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Home Ruminations

Other Countries
Common Sense

Here below are my thoughts on some wide issues about other countries. Similar pages present my thoughts on regulating our societies, communities of human beings, people living on earth, and more general common sense issues. (While these seem like just simple common sense to me, some of them may be startling to some readers.)

In this globalized world, how we treat other countries has become ever more important. Relations between countries are still dominated by government-to-government interactions (foreign policy if you will).

Descent into War is a One-Way Trip

We usually accept uncritically the old bromide that war is merely the continuation of politics by other means. We give our own meaning to words that might have meant something quite different in their original context. We don't usually think very deeply about these words, beyond knowing they're the words of a military person (Carl von Clausewitz).

But the way we typically interpret them, these words have some disturbing implications:

  1. There is nothing fundamentally different about resorting to violence and killing. We're still just pursuing our politics.
  2. We have considerable control over the course of a war just as we have considerable control over any other aspect of a dispute.
  3. We can pull back at any moment even though we've dabbled with violence and killing.
  4. We can get out of a war as easily as we get into one.
  5. We have a choice of means to pursue our politics, sometimes we choose war and other times we don't.

When things are spelled out this way, do we continue to agree quite so uncritically? Although the original statement sounded pretty innocuous, some of its implications seem rather controversial.

Recent experience suggests that once there's been violence and killing, a society is fundamentally changed and can't just go back. Once family members have died and refugees have been moved and teenagers have been forced to physically defend their family, violence takes over and civil society is greatly weakened. (This wasn't always true. As recently as post-WWII, societies in chaos were able to get it back together. But –for some reason– not any more.) Violence and the threat of violence engulf everything else. Young men with guns call the shots. Ideology becomes a life and death matter; tolerance goes on holiday. Groups that have lived side by side for centuries can't coexist any more. Real power resides in "warlords".

The situation becomes similar to effective control of a neighborhood by a "gang", or to "the troubles" in Northern Ireland, which was plagued by random violence for three decades.

Once that's happened to a society, it may take a whole generation -or even longer- to recover. Liberia was engulfed in violence for fifteen years, and predictions are its slow recovery will continue for a long time. The city of Sarajevo fractured after hundreds of years of coexistence and is only now recovering. Somalia dissolved and never came back. Even after four decades, Afghanistan hasn't reemerged from warlordism, and there's no indication it will any time soon.

It's not so obvious that it's more important to be "right" than it is to avoid this one-way trip to the dissolution of society. Was it really worth it to expel the "Islamic Courts" from Somalia even though it seems to have added another decade or more to the anarchy? What would a foreign policy that thought it was more important to avoid social chaos than to be on the "right side" look like? What would a foreign policy that thought it was more important to get rid of nuclear weapons than to "win" look like?

Valuing non-violence even more than justice would sometimes be counter-intuitive and uncomfortable. For example Alex de Waal, probably the world's foremost authority on Sudan, argued against bringing war-crimes charges against Omar Hassan al-Bashir in the International Criminal Court, because of the likelihood of so many negative effects on the local situation. He said When peace and justice clash, as they do in Sudan today, peace must prevail.

Sunni/Shia vs. Moderate/Extremist

A split between the Sunni and Shia strands of Islam is becoming prominent in the Middle East. It may define the principal fault line in that region for decades to come. We'll be tempted to "choose sides", backing one or the other.

We've been here before. In the worldwide Cold War contest, the U.S. was the leader of one of the sides while the other side was led by the U.S.S.R. Back then we made loyalty more important than anything else, often supporting distasteful leaders. Our operative philosophy was "Yes  x  is an S.O.B., but he's our S.O.B.".

In hindsight those choices don't look so good. We got ahead in the short term and won the contest, but in the long term our support for distasteful autocratic leaders came back to bite us. Many decades later we're reaping the negative consequences of those decisions.

Those experiences taught us not to just back the short-term winner. If what we really want is moderate regimes, we should simply back anyone who eschews extremism, even if they're on the "wrong" side. Sunni or Shi'ite shouldn't matter; what should matter is staying away from extremist tactics including terrorism.

We should support any group that has ideals similar to ours. Groups that eschew violence, participate in the political process, strive to improve the lives of many, and have popular support should be our friends. Let's not get hung up on subtle differences, lack of approval by the "official" government of that country, or on absence of an unswerving allegiance to "the West".

Israelis and Palestinians

Why are the Palestinians so ticked off? Because someone stole their land. The phrase "Land Without People for a People Without Land" was great spin ...but not reality. The widely promulgated misimpression that Palestine was "empty" when Israel was formed simply isn't true; the truth is more like the all-too-common myth that the U.S. was "empty" when whites expanded, which trivializes all the unfairness and violence perpetrated on the previous inhabitants.

But after all didn't "God give the land to the Israelites" making the Palestinians interlopers? That's what one learns in Sunday School. But that was well over 2000 years ago — now the statute of limitations has run out.

Israel is a place where two very different styles of life are in direct contact. Folks who expect wild development and traffic jams live cheek by jowl with farmers who greatly value open land and olive trees. Even if there weren't already enmity between Israelis and Palestinians, this clash between city slickers and country cousins might be unbearable.

Developmental Expertise

Very different skills are needed to excel in a certain environment and to re-create that environment elsewhere. Developing nations need time and help to grow from where they are, not advisers that treat them like they're already on the leading edge.

Efforts need to be consonant with the general level of development. A great example is chinamen who struck it rich in the Californa gold rush, paid to take an automobile back home, then watched it rust away over the years since there was no gasoline. Without the appropriate infrastructure an independent achievement isn't useful. There may be a stage where the biggest boon to industrial development is a distribution network for spare parts for hand trucks. First world experts who advise third world countries should think in the context of the country they're advising, not in the context of the developed country they call home. Their goal should be to help the country they're advising grow up rather than to integrate it into a global economy at any cost.

Foreign aid should be guided by the old principle "Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime." Foreign aid should not be passing out fish, distributing the commodities needed to keep men passively alive --like cattle. And it should definitely not be simply a dumping ground for whatever surplusses we produce.

War on Terrorism

If someone is very angry at us, beating him up is unlikely to solve the problem. More likely it will make him even more angry and make him look for chances to hit us when we aren't expecting it. Our schools teach our kids methods of "conflict resolution" so violence can be avoided. We should use the same approaches internationally we recommend to our own kids.

If someone is so angry and feels so hopeless they're willing to die (suicide bombers, airplane crashers), threatening to "bring them to justice" doesn't do much. How significant is the threat of death to someone who's ready to die anyway? Force or the threat of force isn't going to change their behavior. We can see this clearly in the case of a convict who's already in jail and murders someone else. We should apply the same reasoning to terrorists.

History Informs Foreign Policy

We all know that those who refuse to learn history are doomed to repeat it. Our foreign policy should be more aware of history. We ignore the specifics of places and times at our peril.

For example consider that Fallujah was the starting point of the Iraqi revolt against the British in the 1920s. What happened there in 2004 may have as much to do with the history of western imperialism as it did with current events.

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