Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why did we fight the Iraq War?

The weapons of mass-destruction were never found. Claims of Iraqi complicity in 9/11, so valiantly asserted by Vice-president Cheney, have been refuted.
What possessed our government to attack Iraq?
The answer that it was all about control of Iraqi oil continues losing plausibility. TIME Magazine for Dec 19, 2009 reported, for instance, that in the then most recent oil concessions auctions, the major contracts went to Russia and China.
But a very interesting account of the motivations behind the Iraq war has recently been offered by Andrew Bacevich, previously a professional army officer, now a professor at Boston University, and one of the most thoughtful and reasonable defense intellectual.
In “A Letter to Paul Wolfowitz” ( Harpers, March 2013) Bacevich ascribes Wolfowitz’ persistent and energetic push for an attack on Iraq to the idea that the US needed to establish its invincible military power for all the world to see.
The greatest challenges to US security, so the doctrine goes, comes from unexpected attacks such a Pearl Harbor or 9/11. The way to deter others from perpetrating such unexpected attacks on us was to establish beyond the shadow of a doubt that the US is militarily extremely strong. Attacks on the US would invite terrible retaliation.
In order to prove that, the Iraq war was supposed to follow this script: After massive bombing--“shock and awe”--the Iraqi army collapsed and our troops, encountering minimal opposition, entered Baghdad quickly. President Bush did his little performance on the deck of a US aircraft carrier in front of the banner reading “Mission Accomplished.” After that the war should have been over. Iraq having been properly humiliated; the US army would return home triumphantly.
But instead, as Bacevich writes, there was
the insurgency, Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, thousands of American lives lost and damaged, at least 125,000 Iraqis killed, and some 3 million others exiled or displaced; more than a trillion dollars squandered.”

The whole project miscarried to truly grotesque extent. The US showed itself to be armed to the teeth and yet militarily completely impotent.
How could that have happened?
Bacevich describes Wolfowitz and the people he worked with as exceptionally intelligent.
But it looks as if they also suffered from the common disease of very intelligent people: they vastly overestimated their capacities.
Wolfowitz’s project was to minimize catastrophic surprise by eliminating threats before they materialize: if the US is immensely powerful and makes that amply clear to the rest of the world, unexpected attacks are going to be less likely.
Sheer intelligence was going to overcome the randomness of human history. The brilliant experts were no longer threatened by the unexpected. The future would be made predictable. Preventive wars would make us secure.We could forestall unpredictable attacks.
But once again the excessive self-confidence of these smart men made them overlook the most obvious fact of the twenty-first century: unpredicted changes continue to happen. The future is as opaque as it always was. A prime example: warfare has changed. Conquering territory, destroying enemy armies in the field is no longer what war is all about. Terror has become a central weapon.
You can terrorize the enemy by bombing their cities and killing their citizens as all sides did in World War II. But as the attack on the Boston Marathon shows, you can do the same thing with two pressure cookers filled with nails. We spend about seven hundred billion dollars a year keeping ourselves armed. It takes a few very primitive homemade explosive devices to show how impotent we are.
It is by no means clear what, in the end, the effect of terrorist campaigns will be. But "the most powerful military in the world" has not figured out how to deal with terrorism.
The Wolfowitz doctrine was designed for a world that no longer exists. The doctrine might have been useful in the nineteenth century.
It is important to remember, especially for smart people, that we are rarely as smart as we think we are and that there is such a thing as being too smart for one's own good. Humility and modesty are rarely out of place. They are certainly not out of place when you endanger the lives of millions of people.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

US and Terrorism

However unsettling the bombings at the Boston Marathon, even more distressing is the fact that while the nation, from the President on down, was indulging in enormous self-pity, the US continued its drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen.
Last week the President and the First Lady came to Boston to celebrate the resilience of Bostonians after the marathon attack and to condemn, once again, any acts of terrorism.
They President however forgot to mention that our government, in which he is the Commander in Chief, commits more a terrorist acts, week in week out, than anyone else.
On April 15 a drone fired two missiles into a house in the tribal areas in northern Pakistan. Officials reported the death of four or five “militants.” Two days later there was a drone attack in Yemen. Neither of those appeared in the President’s speeches.
This was reported on the Fox News website. (http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2013/04/15/5-die-in-us-drone-strike-in-pakistan/) Its report ends as follows:
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent group, reports that from June 2004 to September 2012, drone strikes killed between 2562 – 3325 people in Pakistan.
Among the dead were anywhere from 474 to 881 civilians, including one hundred seventy-six children.”
We are not at war with Pakistan or Yemen. The drone strikes are clearly acts of terrorism.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Blinding ourselves with ideology.

Roland Merullo is a Cuban-American, a novelist who supports himself in part by writing stories for a golf magazine. On his return from a recent trip to Cuba he argues for an end to the American embargo of Cuba. He recognizes that the existing Castro regime in Cuba has produced a highly educated population, and a medical establishment that rivals any in the first world. But he also deplores the pervasive, extreme poverty of the Cuban people. If we allowed Cubans to visit the US, and Americans to visit Cuba freely, the Cubans, he thinks, would recognize the blessings of capitalism and jettison their own socialism. (Boston Globe,April 13, 2013.)
Merullo is clearly an open-minded person, but in the end he falls back on the purely ideological contrasts between socialism and capitalism, where socialism is bad even if it has some successes, and capitalism is good even if it sometimes fails.
But that comparison is an extremely destructive way of comparing the experiences of two different countries and their peoples and cultures. Cuba's education system is impressively successful. Ours, by contrast, is, as every talking head keeps repeating, "broken." One personal experience to illustrate that: I recently asked one of my classes at the local state university what capitalism is. At first there was profound silence. No one knew. Then one student volunteered that capitalism had to do with buying and selling. That's all they knew. I am sure they would all have agreed that capitalism is good and socialism bad. The educational system in our capitalist country has not served them well.
Similarly, Cuba's medical establishment is first rate, in spite of the pervasive poverty. The United States medical system is more expensive than any other in the world. Yet in listings of international comparisons of medical systems, ours comes in in 37th place. Cuba ranks 39th. (http://www.photius.com/rankings/healthranks.html) Cuba spends a fractions what we spend on medical care.
Many visitors to Cuba report on extensive poverty. But the ideological view of the two countries – "socialism bad, capitalism good" – suggests that poverty is not a problem in our country. But consider these facts:
In Massachusetts the minimum wage is $ 8.00 an hour. A single person being paid the minimum wage may fall short as much as twelve thousand dollars a year below the federally defined poverty level. The outlook for a female-headed households in Massachusetts is that they do not earn enough to pay their bills for themselves and their children. Four out of ten two-parent households in the state will not bring in enough money to make ends meet. Six out of ten families in Massachusetts live paycheck to paycheck.
These facts are cited by the Senate president of the Massachusetts legislature Therese Murray. (Worcester Telegram and Gazette, April 12,2013:6).
To visitors from the US, the face of Cuban poverty never fails to impress. But the United States also has a terribly serious poverty problem.
It is worse than useless, it is outright destructive to approach these facts blinded by the "socialism versus capitalism" ideology. Instead we need to ask questions in the hope of learning. What do Cubans do right in education that we have not managed to do? How do they manage to have a first rate medical system at a much lower cost than ours? What attempts at mitigating poverty have been made in Cuba and in the US? Why did both fail?
Thinking ideologically that capitalism is, of course, good, we are blinded to the terrible failures that affect the lives of large percentages of US citizens. We cannot even begin to think intelligently about ways to improve our record with respect to poverty, with respect to education, with respect to the cost of medical care as long as we are tethered to uncritical and unthinking cheerleading for capitalism.
Merullo may well be right that Cubans who are more freely exposed to the experience of Americans may learn from that exposure. But surely Americans would profit also if we used comparisons between the countries in order to improve how we run our own country instead of reiterating the mantra that capitalism is good.
Yes, let's open Cuba to American visits by abolishing the Embargo. But let's also take off our blinders and visit other countries in order to learn, not in order to reinforce our prejudices.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Going to school and getting an education.

It used to be that an education was what you went to school for. But those days are long gone. Today parents pay good money for their kids to go to college in order for them to get a better job. You hear that from politicians, from the president on down, as well as from college presidents and deans and other people whom we call "educators."
Colleges have become training schools for jobs. Every year more colleges cancel their general education courses and substitute job training programs. Students take less English and literature, they learn little history or social science. Forget philosophy. Students graduate knowing little about the world they live in.
So employers should be really happy because colleges are trying to provide good future employees for them.
But it is not working out that way. A recent article in the Chronicle for Higher Education records the complaints of many employers that today's college graduates are not ready to take a job. One employer is quoted as saying: "They don't need more technical training. They need to learn how to think." Other employer complaints are more specific: College students who may have knowledge of all sorts of technical subjects, they say, are not able to give a good oral or written presentation of a set of facts. The communication skills of today's college graduates – even if they are Communication Majors – are really deficient. If they are asked to present a proposal they are unable to marshal reasonable arguments in defense of it.
In short, they lack the skills of a well-educated person. They may have received useful training for a specific job. But they did not get an education.
But an education is what many employers are looking for.
Perhaps, parents should ask for their money back.