Archive for August, 2013

Patience on Syria

“We don’t want the world to be paralyzed.  And frankly, part of the challenge that we end up with here is a lot of people think something should be done and nobody wants to do it. And that’s not an unusual situation, and that’s part of what allows over time the erosion of these kinds of international prohibitions unless somebody says, ‘No.’”
– President Barack Obama, August 30, 2013

“This kind of attack threatens our national security interests, further threatening friends and allies like Israel and Turkey and Jordan, and it increases the risk that chemical weapons will be used in the future. … I have said before, and I meant what I said, the world has an obligation to make sure that we maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons.” – Secretary of State John Kerry

The world watches and wonders what the United States will do about Syria.   Many people are critics in advance.  Two groups have arguments we know well.   The anti-war left considers military action to be wrong headed.  It will hurt civilians more than it will stop the Syrian government, it again risks US moral authority, and is likely to do more harm than good.   Some see the US as simply doing Israel’s bidding.

On the right, the critics are all over the place.  Obama is doing too much, Obama isn’t doing enough, what Obama plans to do reflects incompetence (though I’m not sure how they know what he plans to do) and all this is Obama’s fault anyway.   These are the same people who were indignant about “blaming America” for global problems when a Republican is President, but with Obama, well, all the world’s problems can be laid at his feet.

So what should be done about Syria?   President Obama and Secretary Kerry are both correct in their statements.   Yet this does not mean that the US should take military action.   Indeed, one could argue that if the US acts unilaterally or with few willing participants, as was the case in Iraq, this would undermine the effort to create international action to support important norms like the prohibition on the use of WMD.   If the US fails, then Syria has shown the US (and UN) are impotent.  If the US succeeds then the rest of the world figures the US will handle everything, so why bother?

There is also concern that the UK’s desire NOT to participate makes it even harder for the US to act – and criticism of Obama for not being able to get Cameron on board.  The reality is quite different; Cameron is facing hostile public opinion from a country that still thinks it was duped into supporting the US in Iraq and doesn’t want to get fooled again.    Moreover, China and Russia, also angry about past US unilateralism, wants to make sure they give no “blank check” like they were fooled into giving on Libya.

President Obama is in a tough position.   This may be a case when WMD was clearly used (unlike Iraq) but the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have weakened both the US strategic position and moral authority to a point that the US is no longer a unipolar power, and no longer able to inspire fear or respect.  That’s been true since 2003, when American policy makers were shocked that the French, Germans and Russians would conspire against the US to embarrass the Bush Administration in the UN.    Obama has regained some of what was lost, but with public opinion world wide against intervention, there is no reason for other countries to join us.

Right now President Obama should recognize that unilateralism is a no-win situation.   He should reject military action against Syria if he doesn’t get Congressional and international support.   He should reject the kind of thinking that has defined US Presidents and foreign policy for most of the Cold War and beyond.   He needs to act in a way that recognizes the way the world has changed since the 20th Century.   Does that mean Assad will “get away” with murder?   Yes.   But Saddam used chemical weapons in the 80s and the US blocked UN action against Iraq.   That doesn’t mean its a good thing, but its also not as damaging to the US as Secretary Kerry suggests.

If the US does nothing and chemical attacks continue, pressure will be on the international community, not the US alone to find a way to act to support international law and strongly held norms against WMD.   I’m not sure what Obama is thinking.  You can’t believe leaks to the press or reports – that is as likely disinformation as information.

But now is the time for the President to continue the US policy shift from “our way or no way” to leadership in forging an international community willing to act together.   That will require patience.


Trapped Intellects


One of the main problems in the world now, especially the industrialized West, is our reliance on isolated intellectualism.  Our intellects are trapped in a world that appears chaotic, dangerous, and unpredictable.   The world moves only from past to future, with no way to predict for certain what will come next.    We can imagine horrible consequences of global warming, genetically altered food, Islamic extremism, and economic collapse.  The world appears on the brink of something disastrous.

Some people grab that with relish.  You know the type – they forecast ‘collapse, downfall, ‘endarkenment’ and other calamitous futures.  Sometimes they imagine themselves to be like Cassandra, seeing clearly the future that others miss.  More often it’s simply a kind of voyeuristic rush – it’s exciting to imagine disaster.   Think of all the disaster movies that have hit the big screen since Irwin Allen’s “Poseidon Adventure” proved such a hit in 1972.

Others find ideological or religious faith – their “ism” tells them the truth of the world, and they divide the world up into those who are right (share their belief) and those who are wrong, often believing the wrong folk to be inferior humans.   In other words, ideologues are like religious extremists – they need to think they have the truth, and they are psychologically driven to see others as wrong or inferior.

I think all of these taken to an extreme reflect a trapped or imbalanced mind.   Isolating the mind from intuition, emotion, and spirit leads to a cold, harsh view of reality.   Idealists can quickly become disillusioned cynics if they don’t temper their ideals with pragmatism, and a recognition that the intellect, logic and reason cannot explain all of human experience.

If the intellect meshes with emotion – with intuition, faith, and spirit – there can be a very satisfying balance.     Consider the following propositions:

1.   Our world had a beginning.   Due to the nature of space-time, it is inconceivable that we could be in the present if there were an infinite past.   The laws of physics, however, indicate that you cannot create something from nothing, meaning our universe could not have been created.   (One caveat – in quantum mechanics its possible to ‘borrow’ energy from the universe to create something apparently from nothing.   However, in quantum physics  the universe is permeated with ‘probable energy.’   So it’s not really something from nothing.)


2.   The laws of physics governing this particular universe were created at the time our universe was.   If according to the laws of physics our world could not have been created, but if it must have had a creation point (not convinced – here’s an article from this month’s Discover on this), then the laws of physics were also created.    To be sure, there is likely a larger set of “laws” of the universe that we cannot comprehend that go beyond our space/time physics.   Yet clearly something about reality outside our universe (that is, outside our realm of space-time, created about 15 billion years ago) that does not have to conform to what we consider the “laws of nature.”

3.  Spiritualism is not supernatural, but a different theory about the laws of nature.   This is in line with especially Buddhist thought (though I am not a Buddhist).   The argument here is that the usual claims by religion that something “outside the world” – a God or series of Gods – created and maintains our reality are misguided.  Rather, our reality may have its origins (and perhaps is maintained) by something that does not conform the the known laws of our physical universe, but reflects a deeper reality.

I submit that this proposition is very strongly supported by quantum mechanics.  While the mechanistic building block view of reality put forth in Newtonian physics has already been destroyed, the philosophical implications of this move are still under hefty debate.  Yet quantum mechanics, full of paradoxes and weirdness, suggests that the true laws of nature are far more complex and strange than the Newtonian notions we entertain.

Some who want to hold on to a very clear and straightforward mechanistic view of the world insist that quantum mechanics must be wrong at some level because the paradoxes often lead to clear contradiction.   They claim that the law of contradiction indicates that the claims of quantum physics can’t be true – two contradictory things cannot both be right.  However, it could be that we see the claims as contradictory because we do not understand reality.    The contradictions may be linguistic constructions.

4.   The key to liberating ones’ intellect is not to fear the spiritual/intuitive side of life, even if the nature of reality, as we now understand it, prevents us from ever being sure if a belief is right.   Freedom requires an embrace of uncertainty, and a recognition that there isn’t an answer card to tell us exactly what this life is about.   That means rejecting dogmatism and accepting that there are multiple perspectives about the world, and we learn more by exploring each, rather than grabbing and holding on to one, and trying to prove the others wrong.


Ironically, by rejecting intuition, emotion, sentiment and spirituality, we cage the intellect into a cold mechanistic world devoid of meaning.  That breeds cynicism and undermines empathy.   By freeing the intellect we give up on the hope to have “the right answer” and replace it with gaining insight and understanding.   After all, if uncertainty is unavoidable, then we can freely and with a spirit of joy make our best calls about life, recognizing its OK to be wrong!

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Don’t Panic Over Egypt

Back in 2011 the Arab world started a process of change that was long overdue, and hindered by the way the US and oil rich Arab states had helped keep in place obsolete political structures that embraced authoritarianism, nepotism, corruption, and brutality.   While some cynically defended such support as being “in our interests” – Mubarak may be a son of a bitch, but he’s friendly to us – that is an incredibly short sighted and naive world view.

There is no way the Arab world of the late 20th Century could be reproduced well into the 21st Century.   Globalization, changing world dynamics, and the information revolution meant that anachronistic regimes had to perish.  To persist they’d have to engage in increasingly brutal measures, such as those being undertaken by Assad in Syria.   The world is changing, including the Mideast.

Yet others took an equally naive view in thinking change would be easy.    To expect a country that has been ruled by authoritarian means for decades, built on centuries of the brutal Ottoman dictatorship, to change to a modern democracy in a short period of time would be a pipe dream.   The world doesn’t work that way.

The option was never democracy or dictatorship, it was an increasingly brutal dictatorship vs. a slow difficult decades long process of modernization and change.    Consider how long it took the US to build a democracy of the kind we expect others to leap to overnight.   We had slavery for 80 years, women couldn’t vote for 120.   We only changed as fast as our culture changed, we didn’t have 1813 America being pressured to create institutions acceptable to 2013 America!

That said, it won’t take that long for the Arab world to change.   Globalization is forcing an increased pace of change, within a generation or two I expect a modernized yet still Islamic and culturally unique Mideast.   Yet that means there is likely to be 20 to 40 years of continued flux, perhaps with terrorism, extremism, and conflict.

That’s how the world changes.   As much as I prefer peace, would love it if we’d all just understand each others’ perspectives and empathize, power is a corrupting drug.     Power is to the political system what cocaine is to an individual’s system.  It creates a belief in ones’ invincibility and a willingness to take absurd chances and not recognize ones’ own limitations.

Assad and his cadre in Syria are playing that game, unable to comprehend that the power they enjoy can dissipate in a moment.  Mubarak learned that lesson, and though he may be under House arrest rather than in prison, it’s unlikely that the process of change will go backwards.

So for all those whiny pundits who think that somehow problems in Egypt are the fault of America (or in the case of manythe right, all the world’s problems can be laid at Obama’s feet), it’s time to relax.   The dynamic underway in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world is in its early stages.   We can’t and shouldn’t yearn for a return to anachronistic dictatorial thugs.  We shouldn’t pick sides or choose enemies, but instead put forth principles we’ll support.

Fifty years ago Martin Luther King gave his historic “I have a Dream” speech, an event being celebrated this weekend.  Let’s not just keep that dream as a unique part of the American past, but find a way to communicate the principles involved into foreign policy.  With globalization, it’s no longer a Realpolitik world of myopic self interest without regards to morality and principle.   Principles matter, and its our principles, not our guns, that will provide positive influence on others.