Saturday, January 19, 2013

All War is Civil War

Everyone has a stake in issues like the prevention of nuclear war, and indeed of conventional war, like the potential war between Israel and Iran or the U.S. and Iran, wars that would only delay, but not resolve, conflicts that portend nuclear confrontation down the time-stream. It’s hard not to have an interest in the present troubling rightward swing in Israeli politics ( because it shows a hardening of differences between Israel and the Palestinians over Jewish settlements, a “local” conflict with regional and global relevance.

As an ordinary citizen, I’ve never studied international relations or participated in negotiations, but I’ve met a few diplomats. I once had a conversation with a man who had served the U.S. in an African country. I was astonished at his crude and unapologetic bigotry. It was very difficult to imagine this person making a good-faith effort to understand the interests and cultural frames of reference of his assigned country. Later I had the opportunity to get to know Robert White, Carter’s ambassador to El Salvador, who was as judicious and thoughtful as my earlier acquaintance had been patronizingly colonialist.

Another thoughtful figure I got to know in the 1980s, John Mack, was not a diplomat but a psychiatrist with a passion for exploring the thought-processes of diplomats or generals trying to represent their countries’ interests. Dr. Mack won a Pulitzer for his brilliant biography of T.E. Lawrence, the British soldier who tried to influence events in the Middle East during World War I using his extraordinary comprehension of Arab language and culture.

Mack argued in a later paper written in response to the horrors of 9-11 ( that it was crucial in the nuclear age that we understand the motives of the “other,” in contrast to President Bush’s simplistic formulations, such as “they hate us for our freedom.” In the years since 9-11, Mack’s orientation has only grown more important, and ought to be a requirement of any diplomat’s training.  A brief excerpt from his paper gets to the heart of the matter:

The dualistic mind is not by nature self-reflective and, inasmuch as it attributes good to its own motives and actions, it will find the opposite of good in the other.
Negative or aggressive ideas and feelings that are not consistent with self-regard must be pushed away, or projected outward and attributed to the enemy. A vulnerable and frightened public can all too easily be enrolled into this dangerous way of thinking. Psychologists, social scientists, spiritual leaders, and political professionals (as well as government and other institutional leaders who understand this basic truth) have a responsibility to do whatever they can in speaking and writing to change the public conversation so that the role of one’s own group in the creation of political conflict can be acknowledged and examined, and new possibilities brought forth to create a genuine global community. . .

Then we can begin to look at how the mind deals with differences, and is prone to the creation of enemies, especially when our very existence appears to be threatened. Then we can begin to look beyond mere tolerance to true knowing of the other. Only the mind that has recognized and integrated and transcended its primitive dualistic habits can begin to identify with the suffering and rage of geographically distant people. Only then can we see the aggression and ignorance that underlies our dominance and neglect, and perceive our own role in the creation of victims far from our own shores.

When U.S. diplomats sit down with their Iranian or Israeli or other counterparts, do they set a context for discussion based in this depth of mutuality, or in dualistic alienation? Either a nuclear war that no one can win will occur somewhere ahead, or all parties will build on their mutual interest that such a no-win does not occur. This shared knowledge of stark choices precedes trust. Trust in fact can only be built out of this context, because it is the common reality for all seven billion of us. In this sense, international relations based upon deception and threat, from whatever corner, have become oddly empty, obsolete, and irrelevant. More relevant is the kind of diplomacy that actively seeks to strengthen the security (the real security of nourishing food, clean water, and meaningful work, not the pseudo-security that comes who possesses the most arms) of adversaries in the certain knowledge that only what strengthens everyone’s security strengthens our own.

Four foundational understandings that give ‘”enemies” something to talk about with each other: First, even a relatively small nuclear exchange could lead to the well-known phenomenon of “nuclear winter,” affecting not just the parties in conflict but everyone else on the planet. Second, environmental challenges posed not just by nuclear winter but also by climate change and vast systems of pollution in the ocean, soil and air make it impossible not to acknowledge shared survival and security goals that have no military solution. Third, the people across the table are as real as we are. Our own survival and theirs are interdependent, however much we disagree.  Fourth, parties to any negotiation of conflict on earth share everything even if we forget it in moments of heat. We share the big transnational challenges, and we share limbic brains that, when threatened, revert quickly to default settings of “us-and-them.”  But it helps us stay human with each other if we acknowledge that reality.

How refreshing if the next revelation of secret Wikileaks cables showed that diplomats understood the real context of their country’s self-interest: we’re all in this together.

Saturday, January 12, 2013


Maya is the name of the determined protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty who pursues Bin Laden to his death. Controversies generated by the film include whether torture was essential to the success of the mission, whether the producers were given special access to the CIA, and whether the film amounts to propaganda that excuses illegal methods of countering terrorism. Kathryn Bigelow has been accused of wanting the film to be seen as both documentary and fiction, not unlike the way Rush Limbaugh wants to be seen as both as a cultural power broker and mere entertainer.

Zero Dark Thirty, along with Ben Affleck’s film Argo, can generate some useful reflection upon American methods for achieving security in a dangerous world. Both films pander to crude stereotypes of malevolent, swarthy-skinned, bearded extremists. They intensify the “us and them” paradigm that suffuses our thinking about a region of the world going through paroxysmal changes. Argo begins with a brief montage that acknowledges the U.S. role in the creation of modern Iran: how the C.I.A. interfered in Iranian elections in the 1950s and installed the Shah, causing blowback equally as tragic as that which began with Osama being with us against the Soviets (during their Afghan War) before he was against us (leading to our Afghan War).

Argo’s reduction of Iranians to brutal thugs is countered by the supremely subtle and human Iranian 2011 film of director and writer Asghar Farhadi, A Separation, in which an Iranian couple must decide whether to move to another country to provide opportunities for their child, or stay in Iran to care for a family member with Alzheimer’s; a work vastly higher in quality than either Argo or Zero Dark Thirty. Ironic that a film of that title has the capacity to bring together Iranians and non-Iranians to share a poignant exploration of universal human themes.

The two American films celebrate our ingenuity, courage and perseverance against adversaries. But both films demand that we look more deeply into the dominant narrative that produced them. While these are “only” films, Zero Dark Thirty points us back to the painfulness of the events out of which it came, illuminating the questions: how and when can the “war on terror” come to an end, and how will we know when it does? Just as Argo points us to the question of how to prevent a war between us—or Israel—and Iran, a war that would resolve nothing.

Osama bin Laden was apparently motivated to attack “the West” out of revenge—the ancient paradigm of an eye for an eye. In an extensive 2002 letter to the American people printed in the British publication the Observer, Osama laid out his specific justifications for horrific violence against innocents.

He began by citing passages from the Koran that give permission to Islamists to fight “disbelievers.” Immediately this sets up a pathological context, because it contains what philosophers call a performative contradiction: he proclaims Islam as a universal religion, but his vision is radically exclusivist. He believed that a universal God is on the side of pure Islam against impure or non-Islamists. Sadly, not a few Christians have been known to think along similar lines.

Osama goes on to say that he and his colleagues are fighting the U.S. because the U.S. supports Israel against Palestine. He is explicitly anti-Semitic: to him the creation of Israel is a crime, implying no willingness to accept a more inclusive, multi-ethnic vision of the region’s future.

When I spoke at a Rotary club in a large city a few years ago, I said that however horrific Osama’s crimes were, it was important to hear his rationalizations and understand his frame of reference; important to consider what effect actions of our own, like stationing troops on bases in Saudi Arabia, had upon extremists; and important to bring murderers to trial as ordinary criminals rather than to exterminate them. Not all of Osama’s justifications for violence were based in irrational fantasies of revenge. He raised issues, like the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq as the result of U.S. sanctions, or our double standards about whom we allow to have nuclear weapons and whom we do not, that have also been raised by patriotic and loyal Americans. A number of listeners to my talk stood up and walked out.

Our decision to assassinate Osama was not an act of restorative justice. Killing him would not have brought back to life those who perished on 9/11. It was an act of retributive, consciously decided, cold-minded payback. In the intent eyes of our heads of government as they followed the actions of the Navy Seals, eyes that included a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, it was possible to see the blindness of an eye for an eye that makes the whole world blind.

In the nuclear age, this lack of moral imagination becomes a great deal more important than the issue of how entertaining or truthful are the products of Hollywood. Our planetary misery and fear will never decrease by an endless cycle of revenge and counter-revenge. A pathological level of revenge is built into the very deterrence that rationalizes the possession of massive nuclear arsenals—the mother of all performative contradictions: a revenge-cycle that could kill us all, as it very nearly did in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Shouldn’t any sane narrative of our response to terrorism include a few less drones that create more terrorists than they kill, and a few more initiatives of reconciliation between the West and Muslim regions?  It is past time to set aside, from the trillions we spend on weapons and war, a few millions for a Department of Peace.

Otherwise we are fooling ourselves—moving deck chairs around on the Titanic. “Maya” is the Sanskrit word for illusion.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Risking Peace

Because we are the wealthiest nation on the planet, we have the luxury of being proactive in ensuring our future security. But the path to that security looks very different from the way it did even a few years ago.

A primary example of our transformed security context is the realization that there is only one ocean of air surrounding the earth. Unless all nations make a concerted effort to convert to sources of clean energy, global mean temperatures will continue to rise and cause undesirable extremes of weather. Strategic competition between superpowers like Russia, China and the U.S. becomes irrelevant to the larger crisis of fossil fuel use and CO2 emissions from all countries. The violence of storms in my country may be intensified by the environmental policies of your country, and vice-versa. Fossil fuel corporations, more powerful than many national governments, must be pressured from taking more oil or coal out of the ground even though they have the technical means and the capital to locate and extract potential supplies. While entrenched interests are resistant to such painful change, countries like Germany are providing a model of how it can be done, having relinquished nuclear power and moved successfully toward alternatives.

Where would the capital come from for an American conversion away from fossil fuels?  How about our profligate and useless nuclear weapons renewal program? Nuclear weapons take their place as one more environmental challenge. Scientists have computer-modeled the possibility that even a small nuclear war using only a fraction of the weapons available would loft enough soot into the atmosphere to cause a worldwide shutdown of agriculture for a decade. This accelerated climate event would be as much a death sentence for the planet as all-out nuclear war between two superpowers.

Established U.S. policy assumes that deterrence needs to be maintained against the Russian nuclear arsenal—even though the cold war is a quarter century behind us. Deterrence theory also breaks down against a nuclear attack by terrorist extremists, who could simply bring a device into a country by stealth. A potent combination of obsolete deterrence strategy, the profitability of new submarines, missiles, and drones, and the assumption that no other nation is in a position to police the world rationalizes the momentum of the American weapons industry. The assumption that all our ordnance will be perpetually fail-safe is the ultimate folly. We are rushing headlong toward a cliff that makes a molehill of the “fiscal cliff.”

Conditions on the macro level are replicated at smaller scales. The massacre of children in Newtown has renewed discussion about which societal models most effectively protect the innocent. Some have suggested that safety lies in more rather than less weapons—a deterrence model similar to that which has been vainly pursued on the international level. Arming everyone to the teeth, whether individuals or nations, is a devil’s bargain yielding only greater and greater insecurity, especially given the possibility of accident or misinterpretation. It has now been a half-century since we learned where this model inevitably leads. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union came within a hair’s breath of global annihilation.

Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan saw the light when they met in Reykjavik in 1986 and considered the total elimination of nuclear arsenals on both sides. The momentum of global arms manufacture rushes us past such milestones of visionary common sense into a future that, unless we risk citizen-supported change, looks increasingly foreboding. Even if the U.S. and Russia could agree to disarm to their last warhead, the planet needs to address the tensions between newer members of the nuclear club like India and Pakistan, who have yet to learn the inescapable lesson of the Cuban crisis. Perhaps the quickest way for them to learn it is by our setting an example.

The only force sufficient to counter this momentum is citizen awareness and action, building relationships across illusory divides with people in other nations on the basis of shared security concerns. The divides are illusory because all of us on the planet face the same challenges together. This reality is powerful enough to overcome the fear and enemy-imaging that has restrained global peacebuiding in the past.

Americans, who are blessed with so much in spite of our present economic woes, shouldn’t find it so hard to imagine how deeply grateful people in places like Iran would feel if we built down our nuclear weapons programs and set aside the resulting peace dividend toward a massive conversion to sustainable energy sources and meeting worldwide needs for medicine, clean water, nourishing food, and shelter.  As such initiatives came to be appreciated, terrorism would gradually die a natural death. The scarcity of resources that is expected to be the cause of future wars would be addressed preemptively. Given the greater risks of continuing on our present course, this fundamental change of direction is worth the gamble. If you agree, write your representative.