 29th 'Losing Afghanistan' for a bit more on that).
The good news is that reality is also finally being recognized concerning the problems in Afghanistan, and Gates is listening to his commanders in the field and not trying to dismiss the problems. But how much can the US really do? With a surge in Iraq already straining an already stretched to the extreme military, where will we find large numbers of troops for Afghanistan? One hope may be that any kind of surge would pressure the Europeans to add to their forces as well. They may, but it is unlikely that it will be significant -- politically that's a hard sell in most of Europe, and they don't have troops to spare either.
Ultimately if Afghanistan is going to be stabilized, and if the resurgence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda is to be stopped, the US has to shift its focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, and deal with a very difficult and delicate situation. Iraq is simply a case where the extremists can bleed the US of people and resources without much cost to themselves. Iraq, again, was a gift to the Islamic extremists, instead of fighting them we're fighting Sunni and Shi'ite nationalists whose ambitions concern Iraq, not terror plots against the US. Instead of undercutting Islamic extremism, we're giving it stories from Abu Ghraib to Haditha that help it recruit, and we hurl massive resources in a failing reconstruction effort. From a strategic national interest point alone we need to extricate ourselves from Iraq.
If President Bush does manage to create a "peace with honor" moment and start pulling out of Iraq by late 2007, that may free troops up for Afghanistan where the stakes are higher. Yet if we've learned one thing since 9-11-01, terrorism and Islamic extremism cannot be defeated by war and military action. Just focusing on stopping Taliban advances isn't enough. Trying to pressure Pakistan isn't effective either, since too much pressure might topple the regime and bring in one far less friendly to the US. The US needs nothing short of a complete change in tactics to move from an ill conceived 'war on terror' to a true global counter terrorism campaign, aimed at undercutting terror at its roots. That means positive engagement with the Islamic world rather than making it seem like we're seeking a 'clash of civilizations.'
2006 may be the year we finally woke up to reality in Iraq, but the problems and stakes of the on going battles in Afghanistan still are mostly hidden and ignored. That cannot continue. Iraq has been a costly distraction in dealing with the problems of terrorism and Islamic extremism. Afghanistan cannot continue to be ignored. A surge won't solve the problems there, but at least people are taking Afghanistan seriously again.
January 23 - Emotion trumps reason
The Nazis of Germany learned early that emotion matters more than reason in politics. Instead of trying to debate issues, you go after individuals, you demonize opponents, and you mesh political disagreement with personal animosity. The result is that politics is less about compromise and debate, and more about trying to promote ones’ own alleged good vs. the supposed evil that the other side represents.
Unfortunately, Goebbels’ lesson seems to have been learned, ironically, by conservative hawks who support Israel. The latest victim of these attacks: Jimmy Carter. Carter is, however, so established and respected such tactics are sure to fail; the attackers appear shrill and frustrated. Yet the effort to go after even someone as respected as Jimmy Carter, to label him anti-Semitic (often with claims that he somehow has an early Christian animus towards Judaism) shows just how irrational, dishonest, and bizarre this effort has become.
Carter wrote a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, taking a balanced approach, recognizing that each side believes they have a strong case, and how this has been used to justify atrocities on each side. He sets a plan for potentially ending this conflict, recognizing that in such a difficult situation, you need to take seriously the vastly different understandings of the conflict.
This, for some, is unacceptable. For a group of pundits and media types, any blame given to Israel, any understanding of the Palestinian plight is unforgivable. Israel is only to be portrayed as a democratic and free state forced to defend itself against terrorists and Islamic extremists. Israel is a victim of suicide bombs and coordinated groups like Hezbollah. Any criticism of Israel is thus received as somehow supporting or justifying the actions of anti-Semitic extremists. Yet because a reasoned argument runs into tough facts: more innocent Palestinians die than Israelis, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza have denied basic economic and political rights to the Palestinians, that Jewish settlements in the occupied lands receive far more water and other necessities than the occupied territories, and that Palestinians are often subjected to humiliation and abuse. So rather than wade into the difficult and complex issue of why both sides distrust the other side, and what underlies the conflict, it's easier to engage in personal attacks and efforts to destroy and assault the individual who dares to question Israel’s rightness in the conflict. Carter’s book was, for this small group, reason to go to war, to try to demonize, insult, and attack Carter personally, even if their evidence is non-existent.
The attacks range from the idiotic to the bizarre. The idiotic attacks simply go after Carter’s Presidency and suggest that somehow, since Carter had a difficult Presidency, he should be ignored now. That is, of course, illogical. Moreover, while I agree that Carter was not an especially good President, many of his problems would have stymied any President; he was, in a sense, a victim of the times. Then they simply hurl insults at Carter for his willingness to speak up against American foreign policy choices. The derision is intense, as they try to paint Carter as inept, anti-American, treasonous, or stupid. Yet this effort, while impotent against Carter, demonstrates a mindset that is fundamentally un-American and dangerous to our polity. It also weakens the charge of anti-Semitism, making it just another political attack that gets thrown out in a debate about foreign policy. The only people who welcome that are the true anti-Semites.
The idea that you go after people personally instead of addressing the content of their argument is tempting if you are sure you're right, but feel that the complexity of the argument will benefit the other side. Such an approach is political jihad, it's fighting for ones' conviction with the idea that anything goes, it is a holy war. That is, however, contrary to the essential core of democratic debate, and leads to situations where on very important issues, real discussion is lost in the emotion of name calling and animus.
And that brings us to Goebbels. Why on earth would I make a comparison to Goebbels and the Nazis? Even if the tactics are similar, these tactics have been used many times by many emotion-driven political movements, why choose the one that is most likely to anger or offend Jewish people? Indeed, that is precisely the kind of thing I argue against above, am I not being hypocritical in making such a comparison? The answer: yes, it is wrong to make a comparison to Goebbels since that adds emotion rather than understanding. It is precisely the thing I argue against in this post. The reason I do it here is to demonstrate where this goes when you take the kind of tactic they Cater attackers take. It's hard to argue against emotion-driven politics with a simple appeal to reason -- that's easily brushed aside by some snide "politics isn't like Mr. Rogers' neighborhood" comment. So I provide an example of how this can devolve.
The choice is this: a) have supporters of Israel attack those who criticize Israeli policy as anti-Semitic, insulting and attacking them, with those opposing Israeli policy comparing their occupation and tactics used to defend policy as Nazi like (something Iranian President Ahmadinejad has done); or b) recognize that both sides are committing acts of violence that kill innocents, and both sides have a list of grievances that are legitimate. Neither side is blameless, but if they solve this both sides can benefit. The latter does not sit well for hawks and hardliners in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps. But it's the only way to a real solution, and it's precisely what Jimmy Carter is promoting.
January 24 - Imagination
According to CNN a "smoking gun" report on global warming will soon be released which paints a dire picture of the future. President Bush, long skeptical of global climate change, mentioned it in his state of the union address as a serious challenge, calling on Americans to cut gas consumption by 20% in ten years. Reality is setting in on global warming; the deniers and skeptics are being persuaded that this isn't just some leftist scare tactic. But, as with Iraq, recognizing reality isn't the same as dealing with it. And unlike Iraq, this problem is going to be something far more serious and difficult in the long term.
You can click the link to the article to read all the details, I'm not going to blog about all the horrible things that could be happening in the near future due to global warming. Instead, I want to continue on a theme I've mentioned many times: the conflict between partisan or ideology based understandings of reality, and attempts to be as objective as possible. In some ways, though, I think the difficulty people have confronting reality is understandable. We are going through a transition that is dramatic and historic. This era may well be remembered as one of the most significant in human history, and it's hard to come to grips with what it means. Old ways of thinking are becoming obsolete, yet we humans try to hang on to familiar patterns of thought.
Consider: global climate change may alter the very nature of the planet's environment, leading to famines, economic disaster, and a restructuring of our way of life in a manner almost unimaginable. The fossil fuel era will end; cheap and plentiful energy may become a memory. Meanwhile changes in technology and weaponry are rendering American military power less potent. We can defeat armies, we can nuke a country into oblivion, but we can't deal with issues like immigration, insurgencies in distant lands, various extremist ideologies, and challenges to our economic might from states like China and India.
In short, the world 100 years from now will not be like it is today, or like what our expectations are. We will have to deal with challenges and problems that make those of the past seem minor. The challenge is how to find a way to break out of the ideological constraints that define political competition. Ideologies emerge in part to conform to the interests of societal groups. Liberalism (meaning in ideological terms a belief in limited government and natural rights to life, liberty and property) reflected the interests of a growing middle class, and a rationale for moving away from aristocratic rule and towards market economies. Socialism emerged reflecting the interests of the emerging working class, and recently ideologies like egologism and feminism reflect other interests and ideas. These ideologies, however, are posited not as ways of interpreting reality with an emphasis on the goals of particular groups, but as universal truths. That means that people often internalize these ways of understanding reality and simply interpret all through that belief system. These solidifies ideological faith in the minds of people, and causes both an inability to be self-critical, and a sense of distrust of other ideological perspectives.
As our current system slowly falls apart -- hopefully a stable transition, but potentially a chaotic and violent one -- it will be difficult to let go of old ways of understanding reality and come to grips with what's happening. Global climate change is a classic example -- despite evidence numerous people have consistently searched for any argument or evidence that would say that this is a myth, or once that became difficult, that human activity was not relevant. The ability to deny reality and hold on to ideology lasted decades, and many still aren't letting go. This isn't something that is limited to right or left, most people are stuck in a way fo thinking about and understanding the world that will not be adequate to cope with the changes that lie ahead.
The solution has to start, I think, with education, and the hope is with young people who aren't yet locked into an ideological "faith." Imagination is required, an ability to reject past ideas and cope honestly with reality, not seeking simply to hold on to ones' own views. And, ironically, President Bush's speech last night gave me some hope. Perhaps he was driven by political necessity, but calling for conservation and mentioning the serious challenge of global climate change is a move away from his rhetoric of the past. Perhaps that's a sign that people are starting to recognize that we're dealing with a very different world than we were expecting right after the Cold War ended. But slowly coming around to reality is just the start. Now, more than ever, we need imaginative and innovative thinking.
January 26 - What globalization really means
So far the word 'globalization' has been associated primarily with free trade. From one perspective this is expanding the world economy and generating cheaper (albeit also lower quality) goods. From another it's outsourcing jobs to the third world and turning America into a service economy, which ultimately is unsustainable. That debate can continue, and the reality is complex, with both sides being right about some things.
But globalization is, in reality, a transformation of the international system based on revolutions in technology and information. This transformation is so profound and penetrates so deeply into the fabric of world politics that it cannot help but yield a very different kind of international system in relatively short order. Besides the environmental issues alluded to in the previous entry, globalization is fundamentally altering the nature of sovereignty, warfare, nationhood, identity, political competition, governance and culture. We do not yet know where this will lead, and in some ways even the severe problems discussed in the previous blog (global warming, Iraq, a possible fossil fuel crisis) distract us from the changes taking place.
One issue already being noticed is immigration. This includes immigration by Mexicans into the US, but also by northern Africans into Europe, and potentially increased immigration from overpopulated Asian states elsewhere. Travel is easier, and more importantly knowledge about what kinds of opportunities might await someone who chooses to move is much greater. This will create a cultural mix which could be volatile. Think not just of the 'battles' in the American southwest, but the difficulties Europeans have with their growing Muslim population, or the potential impact major famines could have in driving Africans north. While some want to "build a fence," and somehow freeze in place current cultural realities, that ultimately won't work. The future will find populations and cultures mix. This will lead to conflict, there will be nationalist and xenophobic reactions, but unless an energy crisis renders travel prohibitively expensive this movement of peoples means that our world will be fundamentally different in the future.
Another issue is political and governmental power. In the United States political competition has become all about money, special interests, and campaign sound bites. Candidates are treated as a commodity to be sold, and voters are the buyers. As with any product, quality matters, but marketing matters more. Still, there may be high tech ways around this. Candidates might blog their private thoughts and ideas (though most campaign managers would want that heavily edited or even ghost written), and voters have more access to information. Alas, most political blogs are crap -- whether left, right or some other persuasion they are more about simply defending an already determined perspective. People read like minded blogs, and then create a dynamic where it's war against "the others." That feeds into the process of not only partisanship, but ideology-driven understandings of reality that serve to close peoples' eyes rather than open them.
Beyond that, there is a big issue of whether or not government will be empowered by these changes, infringing ever more on individual autonomy, or if the new technologies will better empower individuals to promote their own rights and interests? Early in this process the answer seems mixed; in western democracies government seems to be becoming more intrusive and expansive, but in authoritarian societies the information and technology revolution makes it harder for governments to control people.
And what's the future of the state? While we in America think sovereignty is fundamental, the state was imposed on much of the world by colonizers, and often is a legal fiction for a polity divided along ethnic and linguistic grounds. In Europe states have voluntarily ceded sovereignty to an international organization that is more than a typical IO, but less than a real state. Globalization is more than free trade or job outsourcing. It is part of a process of historic transformation which has been building for decades, even centuries, but now is at a tipping point. The Iraq debacle shows that in issues of war and super power politics, the old calculus doesn't work -- even the world's major super power has trouble shaping events. So onward into a future. We live in interesting times.
January 29 - Why Iraq Cannot be “Won”
The short, to the point, answer to why the world’s largest superpower cannot win Iraq, a relatively small chaotic state, is that the notion of “winning” in Iraq is completely off base. The war against Iraq is over. The United States easily defeated the Iraqi army, liquidated it, arrested Iraq’s leader (who was later executed) and imposed a de-baathification process to destroy the ruling party. Elections put the majority Shi’ites into power and the US determined that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, nor could they acquire them in any foreseeable future.
That’s victory. That’s all you can get when you’re an outside power invading a smaller state. What is happening in Iraq now was predictable and predicted. Iraq did not and does not have a political culture to support a stable democracy, and the sectarian hatreds that the kind of intense violence of the last four years kindles do not go away easily. Iraq will remain in turmoil, and the US cannot fix it; these issues cannot be solved by military force, it is not a war. Treating it like a war – something both the administration and opposition do – creates a false sense of what the problem is. It means that the opposition is charged to come up with a “better plan” to “win,” or else be blamed for the aftermath. But if no plan can fix this -- then isn't it best just to oppose what's happening? The administration cannot come up with anything that can win, and while some think it's because of incompetence or mistakes made, it could be that they simply create conditions beyond their control.. They deserve blame for unleashing the chaos and conflict, but nothing they could have done since would have prevented it. Both sides want something that is non-existent: some kind of way to leave Iraq better off. The reality is that this is out of our hands.
It would take maybe 500,000 troops to really make a difference, something that is utterly outside the political realm of possibility. Even then it may be only enough to quiet the fighting for awhile, or else we might accept a strong man dictator who would rule by brutal repression, and keep stability. In other words, another Saddam (but perhaps one not as sociopathic…one hopes.)
So face it: this “war” cannot be won, in large part because it isn’t really a war. The military will fail because it’s not the kind of job our military was designed to be able to accomplish (not the fault of the military, but of the politicians). The roots of the conflict are not in bad leaders or militias, but deep in the culture and history of Iraq, going back to the Ottoman Empire and the colonial aftermath. We are experiencing what the British experienced before WWII; Iraq isn’t a place one can control or expect to be like a western state. Democrats and Republicans have to face up to this reality. Some, like Chuck Hagel, seems to have that kind of foresight. Others, like Joe Biden, still search for plan.
The current escalation or "surge" may create what I called a ‘peace with honor’ moment. US action is so far primarily anti-Sunni, and the strong support anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr gives the government plan to crack down suggests his militia will just melt into the crowd, wait for the US to leave (enjoying the fact the US is doing its best to weaken their Sunni opponents) and then re-emerge. Perhaps late this year a mix of a weakened Sunni insurgency stopping to regroup with an “in hiding” set of Shi’ite militias waiting for the US to leave so they can re-assert themselves will give President Bush a moment to say “things have calmed, it’s up to the Iraqis to keep it that way." When they don’t, the President will wash his hands of anything that happened next.
But only one thing could have really prevented this: a choice by the United States in March 2003 to let weapons inspectors keep working, and work on trying to contain Iraq (which was pretty easy) and hope the future leaders would bring about slow change. The choices made have led to hundreds of thousands of death, an America weakened and no longer feared or respected, and some very hard years ahead.
January 31 - Pol Pot and Leo Tolstoy
In World Politics we just got done with the Cambodia case, which I use to open that class every time. Pol Pot believed that western ideas and "civilization" had destroyed the true Cambodian way of life, which was embodied in the ideas and natural communism of the simple peasant. Rarely does Pol Pot get compared to Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist who became a pacifist and vegetarian and even a hermit towards the end of his life, but Tolstoy made similar arguments. To Tolstoy, goodness and truth is found in simplicity and nature. Civilization takes the spirit away from its natural essence, and creates greed, insecurity, a willingness to do evil, and a disconnect between the soul and the self. Tolstoy ultimately developed his own form of Christianity (even writing his own gospel to consolidate the four traditional ones) where Jesus was not divine, but a wise man in touch with his nature and able to see through the artificial constructs of civilization. Rather than mysticism, his Christianity was based on a natural humanism. Tolstoy also saw the peasant as closer to nature, and would by the end of his life only wear peasants clothes and in fact renounce his own property.
Unlike Tolstoy, who focused on self-perfection and persuasion rather than efforts to force change on others, Pol Pot saw his mission as eradicating the evil influences of civilization and trying to reconnect with a mythical Cambodian past. To him, persuasion and self-absorption was not enough, he wanted to change the world, following the spirit of Lenin rather than Tolstoy. Of course, if civilization is the poison, then trying to cleanse society means eliminating civilization as we know it and starting over; Pol Pot called the first year of Khmer Rouge power "year zero." And since civilization is not a material edifice which can be destroyed, but rather a set of beliefs and understandings learned by people in a culture and reproduced through behavior based on those beliefs, Pol Pot inevitably found it necessary to kill people who he thought were unable to disconnect from those past beliefs. Such people were corrupted, unable to return to their natural selves. Their lives were devoid of true meaning, but their actions could destroy efforts to create a true, natural society.
Pol Pot embraced ideology; he was a Communist, with his particular and peculiar agrarian/nationalist form of communism. Tolstoy did the opposite. When his ideas attracted followers, Tolstoyians, Tolstoy noted "I am Tolstoy, but I am not a Tolstoyian." He had no desire to try to create a political movement; indeed he ultimately focused more on trying to himself live to his ideals. Self-redemption was more important than trying to change the world. While this could elicit a charge that he was being too self-absorbed when there was real work to be done to help real people, that argument seems weak given the power his novels have had in the real world. Certainly he has contributed greatly to the civilization he distrusted.
I certainly don't embrace Tolstoy's rejection of civilization, which ultimately led him to become something of a hermit and die in a train station as he was setting out to roam Russia. He even wanted to give away all his possessions to the poor, though his family finally convinced him to give them the material objects Tolstoy rejected. His effort at self-perfection was, I believe misguided due to flaws in his philosophy and perhaps even in his psychology. Yet the comparison of Tolstoy to Pol Pot yields I think a few lessons.
First, while most people attack different ideologies as themselves being evil (the right attacks socialism, the left attacks fascism, etc.), it really is the belief that one should use force and any means necessary to actualize their ideological vision which creates a propensity for evil. With Tolstoy there seems something noble about his belief in a corrupt civilization, with Pol Pot it is viewed as a dangerous and even delusional belief. Yet one is admired and the other condemned not for their beliefs per se, but how they choose to act upon them. If one takes ideology so seriously that it becomes a secular religion, the path towards evil is enticing -- the ends appear to justify the means. If one considers ones' beliefs about the world as an always changing and uncertain set of "best guesses at this time," then one must be humble in trying to change the world to adhere to ones' own ideals. Helping real people who have real needs becomes more important than the fight for a larger political cause. Yet those fighting for a larger political cause believe that helping "real people with real needs" doesn't do enough, given the scope of the problem.
Second, I think there is something to this argument that we need to look more towards nature to get a sense of ethics and morality, and the distrust Tolstoy and even Pol Pot had towards civilization has within it a grain of truth. I will develop that idea in a future blog (tomorrow or sometime next week).
Finally, never estimate the power of ideas over the power of action. Whether one is a Christian or not, one can't deny that Jesus - a martyr who was killed by the Romans - ultimately had a powerful impact on the world through his ideas (and, of course, often a perversion of his ideas). Tolstoy put ideas in the world; at the end of the movie The Killing Fields John Lennon's timeless "Imagine" continues to inspire people to think about what the world could be. Ideas may not directly feed and clothe others, but education and ideas have their own power. Moreover people act on the basis of ideas, either for good or evil. Tolstoy would probably argue that ideas may be powerful, but only ideas which are true have power for good, and those ideas can only be found in nature. Does nature give us a guide to understanding truth, and if so how do we keep it from being corrupted by our modern, daily, artificial world?