Blogs are in chronological order
July 2 - Happiness
The best thing about having a small number of students in a summer course is that you can get some really good discussions. Today's discussion was about alternate theories of development, but ended up with an interesting exchange about happiness and development. Rather than let that discussion be forgotten as the course goes on, I'll put it in my blog -- at least I'll try to summarize it.
We were comparing the two dominant theories of development: neo-liberalism (the 'Washington consensus), which has been the dominant theory among the elites and western institutions, and various structural theories, inspired mostly by neo-Marxian thought. Neo-liberal theories argue that the way to develop is to modernize third world states so they can attract investment from the developed world. The argument is straight forward: to develop industry you need capital. The only way to get capital is to have it come from the outside; the first world has the wealth. The only way to get first world investment is to embrace markets, keep your currency strong, taxes low, and to build an infrastructure. This formula is reflected in the three major western institutions. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) helps keep currencies stable by providing loans to avoid currency devaluation, the World Bank gives loans to build infrastructure, and the WTO has rules to promote free trade. Third world countries which play by the rules are rewarded with aid and assistance in developing.
There are many arguments against neo-liberalism: IMF loans are tied to conditions which hurt the poor in order to keep the climate good for first world investors, World Bank projects have yielded numerous 'white elephants' and have not brought investment, and free trade tends to focus on keeping first world access to raw materials rather than enhance third world export development. Moreover the investments that come in are usually geared towards making profits for first world corporations and enhancing the lifestyles of first world consumers. Corrupt governments in third world states benefit from this, and thus do not try to alter the nature of the relationship. The result is that neo-liberal policy has failed in much of the third world, and in fact may have helped solidify corrupt, authoritarian regimes. The neo-liberal response to all these arguments can be summed up in one acronym: TINA. There is no alternative. How else can third world states develop?
Neo-Marxian theories start from the critiques above and say that the current political economy is structured to have the third world support the first world by providing cheap labor and raw materials. The liberal path to development followed by the West won't work for the third world since the West was developing at its own pace for its own interests. The third world is developing to serve outside interests (big corporations, and first world consumers). Some say that the only way out is to alter the structure of the system: only a collapse of the western economy can truly herald real possibilities for third world development. Others say that third world states have to break out of the system and develop their own approach.
But there are numerous arguments against this as well. When theory becomes action, it tends to involve governments of third world states trying to plan development in a way guided by socialist ideology. This has historically led to three problems: a) ideology too often rationalizes atrocities, such as Pol Pot's belief that ridding Cambodia of western ideas was necessary to create a socialist utopia; b) government planning is far more prone to error than markets are, such as Mao's Great Leap Forward causing a famine involving 30 million people; and c) rulers will use the power socialist ideology gives to the government in order to expand their personal 'cult of personality' -- Stalin or Saddam are examples of this. The result, of course, is that socialist paths to development have failed as well. There does seem to be no alternative.
But, as one student pointed out, both of these theories start with a very basic assumption: the goal is material development as economic growth. Is that really the right goal? In cases where sweat shops and environment/culture altering development take place, a lot is lost as people go from being part of a close knit community or clan to being cogs in an economic machine. Shouldn't the focus be on quality of life factors, and happiness?
Who is to say that people in third world states are happier if they have an industrialized society? And might it not be the case that at least if basic needs are met, people who have a rich life involving relations between friends and an extended family might not be happier than big city western executives who are often stressed out, anxious, depressed, or have little time for anything but work? Is our western disconnect with family and community ties in favor of material consumption actually hurting us? Addicted to our consumption we think we have it good, and believe that those who don't consume like we do must be unable to have rewarding fulfilling lives. Perhaps that's why Rwanda's genocide was so easy to ignore -- we put value on life based on consumption. After all, the wealthiest families got the best settlement for 9-11 victims because the wealthy were likely to earn more during the rest of their lives than the poor.
To be sure, that doesn't mean neglect the third world. Western colonialism destroyed the earlier political culture, and Cold War politics using third world states as pawns militarized vast regions, setting up current violence. In many areas not even the basic needs are being met. Our involvement has been self-serving, however. We say we're helping them, but the result is mostly just a clear flow of raw materials and cheap labor to better our lives, while only a small subsection of third world societies benefit. I'll end for today, but expect future entries based in part on class discussion on this issue. The bottom line: Perhaps we need to rethink the very notion of development, looking not at material growth as the benchmark, but quality of life and, though it may sound a bit hokey, happiness.
July 3 - Nationalist delusion?
Tomorrow we will see flags, patriotic songs, and nationalist symbolism all around. For as long as I can remember, I’ve not partook in the kind of worship of the state that nationalism entails. Perhaps I’m too libertarian at heart, or maybe it’s just the study of European politics, but I am unease with expressing pride in my country or saying things like “USA #1” or “God bless the USA.”
That said, I’m not anti-American, nor do I begrudge those who find comfort and pride in such celebrations. I do not wish ill on my country; indeed, with two sons I hope the future of this land is full of opportunity and joy. I also hold the ideals of the Constitution in reverence, they express ideals of individual liberty, human rights, and limited government. I’m also thrilled that most of Europe and much of the rest of the world has embraced these ideas. After all, even though the US was the first to really make them the basis of government, the core values originated in Europe, particularly France and Great Britain. I also think it is commendable that we’ve made progress in trying to define an identity that is not ethnic but rather based on ideals. Very few doubt that an Asian, Muslim or Black can be a true American. Europeans still haven’t overcome that problem, even in the most tolerant countries.
Nationalism, however, has a dark side, and it’s one that I fear we often drift into without realizing what we’re doing. We spend half the world’s military budget, we are often self-righteous in thinking its OK for us to determine what’s best for others, while we do not allow anyone to try to dictate their terms to us. That double standard is not new in history. It is the same double standard that Napoleon used to get the French to support expansion in the early 19th century. France had the greatest culture, ideas, and governance on the planet, why not spread civilization and the gains of the revolution? Nationalism fueled our expansion over the continent, destroying other cultures in what would now be described as a genocide, predicated on the idea that our way of life is superior to those of the “savages” occupying what Americans believe God intended for our control. Many still believe that today, a kind of messianic spirit promotes an aggressive and often violent foreign and sometimes domestic policy.
In 1895 Charles Eliot Norton said (quoted in Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower, p. 140): "I fear that America is beginning a long course of error and wrong and is likely to become more and more a power for disturbance and barbarism..." He was responding to the rise of imperialism, and reacted to the Spanish-American war and the jingoism of the day with the following (page 167): “I reach one conclusion, that I have been too much of an idealist about America, had set my hopes too high, had formed too fair an image of what she might become. Never had a nation such an opportunity; she was the hope of the world. Never again will any nation have her chance to raise the standard of civilization.”
It’s easy to dismiss Norton; after all, the US was on the side against barbarism in WWI and WWII, and the imperialist argument that prevailed at the turn of the 20th century gave way to isolationism and anti-imperialism later – something many consider to have been a mistake. Yet in another way, Norton has a point. The US has become a world power, very militaristic in comparison to other developed countries, willing to use force in Iraq and Kosovo, with threats to use force against Iran. Is this necessary?
I submit that we have too often been deluded by nationalism. Our belief in our inherent morality and that our way of life is best, combined with an ideology we consider applicable to every culture and society, has led us to rationalize double standards and violence. Growing up in South Dakota I was struck by how I was living on conquered territory. Much like a Roman living in northern Gaul (trying to defeat that pesky village of Asterix and Obelix), I was on land which in the not too distant past was the home of another great nation, living in peace and prosperity. Yet few really thought of it that way, few were bothered by it. Indeed, my thinking arose out of a fascination with Gen. George Armstrong Custer, known for his famous “last stand” at the battle of the Little Big Horn. In reading about Custer I came upon books that give the Sioux perspective, and in hit me like a ton of bricks that Custer was the bad guy. We were the invaders.
Now we don’t seem to understand why the Iraqis didn’t greet us as liberators, why Iranian moderates don’t want our help, or why Europeans don’t more fully support American efforts to spread liberty. As a country we express sorrow at massive civilian death in Afghan air strikes, but it doesn’t strike us that to average Afghans this arouses anger and sorrow much like what we felt on 9-11. Our deaths matter. Theirs don’t – or they should understand that we try to avoid civilian death and therefore they should accept it. We don’t understand the rise of anti-Americanism, even among past allies. A lot of students complain “we have problems at home, why are we trying to help everyone else in the world,” believing American global policy is simply an altruistic desire to help. After all, we’re Americans, what we do must be good.
So back to the flags, patriotic songs, and “god bless America.” Something about that exclusivity leaves me cold. I don’t love America, I love the ideals that this country stands for. I see those ideals expressed in the European Union, and by people throughout the world. By focusing on America as “the greatest” or “superior,” it’s easy to hold ourselves to a different standard than others, ignore double standards, and act in ways that don’t take into account the experience of others. So I’ll not be waving flags tomorrow. I’ll picnic, play with the kids, go the parade and have fun. I won’t be put off by the displays of patriotism, nor will I make any comments that might offend. I’ll just not partake of that part of the holiday. To quote the band Rush from “Territories” (off the CD Power Windows: “Better the pride that resides in a citizen of the world, then the pride that divides when a colorful rag is unfurled.
July 4 - (reposted from July 4, 2006): - American values: Ma, Pa, Laura, Mary and Carrie
When I was in high school and college July 4th meant work -- I'd always volunteer to work an 18 hour work day at the pizza parlor (Village Inn in Sioux Falls -- at that time the pizzeria with the most business in Sioux Falls, but since then it's closed) so others could enjoy the fourth. I'd get a lot of my hours in at once (meaning more days off) and if lucky, get some overtime pay. When I was younger it was a youth golf tournament at Westward Ho Country Club, followed by games and events, and culminated by going out in the countryside and shooting off loads of fireworks on some gravel road outside of town. South Dakota (unlike Maine) has very liberal fireworks laws, you could buy and shoot off almost anything. (It's still that way, though outside Sioux Falls the gravel roads are more crowded and you see other peoples' fireworks as well as your own.)
I don't consider myself patriotic, my outlook is cosmopolitan, I could be happy living in a variety of countries. I don't go for the flags and the red, white and blue themes. It gets tempting to treat Independence day like most holidays -- just a day off. Yet...there is something special about America, about our heritage, and our ideals. It's easy to lose sight of that in an era where our foreign policy has been aggressive and patriotism means flying flags, attacking the New York Times and spouting off nationalist rhetoric. But this country is special, and for that I look back to South Dakota.
North of Sioux Falls about sixty or so miles is the small town of De Smet. When I was in third grade I started saving my allowance (50 cents and later on a buck a week) to buy books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (they were less than $5 a book, hardback). I was just eight when I bought my first one (On the Banks of Plum Creek) and the people at Courtney's Books and Things would expect me every four weeks as I had saved up enough for the next book. I completed the collection in less than two years (my favorite: The Long Winter). The wonderful true stories of the Ingalls family moving from Wisconsin to Kansas, Minnesota, and finally being part of the group that founded De Smet stimulated my imagination. Laura wrote the books as children's books to tell her story of growing up in the 1870s and 1880s as part of one of those families who were moving west, on the frontier and ultimately homesteading. I was as a kid a true Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, those books (which still sit on my shelf, I'm glancing at them now) were perhaps one of the greatest outside influences on my thinking as I grew up. Besides coloring how I look at life, they even affected music I liked at the time (Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond, Laura by the Newbeats), and to this day my answer to the question "what historical figure would you most like to have dinner with" is Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Oh, I hated the TV show, they veered far too far from the real story).
I still re-read those books every few years. One thing I notice now, which I didn't at the time, is how utterly dirt poor they were, especially in the early books. They were living on less than the basics. Christmas was a few bits of candy sometimes, and even as she got older and the family was more settled, they still lived what we would consider on the edge of poverty. Mary caught scarlet fever and went blind. They barely survived the brutal winter of 1880-81. Yet in the stories her life seems magical and wonderful. Clearly they had something -- a close and loving family -- which added a richness that goes far beyond what material possessions can offer.
Pa, her dad, who loved to play the fiddle and one summer had to walk hundreds of miles away to work and earn enough money for the family to survive, hated to be closed in, and constantly was on the move to strike out somewhere new. First it was to leave stuffy comfortable Wisconsin for the wild plains of Kansas. When the government pushed them off their land, they came up to Minnesota, then west to Dakota. He wanted to live free of constraints, in a place where he could make his own way. He thought South Dakota was getting too crowded and wanted to move on to Montana. But ma (Caroline) said no more moving, and Charles Ingalls and family remained in De Smet.
Two of the values which stand out in these books are family and a desire for freedom. While these values are universal, they get expressed with an American flair. Family as a source of strength is something most Americans hold on to, but with divorce rates at 50%, and modern demands and materialism as it is, it becomes hard to do that. Still, one sees in the books that a caring, loving environment, where parents give support, encouragement, and time to their children, means more than all the toys, gameboy and DVDs in the world. That is a value we're losing; the material prosperity of the last century has yielded a kind of spiritual poverty. It's hard to describe what that means exactly, but it's something one can't help but be struck by in reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's books.
I suspect that in our modern, wealthy, materialist a lot of children (and adults) get so caught up in the possessions game that they don't recognize that true happiness comes not from what we have, but from within, helped by friends and family around us. Possessions can give a mild rush, but like a drug it wears off. Unfortunately, this American value is perhaps the most endangered. People are living from rush to rush buying new possessions, and that addiction is choking off the true path to happiness. Are most of today's plugged in possession laden children happier than Laura was? I doubt it. Those who are happy are likely happy due to their family and friends, not their stuff.
Prototypically American is Charles Ingalls' desire to live completely free, and through hard work build a life for himself and his family. The idea of a whole continent laying ahead, with dangers and challenges, spurred generations of early Americans to leave everything behind (no remaining in contact by e-mail or phone), risk it all, to try to make something new. The desire to be free. (The cynical side of me has to add that, like today, Americans saw their conquest as being good -- it's good when American power expands and it's good for others to be forced to adopt the way of life. But in reality this lead to the destruction of numerous cultures, a low tech holocaust that most Americans still don't recognize).
Still, inherent in this American view of freedom was: a) a willingness to risk; b) a willingness to work hard and take responsibility for your life; and c) a willingness to work with others. Towns worked together, neighbors helped each other, there was perhaps by necessity a link between the raw individualism of Pa Ingalls and the communal spirit of much of what he and others of the time were engaged in. There isn't a contradiction here -- he was freely choosing to help and allow himself to be helped, such was the culture of that time and place. America at its best represents freedom, individual responsibility, and a sense of cooperation and community. A communal form of freedom is uniquely American, and it to is under assault from the growing sense that freedom simply means being able to amass all the wealth one can and do whatever one wants without a sense of responsibility for the community at large. On the right this gets exhibited as an embracing of the free market and capitalism, on the left this gets exhibited as simply handing the problem to government. Both sides are missing something important; the issue isn't how to deal with common problems, the issue is fostering a sense of community, a sense that people want to work together to solve problems.
I'll wrap up by saying that I urge everyone out there to buy the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. If you have kids, it's a necessity. But even if you don't, you'll learn something about our country, our values, and also what we've lost by reading the wonderful tales of a young girl growing up poor, but in a close knit family on the northern plains. The times have changed. Urbanization, complexity, and prosperity make the kind of wide open life style Pa Ingalls so coveted impossible. Mobility separates families; my mother and one sister is in Sioux Falls still, the other sister in Las Vegas. On my wife's side we'd have to travel to Syktyvkar, Russia, Moscow, or Neuwied, Germany. But as my sons (ages 3 and six months) grow, with all their days, with both parents working, and a comfortable lifestyle, I know that my goal is to instill the values incorporated in the Little House books.
And when I think about America and what I value in this country, I think about how a desire for freedom, a willingness to work with community, and an emphasis on love and family define the essence of this country's core values. I think we've drifted, and the modern complex superpower reality makes it hard for us to truly hold on to those values. But more than any flag, song, war or monument, they define what is great about America, and we need to find a way to express those values in a 21st century reality.
July 5 - Iran’s deadly games
It is becoming clear to everyone that Iran has been secretly involved in aiding Shi’ite insurgents and helping create a more deadly climate for Americans in Iraq, including things that could make it virtually impossible for the current "surge" to succeed. Why Iran is doing this is clear. They see themselves as a regional power, and Iraq as a natural ally under Shi’ite leadership. With a strong Iran-Iraq core of Shi’ite power, they would be a true “player” in the geopolitical struggles of two important regions: the Middle East and Central Asia. They would have a major say in world oil markets, and be in a position to play Russia and China off against each other for their own self-interest.
They also realize that America is the biggest threat to this effort, and in fact it was fear of American reprisals which led even the Guardian Council to embrace efforts to improve relationships with the West before 2003. It’s not that their ambitions were less, but the calculation was that they could only exert the level of influence they desired if they could assure that the US would not oppose or actively undermine such efforts. The events of 2002 and 2003 changed that approach dramatically.
First, Iran had an existential fear that a successful American toppling of Saddam would lead to a renewed Iraqi threat on its border, and a mix of political and military efforts to topple the regime. They assumed that not only would the US win, but that the US would try to put in place a pro-American puppet government and work against Iranian influence. Then, as events unfolded, they were delighted with two unexpected surprises. First, President Bush really wanted to expand democracy and despite putting in Allawi for a brief time, was going to allow and even support real, free elections. That Bush was sincere about democracy must have been an eye-opener to Iranians, who probably had expected a hard nosed realist approach. Bush was an idealist, and the Iranians saw that as a weakness. Parties closely associated with Iran easily won the elections and suddenly were in a position to not only build a closer Iran-Iraq relationship, but give Iran detailed information about American policies and actions; the Iraqi government likely has numerous pro-Iranian spies, perhaps in very high positions.
Beyond that, the Sunni insurgency was sparked by the American embrace of democracy. They feared the Shi’ites would use their majority to gain control, especially since the Sunni Arab population is only about 20% of the total population. They were a minority fearing retribution for years of repression and privilege, and as happened in similar cases throughout Africa when colonies got independence (the most infamous being the Tutsi-Hutu conflict in Rwanda), the winners turned losers decided they needed to fight or else become irrelevant -- or worse. That insurgency was quickly aided by al qaeda, an organization Iran opposes (Shi’ite and Sunni extremists don’t like each other), and suddenly America was caught up in a guerrilla war it not only didn’t expect, but which rendered its ability to truly pressure and threaten Iran almost nil. Iran's strategy then changed, now it was rather low risk and very effective: hurt the US by helping expand the insurgency in Iraq. At first it was support of militias and Shi’ite groups within Iraq, but that quickly turned into active support for action against both Sunnis and Americans after the first Samarra mosque bombing. As long as the US was bleeding in Iraq, stuck in a quagmire, and dividing American society at home, Iran felt immune from US threats. Not only that, but they decided they could parlay this situation into an effort to achieve their regional goals, not by avoiding American opposition but exploiting American weakness.
So far, they’ve done a masterful job. Their involvement in Iraq is covert and deniable, and they are adept at knowing how much they can get away with, and when to pull back and alter strategy (witness the showdown about nuclear power). They know that regardless of whether or not the surge is likely to succeed, its failure would almost certainly assure America would leave Iraq in a position where Iran could exercise considerable influence. They no doubt see the American strategy as one where the US wants to have a successful “surge” followed by a long term American presence of a force much smaller than current one, designed less for counter-insurgency (that would be the Iraqi government’s job) and more to help keep out Iranian influence and perhaps to pressure Iran. They fear that the US will manage to either throw out the current pro-Iranian regime or influence Iraqi politics enough to weaken Iran’s ability to form a strategic alliance with a Shi’ite led government there.
So really, the Iraq war is now about Iran as much as it is about al qaeda. Al qaeda is the enemy we hear on the news, both in terms of its vicious attacks on civilians in Iraq (including evidence of a massacre near Baquba) and new efforts to turn Sunni insurgents against al qaeda. Iran no doubt fears this could set up a Sunni-Shi’ite reconciliation which would make it easier for the US to engineer an Iraqi regime less willing to work hand in hand with Iran – and perhaps willing to allow long term American presence in Iraq. Thus Iran arms Shi’ite militias, helps promote continued anti-American violence, and does whatever it can to assure it achieves its goal as a true regional power. Since a war with Iran is extremely risky (Iran is far stronger than Iraq ever was), and the US is in no position to expand its military involvement abroad, this is something the US will have to handle politically. That, however, is very difficult since right now Iran doesn’t see a need to really compromise with or work with the US – they see the US as down and weakened as ever. Why let up the pressure?
So what next? Air strikes against valuable Iranian targets to show US will power and up the ante? But if those fail, they might well be seen as a sign of weakness – all the US can do is hurl bombs that don’t really do much damage. It would also weaken the good spirit the US has been starting to build around the world after the low point of 2004. The quiet secret of US policy is the relatively effective diplomacy since Bush’s re-election. This blog is too long, so I’ll continue it tomorrow or next week. But how we deal with Iran will determine the cost of the Iraq war to American interests.
July 6 - Not playing Iran’s game
In determining how to deal with Iran (this continues the discussion started yesterday, so if you haven’t read the July 5th blog you might want to check that out first), a few things are necessary. First: No illusions. One can’t dismiss the Iranian influence or threat because one doesn’t want to see it. Those of us who have opposed the military action in Iraq can’t pretend the Iranian situation isn’t serious just because it strengthens the arguments for staying in Iraq. Second: Clarity on our interests. There is a lot of emotional claptrap about Iran out there – people quoting Ahmadinejad's most provocative statements and trying to compare Iran to Hitler’s Germany, or other such rhetoric. We need to use our head and not let fear guide us. What are our interests, how do we achieve them? Finally: Understanding our limitations. We may want a Democratic and stable Iran that is an ally to the US, but we don’t have the capacity to make that happen. We may want regime change, but we don’t have the ability to change regimes, at least not a cost that would be worth the outcome.
Our interests are straightforward: We want to limit Iran’s ability to influence the region, we want regional stability, we want to weaken the appeal and efficacy of terrorism, and we want as free as possible a flow of oil from the region to maintain the world economy. Secondary or long term interests include support of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, and political progress in creating states with more accountability and less corruption. Note I’m not calling for democracy – democracies develop when a middle class grows in strength, and that will happen if we minimize corruption and have some kind of rule of law. The primary interests have to be the goals of policy, the secondary interests are what we are looking forward to, we want the situation to be heading in that direction.
Our limitations are clear as well: Not only is the military overstretched, but the American public very divided on the current military action in Iraq. To expand the war to Iran would risk public fissure. Our air power could deal a tremendous blow to Iran’s economic infrastructure, especially given recent economic problems. Yet if this is not a knock out punch (which it probably could not be) it may only give the government reason for a harder line, and more control. We learned in Serbia that bombing a country creates at first a backlash against the bombers, not the government of the state being bombed. Iran also could do a lot to create a surge in oil prices, which could have a devastating affect on the world economy. America is economically vulnerable, with a huge current accounts deficit (this vulnerability is very real, but goes essentially ignored, even as it already has had a role in devaluing the dollar) and an economy dependent on trade and transportation. Finally, Iran has proxies like Hezbollah who can disrupt the rest of the region and, if the Iranian regime faced an existential threat, throw the whole region into turmoil. Iran knows these limits as well, and is betting that this will force the US to back down. Both sides can severely hurt the other side, and that yields deterrence.
Therein lies good news. Deterrence works both ways, and containment of Iranian regional ambitions is possible. First, however, the US has to convince Iran that there is a price they’ll have to pay if they take aggressive actions. Moving air carriers to the Gulf, and maintaining a presence in Iraq might help – but if the presence in Iraq weakens the US as it has been doing, then it would actually be counter productive to stay there. Second, the US has to develop diplomatic arrangements with Iran that allow each side to know explicitly what lines can’t be crossed and what prices could be paid. Third, the US has to exploit divisions within the region, including Iraq Shi’ite nationalism (a desire not to follow Iran or be controlled by the US), Sunni fears of Shi’ite dominance and/or ascendancy, divisions within the Sunni world, and divisions between fundamentalists, extremists and modernizers. Already the US has gotten smarter about dealing with the internal dynamics in Iraq (alliances with tribes, etc.) and that has yielded benefits – as much as I oppose remaining in Iraq for any significant length of time the current strategy is well thought out – it’s about time! This has to extend throughout the region, including discussions and engagement with countries like Syria, and groups like Hezbollah and even Hamas. We can’t afford to be moralizing, saying “unless they do X we’ll have nothing to do with them.” They won’t agree to do X until we deal with them. That’s a reality we have to accept, our strength or wealth no longer carries as strong an implicit threat or promise so that we can simply state demands.
Up until the Samarra mosque bombing (the first one) I think we’d have been better off if we simply left Iraq, even if it were “cut and run.” But now the dynamic there is different, we have to dis-engage, but we have to do so in a way that doesn’t create chaos or give Iran a gift. There seems to me to be only one way to do it: accept the fact that Iran and Iraq likely will form a Shi’ite alliance, though one that will have divisions due to the Arab-Persian split. In so doing, remove the cause for chaos by partitioning Iraq between Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish regions. Yes, partitions historically have done a lot of harm, but given the situation and the fact that the US needs to militarily disengage as soon as possible, this is the best path. Keep the US military presence at low levels in Kurdistan, if the Kurds invite us. This will be a warning to the Turks to accept this result, and give us the ability to lean on the Kurds not to aid separatist Kurdish movements in Turkey. The presence of these troops would also be a signal to Iran that we are in the region. We then should work with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Syria to create a stable transition in the Sunni portion of Iraq. Allow them to handle al qaeda in Iraq (or in the Sh’ite portion, this will fall to the new Shi’ite government, perhaps even with Iranian assistance).
This doesn’t solve all the problems, and it does create a stronger Iran – we’d be essentially giving up the idea of a pro-American Shi’ite led Iraq, and instead hope that Iraqi/Arab nationalism trumps the religious tie (I think it will). But that’s the best result given the limitations, it creates not only an environment conducive to containment, but also one where there can be slow progress towards our other goals in the region.
If I had access to intelligence reports and was writing a long policy brief, I could go into more detail. As an outsider observing, my prescription is limited by the fact that although I follow this closely and have studied international relations for decades, I do not have access to fundamentally important knowledge. That said, I believe it is possible, despite the limitations, to alter the game. Because right now we’re essentially playing the game Iran wants us to play; we need to change the rules.
July 9 - Divisions
Al Qaeda in Iraq is threatening Iran with war if Iran doesn’t stop helping Shi’ite militias. Meanwhile Moqtada al Sadr appears to have returned to Iran, perhaps to negotiate for arms and supplies? In June there was a lull (relative) in the level of sectarian violence in Iraq, but as is often the case, it appears it was more a time to plan for the next major series of attacks as this weekend has seen some of the deadliest and most brutal attacks of the last four years. It is clear that whatever small victories the “surge” is getting in specific regions of Iraq, the country as a whole is still divided and violent.
Yet now may be the best time to leave. Some are aghast at even the suggestion. It could be a genocide, they claim, pointing to allegations that US departure from Vietnam led to Pol Pot’s regime. That kind of claim is wrong (indeed if anything our going to war in Vietnam created conditions that allowed someone like Pol Pot to thrive), but given the level of violence currently in Iraq, it’s understandable.
But the reality is this: we cannot fix the situation. Within a year the military will be in no condition to keep up current troop levels, let alone increase them enough to create true stability. Moreover the current push for quick deals on oil and for Iraq to meet benchmarks imposed by the American government can yield nothing but meaningless political theater. They might pass something – but in Iraq the reality often does not match what the parliament agrees upon. The deeper problems of corruption, anger, and sectarian animosity aren’t going to go away. The efforts of the “surge” are geographically limited, and focused primarily on al qaeda.
Last week I talked about dividing Iraq in a manner that would try to limit conflict and allow the US to contain Iran. As I thought about that plan over the weekend, doubts came in. Fundamentally, it seems counter productive to keep the United States as a major force in the region, or to define Iran as a true military threat. Consider: Iran is a regional power, but certainly it cannot dominate the Arab world. The Arab Sunnis would resent the Persian Shi’ites. Al Qaeda is threatening war with Iraq, Iraq arms Shi’ite militias, and the US fights both. Does this make sense? Aren’t we stepping into someone else’s fight?
Powell claimed the Pottery Barn rule: You broke it, you own it. That’s a nice slogan, but of course it’s absurd. We don’t own Iraq, and if we don’t have the capacity to fix it, it would be bad for both ourselves and the Iraqis to simply stay, kill people, get killed, and try to force the Iraqis to some kind of settlement we think would make sense given our western way of looking at things. Americans like to think we have to “finish the job,” but what if the job is beyond us? The animosities and violence we see is not because of the American invasion of Iraq alone; we were a spark, and our policies in 2003 to early 2005 added kindling. But the resentments and divisions go back into the Ottoman Empire, between the Ottomans and the Persians, and involve a mix of post-colonial trauma, oil-induced corruption, and stubborn authoritarian structures under pressure from a mix of forces, the angry and the rational.
When Al Jazeera started broadcasting images of the war and critiques of the US, the Americans mistakenly blamed it for inciting Arab opinion. But it was only reporting, and that kind of reporting is part of the reality of a changing middle east. Al Jazeera’s reporting has also angered dictators and tyrants in the Mideast, and is actually a force of rational change, rejecting violence in favor of words and competing perspectives. It is on “our side” in terms of what kind of world is desired, even if it was against our policy choices (in retrospect, those policy choices appear unwise).
As modernism and globalization bring change, the divisions and antagonisms in the region will have to be resolved in some way. We cannot do it, we are not trusted, we lack the capacity, and we lack the understanding of the culture in the region. Islamic extremism is a natural, if misguided, reaction to the intensity of change. We cannot try a new colonialism, going in and showing them what is right. That only hinders their need to work these things out for themselves.
With the Sunnis in Iraq starting to turn on al qaeda for its harsh methods, with Iran at odds with al qaeda, and the states of the region worrying about the future, maybe it is time for them to have responsibility for their destiny. The US can try to leave in a way that helps the moderates and the voices of peace, and perhaps we can have a residual force somewhere that is accepted and productive (or perhaps that’s not possible). But we cannot stand in the way of regional change, and our attempts to shape it have only made things worse. We have to let go of the idea that it is our responsibility to somehow mend the region. We can’t do it, we make things worse if we try.
July 11 - Ominous signs
The US reports that an al qaeda unit "may be inside or en route to the US." The British recently foiled an al qaeda terror attempt. Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports that we may start seeing an oil crunch in five years because production has not been rising as predicted, and new oil sources have not been discovered to make up for the slack. It now appears that we are at or just past peak world production, even as oil demand continues to increase. Global warming, whether man made or caused by natural factors, is having a real impact and could bring about famine and other disasters within a decade -- with the problem only getting worse. Meanwhile, the US war in Iraq is set to end up costing over a trillion dollars, with little accomplished but weaken the US at a time when we need to be ready for unexpected problems. Israel and Syria are making threats and preparing for a war that each say could come this summer -- and could spread to Lebanon and beyond.
What to make of all this? First, as the Hitchhiker's guide notes, don't panic! There have been danger signs for decades, and many of the worst fears didn't come to fruition. However, though we shouldn't panic, I think we need to be prepared. First, terrorism. The question remains not if but when. The next attack may or may not be as damaging or spectacular as 9-11, and at the very least won't have the shock value it had for those who were oblivious to the very real danger and turmoil on the planet. How will we react? Will it be proof that President Bush's policy in Iraq has only failed, distracting us from the true danger? Will we take it as cause to lash out again against enemies in the Mideast, creating the kind of clash of cultures that the terrorists wanted. When the next attack comes, the idea "don't panic" is especially important. Real counter-terrorism requires patience and recognition that terrorists want us to react to them because they want to inspire chaos and conflict. Let's not play their game, let's focus on terrorism not on making an enemy of Islam or the entire Arab world. The terrorists want it to be Islam vs. the West, but that would be disastrous for us.
Oil? Well, if the predictions are true, all we can do is start figuring out ways to conserve -- plan alternate forms of energy, figure out how to handle higher prices and potential shortages and see what happens. It'll be a transition that will have severe ramifications in our economy, especially as we learn that the 20th century's massive cheap energy bonanza wasn't indefinite. Global warming? Same thing. For each, we have to consider our life styles, prepare to make changes, and recognize that we have to be ready to adapt. But since we don't know exactly what will happen, there's little we can do but be prepared.
Israel and Syria? That's out of our hands too, though one hopes that the Bush Administration is doing all it can to defuse the crisis. But it could well be that the Mideast is heading for a show down of sorts, and there can be no long term peace and reconciliation until this plays itself out. I hope not, because the results could be disastrous, and despite all the bad blood there are potentials for movement forward, especially given the recognition by Israel that Fatah is actually a potential ally. Hamas might push Israel to embrace Fatah. Syria may be blustering to try to turn its 2006 perceived advantage when Hezbollah performed so well against Israel into an effort to get back the Golan Heights, and Israel may be willing to deal in exchange for concessions from Syria (most notably involving Lebanon and Hezbollah). Long shots? Perhaps. Even Iran's increased power could lead Sunni states towards a policy that works to defuse the Israeli-Palestinian situation and create stability.
We live in interesting times. We're undergoing a global transition as sovereignty and the state system become increasingly obsolete in the face of new threats, the technology/information revolution, and global finance and capital without borders. We don't know what will replace the system of modern sovereign states, or even what should. So buckle up and prepare for a ride -- we're living in an era that future historians will study in detail, and we get to see it up close. That doesn't make the dangers any less, or mean that our comfy lifestyle is any more protected, but perhaps it'll give us perspective!
July 12 - Health care reform
The health industry is growing at a record pace, with especially pharmaceuticals expanding as baby bombers age and want to continue to feel like they are 25. Hospitals in competition with each other buy state of the art machinery, though often it will go unused (but they need it for those few cases that might require it). The result is that if you can pay, America offers some of the best health care in the world. Those who can’t afford insurance are in a bind, however. First, they get billed at a higher rate and pay a higher price than do the insurance companies. In a bit of cruel irony, the government and insurance companies get cheaper care than those who can’t afford insurance and aren’t covered by government plans. And while emergency rooms won’t turn you away, good luck getting normal care. Taking kids in for high fevers due to ear infections no longer is an option, and if it isn’t an ear infection….well, you’re out of luck.
All of this creates a drive for some kind of government sponsored health care system or health insurance. After all, every other industrialized country has some kind of system, and most keep their costs relatively low, and health care quality is high. Some have long waits, but in many the experience is similar to that in America, though hospitals are often a bit more crowded and less luxurious. The idea is that in a wealthy country, the poor should have access to quality health care, poor children shouldn’t be put at risk because the family can’t afford to go to the doctor for every fever or fall.
Ten years ago, I’d have said yes – let’s go for it. Maybe single payer, maybe something like what Germany has, or the Clinton Administration proposed in the early nineties (or we could go back to the Nixon proposal of the 1970s). However, even as the country has moved closer and closer to embracing such a system, I’m having my doubts. At the very least, we have to be careful what we construct, it’s hard to dismantle something once its built. First, we need to keep in mind that we are not France or Germany. We have nearly three times the population of those two states combined, covering a large area of geography. The idea of one centralized government agency being able to coordinate such a policy efficiently and without fraud is simply not credible. And though states like Massachusetts are experimenting with state insurance, most states cannot afford such coverages, states are almost universally strapped for funds. Perhaps a different approach would work better.
The President in 2009 should call a “Health Summit” of leading hospitals, the AMA, insurance companies, patient advocates and other interested parties to try to craft a way to achieve the goal of assuring health care for all Americans without financially strapping the poor or creating a gigantic government agency. The President should lay down a challenge: “The American people want quality heath care, affordable, and available to everyone. Many want a national health care plan, and Congress will take that issue up. But perhaps you stakeholders can come up with an alternative that may be more effective and which will be transparent and can be assessed.”
If nothing useful comes out of the summit, the fall back position would be to focus on helping states develop their own plan, as well as a formula to free up some federal funds to aid states, with states given a lot of latitude on how they go about things (though not on how much funding they can get). The idea here is that small bureaucracies at the state level will be more effective than a massive federal bureaucracy, and as different states try different things, it will provide a wealth of data about what works and doesn’t work. It’s messier to figure out than simply creating a federal system, and the funding issues could be really tricky. The best bet is to see whether or not, given the public shift towards wanting major reform in the health industry, the relevant players can’t themselves figure out a plan they can make work with government only involved in assuring transparency and assessing that the plan does as promised.
July 20 - Collective Identities
India has recently added to its archives the last letter written by Mohandas Gandhi wrote before he was assassinated by a Hindu extremist. In it, he urges tolerance of Muslims, lest they be unwelcome in their own land. One thing unites Gandhi with others I’ve admired at various times in my blog such as Romeo Dallaire or Sally Goodrich: an ability to see past collective identities and recognize the essential humanity of each individual. It should be an easy thing to do. The United States was based on that principle, usually referred to as a ‘melting pot’ – it doesn’t matter what your culture is, you matter as an individual and deserve essential human rights. Many of our problems today are based on the power of collective identities.
In my Politics of Developing Countries course we are using a book Born of War, which examines the plight of children born due to sexual violence in a conflict zone. This includes children of forced rape, sexual slaves, and those who suffer abuse from others such as peacekeepers and humanitarian workers. The first line of the book quotes a Washington Post headline, “We wanted to make light babies,” from an Arab involved in the Darfur conflict. The idea behind that, as well as the forced pregnancies in Rwanda and Bosnia was to assure that women would have “enemy babies.”
It worked. Women were shunned by their families, left by their husbands, and often hated the babies they brought to term. While Islamic clerics urged women to keep their children or, if a woman refused, have the community raise them, without prejudice due to their past. Women would not be considered unchaste and essentially the humanity of the child should be recognized. But in reality, that was hard for individuals and communities to do. The Catholic church gave a similar message, though unlike the Muslims the Catholics didn’t allow abortion. But despite the good will encouraged by religious leaders, the reality is that such babies are often seriously neglected.
Although above I noted it should be easy to see past collective identities and recognize human dignity, most of our social structures work against it. And if you are a Bosnian Muslim male, who has fought the Serbs, seen your friends killed, watched families die, seen Serbs killed by your own hands, could there be nothing more humiliating than finding out that one of “those” Serbs violated your wife, and now has his baby growing in her womb? How could you see that baby and recognize the beauty if a human life rather than the evil you attribute to anything Serb? Indeed, men and women often hate these children; can there be anything more tragic than a young life being brought into the world, looking for only a mother and father’s love, and instead being shunned, hated, and neglected – if not killed outright? The power of collective identities is tragic when adults suffer; it’s obscene when it is what greets children on birth. Yet can we really be individualist? Can’t we simply embrace the “good side” of collective identities, a desire to work together, care for each other, and form bonds? After all this penchant towards collectivism is natural; it comes from how humans organized in familial clans and villages, needing to connect and form bonds in order to survive and thrive. Raw individualism would have been deadly then. Yet just as our bodies, designed for jungles and survival in a harsh climate now have to cope with unnatural stress, anxiety, and fat and sugar laden food at our beck and call, our cultures have to deal with collective identity transformed from family clans to large nation states, tribes fighting over raw materials and powers, and different religious perspectives, each certain they have the right God.
For me, I’ve decided that the modern and even “post-modern” individual can’t embrace that kind of collectivism. So I’m not a patriot. I resist being part of a group, especially if that group becomes exclusive. I cannot be part of an organized religion, and in looking at world affairs and current events, I try to look at it as detached as possible, not looking to “support” America or "oppose" it (some veer the other direction when the reject a collective identity and become opposed to it, I find that route just as distasteful), but work on principles.
Yet through this all something still pushes me towards community. Towards friends. When I see a stranger, I try to see his or her humanity, and treat anyone like they are someone I honor and respect. That’s when I realize that my individualism has at its core a collective identity: humanity. In every other person is a glimmer of myself; I am as capable of acts as vile as the most heinous and as noble as the most heroic because all humans have that within them. That instinctive collectivism of the familial clan is based on the fact that we are, I believe, part of a larger species, connected in ways we don’t understand. It’s a collectivism that doesn’t divide into self and other, but recognizes difference. If another disagrees with me, that’s fine – if I want my view to be respected, I must respect another’s. If I want my freedom to be honored, I must honor the freedom of others. If I tell others what to do and use force, then I should not be upset if the same is done to me. That essential recognition of what is at core human is the key to ethics, and the key to overcoming the poisonous nature of modern collective identities.
July 25 - The Party and Pleasure Dome solution
In my course on the politics of developing countries, we've been stymied (as has the international community) with the issue of how to get real change in Africa. Corrupt governments manage to assure that aid dollars go often to secret, personal bank accounts. Countries like Sierra Leone and Nigeria, rich in raw materials like diamonds, gold and oil, get plunged into violence and chaos as the fight to control these resources inspires war and revolution. The old colonizers divided the countries unnaturally, destroyed earlier political structures, and put together a system foreign to the culture of the region, and designed to benefit the colonizers. After independence government service was simply a road to getting rich and helping your ethnic group, and the Cold War found both sides arming thugs who would rule with corruption and force, but promise to support one "side" in the Cold War. Average people in Africa suffer. I've already recommended people read Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire, I also recommend the films by Sorious Samara on the conflict in Sierra Leone. The reality of the suffering there is missed by most of us who live in first world comfort.
It seems to me that the three intractable problems are: a) corrupt governments; and b) western intervention, including businesses that pay bribes, governments that give aids to corrupt governments, and c) western governments who promote leaders that will work in the interests of the West economically and politically. So here's my solution: build a super party and pleasure dome. Place it on an island in the Mediterranean Sea. Give it all the comfort a corrupt bureaucrat could want. Alcohol, sex, gambling, and pampering. Bring all the major governmental figures in Africa to the pleasure dome and let them have fun. Make sure they lose contact with their countries, aren't able to leave, and try to make it so they don't notice or think they've been imprisoned.
Then cut western aid from Africa, except for absolutely necessary famine relief or educational efforts. (The aid money spent in the past will be used to fund the pleasure dome). Tell the African people they are now in charge of their own destiny. Tell them their borders are no longer meaningful, they have no government. Tell them they have to figure out how to solve disputes, organize a region, and if they wish, draw and recognize borders. Give them assistance in terms of advice and in special cases money, but only at their request, and only if it's something helping them take responsibility for their future. You might think that a new class would simply create new governments just as corrupt as the old. That's possible. However, if the West is kept out, businesses aren't offering bribes for oil deals, and aid isn't creating a dependent psychology, they may well be the will to decide to create something for the good of the people, with accountability and oversight. The core problem that has to be solved is the people have to have the belief they can do something; the current system has injured their spirit, with poverty, reliance on aid, violence and corruption convincing many that they are powerless and helpless. Without bottom up development, they're stuck. The top-down structures benefit both the West and the elite, who find it convenient to foster a culture of dependency and a population ignored because they are so poor and seen by westerners as "lost."
Yeah, I know. This isn't a serious suggestion. We in the West need their minerals and oil, and aren't about to stop intervening. China is the newest player, and they are going into Africa with the same idea of getting resources (especially wood, clear cutting forrests) and buying off governments. But unless we find an alternative to a top-down approach that services both the governments of the third world and the needs of the wealthy in the West and China, the cycle in Africa will continue. Perhaps with the end of the Cold War, more attention from the rest of the world, and the rise of globalization and new technology, a slow change can occur. NGOs may prove a better alternative than governments to administer aid and act to help empower average folk. Perhaps the African Union will create a sense of regional identity which can overcome past divisions. There are possibilities. Maybe a charismatic leader can convince the African peoples to work together -- hopefully an African Gandhi, not an African Bin Laden. But right now a continent with so much potential remains mired in sometimes inhumane conditions because colonialism destroyed the political culture there, and it's been replaced by one where corrupt governments collude with western actors to benefit a few at the expense of the many. Even our efforts to "help" often do more harm than good. Sooner or later, something has to give.
July 27 - Dangerous games
Charles Krauthammer is arguing that the current US strategy is finally one that can succeed…sort of. What we have decided to do with the surge is make a deal with the Sunnis who have been opposing us. Essentially the deal is this: we know you don’t like al qaeda, neither do we. If you don’t attack us, we won’t attack you. If you help fight al qaeda, we’ll arm and train you. When we leave, that will leave you better positioned to fight for your interests against the Shi’ites. The Iraqi government, dominated by Shi’ites doesn’t like this, and Maliki recently suggested they could handle things on their own without the United States.
In the short term, this is useful to the US; we get allies, we minimize enemies, and it provides pressure on the Iraqi government, who increasingly sees us friendly with groups they consider hostile. But while Iran is arming a Shi’ite militia, the United States is arming a potential Sunni militia. With no political agreement on important issues, and continued sectarian violence, this could spell trouble ahead. While Krauthammer believes that a stronger Sunni force will be in a position to prevent the Shi’ites from simply riding roughshod over Sunni demands, and instead creating conditions for agreement, the opposite could occur. The Sunnis could decide to challenge the Shi’ite majority.
Would that make sense – after all, Sunni Arabs are only about 20% of the population? (The Kurds are also Sunni, and comprise 15% of the population, but the Kurdish – Arab divide trumps the religious similarity). Many Sunni Arabs think so. They have held power for years, so the idea it would be impossible for them to get it back seems wrong on its face. Moreover, the power of collective fear and demonization is strong. Its worst potential was shown in Rwanda in 1994, or other historic genocides. The beheadings, killings, and brutal beatings combined with the rise of religious extremism and fears of Iranian influence feed into a sense that they may be fighting for their very existence. Leaders may look at oil and power, but the public will learn a collective hate.
Most of the Arab world is Sunni, and has been alarmed at Iran’s rise in power. It’s not just that Iran is Shi’ite – to average Muslims the split is not as important as one might think – but Iran is not Arab, was never part of the Ottoman Empire, and represents an external threat to an already insecure Arab world. Arab states are anachronistic, with monarchies and authoritarian rule, supported mostly by oil revenues or arms from external sources. This allows them enough money to buy support from local elites, to keep the population reasonably well off in material terms, and to have the power to keep local populations in line. But the legitimacy, popularity, and level of support of these governments is in question; even those generally accepted by the public increasingly face growing extremist threats. Yet, like the Ottoman Empire before it, these governments rumble on, somehow surviving when it seems they shouldn’t. It wouldn’t take much to knock down this house of cards, and an aggressive Iran, backed by Shi’ite Hezbollah in Lebanon perhaps joining Syria to challenge Israel, is a real threat.
Iraq could be the spark.
A regional war could start slowly. Saudi Arabia, fearing Shi’ite dominance of the Sunnis (and mass atrocities), might funnel increasing support to Iraq’s Sunnis. After all, the Iraq-Iran war was essentially the US, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia supporting a Sunni Iraq against Iran. Iran had good relations only with Syria, whose leading elite are Shi’ite (though the country mainly Sunni). Could we be ready to see the Iraq-Iran war begin again, but this time with much of Iraq already in the Iranian camp?
There is much to prevent this scenario from unfolding. Foremost is that it really isn’t in anybody’s interest to have a full scale war. Iran would prefer a slow expansion of power and the ability to act as the most important regional power. The Sunnis would prefer to balance Iran and downplay religion as a motivator for politics. But there already is a lot of violence, al qaeda is active, and the US presence arouses nationalist emotions and helps extremist recruitment. In this atmosphere anything can happen.
Arming the Sunnis is a dangerous game, and I don’t share Krauthammer’s optimism that this won’t make a bad situation worse down the line. Wait and see.
July 31 - The Error
It is too early to take an historical view of the Iraq war, but if one watches events unfold in Iran and the Waziristan region of Pakistan, one can’t help but be drawn to the conclusion that Iraq will be remembered not like Vietnam – a pointless war the US could not win anyway – but as an extremely costly (hopefully not fatal) error in response to the challenge of terrorism and Islamic extremism.
In Pakistan al qaeda operates without hindrance. In the border areas with Afghanistan, the province known as Waziristan, Pakistan police and military have ceded control to local tribal leaders who show no interest in confronting al qaeda. The result is that while the Taliban is out of control in Afghanistan, the training bases and planning centers for another terror attack are running strong, just like in 2001. The diplomatic dance with the Musharraf regime in Pakistan, which now seems to be moving towards a more democratic future in the face of growing extremist threats, limits our ability to do much to counter al qaeda’s strength.
What if the US had kept the focus on Afghanistan after 2001? What if some of the nearly $1 trillion to be spent on the Iraq war had gone to stabilizing Afghanistan, and early on finding a way to pressure effectively Pakistan on the tribal regions. Now NATO barely can field a force competent to deal with the increasing Taliban threat in Afghanistan, Iraq has sucked resources and people away. Without Iraq, the commitment to Afghanistan could have yielded a true strategic victory over al qaeda. Instead al qaeda is strong in Pakistan, and has a presence in Iraq it didn’t have – with members who otherwise would not have joined.
Meanwhile in Iran the conservatives used anger at the American policies in Iraq to jump to their first electoral victories since the revolution. While the Guadian Council had always exercised control, this allowed the extremists far more latitude in policy, as they found they could cheaply bleed the US and improve their strategic position with the US caught in a quagmire. The US seems to have recognized this, and now is arming Sunni groups not only to fight al qaeda, but to avoid a Shi’ite dominance in Iraq (see the blog entry before this one), but Iran is in a far stronger position now than in 2003. They find it easier to get support from China and Russia, as American demands and threat are ignored, less effective than from an earlier time when American force was feared.
This creates a danger. Iran’s goal of becoming a regional power, using it’s oil, strategic position, size, and proxies in Syria and Lebanon (Hezbollah) to be a major force in the Mideast has come to fruition. But if it overreaches, thinking America too weak to do anything, and not understanding the joint fear it arouses amongst the Sunnis and Israelis (Israel no longer is intent on stopping military aid to Saudi Arabia for this reason) it could provoke a regional war that ultimately will teach Iran the lesson the US learned: power creates a self-defeating temptation to use it. In such a case though, American interests would be severely harmed, as oil prices would skyrocket and the US could be sucked into a conflict driven by extremism and sectarian division.
Simply, Iraq distracted us from handling two major threats: al qaeda (or Islamic extremism in general) and Iran. Each of these threats could have been handled relatively easily without the costs of the Iraq war, but now appear very dangerous. Future historians might look back and scratch their heads…”Iraq? How could they have been so misguided.” The dream of changing the Mideast by spreading democracy will look as naïve as Wilson’s vision of a world order based on international law and the League of Nations after WWI. The irony is that both Wilson and Bush are likely more right than wrong in their long term view of things. Wilson was too optimistic that leaders and governments could simply make the right choices and reshape the world, Bush was too confident that military power correctly applied could yield fundamental political change.
Iraq, in retrospect, was a monumental error, which has yielded tremendous benefits to two real adversaries, Iran and al qaeda. Yet it’s not an error that can be undone, we can’t press rewind and try it a different way. And, while we need to find a way out of the Iraqi quagmire, we have to leave in a way that sets up a capacity to contain Iran (in a best case scenario by convincing Iran it’s in its interest to cooperate) and focus on transnational, effective counter-terrorism. This error need not be a fatal error.
August 2 - Stunned
I had a blog entry ready for today -- something more on the light side. Yet last night's news of the collapse of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi river in Minneapolis will push that aside. I've been living in Maine since 1995, but I was born in Minneapolis (at St. Barnabas hospital, which is now part of the Hennepin County medical center) but grew up in Sioux Falls, SD. Still, with family in Minnesota, and being a fan of the Vikings and Twins, my heart still is at least in part in the Twin Cities. I spent ten years there really enjoying everything the city has to offer, from jogging around the chain of lakes, enjoying student rate theater, top notch music, great bicycling, live Vikings and Twins games, and lots of friends. My first two or three years here in Maine I'd probably have jumped at the opportunity to go back there. I wouldn't now -- Maine is idyllic, especially with kids -- but I do still miss the Twin Cities.
So while watching the coverage of the bridge collapse last night I was suddenly a Minneapolitan again. I relived crossing that bridge, imagined the scene, thought about the city and how it would cope with the tragedy. I listened to interviews with Senators Klobuchar and Coleman, found it surreal (but understandable) that the Twins game was continuing, and imagined myself in the Dome watching, hearing reports of the bridge collapse and wondering.
It was a hot day, and it has been a hot summer in the Twin Cities (unlike Maine -- we've barely hit 90 one or two times), there was construction on the forty year old bridge, and it carries lots of traffic. There will be talk about whether there was a design flaw, poor materials, or if it's just indicative of problems heavily trafficked bridges will start having as the interstate system reaches the half century mark. But it's also a sign that the things we take for granted can fail, life is still full of risks, and at times like this the best in humans come out.
Minneapolis has been called the "largest small town in America," in part because so many of its residents moved there from rural Minnesota. Outsiders would complain about "Minnesota nice," which they said was an artificial civility in all situations. One friend from the east coast used to get so frustrated by it, he'd try to provoke Minnesotans by being brash and rude, and most of the time would get a shrug, "well, sorry you feel that way, you have a nice day now." He'd storm away, "they don't want me to have a nice day, it's all fake." No, Minnesota nice isn't fake -- it's a sign of a deep understanding that the way you treat others is more important than how they treat you (and I told my colleague that if they really wanted to get back at him, being nice seemed to work -- it got him pretty riled up!) Sure, New Yorkers came together after 9-11, and people in Houston helped out people fleeing Katrina. But Minneapolitans have the strength of community and character that assure that they won't only come together in the short term, but this will be part of their common experience, binding even former Minnesotans like myself.
But today as the city braces itself for news of how many died, how many cars sunk, and how they'll deal with the aftermath, it's sad and stunning. My heart not only goes out to and connects with my fellow Minnesotans -- I may now live far away, but I'm there in spirit.
August 3 - Time Warp
Last night I was watching with my four year old a movie I saw back when I was four – Mary Poppins. My parents took me and my sister to a drive in movie theater, and we watched the movie, then bought the soundtrack. I still love that film, and its message – positive thinking and a sunny perspective is magical. The chimney sweep can be happier than the banker. Taking a friend to the bus station Wednesday we were reminiscing about life back in those days of drive in movies, and that along with Julie Andrews’ voice got me thinking about all the differences between now and the past. Calculators were expensive, digital clocks were rarer than open face clocks, and if you had a watch you still probably had to wind it (how many people under 30 have ever wound a watch?)
A couple birthdays ago I put a list of things people “my age” might relate to in an invitation to my birthday party. Here were some of the my experiences down memory lane:
|Learning to type on a manual typewriter (and later absolutely adoring the IBM Selectric).|
|Having (and I still have) a collection of 45 RPMs (ranging from Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, Joe South’s Children, and a lot more!).|
|Seeing body counts from Vietnam (and have the original Edwin Starr version of War – younger folk think it was a Bruce Springsteen song), and trying as a child to figure out what war was, and why the protesters were so mad.|
|Watching the Watergate hearings.|
|Putting my head upside down then looking at the TV between my legs to watch at the first steps on the moon (they had the video upside down at first).|
|Thinking touch tone phones were so cool!|
|Playing Pong, Donkey Kong, Pac Man, Asteroids and Space Invaders...|
|Watching the original Batman series.|
|Having my dad, who ran a computer service company, tell me that someday computers would be amazingly powerful and change our lives. At that point they were using punch cards, huge tapes, and blinking lights. (The spread of PCs ultimately destroyed that business, but my dad adapted).|
|Playing with Viewmaster and real metal slinkys, while eating Space Food sticks and candy cigarettes.|
|In college not downloading music, but having the ritual of cleaning the vinyl record carefully, setting the proper cartridge weight, assuring a clean needle, lowering the needle to the record, then letting the magic of Alan Parsons Project’s newest release take over the room.|
|Memorizing all the Super Bowl games and scores (with only a few to memorize).|
|Playing as a kid in the back of the station wagen, while my little sister would sleep on the floor when we went on trips.|
|Standing up in the back of my mom’s convertible to get the full wind effect as we drove out to the lake.|
|Watching my mom order “$3.00 worth of premium” for her convertible, having a guy in a uniform put the gas in and clean her windshield, and knowing that that much gas would last for weeks.|
|Experiencing the start of the environmental movement, as schools celebrated the first earth day.|
|Living with the knowledge that the Soviets and Americans were ready to kill each other at any point (damn Russians!), but somehow not letting that get in the way of enjoying life.|
|Listening to the radio summary round by round of the Ali-Frazier and Ali-Foreman fights.|
|Being annoyed by 8 Track tapes and their program changes.|
|Watching the Poseidon Adventure eight times in the theater.|
|McDonalds signs that said “Over a million sold.”|
|Having my mom get one of the only three air conditioned rooms in the hospital when my little sister was born in 1968 (but not being allowed to visit her in the hospital since my other sister and I were too young)|
|A&W Rootbeer in frosty mugs, hamburgers for 15 cents, and 10 cent cones at Dairy Queen.|
|Instead of going by fat content, meat was called ground beef, ground chuck, and ground round.|
|My college roommate bringing an early PC to the dorm, having to use a cassette player to save the programs we’d write (or put in games such as an early Star Trek game), and ultimately having him take the computer home because every time he’d turn it on all the TVs on the floor would go crazy. (Now that same dorm has computer stations in the basement).|
|Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and Dandy Don Meredith on Monday Night Football (and associating the name OJ Simpson with football greatness and nothing else)|
|Hank Aaron’s 715th homerun, with no steroids in sight|
August 6 - Random Thoughts
(Alert: today I digress into 'preachy' mode -- I apologize for the self-indulgence).
It’s great to live in the woods. Wild raspberries and blackberries growing along the trails, the beauty of a summer evening as the sun shines on green trees and grass, sitting on the deck and talking with friends, pulling the kids in a cart while pretending to be a choo-choo train, going over to the woods and pretending that “lions and tigers and bears” are chasing the train. Days like these make me feel that the world is truly a beautiful and wonderful place, and that this life is joyful and precious.
But there is a darker side to reality, and you see that on the news – everything from local abuse cases to wars in Africa and the Mideast to forced sexual slavery, child soldiers, mass atrocities, addictions and cruelty are all around us. If you switch your gaze from the beauty you can easily be overcome by the despair.
Blaise Pascal observed the human condition back 400 years ago and concluded that it’s just too absurd to make sense of, all one can do is have faith in God. In some ways, that’s what I do, though I lack Pascal’s devotion to a particular faith. I narrow things down to two possibilities: a) the world is a cosmic accident, all is by chance, and one simply has to make ones’ way as best one can in this world; or b) the world is here for a purpose, it signifies something and our lives mean something, even though we don’t understand what. As I noted in my blog on May 4th (Needed: a new Axial Age), most people have to choose between either faith in a religion whose dogmas seem out of touch with science and reason, or embrace a pure secular perspective that dismisses talk of spirituality and faith as either superstition or new age silliness.
But seeing the world as “an accident” seems bizarre. There is a world here. How could a world get here? Back in 2004 – 05 I posted a lot about modern physics and philosophy, trying to address this issue. I won’t rehash that, but ultimately I decided that there is no reason to have a default perspective that the world is nothing but mechanical processes, the existence of meaning beyond our understanding is just as credible. God, so conceived, is simply incomprehensible. Pascal believed so, his fideism rejected the attempt to use reason to understand God. Islam’s doctrines forbid portrayals of God because the incomprehensibility of God renders any image of God an idol. Hindus go the opposite route, allowing multiple Gods (but all at base the same). In each case there is recognition that what they are coping with is something we cannot comprehend.
And that brings me back to joy in a world filled with sorrow. It seems to me that all humans have within them the capacity for great good and great evil. Strong emotion can tip the scale from reasoned restraint to self-defeating action. Dehumanizing others (such as the Jews in the holocaust or the Tutsis in Rwanda) can get people to ignore the human connection with others and allow great atrocities, especially in times of chaos and war. Lack of empathy can get people to turn themselves off to the suffering of others, coldly manipulating a situation and other people. It seems that these things are present in each of us to some extent. If we explore the depths of our emotions, we'll see potentials to do horrific things if a few things were changed. At the same time, I'm also convinced that if we really explore ourselves -- and we use reason to think through the emotional impetus to do harm in a fit of anger or rage -- reason will meld with sentiment to yield good, even noble choices. Finding that balance in the modern world is difficult, especially when we are so disconnected from our spiritual side and so focused on material goods.
It seems that there are four things that can help bring about that balance, and I hope to pass these on to my children: 1) It is cliché, but positive thinking works. As Mary Poppins said “in any job that must be done there is an element of fun, find the fun and snap, the job’s a game.” Or as Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Planet would say, “don’t panic.” When things go wrong, remain positive, see it as a problem to solve, don’t fret, don’t blame, don’t get angry, just handle it. That sounds obvious, but in my experience most people (including myself) have to work at being able to do that; 2) Recognize and find joy in the beauty if life and this world. Despite the headlines and images that flash on the TV, or the personal tragedies we all endure, the beauty not only outweighs the ugliness, but ultimately overcomes it. The best way to enhance that process is to spread kindness and love in the world wherever one can; I'm convinced it makes a difference; 3) Take responsibility for your own life and happiness. Don’t let the actions, words, or deeds of others control you. Getting angry at someone gives that person power over your day, over your mood, and may even cause you to do things that hurt yourself. That again isn’t an easy thing to learn, even though it seems commonsensical. With practice it becomes natural because it is liberating -- you're not letting your happiness depend on others; and 4) Faith – if you do the above, just believe that somehow the world will work in the way it should, and you are doing all you can. I’ve given myself up to that faith, one whose God is unknowable and whose dogma is simply to treat others with love and kindness. Moreover, if I’m wrong, and the world is just a cosmic accident, no harm done. If there is no essential meaning, we can still create meaning in our own lives.
August 7 - Surge Limits
The genius of the current surge strategy is that, finally, the Bush Administration recognized the limits of what could be accomplished with military power in Iraq, and designed a policy that could achieve its objectives. However, these limits also show that the Administration recognizes that the outcome in Iraq will at best be far short of the goals they had at the outset. In essence, the Administration tacitly admits the war was a failure in terms of the policy objectives, but that it need not end in complete disaster. That’s a far cry from the dreams of “Iraq as a model” for Arab democracy, or a pro-American Iraq altering the balance of power in the Mideast, but that’s where we are now.
The surge has a limited goal: to weaken al qaeda. In January when the surge first began, I wrote that I thought it was designed to combat Sunni insurgents, which was to the benefit of the Shi’ites. I was wrong. The goal was more limited – Sunni insurgents have been made allies in a fight against al qaeda, even though they have no love for Americans. This has angered the Shi'ite majority, whose policies have already pushed Sunni groups to leave the 'unity' government. They correctly note that we are working with, funding and supporting Sunni groups that may have been part of the insurgency against the US, and may be very willing to use arms against the Shi'ites once the US departs. The US hopes that, with a weakened al qaeda, these Sunnis will be able to forge a political compromise with the Shi'ites -- after all, it took al qaeda and similar extremists two years to create conditions of if not civil war, at least intense sectarian voilence.
In Sunni parts of Iraq that has yielded results: areas are more stable, al qaeda and similar groups weaker, and some political stability has returned. Those cheering on the “surge” point to that and say “see, we’re making progress.” That is true. Alas, this is but a side show to the real problem in Iraq: the politics of the Shi’ite majority, and efforts to promote Sunni-Shi’ite reconciliation. Those are outside the scope of the surge, and beyond the control of American decision makers, but therein lies the future of Iraq. Weakening al qaeda is important, and will increase the chances all out civil war will break out (and perhaps spread through the region), but alone it is not enough.
Unfortunately, things look bleak. Iraq’s middle class was decimated in the years of Saddam’s rule, with the sanctions regime following on the footsteps of a costly war with Iran. Those who survived that have been leaving Iraq to places like Jordan, Egypt, and even Europe, meaning Iraq may lack the middle class necessary to create a stable, functioning democracy. Beyond that, Iran’s support of Shi’ite militia groups assures that the Shi’ite majority will not be the kind of majority the US wants to see run the show in Iraq. Moqtada al-Sadr, once wanted “dead or alive” represents the kind of populist Shi’ite ideals that are now mainstream. Add to that the fact Sunnis are fleeing Iraq, and the Shi’ite position is even more dominant. With Sunnis quitting government and political reconciliation as far away as ever, Iraq looks to be in a deepening crisis. The “surge” has also been unable to stop the violence; Iraqi deaths were up dramatically in July compared to June, and show no signs of abating.
Military success in Sunni regions mean that the surge will continue into Spring ’08. But lacking political change in the rest of Iraq, this is of limited value. The hope is that al qaeda can be weakened to the point it cannot work to ignite an Iraqi civil war, and thus political reconciliation will be possible. At present that appears to be wishful thinking. At some point tough decisions will have to be made: do we talk seriously with Iran and Saudi Arabia about help stabilizing the area, with it clear that we're leaving? Do we support partition? Do we keep forces at least in the Kurdish regions?
Outside Iraq, the US is arming the Saudis and other Sunni governments in the region so they can combat the emerging Iranian-Shi’ite threat, recognizing the danger if Iraq emerges as a close ally of Iran. But that could of course backfire, as more weapons often make conflict more likely. If they do avoid a regional war, which could devastate the world economy, Iraq will nonetheless likely be an Islamist Shi’ite state, close to Iran, opposed to Israel, and skeptical of the US. The more stable it becomes, the more it will resist American influence. And, frankly, that’s a result I think even the hawks in the Administration could now live with.
August 10 - Bias and Academia
I don’t often agree with people like Ward Connerly and so-called conservatives who, in my opinion, have a political perspective that over-emphasizes ideology. But he makes an interesting point in noting the lack of diversity in academia in terms of ideology:
For change to occur, the faculty leadership at universities throughout the nation must be urged to recognize the long-term harm that will result to them and to the faith that the American people should have in higher education from a continued public perception that the academy is intellectually monolithic of thought, goofy and out-of-touch with the American mainstream. When Ward Churchill becomes the face of the college professoriate, American higher education will lose the respect that it has among the taxpaying public. That perception is not far from reality. Little-by-little, the high esteem that we give to higher education is being eroded by the view that they are out-of-touch or intellectually intolerant. (http://www.mindingthecampus.com)
First, while I was at first appalled by the reaction against Ward Churchill due to an article he wrote about 9-11, it came out that: a) he has engaged in academic dishonesty; b) he doesn’t even have a Ph.D.; and c) his field ‘ethnic studies’ is one where there is less internal academic scrutiny than most fields because it is politically and ideologically driven. Churchill is an outlier, he is not indicative of where most disciplines and faculties are. Yet to many on the right he has become emblematic of the problems in academia. Most university faculty members tend to be left of center. Moreover, there is a strong sense of anti-authoritarianism in the academic mindset and in all but a few exceptions I’ve never known any colleague to punish or berate someone for having an opposing view – quite the opposite. I fear sometimes I am too lenient grading someone who has a perspective different than mine because I am so concerned with avoiding bias.
Why are faculties usually more to the left? Part is inherent in the field of higher education at two levels: a) the amount of time and effort going towards a Ph.D. usually is economically irrational – from a purely materialist perspective one could put that time and effort towards something which will earn a larger salary. People who want to be scholars have a mindset and even personality prone to questioning existing beliefs and playing with new and interesting ideas; and b) the ideals of science and free inquiry inherently cause academics to reject traditional authority (religion, for instance) and not be afraid to buck conventional opinion. Conservatism by its nature usually focuses on seeing tradition in a positive light, and often will put faith over reason. And, while many academics are quite devout, it’s usually not the same kind of faith as religious conservatives.
However, Connerly’s call for “academic diversity” is a tricky one. First, conservatives especially demand that political perspective not be part of the hiring process, fearing that liberal universities will want to hire other liberals. So the idea that we should look for conservatives is not really viable. Moreover, academic diversity really could also mean we'd have to look not just at conservatives, but also radical post-modernists, Communists, and other perspectives, not just the traditional left/right in America. When we hire, we look at the person’s integrity, scholarship and (for a teaching institution like this) evidence of teaching ability. So ultimately I have to disagree that political partisanship should be put ahead of scholarship and teaching ability – especially since the political spectrum is far broader than American conceptions of ‘conservative and liberal.’
What professors need to do is make very clear to students the variety of opinions out there. If a professor is against the Iraq war, for instance, he or she must, if talking about it, be able to convey the pro-war argument persuasively and effectively, so students know all perspectives. I’ve always had as a goal being able to explain different perspectives effectively so students could make their own choices; the goal is to empower students, trying to "program" them would be anti-academic. I know it works because of how often students aren’t able to figure out my political stance, or have it wrong (to be sure, my politics doesn’t fit in a typical liberal-conservative spectrum since it has a strong libertarian component, but I’ll discuss that a different time). When explaining the argument and appeal of the Nazis in the thirties, most of the class admitted that if they'd lived in Germany at the time they might well have supported the Nazis. No, I didn't convince them to become right wing fanatics, but I did get them to understand the perspective at that time and take it seriously, rather than simply dismissing it.
Upper level students who know basically how I (or the other poli-sci profs) stand know we all value diverse opinion. Thus students are very open about their views and willing to debate, which is a good thing. That also models a particular kind of behavior. Often when people encounter a different perspective than their own it is seen as a threat, something bad or wrong that needs to be put down. That leads to reactions of anger, emotion and fear. Students need to learn that it's good to encounter different perspectives, and rather than react as if it was a battle of "isms," to understand, communicate and be self-critical as well as other-critical.
Finally, we need to be careful that we don’t, out of a desire for diversity or “political correctness” give people like Ward Churchill – who didn’t have a Ph.D. – a pass. We need to make sure that fields like “ethnic studies” are held to as high a standard as traditional disciplines. Respect for diverse perspectives and academic competence must be demanded.
If faculties are primarily left/Democratic in their leanings, that’s not going to change. Every Republican or conservative I knew in graduate school has done very well professionally, I don’t believe there is much discrimination in academia. It’s more a self-selection bias, combined with the nature of academia: to challenge and question authority and existing modes of thought. Education is helping students find their own way and liberate themselves from having others – parents, teachers, society as a whole – shape how they think. The only way to do that is to help them explore different perspectives and ideas, learning how to think critically, understanding logic, history, the scientific method, and various ways one can interpret experience in this world, and then to respect their right and responsibility to make their own choices.
August 13 - Karl Rove exits...of course...
Karl Rove is a political consultant who specializes in election strategy. Today everyone is abuzz with the news that he’s leaving – is he afraid of investigations, has the President lost confidence in him, has he nothing left to do because the Democrats now control the Congress and the President is a lame duck? Whether or not any of those are true, one obvious fact has to stand out: Rove’s future is in managing, running, and planning campaigns for high level Republican candidates. He can’t do that from the White House in 2008! And he really has to quit now if he wants to explore his options and not get stuck at the White House until the end. Personally, I think it would have been shocking if he did not resign about now! So what do we make of Rove's tenure at the White House? Has Rove succeeded or failed?
One could argue that President Bush’s Presidency appears headed to being remembered as a failure. That’s probably too harsh. Iraq doesn’t appear likely to be salvaged, despite some tactical success with the “surge,” and most of the domestic program he envisioned did not come about, mostly because of Iraq. Even Afghanistan appears in deep crisis, and there will certainly be intense criticism of the choices made after 9-11. If the sub-prime collapse has the economic ramifications some fear, he could leave a severe economic legacy. It’s still possible that, like Truman, he will be vindicated, but at this point that appears wishful thinking by Bush supporters. For all their talk about the 'surge,' they ignore its very limited and modest military ends (August 7 blog). The President did add judges Roberts and Alito to the court, and they appear not only very competent judges, but ones that will shape the court in years to come in a manner consistent with President Bush’s philosophy – that could make a difference in American politics for decades. Overall, though, Iraq consumed the Presidency. But what about Rove?
Rove’s focus has been on domestic policy, or really domestic politics. He probably didn’t play much of a role in choosing to go to war in Iraq, except to lay out certain political ramifications and strategies of getting public support. Ironically, if he'd failed there perhaps the President would have been more successful! And, while the President’s numbers are now low, they were high enough in 2004 to get him re-elected, and the politics behind the war, while frustrating to war critics, has put the Democrats in a position of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’ If they defund the war, they’ll look bad to most, especially since the surge is having tactical successes in a couple of Sunni regions. This isn’t likely to lead to a strategic turn around, but politically it helps the President. If they don’t do something real to stop it, they’ll appear hypocritical, driven by politics, and weak. They also know that they really can’t do much that isn’t symbolic without GOP support given the threat of a filibuster.
Rove wasn’t able to help the GOP hang on in Congress in 2006, largely due to the unpopularity of the President. If Rove failed, he failed there. But he might argue (and he’d probably be right) that he managed to keep the President and the GOP strong for a long time, playing the politics of the war and the Democrats like a virtuoso until the weight of reality became too much to spin. 2006 was not an election Rove had any control over, it was about Iraq, and there were Congressional mishaps that he was not in a position to prevent.
Ultimately, if not a failure, he wasn’t much of a success in government. Roves’ experiences and controversies are a sign to future Presidents: the political genius who gets you elected is probably best kept in that world, not the world of policy advice, even if that advice may seem useful to getting public support for bold initiatives. On that front, Rove didn’t accomplish much except perhaps better his career by expanding his contacts and gaining friends by doing favors only a White House insider can accomplish.
So now he’ll move away from center stage. He’ll likely never be a close political confidant to a President again, he now has baggage and he was only where he was because of his long relationship with President Bush. But he’ll certainly be in demand as a campaign strategist and director. If he can pull the old electoral magic with new candidates, he will likely have a long career ahead as a big time political operator, maybe become a star like the Democrats’ James Carville. He’ll certainly be media savvy, likely a commentator, and he’ll probably have more staying power than most of Bush’s political appointees. But ultimately, I think it was a mistake to bring him to Washington. When political strategists become policy advisors, it just feels a bit oily.
August 15 - A big turn around – but not like we want
In August 2007, despite some spectacular acts of terrorism, the public mood in the United States about the Iraq war seems as positive as its been for a long time. Pro-war types, long suffering under continual bad news, mistaken claims about progress, and an unpopular President, now have some spring in their step as they talk about the “surge,” the counter insurgency tactics of Gen. Petraeus, and the fact that Sunni hotbeds of terror like Ramadi have now become stable and more ‘normal.’ Some even wonder if maybe the corner has been turned, and Iraq *gasp* might be a war “we can win.”
But beneath all this are some ominous signs. First, a recent arms shipment going through Italy to Iraq was confiscated, leading to the question of where those arms were going, and how many other such shipments don’t get intercepted. Is the Iraqi government secretly arming militias and its own military groups, separate from American scrutiny and control? President Bush publicly criticizes (and depending on the interpretation even threatens) Iraqi Prime Minister Malaki about Iranian influence. US military people decry Iran’s increased meddling, arming of militias, and potential closeness to the Iraqi government. When the British depart from Basra, the city becomes a haven for militias and other nefarious types.
While war supporters think the surge may be leading to a big turn around in war fortunes for the US, the real turn around is coming as the United States slips from battling Sunni insurgents set to destroy the Shi’ite government, to allying with them against a Shi’ite government increasingly backed by Iran. The Sunni Arab insurgents, being only about 20% of the population, never had a chance to win against the Shi’ite majority backed by the US. If they could force the US out, they might have a chance to regain domination – after all, that’s the way its been for four centuries. Now, however, the US becoming allied with the Sunnis, who are making peace amongst themselves and not so keen on attacking Americans. Yet the Shi’ites continue ethnic cleansing of Sunni neighborhoods, and increasingly appear determined not to engage the Sunnis in the political aspect of the surge, as Malaki promised Bush he would.
It seems obvious what’s happening. The Iranians want the US gone, and they want to assure that Iraq is friendly to their interests (not a pro-US potential staging area). They are Shi’ites, and know that the Iraqi Arab Shi’ites fear the Arab Sunnis. Iran also has ties with the political and religious leadership in Iraq, as many were exiled in Iran for much of Saddam’s rule. So the Iranians are almost certain to have approached the Iraqi Shi’ite leaders and said, “The US is leaving, and in fact now even aiding and perhaps arming Sunni groups wanting to regain dominance. They are closely allied with Saudi Arabia. They betrayed you in 1991. You can’t trust them to assure majority Shi’ite rule, and independent control of oil and other economic resources. You can trust us. We’ll be there when the Americans are gone, we certainly won’t ally with the Sunnis against you, and we’ll help reconstruction. Your only price: help us make sure that the Americans can’t dominate Iraq. Build militias, prevent rehabilitation of Baath party members, avoid deals on oil and political power sharing, and when the time is right make it impossible for the United States to control the Iraqi government and Shi’ite majority." In other words, the current “success” with the Sunnis could be the calm before the storm. The “surge,” now almost a sacred word to some, might end up being remembered as just another failed and naïve strategy – how could we have missed the growing Iranian-Iraqi Shi’ite bond, and their common interest in having the US leave without first achieving reconciliation with the Shi’ites?
There are things that might mitigate against this result. The Kurds are a wild card, friendly to American interests. What role will they play? Perhaps the Bush Administration is making real diplomatic progress with Iran, essentially saying “give us stability and a way to claim success, and we won’t take action on the nuclear issue or your alliance with Iraq.” But that seems unlikely given recent war talk out of Washington about labeling Iran's revolutionary guard a "terrorist organization." Things aren’t always as they seem, however. Such a deal would also have to entail close negotiation with Saudi Arabia (by both Iran and the US), and Syria would be brought in the mix. So we have to hope that the Bush administration will mix its new found competence in finding a military tactic that works with diplomatic virtuosity that can yield complex agreements with a member of what the President called “the axis of evil.” Unlikely, but, after all, Nixon went to China. The alternative is a coming Iraq implosion that will either lead to a escalation against Iran that could be a monumental disaster, or withdrawal in humiliation as the war against Iraq ultimately strengthens Iran rather than advancing western democracy.
Why do so many not see this, or somehow push aside the issue of Iran and the Shi'ites? People are focused less on the reality of Iraq than on the political battles at home. If the military seems to be having success, that is the focus of attention. The complexity and the dangers are too distant and hard to put forth in sound bites. That's why we are very likely to be surprised and disappointed -- perhaps severely -- once again.
August 16 - Where credit is due
When discussing why the developed world is so wealthy while the third world finds it difficult to maintain economic growth, one answer is credit. If you are a hard working and responsible person in the industrialized West, you can get credit to do things to improve your life, get an education, or start a business. To get a loan in the third world, you often need to go through money lenders, or banks that cater to the subpopulation of elites. The mass expansion of credit throughout society is a main reason why we have become so prosperous, and why almost anyone with determination and a dream can try to start their own business or pursue their ambitions.
As with anything, you can have too much of a good thing, and credit may also be our undoing. Right now the stock market is in a panic due to credit fears. The subprime mortgage market, only about 15% of the mortgages out there, has been collapsing due to an increase in foreclosures. This has had repercussions at even the highest levels of the financial world, and has helped drive down housing sales and housing prices. When both the price and the demand drop, that’s a bad sign.
But surely, one might argue, our diverse economy can handle some bad mortgages, and if the fed sends more cheap money into the system things will over time adjust. No need to panic. Alas, it’s not so easy.
First, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that this only treats the symptoms and more credit/debt could simply put off – perhaps not by much – the real crisis. For the last 15 years (and I talked about this on my blog before – go to June 23, 2006 for example) people have been borrowing against their homes’ value in order to do a myriad of things ranging from paying for their children’s education to taking vacations in exotic places. With home values going up and up, it seemed that only a fool wouldn’t cash in. This also meant that consumer spending kept the US economy going through the last recession unlike other parts of the industrialized world (where cheap credit was less readily available). Americans chalked this up to their “superior economic policies” and it reinforced a belief that ‘nothing can go wrong here.’ The result is that there is very little available money left for people to borrow against the equity of their homes. Moreover, a huge sub-economy grew along with the housing market, ranging from mortgage brokers to contractors to suppliers. People are to their eyeballs in debt, yet with housing prices stagnant and falling, they often owe more than their home is worth. Add to that high oil prices, a costly and frankly rather pointless war in Iraq, and we could be in deep trouble. Don’t look for a fiscal bailout through lower taxes or a government injection of spending. The government debt has been driven up dramatically in the last seven years, the dollar is at all time lows – and looking to get weaker – and borrowing more would make matters worse.
Credit sustains an economy like food – it helps it grow, provides a capacity for people to invest, develop new businesses, and expand the economic pie. Without credit (or if credit is too expensive, as with moneylenders), all these things are very hard to achieve. But too much credit renders an economy fat and bloated, and to take this analogy to a ridiculous extreme, could lead the economy to collapse like an overweight glutton suffering a heart attack.
So what to do? I doubt there are easy answers. Debt levels are so high, the dollar so weak, instability in the Mideast so dangerous in terms of oil supply and price, that there is no magic bullet. No presidential candidate will present a plan able to fix this and probably won’t acknowledge the problem (except for mutual finger pointing about the cause). At some level, reality shatters illusions and economic laws play themselves out. We will experience a credit crunch, a lower standard of living, and perhaps a deep economic recession to correct the excesses of the last twenty or so years. If a severe oil crisis (either due to decreased production or Mideast turmoil) gets added to this mix, there could be a world depression with unforeseeable (but likely very bad) consequences.
All we can do is keep debts low, be conservative in investing – the best investment is probably to pay off debt at this point – and remember that you don’t get something for nothing, everything has price.
And those voices saying “don’t worry, this is nothing”? Similar voices were heard in the days leading up to the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent depression. When things have been going good, it’s hard to believe that things could head south quickly. Faith overtakes reason, homilies like “we have a very vibrant economy” or “the American spirit will keep things going” replace reasoned analysis. I'm not an economists so you can take my opinion with a grain of salt, but I believe It is coming. I’m not sure how bad it will be, or what the long term consequences might entail, but our credit orgy is going to have its morning after. All we can do is be prepared.
Blog vacation: August 17 - September 2