Force Is the Answer

The Washington-Tel Aviv Axis determined by the start of the new century that violence was the answer, regardless of the question. That determination constituted the foundation of U.S. post-9/11 foreign policy. Having “worked” in the sense that it maintained the elites in power and magnificently enriched them, it is only predictable that those same elites would apply their foreign policy answer to domestic policy questions as well. This dynamic I discussed theoretically in September, by which time it was obvious that Washington had no intention of punishing financial crime by the uber-rich but remained very unclear whether or not any Americans had sufficient spine to protest. And now in the last couple days, we have seen the clearest substantive implementation of “force is the answer” to domestic political questions, with a brutal nationwide crackdown characterized by the egregious, virtually celebratory use of force to send a clear message to the rest of the population that government is for the 1% and that democracy will not be tolerated. We elected and reelected politicians who advocated and implemented the policy of force toward foreigners, and now we are getting exactly what we deserve: the pointed end of the spear right in the face. How does it feel, America?


How 21st Century World Affairs Work

The idea of a global political system that is “evolving” makes decision-makers, who are conservative for numerous reasons, uneasy. Unfortunately for our security, the pace of that evolution is accelerating, and we need to learn how to keep up; the ash bin of history awaits its next victim.
Although no one can know how world affairs will operate for the rest of the 21st century at the microscopic level of individual events, much can nevertheless be said about the large-scale functioning of the global political system and, specifically, about how it is evolving in ways that decision-makers ignore at their peril. Decision-makers, i.e., precisely those individuals responsible for guiding their societies into the future, also tend to be particularly conservative (read: hide-bound, blind, in denial) about how the conditions under which that future will necessarily come into being are evolving. What sticks in the craw of our backward-looking leaders is a certain liberal (read: open-minded, flexible), leftist (read: oh-oh, dont wanna go there) little word that makes self-perceived tough guys feel queasy in the stomach—“evolving.
In the U.S., at least, most leaders are virtually illiterate and almost totally innumerate because they have focused their lives on winning elections (without any clear reason why) or building fortunes (again, without any clear reason why) or winning legal cases in court (which still leaves one little time for learning about foreign cultures or history). None of these backgrounds provides a very good path to understanding where human civilization has come from, how it got where it is, or where it is headed. Those unusual leaders with a bit of education probably carry around a powerful mental model of one outstanding event (perhaps Hitler or the glory of Rome or the Depression) that shines so bright in their minds that it blinds them to the real tangle of underlying dynamics pushing mankind to and fro. If an individual leader rises above the rest and enters office with a clear comprehension of the past, he or she will still be behind the curve because the world is now changing faster than we can keep up.
So, in the end, our leaders are conservative. A conservative attitude may have been fine during what we perceive as the endlessly predictable Neolithic times when tradition was the best guide (at least until one of those unsettling interglacial ages rolled around). Today, however, conservatism is likely to put one dangerously out-of-touch with reality. A conservative may continue to believe that foreign policy is about regime-to-regime ties, when an Arab Spring suddenly puts the masses in the drivers seat. A conservative may continue to rely on traditional military force even though current instability results from socio-economic and psychological foundations whose cracks cannot be repaired by bombs. A conservative may continue to view an old ally as a trusted friend decades after it has transformed itself into a pugnacious troublemaker. If conservative is to maintain old values, it may be the most admirable of attitudes. But if to be conservative is to reject the flexibility required to keep speed with a changing reality, in a world of globalized finance, globalized pollution, and globalized asynchronous warfare, it is suicidal.
This raises two obvious questions:
  1. What is different about the world today?
  2. How can we understand it well enough to protect ourselves and continue the long process of building a better life?
To get a sense of what is different, consider the vastly simpler circumstances of the solar system, which lacks ideology, personality, hormone surges, and love affairs. Without going into too much detail about such things as the rotation of the galaxy or the threat of a supernova somewhere in the neighborhood, consider the solar system as the sun, surrounded by eight planets predictably revolving in orbit. With some imagination, consider the solar system thus simplified, by analogy, as your model of traditional world affairs, with the power of gravity symbolizing the political power that makes little societies revolve around big ones, with the superpower sun just sitting there making the rules.
Now consider a different system in space, of which there are many examples: two stars revolving in a dance aroundwell, around what, exactly? A does not revolve around B, nor does B revolve around A. In fact, the two revolve around a central point in space defined by the relative gravitational pull of each. This is far more complicated, but it is still predictable with what human civilization is pleased to consider standard math.
Lets move to a three-star system. Such a system still has no personality problems, no ambition, but its motions are now arguably unpredictable, though that may just reflect the limits of current mathematics.
Lets carry this analogy one step further by adding irregular internal variations of some magical sort to each star, such that their gravitational fields evolve dramatically and independently. Now, one begins to sense the meaning of complex, or, more precisely, a complex-adaptive system. The world of human politics has always been a complex-adaptive system, but for a number of reasons, it is getting more soand fast enough to have serious impacts on our lives.
The reasons are not really very subtle, and the first reason is more. There are more people, more travel, more communication. The second reason is faster. None of these changes is really totally new: financial bubbles have occurred through history and a wave of globalization occurred at the end of the 19th century. Today, however, everything really is moving faster, with the computer-driven global financial shifts being the model of this scary new world. The third reason is more intrusive. When you have to read the (very) fine print on every single package of frozen vegetables to make sure you are not buying them from potentially pesticide-poisoned farms in a China that remains far from having a reliable national regulatory system (not that the post-Reagan U.S. does either, if truth be told), you know the meaning of intrusive global complexity. There is no need to wait for a generation to feel the changes; you are being affected personally and on a daily basis. The network of links is denser, new links are generated faster, and they hit closer to home.
Imagine a network; suddenly it is becoming denser as more and more of us have more and more connections. This exponential growth in links is changing the world faster than we can learn how to manage it: the explosion of global jihad jumping from Afghanistan to Bosnia to Chechnya to Indonesia back to Afghanistan and then, courtesy of the U.S. invasion, to Iraq is one example. The virulent spread of, well, dengue fever throughout South America is a second. The equally virulent spread of the 2008 financial crisis from country to country as a result of such activities as the bundling of sub-prime U.S. mortgages into packages purchased by foreign banks, is another example.
Buy a mortgage and suddenly you, dear American, have a direct link to a Chinese bank, but dont imagine that anyone is going to inform you of that fact. Now, how should that affect your decisions about taking out a second mortgage or paying off the first or selling the house at a discount just to get out? I hope you are happy knowing that the state of politics and economics in the Peoples Republic of China directly and personally affects your ability to own a home. And of course your ability to make your mortgage payments on time directly affects the economy of China. Welcome to the complex-adaptive world of 21st century international affairs, where every component (e.g., you and the Peoples Republic of China) affects every other component.  Please note: affect does not just mean that it might help or hurt you but also that it will change you. You may become more risk-averse and move into an apartment or more insecure and vote for a bloody-shirt-waving politician who will launch a war of choice in pursuit of personal glory with the excuse that he is protecting you from foreign threats. You and your neighbors may decide that giving up civil liberties is the price of survival.  Invade someone, sacrifice a few principles for temporary convenience, and suddenly you find you live in a different society with different values. Multiply these complicated choices a million times and you see the problem facing decision-makers in the nice, new 21st century world.
To summarize the answer to the question–What is different about the 21st century world?”—even over the short-term (even a term as short as a four-year presidential term, for example) unpredictable change is predictable. Decision-makers can no longer quietly make plots for fame and profit; the world will not wait for them to take action. Instead, levee-smashing hurricanes, thousand-year floods, asynchronous warfare attacks on the American homeland by non-state actors are predictable. Of course, which one will happen next and where and how remains unpredictable.
So how do we understand all this new and threatening dynamism well enough to cope? Rather than assuming the world is a target waiting for us to shoot, assume it is an evolving system of which we are a small part. Rather than assuming we are whatever we are, with an immutable nature, realize that everything we do or others do has some impact on our nature. From this it follows that all the good guys can lose that cherished goodness and all the bad guys can be nudged in some less nasty direction. This is not an argument in favor of naïve trust but simply an effort to point out that, to put it positively, opportunities exist for someone wise enough to search for them.
This new world will caution a wise ruler (if we happen to find one) to make preparations, build capacity, avoid overreach, find friends before they are needed, search for positive-sum solutions in a world where victory is always ephemeral, and put a bit of seed corn in the barn.
Perhaps it is easier to say what not to do. A wise leader would not tell his people that they should continue enjoying life without regard to a war he is about to launch, as though war were some sort of cheap video game one could just walk away from when the quarters run out. A wise leader would not consider an old ally that tried to push one into a needless war on the allys behalf to be any longer worth having as an ally. Indeed, a wise leader would grant no other state a blank check support, much less alliance, would always be granted in the context of an understanding that certain limits exists and that the other party would be expected to adhere to certain standards. A wise leader would not follow a policy that forced all ones adversaries to join together in opposition. A wise leader would not borrow to the hilt from an adversary in order to engage in a foreign adventure that could not otherwise be afforded; to do so is to put the nations security in the hands of the creditor. A wise leader would not pursue foreign adventure at all under conditions of declining domestic educational standards and collapsing domestic economic conditions for the productive working class that constitutes both the source of national productivity and the primary customer of the national product. A wise leader would never plug his ears and refuse to listen to an adversarys point of view: there is always something to be learned and knowledge is advantage. A wise leader would not assume that they will welcome us with flowers, for merely to make the assumption (even if initially correct) will be to invite a carelessness that will put too much salt in the broth. A wise leader will understand that in a complex-adaptive system, neither “we” nor our “friends” nor our “adversaries” are fixed in place: the best one can hope for is to move in a desired direction without ever having any assurance of being able to maintain a desired position. Cliffs exist, and people fall off: carry a parachute.

Designing the Orderly Failure of Large Institutions

Continuing the discussion of how to plan the compulsory failure of institutions that, believing themselves “too big to fail,” are in fact too big for human society to afford.
If the wave of unemployment accompanying Washingtons post-recession care and feeding of guilty financial giants at the expense of American society did not make clear that Paulsons concept of the orderly failure of large financial institutions was poorly implemented, then the wave of foreclosures did. While many Americans were clearly playing the (housing) market in full recognition that they were trying to benefit from a giant chain letter that would hurt only the last owner of their grossly inflated mortgage, thousands of other Americans unable to pay their mortgages because Wall Street irresponsibility had cost them their jobs had their homes taken by selfish banks who, once back in possession of the houses, could not find anything to do with them except let them rot. The Bush-Cheney-Paulson billionaire bailout, so uncritically supported by Obama, may have exemplified orderly failure for the billionaires, who kept the profits of their crimes, but was anything but orderly for the millions who suffered.
All that is of course rapidly becoming old, well-understood, and quickly-being-pushed-under-the-rug history. The whole U.S. financial and political elite– from Wall Street, Washington, and many other placeswas essentially complicit and has little interest in looking too closely at issues of responsibility. But for American society, not to mention the rest of the world, the issue, beyond punishing the guilty in the name of justice, is to determine exactly what a socially responsible process of orderly failure for a large institution would look like.
Moral hazard provides guidance. Institutions should be restructured and downsized (e.g., by preventing banks from playing the market with homeowners mortgages or savings accounts) to minimize socially harmful behavior and maximize socially beneficial behavior. Decision-makers at those institutions should be held personally responsible. Filling jails with brokers has little obvious value to society, but when a financier gets rich by inventing incomprehensible but obviously dangerous (because highly leveraged) financial products, the burden of proof should be on him to justify why all of his earnings should not be confiscated to compensate for collateral damage.
In truth, society needs to understand its frailty and, more, appreciate how often failure is due not to natural constraints or normal human limitations but to egregious cheating on the part of the powerful, who regularly kill the social goose that lays the elites golden eggs. Paulson deserves credit for enunciating the highly counter-cultural concept of orderly failure. American society, as the global leader (no moral judgment here; I mean the phrase simply as honest recognition that the U.S. is the biggest elephant in the room), needs to take primary responsibility for developing not just the biggest war machine, the greediest financial district, and the most wasteful consumption society but also the global standard for institutional rejuvenation.
The U.S. has done it before. With the Marshall Plan, it transformed Nazi Germany and the Japan of military imperialist dictatorship into pillars of democracy. By its very establishment, the U.S. also transformed a West of kings into a West of republics. It then transformed itself from slave society to free society. Those were truly institutions too big to fail.
But those transformations were seen as unique. No users manual existed, nor were the respective situations perceived as members of a class, so no users manual was written despite the priceless lessons. Political science has failed us here. No busy government official will ever have time to study the crises and develop a generic process for smoothly cleaning the rot from failed institutions; that would be the responsibility of a new sub-field of political science, a field that would recognize theoretically the need for institutional renovation by force from the outside and that would recognize theoretically that the word institution comprises private and public institutions, companies and countries.
The process occurs every day. With the brilliant insight of Gorbachev that military force to maintain the existence of the rotten U.S.S.R. would be inappropriate, that empire was transformed, but of course via a decade of depression and crimehardly an example of orderly failure. We await the first book to do a comparative analysis of the financial mess of Soviet communism and Wall Street capitalismof the corruption of nomenklatura vs. the corruption of derivatives. A follow-on study could compare the corruption of Soviet industrial pollution vs. the corruption of Western Big Oils rape of the environment from Nigeria and Bolivia to the Gulf of Mexico. From such studies, done properly, would be derived a set of generic lessons of inestimable value for designing a well-functioning society.
While this task of assessing key crises of institutions failing from a social perspective even as they functioned brilliantly for the elite who benefited personally is likely to take a century to complete (and will require a profound understanding of how complex-adaptive systems operate in the social arena), we can usefully begin with a few obvious (once stated, albeit mostly ignored in current practice) principles:
  • The principle that the larger an institution, the greater its responsibility to behave in accordance with the common good should be established in law;
  • Rules for behavior should be known in advance;
  • Rules should spell out personal responsibility for institutional elites and governmental regulators;
  • The assumption should be that in egregious cases (e.g., breaking rules about leveraging, ignoring engineers warnings about installing good quality environmental protection equipment), decision-makers and their management chain will forfeit all personal earnings gained as a result of irresponsible decisions. Any claim that one deserves exemption (e.g., a golden parachute for a Wall Street CEO or denial of personal responsibility by an oil executive after a pollution spill) should have to be made publicly in court;
  • Just as buildings have plans for getting people out in a fire, institutions should have plans for emergency downsizing.
And every American should realize that the need to grade the social acceptability of big institutions applies not just to brokerages and oil companies but to the United States as a wholetoday. Americans are far more skilled at building huge institutions than in building socially beneficial institutions. More seriously, until disaster strikes, the assumption, deep in the culture, is typically made that big is better…rather than more dangerous. In fact, national downsizing of a rather bizarre type is the constant refrain of a certain class of conservatives (not those who conserve but those who believe in freeing the rich to do the exact opposite by forcing conservation down the throats of the disadvantaged). These conservatives, more properly these elitists, want not conservation by society but conservation by government. This is at least a step in the direction of downsizing, but one informed less by the theory of how to make institutions perform better than by raw greed. Nevertheless, this concept of downsizing is worth keeping, so long as the focus is shifted from downsizing regulation of, to be frank, piracy, toward the downsizing of socially pernicious behavior. Mankind has been stumbling in this direction for millennia, though the decades since Reagan entered the White House have seen the U.S. move in the opposite direction.
Part of the difficulty of making progress toward more socially responsible behavior by large public and private institutions lies in the lack of theoretical understanding of the concept of social responsibility for all large institutions. Society has no clear generic standard for the behavior of large institutions as a class. Seeing the generic issue rather than just the individual crises would facilitate asking questions in a way that would promote deeper understanding. How might one compare the harm to Iraqi society caused by the U.S. army during the occupation with the harm to U.S. society caused by the capricious approach of many banks to foreclosing on American homeowners? While this may seem at first glance to be an odd question, to ask it focuses attention on how to balance an emergency need to use force in a crisis vs. the long-range costs of force as the tool for conflict resolution. As technology improves, we gain the ability to approach closer and closer to the edge of chaos, a great achievement as long as we do not fall over the edge, but one that is becoming too dangerous without a deeper theoretical understanding of when institutions, including superpowers, become too big not to fail.

Egyptian Revolt: A Classroom Exercise

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A scenario analysis is a provocative way to guide students to think about the implications of the Egyptian revolt. The gemstones of scenario analysis are revealed by asking not the traditional “what” but “how.”
Scenario analysis can be complicated to describe, but the steps flow naturally in a group discussion, allowing the students to take the initiative and figure out for themselves how to think about the future.
The basic steps are:
  1. Select the question: “Where is Egypt headed?”
  2. Identify the causal factors: desire for civil rights and desire for economic security.
  3. Draw a grid generating the scenarios. The graph is a useful aid to the real challenge of this step: identifying the likely differences in outcome of each scenario.
  4. Identify the key dynamic powering each scenario. Much more important than asking what might happen is explaining how your predicted outcome could occur.
  5. Identify at least one other scenario that would change behavior if it became dominant. Whatever you think will happen, some other invisible dynamic is surely present in the background and needs to be identified to avoid surprise.
  6. Explain possible tipping points. Ask how a tipping point leading to a shift in dominance might occur.
That process is plenty for two or three one-hour class sessions separated by a day or two for related homework. For further challenge and further realism, the whole system can fruitfully be considered as a complex adaptive system. This provides insight into the underlying evolutionary processes of the whole system within which, in the current case, Egypt exists.

The Complexity of Being Hegemon: America in the Mideast

If Washington decision-makers are having a hard time understanding what is happening to the U.S. position in the world, perhaps they could benefit from viewing the world as it is: as an ever-changing collection of entities, all of which are influencing each other and which are at the same time themselves composed of smaller adaptive units capable of potentially significant self-organized action. “Finger in the dike” determination is not a viable strategy in such a complex world.
In “America’s Turbulent Decline,” a pointed essay on the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a symptom of the typically unstable, if not irrational, behavior of a declining hegemon, British-Iraqi scholar Samir Rihani lays the foundation for an analysis of hegemonic decline from a complex-adaptive systems perspective. He stresses that we should not over-analyze on the basis of such trivial variables as the mental capacity of the leader, the religious mania of certain political factions, or greed for foreign resources. Rather, Rihani recommends the systemic approach of a Paul Kennedy. With this as background, what insights might complexity theory offer?
First is the perspective that things change, so erecting ever higher walls to keep out the barbarians is a doomed approach. In a complex system, somehow, one must learn to adapt. This point is so basic and has been made by so many thinkers that it is almost embarrassing to repeat it. Nevertheless, it remains ignored. Perhaps the problem is linguistic: “Wait a minute,” decision-makers will cry. “We understand that we must adapt.” I beg to differ; they do not. They think that they must adapt tactics but fail to see that they must actually go much further and compromise. “Compromise” involves adapting to the point of accepting strategic evolution, perhaps from hegemon to coalition leader or even just “father figure.”
The practical implications of this are numerous. Washington may have to put on the negotiating table its preference for:
  • an Israeli Mideast nuclear monopoly;
  • avoiding Palestinian democracy (which would probably result in Hamas control);
  • calling all the shots (rather than letting allies like Erdogan sometimes take the lead);
  • punishing recalcitrant regimes that insist on following an independent path (e.g., Tehran);
  • relying on military force to achieve its regional goals. Of course, one does not need to study complexity to understand the possibility of resistance, but complexity theory warns that self-organization is a normal process to be expected when a system is under stress.
Second, complex systems experience “self-organization.” How this works in specifics is unpredictable; the point is that the more rulers exploit the system for personal benefit, the greater the likelihood that presumed “subordinates” will self-organize in new ways to defend themselves. For example, East Germans famously contributed directly to the collapse of the Soviet empire by self-organizing to oppose controls on emigration, and Iraqis self-organized to resist American occupation.
The practical implications of self-organization for the U.S. today include:
  • The possibility that private banking and investment clubs may be self-organized if Wall Street corruption further erodes trust in that public institution;
  • The possibility of the self-organization of a widespread popular protest involving the refusal to pay taxes if Washington continues to waste vast sums fighting unnecessary foreign wars.
Third, behavior in complex systems is nonlinear: today does not predict tomorrow. Slight variations in initial conditions lead to huge variations in outcome, so prediction is effectively, if not theoretically, impossible: the disproportionality of effects to causes will undermine all efforts at planning:
The practical consequences of nonlinearity and sensitivity to initial conditions include the likelihood that facile analogies are false: whatever Ahmadinejad is, he certainly is not Hitler; intial conditions in Iran are grossly different from those in pre-WWII Germany.
Fourth, individual variation makes generalization difficult: you very well may not be able to simplify by averaging over all members of a group. Thus, not only is the nature of a group not immutable (because all groups evolve in response to the behavior of other groups), but even at a moment in time, all group members are not cut from the same cloth. All (almost) characterizations of groups are false. This may complicate life, but it is really good news in that individual variation among one’s adversaries offers endless possibilities for “divide and conquer.”
The obvious lesson of individual variation for decision-makers is to avoid deifying or depicting as evil a whole group:
  • Israeli leaders are individuals, who will doubtlessly include violence-prone expansionists quite willing to harm U.S. security as well as patriots committed to strengthening Israeli democracy;
  • Iranian leaders are also individuals, who will doubtlessly include those zero-sum types who think nuclear arms are essential to Iranian national security as well as those positive-sum types who would be amenable to a regional nuclear security regime.
The job of decision-makers in a world of individual variation is not to categorize groups but to encourage the rise of the perspectives they favor.
Finally, complexity theory warns about the potential “criticality” of a complex system. Criticality is a counter-intuitive concept, holding that as a system performs with rising success, it approaches the invisible “edge of criticality,” where one false step could lead to rapid collapse. Viewed in this light, the fall of the Wall and collapse of the USSR were not just due to Gorbachev’s statesmanlike moderation but more profoundly the result of Soviet hubris leading the USSR over the edge of criticality (evidence for this includes the rising cost of Moscow’s East European empire, the widening gap between Soviet military prowess and the overall state of the Soviet economy, and the increasingly negative demographic trends of Soviet society). If you explain Soviet collapse by reference to Gorbachev, it appears to be a unique event; if you explain it in terms of criticality, the take-home lesson is that any powerful state is potentially in danger of such a sudden collapse.

Dam the River or Steer the Boat?

Both Turkey and Switzerland have discovered that it is hard to teach Washington to steer through the flood of global affairs when its feet are stuck in the mud. What will it take to persuade Washington that it can no longer keep the old world it likes so much?
Ankara’s current efforts to find a compromise to resolve the Washington-Tehran dispute illustrate a broader tendency in U.S. foreign policy: insistence on the maintenance of the current international system with the U.S. on top regardless of cost. What Erdogan is doing today, Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey did a couple years ago. Washington’s fundamental approach to the world is to raise high the levies along the global political river regardless of the intensity of its currents.
If global affairs are basically stable, then perhaps it makes sense for Washington to fight harder and harder to resist any compromise. But if the global political system is a complex system of mutually interdependent parts that influence each other, so that all are evolving toward some new, unknown future, then for Washington to deny that reality would constitute digging its own grave.
Can Ankara explain its new foreign policy in a way that alleviates Washington tendencies to interpret any independent thinking as a threat?
If the U.S.-Iran relationship is best viewed as a complex adaptive system, rather than as a simple shoot-out at the OK Corral between good guys and bad guys, then decision-makers must accept that the relationship and the broader context within which it exists are evolving in a complex dance in which everyone influences everyone else. This is not very profound and should come as no shock to any decision-maker. Nevertheless, there is a difference between a frame of mind searching for ways to stand fast and a frame of mind starting from the expectation that everything is changing. Insisting on damming up a river offers one fewer options than literally “going with the flow” but trying to steer. Both Erdogan and Calmy-Rey were trying to help Washington steer, a concept of no use to a man with his feet stuck in the mud.

Vice and Virtue

Talk about “vice” and “virtue” is just trouble-making. When you are part of a team, your duty is to “be a team player.”
Spain in this generation is a fine democracy led by a moderate regime, a place open-minded Americans (Americans not yet addicted to empire) may look up to as something of a model, but today Spain’s most famous judge–Baltasar Garzon–is being taken to trial with the threat of being jailed essentially for the rest of his life because he is challenging the Spanish conspiracy to pretend that fascism never existed in that land [Vicky Short, “Judge Baltasar Garzon suspended for investigating Franco’s crimes,” World Socialist Website 5/27/10].

The case is causing consternation both in Spain and abroad, mainly because it was brought by three ultra right-wing organizations. Among these were the Falange Española, the Fascist party once presided over by Franco himself — whose military coup of 1936 sparked the bloody, three-year Spanish Civil War, and culminated in a long dictatorship that ended only with his death in 1975. Historians estimate that Franco’s postwar reprisals cost the lives of 100,000 people.

Garzón’s many supporters have responded to the case with dismay, moved by its outrageous symmetry: a highly respected judge brought to trial, for attempting to try crimes, on an accusation by the disciples of the regime that perpetrated those crimes in the first place. [Julius Purcell, “Baltasar Garzon, “General Franco’s latest victim,” The  5/29/10]

In the U.S. today not one former official is on trial for having lied about the reasons for launching a war of aggression, not one person is being forced in court to justify advocating “preventive” war, not one official is being called to account for supporting death squads, not one official is being tried for undermining constitutional guarantees of civil liberties, not one is facing a hearing for attacking a city or providing arms to a state practicing collective punishment against an ethnic minority or a class of poor farmers sitting on land needed by rich cattle barons., not one has even been fired for advocating nuclear war against a non-nuclear country. Hardly a single judicial action exists today against those who cut corners and gambled with the existence of the Gulf of Mexico as a biosphere; hardly a single judicial action is investigating the possible criminal behavior of individuals whose financial gambles put millions out of work and certainly none are hauling to court officials who passed laws designed to facilitate those gambles or officials whose job it was to regulate the gamblers.
There is nothing new about this dilemma.

From the most ancient times justice has been a two-part concept: virtue triumphs, and vice is punished.

We have been fortunate enough to live to a time when virtue, though it does not triumph, is nonetheless not always tormented by attack dogs. Beaten down, sickly, virtue has now been allowed to enter in all its tatters and sit in the corner, as long as it doesn’t raise its voice.

However, no one dares say a word about vice….”Why open old wounds?”….

What kind of disastrous path lies ahead of us if we do not have the chance to purge ourselves of that putrefaction rotting inside our body?…

What are we to do? Someday our descendants will describe our several generations as generations of driveling do-nothings. First we submissively allowed them to massacre us by the millions, and then with devoted concern we tended the murderers in their prosperous old age….

But let us be generous. We will not shoot them….But for the sake of our country and our children we have the duty to seek them all out and bring them all to trial! Not to put them on trial so much as their crimes….

It is unthinkable in the twentieth century to fail to distinguish between what constitutes an abominable atrocity that must be prosecuted and what constitutes that “past” which “ought not to be stirred up.”

We have to condemn publicly the very idea that some people have the right to oppress others. In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations. [Aleksandr SolzhenitsNY: Harper Perennial, 2007, 175-178)]

Meanwhile back in the West, heroic nuclear whistleblower Moredechai Vannunu is going back to jail; his 18-year sentence was not enough. In the U.S., Wall Street fraud-investigating whistleblowers [“Silencing the whistleblowers,” Democracy Now 5/20/10] were fired. Protect the guilty; punish the trouble-makers. And we wonder why our country seems so confused.

Mideast Strategic Triangle

The U.S.-Iranian-Israeli strategic triangle has become so confusing that decision makers risk losing control, threatening the national security of all the players.
The U.S.-Iranian-Israeli strategic triangle has emerged as a political system of such dominance that it is now analytically useful, if not essential for regional security, to think of it as the core structure of Mideast affairs. This strategic triangle is important because the three states behave as though it were paramount and thus make impossible the isolation of any of the three bilateral relationships from the other two. 
Cause and effect now weave U.S.-Israeli, U.S.-Iranian, and Iranian-Israeli relations so tightly together that decision makers risk losing control and being manipulated by the unforeseen currents that swirl around each of these political headlands. Political attention in each state to the behavior of the other two is so intense and so rapid that these three political headlands are effectively face-to-face-to-face, despite their true geographic distance, with the political waves that smash the cliffs of each instantly washing back to strike the others.
The risks of misperception and actions with unforeseen consequences are correlated not only with the political proximity but the emotional intensity. The many substantive moves on each side that impact the others—Israeli nuclear-capable submarines transiting the Suez Canal, the movement of U.S. bunker-buster WMD into the region, Iranian efforts to arm its regional allies—transform the political complexity from an analytically “interesting” topic into a true national security threat for each participant.
Perhaps the single most ominous example of how these issues are being, sometimes intentionally, confused is the utterly illogical argument that the Israeli right would trade a conciliatory stance on Palestinian independence for increased U.S. pressure on Iran. This argument, if accepted, would virtually “institutionalize” the cycle of violence by making not only violence a justification for violence but even conciliatory behavior the justification for violence! Demanding that peace be balanced by violence would be akin to saying that truth must be balanced by falsehood. Logic suggests that settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would enhance Israeli security and thus strengthen its hand against Iran. Logic also suggests that settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute would minimize opportunities for Iranian intervention in the Levant. The Israeli right’s attempt to trade peace on one issue for war on another bizarrely turns this logic on its head.
To replace this “war policy” with a “peace policy” will require a fundamental rethinking of the situation. Washington decision makers favoring peaceful conflict resolution should consider:
  • Publicly recognizing the existence and danger of the cycle of violence;
  • Enunciating a policy of negotiation to find a solution rather than to elicit a unilateral concession;
  • Clearly articulating the principle that compromise is preferred to force;
  • Carefully separating the various issues in both public discussions and secret diplomacy.

Cracking the Washington Groupthink on Israel

A very convincing argument holds that the Washington elite and the right wing ruling Israeli elite are so inextricably linked by their short-term perceived mutual interests that any rhetorical disputes are at the most temporary if not a complete charade.  Even while admitting that this argument holds much water, I still beg to differ.

In a highly networked democracy that claims to base its political system on the “open marketplace of ideas,” when the elite dramatically shifts the direction of its rhetoric, the butterfly effect applies. The butterfly effect holds that a tiny step can lead to an enormous change, e.g., the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Beijing altering a air current which interacts with something else and perhaps contributes to a hurricane much later in the U.S. Accordingly, each time members of the Washington group-think club violate the taboo on criticizing Israel without the sky falling, it further frees the political constraints on open-minded thinking—both among the elite and among the population.
Where the tipping point from subservience to the interests of the Israeli right lies cannot be said, but each criticism brings us closer. For members of a politically-correct community to resist group think is, not to put too fine a point on it, impossible. Therefore, when they appear to be violating the taboo, they are instead redefining what is politically correct. Maybe Biden’s criticism of Israel three days ago was an anomaly; maybe Clinton’s publicized criticism of Netanyahu over the phone two days ago was just for show. Now Axelrod has reinforced the message, saying that the Israeli move “seemed calculated to undermine [the proximity talks], and that was – that was distressing to everyone who is promoting the idea of peace and security in the region.” Axelrod did not specify whether or not he thought Netanyahu is one of those “promoting the idea of peace and security in the region.” Axelrod added a new phrase to the growing space of elite American critique, saying “this was not the right way to behave.” Alexrod also articulated a point I have previously stressed, noting that resolution of the issue “is important for our own security.”
Underscoring the shift in Washington elite perceptions is the just revealed (by Mark Perry on the Mideast Channel on March 13) and very important January briefing by Petraeus, in which he argued for responsibility over Israel and Palestine on the basis that the dispute was too great a threat to U.S. national security for the military to stay out!
Yes, Netanyahu would argue (in private) that a Palestinian Bantustan would offer precisely that resolution. Yes, Lieberman would argue (even in public) that moving the Palestinians to South America would also offer precisely that resolution. The Washington elite still has a long way to go. It is not yet explicitly rejecting such solutions in sufficiently clear terms. Nevertheless, evidence is building drip by drip that this time the Israeli extremists have stepped in mud. Netanyahu’s ridiculous remark that “there was a regrettable incident here, that occurred innocently” already appears grossly out of touch with Washington perceptions.
Some in Washington will surely play the game of speaking to the crowd while winking at the Israeli right wing, but the longer this continues, the more likely a new American open-mindedness becomes.

Israeli Democracy Under Siege

The chair of the liberal Israeli political party Meretz recently warned in the Hebrew-language Israeli media that Israel is turning fascist. The money quotes, as translated on the Meretz USA website, follow:

The Israel of 2010 is moving away from fundamental tenets of democracy that we once took for granted. The famous sayings of the liberal philosophers who laid the foundation for democratic rule were once self-evident slogans. Voltaire’s comment that, “I don’t agree with a word you’re saying, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, and similar quotes, were once studied in civics lessons in high school and then absorbed as part of the agreed-upon code of Israeli politics.

Perhaps such sayings are still studied in civics – occasionally they’re still voiced by politicians – but these basic democratic insights are disappearing – quickly – from our landscape. There’s a straight line that leads from the arrest of human rights protestors at Sheikh Jarrah; to the recruitment of the State Attorney’s office against Palestinian-Israeli director Muhammad Bakri; to the police interrogation of the women who wish to pray at the Wall; to the apathy with which the current campaign is being received. This line is moving us away from the enlightened world.

A society does not lose its sanity in an instant. It does not turn from democratic to fascistic overnight. As history shows, these processes occur in a string of small events. Some of these occur because the establishment is not standing guard over democracy, and some are at the initiative of the establishment itself. Each one of them is a small, almost imperceptible, step, and when it is allowed to pass without anyone taking notice, the boundaries are stretched a bit further. And further. And further.

Until one day, the society wakes up to discover that it’s somewhere that, not long ago, we wouldn’t have believed we could be. Usually that’s too late, and the awakening comes only after the catastrophe that rouses people from their slumber. “Have the courage to change before troubles strike,” Yitzhak Ben-Aharon once said. Well the troubles are at our doorstep, and we’re desperately in need of courage.

Societies are components of the larger complex adaptive socio-political system within which they exist. This evolutionary process of Israel’s repressive foreign policy undermining its own values illustrates one of the core concepts of complex adaptive systems, that the parts interact and adapt.

Further Reading: