What You Should Think About Belligerence

December 4, 2007

“There was never a good war or a bad peace.”

–Benjamin Franklin

As the autumn leaves brandished their colors in 2001, I looked forward to the prospect that something good might come out of a Presidency that had been consistently disappointing. Republican talking points were foreshadowing a call for immigration reform. No one fresh from the Texas Governor’s Mansion could side with the hateful rabble on that issue. Alas, I would not get to see the President make an appeal for something vaguely resembling decent public policy until years later.  Osama bin Laden and his associates made sure of that.

Instead, speeches that were initially disturbing for their lack of coherence and appeal gave way to coherent appeals to immanentize the eschaton. “You’re either with us or against us,” revealed that the President and his inner circle viewed the world in very simple terms. All humanity was reduced to black hats and white hats. Concern about a possible shortage of nuance was answered by flaunting a total lack of nuance. Our national leader seemed certain all citizens would look to him for clear answers about who was good and who was evil.

In international relations, messages seldom are so simple and clear as they were when the 2002 State of the Union address introduced “the Axis of Evil” to the pages of history. Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were the nations said to threaten national security and pose grave peril to all peace-loving human beings. One of the most overrated minds in the history of politics, belonging to David Frum, forged this powerful rhetorical implement of belligerence.

“Wise men talk when they have something to say; fools talk when they have to say something,” is an aphorism that is attributed to Plato, Benjamin Franklin, and Saul Bellow. Whoever actually wrote it, the sentiment surely applies here. Early in his first Presidential campaign, George W. Bush dismissed questions about recent events abroad by explaining that there was no cable television on his ranch. Both major party candidates in 2000 were clearly focused on a domestic agenda, and the nation itself had only recently shed the weight of the Cold War. Yet there is an enormous difference between being focused chiefly on domestic policy and being oblivious to world news.

Given how long it took overseers of Iraq policy to recognize the significance of the sectarian divide in that nation, it is fair to ask if White House insiders would have been able to find Iraq and Iran on an unlabeled map in early 2001. Though the time between the 9/11 attacks and the Axis of Evil speech was roughly as long as a typical undergraduate semester, whatever studying the President and his foreign policy advisors did during that time was unsatisfactory. Any astute assessment of their work makes this painfully clear.

Among the lessons they failed to learn was that Iran had made tremendous progress toward the restoration of secular rule. Years of relatively benign behavior and rhetoric from the United States robbed fanatics’ fires of fuel. Iranians old enough to remember the time before the revolution longed for a return to sights like women with loose hair in public places or progressive political messages in uncensored print. The original revolutionaries were growing old and tired, and their successors generally lacked the fervor so evident in the years just after the Shah was deposed.

Even in Iran, there was much sympathy for Americans blindsided by terrorism. Having restored authentic autonomy to a nation long dominated by Western puppets, the old guard in Tehran was circumspect about letting their homeland become a diverse and free society. Media censors rarely exercised their powers. Politicians called for an end to the theocratic institutions established during the revolution, and those calls resulted in increased popularity. Left to its own devices, Iran was months away from genuine secular governance.

Then the President of the United States took it upon himself to poke Iran with one very big stick. Suddenly militant Iranian conservatives stopped sounding quite so ridiculous as they railed against “The Great Satan.” The people of Iran felt threatened. This feeling emerged from the fact that they were threatened by the world’s only remaining superpower! Suddenly the work of censoring progressive media seemed much more important to Iranian officials. As the election approached, reinvigorated theocrats disqualified reform candidates and detained the most vocal protesters.

Yet even if old revolutionaries had not awakened police powers that had lain dormant for years, the people of Iran may have voted against reform. It is hard to be reasonable and thoughtful in a climate of fear. Much like Americans in 2002 and 2004, Iranians have suffered from a recent trend toward visceral politics. In both nations, the perception of a worldshaking menace threatening voters’ way of life mattered more than real issues and worthwhile ideas.

Enter Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Jubilantly pandering to Iranian jingoism, he was able to muster a strong level of popular support. In fact, it is a fair question to ask if he really is just pandering. Even today, American insiders seem unsure to what extent the Bush-Cheney team is intent on war with Iran. If you can get past the cyborg heart and secret underground lair, Dick Cheney is scary in ways unrelated to the archvillain stereotype. An Iranian firebrand could tell tall tales, but a sensible analyst may also raise alarms simply by focusing on what our Vice President has said and done.

There is no sane justification for the extent to which Americans have already changed our way of life out of fear. Though international terrorism provides a little core for this dark emotion, it has been built up to monumental proportions by the rhetoric of our own leaders. By contrast, no hyperbole is needed to make the threat of attack from the United States armed forces seem monumental. Peering across the border into Iraq provides a reality to generate that perception from a truly Iranian perspective.

This morning, President Bush took a number of questions from reporters, some clearly not planted there by his own administration. A recent National Intelligence Estimate suggesting that Iran has ceased work on military applications for nuclear technology was characterized as an opportunity to raise awareness about the “threat” posed by Iran. The President called for additional international pressure to isolate Iran. To Iranian observers, it must have seemed a “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” moment.

Assuming the President and his foreign policy advisors are not all mental defectives, we can infer from the garbage coming out of their mouths that there must be a great deal of garbage going into their ears. One might be able to make the case that Iran is troublesome because the government has some sympathy for Palestinian terrorists and may have some slight links to the insurgency in Iraq. Yet in making that case Saudi Arabia must be judged much more troublesome on both counts.

Perhaps the standard is that nuclear technology should be kept out of the hands of regimes that do not practice real democracy. How does this standard apply to China? Did Pakistan recently cross the line? Is Russia on track to “be against us” eventually? It seems as if U.S. policy toward a foreign government is influenced by no factor quite so much as the degree of personal animus George W. Bush feels for that regime. The problem with Iran is merely that the administration in the White House today is hostile toward the Iranian government. Just how is this the fault of any Iranian?

Okay, so it is fair to point out that President Ahmadinejad is just as quick to rattle a sabre as our own Warmonger-in-Chief. Yet it is vital to point out that the people of Iran are no less inclined than the people of America to seek peace. Outside the halls of power (and certain elements of each nation’s military-industrial complex,) there is widespread consensus in favor of focus of constructive actions by government. The average man, there as here, has no desire to feel foreign blood on his hands. If only the leaders of both nations could behave as well as average men, the world might be a more tranquil place than it seems to be just now.

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What You Should Think About the United Nations

November 17, 2007

“Negotiation in the classic diplomatic sense assumes parties more anxious to agree than to disagree.”

–Dean Acheson

There is a certain segment of the American public afflicted with strong negative feelings regarding the United Nations. Certainly it is not a perfect institution. Yet when one looks at its purpose and the context in which it operates, blanket hatred of the UN seems like a downright bizarre attitude to adopt. In fact, the general public of the United States sees the UN as a positive force bound by duty to do good in the world.

Yet there is a portion of the public as sure to feel their hearts race with hostility on hearing the phrase “United Nations” as Pavlov’s dogs would be to slobber at a particular light cue. In this case the conditioning is not a matter of being fed in conjunction with the cue. Rather the response in stimulated by the perverse satisfaction of embracing a bogus political orthodoxy. The organization had yet to spend a full decade in its present headquarters when a downright nutty group started rabble-rousing to promote American withdrawal from the strongest global organization dedicated to peaceful international relations.

A free society certainly can accommodate small numbers of survivalist storytellers dedicated to the hobbies of hoarding supplies and sitting around campfires swapping tales of big guvment’s evils. Alas, extremes of personal irresponsibility amongst media tycoons and people emulating journalists elevated the narratives of this fringe to a level where they influence the thinking of millions of American citizens. “Alas,” is an appropriate sentiment here, because a large number of those so misinformed are inclined to vote.

This is particularly problematic when the nation is divided over some sort of military misadventure. The domino theory was ridiculous on its face. If you see the United States as a society that honors traditions of personal liberty and will not yield to foreign oppression, then you have a solid basis for understanding that events in Viet Nam did not pose a real threat to American national security. Yet the sense of that threat motivated all manner of people to justify violence so extreme and remote. By word and deed they seemed unaware of just how much less fragile our nation actually is than such fears imply.

Today we also hear strains of, “we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here.” Come to think of it, we hear precisely that language today. To be fair, Al Qaeda has actually attacked Americans on American soil. On the other hand, Al Qaeda was a ragtag militia of unpopular extremists in 2000. By October of 2001, they had become one of the most despised organizations on Earth. Little by little, their reputation in certain parts of the world has risen. More precipitously, the reputation of the United States government has fallen in many of those same parts of the world.

There are many aspects to study in this phenomenon. One crucial facet involves understanding American thinking regarding the United Nations. When it came time to take action against Afghanistan, there was hardly an unsupportive voice in the room. Whatever delegation might have represented the outgoing regime in Afghanistan, the General Assembly did nothing to protest what the world saw as a legitimate action taken by the United States in the aftermath of a surprise attack. By December of 2001, the UN had already put together a plan and made significant contributions in multiple areas of promoting stability in occupied Afghanistan.

All seemed well with U.S.-UN relations up until the foundations were being laid for the attack on Iraq. It would not be long before the quest for international validation would give way to an effort to invalidate the voices of old allies, never mind the United Nations itself. It began with some foot-dragging on weapons inspections. Aside from a scrap of paper in some obscure German intelligence file and obvious misinformation provided by an Iraqi defector notorious for his eagerness to provide his handlers with sensational information, no reason existed to believe Saddam Hussein was on the verge of creating any mushroom clouds.

In fairness, there was a time when Saddam Hussein had pursued some exotic weapons programs. So long as he deployed them against Iranian targets, the United States was not shy about supporting the tyrant’s use of chemical weapons. It was a fact that he tried to build a ridiculously large artillery piece, and he had long been fascinated with powerful weapons. Yet it was also a fact that he had a narcissistic personality coupled with a significant amount of real political savvy. He may have valued firepower, but one thing he valued orders of magnitude more was his own neck.

The long and bloody process of slipping a noose around that neck faced derailment when military deployments by the U.S. convinced Hussein to give UN weapons inspectors unfettered access to the whole of Iraq. With trained professionals snooping in all the right places (not to mention U.S. satellites tracking every suspicious movement along with a large amount of ordinary traffic in Iraq) it was only a matter of time before the truth got out. As it happened, the truth was that Iraq was not wasting scarce resources on counterproductive efforts to break the UN-imposed ban on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Some have argued that White House officials were so bereft of geopolitical acumen that they truly believed Saddam Hussein was supporting forbidden weapons programs. Doubt may be cast on this view by the speed and ferocity of the media campaign to discredit the United Nations. From the most predictable of cheap shots (“doesn’t Hans Blix look a lot like Mr. Magoo?”) to sweeping slander positioned neatly over kernels of truth (“doesn’t corruption in the Oil for Food Programme create a conflict of interest?”) these efforts were a veritable symphony of that dark art practiced by Messrs. Ailes and Rove.

French fries became “freedom fries” for a time, and eventually our nation would extend a much bigger middle finger to the international community by appointing John Bolton as U.S. Ambassador to the UN. In doing so our leaders (and their supporters) display a grasp of friendship just as warped as their grasp of prewar Iraq. Today some of these same Americans so hostile to the United Nations go so far as to say out loud, “if only someone was around to tell us this war was a bad idea before we got into it.” Adding a lousy grip on recent history to other tenuous grasps, they fail to recognize that traditional allies speaking out against The Coalition of the Willing were concerned friends willing to brave unmistakable pettiness from American political leaders in order to do what good friends do — offer words of warning to dissuade the pursuit of an obviously disastrous plan.

Yet pursue that plan is precisely what our nation did. Now that the United Nations is pulling climate change to the top of its own agenda, it is only natural that the same American voices assailing them in the past will do so in the near future. As it happens, the individuals and institutions at the heart of misinformation about the Iraqi threat to national security are also major providers of misinformation about the relationship between industrial emissions and global warming.

Given the choice between remaining devoted to pundits consistently (if not also hysterically) wrong about the great issues of our times or looking elsewhere for guidance, a substantial segment of the American population will stay the course, however wrong it may be. To be sure, the UN is not above all criticism. Yet can inadequate action in Darfur or corruption in prewar Baghdad really justify ignoring the facts about all the tremendous good accomplished by dozens of UN organizations gathering data, distributing humanitarian aid, and working to spread peace across the globe? If you have a passionate commitment to denying humanity’s role in ongoing climate change, ignoring the facts is just one of the side effects of the anger you are likely to feel on hearing or seeing the phrase “United Nations.”