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Remember...What is Best in life!

I recently encountered a photoshop fake on the site that had me in stitches. Essentially, it was a Smokey the Bear contest, and this one had Smokey and bunch of cute forest critters with banners that read “Crush Your Enemies”, “See Them Driven Before You”, “And Hear The Lamentation of Their Women”, and at the very bottom, “Remember…What is Best in Life!”

Why am I musing on the joke of some irreverent web satire? Because at the heart of the joke is the very thing that has gotten us into trouble in the War on Terror.

It's a curious charge to level at most Americans: Being soft on terror. Sure, some pacificists said that any attack on the terrorists would just make things worse, but your average Democrat wants justice, wants better security, and vengeance on Osama. We're not unlike our compatriots in the Republican party in our desired to defend America against its enemies.

The Republicans would say we don't want to "git tuff" on the terrorists, and those who support them. Well, getting tough has a poor track record, because getting tough is not necessarily doing one's job. That's not to say we shouldn't aggressively pursue, interrogate and intercept the terrorists. We should do everything that's in our power to stop them. But if by "git tuff" you mean the constant use of draconian legislation and extremist measures, then I can only say there are better ways of doing things, because it is not the lack of moderation that indicates what is right.

A cowardly action can be a moderate action. But sometiemes lapses of courage can take on aggressive active form. To not admit you are wrong after a long period of conclusively contrary evidence is one way. Another way is to engage in wars of aggression in order to avoid facing the hard realities of the new world before us.

There is something addictive about pre-emptive defense. It's self justifying. How many Republicans have cited the lack of recent big bang attacks on America as evidence that the War on Terror and in Iraq is working? How many hold out the promise that because our use of power in Iraq, Americans will be safer, the Middle East will prosper once more? All we have to do is violate the sovereignty of other nations, merely based on what we we think they might want to do to us, not what they have done, or what we can prove they're trying to do.

Sovereignty is no laughing matter. At least most conservatives don't think so. They oppose UN involvement with just about everything on those grounds. They don't want some foreigner telling them what to do. It has been the tradition through long centuries of war and peace that the invasion and forcible control of any territory by a foreign power is not to be taken lightly or allowed without consequence.

That's one reason why we got involved in the Iraq mess to begin with. No dictator should be able to invade their neighbor and arbitrarily take control of their resources, especially not strategic oil producers. So we went in there and showed him. And it was right for us to do so.

But this time? This time, the threat was imaginary. Just about everybody's said so to one extent or another. Even Bushes supporters had to admit that whatever else was true, we didn't find what we attacked Iraq to stop. The defense now, by Senate Republicans, is that the CIA screwed things up.

But part of it was that this administration is run by people who were looking for justifications for a use of military power, not applications for its use. They weren't looking to find the real threat, but to find what they could use, to convince people that Iraq was a threat to us. So instead of saying Carthago Delenda Est, it was Saddam Delenda Est. Saddam must be destroyed.

Am I a sympathizer with him? That's the trick question! Few people had any sympathies for the rat bastard. That's why the NeoCons picked him, and not some less isolated, more culpable dictator. The very conditions that resulted from the success of Saddam's containment made him an ideal candidate to bear the brunt of this new attempt to assert American power in the world.

To justify an assertion of aggressive power, you use it first against those with few allies, few people willing to come to their aid.

To what end? In the book Rise of the Vulcans, James Mann essentially says it outright: to assert American military power so powerfully in the wake of the cold war that no rival would dare think of developing their capabilities to a degree that they could oppose us. Those in the world that oppose this, in the Neocon's view of things, oppose our interests.

This view of the necessity of American Supremacy in the world conditions much of the thinking. It conditions their view of aggressive military action. It conditions their view of diplomacy, and it's value in the fight against terrorism. It conditioned their treatment of terrorism before 9/11, and it conditioned their treatment of terrorism after it.

It conditioned, ultimately, whether they would take us into war based on weapons that only intelligence had told us existed, not solid evidence. Clinton had more evidence for the chemical weapons at the plant in Sudan which he hit with the cruise missile than Bush had of the WMDS that we embarked on a full scale invasion to disarm Saddam of. For most people the lack of solid evidence would be worrisome, especially when we have better evidence of worse threats elsewhere.

The conditioning of the Neocon philosophy insists on seeing the world in terms of potential rivals. The UN. NATO. The countries of the EU.

Islamists and Pan-Arabists. It doesn't matter that the the middle east is rife with byzantine internal rivalries, what they see is the unified front of a civilization bent on challenging American power. That is what they see. Osama Bin Laden isn't the threat to them, but simply one part of a rival power that is rising on the scene. Osama Bin Laden is a bit player on the grander geopolitical scene, however big of a player he is in the terrorist game, so he isn't the important target.

Reading all the recent books, like Against All Enemies, Rise of the Vulcans, Bush At War, Plan of Attack, and The Age of Sacred Terror, I can't help but get the idea that Afghanistan was the war the Bush administration and the Neocons flirted with, but that Iraq was the war they were really committed to.

And this is where we come back to that addictive quantity we know as power. Yes, we all have this impulse to crush an enemy, to see them driven before us, to hear the lamentation of their women (or men) We all want, from time to time to have control over those we feel could challenge our interests. It certainly seems easier than protracted negotiations, binding rules and regulations. But in the real world, our impulse to try and control can ultimately lead us into situations where we lack control, where we are wasting our efforts in aggressive but counterproductive displays of strength.

Intentions matter nothing without results. Results depend upon how well we can percieve the information out there. False threats are a waste of our resources to combat. Mispercieved threats waste resources and thwart our strategies by encouraging inappropriate action. Because of the limits of human wisdom, perception and intelligence, we are always faced with such mistakes of understanding and thought. Because of the inextricably emotional nature of the human character, we are perfectly capable of feeling that our mistakes are not mistakes, of creating a feedback loop of rationalization.

One of the easiest ways to get trapped is to believe being right in philosophy is more important than being right in practice, especially when one philosophy calls for clear, fully rationalized action, and the other calls for patience, prudence, and waiting. Human beings on the whole hate feeling indecisive, like being able to do something and feel that it is the right thing. This is how the wish for power often trumps productive behavior: we say, do something, even if it is wrong, because on the whole, you might turn out to be right.

Caught in this need for symbolic action, we loose sight of what leads to pragmatically correct action. There's always a trail somewhere, a factual basis for whatever action we choose to take. The trick is to develop a feel for that, to start finding what's really going on, and to develop strategies with those facts in mind. Finally, error correction and recognition need to be built into the system.

Sounds nuanced. Sounds complicated. But that matters only if you're trying to force the world to operate as an utterly rational system. The best approach is to let one's mind flow over a problem, not fixing one's appreciation of the world to one star or another. The trick is to let go of the idea that one can totally understand everything, while keeping in mind that it's important to stay up to snuff on the issues at hand.

To do so is to immerse ourselves in the lives our fellow human beings to some extent, to accept differences between them and us that we may not tolerate within our own society, until it becomes dangerous for us to do so. We must have limits, of course. We cannot tolerate threats to life and limb.

But does that mean we must present such threats to others? Sometimes, yes. But it is best that we keep such considerations in the background, as much as we can, because within that implicit threat much can be done to remove the threat altogether, to make it disappear and collapse before it grows out of control. That is the power that best rewards its carriers. Military power is spectacular but it is expensive, dangerous and limited in its use. This power can be employed under the radar and defeat many of our enemies in such ways that our opponents do not even realize they've lost the battle.

But if we give in to the temptation of trying to assert control, regardless of what that requires, we will become trapped in a pattern of behavior, where the joys of asserting our superiority, and destroying our rivals become a draining obsession, while the true threats grow and strike at us.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at July 11, 2004 9:09 PM