Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Thoughts on Power and Security

Do power and the quality of decision-making vary inversely, condemning us to losing security as we gain power?

Imagining that constant action can replace deep thinking, blinded by hubris, more interested in looking good than doing good, politicians manipulate the instruments of power in ways that undermine the homeland’s security. The tactics of the leading decision-makers, who define national security professionalism in terms of power wielded and points scored, tend either to ignore or exacerbate underlying dynamics. As a result, the more they do, the less they accomplish; the more power that is expended, more insecure we become.

The endless bombardment of the Gaza Ghetto with F-16s has led to the entrenchment of Hamas as a surprisingly effective government. The greater Israel’s application of force, the stronger the hold of Hamas.

The one-sided use of force short of outright military attack also seems surprisingly ineffective. Despite overwhelming preponderance of both economic and military force, the world’s last remaining superpower cannot even stop Iran from appearing to do what it says it does not want and is not doing. The U.S. has perverted its whole posture toward the rest of the world by its obsession with preventing the emergence of Iran as a leading regional power with the independent right to challenge Israeli domination. Not only has Washington failed to halt Iran’s rise, the more it tries to push Iran down, the faster Iran seems to rise up and the more Washington’s tactics rely on bullying, the more obnoxious Tehran’s riposte. The tactics selected to realize the strategy contain the seeds of strategic defeat.

These policies centered on forcing the adversary’s submission are counterproductive, undermining rather than reinforcing the security of the country choosing to apply the force. Whether or not a policy based on sympathy for the adversary’s aspirations or designed to elicit acceptable aspirations (e.g., encouraging Hamas to dedicate itself to good governance of Palestine and encouraging Iran to promote peace and security in the Mideast) might be effective remains unknown because such policies are rejected out of hand. Hamas is illegally overthrown after making the historic concession of peacefully participating in the democratic process; Iran is punished for legally refining uranium, while Israel is rewarded for becoming a rogue nuclear power.

Speaking only the language of force, leading powers force their adversaries to speak the same language. Be it Romans vs. Persians, Chinese vs. Vietnamese, or whites vs. Native Americans, there is, in human history, of course nothing new about that. What is new is the astonishing inefficacy of force precisely at the point in history when the centers of power have, by some measures, the greatest preponderance of force over their adversaries that has ever been possessed by one side.

“Power,” it seems, is not “force,” though it is unclear what one might mean by “power” if not the ability to “force” some desired result. Politicians examine their power to break things and equate that with the power to achieve things, but the power to break something cannot be equated with the power to achieve something, so a policy based on one’s superior destructive power mysteriously fails to achieve the goal.

The devil seems to have offered a Faustian bargain to the world’s elite: all the power you want, but the more you take, the less effective it will be. Has some new natural law of politics been passed, mandating that those with power must waste it?

When the expenditure of $1 trillion to win an evenly balanced and crucial struggle might have seemed worth it in the Cold War, Washington decision making was relatively cautious. Once Washington became the center of a unipolar world, however, it insisted on engaging in an optional adventure on the margins of the global political system that was not only stunningly expensive but generated precisely the outcomes American leaders might have been assumed to be most intent on preventing – the escape of bin Laden and the rise of Iran.

If leaders are condemned to a portion of wisdom that varies inversely with the extent of their power, then that would explain why empires fade away.

No comments: