November 1 - The Gotcha Game
One of the most distressing aspects of modern political discourse is the “gotcha game.” The “gotcha game” is played when instead of having real political debate and discourse you wait for the opponent to make an error – a gaffe, a moment of stupidity – and you jump on it to try to get political advantage. Nothing is served by this tactic; those involved know that anyone in the public eye will say something stupid now and then, but if you can put another person on the defensive, that can yield political benefits.
Both parties do it. When Senator George Allen called some one in the audience a ‘macaca’ it led to a huge hubbub, and charges of racial insensitivity. When Trent Lott made kind comments to former Senator Strom Thurmond, saying the country would have been better off if he had become President, he was vilified and forced to give up his leadership position because Thurmond in 1948 (when he ran for President) had been a segregationist. Of course Lott wasn’t supporting segregation, but in the gotcha game that doesn’t matter.
The most recent victim is Senator John Kerry, who in a failed effort to joke about the failure in Iraq suggested that students better study hard so they don’t end up there – a rather stupid statement and not very funny – he was jumped on for ‘bashing the troops’ and attacking people in the military. Talk radio jocks spent hours on Kerry, bloggers were ripping him, and even the President lowered himself down to the gotcha level (suggesting Republicans are a bit desperate – usually the higher levels try to avoid playing the gotcha game, leaving it to their underlings) in saying Kerry insulted the troops and should apologize.
Kerry, smart enough to realize that in the gotcha game an apology is precisely the wrong thing to do, fired back. He pointed out that he served and was a decorated war hero, that he has been fighting for veterans benefits for decades, and that most of his critics have never served in the military. He admitted it was a ‘botched joke’ but wasn’t about to get caught up in the apology part of the gotcha game. And, as someone who speaks well over a dozen hours a week in class, I know that botched jokes, sometimes ones that come out in a manner that is embarrassing or could be taken as offensive, happen. It’s the reality of humans talking a lot and sometimes not thinking before moving their lips.
So why not apologize? In an ideal world, Kerry could say, “gee, I didn’t mean to insult anyone and I apologize for any offense.” But the gotcha game is perverse in how it plays itself out. Once you apologize, you are admitting that the charge is true, at least in the world of modern American political discourse. The opponents will take the apology and parade it as proof that you meant what you said. Senator Allen, not as adept as Senator Kerry, tried apologizing multiple times, and that only increased the level of damage one stupid retort caused.
So this is American political discourse in the final days of an election campaign. Hours spent playing the gotcha game on John Kerry, while real issues are sidelights. Iraq? Taxes? Policy? Yeah, those are issues, but let’s talk about the latest “gotcha.” And people wonder why Americans are turned off by politics?
November 2 - Victims
Who are the victims of war? When that question is asked one usually thinks of the people killed, especially civilians. I've written a lot in this blog over the years about the impact of war on children (the course I co-taught on "Children and War" in the fall of 2004 was the impetus to start this blog), and as we see civilian deaths mount in Iraq, we have to come to grips with how many lives and families are either being utterly and completely destroyed, or at the very least severely harmed by the on going violence. These are costs of our decision to go to war.
But what about the soldiers? When you look at Haditha, Abu Ghraib, recent revelations about rape and murder, and stories from Iraq about American soldiers who go out of control or kill too quickly out of fear of what might be, it's easy to see the soldiers as the problem. Military people are among the few who have as their job the possibility that they will need to kill, and when civilians die due to bombs falling or trigger happy guards at check points, it is the military personnel who pull the trigger. In Iraq most violence now is not from the military but from Iraqi militias, but even then the military is blamed for not keeping security -- we unleashed the events that led to this violence, yet we are unable to contain it. In a perverse turn, some even blame the Iraqis for a situation that we bear responsibility for creating.
I would argue that the soldiers, however, are actually victims themselves. Young men and women, many still in their teens, having been taught the myth that the military's main job is to defend freedom and protect the country, are sent to fight a war of aggression based on a kind of imperialist plan to shape the politics of the Mideast. They are suddenly thrown into a situation in Iraq which does nothing to defend our freedom. It isn't protecting the US -- if anything it is expanding the threats against our country by giving the jihadists ammo for recruitment. Moreover, they aren't doing what they were trained for, they aren't fighting a war. The actual war was won, they are trying to stabilize the aftermath, on a mission with no chance of success. They aren't given enough troops to provide any semblance of security, and instead end up putting out fires and securing areas which will become insecure as soon as they leave.
They are told they are there to help the Iraqis build democracy, but the Iraqis don't want that help, and are increasingly antagonistic to American troops. Not only are our soldiers unwanted by the Iraqi public, but they can't know if an innocent looking civilian might not actually be an insurgent ready to lay an IED or a sniper. As their friends are injured or killed, with no real end or success in sight, what kind of stress does that put on a teenager who came with idealistic views of military service? When a 19 year old shoots at a car at a check point out of fear, and then sees it was a normal family, he may not be punished, but what impact will that have ten, twenty or even forty years from now?
What about those who snap most egregiously, who murder and then lie and cover up, or who rape? What about the perpetrators of Haditha or Abu Ghraib? While there is individual responsibility, and especially the Abu Ghraib abuse is more than just 'cracking' and going out of control, many of these cases are really examples of how soldiers themselves are indeed victims of war. These soldiers are responding to conditions of immense stress and fear; those of us who have never experienced such a thing can only imagine what it might be like. I've read accounts from many wars by people who have committed war crimes, and it's clear that these are often otherwise decent people who simply lose sight of their moral core in the inhumanity of warfare.
In the US there will be tens of thousands combat veterans from Iraq, many of whom will have witnessed or experienced deep psychological stress. These are victims, and even those soldiers who perpetrate real crimes on civilians are also victims, young people put in a situation where their youthful emotions and inexperienced minds sometimes can't handle the immense stress, fear, and anger of a context where death and violence are everywhere. They don't need to be there. They could be at home with friends and family, building a career, and contributing to their community. Instead they were plucked away and sent on a mission that was not only misguided, but which is stubbornly continued even when just about everyone realizes that it's failed. What is particularly perverse is when the leaders condemn those who cracked and went out of control as 'bad apples,' washing their hands of their choices that put people in a situation where that became possible. Yet the leaders who did this will write memoirs and continue on in their political careers. The soldiers, most likely, will be forgotten. That's how it always happens.
November 6 - Politics and me
There was a time in my life I'd be eating up the political season, involved in campaigns and watching the news and polls with a sense of excitement and hope. That is mostly gone, though I still read through the polls and some articles. Today I'm going to do another one of my 'personal' blog entries -- who I am politically, and how I got here. My political views have shifted a lot during my life.
At 12 years old I was canvassing door to door for Richard Nixon's campaign, wore a huge 'Carv Thomas for governor' pin, and hung out with my friends at the South Dakota state Republican headquarters. The fact Nixon beat our Senator in our state (George McGovern) was something I thought cool (I remember when the projection was made, Sammy Davis Jr., a black Republican, was being interviewed on TV and said something like 'We got South Dakota!'). Like most at that time I didn't like the Vietnam war and was affected by the songs and culture, but the war was a Democrat war, I reasoned, and Nixon was trying to end it. Then in 1974 I remained active, this time trying to help Leo Thorsness beat McGovern, and at age 16 I drove voters to the polling booth in my 1963 Chevy Bel Aire for the Ford campaign. I recall one blind man who didn't want the poll workers to go in and help him vote, but wanted me to since he thought he could trust me more -- he was voting straight ticket Republican and against every ballot initiative "things are fine the way they are, so it's no to every change," he told me. That night at the Holiday Inn "Victory Party," I remember at 2:00 AM some of the young volunteers weeping when Carter won. I was disappointed, but not crying!
In 1980 I was in Detroit with a "Youth for Reagan," group at the GOP national convention. That was fun. I discovered Stroh's beer, met a lot of political leaders, and even chatted briefly with Ted Koppel. I had been a Bush supporter, being at that time a pro-choice pro-ERA Republican, but ever since I heard Reagan campaign against Ford in 1976 I was inspired by him. I was thrilled to be there as he gave his acceptance speech (as well as pre-acceptance speech the night before, as rumors flew he might name Ford as his running mate), on the floor next to the podium holding signs. Security checked my badge, and found out that I, like many, didn't have floor clearance, but they didn't stop me, and I even had a beer (along with a few other students there) on the convention floor with Senator Charles Percy.
Yet 1980 was also the start of a political transition for me. During the campaign I worked for Jim Abdnor against George McGovern. Abdnor was a friend of my college roommate's family, and my roommate was very involved. Once in Yankton I had an accident with his rented car and stayed (along with some others) in the same hotel room as the future Senator. Yet...as the campaign continued, I volunteered less. This bugged my friend, who thought I was lazy, but I starting to have political doubts. I skipped helping the get out the vote drive on election day (I was working 30 hours a week while taking a full load of college classes, which I used as an excuse), and then stood in front of the voting machine for what seemed like five minutes, but was probably 45 seconds. I voted for McGovern, not Abdnor. McGovern lost, but I realized that my hard core Republican stance, which got me to be State Secretary for the South Dakota College Republicans was in doubt.
After spending a year in Italy and getting my MA, I worked for Senator Larry Pressler, a Republican of South Dakota, in Washington DC. It was a great job -- being on the floor of the Senate, traveling with the Senator to Greece and Turkey once (taking notes, pictures, and keeping track of all conversations and who the Senator met -- I even met then Greek Prime Minister Papandreou and shook his hand), and feeling in the center of everything. But I had changed. My year in Europe and graduate studies had pushed me to the left. I especially didn't feel at home with the new social conservatism of the GOP; this was the era of Falwell and the "moral majority." I ultimately quit that job and went back to the Midwest, getting an assistant manager's job at a Rocky Rococo's pizza. My dad thought I was crazy, but I needed to get out of politics, and stop working for someone I increasingly did not support politically. Pressler had been a liberal Republican in the 70s, but had moved far to the right in response to the Reagan revolution.
At some level my experience in DC convinced me of two things: a) neither party is better than the other in terms of honesty, people, or principle; and b) extreme partisanship and personal attacks are harmful to our ability to solve problems or to strengthen our democratic republic. I am not a conservative, but I grew up as a Republican and understand the GOP and thus do not share the kind of dislike for the right that define so many people on the left. I don't share the left's faith in centralization and bureaucratization, and tend to be more of a fiscal conservative -- at the very least we should be willing to pay the tax level of whatever we choose to spend. I've become exceedingly anti-militarist and skeptical of the foreign policies of each political party; I'm probably more in line with groups like the American libertarian party in that regard (though I disagree with their complete faith in markets). Perhaps at base I'm kind of anarchist in principle, which, tempered with pragmatism leads me to a kind of left-libertarianism, a desire to maximize individual liberty while distrusting centralized power -- both in markets and in governments.
Perhaps the one thing in my political life that stands out is that I constantly am finding my political positions change. My core values don't, but as I learn more about how the world works, I realize that some of what I thought would make sense politically really doesn't work. And I'm proud of that -- I never settle on thinking I know what the best approach will be, and I try to listen to all sides, respecting people individually even while disagreeing with them politically. That makes it hard for me to adopt the partisan mindset that motivated me in the past -- either for the GOP as a youth, or the Democrats in the early 90's.
But with two young sons, the current tendency towards militarism and the way war in the Mideast could breed further conflicts, worries me. Ten years ago I thought it impossible to consider the draft being reinstated; now I have to start to prepare to be able to have my sons claim conscientious objector status should it return. If we had a military like that of, say, Switzerland, focused on national defense and limited engagement in peace keeping operations, I wouldn't worry. If we had a military like that of, say, Germany or Canada, engaged in dangerous missions, but with a purpose of fulfilling international law and aspiring to a larger moral purpose, it wouldn't bother me. But both political parties have been too willing to play the role of modern Rome, and that is very dangerous.
So that's where I stand politically; not at home with core of each political party, but am deeply concerned about foreign policy issues and opposed to both social conservatives and bureaucratic liberals. And, at base, I think we need to elect people who will critically and honestly assess the situation in Iraq, and who can work together across the aisle in DC to solve problems facing this country -- the personal attacks and 30 second ad spots to make important political decisions is discomforting given the issues we face.
November 7 - Lessons in Bias
Vanity Fair has published a kind of what they call "neo-culpa" from some of the top neo-conservatives. People like Richard Perle, Kenneth Adelman and David Frumm all admit that things have gone bad in Iraq, very much contrary to what they expected. Yet, rather than accept that they were wrong, they simply say that the Bush administration has been incompetent. Like the football coach who, after a huge defeat, says 'the game plan was good, but the execution was bad,' they don't want to confront the possibility that perhaps their world view is off; perhaps they have a false understanding of the way reality works. That would be a tough pill to swallow; instead, it's easier to protect ones' biases and find excuses. I'll get back to that bias in a moment.
There are other sets of biases out there, and unlike Iraq, where the complexity and uncertainty allow for a multitude of different interpretations of the situation to co-exist for a long time, these will be determined tonight. Pundits have been talking about today's midterm election for weeks, but as we near there are two different kinds of predictions being made. On the right, conservative bloggers and pundits tout a late GOP surge, claiming that it's likely that the much predicted Democratic victory in the House will fall short. And, rather than lose four to six Senate seats, the GOP will lose at most two or three.
They defend their predictions with a multitude of methods -- statistical analyses, comparison of different polling companies and their past reliability, models that look at historical trends, and finally money spent on the campaign. Some claim that polls are biased because those upset about the situation are less likely to hang up on pollsters, or that the media is the one biased, too quick to believe predictions of Democratic victory.
On the left, there are many who predict a massive wave -- I've seen a prediction of eight Senate seat pick ups (which would mean the Democrats basically running the table and picking up Arizona to boot) and nearly 50 House seats. Most don't go that far, but generally seem optimistic about winning the six Senate seats necessary for control, and somewhere around 30 to 35 house seats (they need 15). They point to consistent polling that shows Democrats in the lead in a variety of races, the fact that almost all contested House seats are held by Republicans, and the low approval ratings for President Bush and his failed Iraq policy. They note that in close elections undecided voters usually ultimately pick the challenger, and that the sour mood of the country could mean that 80% or more of the close races will go to the Democrats.
In between the conventional "establishment" wisdom is Democrats pick up 20 to 30 seats, while falling just short of gaining the six necessary to win the Senate.
So who is right? We'll find out in hours. Yet the point is that there is bias in each interpretation. The GOP and the right want to interpret data in a manner that suggests they'll hold on to power; they read the data in a manner that leads to that conclusion. The Democrats yearn for a wave that discredits Administration and GOP policy; they also read the data in a way that leads to their preferred conclusion. Meanwhile the establishment conventional wisdom, probably the most objective, wants to believe polls are accurate and methodology correct. No matter which group is shown to be accurate, their read will have still been biased. The question isn't "which interpretation is accurate," but "which bias leads to the right interpretation in his particular election." Because, to be blunt, we don't and we can't know at this point. The races are almost all within the margin of error in most polls, so even while Democrats seem to be leading, turnout and last minute deciders will determine the result. At least we know that those whose bias leads to a demonstrably wrong conclusion will be forced to eat crow on November 8th; we'll have the proof.
Alas, in Iraq it will always be possible for people to avoid admitting they were wrong by simply attacking the President's policies in Iraq, or saying that Secretary Rumsfeld screwed up. That way they can avoid confronting the fact that their view of reality is not only biased (because every view of reality is biased), but that there is strong reason to reject their interpretation. For them it would be a rejection not only of a long held world view, but would require an admission that on this emotional issue of life and death, they were wrong and their critics correct. Poor President Bush gets bashed from both sides, the anti-war Left, and the neo-con turncoats. Still, there is a lesson here: true intelligence requires one to be able to critique ones' own views, no matter how deeply they are held. True intelligence requires intellectual honesty and vigor. That isn't easy; most of us fall into the trap of the neo-conservatives who want to simply engage in criticism of tactics while not questioning the propriety of the strategy. At least with the election there is a moment of clarity when it's at least clear which biases were obviously wrong. So let's enjoy that, and see how the wrong side -- be they left or right -- reacts.
November 8 - What the Democrats must do
The Democrats are coming to power in the House, and perhaps the Senate, for the first time in over a decade. In two years there will be another national election, with both Congress and the Presidency at stake. Two questions emerge: can the Democrats hold on to their legislative majority (or majorities, if they win the Senate), and if so, how?
The GOP, of course, just assumes that the Democrats can't govern. They've bought their own rhetoric on Speaker to be Pelosi and the supposedly lack of Democratic ideas; they hope that a charismatic 2008 Presidential candidate will sweep the Republicans back into power. Some on the far left want pay back -- an all out partisan assault on President Bush in order to punish the Republicans for their alleged misdeeds. I think, however, the partisans on both sides have it wrong.
The Democratic party is more centrist than before, and Pelosi, while liberal in representing her liberal district, has been a disciplined, pragmatic consensus builder as Minority Leader. In short, she's not at all been the kind of figure the Republicans have been portraying her as. She does have a taste for power, but a taste for power tempers partisanship and promotes pragmatism. She and other party leaders know that their patient, centrist strategy has yielded them an historic opportunity, and they had better not blow it. Here's how they can set themselves up for a sustained majority:
1. If there is a fight with the President, let him pick the fight and be seen as the obstinate one. President Clinton benefited when the GOP was blamed for shutting down government in 1995 -- when they overplayed their hand after their 1994 victory. The public doesn't want partisan jihads, and will punish which ever side is seen as causing one. The Democrats have to make sure that they are not seen as going on the warpath against the President, but instead that they are seen arguing for pragmatic bi-partisan solutions.
2. Don't pass anything that won't be popular amongst independents and will be vetoed anyway. In other words, be fiscal conservatives. President Bush has the veto pen. It makes no sense to pass liberal spending measures which Bush can veto. Not only won't the measure become policy, but it will give the Republicans ammo in the next election. In fact, if there is any lesson in the results, besides the fact that the public now realizes Iraq was a tremendous mistake, Americans are in general fiscal conservatives. Now many liberals reading this will protest that the Democrats can't be Republican light! But politics is the art of the possible, and there will be no major liberal programs emerging from this Congress as long as the President is ready to finally prove his credentials as a fiscal conservative with his veto power.
3. Make progress on changing course (i.e., leaving) Iraq bi-partisan, working with the myriad of Republicans now calling for a change of course in Iraq. The upcoming bi-partisan Baker report might be a perfect opportunity for that. On investigations of the executive branch, work as much as possible with Republicans. They aren't beholden to a lame duck President, and do want to be seen as doing their job. Make it legislative oversight and not partisan oversight.
Of course, events in Iraq, in the economy, and in the upcoming Presidential race will do a lot to shape what ultimately happens in 2008. But right now the Democrats have to feel good about being in power in at least one house of Congress -- and maybe two -- and their chances of holding power in 2008 are good if they maintain a pragmatic, disciplined approach to governance.
November 9 - A day that will live in both infamy and fame
On November 9, 1938 the Nazis went on a rampage against Jews in Germany. They attacked Jewish shops, beat people up, and engaged in a night of mass violence called Kristallnacht due to all the breaking of glass. Nearly 1700 synagogues were burnt down, 30,000 Jews were taken to concentration camps, and many look at this day as the start of what would evolve to become the holocaust.
Compare that to the optimism of November 9, 1918 when Philip Scheidemann declared a Republic from the Reichstag as World War I was ending. The Kaiser had not yet officially abdicated, but would be pressured into doing so -- he just couldn't believe they were actually going to lose the war! Finally Germany would have a Republic rather than an imperial government; finally people would have liberty.
Yet after an attempted Communist revolution and political and economic turmoil, on November 9, 1923 Adolf Hitler stormed onto the scene by trying to inspire a Putsch or coup d'etat against the Weimar Republic. He stood up in a beer hall in Munich and called for the faithful to march to take over the Bavarian government. The idea was that the masses, who generally opposed the Republic and how it was governed, would join this rebellion and start an uprising that could not be put down by the Bavarian police. But the mass uprising did not occur, and Hitler was nearly killed as a bullet killed the man next to him, whose fall dislocated Hitler's shoulder. Hitler had been a genuinely brave soldier in WWI, and was in a hospital temporarily blinded from a British chemical weapons attack when he heard the news of Germany's defeat. Angry and bitter, he vowed that his life goal would be to avenge the defeat, and he would go into politics. His failure in 1923 was, unfortunately, not enough to end his career. He could have been hung for treason, instead he served a brief sentence and emerged a hero to many.
Then on November 9, 1989 the world changed as the Berlin wall became irrelevant, as East Germany, due to an unintended series of errors, allowed East Berliners to go to the western side of the city, dance on the wall, and start a process that would lead within two months to the total collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and ultimately the demise of the Soviet Union. The fact that this was led by the people and not by political leaders is a testament to the power of the people to fight injustice if they decide to simply refuse to go along with business as usual.
Can the accomplishments of November 9, 1989 overcome the shame of November 9, 1938? No. Each stands as an important event on its own. But today should be celebrated not just as the start of the end of the communist reign as a day symbolizing the power people have to change their world if they decide that they don't need to simply go along with conditions that are repressive and unfair, and instead demand change. People do have the power, even if they usually don't use it.
November 10 - The best days are ahead?
Ivo Daalder wrote:
"Ever since the Cold War ended, the United States and Europe have slowly drifted apart, like the couple that has stayed married for all these years, continues to live together, but now communicates less and less as each partner goes his and her own way. But the long drift has become unsustainable. Either relations will end in divorce or they will confront a crisis so severe that leaders on both sides of the Atlantic will have to take steps to update and renew the partnership. Which of these outcomes will come to pass will depend to a significant extent on the policy and preferences of the dominant player in the relationship." (Daalder, "The End of Atlanticism," in Beyond Paradise and Power, edited by Tod Lindberg).
I submit that the Atlantic alliance, having weathered a really rough patch from 2002 to 2004, is poised to not only save the partnership, but develop a closer relationship than ever before. In part this is due to the nature of the environment. Globalization, terrorism, economic links, and Islamic extremism create a set of issues that can only be solved through cooperation. Despite President Bush's opposition to Kyoto, global warming and environmental issues will also force more cooperation in coming years. In part this is also due to a new recognition in the United States that what Daalder in that same article called the "hegemonist" position doesn't work. The US doesn't really have the kind of "unipolar" power to be a global hegemon; we have to work with others.
Like any relationship that went to the brink and then recovered, progress will be slow. Already, though intense collaboration between intelligence services is real, as is cooperation between foreign ministries and the State Department. Also, the fact Donald "Old Europe vs. new Europe" Rumsfeld is leaving sends a clear signal. It's not just that he's going, but that he's being replaced by Robert Gates, yet another one of President Bush the Elder's advisors. The advisors of Bush's father have been opposed to and often aghast at the policies of Bush the Younger. Jim Baker (who served in the administrations of both Reagan and the elder Bush) heads the bipartisan commission on Iraq that is poised to provide the exit strategy very shortly. They won't use those words, but it's clear that victory will be defined as a successful withdrawal, leaving it to Iraq to determine its own future.
Remember, it was Bush the Elder who coined the term "new world order," and envisioned a post-Cold War world where cooperative institutions and international law replace power politics and militarism. This is in line with the kind of perspective shared by the Europeans (who still like Bush the Elder), and Bush's new team leans that direction rather than the militarist neo-conservative direction. Simply: reality has forced Bush to replace the swagger with some humility. Frankly, that role fits him. Bush often seems petty and arrogant when he swaggers, when he shows humility he has the capacity to exude grace and humor.
The Europeans have tasted life outside the relationship, and they realize it's not fun. The US either tries to split the Europeans (such as in building the 'coalition of the willing,'), punish them, or ignore their interests. The US is strong enough politically and economically that the Europeans would far prefer to have the US in their corner. And, while they may all not admit it, many prefer the idea of playing a supporting role to the US on the big issues of nuclear proliferation and enforcing international law.
If the Iraq war was a crisis that threatened the relationship, the two sides are now making up and rediscovering why they were together in the first place. I frankly was not that much of an Atlanticist in the Cold War, I thought NATO was likely to fall apart in the early eighties over the vastly divergent views on the Soviet Union and Reaganism. I believed after the Cold War that the NATO alliance really was unnecessary in a post-Cold War world. But in retrospect I was wrong. The alliance really is held together by common value and similar interests. In a time of globalization, it offers the framework for promotion of human rights and pragmatic problem solving.
America's Unipolar moment, and Europe's Neo-Gaullist moment, both appear to be fading.
November 13 - Not that I'm placing bets this would happen, but...
George W. Bush could do something unthinkable: he could end up having his last two years of his Presidency be his best, and he might even be able to only save his Administration's reputation, but leave with the prospect of a positive legacy.
Whoa! Anyone reading that might think I've been sniffing highlighters. Clinton with the Lewinsky scandal, Reagan with Iran-Contra, and Nixon with Watergate -- the end of a two termer's Presidency hasn't gone well since Ike, and he wasn't exactly stellar in his final two years either. Add to that the fact that for the first time Bush faces a hostile Congress with oversight powers, and that the reality in Iraq is not going to change, how on earth could Bush hope for anything positive?
Here's how he does it: 1) Build a bi-partisan path out of Iraq that includes a diplomatic opening to Syria and Iran (something I blogged in favor of long before I saw it from the punditry), which supposedly the Baker plan and the new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates supports; 2) work out a bipartisan deal on immigration early to allow the conservative base to get over their anger by 2008 but nonetheless put this issue aside for awhile -- most Democrats like the basics of Bush's plan anyway; 3) make a deal with the Democratic Congress that he will work with them on pragmatic problem solving in exchange for a limitation of Congressional investigations; and 4) emphasize the ideas he came to Washington with concerning 'changing the tone' in Washington and 'uniting rather than dividing.
The problem with this kind of approach is that the Republicans would have the most to lose. Not Bush personally -- he'd be working to save his legacy -- but if Bush and the Democrats are able to forge a pragmatic partnership that would allow the Democrats to go into 2008 with a track record that includes significant policy progress and excludes the kind of extremism that the Republicans were warning the Democrats would emphasize. A bi-partisan path out of Iraq would give Bush 'peace with honor' -- Bush would morph from Johnson to Nixon, thereby avoiding the kind of stigma LBJ will never live down. At the same time it would give the Democrats more credibility on security issues -- they obviously would be no more 'cut and run' than the President.
So let's say that the President reads this blog entry and says, "you know, that guy from up in rural Maine has a good idea." What then? Obviously, it takes cooperation from Congressional Democrats and avoiding a revolt within the GOP. I argued last week that the Democrats need to embrace moderation and pragmatism. Otherwise they could lose a real opportunity to shift the political landscape. Even the most anti-war Democrats need to recognize that a feasible path out is going to involve actions in Iraq they would otherwise oppose. I'm as anti-Iraq war as they come, but politics is the art of the possible; the Democrats need to recognize that. They may be tempted to investigate (and certainly they should exercise oversight), but Bush is a lame duck, wounding him brings limited political gain at a high potential cost if it is seen as just political payback.
The GOP position is more difficult. Many conservatives will certainly believe a moderate, pragmatic Bush is betraying conservative values. They would prefer Bush fight and veto to the end. But that likely would only play into Democratic hands for 2008 and be putting the political game ahead of policy results. The GOP needs to, like the Democrats, position themselves for a centrist message. After all, no Republican candidate wants to be burdened with Iraq in 2008. Moreover, if the final two Bush years are deemed successful, the GOP can play it to their advantage. Taking immigration out via a compromise bill along the lines of the plan rejected this year would get many conservatives howling -- but by 2008 it would be a non-issue. That is important for the GOP because immigration divides the party fundamentally, and to the extent it becomes a 'big issue,' the Republicans have problems.
Most important is that the country would win if the leaders of both parties were to recognize that now is the time to work together to deal with some severe problems facing the country. I won't get my way on many policies if they do -- compromise by definition means few actually get their way, that's the nature of our style of democracy. But its what we need now -- President Bush should, at long last, become a united rather than a divider, should work to change the tone in Washington, and Democrats should join.
November 14 - The limits of materialism
One of the first responses to the rise of science in the 17th centruy -- Francis Bacon described the scientific method in 1609, Kepler worked out Brahe's data to develop the laws of planetary motion starting around the same time, and Galileo started looking at the heavens with his new telescope in 1610, leading to his famous confrontation with the church -- was a resurgence of skepticism and the rise of fideism.
One thing science and the reformation did was re-open the question of what determines truth. Earlier the Church would make final determination (they had authority) and the system of Aristotelian scholasticism emphasized the authority of the Greeks and wisdom that has 'stood the test of time.' You worked from already known truths and deduced knowledge, you didn't question the basics. By the 17th century, all that was under attack.
Skepticism was a threat to all knowledge. It asked the simple question: what is your criteria for truth? How do you know a proposition is true? How do you know your criteria is accurate? At base, this has no solution if you allow yourself to doubt the senses and question experience. Fideism, made famous by Blaise Pascal and Pierre Bayle, had a religious answer to skepticism: the limits of reason show the necessity of faith. While I am not a fideist, there is something compelling about their thought.
First, it was refreshingly honest. Pascal, who was a brilliant scientist who even developed a binary computing code to help his father's accounting work (hence the computer language named for him), quit science and devoted himself to faith before dying at the young age of 39. Pierre Bayle likewise had a very honest spirituality, converting from Protestantism to Catholicism and then back, seeking the right belief. Bayle and Pascal mixed their desire to understand the true nature of the spiritual world with genius and realized that reason and science were not a path to religious enlightenment. In essence, they discovered that the skeptics were right, at least as regards religious truth. There was no way to prove the existence of God, or even understand theological and religious truth. Each used the power of reason to attack reason, and each critique was brilliant.
Pascal's Pensees (thoughts) has an incisive look at humanity. People do great things, but are capable of unbelievable brutality. When I think about the violence in the world, and atrocities like Rwanda, Cambodia and the like, I feel personally a deep sense of pain and sorrow that people have to endure such conditions -- people much like me, but for the accident of birth. I can imagine Pascal having such feelings, and trying to reconcile them with a rational explanation for God. How can one? Pascal noted how people are very unhappy, always seeking diversion -- gambling, entertainment, material endeavors -- all to avoid, he argued, the need to be alone with ones' thoughts, and really reflect on existence and the self. The human condition is absurd. He notes that a river can divide people, with people on side being considered good and honorable, but that it is OK and even admirable to kill people on the other side. War makes no sense. The quest for happiness in transcient things makes no sense. Pascal was too honest to allow distractions or rationalizations to get in the way. Most people, he noted, simply use reason to rationalize that which they want to believe. Reason can do that, look at how people all over the world not only hold vastly different views, but use reason and logic to justify those differences. People aren't seeking truth, they simply figuring out how to defend what they believe anyway.
I won't go into Bayle's work, but like Pascal he had a riveting and devastatingly honest reflection on the nature of knowledge and the human condition. For each faith in God was the only way to allow God to open ones' heart to the beauty of a world seemingly so absurd. Given the honesty of their work, I have no doubt that their faith really created a sense of wholeness and indeed happiness for them. I profess to having a similar kind of faith, though I don't tie it to a particular conception of God or a particular religion.
I think, as we go into the Christmas season, the truth that Pascal and Bayle glimpsed was that the material world has real limits if we try to derive happiness and meaning from it alone. It provides none. Nature provides no truths about ethics or morals because materialism alone gives only cause and effect, not moral judgments. The world itself could go out of existence -- would the sun going nova and killing billions of people be an immoral act by the sun? Is war simply a natural way to limit population growth, or acts of mass murder? Our ethical beliefs are flimsy, built upon bias and whim, dressed up in fancy philosophical garb that usually can convince an individual and a few like minded people, but are rejected by those who have other core beliefs and assumptions.
Fideism recognizes something skepticism does not. Fideism recognizes that just because reason doesn't give an answer, that doesn't mean that an answer doesn't exist or that it's unavailable. It only means that the path of reason and materialism doesn't provide the answer key. While Pascal and Bayle took the Christian route, and many other people, perhaps intuitively recognizing the limits of reason, choose various religious beliefs, I think an underlying idea can unite all of these approaches. Sentiment -- emotion, empathy, understanding -- can be a transcendent discovery of truth as an experience. For Plotinus it was union with the divine mind, for Plato it was leaving the cave and seeing true forms. Seeing is a visionary experience, not a calculation -- you see it and know it is true, you don't work it out.
This is getting long so I'll leave with a thought. The history of the western world has been especially bloody. We've committed genocides, conquered the planet, destroyed the political and social structures of much of the world through colonization, developed ideologies like Communism which rationalize mass murder for some ideal good. We've had world wars, developed unbelievably powerful weapons, and have severely damaged the planet's ecology. We have driven numerous species into extinction, and yet our material wealth hasn't brought happiness to everyone (indeed levels of stress and anxiety are high, as are things like road rage and anger), and hasn't created an understanding of the meaning of life. Could it be that we have neglected exploration of the heart because we are so focused on thinking all answers must come from the mind?
November 17 - Why?
Last night my 3 1/2 year old son and I were paging through Time magazine. He had seen a picture of Lighting McQueen from the Cars movie, and after staring at that for about ten minutes (irritated by the fact I tend to call the car Butterfly McQueen -- I have no idea where I got that from), he started paging through the rest of the magazine. We came upon pictures from a war zone in Africa, and he asked, "Daddy, what's wrong with that little boy." The pictures were intense. How to respond? "He's sick," I finally aid.
I thought a minute -- how to explain this to a 3 year old? "They don't have enough food." That struck Ryan as odd, "Why not, daddy?" I knew I was now in an endless "why" cycle -- any answer would yield a why, any explanation would be insufficient. "Because not everyone has all the good stuff we have, we should be really happy that we don't have those problems, " I answered, quickly adding, "Let's find the picture of the spooky ladder" (an advertisement for the Discovery Channel he'd also found.) "OK," he replied excitedly as he started turning the pages.
But the question lingers in my mind. Why? Naturally I can list off theories of modernization, dependency, neo-colonialism, world systems, etc., that all attempt to explain the situation in academic terms. But for me personally the question goes a level deeper, it challenges my entire philosophical outlook on life.
I am, at my core, an optimist. That is a fundamental aspect of my personality, I have an essentially positive outlook on life and my experience. Philosophically I'm an idealist, close to the thinking of people like Berkeley, though in place of his piety I have a more general (but deep) belief in a spiritual side of existence. In fact, my optimism and positive approach to life is probably linked to that sense of spirit in a manner that goes beyond rational calculus but is, for whatever reason, a part of me. Yet with such a view it's easy to give way to fatalism, to believe that whatever happens, happens for the best.
On November 1, 1755 an earthquake hit Lisbon. This profoundly affected the French philosopher Voltaire, who visited Lisbon and saw the sight of breast feeding babies crushed along with their mothers, and tens of thousands killed. Voltaire was a Deist, and Deism at that point was fundamentally optimistic: God's nature was perfect; this was, as Leibniz claimed, the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire's poem about the Lisbon earthquake paints a different picture: God created the world, but there is not a wit's evidence he cares about us any more than the King of Egypt might care about a rat dying in one of his ships. God does not need our love or attention, people who are suffering do.
Jean Jacques Rousseau fired back a public letter chastising Voltaire for his alleged arrogance at doubting God's work. When something like this happens, Rousseau argued, we need to learn from it and understand the message nature is sending. In this case, Rousseau claimed, the message was that cities were unnatural, and it was the human construction of cities which was to blame for such disasters. This horrified Voltaire who went on to write his greatest work: Candide.
Candide is a student of Pangloss, who takes the optimistic, Leibnizian view. Whenever they confront disaster, Pangloss rationalizes why it's actually for the good. When a man is shoved into the water during the Lisbon earthquake Pangloss tells Candide not to bother saving him -- if God wants him to live, he will live, if not, then it's for the best. In other words, philosophical optimism led to fatalism, a retreat into abstract theory and theology, and neglect of human affairs. Candide ultimately rejects this, noting at the end, after Pangloss rationalizes all the evil they'd witnessed that we should "cultivate our own garden." We need to take care of the suffering and problems that face humanity. With that Voltaire and western philosophy in general turn towards dealing with the problems and conditions of the world in which we find ourselves, rather than worrying so much about the nature of God or abstract concepts of virtue and 'the good.'
So I have to reflect. Is my optimism and idealism leading me to embrace the kind of world view of Pangloss, teaching about the human condition but not truly focusing on what can be done? I think at one point in my life it did, but especially over the past few years -- perhaps because of having children, perhaps due to things like co-teaching a course on children and war -- I'm not letting myself retreat into a kind of naive philosophical optimism.
My fundamental optimism comes in part from a deep belief in the unity of existence. Consider the metaphor of a body: if my feet were bloody and bruised, would I say, "well, the feet are way down on the ground, I'll focus on the parts of my body which function well"? If my mouth was overcome with hideous cold sores, would I say, "that's sad, but my eyes and ears work, and I can run well, so I'll focus there"? Of course not! I'd take care of my body. Similarly, when there are people starving and dying in other parts of the world, I cannot say "well, that's interesting, let's analyze this, but it's not really relevant to me." It is relevant to me; at some level it's a part of me. What to do about all this is a more difficult question, which will be the subject of a future blog.
But Voltaire's idea that we must "cultivate our own garden" and focus on staving off suffering and tending to the human condition not only makes sense, but is compatible with philosophical optimism. Indeed, optimism can help one not give way to despair and cynicism when efforts to improve things don't yield quick or visible results. I'm still not sure how I'll answer the "why" questions as my children grow up, but somehow I'll try to instill in them a sense of optimism and duty; to trust that the world is good, but with the knowledge that it is the duty of each human to try to improve and take seriously the human condition -- the experiences of others as well as the self.
November 20 - End of the party?
In my first year seminar Syriana, we delve into themes from the film, using the movie as a take off to study terrorism, the CIA/covert operations, Mideast politics, American foreign policy and the oil industry. In so doing we analyze the film, and students learn to take what at first seemed like a disjointed fast paced complex movie they couldn't understand and see it as a provocative and thought promoting look at current issues.
As we near the end of the semester the final issue we delve into is the oil industry, and in particular peak oil theory. Students are reading Twilight in the Desert by Matthew Simmons, and we are assessing some of the claims of the theory. And, while there are also criticisms of the theory, which we also cover, there is powerful evidence backing up the idea that the age of oil and cheap energy is nearing an end, and the world will never be the same.
The most dramatic predictions see oil cruising into the hundreds of dollars a barrel range as massive price increases will be necessary to bring demand to the supply level as oil supplies fall. That will devastate every industry from agriculture to manufacturing, air travel will be exceedingly expensive (only for the very rich), and we could fall into a series of resource wars, famines and shortages. One source believes we are going to enter a post-industrial stone age. Others note that the attack of Iraq and the claims from the White House (with the President and VP both very close to the oil industry) that we're facing a threat to our civilization -- something absurd if Islamic extremism was the main foe, and an Iranian nuke the main danger -- make much more sense if viewed in the context of peak oil theory.
So what is argued? Basically that oil, as a non-renewable resource (there are limited quantities and when it's gone, it's gone) is produced and consumed at levels that roughly form a bell curve. America once supplied most of the world's oil, but our domestic production peaked in the 1970s, and has been dropping ever since. They note that world production may be peaking soon, or may have already peaked. Oil companies know this and aren't spending as much as they could on new refineries or exploration -- they're merging and acting like an industry under threat, even while their profits are at all time highs. Any drop in production, coming at a time when global demand is rising, will yield quick and sudden price increases. While through perhaps 2010 or so these may be relatively stable with ups and downs, after that things get really dicey. In a worst case scenario the world we know is gone by 2020. Compared to global warming theories, this is even scarier.
Those who dismiss the theory claim that there are new oil reserves waiting to be discovered ("of course," say peak oilers, but they believe these reserves are meager), and point to Alaskan oil and new finds in the Gulf. But even optimistic estimates of recent finds don't give much reason to think the peak data is off. The best argument against peak oil theory comes from those who believe the reserve estimates of OPEC members, especially countries like Saudi Arabia. Simmons work and others who have analyzed the data cast doubt about those estimates of massive quantities of oil still under Arab states in the Mideast -- but OPEC states hold their true data so dear that no one knows for sure. There are, of course, other alternatives. Oil shale (there are numerous deposits world wide), biofuels (Brazil has been successful there), electric cars and new technology could quickly, with large investments, fill the gap.
I don't know. My hunch would be that we'll have an economic downturn, even a depression, but that science and alternate energy resources will create a new status quo. We won't drive as much, we'll have more modest lifestyles, but modern civilization will adapt. The optimists have going for them the fact that predictions of "ruination" have almost always been proven false, and this could be yet another false alarm -- in the seventies some predicted oil would be gone by 1995! The pessimists have a lot of solid evidence and argumentation, and they have going for them the fact that history is often punctuated by such disasters, even if usually not on a global scale. To believe that somehow we in the post-WWII world have hit a groove that will keep going despite the damage being done to the planet and the imbalances of population growth, pollution, and global poverty, seems unrealistic.
So as I think about the lives my children will lead, read about the latest threatening talk concerning Iran or Iraq, and watch fluctuations of oil prices and predictions, I'm going to try to be very diligent in observing this culture and our politics. I've always thought I was lucky to have been in Germany, including East Berlin, in the summer of 1989 to experience that world just before it collapsed. Indeed, I've always found historical periods "just before something big" to be fascinating. 1913, the opening of Le Sacre du printemps, or the time before Hitler came to power. We could be in such a time now, enjoying the party and the prosperity, oblivious to the pain about to come. As a social scientist, if the peak oil theory is correct, it'll be like I'm plopped down in the middle of one of the most fascinating periods in human history. But whatever happens, as long as people exist, can think and can imagine, we can handle it.
November 21 - The Fossil Fuel Age
To add to yesterday's musings...what if oil sands, oil shale, new oil discoveries, and new technologies aren't able to provide a real alternative to the oil to which we're addicted? What if the peak oil theory is accurate, and we're heading for a major economic collapse due to our reliance on, overuse of, and ignorance of how oil ultimately effects our economy and lives? For the rest of this post I'll assume peak oil theory to be true; just for the sake of speculation.
How will the fossil fuel age be remembered? Perhaps it will be said to start with the Drake Well in Titusville Pennsylvania, which in 1859 was the first commercial oil well for profit drilled in America. Pennsylvania became the world's major oil supplier until Spindletop in Texas in 1901. The well, which they hoped would produce 5 barrels a day, yielded 100,000 a day from the start, and soon an oil boom was born. New technologies formed symbiotic relationships with this new fuel. Automobiles, airplanes, and 20th century industry became oil based rather than coal based, and the economic bomb was on -- especially after working through the European wars of the first half of the century.
Future historians will marvel at what was accomplished in so short a period of time. Massive prosperity in the West, built on cheap fuel, and allowing resources to be diverted from the necessities of life to research and development, helping spur a major increase in technology and knowledge. A population with an inherent faith in both markets and progress -- an idea that this material success was not due to an energy bonanza, but rather to the power of western ideology, liberty, and capitalism. However, just as amazing as the successes will be the failures, and the astonishing ignorance of this doomed culture to the dark side of their progress.
Like the athlete pumped up on steroids, the fossil fuel addiction yields short term miracles but contains a ticking time bomb in the long term effects. For athletes, at some point joints give out and the steroid gains are useless. For the fossil fuel age, the environment becomes severely damaged, and as oil runs low, high prices catapult the economy into depression. One might study the amazing decade of the 1990s. Oil is suddenly extremely and deceptively cheap. This gives the West a fantastic opportunity. With the economic benefits of cheap oil, we could finance a massive effort to improve fuel efficiency, develop alternatives, and prepare for the inevitable decline. Yet what happened? In the US people turned to bigger and more powerful SUVs, stock market speculation overtook the public, and oil became taken for granted. The almost providential chance to prepare for the future was squandered due to lack of leadership and foresight.
Just as people today look at the fall of Rome and wonder why they made the mistakes they did, and why they couldn't do what was necessary to maintain authority, our ignorance and inability to understand the nature of fossil fuels will astound future generations. How could they have been so ignorant? Some might argue that it was good that it ended when it did; the environmental catastrophe that the fossil fuel age unleashed could have been much worse if they hadn't been forced to stop burning so much energy. Perhaps the peoples of Africa and Asia will argue that despite the hardship caused by the collapse, the fall of the West liberated them from a system in which they were permanently under developed, and allowed them to achieve growth and better conditions than before the fall. They may argue that there is a strong moral lesson in that event as well: greed and consumption without regard to the planet and to the well being of others leads to disaster.
There will be puzzlement about how so many were shrill about apparent dangers of terrorism and Islamic extremism. Those threats were minor, Islamic terrorists were a tiny minority of the Islamic world, people were hyper paranoid about that and ignored the ticking time bomb of dwindling oil supplies. They'll wonder what it was like to live in that world, with traffic jams, packed airports, and smoggy cities. They'll use the technological remnants of this age (either after a period of dark ages or more quickly, depending on how events transpire) to construct new methods of production and transport. And, of course, humanity survives.
Peak oil theory likely is wrong in its most pessimistic predictions -- that's usually the case with such theories (remember Y2K?) But those theories aren't always wrong. So enjoy the possibility that this may be an era historians of the future will study with intense curiosity and interest -- and we get to experience it!
November 27 - Iraq in collapse
The news from Iraq continues to get worse as sectarian violence escalates with nearly ten thousand dead in just over two weeks, and some of the boldest most deadly attacks coming in recent days. Sunnis are burnt alive by Shi'ites, Shi'ites slaughtered by Sunnis, and no force is able to protect the citizens. This not only is civil war, but it is the kind of intense ethnic violence which traditionally leads to years if not decades of turmoil and instability.
Meanwhile, the Iraq study group is poised to release its findings, Iraq's President journeys to Iran to try to get Iranian help in stabilizing his country, and US deaths continue apace, reaching 2875. The number of Iraqis who say it's legitimate to attack Americans is up to 70%, and even Iraq's Prime Minister gets pelted with stones, and not from those of a rival ethnic group. The US military is not providing protection or support, the idea that we are standing between an all out civil war and lower levels of violence is wrong. We are witnessing growing violence and are impotent to stop it.
Youths are being rounded up and killed, 3000 new widows are created each month, children are killed, orphaned or witness unbearable atrocities. And as I noted on my blog on July 10 (scroll down to the 10th) that the "g" word has to be considered -- could we see or are we seeing an emerging genocide?
In the marble buildings of Washington DC, military power is an abstraction, plans focus on "minimizing civilian casualties" and pride is taken by the meticulous development of rules of engagement designed to avoid causing carnage. But starting a war is like lighting a fuse. You may limit the match to the fuse, but the result depends upon what that fuse is connected to. We started this carnage. We aren't doing most of the killing, but the choice of war created conditions which ignited this level of human suffering and tragedy. The intent may have been good -- liberate a people from a tyrant and spread democracy -- but the means chosen was not. And many people did see this coming.
So what to do. We broke it, but we can't fix it. The Bush administration must swallow its pride, admit that the problem is outside American control, open dialogue and intense diplomacy with Iran, Syria and other regional actors, and bring the UN in. We need to get our forces out of there, to return only if there is some kind of feasible UN sponsored plan where an American presence won't do more harm than good. We've generated so much ill will, I doubt that will happen. That's reality. It a perfect world we would be responsible for cleaning up the mess we made, but in the world in which we find ourselves, we lack the capacity, and our actions tend to make things worse. The only rational thing to do is call for help and admit the obvious. The signs remain hopeful that the Administration recognizes this, though tough rhetoric still comes from some quarters. But the news from Iraq has been increasingly bad -- horrific -- in the last couple weeks, and there is no way one cannot call this a civil war. And all politics aside, what is happening to the Iraqi people is very, very, sad.
November 28 - When in Istanbul...
Pope Benedict XVI is in Turkey, visiting Ankara and Istanbul in a controversial trip given his remarks in September to which many Muslims took offense. Yet he claims this trip is about brotherhood and common bonds between the faiths. Turkey is an appropriate place to visit as well. It is the center of the former Ottoman Empire, the last caliphate of the Muslim world, yet it is a secular state having undergone a forced modernization by Attaturk. That secularization has yielded a hybrid society -- Islam remains strong culturally, even if things like headscarfs are banned from universities and government buildings.
Turkey's Muslims are for the most part moderate to liberal. While events in Iraq and elsewhere have radicalized some of the youth, the average Turk has more in common with a European than with an al qaeda zealot. Given that spreading democracy and western values by force has failed so miserably in Iraq, the Pope's visit may mark a change in tactics to something that might work. Point blank: we cannot win a war against Islam or even against Islamic extremism. If we make this a war, we'll lose and the damage could be immense. But if we work to marginalize and weaken violent extremism within Islam, the future could be bright for both the West and the Islamic world.
So far, we've made the wrong choice. Folk like Osama Bin Laden want a war because they know they represent a tiny minority of Islam, a violent and puritanical extremism that has little mass appeal. But if they can goad the west into a war and be portrayed as heroes fighting to defend the faith, they can have a romantic appeal to Muslim youth, especially those in large cities with little hope for the future. They care less about Palestine than what the emotions Israeli-Palestinian conflict can create. All such extremism relies on emotion, fear, and hate. They detest debate, discussion and compromise.
The key is to, like Pope Benedict, work to develop closer ties with governments, clerics, and leaders in the region. The goal is to build a bond between the West (or in the case of the Pope, Christianity specifically) and Islam. But foremost in this effort must be a way out of Iraq. As long as that war and America's military presence in the region continues, the effort to build bridges and dialogues with Islamic moderates -- the vast majority of the Muslim world -- will be hindered by headlines and anger over American actions.
Hence the dilemma. How can one combat terrorism without feeding the flames? How can we leave Iraq without being seen as defeated? Does it really matter if we're seen as defeated -- is the desire to save face and not appear weak itself a sign of weakness? Isn't it a sign of confidence when one can say "we made a mistake, we'll put it right?" So I'll dismiss the rather superficial concern that leaving might make our enemies happy or make us look weak. That's a short term psychological effect that can easily be put right through effective policy afterwards. But how can you have an effective policy? How can necessary action against real terrorists coincide with efforts to co-opt moderates?
I think the goal must be to share intelligence and information and have most of the dirty work done by governments in the Mideast themselves. Saudi Arabia already does this, and most governments do not like the challenge of non-state actors vying for power and the allegiance of the population. This clearly is a complex issue, and the questions of Hezbollah, Iran, Syria and the general long time infeasibility of current authoritarian governmental systems need to be addressed. But two steps can be taken now: open dialogues, and start to disengage militarily from Iraq. The next steps will be dictated by events -- will Iraq stabilize without America there or not, will Iran and Syria respond positively to diplomatic engagement, or not. But the Pope's visit should mark a start of an entirely new approach to the problem: we are NOT fighting a war on terror. We are working to build ties with the Muslim world and marginalize and ultimately eliminate the appeal of violent Islamic extremism.
November 29 - Losing Afghanistan?
Iraq dominates the headlines. President Bush is meeting today with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the bipartisan Iraq commission headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton are set to give their recommendations. Yet in Latvia this week at the NATO summit it became clear that the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan is only going to get worse.
The Taliban has been increasing their control over many parts of southern Afghanistan, especially near the Pakistani border. It is believed that al qaeda and the Taliban have a sophisticated operation, perhaps helped by members of the Pakistani ISI (their version of the CIA) who originally brought the Taliban to power in the 1990s. NATO has directly confronted and killed many Taliban militia fighters, yet towns and villages are increasingly giving loyalty to the Taliban who in turn provide a modicum of safety and security that is in short supply in Afghanistan. Many locals, otherwise innocent, have experienced NATO violence or have lost loved ones often in misdirected NATO attacks, and thus have no support for NATO or the Afghan government.
In 2003 the Taliban decided that they couldn't stand toe to toe and fight NATO backed American forces, and instead retreated and regrouped, patiently waiting for a chance to slowly infiltrate the country, invisibly garnering support and loyalty from as many tribes and communities as they could. In this effort they were aided immensely by the American decision to go to war with Iraq. That not only created a swelling of anti-Americanism in general, but it also meant that it became unlikely that America would increase its deployment in Afghanistan, currently about 20,000. With NATO and other troops, the West has 33,000 in a large country with difficult terrain, likely not enough to stop a disperse and often hard to recognize growing Taliban influence.
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri shocked NATO officials by stating point blank that the Taliban is winning, that NATO should not send more troops, but instead may have to engage the Taliban politically. This also suggests that the Musharraf government is souring on its cooperative arrangement with the US. Now that the US is bogged down in Iraq, the Pakistanis seem to be shifting from a belief that they need to be on America's side in the post-9-11 era to the perspective that America doesn't have the capacity to give significant rewards or punishments. Their claim the Taliban is winning may reflect knowledge on their part that Taliban influence is far greater than NATO lets on or perhaps even knows about. Pakistan might want to alter the Afghan government to one more friendly to its interests, and may be playing a game here, telling NATO "you'll lose to the Taliban, but perhaps we can put together some kind of alternative government." The result wouldn't be called the Taliban, but it would be similar, and likely linked to al qaeda.
That would be defeat. Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, was the home base of the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks of 9-11. To launch a major war on terror with tough rhetoric and grand schemes and then end without capturing Al Qaeda's leaders, and not putting the nail in the coffin of the fundamentalist Taliban regime, risks allowing Afghanistan to slip back into something like what it was before 9-11. Yet NATO seems unable and unwilling to figure out how to alter the situation. The US is bogged down in Iraq, and the Europeans aren't convinced it's worth what it would take to defeat the Taliban. Germany's 2600 troops and Italy's 1800 refuse redeployment to the dangerous Helmand province, and grudgingly agree to help out only in an emergency. None of the European states, including France with 1100 troops there, want to increase their commitment. The US military is also overstretched due to Iraq. Moreover, if Pakistan is undercutting the efforts, then it would require a massive force and economic/political commitment to Afghanistan to keep the Taliban out.
To the extent this is a war against Islamic extremists, the West is losing -- even the victory in the 2001 Afghanistan battle seems precarious. Iran and Hezbollah is stronger than ever, and very few people say any kind of victory is still possible in Iraq. In that light, the choice to go to war against Iraq in 2003 may well be the biggest strategic fiasco in American history.