Blog entries are in chronological order
May 1 - Send in the CPAs!
There was a point in late 2003 I concluded that the Iraq policy was doomed to fail. I never was optimistic about it, but the ease of the military victory and the amount of money being put into reconstruction projects to help the Iraqi people caused me to hope that my pessimism had been wrong. Then I started reading about the growing corruption, and I knew things were going to go bad. Yesterday more news came out about massive corruption, substandard construction, kickbacks and the like, and I fear that Iraq may be past the point of no return on that front.
Corruption is the killer of political and economic development. Add corruption to places where there is ethnic division (such as Iraq and Nigeria) and instability/violence is likely. Nigeria's first democracy started with a lot of help from the British, but drifted into civil war in just six years. Their second attempt failed as oil prices plummeted in the early eighties, and their third effort now gets lukewarm reviews due to massive corruption, and problems in the Niger delta where oil flows but people live in extreme poverty. Violence remains a part of Nigerian life, and it is driven in large part by anger at (or wanting a piece of) the corruption.
All over the developing world, corruption creates an elite with an interest in benefiting themselves or their ethnic group over the good of the country. The elite find ways to bypass institutions aimed at increasing accountability and rule of law. The result is a dysfunctional state where development is stymied since the elite benefit from a situation where they can make deals with western banks and governments while worrying little about their infrastructure or people. When Mobutu took over in Zaire 80% of the roads were paved; when he died that was down to 10%, yet he had massive wealth in his personal Swiss bank accounts.
Even as the American led coalition focused on catching Saddam and battling insurgents, corruption was a cancer eating away at the possibility of stable effective rule of law. Even as Iraqis showed purple thumbs and voted, creating optimism in the US, secret deals and ethnic rivalries were intensifying. Add to that Islamic extremist activity and growing anti-Americanism due to lack of security and basic services, and collapse was inevitable. The reason for this monumental failure is essentially a belief in the free market -- a belief that the market somehow would operate well without strong regulation to prevent abuse by both foreign corporations and domestic actors. Rather than from the beginning having a strictly regulated system whereby large numbers of accountants and economists would work to try to make Iraq as corruption free as possible, corruption was accepted as the way of doing business. The insurgency was the problem, it was thought, corruption was just an irritation. Yet now Iraq is considered the most corrupt state on the planet (beating out Nigeria who is in second, and Russia has fallen to third -- during Yeltsin's time Russia had gotten ahead of Nigeria).
Could a team of CPAs with a mission of creating a clean reconstruction and economic system have stopped the dissent into corruption in Iraq? I don't know. Clearly there was a culture of corruption under Saddam, and the presence of oil in a system with no tradition of accountability by government to rule of law stacked the deck against that outcome. But stopping corruption was a necessary condition for achieving the Bush Administration's goals for Iraq, even if they didn't realize it. Now it's too late to really 'send in the CPAs.' Now we have a fiat accompli, a cancer that undercuts all our efforts to work with the government or battle militias. That culture of corruption combined with ethnic divisions is a problem that no "surge" can cure, and which dooms the current policy.
May 2 - The Iraq Syndrome
Iraq has taken over my blog entries the last few days, and I should shift, but given the hoopla around the fourth anniversary of the speech on the Abraham Lincoln, when President Bush declared an end to major combat operations while a banner behind him enthusiastically proclaimed "mission accomplished," I want to think a bit about then and now.
I was teaching a course on American Foreign Policy that semester. Obviously, discussions of Iraq, UN resolutions, and ultimately the war dominated. I was part of a minority who thought that the war would be a big mistake (though a couple years later one of the students in favor of the war told me 'gee, the things you were warning about actually did happen,') and to many students I sounded overly pessimistic. One thing I strive to do in the classroom is foster a sense that "disagreement is good" and that it is not at all bad to disagree with me on issues of uncertainty or policy. As I told students then, "I may have a Ph.D., but that doesn't mean I'm right -- Condoleezza Rice has a Ph.D. as well and obviously has a very different view -- though to be sure she taught only at Harvard and Stanford." Especially in a university students shouldn't have to conform to the political and philosophical views of faculty -- when you leave the realm of core knowledge and start analyzing and applying, there is a lot of room for different opinions.
There was a kind of haughty nationalism in the public mood at the time. We were at war with terrorism, the public supported the effort, there was a sense that this could re-shape the Mideast, and while the stock market had already nosedived, there still was a belief that the economy was strong and America was at a pinnacle of power and prestige. The disdain for the Franco-German-Russian effort to prevent the war was clear; their actions also also puzzled many who wondered why allies would want to prevent what most saw as a just and moral war -- getting rid of a brutal dictator and giving the Iraqis a chance for democracy. It mixed national interest (fighting terrorism and securing oil supplies) with moral purpose (ending tyranny and creating freedom)? What kind of old perverse thinking was driving "old Europe?" By the end of the semester, I was starting to doubt my pessimism; I think I lost a lot of the debates in class, and some of the smartest students were convincing me that I might simply have too strong an anti-war urge to truly accept that sometimes military power can lead to good -- after all, look at what happened in Bosnia when we waited, or Rwanda when we refused to get involved.
To my argument that this war would benefit Iran the most and inspire Iranian nationalism, the response was that with over 100,000 Americans in Iraq after easily defeating an enemy Iran spent eight years unable to defeat, Iran would be cowered. To my argument about the Sunni-Shi'ite split and the potential for civil war or sectarian violence, I was told that Iraqis were secular and had a sense of national identity. Many of my arguments were political science and history oriented -- based on theories about how polities operate. Iraq had no culture to support a democracy, the lure of oil can spark corruption and ethnic rivalries, and that it was naive to think we could shape a western style state out of a country whose past was shaped by the Ottoman dictatorship followed by violence and rivalries. I looked at the break up of the army and worried about unemployment and militias. To the optimism of the time, I thought there were deep structural barriers to prevent a successful Iraq. If we stayed and tried to build one, we could be sucked into an impossible task.
Yet I didn't imagine the scope of the violence and how long it would endure. Four years later I'm struck with how much worse things have gone than even the pessimists like me predicted. I'm alarmed by damage done to the US as a world power, and how vulnerable we now have become on so many fronts. The confidence of 2003 is gone; war supporters now are outnumbered by war opponents, and even supporters tend to have severely diminished expectations "we broke it, we have a responsibility to fix it" -- a far cry from the goals of 2003.
I am not writing this as a smug "I told you so," though I know I risk that it reads that way. Rather, by noting how different the mood and our thinking is now than four years ago, it seems evident that the last four years have changed the way Americans view themselves and the world. We no longer feel like the confident guarantors of global stability, ready to expand democracy and human rights now that communism has been vanquished. The tough talk about a 'war on terror' has given way to realization that there will be no "victory," just on going efforts at counter-terrorism. The disaster in Iraq first divided society, and now has almost re-united people (though not the Congress and White House -- they remain intensely divided) in a belief that the war was wrong and should end as soon as possible. What we're seeing is the start of what might get dubbed "the Iraq syndrome," an America less willing to focus on military solutions and more introspective about national goals and vulnerabilities. The last four years have changed America's mood and self-image. The task for our leaders now is to redefine our national goals and ideals in a manner which will allow us to effectively deal with the challenges ahead. The Iraq war can either debilitate us, or it can allow us to learn our limits and thus have better policies moving forward.
May 3 - Western Civilization
One hears a lot these days about 'the West' as a civilization, and potential conflicts between Islam and the West. Yet very few people really have a sense of what the West actually is. Here is what I think every student should learn: 1) the basic ideas of the ancient Greeks, particularly Plato and Aristotle; 2) the foundational beliefs of the Jewish and Christian faith (with a comparison to Islam), including the teachings of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and other reformation figures, and the reaction of the Church to the advent off modern thought, such as fideism; 3) the shift in the 17th and 18th centuries to an embrace of modernism/reason, with knowledge of Galileo, Newton, Deism, and the move to enlightenment thinking with Rousseau and Voltaire; and 5) the dilemmas of the modern, with knowledge of Locke, Marx, Hayek, and Nietzsche, as well as an honest look at the destructive institution of colonialism, during which the West conquered most of the planet, and often destroyed and decimated pre-existing cultures and social systems. Genocides like that in Rwanda, corruption, ethnic conflict, and the inability to build a functioning economy and state in many parts of the world are lingering results of that violent and destructive era in western history (and we can't forget the North American holocaust of native peoples).
In my experience, few have even heard of these people or issues, the West is not a culture that has been nearly 2000 years in the making (longer for those who include the Greeks as part of western history), but rather a society defined by wealth, materialism, and a general belief in freedom and democracy. One problem from this is that it de-historicizes our culture. People assume that what we do and how we live is 'natural,' and that if others had a chance they'd make similar choices. Second, people don't really understand the issues and dilemmas we face; rather, politics and social issues are treated as simply a set of political fights. Finally, people aren't able to be self-critical without understanding how contradictions and dilemmas are incorporated in our cultural beliefs and which still create social tension.
I understand and am sympathetic to claims that we need to avoid ethnocentrism; I teach international relations and try to talk about diverse cultures, religions, and political systems because in an era of globalization we need to understand other peoples rather than just see their beliefs or actions as strange or scary. I incorporate a lot of this even beyond traditional political science because it's important for educated people to understand the wider world. A defense of learning about the West and its history is not a call to ethnocentrism. In fact, the better we understand ourselves and our culture, the easier it is to understand and see in context other societies and cultures.
Alas, I don't see much on the horizon either in higher education or high school to address this. Many teachers and professors hit on aspects of this -- a philosophy course or a world religions course is helpful, and of course various history courses touch on these. But lest we become a culture without a memory (if we're not there already) we need in our education to be more introspective about who we are and how we got here.
May 4 - Needed: Eine neue Achsenzeit (axial age)
Karl Jaspers, a German philosopher, coined the term 'Achsenzeit' or axial age to describe the period from about 800 BCE to 200 BCE when, among other things, the human as an individual emerged. It is the time when the discipline of philosophy comes in to being, and major world religions are founded; humans across the planet seem to have undergone a revolution in thinking.
In Greece Socrates, Plato and Aristotle head a list of philosophers who, along with poets and playwrights, develop the first inklings of what we would now call humanism, and move beyond simple adherence to myth and tradition, instead asking questions and developing creative and revolutionary answers. In India the Buddha begins his teaching. At the same time the Upanishads transform Vedic traditions into classical Hinduism, asking similar sorts of questions as the Greeks, trying to figure out the human place in creation. In China Confucianism emerges and provides systematic thought on issues of the human condition. In Persia Zoroaster provides a bridge from polytheism to monotheism, addressing the same issues about the place of the human in the universe. In Israel the prophets were also expanding Hebrew traditions from their original polytheism (the God of Israel was their God, but early on not the only God) towards the traditions we now see defining Judaism. And, though Christianity and Islam came later, they built on the Hebrew traditions, and were strongly impacted by Zoroastrianism and Greek thought. Indeed, Augustine's theology, so influential in the development of Christian thought, brought in Platonic ideas mostly from neo-Platonist philosophers like Plotinus. Plotinus spiritual philosophy showed a blend of ideas that traversed the axial age, and shows the influence of Upanishads and Zoroaster as well as Plato. In essence, our world views and religious traditions emerged from this era. It was, in some ways, the awakening of the human mind to contemplate its place in the world.
To be sure, Jaspers may have overstated it -- clearly all of these traditions built on ideas in the past, and we don't know how sophisticated earlier traditions were. But it does seem that in that era human thinking took a pivotal leap, and from China to India to the Mideast, Northern Africa and Europe, began a trajectory to where we are today. Why did such a radical change occur, and why was it so widespread? I suspect it had to do with the expansion of trade and technology. Technology at that time was making cities possible, improving agricultural production, and in some places led to things such as indoor plumbing (which even the old Indus valley civilization had) and writing. Technology changes conditions, which can lead people to think about things differently. Moreover, trade forces one to recognize that the traditions of his or her society are not the only ones, and aren't simply natural, 'the way things are.' Others think and do things differently. This recognition naturally leads to introspection, and often imports ideas and questions which challenge old beliefs and bring up new issues. The rise of cities, empires, trade, and communication necessitated a move from a very traditional mythical world view to one that could incorporate the existence of others and find a place for ones' own culture. It created an introspection on what it meant to be human; ritual and tradition couldn't provide every answer needed in that new era.
Jumping ahead to 2007, I believe it could well be that we are in need of another pivotal period or 'axial age.' In part, we need to confront those old questions: what does it mean to be human, what is the nature of the universe, how should humans act towards other humans, and where is our place in the universe? The last axial age produced religions which connected universal spiritual beliefs to particular traditions, rituals and notions of identity. They dealt with the questions raised by the rise of cities and trade, but those questions remained primarily local. It was less about how to integrate with different cultures -- trade rarely meant any kind of mass contact with others -- and more about how to define local identity in new conditions. As such religions often became dogmatic and exceptionalist. Only those who believe in Jesus, or follow the Koran, or are devoted to the way of wisdom or devotion can either be saved to experience paradise, or perhaps escape the futile and painful wanderings of Samsara.
Now we are confronting the need to address these questions anew, experiencing new technology and globalization which causes people to have to interact and live interdependent lives. The old ways of thinking lead to competition and rivalry, especially involving exclusivist religions such as Christianity and Islam. Thinkers need to develop a spiritual approach that does what was done in the axial age: build on past traditions, but develop a new approach that gives society an intellectual and spiritual means to comprehend and contemplate human existence. This doesn't mean old religions have to disappear, but somehow they have to define their traditions and approach the questions in a way that moves beyond the simplistic 'here's how you get to heaven.' Most importantly, they have to move to an inclusive view, whereby other religions are seen as legitimate and potentially effective, even if they are not ones' own. This is already true within much of Hinduism, where some Hindus worship different gods, celebrate different feasts, and have many different traditions than other Hindus. This has to be more than that kind of sectarian tolerance (Lutherans and Catholics getting along would be similar), but a real ability to move beyond the exclusivist "we are the one true faith" view that especially religions like Islam and Christianity espouse.
The modern era started this process. The enlightenment took up the questions of humanism anew, and religious developments like natural religion, Deism and even atheism tried to address these issues. The problem with the enlightenment is that its focus on reason and rationality over spirit and sentiment only addresses one side of the human essence. We are rational thinkers, yes. We are also spiritual and emotive creatures, and rational analysis is devoid of personal meaning without that spiritual/emotional connection. No one dispassionately examines their needs and decides it is in their interest to buy a red bike. There's desire, an emotional will, a sense of excitement, something beyond pure reason. If there are not ways to express this within the cultural norms of a society, it can breed radicalism, extremism, and fanaticism, and people look for some way to find release of that part of their existence. Violence and warfare may be horrid, but it can provide a sense of meaning for life.
At this point our spiritual development is stuck with the old religions, which find it easier to arouse passions by stressing exclusivity rather than inclusivity. Our reason leads many to denigrate and try to even eliminate the importance of spirit, dismissing emotions as mere psychological phenomena. That reinforces the sense of hopelessness and despair that drive people to fanaticism, and also risks creating a cold of cold rationalism that loses itself in ideological faith. The ideology fills their spiritual and emotional need, but they fool themselves into thinking it is based on reason and that they have the right way of understanding the world. Secular religion, in other words (and if you haven't seen the power of secular religion, talk with a committed Marxist or a devotee of Ayn Rand). Exclusive secularist ideology is as dangerous as religion, and just as much in need of a jolt of new thinking.
So we as a world community are at a crossroads. We're entering a new era, and while we've developed technologies and our facilities of reason and rational thought, we have yet to truly address the questions of meaning and humanity. Reason leads to post-modernism and nihilism, and that is no answer. We have the scientists, we need the poets and visionaries unafraid to think about the nature of humanity in spiritual as well as material terms.
May 7 - From De Gaulle to Sarko
When Charles De Gaulle took essentially dictatorial powers in 1958 to stabilize a French system on the verge of collapse, many worried about what this would mean. Given De Gaulle's monarchist beliefs, some thought he wouldn't revert back to democracy, and at least one American official speculated that he was a "French Hitler." Yet as he did during World War II, when he saved French honor by providing an heroic defense against both the Germans and the Vichy Republic, his constitution saved France by creating a democracy that combined the French love for diverse political opinion with a strong Presidency.
Since then, France has had not only a number of effective leaders, but Presidents with personality and flair. It's rare to find a boring French leader. Indeed, the freaky way Jean Marie Le Pen made it into the runoff in 2002 was in part due to the fact that Chirac's main socialist opponent, Lionel Jospin, was rather colorless and bland, and neither had much to offer in terms of solutions to difficult problems. This pushed voters towards a myriad of third party choices in the first round, with Chirac polling only 19%, Jospin 16%, and Le Pen slightly higher than Jospin. The one thing uniting the French left with the American right is their antipathy for Jacques Chirac, and the left had to hold their noses and vote for him against the neo-fascist Le Pen. This year, the scene was different.
Two candidates with personality were battling it out. Segolene Royal for the Socialists, a 53 year old whose beauty and charm intrigued French voters, and Nicholas Sarkozy, who, like Chirac had a penchant for speaking bluntly and weathering whatever firestorm that might cause. This was a real choice, and so in the first round Sarkozy edged Royal by about 30 to 26 (decent percentages for the top two in round one), and in the run off Sarkozy won 53-47. The election was close, and dominated by questions about how France will deal with the problems it faces -- integrating immigrants, overcoming economic difficulties caused in part by a low birth rate, in part by inflexibility in the economic structure, and figuring out its place in the now 27 state European Union.
Chirac leaves with his popularity rather low. Yet Chirac, like Mitterrand before him (Mitterrand's presidency was 14 years, Chirac's 12 -- Sarkozy is only the third President since 1981), achieved a lot during his tenure. Although he couldn't do as much to reform the system as we wanted, he pushed through major changes to allow the European Monetary Union to take shape, and got the French used to the idea that economic reform is necessary. The sense that Royal might not be willing to make tough choices along those lines both were cause for her defeat, but also one reason why 85% turned out -- many don't want the system to change. Chirac also kept France out of the mess in Iraq. Although it irritated the Americans at the time, Chirac has been proven right by events. Chirac also shifted the meaning of Gaullism. For De Gaulle it was France first. He was a nationalist who had a vision of Europe not as an integrated Union, but a Europe des patries, or "Europe of the father lands," cooperating and trading, but otherwise pursuing their sovereign national interests.
Chirac realized that such a vision could not work given the depth of European integration, the end of the Cold War, and the pressures of globalization. Instead he shifted to a kind of neo-Gaullism that envisions a European sense of independence on the world stage. This isn't a denial of French sovereignty, but acceptance of the inability of France alone to be a major power -- instead, France can exert its voice through the European Union.
Sarkozy enters office with a number of challenges. Although progress is being made to integrate immigrants, the Muslim population in France is likely to double from 8% to 16% by 2025. European Muslims are far more liberal minded than those in the Mideast, so alarmists claims that radical Islam is going to engulf Europe are fundamentally silly. Yet there is a radical sub-element, and as the riots in France in 2005 showed, economic alienation among the youth is high -- rioters were not just immigrant youth, but normal French young people as well. Finding hope and opportunity for this population is important; that is the best way to stop radicalism from having appeal. Youth unemployment is at 20% (French unemployment is at about 8% overall), with immigrant unemployment even higher. This means a restructuring of the French economy is needed. Those who want to see him as a French Reagan are off base; France's economic traditions are such that you aren't going to see a Thatcher or Reagan style reform. But he does need to have a true effective reform, and French society remains troubled and uncertain by that prospect. In foreign affairs, the departure soon of Tony Blair means that there is a new team of leaders in the EU: Angela Merkel, Gordon Brown and now Nicholas Sarkozy. This allows for a rethinking of the strategic links within the EU, the relationship of the US (don't expect France to help with Iraq, but Sarkozy promises better relations and the French generally believe that the US public has learned its lesson the hard way). China, Russia, Eastern Europe and the Mideast all have conditions which allow for a strategic rethinking; Sarkozy can be bold in foreign policy as well as domestic.
Somewhere, De Gaulle is smiling. His system has endured almost 60 years without the troubles the Third or Fourth Republics had. Strong leaders are the norm, and the French have been able to handle changing conditions well. The challenges ahead are daunting, but there is reason for optimism in France. That would be true if Royal had won as well. Pundits often get it wrong; it's not always so important who wins, but how the system operates. Given the problems in 2002, the way the French political debate and electoral system bounced back to provide two strong candidates and a clear if at times emotional discussion of tough issues is a sign of health and vigor. Vive la France!
May 8 - Time and Space
Almost en cue this month’s Discover magazine arrived, with an emphasis on “the science we don’t see.” It included things like the search, scientifically, for the human soul, how it appears in modern physics that time itself doesn’t exist, and how most of the world is empty. Even atoms are mostly empty space, with subatomic particles being less chunks of reality than ripples in the fields that make up space-time.
The timing relates to my blog on May 4th on the need for a new “Axial age.” If we are going to find a way to rethink the meaning of human existence and move spirituality beyond mere adherence to an exclusive religion to something that can transcend religion and address spiritual/emotional needs as well as secular developments, science has to be a part of that effort.
It’s interesting that conceptions of God that come from the axial age (or in the case of Islam and Christianity, are created afterwards) are similar in nature. For Hindus Brahman represents the universal spirit. It is so incomprehensible that although it is a transcendent “god” that includes all of reality, humans cannot imagine its form or essence. Instead humans create a diverse set of gods, each capturing in some way the divine. Tens of thousands of Hindu gods co-exist, each divine, yet none fulfilling the role of Brahman. The idea is that since humans need to give God a form, and no form can be adequate, better to have a vast diversity of ‘aspects’ of the divine than to try to make one particular concept. In Islam a similar view of God yields a different result: one does not attempt to give god any human attributes. You can make no image of God, you do not talk about God as “he” or “she,” God is beyond gender, beyond human characteristics, beyond comprehension.
The Hebrew notion of God had human attributes, but also developed in the axial age other distinctions from humanity. God’s name should not be pronounced, and God was in some ways transformed from the God of the Israelites defending against other peoples and Gods (even apparently ordering what would now be considered genocide and war crimes) to a more transcendent universal God. Later Augustine would borrow from Plotinus in developing the Christian idea of God. Plotinus saw not “god” but “the One,” an incomprehensible essence that was reality. Like the Hindus, he believed we only see difference rather than unity because of perspective and illusion. Augustine made “the One” to be “God,” and welded Christian teachings to this notion.
Now scientists are mystified by things like quantum non-locality, and the idea that time is an illusion – there are relationships in the universe, but time is only something we create by how we measure and interpret these relationships. In quantum physics all is probabilistic except that which gets actualized – but how it gets actualized is a mystery – is it the act of being observed? And what constitutes an observation? Does it have to be a conscious entity? But why would consciousness give any privilege to the capacity to actualize a reality, and what is consciousness anyway?
Add to that the fact that we’re dealing in the “macro” world, at least relative to that which we can measure and perceive. There are, as Discover notes, “mites, viruses, fungi and 90 trillion bacteria” in our body – we carry a whole ecosystem within us. So what is the human? Is it our body as relating to our genome? Is it the ecosystem we become (we would not survive without most of those ‘guests’)? Or, like those bacteria, are we simply part of something larger, is the discrete individual human itself a fiction? Clearly we have thoughts and desires, but how much of that is truly from inside, how much of that is from our connection to the wider world?
How can we understand our role as a tiny portion of the vast expanse of space-time without having to jettison our psychological feeling of self-importance and even permanence? And if we simply say ‘well, we’re not important and this little planet doesn’t matter,’ then why worry about ethics and morality at all – does anything really matter?
Two things might help. First is to accept the idea of God (I prefer Plotinus’ “the One”) as so outside of our ability to conceive that it is pointless to consider God by gender or attribute. At some level we have to accept human ignorance about the nature of reality in such a way as to allow for a wide variety of interpretations – religious belief that does not see itself as the only path to understanding (or salvation, etc.) Second, the importance of consciousness as having a part in the creation of reality is important. While there is vast debate in quantum physics about the idea of observation actualizing a probable reality, it does seem that, given that most of reality is empty and we just experience ripples in fields, the idea of consciousness as a kind of point of power to affect reality is enticing. It is self-evident in daily life (we can choose to do things), but that may open the door to spiritual speculation as well – how we think and what we believe may be part of shaping the way the world unfolds.
May 9 - Harry Truman NOT wanted!
Newsweek has an issue out saying that the Democrats and Republicans are both looking for a “new Harry Truman” to lead the country out of the current abyss. Bush supporters counter that Bush is like Harry Truman and will be vindicated by history. Yet when you look at history, it’s not clear we should want a Harry Truman!
Truman made two decisions of profound importance. One is controversial, the other was disastrous. The controversial decision was the use of atomic weapons to end the war in Japan, targeting civilian sites, killing well over 100,000 and causing health problems which have exponentially increased the death toll. This was defended by comparing the use of atomic bombs with the alternative of invading Japan (with assumptions made that the Japanese would wildly resist to the last citizen, something many Japanese think absurd). However, there were other alternatives. Japan was already defeated, its empire essentially gone. Could not the US have simply done a blockade, or some kind of action short of unconditional surrender and invasion? Ultimately Truman gets a bit of a pass on this because of the nature of that war and the uncertainty about the new weapon, but clearly his decision is questionable.
The decision that was disastrous came in 1950 when the US had repelled the North Korean invasion of the south and faced a choice: a) accept that the North had been beaten back and make peace, or b) invade the North to try to rollback communism. The choice was “b” and the US crossed the border into North Korea to try to unify the country under the government of the South. Although military intelligence expected Chinese intervention, this was not taken seriously by the Administration, which was caught off guard as the Chinese crossed the Yalu river and caused a chaotic retreat deep into the South. It was one of the most ignoble moments in American military history, with the army running from the Chinese as fast as it could. Of course, the US managed to turn things around, but the Korean war dragged into a stalemate, and didn’t end until 1953 when Eisenhower became President. Most of the deaths in that war were unnecessary, and the decision to invade the North rather than simply remove them from the South was a huge blunder. This also assured a militarized Cold War, with all the costs and dangers that entailed.
In some ways, the comparison of Bush to Truman seems apt – each is in an unpopular war, and by most accounts the decision to invade Iraq, like Truman’s to invade North Korea, has been a huge blunder. The Bush supporters think that somehow the President will be remembered like Truman has been, they are sorely mistaken. Truman is remembered fondly by many because he was seen as a straight talker, who stood up to the Soviet Union, created the European-American NATO alliance and had a reputation for honesty. President Bush’s legacy is almost wholly the folly in Iraq. His policies put old alliances in danger, weakened the US, and he sacrificed his entire domestic agenda, the so-called “ownership society” for the war. The more apt comparison is between the two Texas ranchers Lyndon Johnson and George Bush. Johnson had grand plans for a “great society” and lost his Presidency to his ill fated war.
Still, we don’t need a Truman. Truman was reckless, made some poor decisions, and didn’t have a lot of knowledge of foreign affairs and world politics. We need someone who can build diplomatic relations in the Mideast, bring fiscal discipline to the government at home, and restructure American foreign policy to embrace the multilateralism that the global era, and our weakened status in the system, requires. The threat of the future requires attention to the poverty of the third world, and problems that transcend borders and traditional notions of sovereignty. We need a visionary who can inspire a change in our approach to world affairs. I don’t know who it is. It’s not McCain. It’s not Clinton. But as I go over the candidates in both parties I’ll be looking for less traditional sloganeering and signs that someone might comprehend the profoundly difficult situation we’re in, and the need for fundamental change.
May 10 - The myth of liberal interventionism and a task for a retired Tony Blair
As Tony Blair announces his departure from the political scene by July 1, the pundits in general give him relatively high ratings (at least outside Great Britain), despite the failure in Iraq. He claims openly that his foreign policy is one of “liberal interventionism,” which idealistically looks to mix soft power with hard power, using economic incentives and clout to help aspire people to democracy and human rights where possible, and to use military force if necessary in the case of atrocities and genocide.
On its face, that seems an imminently reasonable foreign policy. The trouble is that what looks good in theory often looks much different in practice. Take the interventions that everyone has learned to love: Bosnia and Kosovo. In Bosnia the intervention took place only after years of atrocities, and succeeded in stopping the Bosnian Serbs while turning a blind eye to the ethnic cleansing of 600,000 Serbs out of Croatia, which took place at the same time. Since then peace has held, but only by dividing the society and maintaining a strong peace keeping force. If they left most think war would begin again.
In Kosovo the picture is even murkier. Most look at the ethnic cleaning of 900,000 Kosovar Albanians as justifying the NATO intervention (again, overlooking the 600,000 Serbs booted out of Croatia), but that ethnic cleansing came only after the NATO bombing began. It clearly was planned, but it's not at all clear that it would have happened had NATO not engaged in aggression. Moreover, the NATO bombing unleashed fury from Serbs, including many who came down from Bosnia to continue their violent ways. Instead of coming in to stop that, NATO bombed from 15,000 feet, hitting more decoys than actual targets, and doing virtually nothing to stop the violence. The reason? NATO leaders did not want to risk any NATO lives for this intervention. And now, eight years later, there are still tensions and uncertainties over the future of that region.
Beyond that, look the places ignored by liberal interventionism: Rwanda, Sierra Leone, the Congo, Sudan, and Uganda. Indeed, get away from Europe and places with oil, and you find an international lack of concern for human rights and democracy, even to the point that states support dictators or find excuses not to get involved. One has to cynically wonder if “liberal interventionism” is really focused not as much on human rights and democracy than on the particular interests of the major powers. The one exception, Somalia, worked only briefly before the death of Americans led the US and ultimately most of the world to abandon the country, which now faces continuing turmoil.
Liberal interventionism is a failed policy. It doesn’t work. It may bring results that you can call success, like Bosnia and Kosovo, but as noted above, those are meager results, and arguably could be seen as failures. The reason its failed is a disconnect between how leaders and publics understand the nature of foreign policy and the ideals behind the policy of liberal interventionism. Foreign policy remains based on self-interest, focused on military issues, and publics are loathe to put their lives on the line for ‘human rights and democracy’ when their own security isn’t endangered. That means that the only kind of mission that can get support is one like Kosovo, where no NATO lives were lost, or Afghanistan, in the wake of the emotion of 9-11. For Iraq the Administration had to posit a threat (WMD, support for terror, etc.) which, when proven false, undercut completely support for that intervention.
So should we give up the goal of trying to use hard and soft power to stop atrocities and promote human rights? No. But realistically, it can’t be a policy of a few states, and it can’t just be a response to crises. Whether in Rwanda or Bosnia, better policies and world concern before the crisis went out of control could have prevented disaster. A case study of how this can work is Macedonia, where the lessons of the rest of Yugoslavia brought proactive involvement by the West and the UN. It is important to deal with future crises before they explode. Once things go out of control, all you can do is try to put out fires, risking that things could get worse.
Second, there has to be a new kind of global consensus on power sharing the legitimacy of interventions when necessary. In Rwanda the French backed the Hutu government that allowed the Interhamwe to operate, the US and Great Britain dithered, and the world community looked the other way. Somehow there has to be a way to create a legitimate United Nations backed multilateral response to true crises that does not rely on the great powers or the US to define the policy and its contours. Only then can a policy be seen as legitimate, and can gain widespread support and burden sharing. Only then can we truly claim to be supporting goals of human rights and democracy.
So back to Tony Blair. I think his heart was in the right place, and his speeches noted the dangers of neglecting Africa, and called on a world effort to proactively address these problems. Perhaps Iraq stymied efforts he would have made to move in a globalist direction – as with Bush, that war essentially undercut everything else he wanted to do as a leader. His actions, however, left liberal interventionism in an untenable position – determined primarily by the US and its allies in a manner that relied on precarious public support and unclear international legitimacy. Don’t get me wrong, I generally like Blair, and think that if Iraq hadn’t stolen the last four years of his leadership, he may have been one of the great leaders of our time. But ultimately he put the special relationship with the US and the idea of Anglo-American interventionism above the needed move to a globally legitimate effort. But maybe that's something he can try to address in his role as 'elder statesman' out of power. Maybe he should take it as his goal to develop an effective, legitimate approach to the goals of his liberal interventionism. Perhaps like Jimmy Carter, Blair's best days will be after he leaves office.
May 15 - The value of life
There’s nothing like staying home with a sick one year old to get one reflective about life. First, though a fever of 104 is bad, it’s common and not anything really to worry about. But when it’s your own child, worry is inevitable. Not a lot of worry, but some thoughts – what if this is something bad, what if the doctor overlooked something?
Teaching world politics, my thoughts quickly turn to what its like for parents in other countries, perhaps Iraq where children are maimed and injured daily (and many are made orphans or lose a parent). Perhaps parts of Africa where malnourishment combined with malaria and other diseases mean that a fever is inherently life threatening, and that losing a child is common.
Like most Americans, the temptation is there to just think, “well, that’s Africa or the third world, it’s a different situation.” My child is more important, he has an education to look forward to, a career, a chance to make a difference. But, of course, the only way one can have such a view is to detach from the emotions of parenthood, to forget that a parent of a child in Nigeria or Iraq has the same love and connection to their children that I have to mine. Or, if they’ve learned to detach it’s because of the harshness of the reality around them.
As I hold my child and he lays his head on my chest and says “daddy,” I feel total unconditional love, this being is more important than any possession I have, than my life itself. To imagine harm to come is painful. Yet that is the reality for so many people. When politicians and pundits pontificate about the need for “military action,” and try to rationalize or pay off families when innocent children are killed, they are out of touch with the reality of the value of human life. They have gotten lost in the abstract game of politics and power, calculating that their actions are worth it because if not undertaken, worse things will happen.
Hence we got involved in Vietnam to stop communism, and ended up with a million dead Vietnamese, almost 60,000 dead Americans, and countless other lives and families suffering. It created the conditions which led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the subsequent genocide. In Iraq we wanted to get rid of Saddam, and now often a hundred die a day, children’s lives are torn apart, and the chaos there seems unstoppable for some time. Contemplating the concern we have for our family and children, and thinking about the impact violence and military force has on innocent children and families when used for abstract cause should lead us to rethink how we approach world politics and even crises. The cost is more than the money spent or lives lost (especially more than just the lives lost on “our” side): the cost touches countless lives for over a generation – it will shape how today’s youth will mold their worlds.
Sometimes force may be necessary, but the calculation has to change. We can’t detach, abstract, and look at political objectives alone. The true human cost has to be calculated, and that, I suspect, means force is only a last resort by the international community working under legal agreement via the UN to stop atrocities or genocide. The world community has to put fighting hunger and poverty first, when any human suffers it diminishes us all. The UN has been unable to do that because of the policies of its Security Council permanent members, and the unwillingness of states to move beyond the abstract politics paradigm.
The children and families suffer, and the problem thus lives on into the next generation.
May 16 - A War Czar?
President Bush has chosen General Douglas Lute, a three star general, to be the so-called “War Czar,” overseeing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. This position has been turned down by numerous retired generals, and it’s a sign of desperation that the Administration had to turn to a three star general currently working in the Pentagon. Not only does he lack the stature of some who were courted, but he is outranked by the 4 star General Petraeus who heads the force in Iraq.
So what gives? The President is supposed to be the coordinator in the White House, and the Commander in Chief, overseeing bureaucracies. Why another level? Three possibilities, not mutually exclusive, come to mind.
First, the situation in Afghanistan is known to be deteriorating. It may even be worse than we’ve heard, and the White House might be panicked about how they can pressure Iran, do a surge in Iraq, and handle increasingly difficult conditions in Afghanistan. This position may be a sign that this is going to be an immense challenge moving forward, and they are trying to get a grip on it.
However, a second explanation comes directly from Vice President Cheney’s claim that they need a person in the White House to “ride roughshod, if necessary” over the bureaucracy. Clearly, the White House feels under siege politically over Iraq; however, they also likely believe that their efforts are being sabotaged by the middle level bureaucrats who are not loyal to the Administration or the cause. This is reminiscent of the run up to the start of the war in 2002-03 when the Vice President and other hawks didn’t trust the CIA or other agencies on Iraq because they were casting doubts on claims of WMD or a direct al qaeda link to Saddam. Hawks like Douglas Feith and John Bolton even started bypassing the intelligence agencies to get “real, raw information,” distrusting the bureaucracy.
This is a sign of a foreign policy team in denial of reality. They believe that if only they had a bureaucracy loyal to the cause they could get results, and instead of questioning their goals and decisions – and whether continuing this path makes sense given the immense cost to the US – they just need to better coordinate bureaucratic activity.
That’s why I put in the White House in italics. They are an increasingly isolated group, with even fellow Republicans doubting the policy, and Congressional democrats using investigations and threats of cutting war funding to limit activity. They know that if they can’t produce success soon – something dramatic and real – their policy will become an utter and undeniable failure. Unlike most of the country, they still believe they can pull this off if only they can be in control of policy and have bureaucracies dance to the proper tune, and get loyal support from all involved. When they don’t get that, they conclude that it is that lack of support from below that causes the failures in policy.
The final reason for creating such a position (besides creating another level of blaming someone below) could be more specific than the general issues noted above. It has been reported that Secretary of Defense Gates is not on board with the White House on Iraq, and has severe doubts about the surge. He is said to be fully in support of the Iraq Study Group recommendations which the President rejected. If the White House believes that the defense department (and really, this “war czar” is really doing what the White House is supposed to do in coordination with the Secretary of Defense) is undercutting its policies, that’s an internal war that shoes the Administration has lost its ability to guide and control policy. They can’t really fire Gates without giving the Democrats a political gift, so this could be an attempted end run around him.
It won’t work. Lute does not have the stature to pull this off, and the different bureaucracies of the executive branch don’t respond to orders in the way military officers do. Even the Pentagon bureaucracy defies easy leadership. I am beginning to think that in the future both the “surge” and the “war Czar” will be remembered as almost comical attempts by the Bush administration to salvage a failed policy. It would be comical if it was not costing so much in lives, money, and our national interest. The Iraq war has made us much weaker and more vulnerable than any policy decision since going to war in Vietnam.
May 17 - Jerry Falwell, RIP
In 1983 Styx released their last studio album before an eight year hiatus called Kilroy was Here. Famous for songs like Mr. Roboto and Don’t Let it End, it was actually a fanciful story about how a group called the Musical Moral Majority (MMM) led by Reverend Righteous had banned rock music as destroying the souls of the young and leading down the path of sex, drugs and rock and roll. The album featured Dennis DeYoung as the aging rock star Kilroy, who was accused of using his guitar to pound to death an MMM activist. Sent to prison, he was guarded by robots who had taken over the menial work of human kind.
Ultimately the story was how Kilroy would meet up with Johnny Chance (Tommy Shaw) and the youth would bring back rock and roll, revolt against the attempt to enforce morality and stand up for freedom of expression. Reverend Righteous was portrayed as this arrogant preacher who “parties with the President” and demands adherence to his form of morality.
Of course, the album was a clear reaction to the Moral Majority created by Jerry Falwell in 1979 and which rose to prominence with its work to elect Ronald Reagan President in 1980. The message was clear: the US had lost its way and given in to decadence and amorality. With divorce rates skyrocketing, drug use increasing, promiscuity and single parenthood on the rise, gay rights activists more accepted, and a blurring of the traditional male and female roles, Falwell gave voice to pent up conservative angst and anger over the evolution of American culture. The Styx album was part of the response – fear by many that Falwell represented a threat to American liberty and freedom, what Chris Hedges would call Christian Fascism in his recent book. Another response was lewd satire by Penthouse owner Larry Flint, who was sued by Falwell in a case that went to the Supreme Court. Falwell lost.
Falwell himself retreated from the center of the public stage. He dismantled the moral majority in 1989, and set up his wealthy empire at Liberty University in Virginia. He spoke out and generated controversy, but he gave up being a major player in politics in order to enjoy the comfort and indeed wealth of his position at Liberty. Others picked up the mantle – Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Ralph Reed and others continued the tradition of trying to turn conservative religious belief into a movement that would change American politics. That movement is one reason why the Republican party moved right on social issues, and why Presidential candidates like Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney have a hard time – social conservatism is necessary to get through the GOP primaries and emerge as the candidate. Karl Rove made sure George W. Bush understood that and played the game.
Falwell’s death may be symbolic. Despite the fears of people like Hedges that this could be an emerging fascism, the Christian right appears to be in decline. Many rank and file Christians are turned off by the wild rhetoric of people like Robertson, and the failures in Iraq have dimmed the kind of evangelical crusading spirit evident after 9-11. Concerns about morality and the state of American culture remain, but the kind of movement and emotion contained within the old Moral Majority seems to have faded.
Hedges’ book American Fascists
notes the danger of the religious right to our freedoms, claiming they are “at war with America.” Hedges warning comes over twenty years after Styx made a similar warning in music. Jerry Falwell came to symbolize that threat, fairly or unfairly. In the next few years we’ll soon find out if his death also symbolizes a decline in the power of the Christian right. "Time has a way of bringing even mountains down" - Tommy Shaw, "Cold War" from Kilroy was Here.
May 18 - The Violent West
If you read pundits on the right, you would think that Islam and the Islamic world is a uniquely violent culture. They point out, correctly, that Islam spread by force through northern Africa, into India, Asia, and parts of Europe. They note that non-Muslims, while tolerated, had to pay a special tax which denied them equal rights. They also point to texts from the Koran, taken out of context, which suggest that Muslims should fight the ‘polytheists and idolaters’ to the end – conveniently ignoring that these passages refer specifically to the Meccans who were in a bitter struggle against the Ummah, or community of believers, and not to all non-Muslims. They also ignore how the Koran admonishes Muslims not be aggressors, not to fight if the enemy does not wish to fight, and to protect the lives of innocents.
However if you really want to see a culture that has a violent history, look in at the West. From the reformation to WWII, from development of modern weaponry to nuclear bombs, the West has been the most violent and destructive culture on the planet. The West has spawned ideologies like communism which has lead to genocides and severe repression. Colonialism from the West destroyed political cultures across Africa, Latin America, and Asia, leading to broken systems now torn apart by corruption and poverty. It was the Belgians who divided Tutsi and Hutu and gave the former special privileges, setting up the violent ethnic clashes that would lead to the Rwandan genocide. Spain was slaughtering native American tribes with a ‘convert or die’ message. It was Germany, the home of many great western ideas, which gave us the holocaust and Nazism. Even America, built on ideals of freedom and liberty, has engaged in imperialism, destroyed numerous indigenous peoples on the continent in what now would be labeled genocide, and now spends half the world’s military budget, using violence that kills more innocents than insurgents to try to shape the political systems of other parts of the globe.
Before you get defensive, I am not saying the West is evil, nor do I think we who inherit that tradition have to live in shame or try to undo all past wrongs. Rather, I’m pointing out that it is utterly hypocritical to attack Islam for its past while turning a blind eye to the history of the West. It is hypocritical to focus on the good the West has done while ignoring the good in Islam and the Koran. The fact of the matter is that Islam and the West both have violent pasts, and both have honorable ideals. And, while political correctness on the left is wrong to say we shouldn’t talk about the dark side of Islamic history, political correctness on the right is wrong to say we shouldn’t talk about the dark side of Western history. Let’s start from an admission that neither culture can really claim virtue in its history, no matter how honorable and beautiful many of the core ideals behind each are. Right now the violence from the West I list above is cited by Muslim extremist as proof that we are a violent, evil people. Our extremists cite Muslim history as proof that Islam is a violent, even evil faith. Both sides are taken a warped a biased view on history, and this works against efforts at real reconciliation and co-existence.
For example, our leaders say that some Muslim extremists want to spread Islam and thus represent a violent aggressive political ideal which must be stopped. Then in the next sentence they say we want to spread democracy and implement regime change for the good of the people in other states. The obvious hypocrisy in those two statements cannot be overlooked – they are evil to spread what they believe to be the best way of life, we are honorable if we do the same thing.
I am part of the West. My culture and belief system is driven by western ideals, I am an individualist, secular, and a believer in democracy and liberty. I also have strong disagreements with many aspects of western culture, including the embrace of dualisms (such as the reason vs. sentiment dichotomy), the tendency to abstract human experience (which I believe is a causal factor for much of our violent history), and the emphasis on materialism, with spiritual questions relegated to organized religions or a niche in an individual’s life. I do not think the West evil; rather, we are on a messy path to overcoming negative aspects of our culture and building a world based on the finest of our ideals. The same is true of the Islamic world.
That doesn’t mean we can handle the challenges of globalization easily, and clearly there are extremists on each side that want to see the other as an enemy because they can’t accept anything but their own dogma. The strong will use military force, the weak will use terror, and each will point to the damage done by the other to try to inspire militarism and radicalism in their ranks. Those of us who recognize the importance of our common humanity and take the time to learn about the reality of Islam and the West, rather than self-serving myths, know that can find a way to live peacefully and respect each others’ ideas. Violence and the rabid rhetoric in each culture works against that effort.
May 21 - Political Correctness from the Right
Libertarian candidate Ron Paul gave Rudy Giuliani a chance to appeal to emotion in the last Republican debate when he noted that American foreign policy had caused the attack of 9-11. Giuliani had his moment of righteous rage, how dare Paul blame America for those hideous terrorist attacks which he lived through as mayor, and the GOP faithful applauded Rudy and hissed Paul. Paul is getting an unprecedented amount of attention for his comment, which no doubt pleases libertarians who have often seen Paul as their one voice in the halls of power. But some in the Republican party want Paul banned from future debates because of his comment.
That is an example of what I call political correctness from the right. I first encountered the term “politically correct” back in graduate school in 1986 when I joined the co-rec softball team put together by grad students in political science at the University of Minnesota. They named the team “politically co-rec” as a pun, and I wasn’t sure what that meant. As I saw efforts to enforce political correctness in action, I became convinced that these were contrary to academic ideals and notions of free speech. In essence it was an attempt to silence particular forms of expression that were defined as being offensive or contrary to certain political norms. It reached deep into academia where one learned particular ways one is refer to people or subjects, and in schools where texts like Huckleberry Finn and others were deemed inappropriate, words that seemed offensive were given the status of the worst swear words (“nigger” became as bad if not worse than “fuck”) and schools started purging their curricula of politically offensive terminology, even to the point of absurdity. If you doubt this, check out the book The Language Police by Diane Ravitch. If you slipped up and talked about a “a blind man” you’d be tut-tutted by some well meaning but misguided soul who seemed to think such language inferior to “a person with a sight disorder” (eyes rolling.)
Anyway, this was mostly from the left at first, and often focused on sub-cultures who took their own situation (dealing with disabled people or those suffering discrimination) and emphasized language over things that would really make a difference (am I letting my disdain for political correctness show here?) Of course, the right quickly adopted similar tactics, though using it to try to silence different kinds of speech. Any criticism of US policy is dismissed by saying “it’s another blame America first” claim, thus attempting to reject any criticism of the United States. Any criticism of the military is “not supporting the troops” and the list goes on. The right and left are co-conspirators now on this attack on freedom of expression. The bombast against Ron Paul is an example.
Note they attack him because of what he said without countering or dealing with his argument. It is an appeal to emotion, an attempt to silence without discussion a tough issue. If you look at his argument, he makes a point that is undeniable: US foreign policy is a causal factor in arousing anti-Americanism and terrorism in the Mideast. If we weren’t over there, supporting various regimes and active in trying to secure oil resources, they wouldn’t care about us. That is obvious. Now he claims our policy is bad. That is cause for debate. I agree with him, but one can clearly make counter arguments. Instead of using this as an opportunity to reflect on US policy and whether a change can really help counter-terrorism, the GOP and Giuliani try to appeal to emotion and nationalism, push aside tough questions, and hold on to a notion of political correctness where you can’t criticize America, you can’t think that our actions are at all responsible for their consequences, and you can’t have a full, open debate on the most important issue of the day. That is political correctness at its worse.
May 22 - Getting Syrious
The reason the US needs a change in policy is evident if you watch the goings on in the Mideast. Syria may or may not be directly behind the violence going on in Lebanon, but given the timing (near the start of a UN tribunal on the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, it certainly is plausible that this is a message from Syria: they can disrupt Lebanese politics any time they want. Meanwhile, American military leaders claim that Iran is suddenly shifting from total support of the Shi’ite Arab government in Iraq to aiding Sunni insurgents and even al qaeda, with the desire of delivering a knock out punch to the United States. This could well be government disinformation, as American sources want to set cover for the failure of the “surge,” a strategy never really with much of a chance of success. But again, it’s plausible – Iran might figure that once the US is going it could dominate and then eliminate al qaeda and put down the Sunnis on its own with Iraqi Shi’ite help. (That strategy has a huge risk of blowback for Iran if it succeeds – which is why I’m still skeptical of the reports).
Given that all of this is plausible, why is it that Iran and Syria can act with such impunity, thumbing their noses at the US and the UN, apparently with little fear of punishment? The answer is that the US is bogged down in Iraq, overstretching its military, dividing its public, and rendering America virtually impotent as a major actor in the Mideast. Quagmire is the right word, if the US tries to leap out and deal with Iran and Syria, the mud of Iraq pulls us back. We’re stuck.
The fact that this war has made Iran ascendant, helped (along with high oil prices) Russia regain some of its world power status, and opened doors for China in the region makes it ever more evident that by invading Iraq the United States set itself up for a major decline in status in the international system. Now is the time to get serious about thinking of a way out of this mess – and there are signs that the White House realizes that the current approach can’t work.
First, the logic of 2003 would say that we should threaten Iran and Syria with regime change, or at the very less a massive bombing of their infrastructure with a risk of military invasion and heavy special operations action to undercut their ability to govern. Yet in 2007 that logic doesn’t hold; Iran has numerous ways to respond to a bombing that could hurt the US immensely in Iraq and elsewhere – Hezbollah could be unleashed, there could be escalation in Iraq, or action affecting world oil trade. That would lead the US to want to escalate as well, but with the public angry about Iraq and even Republicans skeptical about increasing tensions with Iran, this would not get support, and with the military overstretched the US government would be forced to retreat. Syria is smaller and more vulnerable than Iran, but holds Lebanon as a trump card, as well as its ability to do damage to American interests in Iraq. So the logic of 2003 has to be discarded.
That leaves only one option: alter the strategic conditions on the ground to make it in the interests of Syria and Iran to work towards stabilization of the status quo rather than to try to disrupt it. That can only be done by recognizing strategic realities, finding a way to get American military forces out of Iraq (but not without a security plan to replace them), and engage Iran and Syria in dialogue and negotiation about virtually all strategic issues in the region. This is a tough pill to swallow, especially given the past swagger of the Bush administration. Wouldn’t that just be rewarding Syrian and Iranian misbehavior, the cynics will ask? This is world politics, not kindergarten. You deal on the basis of the strategic situation to try to stabilize the system and avoid conflicts detrimental to the national interest. Moreover, the argument can be turned on us – why should the US be rewarded for discarding the world community and launching an offensive war against a weakened state, sending it into a spiral of violence and chaos?
To work, this can’t be appeasement. It can’t be simple withdraw from the region, it can’t neglect issues of Israel and Palestine. There must be verification, and our economic and military strength, while not up to an all out war with these countries, is enough to cause them to prefer a compromise course as opposed to needless confrontation. It’s tough. It’s the only way. Time to get serious.
May 23 - Clarity on Iraq
As the Iraq fiasco continues it becomes ever more clear what is going on and what needs to be done. First, some myths have to be dispelled. Some have a romantic vision that Iraq is part of some grand war between Islam and the West, threatening the basis of our entire civilization. No. Islamic radicals represent a small portion of the population in the Mideast, and would not be capable of truly threatening western civilization. So we have to put aside those who try to escalate this into some monumental struggle, believing the we in the West have lost our spine or are too soft to see the danger. Second, some see Iraq as primarily an American issue – do we stay or do we go? If we go, we leave Iraq to their own devices, which many think is just fine. After all, their radicalism and sectarian violence is contrary to our way of life, and we gave them a chance at democracy. If they want to kill each other why die trying to stop them? Again, no. The reality is that Iraq is strategically important, and we do have a moral imperative to try to avoid spreading instability and chaos.
So what is happening in
1. A variety of groups are struggling for power. These include Shi’ite political parties close to Iran, Iraqi Shi’ite nationalists like Moqtada al Sadr, Sunni Baathists, Sunni Islamists, and specifically al qaeda elements or the so-called “foreign fighters.” In the north the Kurds have consolidated power but still have concerns about particular cities and oil fields which they consider in Kurdish lands (but which Saddam tried to Arab-ize with population movements.)
2. The United States cannot defeat these groups, there is no one group that the US can support that won’t create huge risks (we can’t just ‘pick a winner’ and use them to defeat the other – no group is really that powerful), and the surge at best pushes insurgents and fighters into other regions, or allows them to lay low until they can adapt. They have time on their side.
3. The United States is leaving Iraq. The political reality at home is such that there can be no real escalation, and pressure to leave will continue to mount over time. The US military is overstretched, limiting options if there are other crises. Afghanistan is worsening and there is a much larger connection to terrorism there. The US cannot win militarily, and will leave with considerable chaos still in tact. It’s time for even war supporters to recognize that reality.
Why is Iraq important?
1. It is in a part of the world where Islamic extremism and terrorism are based, and it borders the very strategically important Iran – a regional power with interests currently at odds with those of the US. Iraq is also Shi’ite like Iran, and how Iraq goes will determine the strategic balance of power in the region.
2. Iraq has oil supplies that could even rival those of Saudi Arabia, and this is very important as oil demand and cost increases. Moreover, regional instability is a threat to the global political economy – and a severe economic disruption could lead to famines and increased poverty world wide.
3. Even if al qaeda is forced out, chaos in Iraq creates possibilities for other extremist groups to grow, especially if there remains high unemployment, little hope, and a culture there now used to violence (as was Afghanistan in the early nineties).
What can be done?
1. Embrace reality. The discussion of the war has been mostly political, with people attacking and criticizing the other side, and defending positions held so long that they feel they can’t shift without embarrassing themselves. Reality has to be embraced by all; the current policy can’t work, but we can’t simply wash our hands of the situation. We need to recognize the limits of our power and realize that we are not capable of shaping Iraq to what we want it to be. Iraq is going to be shaped by the Iraqis.
2. Place Iraq in the regional context (as noted in yesterday’s entry). All of the groups involved fighting for power have allies and share interests with other states and groups throughout the region. The states can be dealt with in terms of their national interests, and they have leverage.
3. Develop a multi-lateral counter-terrorism strategy that has bipartisan support at home and has international legitimacy, preferably a UN treaty leading the way. This effort will include Iraq, but as a focus of dealing with terror threats, not trying to shape the political system. As much as many countries oppose US policy now, they do know terrorism is a threat; we need to create partnerships rather than try to control what is done.
4. Develop positive outreach programs to moderate Muslims. This can be modeled after current efforts within Europe and modified to help improve relations in the Mideast.
5. Create a long range energy strategy that reduces the dependence of the world economy on oil from the region, especially as the region may be nearing peak production.
In coming weeks at various times I’ll address each of those components (2 through 5) because I have specific thoughts on how each can work. But this post is meant as a summary to clarify what’s going on in Iraq, why it’s important, and what needs to be done. The sooner the better.
May 25 - Conspiracy Theories
There is a new conspiracy theory making its way around the web that the neo-conservatives in the White House, frustrated by the drift towards realism that President Bush has taken due to pressure from Congressional Republicans and persuasion from realists like Secretary of State Rice and Secretary of Defense Gates, want to find a way to lure the US into a war with Iran. The scenario goes like this: Israel will attack Iranian nuclear sites. Iran will retaliate by unleashing Hezbollah and launching attacks against Americans in Iraq. The US would then be forced to respond and we end up in a war with Iran. The Iranian regime is toppled, Syria subdued or defeated, and without those problem countries involved, the situation in Iraq stabilizes.
I can't really believe this conspiracy theory because as badly as the neo-conservatives messed up in Iraq, I doubt they are really stupid enough to think such a plan would work. Problems:
1. Will Israel really launch a war against Iran simply because some policy makers in Washington want them to? The argument for that says that this already happened in 2006 when Olmert, unprepared for war with Hezbollah, chose to go in because of pressure from the Bush Administration. Moreover, if they thought the US would ultimately aid them against Iran they might see this as their best chance to avoid a nuclear Iran, not trusting the Americans to deal with Iran on their own. However the war with Hezbollah was a disaster, and Olmert knows the risks of starting a conflict with Iran. They also must realize the poor track record of the neo-conservatives to predict outcomes and guarantee American will to fight. What if Iran is subdued in its retaliation and hurts only Israel and does not go after Americans in Iraq? So chances are that the Israelis would not be willing to play this kind of role.
2. The US military is overstretched and a war with Iran would be costly on a number of fronts. Multiple deployments are already the norm, this could necessitate a draft, which would further erode public support for the President. Beyond that, a mix of paying for a larger war and the almost certain higher oil prices such a conflict would bring could literally bring down the American economy. Such a plan is unrealistic.
3. Iran is not tottering on collapse like some wishfully think, and it certainly isn't weak like Saddam's Iraq was in 2003. If anything we've been helping Iran get stronger by destroying Saddam and putting Shi'ites with close ties to Iran in power in Iraq. The idea that the regime would be so easily changed simply is not tenable. Iran also has learned lessons from Iraq, and if attacked they know how to weaken the US. The elections in Iran a few years ago also show that anti-Americanism and nationalism are effective in Iranian politics. As much as many in Iran dislike their government, nothing will unite them more than an attack by Israel and the US. Iraq is a quagmire, but one we can choose to leave. A war with Iran would threaten fundamental American national interests.
The reality is that Syria and Iran have capacities to deter major attacks from Israel, and the US has to know that the situation in Iraq would benefit greatly from an Iran willing to work in the region, with its status as a regional power accepted. The rational course of action is to try to build down tensions rather than provoke another war. Still, we can't rule it out, either the conspiracy theory or a war that escalates from American bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities. If that happens, things could spiral out of control quickly with the US especially vulnerable.
The bad news is that the neo-conservatives, led by Cheney, still have clout and international ties, and could still get the policy they want. The good news is that Secretaries Rice and Gates are both competent realists who certainly understand the situation. Let's hope they are able to handle the internal White House politics as well.
May 29 - Black gold, Texas tea
In Venezuela President Hugo Chavez continues to nationalize the country, clamp down on dissent, and turn his country to what looks awfully like a socialist dictatorship. In Russia President Vladimir Putin threatens the West over missile defense, hints that the threat from America is similar to that faced by Russia in the 1930s (Nazi Germany). Putin also slowly whittles away at dissent and brings a more authoritarian air to Moscow than any time since the fall of the Soviet Union. In Nigeria President Olusegun Obasanjo leaves office with violence flaring in the Niger delta, and his handpicked replacement, Umaru Yar'Adua, assumes power amidst charges of voter fraud and international claims that the election was not credile. Obasanjo was supposed to move Nigeria to a stable democracy that could benefit from its oil resources; instead, corruption and violence remain, as parts of the Niger delta remain impoverished while filling the pockets of the country's elites, and of course outside corporations who buy and sell Nigerian oil (we get 25% of our oil from Nigeria).
When President Bush talks about our addiction to oil, his analogy with drugs is accurate. Not only are we addicts, but the suppliers operate less like responsible governments and more like organized crime syndicates answerable to no one. Chavez and Putin, for instance, are very popular. With oil at $75 a barrel, they're awash in Petrodollars, and thus can do things that convince the public they are benefiting from their country's leadership. Moreover, Putin's tough talk convinces Russians that while the Soviet Union may be dead, Russia is still a power that matters. Add to that geopolitical rivalries in the Caucasus and Russia's proximity to the Middle East, and it's clear Russia is a player. With the US at a low ebb in international prestige and influence, rivals like Russia and China look greedly at the geopolitical scene, while regional powers like Venezuela seek to create an alternative model for their region. For them the dream outcome would be to see the US continue to be enmeshed in this battle against "extreme Islam," so they could continue their geopolitical reshuffling.
And pressure on Nigeria? Nah, with oil so expensive most in the West decide to just pay them what they ask and look the other way as the country continues to be threatened by corruption and internal divisions. After all, this is stuff we're all addicted to, not primarily the poor or minorities. Oil companies zoom to record profits while people worry about possibly declining production just as demand starts to take off exponentially.
This is the new world. This, ultimately, is bigger than what some radical Islamists (who are more fascist than Muslim) fantasize about the Mideast. While Americans dream up fanciful visions of a clash of religions or cultures, the reality is that Islamic extremism has limited appeal, especially if the US were to remove a source of their recruitment: our presence there generating dead bodies and stories (true or not) of atrocities for the Arab news networks. That battle is mostly within the Islamic world about the future of Islam, certainly not any kind of united Islam vs. the West. No, as we deal with fears of Bin Laden attacks and radical terrorism, the changing nature of the oil energy and potential energy crises threaten to fundamentally alter the very nature of world and American politics. And few are paying attention.
Most think "if the price gets high enough, we'll just ease on to alternates." Alas, it isn't that easy. Solar and wind power are expensive at first, with large amounts of energy required to build solar panels or wind turbines. Hydrogen, often touted as an answer, is basically an energy transfer. Oil sands and increased off shore drilling is a drop in the bucket compared to rising demand. The result: leaders like Chavez will become increasingly powerful in Latin America. Russia can use oil to reposition itself, at least for awhile, as a major power influencing Europe and the Mideast. China, needing oil desperately, will work with whoever it takes to get it. America's gambit that if we could make them democracies we'd push towards a democratic and liberal 21st century has failed, and we're left in a position of strategic weakness.
There is no easy way out of this. Recasting foreign policy (I will have more to say about the Iraq post form last week) will help. Fundamentally pushing for a shift to alternate energy sources would be a big help. It's already too little too late, and it looks like there isn't even at these prices the effort needed. Too little too later. Storm clouds are gathering as the 21st century nears the end of its first decade. We thought those clouds were from religious extremists in the Mideast, but it turns out they are just one of many products of our oil addiction, and not the most important. Yet they captured our imagination with the 9-11 attack, and the Iraq war has sucked us into a pre-occupation on Islamic radicals, ignoring the real, structural and fundamental geopolitical changes brought about in large part by our oil dependency.
So now I head home, but I need to stop by the local dealer's and get my next hit. 17 gallons of sweet Venezuelan gasoline from my local Citgo should keep me happy for a week or so. And my much larger than necessary house will need more heating oil...even in summer we need hot water... Like cancer patients puffing on cigarettes we identify the problem and then continue our oil addiction. I can't go cold turkey, but given the situation, I think I have to try to figure out some changes to moderate my use. But it's hard when everyone around is addicted as well. Meanwhile Chavez, Putin, Ahmadinejad, King Abdullah, Nigerian elites, and oil industry executives smile.
May 31 - A Tough Neighborhood
On May 23rd I wrote about clarity emerging concerning what's going on in Iraq and how to get out of this mess. The sense that an end is in sight is evident in David Broder's column today, "Endgame Ahead." One key component of leaving and averting disaster is to gain the cooperation of Iraq's neighbors in maintaining regional security and staving off further sectarian conflict. They may be able to do what the US cannot, given the cultural, religious and historical links in the region. But it won't be easy, Iraq is in a very tough neighborhood.
To the east is Iran, the regional power. The good news is that of all states in the region except Israel, it is the farthest along a road to democracy, holding competitive elections which are not rigged and often yield results the most powerful forces in Iran do not like. However, it's also a state based on religious fundamentalism, with ambitions to get nuclear weapons and become a regional power. Moreover Iran backs groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, which last summer fought a war with Israel and proved it could withstand an Israeli assault. Iran also has a lot of oil, and if it wanted to it could disrupt oil flows from the region. There are rumors of Iranian agents able to, if necessary launch terror attacks in the West, or engage in sophisticated cyberterrorism.
US policy towards Iran has been imaginary -- to envision the Mideast with a friendly stable Iran, and to try to figure out how to get the current regime out of there. That doesn't look likely to happen, and trying to do so by force, or even attempting to take out Iran's nuclear capacity with the hope that this will somehow trigger a change in politics, could have devastating consequences for the West. It's time for the US to accept the reality of Iranian regional power for the time being and work within those constraints. Iran can threaten US interests, but they also know that the US (and Israel) could literally wipe out the regime, and could do tremendous economic damage if it came to war. Both sides can hurt the other side badly; that's a recipe for deterrence. Beyond that, if it's true that wishful thinking for a friendly, democratic Iran is simply fantasy, then ultimately we have to work for stability in the world we have, which means working to de-escalate tensions in the region through negotiation and compromise. Right now the rhetoric is hot and has been for a few years, but that can change.
To the West are Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The US has good relations with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but Syria is another state the US wishes would go away. The Assad regime is dictatorial, supports Hamas and Hezbollah, and seeks to undermine Israeli security. Most foreign fighters supporting the insurgency in Iraq come over from Syria, and there is evidence that Syria covertly supports violence against American forces. Again, so far the policy has been wishful thinking, hoping for regime change. Indeed, the minds that planned the Iraq invasion saw success in Iraq as key to pressuring for and ultimately getting regime change in Iran and Syria. Then with pro-American governments in all three places, the Israeli-Palestinian issue could be solved as support for Palestinian radicals would dry up. Again, this has proven to be fantasy, we have to deal with the world we have.
Syria also has some inherent weaknesses. They are vulnerable to military attacks from the US and Israel, they need outside help for their economy, and they lack the kind of ability to threaten the West possessed by Iran. They have hinted at the chance for dialogue with Israel (a peace settlement will require they get the Golan Heights back). Yet their destabilization of Lebanon and attempt to exert influence and even control over that country has not only made things bad in Lebanon, and created a more potent threat to Israel than Syria could ever muster on its own.
Saudi Arabia is not a military power, and though an American ally, it is also home to a very conservative fundamentalist state lacking basic freedoms, and far more repressive than Iran. Still they have a lot of oil, and their conservatism means they fear and will work against anything that would destabilize the region like a Sunni-Shi'ite war. They fear the rise of Iran, and are angry that the US has handed Iraq to Shi'ites friendly to Iran, and have threatened to aid Sunnis against Shi'ites if the US leaves or is not up to the job. They aren't just doing this to help the Sunnis but they fear that a conflict in Iraq could lead to more Sunni extremism, and radicals like Bin Laden believe the Saudi royal family to be corrupt lackeys of the West. The Saudis have also had reasonably friendly high level talks with the Iranians, who also see a regional conflict as dangerous to their aspirations.
Finally to the north is Turkey. Kurdish Iraq has been stable and even relatively prosperous, but Turkey already has signaled potential conflict should the Kurds try to claim independence -- they fear a Kurdistan in northern Iraq will aid Kurds in Turkey wanting independence and living in areas very important for Turkish water interests. The Kurds have been coy, saying they want a unified Iraq, but in practical terms they have ruled their region as a defacto separate state. Iraq is at best a confederation at this point, as the central government has little authority. There are also Kurdish populations in Syria and Iran which make these countries nervous about Kurdish independence.
These are the players in the regions, the ones whose cooperation with each other and presumably with the United Nations Security Council will be necessary to avoid Iraq plunging into the abyss when we leave. Despite all the negatives, the countries are led by hard nosed pragmatists (Ahmadinejad isn't where the real power is in Iran) who can be dealt with -- but will also play you for the sucker if they can get away with it. The test of American diplomacy is if we can learn to understand the myriad of interests in the region and chart a path to get countries to see it in their self-interest to work to avoid expanding violence in Iraq and the region. I'll deal with that in a future entry, but it's important to have a sense of just how tough and difficult this part of the world is, and with whom we will have to deal.