Feb 18

Benghazi didn’t really register on the media terrorism richter scale. Blame the fact that the attack took place a continent away, blame the fact that Libya had been at war a year earlier, blame the media-consuming 2012 election, or blame the fact that only four people died as opposed to nearly 3,000; for whatever reason, Americans just didn’t have the same visceral reaction that they had been attacked as they felt on 9/11.

The lack of interest by the American public didn’t stop a few Republicans and one conservative news channel from blaming President Obama for the attack.

We’ve been dreading this for years. After a future terrorist attack, instead of rallying together as a nation, one side of the political spectrum will stand up and say, “If we were in power, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Presidents (rightfully) don’t get blamed for hurricanes or earthquakes. In many ways, terror attacks--or mass shootings or assassinations--are like natural disasters: very rare and essentially random. Most Americans avoided blaming President Bush and his administration for failing to prevent the 9/11 attacks, though some (wrongly) tried to make this case years later.

This makes sense. 9/11 was a black swan event. Sure, some intelligence pointed to an attack, but tons of intelligence pointed to tons of other attacks too. Our national security establishment couldn’t read the signal through the noise. That isn’t that surprising; none of us saw it coming. (Outside of Tom Clancy, but if his books count as predictions, he’s been much more wrong than right.) As Bush said in 2004, “The person responsible for the attacks was Osama bin Laden.”

After 9/11, though, politicians have essentially “been warned”. Most politicians believe that if the next attack occurs on their watch, then they will pay at the polls. If anyone relaxes their guard, the public will blame them for the resulting terror attacks, even though most national security spending is more theater than effective.
The only way to avoid impending geometric increases in security spending is if both sides promise to not blame the other for terrorism. Both sides have to agree not to cross this line; both sides must agree not to make terrorism a political wedge issue.

Yet...it happened after Benghazi. Republicans, disappointingly including Senator John McCain just yesterday, on Meet the Press, have argued that the Obama administration is somehow responsible for the deaths on that day, as if President Obama had condoned it, or knew about it, or could have prevented it. Republican lawmakers blamed Secretary Clinton for the attack at her congressional hearings as well.

The problem isn’t just hypocrisy (You can’t blame a terrorist attack on the Secretary of State but not blame President Bush for 9/11; You can’t blame Susan Rice without judging Condoleezza Rice, as The Daily Show smacks down right here.) as much as it’s a big, large step in the wrong direction for the nation. As long as Presidents dread another attack more than anything else, then national security spending will keep growing. Wars and interventions around the globe will continue. Presidents will focus on the short term as opposed to the long. And Attorneys General will erode civil liberties in a quest to “prevent the next 9/11”.

All of this will happen, unless we stop terrorism from becoming a political issue.

Jan 14

To read the entire series, click on the following articles:

    - This Changes Nothing

     - Adultery is Illegal in the Military? What Sort of 17th Century Puritanism is This?

     - Wait, the Military Isn't a Bastion of Morality?

     - Four More Thoughts on the Petraeus Scandal from Eric C...and an Apology

     - Michael C's Quick Hits on Petraeus

     - Stray Thoughts on the Poorly Named "Arab Winter"

     - Even More Stray Thoughts on the Poorly Named "Arab Winter"

In our attempt to follow the publishing tradition of end-of-the-year recaps, during the first week of every new year, we like to look back on the previous twelve months and ask, “What was the single most thought-provoking event?” We define this as the event that inspired the most post ideas, asked the most questions and, usually, provided the fewest answers. Because we don’t like to “chase the news”, it allows us to reflect on an event we probably didn’t write about.
Previous years provided easy targets. Looking back on our first seven months of blogging in 2009, the failed Iranian Green revolution provided few quick or easy answers. Looking back on 2010, we couldn’t hide our fascination/admiration/contempt for Wikileaks. Last year, four huge events stood out--the debunking of Greg Mortenson (which we declared our most thought provoking event of the first six months), the death of Osama bin Laden (which kind of inspired this entire series) and we didn’t even get time to discuss that military intervention in Libya that somehow went well. In the end, though, the Arab Spring fascinated us more than either of those three events to become our most thought-provoking event of 2011.

This month the On V offices have been abuzz with discussion over the most thought provoking event of 2012, and one thought stands out: there just isn’t much to choose from.

The election sucked up most of this year’s news coverage. The Iran situation continued to simmer like a pot on low, but it didn’t boil over. Just at the end, Israel and Palestine went at it again, but it seems like that happens every six years. Syria continued to slaughter civilians. Wars continue around the world that the media doesn’t cover at all. Gun violence, from Trayvon Martin to Aurora, CO to Newtown, CT, kept news channels busy, but that doesn’t involve foreign affairs.

We haven’t mentioned probably the two biggest words related to military/foreign affairs--two words we have barely used on the blog--Benghazi and Petraeus. The first was a terrorist attack on foreign soil, symbolic of the growing pains associated with building new democracies and the so-called “Arab Winter”. Linked to Benghazi as head of the CIA is General David Petraeus, whose entire career was apparently a fraud because he engaged in sexual relations with a woman who wasn’t his wife. (Sarcasm.)

In the end, we couldn’t decide whether the downfall of General Petraeus or the “Arab Winter” asked better questions: Does one affair discredit an entire wartime legacy? Is General Petraeus the latest Greg Mortenson or Stanley McChrystal? How does the severity of Benghazi relate to the terrorism of the last year? And if democracy really is so messy, should we just support dictators? And most importantly, do we have to write about a sex scandal?

For Petraeus, we have a number of longer posts. For Benghazi, we have a bunch of quick hits that we will roll out over a series of posts.

While the collapse of Petraeus’ career and the Arab Winter are separate events, we couldn’t choose between them. So for the next three weeks, we fire off our contemplative thoughts on the two most thought-provoking events of the last year.

Oct 24

(Our posts on the 2012 election:

- Election 2012: On Violence’s Thoughts on Obama

- On V in Other Places: “An Afghanistan/Iraq vet says Romney should run the Pentagon like Bain Capital”

- Election 2012! On Violence’s Thoughts on Romney

- They Agree! Readers React to “Romney should run the Pentagon like Bain Capital”

- President Obama Sunk Our Battleship(s)!: Or How Politicians Don't Understand Modern Warfare

A few months after we began On Violence, spammers started showing up. (They actually showed up really quickly. We barely had fifty readers a week, and already spambots wanted to advertise handbags and Nike sneakers on our then-insignificant website. Odd.) To fight them, our blogging platform has a pretty neat feature: the spam quiz.

The spam quiz does something really simple: it asks each commenter a question. The reader answers it, and the comment goes through. This spam prevention feature does, however, pose a fairly interesting riddle: what one thing does 99.99% of the population know? Think of a word or phrase, and someone in society won’t know the answer. Or they’ll spell it incorrectly. We chose the one thing we reliably knew everyone of our commenters would know:

The last name of the current American president.

Some conservative readers have bristled at this choice. One commenter wrote something to the effect of, “I wish I didn’t have to enter that person’s name on Veteran’s Day.”

I wrote this post today 1. to reassure our conservative readers that, come inauguration day in January, if Mitt Romney gets elected, we’ll change the password and 2. to introduce our series on the candidates for president we’ll be running over the next two days. Confronted with the first presidential election in On Violence’s short history, we want to write something about both men campaigning for the country’s highest office. We’ll discuss Barack obama first, then Mitt Romney.

This isn’t an endorsement, even though it is probably pretty obvious which candidate we support. (For Eric C, the idea of voting for a Republican makes him laugh. For Michael C, the Republican party left him--and other moderates--at some point in the last ten years.) But we can say that neither candidate comes out glowing.

We’ll focus on the this blog’s main topics: foreign policy, defense spending, veterans affairs and civil rights (Unfortunately, each candidate has remained silent on the issue of post-9/11 war memoirs.) We will criticize both candidates for their failings on foreign policy, and compliment them where they get it right. For Obama, we’ll analyze his time in office, good, bad and inbetween. For Romney, we’ll discuss his stances on the issues. Both candidates get an equal word count.


Oct 15

In the debate over the Iraq war--a debate that started before, continued during, and still evolves as I write this now--the arguments are pretty simple: liberals (or progressives or Democrats) blame President Bush for the war, with a little sprinkling of former VP Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld’s lackeys/subordinates/henchmen; conservatives (or Republicans) somehow blame liberals for not supporting the military enough, or (now) argue that we won because we removed a dangerous dictator, Saddam Hussein.
Well, we didn’t win. (If you think we did win, it looked something like this. And you might as well stop reading this post: you won’t agree with anything else.)

America needs to figure out why. We need to hold our government accountable. At least, we need to find out why we screwed up so royally so we don’t do it again. (You know, like with Iran.)

Unfortunately, accountability means holding people accountable. That means blaming specific individuals. And I don’t like how we--American society/media/intelligentsia--go about doing that.

This ABC News article from 2007 captures the way most journalists and historians assign blame. We look for the one individual, or maybe group, and blame them. That’s why liberals blame Bush or Cheney, and conservatives blame liberals as a whole. The ABC article basically concludes that the conservative politicians caused the war.

As a history major, I sharpened my intellectual teeth on single cause explanations for events. That’s why in thirty years, I expect to read a history book blaming the Iraq war on President Bush. And maybe another one blaming it all on Cheney. And an Errol Morris documentary where Rumsfeld passes the blame onto everyone else. Meanwhile, conservative historians will fire back that we could have “won” the Iraq war if we simply had the right policies in place.

Those simple explanations just don’t cut it, though. Multiple actors--each making terrible decisions--caused the Iraq War fiasco. We can’t blame the Iraq war disaster on just President Bush. Or any single person. Or even just the executive branch. Instead, we need to spread around the blame.
I like to think of historical causes on a 0-100 point scale, assigning responsibility by percentage. The question is, “How much did any one individual factor contribute to the failure?” If I had to assign blame for Iraq, I would proportion it out something like this (readers can dispute the exact percentage, that’s not really the point):

Al Qaeda                        - 5%

Saddam Hussein             - 5%

Paul Bremer                   - 10%

President Bush               - 10%

VP Cheney                     - 10%

The Sec Def’s Office        - 40%

Of course, this proportioning of blame could be spaced out for different time periods. We could assign blame for starting the war in the first place, then assign blame for conduct of the war and then assign blame for why the war just dragged on for so long. Either way, this is how I prefer to explain history, my own historiography if you will.

Careful readers will notice that my proportioning of blame doesn’t add up to 100%. That’s on purpose. While the politicians running the Bush administration do deserve the lion’s share of the blame, especially for starting the Iraq war in the first place, another gigantic group also deserves some heat. The group of people who advised the politicians. Who led the invasion. Who planned (or failed to plan) for a post-invasion Iraq.

That gigantic group of people has been so far historically immune to criticism. I’ll tackle them Wednesday.

Sep 17

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

By 1983, the year I entered this world, every Civil War veteran had died. When my dad was young he remembers watching a news program on the death of the last Civil War veteran. With their passing, the Civil War receded from our collective memory into the historic.

Like all wars. Mostly unremarked by the media, in February, the last living World War I veteran died in Britain at the age of 110. In the next generation, every World War II veteran will die. Then, like the Civil War, the “Good War” will recede into our historical memory.

How will our children, and their children, think about those European wars? After centuries of state on state war--averaging about one a decade--the United Kingdom, Germany, France and the other nations of Europe (and America) have avoided a major war for nearly 65 years. Will the children who never spoke to World War I or World War II veterans understand their tremendous good fortune?

A few weeks ago, two very good friends vehemently disagreed with my solution to the Iran crisis. They both said, “We just can’t be friends with everyone.” One repeated the often used Republican talking point about how the world is just dangerous. The other called my thinking “pollyanna-ish”. In each discussion, they relied on history to say, “Wars have always happened, and always will.”

But that’s not the same history I studied at UCLA. The history of Europe during the last sixty five years--marked by a long and extensive peace--says that former enemies can become fantastic allies. In Europe, international cooperation created the longest lasting peace in that continent's history.

More importantly, when America decides it wants peace, it can turn former enemies into fantastic allies. For instance...

Germany: After saddling Germany with intolerable debt that led to hyper-inflation (or failing to prevent the “victorious” nations from doing so) which caused the rise of fascism following World War I, America went back to war with Germany twenty years later. After World War II, having learned its lesson, America rebuilt Germany with the Marshall plan. Today, German chancellors welcome American presidents with open arms.

Italy: Pretty much the same story as Germany, with Italy switching sides in the middle of World War II. Italy, like Germany, joined NATO and the U.N., and hasn’t fought a war on the continent since.

Japan: Following World War II, few Americans and fewer Japanese would have predicted that 65 years later America would be Japan’s largest economic trading partner. Japan had attacked the U.S. first. America annihilated two cities in atomic fire and many more in fire bombings. Like Germany, America provided aid to rebuild destroyed societies while maintaining an economic relationship with Japan. Today, Japan is one of America’s strongest allies in the Pacific.

Russia: Following World War II, America and Russia started a Cold War, competing in arms races, espionage battles that raged across continents, and multiple proxy wars across the globe. Yet America and Russia avoided an apocalyptic nuclear war. After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., America has strengthened its ties to the Russian Federation.

China: In “the forgotten war” in Korea, Chinese armies pushed the U.S. Army back to the 38th parallel, killing thousands of Americans in the process. As described in “The Nixon Option”, until the late 1960s it seemed inconceivable that a U.S. President would travel to China. But that happened. The opening of China helped spur both globalization, and has provided the U.S. with an invaluable trading partner.

Vietnam: America also resumed diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995, where over 60,000 U.S. soldiers died. When America left Vietnam in 1975, I don’t think anyone would have predicted that, within a generation, America would renew diplomatic relations and allow unfettered trade with our former foe in south-East Asia.

At this time in our lives, America has more, stronger allies than at anytime in its past. The outliers--Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba and Ecuador (with their move to grant Julian Assange asylum)--are drastically poor and militarily wanting. In each case, if America really worked hard to change the relationship, it probably could turn these enemies into allies. The history of America’s diplomatic relationships over the last 65 plus years support my solution to the Iran crisis.

If America wants to avoid another disastrous war, America should make Iran one of its allies.

Sep 10

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

Eric C ended up working on the post “The Original Name of Violence” for over three years before he felt he had it perfect. It was worth the wait, because in it, commenter “Martin” might have made the most insightful comment we have ever received on the blog.

At the time, we had just launched “The Case Against War with Iran” series, and this comment struck me as completely applicable. To build peace, America needs the traits of all great leaders: wisdom, magnanimity and forgiveness.

Here is that comment:

Many years ago I was a teacher. As part of my teacher training I elected to do an optional course called something like “Dealing with difficult children”. The course involved quite a bit of role play of teacher pupil confrontations. The thing I learnt on that course, and the thing the instructor wanted us to take away was this: it is the job of the teacher to lower the level of confrontation, because the pupil sure won’t. If the pupil shouts and the teacher shouts louder, then things escalate. The teacher must work to lower the level of confrontation. That doesn’t mean being weak, or capitulating; it is rather the intelligent exercise of power to achieve the teacher’s goals.

The lesson generalises: in a conflict, it is the duty of the more powerful to lower the level of confrontation(1).

There are two ways to stop a conflict: for the weak party to surrender, or for the powerful party to be magnanimous(2). But when the weak surrenders, it is armistice rather than peace. (Think Treaty of Versailles after WWI c.f. Marshall Plan after WWII). The only way to lasting peace is for the more powerful party (or the victor) to be magnanimous.

All is not futile: the cycle of violence can be ended, but it can only be ended by the more powerful.

(1) This is actually one of the most important life lessons I have learnt.

(2) There is a third way: mutual destruction, but I’ll avoid that as it is a distraction to my main point.

As the drums continue to beat for war with Iran, more Americans and Israelis would do well to remember this sound advice. Peace, deescalation, forgiveness and magnanimity aren’t just options for powerful people, they’re requirements.

Aug 13

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

Admittedly, last week’s post “We Can’t Be Alllies with Iran...Iran Hates Us!” was light on details. I dismissed the “they hate us” excuse for starting a war because hatred isn’t a reason to go to war.

Reading it, Eric C challenged me, “Do we know whether Iranians hate Americans?” Hmm. I didn’t know, so I looked up the answer. Consider today’s post the research edition of last week’s post.

First up, do American leaders hate Iran? Most American politicians won’t openly admit this. However, if you accuse someone of the most vile accusations imaginable--being a terrorist, using child soldiers, hating freedom, believing in death above life--then even if you don’t say, “I hate Iran”, you still said, “I hate Iran”.

American elected officials have said such things about Iran. Case in point: President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union, when he unveiled the “Axis of Evil”. Pay particular attention to the last paragraph:

Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom.

States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.

Our enemies send other people's children on missions of suicide and murder. They embrace tyranny and death as a cause and a creed. We stand for a different choice -- made long ago, on the day of our founding. We affirm it again today. We choose freedom and the dignity of every life.

Second, do the American people hate Iran? I couldn’t find a poll that explicitly asked this question. Gallup, though, regularly polls Americans on the question, “Who is our greatest enemy?” This year Iran took home the gold. Gallup says 32% of Americans call Iran our “greatest enemy”, a higher percentage than for any other country. (68% of Americans also didn’t choose Iran.)

Third, according to polling, do Iranians hate Americans? Historically, Iranians have loved America more than any other Middle Eastern nation...a strange position for a nation which allegedly hates us. Since Iranians live in a police state--something I don’t support or deny--most Iranians avoid criticizing their own government, in public or private. So when an outside pollster tries to gauge Iranian attitudes about America via telephone, many Iranians will simply hide their true feelings.

Which means that the best study on Iranian feelings--from the Rand Corporation--has some difficult obstacles to surmount. According to Rand’s survey, a plurality of Iranians do not favor re-establishing a diplomatic relationship with America. Of the polled Iranians, the ones most uncomfortable with the survey were more likely to oppose re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iran.

In fact, the Rand study, while appearing to show that Iranians hate Americans, actually shows their desire to renew a strong relationship with America. Thirty nine percent of Iranians do favor or somewhat favor re-establishing diplomatic relationships with the U.S. Iranians, though, still haven’t forgiven America for the two dramatic interventions into their sovereignty: the installation of the Shah in 1959 and America cutting all ties during the 1979 revolution.

Can we really say Iranians hate us? Not based on any polling.

Fourth, what do journalists who have visited Iran think about “Iranians hating Americans”? Every time a journalist travels to Iran, they return with the same story: the leaders may hate America, but the people do not. First up, Nicholas Kristof speaking to Fareed Zakaria on GPS 360:

“ZAKARIA: So what was your dominant impression, given this access? Because you have been to Tehran, but what felt different about being outside Tehran?

“KRISTOF: Well, as you know, one of the extraordinary things about Iran is how pro-American everybody seems at the grassroots. You go to Pakistan, you go to Egypt, and we pour billions into these places and everybody seems to hate us.

“We go to Iran and everywhere you go, people want to buy you tea or invite you into their homes. It is -- I mean, it's just stunning, the pro-American quality of the country. I think more broadly politically, I was reminded, absolutely, there is still support for the regime, for the government in rural areas, among less educated people, people who don't have access to satellite television.

“But all of the larger social forces seem to me to be working against the government. More educated people, more urbanized people, people who do have international connections just are more and more fed up with the system. They're upset by the economic downturn and they don't really blame the West for sanctions. They blame their own government.”

Nicholas Kristof goes to even further lengths in his column on The New York Times website, but this one quote probably captures the mood best, “this may be the most pro-American nation in the Middle East.” He also doubles down on the fear pervading the society; a fear which makes it seem like normal Iranians “hate” America.

The trend of journalists visiting Iran and discovering--surprise! they don’t hate us--isn’t a recent phenomenon. I just found this article by Tim Cahill for Outdoor magazine through Byliner (via Byliner’s inappropriately titled “Why Iran Hates America”) which--though nine years old--comes to the exact same conclusion as Kristof.

Of course, some comedians have visited the land of ancient Persia as well. And guess what? The Daily Show finds that Iranians generally love America too:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Jason Jones: Behind the Veil - Minarets of Menace
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook
Aug 07

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

It stuns me the similarities between the language used by kids fighting on a playground and American politicians describing Iran. As I wrote yesterday, in both cases it boils down to, “But they’re so mean...and they hate us too!”

Yesterday, I tackled the first argument. Today, I want to show how silly it is to assume an entire other country “hates” us.

And I don’t have to go far to find someone. When I told my dad my solution to the Iran crisis, he actually brought up the point that Iranians hate us (Americans). My dad lives in southern California, home to the largest Iranian ex-pat population in America, so maybe he has experience with specific people. He doesn’t. My dad has one Iranian-American friend, who doesn’t hate him. My dad has never travelled to the Middle East, and hasn’t talked to an actual Iranian in Iran about the looming crisis.
Should we go to war with Iran because of a belief that Iranians hate Americans? Of course not. More importantly, how do we even know this is true? Does anyone have polling evidence that says, ‘Iranians hate Americans?’ And how many Iranians hate Americans? Is it 100%? Greater than 50%? Is it a very vocal minority? Where is your evidence?

Let’s be specific. Do Iranians hate Americans or do Iranian leaders hate Americans? My dad and most pundits, of course, mean Iran’s leaders. And Iran’s leaders have called America the Great Satan and plenty of other terrible things. Does every single Iranian politician hate America? Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has said before that “all Muslims hate America”, but does he speak for all Muslims? All Muslim politicians? Could his viewpoint change if America changed some of their policies?

More importantly, couldn’t Iranians say the same thing about our leaders? As Stephen Walt has written before, if Martians came to Earth and examined the evidence impartially, the bellicose war-like nation isn’t Iran, it’s America. (Read our earlier coverage to get a sampling.) I mean, one of America’s two presidential candidates keeps hinting that if elected he will take military action against Iran unless it agrees to several untenable negotiating positions.

So Iran and America could go to war because the war hawks of each country--who may not represent the majority--say idiotic and dangerous things?

That doesn’t make sense.

Instead, let’s make this argument reasonable. Since the fall of the Shah in 1979, both America and Iran have harmed each other’s citizens and violated each other’s sovereignty, as I wrote about yesterday. As a result, some citizens of each country “hate” citizens of the other. Let’s admit it, some Americans hate Iran. And definitely some Iranians hate America. When politicians--in each country--talk in extreme war-like terms, they cater to this minority.

This hatred, born out of ignorance and maintained because some people just want enemies to hate, exists in both America and Iran.

Acknowledging this fact has huge ramifications. Once we admit that some Americans hate Iran--a phrase few politicians will ever admit themselves--it empowers us. The best way to describe the situation with Iran isn’t, “because they hate us”, it’s “because we hate them.” And suddenly, by switching the subject and the object, the onus switches from Iran’s nuclear program to our own feelings about Iran. We have the power to change the relationship.

And once we realize that we control our own emotions--whether our country truly “hates” another country, which seems silly when you think about it--we can change our actions. As the schoolyard analogy showed, hatred can turn to friendship very easily. And this process has repeated itself throughout the 20th century as historical animosity turned into cooperation. Just look at Europe: France and Germany; France and England; Italy and Germany; Germany and everyone else; even now, Russia is closer to the E.U. and N.A.T.O. than at any time in its history. One of Mitt Romney’s big gaffes this year was referring to Russia as America’s “number one geo-political foe”. They’re not anymore.

Past hatred doesn’t necessitate future hatred. It doesn’t even rule out future friendship. So let’s get rid of the idea that Iran “hates us”, and start figuring out how to improve the relationship between our two countries.