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.”

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What You Should Think About Patriotism

October 14, 2007

“There are two Americas. One is the America of Lincoln and Adlai Stevenson; the other is the America of Teddy Roosevelt and the modern superpatriots. One is generous and humane, the other narrowly egotistical; one is self-critical, the other self-righteous; one is sensible, the other romantic; one is good-humored, the other solemn; one is inquiring, the other pontificating; one is moderate, the other filled with passionate intensity; one is judicious and the other arrogant in the use of great power.

–J. William Fulbright

Well before terrorists transformed the New York City skyline, America’s loudest political conservatives made no secret of beliefs that their kind had a monopoly on patriotism. With a shocking national trauma came much greater zeal in these assertions of patriotic supremacy. The sense in those claims has always been elusive. On an obvious level, confusing ideological conviction with national loyalty is problematic. Yet there are much more subtle and insidious problems with this phenomenon as well.

A public stirred by strong emotions may be so moved as to accept arguments that it is innately patriotic to agree with national leaders. The powers that be are presumed right without any regard for the particulars of their positions and actions. This creates a situation where no distortion of fact nor abuse of power is subjected to adequate public scrutiny. The greatest virtue, and the greatest strength, of popular rule is discarded in favor of a paradigm that conflates a nation with its present regime.

Clear understanding can come through direct experience. Hermann Göring lived long enough after the fall of the Third Reich to share what understanding could be gleaned from his role in history. During the Nuremburg Trials, psychologist Gustave Gilbert was able to engage the former Luftwaffe chief in extensive frank conversations. In one exchange, Gilbert seemed confident that democracy would prevent any American President from dragging the nation into acts of imperialist aggression. Göring disputed the notion that popular rule could restrain such belligerence, “all you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

At the very least, wars in Viet Nam and Iraq validate that insight from a doomed Nazi aviator. The rationale for waging full scale war in each instance was simply not credible. False narratives crafted by White House media experts generated public support for each misadventure. Deliberately misleading language or even outright lies were not subject to sufficient public scrutiny. Warnings of dire threats from remote corners of the world were at odds with verifiable facts. Still fears swept over our nation. Promises of a swift military campaign paving the way for a rosy future ranged from implausible to absurd. Yet they were passed along by esteemed journalists as if they were the result of sound informed analysis.

Years enough have passed that the hindsight on Viet Nam is nearly universal. The domino theory characterized capitalism and democracy as fragile flowers that would certainly be crushed by the indomitable power of communism and fascism unless vigorous military action was taken. Nonsense it may be, but it was a foreign policy doctrine that spawned all manner of affirming editorials and even scholarly works of support. It was just one among a legion of lies that only brought America to war because sound skepticism was denounced as anti-American sentiment.

Just as the Soviet Union was real, so is Al Qaeda. Just as Viet Nam was no stepping stone to Kansas, the road to terrorizing the U.S. homeland did not run through Iraq. That past tense is appropriate, because today the many thousands of Iraqi widowers and orphans know the deepest of miseries, all courtesy of Uncle Sam’s bullets and bombs. It is reasonable to think that a small portion of these tragic victims should become consumed by hate, willing to sacrifice themselves as tools of mayhem. There can be no doubt that today Iraq is home to many terrorists dedicated to making Americans suffer.

Yet, as with the domino theory, arguments that prewar Iraq posed a serious threat to U.S. national security were bogus on their face. After all, Al Qaeda’s foremost priority was to eliminate secular governance throughout the Middle East. Saddam Hussein presided over one of the strongest secular governments in the region. Christians, agnostics, and even atheists were all protected under his regime. He was a brutal tyrant, but in that regard he was one of many. Some others continue to enjoy the active support of America’s present administration.

It was reasonable to assert that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. On the other hand, “he has to go” was the peak on a mountain of nonsense that would have collapsed if only a healthy measure of skepticism had been applied. As with Viet Nam, the call to make war against a non-threat was infused with both great urgency and absurd optimism. Pundits supporting the aggression predicted a total price tag of one or two billion dollars, likely to be repaid within a year or two by a gratefully liberated Iraq. Anyone who disputed that American troops could expect spontaneous gifts of flowers and candy from Iraqi civilians was ridiculed as anti-American and ill-informed.

Misguided appeals to patriotism blinded the nation to the realities of pending disaster. Thousands of our own soldiers have joined tens of thousands of slaughtered Iraqis in paying the ultimate price for this war. Yet it has done much more to degrade conditions in Iraq than to improve them. Hopefully one day that territory will be a better place to live than it was under Hussein’s Baathist regime. Presently the reverse is unmistakably true. As for the two billion dollar price tag — we should be so lucky that a week passes without spending that much on Operation Iraqi Freedom.

As it happens, Thomas Jefferson never said or wrote, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” Yet history does reveal that there are instances where dissent against leadership provides a service to country while support of leadership constitutes a disservice. The American Revolution took place to give free people a chance to live in a society where the head of state wields limited power and is not regarded as a personal embodiment of the nation itself. Strains of imperialist monarchy return whenever an American President or his supporters use patriotism as a shield against reasonable critiques of flawed public policy or inaccurate public information.

Supporting a President does not make you a good American. Opposing a President does not make you a good American. Making your best effort to become informed about relevant issues, then expressing your earnest opinion without regard for its relationship to any President’s agenda — now those are the deeds of a good American. Leaders, the great as well as the terrible, will come and go. The same is true of policies. So long as the nation endures, service to it demands conscientious honesty. To do less, be it out of fear or hatred or even something as simple as a desire to conform, is to fail profoundly as an American patriot.