Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Combating Plagues

I wrote my Senator, Angus King, to register my judgment that further military American intervention in the Middle East was a catastrophic mistake.  His response was measured and thoughtful. Principles which will guide his future votes on policy include: “there must be a vital national interest to justify any intervention; specific goals must be established; any action we take should be as one component of a coalition strategy whereby other nations, particularly those in the region, are actively involved and supportive; no commitment of ground combat forces; and the establishment of an open and inclusive government in Iraq that unites the country's diverse ethnic and religious communities.”

It’s what Senator King doesn’t include in his response that troubles me, and what even the liberal media isn’t asking in talk shows on NPR and elsewhere: what are the creative alternatives to militarism and arms sales that won’t merely create more extremists? Instead, there is this extraordinary rush to consensus that bombs and bullets are the only way open to us.

This consensus stands in schizophrenic contrast to the vital religious infrastructure of our country, where church members contribute money and volunteer time to feed the hungry from food pantries, deliver meals on wheels to the elderly, and build housing for the indigent. But this benevolent model doesn’t seem to translate into our foreign policy initiatives—except, just now, in Africa. At this moment the U.S. military is setting up staging areas in Liberia to rapidly train medical personnel to limit and reverse the runaway Ebola epidemic. No doubt there is an element of self-interest in our generosity—we want to ensure that Ebola does not come to our own shores.

Ultimately what ails members of ISIS young and old is also a plague, a plague of hatred and ignorance, infecting people who like all humans including us began life as innocent children.  Our national conversation about what motivates and intensifies this hatred has been superficial and inexcusably incompetent (Senator King, to his credit, has urged that we look more deeply into the root causes of Islamic extremism)—with the not unexpected result that one symptom of the plague, vengefulness, has snuck across our borders like the 9-11 conspirators and infected our own minds. As one of our American heroes said, “darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

In spite of our outrage at videotaped beheadings, what if we thought of ISIS more on the model of a typhoon, or earthquake, or plague—like Ebola? Our soldiers in Africa are not there to kill those with Ebola but to save them. Are there ways to apply that model to the plague of extremist hatred? We won’t know until we open our minds to what might lie beyond knee-jerk shock and awe. We did this (the “we” here including Russian diplomats) when we negotiated the peaceful destruction of Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons instead of bombing.

I was speaking about war prevention at the Rotary Club of Boston a few years ago and suggested mildly that it might have been a mistake not to have made more of an effort to bring Osama bin Laden back alive. A woman, eyes darting with indignation, walked out in protest. The infection of hate assumes that murderous obliteration of the adversary is the only possible resolution of conflict. Unfortunately, that is our own national policy goal for ISIS, explicitly stated by the President himself—as if he somehow forgot how hard he has tried to extricate us from two other fruitless campaigns of obliteration. Our challenge is to discover how best to fight the plague of hatred without being contaminated by it ourselves. In the nuclear age, unless we find an effective vaccine, catching this plague could lead down the time stream to the extinction of us all.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


The way the United States has chosen to approach the chaos of the Middle East has far more frightening implications than we think, especially in terms of the world our children will inherit. If we are honest about how our adversaries perceive us, we will have to admit that there is a grand cycle of violence and insult operating, in which we ourselves are implicated up to our necks.

If we are to have any chance of breaking this potentially endless cycle (our military bases in Saudi Arabia leading to 9-11; 9-11 leading to the second Gulf War, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib; the second Gulf War helping to create ISIS; ISIS beheading our journalists; President Obama suckered into reluctant bellicosity etc. etc. etc), we have to start by admitting our own role in it—something extremely difficult for our culture, and therefore almost impossible for our political leaders.

Righteous wrath and the urge for revenge are terrible foundations for creative policy-making. They lead almost inevitably to doing stupid stuff. 50 years beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis and 70 years into the nuclear age, the time for stupidity in international strategy is over. It is not merely possible, it is just about inevitable that the cycle of violence between the West and the Middle East will eventually go nuclear if we keep on as we are. Building these weapons is now an open secret.

If we want our children to survive, the foundation for smart, realistic international relations in the nuclear world becomes the polar opposite of military force: the emphasis must shift to encouraging the positive, the relational, the building of trust and friendship, mutual compassion, understanding, and aid. Erik Erikson put it this way back in 1964, in an essay called “The Golden Rule in the Light of New Insight”:

“Nations today are by definition units of different stages of political, technological and economic transformation . . . insofar as a nation thinks of itself as a collective individual, then, it may well learn to visualize its task as that of maintaining mutuality in international relations. For the only alternative to armed competition seems to be the effort to activate in the historical partner what will strengthen him in his historical development even as it strengthen the actor in his own development—toward a common future identity.”

This constitutes Erikson’s savvy modern restatement of the Golden Rule, a formulation that occurs, with some variation, in all the major religions, including Islam, where it goes: “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother what he desires for himself.”

Erikson’s theme was the active, creative potential of mutuality—between spouses, parents and children, doctors and patients, teachers and pupils, even between nations. Mutuality, Erikson asserted, is a relationship in which partners depend upon each other for the enhancement of their respective strengths.  The curiosity of a student elicits from the teacher the skills for transmitting the excitement of learning in a way that benefits both teacher and student. 

There is an urgent need to figure out how to apply this thinking to breaking the great cycle, to making it the foundation of foreign policy—not merely as “soft power,” which is simply the flexibility we think is open to us when we possess an overwhelming excess of hard power, which we do. We possess sufficient hard power to destroy the world many times over. What is required for our survival is to use our immense resources to make things better where we can, giving extremists infinitely less reason to attack.  Our bombs only create more fanatics bent upon crucifixion and beheading—an old, old story. Only we can create a new story, and if we do, the world will respond gratefully.

Today, the Golden Rule has been perverted into the Iron Rule of vengefulness: if you do harm unto me, I will do yet more harm to you.  A wise teacher who lived 2000-odd years before nukes understood that those who live by the sword will perish by it. We hear this when our Vice-President, a good man, asserts that we will follow terrorists right to the gates of hell. If we do that, we can be sure that the gates will open wide enough to swallow us right along with the extremists.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Suckered Again?

Why must vengefulness be the default strategy for humans—the very thing we dislike and fear most about our adversaries?  Mob rule is a temptation we assume we have grown beyond, but have we? The media hounds and the war lovers like Senators Graham and McCain bay for blood, putting enormous pressure on the President to get suckered into a third Middle East war. To avoid the label of wimp, Mr. Obama had to say what he said in his speech to the nation on his strategy against ISIS, but what he said was only a palatable version of the vengefulness paradigm.

The agony of loss the parents of Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff must feel is beyond comprehension. But is their pain any different from the universal pain of violence and war that has been felt by the parents of murdered children time out of mind?—the pain of Aleppo, the pain of mothers in Gaza, the pain of innocents in Baghdad who found themselves on the wrong end of shock and awe, the pain of wedding participants in Afghanistan blown up under the pitiless eye of drones, the horror of people having to jump from the twin towers to avoid being burned alive.

When we refuse to get sucked into the vengeful mob mentality, we see the cycle of violence objectively, including our own role in it—as colonial powers that created arbitrary borders in the Middle East at the end of World War I, and more recently as equally ineffective neo-colonial occupiers with ambiguous motives.  We see the Hobbesian atomization of conflict that has overtaken the region: the U.S. and Iran support Iraq. Iran, Iraq, Russia and Shia militias support Assad. The U.S. and the Gulf States want to contain Iran and prevent it from going nuclear. The Gulf States, the U.S. and Sunni militants want to defeat Assad. The Kurds, Iran, the U.S. and Iraq want to defeat ISIS, even as the Kurds have benefited from the chaos created by ISIS. For the United States, never seen as a disinterested party, to intervene militarily in this stew is madness.

We do not know enough about the motives of ISIS to be sure what they wanted to accomplish with the beheadings. On the face of it, such abhorrent acts appear to be an ongoing response in an endless cycle of eye for eye and tooth for tooth—like 9-11 itself. The leader of ISIS was mistreated at Abu Ghraib. The U.S. dropped bombs on ISIS soldiers. And it is also possible that they assume strategic advantage might be found by luring in the U.S. and its allies—perhaps to unite fragmented factions against a common enemy—us, if we choose to get suckered once again.

What is more certain is that thought-systems of violent revenge can take on a bizarre life in an endless cycle of hate and fear, preventing us from thinking outside the constricting box of compulsive military reaction. However tired of war we may be, we feel insulted and helpless—and that leads us to assume we have no alternative but to try war again.

 We know from hard experience we will end up spending much more to defeat ISIS by military means, assuming any so-called defeat does not create more enemies than it destroys. We have alternatives. Extrapolating from our feckless campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, imagine some arbitrary sum roughly equal to a quarter of what we spent on those wars becomes an available resource to do something outside the box of war. In this alternative paradigm, weapons sales, to any party, would be an automatic no. That only pours gasoline onto fire.

One alternative model is Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Global Marshall Plan (, the preamble of which goes: “In the 21st century, our security and well being depends on the well being of everyone else on this planet as well as on the health of the planet itself. An important way to manifest this caring is through a Global Marshall Plan that would dedicate 1-2% of the U.S. annual Gross Domestic Product each year for the next twenty years to eliminate domestic and global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, and inadequate health care and repair damage done to the environment . . . ”

Such common-sense generosity helps undercut the motives of ISIS to attack Western targets and isolates extremists by building relationships with a majority of people who would be grateful for genuine humanitarian help. It is past time for the U.S. to abandon its knee-jerk assumption that pouring in yet more raw military force can end, rather than intensify, the tribal enmities tearing apart the region. George W. Bush in 2002: "Fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can't get fooled again." We’d better hope not.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Kissinger's Truth?

In 2010 I wrote an op-ed expressing pleasure that Henry Kissinger had teamed up with Sam Nunn, William Perry and George Schultz to plead actively for the abolition of nuclear weapons. I called my piece “Kissinger’s Truth,” implying that while he might not always have been the most truthful of statesmen, it was not altogether bad that he had arrived, even if only in retirement and old age, at a more dove-ish position, at least concerning nukes.  The possibility of nuclear winter rubs even the faces of pitiless realists in the gigantic performative contradiction of modern war: the potential for absolute destruction upon which international security depends leads only to absolute destruction.

When my op-ed was published on line, it inspired a spew of vitriolic comment that took me to task for holding Dr. Kissinger up as anything more than a war criminal. In that regard the record is indeed troubling, including the Cambodian bombing, unwarranted interference in Chile and East Timor, even the possible undermining of the Vietnam peace talks to advantage Mr. Nixon politically, unnecessarily extending the war into further years of horror and pain.

Whether he is a war criminal or one of the most brilliant statesmen of all time or both, for decades he was at the center of global power politics. People who have been that close to nuclear decision-making represent a kind of dark priesthood. The rest of us, because it’s our planet too, want to know what such people may have learned as they tried to move themselves and their nations safely through that darkness.

In the case of the tragedy of Vietnam, perhaps Kissinger did indeed realize that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist whose people had hated the Chinese for a millennium, but went ahead anyway with the bombing because at root it was a matter of maintaining credibility against the Soviets, in a cruel but wholly unnecessary proxy for nuclear war that “could not be won and must never be fought.”

In the eyes of the powerful, Robert McNamara’s bitter public tears of remorse about the Vietnam War constituted a dangerous aberration, a threat to the complacent fa├žade of establishment toughness and righteousness, though in my judgment the tears represented a redemptive moment of contact with reality. Meanwhile, in our own time, so much deception, meddling, blood and torture goes not only unpunished, but also apparently unregretted.  

Though he speaks of anguishing decisions, we should not expect to see Dr. Kissinger shed remorseful tears any time soon. When Scott Simon interviewed him on NPR in September of 2014 on the occasion of the publication of his new book “World Order,” (, Kissinger lamely rationalized the U.S. carpet-bombing of Cambodia by saying that Obama’s drones had killed more than those B-52s a half-century ago. Still, in that very need to rationalize, so human, one felt a tiny lifting of the veil covering Kissinger’s conscience. How different another Nobel prize winner (Literature, 1960), the poet St. John Perse, who once occupied a position equivalent to Kissinger’s in the foreign office of France. The last line of Perse’s Nobel acceptance speech goes: “And it is enough for the poet to be the guilty conscience of his time.” Perse helped Aristide Briand author the text of the 1928 Kellogg-Briand treaty outlawing war—a treaty still in effect, to which the United States is a signatory.

Much ink has been spilled on the issue of whether Dr. Kissinger ought to be or could be indicted and tried by the International Criminal Court. Most of the ICC trials that have taken place so far concern alleged criminals from African nations and Serbia. Once again, as in so many cases concerning differences between the dominators and the dominated, a double standard is apparently at work.

The existence, however tentative their present effectiveness, of the ICC and the International Court of Justice, surely points toward a world where men and women of power will be constrained in their use of the law of force by the force of law—a world where endless warring parties, your tribe and my tribe justifying futile patterns of revenge, will look up and see they inhabit one earth, menaced a hundred times less by each other than by the dying oceans, the thawing of frozen methane long trapped under polar ice, the decimation of the forests that make possible our very breath. How strange we humans are, that so many remain blind to that truth.