Friday, February 09, 2007

The Ideas, and Why They're Wrong

This is the promised followup to the last post.

If we fight, we are becoming just like our enemies.
Well, no. The express train to becoming like our enemies is to be conquered by them. A slower, but equally reliable train, is to negotiate with them. This is so painful for people to hear, but there is no way around it. It can be necessary to negotiate for a dozen reasons: becoming like your opposite number may not be so bad, as in the case of allies; the alternative cost, in lives, money, or freedom, may be so high that concessions may be worth considerable sacrifice; your negotiating position may be so strong that your loss is negligible, even if you negotiate badly. But becoming like your enemy by fighting him is slow, very slow indeed. Perhaps if we were to fight a hundred Al Qaedas over a century we would become like them. Yes, true; perhaps even inevitable. But consider the UN and the OFF, child rape scandals, and refusals to protect who they are sent to protect. Has the organization become more like the Western democracies over time, or more like the countries it was supposed to contain?

The answer is obviously the latter, with one exception. The UN has become very much like the A&H Tribe of the western democracies in how it does business: it talks; it negotiates; it issues position papers; it travels places; it has conferences. It has adopted the style of the good guys, but the actions of the bad guys. The Arts & Humanities Tribe believes if we just “stay the course” with the UN, it will eventually adopt all those virtues we hope for it. More cynically I would say: the A&H Tribe likes the way the UN operates, because they get to be the stars. Talking is their turf. They think they can eventually win those others over if we just give them more time. The chess club thinks it can have a chance against the skinheads if they play chess. They certainly don’t have a chance if they fight. They don’t realize that after you beat the skinheads at chess, they will still beat you up. And, they will be a little better at chess, too, but you won’t, having had your concentration impaired. With your new head injury, you will become a little more like them, just weaker.

If we understood their culture and grievances better, we could address those, instead of always fighting. No again. In a limited sense it is always true. Even insane regimes like North Korea have some core of legitimate grievance, or cultural quirk that makes their actions look more reasonable from their perspective than from ours. But this is seldom what drives the conflict. People want to be in charge, that’s what drives the conflict. Sometimes it is a person, sometimes a family, sometimes a class or profession. I don’t doubt that many Muslims have some genuine religious desire to see other peoples brought into their faith because it would be good for them. But the baseline point is, if there is Muslim dominance in a country, which is the top group? Muslims who can give evidence that they are really, really devout. By having fought in jihad or sent a son to be blown up or something. And who would be in charge of that group? Imams. Quickly now – who is giving us the most trouble worldwide? Funny. It’s exactly the subgroup that benefits most. Go figure.

Even legitimate grievances can be rationalizations. People have to have some narrative of why they hate you, and a partially true one is better than an utterly false one. In the current instance, though, we are dealing with nations which have no free press, know their own histories very poorly, and believe absolutely insane things about other countries, religions, and cultures. If they had a legitimate grievance, how would they know? Of course it feels legitimate to them. But in the case of say, Palestine, the average age is less than 16. The women have received almost no education. Half of the adult males do not have any kind of a job to give them any perspective on how the world works or dealing with others. The very few tell stories to the many about why they are poor and miserable. They plead to not merely a small responsibility, but zero responsibility for what has happened to them. 95% of the population has no reasonable idea of what reasonable grievance they might have. The other 5%, who have the occasional good reason on behalf of the people, are the same who oppress the people, and have the most guilt on their hands in dealing with other nations. Why should we pay any attention to any of it? Legitimate grievances should be addressed after victory, so that they do not metastasize. Once someone has declared war on you, the discussion of legitimate grievances is suspended.

America (or Western Civ, or Corporations) has done bad things to these people, so we don’t have any right to fight them. Forgive me for referring you back to my Surprise #2 essay before we go any further. Don’t you mean some other western tribe that you dislike for your own reasons stands accused? Business? The Church? I don’t recall hearing the complaints where the publishing industry, or American colleges, or environmentalists, unions, or Hollywood has hurt them, though these are also manifest. Depart from me.

For those still here, or those back after repentance, you have some good points here. There have been actions by various representatives of the West, individual and collective, which are deplorable, and I don’t pretend to defend them. They have also done this with the complicity, encouragement, and even assistance of governments. Agreed. But notice: they have done far worse to each other. Six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. If we learned that 5.5 million of that was various Jewish groups killing each other, would that let Nazis killing the other half-million off the hook? Not in a pure sense, but we would certainly no longer be very worked up about it now, would we? So with all that we have supposedly done to Muslims and the ME over the last century, remind me again how most of the untimely deaths happened. Not because of us. I also find that people are quick to jump to conclusions about what's oppression, finding trade agreements oppressive which the oppressed would be saddened to lose; or treating the normal diplomatic and economic pressures that all nations use on each other as somehow unfair. But even absent those, there are plenty of examples of real exploitation, real corruption, real destabilization.

My answer may take a moment to absorb. That is no basis for foreign policy decisions. Because such things certainly impact other nations’ view of us, and influence their willingness to trust us or cooperate with us, they affect the practical applications of foreign policy. We might regret today what we winked at Bloviated Chemical doing in 1995. We might rue that we had the CIA pay guys to overthrow in 1986 the guy we want back today. We might call ourselves stupid, or shortsighted, or a hundred other names. But it does not affect one whit what we should decide now. Nor should it affect what that country decides now about us. People being what they are, we will both probably continue to be grateful or resentful of past actions. But it’s immaterial. We do what’s right today, and so should they.

We have had ambiguous relations with government X in the past. This is a derivative of the discussion just above. It is brought out now because of our (overstated) connections with Ba’athist Iraq in the 80’s, or Muslims in Afghanistan in 1979. The answer is the same: Avoiding irony is not a basis for foreign policy. Only Arts & Humanities people would think it was, being addicted to the narrative of events rather than its actuality. Countries switch sides mid-war, and for good reasons, never mind decades later. You do it yourself at work or in your extended family on the basis of a single conversation. Thinking in those terms is not simply inefficient or limiting. Thinking like that is very near the root of your disorder.

But wouldn’t it be better if people tried to negotiate instead of going to war? Yes. What’s your point?

Our real reasons for this war/policy/treaty/agreement are not what the government and its supporters say they are. They really want to do this to a)get elected, b)buy cheap shoes, c)prove they have penises, d)reward a constituency, e)distract attention from the homeless hamster bill. Maybe so, but the level of evidence for such an accusation should be pretty high, don’t you think? Halliburton has thus far lost money on Iraq. We could have bought oodles of oil from Saddam on the sly and saved a bundle. Offering explanations that would be devastating if they were true is actually quite easy. Takes about three minutes to think up a good one. Even after all this time, with everyone having had a go at it, watch: George Bush and the neocons wanted to go into Iraq because…it gives them greater control of all that natural gas in Turkmenistan (27 seconds), Saddam had (or Maliki has) blackmail on Dick Cheney (22 seconds), it’s a distraction to push through legislation that will protect Bechtel from prosecution (73 seconds), it’s a way of forcing Russia stay neutral about its former satellites (41 seconds). Do you think it’s actually hard to be a journalist or a talking head?

Showing that your secret motive decoder is better than the masses’ is not really intelligence, it’s just cheap cynicism. Sorry to break the bad news.


SGT Ted said...

Well, beyond the actual substance of those leftwing talking points is their origin: these arguements are old Soviet propaganda meme's. Same with the PLO/PA. They were all trained and supported by the KGB in their creation.

The point? These aren't good faith arguements. They are dishonest propaganda for the other side.

Anonymous said...

"...secret motive decoder..." Exactly. Kids reading too much stuff from the backs-of-the-cereal-box.

"If we understood their culture and grievances better, we could address those."

This one is a subset of the "negotiation" obsession, a derivative of "interest-based" negotiation, which I have studied from time to time. What I notice in the workshops where people learn that stuff, is, that you have to think just like them.

If you dislike your counterpart, have on-balance nothing to gain from negotiating with him, and don't want to mess with your own mind to change those things, there is nothing to negotiate, and the "interest-based" player gets angry, frustrated, dismissive, non-creative, hostile, and superior. At extremes he will demand that you analyze and explain to him those interests of yours that might help him sway you.

And in theory this is their Golden Key to Peace. Oops.

In negotiation parlance, resolutely murderous adversaries' value-systems (and, indeed, endocrine systems) may provide them a satisfactory payoff that is an acceptable alternative to negotiation.

No, mediation and negotiation only work in limited arrays of reserved and distributed power, and with a certain shared perceptual worldview. Its adherents can't effectively deal with the outliers, or even imagine them. Like multiculturalism, "interest-based negotiation" is pristinely Western and modern, a frail constructed parenthesis within the usual imposition of closure by power, cunning, and the resultant authority. However much we wish it were applicable wherever we tote our textbooks and barista sippy-cups.

Like the hazards of mediation (and these folks seem to envision themselves mediators between the Victimized East and BigBad America) this approach assumes rationality and good faith, can neither punish lies nor enforce outcomes. It can even escalate the dispute via too much naive communication.

Works great though when everybody agrees on some basic level, and you're working out the details. Even big details.

Anonymous said...

A Tokarev or Makarov round to the back of the neck always trumps any amount of intellectual talking points and/or negotiations.

So does a halal slaughter knife, applied as a saw to the accompaniment of "ALLAHU AKBAR!"