March 1 - Culture and Politics
Today I have only time for a very short entry, and tomorrow will probably be a snow day so I may not post again until next Monday. Today I also have a public talk about the history and politics of Afghanistan, and while I've made this point many times before, preparing the talk reminds me of how important it is that we know about the culture of other places before we get involved.
Not every part of the world can have the kind of democratic system we do. That doesn't mean they can't have a system that supports individual rights and participation by the public in decision making, but countries evolve, and democracy is a process which develops over time, and isn't really stable after you've built a political culture that can support it. In countries like Afghanistan, riddled with ethnic, tribal and historical disputes, you probably need something decentralized to work, and it will take time to build.
In dealing with the rest of the world we need both patience and an understanding that while our system fits our culture and our beliefs pretty well, it took us a long time to get here, and other cultures and societies evolve on their own. Fighting terrorism by trying to make them more like us just isn't going to work. Globalization does create challenges in societal development world wide that we have yet to figure out and which we're facing daily. That doesn't change the fundamental fact that culture matters. If we work with the culture of a country, we are likely to succeed. If we try to work against it, even with the best of intentions, we are almost certain to fail.
March 5 - The Scope of the failure is not yet appreciated
I wrote last December that reality was starting to settle in. I still believe this to be true; the US is now ready to talk with Iran and Syria, a diplomatic deal has been made with North Korea, and I sense that for the Bush Administration the goal now is to script an exit before the 2008 elections that will at least allow a face saving capacity to declare success. I do not think they want war with Iran; I think the Pentagon, allies in the region, and recognition that all tactics haven’t improved things has already convinced the Bush White House that they need to find a way out.
But this is of little comfort. In both Afghanistan and Iraq US foreign policy has not only been a failure, but it is a failure so deep and intense that it cannot be righted, and its scope is still not appreciated. It is, for example, that moment on the Titanic when the crew started to realize that the problems were pretty bad, but still weren't at all thinking that the ship could sink. The US may not be sinking, but the Titanic metaphor may be closer to the mark than most people realize.
The reason is pretty straight forward, and I've repeated it enough, but (to borrow another metaphor) it has become the perfect storm. First, American policy makers develop a policy based on think tank theory that said that if the US were to use its power in the Mideast to show we were willing to get rid of corrupt regimes and promote democracy, this would lead to a political wave of change in the region. This not only overestimated American power, but totally ignored the importance of culture and society on the nature of politics in a state.
That was bad enough. Compounding this error was the fact that politicians, backed by pundits, bloggers, and partisans, refused to read this war in anything but a partisan manner, focusing less on questioning whether or not the policy was accurate, but on how to defend the policy from its critics. Joseph Wilson wasn’t listened to, he was attacked in the manner of a political hit job. If one criticized the war the response was to go personal, choose a weak point in the argument or something that sounds bad out of context, magnify it, and attack that as a way to try to discredit the person and his or her entire argument. Whether it's the shameful smear of Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a fallen soldier, or attacks on politicians and war critics, the goal has not been to reflect on policy, but defend it by any means necessary. The war became a game, an abstraction two steps away from reality. The adherents became as irrational as global warming deniers.
Alas, the war critics too often have fallen into a similar sort of rhetoric. Bush or Cheney are personally attacked with loose talk of impeachment, the war is dismissed as simply generating profits for Halliburton, and it is oh so easy to find evidence and arguments to show that there was incompetence, arrogance, stupidity and perhaps corruption in how this all came about. But that was true for Clinton in Kosovo, LBJ in Vietnam, and even Truman’s decision to invade North Korea after liberating the south. In fact, you can find such things in just about every administration, even if often they are not so glaring or devastating in scope. And as bad as this failure is, I am convinced that Bush and Cheney believed their rhetoric; they thought this a necessary and bold initiative to try to combat terrorism by a political transformation of the Mideast. I'm not cynical enough to believe it's a war for Halliburton! Oil was certainly a factor, but that's understandable. After all, it was Jimmy Carter with the Carter Doctrine who said Persian Gulf oil was so important we'd go to war over it if necessary. The key is not to turn this into a political attack, but to develop the will for the country to have the courage to make a different choice; to admit a strategic error and figure out the best way to extricate ourselves from the situation at a minimal loss to American interests and Iraqi chances of stability. From there, we need to rebuild coalitions and partnerships world wide for a true, international counter terrorism effort.
Afghanistan is, according to The Economist becoming a ‘narco state.’ The sectarian hatreds that have finally been ignited in Iraq despite nearly two years after the invasion staying subdued will take at least a generation to tame. Corruption in both states is so devastatingly high that a real democracy or even stable law of law is impossible in the near to mid-term. Things in each place have been getting progressively worse, despite claims of ‘progress’ made continually by adherents.
Still, the White House seems to be moving towards trying to figure out the best way to leave. But I suspect they also are starting to glimpse just how devastating this is for the long term interests of the US, and within a year or two, so will the American public. More than ever, we have confront reality and realize that no matter what one's stance on the "war" has been, we've got a serious problem and political gamesmanship will not solve it.
March 7 - Scooter Libby and the War
The case of Scooter Libby is at one level very easy to understand. Attorney General Ashcroft back in 2003 launched an investigation into whether or not a crime was committed when it became known through a Robert Novak column that Valerie Plame, the wife of Joseph Wilson, worked for the CIA. Ultimately it was determined that releasing that information did not violate laws, but nonetheless when called before a grand jury, and when interviewed by the FBI, Libby lied about how the information was disseminated.
His lie was not to cover up a crime, but to cover up an embarrassing political truth: the Bush Administration was trying to manipulate the press and public to sell the Iraq war and, once sold, to try to keep support. One way of doing that was to savage and personally attack critics. In those days the Bush White House had a sense of swagger, they felt they could use a mix of American anger over 9-11 with the power and popularity of the Presidency to crush opposition. Wilson's criticism was especially damaging since it cut to the core of the charge against the President: that intelligence was manipulated in the run up to the war concerning Saddam's WMD programs. At this point it was becoming clear that there were no mass stockpiles of WMD, and the hype about on going WMD programs was false. Wilson's op-ed in the New York Times hit the White House in its most vulnerable spot.
So the goal was to destroy Wilson's credibility. Talk radio started attacking him. Minor errors in his editorial were trumpeted as proof he was a 'liar,' and since his wife worked at the CIA and recommended him for the trip to Niger to investigate whether or not Saddam was trying to get yellow cake uranium, they tried to spin this as some kind of scheme by Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, to get Bush. This, like other White House efforts to both sell the war and derail critics was done through selective leaking and efforts to manipulate the media. Libby was a master at this, he had close media ties, and since he was Vice President Cheney's Chief of Staff, reporters coveted such high access. Cheney was apparently enraged at Wilson and wanted him cut down to size, Libby was part of that effort.
Alas, when an investigation started the White House did what politicians are wont to do -- cover up. Even though no actual crime was committed, the cover up entailed lies and ultimately perjury and obstruction of justice. If Libby had come out and told the truth it would have been embarrassing, it risked exposing the duplicitous nature of the leak-driven 'politics of personal destruction,' but it would have subsided. The way it's turned out appears a major victory for Wilson, and a continuing humiliation for the Bush White House four years after the rather minor event took place.
Two issues stand out to me: 1) the Bush Administration had decided on war with Iraq, and the entire run up to the war was a sales job to the American public. As in all marketing campaigns, truth is less important than efficacy. You leave out things that don't support the cause, you plant buzz that does. The result was that the media and public were manipulated in seeing Iraq as something it was not, and expecting the war to be fast and relatively painless. I can in part forgive the Bush Administration of this since I am convinced they were believing their own rhetoric. I can in part NOT forgive them because it was obvious to so many of us, especially those experts on the region, that this was a very dangerous path, and numerous facts remained unknown. 2) political debate has become less about the facts, and more about trying to ridicule, deride, and smear opponents. It becomes sport rather than contemplation. You get claims like 'politics is a contact sport,' and Hillary Clinton even makes it an argument of why Democrats should support her that she is ruthless with opponents.
All that is part of politics, I understand. But we citizens need to see through that mess. If we choose sides and either decide to hate Bush and believe Republicans are money grubbing whores, or if we decide to rah-rah the talk radio and blog crowd as they savage liberals, we are essentially giving up our ability to think rationally and objectively. We're choosing a side and then just looking for ways to support our choice. We have a responsibility to be better than that. Whether its Republican or Democrat, I think we need to: 1) be wary of what Presidents and politicians tell us, especially in something as important as going to war. They will try to manipulate us -- whether from the left or right; and 2) don't fall for the smear jobs. Both sides have people who are really smart and honest, and people who are not. If you start thinking in terms of the people on the other side being bad, you're probably falling into an irrational bias. We have to look at the issues and think for ourselves, and that is primarily what the Libby case, and its roll in selling the Iraq war, tells us.
March 8 - International Women's Day
I think the ridiculousness of the sexism buried in our culture really struck me back when I was 20 years old, working at a law firm part time. My desk was in the secretaries' room, and I had tasks like maintaining the law library, running errands (getting papers signed, taking papers to the court house, etc.) and small research jobs. I got to know the secretaries well, and one day out of the blue it hit me. "Isn't it rather bizarre how five women and ten men work here, and all the women are secretaries and the men are lawyers," I said. "Well duh," replied Sue W., one of the secretaries, "that's the way this world is." I shook my head. "It seems pretty stupid," was my reply. She nodded and work continued.
In grad school I'd often work at the university computer room until late, and then bike or walk home through downtown Minneapolis without worrying too much about my safety. It struck me then how much freedom I had as a male compared to my female counter parts who were constantly told to be careful when even going to the parking lot late (there had been sexual assaults on campus), and who had to deal with the added threat facing them just because they were women. Then when we grad students went on the job market, a number of progressive academic males would simply blame women if they didn't get a job (as if they would have been the first choice had a woman not gotten a particular position), and I saw one colleague shoot down the joy of a woman who got a good job by saying, "well, you're a woman they probably needed to hire you."
But things have been changing. I recall that when I needed a doctor or dentist I would always choose a woman because I thought it was more likely they were young and had the most recent education in current procedures. Now you can't always make that assumption, women are slowly improving their ratio in fields formerly dominated by men. My dad never changed a diaper and worked constantly while I grew up, while my mom stayed home with the kids. Now I change diapers, get up at night when the kids wake up (I'm a lighter sleeper than my wife), and the idea that I should do less because I'm a male doesn't even get considered.
I think about how that sexism of the past has hurt men too. Men were less connected to their children, and often were forced by the culture to adopt a kind of macho emotional coldness. Men got lost in the detached abstract world of business and work, while women were connected to the reality of family and home. Neither got balance. Men had the financial power and social status, but paid a price. And, to be sure, I really shouldn't be using the past tense here, progress in changing this is so far only partial.
I'm not saying men and women aren't different. I watched how my son was drawn to cars and trucks while a friends' daughter loves dolls and princesses, and I guarantee it was nothing we did or some kind of cultural influence. He just loved wheels from an early age! Back in the era when work required raw muscle, the division of labor in families likely made rational sense, and certainly did not necessitate unequal social status. But those days are gone; men may still be better at some tough manual labor jobs, but women are arguably as good if not superior for professions like medicine and law. Day care for children harkens back to the collective child raising in traditional villages, the idea that children are better off when isolated with just one parent is absurd. And, ultimately, there is nothing inherently more caring about a mother's love for children than a father's. There is no reason fathers should not be just as active in their children's lives as mothers -- that does a disservice to both parents and the children! The goal should be balance and opportunity. Men and women can find a balance between family and career, each helping the other not get overwhelmed in either direction. Each should have the opportunity to choose their life path without having society's customs push them in a particular direction. And if a woman, or a man, really wants to stay home with children and their partner is fine with that, well, that's OK too.
So ultimately, international women's day, meant to celebrate the cause of equal rights for women, is really about improving life for both women and men. It's about freedom for both sexes not to be defined by or limited by irrational traditions and customs.
March 9 - American Idol
The industrialized West is a web of contradictions. We have more wealth and prosperity than could have been imagined in the past. Instead of having to struggle to feed oneself and family each day, we struggle to lose weight and stay in shape. Yet while a materialist might think this would lead to a country of satisfied, contented and happy citizens, we also see psychological problems, depression, stress and anxiety rise to new extremes. We stress values of peace, humility and understanding, but spend half the world's military budget and tend to ignore humanitarian problems world wide. We reward merit and success, but are afraid to speak bluntly about peoples' faults, lest we damage their self-esteem.
Symbolic of our cultural schizophrenia is the show American Idol on Fox. It is one of the most well conceived shows in reality TV history, mixing the drama of competition with personal connection with the cast, entertainment, and even audience participation (though, to be sure, I choose not to vote!) Last night they announced a major drive to "give something back," focusing both on poverty in Africa, and poverty at home in America. While one can forgive cynicism when a major network does something -- after all, it gives them great PR -- I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe they are sincere in wanting to use the success of the show to help spur humanitarian aid. Even if they simply publicize the plight of many people at home and abroad to an audience likely oblivious to the existence of such conditions, they will have done a world of good. In that, the show symbolizes the cultural values we have of charity and concern. This should be a precedent for other successful ventures, whether in the media or elsewhere. Anything to humanize and make real the conditions of others, whether Time's photojournalism on the lives of average Iranians or this focus on the poor can't help but play to the good in our culture.
And, even though he's from Great Britain, I thoroughly enjoy Simon's disregard for the "let's not hurt their feelings" attitude that has come to pervade American life. Self-esteem is not built by ignoring peoples' faults or telling them they are great. It's built when people have tasks and problems to overcome, successfully manage them, and then learn that they can handle what life throws their way. To build faux self-esteem through undue praise actually sets people up for a huge blow to their ego when reality hits. In real life that often entails slow lessons as people try to navigate the financial and social world of the early 21st century. Sudden confrontation with reality is perhaps one reason we see such a rise in stress and mental illness. In American Idol it is symbolized by Simon's comments (with Paula being the traditional 'let's not hurt their feelings or discourage them' routine) and the fact that some people who were never told they couldn't sing are humiliated on national TV. Cruel? Perhaps, but its a lesson in reality.
And finally, the show symbolizes, even if in a somewhat flawed manner, the American belief in the power of chasing ones' dreams. And, while only one person wins (and that itself doesn't guarantee future success), it's the journey and the attempt that matters. That sounds a bit corny, but in a world where winning seems to be what matters, the subtle subtext of this show is that it's worth it to try. So while I'm sure most critics of pop culture would ridicule this show aimed at the teens and twenty-somethings, and whose voting often is questionable (that's another lesson: life isn't always fair), I think it's an interesting sociological glimpse at early 21st century America. Packaged by TV producers, well staged, but nonetheless real.
March 12 - A Chance for the GOP
Latest polls show about 2/3 of the American public think the Iraq war was a mistake, and over half want the US to remove its troops soon. In that context, the Republicans have their work cut out for them in 2008. Not only that, but their usual slogans involving smaller government and fiscal responsibility appear hollow after six years and counting of governmental growth. This isn't all just Iraq, Afghanistan and counter-terrorism, there has been on going pork barrel politics with little effort by the White House to reign in spending. Add to that the fact the Senate has far more vulnerable GOP seats in 2008, and the Democrats have some pretty big name Presidential possibilities, and it's not hard to see why many Republicans are glum these days.
Even the ideological talk radio rhetoric equating liberals with all that is wrong in our society, and talk of those who oppose the war as being virtual traitors has become baggage rather than advantage -- with most Americans distrusting the President and questioning the war, such talk seems to make the GOP look like they are trapped in an ideological prison, unable to confront reality. Put all this together and it looks like the perfect storm ready to bury the Republicans in 2008. Or is it?
Today Senator Chuck Hegel of Nebraska is likely to announce his candidacy for the Presidency (if he doesn't he should). Hegel is seen by many as not having a shot due to the fact that he is a critic of the war in a party which remains loyal to the President on that issue. Yet many rank and file Republicans have already broken with Bush on this, and as the only "anti-war" candidate, he is likely to get considerable attention. Beyond that, he represents a kind of "common sense conservatism," which may have considerable appeal, especially when contrasted with the political games being played by many Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton. Hegel seems absolutely trustworthy and honest.
Right now Republicans are placing a lot of hope in this new "surge" policy, which many hope will turn around four years of deterioration in Iraq. If it somehow succeeds in bringing stability to Iraq and the US can leave by 2008, then Hegel's message may lose appeal. But if it fails, or if its results are inconclusive, Hegel may suddenly appear a perfect choice. As a Republican war critic, with considerable expertise on foreign affairs, Americans may trust him more than the Democrats with constructing a successful path out of Iraq. Republicans, realizing that they owe nothing to President Bush, whose administration has harmed rather than helped the party, may decide that Hegel is the best bet to change directions.
Though he is opposed to the war, Hegel is a conservative. But he isn't an ideologue, he isn't one of those whose sound bites cause outcries amongst the left or giddy support among the talk radio crowd. He's a midwestern plain speaking conservative who is a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. He's pro-business, a decorated Vietnam vet, opposed to the Kyoto accords, generally conservative on social issues, and in favor of free trade. He may get the anti-immigration crowd upset, but in general he is very much a traditional conservative Republican. There is no reason Republicans should refuse to support him if he gets the nomination, but his approach might be a breath of fresh air for moderates and even some Democrats who by that time might be sick of the political show and seeking a kind of no nonsense pragmatic approach.
A Hegel candidacy would also point to a real problem with the Democrats, perhaps one only Obama can handle. The Democrats appear too politically driven and special interest motivated. Obama (and also Edwards) seem to better appeal to principles and pragmatism, but Hegel's experience might trump both of them. A Hegel - Gore match up could be fascinating. It's not yet 9:00 AM EST, so I'm not sure if Hegel is really going to announce today that he's running. If so, Republicans should give him a close look, he might be what their party needs to avoid disaster in 2008. (Addition from later in the day: apparently Hegel is going to wait until later this year to decide. Stay tuned.)
March 14 - Navigating Different Realities
If you jump into the world of punditry, political blogs, and partisan politics, it becomes clear that you have a choice between at least two different realities. I'll go with two broad examples, though obviously this is a simplification.
Reality # 1: The UN has published a study (most scientific data still to come) which unequivocally proves that global warming is real, in part caused by humans, and needing urgent attention. This could be one of the most severe issues facing us in the future, and example of how our massive C02 emissions can't help but impact the atmosphere. The war in Iraq has gone poorly, the current surge is at best an effort to create a moment of calm before withdrawing, and going to war was a costly mistake both in money and in people (not just the dead, but also psychological problems, family difficulties, etc.) The Bush White House is on the defensive over a variety of issues, especially after the Scooter Libby verdict made clear the extent to which the White House tried to manipulate the press in the run up to the war. They tried to do a hatchet job on a now vindicated Joseph Wilson and it came back to bite them. The Democrats meanwhile are on the upswing, with stronger potential candidates than the Republicans for President, and the capacity to stymie Bush and investigate cases of apparent corruption or scandal. Of these, the most damaging is how privatization at the VA hospital led to substandard treatment and housing for wounded veterans. It is another example of ideology driven change without regard for practical consequences. President Bush, weakened, is shifting course, talking to Syria and Iran, and being diplomatic and friendly with the Europeans. A war against Iran, once seen as almost certain, now looks less likely given the disaster in Iraq. Islamic extremism remains a small movement in the Islamic world, growing in places primarily as a response to western foreign policy. Ultimately, though moderate Islam reflects the vast majority, since populations don't want to live puritanical lifestyles but have a taste for modern conveniences. Diplomacy, more than war, will help the two worlds live together.
Reality # 2: The UN study on global warming is a misleading and dishonest fraud, perpetrated by governments wanting to expand power and scientists wanting to get government funding. There is no real evidence that human CO2 emissions are causing change, it could be natural fluctuations or even sun spots. The surge in Iraq is working, and those who question it or don't "give it time" are undercutting our troops and aiding the enemy. The war with Iraq was necessary and part of a larger war on terror. Although it was more difficult than expected, the reason is because meddling by real dangerous actors like Iran and al qaeda have expanded the scope and importance of the conflict. President Bush, meanwhile, is being hurt by dishonest efforts by the Democrats to create scandals. The media isn't telling the true story because the media is biased, you have to go blogs and talk radio to get the truth. Meanwhile the Democrats, divided on the war, look politically inept in trying to fashion a clear response, helping improve GOP chances for the future. Scandals like the VA hospital are not the result of anything the Administration did, but Pentagon bureaucracy. Iran remains dangerous, and it will likely be necessary to take some kind of military action against them. Scooter Libby was a victim of an overzealous prosecutor, the real villain was Joseph Wilson, who lied to try to undercut the President. The Europeans want to see the US humiliated and are likely to try to undercut American actions, meaning the US has to have the courage to do this. We have the power, but the danger is that liberals and peaceniks who don't 'understand the stakes will sap the American will and cause us to give in without a real fight. That will lead to expansion of radical Islamic fundamentalism which will sweep Europe and ultimately threaten the US and the West with cultural destruction.
Each of these realities come with their own pundits, scientists, and analysts who will provide proponents of their particular reality with ammo for debate: links to websites, arguments you can use against opponents and interpretations of facts to fit their perspective. Each will often ridicule or demonize the other side, ranging from refusing to engage effective proponents of the other side because anyone who can't easily be defeated must just be playing word games, to simply ridiculing and insulting them. True listening -- the only way to try to make real critical distinctions about which interpretation of reality is correct -- becomes less common than political argument as sport. Choose your side! View your opponents as enemies, develop emotional grudges, and self-righteous rage! After all, the NFL is off season, let's make politics the contact sport of the day!
So how does one navigate these realities without being seduced to simply embrace one and join in the fight? After all, neither interpretation of reality is likely true in its entirety! It's tough, we're all biased, and in debates it's virtually inevitable that emotion reinforces bias. People want to avoid cognitive dissonance so they naturally choose to read and focus on that with which they agree. We have to work -- and sometimes swallow our pride and admit we may be wrong -- if we want to get out of that trap.
Step one: Listen. Not just read or hear, but listen. Try to understand where the other person is coming from, assume that they have a rational (even if you think incorrect) perspective. You don't have to agree, but listen. Step two: Engage. State your view, and try to convince the other to listen to you (so don't insult or ridicule) as well. Step three: Don't hold grudges. Every debate will have the possibility of insults, misinterpreted comments, or a bit of emotion. That's fine. But step back from falling into a trap where you caricature the other person and hold a grudge, especially if communication is with someone you don't know well personally. Emotional grudges make it almost impossible to listen and engage effectively. Channel Mr. Spock if you can! Step four: Don't be afraid to apologize or admit error. The most aggressive people are often those most insecure about their argument, even if they don't realize it. A refusal to recognize ones' own error only makes others less willing to listen. Finally, step five: Reflect. After the heat of the argument and the give and take, think about the issue, be critical of your position, be willing to rethink your position. When I've been persuaded by a debate it often was only later after I thought it through, in the heat of an argument or discussion one's mind is more focused on listening and responding. Reflection is where the real work comes. Good reflection is both self-critical and other-critical.
This is true outside the world of politics as well. There are different realities (that is, people experience and interpret reality differently) and this leads to disagreements, misunderstandings and sometimes fights. We have to navigate these differences effectively to be able to not only better understand the nature of this world, but to get along with others, enjoy life, and ultimately avoid falling into a trap where we stop growing as we learn.
March 15 - War
For the past few years I've had my students in World Politics read War is a Force That Gives us Meaning by Chris Hedges. The book is a powerful look at the reality of war from a reporter who has covered war for over two decades, reporting from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iraq, Palestine, Bosnia and beyond. Many students tell me later that this book changed their lives, or was the most important book they read in college. It allows them to go beyond the abstract talk about war that fills the media and think about what war means in human terms. Every bomb, every raid, every attack means human suffering. More often than not innocents suffer, and that suffering doesn't end with the end of the news cycle.
Hedges also talks about "discarded veterans," referring to the fact that usually veterans come home from a war psychologically scarred, especially those with considerable combat experience. People who say they "support the troops" usually mean they support the policies of the war or will put on lavish celebrations or parades for the troops when they return. But ten years down the line when VA hospital cuts are discussed or veterans are struggling to find their place back in 'normal' society support is usually absent. People support the myth: strong heros returning from defending freedom and democracy, ready to use those skills in their careers. They don't even know the reality of the intense struggles many veterans face both short term and long term.
He notes also that "our dead" count far more than "their dead." Even the most ardent war critics talk about the number of dead American service men and women, Iraqi deaths seem relatively inconsequential. Each day the reports from Iraq note somewhere between 30 and 100 Iraqis killed in sectarian violence. Those don't really seem to matter. Moreover stories of American atrocities are downplayed -- and these exist, ranging from the publicized cases of Haditha and Abu Ghraib to less well known examples of commanders ordering all suspected insurgents to be killed rather than captured and acts of individuals pushed too far. We want to think our people are good and honorable, while their people are somehow sub-human. The reality is that in a fight the differences fade. After all, we are the outside invaders intruding on their reality; what would we do if the roles were reversed?
Hedges also notes that there are people who rise above falling into the trap of war's myths and emotion. The Bosnian Muslim who brought milk to a baby of a Bosnian Serb family, despite ridicule from his own side. He grasped the common human essence of both sides, and knew that letting a baby starve was simply wrong. He sacrificed precious milk and risked reprisals from his own people to feed this baby -- and now stands as an example to the world, thanks to Hedges. Some people are able to understand the human cost and meaning of war, and resist seeing it in mythical and abstract terms, but its easy to lose sight of what war really is. Especially distant from its reality here in the US, it's easy to look at it in purely political terms, statistics, or abstract talk about a "surge."
Our media outlets rarely show the graphic effects of war, especially when innocent children are killed, or even wounded and dead American soldiers. We get a sanitized version with statistics and political arguments. Of course, even reading Hedges' book we can't, as he himself puts it, "smell" the war, hear the sounds, and truly comprehend what it is. But at least with a real description of what war means, we are better able to imagine how it must be, and try to empathize with the plight of those caught up in it.
The US seems to rather quickly choose a "military option" because we can, and it appears on paper to be something that can work to achieve abstract objectives. And whether Iraq in 1991, Kosovo in 1999 or Iraq today, it becomes very easy for the story to focus on abstractions and political debates than the reality faced by those who must suffer through it. And with Iraq we've unleashed sectarian violence which will likely last for decades. When people make the hard choice to go to war, I think it's important that they understand what war really is, and not some mythical sanitized version. That's why as far as I'm concerned Hedges' book will be required reading for every introduction to world politics class I teach.
March 16 - Learning from History
Back in 1949 the British made a deal with Iran's
conservative Prime Minister General Ali Razmara to renegotiate the deal between
the government and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). Opposition to the
agreement with the AIOC grew, as Iranians were angered by how little they had
been getting in oil royalties -- the British profits had been almost three times
the royalties paid, and in fact the AIOC paid more in taxes at home than to
Iran. The new Majles (Iran's parliament) had strong sentiment against the oil
deal. Prime Minister Razmara was assassinated by an Islamic
fundamentalist/nationalist from Fedaiyan e Islam (a group which assassinated
‘enemies of Islam’).
A group of parties led by Mohammad Mosaddeq started to gain support in the Majles, and though the Shah (whose powers were quite limited) chose Hosain Ala to be the new Prime Minister, the Majles pushed for and got Mosaddeq. He led a rather rag tag group of religious and nationalist parties called the “National Front,” and announced plans to nationalize Iran's oil industry. This was part of a comprehensive plan to restructure Iran's economy and end dependence on outside powers. The US had supported Iran's refusal to go along with the AIOC at first, hoping to get more influence for American companies. But Mossadeq's decision to nationalize went too far for the Americans.
The British were incensed and tried to take Iran to the International Court of Justice. But states can nationalize as long as they compensate, and Iran promised just compensation. The US and Great Britain launched a campaign against Mosaddeq, hyping him as a fanatic, a communist, someone who would be a tool of the Tudeh (Iran's communist party). The US saw nationalization as socialist and contrary to our goal of maintaining control of the oil needed for the western economy.
The US and Great Britain organized a boycott of Iranian oil by major oil companies, cutting off oil revenues to the government. The boycott was effective. There were other economic actions taken against Iran as well, and soon Iran's economy was in tatters. This led to unrest, and ultimately instability in the Mosaddeq government. The Tudeh increasingly argued that all this showed that ties to the West were unhelpful, and Iran should turn to the Soviet Union.
The Shah, the British, and the Americans decided that Mossadeq had to go. First they tried to influence the government with a mix of promises and inside deals to replace him. The Shah dismissed him in 1952 and installed Qavam as-Saltaneh. But public demonstrations and refusal of the Majles to accept the choice got Masaddeq restored. The Tudeh party gained in strength, and ultimately Mossadeq brought them in to government. Note: a few American historians cite Mossadeq’s ties with the Tudeh as the reason for installing the Shah – he was letting himself become aligned too closely with our Soviet enemies. BUT without the oil boycott and attempts to undermine Mossadeq’s reforms, the Tudeh would have never reached that position.
Mossadeq was much more popular than the Shah, and tried to get the US to move away from the economic death grip on Iran’s economy, but the US continued to support the oil boycott. British intelligence worked with the CIA to plan a coup to oust Mosaddeq in 1953. Despite a few difficulties it ultimately worked, and the Shah, who would turn out to be a brutally repressive dictator, came to power with American and British support. Preference was for the Shah over democracy because he would support the US and Great Britain; democratic governments might give considerable power to Islamic and nationalist parties, as well as the Tudeh, after all.
Mossadeq remains a hero to many Iranians across the religious and political spectrum due to how he stood up to the West. But what if we had worked with him rather than against him? What if Iran's democracy had been allowed to grow on its own, using its own oil revenues, rather than having our influence protected by a thuggish dictator whose rule ultimately collapsed? What if anti-western anger after 1953, especially amongst nationalist and Islamist groups, had not been kindled? If we had resisted the urge to intervene we would likely not be facing an Iran led by an Islamic fundamentalist government, with a nascent democracy more limited in the one in the early fifties.
There is a lesson to be learned here, but like so many lessons of history, it tends to get ignored. This lesson about the dangers of trying to control the politics of another state is especially important now, especially as we try to figure out what to do in Iraq.
March 19 - Four Years
Four years ago today or tomorrow, depending on how you're counting, the US launched the assault on Iraq. The goals were clear: remove Saddam from power, get rid of Iraqi WMD programs, and install a stable democracy which would be pro-American and pressure Iran and Syria. Insiders in the Bush Administration believed this new Iraqi government would recognize Israel and be a force for change in the Mideast.
The Bush White House was coy with its estimate on the costs of the war. While one official stated he thought it would be $150 Billion (he wasn't around long after that), most were suggesting that Iraqi oil revenues would pay for the war. Vice President Cheney predicted we'd be greeted as liberators, and certainly the military part of the operation would be over quickly. Secretary Rumsfeld speculated on the time, but noted that it almost certainly wouldn't take more than six months. If someone had predicted in March 2003 that four years we'd still be militarily engaged, with the public divided on the war, it would have been dismissed as laughable. What we are experiencing today is worse than most worst case scenarios four years ago predicted.
Four years later military operations continue. Saddam is gone (he was gone three weeks after the war started), there are no WMD programs (turns out there weren't any after all), and so those two goals have been achieved. But attempts to create a stable pro-American democracy have failed. Instead we have an Iranian-leaning Shi'ite majority, an on going Sunni insurgency, and intense sectarian violence. The hatreds which have developed over the years between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq won't go away quickly -- too many people have had loved ones killed and/or tortured. Iran has been emboldened by US weakness, and Americans went from being unified in response to the 9-11 attack to being divided on the war, with President Bush only at 34% approval. The Iraqi public is intensely anti-American, even the Shi'ites who benefited the most. Life in Iraq has become far worse than under Saddam, oil production has only barely reached pre-war levels, and predictions are that this war will cost over $1 trillion for the US. Meanwhile the way we went into the war hurt alliances and partnerships, and assured that the US would not get assistance if things went bad, as they did.
By any definition, this policy has been a failure. Any talk of success is a re-definition of what success means; based on the initial goals and estimates four years ago, this "war" has been a stunning catastrophe. A majority of Americans oppose the war, something that didn't even happen during the Vietnam war. The risk of regional instability is greater than ever, and last year's clash between Hezbollah and Israel shows that conditions now are more dangerous for the ally that this war was supposed to help the most.
Supporters of the Administration would point out, correctly, that 20-20 hindsight is of limited value. Yes, things didn't go as planned, they would say. Many would admit (as have many neo-conservatives) that if they had to do it over again they wouldn't -- or they would do it much differently. But, they argue, we're in this predicament so the point is to think of how we can find a way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Can we redefine success into something that can be achieved?
While that argument is legitimate, we cannot and must not lose sight of the fact that this policy has failed. The reason we can't just shove that inconvenient truth aside is because we need to learn form it. We need to understand the limits of military power, and the high cost of choosing war in terms of innocent lives, as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died, and the sectarian violence we've helped unleash will no doubt continue raising that death toll. We can't repeat the mistake of the Kosovo war where failure was masked through an strong PR effort to claim success. We need to take into account, with open eyes and clear, critical conscience, the failures this policy has produced. Not to bash Bush. Not for political purposes in the 2008 election. Rather, as Americans we need to think very seriously about the future path of this country on the international stage. Failure to learn from these mistakes, and failure to adapt our policies might lead to increasingly costly commitments abroad, and ultimately the decline and perhaps fall of America as a major world power. The stakes are that high.
March 21 - Surge optimism?
On January 17th I noted that the troop "surge" was likely designed to create a "peace with honor moment," whereby the US would fight against Sunni insurgents, Shi'ite militias would lay low so as not to be disarmed, and that would allow the US to claim success and leave. Afterwards, the militias would return and violence would likely continue, but the US would have found a way to disengage (and then wash its hands from what would come next). I still believe that is the most likely outcome.
War supporters have been arguing that the surge, hardly underway, is already succeeding. This hasn't changed public opinion, and the daily death toll in Iraq is consistently still over 100 a day, which doesn't indicate much change. I've many times expressed open frustration at how war supporters have seemed oblivious to reality in their consistent optimism on Iraq, and claimed that they need to seriously consider the possibility they might be wrong. So I will consider the possibility that I might be wrong and the surge will succeed in garnering more than a peace with honor moment.
What would success for the surge (though not for the policy in Iraq -- what I wrote on the 19th stands regardless of what comes next) look like? To be more than a 'peace with honor moment' it would need to leave Iraq relatively stable, militias no longer dominant, the sectarian violence greatly reduced or eliminated, with reconstruction moving forward and expansion of basic services such as electricity and water. The death squads and kidnapping would need to cease (or at least be significantly reduced), and in general people should be able to walk the streets in security. The religious rules imposed in some areas that have especially harmed women need to be removed. All that is a tall order, though back in 2003 such as expected as a matter of course for the war's aftermath.
Can that happen? There is one scenario I can imagine where this can really work. If Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and Jordan all decide that they want to avoid the potential of a regional Shi'ite-Sunni war, they would recognize that it is in their interest to stabilize Iraq. If US departure was connected to a concerted effort by the states in the region to work with and support the Iraqi government to settle sectarian disputes and avoid escalating again the sectarian violence, then it's feasible that Iraq won't slide back into the abyss.
This requires, of course, the US to recognize that it cannot be on hostile terms with Iran. Much depends on Iran's current moves towards a deal on uranium enrichment. Some think Iran wants to suddenly deal because it will remove almost completely the chance that the US will strike Iran, give Iran a lot of good press, and allow Iran to continue to support violence in Iraq without worrying about retaliation. But others believe that the hardliners overplayed their hand, and benefited from a spike in anti-Americanism rather than real support for their position. This view sees Iran as trying to appease the West in order to gain benefits.
If Iran is shifting its policy towards one more friendly to the West, and if the Bush Administration can embrace negotiations and discussions with Iran and Syria (I've put this forth as the best way out a few times, I think most recently in my blog on December 4, 2006), then perhaps by late 2008 Iraq will be behind us (just in time for the election!) and relatively stable. It won't be the bold reshaping of the Mideast that neo-conservatives imagined, and will in fact at least in the short term increase the regional power of states like Iran and Syria. It will be less a victory than simply averting total disaster, but it's possible. For now, though, it remains a long shot, and the violence continues daily in Iraq. And even if this long shot works, it'll be due less to the surge than to regional diplomacy, and it will still seem obvious to me that the result was not human cost of this war. And if Iraq doesn't stabilize or the war spreads, regional and perhaps global disaster is possible.
March 22 - The Power of Good
March is "Afghanistan month" at UMF, where we as a campus are having numerous events to learn about the history, culture and politics of Afghanistan. Today I met a woman named Sally Goodrich, who is an inspirational example of the power of doing good. Her son was killed on 9-11, and of course it devastated her family. But a few years later one of her son's former playmates, now a marine stationed in Afghanistan, e-mailed home that the local school needed supplies. She heard about that, and soon she and her family formed the Peter Goodrich foundation designed to help bring supplies to Afghan schools. Moreover, we heard from Soraya Hazrati, a 16 year old Afghan high school student who was brought over her by Ms. Goodrich to study in America.
To me the power of this story is not just the fact that Sally Goodrich is helping Afghans in their difficult attempt to try to overcome the chaos of the past, an attempt in danger, as the Taliban has become resurgent in many parts of the country. Her story has a deeper meaning, it is an example of what I would call the "power of good." All of us go through life caught up in our routines, daily worries, and problems that come and go. We see a flawed world around us, but consider ourselves powerless to change it. After all, who can bring stability to a country like Iraq and Afghanistan torn apart by war, who can solve global poverty, who can free people from oppressive governments, and how can we help victims of disease? The tasks seem overwhelming. So we end up retreating into our own cozy worlds, deciding that though we can't save the world, we can at least create a nice little island of stability for ourselves and our family.
I have a theory that when people choose to do good, they are empowered. The power may come from inside; perhaps the recognition that one is making a difference in other peoples' lives in a positive way gives one energy: these acts have meaning, they are not simply dealing with the daily routine. Perhaps there is a greater power that assists as well, bringing about coincidental meetings and opportunities to facilitate the choice to do good. Sally Goodrich says she certainly feels the spirit of her deceased son Peter. But seeing how one grieving mother could suddenly have an idea, enlist help, and then make such a difference in the lives of people whose choices will be changed by these acts is inspiring. I talked to Sally after her talk, and she and I both noted the old example of the butterfly in the Amazon rain forest flapping its wings and ultimately changing the world. She'll never know how much good will come form her acts because the influence of educating and helping Afghans will spread beyond what is possible to trace.
I don't think it applies only to grand gestures. I'm convinced as well of the power of kindness. Being kind to others, including and in fact especially those one dislikes, can also have dramatic effects. Kindness spreads, just like bitterness and anger spread. A person who is kind and considerate on a daily basis will alter the world positively, one who is mean spirited and angry has a negative impact. So even if someone can't start a foundation or educate someone from Afghanistan, little acts at home or even in everyday life make a difference. They all draw on the power of good.
March 23 - Why Worry?
Many people wonder why we should worry about what goes on
in the third world, given all the problems they have. Some even suggest
that we have so many problems here that we should "take care of ourselves"
before helping others. I think the best answer to that comes from a quote
by Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, whose book Shake Hands with the Devil details
his efforts at working to stop the Rwandan genocide as commander of UNAMIR, the
UN force in Rwanda during the genocide. When he pleaded for more support
to either prevent or later end the slaughter, the UN – driven primarily by
American and French concerns – cut UNAMIR to a few hundred people, and
essentially let the slaughter continue.
Dallaire came back from that experience a broken man, suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, and drifting into alcoholism and prescription drugs, leading to his near death in 2001 when he was found passed out on a park bench. He felt the guilt of the civilized world for allowing this to happen, even though he was one of those who did everything he could to prevent it. He had watched, helplessly, as innocent people were massacred; in the West most people hardly noticed. Governments that knew, found excuses not to get involved. One American official told Dallaire that the US had determined that it would only be worth one American life to save 85,000 Rwandans.
His quote is from page 521 of his book:
"But many signs point to the fact that the youth of the
Third World will no longer tolerate living in circumstances that give them no
hope for the future. From the young boys I met in the demobilization camps in
Sierra Leone to the suicide bombers of Palestine and Chechnya, to the young
terrorists who fly planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we can
no longer afford to ignore them. We have to take concrete steps to remove the
causes of their rage, or we have to be prepared to suffer the consequences. The
global village is deteriorating at a rapid pace, and in the children of the
world the result is rage. It is the rage I saw in the eyes of the teenage
Interahamwe militiamen in Rwanda, it is the rage sensed in the hearts of the
children in Sierra Leone, it is the rage I felt in crowds of ordinary civilians
in Rwanda, and it is the rage that resulted in September 11. Human beings who
have no rights, no security, no future, no hope and no means to survive are a
desperate group who will do desperate things to take what they believe they need
If we don't do something to help improve conditions there, it will come back here to haunt us; September 11, 2001 was a stark example of what can happen. We shouldn't be fooled into thinking its just religious fanatics; what drives all this is deeper. That makes all the more poignant the example I gave yesterday of Sally Goodrich and her work. She suffered the consequences of that rage when she lost her son on 9-11, and she is actively trying to work to bring hope to Afghanistan with her education program, doing what Dallaire would say are "concrete steps to remove the causes of their rage."
If people both against and for the war or American foreign policy would focus a bit less on domestic political theater and more on what we can actually do to deal with these difficult issues, we may be surprised at how much can be accomplished. I doubt we can solve these problems; that work will take generations. But we may be able to avoid feeding the rage if we are active in trying to help create hope.
March 26 - If I had been President on 9-11
It's easy to be critical of the President -- I should know, I've been critical of the foreign policies of the last five Presidents and they always gave me enough ammo to easily craft criticisms of their foreign policies. But sitting as an observer seeing only part of the reality of what is causing and driving politics creates an inherent error potential, no matter how good and careful my analysis might be.
My criticism of President Bush's response to 9-11 is not, however, focused on the usual list of complaints (no WMD, manipulating intelligence, not finishing the job in Afghanistan, not having a plan, etc). All of those errors are based on what I consider a fundamental flaw in administration planning: they thought we were dealing in the traditional world of sovereign states, with ideas about power and influence that were valid for much of the 20th century. They believed that our military would easily defeat Saddam (which it did), and that our force and money would quickly "win the peace," and we'd have an ally in an Iraq reliant upon us for their economic health and protection. If it had happened that way, their other expectations -- that this would pressure Iran and Syria, and that the Europeans would quickly realize they'd misplayed their hand and embrace American leadership -- would have followed. They expected that; they were almost certain they would succeed.
I believe that the technology revolutions of the late 20th century have created a new world. The buzz phrases "globalization" and "interdependence" sound cliché, but they are labels to what is in fact a revolution in world affairs. This revolution has altered the importance of and nature of military power, it has connected economics with social change, and created clashes of culture and civilizations that alter the fundamental nature of politics. While these changes have been seen optimistically by some (Thomas Friedman, for example) or pessimistically by others (Huntington, for example), they are real. My view is that this can be the dawn of a new era of expanded liberty and wealth, or the start of a new dark ages -- the choices we make on how to handle the difficult issues caused by this change will determine our future.
If I had been President on that fateful day, I would not have had the very 20th century reaction of focusing on the fact our nation was hit and that we thus would respond to defend ourselves and punish those who did this to us. Instead, I would have quickly said that this is more than an attack on the United States. It is an attack on civilization, masked as an attack simply on The West, which is hated because of colonialism and its aftermath of third world poverty and first world wealth. But that excuse, while plausible at first glance, ignores how the West has evolved; all culture have periods of barbarism, but western ideals can do great good, and we should focus on that.
First: create an alliance against terrorism. This will be centered with NATO, but not the same as NATO. It will have broad improvements in intelligence coordination across borders, sharing information, and working to modernize privacy protections, recognizing that in a world of terror threats, people will need to accept some intrusion. Responses to direct threats, like the response to the Taliban in Afghanistan, would take the form of a multilateral force, building regional alliances and working to undercut support for terror networks. States not in the first world or "west" would be welcome under certain conditions: cooperation alone doesn't mean we overlook authoritarianism. Authoritarianism in the third world feeds the flames of anger; the Bush Administration is right on that. Rather, our carrots go to those who: a) help out by providing information and action in working against terror threats, and b) work to build accountability and rule of law with respect for individuals in their own states. Both must be required. That doesn't mean mimicking western democracies; we can't expect that. Every culture has its own path, and we took a long time to work through slavery and the lack of womens' suffrage -- states outside the west have a myriad of their own issues to work through. But progress on efforts to at least keep governments accountable, establish rule of law, and respect individuals would be minimal requirements. Still no state should be deemed inherently evil; all should be talked with and given a chance to see that the goal is not to expand "the West," but to create conditions where all cultures can develop free (or as close to free as we can get) of extremist threats and terror.
No foe would be met by the US alone, or with a patchwork coalition built through a mix of political deals and promises. There would be an on going, global effort. The military/intelligence side would be complimented by a development/aid approach which would look to expand prosperity and hope. A multinational media effort would be launched to counter the propaganda of various terror organizations, but it would not be simply to push the view of the US or any country, it would be independent and multilateral. To be part of this whole effort and reap its direct benefits in intelligence sharing, aid, and protection, all members would be required contribute. I'd have used this to launch a global effort to not only defend the West, but expand freedom and respect for individual liberties. I'd have embraced the fact that this is not "your daddy's war," this is a new kind of conflict.
The lesson from Iraq is clear: the US can't be successful in countering terrorism and spreading democracy acting on its own. The cost in this one state, easily defeated militarily, is excessively high and has divided the American public. The only answer is to recognize that "you're either with us or against us" has to be defined by a broad based notion of "us" -- us doesn't mean US, it doesn't mean going along with what the Americans say. "Us" means the civilized world together crafting a way to guide this planet through a time of tremendous danger and change. If we try to apply the rules of the old system in this new world, we'll fail, and the result could be the decline of western civilization. And, while I can be a ruthless critic of aspects of western culture and history -- consumerism, colonialism, militarism, etc. -- overall the West can be a force for good. We need to embrace the positive side: liberty, human rights, and cooperation. To borrow themes from American Presidents: right now in Iraq we're searching for a Nixonian "peace with honor." If we embrace a true multilateral effort we can move to the Reagan slogan "together, a new beginning."
March 28 - Hagel and Rice
Two of the more interesting potential Republican candidates for President are Chuck Hagel and Condoleezza Rice. Hagel is a free trade conservative, and despite complaints from some on the right that he's a "Republican in name only," he has solid conservative credentials on just about every issue. He just opposes the war (which I'd argue is really the logical position for a conservative, since it isn't really a war any more but a big government social engineering experiment) and is vocal in his criticism of the President. He sees it important to have Congressional checks on executive power.
Secretary of State Rice is a brilliant academic turned diplomat who, despite criticism from both the left and the right, has done a good job rebuilding alliances and partnerships, even if in a quiet way. Gone is the bluster, back is the diplomacy. She is loyal to the President, even if there are claims that inside the White House she supports a more "realist" approach than Cheney and the "neo-conservatives."
Each of these candidates could be stronger than the otherwise weak GOP field of Presidential candidates. Giuliani currently leads the field, but his record of multiple marriages and socially liberal positions will make it tough for him in the primaries. John McCain is an early favorite, but his luster has faded a bit, and he's getting a bit old (which I don't see as a detriment, but in our media age it will be seen that way by some). You have to go deep in the field to Brownback and Huckabee to find candidates that have the potential to offer something fresh and interesting to the American people.
Neither Hagel nor Rice is in the race yet. I noted a couple weeks ago why Hagel could be a really popular candidate, and potentially could save the GOP from their current funk. He also seems a man of integrity who even though I disagree with him on a wide range of issues, I could trust to be an honest steward of the office. But Hagel and Rice must both realize that any potential candidacy they would have depends on the war. If the surge goes well in quelling violence in Baghdad, and if Iran and other states in the region overcome the current impasses and actually are able to start working to help create stability in Iraq, Hagel's anti-war message will seem outdated. If troops are coming home and the President has a 'peace is at hand' moment, then Hagel probably won't be able to generate much excitement in GOP primaries. Republicans are also skeptical of the war -- a decorated vet like Hagel will give them an anti-war voice they can trust and be proud of; but most Republicans would rather have the war going away as an issue.
In that kind of scenario Rice might emerge as a viable and strong candidate (especially if something interesting happens like Cheney resigns because of health and Rice is put in the VP slot). She'll be seen as having been an architect of disengagement from Iraq, helping bring about conditions that most thought utterly impossible to achieve as late as 2006. Yet as a woman she offers something new and fresh, even though she's been in the last administration for eight years. She'd get support from the still powerful yet weakened Bush wing of the party; if his Secretary of State succeeds him, that suggests continuity and not repudiation.
If the surge fails to bring any change in Iraqi prospects and the US continues to flounder by early 2008, Hagel might emerge as a hero for the Republicans. If somehow the US manages to find a way out of the morass in Iraq without losing face, Rice might be able to fill that role. And, frankly, I think Rice also has integrity and certainly intelligence and knowledge. So now they wait to see what happens in Iraq.
March 29 - Despair in the lap of luxury
We live in luxury. I suspect that everyone reading this has a lifestyle with a level of convenience and material wealth that puts them among the elite on the planet, both now and in comparison to any time in history. We have more comfort and convenience in life than even the most opulent rulers had throughout history. We struggle to lose weight, while most of human history is the struggle to feed ourselves. So why don't we live in a culture of satisfaction and contentment? Why do we seem unable to enjoy being at the material 'top of the heap'?
The obvious answer is that materialism doesn't bring satisfaction. Wealth doesn't tend to create happy people, it even corrupts them. Would Anna Nicole Smith have been happier living a normal life if she hadn't been "discovered"? There's a line in Syriana where the oil baron Jimmy Pope talks about how his dad was a wildcatter and he inherited that and built a fortune, saying "I'll probably ruin my grandchildren." Average people with nice houses and more conveniences than one could have imagined even twenty years ago feel that they are lacking, and worry about a barrage of mundane issues, driving themselves crazy over what might happen in the future. Chubby opulent baby boomers worry about getting old, and seek ways to try to feel and appear young, even as time and biology conspire to make that task impossible. People fixate on office politics, how they look, getting the next promotion, and/or making sure their kids are "successful" to the point that their lives are a constant stream of anxiety and pressure. Despair in the lap of luxury.
Obviously this doesn't describe everyone. In fact, most people balance worry with fun, anxiety with relaxation, and boredom with hobbies. Yet often that becomes what the fideist Blaise Pascal described as an attempt to escape from confronting the core questions about existence -- who am I, what am I, how should I live? Instead we mix distractions with anxieties, confusing a moment of escape and exhilaration with real happiness. Instead of understanding life, we lose ourselves in television, or immerse ourselves in politics and ideology. Seeking meaning, we grasp at straws. Seeking escape from the meaninglessness of modern life, we try to construct ways to avoid looking deep into who and what we are, grab pat answers and seek distraction.
We fight wars, oblivious to the suffering it causes because we focus on abstract goals, and arguments that "they" are somehow less human than we are, even if we don't realize that's what's being done. We go shopping when we're bored, looking for something to give us a moment of release from the pain of a seemingly meaningless existence. Yet every new item quickly becomes old, every distraction fades away, and the cycle repeats. We drift between boredom and anxiety, finding release in projects or objects that momentarily capture our interest. We fixate on the death of Anna Nicole Smith or the alleged crimes of OJ Simpson while ignoring the suffering of millions world wide in war or famine. We get angry about who is or is not voted off American idol rather than connecting with real people who need our help and friendship.
There is an absurdity to our culture, even to human existence. We put up barriers to our happiness by fixating on things and events. We hold grudges, yearn for things we don't have, mourn that which we've lost, looking for an anchor to find a place where we'll be happy and content. But change is constant, the anchor never hits the seabed. Pascal said the only way out of this (and if you've read Pascal you'll see that I'm essentially putting in 21st century terms a lot of his thoughts) is to embrace God with total faith. But as much as Pascal detested using reason to understand religion, it seems unreasonable now to simply embrace one religion over another, that answer isn't going to appeal to our modern sentiments.
Ultimately I think the key to living happily in the lap of luxury is not to fixate on it. Enjoy each moment as it happens, appreciate other people more than things, and move from moment to moment accepting change not as a threat, but a fact of life. Back when I was in college I wrote a poem "Now lasts forever." It's always now. I think living in the present and appreciating it, and somehow trusting that the future is shaped not by forces conspiring against us, but by our own ability to act and think positively in the present is key. The world will be here long after we're gone, we have a moment of existence, luckily here in the lap of luxury. To fritter it away through pettiness, worries about what might go wrong, and desires to get things we think we need but really don't would be a shame.
March 30 - Saudi Arabia turns on the White House
I have been predicting that the Iraq war is very likely the start of a major decline in American influence and power in the world. By overstretching our capacity and dramatically exposing the limits of American power, states are going to decide that allying with us does not bring the benefits it used to, and the drawbacks are high. We see a dramatic example of this starting to happen with the surprising rebuke of American foreign policy and President Bush by one of our most important allies. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has labeled the US occupation of Iraq illegal, and called for Arab states to unite in order to prevent the US from being able to dictate the region’s politics. This comes on the heels of the King cancelling a lavish state dinner President Bush was planning in his honor.
He said "In the beloved Iraq, the bloodshed is continuing under an illegal foreign occupation and detestable sectarianism." In essence, the Saudis are sending a message: we are not in charge of Mideast politics, we cannot expect, nor should we try, to change the Arab world. Instead, the King called on Arab states to unite and settle their differences and guide the political direction of the region. The King also seems to be reacting to recent moves by the US apparently pressuring Arab states to have a friendlier stance towards Israel.
The reason for Saudi ire is clear. America’s invasion of Iraq not only has created massive regional instability, intense suffering in Iraq, and a increased terror threat, but it also handed control of the state to Shi’ites with close ties to Iran. Saudi Arabia took its own initiative to talk to the Iranians about the situation, and seems ready to cut the Americans out of the deal. The implication is that the Saudis want the situation in Iraq to be settled by regional powers, not by American dominance. If the fear of the civil war in Iraq spreading pushes the Saudis to develop a way to manage their relationship with Shi’ite/Persian Iran, then the risk of instability and warfare driving up oil prices or cutting supplies decreases. However, this also means that if a war breaks out with Iran, the Saudis might not bail us out with a sudden increase in oil production as they have so often done in the past. That probably is creating some alarm in Washington as the Iranian crisis over captured British sailors unfolds.
At the Arab League meeting where the King made his remarks, a large Iranian delegation was present as guests, and treated with respect. No mention was made of the current crisis involving British sailors arrested by Iran for allegedly trespassing Iranian waters. In fact, the meeting took positions positive towards Syria and Hezbollah as well. The Saudis seem to think that it’s time they make deals with potential foes in the region rather than rely on the US to somehow defeat them. They don't believe we can do that, and fear that our efforts will only make things worse.
To be sure, a new Administration in two years might be able to rebuild the relationship; some see the Saudi statement as a positive gesture to Speaker Pelosi, whose competent handling of the democratic Congress so far has not been unnoticed by the world community. But chances are we’re seeing a fundamental shift in Middle East politics. There is going to be an increasing demand for oil in coming years as China and India continue development, and America’s thirst for oil continues. The US has positioned itself for being able to potentially use its military force to protect western access to Mideast oil, which, if there is instability, could be focused on keeping Chinese influence out. But a growing China offers a lucrative market to OPEC, and they don’t want to be a supplier to only the West, they want the best deal they can cut.
As time goes on the consequences of the strategic failure in Iraq will grow; the war there has been a disaster for American foreign policy. Perhaps this would have happened anyway; an alliance with a regime as oppressive as the one in Saudi Arabia was always problematic. Nonetheless the Saudi policy shift, if real, is a clear indication of America's new weakness on the world stage. Unfortunately this also makes it appear terrorism works -- 9-11 goaded us into actions where we've weakened ourselves. There is still time to shift course, but the clock is ticking.