Entries are listed in chronological order
June 1: It's not Ali vs. Foreman
On October 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire, Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman to win back the World Heavyweight boxing title. The rumble in the jungle was embraced by Zaire's President Mobutu, who wanted to improve his country's image, and Zaire was show cased for the world.
This week Time magazine again show cases Zaire, now renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo, noting that since 1998 its war has cost 4 million lives, making it the bloodiest war since WWII. It describes in detail the constant rapes, mutilation and suffering of civilians, including the heart wrenching examples of young children, suffering malnutrition and disease, as their parents flee violence and destruction. Reading it on the heels of the Dallaire book on Rwanda it is clear to me that my eyes have been closed too long, and there is a sense that something more needs to be done; I need to do more. But what?
I've been teaching international relations since 1990. I've talked about the war in the Congo, the genocide in Sudan (and the southern Sudanese war which got less coverage), Rwanda, and various other cases. Yet even as I try to emphasize the human cost of all these conflicts, I don't think I really have been internalizing what they mean. It took co-teaching the course on children and war and trying to focus on children and look closely at the impact of war on families and children which really pushed me to take a new perspective on the news and international relations teaching/research. Yet before reading the Time report, my understanding of the Congo war was the common understanding in the west.
In 1960 the Belgians and the US overthrew the first democratically elected government (it was too close to the Soviets) and installed Mobutu, one of the most corrupt leaders in history (he drove his country into desolate poverty while building huge Swiss bank accounts). In 1996 Rwanda and Uganda invaded to try to destroy the remaining Hutu extremists (the Interahamwe) who fled to Zaire after the RPF victory in Rwanda ending the genocide. This pushed out Mobutu and installed Laurent Kabila, and the world thought perhaps finally the renamed Congo would recover. But Uganda and Rwanda again attacked, as Kabila did nothing to weaken the Interahamwe. Time notes that this war, which brought in at least eight other states, was referred to as Africa's first world war. South Africa got involved to broker a peace deal, elections are scheduled, and things seem to be settling down.
That's the western view, the view I had before reading the Time report, the one that looks at political leaders, events, and negotiations. That's the view Michael Barnett describes in his book Witness to Genocide, where people at the UN thought in 1993 and into 1994 that Rwanda would be an "easy" peace keeping operation because both sides had signed agreements. But that kind of superficial lack of understanding made it possible to overlook the intense problems and violence. There is no reason to expect the Congo to become peaceful without massive outside assistance before violence breaks out (President Kagame of Rwanda threatened another war with the Congo in 2005). Yet there is no reason to expect a lot of assistance because, well, it's an invisible war (at least until Time decided to give it a week of visibility with a cover story). It lacks resources, and the issues are complex. Nobody wants to get involved, no one wants to do what could be done to stop and minimize the suffering. Like Rwanda in late 1993, we could be at a stage where concerted international involvement could make a difference. If not, the suffering and violence could increase dramatically, and it could create regional turmoil.
As I read this, sickened again by the way in which such suffering is met by meager aid, I had to wonder what could be done. What could I do. Write a blog? Yeah, that'll do a lot of good (sarcastic tone). Expand my teaching? That actually can make a difference, if young people learn about this early and are inspired to do something in their lives, at least to look at the issues differently, it can make a huge difference. But it's somehow not satisfying. Give money? Sure, especially to good charities which help protect children and civilians from famine and violence. But that's only treating the symptoms (to be sure, helping real people while doing so), not addressing the real core problems. Go over there and get active? Not realistic at this point in my life. So I'm left trying to figure out what if anything I can do. And, though I love researching German foreign policy, I think I've got to at least put my research efforts into issues like this; why the world lets things like what's happening in the Congo continue. I love working at a university that is not publish or perish; I can decide to focus my work where my passion leads, not what can get things published quickly.
So back to Ali and Foreman. They used Zaire as a backdrop to a fight, staged at 5:00 AM so it could be televised at a decent time back in the US. Africa was exotic and strange, Ali endeared himself to the Zairian people, and more time was spent wondering if the ropes had been tampered with by Ali's people than on the corruption of Mobutu and the situation in Zaire, or about post-colonial African politics in general. We have to at the very least start seeing the reality and complexity of the issues. And for all my negativity about the sensationalistic media, Time really deserves credit for bringing this issue forward -- as it did with Sudan in a special report last year.
June 2: A Picture is worth 1000 words
One can read about civilians and children dying, but seeing the pictures posted
on raw story cannot help but arouse revulsion and anger. Here's the link,
but the images are exceedingly graphic:
There isn't proof that this was done by American soldiers, but with the Haditha case unfolding as it is, it is unlikely the US military will be given the benefit of the doubt in much of the world, especially the Mideast. There is also BBC footage that apparently links the US military to this raid. This shows the folly of the war in Iraq: the goal of spreading democracy and western values requires winning the 'hearts and minds' of the people. But using war risks creating a backlash that actually helps the enemy.
Prime Minister Nuri Maliki, who was put in power based on the American demand not to have Jaafari continue, has condemned US tactics, claiming that Americans crush civilians with vehicles and kill on suspicion. Moreover, he claims that this happens on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, Fox News' John Gibson plays down the Haditha massacre, noting that massacres are "common" in that part of the world, earning him Keith Olberman's "Worst Person in the World" award for yesterday. (Gibson won third place for that honor a few weeks ago by saying essentially that white people should make more babies so they remain the majority). But some things can't be spun into something harmless, and the slaughter of innocents, especially children, are among them. The situation in Iraq keeps getting worse for the US, there is no "slow progress" as war apologists like to claim, and this case is disastrous.
I don't have time to write much today, but this could turn out far, far worse than Abu Ghraib for America's reputation and interests in the world, and may finally open peoples' eyes to the untold story of the Iraq war: the deaths and suffering of tens of thousands of innocents.
June 5: Endgame in Iraq
A few months ago I noted that the only way to really stabilize Iraq was to work with Iran and Syria. But, of course, that was a non-option due to the fact that the Administration saw (still sees?) Iraq as the first step to spread democracy. So now as Iraq continues to unravel into a growing civil war, the Haditha attrocities and other allegations continue to plague the American presence, and the Maliki government seems no more likely than the last to create a political solution in the short term, the US has really no choice but to work with the Syrians and Iranians. Unfortunately, many in the administration believe there may be a second choice: expand the war. Let's consider the two positions and their consequences.
First, the world view from each "side":
Expand the war: This side sees a "world wide struggle" between the forces of radical Islam and the West. They also tend to be very supportive of Israel, who they see as the main state threatened by radical Islam. To them, this is like the first stages of WWII or perhaps the Cold War, we're in for a long struggle. At this point, success in Iraq is being hampered by pressure from Syria and Iran, and Iranian meddling in Iraqi politics. If only Iran's regime could be toppled and a pro-American regime instated, and if only Syria's dictatorship gave way to a regime friendly to the West, then democracy would have a chance. It would eliminate the threats to Israel (primarily from Iran and Syria) and create the framework for lasting peace in the Mideast. We just need to be bold and recognize that war has its ups and downs, and we can't let a little black eye in the initial stages in Iraq prevent us from fighting a true war. (These people might criticize Bush for shielding Americans from the cost of war, and minimizing its importance).
Work with Iran and Syria: This side sees Iraq as a failed policy, as the Iraqis don't want Americans there, the war has cost the US considerably, alienated us from the region, and aided Islamic extremism. The military is stretched to thin to expand the war, and expansion would create even more difficulties. Thus, they say (and I'm clearly in this camp) that the best approach is to take a "containment" attitude towards Iran, following the kind of strategy used against the Soviet Union. By 'contain' this means simply create conditions where the Iranians are unable to or find it against their interests to expand or act aggressively, while at the same time giving them incentives to work within the system. The same can be done for the Syrians. In exchange for reducing pressure and hostility, the US will work with them to create stability in Iraq (Syria is Sunni, Iran is Shi'ite, but Syria and Iran have an alliance going back to the Iraq-Iran war). In short, make it in their interest to have stability.
Likely consequences of each view:
Expand the war: While the hawks seem to think Iran will crumble and the people will overthrow the Islamists, that's unlikely. More likely is that the US would find itself faced with a massive increase in anti-western and anti-American thought. Also, it's not clear how the US can expand the war; attacking Iran would be absurd, it would make fighting the Iraqi insurgency look like a cake walk. But bombing alleged nuclear sites will almost certainly generate a backlash of support for the hardline government, and could lead to an anti-American backlash in Iraq. It could be that Iran would do little in response (no massive cutting of oil flows or world wide retributions) and instead bask in playing the victim, drumming up anti-Americanism and strengthening its position in Iraq. What then? Without international approval or domestic support, the possibility of expanding the war, for all the rhetoric of the hawks, seems dim. But there is one caveat: if Iran is attacked with a bombing campaign to eliminate nuclear sites, it could start an escalation that pulls the US into a wider war, and the results of that could be catastrophic.
Work with Iran and Syria: Isn't the lesson of Iraq not to work with dictators? Wouldn't cooperation simply enable these regimes to continue repression? That's a fair concern. Yet each country is also in the midst of a transition. Young Assad has never truly had control in Syria, and where he goes with his rule is not yet certain. Iran is a democracy, and one that had been moderating for 20 years before the Iraq war helped bring the hardliners to power. A constructive engagement to gradually reduce tensions, using Iraq as a place were the various points can show credibility might help achieve the kinds of changes the Bush administration wants. Not sudden democracy, but a slow reform of regional politics. In order to do that, however, one can't just label Iran and Syria evil and have nothing to do with them, that's not going to work. That leaves them no reason to change, and certainly no reason to make things easier for the US in Iraq. This is really the only policy that can allow the US to withdraw without giving up long range goals to reform politics in the area. It's the only policy that can allow the US to leave Iraq while still maintaining a presence and influence in the region. And it may be one way to prevent the civil war in Iraq from spiraling into a regional war. And, as difficult as it might be for them to take this step, last week the administration made an overture to Iran which could be an opening to a long overdue policy change.
June 6: Terrorism: the first challenge of the era of globalization
Yesterday's Canada announced the arrest of 17 suspected terror plotters, disaffected Canadian youths who felt alienated from their culture, and saw in jihadist Islam the emotion and sense of meaning they desired. In the US the Islamic community is growing among Hispanics (to be sure, mainstream Islam), and throughout the West its clear that Islam is part of the globalized world community. It is not an "adversarial culture" to be defeated. Terrorism, however, is a threat that must be met. So how do we put this all together?
First one thing up front: Iraq is not about the war on terror, and in fact enhances the appeal of Islamic jihadism world wide. The US has to find a way out of Iraq (I gave a suggestion yesterday, which really repeats what I wrote a few months ago) and do so in a manner that doesn't create lingering hostility. Is that possible? After Haditha and the host of other atrocity allegations (many of them, unfortunately, quite believable), we may have already done too much damage. Reputations are hard to repair once you've ruined yours, no matter how hard you try. But job one in fighting terrorism is "don't fan the flames." It's easy to recruit against a global imperialist thug (which is how we appear to most in the Mideast, and many in the rest of the world). Think of what would have happened if Britain had attacked the US in 1835 to force us to get rid of slavery. Even those who hated slavery would fight the outside invader. The propagandists who expound jihad are skillful, they use media, the net, and word of mouth. The longer we are in Iraq, the more we'll become reviled, the more it will seem noble and necessary to do whatever it takes to cut the "world bully" down to size.
Job two is to get rid of the idea that somehow this a clash between cultures where one is to "win" and the other "lose." Militarists on both sides love that kind of talk because they apparently get an emotional kick out of fancying the world in some great struggle, with their side the superior side of "good," and the other side evil. While the jihadists point to American imperialism, Hadith, Abu Ghraib, oil exploitation, support for corrupt regimes and general decadence to support their claims of righteousness, American militarists point to suicide bombers, terrorism, and antipathy to democracy and liberty as reasons for our superiority. These tactics, by both sides, are based on a fatally flawed premise: that the means used by militarists reflect an overall cultural sense of values. In so doing they risk a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby societies polarize. That has to be avoided.
How? President Bush has done a good job stressing that Islam is a "religion of peace," as he puts it, and that he has great respect for the Islamic community. Something has to be done to really promote cross cultural interaction, learning and scholarship. This is being done, rather actively, on many university campuses, but it really needs to become a national priority.
Well, the cynics will snicker, 'let's all just get along, sure, that will help with cold blooded killers!' Of course not -- the goal here is preventative, to do whatever possible to make jihadist Islam less of an allure, and show support for and solidarity with mainstream Islam. Consider the riots in France where Muslims and other Africans were essentially ghettoized and kept out of mainstream French society (a problem which persists). That is an example of how cultural separation and mistrust can boil over. Islam is with us, and will be of increasing importance, that's a result of globalization. Finding a way to create a sense of mutual understanding is essential.
But what about those who have already crossed over to the dark side, or whose temperament assures they'll look for a fight no matter what? First, I think that once we're out of Iraq and working to build bridges with the Islamic communities, those people will find themselves increasingly marginalized. Moreover, people don't become suicide bombers without having some intense emotional drive: raw anger, desperation, or lack of hope. Second, despite my civil libertarianism, I think that, with appropriate oversight, the government needs a lot of latitude in collecting data; there is a risk. But oversight is absolutely necessary, and that's been lacking in this administration. This is something I think Congress should look into. Overall, though, this isn't something which can be done with a military victory; military power is being proven counter productive in instances like Iraq. The military is just a part of a larger strategy designed at marginalizing terrorism, removing incentives for people to join such movements, and then developing an international capacity to track and share intelligence on these groups. That will likely require an international agreement, Kofi Annan proposed a treaty on combating global terrorism.
This is the first challenge of the era of globalization, and if we approach it with the tools of the pre-globalized world (defeating enemies in war, isolating specific states, etc.) then we'll essentially be committing that age old error of "fighting the last war." Globalization brings a new set of constraints, consequences, and challenges. If we can't deal with this one, if we fall into cultural war and the extremists on each side get their way, the transition entailed by globalization and new technological gains could be very bloody. The last time such a thing happened is when the printing press and gunpowder helped transform Europe, and the protestant Reformation was their first challenge. They tried to hold on to old thinking, and ultimately it led to considerable bloodshed and chaos. Given the weapons of today, we need to try to grasp 'new thinking' soon, and apply it effectively to the problem of terrorism.
June 7: Under-reported stories
It's interesting recently, as the situation in Iraq has gotten progressively worse, how the media ignores the story, reporting only on bomb blasts now and then, and every once in awhile something with depth. Usually it's only about the political bickering, and even that is superficial. It takes a big story like Haditha or the death of journalists (who, after all, are highest up on the food chain, at least as far as the media is concerned) to bring the story to the fore. Instead we get silly posturing about immigration, or sensationalized irrelevant stories about Lacrosse teams and the like.
Here are the big stories out of Iraq (other than the obvious Haditha case):
1. Corruption is rampant, and undercuts any effort at building a stable set of political institutions, much less a stable civil society. As groups fight over the piece of the corruption and oil pie, with militias to back them up, the chance of a true government of unity that can bring the people together is distant. The media should be digging into the corruption, the links between big corporations and Iraqi politicians, and the real story beneath the 'spettacolo.' This is big; rival groups, even within the same religious sect, are fighting for power to benefit from the corruption that defines Iraq these days. Allowing corruption to become so intense is the most serious error made -- it alone undercuts efforts to create a stable government, it alone stymies efforts to build a true civil society, especially where ethnic divisions can mask the fight for wealth/power.
2. Americans are likely killing more innocents that most realize, and quite often it is of the kind Nuri Maliki described -- on the basis of suspicion or fear. We don't realize the depth of this, the media is afraid of being branded unpatriotic so it isn't reported (though, to be fair, it's hard to be on the scene), but the more you hear the stories from returning service people or Iraqis and Iraqi blogs (including originally pro-American Iraqis), the more it's clear that things are far worse than we are led to believe. The damage this is doing to soldiers who will have to re-enter the normal world is immense. And, of course, they will suffer while the responsible political leaders wash their hands and perhaps apologize in a memoir a few decades from now.
3. Militias, while being seen as the problem, are in many places the main security force protecting innocents from the mass sectarian killings, only a few of which are reported. The American military does little to protect Iraqis. We are protecting elites, the Green zone, and some important oil assets (yet sabotage keeps oil production lower than pre-war, and prevents investment in needed infrastructure). The result is near anarchy, and anarchies lead to the rise of pseudo-governments and so-called militias. They hold the potential for a larger civil war, but also now are gaining loyalty of Iraqi citizens for protecting them. And, of course, as they gain loyalty, they are less likely to be disbanded.
4. The current strategy seems to be to either hope for something dramatic to change (hence the glee at which each 'turning point' is greeted, suggesting a strong level of wishful thinking on the part of the pro-war crowd -- 'now they have a government, now things will improve!') or at least find a face saving way to leave. That means every death taken or suffered by the US military is in vain; the soldiers are pawns of political masters who care little about their fate, and more about their own prestige and power.
I suspect all of this will be clear when the haze of war lifts, and those caught up in establishment-elite thinking are forced to peer beyond their illusions and confront what happened. With the safety of a few years they can say "we should have known better." Clinton got away with it concerning Rwanda, after all. It just seems a shame that the war is reported in such a shallow manner. The best reports I find are from Europe or international news sources. Here things are sanitized, self-righteous patriotism is used to attack those who are critical, and the fiasco continues. Barbara Tuchman wrote a book called March of Folly in which she talks about disasters where after the fact people will say, "what could they have been thinking, how could they not have seen this coming." We're in another such fiasco, and I think a lot of people are only slowly waking up to that. I can only hope the reporting gets past the sensationalist, and into the real conditions in Iraq, and the state of this "war."
June 8: Lessons Unlearned in Somalia
The New York Times is reporting some interesting news concerning the recent take over of Mogadishu by Islamists. The US clearly opposes the Islamist cause in Somalia, in part fearing that Somalia, still chaotic outside of Somaliland and a few other regions of the country, could become a haven for terrorists. The story claims that a lot of people blame increased CIA financing of secular warlords for the rise of power and popularity for the Islamist groups.
This is nothing new for US foreign policy (again, go back to how US support for Lon Nol helped the Khmer Rouge gain power), but it indicative of so many problems in the way decision makers in Washington approach politics. Being at base problem solvers (that's America's pragmatic political culture) they pose the problem directly: there is a danger of Islamic extremists taking power in chaotic Somalia. We need to prevent that. They then list the options: Intervene. 'In Somalia? Haven't you seen black hawk down. Next please.' Find and support local opponents of the Islamists. 'Ah, that's the ticket.'
And it seems like such a good strategy. It's low cost, seems to be low risk, and you're setting up a potential future American client in the region. Other options seem unlikely to succeed or are too costly in comparison. A no-brainer. Well yeah -- if you mean it shows no use of brains to make the policy. Any time you side with someone in a conflict, you're hitching yourself to that party's baggage. Look at how US aid to Saddam in his war against Iran now comes back to bite. Consider how US support for the Shah's authoritarian government helped set up the 1979 revolution and current problems with Iran. And of course, look how American support for the "freedom fighters" against the Soviets in Afghanistan helped spawn al qaeda and like minded groups. The CIA term is 'blowback,' meaning simply unexpected negative consequences of a mission.
At base the cause for this repeated error is straight forward: ignorance. Most decision makers are political or bureaucratic hacks. (Too cruel? OK, I apologize to hacks out there for associating them with politicians and bureaucrats). Knowledge concerning the specifics of a country or conflict are at best superficial. They'll learn the names of the groups, basic history of the conflict, some expert State Department analysis encapsulated into a few pages, but that's it. Then they'll approach the issue with a kind of implicit belief that the parties think generally like they would think -- strategically and out of self-interest -- and that the conflict will develop along the lines one would game out. Groups with more weapons gain the upper hand and succeed. Rwanda is a good example of this; Michael Barnett argues in his book that the UN thought it would be an relatively easy mission, but didn't understand the nature of the ethnic rivalries.
So we back a war lord, a dictator, some group of contras or dissidents, and then assume that we have aided our cause and increased the chances "our" people will win. In some cases they do, but even then (look at Iran and Guatemala) the result is in the long run often worse. Part of the problem is underestimating the backlash against the tactics our favored group uses, or assuming that "our" group is somehow honorable because they choose to take weapons from us. That's a kind of wishful thinking that I'm convinced permeates policy making bodies, as they want to believe the side we support really is prepared to do good and can win.
Another part is emphasizing strategic positions in a conflict and ignoring underlying issues like poverty or ethnic hatred. The impact of poverty and local issues are distant to most policy makers, and often brushed aside as something to be tackled "after stability is achieved." There is also a focus upon and an over-estimation of power as the shaper of outcomes and situations. That seems simpler, one can calculate power and design strategies; to take into account the complexity of the political culture and possible 'blowback' is hard, and easy to avoid. So the same mistakes are made over and over, with real damage done not only to US foreign policy, but the states who are victims of our little games.
In the end, my hat is off to Gene Roddenberry. In Star Trek he formulated the "prime directive," which forbad interference with the natural development of cultures and societies who are behind in technology and knowledge. That may be extreme and impossible in a globalized world economy, but the main point is accurate: interference in other societies, even with good intentions, is likely to do more harm than good.
June 8: Zarqawi's death...
OK, TWO entries today, but this second one will be very short (the first one, on Somalia, is below). The death of a regional thug whose brutality angered both westerners and Iraqis, Abu Masab al-Zarqawi is good news. It is not, however, a turning point against the insurgency. In fact, Zarqawi's faction, while brutal, is a minor player in the insurgency, a group of outside trouble makers disliked by most Iraqis, including supporters of the insurgency/resistance. Not only can another thug replace him, but the insurgency (the true Iraqi insurgency) may find itself strengthened by not having this outsider thug involved. Americans too often buy the "evil man" theory, thinking if only someone at the top is killed, then all will change. Not only is that not true (one can easily imagine a name replacing Zarqawi down the line as the new 'evil man'), but in this case Zarqawi doesn't even represent the major forces of the insurgency. We have yet another "turning point" which will prove to be an illusion.
June 9: The Evil Individual fallacy
Much of the media is noting that Zarqawi's death is unlikely to end the insurgency, but I'd go farther to say its impact is virtually nil. The reaction people have -- self congratulatory to relieved -- is for the most part misplaced. It is reminiscent of the reaction to Saddam's capture in late 2003, when people predicted that with his sons killed and Saddam in custody, stability would soon come to Iraq. It is indicative of what I'll call the 'evil individual fallacy,' (if that sounds awkward and you don't mind sexist sounding language, you can refer to it as the 'evil man fallacy' -- I can't recall it being used with a woman) something which also is in play in US-Iranian relations.
The "evil individual fallacy" is to take a situation where things are going bad, and focus on one person as the core problem. The idea is that if only you could remove this person, then problems will solve themselves. First it was Saddam -- Saddam is enslaving his people, and if he could be removed the Iraqi people would build a democracy and be thankful to the US for taking out this evil man. It remains Bin Laden, though our inability to find him causes the government to downplay his importance. In Iraq it became Zarqawi, a mastermind behind the insurgency. The idea, apparently, is that the average folk in Iraq or any given country are, deep down, just like Americans. If you just get rid of those evil people who want to take power and dominate, then the people, acting out of rational self-interest, will recognize the desirability of a stable, democratic system with a market economy.
The pervasiveness of this fallacy says something about the American mindset (I don't see this fallacy in European analysis nearly as often as in American punditry). There is a simple world view that the way we do politics here is the "natural" way that all free people would choose if they were given the opportunity. The opportunity is not there because evil, bad people stand in the way. Remove them, and you open the door for the expansion of freedom. That kind of thinking was implicit in President Bush's approach after 9-11, and his claims that his goal as President was to 'spread freedom.' Underneath such a world view is an individualist ontology, or a sense that the world is primarily dominated by the choices individuals make, minimizing the role of economic and cultural factors. Moreover, these individuals (except for the evil ones) think in terms of what one might call 'western rationalism' -- pursuit of self-interest defined in terms of material well being, status in society, and the ability to act freely.
In fact, when I questioned that perception once, I was called a "racist" because I was suggesting that "Arabs aren't able to be democratic like us." After all, who doesn't want prosperity, status and freedom? What this world view overlooks, of course, is the power of the economic and cultural context. The United States democracy had slavery for 80 years, women couldn't vote for 150 years, and the status of minorities until recently was as second class citizens (and in many cases remains so). Things we'd decry now (could you imagine if Iraqis said, 'we'll be democratic but we don't want women to vote and we'll keep some slaves') are things our democracy did not that long ago. Moreover, the idea that our materialist consumer-driven individualistic culture is "natural" is absurd. Historically most cultures relied on community, family, tradition, and custom.
The insurgency in Iraq, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, and the general growth of Islamic terrorism have their roots in a mix of Ottoman legacy, colonialism, domination from outside powers and corporations, and the corrupting influence of massive oil reserves on emerging governments. These are not issues that can be solved by taking a few people out. Even conquering a country like the US did with Iraq doesn't get rid of these internal (though often externally caused or enhanced) factors. The problems are structural and embedded in a web of economic and political relationships, impervious to the death of one or even thousands of individuals. Moreover, al qaeda and Zarqawi represented only a tiny portion of the insurgency, and was resented by many Sunni insurgents who believed he distracted from the goals of what they call 'the resistance.'
So, don't expect much to change with Zarqawi out of the picture. This evil individual fallacy is a hint at why the US got it so wrong in its policy towards Iraq. They truly believed that if you got rid of Saddam and the facilitators of evil around him, then the masses would naturally support a democratic government, especially if the US had lots of money for reconstruction. They believed that inside every Iraqi was a little American yearning to get out. Complex reality is quite different, and reality bites.
June 11: The military's role
One question that a lot of people ask to those of us skeptical about the so-called "war on terror" and especially the Iraq war, is what role the military should play in general. I've made clear that I plan to do whatever possible to assure my children do not choose to go into the military, and to set up records to help them prove conscientious objector status if a draft came back. I'd hide them away from the government if a draft came back. So does this mean I'm anti-military, that I consider soldiers nothing more than paid killers for the state?
No. In this day and age of what a realist would call international anarchy, with the self-help principle assuring that states must look out for their own security, especially against revolutionary powers, a military is a necessity. The problems come in how a military is used, and if militarism (a belief in military power as the major component of foreign policy) becomes dominant.
My argument against the US military is that it is NOT a force protecting our freedom or our security. Rather, it is being used by politicians as a neo-imperial force to expand American power and try to shape world politics so that the world reflects, or at the very least is friendly to, the values and goals of the United States. While we naturally like our own values, that use of military power is essentially offensive rather than defensive, and most often its use is unnecessary and leads to serious disadvantages. If someone says a soldier in Iraq is fighting to protect my freedom, that is absurd on its face. Iraq has never been a threat to my freedom, nor to American security. Moreover, the way in which the US seems to be approaching Iran with diplomatic efforts as a sop to the Security Council to get them to support later military action suggests a high preference for the use of military power to try to shape outcomes. This was obviously the case with Iraq in 2002-03.
While I will not condemn those who serve in the military believing they are defending freedom and protecting their country, I also truly respect those in the military who have the bravery to take a stand, and at potentially great cost to themselves, refuse to serve in a war they believe immoral, and outside the confines of both international law and self-defense. That number is small, but growing. I think the public needs to wake up. The American republic has been hijacked by politicians with imperial ambitions (both political parties), often steeped in good intent (I'm not one who thinks Bush is all about oil profits, I think he believes he can spread democracy with force and ultimately bring a more peaceful world), who warp the military. This is an abuse of young men and women who idealistically believe they are going to defend freedom and protect their country. Beyond the obvious atrocities at Haditha and Abu Ghraib, where young people are put in severe stress, crack, and have their lives essentially destroyed (while the bigwigs dismiss them as 'bad apples'), there are also the numerous cases of Post-Traumatic stress disorder, destroyed marriages, and shattered lives. And, as I've noted ad nauseum in past blogs, such policies interfere in the political and cultural development of other states, with countless innocents being killed in our name.
The fix isn't as hard as it might seem. I would argue that we should redefine the military role in four clear ways:
1. The military is to be used for self-defense and in some cases protection of Americans in danger. This does not include pre-emptive wars unless there is a true imminent danger -- something neither Iraq in 2003 nor Iran now posed/poses.
2. International operations to combat atrocities such as genocide, and to engage in peace keeping and at times (when the human cost of a conflict is immense) peace-making operations. These require true international collaboration for both legitimacy, and to have support.
3. Protection of allies from invasion or conquest.
4. Humanitarian operations (such as done recently in Indonesia) as deemed feasible and appropriate.
Moreover, the era of militarism must be ended, since in reality, military power is less effective than ever before. We see the folly in Iraq where the world's largest superpower can't tame a relatively small region -- in a country decimated by war and sanctions. Clearly military power isn't a factor in relations with other developed states, or even former opponents such as Russia and China. Between mutually assured destruction and the importance of economic links, war is virtually unthinkable in these cases. Wars are most prevalent still in the third world, and US involvement has tended to be there. Militarism must be replaced by a sense that military power is a distasteful last resort in a case of something dire.
Then we'd stop abusing our young people by throwing them into needless conflicts, we'd regain world respect, and we'd be able to be truly a force for good in the world. Issues like terrorism will remain in any event, but I think we'd be in a stronger position if we dropped our imperial pretensions, rejected militarism, and instead faced the future with recognition that the complex world we face can't be beat into submission with bombs and guns.
June 12: The Best Profession
At times I have to sit back and be thankful that I have the best profession I can possibly imagine. No, it's not having "summers off." I have never had a summer off, there are always summer courses, research (since I'm at a teaching university I do most of my research in the summer) and preparation for the next year. There are summer committees, conferences and the like. I never have a day where I have nothing to do. There is flexibility. I can choose to do nothing for a day or a week, and then make it up later, but work is always there, it's not like a M-F 9-5 job where once you're home, it's over. I could be at it all evening and every weekend if I didn't discipline myself to get away from work. During the school year it's even more extreme; rarely are weeks less than 50 hours of real work (maybe the first few weeks of the semester), and with grading some weeks push towards 60. There is flexibility, but it's a busy work life.
It is in part freedom; I can teach how I want, research what I want, and being at a teaching school there isn't a lot of pressure to 'publish or perish.' It's not as prestigious as being at some big name school, but a whole lot less stressful, and Maine is an absolutely wonderful place to live. Academia is also a wonderful place where people can speak their mind. Sure you have the PC police on the left and the nationalists on the right who want to try to control the discourse, but they really can't do much; academia is about freedom of thought. It is also in part the fact I get to constantly learn. This blog started when I co-taught a course on children and war with Dr. Mellisa Clawson in Early Childhood Ed, and since then I've also worked with Dr. Steve Pane (Music), Dr. Sarah Maline (Art History) and Luann Yetter (English) on various courses. I constantly learn and grow, life doesn't get boring. Some of these courses have been travel courses to places like Germany and Italy, where I can co-experience the way students suddenly open up to a new culture and the joy of travel. It's exhilarating! But the real reason this job is the best ever is that I can at least feel like I'm contributing to work against what I believe the most pressing problem facing America: civic ignorance, as well as ignorance about the world and America's role in the world.
High schools don't cover international affairs with much depth. I open my World Politics class with an intense case study: the Cambodian genocide of the 70s. In a class of thirty, often no one, or perhaps one or two people, have heard of it. Some say they had to go look up Cambodia on a map, they thought it was in Africa. I end the course with the Rwandan genocide. Now it's gotten some movies and news, but three years ago it was common to have a class where no one had heard of it. And, of course, conflicts like those in Uganda, Sudan or the Congo are totally outside the knowledge spectrum of most college students (or Americans in general). The politics of the Arab world, as well as those of Iran and Afghanistan are vague and opaque to most people. It is heartening that students who come into the course taking it because they had to get a social sciences course often leave with comments about how it opened their eyes and sometimes "changed their lives."
I'd like to take credit for being such a good teacher, but it isn't me, it's the knowledge -- it's the fact students learn things about their world that are powerful and important, yet things which they had no clue existed before hand. Students often seem angry after they learn about Cambodia and Rwanda (and the shameful US policies in each case, especially the Clinton Administration in Rwanda), frustrated by what's happening in the world, and how most people don't get past patriotic slogans on the right, or Bush-bashing on the left. Students are shocked to learn that while Hitler's holocaust killed 11 million, they never heard that Stalin's purges killed 20 million, and Mao's Great Leap Forward led to a famine that killed 30 million. The holocaust is only one of many calamities humanity endured in the 20th century; most people never learn about these things.
I suppose it could be frustrating to see the level of ignorance and reflect on what it says about our society. My experience is that it's an un-chosen ignorance, often by intelligent, caring, hard working people who are simply in a culture that pushes towards sensationalist mainstream sanitized world view. Their lives are busy, the world revolves around the latest fashion, career stress, and a host of problems that seem so important. The reality of how good they have it compared to much of the world just doesn't sink in; there is no real chance to learn about all that. Some have had really good high school teachers who do open their eyes ahead of time, but most high schools are struggling just to get students to perform on standardized tests these days, not to really think about issues that aren't tested (and government tests aren't going to encourage knowledge that might lead to critical thinking about America's role in the world). I take it as something heartening, though. That I have a chance to reach some students, many of them future teachers, who will hopefully spread their desire to learn and question, and not get lost in a culture based on materialism and a kind of hedonism.
I can't imagine just working to make profit for a company, or doing what I originally planned to do, to represent clients in law suits. I can't imagine giving myself to the bureaucratic games of Washington DC, where I was for awhile before I fled (much to the chagrin of my father who had to go from saying his son was an aide to a US Senator, taking even a trip to Greece and Turkey, to saying I was a night manager at a Rocky Rococo's pizza parlor in Brooklyn Park, MN). I respect those in government who believe they are making a difference (and, of course, many are doing good things), but I can't imagine a job as fulfilling and important as what I'm doing. I'm damn lucky.
June 13: The world in 2050
A group of science professors (and a few others) at UMF (University of Maine at Farmington) are proposing that the university focus on the theme of sustainability. Can we keep consuming and producing in the way we are at the pace we are -- with China and India increasing their pace -- and sustain our environment, our lifestyles, even our planet? While I dislike the word ("sustainability" looks like a bureaucratic invention, as bad as the EU's term 'subsidiarity'), the issue itself is indeed one that will likely dominate the first half of this century. It incorporates terrorism, oil prices, wars, and a variety of other phenomena which challenge our future. And, from the view point of 2006, the future looks if not bleak, at least very different than the way things have been going most of my life.
I was born in 1960, and despite all the technological changes, life really isn't that much different than it was when I was growing up. Sure, we were thrilled to get cable TV in the seventies with 10 channels, there was no internet or e-mail, and so distractions tended to be more personal and often involved physical activity. Also, we were a bit more free -- the increase in regulations involving everything from seat belts and car seats to smoking sections and security check points is immense. And while I understand the logic of each individual action, their cumulative impact is to make life feel more regulated and controlled than back then. Yet here in Maine the rural feel and general way of doing things mitigates some of those changes.
To be sure, during these years, driven in part by the technology and information revolution, fundamental changes have taken place in the global economy. Transnational investment has increased unbelievably, trade patterns have altered, and the boogey man of the Cold War disappeared with a whimper, only to be replaced by fear of a strange thing called 'terrorism.' But still, the actual living of day to day life isn't that much different. Household goods may be made of plastic more than before, with fancy buttons and electronics, but you cook, vacuum, clean, wash clothes, drive the car, play in the park, hike, socialize, read and work in much the same kind of atmosphere. I think the next 46 years will usher in much more dramatic change than the last; the forces driving those changes have been around awhile, but their impact is only starting to get felt.
This summer I think I'll return to this theme -- the world in 2050 -- quite a bit, and address particular issues on days nothing else jumps out at me to write about. (Today Bush is in Iraq, and the Iran issue has been interesting, but I'm going to wait a few days before yet another blog on those themes). Although now and then I get e-mails suggesting that some people actually read this blog (thank you!), the primary rationale for keeping it up is to have a document of my thoughts and reactions to world events as they happened so my kids and others interested can read them. Maybe in 2050 we can all meet and go over this and future entries. But today I want to just mention the biggest threat. It's not global warming, the end of oil, or even terrorism. The biggest threat is ourselves, and big government.
That may seem odd. I'm not one of those anti-government types (and have had vigorous net debates against those who are); so-called libertarians and anarcho-capitalists see clearly the danger of government, but fail to recognize that the problem is centralization of power, not the existence of governmental institutions. Get rid of government, and you'll have big money controlling everything. Yet it's clear that governments are the most dangerous of human constructed institutions. In times of insecurity, either due to environmental crisis, threat of war or terror, or economic collapse, the tendency is for people to want government to solve the problems, and give more and more power to those who seem like they might be able to 'fix' things.
This is dangerous even if the people given the power have good intent; the larger the government, the more centralized the power, the greater the likelihood of corruption, and the more our freedoms and our ability to exercise oversight is eroded. People are also more likely to follow their leaders into needless wars, and avoid necessary, critical thought. That has happened to some extent even since 9-11 -- consider electronic surveillance, the Patriot Act, and the corruption involved in the big corporate deals in Iraq. We'll be facing some major challenges as a planet over the coming decades, and the most important thing is to not let fear or panic overcome our desire to maintain freedom and hold governments accountable to the people and rule of law.
June 14: The Propaganda Dynamic
Today I was flipping through radio stations and heard some talk radio jock say "this is a bad week to be a liberal. They must be feeling horrible, we got Zarqawi, the economy is doing great, Bush is in Iraq..." At that point I turned off the radio. There is only so much Goebbelseseque propaganda one can take, and those two lines were enough. Think about the dynamic going on here. First, there are two sides (fair and balanced, liberal and conservative). You are on the right or the left. No middle ground, no shades of grey.
Then the "left" is posited to be basically people who don't want any good news while the Republicans are in power. According to the dynamic, they want the economy to do bed, cheer for terrorists, and are angry when good news happens. The choice is clear: either you want bad things to happen to America (then you're a 'liberal' or a 'Democrat') or you wish well for our country (they you are 'conservative' or 'Republican'). The goal of a tactic, of course, is to get people to "side" with the conservative/GOP and self-identify with the "right" in an emotional political dynamic.
This morning I heard a bit of a talk radio show on the way to work (before turning to my lectures on CD -- redoing the course on 'How to Listen to and Appreciate Great Music') where the host was listing all the gruesome ways insurgents were killing people, and then in a whiney voice (meant to sound like a 'typical liberal') saying, "but isn't only Americans killing innocents?" He insinuated that the Iraqis really wanted us there (most don't) because the evil doers are other Iraqis, and we are the good guys trying to help. Liberals, he claimed, think Iraqi lives are worthless because we don't want to protect them. Again, a clear, constructed dynamic: you are "conservative" and "pro-war" if you want to help the Iraqis and recognize that the worst crimes are committed by Iraqis and not Americans, you are "liberal" if you think Americans are doing all the killing and are the only bad guys. Again, Goebbelsesque.
Despite the brutality of the Haditha atrocity, nobody I know of on the anti-war side has ever said that the Americans were the ones doing all the killing; in fact, there is a clear sense that the problem with American policy is that it helped unleash a low level civil war that has plunged Iraq into a kind of anarchy, with a political dynamic that hurts U.S. interests. The idea that people against the war think only the Americans are killing or doing nasty things is complete fantasy. The idea that "liberals" want bad things to happen and root against the US is similar BS. Yet that's the dynamic being pushed by talk radio, and to some extent by Fox news and other more conservative outlets.
You see the same on the left, of course, though they aren't yet as effective. 'Bush only cares about oil and big money, Cheney is a Halliburton inside agent, and the war is only to make profits for the arms industry.' As much as I oppose this war and Administration foreign policy (I was similarly critical of Clinton's foreign policy -- I had a letter to the editor published in April 1999 in Time, the issue with the woman's soccer champions on the cover, where I was harshly critical of the Kosovo war) I think it's less about evil manipulative forces than competing world views about international relations and foreign policy. Yet the more the propaganda dynamic on both sides divides America and weakens civil society, the harder it will be to find a middle ground, a rational basis for discussion and compromise. Politics becomes more like a sport, where you support your 'team' without critical reflection on the issues. Emotion rather than reason dominates.
That is a very dangerous trend.
June 15: The allure of Realism?
In his blog Juan Cole linked this story about an appearance of John Mearsheimer, Robert Art and Stephen Walt at the Naval War College. The response of the audience to the sober and realistic assessment of the Iraq fiasco is telling; I think the military knows that Iraq is a disaster, but control is in the hands of politicians.
I recall that while I was in grad school at the University of Minnesota John Mearsheimer gave a guest talk. Although I disagree with his approach to international relations (IR), it's nice to see a true realist in a academic discipline dominated by a hodgepodge of theoretic approaches, including neo-realism, neo-liberalism, neo-liberal institutionalism, transnationalism, constructivism, neo-Marxism(s), and a variety of smaller theoretical perspectives. In part this is a result of the uncertainty of today's international system -- the end of the Cold War caught most analysts by surprise, and showed a real weakness in the predictive and even explanatory power of international relations theory. In part this is a result of the inability to do 'hard' science -- the data can and are interpreted into a variety of theoretical perspectives, with no real way to test which interpretation is correct. To use Kuhn's term, we are far, far away from developing a 'normal science' of international relations.
Yet realism, an admittedly interpretive approach, has a kind of appeal that shines forth during conflicts like the one in Iraq. Realism is often dismissed by those who tie it to Clausewitz, Machiavelli, and Bismarckian power politics. The realist is concerned with state sovereignty, national interest defined as power, and embraces the necessity of having a strong military. The kind of transnational approach to using the military I described the other day would be scoffed at by most realists. Some (perhaps the father of modern realism, Hans Morgenthau) would accept an opening for such a change if the state system underwent fundamental transformation, but they'd consider that very dangerous.
Realism, in general, distrusts states putting their morality above those of other states, demands respect for sovereignty, and generally opposes imperialism and expansion of power. To a realist, a state with an aggressive foreign policy invites alliances to form against it, creates insecurity in the system, and, if it is truly a revolutionary state (one trying to reshape the system) will find itself confronting so many enemies and obstacles that its policies will harm that country's interest. One can certainly see that, from a realist perspective, American policy in Iraq has been folly. Hans Morgenthau was one of the first to speak out against the Vietnam war, not as a peacenik, but a realist. Mearsheimer especially is not one you'd ever consider a peacenik or a lefty; he's known as a hard nosed realist who understands the role of the military.
Realists are unsurprised by the Rwanda debacle I was writing about last month (I think starting around May 24 -- the entries are in reverse chronological order, I should probably change that in my archive someday); after all, what national interest was at stake for the major powers? Why should a young American or a young Ghanan for that matter die in a conflict they are not a part of? Realists emphasize diplomacy, and have as their main goal peace and international stability. This usually means protection of the status quo, even if the status quo isn't especially just or fair. To a realist the world has to change as sovereign states choose change, not through intervention and conquest.
To be sure, as an interpretive theory realism can be twisted to rationalize a variety of policies, and you can find realists on both sides of various issues, which is one reason modern "scientific" scholars of international relations generally look down upon traditional realism. Still, if you leave the realm of academia or general theories about global politics, and focus on foreign policy, realist analyses tend to be good at explaining a lot about what happens in the world.
Yet I think globalization is creating a situation where traditional realism will have less and less power in explaining and predicting even foreign policy. First, realism has remained powerful in part because that's what most foreign policy elites were taught; it has a self-fulling prophecy aspect about it, at least at some level. Foreign policy elites are starting to think differently, which means they will act differently; Germany is an example of that (yes, the link is shameless self-promotion). Also, the fact big money (finance and business) is becoming borderless alters the notion of what state sovereignty and state power mean, decreasing the relative importance of the state. Realists have a hell of a time trying to explain the EU (Mearsheimer was convinced it would go into crisis after the end of the Cold War). Third world states are not the kind of stable entities that European and western states are; they are artificial creations in most cases, and usually penetrated by a variety of foreign interests and concerns. In short, realism as a theory was good at explaining the period of sovereign state competition of the past couple centuries, and many of the insights which they claim make their theory timeless (they go back to Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, etc.) are probably valid (I don't want this blog entry to turn into a lecture on IR theory, so I'll leave that vague for now -- this entry is already getting too long). But context matters, and the world is changing.
So back to Iraq. The world is still "realist" enough to allow the theory to do pretty well at explaining, and in fact predicting ahead of time the Iraq fiasco. But the changes in the world, evidenced by 9-11 and the fear of global terrorism, are a major reason why the Bush Administration abandoned a traditional realist approach and embraced a kind of liberal Wilsonian interventionism. These changes also mean that realists ultimately fail in being able to give a sovereignty-centric state-centric analysis of how to deal with either Iraq or the challenges of terrorism and globalization. In fact, the biggest problem in the Bush Administration policy was a combining of a realist emphasis on sovereignty and acting independently (you're with us our against us) with this liberal Wilsonian drive to spread democracy. The result was something anathema to most realists, and contrary to the cooperative institutional approach of liberal and transnational theories. In a weird way, the confusion in the politics mirrors the confusion in IR theory at this point in time!
I'll end with another point I agree with realists on: sudden or dramatic change in the system is dangerous and destabilizing. They want to avoid it, and hence emphasize the balance of power and protection of the status quo. But changes today are driven by economics, technology, and forces beyond the control of state governments (state = nation or country). Realism ultimately can't handle this; we who study international relations aren't sure what kind of theory can.
June 16: Terrorism in 2050
Back in the 90s when teaching international relations I would scare students with talk about the future terrorist threat -- dirty bombs, nuclear weapons, anthrax, etc. "It's not a matter of if, but when," I'd note -- not really being prescient, but simply passing on what I was reading from experts in terrorism. I'd also "role play" a terrorist. At first it was Timothy McVeigh, talking about how the government has gone away from the principles of the constitution, and how he's at war with the government, and his terrorist act was an act of war. I'd try to get the students to argue, and I'd play McVeigh: "It's unfortunate that children died at the day care center at the Federal Building, but children were killed when the US bombed Iraq, and your government butchered thousands of children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is a war, a more just war, than those, and so you have no right to be self-righteous." In playing Bin Laden, of course, the issues are colonialism, western support of corrupt governments, western exploitation of oil, and the attack on the Islamic identity of the people in the region. In each case students ultimately realize that the simplistic "terrorists are evil crazies" is wrong; they have a rationale for their motives, there is a strategic logic behind choosing terrorism if you do not have a state or you are much weaker than the party you are at war against. At a fundamental level the evils associated with terrorism are not that much worse (if at all worse) than the evils of modern warfare.
All that is really important to understand both if one is truly going to try to counter or "fight" terrorism, and if we want to assess the future of terrorism. Terrorism is a strategy used by groups who believe they have a just cause but who are too weak to confront the opposing state directly. The goal is essentially to force a state to undertake actions which ultimately will weaken it, and allow the terrorists to alter the strategic playing field. Recent al qaeda documents stating that they wanted the US and Iran to go to war is an example; they knew that kind of war would continue to weaken the US, and give them a better chance to ignite fading support for al qaeda in the Muslim world.
Discover magazine this month has a special issue on the technological future of terrorism (likely threats, technologies to counter these threats, etc.) I'm not going to touch those issues at all today. Rather, I want to think about the politics of what terrorism might be all about by the middle of the century.
Islamic fundamentalism emerged as the first truly global terror threat primarily because of politics and economics. Due to the military dictatorship of the Ottomans, that religion never modernized, leaving a pre-modern absolutist Islam in place. Penetration by colonial powers weakened traditional structures, and helped lead to a post-Ottoman era dominated by the West or governments supported by the West. These governments were corrupt, using oil revenue to enrich themselves and stay in power. Over time, though, those who weren't benefiting or felt their lifestyles threatened by the western influence and control became angry. While Arab states kept this in line with authoritarian governments, Iran was the place of the first revolution. It is not Arab, was the most western Muslim state in the region, and never a part of the Ottoman empire. Yet the westernizing of the Shah had a backlash, and then the war in Afghanistan found radical Islam on the rise, supported by the US because it was fighting communism. In short: the roots of terror came from a sense of having been dominated by the west, governed by corrupt ineffective governments, and having their identities challenged with cultural change, while the means came from oil revenues and western support.
I would argue that this convergence simply makes Islamic fundamentals the first of perhaps many who will embrace this strategy as the preferred form of warfare in coming decades. Moreover, it may be the less dangerous than future threats because most Arabs and Muslims don't really want the kind of strict lifestyle the extremists promote, most want modernization. There is a fundamental dearth of support for Islamic fundamentalists, meaning that their ability to wage this as a true culture war is limited. (Which is why things like the Haditha massacre are so harmful -- they can't win, but we can defeat ourselves).
By 2050 we may have a new foe. Many states in Africa: Sudan, Uganda, the Congo, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, etc., have been or are engaged in long term conflicts which cut to the core of a impoverished culture. Rape, mutilation, butchery, child soldiers, slavery, etc. have all been far too common, with the West essentially ignoring all of this. They are weak, unimportant, and backwards to most westerners, why worry about what happens? Yet with technological advances, one could see a potential for some kind of charismatic leader or movement to try to reach beyond ethnic disputes and claim "the real enemy is the West, who colonized us, exploited us, and now gives us the weapons with which we slaughter ourselves. They revel in our division and fighting because they know that makes us easy to control -- and they pay our governments off with bribes. No more!" Such a group has nothing to gain from maintaining the system (unlike the Arab world, who benefits greatly from its oil) and one could see such a movement getting mass support by people who figure that whatever happens to them can't be worse than the current situation, so why not tear down the system. In such a case, the real future conflict is likely to be north vs. south, or the rich vs. the poor. The war will be one defined by the strategy of terrorism, with means we do not yet know. It will not be the Soviets (who wanted to maintain their status quo empire) or Arabs (who want western oil money) but people with little to gain from maintaining the system.
Too fanciful and far out? Or, perhaps you believe that we'll maintain a technological lead enough to assure they can't pose a threat, even as globalization and technology spreads? OK. But in my opinion the only prudent thing to do would be to work to help this region put violence behind it and overcome the massive poverty that has endured there for decades (both a result of colonialism, destruction of their indigenous political culture, and continued western penetration). The best defense against future terrorism is to make sure that the conditions that grow a true terrorist threat don't take root. More importantly, helping these people is the right thing to do.
June 18: The Real and the Unreal
That's actually a song by Al Stewart, but it also suggests the disconnect between the propaganda war on Iraq and the reality of the situation there. The propaganda war is driven by a few assertions repeated over and over. The assertions are wrong.
Assertion one: We are making slow, steady, progress. No. the reality is that the insurgency is as strong as ever, that services to citizens are still below pre-war levels, and things are worse than they were a year ago. We have not been making progress. Moreover, security that does exist is often through militias, and the Iraqi forces that sometimes are shown off by the Pentagon in joint operations (with the oft repeated but not verified statement 'they are taking more responsibility) are not at all up the task of providing security, and in fact likely have divided loyalties. Iraq is a failed state; we failed them. How to fix this is not self-evident, and a serious discussion on that, including the idea that we shouldn't leave soon (I'd disagree, but I can see how one can make an argument that we need to stay) is needed. But the Administration doesn't want to admit their propaganda is wrong, they don't want to risk a backlash if they see headlines saying "Bush Says Progress in Iraq Stalled." So we don't get a true debate about what needs to be addressed.
Assertion two: The Media is giving only the bad news. The reality is the media reports of Iraq are infrequent, focused on government statements, and tend to understate the insecurity and the violence in Iraq. American media sources emphasize American deaths and actions, and ignore most Iraqi on Iraqi violence and eschew the term "civil war," even though that's the most accurate description of the ethnic violence. Following the American media one would think Iraq in much better condition than it is; one has to dig through other media sources to get the true story. And, while it likely is also true that there isn't much coverage of the so called 'good' news of schools being opened or something like that, this 'good' news is minor in regards to the entire situation. Americans receive a sanitized view of the Iraq war.
Assertion three: We are fighting them there so we don't fight them here (similarly: we haven't been attacked here because of the war in Iraq). This assertion is simply ridiculous. Perhaps that was the rationale for expanding the war to Iraq, but it isn't the reality. Al qaeda is Iraq is weak, and not made up of all those who would attack the US if given the opportunity. If the goal was to counter al qaeda, we could do much more if the resources thrown into Iraq, mostly to deal with non-al qaeda and non-terrorist issues, were spent on counter-terrorism. Virtually nobody we are fighting there would be fighting us here absent this war; the insurgency is about Iraq, not the US. Relatedly...
Assertion four: Iraq is a major front in the war on terror. No, it is a harmful distraction. Moreover, the idea of creating a democratic and stable Iraq is a pipedream. Despite all the proclamations that things are getting better, or hope placed in a new government, the reality is that intense corruption, an ethnically divided society, and powerful militias dominate. The only way Iraq could be the front line of the war on terror (a misplaced metaphor, to be sure) is if it were to become democratic and a model for the region. That's not going to happen any time soon. That's not something anyone should be happy about, it would be great if Iraqis suddenly put their weapons down and said, "let's work this out through democratic means." But democratic systems are hard to build, and Iraq is lacking the essentials. Corruption, again, is perhaps as serious a problem as the insurgency.
Assertion five: Now that a government is in place, Iraq is ready to move forward. That is really putting proverbial make up on a pig. The government was supposed to be formed months ago, the fact it took so long shows the problems in the Iraqi political system. The government they have is divided and papering over real problems. In parts of the country, such as Basra, there is chaos. The Kurdish areas lean more and more towards autonomy. To be sure, it's the best chance the Iraqis have to improve things, they aren't in a completely hopeless situation, but this is no turning point, and future progress will be despite the US, not because of the US.
Assertion six (recently added): Zarqawi's death (and formation of a new government) provide a turning point. This is the latest in the series of so-called turning points (their persistence evidence of the lack of slow and steady progress -- if that's what you had, you wouldn't need turning points). A few headlines, a bit of optimism, and the President's poll numbers can jump up a bit, the pro-war side can claim things are looking up...we've seen this all before, but the realities on the ground defy victory by "spin."
Assertion seven: Those who question the war aren't patriotic. And, of course, the response is always that dissent is patriotic as is it required for a democracy to function. I personally have little regard for "patriotism." I always found myself identifying with that line from the Rush song "Territories" -- 'Better the pride that resides in a citizen of the world, than the pride that divides when a colorful rag is unfurled.' I'm a human, there are many fellow humans on this planet, and while I support and believe in the values of the US constitution, principle is more important than "territory." Patriotism misleads because it creates an emotional bias to whitewash what ones' own country does, and apply a double standard to other states (look at how the US deals with other potential nuclear powers). So it's not so much that this assertion is wrong, but that it is misplaced -- a war should be judged by moral, ethical criteria, regardless of the nation involved. But this subject is complex, so I'll do an entire entry on patriotism soon.
Bottom line: hopefully people start looking at the real rather than the unreal, the news rather than the spin and propaganda. Ultimately, reality will have to be dealt with, but the propaganda may suffice to get those in support of the war through another election cycle.
June 19: They know
A very short blog today.
Vice President Cheney repeats that the insurgency is in the last throes. President Bush notes continuing progress. But a report from the US embassy in Baghdad paints a grim picture on the reality of the situation.
Bottom line: they know. They know how bad things really are, they know that there is no slow and steady progress, they know that they are caught in a situation where there is no real victory. That's all for today -- this is summer experience week, so I'm busy -- but read that report. Juan Cole also has the memo in full on his blog. Sobering stuff. But at least we know that they know.
June 20: Advice to Incoming first year students (this is summer experience week)
I was all set to blog on the Greenspan legacy after hearing a report today which really questions the convention view that he was a brilliant steward of the federal reserve. He may, in fact, have set up potential economic disaster by not more forcefully stopping the US stock bubble, thus leading to a need to lower interest rates dramatically when it burst, causing a housing and trade bubble, with too much cheap speculation. I'll probably get to that issue tomorrow.
Instead today I'll focus on four bits of advice I give to summer experience students -- incoming first year students who are here for a week of intense study and preparation for the semester ahead. (This isn't all the advice I give, but I'll skip the time management and study habits stuff). I don't know why I'm putting this in my blog, I guess these four things are bits of wisdom I've learned over the years from others, and I think they are very important.
1. Beware of the danger of abstraction; don’t distrust or ignore sentiment. In the academic world you’re entering, abstraction is the norm as disciplines develop theories and analyze. How you “feel” about something is supposedly not important; it’s the analysis and the objective reasoning which matter. But there is a danger in that. If one abstracts the victims of a conflict, it becomes easy to dismiss the humanity of their suffering. As Stalin noted, “one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.” If one ignores or pushes aside emotion, one is unable to identify with victims – other humans who suffer and whose condition is real and just as important as our own. Sentiment is a powerful part of our conscience, our ethics – our ability to connect with others as being like ourselves. In issues that involve human experience, don’t push it aside, don’t categorize “the other” and make the error that UN bureaucrats in rationalizing inaction on Rwanda in 1994.
2. Question authority and the ‘conventional wisdom’ of the day. In the next four years your main job will be to reflect on life, your values, your beliefs, and what you hold to be true. Don’t take anything on authority alone, especially if it doesn’t seem right to you. At various points in history inequality of women, slavery, child labor and the like were all 'normal' parts of life, seen as natural to most people. This is your life, you are to claim your education. Question your parents, your priests, your professors, the media, the government, all political parties…the more you question and learn, the more you’ll realize how shallow the conventional wisdom of the day often is, and how rich your life will become when your beliefs are truly yours and not something you just soaked up from people around you.
3. Don’t doubt your ability to make a difference. Everyone’s heard the example of how a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon rain force ultimately affects weather patterns across the planet. Everything anyone does matters, no matter how small it may seem. Most of the time we don’t see most of the consequences of our actions, but what you do in the world, good or bad, has an impact. We hope to inspire you to take seriously the ability each of us has to affect the world and its future, perhaps on issues of children and war, or perhaps other issues you consider important. Especially when one thinks of all that we have – and our problems and stresses in modern America seem minor when compared to much of the rest of the world – I think our comfort creates a responsibility to get involved and be active. Don’t get cynical or frustrated if it appears the world isn’t changing despite your efforts; change takes time. Like water being heated it takes a lot of energy to reach the temperature where it turns to steam. It appears that the temperature increase from 0 to 99 C does nothing to the water, then suddenly it boils and turns to a gas. Your efforts matter, even if change is a generation or so away.
4. Take responsibility for your life and your conditions. Sure, things happen and you can't always control them. But you can control how you react, and people who show initiative, take responsibility, and don't blame their conditions on others are almost always more successful and more happy than those who evade responsibility, blame others for their problems, and feel sorry for themselves. This is your life, claim it, and live it!
June 21: Iraq: the good and the bad
(Push Greenspan aside yet another day). Last night I was part of a presentation that involved two other people. First, Peter Buotte, an artist and Iraq war veteran talked about his experiences, then Mellisa Clawson and I gave a presentation about children and war, and the importance of students getting involved and active in issues for which they have passion. Both presentations went really well, and the 225 students in attendance did a great job showing courtesy, attention and engagement for the nearly two hours we were there.
Peter Buotte's presentation was personal -- he describes some of his projects in Iraq as a civil affairs officer (he's a reservist), including how he led in the reconstruction of nearly 1000 schools, as well as other efforts to build Iraq's infrastructure. This clearly shows the "good" side of American efforts in Iraq, attempts to really help the Iraqi people have a better life, and show that the US is not just about destroying the country. He also noted that he worked with many very intelligent Iraqi people, though many of the translators he hired were killed -- a sad note upon which he ended his portion of the talk. He also showed off some of his art, including a rather famous "target flag." His take on the war was interesting; he was proud of the work he's done in Iraq, hopeful that the Iraqis can build their future, but cognizant of the fact that Americans don't realize how vulnerable we are, and how a superpower can't do anything it wants. Even his work can be interpreted in ways ranging from positive to negative on the war; he shared some of both interpretations, and the only one he offered personally was the notion of 'vulnerability.'
It is true that while we've all read about new schools being built, big projects underway, etc., that does often pale in significance to the violence and instability there; those of us absolutely convinced that this is a foreign policy fiasco often ignore the efforts by many soldiers and others who are trying to help, but focusing on the insurgency and counter-insurgency, and the errors and mistakes by American policy makers. So what to make of all us?
The reality of a war or conflict like this is always complex, allowing all sides to pick and choose evidence that buttresses their point. I think its important, though, to recognize that the work of many if not most of the soldiers in Iraq, perhaps especially people like Peter Buotte who did a lot of work to try to improve the lives of average people over there, is valuable and often makes a real difference in the lives of people. Haditha is not the norm. That doesn't mean that it's right that they are there, or that a different policy wouldn't have been better -- but we can't mix up condemnation with a policy with lack of recognition for good, valuable work.
On the policy: Iraq is already a failure as a foreign policy. This does not mean Iraq can't somehow stabilize and the US can't get out, only that the goals of the conflict were not met, the cost remains exceedingly high, and the result of the policy has been to intensely weaken America on the world stage, especially in issues involving states like North Korea, Iran and Syria. The goal of using this to inject the US into the region, create a model democracy, pressure Iran and Syria and alter the Mideast in order to undercut terrorism was a pipe dream. It's dead. Moreover, Saddam didn't have WMD, wasn't part of 9-11, and in essence America's reputation, trust in the claims made by American leaders and American intelligence is gone, and the relationship between the US and its allies is strained. There is no way anyone can go through and analyze this conflict without concluding it was an utter failure as a policy.
On the present: The US needs to get out soon. There are hopeful signs that the Iraqi government wants this as well, and something can be done rather soon. I've never been one of those who predict that when the US leaves all hell will break loose. That's possible, but it's also quite likely that once the US is gone, the anger at the US as a foreign occupier will cease and no longer inspire people to join the insurgency. The Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds can't try to use the US to bolster their claims (thus allowing them to avoid true compromise) and they're recognize the need for some kind of internal arrangement. Since much of the reconstruction work has halted and the security situation for the US grim (most Iraqis want the Americans out), the US needs to to extricate itself from this mess. Soon.
On the path to the future: The one way this can still end without defeat for the US is for the US to forego permanent bases, cease efforts to use Iraq to expand American corporate influence or pressure other states in the region. It is absolutely essential that the US accept close Iraqi-Iranian ties, and that the US talk with the Syrians about stability there. They want the US out too (the Iranians and Syrians) and each can do a lot to help assure stability and cut support for insurgents. I don't really think Iran is supporting the Sunni insurgency at all; but they do have the capacity to help stabilize the Shi'ite community - in part by recognizing the legitimacy of Iraqi nationalism over Shi'ite ties.
Best case scenario: the US gets out within a year, Iraq remains relatively stable, the war hawks can try to claim that as a victory (most people forget the real policy goals anyway), and as security stabilizes international agencies can become active to help better develop the civil society. The cost to the US will still have been enormous. The number of dead and injured Iraqis in the current civil war will still be exceedingly high, and the damage hard to overcome. It will not have been worth it, but in the best case scenario, at least not everything falls apart and Iraqis can build a better future. The US remains weakened, Iranian hardliners have been strengthened, and the region is if anything farther from that which the US thought the policy could achieve.
Worst case scenario: Either the US tries to stay, the insurgency continues, and the death and destruction go on. Or the US leaves, but the corruption (again, that's a key problem, and one the US did not do enough to counter) ensures a battle for control that leads either to a new Saddam like ruler (though hopefully one without regional ambitions) or separatist chaos. Then the US will truly be at fault for igniting a long term deadly battle because of overconfidence and hubris. Staying longer does not make the worst case scenario less likely; indeed, the sooner we leave the closer we may get to the best case scenario.
And the good work done on schools and infrastructure? Whether or not the US gets credit from Iraqis, it at least shows that there was an intent to help. The policy choices were made out of arrogance and ignorance, and there is a lot of room to question policies on contractors, corruption, and lack of planning/foresight. Scholars will study this for years, and I'm certain the consensus will be this was a policy fiasco. The good deeds will also be there, and the criticism should mostly be of the policy makers' decision making and arrogance, NOT about America as a country or the American people. The good work of people like Peter Buotte not only helps a lot of Iraqis have a better life, but it assures that the stain of a failed policy is limited to the political leaders, and not all Americans, even those who bought the snake oil the political leaders were selling.
June 22: Iraq - an end in sight? (And other short shots)
Today I'm very busy, so the blog will be short.
This story: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,19538585-601,00.html is a very sober assessment of the situation in Iraq, noting that the level of violence is worsening, and that it is very likely the Iraqis will ask the United States to leave. Add that to the propaganda offensive, a sudden level of activity in Iraq (including President Bush's visit) and it seems that perhaps there is going to be a change -- it won't be 'staying the course,' but setting up a departure. What this means is unclear, but recent kidnappings and violence show the death of Zarquawi has meant very little for the insurgency (that is no surprise, of course), and in fact it could ultimately strengthen it. Things are starting to get to a point where some major decisions cannot be avoided, and I think/hope that we are getting closer to the end. Unfortunately, violence at some level will continue after we're gone.
Another Iraq tidbit, NPR had a story today which talked about how American trained Iraqi soldiers actually killed some of the Americans training them. The scary part is that it took two years to inform the family, and when one of the soldiers killed had warned his superiors that he doubted the loyalty of the people he was training re was rebuffed, being told that the Iraqis didn't need "bad press" (he was told to keep his mouth shut). So has this changed in two years, or is there a real problem that we don't really know much about?
In Afghanistan the Taliban is resurgent and American deaths have increased. At this point the coalition does not have the force levels to counter the Taliban effectively, so this conflict will continue as well. President Karzai angrily notes he has been warning the West about this, but as usual, nothing was done until the Taliban had the strength to force the issue. Now it's not clear what can be done. With so much in Iraq, and corruption and drug trade/warlordism rampant in Afghanistan, that country does not seem at all poised for a peaceful near or even medium term future.
Last short shot: the Democrats are slowly waking up and talking sense about Iraq. Some, like Rep. John Murtha, have become so effective that they are getting a barrage of personal attacks from the right -- the same ones who admired him when he supported the war. Murtha changed his position on principle, and that's admirable. It's disgusting the way he gets attacked by the slash and burn crew, but that's the nature of American political discourse these days -- and that is a real dangerous trend. Gotta run!
June 23 - It's the Economy...
Early this week I heard a report on a rethinking by some economists about the legacy of Alan Greenspan. The conventional wisdom is that Greenspan was a superb Federal Reserve chief, getting accolades from Republicans and Democrats alike for keeping the economy productive and growing throughout his tenure (after defeating inflation), and overcoming some domestic and international crises which could have led to major economic turmoil. He was known for his mastery of details, and ability to talk in a language that was hard to decipher and could affect the markets in a manner he wished.
This new critique claims he actually enjoyed being popular, and wanted to avoid doing things that might bring him under attack. Therefore he allowed the stock bubble to keep growing long after he should have popped it (the *The Economist* of London was making a case for popping the bubble with a variety of stories and even cover stories in the late nineties). This meant that when the bubble burst he had to bring interest rates obscenely low, igniting a housing bubble and an speculation flurry that now creates economic imbalances, and perhaps an economic crisis in the near future.
So who is right? I think there is some validity to both interpretations, so the reality is somewhere 'in the middle'. The danger of deflation was real during the recession earlier this decade, and is still real. But the economic situation is complex (and not being an economist, it's tricky ground to enter...) Inflation these days is driven primarily by commodities, as China and India demand more oil and resources. The weakness of the dollar, of course, factors in to this. Given the high current accounts deficit, it is easy to imagine further pressure on the dollar in coming years, suggesting that the dollar could still fall.
Nonetheless, the economy has been performing well, though there are troublesome signs. Interest rates are rising, but wages aren't. The US relies on $2 billion coming into our economy each day to maintain the current accounts deficit. In a perfect storm, a falling dollar, concern for the American economy and perhaps even dislike of American policies could reduce the flow of money into the US. This would create rising interest rates along with inflation as the dollar weakened. The result could be a return of stagflation, where the economy is in a funk, yet inflation rates are high. And unlike the stagflation of the late 70s, which was driven primarily by a short term bump in oil prices, this one would be driven by structural economic conditions. Add to that the part of the fix of the 70s stagflation was to make necessary adjustments to the American tax structure (one thing Reagan did right), tax reductions no longer can be part of the solution. Not only aren't we in any position to do so due to high debt (now up to 70% of GDP) -- it would be fiscal suicide -- but taxes have already been cut for the 'investor class' so much that further cuts would simply exacerbate the gap between the rich and poor while forcing cuts to social programs for the poor.
Add to this consumer debt -- and the fact that since 2000 people have been spending far more than they earn, a record near $550 billion in 2005 (during the nineties despite high debt spending was less than income), and household spending is about 75% of the economic activity of the economy...well, that hardly can be sustained! It's been driven by low interest loans (mostly home equity loans) of the past five or so years, and that is already subsiding as interest rates grow. Indeed, household liquidity is near record lows. Put all this together and it appears that perhaps the biggest threat to the American way of life isn't terrorism but our massive debt (public and private), high commodity prices, a bloated current accounts deficit, a weak and weakening dollar, and a consumer spending base that has been pushed to its limits. This could all go really bad, really fast (and that's not even including added problems like disruptions from disasters due to global warming and other likely problems).
Again, I'm not an economist, nor is political economy my area of expertise in political science (though anyone involved in international relations study needs to understand quite a bit about how economies function). My analysis is in that sense "amateur economic analysis" and has to be taken with a grain of salt. But add in the consistent loss of manufacturing jobs and the growing vulnerability of the US economy due to globalization, along with the rise of economies like China and India, things do look troubling, if not alarming, for the future. And, of course, the war in Iraq just decreases our ability to respond to economic problems and adds to our debt and spending pressures.
June 25 - They blinked -- don't make it hard for them to do the right thing
First off, I really want to write a bit about consciousness and dimensionality (and the nature of the universe); those thoughts have been dominating my mind this weekend (while driving to the coast or mowing the lawn), but that will wait because Iraq demands some attention yet again...
Last week on June 22 (and at various times in the last month or so -- May 11 and June 5) I wrote that I thought that we're getting to the end of the Iraq quagmire, that the Bush administration seems not only to have realized that their policies have failed, but they acknowledge there is no real option other than to get out soon. Gone are the fantasies of a model democracy, American bases starring down Syrian and Iranian hardliners, and a reshaped Mideast. Now the end game is just to try to avert catastrophe as we disengage. And, since I have long been convinced that Iraq is more violent the longer we're there, if we leave things could very well finally start to improve. That sense of a change of course is being verified.
In a series of reports, leaks and interviews over the past few days it seems obvious that the Administration has dumped the "stay the course" and "stand down as they stand up" approach in favor of a (vaguely acknowledged) timetable for leaving Iraq by the end of 2008. That makes sense. They don't want the 2008 campaign to be defined by the war (that would be a big loser for the GOP, and risk a GOP candidate countering President Bush), they recognize that there is no way that they can get "success" as initially defined by 2008, and they see how their entire foreign policy has a pall cast over it by the Iraq war. They also recognize that the hype about the "war on terror" no longer plays; Americans are not frightened, panicked or overly emotional at this point, and thus the New York Times can break a story of banking surveillance and White House claims that this violates national security evokes yawns. Reality bites, and the only choice they have to is finally recognize the inevitable and plan their withdrawal.
This is, of course, bad news for Democratic partisans at one level. If the public really believes that President Bush is committed to leaving Iraq, his numbers will improve, the GOP will have a bounce back, and Democratic chances to win the House this fall will diminish. Moreover, the Republicans will play the propaganda and spin on this with all they have, proclaiming their pull out to be "success" and "vindication of the policy," and not the forced change of strategy that it really is. And, while bloggers and pundits can try to take them to task on this, the Democrat politicians should tred lightly. At this point they should embrace the new direction and work to make sure that it happens. The Democrats should praise this news and not put obstacles in the way of the most promising sign the war is going to wind down yet.
But, one might say, we can't let them get away with trying to claim victory when it so obviously represents a failure! To that I reply that any victory they have will be short lived. History tends to clear the air. After the political battles are over, people will be more willing to admit that errors were immense; few people still defend the morality of the Vietnam war, or American policy at that time. Yet as Nixon pulled out and essentially did the same kind of thing that is starting here, they were still unable to state the truth. So let history judge. Use the lessons of the Iraq case in the future, use the memory of this debacle to prevent aggression against Iran, Syria, or in other instances where the policy makers think killing people is the way to solve problems. Do everything possible to prevent the path of neo-imperialism in the future. But the Democrats should in terms of the direct Iraq policy, help create a bi-partisan path to getting out of Iraq as soon as possible; it's important for the country to get that done.
For analysts, pundits, bloggers, and academics, the story is different -- we should call it as we see it, and should point out that we're seeing in essence an administration in retreat -- the parallels with Nixon's peace with honor approach are large. But the politicians and leaders in this country shouldn't let that argument get in the way of doing the right thing: leave Iraq, abandon imperial pretensions, try to start rebuilding alliances, strengthen international institutions, and prepare for the real challenges ahead. How do we deal with the Mideast after Iraq? What about Afghanistan? Can one build an international counter-terrorism treaty and strategy? Can we address the problems of poverty and oppression which make a terrorist threat possible (stopping it at the root causes does more than a strategy designed to just address the symptoms)? Can we deal with environmental threats such as global warming, and economic threats like those I blogged about last time? Iraq is not only a policy fiasco, but a costly and deadly distraction from real, ultimately more important concerns.
Thus: learn the right lessons, but let's work together politically to get out as soon as feasible, given the political circumstances. I actually haven't been this optimistic about the policy in Iraq for a long time, but there is still a long way to go.
June 27 - Good Billionaires
So much going on politically -- the US finally seems to recognize the need for a new direction in Iraq, Secretary of State Rice acknowledges the growing strength of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and on the home front gossip hounds love the fact Rush Limbaugh was picked up returning from an apparent sex vacation to the Dominican Republic with Viagra and allegedly other prescription drugs. Yet the biggest news could be the doings of the richest two men in the world.
Last week it was announced that Bill Gates would quit his position running the operations at Microsoft in order to devote full time to his foundation. The business press thought this was tied to problems at Microsoft, as competition has grown while delays and missteps have shaken Microsoft's image as a near-monopoly. Now it seems clear that Gates was in consultation with Warren Buffett, who is donating a large chunk of his wealth -- nearly $40 billion -- to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This doubles the amount of money the foundation has, and the richest and one of the smartest men in the world will steer that money to try to solve world problems.
Perspective: the US has spent probably four or five times what the foundation has in its Iraq war, and that's only a small part of America's military spending. The foundation can probably only spend about $3 billion a year -- spare change by American budgetary standards -- in order to assure the foundation's endowment is protected for the long term. As impressive as this philanthropy is, governments could do much, much more if solving problems like poverty and health crises were a priority. In fact, the fraud and abuse of government funds in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina probably nears what this foundation can do in a year, and Katrina was just one storm. For capitalists out there, this serves as an example of "big money" doing a lot more for people than "big government." That isn't enough to convince me to become a free marketier -- things like sweat shops and exploitation of the third world remain tied to global capitalism as well -- but it does show that the issues are more complex than any "ism" might suggest. George Soros is another example of a billionaire desiring to use his money to do good. Ted Turner, with more limited means, has also embraced philanthropy.
Gates focuses on efficiency, innovative thinking, and the issues of health care and education. That is, after all, where the most good can be done. Real change is generational, since patterns of behavior don't change until thinking changes. Focusing on children and education potentially gets the most 'bang for the buck' (I'm not sure why I'm using a metaphor from Ike's massive retaliation doctrine here) and can do far more to stop future terrorism and other global ills than all the covert and overt military operations the great powers might engage in. The idea that national security is primarily a military issue and to see the world through a military lens is another mode of thinking that needs to be changed.
It's heartening that these billionaires, perhaps realizing that simply amassing wealth is of limited worth in terms of continuing personal satisfaction, are putting their wealth and minds to the task of tackling the real and daunting problems of the world. And even though they aren't sacrificing much in the way of life style -- they still will live with more material comforts and possibilities than most of us could dream of -- it's still a good thing, worthy of praise. Many blog entries over the past two and a half years have brought up issues facing children, and the apparent lack of a solution as rape, kidnapping, and killing continue in many parts of the world, while others suffer the after effects of war, such as landmines, corruption, and lack of family stability. And, as heartening as the actions of the two richest men in the world might be, it also shows just how much the governments and most people in the world focus their efforts and energies elsewhere. The problems we face could be solved if it were really a priority to most. But for now, we'll have to be happy that at least a couple of the richest folk on the planet have that priority.
June 28 - There is no "war on terror"
One thing that should be set straight to the American people but isn't is that there is no war on terror. At least, not in a literal sense. Terrorism is a strategy, a "war" on a strategy is at best metaphorical. It's no more a war than the "war on drugs" or the "war on poverty." A chunk of the country seems to be caught up in the myth that there is some kind of grand war going on between the US and "terrorism" or at the very least "Islamic extremism." In this weird warping of reality, there is a vast horde of Islamic extremists (read: most Arabs and many other Muslims) ready to pounce if we do not defeat them. In this world view we're at risk, our way of life is under threat, and they want to come and kill us and only an idiot would not do whatever possible and support whatever military action necessary to defeat this scourge.
That's all a bunch of hooey. First, let's get real. We can count the number of significant terrorist acts against the entire west by Islamic extremists on one, or maybe two hands. Second, you get past 9-11, the London Subway bombing and the Madrid bombing, and the level of violence is meager. Even a low level war in the third world claims far more victims. The idea there is an existential threat is imagined by people who fantasize the 9-11 perpetrators with nuclear and chemical weapons. But even then, the damage would be localized, and hardly threaten the sovereignty and stability of the United States (though our reaction might be more of a threat than the act). Fear is misplaced, the threat to our lifestyle from global warming and debt is greater than the threat from terrorism.
But let's continue. The idea that most Arabs are Islamic extremists is absurd. Most want a modern lifestyle, most resent the extremists and the ultra conservatives. Very few support al qaeda, and fewer still want to be a part of it. The fantasy that this is some kind of mass movement throughout the Islamic world is completely false. To use the metaphor, we're "at war" with a very small group indeed. Beyond that, those who do support extremists don't want to come here and kill us, nor do they desire to spread Islam around the globe -- that's all a bunch of emotional garbage thrown out there by those who want to create a mood of fear and anger. Many in the Islamic world do want the West out of their region, and they want their corrupt governments replaced by ones loyal to Islam. Even then, most who support such a movement do so less out of a desire for radical Islam, and more out of anger against the corruption of their governments and the perceived exploitation of their resources by the West. So the threat level is low, the number who threaten us is a tiny portion of the Arab and Muslim worlds, and those who do support groups who threaten us do so out of local concerns and not a desire to conquer or destroy the US.
But 9-11 did happen. There is "something there." Yes. There is a terrorist threat. This threat has been well known for decades, and the possibility of nuclear, chemical or biological terror is real. This calls for a true counter-terrorist effort, and to be effective it must be international in scope. Counter-terrorism is on going and necessary, and can at times involve military action. But the metaphor of war is not only misplaced, but it's being abused by fear mongers who, out of a desire to generate support for the President and the Iraq war, want to jerk around the emotions of the American people and create a climate of fear and uncertainty. They don't want a reasoned debate about the dangers of terrorism and the methods of counter terrorism. They don't want a reasoned discussion about how to develop an international effort to not only stop the terrorist threat, but to counter the root causes of terrorism -- poverty and hopelessness. For either the partisans or the talk radio jocks looking at the ratings, they need and want emotion.
The danger, however, is immense. Terrorism can't defeat us; we can defeat us. Terrorism combined with fear and emotion can lead a country to react in ways that undermine its way of life, thereby allowing terrorist groups to leverage their meager power into significant results. And that's the irony -- those most persistent in wanting to fight a 'war on terror' and wanting to spread fear and emotion of what they call "Islamofascism" are those who, if terrorists are successful, will be the means of helping the terrorists leverage that small level of damage into significant harm to the US and the West. So next time you hear somebody rant about the war on terror, compare it to World War II, accuse newspaper of "treason" and go off into other such emotional hissy fits, realize you are seeing precisely the kind of thinking a terrorist wants us to have, and make sure you keep your wits about you and don't fall for such dangerous blather.
June 29 - Fiddling while Rome burns...
Want a dose of pessimism about the future of America? You've come to the right place. The issues facing the country are immense, and I've discussed a lot of them over the past months. But the real disaster is in Washington, where politicians on both sides of the aisle are unable and unwilling to do what is necessary to try to make needed changes. This is a very bad situation, but people are so caught up in the spectacle of talk radio, dueling news shows and mini-scandals that they don't notice it. Again, our comedians are on the front lines here.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has had a theme the past week about the silliness of Congress debating things like flag burning, gay marriage, and non-binding resolutions 'supporting the troops.' It's all posturing for the Midterms, and the plan seems to be to push issues like abortion, guns, and other social conservative agenda items to try to play Rove's favorite game of getting the base out to vote. (By the way, if you want to know how I view those issues, click here -- but I'm not going to waste blog space on them). On the other hand, one of his guests Juliet Eilperin wrote a book about how 98% of incumbents are safe because the Congress is a club where job one is to protect their own members. These are symptoms of the problem.
So what are our choices? The GOP wants to play the emotion of conservative themes, both in terms of the religious right and nationalism, to scare voters from the Democrats. But, not trusting that to do the trick, they also are unwilling to try to bring fiscal responsibility to the government, despite controlling both the Congress and the Presidency. The result is a bigger government, more secretive, more involved in people's private affairs, and as willing to borrow and spend as any you can imagine. The result is a massively growing debt to GDP ratio.
So, let's look at the Democrats. Where are they? I don't know. They want a "new direction," but it's not clear what that direction is. I'm underwhelmed by both the moderate middle of the party, and the new emerging progressive wing which at times sounds uncomfortably close to becoming a mirror image of the right wing of the GOP: emotion, political attack, scandal mongering, and demonizing the other side. It's like an inside the beltway political show disguising how the elites protect their racket and respond to real problems with sound bites and slogans. It's not about governing, it's about power. It's not about ideas, it's about winning elections.
Yes, I know -- it's easy to criticize, there are a lot of good people on both sides of the aisle who defy this description, and by complaining I'm just contributing to a discourse long on noise and short on light. But I also don't have power, and my point is that those who do have power are engaged in tactics that may benefit themselves in the short term, but utterly neglect problems that could truly bring major crises to our country in the coming years.
For example, Iraq: The right calls the Democrats 'cut and runners,' tries to demonize John Murtha because he's an effective critic, yet ignores the fact that it looks very much like the White House and the military have come to the same conclusion Murtha has, and are planning to withdraw. The goal is to defeat the Democrats, not talk about policy. The criticism of the New York Times (but not the Wall Street Journal) is pure politics. They know no law has been broken and no counter-terror operation put at risk, they just want to get the base riled up. The Democrats seem incoherent about the war, looking more to try to cover their butts than speak clearly and honestly about it. Besides Murtha and a few others, the calculation seems focused on criticizing Bush's particulars rather than coming up with workable plans to end the conflict and improve America's standing. The economy? Vague criticisms, but each side continues to propose spending more with no clear way to pay for it. They follow the polls.
The result: at a time where we are at a cross roads, where tough decisions have to be made, where people on both sides of the political divide have to make difficult compromises and perhaps let go of long cherished ideas, our political leaders are letting us down. It's all show, no substance. Spettacolo. Politics has become a team sport where you pick your side and defend it, rather than constantly critique and listen to the other side. Our system is dysfunctional at the worst possible time. I have some theories on why this is such an intense problem at this point in time, and what the solution might be. More on this soon.
June 30 - Geopolitics, Part 1: Background
I started a continuation of yesterday's theme, but will put that aside for now because it seems to me that with all that's going on in Israel, Palestine, Iraq and Iran, a lot of people are wondering just how serious this all is -- might the world find a major war erupting in the Mideast? Ho
Two interesting reports recently came out. Both are troubling, yet fit precisely what I've been arguing since 2003. The first notes that 87% of security experts believe that the US is losing the metaphorical 'war on terror,' primarily because Iraq has been a distraction undercutting counter terrorist efforts. The cost in terms of people and money to attempt to defeat a mostly homegrown ethnic insurgency has shifted resources away from countering Islamic extremism and al Qaeda. Given the general lack of popularity of Islamic extremism in the region (something under reported, by the way, but ultimately the most important thing going for us), I'm convinced that a true counter-terrorist effort aimed at both the symptoms and roots of the cause could have yielded significant results across the region. Instead, the Taliban gains strength in Afghanistan, the US is bogged down in Iraq, and Bin Laden mocks us with continued tapes and threats.
The second notes that it was the al Qaeda strategy to fight the US 'over there' and not here all along. In fact, 9-11 quite clearly was designed to get the US to do precisely what it did -- and al Qaeda hopes to goad the US into a war against Iran. The fact is they know they can't bring down the US through terrorist attacks on US soil -- the paranoia of some notwithstanding. They know the only way they can defeat the US is to get us to overstretch our military, push away allies, and aid to the anger, frustration and chaos of the region.
In short, for three years we've been playing into the hands of the Islamic extremists.
So how does Israel fit in? Back in 2003 many people believed (and I am convinced this was a driving force for the choice of war) that if Iraq would become a stable US ally and recognize Israel, the threat against Israel would diminish so much that the Palestinians would be forced, from a position of weakness, to accept a settlement. The US could pressure Israel to make the settlement "fair," and the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the core issue driving a lot of Arab anger, could finally be settled. Syria would see US troops comfortably housed in permanent bases in Iraq and recognize they need to cut a deal with Israel or risk the same fate as Saddam. Iran's moderates (at that time still in power in both the Majles and the Presidency) would be empowered to reach a deal as well, reforming the Iranian democracy without need for a revolution or invasion. The result: a de-clawed terrorist movement, and a region whose politics had shifted to one that undercuts the issues driving extremism, as well as the states which fund terrorism. As an added bonus, we'd be waist deep in Iraqi oil and have a strong influence on world oil markets. Ah, geopolitics, you can be so enticing with your promises! I can see the power brokers in Washington, confident about all the military might at their disposal, maps and charts laid out, realizing that yes, they can shape the world, they can use American power to reshape the Mideast, spread democracy, and undercut terrorism completely.
Instead, the geopolitical situation has shifted against us. One reason the US has decided to withdraw its troops by 2008 (and don't let the rhetoric fool you, they have a timetable -- maybe not set in stone, but one they will try to adhere to if at all possible) is that being overstretched is now a geopolitical liability. We can't pressure Iran because our troops in Iraq are at risk. Rising Israeli-Palestinian tensions undermine efforts to settle down anti-western emotions. Occupying Iraq has gone from being the geopolitical fantasy to the geopolitical nightmare. And don't let the talk of "Iraqis are better off without Saddam" fool you. The people in power use that kind of rhetoric when it suits them, they are driven (and this isn't just Republicans) by geopolitical thinking. A chaotic Iraq is now tolerable because the cost of trying to assure a stable Iraq is too great.
So where are we? Israel faces a growing threat from a radical Hamas government, an Iran with a nuclear program (though one whose threat and progress is consistently over exaggerated), a chaotic Iraq which, while not a threat to Israel per se, spawns terror groups and anger which supports the anti-Israeli effort, and a continued Islamic fundamentalist movement aimed at destabilizing pro-western regimes and expanding their influence. Regional instability also creates a danger in terms of the world oil markets just as Chinese and Indian demand is pushing oil up to record prices, threatening the precarious American and indeed western economy (something Bin Laden and those of his ilk understand). And now a spark of violence in Gaza. Where will this go? More in the next blog (probably tomorrow, but we've got a long weekend coming up, so I'm not making any promises...except that this will continue!)