Archive for July, 2008

Don’t it Make You Wanna Go Home

I remember as a child listening to the Joe South hit “Don’t it Make You Wanna Go Home,” about how his hometown had changed, and wondered what Sioux Falls would look like in the future. Well, when I left here in the early 80’s we had less than 100,000 people, and while growing up the population was more like 60,000. Now it’s estimated at 160,000, and while the core of the city is the same, I am amazed at the blocks and blocks of houses, mini-malls and parks standing in places that were once fields, section lines, and open spaces.

One example is 49th street heading from Cliff to Bahnson. It was my jogging path (seven miles) in high school, and one section of it finds a railroad track on a slight hill. In 1976 this was a dirt road leading out of town with corn fields on either side. My friend Dan Taranik and I had a contest to see who could drive over the track the fastest. The steep incline made the car airborn, and when it landed if you had shifted the stirring wheel just a bit you could careening into the corn field. Up to 40 MPH our friends would ride with us, then we’d have to let them out and just the two of us go, to verify each others’ speed. I hit 65 MPH, barely keeping control. In a move that perhaps saved us from severe injury, Dan’s parents took away his car on an unrelated case, and by the next year we at 17 were mature enough to realize we’d been damn crazy.

That road is now paved, with parks, a church and houses on each side of the street. Moreover, there are houses and streets in each direction as far as you can see, all where fields used to stand. It goes on…49th was the very edge of town, now there developments past 70th street. Areas that were once miles outside the city are now simply part of town.

This shouldn’t surprise me. In 1977 I took a mini-course in high school called “A Week with the Mayor” (maybe in was 1978). A young city planner, Steve Metli (who I think stayed on the job through a recent retirement) drove us around town in a cool convertible and pointed to where the city would grow. I remember thinking “this guy is crazy, where will all those people come from.” As it turns out, I doubt he even realized how fast the population would take off! East, west, north and south, new schools, new malls, new homes have been built. Sioux Valley Hospital, renamed Sanford hospital thanks to a large donation, is hiring 8000 people to start a research center. The mood is reminiscent of the 1974 Sioux Falls bumper sticker “Things are Lookin’ Good, no Recession here.”

Yet as I seek out landmarks, a “Milky Way” that looks like it did back then, or the fact that “Midwest Welding” seems not to have changed, I find those constancies to be the exception rather than the rule. We went to Falls Park, which when I was in high school was rather run down. I always thought it a waste, the falls of Sioux Falls in a small, run down park near the state Penitentiary, stockyards and sewage treatment plant. Well, those other things are still there, but the park has been built up to be glorious, with an evening light show and landscaping that makes it a center attraction. And if the stockyards create an odor now and then, well, so what?

When I was growing up there was only one real “ethnic” restaurant – a Chinese place downtown, which is still there (Ming Wah). That expanded a bit by my college days, but now there is a plethora of possibilities from Ethiopian to Thai and beyond. While we had goofy golf and a few other activities, now there are waterparks, amusement parks and places to have fun. The minor League Sioux Falls Packers had to close it’s A league team when the old northern League folded, has been replaced by the very popular and successful Sioux Falls Canaries.

The Great Plans Zoo, which had old fashioned inhumane concrete cages and a cheap entrance area, has been replaced by a really well designed modern zoo, with a stuffed animal exhibit (when I was a kid these animals, collected by local hunters on trips around the world, could only be seen in part in a rather cluttered display at West Soo Hardware). In short, my hometown only exists in my mind, despite remnants I can still grab on to. Sioux Falls now is huge, expansive, and apparently still growing. The majority of houses seem brand new; only in the old part of town are the houses smaller and older. To be sure, I grew in a house built in the 1920s, 401 E. 30th. We walked by the house I lived at when I went to Kindergarten (305 W. 29th) on the way to a refurbished but still existent DQ on 29th and Minnesota. The playground at old Mark Twain School was redone, but the school still looked the same.

Strange, really. Every moment is fleeting, the town that now exists will be much different again as time passes. As a kid on my bicycle I explored every street and every part of this city, making it a point to go to places I hadn’t yet seen. Now that job would be a lot more difficult. But in my mind, I can still go to old stores like Fantles and Shrivers downtown, remember that ice cream cones at the DQ were 7, 10, 15, 20 cents, and the jumbo one for a quarter. The Sioux Falls I grew up in is still stronger in my mind than this city; Village Inn Pizza is still there, not a Crystal Casino. The Barrel Restaurant drive in, A&W Rootbeer, all the places I once knew. That’s one thing about getting older, suddenly one gets a sense of how things change and how time passes.

Onetime on my bike, probably while I was in high school, I was riding on the dikes of the SIoux River, and came upon a bridge — a four lane bridge spanning the river, with no road in site. What an oddity! I crossed it on my bike, and told everyone about this ‘bridge to nowhere’ I found. Now that bridge connects 49th street behind the malls (the west side of town, my biking path on 49th was way over on the east side), and is one of the most well traveled streets in town. Today we played with the kids at Sertoma Park, with a huge playground directly next to that very bridge — which definitely no longer looks new! And, while being a bit nostalgic can turn into a defiant “things were better then” stance, I prefer to look at it differently. Everything changes. Every moment in time, every landscape, every experience is unique and transient. Therefore, enjoy it, savor it, and bask in it. Time will take scene away, but the experience can never be stolen.

(Below is the bridge I came across back before the road was built…time changes everything…)


Play American Style

Note: the vacation continues, but I’m finding time to post a bit about the fun we’re having. Hopefully I’ll find time to post again before returning to regular posting on August 2nd.

We enjoyed a superb weekend in southern South Dakota, visiting my sister’s family river house on the Missouri River/Lake Francis Case. As I experienced, I realized that this epitomized America at play in the early 21st century, and I wonder if it can last.

My sister, her husband and two kids (aged 17 and 15) spend most weekends down on the river, about 100 miles from their home in Sioux Falls. Their river house is nice; three bedrooms, a nice kitchen, two bathrooms, and a comfortable living room with Direct TV. The garage is huge because it has to hold their boat, a beautiful “Moriah” boat that can hold 11. They hook their boat to the Chevy Suburban, and then haul the boat to the boat launch nearby. Their river house is part of a small development near Pickstown, South Dakota, with small lots (people are right next to each other), and a little community.

The average weekend day involves heading out on to the river, usually to find a place on a sandy spot to stop the boat, and then swim, relax, drink beer, and cool off from the summer heat. The scene is gorgeous; the wide Missouri surrounded by small hills in a very sparsely populated part of the state, one feels really at peace.

My five year old loved it. What he loved most involved vehicles. On the boat, he sat up front, and kept giving the “thumbs up” to my brother in law to go faster and faster. Even on rough water with bumps that made me think I’d injure my spine, he was laughing and enjoying it, his sunglassed face looking forward as the boat sped ahead. Every now and then we’d make eye contact (too loud for much talk) and each grin at each other. This was FUN! Speed, water, wind! Then the swimming was great, and Ryan at age 5 learned how to drive a golf cart by himself. Golf carts are the mode of transportation around that mini-development, and though we had someone with him, he became very good at driving (announcing, “I’m amazing, I’m a magic boy, I can drive a golf cart with no driving lessons!”)

In the evenings as things cooled off, music blared from various garages as little parties popped up, beer and booze flowing liberally, people stopping by and socializing with others, sharing boating and the love of the river in common. We of course had 70s hard rock playing since that’s our era. The kids could roam around within reason, not fearing traffic, and knowing things were safe. They would meet with other kids, delight in staying up past dark way past their bed time, wired and excited by all that was going on (but conking out quickly when we could finally get them to bed). The last night, despite hot weather, we even made a fire so we could make smores for the kids. Some people headed off fishing, but most simply partied into the evening.

Monday morning it was clear this was mostly a weekend thing. People were heading back to Sioux Falls or northern Nebraska, leaving their boats, ready to come back the next week. The trash collector told us of how he was recovering from a rough weekend, heading to Canton, burning tires, and drinking beer. Before we headed back to Sioux Falls, we went over the nearby Fort Randall dam, and toured the historic area where Ft. Randall stood, back when the Sioux were losing this territory quickly to the invaders from the East. The Sioux are still here, on reservations or often on the fringes of society; the offspring of the Europeans play on the river.

It was a great weekend. Yet, as I sat there Sunday night, a rum and coke in one hand, a smore in the other (they don’t really go together well, but…) I looked around and had to wonder. This is play the American way. Fast boats. Air conditioned comfort, playing “wii” as virtual tennis players or bowlers when it was too hot to actually go outdoors. Driving a long distance for a weekend escape. Enjoying good food and drink. In the past, I just enjoyed the atmosphere and socializing. Now, though, I reflect that this kind of fun is made possible by cheap energy. Gas for the boat, for the car, the trailer; power for the lifestyle. Will we be able to sustain this? Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to criticize this way of doing things, far from it. It’s fun! But are we entering an era where economic change and more expensive energy will make this kind of weekend the stuff of memories, or scenes in movies about this era of energy abundance? Or can we find a way to keep it up?

After all, to get here we flew to Minneapolis, rented a car, then drove to Sioux Falls. The flat south western Minnesota countryside is marvelous, stopping by to look at old family cemetery plots in Madelia, Minnesota, heading by the old farm, no longer in the family, between Madelia and Laselle, stopping for a DQ meal in LeSeuer. I don’t know. But I think at some ironic level I enjoyed the experience more than I otherwise would have by recognizing that it may not be something to take for granted. It is a moment in history, one to enjoy, even as one comes face to face with the implications of the economic and political realities facing us.


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Obama in Berlin

Note: I’m at a hotel in Portsmouth; tomorrow we fly out. I’m still not sure when or if I’ll blog during the rest of the trip, expect regular entries after August 2nd. But the Motel has wireless access, so I decided to write something today.

Barack Obama is popular in Germany, and 200,000 people came to hear him speak in front of the Siegesäule, a monument built to honor the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian war, not far from the Brandenburg gate. The wide streets made it possible to allow a huge crowd to gather. And, by all accounts, it was a successful speech. However, as Der Spiegel noted, the American press rather than the German press were allowed to speak with him afterwards, and the rhetoric, especially calls for more European help in America’s foreign policy hot spots, was clearly aimed at Americans.

A bit on the location: the Siegesäule is a central point in Berlin’s yearly ecstasy laden Love Parade, and is a symbol for the Berlin gay community, for whom the neighboring park is a meeting place. It isn’t far from from the Berlin Zoo train station and is easily accessible.

Beyond a doubt, Obama is focused on winning the campaign first. He is not President yet, and may not become President. He knows that, so do the Germans. They are intrigued. Could the Americans, so smitten with tough talking cowboys like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, or with good ol’ boy southerners like Bill Clinton, really embrace an urbane, sophisticated black man named Barack Hussein Obama? And Obama’s rhetoric speaks to the Europeans, he is a proud American but also a citizen of the world.

The fact is that Obama knows his weakness is his lack of experience. And, while foreign policy rarely wins or loses elections – Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were similarly inexperienced – anything he can do to create a sense that he has international savvy can only help. Therefore he has undertaken a risky strategy of not only traveling abroad but turning into a very high profile and highly scrutinized series of appearances. This is meant to make people comfortable with the idea of Obama representing the country and appearing Presidential. Images from this trip can be used, probably in a rapid succession of photos, to subliminally reinforce that perception.

And, of course, the crowds and buzz Obama is generated is something John McCain will be unable to match. If McCain showed up in Berlin he’d draw a crowd, but nothing close to Obama’s. Instead McCain visits a German restaurant, and makes his support of the surge the central core of his campaign. That this is his “best card” to play is telling; in an election about change for the future, McCain wants to claim that he got something right in the past. And given that most Americans think the Iraq war was a mistake, its not really going to win over those not already convinced Obama is too soft.

By the time we reach the battles of October, this trip will be old news, pre-convention and part of the ‘warm up.’ Thus charges of Obama just engaging in a photo-op trip, or of Obama trying to ‘woe the world’ rather than voters at home will fade. What the Obama camp hopes for is a subtle, psychological shift. People will feel comfortable that Obama has stature and international respect, that they can trust him with the reins of power. In that sense, his trip is almost certain to succeed.



Today we’re heading out to South Dakota until August 2nd, where I grew up and many family members still live.  I have no idea if I’ll be close to a computer, and probably won’t have the time to put together actual blog entries until my return.  I’m amazed at how many people actually read this, and I think a good share of the comments are from other countries.  I appreciate that and try to read blogs that link to mine or by people who comment here.  Please stop back after August 2nd and I’ll continue to try posting regularly on a variety of topics centered around the period of ‘crisis and transformation’ our planet is entering.  Ciao!

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Obama and Afghanistan

Barack Obama was treated with all the pomp of a visiting head of state when he visited Baghdad and talked with Prime Minister Maliki, who recently at least seemed to endorse Obama’s plan to have troops out of Iraq within 16 months. At this point, Obama seems to be winning the debate about Iraq, with McCain relying on the rather dubious argument that the ‘surge’ is the cause of all improvements there. But even if one believes McCain’s argument (I think he’s vastly overstating both the level of improvement and the role the surge has played in that), it’s so far removed from the focus Americans have on the future and the need to end America’s involvement in Iraq, that it’s not gaining traction. More important for Obama, though, is the renewed focus on Afghanistan.

Time has the Afghan “war” as the cover story, citing it as the “right war.” The Financial Times noted (on July 22) that Obama “is right when he says the situation in Afghanistan is ‘precarious and urgent’. He is right too that Iraq has distracted attention from this and other important US policy priorities; and he is right that commanders in Afghanistan could use more troops.” FT warns, however, that Obama should not fall into the trap of thinking there is a military solution for Afghanistan. By definition an increased focus on Afghanistan heightens the perception that Iraq was an unneeded distraction, and the Bush Administration left the real center of the “war on terror” neglected.

Afghanistan has been neglected, not just by the Bush administration, but also by the media and critics of US policy, all of whom have focused on Iraq.

Back in 2002, with Hamid Karzai at the helm and NATO ready to take over the Afghan operation, it appeared the US had succeeded in both defeating the Taliban and creating the possibility of a modern, democratic Afghanistan. What went wrong?

The short answer is that the same problem gripped the Administration for Afghanistan as for Iraq — an ideology-driven understanding of reality. They truly thought that democracy would rather easily take hold, and that the ‘hard part’ was over.

Could things have gone differently? In late 2001 the US “won” in Afghanistan, but the victory was not the same as the total victory over Saddam in Iraq in 2003. The US and NATO forces had limited operations in Afghanistan, and relied on war lords in the north, the so called “northern alliance,” to actually oust the Taliban. This alliance, whose rule in the early 90s had led to a kind of anarchy with rape, murder and theft being common place (leading many to embrace even the puritanical Taliban), was not a freedom loving pro-democracy group wanting to hook up with the West. They were warlords, regional leaders and often people whose agendas were petty — find a way to use their power to get ‘a piece of the action.’

When Pakistani President Musharraf made his dramatic volte-face to support the US, the Bush administration confidently concluded that the tide had turned, and now countries, seeing America’s willingness to use force, wanted to be on our good side. The dangers for Musharraf were not taken fully into account. Thus, as the Iraq war dragged on and anti-American sentiment grew, Musharraf barely held on to power, and found little reason to give the US anything other than lip service. Allowing US intrusions into Pakistan or trying to use the Pakistani military to tame tribal regions ceased being options for the increasingly weakened Musarraf regime, much to the frustration of American military leaders. This meant that al qaeda and Taliban officials would have safe refuge in Pakistan, and probably even considerable help from the ISI, the Pakistani secret service, which had been allied with the Taliban anyway.

Moreover, as the new Afghan government got situated, nothing was done to assure rule of law or hinder corruption. In fact, much like in Iraq a couple years later, the US seemed to accept corruption as the way things were done, not realizing that it is the biggest impediment to creating a stable democracy besides civil unrest. The security forces there treated the northern alliance as allies, trying to create a partnership between Karzai and various warlords and military leaders. All paid lip service to Afghanistan as one state, but warlords carved out territory to control and made sure that the central government was in charge of little outside Kabul. Opium production increased and NATO forces trying to root out Taliban or al qaeda had to work with the local militias, giving them legitimacy.

Although NATO originally was intensely supportive of efforts in Afghanistan, American unpopularity in Iraq led European public opinion to shift against an on going presence in Afghanistan. It had been America’s war and if the US decided to ignore European opinion and leap into conflict with Iraq, well, why bail the US out in Afghanistan? European governments recognized Afghanistan was important, but moved away from direct military confrontation towards help on basic security and reconstruction. All the while, the Taliban patiently bought off war lords and expanded control in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

If the US had not gone to Iraq, focused on Afghanistan, pushed for the development of stable central rule of law, and maintained the good will that the Europeans and others showed the US after 9-11, it’s possible Afghanistan might have turned out quite differently. A multilateral effort to keep the Taliban at bay and work to build a modern political economy might have worked. That didn’t happen, and Afghanistan has slipped too far to regain the opportunity for a stable, democratic, Afghanistan.

So now what? An “Afghan surge” seems to be in the works, but just as reports of the surge’s efficacy in Iraq have been greatly over-exaggerated, Afghanistan is not Iraq. It simply isn’t possible to go in, clean out the corruption, eliminate the war lords, and defeat the Taliban completely. Just as we are leaving Iraq, we need to depart Afghanistan. Breaking something without fixing it may seem bad, but it was broken before, and our ability to ‘fix’ it through military force is much like my two year old’s claims he can fix my stereo system with a hammer. Sometimes trying to fix does more harm than good.

Leaving Afghanistan would make it easier to work with Pakistan, force the Afghans to solve their own problems, and allow us to focus on al qaeda in a counter-terrorist manner, not playing into their hands by treating it like a military conflict. Leaving would probably involve a time frame much like that for Iraq, and would have to be coordinated with Afghan and other NATO forces. There also could be room for some military presence for specific security needs, and of course efforts to fight corruption and build the society shouldn’t be abandoned. But we can’t do it with guns.

Politically, Obama gains by saying “Iraq distracted us from Afghanistan, I want to focus efforts there to win.” He sounds tough, and it emphasizes the point Iraq has been a pointless and painful distraction. But if any lesson can be learned from Iraq, it’s that there is no quick military fix to corruption or a society torn apart by war and competing militias. Getting deeper militarily into Afghanistan would only create another quagmire. It is time to end our involvement in both “wars.”


Carnival Consumerism

Benjamin Barber, in Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantalize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, offers a riveting critique of modern consumerism. Yet he is not sure how citizens can resist the power of a marketplace out of control. He rightly dismisses ascetic anti-consumption movements. While the phrase “simplify your life” has a certain appeal, only a small segment of society is going to do that to any significant extent. Even then, people tend to get bored and after tuning out, quickly tune back in. Many of us know people who for awhile lived on the land, but are now running e-bay stores or engaged in the dream of American consumerism.

Barber, who also wrote McWord vs. Jihad back in 1995, makes the charge that modern consumerism subverts capitalism and, in a strongly Freudian ananlysis, infantilizes society. This includes the phenomenon of “kidults,” adults whose actions and tastes are more childish than mature. Adults have become perpetual Peter Pans, wanting to look, act and stay young as long as possible, undisciplined and selfish. While I don’t disagree with Barber, I wonder if there is too stark a connection between thinking like a child and infantilization. Is there something wrong with seeing life as play? The world of mystery, magic and joy we knew as children now gets drowned out by worries about retirement, job angst, and of course consumerism. Isn’t our masochistic seriousness one of the problems facing society?

Barber labels one method of resistance “Cultural Carnivalization.” He cites the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin who saw carnivalization as a form of liberation, one which preserves playfulness, spontaneity and innocence. Yet, citing social theorist James C. Scott, Barber notes that those embracing a Bakhtinian interpretation of capitalism as carnival ignore the power structures underlying modern consumerism. The power is in the hands of the marketers, and the “infantilist ethos” which now dominates (replacing the earlier protestant work ethic) serves the wealthy and powerful. When the carnival is not a break from reality but becomes the every day, its power to resist is minimized.

Consider the absurdity of the modern condition. About 20% of the planet not only consumes over 75% of the world’s wealth, but spends hundreds of billions to find new toys and gizmos to create and market. Wants are converted to needs by psychologically savvy marketeers, able to pull emotional chords to get one to associate artificially faded jeans that don’t fit and with a hole on the knee as justifiably expensive pieces of cool fashion. Last week, I compared such consumerism with fascism. Yet as we (or often because we) hyperconsume millions starve or lack basic necessities, and the market ethos sells young girls into slavery and sets up third world sweat shops designed to satisfy our insatiable wants.

Yet that absurdity leads to incredible cynicism, aptly summed up in a favorite line from one of my best friends, “people are stupid.” And any rational read of news stories from the serious to the mundane seems to bear out very much the reality that there is something fundamentally absurd and stupid about human existence. It was this, in fact, which motivated the fidiest thinking of Pascal I discussed last week.

That can lead to political movements, righteous rage, and even positive action to try to make known who sells sweat shop clothes, the reality of life as child sex slaves or soldiers, and the need to address basic human needs around the globe. Yet it does not really threaten hyperconsumerism because while it is a rational and serious argument, it cannot overcome the appeal to emotion that embodies consumer culture. Those who see the flaws seem condemned to feel helpless in a world of mass consumption, while those caught up in the game fare little better, living ignorantly in material comfort, while not being able to handle the anxieties and uncertainties of the modern world.

In that, a form of “carnival consumerism” could be a solution. But not the raucous sense of unity and lack of rank described by Bakhtin. With consumerism all-consuming, the carnival has eaten the host, and instead of being a social release for individual renewal, the individual is subsumed and lost in a faux carnival created by marketers and manipulators who shift and create meanings in a manner designed to keep the individual from leaving that sense of eternal carnival in favor of individual reflection. It’s more than the absurdity of the human condition noted by Pascal almost 400 years ago, this is a particular condition in our culture which, by its very pervasiveness, undercuts the capacity for the kind of carnival that can provide the Bakhtinian renewal.

The reason is that playfulness, or that connection to the innocence of childhood and the sense of magic and imagination, is subdued in both the serious analysis of the human condition, and in the infantilist condition of hyper-materialism. Just as children’s games become more organized and coordinated than ever, adult fun is marketed and consumed. We received a Disney DVD about vacations at Disneyland, all about magic, play and escape — and all neatly packaged and stacked. To enjoy magic and imagination you need neither; Disney provides it all.

So how does one have a carnival within a permanent carnival? How does one discover playfulness when modern play equals hard work and consumption? How is the magical embraced when reason tells us that magic is for the superstitious, and that rational materialism is all that is? How can one connect with the ‘inner child,’ without simply embracing childishness and selfishness? Consumerism has wedded rational enlightenment thought with the emotion of market manipulation, making it appear that letting Disney define magic is rational, while to seek magic in ones’ own life would be some kind of flakey, new age thing.

Ultimately, Theodor Adorno is probably right that this has to come from the arts, something I alluded to in ‘alienation and the arts.’ Whether music, literature, dance, paintings or maybe even blogs, the one culturally powerful and acceptable form of expression and release remains various forms of art. And with new media creating ever more outlets for artistic expression, even as globalization seeks to totalize the market place, there could still be a way to reclaim individual identity from the seduction and destruction of hyperconsumerism, and recapture the sense of play and magic from the clutches of the Walt Disneys of the world. It doesn’t have to be experimental or alternative culture; just as Bob Dylan could write songs that cut through the noise of the sixties to inspire that generation, filmmakers and artists today can resist the culture even while striking a popular chord. Shakespeare, after all, was popular because he aimed his work directly at the mass audiences of his time.

If Horkheimer and Adorno in seeing the enlightenment as unable to provide meaning, and thus providing those with power the capacity to construct meaning and manipulate people to embrace and believe their constructions, then enlightenment philosophy and rational analysis alone won’t break us out of the consumerist trap (though an economic storm might force the issue), rediscovering the creative and curious side of our lives through the arts just might.


Iran: Learning from History

Looking at Iran today, it’s easy to wonder how we got to where we are. Iran was a major ally of the US until 1979 when the Shah of Iran was deposed by a group of revolutionaries including everything from Muslim extremists to communists and pro-western democrats. The religious extremists gained power first, and held it by using both the taking of the US embassy in Tehran and the attack by Saddam to ignite the Iraq-Iran war to hold on to power. Many say we should have defended the Shah, but others note that the Shah’s rule had disintegrated from within, and at best we could have propped up a tyrant only a little while. Perhaps to really think about what went wrong, we need to look back further.

Back in 1949 the British made a deal with Iran’s conservative Prime Minister General Ali Razmara to renegotiate the deal between the government and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). Opposition to the agreement with the AIOC grew, as Iranians were angered by how little they had been getting in oil royalties — the British profits had been almost three times the royalties paid, and in fact the AIOC paid more in taxes at home than to Iran. The new Majles (Iran’s parliament) had strong sentiment against the oil deal. Prime Minister Razmara was assassinated by an Islamic fundamentalist/nationalist from Fedaiyan e Islam (a group which assassinated enemies of Islam).

A group of parties led by Mohammad Mosaddeq started to gain support in the Majles, and though the Shah (whose powers were quite limited) chose Hosain Ala to be the new Prime Minister, the Majles pushed for and got Mosaddeq. He led a rather rag tag group of religious and nationalist parties called the National Front, and announced plans to nationalize Iran’s oil industry. This was part of a comprehensive plan to restructure Iran’s economy and end dependence on outside powers. The US had supported Iran’s refusal to go along with the AIOC at first, hoping to get more influence for American companies. But Mossadeq’s decision to nationalize went too far for the Americans.

The British were incensed and tried to take Iran to the International Court of Justice. But states can nationalize as long as they compensate, and Iran promised just compensation. The US and Great Britain launched a campaign against Mosaddeq, hyping him as a fanatic, a communist, someone who would be a tool of the Tudeh (Iran’s communist party). The US saw nationalization as socialist and contrary to our goal of maintaining control of the oil needed for the western economy.

The US and Great Britain organized a boycott of Iranian oil by major oil companies, cutting off oil revenues to the government. The boycott was effective. There were other economic actions taken against Iran as well, and soon Iran’s economy was in tatters. This led to unrest, and ultimately instability in the Mosaddeq government. The Tudeh increasingly argued that all this showed that ties to the West were unhelpful, and Iran should turn to the Soviet Union.

The Shah, the British, and the Americans decided that Mossadeq had to go. First they tried to influence the government with a mix of promises and inside deals to replace him. The Shah dismissed him in 1952 and installed Qavam as-Saltaneh. But public demonstrations and refusal of the Majles to accept the choice got Masaddeq restored. The Tudeh party gained in strength, and ultimately Mossadeq brought them in to government. Note: a few American historians cite Mossadeqs ties with the Tudeh as the reason for installing the Shah; Mossadeq was letting himself become aligned too closely with our Soviet enemies. BUT without the oil boycott and attempts to undermine Mossadeqs reforms, the Tudeh would have never reached that position.

Mossadeq was much more popular than the Shah, and tried to get the US to move away from the death grip on Irans economy, but the US continued to support the oil boycott. British intelligence worked with the CIA to plan a coup to oust Mosaddeq in 1953. Despite a few difficulties it ultimately worked, and the Shah, who would turn out to be a brutally repressive dictator, came to power with American and British support. Preference was for the Shah over democracy because he would support the US and Great Britain; democratic governments might give considerable power to Islamic and nationalist parties, as well as the Tudeh, after all.

Mossadeq remains a hero to many Iranians across the religious and political spectrum due to how he stood up to the West. But what if we had worked with him rather than against him? What if Iran’s democracy had been allowed to grow on its own, using its own oil revenues, rather than having our influence protected by a thuggish dictator whose rule ultimately collapsed? What if anti-western anger after 1953, especially amongst nationalist and Islamist groups, had not been kindled? If we had resisted the urge to intervene we would likely not be facing an Iran led by an Islamic fundamentalist government, with a nascent democracy more limited in the one in the early fifties.

In fact, throughout the Mideast the British and the French engaged in similar sort of actions, including a failed attempt to overthrow Nasser in Egypt and regain the Suez canal (ironically failing because the US decided to oppose such blatant neo-colonialism). For every Arab, Persian or other ethnic group from Afghanistan to Morocco, history is a clear line of domination. West of Persia (Iran), Ottoman Turk domination became replaced by western control and chaos. For Iran, early efforts to develop a national self-identity were thwarted by European interventions and influence. For everyone in that part of the world, any effort by the West to “help” is by definition suspect; autonomy and sovereignty is guarded.

There is a lesson to be learned here, but like so many lessons of history, it tends to get ignored. This lesson about the dangers of trying to control the politics of another state is especially important now, especially as we try to figure out what to do in Iraq. We can still get out of Iraq rather soon if we don’t try to control it too much, or push the government around. With Iran, we can recognize that their desire to appear totally free and sovereign, not having to answer to force from the West, is driven by a strong historic sense that their state has been subverted and abused by the West, especially with US support for the Shah. And, though there is considerable personal warmth for Americans in Iran, even those who oppose the current government do not want it to simply bow to western demands. We need to understand how deep that sense of past exploitation and control is; we’d feel similarly if the shoe was on the other foot.

If we were to bomb Iran, the population that currently likes the US and dislikes their regime would likely move to an almost universal anti-Americanism. This would make future partnerships and reform efforts in Iran harder than ever; Iranian dissident groups working inside Iran are also those most opposed an American strike. However we move forward, we need a strong sense of history.


Good news on Iran and Iraq?

The Bush Administration’s decision to send a top state department official to meet with a high level Iranian official is seen by many as signaling a change in American policy towards Iran. The fears of war, or at least America (or perhaps Israel) bombing Iranian suspected nuclear sites helped spike oil prices at near $150. Now, with both renewed fears of a US recession and a possible thaw in Iranian-American relations, oil is back down to “only” $130 a barrel. So what’s happening?

If you take Condoleezza Rice at her word, not much. If you read between the lines, however, a lot! Moreover, with people like former UN Ambassador and hawk John Bolton lamenting the “U-turn” in US policy, this could be a coup for Rice against the last vestiges of neo-conservative thought in the Bush Administration. Rice claims this isn’t a change but a “reaffirmation” of US policy. The US will not “negotiate,” but will respond to any changes in policy Iran takes. She notes the US has no permanent enemies, moving away from the talk about Iran as if it were the equivalent to Nazi Germany, with Ahmadinejad a modern Hitler.

The US probably will continue to insist Iran cease uranium enrichment before negotiating. But it’s clear this high level of a meeting isn’t simply to tell the Iranians “we’re sticking to our guns.” Rather, the US will likely lay out a scenario whereby Iran can gain real, tangible benefits from cooperating with the US on this, and what harm might befall the Iranian regime (probably financial rather than military) should they continue to pursue a path of isolation. This would be, in a sense, a promise to the Iranians that if they play ball, they will be rewarded. That sounds an awful lot like a negotiation, but the US will say “this has always been the policy.”

Secretary Rice deserves praise, especially if she managed to once again stymie neo-conservative plans to continue a militarist approach to the problems of the region. She no doubt had help. Secretary Gates is almost certainly a Rice ally, and the Pentagon, as noted yesterday, has no desire to see yet another war put on its plate. Moreover, Rice has been extremely effective at lining up pretty intense international pressure against Iran. I suspect there was a hidden message here: “if you pressure Iran with us now, it’ll make it more likely we can avoid war.” Perhaps unstated but understood “help me win this battle to get the President to choose diplomacy.”

This doesn’t mean this crisis still can’t explode. We don’t know what Israel’s plans are, or whether Israeli war games were part and parcel of this pressure. Israel recently released some top Hezbollah terrorists in exchange for the bodies of dead Israeli soldiers (why five live terrorists equals two corpses is beyond me), so they don’t seem to be looking for a fight either. Given how bellicose the US was on North Korea before finally giving in to the reality of the situation and making a deal, it would not be shocking to find a US deal on Iran before the election. That would also be a way to help John McCain by making it not seem that the Republicans are the party of ‘all war, all the time.’

If so, this continues the march of realism in American policy since 2006. The US moved from trying to defeat Sunni insurgents, to working with them. The US shed its ‘cowboy diplomacy’ in favor of trying to patch up relations with “old Europe.” The US made a deal on North Korea, and has reduced its efforts to control regional policies in the Mideast.

If the good news about Iran wasn’t enough, another milestone took place in Iraq today, as President Bush agreed with Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq on a ‘general time horizon’ for US troop withdrawal from Iraq.

The President has avoided a ‘timetable’ for one reason: the US has always thought that some presence in Iraq would persist for a long time. The idea was that once there was stability in Iraq, the Iraqis would agree to let the US stay — they’d need our help keeping the peace. However, the “Iraq SOFA fight” made it clear that Iraqi law makers were dubious of anything that would look like past colonialism. That and an unexpected intransigence on oil deals has signaled that the US thought of Iraq as a loyal ally needing US protection is not to be. Iraq wants us to leave, and one reason is that Iran and even radicals like al-Sadr still have a lot of influence on Iraqi policy. The US can hardly reject al-Maliki’s suggestion, nor can the US try to demonize hi the way they did is predecessor. Our influence on Iraqi politics is limited.

Again, calling it a ‘time horizon’ rather than a ‘time table,’ and insisting that there will be conditions rather than arbitrary dates is a way to save face — act as if this isn’t a major change. But the reality is that Iraqi wants the US to start planning our departure, and the US realizes that it doesn’t have the power over Iraq to say no, nor will the public at home permit it. Finally, it’s also clear that the only way to lower oil prices and limit the damage to the US economy before the election is to create the perception that the Mideast is not about to be engulfed by war, and there is no danger of Iran closing the straight of Hormuz or some other consequence of hostilities. If people think politics in that region is becoming more predictable and stable, oil prices will drop.

It’s dangerous to read too much into these positive developments. There is more uncertainty than clarity, and we don’t know how the Iranians, Israelis and others will react. But today there are least hints that perhaps the US is getting closer to extricating itself from Iraq, and moving away from crisis with Iran. If President Bush can actually make those things happen before he leaves office, then he will be doing a great favor for whoever becomes the next President.


Creeping Militarization

When President Bush named Robert Gates Secretary of Defense to replace Donald Rumsfeld, I was pleased. Gates had been one of the most influential members of the Iraq Study Group, and had served in the past for President Bush’s father. He had strong credentials as a realist and a multi-lateralist, the perfect man to bring some sanity to a foreign policy defined by neo-conservative militarism.

On Tuesday Secretary Gates warned of a ‘creeping militarization’ of American foreign policy, based on the large role the US military now plays in trying to rebuild countries like Iraq. Gates cited Afghanistan as an example of failure; the US has been unable to coordinate things such as road building and reconstruction with military security. The result is that US foreign policy seems focused less on traditional diplomacy and more on the military undertaking roles it isn’t designed for. And, while some might wonder why the Secretary of Defense would make this kind of criticism of the Administration, it’s actually unsurprising.

The Pentagon is probably unhappy with American foreign policy in recent years. They have been asked not only to fight and win wars (they’ve won two since 2001), but then to try to win the peace, doing things that they are not trained to do. In Iraq, they had to stick around and support reconstruction, even as the instability unleashed by the invasion pushed Iraq slowly and surely into all out civil war in 2006. A “surge” of troops has helped create some modicum of stability — though that was bought largely by shifting the policy from trying to defeat Sunni militants to coopting them and redefining the enemy as just al qaeda. This wasn’t done before 2007 because the price was seen as too high — this allows Sunni militia to remain armed, and Sunni regions outside central government control. But by 2007 with American support for the war plummeting and Iraq increasingly out of control, the price was suddenly worth paying.

In Afghanistan the military was kept again to help reconstruction, but with attention shifted to Iraq they were left undermanned and unable to do much while the Taliban regrouped. Washington thought that NATO’s control of the mission would be enough to offset the loss of US forces heading to Iraq, but that was based on two false premises. First, it was thought that Iraq would be quick, and most of the forces used to defeat Saddam could leave Iraq within a year. Second, the Taliban and al qaeda were considered defeated, and it was believed the Pakistanis would handle them should they try to cross the border. Both assumptions were proven false. On top of that, the NATO allies, wary of the US war in Iraq, chose not to agree to dangerous Afghan missions. The governments may have been willing, but the European public did not want to be part of that conflict, especially not in terms of actively military involvement.

The result is that the military has had to send people to Iraq for three or four tours of duty, and has been too overstretched to do much about Afghanistan. This has devastated military families, lead to a sharp increase in mental illness, suicide and divorce amongst active military, and hurt recruitment. Most frustrating is that it hasn’t seemed to accomplish much. The military knows that Iraq’s gains are tenuous and mostly illusionary. Iran still has massive influence on the government and the militias, the central government doesn’t control much outside of Baghdad, and it looks like Sunni and Kurdish areas are going to remain rather autonomous. With the Taliban and al qaeda on the rise — and talk now of an Afghan surge — the military continues to be used in missions that are beyond what the military supposedly is there for — protection of the United States and US interests. Increasingly it’s used as a social engineering tool, and military power is a very poor tool to try to engineer other societies and nation build.

So Gates was giving a military assessment of the problem. Militarization of American foreign policy is bad not because the military is bad, but because it is an ineffective use of the military. If you want to build, construct and help societies develop, you need a massive influx of civilians able to work cooperatively with the people living there, convincing them of our good will. When Iraqi and Afghan civilians suffering at check points and bombing raids, good will dissipates rapidly.

But, of course, without security the civilians don’t want to go to very dangerous places. They did not sign up to go into extreme danger, they rationally don’t want to risk having their family lose a parent or move the whole family to a place of intense violence. Moreover, they often have options outside of government, and cannot be forced to serve in the same way people in the military can. Is there a solution conundrum?

Yes. The government has to learn that it is misusing, even abusing, the military. The military is there primarily for defense, not offense. We’ve being trying to spread influence and shape other parts of the world, areas very different than our own. Often, our leaders haven’t understood the cultural context they’ve gotten involved in, and base their ideas on ideology — all want to be free, so therefore all will embrace a pro-western democracy if given the chance. That ideology has failed.

The only way to shift to an effective foreign policy not defined by militarism and not sapping the military of its strength is to move back towards use of military power only in extreme circumstances, when there is an act of aggression directly against the US, and only in a way proportionate to that act. The US must give up efforts to think our power can reshape the nature of politics in places like the Mideast; the neo-conservative dream of power being used to spread democracy was a delusion, driven by ideology not reality. Thus the military should be used only to defeat direct enemies, with care given to put as few civilians as possible in danger. We should return to a time when a soldier is unlikely to see duty in a combat zone, even if he or she serves for two decades.

Since Desert Storm in 1991 the list of wars the US has been involved in is long. Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and since 2003, Iraq again. We seem to constantly be involved in a war, and when it ends there hasn’t been peace. NATO is still needed in Bosnia, Kosovo is still tense, Afghanistan and Iraq unresolved. The lesson is clear: the move to thinking that ‘what good is a big army unless you use it’ (Madeline Albright) was dangerous, wrong headed and has harmed our country and killed countless civilians. It also represents an abuse of the men, women and families of American military personnel by political leaders who should be dedicated to use them only as a means of last resort. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton will rest easy, coming up with ways to rationalize their policies. Many men and women will be tortured by PTSD and other long term consequences of being in war, and they will by and large be ignored and forgotten by society.

In other words, this creeping militarization has to stop, and it can only stop if we make a fundamental move away from seeing the military as a tool to use often, and in ways far beyond the purpose for which it was designed. Otherwise, the US may be on a path of self-destruction.


Jews, Christians and Muslims

This is part 6 in the series “Islam and the West.” Click the link under pages or at the top of the page to read what the purpose of this series is. Only about one blog entry a week is dedicated to this series. There are links to the first five parts of the series at the end of this post.

The children of Abraham are bickering. Jews, Christians and Muslims all claim their religious heritage dating back to Abraham (Ibrahim). All see Adam as the first man, though more secular folk usually look at that as a kind of symbolic story, accepting now the theory of evolution. Yet, despite this commonality, the differences now seem far more important than the similarities. Does that have to be?

From the Jewish perspective, God has made a covenant with the people of Israel. It is a kind of stormy love relationship, where the Israelis need their God, and their God loves his people. The stormy part is that the people often suffer, and stray from the law of their God. Yet God does not let go, and despite centuries of hardship, neither do the Jewish people. The book of Job is illustrative. It is a powerful story with rich, beautiful poetry. God is challenged by Satan (often called just ‘the accuser’) to prove that Job really is a good and devout man. After all, God has blessed Job. Surely, the accuser says, if God took away Job’s belongings, Job would curse him. God takes on this challenge and suddenly Job loses everything, and over time his suffering grows as the accuser convinces God to hit Job harder.

Job’s friends try to console him, and urge him to admit his sins, since God must be punishing him with just cause. Job is convinced his suffering is undeserved, and wishes to make his case to God. In a series of speeches Job debates his friends about God and his nature. Finally God intercedes and chastises Job’s friends for their arrogance, and Job for thinking God should have to answer to him. God is the King of the World, and owes no explanation for how he uses his sovereign power. Job is restored, his wealth doubled. Yet within Job’s character, his inability to just let go of God and curse him, one finds the kernel of that relationship between the people of Israel and their God. Despite suffering and hardship, they are in it together. They are not to question God’s motives or authority. This cements their commitment to tradition and community; their identity has been tested through the ages and yet has persisted. There is no similar case in human history of a traditional tribal God lasting into the modern era, except perhaps for some of the Hindu Gods. Throughout the ancient era empires like that of Babylonia, Alexander, and later Rome, destroyed the religions of tribes living alongside the Jews. The Axial age, as noted in ‘Faith, Philosophy and the Modern Age,” led to a birth of new religions. The Jews have a special history, and they know it.

These ‘people of Israel’, as noted above, trace their heritage back to Abraham. God promises Abraham that because of his worthiness, he will be the father of a great nation. Yet his wife Sarah is too old to have children, and Abraham therefore has a child with Hagar, his wife’s handmaiden, who is named Ishmael. God, however, can work miracles and Sarah later gives birth to Isaac. Afraid that Hagar’s son will lay claim to Abraham’s heritage, Sarah convinces Hagar to take Ishmael and leave. Both Jews and Muslims believe that Ishmael becomes the father of the Arab people, thus tracing the Arab heritage back to Abraham.

Isaac is seen by both Jews and Christians as the true founder of God’s people. In large part this is because Abraham was ordered to kill Isaac in sacrifice, and was prepared to do so, until the angel Gabriel interceded and told him to stop. Abraham had proven his faith, and thus worthy of a covenant with God to assure that a great nation. Also, God does promise that Sarah would be the mother of Abraham’s progeny, and that was fulfilled with Isaac. Yet Sarah’s harshness with Hagar and Ishmael also led God to promise a great progeny for Ishmael, thus meaning that two great peoples, the Jews and the Arabs, would come from Abraham’s seed.

For Muhammad, the era of darkness was one where the Arabs lost site of the fact they were part of God’s covenant with Abraham. That after awhile, the customs were forgotten and the Arabs lost their connection with God. The result was ritual and tradition, sometimes brutal, with a lack of a spiritual core. The Kaaba in Mecca were supposedly built by Abraham/Ibrahim and Ishmael, based on an original building by Adam. It would become, as noted in part four of this series, a polytheistic shrine servicing the commercial needs of the Quraysh in Mecca.

Muhammad hoped his message would unite the Arab people, give them a spiritual center, and lead to dramatic reform of backwards and inhumane customs. He thought the Jews and Christians would buy into this too — after all Jesus (Isu) is a great prophet for Islam, and in fact the one who will come at the end of times to convert the world to Islam. (One can imagine the scene if the Christian fundamentalist faithful come to great Jesus as he returns to earth, only to hear him say, “by the way, I’m a Muslim.”) Jesus/Isu was born to a virgin in the Islamic tradition as well. He simply wasn’t the ‘son of God’ because God cannot have human attributes, and certainly cannot procreate. That would lead to polytheism, and to Muslims the Christian trinity is a rationalized tri-theism.

Islam spread quickly through the Arab world. Early Islam spread in part because Muhammad’s successor, Abu Bakr, would have to put down rival imitations of Muhammad across Arabia. Clearly Muhammad had tapped into a cultural and social need of the Arab people, so quickly did his ideas spread and become imitated. But the quick spread of Islam through force assured that it would be seen as an Arab faith, not one to be embraced by others. Even during Muhammad’s time he realized the Jews would not convert, and while he demanded toleration and good treatment of Christians and Jews (Muhammad counted many as his friends), he changed the direction Muslims should face at prayer time from Jerusalem to Mecca. He realized his teachings would not be embraced by the other ‘children of Abraham.’

It seems a shame that these three faiths, with so much in common, find themselves at odds. Judaism and Islam are praxis-oriented faiths, meaning community, ritual and tradition are important. Thus it’s important for Jews to have their homeland, a place where they can form a true community, something they lacked for almost two millenia. Muslims also find it hard to migrate to non-Muslim countries, as the communal and praxis oriented nature of the religion does not function well when Muslims are in isolation. Christians are a more faith-oriented people (remember the spiritualism of Augustine), meaning they can worship in small communities, and see it as important to win new converts. Such action is akin to an act of violence when used against praxis oriented religions like Judaism and Islam.

As the series continues, the impact of these differences will be explored, especially between Christianity and Islam, as Christianity came to define the cultural traditions of the West, even the secularized “new West” we now encounter. However, at base these religions share a lot, and that should at least give hope to the possibility that peace and even friendship is possible. After all, none of these faiths is going to disappear any time soon.

Other entries in this series:

Part One: Rome and Paul (May 31st)
Part Two: Plotinus and Augustine (June 6)
Part Three: Just and Unjust Wars (June 15)
Part Four: Muhammad and Arabia (June 22)
Part Five: Muhammad and Jihad (June 30)