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17 March 2003 (Monday): politics: fence-straddling

I'm not really qualified to weigh in on world affairs, but it does weigh heavily on my mind, so...

Here's what my intuition tells me: neither the warmongers nor the peaceniks are right this time.

The U.S. leadership is going about all this in a bullying, hard-headed way that will earn us plenty of enemies, which certainly doesn't cut down on terrorism in the long run. Mass media-bred fear is bringing us dangerously close to signing away our civil liberties, along with our constitutional checks and balances. Our president has declared the United Nations ineffective and therefore irrelevant -- something that can't bode well for the future of international cooperation. There are a dozen other countries with dictators as despicable as Saddam Hussein, but they're not strategic targets like Iraq. I have no illusions that the politicians are doing something noble here: there are ties to corporations, balances of power to upset or maintain for monetary reasons, re-elections to think about. Energy alternatives and innovative approaches to diplomacy are interesting, but too risky to support just yet. Any dumb voter can understand a war victory; not so with the painstaking, unglamorous building of confidence. In many ways, this is a very stupid thing we're getting into.

But neither am I comfortable with lighting a candle on the street corner and simply saying "War is wrong" or "No blood for oil." It's about more than oil. It's about the difficult, awkward way that the U.S. has been learning, over the past fifty years, to lead the world and to be involved in every corner of it. It's arguable that U.N. hasn't done a damn thing during its half-century of existence, and it shouldn't be surprising that Western Europe has resisted getting its hands dirty. The United States, in all its greed or reluctance or ignorance, has often had to assume primary responsibility. We've fucked up plenty of times, but returning to isolationism is not an option. Engagement with the rest of the world necessarily involves relationships and information flows in commerce, in politics, hopefully in culture. Sometimes it necessarily involves military action. Human society cannot survive without discipline, and passivity in the name of peace makes me nervous. I'm not convinced that you can always subdue violence with nonviolence. (Gandhi and MLK both relied on the media to provoke moral outrage; in this new era of corporate-owned media and a jaded public, I doubt the same tactics can work.)

I do believe that the current administration wants to orchestrate the creation of a freer, more just, more truly prosperous Middle East -- to make another Germany, another Japan. These nations don't always agree with us or cut us nice deals, but at least they're stable, modern countries and legitimate players in the game, not broken nations where dissenters are assassinated and children die en masse of malnutrition. The U.S. wants to make Iraq into an open society, someone we can do business with, someone to lead the rest of the region in undergoing a similar transformation.

Whether we have a right to try it, in the form of a preemptive military strike, is another question entirely. As is whether we can pull it off.

The way things stand now, I'm opposed to the war. I can't support Bush and his cronies in good conscience, not with the kind of swaggering attitude they're taking. I also think they've gone too far to back down now, which is regrettable. There is a more elegant way to do this, with less bloodshed and more respect. But I think even that way involves guns. So I can't attend the peace marches either, because I believe that violence can be used effectively, that love and prayer can't solve everything yet. We live in too practical a world for that.

Okay, all you bleeding-heart liberals, bring on the rebuttals...

posted by enjelani @ 09:43 PM PST

Replies: 18 comments

Well, I don't think I have a rebuttal so much. But I don't think that noninvolvement is the right answer either. I attend peace marches because I have a predilection toward peaceful means with this one situation. I'm certainly not anti-war. I'm anti-this-war. When I stack up all the dozens upon dozens of reasons not to engage in this war and look around for a reason to go to war and find only blind fear, I can't support it.

The problem I have with this current condition, as I've said repeatedly in my own blog, is the language. I don't believe in divisiveness. I don't believe in ignoring global public opinion. I don't believe in threatening irrelevancy when it comes the world's largest peaceful organization of nations. I believe that if we had leadership that voiced respect for humanity rather than American interests or delusions of divinity, that we'd be winning the battle in which we're currently engaged. The power of aggression has nothing on the power of words. Just take a look at your examples, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

But in a large sense, I agree with you. Burning peace candles does nothing. Wearing T-shirts saying "No Blood for Oil" misses the point. There are extremists in the peaceful wing as much as in the warmongering wing. But in this situation, I believe that the former branch of extremism creates far less damage to the future of humanity than the latter. Since the latter is currently defining the agenda, I protest.

posted by jim @ 17 03 2003 11:42 PM PST

hear hear, jim.

posted by lauren @ 18 03 2003 10:34 AM PST

there were many ideas in the marketplace at the peace march i attended last weekend. sadly, i think, the dominant theme was less about peace than it was about rage at the warmongers, the administration, the spineless, nameless corporate dictators. which i totally understand. i myself have given up writing political posts because they invariably become inarticulate rants with a lot of words in all caps and overuse of the word "fucking."

but i say that it's sad because in a sense, anger is too simple. if anger becomes your message, you're giving into the "dark side," falling into the trap of thinking in terms of tribes, the "with us or against us" mentality. political marketers and the media rely on oversimplification to polarize viewpoints, to create division, inflame emotions. the tribal instinct is a common denominator. it makes economic sense to do this. once they get you to "root for a team," ratings will soar, money will flow. they win.

so one of the most important things, i think, is to fight oversimplification, fight tribalism. to keep the complexities of the issues in view, to remind people that reality is not the good-guy/bad-guy story the marketers are selling. to not choose "a side" because the sides are the fictions of those who want something from you. and most importantly, i suppose, to have people remind their representatives -- their civil "servants" -- of these things.

so i'd say keep the marketplace of ideas open, and go to a protest with your own currency. assert your individual view. fight the simplifiers in any camp that's a well-defined camp.

(but then i'd also agree with Jim that, given the circumstances, any alignment with the left is currently less malign than with the right. my cost-benefit analysis of the war comes to screeching halt when i think of innocent Iraqis torn and charred by our weapons of "regular" destruction.)

posted by zach @ 18 03 2003 02:12 PM PST

hear, hear zack!

The very thing you're talking about is one of the main things I'd like to study if/when I return to school. Occam's Razor doesn't apply to world affairs. What we're witnessing is the dissolution of an argument down into easily digestible morsels. Good versus Evil is easy to understand. Aggression is easy to understand. It may not reflect reality, but it sure does rally the masses, at least in this country. Why Americans can't dig into deeper truths like Europeans can, I can't understand. In my more ambitious moments, I hope that in time I will, and then attempt to do something about it. :)

posted by jim @ 18 03 2003 02:31 PM PST

I really enjoyed reading your beautiful and thought-provoking entries, Enjelani. Interesting points...but how do you "voice respect for humanity"? How does this translate into concrete actions? Would Iraq really respect that voice? And it seems just a tad bit unfair to make the sweeping claim that Americans can't understand complex truths the way Europeans can.

posted by just browsing through @ 18 03 2003 06:37 PM PST

trackback madness: i'm guessing this crowd won't favor it, but i've been working on a piece re: peaceniks (sort of).

posted by lauren @ 18 03 2003 08:13 PM PST

JIM: Psychological science tells us that superficial thinking is widespread because it is efficient at the individual level. We make a great many decisions every day, and we seek to do so with minimal expenditure of cognitive effort. For example, rather than research and reflect on an issue in depth, we may adopt the opinion of a group with which we normally identify, or look for cues to someone we consider trustworthy and knowledgeable. This leads to an oversimplified perception of reality, although not necessarily to wrong decisions. (Some scientists have argued that we only trust those leaders and groups which we have reason to trust, and which represent us well most of the time.)

The tendency of human brain to save effort through "cognitive shortcuts" is neither new nor limited to the United States. (Certainly the fact that you agree with some Europeans on one issue is not evidence that their thinking is "deeper" than ours.) Nor is it limited to political matters. In fact, the key to successful argument on any subject (it took me a long time to discover this) is to first determine how much cognitive energy your audience is prepared to spend, and then give them the "long", "short", or "medium" version as appropriate.

ZACH: Our reasoning should take Iraqi deaths into account, but it must not come to a screeching halt. War is hell. Innocent Germans died in WWII. German anti-fascists probably welcomed allied bombing despite the risk to their own lives. Moreover, on some level, no German and no Iraqi (and no American) is completely innocent of what his government does or fails to do. If anger is too simple, so is pacifism.

posted by beefeater @ 19 03 2003 02:08 AM PST

beefeater -

that last sentence of my response was the "short" version of my disapproval of this war. and not well articulated. "war is hell" is the short-short version. and as i understand it, that version is quite sufficient for many who have experienced war personally. (i have not. so i must disclaim my comments by saying, "but what do i know?")

i am not a pacifist, nor am i 100% against this war, because i grant that there may be some good to come of it. but there are circumstances here that, if i must collapse to a position for or against this war, cause me to be against it. human suffering is a large factor in my personal calculation of this position. the lack of nobility in our leadership is another.

there are longer versions of this, too. ;)

posted by zach @ 19 03 2003 10:54 AM PST

"War is hell" is a quote from Gen. Sherman in the Civil War who actively made war hell because he needed to strip away the Southerners' will to fight. Funny how Sherman is alive in the upcoming policy of "Shock and Awe." So, yes, it will be hell. There's no denying that.

Beefeater, I can't argue with what you said in your first paragraph because I think most of what you said is correct. It's similar to what I said in enji's previous entry on human behavior and ambition.

But I think you're way off in your second paragraph. America is an extremely closed society in comparison to Europe. We have a massive voting block in middle America that doesn't understand a world outside it's own front lawn. Their ignorance shifts opinion polls against policy that requires critical thinking. (Incidentally, I like how the French have responded to protests here by renaming "American Cheese" "Idiot Cheese." That seems very appropriate to me.) There is a different mindset in Europe because nations are more interrelated. They have a better understanding of the world because they as citizens are more active participants in it. The history we've experienced over the past 100 years has been our own. The history they've experienced is everyone else's. That's the difference.

If we're to define world agenda, as we clearly are doing, we as citizens have a responsibility to become more aware of world affairs. And yes, the Europeans as a society are far better at it than Americans.

posted by jim @ 19 03 2003 02:17 PM PST

JIM: Your point is a fair one. The outside world does not affect us on a daily basis as much as it does the Europeans, and so we pay less attention to it and remain more ignorant of it. With increasing globalization, this will probably change.

But I think the European position (Britain excepted) is also flawed. "The history they've experienced is everyone else's" is exactly right. Someone else had won the war for them in 1945. Someone else had won the cold war for them in 1989. Someone else secured oil supplies for them in 1991. Someone else put an end to almost-weekly airplane hijacks for them in 1986. (For the 1986 mission, France even refused us overflight permission. Yes, I am still bitter.) We made history, to their benefit as well as ours. They experienced it, kicking and screaming, and called us names the whole time. If they wish to be taken seriously, this must change.

ZACH: Roger that. I am wondering what you mean by "lack of nobility in our leadership"? What kind of nobility are you looking for?

ENJELANI: The three of us hijacked your blog for a debate you are not even taking part in ;) Thank you for being a patient host. Let me at least make a comment on your original topic.

I think a free (or, rather, freer) Iraq will be one consequence of the war, but I'm not so idealistic as to believe that this is its purpose. If it were, we would be fighting dictators throughout the world all year round.

I think an electoral boost for Bush and economic gain for some corporations will be one consequence of the war, but I am not so cynical as to believe that this is its purpose. If it were, we would also be fighting wars a lot more often.

I think the purpose of the war (and I don't care how rude this sounds) is to remind the Saddams and the Kim Jung Ils that should they become a threat to us, we will deal with them quickly, decisively, and (last but not least) humiliatingly. Islamic dictators did not hate us on September 11, 2001 any more than they always had; but they feared us less. Short of becoming an Islamic state ourselves, we cannot change the first part of the equation. So we have no choice but to change the second part.

posted by beefeater @ 19 03 2003 11:53 PM PST

"The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do."

(Samuel P. Huntington)

an iraqi blogs from baghdad:

posted by lauren @ 20 03 2003 10:08 AM PST

"But I think the European position (Britain excepted) is also flawed. "The history they've experienced is everyone else's" is exactly right. Someone else had won the war for them in 1945. Someone else had won the cold war for them in 1989. Someone else secured oil supplies for them in 1991. Someone else put an end to almost-weekly airplane hijacks for them in 1986. (For the 1986 mission, France even refused us overflight permission. Yes, I am still bitter.) We made history, to their benefit as well as ours. They experienced it, kicking and screaming, and called us names the whole time. If they wish to be taken seriously, this must change."


Explain to me why this obvious and often cited moment in history is in any way relevent to the discussion. Americans love to talk about how they've liberated everyone. The grandest success of that was WWII. And your point is....?

How does this suddenly make the average citizen living in the United States today enlightened about world affairs? How does the fact that we liberated France make our citizens on par with Europeans regarding the reasons and repercussions about going to war against Iraq? No matter who liberated whom, history happened there not here. You and I only experienced this through history books.

And I'm sorry, but your final paragraph about world leaders just needing a good spanking by the wise and benevolent United States of America is disgusting.

posted by jim @ 20 03 2003 11:03 AM PST

correction: "...why these obvious and often cited moments in history are..."

just for the record.

posted by jim @ 20 03 2003 11:08 AM PST

I did not chronicle events to claim that average American is enlightened: I had conceded in my first sentence that he isn't. I did it to illustrate the European pattern of shrinking global responsibility and expecting someone else to do the dirty job. I think this is relevant to the anti-war stand Europe takes today.

I knew as I wrote my last paragraph that it may offend some people. Too bad. I stand by it.

posted by beefeater @ 20 03 2003 12:00 PM PST

I think its presumtuous to assume that Europe wants the US to do the "dirty job". If you're thinking that that's the reason there is overwhelming disapproval in world public opinion, I'd contend that you're missing the message. Do you think people are protesting because they want the US to go to war? How strange.

posted by jim @ 20 03 2003 12:29 PM PST

don't look at me, i just work here. ;)

seriously though, the discussion is much welcome. everyone's been good about keeping this free of personal attacks -- so long as it stays that way, this forum is open.

posted by enjelani @ 20 03 2003 01:18 PM PST

Well... Do the South Koreans who protest the presence of U.S. troops really want the troops gone and South Korea left undefended from the North? Some of them do. But many others, I think, simply want to claim the moral high ground, without thoroughly considering what might happen in the unlikely event their wishes were granted. It's a little presumptuous to assume that, yes. But it is a possibility, and it is not strange. It's a common pattern of human behavior.

posted by beefeater @ 20 03 2003 07:36 PM PST

There are those protest out of conscience and a feeling of impotence relative to the political process, and there are those who protest because they are paid to do so. Protest scmotest. Vote in the next election and get the rascals out of power.

posted by theo @ 20 03 2003 11:41 PM PST