Entries are in chronological order
March 1: A quote from Charles Eliot Norton, from 1895, quoted in Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower, p. 140: "I fear that America is beginning a long course of error and wrong and is likely to become more and more a power for disturbance and babarism..."
It's been almost three years since the US invaded Iraq with the goal of deposing Saddam Hussein and setting up a pro-American western style democracy. As many of us predicted three years ago, the former goal would be easy to achieve, the latter impossible. Moreover, we warned that Iraq could slide to civil war, Iran would benefit immensely from having the Shi'ites in power in Iraq, and Islamic extremists would use the emotion of having the US in the region to build popularity and sow anti-Americanism. We warned that the US would be weakened by pushing away allies, by a costly war that we would have to pay for completely, by higher oil prices that inevitably come from regional instability in the Mideast, and by stretching our military to the breaking point in an unnecessary and unwinnable war. We warned that the fantasy of spreading democracy by military force was a dangerous delusion, that democracies develop within a cultural context that supports them. I wrote about three years ago that an attack of Iraq could well end up as the most disastrous fiasco in American foreign policy history.
One might think that I would be smug in noting that as Iraq slips into further violence, with 2/3 of American GIs in Iraq wanting the US to leave, and the US dealing with an Iran that has become more hardline due to the surge of anti-Americanism in that country (and who has close ties with Iraq's government), the predictions that I and many others who opposed the war made were correct. If this was a point of academic debate, I might feel satisfied.
But I have two sons. Their future is dependent upon the future of the United States. Their quality of life depends on the decisions made now. I see the disaster in Iraq, along with the growing evidence of severe environmental problems due to global warming, and the economic vulnerability to oil shocks and the like, as threats not just so much to me, but to my children. For their sake, I wish very much that three years out I was writing how Iraq was a brilliant democracy, how I was totally wrong in my predictions, and that the Mideast was entering an era of stability, with the Israeli-Palestinian issue closer to being solved. But every almost factor in the Mideast has become more dangerous as a result of America's intervention in Iraq. The world is far more dangerous, the US far weaker and disrespected, and America's political system less free and less stable than it was in March 2003.
I read some of the pro-war rhetoric these days and while many former supporters of war against Iraq are admitting that they had made fundamental errors in their assumptions (such as Francis Fukayama), others seem driven to hold on to their beliefs despite the vast array of evidence proving them wrong. Some fantasize that this is something like mid-thirties Europe and those who want to leave Iraq are the equivalent of appeasers. They yearn for the kind of culture war the Islamic extremists desire, not recognizing that such a war would be unwinnable and a disaster for both sides, and not realizing that such a conflict is completely avoidable. They are, in essence, the allies of the Islamic extremists in itching for a conflict that would prevent them from having to confront their errors. Others still hope that there is a deus ex macchina solution. "The Iraqi people" will somehow come together and heroically push away those who want conflict in their country and forge a democracy with American. These people aren't so much allies of the extremists, but rather they don't want to admit error, they are holding on to their illusions for as long as possible. Still others recognize the error, but fear that leaving will be an even worse error, and search for an exit strategy that somehow can preserve a claim of having done good -- peace with honor, as Richard Nixon would have called it.
At home political discourse, marred by two close elections where the losers never really admitted they truly lost, and the winners never really tried to build bridges to the losers, has become debased by talking heads screaming at each other, as if one had to choose sides. You're either conservative or liberal, pro-war or anti-war, republican or democrat. You choose a team, then support that team, emotionally, and with a believe that the other side has evil intent is "mentally ill" as one radio talk jock claims, or somehow dangerous to the country. We're in the midst of a severe crisis with no end in sight, and rather than coming together, two "sides" scream at each other. The majority roll their eyes at this kind of silliness and become apathetic. So the screamers guide policy, the apathetics watch reality TV, and we do nothing to truly confront these issues. I think one reason people can't admit they were wrong about the war is that they are caught up in this "game" and don't want to "lose" to the other side. But the issue is far more important than who wins an election or which side can claim having been right.
Back in the fall of 2003 at a conference on European-American relations I predicted that reality would force the US to veer from its unilateral policy towards partnership and compromise -- our government would recognize that military power has limited use, and one state, even an awesomely powerful state like the US, can't shape political results alone. Reality bites. That prediction is coming true, the Bush administration has learned, and is moving to embrace compromise and diplomacy, even if public rhetoric remains tough. But until a major course correction is taken in the Mideast, our policy undermines our security and our interests.
March 2: In the course The First Modern Decade (co-taught with Steve Pane from Music and Sarah Maline from Art History) we’re reading the book The Proud Tower by Barbara Tuchman. Chapter three, describing the US embrace of imperialism and the efforts of people like Thomas Reed and Charles Eliot Norton to combat it should be a must read for everyone following the folly of our foreign policy today. In fact, in reading Tuchman’s account I’m driven to want to delve into American foreign policy at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century.
The argument by the anti-imperialists was, essentially, that the United States was founded on ideals that were contrary to European imperialism/interventionism, and instead focused on liberty and virtue. I’ll put aside the fact that in 1890, the year Thomas Reed took over as Speaker of the House of Representative was also the year of the last battle with the native American Indians (putting down an uprising of the Oglala Sioux at Wounded Knee, South Dakota). The 19th century was an imperialist century, even if it was seen as a natural expansion west, with little regard for the societies that were devasted – one could describe that expansion as a kind of low tech holocaust. But that’s another issue. For better or worse western thought in both the US and Europe tended not to regard people in other cultures as having the same human value as white European or American types.
Putting that aside, it’s fascinating that many of the issues faced back at the time of the Spanish-American war and the subsequent problems the US had in the Philippines reflect similar sorts of issues and arguments as we see today. We don’t have imperialists openly saying that lower and debased races and cultures should naturally be subjugated by superior peoples. We don’t have people claiming it is in our blood to conquer. The most radically imperialist voices have at least learned to couch their language in politically correct terms. But those voices are there.
More interesting, I think we’ve seen a conquest of anti-imperialist arguments by the imperialists (how appropriate!) Woodrow Wilson won the Presidency, and essentially brought arguments for self-determination and against power politics into the White House. The imperialists, dominate in the early 20th century, seemed to be losing steam. But with two world wars and the Cold War, there has been a merging of idealist rhetoric and the kind of imperial urge that the US succumbed to back at the end of the 19th century. While Thomas Reed, Grover Cleveland and others could argue that the US should be that ‘shining city on a hill’ serving as an example for others by not intervening and not giving in to the politics of militarism and conquest, current “neo-conservatives” use idealism as a rationale for military conquest. The West is right, American values are superior, and we should spread democracy through force. That isn’t that much different than many of the imperialist arguments of the past (or Disraeli’s argument for empire in Great Britain), but permeates the culture more fully given how World War II gave “isolationism” a bad name.
Tuchman’s chapter is called “the end of the dream,” signifying the end of the dream that America stood for something more noble and above petty power politics and militarism. I have to agree Charles Eliot Norton whom Tuchman quotes on pages 166 and 167 of The Proud Tower as saying: “I reach one conclusion, that I have been too much of an idealist about America, had set my hopes too high, had formed too fair an image of what she might become. Never had a nation such an opportunity; she was the hope of the world. Never again will any nation have her chance to raise the standard of civilization.”
March 3: The argument by those who say "sure, we messed up in Iraq, but it would be more dangerous to leave than to stay" is fundamentally flawed.
By staying we are actually helping the extremists by keeping that foreign presence that inspires hatred and increases the number of terrorists (one US General claims they are producing terrorists 'faster than we can kill them'). Staying there is what makes things more dangerous. Moreover, they assume that staying there means creating some kind of positive result. The problem, however, is that there are no signs that a positive result is likely; more likely is increased violence, continued stretching of the US military, and even a spreading of the war outside of Iraq. Finally, they are ignoring that while the US is there Iraqis blame America for their conditions, meaning that every dead child, whether due to an insurgent bomb or an American attack, is blamed on America. The longer we stay, the harder the job gets. Add to that the fact that 2/3 of Americans want the US out, a poll shows most GIs stationed in Iraq want to get out within a year, and that the President's approval rating is at 34%, it's clear that the Administration is in no position to demand further sacrifice; they are politically wounded.
The real issue is whether or not a "peace with honor" solution is still possible. Can the US set up conditions that allow us to say "we've done all we can, now it's the Iraqis' job" and then leave, with an ability later to say it was their fault, not ours, if peace cannot hold. That solution requires at least a short term window of calm and stability, and that seems unlikely.
At this point I see no rational alternative to simply stating that "Saddam Hussein has been removed, and the US has spent considerable effort in helping Iraq develop a functional democracy. At this point it is clear that most Iraqis do not want the continued presence of the US, and our presence is not increasing stability. Therefore we will start withdrawing American forces, with the withdrawal complete within a year." Then we should do it. I'm not sure how quick the right pace should be, but while the withdrawal is progressing, we should deploy troops still there to places where they are relatively safe, and as a rule are not required to engage in offensive operations.
They say the first law of holes is that when you're in one, stop digging. There will be policy challenges in dealing with the aftermath of the fiasco, and trying to reconstruct a Mideast policy that deals with a Hamas led Palestine, hardliners in charge in Iran, and a divided Iraq. Our presence in Iraq has contributed to all these problems. But continuing to fight there is becoming completely indefensible.
March 7: Fighting the imperial urge.
The United States is worried about Iran. Iran may be developing a nuclear weapon, Iran is supplying Shi'ite militias in Iraq (and could ignite a Shi'ite insurgency against the US there if it so chose), and really since it was an American ally before 1979 Iran is the natural power in the region. Right now the US approach is essentially to define America's role as a guarantor of stability in the region, with the Iranian nuclear program as a threat to that stability. The US seems willing to risk a lot to try to assert this role, including economic disaster if oil prices skyrocket and even regional war.
Is it worth it? Is Iran really a threat to the United States? Fear mongers can always imagine a threat from anyone. One could imagine Iran getting a nuclear weapon, and then imagine giving it to terrorists. But that is exceedingly unlikely. Getting a weapon would be very difficult, and if they develop one, it is almost inconceivable they'd give it up to some terrorist organization for the sole purpose of attacking a US city. Certainly they would not give one to al qaeda, a Sunni organization that is a rival and perhaps even an enemy to Iran. They don't have the capacity to hit the United States (and if they did, they surely know it would be suicide to do so), and despite the inflamed rhetoric of their President, their policy style has been cautious and patient (if also devious). Nuclear weapons would be useful to them to claim status as a regional power, and countries jealously guard their nuclear capacity, they don't share it with strangers who might use it in a way that would make a state a target.
The US mocks Iran's desire for nuclear energy by pointing to its oil reserves, but Iran correctly notes that oil will run out, and they want a balanced economy. But let's assume the worst -- and it's a reasonable assumption -- that Iran really does have a nuclear weapons program. What does that mean? They could threaten Israel, but Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons and could deter any Iranian strike.
Iran's goal is to become a regional power. Nuclear weapons would put them on that path, and act as a deterrent to an Israeli attack down the line. It also would give them considerable influence over neighbors, potentially to the detriment of American influence. But they'd still need to sell oil. They'd still have to deal with the fact their power would be balanced by other regional actors, including China and Russia. They'd still be a minority sect in Islam, and they'd still be balanced by the fact the Arab world, while composed of less powerful states, as a whole could still balance the power of Iran (which is not an Arab state -- the most common ethnic group there is Persian). Currently they are allied with Syria, but that's a marriage of convenience, forged in opposition first to Saddam, and now out of concern of America's role in Iraq.
Bottom line: if the talk these days is bluff to get Iran to give as much as possible, that's fine. But a military strike would be far more dangerous than accepting Iranian nuclear development. A military invasion would be utterly insane. Attempts to try to promote reform from within are potentially very promising, but can only work in a climate where the US isn't seen as a hostile force, allowing the hardliners to play the nationalist card. The US has to recognize that rather than try to guarantee peace by controlling the region, we need to trust that regional powers can balance each other, and nuclear deterrence works. Israel may be tempted to attack Iran to prevent it from achieving any kind of nuclear capacity -- that would be dangerous for Israel given the current climate, but that's their call. We should not work in tandem with them on any such effort, it is not in the interests of the US, and it would risk regional stability and the oil market. Iran is not the dangerous threat that it is made out to be, though the wrong actions might create conditions where it does become a threat -- military strikes or an invasion could create a self-fulfilling prophecy of an Iran able and willing to plunge the region into chaos. It's best not to go there, best to fight off that imperial urge.
March 8: Happy International Women's day! Over most of the globe today is the equivalent of what we call "Mother's Day," except its all women, not just moms who are pampered and honored. That seems better than how we do it, but traditions are hard to break.
In two of my classes this week the question of meaning came up. In INT 277 we talked about Thorsten Veblen, conspicuous consumption, and how getting stuff seems to have became an essential component of identity and the meaning of life to many in our culture. In HON 277 the discussion was around Chris Hedges' book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, thinking more broadly about what does provide meaning in life.
The consensus seems to be that this is a very individual thing -- each person needs to determine what life means for themselves. I wonder, though, if that's not part of a shared cultural attribute of our society (i.e., 'the West') which emphasizes individual rationality. The notion that we are separate from others and in charge of determining what life means is a rather radical notion, when looked at historically. Who are any of us to claim the capacity to determine what life is all about? Isn't it a kind of radical relativism/subjectivism to state that the essential meaning of life is up to the individual? Also, do we mix up what gives life meaning with those things that simply give us distractions or pleasure? Do people really think about what life means to them; why is life precious and do we live it fully and with eyes wide open?
Of course, we don't know what life is. All we have is experience, and that experience is mental -- our minds translate sensory data, and our assumptions about the existence of matter, laws of physics, and the like are mental constructs -- theories to use to manipulate experience. We've all had dreams that involved manipulating matter and interacting with other entities. Yet when we wake up, we realize there was no "stuff" there. Our assumptions about the waking world are as tenuous as those of a dream world, but we hold on to them since we never "wake up" to a different form of reality (or experience).
Which brings me back to Scriabin. He apparently believed in a universal mind with which he wanted mystic connection, in his case through music. As bizarre as some of his ideas were (and I have only heard of these in class, I haven't actually researched him), I find myself thinking that perhaps he was on to something. We experience a world, but this experience seems shared (unless you fall into solipsism), and there seems to be an idea that transcends all humankind -- the idea of the world. Perhaps meaning is to understand this idea, and understand the connections between us -- to fill the void, if you will, left by our belief in separation from others and from what Scriabin might call the universal or holy mind -- or what I called "the source" on February 16th. But what does that mean in practical terms? I have thoughts on that, but class is in three minutes, so I'll get to that tomorrow.
March 9: First, here's an interesting piece by
Lt. Gen William Odom (Ret) about the comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam:
But I've written a lot about Iraq lately, I'm going to delve back into the kind of "meaning of life" question I started discussing yesterday. I put forth yesterday an idealist worldview that questions the nature of material reality. Materiality is an assumption we make to categorize our experience, but in reality all we have is experience. This is often put forth as "interpretations of reality," but at a fundamental level those interpretations constitute reality. My analogy to dreams, I supposed that just as our dream reality has a creator -- our minds -- the waking reality seems to be something not wholly created by our brain. Rather than seeing it as an external material reality, I would posit it as something akin to how our minds create the dream reality -- there is a mind (for lack of a better term) which forms and shares our reality. Moreover, on pragmatic grounds, I accept that my experience of other entities reflects interaction with real entities like myself, all of us sharing this common experience, connected with a universal mind that creates the parameters of our experience. I would speculate that there is really no true separation between these entities experiencing a world and the universal mind any more than there is true separation within a dream between the characters and scenery of the dream and my mind. Yet we can experience all this as extremely complex and almost undeniably separate.
I obviously can't prove the above, nor can it be falsified, so at best it's a guess based on a mix of reason and intuition. The evidence is more subjective than objective, which means I won't be dogmatic about it, and I'll constantly re-assess it. But what if I'm close to the truth here, what does that mean in terms of the meaning of life, and how I should behave? First, I'd say that despite the mystical sounding nature of the above, one implication is that there is a fundamental urge to embrace life and live it fully and without fear. Experience is what we have, it defines reality; to deny experience would be to deny reality, experience should be embraced. That doesn't mean asceticism is wrong - it simply is one form of experience - but it does mean that self-hate or a hatred of life/existence is wrong. Hatred of self is hatred of experience/reality, it would be hatred of existence. While one could argue that such a choice is one form of experience, it strikes me that it is an irrational form, since if one hate that which is, it puts you in a hole you cannot crawl out of; life becomes torture.
Fear also becomes irrational because if we are all connected at some level or part of a universal mind (now where that universal mind came from is another story) then all experience ultimately is interrelated and all dilemmas and tragedies resolved. We only see a subsection of the greater whole which may look ugly, but many beautiful things look ugly at a point in their development or when seen only in part. (I should note I'm not talking about instinctual fear when you see a safe falling from the window of a building and you leap out of the way scared of being hit -- I'm talking really about psychological fears of what might happen, what could go wrong, etc.)
Lastly for today this interconnection has profound moral implications in that all we do to others we are really doing to ourselves (and if you want to consider the source or universal mind as "god," then the Christian notion of having done to God what you've done to the least of his creatures makes sense). What that means is unclear -- does it point to a kind of utilitarianism, to deontological ethics, or pacificism? I'll grapple with that some other day.
March 10: President Bush's approval rating has plummeted to 37%, and Republican disapproval is growing. Since January 2005 there has been a steady erosion of support for the President as Iraq gets worse rather than better, budget deficits continue upward, mortgage rates increase, and the White House seems increasingly out of touch.
Two issues, though, stand out, and in each one I have sympathy for the Administration. First, Katrina. Katrina and its aftermath did show the problem of the underclass in America, and how we have structural racism in our society, a fact that statistics point out clearly, but to which most people remain oblivious due to the fact the problem is invisible. Katrina made it visible. But that's not Bush's fault; Democrats and Republicans alike are complicate in ignoring and brushing aside the massive and growing gap between the rich and poor. That gap is growing under Bush, but also grew while Clinton was President. It is a structural problem within the American system that both parties will likely ignore until it becomes a crisis. Katrina showed us the problem is there, but we're doing little about it.
The idea that a quicker FEMA response or more engaged White House could have altered what happened is a bit unrealistic. Hindsight has 20-20 vision. Moreover, it becomes easy to blame Bush and ignore the real problem -- a problem that continues as poor folk in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast are still suffering, but now off the front pages. We should learn from this that we have a societal problem; we don't. We will deal with is problem of the underclass sooner or later, such injustice cannot be hid away forever.
The other issue is the Dubai Ports deal (likely an impetus for the current drop in the polls). The Democrats and Republicans have both disgusted me here with what seems to be thinly disguised appeal to racism and fear of Arabs -- how dare we allow a company owned by an Arab country have a part in management of our ports?! A British company was OK, but not an Arab company! Implicit in such a position is a view that Arabs are our enemies; not just Islamic extremists or members of terror organizations, but all Arabs. We're drifting to the kind of "culture war" mentality Osama Bin Laden and those of his ilk want. And if that mentality continues to grow, that's what we'll get. That could be very dangerous to our way of life. The issue isn't the UAE or this specific deal, but the rise of a kind of anti-Arab nationalism which, of course, will feed Arab and Islamic anti-American nationalism/extremism.
Things look good for the Democrats for the fall, President Bush's numbers are lower than any other President, including (depending on which poll you compare) Richard Nixon in his final days in office. But while I strongly desire a "check" to the President's power which the Democrats would provide, and I firmly believe that the Iraq fiasco is something that the Administration should have to take responsibility for, I don't have a sense that there are any real alternatives that address the fundamental issues facing the United States. The only Democrats that really seem to show vision are Howard Dean (but he's attacked and ridiculed so harshly by the right that he's unlikely to be a Presidential contender) and Jimmy Carter (and he's already been President). We need to firmly reject war with Iran, have a plan to get out of Iraq, rebuild diplomatic bridges, have a diplomatic strategy in the Mideast, and bring fiscal sanity back to the budget. Moreover we need to start facing structural problems such as the American underclass which we've been ignoring. I almost feel like I'm seeing America slowly drift away from the pinnacle of its wealth and power, a process that may be unstoppable unless we act soon. And actions like starting wars or ignoring realities only hastens the decline.
March 13: A growing number of so-called "neo-conservatives" and others who supported going to war in Iraq are starting to admit the obvious: this venture has been a failure. While President Bush points out that Saddam has been removed, if that were the only goal we could have been in and out in a couple of months. The goal was to create a stable democracy as a model for the region from which to pressure Syria and Iran to change as well. I think some correctly realized Iran would be a future threat, and hoped a strong American ally in the new Iraq would be able to be a bastion of western power next door to the Islamic Republic. But reality has a way of defying wishful thinking and grand schemes. It didn't work.
Still, it's interesting how even those who admit there were errors try to admit the least error possible while still taking into account reality. That seems to be human nature; nobody wants to admit they were wrong, especially on issues of this import. Even in science, when an old favored theory is being challenged people cling to the old one, not wanting to bring into doubt their world view assumptions. Proponents of a steady state universe refused until the evidence was overwhelming to agree that the Big Bang Theory worked best.
In most cases, when people are forced to admit they are wrong, they try to minimize that and rationalize it (others made errors too, etc.) Fundamental here is the notion of tactical errors rather than strategic errors. Most Iraq hawks want to "admit" that the tactics were wrong (though usually they'll blame that on incompetence in the White House, thereby avoiding admitting real error on their part) but don't yet question the strategy. They don't question whether or not the view that the use of American military power to reshape politics in order to promote democracy and bring stability to the region was a fundamentally flawed strategy. Much like the football coach who insists that the game plan was good but not implemented well, they don't want to bring into question core political beliefs.
So what's my point here? Am I just trying to rub it in the face of the pro-war crowd that they were wrong? No, the point is broader: we humans have a hard time questioning things we believe. We hold on to our basic points of view and opinions, even when reality suggests we rethink them. When we do question our beliefs, we tend to minimize what needs to be changed, jettisoning only what absolutely must be discarded, and trying to find ways to hold on to as much as possible. In politics this is made worse by the fact that admitting one was wrong seems to suggest an opposing "side" was right. People on the left are just as prone to that mistake. Government money as a solution to the problem of poverty was (and in many ways still is) held dearly, as if government programs can solve problems. Many on the left overlooked or made excuses for the terrorism of people like Saddam and Mao, or under-emphasize the abuses of power by Castro or earlier the Sandinistas.
Human nature thwarts rational, effective political action not because people are basically evil or war like, but because people get locked into positions and seem driven to hold them and defend them rather than engage in true critical, reflective thought. Those who do are attacked as inconsistent or as "aiding" the opposition. Stick with the program! Don't undercut the President (be he Clinton or Bush or whoever)! There is no solution to this, except for each of us in our own way to avoid the herd mentality of "right vs. left" and not identify too closely with any "ism" or political group, and to try as a point of pride and honor to be self-critical as forcefully as we are other-critical.
March 14: One of the illusions held by many is that somehow America can use money to try to generate opposition from Iran's hardliners from within. The argument is that most Iranians have long seeded respect for the United States, some of it dating back to the pre-revolutionary era, while young people earn for more freedom and openness than is allowed by the religious authorities. The fact moderates had won every election until 2003 is seen as a sign that the people want change, and if the US is willing to back them with money and support, they'll be able to pull off a revolution of their own, bringing down the Islamic Republic.
That is pure poppycock. It is built on ideas that are based primarily in wishful thinking, and not in a true assessment of either Iran's situation or what the impact of US aid would be. An article in today's Washington Post points this out: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/13/AR2006031301761_pf.html
Note this section (from the above cited article):
"Unfortunately, I've got to say it has a negative effect, not a positive one," said Abdolfattah Soltani, a human rights lawyer recently released from seven months in prison. After writing in a newspaper that his clients were beaten while in jail, Soltani was charged with offenses that included spying for the United States."This is something we all know, that a way of dealing with human rights activists is to claim they have secret relations with foreign powers," said Soltani, who co-founded a human rights defense group with Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi. "This very much limits our actions. It is very dangerous to our society." Activists here said the Bush initiative demonstrates the chasm that often separates those working inside Iran for greater freedoms -- carefully calibrating their actions to nudge incremental changes in a hostile system -- and the more strident approach of many Iranian exiles who often have the ear of Washington policymakers. "Our society is very complicated," said Vahid Pourostad, editor of National Trust, a new newspaper aligned with Iran's struggling reform movement. "Generally speaking, it is impossible to impose something from outside. Whatever happens will happen from inside. "It seems to me the United States is not studying the history of Iran very carefully," Pourostad said. "Whenever they came and supported an idea publicly, the public has done the opposite."
The best way the US can aid the reform movement is not to be aggressive towards Iran. The less tension, the less appeal hardliner nationalism has for average Iranians. Then they are more likely to push for reform from within, like they were (with slow but real successes) from 1980 to 2003. The more the US can be painted as a hostile foreign power bent to denying Iran's sovereign rights, the more they can count on whipping up support for hardline positions and politicians. That's one reason Iran is so assertive in the nuclear showdown; they know the US can't do much to them militarily, but as long as the US is seen as a bully, it enhances the support they receive and allows the hardliners to have an excuse to clamp down more than ever on reformers and human rights activists.
The fundamental flaw of American foreign policy is it is based on a series of illusions. The illusion of American power to shape political results (Iraq disproves that, but so does Serbia and many other examples), the illusion that the rest of the world really wants to jump to a western style democracy, the illusion that culture and traditions don't matter as much as abstract ideology, the illusion that America is and should be seen as a benevolent force for stability and good. These illusions blind not only policy makers but also citizens from the true impact of American policies, and how they are perceived by others, especially in cultures far different from our own.
Ironically, candidate George W. Bush summed it up nicely: "It really depends upon how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us."
March 15: Since we are talking about the third world in International Relations, I've been thinking about the way our culture has defined materialism as not only natural, but the one thing which should unite the planet: the desire for more stuff, the emphasis on markets and economic growth. Never mind that it's impossible. The whole planet can't consume the way we wealthy westerners do without destroying the planet and using up its resources (and spare me the deus ex macchina "technology will solve everything" optimism). But nonetheless that is our cultural pre-disposition. That cultural pre-disposition creates not only harm for us, but it puts third world societies in a state of crisis. They cannot achieve the "result" we promise, but in trying to get there they undermine their existing systems of culture and value.
Now I could go into the theories and critiques of issues involving political economy -- and if I were in class I would -- but in my blog I like to approach things from a different angle. What is this "culture of materialism?" I have a bit on my wall from Rene Descartes (it's labeled "Something to Remember in these materialistic and hedonistic days of the late 20th century" so it's been up there for a number of years) from his discourse on method -- click here to read it. Essentially he argues, as do many philosophers and religious folk, that true happiness can only be achieved by limiting your desires, or essentially adapting yourself to the conditions you are in, not wanting what you cannot obtain. Or perhaps Sheryl Crow got it right "It's not having what you want, it's wanting what you have."
We have such vast material wealth in the industrialized world, yet we have a manic desire for more. More distractions, more stuff, newer stuff, better stuff. Our self-worth gets defined by our sense that we have what we believe we should have, and we compare ourselves to others to make that assessment. That is, quite frankly, insane! Once our need for food and shelter are taken care of, putting ones' happiness in the hands of material possessions or comparisons to others is the ultimate sacrifice of individual autonomy. Material goods cannot create happiness, they can at best provide a short term rush or in a best case scenario, little moments of happiness when one ponders something like the beauty of a piece of art or the comfort of a fine chair. Comparisons are even worse, since there will always be people with more, or who do things better.
In some ways our material wealth my be mirrored by a kind of spiritual poverty. We are like workers in a third world country who work so hard to survive that life is a constant struggle. Psychologically we work so hard to get 'more' that life is a constant struggle, but at least one where we have nice, comfortable stuff surrounding us. Our leisure time is often spent in pursuit of "more" as well -- more thrills, more stuff (look at the malls on a weekend), and more distractions (did you catch "Idol" last night?) Distractions are nice because they give us a pause in our pursuit of happiness through possession/comparison, momentarily allowing us to forget that we've chosen a rather pointless path in our pursuit of happiness.
But, of course, the use of "we" there is unfair. There are lots of happy people; I've just provided an "ideal type" of a western materialist obsessed with things. I would submit, however, that happiness is found in those people who find ways to adapt to their circumstance and enjoy what they are doing and who they are with. What is more pleasurable -- to work with your family to fix up a room, or to run to the mall and shop? Each involves getting more or better stuff, but in the former you're working through something in the moment with family, with an obtainable goal (finish the job). The happiness is not from the newly designed room -- in a few weeks it will almost be forgotten that the room was ever much different -- but the happiness was the interaction and action during the process of working together. It was a good day. Going to the mall may yield some good clothes, but especially if one is alone or splitting up to go to different stores, the process will be mundane, and likely you'll get at best short term happiness from the things bought. It won't be a good day in the same sense as the home improvement project, it'll be a non-descript day. In each case the stuff involved wasn't what was relevant to the quality of experience, the process was.
March 16: A Culture of Abstraction, and scary thoughts!
Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict XVI each claim that they want the west to embrace a "culture of life." That includes being anti-abortion, but also anti-war, anti-death penalty, and in essence focusing on the beauty and sanctity of life. While not sharing their religious perspective, I think they have a point. We live in a society takes a different path. If someone's relative is killed, we often here that they can't have "closure" until the perpetrator is also killed. That seems utterly sick to me, I have absolutely no respect for that view (and yell at the TV when someone makes such a claim). Being in favor of the death penalty is very common in the US, it's the conventional wisdom (unlike in the rest of the industrialized world).
War is embraced by emphasizing abstractions and fear. "Kill the terrorists!" Ignore the dead innocents, it's war, that happens. Send women with small babies into war, potentially to die. Or, in a tragic case out of Norway, Maine, send a father into war the day his son is born, and then have him die leaving the son to grow up without a father. Death is readily accepted by our society, not so much because people glorify death (we aren't Klingons!), but because we abstract death into something unreal. We objectify our fellow humans and we don't think about the consequences beyond the death of an individual. We rationalize via abstractions, distancing ourselves from the reality of the acts in human terms.
Where this could lead is scary. Sometimes as I watch the war drums beat for action against Iran, or here people rationalize the death in Iraq by "somebody had to take out Saddam," I realize these people aren't evil, they're just lost in their abstractions. They think in terms of broad power games, geopolitical competition, and fear of what could happen. Never mind that it seems absurd that the US "had to" worry about who was in power on the other side of the world, and then unleash death, destruction and a civil war in the course of doing it. Heck, we even supported the guy in the eighties! The death and suffering that is taking place is pushed aside as "inevitable" or "not our fault, we didn't know they wouldn't embrace democracy peacefully" or "we're trying to help." We don't comprehend the reality in human terms in Iraq, it's a different world, experienced only through the discourse of political abstractions.
The result could be World War III. If war spreads out of Iraq and becomes regional, if the US were to launch air strikes against Iran, if Israel were to launch an attack on Iran, if a terror organization would pull off another 9-11 and cause rampant nationalism at home, things could escalate dramatically. Oil prices could spike, the economy could if not collapse, at least weaken, we could get pulled deeper into the conflict, a draft could start, dissenters at home could be labeled traitors in a McCarthy like orgy of fear and hate, and the result at best would be that we would be weaker, less free, and less prosperous. At worst, there could be domestic collapse. It's possible. The "pandora's box" we opened (as Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called it) might set off a chain reaction if we continue to provide sparks by expanding violence and inciting extremism.
The only solution is to truly value life, and to somehow pull ourselves out of the myths and abstractions and think about the true human cost of what is taking place. Anyone can don the vocabulary of power politics and foreign policy expertise and make a "reasonable" argument that just about anything should be done. In the world of abstraction, all can be rationalized. In the world of human experience, the lie of such rationalizations becomes obvious.
March 17: A matter of perspective. In academia and social science, we generally believe that "the truth is out there" -- our goal is to find out what reality really is like. To be sure, you have "positivists" who argue the goal is simply to falsify things that aren't true, and contingently hold on to truth claims of things which despite testing are not proven false. There are also "realists" who believe that theoretically useful constructs can be considered "real" even if we can't actually see them (e.g., quarks, or social classes). There are post-modernists who believe all we have are different stories and interpretations, and there are pragmatists who argue that if something works, we may as well use it, regardless of whether or not it is "really true." Quantum mechanics has bizarre properties, but it works, so use it!
I've come to a conclusion somewhere between the pragmatic and post-modern approaches. I can't imagine being able to discover a "truth" in terms of social reality. The complexity is too extreme, and interpretations diverse and often unfalsifiable in their own terms. In my teaching I've come to the conclusion that one of the best approaches is to help students learn and understand that there are multiple perspectives and then be able to understand various perspectives in a manner fair to that perspective. From there one can critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of various perspectives, bring social science methods to bear on various issues, and ultimately make a call on what perspective seems best (and supporting why they make that call).
Fundamentally, I think there is an essential error made when people look to find the "right" answer. It creates the kind of problems we saw in the 20th century, various ideologies claiming they are true and that all others are wrong, and therefore must be defeated. Ultimately a mixture of the inability of social science to prove definitively how social reality works, the ability of social reality to change its rules to reflect culture and society, and the ability of the powerful to manipulate society means that a belief that there is a right way to judge society/politics will result in powerful actors simply proclaiming their way best and using propaganda and the tools of the state to belittle and combat alternates. Since most people want to be right, it'll be easy to fall for these "myths" or claims of truth, and the result is a loss of personal autonomy to truly decide how to live, and a politics that claims authority but is really run on whim. The whim may be broadly related to culture, or closely related to those in the government and business elite, but it won't have any validity outside the fact it exists and people believe it. Nazism is an extreme example, but even our culture and our style of imperialism is related to such a dynamic.
The only way students can be empowered to think for themselves and see through this all is to help them recognize that all claims to truth and authority in social matters are inherently problematic, and in fact there are a variety of perspectives that need to be considered and understood. Moreover, while choices must be made, it is foolish and irrational to believe that one has found the right choice and that all other choices are wrong. That doesn't mean we can't reach consensus to condemn some choices (eg. nazism or Soviet syle communism), but the question is always open, and we remain, as I noted a few days ago, as much self-critical as other-critical.
March 20: Three years ago today "shock and awe" struck Baghdad, and we were told that not only would the war be won, but it would be over quickly, Iraqis would welcome us as liberators, and oil revenues would pay for the reconstruction, meaning the US would not find this an expensive war. The war was over quickly, but establishing a stable peace has proven impossible. Not only has our presence helped extremists across the region, most dramatically in Iran, but American forces have been unable to stop the drift in Iraq towards civil war. Protestations that "things will get better" and "things are improving" seem feeble at this point; we've heard all that before, and every time it's been proven untrue.
So how can a major power admit it made a mistake? How can a President say to the world and his people that tens of thousands of people are dead, a country torn apart, and hundreds of billions spent on an error of hubris? The answer: he can't. It would take a heroic character to stand in front of the American people and say, "I truly believed that this would bring stability to the region and democracy to Iraq. I believed that we would be welcomed, and that this would be a blow to terrorism. I was wrong. I take responsibility for the fact many people have died and had their lives torn apart by this decision. I am sobered by how easy it was to fall for wishful thinking. But it would compound the error by trying to deny it, or continue on in hopes something will somehow change. Therefore, I am going to the United Nations Security Council and requesting urgent multilateral action to help the Iraqi people, and vow that the United States will work as a partner, not a commander, in this effort. Moreover, it's clear that our military cannot bring stability, so we will bring them home as soon as possible, though with a willingness to participate as a partner if the UN and the Iraqi government desire a stabilizing or peace keeping force." George W. Bush may or may not have come to grips personally with reality; clearly publicly the Administration sees it as a necessary not to show any doubt.
But if someone had said on March 20, 2003 that we would be enmeshed in an ongoing fight in Iraq three years later, with no sign that this will end soon, and numerous signs that the ethnic disputes will worsen and the now low-level civil war intensify, that would have been dismissed as defeatist pessimism. Yet with the balk of the country saying the war isn't worth it, and polls showing the President at his lowest level of approval, with very little support to continue in Iraq, the reality of the situation cannot be denied.
What this means is very disturbing. I believe that invading Iraq may end up on the list of some of the most egregious fiascos in history; it is, as one General put it, a "strategic disaster." It has weakened the US, stretched the military, emboldened extremists, aided Iran in its effort to become a regional power, and created more instability than ever in the Mideast. What that means I'll address tomorrow, as I reflect on a CNN Presents special, We Were Warned, which aired this weekend. But for now it's happy birthday to the Iraq war. It turns three today.
March 21: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are considering adding Euros and dumping dollars from their currency reserves, largely in response to the Dubai Ports deal fiasco. There are also moves to do a lot more world business in Euros, which could strain the US current accounts deficit further, and lead to a dramatic decrease in value for the dollar, and potentially undercut the current economic recovery. China and Saudi Arabia also have extensive holdings in America's stock and capital markets, and any major shift to Europe or another investment source could be exceedingly harmful to the US economy. This vulnerability is real, and there is no real protection. Right now China and Saudi Arabia don't mind helping support the unsustainable American current accounts deficit because we buy so much from them -- and they don't want to anger their main customer. But down the line, that could change.
CNN last weekend aired a special, "We Were Warned." It is about America's (and really the world's) dependence on oil, and how a few plausible events could put the world economy and our way of life in turmoil. The report was good, mixing about fifteen minutes of dramatic fiction, set in 2009, with 25 minutes of analysis of how the current oil economy works, and what possible alternatives are out there. It ominously showed how former CIA director James Woolsey had undertaken to make his own house in Virginia "energy independent," seeing a kind of major oil shock as perhaps the biggest threat to the United States.
Their scenario was simple: a major hurricane devastates oil refineries in Houston. Al qaeda, waiting for this moment ever since they saw the damage caused by Katrina, attacks Saudi oil facilities. This shock is enough to throw the economy into turmoil and create instability in many areas of the world, instability which could turn into regional warfare, especially in the developing world. Moreover, it envisioned a continuation and intensification of the current Chinese-Iranian cooperation, and how all of this could have been avoided if only we had dealt with the warnings from as early as the seventies (with cool footage of 70s commercials on energy conservation).
Like global warming, which no one is denying any more, there is a real threat concerning oil. It is concentrated in the most unstable part of the world, where anti-western thought is growing, and where states increasingly have the power to do damage. As noted in the first paragraph, this damage isn't just through terrorism, but is economic. All they need to do is believe that they have more to gain by weakening us than keeping us a healthy customer, and there's not much we can do. This explains why President Bush and the neo-conservatives yearn for massive change in the Mideast and US bases in Iraq. But unfortunately they miscalculated the negative effect that invading would have -- the anger at the killing and destruction aid the extremists, and the extremists are the ones most likely to ditch the capitalist notion of keeping your main customer satisfied. Moreover, as world demand for oil grows, the US demand isn't absolutely needed by the oil rich states, and thus they have more options.
After watching that film I looked at my almost three month old son, Dana. One can only imagine what the world will be like for him when he's my age. This era has the feel of a "time before something big happens." It reminds me of when I was in Berlin in August 1989. I was there the week before the migrations started which ultimately ended the Cold War, but it still felt as if change was coming. There is a way to avoid disaster, but it's not something one can win by war and military power. That lesson, unfortunately, has not yet been learned in Washington.
March 22: We had an interesting discussion in the "Children and War" class about child development theories. Is there a formula to raise a "good" child, and are the parents to blame if children turn out bad. The class seemed to think that parents do have much of the responsibility, and that there are things that can at least increase the probability children will turn out well. We also discussed whether children are inherently good, bad, or if they just exist as themselves, neither good nor bad. Today I will offer a naturalist explanation; later on I'll add a spiritual component (maybe tomorrow).
My own view is that children and all humans are by nature "good," since life by definition is good (in other words, I am constructing a concept of "good" which reflects a belief that life has value). I've experienced too much goodness from others and, in fact, feel too much compassion and goodness in myself to accept the fact that people are bad. I also see evil in the world (how can you not confront that teaching what I teach) and bad behavior in myself, but I'm convinced these are not the result of an inherently bad nature, but rather a result of how action in the world creates confusion. This confusion is multifaceted, it is confusion of the self (who am I, do I have value?), confusion about others, confusion about cause/effect/motivation of the self and others, confusion of culture, and confusion about existence.
Consider: in nature we need aggression. We need to protect ourselves, to motivate ourselves to work, to protect children, to undertake activities to assure our survival (hunt, gather, and later farm). Aggression is not a "bad trait," but a trait necessary to our species. Anger, frustration, fear and anxiety all serve very useful purposes in nature. That is the self we are born into, not that much different than the pre-civilizational self in our core attributes. But the self is put into a culture where identity is confused, the traits that reacted to natural stimuli are now responding to cultural and social stimuli in a manner that has little to do with the trait itself. Thus fear, aggression, anxiety become "dis-orders," responding in a way appropriate to the jungle in a context of modern industrialized society. The self-in-nature is replaced by the self as part of culture in a way that both strips the natural identity and leaves it with a void -- we must define and understand who and what we are in this culture.
So by nature we are good (because I'm defining life in nature as the definition of good) but in culture we are confused. In culture our natural traits can show themselves in perverse ways, as fair, anxiety, anger, and aggression exhibit themselves in twisted ways. Furthermore, the artificiality of this culture creates alienation, as we are not in the nature our bodies/minds were designed for, but in a social context that has been created. To be sure, this culture is a human construct, so it is related to our basic traits, and the self does get shaped by the culture to think in the categories and understandings of the culture (so ones' cultural context 'feels' natural, as if that's the way the world should be), but there will always be challenges to live in the culture in a "good" way.
Thus we have reason and philosophy on the one hand, and religion on the other, to create artificial constructs explaining how we should behave, and to define the meaning of this social context. There is no best or "right" culture -- all culture, every economic system, and every political system are equally artificial and thus none are true. Some, however, hinder our ability to express our natural traits in a productive manner more than others. Ultimately the challenge to the individual is to understand the artificiality of the culture, work to weaken the grip culture has over ones' sense of self, gain perspective on the meaning of life in culture, and gain a kind of self-mastery over ones' traits. That isn't easy, and it requires one break the kind of hypnotic hold culture/society has over the way we understand who and what we are. Until we do that we are alienated, and as long as we are alienated, we won't have a strong enough sense of self to work towards self-mastery.
To the question yesterday: obviously parents cannot do this alone. They work to develop a child's self-esteem, work to separate notions of self-identity and self-worth from purely culturally deprived ideals (though the self must exist in culture, so there can't be a complete separation) and work to avoid and combat the kind of alienation that can so easily take hold. But culture is pervasive, and self-mastery is a process that continues beyond childhood, even if so much of who we are is determined at a young age.
March 23: In the "Children and War" class we're critiquing social science theory as well as looking at human development, so today I'm going to give my read on the weakness in social scientific theory in describing war, and how the readings (War is a Force that Gives us Meaning by Chris Hedges, and excerpts from The Rhetoric of Empire by David Spurr) help push us towards an alternative.
First, I would argue that a grand theory of "why is there war" is impossible, and in fact social science commits an error if it looks at war as a natural phenomenon to be studied in the same way one would study chemistry or physics. Trying to build a grand, generalizable theory doesn't work because war is based on meaning. Not just the kind of "meaning in life" that Hedges describes, but also meaning in the sense of Spurr's description of colonialism. Meaning is constructed discursively, with various cultures developing different meanings for all social and cultural phenomena. To understand war requires one to understand its discursive context and what it means to those involved. This includes things such as the "myth of war" which Hedges considers to the rhetorical strategies discussed by Spurr.
So where does that leave us in terms of social science? A post-modernist like Spurr might argue (I'm not sure he would) that attempts to build a theory about war or construct an explanation that is at all generalizable is completely impossible due to this discursive aspect. War is contextual, meanings change. And at some abstract level, that's likely the case. But the American philosopher John Dewey criticized philosophical abstraction because it ignored the world we experience, and our possibility to change it. His pragmatism -- which relegates truth claims not to "discovering reality" but "finding out what works" gives us the prospect of considering a theory of war that focuses both on explaining how it can happen, and what can be done to make it less likely.
To do that I think we have to be capable of two things: 1) the ability to critique and 'stand outside' our own perspective and beliefs; and 2) understand and explore alternative perspectives. The post-modernist would scoff that this is impossible, since by definition we can't escape our perspective. But the pragmatist might disagree. Consider: your house has a view. You can imagine it with different views -- say the ocean, or the mountains. Each of those views comes from something in your past experience, but it allows you to envision your house from a different perspective than you presently experience it. The fact we are capable of learning and understanding a multiplicity of possible perspectives combined with our capacity to imagine gives us at least a practical ability, if we try, to view the world in a variety of ways. We can't escape the limits of experience, but we can question the core beliefs that we have developed by exploring other possible interpretations of experience.
Hedges notes a fundamental factor in war: it gives people a sense of meaning, it creates unity, it has an addictive power, it becomes grounded in a kind of irrational nationalism combined with cultural conformity built around basic societal symbols (low culture). In a sense, aggressive war is made possible in part by a mass delusion, a consideration of war as being something it really isn't, hiding its true nature and ultimate destructive power. It takes a life of its own by its capacity to unify and create a sense of meaning and identity, even if it is a false and ultimately transient sense. This means people who support or choose war do so not really understanding what their choice entails; if they did, presumably far fewer wars would be seen as worth the cost. So rather than emphasize factors that lead to war (and I don't think such studies are useless, I just think that they are incomplete -- no theory such as realism, Marxism, liberalism, etc., will ever offer a full explanation), I would emphasize the discursive and cultural conditions which make war possible. Moreover, the goal is ultimately remedial, there needs to be consideration of how to make war less likely -- at the very least to assure that those who choose war do so with their eyes wide open, rather than under the spell of nationalism, emotion, and myth.
And that, it seems, has as its primary focus: education. Without education people won't see beyond the myth and will fall for the emotion. Behavior follows thought and meaning; behavior will not change if thinking does not change. But what kind of education would be appropriate? This entry is already too long so I'll sum it up this way: education designed to be liberating; that is, to help students think for themselves and learn to recognize myth and reflect on a variety of perspectives rather than just being programmed to think one way gives students tools of discernment. That, at least, would be a first step.
March 24: Seven years ago today NATO started bombing Yugoslavia in order to try to get Slobodan Milosevic to sign the Rambouillet accord on the status of Kosovo. Instead of quickly giving in, as was expected, the Serbs unleashed a massive refugee crisis, and the bombing dragged on for over 70 days. Due to a desire not to lose American troops bombing was at 15,000 feet or higher, meaning nothing really could be done to help the Kosovar Albanians. Bombing took place all over Serbia, contributing to a lingering anti-Americanism and strengthening Serb nationalism. Ultimately the Serbs gave in, but only after the US bombed the Chinese embassy by mistake, instigating a crisis, and after a near clash with the Russians over who would occupy the Pristina airport. Due to success in managing the peace the war is considered a success. But on its own terms, as a military operation, it showed a preview of what we're learning in Iraq: victory is not as easy as expected, unexpected consequences can be counted upon, and it's easy to over-estimate our ability to project power.
Yesterday in the "Children and War" class Mellisa (the co-instructor) told a story of how when she was working in Zimbabwe, digging a ditch so they could have running water at an orphanage. She said how the Shona director told her she was digging wrong, that the Shona dig so that each shovel full of dirt has meaning. Mellisa noted that at the time she didn't understand how a shovel full of dirt could have meaning, and that it wasn't until much later that she really understood what he meant. I reflected on that story yesterday, and actually think that it contains within it a fundamental secret to living an authentic, full life.
Everyday we're lost in a world of abstractions, our minds racing here and there as we mindlessly do simple tasks, or focus our mind on accomplishing more difficult ones. We rush about, or we sit in front of a TV. We lose ourselves in books, or spend time on video games. We read about world events, or catch up on local gossip. We do a variety of things, but are we truly present or are we simply caught up as part of a world which gives us our tasks, even our emotions and our goals. In other words, do we really reflect upon and take control of our thoughts, emotions, or choices, or do we simply play our roles in a web of interactions and activities? I suspect that what we consider the "self" is really itself a social construct, an idea of self that is in actuality part of the greater world, connected to the rest of existence in a manner that we cannot escape, no matter how free and individual we consider ourselves.
So why was her story so powerful? In a moment where we choose to truly experience life we can capture a sense of an authentic self, one that at least in some way transcends the social scenery its a part of. And a true experience (that's a bad word, but I can't think of a better one) requires that we grab what we are experiencing and imbue it with meaning, consider it as it happens, consider the meaning, beauty and essence of where we are and what we are doing. Recognize that moment as a unique point in both space/time and in the "self." That sounds abstract, but it's practical. Practice it. Grab on to moments, hold them, savor the experience as you engage in it, find meaning in it. Not all the time, our culture won't allow it, and it could get exhausting. But try at various points in the day when you're doing mundane tasks or simply pushing through the day to grab the moment and make it meaningful. I think the more we can do that, the more we'll get a glimpse at the true beauty of life, and perhaps even better understand the power of our choices and our capacity to claim a meaningful life, regardless of our material circumstances.
March 27: The news from Iraq keeps getting worse, and at least from a Political Science perspective, there is no doubt that what is happening there should be labeled a civil war. Last weekend Shi'ite and Sunni militias clashed, the US and Iraqi forces clashed with a Shi'ite militia, the Mahdi army of Muqtada al Sadr. The US is charged with slaughtering civilians, there are claims of mass killings in a mosque, a major suicide bomb at a joint Iraqi-American military base, beheadings, etc. Stories inside Iraq paint a picture of a country that has ceased to function normally, reconstruction has basically ceased, the US isn't even going to bother trying to pay to rebuild, and despite it all, the Administration insists "progress is being made."
At some point even the most passionate supporters of the President are going to have to say, "come on, level with the American people! We can take the truth." The disconnect between the reality on the ground and the claims coming from the White House are immense. Iraqis are living a lower standard of living than before the war, with far less security and far more killing than in the years proceeding the war.
Charges that the United States slaughtered civilians or attacked a mosque may be false (it appears the mosque issue may involve a Shi'ite holy building that isn't a traditional mosque), but once they are out there, it hurts the ability of the US to have the credibility to stop the slide to civil war. We can't win in this conflict. We support the Shi'ite dominated government, but the Sunnis turn to the US to try to get them a slice of power. The Shi'ites then think we're giving in to insurgents and that we're trying to undercut them. If there wasn't the intense hate and emotion caused by all the violence perhaps the US could broker a deal, but as it is the only reason either group wants us there is that they hope to use us to protect their claims on power. Ironically, this reduces their likelihood of negotiating a settlement.
Moreover we're undercutting our own claims for wanting to spread liberty and respect for human rights with stories of torture, secret detentions, and tactics that appear contrary to what we are claiming. This undercuts the effort at it's very foundation. Those who support the war seem to see this as some kind of long term struggle against "Islamic extremism." But what does that mean? And if that's the case, then there needs to be a serious discussion about what's happening and what can work to deal with a potential cultural clash. That again requires straight talking from the Administration, and an open debate/discussion in society. Because with the war this unpopular and a President with such low popularity and credibility, a longer more costly "struggle" is impossible. We're rudderless right now.
To music: last week in The First Modern Decade we talked about what classical music is -- what that categorization means. There was a sense that there is a disconnect between "classical" and "pop" music (the later for a mass audience), but in his time Mozart was, I believe, popular with the masses. Perhaps there is a sense that what changed is our culture; we've become a mass culture, meaning that what gets produced is what sells to the public. For instance, 100 years ago in universities professors would be very high paid, determine their own schedule, and part of an elite subculture that focused on those elite students who would be trained for future leadership. Now university education is mass education, professors are no longer an elite, and students are not just the future leaders, but reflective of all society -- at least at most schools. The change in culture brought about by mass society has impacted everything, taking past elite practices (high art, music, university study, etc.) and making it 'common.' That isn't necessarily bad, of course, but it seems to me that it is the most pronounced facet of modernism, one which shows itself in every aspect of society. More on this in coming days, but already this blog entry is too long...
March 28: Time magazine has a cover story on global warming this week; National Geographic has also recently reported on how the warming patterns are at this point irreversible and will create potentially devastating results in coming years. Add to that the turmoil in the Mideast, the increasing demand for (and soon to be dwindling supply of) oil, and the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and I can't help but feel that we are on the verge of a major crisis, a crisis of modernism.
Philosophers and critics have debated the perils of modernism and explored alternatives for some time. Modernism is based on enlightenment ideals of rationalism, science, and human mastery of our world and nature. It entails a separation between mind and body, or the human self and the natural world, which allows us to manipulate and study the world with increasing precision and control. This has meant scientific development, vaccines, material prosperity, the computer revolution, knowledge of science, and an embrace of progress and development as positive ideals.
Yet there is a dark side. We see the dark side in the mass killings of people like Stalin and Hitler, who used modern technology, rationality and propaganda to create regimes capable of far more control over others than ever in history. We see the dark side in the development of nuclear weapons, and now in how our prosperity and progress threatens our very ability to preserve our quality of life as the planet warms, terrorists arm, and political discourse devolves into emotional sound bites. One has to ask WWVD (What would Voltaire do?)
In the next century, global warming will hit third world states especially hard, which could, if combined with such things as the ability to engage in nuclear terrorism, lead to a major threat to the West. After all, the "west" did this to them, first with colonialism, then with massive pollution. Economies could plunge as well, leading to more distrust and conflict. In short, this century will likely be a transition from one type of system to another, and such transitions are rarely peaceful, and almost always entail a major change in who has and can exercise power.
This makes the situation in Iraq all that more intolerable. We cannot afford to be making enemies, distracting ourselves from the real crises to come in some kind of fanciful effort to "spread democracy." That has clearly failed, headlines today show more violence, Shi'ite groups turning against the US, the US charging them with faking massacres, and still no government. Now needs to be a time when the industrialized world seriously confronts a variety of problems that are new and potentially explosive. Yet we are bogged down in a military conflict which does nothing but weaken us, and create more animosity in an already fragile part of the world. We live in interesting times, as the Chinese curse goes, and the more I reflect on the extent of the problems on the horizon, I realize that most people not only are not ready for what's coming, but have no clue about how fragile the entire system really is. I think Don Henley's song, "Working It" put it well:
"Welcome, welcome to the USA
We're partying fools in the autumn of our heyday
And though we're running out of everything
We can't afford to quit
Before this binge is over
We got to squeeze off one more hit
We're working it"
March 29: Culture and Society
Two great conservative scholars, Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek, noted the human planned social and organizational systems often function far worse than those which arise naturally. Burke's emphasis was the French revolution. In that case the desire to develop a perfect rationally planned society led not only to failure, but the rise of modern terrorism in the policies of Robespierre. Of course, Burke wasn't writing about those events, he wrote before things went sour in France, and accurately predicted the kind of turmoil that would ensue. Hayek, originally a socialist, recognized that markets function in ways to benefit society, using diffuse information in a manner impossible for bureaucracies or planners. Moreover apparent injustices in market outcomes often serve a greater social purpose. Beyond that, when one plans a society, the diverse interests and tastes which need to be "rationally reconciled" create a tremendous set of tasks, causing government to grab more power, and ultimately deny freedom. The failed experiment in centrally planned communism is proof that Hayek's basic point is accurate.
Burke and Hayek each recognized that society rests less on rational governance and more on culture and shared beliefs/understandings. I bring them up because they may point to a way to think about the "crisis of modernism" I brought up yesterday. Modernism rests on reason, rationality and an enlightenment faith that if only one could figure out first principles and basic truths, one could rationally determine the correct role of government and social organizations. That modern faith seems an illusion, and an attempt to apply those principles in places where cultures do not share the same attributes as the industrialized West are likely to fail.
To take this a step further, Burke essentially noted that societies function best when the government matches the culture and traditions of that society. Culture and tradition hold a society together; challenge that, and things fall apart. Colonialism did that (and Burke recognized this) and left much of the world without a connection between their governance and culture. Instead, government became a way to make money, corruption ensued, and much of Africa has been enmeshed in violence and poverty ever since. Hayek noted that rule of law is important, and that the law must apply to governments as much as to citizens, and freedom is threatened when citizens are arbitrarily punished or threatened. In much of the third world, especially places like Afghanistan and Iraq where outside intervention has been more recent, rule of law is non-existent. Government is the law, and it imposes it on anyone it chooses, often arbitrarily, but not on itself.
The reason why our western democracies seem to be such good forms of government that we want to spread them is because they have a cultural fit to our way of thinking, and rule of law is generally upheld. The only way to deal with places like Iraq (or other third world countries) is to work within their cultural frameworks, avoid dictating conditions, avoid trying to control political outcomes, and withhold aid and assistance -- perhaps even trade -- from states that are not working to develop true rule of law. The only way that countries outside the "west" can modernize successfully is if they do so in their own way, following their own cultural beliefs, even if some of them seem contrary to our deeply held principles.
Our weird political jargon to the contrary, the hawkish liberal policies of the Bush administration (misnamed neo-conservatism) need to take a lesson from true conservatives. I find much in Burke and Hayek to disagree with, but there are a number of insights from classical conservatives that need to be taken seriously by today's apparent conservatives.
March 30: An Oil Nightmare
I've long thought that the biggest ace up the sleeve of the Iranians is their potential ability to close the Straights of Hormuz, through which oil from Iraq, Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia flow. Now Juan Cole (http://www.juancole.com -- a must read for anyone interested in what's really happening in Iraq, he's a U. of Michigan history prof with extensive knowledge of the region and contacts) reports that Iranian General Rahim Safavi has stated that, indeed, Iran could do that. Cole suggests one supertanker could block the straights, causing an oil crisis.
After Katrina and the short term disruption to oil flowing in through the ports in New Orleans, we've seen how even small shocks can cause a disruption in oil flows, and higher oil prices. But the underlying reality of the Mideast conflict is the potential for a crisis to create a major oil shock that could bring the economies of the West to a virtual standstill. Is this likely?
Some say no, this is very unlikely. The reason is simple: the countries of the Mideast need to sell oil to afford the perks that they enjoy, and which keep them in power. If the clerics in Iran are unable to spread oil wealth around, could they keep the country stable? Probably not. Closing the straights would be insane.
OK, that's sound logic. But why the fear of a nuclear Iran? If Iran attacked Israel, Israel could respond with massive nuclear devastation on Iran. Both countries would be wiped out, mutually assured destruction. Even in the unlikely event the Iranians could develop a nuclear weapon that could be delivered by their longest range missile to the US, they know that America's response would be instantaneous and devastating. Now, if people really think Iran with nuclear weapons might be crazy enough to do that, wouldn't they also be crazy enough to close the straights of Hormuz, or do other things to disrupt oil flows?
To be sure, despite the fear mongering, the only real threat from a nuclear Iran is that Iran will become a regional power, and that will weaken American influence in the region. Gloom and doom scenarios about Iran with nuclear weapons really ignores the reality of the situation. The President of Iran may say bizarre things, but the military and the Guardian Council have final word. They have had a very clever, but patient foreign policy. The US doesn't want to see Iran as a regional power, especially given the fact Iraq will be its natural ally, and given the amount of oil in play. But in terms of real devastation, Iran's most potent weapon is not the possibility it could generate a few nukes, but rather its potential to create an oil crisis.
Backtrack to 1979: President Carter declared that the US would fight a war for oil, as the Carter Doctrine noted that Persian Gulf oil was in the interest of the United States and the West. The fear was the Soviets could ferment a revolution in Iran that would bring Communists to power and give the Soviets a choke hold over Persian Gulf oil. In the case of a severe crisis, a closing of the Straights of Hormuz would lead to a massive economic disruption that could rival the Great Depression in its impact. Iran might think it could survive this if it prepares; it does have a port at Chah Bahar in the Gulf of Oman (outside the straights) and with oil prices sky high, it may find regional sales enough to keep the economy going. At the same time, it's unclear how the US would or could react to such an event. Given past behavior, the US would likely choose war (though perhaps the Iraq fiasco will lead to an 'Iraq syndrome' which will cause people to think twice about war), but that would probably not be a successful or feasible policy.
Bottom line: In dealing with Iran we need to be realistic. The bombast from people like Charles Krauthammer who tries to spread fear by asserting Iran having a nuclear bomb would mean the end of civilization is plain ridiculous. Iran is a regional power with real tools it can use to thwart US policy. Perhaps we need to stop with the "axis of evil" stuff and the idea that we can shape the world through force, and instead sit down and talk as two sovereign states with some mutual and some competing interests. We did it with the "evil empire" and ultimately western ideals won out over communism. Surely we can do that with Iran as well.
March 31: Two very respected scholars of international relations, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, are being demonized and threatened due to the fact they wrote a very compelling article, "The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy." Harvard has caved to this kind of crass pressure by removing its logo from the study, and Walt apparently will step down from being Dean of the Kennedy School of Government. The kind of emotional and shrill reaction to a scholarly paper demonstrates the truth of what Walt and Mearsheimer argue. These are not radical Noam Chomsky type academicians, Mearsheimer is known as a realist and usually considered conservative. They have not been seriously engaged, but attacked and labeled. It is utterly disgusting, and a sign of what is sick about our culture and society.
Politics long has moved from the ideal of public sphere participation to becoming a media spectator sport. At the same time, reasoned debate and analysis has been replaced by emotive sound bites and people arguing for a position by simply looking for whatever it is that can support their prejudice and attack their opponent, rather than seriously considering and engaging alternatives. This only benefits the powerful actors who want to shape politics; if they can keep the public distracted through sensationalism, use soundbites and personal attacks to try to keep people from really considering what their opponents are arguing, then they "win." The public is a spectator, the public is led, the public believes it is engaged, but in reality even those who are politically involved are often just pawns in a game.
Ironically, most Americans who aren't political engaged sense this is happening. They also recognize the apparent futility of fighting against it, so they disengage and focus their attention on private matters. This was the norm in totalitarian societies where no public sphere was allowed; it's more common now as democratic institutions show less accountability and responsiveness to the public. Without reasoned and real debate, the powerful can do what they want as long as they give the public what the Italians call "spettacolo." Spectacle. Bread and circuses. Give a show, keep the economy going, and people won't make waves.
This is, ultimately, a path to self-destruction. The culture of democratic participation is weakened, thus weakening the institutions of democracy and the culture of toleration and diversity. Rather than having the democratic norm of "it's OK if the other side wins," the other side becomes evil or dangerous. While many talk radio types are doing this without conviction, to make bucks on entertainment, it still is the kind of thing which erodes the culture. Add to that a costly war, a vulnerable economy, dependence on oil...well, the American empire could be starting to unravel. The two superpowers of the 20th century may be has beens not far into the 21st century. The Soviet Union is already there, we won't decline so dramatically (I hope!), but we're on a path of decline right now.
Another example is the global warming debate. While scientists were clear and nearly unanimous in their warnings, the political types used every hook and crook to try to attack the whole idea, and thus prevent measures from being taken. Now we're told its not only irreversible, but happening faster than anticipated. Would we have acted in a way to prevent this if it hadn't been for the political games, if there had been reasoned discussion and a serious consideration of science? I don't know. But clearly this is an example of how reality gets ignored when the political agenda comes before real consideration of the situation. The only solution is for the public to retake the public sphere and demand real reasoned debate. But how?
It's ultimately up to the media and universities to lead the way. But can the media get out from under the corporate control and need for sales and ratings to truly be independent? Can universities ignore the kind of demands for political correctness and fear of attack like the case of Mearsheimer and Walt? I don't know, but it's a battle we have to wage for the sake of our country, and our children.