July 2006

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Entries are given in chronological order.

July 1 - Geopolitics, Part 2:  Israel and Palestine

Note: for a rethinking of this piece, see the blog entry for July 13

(What do I mean by "geopolitics" -- click here for my brief explanation)

To put it in a nutshell, the issue of Israel and Palestine is so difficult to solve because depending on which sides' perspective you engage, it is so clear that their position is right and the other side is guilty of horrific acts.  Add to that the emotion that has developed over years of conflict, death, humiliation and fear, and the two sides are locked into a kind of self-righteous determination.  Yet the Arabs won't be driven into the desert, the Jews won't be driven into the sea.

So what's the problem and what role does it play in Mideast geopolitics?  The Arabs made a major error in 1948 by not accepting Israel's right to exist, and thus have for eternity sacrificed claim to large chunks of land.   The Israelis, by grabbing the West Bank and Gaza (they've given back the Sinai in the one tactic that works -- land for peace), have created a nearly intractable problem.  They can't annex the territory because they'd have to make citizens of the Arabs living there -- Arabs that could one day out vote Jews.  They can't engage in ethnic cleansing without creating a huge backlash at home and abroad.  They can't simply let Palestine become a state without fear of it being a terrorist haven.  Meanwhile in the occupied territories Palestinians see the Jewish settlements thrive and get most of the water (swimming pools at times are on the Jewish side of the fence, while Palestinians struggle with water shortages) on 'their' land, while they have suffered a generation of humiliation, poverty and political/economic control.  Anyone looking at that can see why you get suicide bombers and groups like Hamas -- over a generation of that kind of life creates rage and a sense of mission.  One has to understand it, you can't just throw out some kind of blanket condemnation.  At the same time, Israel's fear and anger has to be understood as well.  There is only one possible solution: a secure Israel alongside a viable Palestine generally within the 1967 borders.  But achieving that seems impossible.

I'm not going to get more into the specifics of the current Israeli plan or internal Palestinian politics (at least not today) because the goal here is to discuss the geopolitics of the situation.   What role does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict play in what's happening, and what does it mean for US policy.

Is this the key problem?  Read most analysts and they'll argue that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict underlies most of the troubles in the Mideast; if we could solve that, we'd find the road forward much easier.  I disagree.  The key problems in the Mideast are: 1) authoritarian, corrupt states which breed a political culture lacking civil society and promoting anger and extremism; 2) oil and its influence on every level; and 3) the sudden cultural phenomenon of modernization.  It's been happening there since the Ottomans fell, but only slowly.  Now it's moving quickly as globalization forces change.  This leads, of course, to a backlash.  So solve Israel and Palestine and you'll get some breathing room, but it's not the center piece many claim that it is (especially the neo-conservatives in the run up to the Iraq war).  Many extremists use it as propaganda to stoke the emotions, but I suspect that by now most Arabs recognize Israel is going to be around, they just want a fair deal for the Palestinians.

Can a regional war breakout?  We've had wars in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973.  The wars stopped as soon as Egypt moved from wanting to wipe Israel off the map to recognizing its right to exist.  Without Egypt, the other Arab states had no chance to challenge the increasingly well armed Israeli military.  With Iraq in tatters, Egypt in no mood for a conflict, the Saudis weak militarily, Jordan remaining a force for peace and Syria too weak and insecure to challenge it, it seems unlikely Israel-Palestine will spark a regional war.   This calculation could change if Israeli tactics were especially horrific, especially if that gets combined with changes of governments in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where radical extremists are potentially strong, held in check by authoritarian states.  One also has to wonder about the internal dynamic of a potential rivalry between an Iranian-Iraqi Shi'ite alliance and the Sunni Arab world.  At this point, I'm pretty confident that Israel-Palestinian conflict will remain localized.

What about Iran?  Currently Israel puts Iran as its major threat, but that is primarily because of the weakness of the states around them, and the uncertainty caused by Iran's mix of Islamic fundamentalism and a nuclear program.   While some have gone wild over the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad (or claim he has some kind of belief the world is about to end), the power in Iran rests with the Guardian Council, and they're not about to risk everything to attack Israel and assure their own destruction.

Conclusion:  While there are humanitarian reasons to want the conflict between Israel and Palestine to end, the biggest geopolitical aspect of this conflict now is its value as propaganda to incite young Muslims to battle the West.  Since, as I noted yesterday, Islamic extremism isn't near as prominent in the Arab world as many Americans think, eliminating this source of emotion would help.  Overall, though, I think the geopolitical importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is overstated.  Ending it will help, but it is unlikely to explode into WWIII.   

A final thought:  This issue also shows how difficult it is to solve a conflict when it moves from the political/territorial realm (where it was through 1967) to the cultural/social realm.   The Arabs refused to accept Israel when a solution was feasible and could have been easy to develop; Israeli treatment of the Palestinians (in part as a reaction to terrorism) helped push it to become the cultural/social conflict it now is.  Each share responsibility, and each side will have to do things it doesn't want to do to solve it.  The problem: the hardliners on each side will see concessions by the other side as weakness and push harder when they should make their own concessions.  But whether they like it or not, the destinies of the Israelis and Palestinians are linked.

July 4- 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 - The Mouse that tried to roar

North Korea is in the midst of a series of missile tests which has included so far one failure of the Taepodong 2 long range missile (thanks, Jon Stewart, I can't think of that missile now without laughing).  While it may be tempting to smugly laugh at the failure -- the mouse tried to roar but couldn't even squeak -- missile test failures yield important information, and having a failure like this increases the chance that they'll be able to find problems they didn't previously recognize.  Failures are indeed expected with early tests -- and it appears that more tests are coming, so it'll be interesting if they try again.

But what does this mean?  Is it a threat to the US?  Of course not, at least not an offensive threat.  That would be suicide.  But a nuclear North Korea capable of hitting the US does weaken America's hand in dealing with North Korea, since even a small and questionable nuclear arsenal would provide some deterrence against American military aggression.

The conventional wisdom is that Kim Jong Il simply did this to get attention.  But as I noted when I discussed the "evil individual fallacy" on June 9th (discussing Zarqawi's death -- and if you're watching the news, you know that his death did nothing to weaken the insurgency, and may even have been an inside job from al qaeda's leaders), Americans tend to put too much emphasis on one person or one leader.  That leads to flawed analysis.  To be sure, in a totalitarian state like North Korea the leader has the preponderance of power, but it is a bureaucratic state with a lot of powerful people with one overriding interest: not to lose their power and authority.  It's more complex than just Kim wanting attention.

First, they could be planning something like what the French did in 1995 with their nuclear test -- one last test despite massive world protest, and then with fanfare announce they were done.  The scenario would go like this: once there is a successful Taepodong 2 missile test, the North would announce that they were willing to suspend all future tests as part of the negotiations over their nuclear program.  That will have upped the ante and put more pressure on the US.  Given how difficult the US is having getting the world to speak with one voice on any issue (mostly because we're demanding it be our voice), they're pushing to try to get the best deal possible.  Second, the North Koreans know that ultimately they cannot continue as outsiders in a global economy.  They also know that their power structure will be threatened if they join the global economy on the terms of the West.  So they are trying to use their potential nuclear threat to set the terms of the transition so that they can remain totalitarian while reforming their economy.  They see China as an ally since China is a model of a continued Communist government alongside economic expansion.  But they don't want the process to drag out, and perhaps fear that the US, recognizing North Korea isn't a major threat, will stand in their way of being able to transform without giving up power at the top (again, not just Kim but the North Korean Communist bureaucracy).

That's a dilemma.  The US could keep pressuring North Korea with the idea that regime change is what we want.  The result would likely be an intransigent Kim and a low level mini-crisis combined with continued humanitarian suffering.  Kim and the Communist elite would hold out for the next President or try to up the ante, knowing that Washington's military and diplomatic options are limited.   Another option is that the US could negotiate creatively.  Demand full inspection rights in exchange for a very enticing package of aid and trade -- in other words, open the door to the "chinese path" without putting any pressure on Kim to step down or change governmental policies.  This seems insane, but once an economy opens to market forces and people start getting used to having some money, it becomes harder for a totalitarian system to avoid opening up further.  In some ways the economic and political future of China is brighter than that of Russia, despite the collapse of Russian and continuation of Chinese communism.  (This could work with Cuba too).  It could well be that the North Koreans really don't want to continue their pariah status, but the elites will choose to do so if the other option is to sacrifice power.  The trick of such a policy would be in the details, and verification is essential.  Perhaps ultimately tne North Koreans would balk at true verification.  But if done well, this kind of approach could work much better than the current, stagnate and ineffective attempt at multilateral diplomacy. 

Back in the heady days of 2002 the US could imagine that its power and diplomacy could finally wipe out this totalitarian starving state.  But now that seems impossible.  Maybe the best thing for the region, the US and the North Korean people is a real negotiated settlement with an eye on allowing North Korea to choose to alter its identity...as long as we can verify their disarmament.  Let the mouse think it roared.

Quick note on Iraq: the violence there has been escalating, and the Iraqi Prime Minister is threatening to remove immunity from American soldiers from prosecution because of the case of the soldier raping and killing a 15 year old girl.  That case is being investigated, and might even be bigger than is currently suspected.    The case is causing outrage in Iraq, and continues to push anti-American sentiments higher.  Nearly a month after Zarqawi's death things are still getting worse. 

July 7 - Islam and the West

I'm starting my preparation for courses this fall -- the first semester with four credit courses rather than three -- and I have two courses to teach I've never taught before, and which challenge me to push my understanding further.  The most difficult one will be Clash of Civilizations?  Islam and the West.  It's an honors course, and will involve an intense look at the history and identity of both "civilizations," and the nature of their interaction.  The second is a first year seminar Syriana, which involves using a film to generate interest in oil markets, the CIA, and the politics of the Arab world.  I'm sure I'll write more on these during the semester as we're going through the issues, but since it's on my mind now as I start preparing for the semester (which is less than two months away), I want to talk a bit about the first.

Globalization presents the West with a challenge that is multifaceted.  With criticism and a challenge from Islam (as well as Asian economies) we need to define what the West is, and how we can deal with what Huntington would label a clash of civilizations.  It's not enough to try to build a fence around the country; in an era of globalization that won't work.  We also can't simply say that Muslims are the ones with the problem and they should solve it.  If the problem doesn't get solved we'll suffer, so we have an intense interest in making sure this "clash" or "interaction" doesn't go out of control.   Ironically, the future of the West might depend upon the future if the Islamic world.

So what is the West?  How do we define "western?"  For some it's capitalism and democracy.  Or others it's Judeo-Christian culture.  Some look at a development from Greek thought to the modern world.  At the very least it seems a fusing of ancient Hebrew thinking with Greek philosophy, brought together by the early Christian church.  Augustine brought in Platonic thought and meshed it with the Bible.  Things like the trinity and a variety of Christian theological concepts borne at this time are borrowed from Plato.  Over time Aristotle's teachings informed the development of the western mind, and then around 1600 the take off to modernity began, culminating in a break from traditional religious culture in favor of a secular, modern, scientific mindset.  After the enlightenment, western civilization underwent a radical transformation, severing much of its core identity -- the Christian faith -- from western self-analysis.  Christianity survived, but it's control over how people behave and think waned, as capitalism, political ideologies, and materialism rose.  The age of reason replaced the age of faith, the age of consumerism overtook the age of piety.

And that, it seems to me, is the core of the dilemma between the West and the Muslim world.  To understand this clash and how to deal with it requires an understanding of how different the western world is now from what it was only a few centuries ago.   It's a transition that is only beginning in much of the Muslim world, especially the Mideast.   People in the West, enamored with the idea that biology and "human nature" drives everyone naturally to a western mindset, would like to simply tell the Islamic world (or the third world) to grow up.  Modernize!  Embrace markets, embrace democracy, look how rich they've made us!  Such a simplistic view, of course, overlooks how hard it was for us to achieve what we've accomplished (and, of course, overlooks the negative side of western culture, which I blog about quite a bit).

Yet modernization in the Muslim world will not be the same as in the Christian world.  The Christian world transformed itself, and its battles, whether it be the reformation, the French Revolution, or the ideology wars of the 20th century, were internal.  It engaged in external conquest while going through this transformation.  The Muslim world (and other 'civilizations' if you buy Huntington's terminology) are modernizing with intense external pressure in an era of globalization.  Their culture is not only modernizing, but they are being pressured to modernize in a manner that mirrors the West, with westerners often flabbergasted that they don't see the 'obvious' correctness of our way of life.

If not managed well, it could become a clash based on foundations as fundamental as the reformation or French revolution, with an impact that in an era of globalization and terrorism could do considerable harm to the West.   And, it seems to me, using violence to try to put down the "threat" of Islam is precisely the wrong way to handle this kind of dilemma.  Sure, counter terrorism is necessary, but violence adds fire to an already volatile situation.  This also speaks to the necessity of the West truly recognizing the challenge and actively working to promote peaceful and stable interactions that can allow a gradual shift in the culture of the Muslim world.  We also need to recognize that the shift may be to a modernism that doesn't mimic the West.  We may be challenged to let go of our belief that the West represents a reflection of human nature and accept that it is one cultural expression human nature can take. 

Are we up to the challenge?

July 8 - It just ain't right

A quickie today since the weather is nice and we're busy.  I have to protest what Texas Democrats are doing trying to keep Tom Delay's name on the ballot in order to make it harder for Republicans to choose a candidate.  Hey -- we voters should demand the greatest possible choice, and legal games should not be permitted to limit that choice.   That's too typical of American politics these days -- a desire for power trumps ethics.  There have been numerous complaints about that coming from Karl Rove and the Republicans, but the Democrats are playing the same game.  Stop it! 

July 10 - The "G" Word

In Iraq over 60 Sunni Arabs were killed at checkpoints yesterday, based solely on their identity.  Ethnic killing has been taking place for months now, with dead bodies piling up every day, along with bombings of mosques, kidnapping and other acts of violence.  The American military has been impotent to stop this, while the Iraqi government is either powerless or influenced by groups involved in the killing.  In short, the US decision to go to war in Iraq has led to a situation where people can contemplate using the word genocide to describe what the Shi'ites and Sunnis are trying to do to each other.  The only question is whether this can be contained, and how far it could spread.

We have to be clear: the United States must accept responsibility for this outcome.  Some  will say "you just want to blame America" (imagine a whiney voice there), but when you hear that line it's usually a sign that people want to wash their hands of the results of American policy.  We destroyed what stability that was there, and our actions have hastened this collapse.  Moreover, very few can argue that Iraqis are better off now than they were under Saddam.   Most of the numbers of deaths associated with Saddam are from the wars he launched, and include Iranians.  By 2003 his terror apparatus was weakened, and most Iraqis knew that as long as they weren't politically active, they were safe.  The numbers tortured and killed by his secret police were far fewer than those killed, tortured and mutilated now.   No weapons of mass destruction, no connection to 9-11, no threat to the US, no active WMD programs, and now a human rights situation worse than before, with chaos which could spread to the entire region.  I long said that this war was a failure; it's turning into a humanitarian catastrophe of profound proportions.

Most Americans realize things have gone bad, but the whole debate is taking place in a unreal sphere, with artificial discursive constructs defining various positions.  To the right, it's "the war on terror," and "we're making progress" (slow and unseen because of the "biased media").  Opposition to the war is either painted as not understanding the 'terror threat' or simply a claim that people 'hate Bush.'  In fact that "hate Bush" charge seems one politically calculated to simply try to dismiss the arguments of the left without having to confront them.  I certainly don't hate Bush, I don't know many who do.  It's a question of policy, not the person.  The "hate Bush" claim is disingenuous and designed to deceive, that's not what opposition to the war is about.  Others simply want to focus on protecting the honor of the military, and think that "white lies" and doing whatever is necessary to preserve the military's reputation needs to be done.  Others go off into ga-ga over the top fantasy land by making comparisons to World War II or trying to posit this as some kind of existential threat to the US.

To the anti-war side, the war is about dead and injured Americans, it's about the budget deficit, and disruption to American life.  There is a vague sense that war is bad and that enhances the criticism, but the situation in Iraq is not paramount.  If anything, it's used propagandistically in order to attack the pro-war claims about progress.  Moreover, the gossip and talk radio hounds focus so much on political personalities that the issue gets lost in gotcha games of misquotes and sound bites.  In the US the debate about Iraq is surreal and treated more like a domestic issue with Iraq an object that gets little attention except for it being the staging area of American policy.

Yet as I read reports of ethnic killing, I recall the Dallaire book about Rwanda, even to the point where he described the difficulty they had in putting together a government, and how the politicians knew what to say to international observers, but didn't mean what they said.

So some hard questions: if we are witnessing a human rights catastrophe in Iraq, and if one wants to make comparisons to how things started in Rwanda, doesn't that reinforce the argument for troops -- perhaps more troops?  No -- though more troops would be needed if we wanted to have a chance at stopping what's happening, the force levels now are impotent in the face of this civil war.   For a variety of reasons, the US cannot "right" the situation, that's a fact that sooner or later will have to be accepted.  There is too much animosity to the Americans already, recent cases of rape, murder, and other atrocities create a belief that the foreign invaders care nothing about Iraqis (never mind that it's a tiny fraction of the military personnel over there -- in the minds of Iraqis and Arabs the damage is already done, is real, and can't be undone).  The US presence simply aides extremists and provides a pretext for the ethnic killings.  If an international force with full UN approval and wide participation were to come in, perhaps that could do something, but that's unlikely, and it is unclear that outsiders can fix this.  Unlike Rwanda, this isn't just a bunch of kids with machetes on a quick rampage, this is planned and well equipped.

Moreover, Iraq could be the start of a major clash between Sunnis and Shi'ites that could spread.  While some Islamophobes might like the idea of a Muslim civil war, its repercussions would be disastrous to the West.  The only solution I see, now that we've f***ed up the country by unleashing all this, is again what I suggested over a year ago.  We need help from Iran and Syria.   Iran is Shi'ite, Syria is Sunni.  They are allies, if not tremendously close ones.  They have an interest in regional stability, they have an interest in loosening pressure from the US.  They don't control the insurgencies in each country, but they could together exercise a positive influence to work against genocide and sectarian atrocities, and try to support a unitary government.  Or, in a bad but not worst case scenario, they could help coordinate a partition of Iraq that shares the resources enough so as not to program an all out war.

I don't think people realize just how bad things are, and how far we are from a solution.  I think the hooey about a "war on terror" is ridiculous rhetoric that either intentionally or unintentionally blinds people from taking an honest look at the situation and the needed policies.  As I noted the other day, you can't win a war against terror, or against Islamic extremism.  Choosing "war" plays into their hands, that is proven by what's happening in Iraq.  The only question is whether or not the militarists are so caught up in their rhetoric and belief system that instead of becoming self-critical, they start fantasizing this as some global world war.

I do have one hope, and it's perhaps far-fetched: Condoleezza Rice.  In academia, Rice is a realist.  In the administration of Bush's father, she was part of a very competent foreign policy ending the Cold War.   She seems to be moving away from the radical militarism of the neo-conservatives, and the positive results on the diplomatic stage suggest she is sending a signal that the Administration has learned lessons from its past failures, and is going to do all that it can to right what has gone wrong.  Rice is in a position of true historical importance.   Can she find a way to do what needs to be done?  Does she understand the situation?   How do Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush fit in here?  I don't know, but right now things are as bad as ever in Iraq, and while the US has started a policy shift, we need to do much more, and fast.  

July 11  - Higher Education in 2050?

One issue that doesn't get discussed much in the general public is the state of higher education.  Yet there are contradictory trends which suggest that by 2050 (the arbitrary date I'm using to think about various issues in the future this summer) vast changes will have taken place in how we approach higher ed.

First, a few trends.  60% of college courses are taught by adjunct or part time faculty, and not tenured or tenure track professors.  In many states tuition at public universities has shot up 40 or 50% in just a couple years to offset decreased support from state governments.  Private school tuition has been increasing as well, leaving graduates with debt loads the size of a small house.  At the same time, the ability to get a quality job without a college education has decreased; as they become more expensive they also move away from being elitist towards mass education.  This is especially true in public universities; private colleges have often found it financially better to enhance their elitism.  Beyond that, the federal government has been talking about instituting standardized tests and other ways to assess learning outcomes from college, and a few schools have already imposed such things.

These trends pose a number challenges.  Socially the higher cost of a college education (both public and private) is likely to increase the divide between the middle class and the poor.  Middle class parents will find a way to get their kids through a college of some sort, but the poor simply won't be able to afford it.  Furthermore, states will have to make tough choices in terms of their funding of higher education.  As the burden shifts from the state to students (in Maine twenty years ago the state paid roughly 80% of the costs, the students picked up 20%; now it's more like 50-50), states will have to decide the mission of their university system.  Is it to offer low cost education to students who can't afford private schools?  Is it to generate a better educated workforce to enhance the economy?  Do they want campuses across the state (adding expense) or do they need to streamline and merge facilities?  Do they want to cut programs and rely more and more on term appointed faculty rather than tenure track positions?  Tuition can only go up so much before state schools price themselves out of the market. 

What about accountability?  Standardized tests may sound good to politicians, but those who study education theory realize that they are very bad at assessing learning of the kind of higher intellectual abilities that college is meant to foster.  Moreover, there is disagreement within many disciplines (including political science) about what constitutes a proper undergraduate education.  How long a reach will the federal government have into college education?

A few guesses on where this will go.  First, prestigious colleges and universities, as well as major research institutions will probably have to change the least.  Notre Dame, Harvard, the University of Michigan, etc. will feel less pressure.   Those places will still be around and recognizable in 2050.  Smaller private and regional state schools will have to define themselves in a creative manner, with an eye on the market, if they are to survive.  This will be a challenge, especially since faculty members, notoriously liberal politically, are often conservative in terms of their practices, at times disdainful of taking market pressures into account.  Universities will need a clear mission that can connect to recruitment, they'll have to be doing innovative and interesting things, and they'll have to self-assess in a manner that yields results that can be communicated both to the public and whomever funds them. 

Schools that don't do that will give way to community colleges and their equivalents which will increasingly undertake the "mass education" aspect of higher ed.  Community colleges will expand their reach, and develop programs that yield vocational promise so as to become a viable option to those who know would think they have to choose a traditional college or university.  Faculty at these institutions will probably be underpaid, and essentially treated more like the equivalent of high school teachers than what one thinks of as a professor.  In fact, at all but the elite universities I suspect that the fall from seeing a Professor as a position of high honor and prestige to simply a profession will continue, mirroring the move to make the college experience a mass enterprise rather than an elite one.  Salaries and benefit packages are in danger too, either from increased adjunct/part time/term appointment positions, or administrative decisions.  This could drive good people out of the teaching profession, especially in competitive fields.

In a nutshell: In 2050 I see lots of smaller, community colleges emphasizing skills for the job market and basic curriculum.  There will be a small universe of private and state schools that are not elite or high-prestige, but nonetheless have creative and interesting niches and approaches that draw students and funding.  These schools will find a way to recruit quality faculty by offering more than a community college or its equivalent.  Moreover, these will be the schools that took assessment seriously and had a success story to tell early on.  Finally, the elites and research universities will still exist -- pressured to change, but not as dramatically or quickly. 

The point: if you are in higher education and not at a major or elite school, you can't rest on your laurels, you have to embrace change.  Faculty members need to get on top of assessment and think seriously about defining their institution for the future.  (And, by the way, we're doing that at UMF -- we've moved to a four credit system, embraced a public liberal arts mission, started first year seminars, increasing student travel, focusing on advising and the first year experience, implementing assessment programs, and trying hard to make sure we're not one of the schools that falls by the wayside in the next 44 years!)

I wanted to get into a discussion about what kind of education a student will get, but this blog entry is already too long!

July 12 - Future Ignorance?  (Higher Education in 2050)

A lot is happening politically, but today I need to continue on the theme started yesterday...

I posted my prediction of how the structure of higher ed will look in 2050 -- elite and research institutions will remain least changed, small private and regional public schools will either morph into something like a community college, or fill some kind of niche or creative space which will allow them to continue (in essence, they will become 'more elite').  This means a two tier system of education: the majority of people, especially lower to mid-middle class, will go to something which we would now label a community college.  They'll be taught by underpaid "professors" who will be treated more like glorified high school teachers in terms of both pay and prestige.   A minority of students will attend either the elite schools or the niche survivors -- small private colleges and public liberal arts universities who weathered the transition.

This is not a pretty picture.  It enhances class differences, pushes people away from teaching, and, worst of all, will have a negative impact on educational outcomes.  Perhaps the most uncertain aspect of all this, and the place where the danger is the greatest, concerns assessment.  When I was hired back in 1995, we were told to put together an assessment plan.  Jack Quinn, the other political scientist at that time, since retired, told me that assessment was a fad, and I should just put some kind of plan on paper -- it would never be implemented.  I did, and it was, indeed, never implemented.   That's how faculties have tended to view assessment; we know what students are learning, we're the experts.

That's changing.  More faculty members now are recognizing that assessment is not a fad, and in an era of budgetary crunches and threats to higher education, the attitude is shifting to a "do it ourselves before they do it to us" approach.  It's important this work.  Paolo Friere, a Chilean theorist on education, promoted what he called a libertarian approach to education as opposed to the banking approach.   The banking approach emphasizes memorization and the learning of facts, with the teacher as master guiding the pupil to proper understanding.  The libertarian approach focused on problem solving, with the teacher and student together as co-learners and co-teachers approaching problems and thinking creatively.  The idea is not only to foster imaginative, creative and critical thought, but to counter political and social oppression.  To Friere, education is often a tool by which the elites (political and cultural) assure that the world as it is does not get questioned by the next generation.  Rather, youth learn to accept the existing order as natural, and abide by current power structures and customs.  A libertarian education would free students to define themselves and critically assess their culture, emphasizing a questioning of the existing order rather than blind obedience.

In my opinion, the essence of education is not to teach facts and skills -- though learning history, theory, and method, as well as developing intellectual skills/abilities such as reading, writing, and presentation are important.  Rather, the goal is to free the mind so that a person is able to make choices with eyes wide open.  Too many people go through life simply acting out programmed behaviors, biases and prejudices, things learned from their culture, schools, and parents.  They don't realize that their upbringing was in part an hypnosis, controlling their capacity to truly think for themselves and consciously decide if the social customs in the world they are born into make sense.  Instead, these customs are taught as natural, the way things are, the way god meant them to be. 

Finding a balance between learning "facts" and working to help students truly liberate themselves and their thinking is difficult.  With assessment based on standardized tests it becomes almost impossible.  If politicians want proof students are learning, they'll make sure that what students have to prove they learned supports the agendas of the political leaders.  I've heard a lot of conservatives complain about "government schools," but they don't realize that No Child Left Behind and other such programs enhances the government's capacity to control. 

In the future, there will be pressure, especially for the mass education at the "community colleges" (or functional equivalents -- a lot of small private or regional state schools will morph into these) to move in this direction -- no child left behind for colleges.  The result would not only be more ignorance, but also less creative, critical thought.  And, though that might bring a smile to the faces of politicians and leaders who want a docile, controlled populace (they have the media in tow, now we just have to take care of those pesky universities), it can be a dangerous trend.  The niche schools and elite universities will be better positioned to avoid this, though the niche schools need to be proactive with their own assessment tools, and avoid the temptation to standardize.

But where will that leave us?  It seems that in a best case scenario, we're headed towards a situation where higher education and true thinking skills will increasingly be found at elite and niche universities, while the masses will get a kind of glorified high school, complete with standardized tests and a focus on getting a job.  Some might say "good" -- most people should focus on making money and learning basic facts, rather than thinking critically.  The purpose of life is to pay the mortgage and make sure you retire with a good nest egg!   But I submit that this is a step along the path to the decline of the United States as a vibrant, exciting, intellectually vigorous nation.  Taken in tandem with the state of our politics, the outlook for higher education paints a bleak picture of the future ahead.   The good news is that it hasn't happened yet, and there is still time to change.

July 13 - Geopolitics Part 2, revisited: Israel and Palestine...and Lebanon

On July 1st I wrote that as bad as the Israeli-Palestinian issue is, geopolitically it doesn't appear likely to spread.  Two things are causing me to question my logic of a fortnight ago.  First, the sudden conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon adds something extremely volatile to the mix.  Second,  the United States has publicly blamed Syria and Iran for the conflict and it could well be that policy makers in Israel and the United States aren't ruling out a war that ultimately pits the US and Israel against Syria and Iran.  This conflict could actually be the start of a major war in the region, even World War III.

My assumptions two weeks ago were: a) Israel doesn't want a wider war; b) the US hopes for a peaceful situation, recognizing that tension in Israel is dangerous to other US interests in the region; and c) the conflict would be limited to Israel and the occupied territories, since no other Arab state is in a position to challenge Israel.  I recall that while writing that the thought of Lebanon briefly entered my mind -- but I didn't follow that thought or take it seriously.  Now it looks like I should have. 

New possibilities to replace those earlier assumptions: a) many in Israel and the US do want a wider war; the neo-conservatives see this as the only way to salvage their plan to try to reshape the Mideast; b) Syria and Lebanon believe conversely that the US is weak due to its position in Iraq and see no harm and in fact benefit in supporting Hezbollah's increased activities; and c) any small crisis could escalate out of control.

In fact, looking back at my post of July 1st I am eerily reminded of all those people who dismissed the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand as unlikely to provoke a major European war.  Just over a month later, World War I began.   If the players miscalculate, mis-communicate, and overestimate their own capacities, anything can happen.  And that is scary indeed.

Much like the players before World War I, it appears that both the United States and Iran are overestimating their ability to shape results.  The Iranians know they have the capacity to exercise immense pressure on the US through their proxies in Iraq, their oil reserves, and their location on the Straights of Hormuz.  Moreover, they probably believe that any nuclear program they have can survive air strikes, while a land invasion would be easily repelled -- and if not, they could follow Saddam's strategy and unleash a long term insurgency.  Moreover, they can spread havoc throughout the region, and may have other cards up their sleeve we don't know about.

Israel believes Iran is an existential threat, and Israeli officials have claimed Iran is closer to having a bomb than other intelligence agencies estimate.  Moreover, with the situation in the occupied territories at a low point, they may believe they have to shake up the game a bit to have a chance to get out of the morass.  If they could get the US to focus on Iran, they believe they could ultimately assure Damascus has regime change.  They may not only see a major war as do-able, but even necessary.

The neo-conservatives, stung by failure in Iraq, don't seem ready to admit they are wrong.  Many think that it's just harder than anticipated due to the difficulties in dealing with Iraqi sectarianism, as well as due to a lack of will in the US.  They may believe that the US does have the power to force regime change if we have the will, and the only way to get that will is through a global crisis where the public supports some kind of intervention (or, conversely, one where the need to act fast provides a rationale for suddenly getting involved without much public debate).  It sounds like a hail Mary pass, but they may be deluding themselves into thinking that American power can do this, we just need to have the courage to act.

Reality: each side is seeing their strengths, and ignoring their weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  A major conflict would not bring democracy and stability to the region, would not guarantee Israeli survival or help solve the Palestinian issue, and would not eliminate Israel or expand Islamic fundamentalism.   Instead it would bring economic disaster to the West, mass death in Israel, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere, and likely result in no clear victor.  The neo-conservatives still harbor dreams of having a conflict that seems like and ends like World War II -- a clear victory, where the vanquished are ultimately brought into the "family of nations."   That is a delusion.

I'm still not going to predict that this will lead to a wider war.  I still hope that Rice and the realists have weakened the Neo-conservatives enough so as to put down such geopolitical adventurism.   I think the general logic of what I wrote two weeks ago is more likely true than false.  But the events of the last couple days force me to recognize that we could actually to staring international catastrophe in the face, in the form of a conflict that is slowly unwinding into something far bigger and far more dangerous than most imagine.

July 14 - Sean Hannity, the tactics of Goebbels, and the perils of self-fulfilling prophecies

Happy Bastille Day!  On the commute home yesterday I happened upon a diatribe by Sean Hannity, a Fox News pundit who apparently has his own radio talk show.  I was shocked by what he was saying; his tactics were of the sort pioneered by Goebbels back in the twenties and thirties, pure propaganda, but a very dangerous form of propaganda.  (And no, I'm not saying Hannity's a Nazi -- people of a variety of ideological perspectives find Goebbels' tactics useful).

He was talking about the current outburst of violence in the Mideast.   I won't go over all of it, but it was a mix of selective facts, some obvious lies, a number of exaggerations, and an effort to emotionalize so that anyone who disagrees is not seen as having a different perspective, but instead having an irrational, ridiculous and indefensible perspective.  It was emotion, ridicule, and distortion.

Like all good propagandists, he did get a few things right.  He correctly noted that a number of people on the "left" or who oppose the war have a knee jerk reaction to Israeli policies.  I have made that point many times myself.   If the Arabs had accepted UNSCOP's original partition there would be a much larger Arab Palestine, and presumably the two sides could have developed economic and political links that would have helped both.  But it wasn't because of some radical Islamic belief that the Arabs made the wrong choice; rather, they justifiably felt that the Jews were European colonizers, and that they were being robbed of complete sovereignty of their land.   The European Jews felt they had bought the land fair and square, they lived on it, and in 1948 were not about to go back to their native Europe, which for most of them would have been Germany or Austria!  The Arabs thought they were fighting against colonialism, the Jews for their homeland.

Hannity also gets right that Israel is surrounded by potential enemies, and one shouldn't downplay the danger of or side with Hamas and Hezbollah.  He's also right that Hezbollah acts as a surrogate of Iran, though his claim that Hamas is a surrogate of Syria is grossly over-exaggerated.  But it's when he paints a picture of an Iran leading a massive horde of Muslims who, wanting 72 virgins ("for killing innocent people"), are willing to mindlessly do anything to eliminate Israel (and the US?), and then calls for the US military to overthrow the regimes of Iran and Syria, to defeat this "fascism" and bring stability to the region, he is off in a dangerous set of emotion-laden false analyses.  And then to label all "liberals" as defeatists, claiming liberals sympathize with terror, are silent at the atrocities of Hamas and Hezbollah, and naively and weakly want Israel not to defend itself, is to delve into bald faced Goebbelsesque lies.  To be sure, he can find some people on the fringes that might make such statements.   But that's a Goebbels tactic; take the fringes and paint that as the alternative to your own position, and use emotion to drive people away from the other side and to your own.  I don't know of any mainstream liberal who isn't appalled by Hamas and Hezbollah, who doesn't think Israel should defend itself, or who have any sympathy for terrorists.   Quite the contrary!  There are, rather, legitimate reasons for arguing that Israel's response to the kidnappings was disproportionate to the act (declare war on Lebanon because of one Hezbollah raid?) and in fact will lead to consequences worse than a more measured response.  Whether that criticism of Israeli policy is correct can be debated; but, of course, Hannity made it seem like the criticism only came in the form of anti-Semitic defeatist liberals with no common sense.  Unfortunately, as history shows, the tactics of a Goebbels can work; if you can appeal to emotions, appeal to nationalism, and can display a sense of certainty, you can shape opinion. 

The danger lies in the kind of policy he's promoting.  As noted in my blog on 7-7, the Muslim and especially Arab world is undergoing an intense change through modernization.  Most Muslims (Arab, Iranian and beyond) want the benefits of modernism, and would not welcome a fundamentalist, strict, religious order.  A relatively peaceful transition is possible, though it will require a lot of work to try to build a culture conducive to a kind of Islamic modernism which can tame Islam the way modernization tamed Christianity.  This is not akin to WWII because we are not dealing with monolithic states, devoted populations and full armies.  Rather, we're dealing with divided states in transition, where most members of the state do not support the extremists and do not want and indeed would work against a terror regime.  To try to meet that threat with war, as I've noted before, plays into the hands of the extremists.  Hannity is in that sense one with those like Ahmadinejad who wants to see a confrontation of Islam vs. the West, where militaries are unleashed and the world witness to a dramatic encounter rivaling any in history.

Unfortunately, if enough people buy Hannity's approach, the result could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  American and Israeli militarism fuels a backlash against the West and drives the youth -- a majority in much of the Arab world -- into the hands of the extremists.  Those extremists know how to use Goebbelsesque tactics as well, and soon the extremists who think war good and inevitable will be driving the agenda on both sides.  The world could then see the kind of thing each extremist side is predicting, with each side claiming it proves they were right.  Millions could die, the world economy could collapse, and most likely America would emerge severely wounded, and lacking the freedom and prosperity we have now.   Meanwhile, the Arab world and Iran would be pushed decades if not centuries backwards, and most of the deaths would be there -- it's a war neither side can truly win.

July 15, 2006 - A strategic disaster of historic proportions

Back when the conservatives won the Majles (Parliament) in Iran, which was followed by Ahmadinejad becoming the first hardliner to win the Iranian Presidency since the revolution, I stated that the biggest disadvantage (or blowback if you will) of the Iraq invasion was to help the extremists overtake the moderates in Iran.  Back in 2001 the Bush Administration was even considering an alliance with Iran, and the hardline Guardian Council and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini were cautious, realizing their grip on power was tenuous as the country yearned for liberalization and reform.

Though the sudden surge of nationalism and support for the extremists may be short lived, it has created an opening for the Iranian equivalent of what we call "neo-conservatives" to become ascendant.   The opening came when the Bush Administration decided to pressure Iran rather than work with them, attack Iraq, and then claim Iran was part of an axis of evil.  Even moderate Iranians admitted to voting for the right wing because they wanted to send a message to the US.  The fantasy the neo-conservatives had about Iranian moderates welcoming American pressure was, as was so much of what they thought, wishful thinking treated as certain truth.   The Iranian hardliners now want to remake the Middle East, and are overestimating their ability to shape events.  What's happening now with Lebanon is another direct result of the US war with Iraq; by recklessly hurling ourselves into a cauldron of complexity, we've unleashed forces that could create a major regional if not world war if we don't change path.

Note why Iranian hardliners may feel like they can use Hezbollah and contrived crises to manipulate the situation.  Iraq has devolved into civil war of Shi'ite vs. Sunni.  The US is not only bogged down there, but President Bush is no longer supported and trusted at home.  He has squandered an historic chance to be a great leader, all because he got seduced by the false promise of an Iraqi conquest.  Not only is the US bogged down and the military overstretched, but the American troops are sitting ducks for an intensified insurgency should Iran choose to unleash its allies.  As a side note, it's likely that the Shi'ite Iraqi government will provide material support for the Shi'ite Hezbollah militia, in direct contradiction to American policy preferences.

Add to that the fact oil prices had already been driven up by the various crises, and the Iranians know that if they engineer a limited oil sales boycott, they could tremendously damage the West in a short time.  They could also physically block oil transport, though a crisis alone might be enough to drive sales through the roof.   So the West will not be in economic shape to do much in the Mideast, or to pay for a major military effort.  Yet the same kind of problems that created failure for the US in Iraq will doom Iranian adventurism.  First, sectarian violence will mount, as Sunni Arabs fight against Shi'ite dominance.  This will stress the Syrian-Iranian alliance, which has always been a marriage of convenience rather than commitment.

Iran also has no real plan on how to deal with Israel.  Israel can unleash powerful forces if its existence is called into question, and Iran is simply in no position to weather than storm, nor will it have any unified front against Israel to make it possible.  The Israelis can play on divisions and use their military power to ultimately assure Iran fails.  The price would be tremendous if it got to that point, but the hardliners can't win.  And, in fact, the biggest weakness they have -- and the reason they're acting now -- is that they have a limited time frame.  Most Muslims are not extremists, and not prone to support some kind of religious Islamic state.  They are being whipped up into emotional anger by acts by America in Iraq and Israel in Gaza.  Once those situations settle down, then internal politics within both Iran and the Arab world will work against the extremists.  The United States, by invading Iraq, assured that the 9-11 assault would be a success for extremists, it suckered the US into launching a war of aggression that shifted the political winds to a direction favorable to extremism, terrorism and militancy.  Every day General Odom's claim that launching a war against Iraq was the biggest strategic mistake in American history seems stronger.

The war in Iraq is destined to become known as one of the most tragic foreign policy blunders in history.  I wrote some time ago, before the war began (before my blog) that I felt like someone on the Titanic who knew what was coming, but couldn't get people to listen.  I wasn't alone; a lot of people who understood the Mideast or International Relations saw the disasters ahead, but yet the ship of state steamed forward, and now we've hit the iceberg hard.

Yet this need not explode into a wider war, one which regardless of the outcome would devastate the West, our way of life, and standard of living.  (And think about it -- do we really want to risk all that for geopolitical games -- we're a target only because of our policies in that part of the world).  But as I noted yesterday, this requires a change of thinking and policy FAST.   More on that tomorrow or Monday.  But any apologist for the war against Iraq should put away the pride and the attempt to save face and simply admit it was a huge blunder.  But it happened, and now we have to think about what to do next, and be open to a wide range of possibilities.

July 16, 2006 - Anything nice to say about the President?

I only have time for a short post today, so I don't want to get into something serious...

After yesterday's blog someone e-mailed and asked me if I had anything nice to say about President Bush, and accused me of being a "Bush-hater."  (I talked about the dishonesty of that general charge on July 10).  First, I'm glad at least someone is reading this -- I keep this up primarily to force myself to have a running commentary on issues that my children and those who come after can look back upon if they wish.  Second, unlike most Americans, I actually have a more positive image of Bush now than I did in the past.  I think his policies have failed, and I don't think he's done a very good job, but I certainly don't dislike him.   (Dick Cheney, on the other hand....) So what can I say nice about the President?  I'll give six things.

1.  I admire his focus on physical fitness, and believe he is an excellent role model in that regard, especially given the problem of obesity and lack of exercise in this country.

2.  I think he is good with people, in general, and this trait has helped him recover from the diplomatic wounds of the Iraq war.

3.  I think he is well intentioned, and focuses on ideals rather than raw power -- that is perhaps a reason for some of his policy flaws, but for him as a person it's not a bad trait.

4.  I can admire how he turned his life around, going from a drunken loser in business to become President of the US.  And while family connections of course helped, it's still not that easy to accomplish what he has.

5.  I find it very responsible how he handled 9-11.  Rather than seek a scapegoat, dump George Tenet, or blast the intelligence agency, he didn't fire people, kept his team in place, and made the response to 9-11 about what's best for the US, rather than one based on politics.

6.  Finally, I think he has recognized the need to change direction, and has engineered a shift in personnel and policy, implicitly if not explicitly admitting the Iraq war has gone very bad.  In watching him lately, I get the sense he's learned on the job, and has developed a bit more modesty about American capacities. 

How's that?

July 17, 2006 - The State-centric world is gone...what next?

Ron Suskind, in The One Percent Doctrine sums up the change in global politics made apparent to all on 9-11-01:

"September 11, 2001, would herald the arrival of the nonstate actor.  The only thing that was sudden was his destructive debut, the moment of shared recognition.  The nonstate, or transnational, actor had been waiting impatiently in the wings.  The primacy of states and borders had been eroding steadily for decades, and more swiftly after the bipolar US-Soviet structure gave way.  The new transnationalists, like bin Laden and Zawahiri, said, in essence, that state-based power was illusory, or at least overstated.  The duo had operated within countries and between them, recruiting thousands of jihadists, training them, and organizing them into a flexible, global network.  They had inflicted damage on the American mainland that no hostile state had dared.  They were carrying forward destabilizing ideas to a worldwide constituency.  Their point was that the march of globalization meant that borders didn't matter, and states even less so."  (Page 65)

This fact underlies the necessity for thinking differently about how to address the current crises.  State-centric thinking not only won't work, but plays into the hands of these new, violent non-state actors whose core goal is not world domination or conquest, but to destroy the stability and functionality of the existing international system.  And, although in the realm of International Relations scholarship this issue has been a major topic for over twenty years, most people still instinctively look at the world through state-centric lenses.

The state centric view works like this: Whether it's a Hitler or a Stalin, the leadership of an enemy state reflects the essence of that state in that conflict, and therefore a war pits ones' own state against that foreign state.  If one can weaken it, and even destroy it, one can have victory.  Then, of course, the state can be remade in our image, as Japan and Germany were (more or less) after World War II.  In this view the enemy is "Islamic fascism," and it is dominant in the Muslim world because of corrupt authoritarian regimes that, by not standing up to it and defeating it, are in essence collaborators and share responsibility.  Like Hitler, the argument goes, the Islamic fascists  (the term fascism is used primarily to suggest a similarity with the war against Nazism) will not rest until they defeat the West and set up a pure Islamic state with a dream of spreading across the planet.  Defeating Islamic fascism will not be easy, they have terror tactics, are protected by "naive" Europeans or "corrupt" Russian and Chinese collaborators.  The way to do this is to bring about regime change in Syria and Iran, the two states seen as most dangerous.  These states are often accused of pulling the stings of Hezbollah and Hamas, or the latter are considered proxies of the states.  They say that the future of the West is at stake, and we must have the courage to fight to defend it -- and that this "real war" will entail true sacrifice.

However, this state-centric script overlooks a few major points.  First, the non-state actors are not truly controlled by or tied to states.   You won't get Hezbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda and other existing or yet to emerge organizations to disappear by creating regime change in those states.  Iraq shows what happens when you create a power vacuum.  It's not so easy to go in and remake the state in our image, and of all the states in the region Iraq should have been the easiest.  That alone should show the folly of a regime change approach.  Yet the state-centric analysis claims that these groups, as well as internal dissent in Iraq, are fed by Iran and Syria -- again, the state-centric mindset seeks a state to credit or blame.   Second, these organizations have their own agenda, their own militias, and have the capacity to cross borders.  The can merge with other organizations, cooperate and compete, but their fates are not determined by the fates of whatever states may give them aid and comfort.   The charge that Iran and Syria are somehow plotting this out with Hezbollah and Hamas is based on state-centric analysis; it may be true, but it is very likely that Syria and Iran were caught by surprise with this crisis.

Beyond that, most non-state actors don't have conquest as their primary goal.  They may see control over a region as a vague long term end goal, but their main purpose now is simply to tear down the system.  They want the corrupt governments in the Mideast to fall, they want to force the United States out, and they hope to use oil to both enrich themselves and cause havoc for the western economy.  The only conquest goal they trumpet is the destruction of Israel, but it's not clear how serious they are about this -- it seems to be more a propaganda goal or something to motivate the masses. 

Responding to this non-state conflict through policies determined by the "old thinking" or state-centric analysis will yield catastrophe.  We'll find the enemy elusive and hard to defeat, as taking territory and destroying traditional targets will have limited value.  We'll see the blowback in terms of high oil prices, increased radicalism amongst the youth in the region, and political divisions at home.  The right will try to rally the country around the cause, believing that the nation should unite like it did in WWII.  But the amorphous nature of the enemy and this conflict will assure that there will be a profound and intense opposition to that effort.  In the US, this will build on the failed Iraq war, so the "task" of the right will be exceedingly hard in the first place -- that kind of rhetoric has been discredited.  Remember, the primary goal of these groups is at least at first to destroy the system.  War destroys, and the results of a war with no clear victory will lead to instability and erode systemic stability.  Coups against friendly Arab states, crises and terror fears popping up consistently will all drain the economic and political vitality from the states of the West.  Following "old thinking" gives an opening to the terror groups and jihadists which they want.

New thinking about how to deal with a threat or series of threats from non-state actors requires us to define the nature of the conflict, determine what goals are being pursued (in a state-centric world these would be 'war aims'), the tactics/resources at our disposal, and the consequences of various actions.  We need to be willing to throw out old conventional wisdoms and our own biases from past experience.  That's hard to do (and one reason why people have so often fallen victim to the 'fighting the last war' mentality), but our ability to avoid catastrophe depends on it.

Yesterday the beach was packed (Sebago Lake), families were grilling, swimming playing...I looked at the parking lot full of SUVs and large cars (a mea culpa, we drove my wife's Honda Pilot), and I wondered if 2006 might not be the end of an era, if this crisis might not explode into something disastrous.  I was pushing the stroller with our nearly seven month old son napping (giving him a walk) and thinking about all of this, realizing that crises have come and gone and yet for Americans this is all something that happens "over there," or at most to our loved ones who get sent "over there."  This time it could be different.  The last time I was thinking this way was watching the fire works next to the Mississippi river on July 4, 1991, and thinking about the aftermath of Desert Storm.  In some ways, the current crisis is part of a series of events which have unfolded because of that conflict.   But disaster is not inevitable, a belief in this being an inevitable WWIII risks being a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy.  So the next topic is to try to figure out what the nature of this conflict is, what kind of "war" do we face?

July 18, 2006 - The nature of the conflict?  Why the human side needs to be considered.

A mythology has emerged stating that Israel is so strong and well armed that the Arabs don't have a chance in a real war.  This myth leads to two alternate positions.  One side argues that Israel faces no threat to its existence, and really should be magnanimous.  The other side says Israel does face a long term threat if hostile states strengthen or gain WMD, and thus Israel should act now and launch a pre-emptive war while it can, thereby gaining long term security.  Both views, as well as the myth, are misguided.

Syria has long been known to have missiles which can hit deep within Israel, potentially carrying chemical as well as conventional warheads.  A war with Syria could have devastating consequences for Israel, especially if it led to a wider war involving Iran.   The Syrian government faces an existential threat as well.  There have often been voices in Washington and Tel Aviv calling for regime change in Syria, and Syria's actions and posturing cannot be seen as purely offensive -- they're scared.   They can hurt Israel, but would lose a true war.  Iran is the natural regional power, based on its location, population, and terrain.  It is also Persian rather than Arab (to be sure, it's multi-ethnic, about half Persian and the other half a variety of ethnic groups), and Shi'ite rather than Sunni.   In all of the Mideast wars (1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973) Iran was absent, and in fact the Shah of Iran (deposed in 1979) was an ally to Israel.  Having a strong Iran, well armed and potentially with nuclear weapons, creates real problems for Israel.

Israel has a deterrent, however.  They have nuclear weapons, and could destroy the Syrian and Iranian regimes easily, even if it was payback for the destruction of Israel.  Mutually Assured Destruction lives.  These states, especially Syria, are more concerned about their own survival than somehow eliminating Israel.  So if it were just the states, deterrence would be robust for Israeli relations with both Syria and Iran, and in fact the stage would be set for a move towards reconciliation down the line.  That's not happening, so that brings us to...

...the Non-state actors.  Hezbollah, al Qaeda, Hamas, and others.  Although they grew under sponsorship of states like Iran and Syria, they are independent, and have their own agendas.  The question: Is this crisis primarily a state on state crisis (Israel vs. Iran and Syria) or a state vs. non-state actors crisis (Israel vs. Hezbollah and Hamas)?   This is a very difficult question to answer.  Clearly it's somewhere in the middle, but I've been reading news reports and analyses and have found a wide range of opinion from experts on the nature of the links between the groups.  Bush intones that Syria can force Hezbollah to "stop this shit," but others claim Iran is calling the shots.  From what I can gather from the sources I've read is that: a) Syria and Iran have some level of influence on Hezbollah; and b) Hezbollah has become more independent with its own agenda over time.  Also Hezbollah and Hamas have been rivals -- Hezbollah's action to kidnap Israeli soldiers may not have been part of some grand plot, but an reaction to the attention Hamas was getting in Gaza.  While people see plots all around, this conflict could have been something all sides stumbled into.

The hope Israel has had -- which now seems dashed -- is that these non-state actors could be enticed by the idea of state legitimation.  Hezbollah became part of the Lebanese government, while Hamas, albeit to Israeli chagrin, formed a Palestinian government.  States are backed up by legal traditions of sovereignty and territoriality.  Non-state actors don't have that to fall back on; if they compromise, join the political process, or lose their radicalism, their existence could be at risk.  Consider how Hamas eclipsed the PLO, for example.  This makes the default position for actors like Hamas and Hezbollah to avoid compromise or ending a conflict.   And if they were to suddenly say, "we'll make peace," then another group is likely to rise up and fill the niche.  Thus this conflict is about two non-state actors trying to define their role in a changing political environment, balancing the radicalism which got them to where they're at with their own organizational interests.

A lesson can be found by looking at at the past.  Hezbollah emerged as a powerful actor after Israel's first invasion of Lebanon in 1982.  That invasion was a disaster; the goal was to destroy the PLO and create a peaceful Lebanon.  But, rather than forging an alliance with the Shi'ites (Israel's preference; most Shi'ites opposed the PLO), Hezbollah emerged to represent the Shi'ites, with Iranian support, in radical opposition to Israel.   That's the thing about invasions -- you don't easily make friends with those you invade.   You might think you're doing good by getting rid of some kind of authoritarian system, but the people tend to be mad at the force which kills their friends and relatives.  Hezbollah was the offspring of that 1982 invasion, and at this point has the sympathy of the entire Arab world, and many non-Shi'ite Lebanese.  Even those in Lebanon critical of Hezbollah actions tend to be angrier at Israel for their reaction.

Hamas is being forgotten at the moment, but they emerged not so much as a reaction to the PLO's decision to make peace with Israel, but through a confluence of factors, primarily the PLO's corruption and continued Israeli crackdowns.  Hamas is the offspring of the first intifada, where they, rather than the PLO, led the fight and got results.  The root strength of these non-state actors is found in the life conditions of the people in the areas where they gain support.  Ignoring the impact of military action or continued poverty on the dynamic is perhaps the biggest mistake that's been made by those emphasizing state-centric analysis.

To sum it up: If this were about states alone, there would be robust deterrence and a peace process would be likely to succeed in time.  But it's not about the states, it's about the non-state actors.  These non-state actors have ties to states, but are not proxies or under their control, they have their own interests and dynamics.  They tend to remain radical because to give that up would sacrifice their raison d'etre.   Nonetheless they have developed the capacity to hurt Israel in a way states cannot, due to the lack of traditional deterrence.  Moreover, and of fundamental importance, these non-state actors reflect real socio-economic and political dynamics which won't disappear if the organization itself is somehow eliminated.  This creates a murky "war" where it's hard to develop clear war aims (Israel has been vague and shifting in that regard) or understand what success would mean.   The nature of the conflict is a state (Israel) vs. non-state actors (Hezbollah and Hamas), both of whom have connections both to traditional states (Syria and Iran) and to the social, economic and political dynamics of the region.    State-centric analyses over emphasize the state connections and under emphasizes the internal dynamics of the organizations and their environment.   In other words, we have to shift focus from the leaders and the geopolitics to the specifics, including the human element.

That leads to the next question -- what should the policy goals of the various actors be, and what are the best means to achieve them?  The answer, I'm afraid, would require a fundamental shift of thinking from a variety of actors.

July 19, 2006 - The euphoria of war

If you listen to the war hawks, you sense a kind of giddiness.  They are falling all over themselves to declare this World War III, (or IV and I guess someone labeled it WW V).  They pontificate that Israel is "of course" allowed to "defend itself," and the massive deaths of innocent Lebanese are pushed aside as "morally different" than the less massive death of Israeli innocents.  With maps and assertions many call to widen the war, say that "we cannot co-exist with people who want to kill us" as the rhetoric of war takes off.  I'm sure the commentators feel a sense of power and strength as they forcefully call for action, gleefully watching the bombs, graphics and interviews on TV.  Excitement!  The religious right is even showing signs of joy over the idea that this could herald the end of the world.  The lunatics are running the asylum!

It's the same old story.   As hundreds of innocents (so far) die, families flee to the hills for shelter, lives are destroyed, children altered forever, and real suffering takes place, fat self-inflated pseudo-pundits fancy themselves as mini-Bismarcks, analyzing the situation and calling for "war, war, and more war."   As noted yesterday, there is a real lack of clarity as to the roles of Iran and Syria, yet with nothing but assertions and slogans a lot of people are calling for, even yearning for, an escalation.  Yes, that will bring about more death, but that's not relevant.  The suffering is not relevant.  What matters is the excitement, the maps, the sense these folk have that they are on top of the situation, see clearly that we are experiencing an historic moment, caught up in the emotion.

In late July 1914 Europeans experienced a similar kind of euphoria.  They knew a great war was inevitable and necessary, they were excited and even celebrated as the mobilization orders came.  The result was a deadly and horrific war which began a cycle of violence in Europe that ended with the holocaust and regimes in Russia and Germany with no qualms about mass murder.  Be careful what you wish for.

There are two fundamental dangers here.  The first one is, as I've stated many times, the tendency to ignore the human side of the conflict and simply abstract and define away the innocent death and suffering.  If everyone could really experience that side of war, could be with families who suffer, lose children, and have their lives destroyed, it would be a lot harder to support war, and especially to call for a voluntary escalation on flimsy grounds, or to hope for and welcome the idea of "World War III."   It's not a made for CNN drama, or a chance for bloggers and pundits to sound strong and prove their superior analysis.  It's a human tragedy.  That seems to be left out.  Instead of asking if it is necessary to kill so many people and disrupt Lebanese life in order to defend Israel, many apparently consider anything Israel does to be defense.  As hinted at yesterday (and to be developed in the future) this actually plays into the hands of the extremists.  War begets war, it doesn't bring peace.

The second danger is the one I mentioned before about self-fulfilling prophecies.  A "World War III" against "Islam" would yield catastrophe.  This isn't a state against state conflict, where the victors win on the battlefield and then through magnanimity convert the defeated.  This would push hundreds of millions into the hands of hardliners.  Youth otherwise tempted by modernism will be caught up in the anti-western rhetoric.  It'll be an enemy we can't defeat, but one which can wreck our economy (oil could skyrocket), patiently use terror, engage in insurgent activities as in Iraq after apparent military victory, and ultimately lead to a massive decrease in liberty and prosperity at home.   The living room pundits who feel analytically superior as they sit in their easy chairs and rah-rah Fox news analysts who shriek that we need to escalate and take on Iran and Syria will suddenly find themselves dealing with cold hard reality -- the kind of reality they could abstract away when it was other people suffering.  It could mean economic depression, internal collapse, and a period of history where anarchy overtakes order.

So, no -- don't wish for escalation or gleefully greet World War III.   There are alternatives and ways out of this mess which don't require mass murder and suffering.  I'm not sure, though, that these will be chosen.   The euphoria of war may for many be a rush of self-confidence and an emotional sense of power, but the hang over will be a bitch.   

July 20, 2006 - Meanwhile Iraq continues to spell failure

Gil Gutknecht, a conservative Republican from southwestern Minnesota, a long time supporter of the war, just got back from Baghdad and, according to the Mankato Free Press, says things are far worse there than he thought, and has moved towards calling for a partial withdrawal.  Yet while the obvious failure in Iraq to establish a stable democracy or to pressure Iran and Syria is acknowledged by almost everyone (and implicitly by the White House, despite public denials), the real failures are on parade in Lebanon.  I went through some of them on my blog of July 15th; today I want to focus on different ways in which the Iraq fiasco has weakened dramatically weakened America's ability to achieve results in the Mideast, and may in fact have set up disaster.

First, Iraq gave people in the region, particularly non-state actors, a guide on to how to defeat America.  The successes of the insurgency and the effort to fight stabilizing influences has been studied by Iran, Syria and of course Hezbollah and others.  Hezbollah also believes Israel is susceptible to such tactics, given the inability of Israel to control Hezbollah during its occupation of southern Lebanon.  There is less fear of America than ever before, and a growing belief that the US is very weak in terms of its ability to effectively shape outcomes.  In fact, the US "victory" against the Iraqi military meant victory for the forces of terrorism and instability, as they have been able to capitalize on the situation in ways utterly impossible under Saddam.  Iraq has laid bare fundamental weaknesses in America's military and strategic capacity; moreover, internal divisions at home show that the American people are not in the mood for a fit of imperialism.  The Iraq fiasco has emboldened rather than pressured our potential adversaries.

There are at least two scenarios, the choice of which we are not totally in control of, but can greatly influence.  The first one is what I wrote about yesterday -- those who call this WW III, who point at the vicious hateful rhetoric of the mullahs and terror groups, and say "we can't negotiate with people like that, they make Hitler look mild, we have to defeat them."  The other scenario is that Iran is primarily interested in being a regional power, and to be treated the same way the US treats China and Russia (i.e., accepts that they have WMD and recognizes they can't pressure them too much) rather than like Iraq or North Korea.  Neither scenario is good for the US, but scenario one is a disaster.

If the Mideast blazes in all out war, we're screwed.   We don't have the capacity to fight insurgencies and guerrilla wars across the Mideast, and they can easily attack our economy by increasing oil prices (which naturally would happen in a WWIII scenario -- perhaps to $300 a barrell or so) and misc. terror attacks.  Our military is overstretched trying to keep little Iraq under control (a mission we've failed at -- and things are just getting worse; Afghanistan is also looking more and more like failure as the Taliban re-assert control in the south).  We can't deal with Iran, Syria and perhaps uprisings in Saudi Arabia and other places; it is simply beyond our reach in this kind of warfare.  We can defeat traditional armies but we can't do the functional equivalent of pacifying mass insurgencies.  The only way we could is if there were a large chunk of the population supporting us.  But as we see with Hezbollah and Iraq, the masses go with the extremists and see the US as the evil outside invader.  They'll end up controlling the oil, pushing us out, and threatening Israel at levels before unimaginable.  The Europeans have more to lose as this would radicalize their Muslim population and threaten domestic stability, but we could be seeing economic collapse and a dramatic decrease in prosperity and even political freedom.  Our way of life would likely not survive.

This also explains why Europe is adamantly against a WW III vision -- they know that spells disaster, that it's not something we can "win."   Russia and China, while seeing Islamic fundamentalism as a threat, don't want to participate in radicalizing it, and would not take sides.  In fact, they arguably would welcome the US being removed from its position as the world's central power; the Russians would note with satisfaction that the US "victory" in the Cold War was short lived.

If Iran is determined to be a regional player, the challenge is to somehow assure that Iran is contained.  There is a geopolitical side to this, but the real solution for Iran and the region rests on socio-economic grounds.   Geopolitically, the US would have to: a) negotiate openly with Iran, using the Kissinger model of linkage and small steps; b) exploit the Sunni-Shi'ite rivalry, as already we see Sunnis in the Arab world angry about the destabilizing actions of Hezbollah and Iran; and c) embrace multilateralism with the EU, Russia and China which essentially removes the image of the US as a bully superpower trying to shape the world, thereby making Russian and Chinese support more likely.   Ultimately some kind of solution to the Israel-Palestinian issue would need to be negotiated to remove that obvious tinderbox.

But to really be able to come out of this without allowing the hardliners to emerge with a powerful, anti-western position, the US has to rethink the fundamental basis of its foreign policy.  Geopolitical realism needs to be meshed with a pragmatic humanism in dealing with the population of the region.  That's isn't aid -- oil rich states especially don't need aid these days -- but a creative approach to try to remove the root causes for the popularity of the message of hate from Islam's far right.    That topic will be addressed soon (probably tomorrow, but the speed in which events unfold, something else may push it off into next week). 

July 21, 2006 - Putting Principle First

What kind of foreign policy could work given the circumstances discussed for the last week, both in terms of Israel-Palestine, and the broader Mideast?  As noted yesterday, a full war would mean disaster for the West, and if the alternative is a more powerful regional Iranian power, the dangers are very real, especially for Israel.  How can we best meet this challenge without either slipping into wishful thinking Bureauplomicy (bureaucratic diplomacy -- when agencies and groups go through the motions to try to satisfice in a situation which demands much more -- I just made that word up myself) or accepting the ascendancy of right wing hardliners in the Mideast?

First, emphasize principles rather than sides.   If one is pro-Israel, Israeli actions get rationalized as necessary, while Hezbollah is pure evil.  If one is pro-Arab, Hezbollah's indiscriminate murder is rationalized as a weapon of the weak, while Israel is seen as committing war crimes.  That kind of approach assures only that people won't look clearly at the issue, they'll just pick a side and go with it. 

The most fundamental principle: Safeguarding innocent human life is paramount.  Safeguarding means not only protection from violence, but avoiding shortages of food and medicine wherever possible.  One third of the Lebanese causalities are children.  That is just wrong, children should not be slaughtered for political gain, or even to wipe out militias.  Hezbollah rockets haven't killed as many people, but they are indiscriminate and are unlikely to destroy anything of real value; the Israelis were not war casualties, but murder victims.  Principle condemns the acts of both sides.

But, one might say, can't Israel defend herself?  Of course.  I don't know anyone who would argue against defense.  The question is the means of self-defense, and whether self-defense turns into aggression.  Was the response appropriate for the kidnapping of two soldiers?  

But how can one fight a war that way?  The glib answer is that if both sides followed principle, you wouldn't have wars.  If both sides valued human life, war would not be an issue.  So this is where it gets tricky, and why pragmatic humanism rather than pure principle is necessary.   The tendency in this kind of case is, as I noted, for people to simply rationalize their side.  If I had the time, I could write very good justifications for both Hezbollah and Israeli tactics, each totally persuasive by those who share the basic assumptions of either particular side.   Why does this happen, and how can we escape it?

The fundamental error made by both sides (and most pundits) is the error of abstraction (discussed back in May concerning Rwanda).  If you abstract away from the real human consequences of action to political goals, you enter a world where with the right definitions and time frame you can rationalize anything.  It's the world of the sophist, the slick lawyer, or politician.  In this discourse human life is necessarily abstracted into a cost or "unintended consequence" (yes, I know 'collateral damage' is the preferred euphemism).  So the principle of safe guarding human life becomes a secondary consideration in a larger set of abstract goals and calculations.

The problem, of course, is that unless both sides follow principle, the side which does not goes unrestrained into the fight, while the principled side engages in at times excessive self-restraint.   What I call pragmatic humanism has two facets: a) a belief that humanism is pragmatic (and I think this is especially true and in fact is the key in dealing with the Mideast; and b) even the most basic principle of safeguarding human life cannot be achieved perfectly.  (Note: discerning readers will detect aspects of Just War Theory, Augustine, and other lines of thought in this -- those ethical debates have been important in helping me refine my ideas).

Humanism is pragmatic because in a conflict like this one it can address the root causes of the conflict.  The reasons why the hardliners are popular, can to mobilize insurgencies and recruit terrorists is the mix of poverty, hopelessness, anger and/or the prevalence of violence in a culture.  Without tackling those problems, you simply assure that once one group is defeated, a new one arises, and the cycle of violence continues.  The PLO is co-opted, so Hamas emerges.  The only true solution is to emphasize the experiences of the victims of the war, especially non-combatants.

Imperfect application of principle means that in this "city of man" as Augustine would put it, one can't totally disregard consequentialist logic.  While saying the ends always justifies the means is inappropriate, ignoring consequences is dangerous.  In fact, I'd argue that ultimately the right actions (morally right)  yield the best results -- that is a core value of pragmatic humanism.  However, putting principle first and being skeptical of abstract goals and rationales will mean that violence is a less preferred option, always is seen as something disgusting, even if necessary (e.g., not honorable or glorious), and truly comes as a last resort: just war's theory's  ultima ratio.  As with just war theory, pragmatic humanism is difficult to define in terms of proper application.   Unlike just war theory, this approach is not limited to questions of violence, but, I argue, allows us to develop foreign policy ideals that will minimize the likelihood of future violence and work towards more adherence to principle.

I covered about 15% of what I thought I'd cover in today's blog, but it's getting too long, so I'll stop here.  

July 22, 2006 - Doomed to fail?

Just a short one today, but to the point: Israel's current policy is likely doomed to fail.  The choice of war in the Mideast has always led to failure.  The Arab attack on Israel in 1948 lost massive territory to the Jewish state, territory the Palestinians will never get back.  Failure.  When Israel attacked in 1956 with the Europeans they were told by the US to back down, and only flamed the fires of Arab nationalism.  Failure.  When Israel launched a surprise attack in 1967, gaining a remarkable military victory, they occupied Gaza and the West Bank, setting up now nearly four decades of insecurity and crisis, and a situation with no clear solution.  Perhaps the greatest military victory was also the greatest failure.  When Sadat attacked in 1973, his forces were defeated.  Failure.

In fact, the only real success in the Mideast was the 1978 Camp David Accords where Land for Peace, the one formula that has worked, helped Egypt gain land back in exchange for recognizing Israel's right to exist.  Without Egypt on the Arab side, that era of Arab-Israeli wars ended.

Israel's attack on Lebanon in 1982 only pushed the PLO to a different location, caused the formation of Hezbollah and the introduction of Syrian influence, and got Israel into a quagmire whose impact is obviously still being felt.  Failure.

War fails because military action intensifies hatreds, emotions, and desires for revenge.   Iraq for the US is another example.  (Or Iraq's choices to start wars with Iran and then Kuwait).  The only times one can find success is if a aggressor is defeated -- but in those cases it was the aggressor who chose war.  Israel chose this war; they had other options to the kidnapping of two soldiers.  They will not be able to create a stable or a peaceful Lebanon.   Hezbollah intensified the war, that was their choice, as was their choice to kidnap soldiers and launch a cross border raid.  They will not eliminate Israel or expand their influence.  Failure is shared by all parties.  But nonetheless there is a glimmer of hope.   If the US, Arab leaders, and the UN find a path out of this which brings stability to Lebanon, they might be able to get something good out of all of this.  But that requires a real effort by a variety of states -- and it has to emphasize the Lebanese people.   I'm not sure if that's possible.

The suffering falls primarily on the innocents, and the children.  The stories from Lebanon are heart wrenching.  And, knowing that the military operation is almost certain to fail, this suffering is not the price of long term peace.  (Side note: I loved how Jon Stewart compared the Bush Stem Cell veto -- supporting a 'culture of life' where government funds are not used to 'destroy life' to the Iraq war, where tens of thousands have been killed -- with government funds.)   It is human tragedy, destined to set up future conflict.   And whether or not you agree with this post up until now, if you can't feel intensely sad and distressed by the suffering, if you just shrug and say "it's war," then you've given up a bit of your humanity.

July 24, 2006 - Where's Richard Nixon when you need him?

Back in the early seventies the US was engaged in a long war against an insurgency that would not give in.  The argument from the war hawks was that this war had to be fought to prevent the spread of communism, an evil said to want to devour the West.  We have to fight them there, so we don't fight them here, it was argued.  Meanwhile those Communist states that were seen as a real threat to the US had gone from being militarily inferior to achieving nuclear parity, with conventional superiority in Europe.  People doubted America's ability to deter the Soviets from attacking other states.  Many pessimistis of the era, looking at the protests in the US and the unwillingness of Americans or American allies to confront communism, thought that the West was failing, and Communism was gaining the upper hand.

Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger realized that the dire situation, which made the United States appear to be a military 'paper tiger' (we can't even tame a third world Asian state!), required a complete change in context.  In that light Nixon, who made his name as a tough anti-communist early in the Cold War, did the unthinkable: he directly engaged the USSR and China.  With China that meant ditching our recognition of Taiwan as being the legitimate government of China (thus allowing Beijing to take a seat on the Security Council in 1972) and reaching accords with the government of one of America's most fierce enemies: Mao Zedong. 

Many on the right attacked this; Ronald Reagan called this policy of detente an immoral embrace of communism.  By the end of the Ford administration, Ford and Kissinger stopped using the term detente, as it became a dirty word to both the left and the right.  The left thought it didn't go the next step and make a true peace with the USSR or China.  Yet in retrospect it was very successful in its goals (though it had a glaring fault, discussed below).  Not only did it help the US get out of Vietnam with a little bit of face saving, but it created conditions which ultimately allowed communism to fall peacefully.  The vast array of cooperative ventures made possible by this policy helped western ideals infiltrate Eastern Europe (where the 1989 revolution took place), and gave the Soviets a sense of security that their empire was not under threat.  Even when there was tension from 1981-85, West European states continued detente, and Ronald Reagan ultimately embraced those same principles after a reformer, Gorbachev, came to power.  Few realize that Reagan's hard line policies stopped after 1985 and his detente was if anything more intense than Nixon and Kissinger's.

Why this ramble about history?  The situation today is similar.  The US is involved in a protracted insurgency which weakens the US, and leaves few options against the real threat.  Rather than communism, the threat is Islamic extremism.  Rather than being represented by superpowers, it's represented by non-state actors and regional powers like Iran and Syria.  Right now the conflict is seen as intractable.  If Israel is successful, Hezbollah might well survive and even gain from its "heroic stand" (as it's seen in much of the Arab world).  It radicalizes civilians, endangering friendly Arab governments.  There is fear of a nuclear Iran, but no real plan on how to deal with it.  People discuss sanctions and an international force, but how these might work and whether there is the will to do so is unclear -- and perhaps dubious, when one considers Russian and Chinese positions.

The answer now, like in 1970, is to change the context.  Military power won't do it; that was the idea behind the invasion of Iraq, and its consequences have been disastrous.  Rather, we need to open to Iran and Syria in a manner that allows them to feel secure, embrace the status quo of the international system (i.e., not be revolutionary states bent on destroying the system), have status as regional powers, and benefit from ties with and deals with the West.   In exchange, we'd need them to ditch their support of non-state actors, and work in the region to ratchet down the violence.  As I've noted many times, these two states may hold the key to solving the Iraqi insurgency.

Is this possible?  Cynics would say no, these Islamic extremists will never compromise, they are bent on victory and the destruction of Israel (some say an Islamic state spanning the globe).  But cynics had the same reaction to Nixon's policies; communism was treated then the way people treat Islamic extremism now.  The cynics would ridicule such an approach, and if it's successful, they'd warn, like Nixon's critics, that such a move only delays the inevitable confrontation, and allows evil regimes to persist and strengthen.  But those critics were wrong; Nixon's policies made a peaceful collapse of communism more likely.   It's a better option than either increasing military engagement or doing nothing.   Dangerous times call for bold moves, and diplomacy, despite its reputation, can be very bold, even if boldness is risky.

To work, though, such a policy has to have something the original detente lacked: an emphasis on humans, the pragmatic humanism I brought up last week.  Détente's weakness was that it did nothing to address real problems in the third world, and by using third world states for proxy wars set up a major set of disasters we're seeing playing themselves out now (usually with old Cold War weaponry).  That ultimately limits the amount of praise I can give that policy; it was only enlightened in dealing with powerful states, it ignored those without power -- it was based on abstractions, not a concern with real people.  Since the problems in the Mideast are rooted in socio-economic conditions and the plight of the Palestinian people, the problems won't truly be solved without adding a humanist dimension to the realism of detente.   Secretary of State Rice is in Beirut as I type; wouldn't it be great if she'd head on to Damascus and Tehran for direct talks?  I know, that's not going to happen.  Yet.

July 25, 2006, - War not going well

If you read between the lines on the war coverage, one thing becomes clear: in Washington and Tel Aviv there is a sense of worry, perhaps horror, on how this war is unfolding.  The US believed that Israel could take its huge, powerful high tech army and finally eliminate the Hezbollah threat - if not knock it out, at least wound it tremendously.  Israel seemed to think so as well.  Yet we are two weeks into the conflict, and it appears Hezbollah tactics have caught Israel and the US by surprise, and they recognize they may have fallen into a trap.  They don't say it overtly, and the media coverage is superficial, but there are enough comments, articles, and buzz out there to suggest that there might be some panic in the halls of power over how this is unfolding. 

Israel has been here before; in 1973 Sadat's surprise attack knocked the Israelis on their heels, and for awhile there was real uncertainty.  But with US help the Israeli military machine regained its bearings and ultimately scored an easy victory.  It may not work that way this time.

The problem is similar to the one faced by the US in Iraq.  Unlike Iraq, which is distant from the US allowing the war hawks to claim "progress" when there is none, while war opponents struggle to keep the conflict in the public debate, Israel is not faced with a distant war, but one on its borders, with missiles being fired into its cities and villages.  If Hezbollah is pushed back (no doubt they have their escape routes planned) but survives in tact, an Israeli military success will soon morph into a political failure.  If Israel compensates with massive air attacks to try to destroy Hezbollah, the increase in civilian casualties angers the whole Arab world, and enhances the popularity of Hezbollah.  Hezbollah could at a time of its choosing offer to release the Israeli soldiers and cease rocket fire, and maybe even welcome international troops into the border area, emerging stronger than when the crisis started.  Israel and the US know this, but aren't sure how to turn their tough talk into effective strategy.  As with Iraq, we're seeing the difficulty in subduing an insurgency, especially one driven by a non-state actor.

Hezbollah has had six years to prepare for this, study insurgency tactics, and map out contingency plans, realizing perhaps that it wasn't a question of if but when there would be an Israeli attack.  Whether or not they provoked this on purpose or were caught by surprise is a question we cannot answer at this point, but if it was an intentional provocation that would be troubling.  It would mean that they not only had a strategy mapped out, but they were prepared on how to respond and had their forces in place, ready for the battle.  If they were simply copy-catting Hamas and didn't expect Israel's massive response that's a better situation, it means they may want to find a way out.  But they have to feel pretty good about how they've performed so far, they've sent Israel and the US a message: for all the tough talk of "disarming" Hezbollah, they lack the means to do so.

One point that the media has noted, which to the dismay of hawks, is how Hamas and Hezbollah are known for, even admired for, their social services and support to civilian populations.  They provide services the government cannot; they defeated the PA in Palestinian primarily because they were doing more for the people, and not tainted by corruption.  There is an obvious lesson here!  The key to the region is not in military strategy, wiping out ones' enemy (despite the belief that will happen it doesn't; even Israel's greatest military success in 1967 brought more insecurity and instability to the country), or some other political/military solution.  The key is the hearts and minds of the average people, and that is something that Hamas and Hezbollah know well, and that more than their power as guerrilla forces has propelled them to such popularity and power.   That in no way minimizes their atrocities, but it demonstrates an important failure of the West in dealing with the Mideast: we've ignored how the experiences of war, poverty and humiliation create the possibility conditions for terror and unrest.

So two weeks in, and peace seems still far way.  Even Lebanon's government seems to have rebuffed Rice's ideas, and moderate Sunni governments, stun by the rapid rise of support in their own states for Hezbollah, are shifting from their initial stance that wasn't as harsh against Israel.  Meanwhile on al jeezera and other Mideast media sources the images of hundreds of dead Lebanese, destroyed cities and villages inflame Arab hearts and minds.  The fact the US is re-supplying Israel during all of this makes us clearly an actor who has chosen a side, limiting our ability to act as an honest broker (to be sure, Iran is actively re-supplying Hezbollah as well).  Israel finds itself struggling in a conflict it wasn't prepared for, with attention diverted from Hamas and Gaza.  As the Iraq civil war continues (the violence in Lebanon is dwarfed by the killings and destruction in Iraq, lest we forget)  it's clear that at this point the Syrians and especially the Iranians are likely feeling confident that they have Israel in a bind, and can control the game from here.

And that may be the most hopeful aspect of all this.  One lesson that also is clear from recent Mideast conflicts, from Saddam's attack on Iran or Kuwait to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003: over confidence leads to error.  Yet given cost in human life that all this might entail, it's a slim hope in deed.  But right now the killing continues, and the boys with guns on both sides have no desire to quit just yet.

July 26, 2006 - In over our heads

CNN carried an interesting story on the plight of women in Iraq.  Interesting both in content, and in the fact that this under-reported story is finally getting mainstream attention.  It seems that for half of the Iraqi population -- the women -- things are definitely worse off than under Saddam.  Throughout the country women are threatened or beaten if they venture out alone, drive a car, or fail to ascribe to strict religious rules.  Women during Saddam's era could work, drive, dress in a modern style, and essentially were pretty well off.  Now, in the chaos of civil war, the extremist elements are able to exercise control.  Add to that the fact that hundreds of Iraqis are killed each week, corruption is rampant, fear everywhere, and no end is in sight, and nobody can rationally claim the Iraqis are now better off than they were under Saddam.  One might try to make the argument that ultimately this will be for the better, but even that argument is getting increasingly hard to sustain.

Meanwhile, American decision makers proclaim Syria the problem, and yearn for regime change in Syria.  There is one word for that position: INSANE.  Syria is, indeed, a supporter of terrorism.  Syria's government, however, is secular.  Syria can be dealt with, and it's militarily weak.  If Syria's government were to be toppled, the result would certainly be an Islamic extremist government, or chaos.  Lebanon, long a haunt for terrorists and rogues of the region, had only a glimpse of their past peace and prosperity before falling back into the pit.  Somalia and Sudan are filled with violence and extremism, and Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia sit on discontented populations with extremists active and popular. 

The Bush administration, high on the illusion of being a unipolar superpower, decided that all of this was a dangerous mess that could be cleaned out with American force.  As usual, they overemphasized political leadership, governments, and abstract power.  They ignored the human element, cultural problems, and the core issues in the region.  (Note: this is not just Bush; the Clinton Administration was guilty of this as well).  Moreover, there is a pattern here: the more violence that is used in the Mideast, and the more repression governments use, the more likely extremism and radical Islam will prosper.  It is like a fire that feeds off of violence and repression.  Violence and extremism represent an illusionary "solution" to those dissatisfied with the situation, filled with rage, or yearning for some kind of sense of identity and purpose.

Frankly, the best course of action in response to all of this is "hands off."  If we intervene or try to involve ourselves in these problems, we'll naturally become an enemy, an outside foreign force.  If we stay out, the region will ultimately work through these cultural dilemmas.  But we're now in fully, not just as a buyer of oil, not just with some bases or by support for Israel, but with 140,000 soldiers in Iraq, and an aggressive stance against Syria, Iran, and the various terror organizations operating in the region.  That is more than we can handle.

War hawks would say my words represent "defeatism" (those who see realistically their own country's difficulties are often labeled as such).  But they are treating foreign policy like a football game, where if only we would listen to a stirring half time speech we could go out united and our will would bring victory.  The world doesn't work that way.   Consider Iraq and Lebanon.  The US can't even control Baghdad, let alone other difficult areas of the country with 140,000 troops.  But both Iraqis, enraged by the behavior of American troops, and Americans, increasingly sour on the war, would refuse to allow more.  Israel can only move slowly into Hezbollah territory, and clearly does not want to try to occupy it long term.  Can one imagine fighting these kinds of "wars" from Cairo to Tehran?   The US military can overthrow a government, it can't create a stable polity or civil society.

We're playing the game on the terms of the extremists, who want violence, a culture war, threats, and anger.  That serves them.  It's not a game we can win.  Yet at this point, it seems that's the only kind of game the power brokers in Washington can understand.  And worse, they don't yet understand that American is not really a superpower any more.  We're more like a T-Rex in the era of climate change: we were masters of the old world, but unable to adapt to the new environment.  Of course, unlike T-Rex it's not biological, it's psychological and intellectual, so it's not determinant.  But we'd best wake up soon, right now we're in over our heads.  

July 27, 2006 - Self-righteous double standards

Far more Palestinians have been killed than Israelis over the years -- far, far more.  In the current conflict between Hezbollah and Israel far more Lebanese civilians have been killed than Israeli civilians.  Yet there is a double standard here, one that permeates our media, our culture, and our way of thinking.  It's a double standard that is very obvious to Arabs, and really to most of the rest of the world.  Simply, when their civilians die, it's a necessary tragedy of wars.  When our civilians die, it's terrorism.

The argument seems logical enough: Hezbollah's rockets are imprecise, they can't be aimed at military targets with much confidence, so their use is immoral -- all they can do is kill indiscriminately.  Israel's are precisely controlled (not all of them, but that fact is usually ignored), and with air power they can direct their aim at specific targets.  When civilians (or UN observers) are hit, it's a mistake, unintentional, just collateral damage.  Yet when we had imprecise munitions before the high tech gadgetry of today, there was a different standard.  By this logic, advanced industrialized powers with a high tech military can engage in legitimate warfare, where the deaths of civilians are acceptable, while those with out the advantage of technology cannot -- they should just submit to the demands of their superiors.

When Al Qaeda attacks the World Trade Center and Pentagon (the latter obviously a military target; the former considered a target for its connection to the economic hub of activity), it's terrorism.  No matter what the purpose of these targets, al qaeda knew the mass of the deaths would be innocents, and their goal was to cause panic.  Yet when we used the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was OK, even though we knew most deaths would be civilian. 

This is not meant as an argument to help Al Qaeda and Hezbollah rationalize their violence, but rather an admonition to those amongst us who want to proclaim loudly our moral superiority.  We're more like they are than we care to admit; we've just built a discourse designed to create legitimate violence (the kind we do best) and illegitimate violence (the kind weak actors or non-state actors would have to engage in to challenge a powerful state).  We justify our killing of innocents, while condemning theirs.  We glorify our soldiers and fighters with metals and praise, but are shocked at how they honor and support groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, whom they see as fighting for their cause (and providing a lot of real services).  We mourn our dead; they matter, they have higher value.

In some ways, we're not only as bad as the terrorists, but worse.  We structure violence and control, sanitize it, and then proclaim grand values and principles as we start wars, arm thugs, and spend more than half the world's military budget.  The Neo-cons promise to westernize the world and spread democracy through a judicious use of American power, which really means try to shape other cultures to look more like us, killing as many as necessary to achieve that domination.   We are all justifiably disgusted by how terrorists rationalize their violence, but yet we create a set of understandings, definitions and categories to allow us to do the same sort of thing.  These double standards are pretty transparent, but most people do not want to see them -- that would raise difficult moral dilemmas, and nobody wants to face that.

So next time you see us glorify our warriors while vilifying theirs, think hard as to whether or not this black and white view is really justified.  The argument applies to them as well.  Many in the Muslim world justify the conflict against Israel and the West with similar dehumanizing tactics, and point to our double standards, penetration into their part of the world, lust to control their oil, and attempt to spread our culture as justifying an 'heroic resistance,' noting we'd do the same if a larger power tried to dominate us.   They would reject my argument, claiming it creates a false moral equivalence, that I'm saying that a fight against oppression is the same thing as a fight to oppress.  But moral equivalence arguments are the meat of abstract rationalizations on both sides.  When you hear someone bring that up, they're usually looking for an excuse to cover their eyes and ears and not face tough ethical questions.   It's an attempt to say that "if what the others do is worse, then what we do is OK." 

We need, as a society, to take such issues seriously.  This doesn't mean Israel shouldn't defend itself, or that we shouldn't condemn terrorism.  It does mean that we do have to be self-critical of how we react, and not rush into violence and killing as if it was the only way to respond.   You reap what you sow, and if we don't recognize the way that our actions and the violence and control we use creates enemies and rage by the targets of that violence and control, then we'll end up, well, in over our heads.

July 28, 2006 - Sometimes a fantasy...

I know that this claim has been made many times by many people, but the Bush Administration is clearly one of the most ideology-driven administrations in history.  Maybe ideology isn't the right word, maybe it's theory driven, or lately fantasy driven.  Reality doesn't seem to matter a bit, and dissonant information will be ignored and interpreted away to maintain the illusion their theories, whether it be about Iraq or global warming, are correct.  They will find analysts or scientists to argue their position, like skilled lawyers they will seek a way to make the political argument that they are right, and dismiss the myriad of evidence they should be taking seriously.  The difference is that skilled lawyers know when they're spreading manure, I think a lot of political junkies do not.

I'm not going to get into global warming -- that is discussed often by people with far more detailed knowledge.  Suffice it to say that to me global warming deniers are the same as those who deny evolution: they give up reality and evidence in favor of theories they don't want to let go of.  Iraq is a clear example as well.  I remember thinking it surreal when President Bush made his surprise trip to Baghdad and unveiled a new security plan.  The war hawks were falling over themselves saying "now things will improve, now there is a government..."  Yeah, right.

Right now in Iraq you see a state in disintegration.  There is no security in much of the country, especially the capital.  The Iraqi military is untrustworthy.  People complain that Maliki did not condemn Hezbollah during his visit, but the reason he didn't is clear -- it would have been political disaster for him in Iraq if he did.  Better to piss off a few American politicians than powerful groups in his own state and government.  Al-Sadr, meanwhile, is slowly cobbling together his version of an Hezbollah in Iraq, a mini-state within a larger state, providing services, security, and popular appeal to a large segment of the population.   Those Sh'ites who are uncomfortable with Al-Sadr are often close to Iran, and deep down the Dawa party (of which Maliki is a part) has a radical agenda, as do many parties in government.  I mentioned a couple days ago how women now in Iraq are far worse off than under Saddam, and basic services still aren't provided at pre-war levels.

Any rational observer not driven by bias and wishful thinking should have concluded long ago that the policy was not only a failure, but one we needed to extricate ourselves from quickly.  Instead, we stayed, Iraq has drifted into real civil war (by definitions used in political science, it is objectively a civil war), and now we're keeping troops there longer than promised in order to try to reinforce Baghdad.  Others are pushing for an expanded conflict to Syria and Iran, trying to use the Israeli-Lebanon war as a take off point.

The Israelis are now being open about what I speculated on a few days ago: this war has come as a shock to them.  They knew Hezbollah was no slouch, but they did not expect the capacity to fight and resist that they've encountered.   They are also waking up to the reality of this kind of war: if they do what they need to do to win militarily, they strengthen Hezbollah around the Arab world, and generate more animosity and anger to Israel.  The bottom line is the militarist fantasy that the problems of the Mideast can be fixed with force is being proven absolutely wrong. 

The right response is to take a hard look at reality and say: "Trying to use violence to tame the region only strengthens the extremists by increasing anger, especially among the youth, and making the West appear heartless and willing to kill massive numbers of civilians to try to control others.  It's a recipe for continued war, war that will be fought on different terms and with different rules than in the past.  It's a path that could lead to the destruction of Israel, massive increases in oil prices, and economic collapse in the West.  This path cannot win.  Rather, we need to recognize that most Muslims are moderate and reasonable, and extremists need not control the agenda.  We need to work to undermine extremists by minimizing (though not eliminating) the possibility of force and emphasizing diplomacy and dialogue.  It may not work, but the current path is a disaster."

But admitting that would be admitting error, and some people get so locked in their political biases that they cannot do that; inconvenient reality is simply brushed aside in favor of theory.  As Billy Joel says, "sometimes a fantasy is all you need."  But this fantasy is dangerous, and it's time for the public to put every bit of pressure possible on the governments involved to change course.   We're playing with fire, and I don't think people truly appreciate the consequences we'll face if we continue along this path. 

July 29, 2006 - An end in sight?

It's a small item, noting that representatives from Hezbollah and Israel have made contact through an intermediary.  Yet it could be a sign that saner heads are starting to prevail on both sides.  Hezbollah has proven its mettle to Israel.  It can and will fight, it's not like the Arab armies Israel faced in the past, nor is it like dealing with a state like Syria.  Grand hopes of dealing a crippling if not fatal blow to Hezbollah have disappeared.  Yet Israel has proven to Hezbollah that it can inflict considerable damage.  We don't know how badly the Hezbollah military has been hurt.  Mossad and the IDF seem to disagree.  Yet it is reasonable to assume that many in Hezbollah realize that a full Israeli invasion will not only take away much of their current authority, but also will risk their status and position in Lebanon and the Arab world.  Now they can claim to have stood up to Israel.  But if this goes on too long, they risk a lot.

One might wonder (and certainly many hawks do) how Israel can make peace in a way that makes it at least appear that Hezbollah has come out with some gain in stature or status?  Shouldn't Israel at least try for something symbolic to parade -- capture of some major munitions sight, or better yet, Nasrallah's head on a stick.  No doubt they do want to find something signficant they can point to.  But the Israelis are, if nothing else, realistic.  They understand the risks and the dangers.  They are not going to be driven by ideology into a policy that ultimately is counter productive.  If they conclude that an imperfect truce with Hezbollah is better than all out war, they'll do it, and deal with the consequences.

One might also wonder if that kind of realism and rationality is true for the Hezbollah side.  Aren't they fighting a holy war, driven by religious fanaticism?  Doesn't their belief in their cause mean they will continue, no matter what?  The answer to this is more complex.  Hezbollah and groups like it don't survive if they aren't in touch with the strategic realities on the ground.  They've been studying Israel's strengths and weaknesses, and understand the nature of the conflict, and their own vulnerabilities.  They aren't fanatics who rush into certain death with no thought about the strategic value.  Second, they can still claim to continue the fight even while ending this battle.  Sooooo....

That throws it back to Israel.   If Hezbollah is bent on the destruction of Israel and has been strengthening over time, why not eliminate them now?  What if Iran gets nukes or something else happens that means the next battle finds Israel at even more of a disadvantage?  I'm sure every Israeli leader has thought through that question, and continues to do so, it's the biggie.  But Israel has been there before.  From 1948 to 1978 Israel and the Arab world had three decades of conflict.  Yet after Sadat's failed war of 1973 the Egyptians, once the most vocal anti-Israeli group around, shifted to recognition of Israel's right to exist.  The formula that finally worked was land for peace. Jordan also shifted its position, and finally the PLO recognized Israel's right to exist, and agreed to limit land demands to the occupied territories.  Even if Hezbollah stays radicalized, those who support it may not.  And without outside support, Hezbollah's ability to provide an existential threat to Israel is very low.

Also: note that Hezbollah condemned the 9-11 attack, is a fierce rival of Osama Bin Laden, and claims not to be a terrorist organization.

On the other hand, choosing war now, a war that might expand to Syria and Iran, and might in fact create a backlash through the Arab world, creates untenable threats to Israel, with as much likelihood that even a military victory might lead to a more difficult and dangerous aftermath.  If anarchy of the kind that is in Iraq were to spread, if the Saudi royals finally lost their hold on power, then simply defeating Syria and Iran militarily may end up being meaningless.  And international pressure is not totally meaningless to Israelis, especially since it impacts the kind of support they get from the US.  A long full scale war would risk isolation, a backlash against Israel in the US (especially if oil prices rise and the western economy tanks) and ultimately be a true existential threat to Israel.

No one knows if these "contacts" will lead to a solution, but one has to hope that both sides have looked into the abyss and realize it's no place they want to be. 

July 30, 2006 - Tragedy

Although many hundreds of civilians have been killed in this Israeli-Lebanon war in the last two weeks, the bombing of a shelter housing mostly women and children, and the images of that scene which are being viewed around the world, symbolize this conflict and its tragedy.  At this point the number dead is 54, 37 of those being children.

The pro-war hawks seem to view this as a PR disaster -- worried more about what it does for support for Israel than the people killed.  And, of course, Hezbollah and its allies seem to view it as a PR coup -- caring more about how it helps them condemn Israel than the people killed.  And that's really what this conflict is about: two sides in abstract thinking about political goals, putting human life second.  They demonize the other side, rationalize their own acts, and the victims are mere objects.  Sadly, that kind of thinking dominates; the deaths of innocents are important less in their own right, then how they "play" in affecting the strategy and objectives of the various sides in this conflict.  Until that kind of thinking changes, these headlines -- as well as headlines about innocent Israelis being killed by suicide bombers or Hezbollah rockets -- will continue.  And, in fact, the responses will only feed the flames of anger and hate, assuring the tragedy continues. 

If you're a parent think of your child suffering and dying.  Try to honestly explore those feelings and emotions.  Try to understand what this conflict really means, beyond the political garbage Hezbollah, Israel, other world leaders, and most pundits spew forth.

July 31, 2006 - The "human shields" dodge doesn't work

It's predictable.  Israeli rockets kill large numbers of civilians, and the response is twofold: a) a false claim that attention isn't being paid to Hezbollah attacks -- it is, it's just that they kill far fewer people; and b) a claim that Hezbollah is really to blame because allegedly these are all human shields, and Israel isn't trying to kill innocents.   That doesn't work, and in fact reflects the worst sort of moral relativism.

If Hezbollah had the kind of military Israel had, they would no doubt be targeting Israeli military targets.   Israel has the luxury of high tech equipment, and thus a convenient excuse that they can wage war with the claim they don't want to kill civilians (that goes for the US as well, of course).  This technology gives us the luxury of pretending that our methods are more moral and ethical, that we "go the extra yard" to try to protect the weak.   Yet in the past when we lacked the technology, we engaged in similar kinds of wars, and in fact the destruction of Dresden, Cologne, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki make such an effort to condemn Hezbollah tactics completely hypocritical.   It's dangerous for states to use their technology as a shield against questioning the morality of how they fight.  It's dishonest. 

If Hezbollah moved all of its material to places away from urban centers, they'd assure their defeat. So really, the tactics of Israel and Hezbollah are symbiotic. Neither can avoid a shared moral culpability for how the conflict unfolds.  Israel's actions, furthermore, go beyond self-defense, especially as there is no effort to achieve a mutual cease fire; they have the political goal of substantially weakening Hezbollah.  But it's unlikely the attacks are accomplishing much besides strengthening Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Arab world. 

The US has had two recent failed wars.  The first was in Kosovo (which was also a war fought with hypocritical high moral pretense), where bombing for over 70 days bought little real damage, didn't help innocents, and killed a lot of Serb civilians.   Learning from that, the US launched a true ground war against Iraq, and yet the violence grows and the US can't even find a face saving retreat.  This is a new kind of warfare (in both Iraq and Lebanon), one that can't be won with traditional military tactics, if it can be "won" at all.

Israel has lost the moral high ground in this conflict.  Hezbollah has never had it.   They are both wrestling in the pit, with human life secondary to their broader abstract goals.   The end goal of a secure Israel alongside a stable Palestine remains elusive, in part because of how people on both sides refuse to accept the immorality of their acts, using acts of those on the other side as justification.  Stand by the actions of the Israeli government?  No.  Support Hezbollah?  Definitely not!  We need to work as part of an international process to solve the problem and try to as a first step get both sides to stop killing.  The people have to come first, regardless of nationality, ethnicity or nationality.   But that way of thinking seems foreign to the political elite of most states.

I know this is a bit repetition from earlier blogs; I intended to write on the growing troubles in Afghanistan alongside how Iraq's growing violence is being overshadowed by Lebanon.   Tomorrow will be something different!

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