Sunday, September 14, 2014


Fighting Terrorist with Bombs?


The US has been intermittently bombing Iraq since the 1991 First Iraq War. We have just resumed bombing once again.
If you do something for 25 years and it still has not solved your problem is it not time to ask whether a different tactic might be more promising?
If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again” makes little sense. One should learn from failures, not repeat them endlessly. Moreover, we need to think about the immense damage our bombing of Iraq has done.
We feel entitled to wage war in the Middle East because of the almost 3000 people killed 13 years ago on 9/11. But we have killed easily a hundred times as many innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have been chillingly callous about the damages we have done in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Pakistan and elsewhere. (Libya also needs to be mentioned here.)
We see the result of our bloody policies in the ISIS. That army has been strengthened by thousands streaming to its ranks from everywhere. We have ravaged that part of the world and made many, many enemies.
If we killed them all, would that solve the problem of terrorist threats? No one, who thinks at all, believes that. We would only be hated by that many more people who would be willing to fight us anywhere, with any weapons they could find or invent.
A “war” on terrorism is a really stupid idea. Terrorists hate us. Making war on them only makes them hate us more.
The only way to reduce the terrorist threat is reduce the world-wide animosity against us. Dropping bombs, sending American soldiers, is not the most promising way to improve our reputation as good and valuable neighbors in the world.
ISIS appears to be dangerous and brutal. Perhaps a short term, immediate military reaction is needed. But such military responses are no more than a stop gap measures, that are really undesirable and should only be considered as a last resort.
But the Obama White House seems to have no other ideas about blunting the terrorist threat over the long haul.
Here are some things the US needs to do.
1. Stop being so incredibly arrogant.
Our Secretaries of State, Hillary Clinton and now John Kerry, travel around the globe telling people to govern themselves democratically. “Be like us”they tell them. How would we feel if government leaders of other countries offered advice to us on how to deal with racist police in Ferguson and elsewhere, or with the massive failures of the VA? Exactly. That's how others feel about us.
More generally, we continuously tell others what to do. When is the last time that we have gone to another people and asked them a question, or asked for information or for their opinions. We act as if we could not learn from anyone.
2. Stop being ignorant.
Americans travel around the world speaking English. They expect everyone to speak our tongue. We make little effort to learn the languages of others. That does not win us many friends.
The public debate leading up to the attack on Iraq was shamefully ill-informed. Parading our ignorance we nevertheless insist that we are the leading country on the globe. That is not likely to raise our popularity.
3. Pick our friends thoughtfully.
Israelis and Palestinians have been at war with each other since the 1920s, long before there was a State of Israel. Theirs is a bitter and intractable conflict. But it is not our fight. There is no reason for the US government to act as if Israel was the 51st state of the union. If we want to work towards more amicable relations with the peoples of the Mid-East we need to distance ourselves from Israel.
During the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, we sometimes sided with and supported Iraq and then turned abut to support Iran. The nations in the Mid-East learned that we were not to be trusted.
In Syria we have opposed the government of Bashar al-Assad—until two days ago when we decided his bomb his enemies, ISIS. Suddenly we are supporting Bashar al-Assad. Our policy shifts unpredictably. That does not make us good allies.
There are many other ways in which we have attracted a great deal of enmity in the Mid-East.
If we are to reduce the terrorist threat, we need to change our ways and persuade our enemies that we have changed. We need to prove ourselves to be good neighbors instead of arrogant, ill-informed, bullies.
Both of those will be very difficult and take time, but nothing else will do.

Monday, September 8, 2014


How to Resist Violence


If anyone is in doubt whether it is ever defensible, current events offer only too much evidence that violence should be avoided at all costs. The devastation in Gaza, the brutality on all sides in the Syrian civil war, the continued fratricide among Muslim factions in Iraq coming after more than 10 years of a war to pacify that country, the murderous militias in Nigeria, in Libya and elsewhere should make any reasonable person conclude that violence should be avoided at all costs.
This sentiment is only reinforced by the memories of World War I, whose beginning 100 years ago we commemorate today, or by the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident, 50 years ago, where then president Lyndon Johnson made up a story of a naval attack on an American vessel. Lyndon Johnson used that lie to persuade Congress to escalate military action in Vietnam which ended only after to almost 60,000 American soldiers died there.
At this point, defenders of violence will ask whether we do not have the right to defend ourselves when attacked. What of armed men invading our house, or rapists and murderers attacking the innocent? It seems obvious to most people that we have the right to defend our lives and those of our loved ones. They claim that this readiness to maim and kill other human beings is part of human nature. That is who we are. There is nothing to argue about.
In 1914 the German armies invaded Belgium and France while telling their own people that Germany had been attacked. World War I was supposedly a war of national self-defense. 50 years later Lyndon Johnson persuaded Congress that we needed to defend our security in Vietnam. Today American hawks urge the current president to begin harsher military actions against Sunni insurgents because, they say, ISIS is a danger to our security, here in the US.
More often than not, the right to self-defense is invoked by the aggressor. It is most often used to conceal naked violence. The overwhelming share of violence in the world is blatantly evil and not to be justified.
Violence needs to be resisted. How do we resist violence? I do not carry a loaded gun, I don't even own one. I have serious doubts about the wisdom of going around armed and ready to kill someone. Is that all I can or should do?
But violence, while most spectacularly destructive when it uses weapons, whether primitive or technologically sophisticated, is not limited to people shooting at each other. Human beings are violent to each other and do tremendous damage to each other without threatening each others' bodily integrity. We inflict serious harm on others without guns and rockets, or knives, or rocks.
Children are injured by parental neglect, by fathers or mothers who simply disappear, or may remain in person but pay no attention to their children. Parents unload on their children the pain inflicted on them during their childhood. Children grow up to injure each other. Bullying in schools is widespread. Even more common are cliques that exclude. Children by and large are not taught to be thoughtful of one another or to be kind.
Some people think that the violence children experience is a good preparation for adult life when they will experience oppression at work, bosses that are insulting, and employers that exploit them, authorities that disrespect them. The violence that is ubiquitous in childhood just continues. The adults who have a say in our work life, or authorities that provide assistance, or experts who give advice about everything from cars and houses to how to save our marriages, are as likely as not to patronize us, to belittle our intelligence or good will. Everywhere we encounter persons who perpetuate the violence done to them as children by now visiting it on others, adults and children.
These thoughts came to mind recently when I attended a demonstration to express dismay over the destruction wrought in Gaza by Israeli bombs and guns. I realized suddenly that many people not only disapprove of blatant acts of violence but they take sides: the Israelis, some say, are simply defending their homeland and thus can do anything that puts an end to attacks by Hamas. On the other side are the people who regard Israelis as the reincarnation of German fascism. Whatever Palestinians do is thought to be correct. All members Hamas are heroes. Each party in the conflict, while, on the one hand, deploring the suffering of civilians, on the other hand, are cheering on their side. By their wholehearted approval, they encourage the fighting, the blind sending off of rockets and mortar rounds, of bombs out of the sky and drones. By taking sides, by encouraging the fighters of one side or another, Americans participate in the violence and perpetuate it.
The men or women behind the guns are not the only violent ones. Violent are the persons who send them onto the battlefield. Violent are the persons who support them, cheer them on and tell them that their cause is just.
No cause that kills large numbers of innocent bystanders is a just cause.
Instead of inventing nonexistent rights, such as the right to defend oneself, we should look into our own hearts and scrutinize our feelings and recognize the violence, the anger, the deep-seated suspicion that motivates so much of our behavior. We must acknowledge that in taking sides, we are involved in the big fights in the world and thus are, implicit in the death and destruction they perpetuate.
There is a clear difference between deploring the violence and destruction in Gaza, for instance, and taking sides by blaming one party and seeing the other party as heroes. It is hypocritical to weep over the children killed in Gaza and then support the Israeli government. It is equally hypocritical to weep over the children killed in Gaza and present Hamas as heroes defending the underdog victims.
If you take sides, you take upon yourself the guilt for children dying in Gaza.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


The Decision to Go to War


How does one decide to start a war?
The reasons we are given for bombing Iraq are of two sorts: there are humanitarian considerations to protect civilians against an armed force that appears to be particularly brutal. There is also the goal of protecting Americans connected with the embassy in Erbil as well as American soldiers sent over recently in order to train units of the Iraqi military. In the background is the hope that dropping bombs today will promote peace tomorrow.
A little thought makes clear that neither of these reasons are complete. We do not drop bombs wherever civilian populations are threatened with death and destruction. No one suggested that we bomb the Israeli military in its recent massive destruction of Gaza that caused many civilian casualties. Nor have we considered dropping bombs in Nigeria to protect civilians against Boko Haram. Very brutal militias have been active in other parts of Africa but no one suggested that we send planes and drones to protect civilians. We have not, as far as I know, weighed the advantages and disadvantages of dropping bombs on violent criminal drug gangs in Mexico. The threat to civilians alone does not suffice for us to call out drones and fighter planes.
What is the prospect of promoting peace by bombing ISIS?
In Europe, when Adolf Hitler began to re-arm Germany in 1933, it might well have been the better part of valor for the allies to insist that Germany continue to conform to the Treaty of Versailles that had ended World War I and which demanded that Germany not rebuild its military. Even if, at the time, it had required some military action, that might well have saved millions of lives and billions of dollars and millions and millions of survivors who never quite recovered from the years of suffering through World War II.
At times preemptive military strikes seem advisable.
Is this one of those situations? That is extremely hard to tell for several reasons. There are some parts of the world where we understand why people act and why they fight. Conflicts in Europe are understandable for us because we share a culture. We think more or less the same way about conflicts, about violence.
In Vietnam, on the other hand, we dealt with people whose view of their lives and of the world is very different from ours. The same was most likely true in Korea. And it is certainly true in the Middle East. Most of us do not really understand how the world looks like to people in Iraq. Loosing those wars may well have been connected with our ignorance of the cultures we were fighting against.
The President has the advantage of advice from people who know the Middle East. But does he truly understand the events there?
Do we have a ghost of a chance of being able to bring peace to the Mid-East all by ourselves? A number of experts warn against going it alone and, instead, urge the President to work closely with Iran, and with Saudi Arabia, to build coalitions against the ISIS militias.
The reasons given for the current bombing campaign in Iraq are unconvincing. Neither the desire to protect civilians nor to bring peace to the region seem convincing reasons for resuming bombing Iraq.
Could there be other reasons we do not know about?
In this situation a terrible suspicion springs up: For all we know, men and women in Iraq are being killed in order to improve the Democrats' electoral prospects this fall. The Republican Party could have a field day if the President did not “act decisively” in the current crisis.
Is the President “bombing for votes?”
If that were true, could we live with ourselves? Could he?

Sunday, August 17, 2014


What Do We Stand for?


Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, and now candidate for the presidency, used an interview with the Atlantic Monthly to distance herself from Pres. Obama. She criticized his conduct of foreign policy for lacking a clear organizing principle. Obama is extremely cautious. His motto is "don't do anything stupid." But Clinton finds him deficient because he has no clear goals and no clear sense of what we stand for.
She is certainly right that foreign policy needs to be guided by more than a desire to avoid stupid errors. You need a sense of what foreign policy should accomplish. How can we tell that our foreign policy is, what it should be?
Clinton's organizing principle of foreign policy is well known. We can put it in fancy language: America must maintain its leadership in the world. (Pres. Obama actually shares that principle.) Or we can put it in the language of the common man: "America Number One."
Such a national chauvinist stance may appeal to many voters but it is, of course, no more serviceable when formulating foreign policy than "don't make any stupid mistakes." It does not tell us what we need to do to maintain American leadership.
The Internet provides us with many rankings of countries with respect to healthcare, education, industrial productivity, and much else. In these rankings, the United States holds the 35st place with respect to life expectancy. We are in 21st place in the educational ranking and with respect to overall happiness of the people, we are in 17th place. In these and other international rankings America is not in a leadership position. If we really wanted to be "Number One" we would struggle mightily to improve our ratings in the international comparisons.
But that is not what Clinton is talking about. What she seems to have in mind is American officials going around the world and telling people what to do and – that's the important part – the other countries paying attention to them. Her view of leadership is thoroughly patriarchal. America is the father of all the countries and what America says, goes. What Clinton really means by American leadership is: 'Be a bigger bully than everyone else, America.'
That is an effective organizing principle but should not be ours. We present ourselves often as champions of freedom and equality and of democracy. You cannot champion those and be a big bully at the same time.
Telling people what to do is, at best, a part of leadership. The other, more important part is listening and being really attuned to what the followers think and need. Bullying is not leading. Good leaders need to be good listeners.
As all parents and teachers know only too well, one does not lead by preaching, one does not lead by haranguing people. One leads by example. If America wants to maintain its leadership position it has to practice what it preaches. If we are really concerned to promote peace around the world, we cannot continue to be the country that spends more per capita on its military than any other country.
It is important to remind ourselves that the sort of leadership Clinton wants to maintain has passed from our hands a while ago. We did not manage to create a peaceful Iraq where different ethnic groups lived and worked together for their mutual benefit. We did not manage to defeat communism in Vietnam and our fighting in Korea left the world with the bizarre state of North Korea and no reconciliation between the two Koreas in sight. Clinton and many other leaders are completely in the dark about the limits of American power in spite of the humongous amounts of money we spend on the military. There is no world leadership to maintain for us.
We pay a high price domestically for adopting Clinton's organizing principle for foreign policy. (To give her credit, she did not invent the principle. Being a big bully has been the ambition of many previous US governments.) Being so concerned that other countries listen to us and do what we want them to do, distracts us from what we should be aiming for. We should put much more energy and money into improving healthcare, improving education and improving the happiness of all of our citizens.
If we did this, others might have more respect for us. They might actually listen to us not because they are afraid but because they admire us.
Now that looks like a good organizing principle for foreign policy to me.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness?


According to the Declaration of Independence we are endowed with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Government actions are thereby delimited as well as government obligations defined. Governments may do nothing to limit their citizens life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. On the other hand governments must secure these rights as far as possible. They must protect our lives and liberties and safeguard our pursuits of happiness.
We do not often reflect about what that means. I shall try to do that here. Our "inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness" is not straightforward at all; it raises questions we may find difficult to answer.
The right to pursue one's happiness, we believe, implies that one is free to follow one's own desires and ones own beliefs about a good life. For many of us that means that we should be able to marry whom we please. No one else should be able to force us into marriages we do not want. We should be free to follow occupations we choose for ourselves. No one, whether family members or government agencies should be allowed to choose for us what work we do.
We should each be able to shape our daily lives as we consider best. This family says prayers before and after every meal. In that other family everyone eats at different times what ever they please. There is no private or public agency that should be allowed to criticize the way of life we choose. It is a task of the government to protect us against anyone who would interfere with how we choose to pursue happiness.
So the government needs to guarantee for us the freedom to choose life partners, to choose occupations, to choose where we learn and what style of life seems best to us.
No doubt questions come to your mind as you read this. Some people choose lives that are clearly destructive of the lives of their family members: they take drugs, they drink too much, they lead a life of crime, they are violent and coercive. Should someone not try to stop them and protect their family?
The government's duty to protect our pursuit of happiness is very unclear and full of difficult decisions.
Are there other ways in which we can expect our governments to protect our pursuit of happiness?
Children who are unable to go to school are severely limited in their life choices. We therefore restrict child labor and we believe that educational opportunities should be available to everyone. (It is another matter that we do not always act on that belief.) Ill health restrict life choices and many of us believe that everyone is entitled to the best health care that is available.
I have recently, purely by accident, read several novels that describe in excruciating detail the suffering war imposes on its victims. One novel describes the terrible struggles against PTSD of a young woman Iraq war veteran. Another follows a German and a French child through the crucible of World War II. In a third we hear of the brutality practiced by both sides in "The Troubles" in Ireland. The experience of war, whether as a soldier or a civilian, if we survive at all, leaves us overwhelmed by our losses and consumed by fears and regrets, by guilt long after the hostilities have ceased.
What future is ahead for the children in Gaza who emerge from the shelters to find the streets blocked by the rubble of their houses? Their parents, if they survive, are consumed by grief and hatred. Their chances for choosing a life they want are severely limited.
If it is true that one role of government is to protect and foster our possibility to choose the best life for ourselves, then governments surely may not engage in the violence of war. Our government has fought a number of major wars since the end of World War II. In each we sent massive troops and airplanes into foreign countries. In each case the wars ended with many Americans dead and many veterans whose lives continue to be seriously afflicted. In each war we left foreign countries in ruins, we affected the genetics of the population that survived so that after several generations their children remain frequently afflicted by terrible genetic diseases.
The wars we have fought left masses of people whose lives will never be freed from the burden of terrible loss, people would never be able to feel completely safe again, people who would always struggle with profound despair, with guilt and horror.
If all human beings have an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, if governments are to protect that right, must governments not abstain from violence?
The temptation is to reject this question as silly, to say that we needed to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Korea and Vietnam to protect ourselves and our liberties. But before you soothe your conscience with that bromide, think hard about the victims of war, both of the wars we have fought, and the wars we have enabled by supplying military hardware to one or both sides as happened in the conflict in Gaza. The cliché that governments take refuge in, that they must wage war in order to promote peace, is laughable. Governments have killed and plundered for thousands of years in order to promote peace. So far that hasn't worked. Why should it suddenly begin to work today?
If governments are to protect our right to pursue happiness, they must dedicate themselves above all to an end of all violence.

Monday, August 4, 2014


Violence in America


If one looks carefully at the different disagreements between advocates and enemies of gun control, one finds that each side has their own reading of history and their own set of facts. Appeals to history and appeals to facts therefore will not serve to resolve this disagreement. At issue are deeply buried attitudes, ancient themes in our culture. The pressing question is what we can do to weaken the influence of those cultural themes.
The disagreements:
1. The Second Amendment to the Constitution reads: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed. "
Advocates of gun control claim that this Second Amendment refers only to militias and not to the rights of individuals to carry weapons when not serving as members of a militia. (Today we call that the National Guard.) It is unclear what makes Gun Control Advocates so confident of their reading of the Constitution.
Opponents deny that. They provide a detailed history of England in the 1600s – a history that was very much alive in the minds of the authors of the Constitution. According to that reading of English history, the opponents of monarchy and of what they called "tyranny" insisted on the rights of individual citizens to own and carry weapons as a necessary defense against dictators, tyrants, or absolute monarchs.
But this is a tendentious reading motivated by a belief that there is an individual right to bear arms. That belief precedes rather than being supported by the actual history.
2. There is wide disagreement about the facts with respect to the usefulness of private ownership of guns. Gun advocates cite between 2 and 3 million cases a year where someone managed to protect themselves and their family by the use of guns. Owning a gun makes a real difference, they say, in enabling citizens to protect themselves. Opponents believe there are somewhere between 60 and 70,000 such events per year. They cite, instead, large numbers of casualties of privately owned guns. Millions of guns owned by citizens make us less rather than more safe.
The people who collected these facts approach the matter with their minds made up. Each side believes that guns save lives or that, on the contrary, guns take lives. The facts do not convince anybody.
3. The debate over guns is in part a debate over the extent to which the federal government controls the lives of citizens today. One does not have to be a flaming conservative to see evidence of overreaching by the federal government wherever you look. In medical care, in education, in day care new rules are constantly being imposed and the individual practitioner is more and more under the supervision of bureaucrats.
But on the other hand, life is becoming more complex by the day and there are more opportunities for people to be ill treated, defrauded, or humiliated. The government has good reason for stepping in to protect citizens.
In each situation, defensible limits on government regulation are not easily established. More often than not choices for or against more government regulation will respond to some deep seated values which some Americans share and others do not.
What are those values? Here we need to look back at our own history. The original immigrants pretended that the North American continent was uninhabited. Europeans came and settled it, they said, and made it yield abundant crops. But that story falsifies the actual history: about every 10 years since Europeans first came to this continent, warfare erupted between whites and Native Americans. The feeling that one needed to carry a weapon at all times rests on the reality of whites stealing the land against the determined, often violent, resistance of Native Americans.
Add to that, the history of 200 years of slavery and another hundred years after the Civil War when African-Americans were regularly lynched with impunity. The history of slavery and Jim Crow is, above all, a very violent history. The condition of the slaves and the regime of Jim Crow could only be maintained by regular and unrelenting violence. It is a history of whites imposing their regime by force of arms. To maintain themselves they needed to carry weapons and always to be ready to do violence to the people they enslaved.
This history is still alive in the very basic attitudes of many Americans. They still feel that they need to be armed in order to be relatively safe. The imminent need for armed self-defense is a strong theme in our culture. That theme is not weakened by arguing about the Second Amendment or the usefulness or a danger of everyone carrying handguns.
We inherit our gun culture from our history. Our task is to weaken those traditions by resisting the glorification of violence in all aspects of our lives: in sports, in movies, in computer games, and, yes, in the debate about going around armed.
But the enemy is not the Second Amendment. Statistics about self protection or injury by handguns are beside the point. America must acknowledge it's terribly violent history and resolve to put it behind us.