OPW, politics, USA, world

OPW: John Burns on Iraq

On today’s “Other People’s Words,” John F. Burns’s–former Baghdad Bureau chief for the New York Times–on the way forward in Iraq. This quote is from an absolutely excellent conversation he had Monday with Charlie Rose. If you have the time (and bandwidth), I would recommend that you watch the entire thing.

I can understand why there are bitter recriminations over the path to war, over the arguments made for war, some of which–and I’m thinking principally of the weapons of mass destruction–have subsequently been proven errant. But it seems to me that the present debate is burdened by that to a degree that makes it even more difficult to resolve.

The fact is that the United States is there with 168,000 troops. The China house rule that Colin Powell famously spoke about, it seems to me, does apply. To say we broke it is perhaps a little extravagant–that was a perfectly terrible place before–but nonetheless, we–and I speak now about the Coalition powers, the West–assumed a responsibility when we went in there…

My point is: If we’re going to look at ways of resolving this, it seems to me that we might do well to put the recriminations aside and leave those for history and to simply looks at the situation as it exists now.

Of course there are compelling arguments on both sides of that. But to the extent that it weights and frustrates the search for a solution it seems to me that the more mature thing to do is to–if possible–set those aside and to deal with the situation as it exists, and to seek solutions on the basis of the the facts on the ground now.

This is not to excuse, nor to endorse, what the makers of this war did. And history will argue about that probably for decades to come. But to simply accept that we’re there and we have to find a way, if we possibly can, of resolving these two harsh options into something which can win broad support among the American people, can get those troops home, and [can] save Iraq from a cataclysm.

If there was a solution at an acceptable price that would meet all the desired ends here, I’m sure America–in its figure, its enterprise, and its wisdom–would have fixed on it. The fact that there is a bitter debate about this is because there is no–at least presently available–solution that comes at what looks like an acceptable price. That’s the problem.

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politics, religion, USA, world

Being Under Attack: War, Genocide, Terrorism & Nuclear Proliferation

I’m fairly certain that the most dangerous people in the world are those that nihilistically believe that their group–especially one they find essential to their identity–is under attack. Many relatively powerless people with such fears, rational or otherwise, resort to terrorism. Having no ability to defend their group through conventional warfare, they strike anything and everything they see as endangering their desired order of the world.

Some people who foster this type of fear are able to carry out traditional war, Hitler was. So was Abraham Lincoln in 1861, the American rebels in 1775, and the Israelis in 1967. There are literally hundreds of examples of wars that began with fear–likely as many examples as there are wars–so I’ll move on.

Additionally, many with such fears are able to systematically kill the “other” that’s they see as threatening them, this is something Hitler did, but so did Pol Pot, Slobodan Milosevic, the Rwandan Hutus, and–depending on who you ask–the Turks during the First World War.

This is not to say that all the above examples came to exist only because of a fear that a group was under threat, certainly some of these examples were furthered as much by a greedy thirst for power as for legitimate fear about the future. But that doesn’t mean that aspiring despots don’t, at least, appeal to ideas of external threat from a people’s common enemy. This is, generally, the essential method they use to gain the power they need to become true despots. Anyone with even a faint notion of 1930s Germany knows that’s exactly what Hitler did–convinced the German people that their superior race was being mongrelized and would perish if they didn’t help him to expand their empire.

Further, some people acting against such an existential threat–real or imagined–may not comprehend the ideology they’re defending. Certainly some young Muslims are simply becoming terrorists because they feel that they are supposed to. This was also true of most Germans that became Nazis, something Hannah Arendt made clear to the world in Eichmann in Jerusalem, from which we inherit the idea of “the banality of evil.”

But I think most Islamic terrorists believe–or would at least claim to believe–that Israel and the West pose an existential threat to the Muslim way of life. Such a party line is what you’d expect to hear from any group “at war” with any other.

Spain’s Basque separatists, and the more moderate separatists in Quebec, also believe that their peculiar way of life–different from their surrounding country–would collapse were they not acting to defend it. This view is probably not accurate, but it doesn’t stop them from holding it.

And these aren’t the only groups seek territorial integrity for their way of life. The famous Irish Republican Army was established to defend the Irish way of life from the British incursion in the northern part of their island. Thankfully that struggle is essentially over, but many, including the Basques, the Chechens in Russia, and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, continue to fight.

Separatists, terrorist groups, and nations can turns to some scary techniques when they feel their existence is threatened. Perhaps the most notable example of this is nuclear weaponry, but it is certainly not the only.

History has made clear that the only reason Albert Einstein pushed the Americans to develop nuclear weapons was his belief that the German Nazis were doing the same thing. The Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons because of the threat posed by the American warheads. Britain and France developed the technology for fear of the Soviet Union. China developed them for fear of the West, and perhaps the USSR. Israel possesses nuclear weapons because it is so profoundly insecure in the Middle East. India and Pakistan developed the warheads for fear of China, but mostly for fear of each other. North Korea has developed them for fear that China’s not committed to its protection. Iran is now seeking nuclear technology for fear of its neighbors–especially, but not exclusively, Israel.

I think it’s reasonable to claim that all terrorist organizations and nuclear powers developed in profound fear for their security. Genocides, too, seem to arise from the idea that one ethnic group is threatened by another.

Closer to home, some have argued that this systematic rhetoric of danger is essentially what George W. Bush has used, with varying degrees of success, since September 11, 2001. That he convinced Congress and the country that they faced an immediate and systematic threat from the mythical forces of “Islamofacism” which constitute the “Axis of Evil.” Whether or not this supposed threat ever existed, it could certainly be argued that it’s the primary reason the United States is still entrenched in Iraq.

Whether or not this was ever Bush’s goal, the idea that Bush effectively used terrorism to fight those he considered to be terrorists is, at best, bitterly ironic.

Perhaps then, if all disturbances to peace–war, genocide, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation–are caused by some variant of fear, world peace is as simple as convincing all people in all parts of the world that they have nothing to fear from external forces.

Unfortunately, I’m relatively certain that this is easier to say than to do.

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american society, review, USA

Review: Ken Burns’s The War

The latest Ken Burns’s epic The War aired on PBS over the last two weeks. The fifteen-hour program tells about America’s involvement in in the Second World War by focusing on four towns: Mobile, Alabama; Luverne, Minnesota; Sacramento, California; and Waterbury, Connecticut. In choosing this device, Burns his made a film both richer and narrower than some would like it to be.

The most visible and earliest criticism of The War came from Hispanic and Native American groups, disappointed by their absence from the film. Having already cut the final version, Burns tried to remedy this problem by cutting add-on parts for local PBS station to air after each of the seven sections. This method has a least one obvious problem: it feels tacked on. The stories told in these additions are no better or worse than those told within the 15-hour epic, but they feel separate from the America explored in the film–a symptom of the very problem they were intended to fix.

Despite this flaw, Burns’s team does a good job dealing with the issues that both Japanese-American and African-American faced in fighting for their country. They show a willingness to admit that the United States’s policies during this era were at best questionable, at worst despicable and hypocritical.

We should also make clear that The War does not tell the story of World War Two, merely America’s involvement. The causes of the war are ignored completely, it’s course before US involvement largely absent, and the travails of the fighting men of this country’s allies are never mentioned. The Holocaust and nuclear weapons are mentioned, but are essentially footnotes to the story that The War aims to tell.

What could be seen as a grave oversight is not. Burns’s story is as interesting and compelling as it is long. I suggested earlier that Burns had made a documentary about America’s involvement in “the War,” but I think more accurately he tells the story of Americans’ involvement.

Burns intentionally focuses on a few stories and people, both military men are civilians, at home and abroad, and endeavors to tell their stories. The tactics and personalities that fill most war stories are missing, supplanted by people like Pfc. Babe Ciarlo, an Italian-American who writes home the most heartbreakingly cheery letters anyone ever received from any front in any war.

By focusing on people who are often dismissed in war documentaries, Burns robs the war of much of its valor and rationality. His story is a simpler and uglier one, full of terror and hardship. The message is–pardon the lack of restraint–“War is Hell.” I have no doubt that Burns intended this, and though he doesn’t deny that “the war” was necessary and perhaps even good, the film does little work in pursuit of such ideas.

Some have observed that there is a very real contrast between The War and America’s current war. After all, where all Americans were impacted in the 1940s, the current “war” has left the vast majority of this country convinced that if something’s happening, it’s not about them.

But regardless of possible feelings about current context, The War is a great look at the Second World War. It’s by no means comprehensive or especially historical in any traditional sense; but failing at something that’s not a goal is hardly a flaw. The story of Americans’ involvement in the war in Europe and the Pacific is told well, by compelling soldiers who don’t shirk their responsibility for some of the barbarous aspects of what occurred. Their stories, as the film iterates before and after every one of its seven parts, are not the only ones. But they and The War tells their stories so well, fifteen hours doesn’t seem so long.

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politics, USA, world

The Trouble with Myanmar

It would be easy to say that the trouble with Myanmar–Burma if you’re a traditionalist, rebel, or new arrival from the 1990s–is that it’s ruled by an exceptionally undemocratic junta, which is willing to its exploit its citizens, even the clergy, and considers force a perfectly reasonable option in the face of dissent.

And indeed, Burma’s current situation look a great deal like its problems of 1988–when an estimated 3000 protesters were killed. Or like China’s well-documented problem at Tienanmen in 1989. All situations that ended with violent suppression of protests that arose because of the failures of a repressive regime to fulfill the wishes of its citizens.

In these situations, the protesters hope to, if not end the ruling regime, bring more humane treatment for citizens and potentially a dialogue about moving toward democracy. And in all of these examples and more, this does not happen.

Burmese soldiersBy now, in Myanmar, this desirable result seems all but impossible. Even before the UN envoy can make any statement, reports suggest that the protests have been completely suppressed. Through a combination of house arrests, violence, and ending all contact with the outside world, the regime has both stifled dissent and muted international concern.

When George W. Bush joined in the chastising of the junta last week, some hoped the tide would turn. It didn’t. And even though Mr. Bush’s record on human rights is suspect, he’s right to point out that Myanmar isn’t the only country with a problem. Pakistan is constantly on the verge of collapse. Zimbabwe has all but imploded under the “leadership” of Robert Mugabe. Russia and China are both troublingly willing to “shelter” their citizens from all but the most determined dissenters. Which is to say nothing of North Korea’s many issues.

These aren’t the only problems in the world, they’re simply the most prominent. But most of them can be tied back to constant calls for “national sovereignty” from Russia and China. The Chinese government has, with varying degrees of effort and success, made international intervention in such situations all but impossible. Iran and Darfur are perhaps the most notable examples.

There’s no simple solution to these problem. And if Myanmar shows anything, it proves that the United Nations, in its current iteration, is absolutely impotent to stop such events. It’s addled with the twin problems of negligible power and poor organization. The power of the Security Council’s permanent members to veto any resolution brought before them all but assures that nothing will happen. Nor does it help that so many that dislike the UN oppose reforms to this structure.

Perhaps the Chinese are right that national sovereignty should outweigh the moral and ethical concerns of a body like the United Nations. It seems that the United States is willing to at least tacitly support such a view. But I’m still not sold on the idea.

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politics, USA, world

Global Warming Pessimists

Tom FriedmanIn a recent piece, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman identified himself as a global warming skeptic. But before you go away thinking that a liberal-leaning columnist at the Times actually doubts that global warming is occurring, we should clarify.

In the column, Mr Friedman discusses his recent visits to Doha and Dalian, mentioning his awe at the rapid pace of growth in these formerly-nowhere towns in Qatar and China respectively. Because of such rapid industrialization, which he sees occurring all over the world, Mr. Friedman thinks that climate change is not only happening, but that there may be nothing that humans can do to prevent it.

For clarities sake, I suggest that we look carefully at Friedman’s words. He says:

If you want to know why I remain a climate skeptic — not a skeptic about climate change, but a skeptic that we’re going to be able to mitigate it — it’s partly because of Doha and Dalian. Can you imagine how much energy all these new skyscrapers in just two cities you’ve never heard of are going to consume and how much CO2 they are going to emit?

I would offer that Mr. Friedman is not talking about skepticism, but simple pessimism. He’s not questioning climate change, he’s doubtful that it can be successfully stopped. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it’s hard to deny that skepticism on global warming–generally marked by doubt that anything is happening–is rather different than pessimism. By conflating the terms, Mr. Friedman risks misrepresenting his position, and also unveiling the greatest problem with such pessimism.

Pessimism on global warming, like all kinds of pessimism, is the opposite of optimism. Where an optimist would believe that with appropriate action humans will be able to slow or stop climate change, a pessimist thinks that even with appropriate action we will fail.

If we will fail by taking action, why take any action at all? Perhaps this is a semantic point, after all, Mr. Friedman isn’t arguing that nothing should be done. But his pessimism can easily give rise to the same policy results as a skeptic’s position on this issue.

And it seems likely that as American conservatives and oil companies find it harder and harder to deny the existence of climate change, their next sensible position would be to adopt Mr. Friedman’s brand of pessimism. After all, if they can convince people that nothing can be done, there would be no need for them to make the hard decisions for unfavorable–but likely necessary–regulations.

Additionally, pessimism arises primarily from doubts about the ability or willingness of the world to face this problem. Especially in the United States, where the federal government has been intent on ignoring or minimizing the appearance of a problem, it’s easy to doubt that anyone will work to assure that we can stem the tide.

But there exists a whole array of possible options to counteract climate change that most people won’t discuss. For one, we could create a complete moratorium on the creation of non-organic carbon dioxide–breathing’s allowed, but that’s it. Though such an effort seems over-the-top, if not mildly absurd, if this country and the world desired to seriously combat climate change, it is a possible measure that would likely be effective. If this issue is as serious as war–real war, requiring the commitment and sacrifice of a whole nation–no options can be taken off the table.

I’m not saying that pessimism isn’t merited in this case. It may well be all that’s left when you calculate based only on politically savory options–which such a moratorium is not. But if awareness and concern about this problem truly grew enough, anything would be possible. I’m not saying that warming could be completely stopped, but we could certainly slow its progress if we made an honest effort to try. Pessimism on global warming, like on most other topics, is an unsavory choice.

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linkpost, politics, USA

Doldrums and Departures

Rove, Snow, Gonzales, Craig: gone?Late August in Washington is about as busy as a western ghost town. That’s certainly an overstatement, but excluding all the departures, very little has been going on.

And the departures, as you’ve probably noticed, are numerous. First, Karl Rove announced that he was leaving. Then, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced that he too would leave. At this point, it seemed like little more than the administration removing it’s most prominent dead weight. Neither man was popular in the country or with the Democrats in Congress, and so they were asked to go.

Whether these departures were meant to clear the administration from continued criticism or to signal the desire for a new way forward is an interesting question. One has to hope it’s a sign that the administration–which still has over a year in office–will stop invoking executive privilege and instead try to improve the now troubled economy, reform the Farm Bill, and possibly help to improve No Child Left Behind. Whether or not that is truly happening is something we’ll only know with time.

The other two departures announced in recent weeks, however are less explainable. Tony Snow, and to much greater attention, the possibly-not-leaving-now Senator Larry Craig have both announced an intent to leave Washington.

Tony Snow’s departure has gotten relatively little coverage, but some that it has is quite interesting. Mr. Snow, the White House spokesman who is battling cancer, has signified that he has to leave because he’s not making enough money. At a salary of $168,000 annually, that raised more the a few eyebrows. The most prominent of those were at Salon.com, where the magazine asks “Why is Tony Snow’s 401(k) empty?

The question David Gross encourages us to think about is this: how did a member of this administration, which is so keen on abandoning the current Social Security structure and ending defined benefit pensions in favor of 401(k)s, fail to contribute to his 401(k) during his tenure with FOX? It’s an interesting question, and Gross’s answer makes for an interesting weapon in the battle for greater government-provided social benefits.

Senator Larry Craig’s intent to depart has gotten the great deal of attention. Both because he is now waffling on it, and because it seems based on strange circumstances.

Regardless of what did happen in the Minneapolis men’s room, Sandip Roy at Salon.com reminds us that it was not sexual intercourse of any kind. In his defense of Larry Craig, Mr. Roy says a few odd and unconventional thing–like that the hand jive that Mr. Craig preformed in the bathroom is akin to going out to a singles bar. But despite this, he mounts an interesting a troubling contention that Mr. Craig’s resignation has more to do with homophobia than real wrong-doing. After all, Senator David Vitter all but admitted to cheating on his wife, yet is still in office. More interesting still, Mr. Roy argues that gay rights advocates shouldn’t be so quick to rejoice in the face of Senator Craig apparent ouster.

Two interesting articles, both worthy of attention. And yes, this is what you get when I have nothing to say.

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american society, politics, USA

The Politics of Good Enough

I don’t remember what beer it was (or is), but it sold itself by saying that “there’s good enough and there’s better than it has to be.” The implications was, of course, that the beer was in the better-than-it-has-to-be category.

But while reflecting on a myriad of recent political events, I couldn’t help wondering when the last time was that I assumed that something being done in politics was better than it had to be.

In 2004, many liberals and Democrats voted for John Kerry. They, in general, voted for him not because he stood for any good or great ideas, but because he was “good enough.” Maybe they didn’t say “good enough,” but a lot of them said that he was “better than the other guy” and “more likely to get elected [than any other liberal],” both of which amount to “good enough.”

The same thing occurs all the time. Many of the things that the American congress does seem to happen simply because the current laws are failing, and not because they can be made better. Certainly this is not universally true, but the recent increasing of mileage standards for vehicles was surely done more out of fear for what would happen if we didn’t raise them than out of hope for what good could be done if we did.

Now, to avoid sounding naive, I will concede that this is roughly the nature of democracy. That is, especially in America’s two-party system, the only real possibility of progress is on something that is, or at least seems to be, perfectly down the middle.

If one likes the fact that progress is slow, this could even be seen as a positive. After all, because of the rules, a single party in control by any but the widest margins will have a difficult time making sweeping and dramatic changes.

The presidential campaign of 2008 is making this point again. Few, if any, candidates are showing that they are better than America’s now modest expectations. Most emphasize the things they would change, but they fail to convince Americans that they could or would make all the changes we need. They paint themselves as good enough for the electorate, not as better than the electorate requires. Perhaps this is a desire to avoid appearing arrogant, but isn’t running in itself an act of arrogance? Why can’t they at least endeavor to inspire us about the possible?

The fact that Mrs. Clinton makes herself out to be “better” for the job than Mr. Obama is exactly to the point. She’s only claiming she’s better than her opponents, not that she will make the country much better by her standing in office.

On the Republican side, we have much the same problem. Each candidate is merely looking to position himself as good enough for the Republican party and the presidency, not that any of them even aspire to do a truly good job if elected.

And the fact is, to a potential voter, this is incredibly disheartening. The politics of good enough has a tendency to crush any optimist in its path. Anyone interested in sweeping reforms that are seen as more than needs to be done will almost certainly find progress difficult. And as a consequence, citizens often either sulk away depressed and despondent, never to participate again; or they decide to settle for good enough in the political sphere. To accept less bad in place of better. To accept modest reform in the place of necessary systemic change.

Perhaps this is the nature of sustainable democracy, but it still gets me down from time to time.

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american society, OPW, politics, USA

OPW: Fareed Zakaria on July 4th and Citizenship

Today’s Other People’s Words is a thought about the past week from Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International. Here’s what he had to say about the Fourth of July and becoming an American citizen on his PBS show, Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria.

For most Americans, Independence Day makes them think of fireworks, Old Glory, and traffic. For me, this week reminds me of the day, several years ago, when I became an American citizen. I was sworn in a few weeks before July 4, 2001 at a ceremony that would have sent chills down Pat Buchanan’s spine. Seated in a noisy Brooklyn auditorium, more than 2000 new citizens–almost all black and brown faces with the odd British banker looking around nervously–listened to introductory speeches in English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, and Hindi. A young woman of Indian origin gave us all an earnest lecture imploring us to do our civic duty and always vote.

After the ceremony, a short sweet speech on patriotism, the oath of allegiance, and it was all over. We emptied unto the street where a small welcoming fair had been setup. You could eat pizza, sign up to join the New York Police Department, and get your picture taken with a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush. In some cities, the Daughters of the American Revolution host tea parties for new immigrants, but not in Flatbush, Brooklynn.

The atmosphere in the country was then open, confident, and welcoming of the world. Today, too many of us have become fearful, insecure and suspicious of the outside world. It’s strange, it was only six years ago, but it feels like a different age.

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big ideas, personal, USA

Happy Wednesday!

Holidays should never be recognized by anything but the day of the week on which they fall. This way, we give the day no credence beyond it’s own merit as a day of the week.

We can know that today is supposed to be Independence Day, which of late has come to mean little more than grilling, fireworks and alcohol. But we cannot tell others that we know this fact. We can only tell them that this is a good Wednesday.

They will think we are odd for telling them this. But we will know that some Wednesdays are good. And some Wednesdays are bad. Some Wednesdays are just average. Wednesdays tend to vary in this manner. There is no way to impose order on our Wednesdays.

Sometimes the Wednesdays that others think are truly special turn out not to be. Sometimes Wednesdays that no one else thinks are special really are.

We tell them “Happy Wednesday!” because we know this is true.

They laugh at us because they have forgotten this truth.

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politics, USA, world

Global Unease With World’s Major Powers

A few days ago, I read about the recent results of the Pew Global Attitudes project. Here is part of Pew’s summary of their own results (full summary here):

A 47-nation survey finds global public opinion increasingly wary of the world’s dominant nations and disapproving of their leaders. Anti-Americanism is extensive, as it has been for the past five years. At the same time, the image of China has slipped significantly among the publics of other major nations. Opinion about Russia is mixed, but confidence in its president, Vladimir Putin, has declined sharply. In fact, the Russian leader’s negatives have soared to the point that they mirror the nearly worldwide lack of confidence in George W. Bush.

These are merely the most popular of the results. There are number of potentially more interesting things that I was modestly surprised by.

Pew reports that dislike of America and its methods of business are decidedly lower in African countries than it is even in traditional allies like Israel, Poland, and Japan. I was left questioning the methodology of the survey, wondering if the methodology itself could sway the data toward an upper-class data set (by virtue of phone penetration) that would in general have a different view than their fellow citizens. Alas, upon closer examination I found that the results were gathered face-to-face in most of these countries, leaving me with something more of a mystery.

I also found it interesting that a lot of the distrust of US power was due not only to our continued “coalition” presence in Iraq and NATO presence in Afghanistan, but to our perceived role in continuing pollution levels that are harmful to the environment (though China merited a good deal of the burden for this as well), and our continued leadership in sustaining the divide between rich and poor.

More troubling to me personally, is that Pew reports that views of the American citizenry are increasingly coming to see it as just as culpable for US policies as our government is. This is not really unexpected, after all, we are electing our leaders, but why this has changed since the survey was last conducted in 2001 is something of a mystery to me.

I could go on, but I think I covered all the major points I saw. I would really encourage you to give the summary a look. It’s very interesting stuff, and I mean that.

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