Entries are listed in chronological order
September 1, 2006 - The "F" word
There is a long standing rule about political campaigns. If you cannot rid yourself of a weakness, try to turn it into a strength. So it's no accident that on Labour Day weekend, the official start of the "campaign season," President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld come out with wild, militarist and almost bizarre speeches pitting Iraq and the war on terror suddenly as something comparable with World War II. Evoking imagery of Dunkirk and Iwo Jima, the President said we are at war with a foe that he compared to Fascism, Communism, and any other evil thing he could think up. The message is clear: he wants to scare the American people, and in so doing, hopefully counter the harm being done to the GOP by the unpopularity of the war.
The run up to the 2003 Iraq war started in September 2002, with the famous quote about the timing, that "you don't start a marketing campaign in August." This is, clearly, a marketing campaign. "Steady progress" wasn't working (especially when the news made it clear there was no steady progress), "would you rather have Saddam" was getting stale and meaningless, and you can only get so much traction from simply branding your critics as "cut and runners" and going after people like Cindy Sheehan and John Murtha with vile personal attacks. So they needed a new slogan. It would have to be dramatic. It would have to get people's attention. The new marketing campaign would have to take risks -- when a brand name loses its luster, it's hard to regain it, so this was no time to be timid. So now we see what the PR-meisters have come up with: we're fighting fascism, our existence is at stake, this is to the 21st century with both fascism and communism were to the 20th century, and only Neville Chamberlain or al qaeda types would dare disagree with this war time President.
Well, OK. Sure, it would be nice to have a government that was more about policy, doing the right thing, and taking criticism seriously than one more concerned with marketing their brand before an election, but I've come to expect nothing more from both parties in this era of post-modern politics.
A lot of people complain about the use of the word fascism. But fascism as an ideology is at base anti-rational and emotional. It probably isn't a good fit with religious extremism, and its rationale for war and rule is very different than the Mussolini and Hitler variants. I'd stick with radical militant/militarist Islam. But that's not the issue. The fact is, if the President really thought the war was like WWII, and Iraq was centrally important (he made it sound like our civilization and the future of our country was at stake in Iraq) then why the hell do we have fewer people there than in 1991, and only a quarter of the number we had in Vietnam? If it really is such a central challenge to our generation, why are we doing it on the cheap? That would be utterly insane!
Until after the election, we can't take the President (or really most politicians of both parties, to be fair) on his word. I don't know if he has finally grasped that democracy only works within certain cultural realities, and Iraq is far from those. With the current political culture of corruption, ethnic rivalry, and religious fundamentalism, the best we can hope for is some kind of agreement to share power between the major actors -- consociationalism. Some kind of western-looking stable democracy isn't likely.
Ironically, the country most likely to evolve into a real modern democracy is Iran. They'd been making very slow progress between 1979 and 2003, and it was our policies that helped bring that to a screeching halt as we undercut the moderates with our aggressive and bombastic foreign policy. Attacking Iraq, and putting Iran in the 'axis of evil' has lead to a support for a regime that threatens to turn back the progress. That would be a tragedy to the Bush goal of allowing democracy to blossom in the region, yet since it wasn't a pro-western 'complete' democracy they ignored it. An opening to Iran in 2001 might have made a major difference, but they chose confrontation and ultimatums as policy.
Still, the rhetoric we're hearing now is less reality, more marketing. They want to assure that Republicans and conservative Democrats become scared to vote Democratic, trying to evoke the emotion of war and terror which has worked so well for Bush in the past. Yet there is something that sounded almost silly as he was comparing terrorism to Communism, Fascism, and other evils. It was like he was trying too hard, and sounding almost like a caricature. I don't think this will work. It's a hail Mary pass from an Administration with low approval and a potential electoral disaster ahead.
September 2, 2006 - Power transition theory
(This is a continuation on yesterday's discussion). While I'm convinced that the desperate sounding shrill rhetoric about the "end of our civilization if we don't prevail in Iraq" is just political hype, there is a real danger something else is at play, and it's important we recognize and avoid it.
Back in 1958 AFK Organski published his power transition theory, which states, in essence, that great powers rise and decline. When a decline starts, and another power is rising, the risk of international conflict is greatest. Looking at the international system, it's clear that the United States is in decline. Gone are those heady post-Cold War days when the end of history was declared, and it seemed certain that democracy and markets would slowly spread and bring stability and prosperity in time to the planet.
While we assumed everyone else would want the kind of life we have, the trends in the rest of the world is to resent not just past raw imperialism, but current efforts to shape political outcomes and penetrate social systems politically and economically. Nowhere is that more starkly evident than in the Mideast, but similar trends can be found in Latin America, Asia, and increasingly in Africa.
From a power politics perspective, a unipolar US was seen, unsurprisingly, as a threat to other moderate powers. China, Russia, and even allies such as Germany and France decided that an arrogant, militarist and self-righteous America was a danger to their interests and indeed international stability. That's why they tried to stop the 2003 Gulf War, and it looks pretty obvious that they were right, and the Bush Administration wrong. The US is facing numerous vulnerabilities, not the least of which the lack of allies to shoulder what the White House claims is a common burden to 'protect the West.'
Some of the rhetoric this weekend, discussed yesterday, may also come from a real fear. People like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and even Rice are used to the United States being the world's top power, and any threat to that status is scary. While we think nothing of trying to orchestrate regime change in Iraq or Iran, demanding they adhere to our ultimatums, the fact they could be in a position to challenge us frightens administration officials. Iran, even if it is hugely successful at generating nuclear material, couldn't truly threaten the United States. Beyond that, we have many ways to make it in their interests not to de-stabilize the region. But to the Bush Administration, the fact it would be possible for them to harm our country in any way is deemed unacceptable. We should have the capacity to hurt other states, but should ourselves be immune from any kind of attack. Yet the US really doesn't have the capacity to stop them from moving forward, and they know it. That increasingly pushes some to call for war -- with the illusion that we would win, and that this would somehow set things right. Iran would become democratic and friendly, and we'd regain our position as king of the hill.
It wouldn't. We'd be enmeshed in yet more conflicts and terror threats, and with a spread out military we'd open up real vulnerabilities. America's decline would be hastened, not halted, by war. Back in the run up to the war in 2003 my favorite phrase was "reality bites." I saw the case for war being built on theory, wishful thinking and illusion. But once the guns blaze and real choices are made, you can't spin or soundbite reality to become something it isn't. The reality is that the United States is in decline as a major world power, though this decline need not be a disaster. It could just lead us to work to strengthen cooperation and learn to accept that the Islamic world and really the whole third world needs to find their own path to modernization, something that will likely be gradual, and not in exact accord with western values.
Or, not being able to stand not being the dominate power, we could fall for the illusion that trips up so many great powers, a belief that force and power can somehow reshape politics in our favor. With such an abstract view on the meaning of force, the human cost gets rationalized in an ends justifies the means logic, the true consequences (such as rising hatred of the US and anger at the destruction) are ignored. I don't think the American people really understand how disrespected and disliked we've become around the world thanks to our policies. It wasn't this way even five years ago. While in abstract treatises one might rationalize that the children our bombs killed were really not our responsibility but rather that of an adversary because he positioned his forces amongst civilians, to the people on the ground the anger will be aimed at those whose weapons caused the destruction. It's always been that way, and always will -- the rationalizations are irrelevant: reality bites.
Our choice: either a) accept that we are no longer a unipolar power, and cannot shape the system to reflect our values; or b) use force to try to avoid the decline. Option "a" will require creative thinking, diplomacy, and cooperation with others, and can yield a stable system. Option "b" is quite literally a path towards precipitous decline and diaster.
Abramo Fimo Kenneth Organski, Professor at the University of Michigan, died on March 6, 1998 at the age of 74. And while his theory is, to be sure, more complex than the quick version I gave, and has been taken in different directions by various scholars, there is a common sense to it which makes it compelling. When someone has something, they don't like to give it up. So it is with great powers. America's supreme challenge is that if we can accept changing geo-political realities with a rational policy aimed at preserving global stability, or if we're afraid of not being in control. Our future depends on making the right choice.
September 5, 2006 - Blog reflections
At the APSA meeting (American Political Science Association) in Philadelphia a colleague, upon learning I did a blog, asked me how I advertised it, how did I try to get readers. "I don't," was my response. Her response: "How can you influence the political discourse that way, what's the point?" Good question -- and since I do know that a number of students read this, I figure I should reflect on why I do this blog and its purpose.
I know some people read this, at least some times. I've gotten a few e-mails from people who found it (either by accident, or in one case someone who used my German Foreign Policy book looked me up) and a number of students have mentioned it. I don't advertise it -- even though I told my wife about it back in 2004, she apparently forgot and was surprised to find out I had a blog just the other day! The main reason I write this is personal -- I want a fair and accurate record of my thoughts and attitudes on the issues of the day both for myself and for my (still very young) children. Blogging when I know people can read it or follow it in the present is enough to give me the discipline to write if not daily, at least four or five times a week.
But since I know students read this, and that I'm far more direct and clear in my personal opinions in my blog than in class, I have a few basic standards. First, while I want to be very straight forward and unequivocal about my opinions, I also want to avoid the kind of 'holy war' mentality that some political bloggers have. Even if I criticize the policies, I still will refer to the individuals (e.g., President Bush, Secretaries Rice and Rumsfeld) with respect. The idea is to show that talking about politics need not be a 'team sport,' where you defend your team and attack the other team with a focus on winning. Rather, it's about recognizing that all of us have a desire for the best result for our country and our world, but have reasonable disagreements on how best to achieve that. We can have strong views without hating or needing to insult the other side. And if an issue exasperates me that I write something that can be taken as an insult, I hope it's rare and it's not too harsh.
Moreover, I'm not partisan in a Democrat-Republican sense. I was blogging in a sense before I knew the word blog -- this blog started in 2004, but back in 1999 I posted daily thoughts and reactions to the Kosovo war, and I was very opposed to the Clinton Administration policy (I even had a letter to the editor appear in Time magazine against the war -- the issue that had the women's soccer team on the cover). A Republican reading that would have been happy with me. But now I'm opposed to the Bush policy on Iraq and other foreign policy positions, so it appears more in line with how Democrats think. In reality, I find myself drawn to neither party with much loyalty. I like some Republicans very much, like Maine's two Senators, I like a number of Democrats (and distrust most of each party!) My one job in politics was as a legislative aide for a Republican Senator in Washington DC, but now my politics are distant from where the GOP stands. So while my positions are sometimes controversial or critical of various policies and positions, they aren't easily seen through a left-right or Republican-Democrat lens.
Finally, I'll end with a bit I posted on my very first blog (not counting the Kosovo posts), September 1, 2004:
"Nonetheless, I thought it might be fun for students to read what a professor thinks about issues and ideas in a manner that isn't the traditional detached classroom setting. Here I'll state my opinions, take sides on issues, and let you see what I really think.
One reason that could be dangerous is that it could intimidate students reading this who disagree with me. Now, when I was a student, I would often disagree with my professors. They never punished me for that, and in fact respected my willingness to take a stand and not try to simply follow what I thought they believed. Differences of opinion are to be honored on university campuses more than anywhere else. Freedom of thought and speech is essential if we are going to really put ideas to the test, critically reflect on what we believe, and try to understand what's going on in this world. Disagreement is necessary if academia is to function. So if write something like "I think Dick Cheney is a horrible Vice President," and you're the head of the UMF Dick Cheney fan club, don't be afraid to state your disagreement. The only things to keep in mind are that disagreements should be respectful (don't call others names or dip to the level of personal attacks on other students or faculty), and that any body stating any opinion should be able to back it up with arguments and logic.
That last part might seem a bit tricky too. Face it, I've studied politics for decades (yikes, time zips by!), and even in high school I was a good debater. I bet I could be wrong on something, and still out debate a number of students. That's the tricky part of academia and the exchange of ideas; sometimes skill at the use of words and at debating seems more important than the actual quest for the truth. All I can say to that is that I keep that in mind. If I challenge you when you hold a different opinion, that's a sign of respect, that I'm asking you to explain why you believe what you do. If the words don't come, or if you get confused trying to put an explanation together (not because you don't have one, but because you just aren't used to having to on the spot explain your thinking), just say, "Let me think about it," or give your best shot. I know discussion and debate can be intimidating, especially if one of the authority figures in class takes a position different than yours. But the only way you get better at it is through practice, and by developing the confidence to disagree with an authority figure on the basis of your own thinking and analysis of evidence. Believe it or not, we professors actually value that much more than valuing agreement. Bottom line: think for yourself, be open to new ideas (we promise we'll be too), and be willing to state your ideas without fear that you might disagree with one or both of the instructors."
So let the semester begin!
September 6, 2006 - Black gold, Texas tea...
More oil in the Gulf of Mexico! This can be either very good news, or very bad. I'll be optimistic and consider it good news.
First, the optimistic read Assuming reports are correct that this might be the largest oilfield in the US (expensive to drill off shore, but it's light sweet crude -- the good stuff), it could potentially decrease the pressure for the US to believe we really need to strongly influence politics in the Mideast. Oil is the only reason to be concerned about Iraq and Iran. Oil is the only reason we undertake policies that inspire extremists and terrorists to act against us. It's not a 1930s Hitler like threat we're facing; in this case we are the great power, we have tried to manipulate that region, and they are reacting with the only kind of strategy that could be effective against a great power like us. If there were no oil in the Mideast, none of what's going on now would be happening.
Of course, oil is crucially important to our economy, and to the West in general. As much as I believe it a fatal flaw in our policies for the past decades to try to manipulate and intervene in the Mideast to assure cheap access to that oil, even a President as supposedly dove-ish as Jimmy Carter said we would fight a war over oil in the Persian Gulf (the Carter Doctrine). Like it or not, given the political realities in Washington, our dependence on oil assures we'll be involved deeply in Mideast politics, and we'll continue to inspire action against us -- action seen by the perpetrators as defensive. So if this buys us some independence, a sense that we don't need to focus on controlling oil resources in the Mideast, it may ultimately be a very good find.
But, alas, the oil is hard to get and we may be a decade or so away from having it really influence the oil market. Given the pace of events, that may be too late to really alter the nature of the current crisis. Moreover, last time we had a reprieve with cheap and apparently plentiful oil, we didn't take advantage of the opportunity to finance a change in our energy consumption with the cheap oil. That's the downside of markets. While some libertarian types seem to think the markets some kind of magical mechanism (they'll deny they think they're magic, but they treat them as such) to get the best results, they are simply a social process that does some things very well (like communicate demand through price) and some things not so well (anticipate future situations and prepare for them). The latter can lead to booms and busts, something like the depression, and to us buying big SUVs and letting alternatives to oil get ignored when the price was low. That wasn't really rational -- anyone with half a brain could see prices would go up in time -- but markets are better at short term adjustments than longer term ones.
Perhaps now the tide has shifted, and people realize that we have to prepare ourselves for an economy not so dependent upon fossil fuels. Both the tensions in the Mideast and global warming provide compelling evidence for such a change, even if we are not yet able to break our oil addiction. If we can get through the current crises without the fear mongers pulling us into a major war, and if counter-terrorist policies can effectively protect us from a major terror strike, then we may be able to use these reserves wisely, to help guide an economic transition to a more diverse and ecological set of fuels. Check out my September 6 2022 blog, when I revisit this issue and reflect on what actually happened (that seems far away, but 2022 is as distant from today as is 1990, and 1990 doesn't seem THAT long ago!)
Oh, here is a bit of a blog from the past, from my 1999 blog on the Kosovo war I posted a link to yesterday:
April 21, 1999 - Surreality reigns! Yesterday in Littleton, CO two high school students opened fire on their classmates with guns and bombs, killing at least 16. Cut to scenes from Belgrade, as NATO bombs hit a skyscraper in the center of the city, with collateral damage reported in many civilian sites. Cut to Kosovo, where displaced Albanians starve and are raped and murdered. Then today President Clinton says we have to show our kids that violence is not a solution, and that words and not weapons must be used to deal with conflict. Meanwhile, we continue to bomb Yugoslav targets and vow not to negotiate with Milosevic or accept anything short of succumbing to NATO demands. Words fail me. How can we be self-righteous and pious about school violence, while rationalizing the bombing of targets in Yugoslavia not involved in the ethnic cleansing or crimes in Kosovo? How can we say use words and not violence when we're unwilling to negotiate or listen to plans that call for ceasing the bombing in exchange for discussions. Clinton says children must learn that violence has consequences. Perhaps thats a lesson the NATO military alliance, as well as the Serb paramilitaries in Kosovo, need to learn. Also today Apache helicopters are arriving in Tirana, what some people claim will be a weapon that will turn the tide of the war and force the Yugoslavs to surrender quickly. Perhaps. But the belief in super weapons making a sudden difference is usually a delusion in a war, and 24 helicopters may in fact not make that much of a difference. We'll see. Also the Russians are planning another diplomatic push for tomorrow, sending Chernomyrdin to Belgrade. I'm still hoping they can pull something off...
September 7, 2006 - Uncertainty principle
No, this isn't another blog entry where I speculate about the nature of reality and quantum mechanics. I don't mean that uncertainty principle. Rather, the fact that there is so much disagreement about the nature of international relations and the world today that anyone who claims they know what's going on has to recognize there is a huge amount of uncertainty. Moreover, if you read some blogs and pundits out there, many try to sound like experts while simply following a particular interpretive read on the situation -- an interpretation which collapses if one or two of their assumptions are questioned.
We don't know just what kind of threat Islamic extremism poses. Is not clear just how much support an anti-western extremist movement would have if not for the American aggression in the region, and even with the war in Iraq true terrorist extremism probably has the support of less than 5% of the population in the Mideast. Indeed, Islamic fundamentalism of a conservative nature (non-radical anti-suicide bomber variety), moderate Islam, and even secular trends exist as the whole region undergoes a transformation in part natural, in part forced through the processes of globalization.
This uncertainty leads to two contradictory policy preferences. Those who see a real, powerful threat are convinced that the US has to confront Iran and Syria, stay in Iraq until some kind of victory, and "prevail" in a kind of military conflict. These people try to sound certain (perhaps betraying the weakness of their argument) and hurl out words like 'fascism' and 'world war' loosely, even if it's hard to imagine how such groups could truly threaten the US beyond a lucky terror strike or two.
We also don't know just how much antagonism exists between Shi'ite and Sunni groups. Iran is Shi'ite, a sect of Islam representing 15% of the Islamic faith. Iranian power (and Hezbollah, also Shi'ite) is seen as dangerous by Sunnis, and many believe that the civil war in Iraq, which is Shi'ia vs. Sunni, is a sign of things to come in the region. That perspective envisions a danger not of Islamic extremists tearing down the West, but of regional civil war.
We also are uncertain about just how dangerous al qaeda and similar groups are; President Bush seemed to downplay their level of threat in his recent talk. If the best they can do is blow up some airplanes or bomb some buildings, they're not truly a major threat to our society. If they are a network with WMD and numerous sleeper cells across the West, they could devastate our economy (though not fatally). We don't know. From the looks of things, the CIA tends to see the threat as not as serious as people were once imagining. Nonetheless, uncertainty reigns.
And that leads to a warning. As anyone who has studied foreign policy decision making knows, an environment of uncertainty leads often to an allure of military solutions. Diplomatic initiatives, and complex policy choices seem too murky. If politicians are uncertain, they want something that looks like it can lead to a definitive success. Containing Iran (certainly do-able -- even an Iran with the bomb is hardly a world power) and engaging in long term counter-terrorism doesn't eliminate the uncertainty, nor does it seem to provide a clear cut solution. Bombing Iran or using military options seems more concrete on paper -- one can imagine some kind of victory. Yet if the experience in Iraq has taught us anything, it should teach that the situation in that part of the world defies a military solution. Compared to five years ago, the US is weaker, Americans and the western world more divided, and situation as complex and uncertain as ever.
The temptation to take the easy way -- to look for a military 'fix' -- needs to be resisted. The choice of killing people, destroying lives and creating anger and resentment should only be taken if there is true certainty that this action is required. Right now, there is uncertainty, and strong reasons to think that such an approach would be counter productive. Yet that doesn't stop some, driven by dramatic fantasies of a "west in peril" to engage in a kind of necrophilic desire for war.
September 8, 2006 - Do they really believe their rhetoric?
The rhetoric continues from the White House and Administration, buttressed by the usual suspects of pundits, bloggers and radio hounds, that we are in a period of time comparable to the 1930s, with ominous "Islamic fascism" threatening us, and that we must prevail or else our civilization is in risk. In my blog on September 1st I dismissed this as political grandstanding; a labor day marketing campaign to try to force fear on to the public and get them to hold their nose and vote Republican, since the Democrats, supposedly, are weak on security.
I still believe that the case, but I had a chat with a colleague today, and he said he thinks they really believe what they're saying. His argument was that if you look at the apparent frustration they're showing, it looks like a group of people absolutely convinced that we're in a major "existential" crisis, and they can't figure out why the hell the rest of us don't get it. Thinking about the uncertainty issue I raised yesterday, I have to admit this is possible. They could be caught up in a mixture of seeing all the worst reports, having to plan for worst case scenarios, not wanting to question decisions made, and a form of groupthink, whereby they reinforce each others' beliefs and dismiss alternatives out of hand.
Even powerful decision makers are human. And humans are prone to groupthink, avoiding cognitive dissonance, and conflating possibilities with probabilities. Considering the evidence about how pressure was put on intelligence agencies to support the policy of the Iraq war, rather than give accurate information (when they did it was distrusted by administration officials, who thought the CIA or State Department was trying to torpedo their policies for political reasons), this could be an ideology-driven administration with a penchant of simply interpreting reality in a manner that fits their theory.
Reading report after report of rumors of plots and details of extremist groups, alongside reports about possible WMD programs and various vulnerabilities, it won't take much to create a climate of siege -- the extremists are after us, and potentially could do devastating harm. Then they see the political discourse around them questioning the war and the policy, and to them it looks as if a bunch of naive and ignorant softies are turning their eyes from the true threat. In such a mindset, the media would be seen as the enemy, war critics as reflecting a kind of defeatist moral cowardliness in the midst of a real threat. They would see themselves as being the only clear thinkers who see the danger, while others are lost in rationalization, guilt, or naiveté. That would explain their frustration and hyperbolic rhetoric.
If they are caught up in that way of thinking, it is truly dangerous. They will be tempted to undertake risks and deception to do what they think absolutely necessary to serve the greater good of protecting the country. They will be blind to the possibility that their actions are actually making things worse, playing into the hands of the extremists, and putting the country at greater risk. They remember the horror of 9-11, without thinking about the fact we've killed far more innocents and destroyed far more property in the wars since. The emotion of fear and self-righteousness will trump reason and critical reflection. Who knows where that will lead.
So I'm left hoping that this is just raw political cynicism. That the realists have convinced the President that our policies are failing, but that for political purposes he has to play it tough in order to try to hold on to Congress and find a way to achieve "peace with honor." One has to hope that this is just a Rovian rhetorical ploy to paint the opponents as weak and bring enough doubt and fear to the campaign to protect the Republican majority. Because if they really believe what they're saying, policy after the election could take some dangerous and risky turns.
September 11, 2006 - We need to be true to our vaules
:"That is why you have to be very careful when you respond - make sure you
respond in a way that punishes the real perpetrators, that brings justice, not
revenge, because otherwise you will be going against your own ideals, and that
is what the terrorists want most."
- King Abdullah of Jordan, shortly after 9-11-01
Five years ago today a small band of terrorists traumatized the United States and goaded us into actions which, on the whole, have neither made us safer nor diminished Islamic extremism. Moreover, after a short bit of unity as a nation we remain as divided as ever over America's role in the world, and what the events of 9-11 mean. Symptomatic of that is the scandal over the ABC mini-series The Path to 9-11, which showed that even the story around the events of 9-11 is politicized and divisive. So what went wrong after 9-11?
I look to King Abdullah's quote as giving a sign. By starting wars of aggression, by not recognizing the human cost of such conflict, and thinking instead in an abstract manner about 'isms' and democracy, the US undertook a policy that was meant to spread our values, but instead betrayed them. It was an odd mix of over confidence and fear -- fear of what terrorists could do, acknowledging that our huge military cannot protect us from all threats, and over-confidence that our powerful military could change the political structure of the Mideast. The fear caused us to ignore the morality of the means since an end of security and safety seems absolutely necessary, while over-confidence caused us to ignore the negative consequences of our actions, believing instead we'd bring democracy and human rights to the region. This combination has proven disastrous, and has led us into a quagmire from which there is no easy escape.
Terrorism is a threat that we need to learn to live with. There will be other attacks in the future, perhaps far more deadly than 9-11. We also need to recognize that at least at this point, no terrorist organization has the capacity to truly threaten our sovereignty and way of life through the direct consequences of their act. 3000 dead and property damage in Manhattan and the Pentagon is hardly a pin prick on our national body. Yet we can through our reactions and interpretations/understandings of the event turn it into either a force to unify and strengthen us, or to divide and weaken us. So far, the latter option has been chosen.
How do we correct this? First, we need to recognize the limits of our power, and how ultimatums, threats, and bombast are unproductive. We need also to recognize a few essential facts. First, Iran is not Nazi Germany; they are not a major world power, they are however a regional power. Stop with the threats and bravado, and talk to them. Iran has a history of wanting to create a Islamic Republic that is a regional power, the idea that they are about to launch missiles at Israel is absurd so long as we are able to give them reason to accept the system and work within it. We have lots of economic and political tools at our disposal for that. Along those lines, we need to recognize that modernization does not mean westernization, and democracy is built slowly, with bumps and potholes along the way. We have to give up the illusion all we need to do is free people from dictators and they'll be malleable to our interests and ideals. The world doesn't work that way.
Finally, we have to be a good citizen. We have to follow the rules we expect others to follow, to cooperate to solve problems, compromise on issues in dispute, and try as hard as possible to stay true to the values upon which this country was founded. No state can truly threaten us. Terrorist organizations are diffuse, and counter-terrorist efforts can better be undertaken when we are collaborating with other nations as true partners.
Our division at home is based less on true ideological differences than the fact that politics has become dominated by emotive themes, demonization of each side ('George Bush is a fascist idiot' or 'liberals admire Osama Bin Laden,' etc.) and rhetoric that is long on passion but short on reason. Most Americans, of course, don't buy it. In fact, this kind of political discourse breeds apathy since most people see through the smokescreen and recognize we're getting fed a pile of bulls**t. That serves the most powerful, since an apathetic public is a docile public. In this media age this trend hard to counter -- the key is to point out when that kind of emotion laden propaganda is in use, and point out the danger; the tactics of Goebbels don't necessarily lead to fascism, but they always weaken civil society. The second is to work for real discussion across party and even ideological lines, finding common ground, and respecting diverse views. Heated debate and disagreement, even if at times intense, does not mean one has to hate or demonize the other. We have to rediscover what Walter Lippmann called "the essential opposition."
And while changing our foreign policy and altering our political discourse may sound like Herculean tasks, I am convinced our future as a nation of prosperity and liberty depend on making those changes. And, as difficult as it might be, we do have one thing working in our favor. The ideals of the country -- the reason for patriotism and pride -- support making these changes. We've squandered five years reacting with fear, anger and with grandiose theories. Now we need to look at the reality around us, have the humility to know we can't bring about perfect security or build new political orders with raw force, but the pride to know that if we live and act by our ideals, the future can be better than the past.
September 12, 2006 - The "U" word
Charles Krauthammer, the ultimate neo-conservative pundit, acknowledged last week that the war in Iraq is possibly unwinnable. He claims:
"On Thursday, Maliki took over operational
control of the Iraqi armed forces, the one national security institution that
works. He needs to demonstrate the will to use it. The American people will
support a cause that is noble and necessary, but not one that is unwinnable. And
without a central Iraqi government willing to act in its own self-defense, this
war will be unwinnable."
To be sure, he's not changing his position yet, but I think in his words we see the script for how the war hawks will act when it becomes clear that there is no victory in Iraq: they will blame the Iraqis.
There is something surreal about such an abdication of responsibility. We undertook an invasion which has led to the deaths of tens of thousands, and created a situation where, as bad he was, Iraq and the region would probably be better off if Saddam were still in power. So far, Iran's hardliners have benefited the most from this war. Then, when we fail, we simply say "well, we gave them the chance, it's their fault if they don't take it." No, such an evasion of responsibility is wrong.
There is a reason why I was skeptical of success back in 2003, and by late 2003 and early 2004 determined this war was a failure. The reason is because I, like others, took Iraq's political culture, history, and divisions as a factor in analyzing what was likely to happen. Krauthammer and many who have military expertise tend to look at war as a military venture, and analyze it from that perspective. They discount the political and socio-cultural issues, which historically may have worked, but with modern war and attempts at nation-building the military dimension is far less important overall. The neo-conservative argument also made the fatal error of simply assuming that because we think democracy and markets are oh so grand, then once freed from Saddam's clutches the Iraqi people would rush to vote, and thankfully embrace western values. Some may have given a vague "well, it won't always be easy," but there was a real faith that somehow western values are objectively true and transcend culture. There was faith that our good will -- building schools, reconstructing cities, providing aid -- would be rewarded. Such faith can lead to dangerous action.
George Bush the Elder did not go on to Baghdad in 1991 precisely because his administration did take Iraq's political culture and environment into account. They realized that there was danger of a civil war, that Iran would benefit from a Shi'ia dominatned Iraq, and we could get bogged down. When you undertake policy decisions with real world consequences, you have to take into account all the factors. You can't just say "we'll get rid of Saddam and give the Iraqis a chance," but rather, "if we get rid of Saddam what conditions will prevail, can Iraq sustain a democracy, what are the potential stumbling blocks." You see, even if most Iraqis want democracy to work, it only takes a few in positions of power, sustained by corruption (Iraq has become the most corrupt state on the planet, which always bodes ill for stability and democracy), to find a way to stop that from happening.
I understand the temptation to say, "well, we can't build a democracy and make it work for them, all we could do is remove the obstacle of Saddam Hussein, then it's their responsibility." After all, aren't they responsible for their own choices? Sure. But we're responsible for creating conditions that lead to the likelihood of a particular result. If we invade, kill, destroy property, and engage in a small few yet highly publicized atrocities, we better have more to offer than just getting rid of a dictator. We should be responsible for thinking through the likely policy outcomes, recognizing that you can't simply blame a collective "Iraqi people" for the choices of a few powerful Iraqis who use the new conditions to benefit themselves while throwing the country into chaos. Making a decision to launch a war without truly understanding and planning for the aftermath is not only irresponsible, it is morally bankrupt.
Yet because the war is an emotional topic, and people like Krauthammer are emotionally and professionally invested to the point that saying the anti-war side was right is simply not possible for them, they have an out: Blame the Iraqi people. But at least they seem to be recognizing what a lot of us have said all along: this war is a fiasco.
And while I know that this is anathema to many, it seems there is only one path out of this conflict that could lead to a stable Iraq, and improved conditions in the region: the development of relations with Syria and Iran. As long as we see those states as enemies not worth talking to, this quagmire has no solution.
September 13, 2006 - Not even Tom Cruise...
Our Security depends on security in Baghdad??!! Hyperbole taken to an extreme gets silly, and saying that our security depends on security in Iraq -- which is mostly gutted by internal civil war and an insurgency focused on political goals in Iraq -- is simply absurd. There are two arguments for staying in Iraq, and both of them are fundamentally flawed. One is the pragmatic argument: we may have screwed it up, but if we don't stabilize the situation we're going to be in deep trouble. The other is the moral argument: we may have screwed it up, but if we don't fix it we're being unethical. On the bright side, just about everyone but Dick Cheney is admitting things went wrong in Iraq. But they still don't understand the nature of the problem. Pragmatically, if trying to stay to stabilize actually hurts our security, then it's not the right thing to do. Morally, if trying to stay and fix things is doomed to fail, it is the immoral thing to do. Both sides rely on an overestimation of American power, because both focus primarily on military analysis, rather than a real understanding of the socio-political conditions.
First the pragmatic argument. It goes much like Bush's hyperbolic quote above, but has a reasonable logic. Iraq under Saddam was brutal, but Saddam hated Islamic extremists so he kept them and most terrorists at arm's length or if possible, squished under his thumb. We thought we'd get a friendly democratic ally in Iraq, and that hasn't worked out, but if we can't get at least a stable (if also corrupt and authoritarian) Iraq, then Iraq will become the new Afghanistan, with terror cells operating in the open to plot and plan against America, leading to a new 9-11.
There are two problems with this argument. The only evidence they give to support this is "the terrorists' own words." In other words, they say Iraq will become the center of a future Caliphate, so if we leave it will. Sorry, but I think it's pretty clear now that Bin Laden's grandiose political dreams are fantasy. The second argument is that it will become a breeding crowd for terrorist training against the US.. The evidence suggests something far different. First, Bin Laden and those of his ilk are Sunni, and in a Shi'ite dominated Iraq, they'd hardly be welcomed. Moreover, Syrian influence among Sunni insurgents is probably far greater than al qaeda influence, and Syria hates and butchers Islamic extremists. If we leave the most likely thing is for Syria and Iran to pressure Sunnis and Shi'ites to "make a deal." And that, to be sure, is what the White House really fears. A stronger Syrian-Iranian alliance could strengthen Hezbollah and threaten pro-American Mideast moderates.
But look closer: Iran is a Shi'ite fundamentalist Islamic state. Syria is a secular Sunni state (who, remember, butchers its own Islamic extremists). These two states do not have many common ambitions in the region, they are united now by a need to counter balance American influence. Ultimately Iraq will be a player, either to bring the two together to some kind of moderate compromise, or as a staging ground for civil war. The latter is more likely the longer the US stays. It could be that the US wants to see a Sunni-Shi'ite civil war, but I don't want to be so cynical. A civil war spreading from Iraq certainly scares Syria and Iran. Iran knows that if it comes down to it, even if it has the bomb it can't dominate all of Islam or even the Arab world. It has to rely on achieving a kind of symbolic leadership; regional civil war makes that impossible To be sure, the US will emerge from this weakened, but trying to stay and "win" isn't going to buy us security, and will likely create more enemies and regional terror.
To the moral argument: staying not only won't solve the problems in Iraq, but increases the risk of a regional civil war. It also removes the incentive for the two sides to really strike a deal (they'll posture to get the Americans to support them, and then whine that the US is favoring their rival if such support is not forthcoming). It also prevents the two countries which can successfully stabilze Iraq -- Syria and Iran -- from being able to do so. The longer militancy and violence go on, the more likely bad blood will get so intense that regional civil war becomes more likely.
The US has done all it can both to pursue its security goals, and achieve some kind of help for the Iraqis. The American mindset is a "can do, fix the problem, get the job done" mindset, but the reality of international relations is that in this complexity a can-do spirit sometimes isn't enough. Iraq doesn't have Saddam, but won't be the close ally we envisioned. We'll be forced to work with Iran and Syria, and hope that internal Shi'ite-Sunni rivalries and differences between rival groups prevent some kind of united Islamic foe (and they will -- most Muslims don't share the goals of the radicals). All this, combined with less obvious US presence as a galvanizing force for anti-westernism emotions, will keep the countries of the Mideast focused more on the region than any Bin Laden like fantasies.
Ethically we're not helping. Good intentions aren't enough -- they pave the road to somewhere hot! At this point we've passed the point where we can bring more good to the country, and are making a bleak future more likely. It's time to exit. Not a wild rush out of the country, but something timed and negotiated with Iraq and other regional actors. It is time to start a dialogue with groups we've opposed -- states like Iran and Syria who, unlike terror groups, have real vulnerabilities and with whom they are potential shared interests. Groups in Iraq who are focused on their country, and would perhaps be willing to talk if they know the US is leaving.
The ethical and pragmatic thing to do is recognize the reality that military action can do no more good in Iraq. At this point the complex, unpredictable and not always successful world of politics and diplomacy are the best, and most ethical, path out of here. But that takes courage too -- courage to talk with states we've been condemning (Syria's foiling of a terror plot may be a good excuse to do so), and try a different strategy. Staying to finish the mission is pointless -- it's mission impossible. (You were wondering what the hell Tom Cruise had to do with all this, weren't you?)
September 14, 2006 - Damn DVR! It's Bush's fault!
So I'm watching ABC's Path to 9-11 on my Dishnet DVR (similar to a tivo), and it cuts out about ten minutes or so (I think) before the end, just as the second plane is about to hit the tower. Then "Playback over." Basta. No way to see the end, since I had set it to record the program, I didn't have enough foresight to use a manual timer and give it an extra thirty minutes. But in this day and age of blame someone else, I don't want to accept that responsibility. After all, my wife set it, I was only watching. And really, it's Bush's fault, he interrupted the show for a speech! Impeach the... Oh wait, I guess it is really my fault. Never mind.
So I missed the final parts of the show, but as so-called docudramas go, it was pretty good. The Clinton Administration complained because of how personalities were portrayed (though negative portrayals continued into the Bush years), but I think in general the show, while not a true history, does dramatize a few important points. First, a lot of what was in place worked. Many of the highjackers did get noticed and some minor precautions were taken, we had a lot of information, and in a sense knew that something big was up. Overall, people like Dick Clarke and John O'Neil, in real life as in fiction, had a strong sense that we needed to do something.
Second, the docudrama illustrates, with dramatic license, the way in which governmental bureaucracies get bogged down in political games, career concerns, and legal dilemmas. In any bureaucracy the best course of action in terms of personal self-interest is "play it safe," while obviously in terms of national security that sometimes is the wrong way to go. It also showed how there was a sense of complacency; al qaeda was a threat, but most didn't really comprehend the true nature fo the threat. The policy was focused on states, not small terror organizations (though, to be sure, and perhaps not dramatized clearly in the show, towards the end of the Clinton Administration there was marked shift towards concern for Al Qaeda.
Five years later: the Taliban is gaining strength in Afghanistan, a weakened al qaeda still exists, and the US is focused on nation building in an Iraq which doesn't want us there, and whose "terrorists" are home grown insurgents fighting for domestic power. I can't wait for the next docudrama!
September 16, 2006 - The Killing Fields
It's been two years now since I started using the Cambodian genocide, as well as reflections on other 20th century atrocities (the holocaust killing 11 million, Stalin's purges killing 20 million, etc.) to introduce Introduction to International Relations. The core question is how is it that politics can lead otherwise good, well intentioned people to support and perpetrate such evil?
Back in the CNN Cold War series one of the best episodes was about the Soviet war in Afghanistan. There the US, via Pakistan, supplied and funded the rise of Islamic fundamentalist movements to fight the Soviets. Two quotes stuck out from that episode. One was from an American bureaucrat who said he "never lost a night of sleep" thinking about the destruction and death the policy caused. After all, he said, it was a "contribution" to defeat a 'greater evil.' An abstract evil of "communism," represented by the USSR. Another quote was from Mikhail Gorbachev who realized the Soviets had to get out of Afghanistan, but they couldn't just leave. They had to find a way to convince the Soviet people and military that all the death and fighting had been worth it, that it hadn't be in vain. He said they needed 'a process.'
Both quotes demonstrate a fundamental problem in how we look at foreign affairs: the emphasis is on the abstract, not the individual. Suffering is dismissed in favor of ideas of battles over ideologies, states or "freedom." Add to that the tendency people have not to consider people of different color, religion or ethnicity as truly like themselves, and it's very easy to get lost in that kind of 'banality of evil,' where abstract logic hides true and intense human suffering.
I find it not too difficult to get students to connect with the human side of what happens in international affairs. Videos on suffering in various places -- Israel, Fallujah, Gaza, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, etc. -- all creates a mix of shock and anger. The anger is partially directed at themselves and our country for not realizing what kind of pain is being experienced, and how often we share the blame for either creating conditions to allow things to unfold as they did (such as in Cambodia) or do nothing to stop mass suffering when we could have (such as in Rwanda).
Anyone reading my blog knows that this has been a theme from the start for me, and I plan to dig into more information on particular wars in Africa and other things away from the headlines as the semester goes on. But I wonder what the best way is to bridge the gap from abstract intellectualizing about world affairs and empathy with the victims, people often seen as unimportant in the grand scheme of things -- expendable in pursuit of that 'greater good,' as the defender of American policy in Afghanistan might say. Because somewhere between raw sentimentality without regard to larger world issues, and pure abstract rationalizing without regard to the human cost, there is a middle ground, a way to unite the two without losing sight of either perspective.
Yet the more I try to find that balance, the more it seems to me that foreign policies like those of the United States, which is aggressive and attempts to control political developments in order to (in the eyes of American decision makers) help spread freedom, are fundamentally misguided. Obviously the approach of extremists like Hezbollah, Iraqi insurgents, and of course terrorist organizations are wrong as well. They make that same error -- in the name of an abstract good (one which supposedly serves God) the suffering of innocents is rationalized away. Whether in the name of freedom and human rights, or in the name of communism, religion, or nationalism, the road to hell begins with a fixation on abstract ideals over actual human conditions. It's kind of a mass insanity, which seems self-evident, true and obvious to those who have fallen into such a way of thinking, but which is shown to be a fraud when one looks at the true victims of the consequences of such thinking.
1.7 million or 21% of the population in Cambodia. 800,000, or 75% of the Tutsi population in Rwanda. And, of course, the above mentioned mass killings of Hitler and Stalin, and countless others. And, rather than blame the true culprit -- loss of humanity by focusing on an abstract ideal -- each side blames the other. Capitalists blame communists for Stalin's killings, Tutsis blame Hutus in Rwanda, Democrats blame Nazism for the holocaust. But while all those claims are correct for that specific atrocity, the real error -- the error which now plagues our species -- is to fall victim to this kind of abstract rationalization.
September 18, 2006 - Democratic governments make lousy puppets
Some in the US government, frustrated that the government
of Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki sided with Lebanon in the Israel-Lebanese war,
has moved to a closer relationship with Iran, and is increasingly unwilling to
follow us dictates, have suggested that perhaps Iraq would have been better of
had a traditional authoritarian been put in place:
Here, I must give President Bush some credit. While it was naive to think a democratic pro-western pro-American Iraq would emerge, somehow uniting the various ethnic groups and bringing stability, he is right to avoid the temptation of the past to simply try to install an authoritarian. We did that in Iran in 1953 when Mossadegh was deposed to make way for the Shah. The Shah was eager to do America's bidding and westernize/modernize Iran in a way that many Americans considered the perfect example of how to use oil wealth. Alas, his authoritarian ways and attempt to socially engineer society pre-programmed a revolt and set up the problems we now face with Iran.
Support for the Saudi Royal family has put us in a similar bind; the Saudis make payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers (something Saddam did as well, which was used to paint him as supporting terrorism, even though we look the other way when the Saudis do this), most of the 9-11 hijackers were Saudis, and the government supports the extremist anti-western Wahabi form of Sunni Islam. Ultimately discontent and anger in Saudi Arabia will challenge the royal family, and we'll perhaps see a once oil rich ally turn against us.
In an effort to make the best of a bad situation, the US should embrace the fact that a democratic Iraq may end up going a very different direction than what the US would have hoped, in terms of foreign policy and domestic structure, but nonetheless recognize that as mistaken as this war was, and has tragic its implications have been for both US policy and tens of thousands of Iraqis, if a democratic Iraq can emerge that avoids the authoritarian trend and somehow manages to muddle through even after the US leaves, that is at least a consolation prize. Optimists in support of the President still hope that such an emergent democracy may ultimately play a transformative role in the region, ultimately showing America's intervention to have been a net gain.
I am skeptical of that kind of scenario, but even a policy failure can have some positive outcomes, and ultimately a democracy in Iraq that can persist -- even if it is pro-Iranian and opposed to Israel -- would lay the ground work for future progress in the region. Those who, disgusted by the corruption and anti-Americanism of the Maliki government may be tempted to try to install an authoritarian that can be a willing instrument of American foreign policy. I doubt that will work even on its own terms. But one thing such a move would surely do is erase even the one positive outcome of this war: a Democratic Iraq.
The way forward is clear: talk with Syria and Iran about using their influence in the Sh'ia and Sunni communities to determine a stable form for the future Iraq. Use American influence with Kurds as well. Play with notions of federalism and regional autonomy while creating an understanding on the proper division and allocation of Iraqi oil revenues. This won't guarantee success, but it has to work better than the current path.
September 19, 2006 - After the next attack...
Although I do not agree we are in a 'clash of civilizations' resembling WWII or some major existential crisis, the reality of the age of terror is that it takes only a lucky shot to have tremendous consequences -- consequences far beyond what the act deserves to have. So, assuming that while weakened and marginalized, al qaeda still has dedicated workers and inside operatives who can over years devise and launch a terrorist attack, what will happen after the next one -- which could be as early as tomorrow, or years distant.
We make up to the news that there have been explosions in downtown New York and Washington DC. Soon we hear that radioactivity has been dedicated, that these were small nuclear warheads, and the death toll will be in the tens of thousands. America under nuclear attack! How would people respond?
First, markets would sink, oil prices would rise, and across America people in major cities would panic, trying to leave quickly lest they be target number three. Meanwhile an heroic effort would be undertaken to rescue and help those trapped in radioactive zones, and the President (who might now be Cheney or even Hastert) would go on TV and assure the public that government is functioning, there is no need to panic, and that we will assure the perpetrators be brought to justice, and those who may have helped them, punished severely.
But how will the public respond? Will there be a desire for revenge, to hit Iran or Syria, to launch a full scale war in the Mideast to "destroy" Islamic extremism? The biggest danger to our security, and even to our integrity as a culture or 'civilization,' is ourselves. The goal of terrorism is to goad the other side into reacting in ways counter productive to its interests. Al qaeda knows its a minority -- a tiny minority -- in the Islamic world, and knows that its main rival amongst Islamist movements is the government of Iran. It also knows that there is a huge vulnerability in the western economy to oil price increases, and that an economic or political shock can reverberate though the western economy with tremendous short term consequences.
If we in the West are smart, after some future attack we will not over-react. We will use the sympathy we receive from other Islamic states/groups and the rest of the world to fashion an alliance against violent extremism. We won't rush to unilateral war against some state in the Mideast, we won't give in to the desire for vengeance and to show that "we won't take this lying down." Instead we'll develop a mixture of pressure on groups sympathetic to extremists with collaboration with those in the Islamic world and the West who see such groups as a danger to their future. That can be the basis of a cross-civilizational dialogue between Islam and the West (of the sort Pope Benedict XVI was calling for, despite the unfortunately misunderstanding of his speech), and a unified front against violent extremism.
The danger is that fear and a desire to show how tough we are will lead to some kind of over-reaction. Attacking Iran or Syria, for instance, could lead to a backlash of increased support for the extremists, and more economic and political turmoil for the US. Add to that the internal divisions already in place in the West (and within the US), we'd be going into an ill thought out war as a people and culture divided; hardly a recipe for anything but disaster.
Despite my belief that the fear mongers are playing a dangerous and risky game with the American public, the fact of the matter is that they are right on one point: future terror attacks are likely. That is the age in which we live. And while we need to do what we can to prevent such attacks (and even a rather radical civil libertarian as myself believes that we have to make compromises due to the threat and allow more government ability to monitor communications and money transfers -- on that issue I tend to side with the President, though I think oversight is absolutely essential), sooner or later they will pull something off -- perhaps something big. At that point we will be tested as a nation.
Can we put aside the temptation to lash back with our massive military power and instead focus on a realistic strategy to avoid a spiral of conflict and violence which ultimately can lead to disaster? Or can we have the strength to be patient, work with others, and forge a long term path to security in the age of terror. I'm not sure; nor am I sure this test will come in such a dramatic manner as posed above. But we have to think about it and be prepared. Regardless of all the partisan politics, we are vulnerable to terrorism, and extremists organizations are likely to continue to try to use a terror strategy. We have to make sure that in our desire to lash back against them we don't actually fall into their trap.
September 21, 2006 - What to do about Sudan (and Uganda, the Congo, etc.)
President Bush challenged the United Nations to do something about Sudan, even while the Sudanese government steadfastly refuses to accept UN peacekeepers, and maintains supported only for a limited and marginally effective African Union force. The President is correct to demand action, but it's easy to condemn or challenge the UN -- the question is, what does it take for the UN to act?
The UN is its member states. The UN doesn't act as some kind of amorphous large organization, it acts only to the extent its member states act. Moreover, the member states with the most power to shape how the UN operates are the permanent members of the Security Council, especially the United States. So if the President really wants action, he has to: a) commit American resources and forces to a potential UN effort; and 2) challenge the other permanent members to join in the project, contributing their own forces and resources in a chapter 7 enforcement operation.
President Bush, of course, did nothing so specific. And, of course, Russia, China, France, Great Britain and other European states have been loathe to contribute much to any dangerous peace keeping operation. The failure of the UN in this enterprise is the failure of the powerful states of the world to take seriously third world violence and even what the President labeled genocide. One may be tempted to criticize President Bush for his emphasis on rhetoric and vague challenges to the UN rather than offering a specific plan. If the US were not so bogged down in Iraq there may indeed be forces to provide the backbone of a force that could stabilize Sudan. Yet the problem is more complex than that.
The reason why President Bush does little specific on Sudan, and why President Clinton a decade ago did nothing to stop genocide in Rwanda is because our society does not really care about what takes place in Africa, even if the atrocities involve genocide, kidnapping children and forcing them to kill or become sex slaves, or undertaking wars that lead to famine and poverty. Every once in awhile a major news magazine will carry a story, and there will be some kind of protest or rally, but overall people are more concerned with things closer to home. The violence and suffering in Africa seems exotic, strange and somehow natural. What can we do about it? People seem to believe it is a kind of primitive way of life which we cannot change or influence.
In a fantasy I would see President Bush call a prime time speech to "discuss the genocide in Sudan and propose a major international effort." In that speech the President would argue that tomorrow's terrorists and extremist/fascists are the result of long term endemic violence and corruption like that facing the states of Sub-Saharan Africa. He would give details about the child kidnappings in Uganda, slavery in southern Sudan, genocide in Dafur, chaos in Somalia, and problems stretching from Chad to Congo and lingering in Rwanda, Burundi and elsewhere. He would give heart wrenching stories about the life challenges these people face, and how we have both an ethical duty -- as humans who value the sanctity of life -- and practical duty -- as Americans who recognize that the result of such violence can be a generation of hardened fighters and terrorists -- to do what we could to stop it. He would be honest and say that due to the struggles in Iraq we have limited means, but yet at the same time pledge that if other states step to the plate we'd find a way to contribute something significant.
He would then lay out a political and military plan, involving intense negotiations designed at ending civil wars and lingering conflicts, with a mix of amnesty for many combatants, massive humanitarian aid for victims, and military measures to defeat the most extreme. He would note that this cannot be an American or NATO plan, but must involve China, Russia, Europe and the states of Africa, united in a humanitarian effort to stop a dangerous and sickening set of circumstances -- often lingering now over two decades -- from continuing indefinitely with unknown consequences. He would propose a time and place for states to come together to meet to discuss this, and promise that America will participate, not try to dominate such an effort.
Right now the main policy upon which the President's legacy is being built is the Iraq war; it is unlikely this will ever been seen as something positive. But if the same ideals the President proclaimed in wanting to liberate Iraq could be used to start a true multilateral effort to deal with the distress of Africa, it could create a legacy that Americans left and right can be proud of. The United States isn't in a position to solve these problems alone, but we can use our position in the world system to initiate a process that challenges other states to join, and puts these issues up front, as important if not more important than the daily events in Iran or Iraq.
September 22, 2006 - Defending Papa Ratzi
A cute T-shirt I saw in Venice last summer was worn by a German and said, "Our Papa Ratzi" (pronounced like paparazzi). That referred, of course, to the new Pope (il papa in Italian), Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI. "Ratzi" would be a common shortening of "Ratzinger" in German, so 'Papa Ratzi' was a fun, if irreverant title.
I am neither a Catholic nor a Christian. I have my own spiritual beliefs, but they follow no organized theology. Nonetheless I respect people of faith -- be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. -- if they stand by principles that reflect the ideals of love, humanity, and truth. I often might disagree with their interpretation of where these principles lead, but if I'm convinced that they believe the principles and aren't simply twisting them to support something evil or cruel, I can respect people of a wide range of religious convictions.
Pope John Paul II was one such person, and from what I can tell, Benedict XVI is another. In trips to Germany I'd actually seen Cardinal Ratzinger many times on TV and in the press talk about controversial issues. More often than not, I disagreed with his perspective. I never doubted his sincerity or conviction however. With that in mind, I am mystified and a bit saddened over the response given to his recent speech at Regensburg Universitaet. Benedict quoted Emperor Manual II Paleologos (late 14th century) of the Byzantine Empire, (the Orthodox Christian empire centered in Constantinople, now Istanbul), stressing the words "I quote" (to show he wasn't giving his own opinion): "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
Ratzinger always stood out amongst the Catholic clergy as an intellectual, someone comfortable with debates about history, theory and theology at a level that went beyond basic slogans. From what I can tell, the speech was a kind of intellectual exploration of the history of the Christian and Islamic faiths, a history that includes wars of aggression from each side, as well as times of cooperation and tolerance. I believe he was attempting something admirable: using historical context, he wanted to set the stage for a true dialogue between faiths, to look for common ground and avoid the kind of "clash of civilizations" so many see inevitable. Instead of responding to his ideas, his quote grabbed the headlines and aroused Muslim anger. Now the Pope is meeting with envoys from Islamic states, issued an unprecedented Papal apology, and is working to try to undo the damage done.
The reaction by Muslims around the world threatens to justify some of the worst stereotypes. When accused of being a violent religion (through a quote not actually reflecting the Pope's opinion), many respond with violence and threats of violence. Yet that response reflects less anything to do with Islam, and more to do with the political realities of a culture believing itself under threat from a dominate western military and industrial core. Just as with the controversy over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammod earlier this year, this incident reinforces the need to try to develop a rational dialogue across cultures, as separate as possible from the political context arousing emotions on all sides.
The Pope has the right idea, and his continuing efforts to pursue this, including calls for more talks and his rather amazing apology, shows that he is sincere. A number of moderate Muslims have noted that as well, and perhaps cooler heads can prevail, and a real dialogue can take place.
September 25, 2006 - October Surprise?
Gary Hart writes that he expects an October surprise from the Bush White House -- a war against Iran. Time magazine has an entire section about how a war with Iran would look, and, of course, investigative reporters like Seymour Hersch have been telling us for some time that many in the White House are itching for a war against Iran, despite military resistance.
My initial reaction is skepticism. These are tough stages of the diplomatic "game" with Iran, and it appears that realists like Rice have more say in how this works itself out than the militarists like Cheney. Moreover, many of the most hawkish of the neo-conservatives have left as a result of the Iraq debacle (note: the situation continues to deteriorate, with no solution in sight). Except for Paul Wolfowitz, who at the World Bank is, at least, admirably making anti-corruption a theme, most are unlikely to achieve major policy influence again any time soon. Beyond that the logic behind a military strike speaks strongly against it. Not only could Iran retaliate in a variety of ways (most of which have been gamed out), but the US is facing disaster in Iraq, Afghanistan coping with a resurgent Taliban, and a public tired of war. It seems an Iran attack would be insane.
But, of course, there are a variety of ways the US could attack Iran. Almost certainly it would not start as a ground invasion -- we're neither in a position to do such a thing, nor do most analyses see it necessary (yet). The common scenario is a massive air strike on suspected Iranian nuclear sites (over a thousand), augmented by special operations forces, to if not stop, at least slow down considerably any Iranian march to having the bomb. This would be seen by the Iranians as the equivalent of a declaration of war, and they have a variety of options on how to retaliate, depending on the efficacy of the strike and their political goals.
It could also be that the US wants to unilaterally impose and enforce tough sanctions on Iran, trying to halt oil exports and pressure the economy. The idea here would be to undertake acts short of those that will kill innocents and send pictures of massive bombing across the Mideast in favor of those that should weaken the Iranian regime and (in a world of wishful thinkers) embolden moderates. This would be a very dangerous course on a number of fronts. First, an attempt to boycott or limit Iranian shipping without international agreement could easily cause a spiral of retaliation between the US and Iran which would pull us into a deeper conflict. If we do this unilaterally, we'd assure that not only would we not have many allies, but we'd have other powers working actively behind the scenes against us. Given how stretched the military is, and how much debt we've accrued, this could be tantamount to pushing us over the edge in terms of losing our superpower status. Finally, the US could be positioning forces in the hopes that a UN Security Council resolution will place sanctions on Iran, sanctions we would want to be sure were enforced. Recent French and Russian statements make that seem extremely unlikely, as do close Chinese-Iranian connections.
So while with this White House I'm unable to completely dismiss the possibility they'd try something like a pre-emptive war against Iran, it seems far more likely that this is part of the diplomatic game -- show we mean business and we have the hardware to make life rough for the Iranians in order to push them towards making a better deal. After all, they've been pretty arrogant, believing they have the US literally under the barrel (an oil barrel) due to issues of oil and the capacity Iran has to ignite a Shi'ite revolt in Iraq. Most likely this is all to make them think twice about assuming the US to be impotent in these negotiations.
This doesn't mean there won't be an October surprise -- supposedly Karl Rove claims there will be one (though I think everyone is over-estimating the importance of midterm elections). But to attack Iran? I can't believe that after the lessons of Iraq this administration would be so foolhardy to try that. But, in a way reminiscent of how extended deterrence worked in the Cold War, the US may want the Iranians to believe that they not only are so foolhardy, but in fact eagerly so.
September 26, 2006 - Confirmation of the obvious
The National Intelligence Estimate concludes, rather obviously, that the Iraq war has increase the terrorist threat. That is not only not news, but it's so self-evident that you'd have to be in denial not to realize the way in which Iraq has emboldened extremists and created a dynamic whereby moderates and pro-American Arabs are distrusted and ostracized. And, while the usual suspects are trying to spin the report into something it's not (i.e., trying to say that it doesn't really say what everyone says it says), no amount of spin can alter reality: we are facing a larger threat now than we did in 2003, and, in fact, larger than we would have had not the Iraq war occurred. Invading Iraq was a strategic disaster.
But rather than just bash the Bush Administration or fixate on the obvious errors that led us into this debacle, it's more important to focus on the lessons learned. First, the invasion of Afghanistan did disrupt and severely weaken al qaeda. This suggests that it would be painting with too broad a brush to learn from this that military options are useless in the war on terror. Yet in Afghanistan the focus was specific: al qaeda and its ally the Taliban. The world was behind this effort, and it was in direct retaliation not just for 9-11, but a series of terrorist strikes. Al qaeda has never truly recovered, but the Iraq war gave them a lifeline. Attention was diverted away from Afghanistan, where the Taliban is now resurgent and the Karzai government really only controls the area around Kabul. Rather than develop a thriving democracy in Afghanistan, it is a mix of Taliban, warlords and expanded drug trade, and could again become a breeding ground for terror.
Lesson one: Military victory is only a first step. In Afghanistan the assumption was that the Taliban was defeated, and a small NATO contingent could lead the reconstruction. There was a false sense of how easy it would be to construct an Afghan democracy, with too much emphasis placed on the opinions of educated Afghan dissidents and exiles. A concerted positive post-war effort in Afghanistan could have yielded a true success; neglect is threatening to turn it into failure.
Move to Iraq. Here the plan was bold: create a democracy in the heart of the Arab world to give the US an ally, permanent bases, oil access, and a model to the rest of the region of something better than authoritarianism and fundamentalism. The notion was that only democracy can be a long term cure for terrorism; only major economic reform could provide a path to peaceful development in a manner friendly to the West, business, and Israel. That failed, and now we are stuck in a quagmire that the American people do not support, much of the military is angry about, and which have cost us thousands of lives and over half a billion dollars -- so far. Moreover, we are seen as over-extended and America is neither respected nor feared in the region.
Lesson two: Military means do not always work. They did not work in Iraq; Saddam is gone, but it's hard to see that the current situation is really any better than had Saddam stayed in power. The US is in a bind that is exceedingly hard to get out of; there is fear that if we leave Iraq will incubate terror, but if we stay we'll continue to be bleed slowly, with unnecessary loss of life and, as noted, grist for the terror recruiters.
So what next? How can we square these two lessons, how can we accept the failure in Iraq, and the consequences detailed in part by the National Intelligence Estimate, along with the need to "finish the job." There is only one way, and I know I'll sound like a broken record. We have to recognize the socio-economic and political stands of the problem, and how these are not at all helped, and often hurt when military force is brought to bear on the issue. We need to follow the lead of Pope Benedict XVI and seek true dialogue with the region, inviting Syria and Iran to play a positive role. We need to stop obsessing on trying to control and westernize the Islamic world, and recognize that their path to modernization may well be different than ours, and like us, it may be a slow path with many imperfections. Sure, we need to assure Iran doesn't become an aggressor, but those who have an irrational fear of Iran seem to neglect the fact that even with the bomb the country is not that strong, surely nothing like a Nazi Germany as some rather idiotic folk claim.
President Bush is in a unique position to do this. He's proven a willingness to use force. If he were to create an opening with Syria and Iran, few would fault him, few would think he was going down some sort of "appeasement" route which neglects the real danger. The result could be a nuanced and more sophisticated long term strategy of dealing not only with terrorism, but with a region in transition. Because the current strategy is broke, with no quick fix. We need new thinking.
September 27, 2006 - The rise and fall of great powers
Paul Kennedy's book, published in 1987, made an argument based on history: great powers rise and fall based on economic change and often through a process of imperial overstretch. They over-estimate their ability to project power, underestimate their military and economic risks, and soon find themselves unable to maintain their status. Efforts to try to hold on to power often are self-defeating. Within four years the Soviet Union proved that Kennedy was right in his analysis of the "contradictions" of the Soviet Union, even if he was wrong in suggesting that this "does not mean the Soviet Union is close to collapse." He also noted the problems of the relative decline of the United States, though his focus, typical of the late eighties, was on Japan, China, Europe and the two superpowers. The rise of Islamic extremism and other potential third world movements weren't really considered important.
As we watch our country struggle in two wars in the Mideast -- an Afghanistan where a resurgent Taliban and a web of war lords lays waste to the dream of a stable, democratic Afghanistan in at least the short term, and an Iraq where sectarian fighting, civil war, and corruption point to a long period of instability -- I think we have to question whether or not we are seeing if not the fall, at least a steep decline in America's role as a major world power. It won't be as severe as the Soviet Union's fall, thanks to our economy, but it could be significant, take us by surprise, and lead to increased errors in policy judgment.
The US spends over half the world's military budget. Yet we find ourselves bogged down in small states fighting insurgents in Iraq, and we fear attacks by terrorist organizations which defy defeat by traditional military means. The US cannot effectively challenge North Korea or Iran, and sees Russia, China and even France working to build alliances to counter American efforts to project power. While they can't stop a US determined to act, they can create situations which makes US action more costly, and assures far less aid and assistance from other countries.
Can this be averted? Yes and no. No, in that we are not a unipolar power, and the degradation of American power and prestige is real and unstoppable. Yes in that we are still a major power, and smart policies can use that power to assure that our relative decline is not a fall, and create systemic conditions conducive to a continued strong American role.
America's power is primarily high tech military, with a base of nuclear weapons, and economic. These nuclear weapons provide assurance that no state can destroy us (deterrence), and the capacity to contain nascent nuclear powers who might otherwise be tempted to use their weapons. That's real, and gives us a stick that North Korea, Iran and even China and Russia cannot ignore. Moreover our economic clout gives us the capacity to create incentives for other states to cooperate -- we have carrots that no one can ignore either. (Note: this economic power may be in danger -- see the June 23rd blog entry). We are able to defeat other militaries easily, we are not good militarily against insurgencies and terrorists. Part of that is the nature of this kind of war compared to our military, part is that any conflict with an insurgency requires a long term commitment, something the American political system is probably not capable of providing.
To preserve American influence we need to: a) avoid the temptation to try to use raw power to solve the problems, thereby inviting greater imperial overstretch, greater costs, more animosity from other states, and a risk of precipitious decline; and b) play to our strengths by focusing on deterrence, containment, and economic leverage to build cooperative institutions that first link us more closely to our allies, and then allow us to entice potential adversaries. Fear, like an irrational belief that somehow "the Islamic world" or Iran must be an enemy and can't be talked with, or that altering course would somehow create a "loss of face" needs to be thrown aside. Fear is the most dangerous obstacle to a rational foreign policy. And, of course, building on this the US must address the most important long term threat to international stability. It's not Islamic extremism, it's global poverty and third world violence. Now these issues can be addressed; in twenty or thirty years, we may be facing a crisis greater in scope than the current threat of terrorism.
September 28, 2006 - The Great Distraction
On September 11, 2001 the United States public was angered and in part confused by the terror attacks by Osama Bin Laden. 19 people, trained by a rather small and reclusive terror organization, protected by a pariah state, had humiliated and proved vulnerable a country which spends half the planet's military budget. What could this mean? How could this happen?
But, of course, 9-11 was in many ways minor. Compared to the damage we've done to Iraq, Serbia and now Afghanistan, the amount of people killed and property destroyed was minor. While we can completely destroy and ravage other countries, we find it hard to take even a small bit of damage ourselves. 9-11 was spectacular though, and that was it's genius from the terrorist perspective. It didn't destroy much, but it sure got people's attention! So the President declares a "war on terror," and for the rest of his term consistently makes the claim -- a rather bizarre claim if you think about it -- that 'we're at war.' Power is shifted to the Executive Branch, and the US uses the fear and uncertainty to thumb its nose at the international community and launch a war of aggression against Iraq, based on supposedly certain intelligence that they were developing weapons of mass destruction.
Then the US gets sucked into an abyss. A war that was supposed to be quick (and the initial military victory was), followed by a massive reconstruction effort that would win Iraqi hearts and minds and create a firm basis of a secular pro-western democracy gave way to a growing insurgency, followed by civil war, sectarian violence, and governmental corruption and incompetence. US deaths moved into the thousands, and Iraqi civilian deaths in (at least) the tens of thousands. Militias formed, women lost many of the rights they had under Saddam, and suddenly the US was spending hundreds of billions of dollars trying to find some way to get some kind of "success" in Iraq. Yet despite optimistic reports and claims (believed often by uncritical war hawks) the conflict dragged on, weakening the US military, and limiting US diplomatic options.
The Iraq war distracts us from addressing the on going violence in Africa, especially but not limited to Sudan. Our ability to deal with the challenge posed by the strength of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran's growing power is curtailed by our involvement in Iraq (and Iran's ability to potentially make things very difficult for us there). Counter terrorism efforts are hindered as experts in Arabic and American resources are focused on the Iraq war which doesn't really engage us against terrorists. Most of the fighters there are driven by local causes for an insurgency designed to affect how Iraq is run, al qaeda is very unpopular in Iraq. We're not fighting al qaeda or terrorists "out to get the west," we're mixed in a local ethnic contoversy in a country defined by an authoritarian and corrupt past.
There is no reason to try to "finish the job" or "stay the course" in Iraq. It's sucking us financially, dividing our public, and distracts us away from the real challenges to our foreign policy. It isn't the center of the war on terror or fundamental for our security -- if so we'd have more soldiers there, we have less than a third of what we had in Vietnam or in the first Iraq war. The problem with great distractions is that they often prevent us from seeing and preparing for the next real challenge. And, as the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan and problems between the Afghan and Pakistani governments grow, it's time to really focus American foreign policy on what matters. Iraq seems important, but I'm increasingly thinking it is indeed simply a distraction.
September 29, 2006 - Avoiding failure in Iraq
I know I've been on the Iraq theme this week, and I do plan to expand to others, but I think it important to explain precisely why not only things have gone bad until now, but why the belief that somehow we can get the job done or "finish the mission" is an illusion. To start, I have some sympathy with the Bush Administration's overall goal: to spread democracy, since democratic states are less likely to encourage terrorism and more likely to develop stable working relations with other states. However, the American belief that somehow democracy is natural and easy once you get rid of dictators or 'bad guys' who don't want it, is misguided. It's not that most Iraqis don't want democracy in theory -- in theory they are in fact in favor of it. Rather, it's the nature of politics, political culture and change -- and this has been verified throughout history.
Iraq has three things working against it, and fundamentally working against democracy: massive corruption, ethnic disputes, and economic disruption. Moreover, the electoral system, designed to try to spread influence amongst ethnic groups, assures as well that governments will be weak coalitions involving a large number of parties, including those both involved in corruption and ethnic violence. The only way to build a democracy in this kind of environment is through slow development of rule of law, accountability, stable institutions, and only then a true move to democracy. Having people go out and vote seems to us with our western bias as good in any context. But it's not. Voting can lead to more chaos and instability if not done in a situation where rule of law and a political culture embracing compromise and toleration of different perspectives has taken hold.
The fundamental mistake of the current policy is the emphasis on democracy as the means to an end, rather than the end itself. Democracy was put forth as a means to stabilize Iraq, bring about economic development, and ultimately have an impact on the region. But in reality democracy is not something you simply impose if you don't have other cultural and socio-economic attributes in place. This doesn't mean they simply should have installed an authoritarian (see September 18's blog); the goal of democracy is sound. But the way in which this was done -- through war and then an attempt to get Iraqis to the polls quickly without addressing the core problems that work against stability and democracy -- is doomed to fail.
Some might argue that Japan or Germany after WWII are examples of how Iraq can indeed be turned into a democracy through defeat in a war. Clearly that hasn't happened. Iraq's dictatorship fell three years ago, yet violence in Iraq is at an all time post-war high. Germany and Japan were, three years after WWII, moving quickly to stability. The differences are both in the nature of the war (Japan and Germany had been aggressor states pursuing empire, Iraq was a small weak state attacked by outside force without the legitimacy of either self-defense or international law), and the political cultures. Japan had been a stable, ethnically unified state, which had already dabbled in electoral politics and forms of democracy. That was built upon, but even then the development of a true democracy took decades. The LDP grip on power looked a lot like pre-WWII Japan in uniting government, business, and financial interests in a nationalist pursuit of power. The power was economic rather than military, but the shift fit with pre-war Japanese norms, and pre-war stability. Gradually Japan has become more like a "normal" democracy.
Germany was part of the West, and it's Weimar experiment with democracy was remarkably successful given the horrible conditions in which it found itself. The fact that it weathered storm after storm until the Great Depression was too much for it to bear (the Nazis only had 3% in 1928) shows that there were underlying cultural affinities in Germany to make a democracy work. Germany was modern, had a tradition of rule of law (as did Japan), and had developed a political culture that allowed debate and dissent, even during the Wilhelmine period. What was done there can't be replicated in post-Ottoman Arabia, or in a place like Iraq whose political culture has been defined by corruption, violence, and authoritarianism for decades.
Add to that the war and violence only reinforces the notion that authority comes from a gun, the situation is rife for a violent insurgency, for choice of sectarian violence (now a civil war, really), and for hatred of the foreign occupiers. Iraqis blame the US for the situation and want us out -- our ability now to try to build institutions and stability is compromised by the disrespect and even hatred Iraqis have for us and what we try to do. Thus, looking at this as a war is doomed to fail.
That doesn't mean that Iraq is doomed. If the US finds a way to leave, can work with Syria and Iran to try to promote regional stability, and let Iraq work through the difficult period of ethnic violence and corruption on its own (we can't do that for them -- and we've actually enabled much of the corruption), in time -- perhaps decades -- one might see an emerging stable democracy. Or, perhaps, Iraq will be partitioned. That creates problems, but can solve problems as well. The US has to have the wisdom to let go of the dream of "winning" this war by leaving behind a stable democracy. That isn't going to happen, this war is already lost in those terms. Instead, we have to recognize that the initial goals were unrealistic, and that the best thing for both Iraq and America is to work with regional actors to negotiate our departure and recognize that we are not in a position to shape Iraq's future. While that may not be victory in the usual sense, it at least might be away to avoid true defeat.