Monday, February 11, 2013

Hard Power, Soft Power, and the Power of Good

Mark Helprin’s 2012 novel, 'In Sunlight and in Shadow', tries to articulate as noble as possible a justification for the tragic violence of war. The novel is set just after World War II, so it is not surprising that the rationale is based in the Churchillian mind-set of the campaign to defeat Hitler. In the novel, an older veteran argues: “How many millions have to die, Harry, before we stop worrying about unintended consequences?”

Harry, a younger vet, responds: “What if all nations decided to kill off what in their eyes was mortally dangerous leadership? It would become a Hobbesian world.”

“The world just lost 50 million dead. Is that Hobbesian enough? Politeness can be a form of collaboration, or suicide . . .You have to play it by ear, as you know, as you must know, having fought your way through Sicily, France, Holland and Germany, your responsibility is not to be morally pristine, but to preserve the maximum number of innocent lives. How many men have you killed?

“Too many.”

“Yes, and probably most of them were as innocent as you. . . . You know that, and yet you had to kill them, and you did, because all in all, in the gross and scope of it, scores of millions are alive now who would not have been, or who would have been enslaved, had Germany not been defeated. Children by the millions, Harry, they are the reason you killed men. Now you are forever morally impure, but Harry, if only by the weight of the flesh and blood in the balance, you’re purer than those who refused.”

This interchange strikes home because it is just how we might imagine our nobly impure presidents and generals think, conveying a sense of what allows them to sleep at night as our drones sleeplessly patrol—allows them to shed tears for children in Newtown but not for those in the dusty, half-starving villages of Afghanistan or Yemen. Prevention rationalizes preemption, and its inevitable collateral damage.

Even the difference between the civilian-encompassing firestorms of Dresden and the surgical precision of modern destruction fails to quiet our unease. Nor, surely, does the technological line of progress that says we can deploy a drone to assassinate, so why not, even if we fray the tenuous bonds of law and moral decency.

Nobly impure intentions enforced by drones are no longer enough. If they were, Afghanistan would not be the war-weary, corrupt, drug-saturated place it has become today, and we would not be seeing so many suicides among our vets. Our campaigns to bring democracy to Vietnam, or to preempt a potential Hitler in Iraq, did not turn out so nobly.

The doubts troubling Helprin’s young veteran have gradually magnified between 1945 and the present to the point where we can no longer avoid seeing our complicity in the Hobbesian totality. Our own carbon footprint helps the sea rise over low-lying Pacific atolls, or floods impoverished Bangladeshis. It is our own country that possesses the most nuclear weapons and sells the most conventional weapons and has the biggest military budget and occupies the most bases overseas.

The unintended consequences that the older veteran in Helprin’s novel might wish to disregard for the sake of his vision of the greater good can no longer be set aside as worth the price of war. Instead, we have become disagreeably familiar with blowback, where the “solution” makes the problem worse—as seen over decades of Western interference in Iran and Iraq, or Soviet and American meddling in Afghanistan. The blowback from targeted assassinations is already occurring as innocents are killed, resentments mount, and fresh recruits offer themselves for further mayhem.

And as more and more nations possess nuclear weapons, any modern conflict, even one provoked by stateless entities, could lead, as it almost did lead in 1962, to global apocalypse. Above the endless cycle of violence loom ultimate unintended consequences, like nuclear winter—the mother of all blowbacks.

The answer is not merely “soft power,” which still involves, by gentler means than war, co-opting others to do what we want. One possible model, one that could bring some balance into our overwhelmingly militaristic foreign policy, might be called “good power.” Rotary International provides a model of what this power for good might look like. Rotary has 32,000 clubs in 200 countries. It’s based in people-to-people relationships. It sets high goals and plods stubbornly toward them, like their worldwide and almost achieved anti-polio initiative. It makes friends and elicits the sincere gratitude of those to whom it provides crucial aid. Why is it not “realistic” to deemphasize our ironclad military fist in favor of a helping hand, with the understanding that an increase in the security of any nation increases our own?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Getting to Know Us: A Memo to U.S. Adversaries

One of the first things you need to know about us is how difficult it is for us to tolerate ambiguity—especially when untangling our own motives. An example was our second invasion of Iraq. After 9-11 we felt an itch to retaliate against a clear enemy. Because we could not pinpoint one, we scratched the itch by inventing a false enemy— conveniently, one with lots of oil under its sand—and going to war against it, to no one’s great benefit.

That endeavor revealed a lot about us at this moment in our history, though similar themes can be found in our past.  We have been all too certain, like some of you, that we are exceptional, that wrongs done to us justify our flouting international law, and that violent military force is the way to get our way. Though we are a young country, much of our story is steeped in hyper-violence: our treatment of native peoples, the horrors of the slave trade, the callous use of napalm on Asian civilians. Though we are not alone in our chauvinism, we Americans don’t care to look at the dark side of our own intentions and deeds: our interference in the domestic affairs of Iran in the 1950s, our casual and pervasive brutality during a long and pointless war in Vietnam, the lies that led us into Iraq, the gradual drift into torture, and now extra-legal assassination by drone.

Though we are a country that has been quite successful tolerating and even celebrating ethnic and religious diversity within our borders, we are also endowed with an ongoing racist strain which manifests in deep fears of the “other,” fears so deep some of us indulged in paranoid fantasies about our first black president being Muslim. But even that very smart president has been sucked into our majority paranoia: that the only way we can really ensure our nation’s safety is to dominate the entire earth, including below the seas and above the air.

Our recent history involves a lot of the tail wagging the dog. Our enviable prosperity is based in an addiction to the sale of arms, weapons that tend to get used and kill people that we don’t believe are quite as real as we are. It is also based in our addiction to oil, which distorts our policies toward nations rich in that diminishing resource. We may support an Arab Spring for some, but oil-rich dictatorships with terrible human rights records, like Saudi Arabia, get a pass. Phalanxes of our generals assume that the best way to advance through the ranks is to chalk up some successful combat experience. You have learned that it does not take all that much to set this juggernaut moving against you, because a subtle bias toward unnecessary war comes built into our economy, our culture, and our politics.

Those politics are corrupted by powerful lobbies that make it dangerous to voice self-critical positions. Many American citizens, and not a few Israelis for that matter, share your unease with the Israeli government’s settlement policy, the not so subtle attempt to permanently change the “facts on the ground” in the Palestinian territories.  The cycle of violence in the region assures that extremes on either side demonize each other, delaying the inevitable compromises that are the only alternative to another holocaust, this time a nuclear one. The settlements have become emblematic of enemy stereotyping between the multiple worlds of Islam and the “West,” ratcheting up global tensions around who has nuclear weapons and who does not.

The reality that ought to inform this discussion is the fact that if only a small fraction of anyone’s nuclear weapons are detonated, the entire planet could be plunged into nuclear winter, rendering worldwide agriculture inoperable for a decade—the starting point for realizing that all war has now become obsolete as a way to resolve our many conflicts.

On some level we know how much more good the obscene sums we have spent on projects like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter could do if they were reallocated to directly meeting human needs for education, for medicine, for clean water, for decent jobs. Because these are in such short supply in your world, some few of you are driven helplessly toward a violence that rationalizes the “collateral” killing of innocent civilians—just as we make similar uneasy moral compromises in the use of drones in a futile cycle of revenge. Our equivalent to your suicide bombers are not only the drones, but the hundreds of our soldiers who commit suicide because they cannot live with what war has done to their hearts and minds.

Before he was shot down at another violent moment of our history, our martyr Martin Luther King Jr. had begun to talk about the relationship between our wars abroad and our inequities at home. But his solution was as radical as any extremist’s: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” The tactics of non-violence are the secret strength with which not only our own country can overcome its contradictions and hypocrisies, but the quickest way, in the long run, that you will gain the freedom and justice to which you aspire, without bringing the American behemoth down upon you.

When you insist on thinking of the United States as Satan incarnate, bear in mind that Dr. King is a representative American consecrated with his own holiday, and millions of us still carry his torch of hope. His non-violence shows the way out of the echo chamber of fear that entraps much of the planet—whether the callously dominating violence of the modern superpower or the desperate helpless reaction of the terrorist.  Lasting change will come from neither of these extremes. It will come when we, we the human species, begin to fully address the adversaries we all share—climate instability, nuclear winter, world-traveling diseases—which make our adversarial differences pale to nothing.