Sunday, April 29, 2007

It's Not About Terrorism

It’s not about terrorism; it’s about adaptation. Some committed, utterly extremist opponents out there certainly will need to be faced down but so must the extremists on "our" side. Mankind is in the midst of a war of extremists against extremists...a war in which people who see their opponents as evil and prefer settling scores through violence are, on each side, ratcheting up the viciousness and the danger to everyone else.

This competition is between extremist camps in agreement with each other that:

  • God is on my side;
  • The conflict is zero-sum – no compromise, no win-win solution;
  • The opponent must be destroyed regardless of cost to environment or mankind and regardless of impact of the conflict on innocents;
  • Everyone is my enemy except he who is explicitly my friend.

The implications of this attitude are ominous:

  • Never question the morality, decency, logic, or justice of your own behavior and therefore…
  • Don’t think about solutions other than bulling your way through to total victory;
  • Dismiss hand-wringing by those who point to casualties and, in fact, consider them traitors;
  • Ignore costs, side-effects as unavoidable, all of which lead to…
  • A cycle of mutual and eventually, quite possibly, nuclear "Hatfield-McCoy" feuding and ever-increasing radicalism as each side futilely searches for more and more "final" solutions.

Meanwhile, cost to the rest of us skyrockets:

  • Perhaps a million Lebanese refugees last summer and much of the southern half of the country strewn with Israeli cluster bomblets designed to continue terrorizing and killing civilians far into the future;
  • A wave of Iraqi refugees imperiling Jordanese and Syrian stability, with further unknown impacts on the rest of the Mideast and global energy supplies;
  • Tens of thousands of American soldiers who will live ruined lives with major, permanent, crippling wounds;
  • A rising tide of illegal narcotics flowing out of Afghanistan, powering insurgencies and enriching criminal middlemen, but giving the desperate farmers who have no alternative source of income, just enough to survive;
  • Increasing likelihood of the re-radicalization of a Lebanon that is desperately trying to resolve internal political issues without falling back into civil war;
  • Rising threat of nuclear attack on non-nuclear Iran;
  • Continued festering of unrelated problems, such as the endless civil war in Colombia, which will in their turn one day explode "out of the blue" like 9/11;
  • The return of the one group that is truly benefiting from all the chaos: al Qua’ida;
  • And most of all, today’s injustice lays the groundwork for blowback years and decades later.

The agreement by the two sides on the nature of the conflict means that opportunity after opportunity to resolve aspects of the problem and make progress toward overall peace are missed in the blind lust for victory.

The first opportunity lies in Iran-US relations. Iran and the US have a long list of interests in common:

  • Iran likes to sell oil and we like to buy;
  • Most Americans would presumably like to see our boys come home from Iraq, and it’s hard to imagine that Iran would have a problem with that (as long as peace with Iran were part of the bargain);
  • A stable Iraq that governs itself and does not invade its neighbors would be welcomed both by most Americans and by most Iranians.
  • A stable, peaceful, and independent Iraq would also constitute a major defeat for al Qua’ida--and, again, most Iranians and most Americans could find common ground on the idea of defeating al Qua'ida.

The second opportunity lies in Lebanon. Lebanon is struggling toward democracy, with a Hezballah-led multi-party group peacefully demonstrating to gain representation for Lebanon’s poor in a government that has always been elitist and unrepresentative. All who care about stability and democracy in the Mideast should welcome this new willingness by all parties to work within the system and encourage not hardline resistance but inclusion of Lebanon’s poor in the political system.

The third opportunity lies in Kashmir. Kashmiris have been struggling for justice for 50 years. Helping them to get it rather than viewing Kashmir as a pawn for great power political horse-trading would lessen the attraction of the radicals who are currently exploiting Kashmiris’ desire for justice and self-government.

And this is of course not the end of the list. Just as violence breeds violence, the recognition of opportunity breeds opportunity.

It’s not about terrorism; it’s about grievances. The crushing of the Iraqi people’s drive for independence in the 1920’s set the stage for the ensuing decades of exploitative dictatorships that led to today’s carnage. The failure to give justice to Kashmiris in the 1950’s led to half a century of Pakistani-Indian tension, several wars, at least one nuclear close call between the two, and a rising tide of terrorism in Kashmir. Using, abusing, and walking out on Afghanistan a generation ago led directly to the chaos that produced the Taliban, facilitated 9/11, and paved the way for the current chaos. Fundamental aspirations of a people denied and grievances ignored produce very long-term consequences. But the debt will be paid...if not by us, then by our children. When people’s grievances are addressed, when they, not their regimes but the people themselves, are listened to, we will start to solve the problem.

This is admittedly a flat generalization and certainly open to debate at any given moment for any given crisis, but as education and awareness spread to every corner of the globe, it is becoming more accurate every day. It’s about understanding that the imperial behavior common worldwide in the past is of rapidly declining efficacy in the modern, interconnected, globalized world. It’s not about terrorism; it’s about the rich and powerful adapting to these new realities and changing their behavior.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Foreign Policy Principles and National Purpose

Interlocking Challenges. The 21st century is presenting the world with a surprisingly dangerous and complex set of interlocking challenges:

  • global warming
  • environmental degradation
  • declining energy resources declining in relation to demand
  • the rising insistence of the world’s disadvantaged for respect and a realignment of the distribution of both political power and economic resources.

Any one of these changes would threaten our world order; together they pose a challenge of unprecedented danger because they simultaneously attack our climate, the cleanliness of the very air we breathe, our economy, and the international political system that we use to manage our lives on our shrinking planet. How can we find the resources to solve all these problems at once? How can we focus our attention in so many directions at once?

Moreover, their interlocked nature presents a challenge of awesome complexity. Competition for energy resources clashes with demands of poor peoples for a restructuring of the global political system. Finding economic resources to tackle global poverty, create a non-carbon-based energy infrastructure, and clean up pollution simultaneously seems impossible but failure to address any one threatens to exacerbate the political divide between haves and have-nots.

The interlocking nature of these challenges is dangerous not only because "you can’t solve just one problem" but because it raises significantly the likelihood of new, unanticipated phenomena emerging rapidly and taking us by surprise. The explosion of a global jihad and its current metamorphosis into endless self-initiated, uncoordinated , copy-cat acts of anti-establishment violence sees to be one example. The sudden loss of will by a tired Soviet leadership of a visibly failing and--by its people--increasingly rejected system of government is another. More such surprises can be expected.

Foreign Policy Principles. To cope with this multifaceted challenge will require a far more thoughtful public debate than has yet occurred. Two centuries ago, as the colonies revolted against Great Britain, such a fundamental and thoughtful debate occurred over the question of how best to design a new form of national government. We are still trying to figure out the details, of course, but the US grew successfully on the basis of a few revolutionary principles of national governance that were defined and agreed upon at that time: power to the people unless expressly reserved for the government, states would have certain rights the central government could not take away, the central government would have three branches to balance each other and prevent the reemergence of dictatorship.

The challenge of the 21st century may require the enunciation of a similar set of principles to govern how we execute foreign policy. A few suggestions follow:

Principle #1. Violence is a poor strategy for solving complex problems.
Principle #2. It’s not "truth" but perceptions that matter.
Principle #3. Nothing is ever black and white.
Principle #4. Taboos exist to protect the guilty.

Agreement on a set of principles to underlie our foreign policy would help us think about the consequences of proposed courses of action. We may for short-term gain choose to violate Principle #1 and use violence to alleviate some adverse condition of a complex problem we face, but recognizing the principle we are violating will at least help us to go in with our eyes open, realizing full well that the long-term consequences will inevitably be a mess that we will have to clean up rather than deluding ourselves into thinking that the violence we perpetrate will solve the problem. "Solving" the bad sound of an untuned violin with a hammer leaves you with a smashed violin.

We may choose endlessly to debate the "truth" of an issue, and, indeed, so we should, because such debate is the foundational requirement for acquiring knowledge and understanding, but Principle #2 will remind us that far more important if you want to reach agreement is simply thinking about why the other guy sees the world differently.

Whenever you hear the claim that X is good and Y is evil, Principle #3 should be a red flag: those who depict the world in black and white are either colorblind or trying to put one over on you. "Evil" is an appellation not designed to inform but to prevent discussion. Closely allied to this practice is that of making some subject taboo.

Taboo subjects are precisely the things you should discuss. Taboos are covers to protect the guilty from scrutiny. When society accepts a subject as "taboo," as something one simply does not discuss, society is accepting a loss of freedom. If you live in a democracy and there is a significant issue of policy that cannot be discussed, be suspicious: the elite is trying to prevent you from seeing the truth. A population that becomes skilled at avoiding issues is a population preparing itself for dictatorship.

Wanted: Public Debate. Truth in advertising: these or any principles will not solve our problems. That is not the role of principles. Rather, principles provide guidelines and targets. Politicians have struggled every day of the last two centuries over exactly how to implement the principle of separation of powers, but national acceptance of that principle as the target has, so far, done much to keep us free of dictatorship. A debate over principles will raise critical issues that we can no longer afford to sweep under the rug in our increasingly interconnected world, of which the basic one may be: Should our national purpose be to protect our political elites, our country, our Western culture, or all humanity? In fact, given the pace of global integration, do we even have a choice?