Not Just a European Union Responsibility

Way back in what seems like another lifetime,the end of the French-US wars in Indochina sent thousands,if not millions, of desperate Vietnamese, Cambodians, Loatians fleeing the victors by any means available. Shabby boats, bleeding feet, hands and knees calloused from crawling through open stretches: the world watched in horror as they suffered, died, or triumphed in such poor physical condition that it seemed impossible they would ever recover. Numerous nations banded together to rescue and support these fugitives, both with rescues and with resettlement. Among the thousand tiny points of light, late in the game, you could then find this writer, helping interview and document those who arrived in Indonesia.

Now the same nightmare has reincarnated itself, on the Mediterranean Sea, Judging from the stunning lack of interest on the part of US news media (what’s left of it), I gather we Americans have decided, with both glee and relief, that this time, it’s not our fault.

Well, yesterday’s New York Times front page calls on us to reconsider. It isn’t that surprising but it’s good to see the numbers laid out so fully. How could arms profiteers NOT have been our best guess at why this has gotten so bloody so fast? The Times also notes that these new sales stem from a fundamental change in US foreign policy, which has up till now been careful to allow Israel a clear and present superiority. Now that we’ve crashed all the former governments –horrible as they were –with our shock and awe adventurism, we’ve opened our government wallet to let all the flotsam and jetsam buy in.

Because the news channel of choice at my house is Al Jazeera, my wife and I are well aware that this open sea disaster has now gotten worse over four years. That’s about the same interval that Boat People struggled across the South China Sea before Politywonk first landed in Southeast Asia. This leads me to skip over the tears-and-guilt issues and leap straight to the issues of Compassion Fatigue (“why do we have to always help out these strangers?”) and Foreign Aid Disgust (“This is nothing but international welfare that we can’t afford”). We need to look at new ways to fund these operations, with stronger targeting on those who caused the problems in the first place. Yes, this is more Pottery Barn Foreign Policy (Colin Powell’s assertion that “if you break it, you pay for it) — but this time, it’s not us taxpayers who need to dig into our wallets.

1) First up, let’s check the role of the Export-Import Bank in this debacle. It’s a little bit like slavery was in the pre-Civil War South: the majority of slaveholders had fewer than ten slaves, but the large hostage holders had such huge operations that more than 80% of the enslaved lived in their vast enclaves. Ex-Im assists a large number of small businesses in vital ways, but the vast majority of its money goes to Boeing and a few other titans. According to its own website, their initatives include support for arms sales. Yes, I’m a Vermont leftie and I hate having to encourage Paul Ryan and Rand Paul, but in this case, the Tea Party is doing good work and deserves our support.

2) Second, let’s impose a Humanitarian Excise Tax on the profits arms and other industries have gotten from their Middle East sales and labor contracts. These are the funds for those refugees and other humanitarian assistances. In particular, I would tax the salaries and capital gains of their primary executives and shareholders (yes, Dick Cheney, this means you).

3) Let’s call on our media to pay attention to the details of these outrages as they get worse. In Indochina, the Boat People and Trekkers got robbed and raped by an expanding population of pirates and highway robbers. I note that over the last few days, Al Jazeera has added reports of robbing and sectarian high-seas murder to the other miseries reported by those who can manage to land or get rescued in the current holocaust. You can expect a steady increase in these occurrences. Hopefully, if there is any last antidote to Compassion Fatigue, these tails (many of which I heard personally) will do the trick.

When a person spent their young years dealing with something as awful as the South China Sea Boat People and Cambodian Trekkers/Crawlers, their one consolation is that they’ll never have to see anything so awful again. Again and again, all over the world, that hope has been misplaced. It’s time for us to honestly, fully, take action on everything we can do to turn off the bloody spigot. (And yes, I know there are other arms dealers anxious to fill our void: it will be up to us to penalize them in every way we can manage, including cutting them out from renewals of preferential trade deals as those arise.)

Repeating the Fundamental Mistake

Every few years I find it useful to reread David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and see how we’re doing. There’s always some current policy that lines up exactly and there’s always some way in which — unexpectedly — things have changed. But what changes the most each time is my own eye, by which I mean, that which jumps off the page most clearly, directly, unavoidably. In different eras, different bits of the analysis rise and fall in significance.

The first time I tried to read this inch-by-inch analysis of how the US got into the quagmire of its war in Vietnam, the details nearly did me in. Did we really need to know who attended which meeting and what they said? Why did China make such a difference, except in the most thorough historiography? Honest readers could debate these things all day — and often do. And then, five or ten years later, it’s time to do it again.

This time, the something that leaps off the page in a way that it never has before, is what Halberstam referred to as the fundamental error of the early decision-makers: “A quick assumption here, that the government and the people of South Vietnam were as one, that what Diem wanted was what ‘the people’ wanted: a quick assumption which haunted American policy-makers throughout the crisis.”  (p. 170, 1992 edition). It has taken me some time to acknowledge to myself that the times this phrase echoes most often are moments when I see President Obama speaking, for instance this week at the United Nations, with the confidence and vigor of a stable regime. It echoes as my wife and I watch countless hours of C-Span — hearing after hearing, think tank panel after think tank panel. Sometimes someone will address life as we are living it, but usually, that happens on Book TV, not American Government or Washington Journal. Not the callers, but the pundits and politicians channels might as well be discussing another country.

I find this disturbing. The Best and the Brightest concerns the intersection of domestic and foreign policy, but mostly, it’s about foreign policy. Halberstam’s analysis always circles back around to how we can achieve better foreign policy. As many times as I’ve read it, this is the first time I felt that the primary problem described above — that the government and the people have radically divergent interests– applies more to us Americans than to the nations we are bombing, invading, corrupting. What Washington wants is not what the people want — left, right or center — and what the people want is no particular interest to the government.

Just to continue with this scary motif for a moment, let’s link it to the unprecedented appearance of major military tools placed in the hands of domestic policing entities. Governments who do not wish to carry out the wishes of the people will eventually understand that they do not wish to carry out the wishes of the people. At first, they kind of drift away, but eventually the benefits of being in government for the benefit of someone other than the people being governed becomes too tempting. Intentional. Directional. At that point, members of the government with this goal — at all levels — will organize systems by which to suppress rebellion and opposition. So perhaps what happened at Davis, in Ferguson, are harbingers of a non-constitutional authority.

Once governments want non-democratic authority, they want immediate access to military equipment. Just as the Southern Poverty Law Center keeps track of white supremacist organizations and their terrorist potential, someone needs to start tracking all this police equipment and making it widely known. What is this “training” that comes with it? When are the “conferences” that role play best uses? Who gets to go to these things and who pays?

That’s what I want to see on C-span now. It’s more likely, of course, on Democracy Now! or Al Jazeera, but I doubt the Tea Party care any less about this problem than do we Progressives. In fact, I am starting to wonder if those crazy old-time right-wingers might not have been on to something that the rest of us should have paid more attention to.

Ghosts of Old War Mistakes

We watch a lot of international news in our house, and every day gets more and more alarming. So many horrible things are happening, you don’t need me to list them for you. And why do we keep cycling through the same types of outrage? My response is that it’s because the US public doesn’t understand the patterns of engagement our country keeps choosing between.

I. Copperheads

The first pattern came up during the US Civil War, and it’s the part of the war that has gotten the least attention, even on C-Span, where usually nothing is too obscure for a book tour. Well, meet the Copperheads. Lots of folks know that General George McClellan ran for President in 1864 as a peace candidate, but don’t understand the iceberg of which he was the tip. Copperheads were Democrats in the North, a tiny minority in the party that dominated the South and mostly seceded when Lincoln won in 1860. Some of them had business interests in the South — meaning supplying or buying from the slavocracy — but many others were the first of the laboring classes displaced by rural changes but not secure in urban factory jobs. Or they were immigrants — many Irish — fearing job competition from freed slaves. While many were supporters of the racist economic regime, many others were just willing to tolerate slavery as their own best economic or personal calculation. The Copperhead movement had nothing to do with pacifism.

Northerners seem to believe that Copperheadism ended at Appomattox, but for Southerners they were part of the Scourge of Reconstruction. Decimated landscapes always attract rapacious investors ready to buy up your debts for less than they’re worth but more than you’ve got. That form of Copperheadism deserves more attention, but it’s not what matters in foreign policy, my topic for today. Northern Copperheadism — “peace at any price because war has no benefit to me” — has not only never died out, it has spread like a vicious weed. When negotiations begin, the focus is on appeasement — give the aggressor whatever will get them to stop — but the prime goal stems back to Whiggism, the policy of compromising to prevent the outbreak of hostilities. The two primary goals are to “maintain business as usual” and to prevent a breakdown of known political structures. It’s worth noting that this was the party of classical New England Unitarianism.

Most of my friends and family are a contemporary cleaned-up version of Copperhead: by idealizing human nature as “inherently good” they persuade themselves that restoring equality to human transactions — economic, cultural, political — will cause both war and poverty to simply wither away. Everyone will discover the good in everyone else and be satisfied with that knowledge as life’s highest and finest reward.

Idealists are people who have not had the experience of interviewing survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, as I did in 1981-82. A week ago, I would have told you what is happening throughout the Middle East and North Africa resembles the kind of low-grade outrage that characterizes governance in Pakistan. This week, though, it looks like violence has passed a horrible tipping point. Sustained campaigns of bombing and other military violence foster society-wide PTSD, and the worst of those victims can be exploited by individuals who are either themselves completely deranged by abuse, or carrying around an evil they were born with. It might help to read “The Plague” again, by Albert Camus, but you’d do better to look at mass murderers who washed out of the military, who got fired from Postal Service jobs, who underwent years of ridicule and humiliation. These are folks who want revenge, but whose grievance has no bottom and no top.

II. Great War Syndrome

Commentator David Brooks gets a lot of things wrong, but sometimes he’s very right. Tonight on The PBS News Hour, he said that our mistake in Syria was forgetting that “It’s easier to do the little things early than to do the big things later.” The US experience in World War I led to a delusion that we are the exception to this inconvenient truism. Europeans have spent this past week commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities of which we care nothing, because we entered so much later. And when we went in, the primary reason appears to have been that attacks on shipping were starting to hurt our economic elite. And what were they shipping? Why, munitions, to be sold at shameful profit, and apparently in some cases to both sides. So this was really a variation on Copperheadism — not that one would stay out of war to maintain business and politics as usual, but that one would enter it for the same reason. Sort of like the Confederates, and their apologists remain proud of it.

For Europe, 1914-1918 was “The Great War” because of its casualties and social upheavals, but we called it that because it had elements of excitement and adventure. Remember “The World War One Flying Ace”? Remember “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm [After They’ve Seen Paree]?” Josephine Baker, and the African American discovery that the French had other prejudices, and loved American jazz? Let me be the first to say that for far too many Americans, 1918 was also a year of unprecedented death, much of which occurred because global war made our troops into victims and carriers of the lethal Spanish Influenza.

But for those U.S. troops who marched into Paris, who came home relatively unscathed, The Great War message was that our military could anticipate a fairly safe and profitable future assisting good guys who were trying hard but didn’t have our advantages. This is what led directly to Iraq in March 2003. “They’ll welcome us with open arms.” “We’ll be done in no time, once we help them establish the democracy they know in their hearts is what they want.” That might have been true in 1918 and 1945, but it has nothing to do with the way things are in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

So there we went, deluding ourselves into believing that people everywhere just want to do what we do here (which, might I point out, we are less and less sure we want to continue doing). Some folks say we have to give them guns and pocket-sized constitutions, other folks encourage more economic and educational empowerment. But today’s wars aren’t happening in Paree, they’re  not even in Weimar Berlin. This week tells me we might be looking at Kampuchea, in the hellish years before the Vietnamese finally rejected international norms and invaded their neighbor. That invasion, with its puppet government, released the Kampuchean people from agonizing suffering, but Vietnam’s primary goal was to stabilize and rationalize a neighboring country whose psychological injuries were starting to threaten the region. For this the Vietnamese suffered tons of excoriating condemnation in, of all places, the United Nations, for having invaded a country whose government had not invited them.

So if I’m right, and the Boka Haram/Islamic State of Iraq type of army really does represent a new form of Khmer Rouge frenzy for annihilation, we on the left need to look at the shadowy ghost of Copperheadism. We do the right thing by confronting conservatives with their own sad Great War Syndrome. Unfortunately, for too much of the planet, these two models have meshed into a foreign policy that lays bare the worst of both of them.

Grappling with an Old Demon

Along with so many others, I watch in horror and disgust as Israeli rockets fall into residential areas their own policies have packed too full of all ages of people and too few resources for said residents. Gazans complain — rightfully — about all the noncombatants being killed, while Israelis object that the homes and lives of combatants and noncombatants are too closely tangled to allow for purely military targeting.

That is not what I’m grappling with. What troubles my conscience is the extent to which the current assaults justify the increase in anti-Jewish rhetoric, violence, and sentiment exhibited all over the world. Talk about tangled targets! Steven Schaama’s recent film series on the history of the Jews documented the undeniable fact that Jews all over the world have been targeted for violence and ghettoization. This has happened again and again. When Jews moved to Palestine in recent centuries, they were bowing to the sad reality that this cycle would continue so long as they lived among non-Jews. Indeed, the Holocaust arose in part as a backlash against one of the most successful periods of intermingling and intermarriage, especially and including in Germany. So two steps forward led to miles of horrific and unmendable setbacks.

Nevertheless, some of the rhetoric coming from Israel implies that the violence done to them has become the violence they do to others. Too many statements place Jewish life above all other life — especially Palestinian. Too many statements attempt to erase centuries of Palestinian life in places that Jews claim as if their presence there had not been broken, interrupted, supplanted, abandoned. When Jews place themselves above all others, it is only natural for others to lob shots intended to level things out. When Jews exact individual justice for Jewish miscreants, but collective retribution for crimes against Jews, they pretty much ought to expect the outcry they now receive.

As much as I object to Zionism, it seems not only inevitable but necessary. However, it cannot be allowed to replace the efforts we must all make to combat the cultural infrastructure of anti-Judaism which makes Zionism so desperately inevitable. We Unitarian Universalists talk often about covenants, as if it were something invented by our Puritan forebears, or — even worse — that we ourselves came up with to maintain some recent and beloved community. No, covenant traces back to God’s promises to the Israelites. The Jews. Jews, through their cycle of scriptural documents — Torah, Histories, Wisdom, Prophets — have explored more fully and more powerfully than anyone else how hard it is to live in covenant, and yet, how catastrophic to fail.

The Hebrew Bible famously rings with all kinds of explorations of thought — including many challenges to decisions God announces or unfolds.When certain Christians (and not others) appropriated “covenant” for their own particularist purposes, they twisted what had been an ethical formulation into a doctrine of thought control. Unitarian Universalism, with its emphasis on behaviors rather than ideas, along with our informal motto, “To question is the answer,” hark back to, carry forward, the Jewish model of covenant.

It would be wrong to practice the Jewish model of covenant in every relationship except the one I have with those who gave it to me. So I don’t know how to deal with the current conundrum in the Middle East, except through personal accountability. I will name particular deeds and practices that horrify me, and seek to eradicate them wherever they occur. Sometimes that will be in the Middle East. Just as often, as anyone can attest who watches the news for a solid hour, the outrage will happen elsewhere, and have nothing to do with Jews.

Trying to Remember My Alternatives

When my idealistic anti-war activism came up against the face-to-face life stories of survivors of the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, the intellectual result wasn’t pretty. It disconnected me — and still does — with the leadership of my otherwise beloved religion, Unitarian Universalism. To tell the truth, though, these final few steps away from Gandhian pacifism were no Robert Frost “Two roads diverged” moment. That had happened long ago.

And what had happened to shake my idealism? Not a new view of human nature — that came much later, with personal maturity and theological education — but a decade of studying the ways that local histories are not all the same. The differences are not national, but regional, ethnic. What explains so many wars, so many famines, so many human rights violations, began with failures in building local community. By the time national and international elites take notice, it’s way too late to stop the group that has bullied its way to the top of a small local power hierarchy. They’ve done in their critics, moved against their enemies, and, sadly, have only caught our attention in the final round of mopping up.

So if you want to know what we can do about these folks, I would say, we need to learn from community policing and policies to thwart domestic abuse.

Community policing says that the police need to be part of the community they are protecting, in order to know, constantly, the difference between the brute leaders and the brutalized or befuddled followers. The former you strike early, strike hard, strike specifically. The latter you provide with alternatives for immediate activities and long-term opportunities.

Prevention of domestic abuse says that you start way before the first blow ever falls. Unlike community policing, where a single event can mark a target, the signal here is entry into a pattern of excessive control of one person by another. You hear “I don’t like that woman you always hang out with,” and immediately wait to see if the next statement is, “I don’t like you out with people I don’t know. I don’t like. You need to be with me, with my people.”  And at that point, you see you’ve got a partner on the path to abuse, and you get out. You find places and people who can keep you safe, because this person might well come after you with murderous intent. No shot has yet been fired, no strangulation attempted, knife drawn. But it can be. It will be. And if your family, your friends, the communities of authority in your life, do nothing at this time, they have only themselves to blame when, later on, the police find themselves on your door.

International analysts are bitterly divided between those who believe all international acts begin and are guided by regional details, and theorists, who see it in grand terms, impersonal forces whose actors are only coincidental. These folks might see an ideology at work — communism, radical Islam — or they might see some deeply evil, inherent national characteristic. The Russian self-selection for a powerful leader who makes them proud by overpowering others on the people’s behalf. The Shi’a drive to control everyone, or, the Sunni drive toward same, or both. The Manifest Destiny of Northern European civilization to populate and thereby develop the North American continent. The German insistence on power over European neighbors, if not militarily, then economic.

You can probably add to this list. Many Americans have spent the last quarter century learning that Native Peoples, Africans, Asians, and Africans have versions of their own.

These myths have roots in local realities. They started with regional imbalances of power, in which no outside equalizer intervened. Now those imbalances are so badly exaggerated that the question of how much intervention an outsider would need to exert, to reestablish some idyllic original balance, yields only the most terrible results.

That is why the best thing we can do is not to send in some kind of fancy weapons, way after the damage is done, but to constantly help local activists, regional rabble-rousers, as they battle the attempt of local bullies to shut them up. To send them away. In fact, it is the military-industrial complex whose credibility is most on the line. Not the President’s. Not the nation’s. Certainly not the men and women of our active military. 

But neither does our growing industry of philanthropic-cultural development funds have any real role to play. This well-meant (sometimes) attempt to justify the radical imbalance in our own income distribution is just as foreign, just as meddlesome, as military intervention or political deals with ambitious local power-brokers. 

If we got anything at all out of the brief, shining moment of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, on the left, and the Tea Party and its national debt obsession, on the right, it was the shared idea that hard work begins at home. Yes, so it does, but it doesn’t end there. We need to be ready to slap down emerging bullies, whether here or abroad, before they become regional powers and international hegemonists.

I’m not holding my breath about this, but it is what I believe. And the more I preach it — one reason I left foreign policy for ministry — the more likely I am to contribute to making it real.

The World Turned Upside Down

At first, the Boston Marathon bombings seemed small to me. Compared to 9-11, to deaths in wars we don’t even bother to look at on television anymore, even to industrial murders resulting from deliberately unsafe management decisions — compared to all this, a lot of people went home in one piece. Had homes to go home to.

That night I went to hear Medea Benjamin speaking on the outrage of US drone policy. As a former political-military analyst of Pakistani affairs, back in another time and place, I actively despise the drones as bad policy. They are another Vietnam — which is to say, a bombing of innocent people who didn’t really care about us but wake up the next day full of hatred. On such occasions, my mind wanders idly to the question of whether our stated policy on use for drones would be different if another country — say, Russia — used the same words to justify attacks launched into US neighborhoods, in search of their own terrorists, say, Chechnyans separatists.

History teaches that the Russians have plenty of reason to use something as lethal as drones against Chechnyan separatistseven as the Chechnyan separatists have legitimate grievances against the Russians. It’s a civil war, fought out by other means, and sometimes in other places.

So, as I say, the Russians would have as much reason to launch a drone into Watertown or any other US neighborhood with a strong eastern European presence as we have to launch our drones into some of the Pakistani and Yemeni neighborhoods we attack. Signature attacks, after all, depend on nothing more than a belief that this is the kind of neighborhood where terrorism finds a foothold. Takes root. Organizes and then exports the means to attack innocents abroad.  At this moment, I trust, there are legal scholars in the Pentagon and CIA poring over every word Obama has uttered on this subject, frantically seeking the ones that might be launched back into our own faces.

But drones are not only something to fear, they are also something to understand. The reason we use drones against suspected terrorists is because those malefactors inhabit places we mock as “failed states.”  In explaining the appellation, experts do not deny that good people live there. States do not fail because they have no rich people. they do not lack for healthy religious communities, most of which are the single healthy social institution protecting their members. Failed states have arts and literature, museums and ways for people to trade and travel.

What failed states don’t have is a government with the power, the will, and the resources to control people who do not wish to live by the laws.  Patriots Day was an ironic moment for God to show the full dimensions of how much that applies to us. Worried about personal violence: the US Senate voted to let gun owners be gun owners — no matter why they want those guns — and to have all the bullets and gunpowder they want.  nervous about your jobsite and missing OSHA? An industrial chemical plant exploded next to two schools and a nursing home, all snuggled close to each other in a jurisdiction that has no safety standards nor routine surprise inspections.  Or maybe you dread the ecological apocalypse? In that case, you’re agitated that flooding has shut down a major metropolitan area and raised fears that its failed sewage exclusion system has allowed an imported predator species of fish to enter the huge, interlocked Great Lakes water system.

And in Boston, on Patriots Day, two brothers and unknown others took the step that lead to official designation as a failed state: they planned, supplied, and launched an act of violence against a public event.  It probably took someone from someplace like Chechnya to hold up the final mirror. Fugitives from failed states know immediately when they’ve landed in another one.  Maybe now, when the Pakistanis, the Yemenis, the Afghans wail that the drones kill good people with the bad, the people of Watertown, Cambridge, and Arlington — many of whom are my personal dear friends — will lead American voices insisting we take them more seriously.

Wisdom is for another day. Right now, I’m still reeling from the numerous naked emperors running wild on my cable television: a town blown off the map in Texas, my own friends locked in their home, losing income and serenity in Greater Boston, and Asian jumping carp chomping their way into Lake Michigan from the DesPlaines and Chicago Rivers.

God has called our bluff. Pride goes before a fall.  Monday night, I mused with disinterest how useful it would be for the Russians to launch a drone against the US, using our own legal language to justify a simply decision to protect their own people against terrorism.  Today — Friday — I just pray they don’t.