Thursday, October 25, 2012

Strangers in a Strange Land

Our political culture becomes surreal when one views it like an alien from another galaxy homing in for an overview.  The third presidential debate was meant to examine differences in approach to foreign policy. Like everyone I have a genuine investment in the character of the person upon whose desk sits a telephone wired directly to the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.  In the event, there were few differences between Governor Romney and President Obama, because polarization works like a vise upon creativity. No one can risk thinking aloud outside the box.

What neither candidate could say, because it would cost them the election, is that rational foreign policy cannot be conducted with nuclear weapons (Kissinger so stated in no uncertain terms once he was out of office). Nor could Romney and Obama admit that the meaning of security in the nuclear age has utterly changed. Nor could they admit that it may be impossible to keep nuclear weapons entirely in the hands of the “good guys,” and out of the hands of the “bad guys.” Nor that deterrence in the age of terrorism has become obsolete. Nor that the “nuclear winter” that would ensue from even a “regional” nuclear war, say between India and Pakistan, could shut down agriculture worldwide—in essence, omnicide. Nor that global climate change is a challenge that requires a level of cooperation between nations that renders all arms races, conventional or nuclear, irrelevant.

Instead, in order to acquire votes, our leaders mouth pieties about Israel or Iran and refrain from discussing human-caused global warming,. A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize must ratify his cojones by extra-judicial killings of Osama bin Laden and other leaders of Al-Quaeda—when proper criminal trials might have been a light to the world.

The human species is a couple of millennia beyond the so-called Axial Age, when the wisdom of religious geniuses like Jesus and the Buddha ripened and began to spread the notion of radical interdependence as expressed in the various forms of the Golden Rule. And still we do not see the all-too-practical point in the age of climate instability and world-destroying weapons of loving our enemies.

Fifty years beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis, seventy-three years beyond Auden’s writing “we must love one another or die,” we know that a nuclear arms race leads only to catastrophe. I may not feel love for Ahmadinejad or Netanyahu. But at least I can see with a compassionate eye the karmic causation of history that informs their complementary paranoia. Germany, crushed by vengeful terms of surrender after World War One, became vulnerable to Hitler’s demagoguery and attempts to wipe out the Jews, leading to the need to create a Jewish homeland, which in turn resulted in a state partially occupying the lands of others, eliciting the enmity of the Persian/Arab world (Auden, same poem: “Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.”). Ahmadinejad’s perspective is informed by the fact that the U.S., Israel’s knee-jerk ally, messed with Iranian politics in the 1950s, tilted toward Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, and dispatched, perhaps with Israel’s help, a computer virus to sabotage Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges.

What nations have to do together, faced with no alternative but mass death, is collaborate on the basis of the common survival goals of the millions of citizens whose lives are at stake. “Collaborate” is a word with severe negative connotations—collaborators were shot after World War Two. French women who had fraternized with German soldiers were forcibly shorn of hair. But what is intended here by the word “collaborate” is the highest form of conflict resolution for the good of the whole, on the basis of Auden’s truth, the truth of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the truth that we can only solve our climate challenges together.

Were I president, far from saying as Governor Romney did that sitting down with the likes of Ahmadinejad showed weakness, I would be on a plane to Tehran so fast it would make Mitch McConnell’s head spin. I would acknowledge our past meddling in Iran’s internal affairs. I would try to be an honest broker across the Israeli-Palestinian divide—for Israeli’s sake as well as Palestine. I would admit that we’re deeply apprehensive about where the nuclear arms race could lead, that we know cyberwar can work both ways and probably already has, and that we have to break the cycle and find a way where everybody wins, whether that might be a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, or even better, Earth-wide.

Our presumed security sits shakily atop a house of nuclear cards, where one misinterpretation within the command-and-control systems of India or Pakistan or Israel or the U.S. or Russia or France or China, could lay waste all that we love. From the perspective of the stars, who is the “enemy”? Is it not the awesome destructive power of these weapons, our stubborn insistence on obsolete notions of national pride, war itself? If an alien were looking down upon us she would shake her head in perplexity, raise a delicate tentacle to her puckered brow, and blink her six eyes in astonishment. Her strangeness would be nothing next to our own.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Dance of "Enemies":Half a Century Beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis


Albert Einstein, the full measure of whose prophetic stature still has not been taken, wrote in a telegram in 1946: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

Einstein was implying that we need a new mode of thinking where we see clearly that a security program based in the possession of nuclear weapons leads nowhere—exactly the conclusion to which foreign policy establishment heavyweights Kissinger, Schultz, Nunn and Perry came in their famous 2007 Wall Street Journal editorial.

An authentic paradigm shift always requires time to accomplish itself, but the hour is getting late. The family of nations goes on insisting in its various ways that rational security goals can still be achieved with nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir, and each has made nuclear threats against the other as if one of the parties could “win.” Smaller nations assume that nuclear weapons will equalize their relations with their more powerful neighbors. Dictators hope to secure their political longevity with nukes. And non-state entities cling to the illusion that they could accomplish some redress of injustice if they could only get hold of one.

The reality that the murderous chaos in Syria has begun to spread over the border into Turkey reminds us not only that enemy-posing and vicious cycles of paranoia have always been with us independent of nuclear weapons, but also that small sparks have set off gigantic conflagrations in the past.

Nuclear weapons not only ratchet up the consequences of accident or misinterpretation; they distort and confuse our current “modes of thinking.” Mutual enemy-images become a dance of self-fulfilling paranoia that is stoked up to white heat by real or potential weapons. One nexus of distortion is the enemy dance between Iran, the U.S., and Israel.  The United States grossly interfered in Iran’s internal affairs in the 1950s to install the Shah, took sides with Iraq in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, and more recently sabotaged Iranian computers attached to uranium enrichment centrifuges—and then it wonders why Iranian leaders remain hostile and suspicious. As Auden famously wrote, “those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.” Meanwhile “enemy” is such a flexible thought-form. When the Iranian people went into the streets in massive numbers a few years ago to protest the corruption of their democratic process, were they our enemy?  Or an early, Persian manifestation of the Arab Spring?

No leader can remain in power by acting credulous, but nuclear paranoia has no limits. Fear, hate, and separation become the stock in trade of world leadership. The Iranian leaders, fearful of Israel’s presumed 300-odd nuclear weapons, mouth self-destructive anti-Semitic clich├ęs on the international stage. Israel, possessing an overwhelming nuclear “advantage,” draws lines in the sand on the basis of Iran’s mere potential. The distinction between good guys who can be trusted with nuclear weapons and bad guys who cannot becomes futile when the combination of the weapons themselves, their fallible command and control systems, and the sleepy assumption that they will keep us safe are the real enemy. 

When the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. came within a hair’s breadth of destroying the planet in 1962, who was the enemy? Wasn’t it war itself? If a Muslim extremist detonated a nuclear weapon in any large city on the planet, how many of their co-religionists would they obliterate? It’s not enough to argue that “they” don’t care who or how many they kill. If the U.S. ever used even a small portion of its arsenal, no matter against whom, the holocaust would be equally indiscriminate.

We forget that the cold war ended when Russians and Americans realized that they had a mutual interest in survival, and that this mutual interest is performatively universal—meaning it applies in every future case of nuclear confrontation around the globe. There are only two possible outcomes: eventual catastrophe, or the goals to which Einstein calls us on the other side of a radical shift in our modes of thinking: a nuclear-free Middle East and a nuclear-free planet.

Einstein also wrote that you cannot solve a problem on the same level of thinking that created the problem—another way of saying what he telegraphed so long ago. We have arrived at an astonishing place in the history of our planet where it has become a matter of life and death to initiate not further cyberwar with our adversaries, but dialogue in a spirit of good will on the basis of what is best for Jewish, American, Iranian, and everyone else’s grandchildren.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Two Cheers for the Two Party System

What Churchill said about democracy (“Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.”) might apply as well to our two-party system in the United States. It prevents the fragmentation we see in parliamentary systems that have to expend so much energy cobbling together coalitions. But at this moment of the first presidential debate, the Superbowl of American politics, it may be worth reminding ourselves about the potential distortions in our thinking that arise from the oversimplified twoness of Democrats versus Republicans.

First and most obvious, the twoness of politics replicates the twoness of our competitive athletics. The distortion here is to skew our thinking toward the primary goal of football or baseball, winning, and away from the ultimate and very different goal of democratic small-d politics, ideally a clarification of policy that might strengthen our nation as a whole. So carefully must candidates keep their distance from best practices that are not endorsed by their supporters, that we have the spectacle of Mr. Romney having to disavow the successful universal health care plan he himself instituted in Massachusetts.

Second, our Great Seal does not say “Out of Two, One.” It says “Out of Many, One.” This distinction affirms that our creative diversity allows for the likelihood that there are more than two valid points of view and more than two solutions for our many challenges. Twoness distills policy into contrasting alternatives, but oversimplifies in so doing. It creates an artificial middle, one that is stretched rightward and leftward—but not very far in either direction—as those seeking power search for the Great Middle in order to pander to it. Suppose, for example, that we find in another decade that global climate change has accelerated far more rapidly than we could have imagined today. At the moment, because the parties are still fighting about whether global warming even exists, the prevention/mitigation discussion cannot be found at all at the supposed “center” where the two parties might entertain some sort of agreement about something that will be crucial to their childrens’ well being.  Another artificial center has been created by our two-party class war between rich and poor. The notion of interdependence between corporate producers and a broad market to consume what they produce has apparently been lost. Long gone is the model of Henry Ford, who doubled his workers’ salaries with the understanding that they would have more money to buy his cars. Everyone wins!

Third, twoness encourages what is essentially a state of war between the two parties. True, people of different persuasions are not literally killing each other. But when someone like Senator McConnell remains so ruthlessly focused upon denying Mr. Obama a second term, the net effect is almost as destructive as war, because the nation’s important business is held hostage to a negative, self-limiting model of “victory.” As is so often the case in war, everyone loses.

Imagine a presidential debate built upon a set of premises and values opposite to competitive athletics, artificial centrism, or war. For example, one candidate could be asked to lay out a set of steps leading to progress in the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. The other candidate would be required to build on that idea in order to improve it, and prohibited from tearing the initial suggestion down. Then the first candidate would be required to build further on the improvements suggested by his opponent. Candidates would be judged on how skillfully they managed this creative process of actually dancing with each other toward potential agreement about what might constitute a workable policy—rather than trying to score debating points by mere opposition. If such a process—though it is really only a mild variation on the familiar ritual of brainstorming—sounds utterly bizarre, it is an indication of how far our politics have dissolved into gamesmanship, where the goal is not the articulation of creative ideas designed to benefit all, but the emptiness of exercising power for its own sake.