Global warming

It is undoubtedly true that, while the increasing level of warfare in the Middle East in the immediate issue of concern, the question of global warning is the preeminent long term issue facing the planet today. It represents one of the rare situations when the health of the entire planet is at stake. The only other thing that has similar global consequences is an all-out nuclear war between major nuclear powers since that could also unleash an atmospheric catastrophe that could destroy the planet.

But while we can avoid a nuclear winter by simply doing nothing, i.e. not using the weapons, global warming is an issue where doing nothing is the problem. A strong case has been made that if we continue on the present course, the planet is going to suffer irrevocable harm, changing its climate and weather patterns in ways that will dramatically affect our lives, if not actually destroy them.

One would think that global warming is one scientific question where politics would play a minor role, and where the debate would be based on purely scientific evidence and judgments. Unlike issues like stem cell research and cloning where the scientific questions have to contend with religion-based arguments, as near as I can tell the Bible, Koran, and other religious texts are pretty much agnostic (so to speak) on the issue of whether global warming is something that god has strong views on. While god has a lot to say about things like the proper ways to sacrifice animals or how sinners should be put to death, he seems to not be concerned about the weather, expect for using it as a tactical weapon, like unleashing the occasional deluge to drown everyone but Noah and his family or creating a storm to chastise his prophet Jonah.

Hence it is surprising that some people (including the Bush administration) perceive the case being made that global warming is a serious problem as some kind of ‘liberal’ plot, tarring the proponents of the idea that global warming is real and serious as political enemies, seeking to somehow destroy truth, justice, and the American way. Glenn Greenwald argues that this is the standard mode of operation of the Bush administration, saying “What excites, enlivens, and drives Bush followers is the identification of the Enemy followed by swarming, rabid attacks on it.”

Once that bugle call of politics sounded, Bush devotees dutifully fell into line. They know the script and exactly what they must do and have rallied to the cause, trying to discredit the scientific case and the scientists behind it, arguing that the whole global warming thing is a fabricated crisis, with nothing more to be worried about than if we were encountering just a warm summer’s day. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) says “With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it.” And this man is the Chair of the Senate’s Committee on 
Environment and Public Works.

The administration and its supporters have gone to surprisingly extreme methods to suppress alarms about climate change, such as changing the wording of reports by government scientists in order to play down the threat of global warming and muzzling government climate experts, in order to prevent information from getting to the public.

Take another example in which the administration has sought to divert government’s scientist’s focus from global warming:

From 2002 until this year, NASA’s mission statement, prominently featured in its budget and planning documents, read: “To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers. . .as only NASA can.”

In early February, the statement was quietly altered, with the phrase “to understand and protect our home planet” deleted. In this year’s budget and planning documents, the agency’s mission is “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”

David E. Steitz, a spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said the aim was to square the statement with President Bush’s goal of pursuing human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars.

But the change comes as an unwelcome surprise to many NASA scientists, who say the “understand and protect” phrase was not merely window dressing but actively influenced the shaping and execution of research priorities. Without it, these scientists say, there will be far less incentive to pursue projects to improve understanding of terrestrial problems like climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

“We refer to the mission statement in all our research proposals that go out for peer review, whenever we have strategy meetings,” said Philip B. Russell, a 25-year NASA veteran who is an atmospheric chemist at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. “As civil servants, we’re paid to carry out NASA’s mission. When there was that very easy-to-understand statement that our job is to protect the planet, that made it much easier to justify this kind of work.”

Several NASA researchers said they were upset that the change was made at NASA headquarters without consulting the agency’s 19,000 employees or informing them ahead of time.
. . .
The “understand and protect” phrase was cited repeatedly by James E. Hansen, a climate scientist at NASA who said publicly last winter that he was being threatened by political appointees for speaking out about the dangers posed by greenhouse gas emissions.

The attempts to downplay the extent of the problem, divert attention away from actions to study and remedy it, and distort the science behind the global warming issue has been helped by the fact that although the consensus conclusions of the scientific community are pretty straightforward (that global warming is occurring, it is largely caused by human activity, and that we need to take steps to reverse it or face disastrous consequences), the actual science behind it is complicated. This enables those who wish to blur the issue to find ways to cast doubt on that scientific consensus.

Next: Understanding the problem

Killing Lebanon

I had thought of moving on to other topics this week, away from the depressing news of the violence in the Middle East to the other depressing (but at least science-related) topic of global warming. But I simply could not ignore the news over the weekend about the destruction of Lebanon and its capital Beirut and have postponed global warming until tomorrow.

Lebanon is a country that was rebuilding itself after many, many years of civil war that killed over 150,000 people. What we see now is that the Israeli barrage of that country is destroying everything that was so painstakingly created. Veteran British journalist Robert Fisk who has made Lebanon his home and seen it go through good times and bad, walked through the now-deserted streets of this once-vibrant city that had been built from the ashes.

And now it is being un-built. The Martyr Rafiq Hariri International Airport has been attacked three times by the Israelis, its glistening halls and shopping malls vibrating to the missiles that thunder into the runways and fuel depots. Hariri’s wonderful transnational highway viaduct has been broken by Israeli bombers. Most of his motorway bridges have been destroyed. The Roman-style lighthouse has been smashed by a missile from an Apache helicopter. Only this small jewel of a restaurant in the centre of Beirut has been spared. So far.

It is the slums of Haret Hreik and Ghobeiri and Shiyah that have been levelled and “rubble-ised” and pounded to dust, sending a quarter of a million Shia Muslims to seek sanctuary in schools and abandoned parks across the city. Here, indeed, was the headquarters of Hizbollah, another of those “centres of world terror” which the West keeps discovering in Muslim lands. Here lived Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Party of God’s leader, a ruthless, caustic, calculating man; and Sayad Mohamed Fadlallah, among the wisest and most eloquent of clerics; and many of Hizbollah’s top military planners – including, no doubt, the men who planned over many months the capture of the two Israeli soldiers last Wednesday.

But did the tens of thousands of poor who live here deserve this act of mass punishment? For a country that boasts of its pin-point accuracy – a doubtful notion in any case, but that’s not the issue – what does this act of destruction tell us about Israel? Or about ourselves?

Alan Dershowitz, Harvard law professor, fresh from his earlier attempts to provide mechanisms to justify torture, now turns his talents to justify the killing of Lebanese civilians, arguing that many of those “tens of thousands of poor” did in fact deserve this punishment. Following his usual methods, Dershowitz carefully fine-tunes and calibrates his definitions and arguments so as to exonerate the actions of the US and Israel against others, while similar actions taken against the people of the US and Israel are treated as horrendous crimes. Dershowitz always provides fine examples of how to start with a desired conclusion and work back to the required premises, showing that there is no proposition, however execrable, that some people will not attempt to rationalize.

The BBC website has pictures of Beirut after the shelling began. These pictures are shocking in showing the level of destruction, but are not gruesome. Other sites (which I will not link to) are showing pictures of dead and mutilated bodies, many of them children, that are appalling and stomach churning, and these pictures are being seen all over the world. For those who are consoling themselves that what is happening is “precision bombing” that is not targeting civilians, it has to be realized that there can be no such thing in densely populated, highly built up areas. When you hit a high rise building in a city, you are targeting everything and everyone around it as well.

According to the BBC again, “The UN’s Jan Egeland has condemned the devastation caused by Israeli air strikes in Beirut, saying it is a violation of humanitarian law. Mr Egeland, the UN’s emergency relief chief, described the destruction as “horrific” as he toured the city.” The scale of the destruction of Lebanon has even caused “Bush’s poodle” Tony Blair’s government to break with the US. The British Foreign Office minister Kim Howell on a visit to Lebanon said “The destruction of the infrastructure, the death of so many children and so many people: these have not been surgical strikes. If they are chasing Hizbollah, then go for Hizbollah. You don’t go for the entire Lebanese nation.”

Meanwhile, the Bush government is “rushing” a delivery of more missiles to Israel, which requested them after the bombing of Lebanon began, suggesting that even more of Lebanon is going to be devastated. The administration seems to see no irony in doing this while at the same time alleging that Syria and Iran are supplying Hamas and Hezbollah forces and condemning that support.

When this action is coupled with the US not calling for an immediate ceasefire and Condoleeza Rice’s lack of urgency in trying to find a solution or ceasefire, the rest of the world will simply take this as a sign that the US is doing Israel’s bidding, giving Israel all the time to wants to pummel Lebanon.

Glenn Greenwald argues that all these are signs that the neoconservative stranglehold on American foreign policy is not only complete, but it has lost all semblance of restraint, supporting reckless policies and cheering on further destruction and death with an abandon that should send chills down every person’s spine.

Apparently, it isn’t enough that the U.S. has been defending without reservation the wisdom of the Israeli bombing campaign in Lebanon. Nor is it enough that we have been unilaterally blocking a cease-fire and other diplomatic solutions. Nor is it enough that the American taxpayer pays for enormous amounts of Israel’s military equipment — from the planes flying over Lebanon to the tanks entering it. Now we are handing Israel the very bombs that they drop in order to flatten more and more of Lebanon, on a bomb-by-bomb basis.
. . .
The terms they [i.e., neoconservatives] are using to describe their grand war visions are “annihilation” and “cleaning out.” They have had enough with restraint and limited strikes and a war that has been depressingly and weakly confined just to Iraq and Afghanistan. They want full-scale, unrestrained Middle Eastern war — they always have — and they see this as their big chance to have it.

And the more one reads and listens to neoconservatives in their full-throated war calls, the more disturbing and repellent these ideas become. So many of them seem to be driven not even any longer by a pretense of a strategic goal, but by a naked, bloodthirsty craving for destruction and killing itself, almost as the end in itself. They urge massive military attacks on Lebanon, Syria, Iran — and before that, Iraq — knowing that it will kill huge numbers of innocent people, but never knowing, or seemingly caring, what comes after that. And the disregard for the lives of innocent people in those countries is so cavalier and even scornful that it is truly unfathomable, at times just plain disgusting. From a safe distance, they continuously call for — and casually dismiss the importance of — the deaths of enormous numbers of people without batting an eye. And for what?

What is Lebanon going to look like — let alone Syria and Iran — once we decimate large parts of their infrastructure, kill, maim and render homeless thousands upon thousands of their citizens, and bring down their governments? Who cares. Let’s just stop whining and appeasing and get on with the action.
. . .
One can easily lose sight of how bizarre it is that we now so frequently debate whether we should attack countries who have not attacked us nor pose any real threat to attack us. As was true for the “debates” over whether we should use torture (or even “debates” over whether the President can break the law), when something is advocated openly and frequently enough, even the most reprehensible and previously insane ideas can become acceptable and mainstream. We have become a country that now casually and without much trauma debates which countries we should preemptively invade next.

Veteran Israeli peace activist and former Knesset member Uri Avnery argues that if the goal of punishment the entire nation of Lebanon is to weaken support for Hezbollah, then Israel has gravely miscalculated, which agrees with what I wrote last week.

Further support for this view comes from a CNN interview with the Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. The interviewer Nic Robertson kept pressing the prime minister to condemn Hezbollah and distance himself from them, and even suggested that he should order the Lebanese army to move against them. But Lahoud was having none of it and said that the Israeli invasion of his country is only going to unite the people of Lebanon. Here are some excerpts of the interview:

LAHOUD: Well, if you knew the interior politics of Lebanon, you will understand that in 2000 Hezbollah was the main liberator of our land. And at the time, the Lebanese army was and still is with what is happening on the frontier. Because, you see, what was happening was Israel with airplanes. . . but having the resistance, they think twice. And because of that there is no animosity between the army and the resistance [i.e., Hezbollah]. . . The resistance are Lebanese.
. . .
So our thanks comes when we are united, and we are really united, and the national army is doing its work according to the government, and the resistance is respected in the whole Arab world from the population point of view. And very highly respected in Lebanon as well.
. . .
Believe me, Hezbollah has done a lot for Lebanon in liberating this land. . . Hezbollah is part of the government.
. . .
ROBERTSON: Not everyone supports Hezbollah, and there are divisions in this community. And this country fought a 15-year civil war over those divisions. Those divisions are re-emerging below the surface of support of the attacks that are going on. Those figures could realistically grow bigger.

LAHOUD: Yes, but we’re not going to let them. Because the Lebanese have learned the lesson. Because when they fight between themselves it’s much worse than having someone come from outside. Because we’ve seen what happened in ’75 because we paid a very high price. Now, being united, whatever Israel can do we stay strong, because this makes the morale of the Lebanese stronger when they are united and no one can beat them.
. . .
But children are being killed, massacred. And we don’t see these pictures of these children in the international media because of political reasons. If you see them, well you can’t wait to talk about it and wait for these children and women with nowhere to go and live under bombs and shells. They just live outside. They don’t have a shelter. We can’t wait for the talks to go on. Meanwhile the aircrafts are bombing whatever they want in Lebanon. It never happened. . . I don’t see anything in history that has happened like what is happening now. Airplanes are hitting civilians all over the country and [there is no] retaliation on these airplanes because they are civilians.
. . .
Believe me, violence brings violence, and it will be a cycle that no one will be able to get out of and everybody will lose. If Israel thinks it’s going to win, it’s very mistaken. You cannot solve things and have peace in the region with violence. It might be now they have all this weaponry. But what about the children and the people who have brothers and sisters now dying? Well, they’re pushing them to, really, well, they don’t have anything to lose. For them, their life is nothing, so whatever will do to them. In the future they will seek revenge. So the only way [is] to stop the firing right now for the good of everybody.
. . .
ROBERTSON: How do you get the cease-fire? The Israelis want their soldiers back.

LAHOUD: There were three in Lebanon that have been in prison since 30 years. And there were many, and there was an exchange. So why now, suddenly, after taking two soldiers they have done such a retaliation? Because I believe all was planned from before and, unfortunately, they were waiting for the moment. And when the moment came and these two soldiers were taken, they had the plan of attack. It’s not for the reason that the soldiers were taken, it’s for other reasons. Because since 2000 they have wanted to take their revenge because they had to leave Lebanon.
. . .
Because they have a previous plan and they are executing that plan in that way thinking they will do what they did in ’82. But things have changed since ’82.

ROBERTSON: How?

LAHOUD: Because it’s not like ’82 that they can come in Lebanon and make a promenade until they reach Beirut. These people, underground Lebanese, are ready to die for their land.

ROBERTSON: Hezbollah?

LAHOUD: Not only Hezbollah, many people are ready to die for their land. Wouldn’t you do that if they go inside your country? You’d do the same. And the Lebanese army as well. We’re not going to let anyone take our land. We’ve done it in the past, we liberated our land. We’re not going to let them come back and take it from us. (my italics)

While much of Lahoud’s rhetoric may be just bluster and defiance (because the Lebanese army is no match for the US-supplied Israeli forces), Lahoud’s remarks are a sign that politically, Hezbollah has gained by this action, not only in Lebanon but around the region.

Larry Johnson, formerly with the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. State Department’s Office of Counter Terrorism says much along the same lines as Lahoud. Meanwhile Paul Craig Roberts argues that Americans should be concerned about allying themselves with neoconservative policies of “tooth and claw,” where might makes right, and Palestinians are treated as expendable. And Juan Cole also debunks the notion that this attack had much to do with the capture of two Israeli soldiers. He says “That this war was pre-planned was obvious to me from the moment it began. The Israeli military proceeded methodically and systematically to destroy Lebanon’s infrastructure, and clearly had been casing targets for some time.” Support for this view also comes from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

It all comes back to the problem of Palestinian statelessness. That is the key problem that must be solved if any progress is to be made on any of the other fronts. But it keeps getting deliberately ignored.

Power hubris in the Middle East

(See part 1 , part 2, part 3, and part 4 of this series.)

Politicians love power. They try to obtain as much of it as possible and think that the more they have, the better able they are to solve any problems and crush any opposition they encounter. But what frequently gets overlooked is that there is only a limited class of problems for which power can provide the solution, but success in this very narrow area often deludes leaders into thinking that they can apply power in all areas.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with military power. In conventional battles involving conventional armies, the side that has more troops, more planes, more weapons, more tanks, and so on, will win. Power works in such cases. This was why there was never any doubt that the US would succeed in overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq, once it had committed itself to using its full conventional arsenal.

But raw military power fails to deliver the goods when it seeks to achieve more subtle political goals, such as creating stability and harmony among groups. But politicians seem to never learn this basic truth. Iraq is once again the prime example where power has failed to achieve a post-war peace.

Take, for another example, Sri Lanka. For decades, the Tamil minority had been complaining of discrimination by the Sinhala majority government. The Tamil leadership before 1980 were steeped in Gandhian nonviolent traditions and when it protested, the protests took the form of civil disobedience, such as ‘sit down strikes’, where large numbers of protestors blocked the entrances of government buildings. The protestors carried no arms and offered no resistance when the police or other authorities carted them off to jail.

The Tamils developed a reputation for non-violence to the point of being considered docile and passive, easily pushed around by the more powerful police and security forces. When a few young Tamils abandoned what they felt was this futile non-violence strategy and launched the movement known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or more commonly, Tamil Tigers) as an armed group willing to take on the Sri Lankan army militarily, it was not taken seriously at first, because the Tamils had never shown any inclination, let alone expertise, towards militaristic actions. When the Tigers launched their first significant military action in July 1983, a bombing that killed government 13 soldiers, they were still a small and seemingly insignificant group.

The Sri Lankan government reacted the way that governments tend to do in such situations when they are confronted by opposition from members of a different ethnic or religious group over which they think they have overwhelming military superiority. They try to exact revenge on the civilian population. The Sri Lankan government instigated attacks by mobs that killed Tamils in the streets, looted and ransacked and burned their houses, bombed Tamil areas, and arrested and imprisoned large numbers of Tamils, and murdered them in the prisons. The idea behind this massive show of force seemed to be to ‘teach the Tamils a lesson,’ and persuade the Tamil people that it was futile to resist the power of the government, that their best bet was to abandon any support for the Tigers and give up armed struggle in general and go back to pleading their cause the way they had done for decades, even though such methods had produced no meaningful results.

When those measures did not produce any immediate results of the kind they sought, the government then raised the stakes even more and that led to aerial bombing in the Tamil areas that killed and wounded many people, destroyed the infrastructure (roads, hospitals, schools, businesses), created huge numbers of refugees, and made ruins of large areas. (This is similar to what is being currently done in Lebanon, where estimates say that over 300 people have been killed, 1000 wounded and 500,000 displaced. United Nations’ emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland says that nearly a third of the Lebanese casualties are children.)

But the result of this approach was the opposite of what the government hoped. Support for the Tigers, instead of waning, actually expanded and solidified and the Tigers actually grew stronger militarily. Over time they became larger in numbers, more sophisticated in their tactics, and acquired better weapons. As a result we are now, twenty years later, in a virtual stalemate with the Tigers controlling significant portions of land and able to hold its own against the Sri Lankan military. Just last month, the Sri Lankan Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff was killed in a suicide bombing by suspected Tigers. (He was another victim of the war in Sri Lanka that I knew personally, since he went to the same school as I did and was just one year my junior.)

The examples can be multiplied. The US in Vietnam and the French in Vietnam and Algeria thought that their overwhelming military superiority could be used to inflict such pain on the civilian population that in despair they would abandon all support for the liberation forces and give up the struggle. The US used carpet bombing of huge swaths of land, defoliants to wipe out vegetation, and napalm, to terrorize villagers, all in an attempt to undermine support for the Vietnamese guerillas. But instead what happened was that the support actually increased, the opposition forces became stronger, and eventually both the US and the French militaries were beaten and had to leave ignominiously.

Overwhelming conventional power can win battles waged in conventional ways but cannot overcome the challenges posed by asymmetric warfare against a hostile population. The Tigers in Sri Lanka and the National Liberation Fronts of Vietnam and Algeria took care to position themselves as defenders of their own people, fighting an alien force, and provided the security, stability, and services that the people were looking for. More importantly, the fact that they were defending themselves and their own people militarily, and were no longer acting like patsies, instilled pride in the people. Thus these opposition forces won the political struggle, which enabled them to neutralize the military advantage of the major powers opposing them.

Israel is the predominant military power in that region but it faces a determined opposition in Hamas and Hezbollah, groups that remind me of the Tigers in their determination. What Israel seems to be doing is falling into the same trap as other powerful governments before them, seduced by their conventional military superiority into thinking that they can ‘teach the people a lesson,’ that by inflicting severe pain on the civilian populations of Gaza and Lebanon, the people in those regions will abandon support for Hamas and Hezbollah and rally round those political leaders who are acceptable to Israel and the US.

Perhaps there exist some historical examples where (overlooking for the moment its total immorality) this strategy of the military forces of one ethnicity/nationality/religion punishing civilian populations of a different ethnicity/nationality/religion has succeeded in cowing people and destroying support guerilla or insurgent or other resistance forces. I am at a loss of think of any. All the historical examples that I am aware of suggest that the opposite will happen. At most, what you get with such attempts at using military force is a temporary lull in hostilities, while the insurgency lies low and regroups. But they tend to return with greater vigor and more sophisticated munitions at a later time. Witness what is happening now with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In the modern world, where all kinds of armaments are easily available in the global black market, the sophistication of the weapons used by the forces opposed to Israel will increase, just the way that the Tamil Tigers improved their weaponry over time and now seem have a wide array of advanced weapons at their disposal, despite living on a island which makes procurement difficult. We are already seeing that Hezbollah seems to have more sophisticated weapons than Israel had anticipated, able to attack Israeli navy vessels and penetrate deeper into Israel than before.

In Sri Lanka, the show of military force by the government resulted in the so-called ‘moderate’ Tamil leadership, those acceptable to the government and willing to talk to the government on the government’s terms, becoming completely marginalized and irrelevant. Eventually, the government was forced to negotiate directly with the Tigers, the very group it had condemned as terrorists and unworthy of being negotiating partners. In the case of Vietnam, the succession of Vietnamese leaders that the US wanted to see as representatives of the Vietnamese people (Nguyen Cao Ky, Nguyen Van Thieu, and Duong Van Minh) were seen as puppets by most of the Vietnamese people, as can be seen by the fact that their governments collapsed as soon as the US withdrew its support.

What amazes me is that this should be seen as at all surprising. After all, the same governments that think that ‘punishing’ civilian populations will lead to them withdrawing support for their representatives know that when they themselves are attacked, their own populations rally round them. In the US for example, we saw how the attacks of 9/11 caused George Bush’s support levels to soar. And he still routinely tries to use the terror threat to rally support for himself. Why would these governments think that the people they are fighting would think and act any differently? As Israeli academic Ran HaCohen says:

As often in war time, most citizens do flock together behind the army, no matter how much they suffer. What Israel fails to grasp is that this simple logic applies to the other side as well: devastating Gaza will only increase support for the Palestinian militants.

Arresting dozens of their Cabinet members and members of parliament is only going to increase Hamas’ support even more. In the case of Gaza, we have to remember that Hamas actually won the last elections. Commentator Pat Buchanan looks at what happened in the immediate aftermath of those elections:

To punish these people for the crime of electing Hamas, [Israeli prime minister] Olmert imposed an economic blockade of Gaza and the West Bank and withheld the $50 million in monthly tax and customs receipts due the Palestinians.

Then, Israel instructed the United States to terminate all aid to the Palestinian Authority, though Bush himself had called for the elections and for the participation of Hamas. Our Crawford cowboy meekly complied.

The predictable result: Fatah and Hamas fell to fratricidal fighting, and Hamas militants began launching Qassam rockets over the fence from Gaza into Israel. Hamas then tunneled into Israel, killed two soldiers, captured one, took him back into Gaza, and demanded a prisoner exchange.

Israel’s response was to abduct half of the Palestinian cabinet and parliament and blow up a $50 million U.S.-insured power plant. That cut off electricity for half a million Palestinians. Their food spoiled, their water could not be purified, and their families sweltered in the summer heat of the Gaza desert.

The fact that the US and Israel were dismayed by the election results and have since tried to destabilize the Hamas government will only serve to increase the suspicion that the attack on Gaza was meant to nullify the election results. Imprisoning the cabinet members and members of parliament of Gaza is an unmistakable signal that Israel wants to overthrow the elected authorities in Gaza. HaCohen suggests that such a move may have been planned well in advance and was simply waiting for a provocation that duly arrived in the form of the capture of the Israeli soldier.

If I may make a prediction, it is that I fully expect to see at some point in the future, after many, many more deaths of ordinary people on all sides and the consequent immense suffering, Israel (along with the US) sit down with Hamas to negotiate the future of the region, exactly as the Sri Lankan government ended up being forced to negotiate with the Tigers, and the US and French were forced to negotiate with the NLF in Vietnam and Algeria.

Instead of dragging the Palestinian and Israeli people through years and years of suffering, spilling rivers of blood, and destroying families and communities, just to end up negotiating with the people they are currently fighting, how much better would it be if far-sighted leaders skip that bloody intermediate step, save all that unnecessary suffering, and begin negotiating now on creating a just and viable Palestinian state, with security guarantees for all the people and states in the region.

POST SCRIPT: The warmongers are never wrong, are they?

Tom Tomorrow’s eerily prescient April 2003 cartoon.

The seductive illusion of power’s efficacy

(See part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this series.)

To understand the dynamics at play when governments take on guerilla groups and insurgencies, it requires a look at the role that perceptions of power play.

People often quote the Bible passage that “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10) but I think Paul, the author of that document, was mistaken about this (as he was about so many things), and that it really should be the love of power to which we should assign blame. After all, beyond a certain point, money does not meet any actual physical needs and I suspect that it merely serves as a concrete and measurable index, a proxy measure for the more elusive and abstract concept of power. Except in highly circumscribed hierarchical organizations, it is hard to tell who has more power and who has less. But money provides a way. People with more money are usually perceived as more important, more powerful, and have more status, than those with less.

Power has the ability to seduce a person into thinking that acquiring more of it will enable them to more easily solve their problems and achieve their dreams. In seeking it, people lose all sense of proportion and reason, tempting them to overreach, and in the end, destroying them. Shakespeare’s explored these themes in two great tragedies, Macbeth and Richard III, showing how acquiring great power ultimately caused those two ambitious but flawed people to stumble and fall.

Power is so seductive that few can avoid succumbing to its allure. Is there any one of us who has not daydreamed of what we could do if we had total power over our circumstances and could make people do what we wanted them to? Even those people who want to do good easily fall into thinking that what they need is more power to achieve their worthwhile ends.

Fortunately, few of us actually possess much power over others but in those few situations where we mistakenly think we do, a little reflection would show us that depending on power to achieve our ends is actually harmful.

The first situation is that of parents and children. Parents think they have power over their children and in a limited sense they do, especially when their children are very young. They can make them eat their spinach, go to bed at designated times, sit in a corner when punished for doing something wrong, practice the piano, and so forth. But children can rebel, especially after they reach adolescence, and parents who try to over-reach and think that they can force their children to think in a certain way or to have certain values are deluding themselves. As soon as their children grow up and are no longer under their control, they will do what they want, often deliberately going counter to their parents’ wishes just to assert their independence.

Teachers are another group that sometimes think they have a lot of power. Because teachers are put ‘in charge’ of classes and can take disciplinary action and assign grades, they too tend to think that they have more power and influence over their students than they actually do. Yes, teachers can make students do certain things such as work problems, read papers, write essays, and so on. Teachers can even force students to parrot certain opinions and express a particular point of view. But teachers cannot force their students to change their minds about anything, and any teacher who tried to do so is, like a parent with adolescent children, acting delusionally.

I have taught for a long time and have realized that I have very little real control or power over students. The only influence that I have over them is what they are willing to voluntarily grant me and I believe that this is true of any relationship. We may be able to force people to take specific actions and to do certain things, but we cannot change the way people think or make them learn or like what we make them do.

This is why I am always amused by the efforts of those self-appointed protectors of students (like David Horowitz) who seem to see students as delicate hot-house flowers, and are fearful that ‘liberal’ college instructors are brainwashing these intellectually fragile and highly impressionable students away from ‘conservative’ values, whatever those may be. Such ideas about student naivete and impressionability could only be held by someone who has never really taught students or, more importantly, listened to them. It is quite possible that a few college instructors do try to do what he alleges, although Horowitz has a history of making such allegations without evidence to back them up, leaving him with no credibility. But has there been any evidence that even if these rare instructors do exist, that they are effective?

Let me be perfectly clear about this important distinction concerning power. We can, if we wish and had sufficient power over others, make them jump through hoops and we can demand external conformity (though speech and action) to whatever we want. But we have no control over people’s internal processes. We cannot force changes in their thinking and we cannot make them like doing whatever we force them to do.

Any experienced and reflective teacher knows that the more you try to force students to change their minds, especially over things they care about, the more likely you are to actually strengthen their existing beliefs. This is why the goal of my own teaching is not to change students’ minds about anything. My goals are instead (1) to make them understand and be able to articulate and use whatever knowledge serious scholars in the field have learned about the topic at hand, and (2) to help students better understand why they believe whatever they believe. In the process of achieving that deeper understanding of the subject and of themselves, students may change their minds (just as I may change mine due to my interactions with them), but that is an incidental outcome of the learning process.

In their book Power in the Classroom (1992) Virginia Richmond and James McCroskey emphasize that students have more power than we realize, and that the more we try to exercise direct authority, the more likely it is that they will devise ways to thwart us, leading to reduced learning. As they say “[P]ower can be used effectively to get people to do what we want, so long as (a) we are willing to watch them do it, and (b) we do not care what they think of us [or the task] afterward. Both of the above conditions are seldom present outside of prisons.” (p. 102)

This does not mean that teachers have no power at all. It means that they should realize that the power they have is not over students’ minds, but over the conditions under which students learn. Teachers can use their administrative power to create environments that are conducive to learning by, for example, giving students more choices and control over what they learn and how they learn. Teachers can also adjust their teaching styles to make the classroom more interactive and engaging and the material more interesting, while maintaining course requirements and standards. This is the only kind of power that teachers can use and should use. And used wisely, it can result in the only worthwhile goal of education, which is to make students more curious about the world around them, more able to pose meaningful questions about that world, and more adept at seeking answers.

We all have actually very limited power over other people. The more we realize this inherent limitation, the more effective we become in using that limited power to achieve worthwhile ends. Conversely, those who have an inflated sense of the power they have and what raw power can achieve, and seek to achieve results using power alone, are doomed to disastrous results.

Nowhere are the destructive consequences of following the siren song of power more visible than in the political arena.

Next: The consequences of power hubris in the Middle East.

The warmongers

(See part 1 and part 2 of this series.)

Most people are rightly appalled at the rapid escalation of war in the Middle East region, knowing that it will worsen an already bad situation. But not everyone is dismayed. Some people are actually pleased that this crisis has arisen.

It has to be recalled that it has long been the aim of the neoconservatives in the US to overthrow the governments of Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and replace them with regimes that are friendly to the US. This would give the US unparalleled control of the huge Middle East oil reserves, and strategic and military control of the entire region. For these people, the invasion of Iraq was seen as just phase one in this grand plan, to be rapidly followed by invasions of the other two countries.

Of course, that plan ganged agley in a major way in Iraq, with the Iraqis refusing to follow the script and play their designated role of being grateful for the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein, throwing flowers at the US troops, and then allowing their country to be the staging ground for the attack on Iran. Iran, sandwiched between US forces controlling Iraq and Afghanistan, would supposedly fall like a ripe fruit.

As a result of this delay in advancing their agenda, these people have been chafing, even resorting to criticizing their former hero George W. Bush for delaying and essentially wimping out in the implementation of their grand plan. Neoconservative William Kristol, writing in the The Weekly Standard which he edits, says that as a result of not already taking military action against Syria and Iran “We have been too weak, and have allowed ourselves to be perceived as weak.”

Such people see the current conflagration in Gaza and Lebanon as providing a golden opportunity to get their grand scheme back on the fast track by widening the war. Already allegations are being made that Iran and Syria are behind the Hezbollah and Hamas forces and directly instigating them, and it is clear that the groundwork is being laid to justify attacking those countries, just like the fake allegations of Iraqi WMDs and Iraq-al Qaeda links were used to stampede the American public into supporting an ill-conceived, illegal, and immoral attack on Iraq. For these warmongers, creating a sense of crisis and urgency is important because when people get frightened, they don’t think clearly and tend to turn towards authoritarian figures to ‘save’ and ‘protect’ them. The current state of hostilities in Gaza and Lebanon provides them with those conditions and they are quickly moving to take advantage of it. They know that advocates of negotiations and peace, both in Israel and elsewhere, have started to mobilize, and they want to quickly start these new wars soon before, god forbid, those groups start to have an effect and peace breaks out.

Glenn Greenwald describes the rhetoric used by warmongers such as William Kristol. He quotes Kristol saying:

The right response is renewed strength–in supporting the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, in standing with Israel, and in pursuing regime change in Syria and Iran. For that matter, we might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait?

The eagerness of these people to go to war is palpable. Of course, the US military is already stretched thin, bogged down in Iraq, limited largely to its bases there, while a civil war takes the lives of numerous civilians. So even a person who supports widening the war might reasonably ask where Bush is going to get the troops to engage in two new battlefronts. After all, even if the US military able to overthrow the governments of Syria and Iran by mostly using aerial bombardment, the most probable outcome are two more protracted insurgency and guerilla wars like the current one in Iraq. In fact, it is likely that the opposition in Iran will be even stronger than that faced in Iraq since the Iranian government is an elected government with considerable popular support, unlike the case of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Iranian people have long memories and know that in 1953 the US overthrew its popularly elected government of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh and replaced him with the deeply hated Shah Reza Pahlavi. They are not likely to welcome a rerun.

Kristol dismisses this possibility with the breezy “Yes, there would be repercussions–and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.” And what form might these things that that he coyly refers to as “repercussions” take? He does not elaborate but developments in Iraq mean that we can easily guess. Perhaps another decade of fighting in Syria and Iran? Another hundred thousand civilian deaths and injured in each those countries? Destruction of the economies and infrastructure of two more countries, setting their development back a generation and leading to widespread impoverishment and anger? Tens of thousands more US troops dead and injured? Another trillion dollars used for the purposes of destruction or to enrich the military industry and its civilian hangers-on? But, for Kristol, all that would be worth it because we would be projecting to the world that the US is “strong.” Is there no limit to this disastrous macho posturing, especially when it is others who are paying the price, never the speakers? Even George Will finds Kristol to be over the top, describing his comments as “so untethered from reality as to defy caricature.” And yet, Kristol and other warmongers are always invited back by the mainstream media to propagate this kind of dangerous nonsense.

The answer to this puzzle of whether the US should expand the war to three fronts when it is already bogged down on the first one is quite simple. Another protracted war against Iran and Syria is not something that can be sustained and would not be the choice of any rational policy maker or military leader. This becomes especially so when the other, forgotten, front in Afghanistan, that supposedly ‘successful’ war which was supposedly ‘won’ in 2001, has opened up again with a resurgent Taliban becoming more aggressive and regaining control of territory it had once lost.

What worries me is that the neoconservatives might try to escalate the current crisis in order to drag the US into it despite such an action going against its own interests. One has to suspect that they hope that the use of nuclear weapons would be envisaged as a possible option to provide a quick end, as Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker magazine.

As Greenwald says:

The mindless casualness with which such people blithely advocate starting a new war — like it’s no different that deciding what one will eat for dinner tomorrow — is breathtaking. There is an influential and determined minority out there craving U.S. intervention in this war. They are searching for any means to expand the war in Iraq to additional countries, all as part of our Epic War of Civilizations, and given their past success in inducing the U.S. to invade Iraq, I think it’s a mistake to assume that what they are advocating is too extreme and self-evidently disastrous to become a reality.

Stephen Colbert provides a quick compilation of pundits discussing how we are now in World War III. What is remarkable is how casually pleased they seem to be at this state of affairs. Their only point of disagreement seems to be whether we are at number III or IV. The reason they are so eager to hype this ‘world war’ label is that it frightens people, making them think that we are in apocalyptic conflict in which ‘our’ side must win or it would be disaster for humanity, when in actuality what we have is a regional conflict for which there can be political solutions. (James Wolcott skewers this overblown rhetoric in his inimitable style. Read his piece to get a laugh from an otherwise grim situation.)

While many people will be appalled at the idea of widening the conflict, there is one other particular group that is positively salivating at the prospect, and deliriously awaiting increased chaos and bloodshed. These are our old friends, those people who believe in the ‘rapture’ and think that the Armageddon that signals the second coming of Jesus should arrive any day now.

The signs of impending Armageddon are increased turmoil in the world, and so these people are ecstatic at the current turn of events. The Rapture Ready website had a forum titled “Is it time to get excited?” in which the people who posted were almost giddy with anticipation at the thought that the current round of bloodshed in the Middle East was the fulfillment of the rapture prophecy. That particular forum seems to have disappeared, perhaps because of the unwelcome attention it received from people making fun of it, but some of the discussion was captured and can be read here. Here’s a sample: “I too am soooo excited!! I get goose bumps, literally, when I watch what’s going on in the M.E.!!” The commenter is also pleased that the Boston tunnel collapsed killing a religious woman, and is delighted at the terrifying storms that hit nearby areas. All these events, which others would regard as tragedies, are for rapture lovers good things, because they signal that Jesus is coming. “But, yes. . .it is most indeed a time to be happy and excited.”

While it is tempting to dismiss and ignore such people as misguided crackpots, we must not forget that they represent a large fraction of the American people (with some estimates ranging as high as 44%) and provide mass support for the more cynical calculations of the neoconservatives. The neoconservatives and these Christian extremists may make an unlikely couple but they do represent a potent alliance that is a powerful driver for the madness of widening the conflict, and a significant obstacle to finding a peaceful resolution.

The drive for wider war in some quarters seems to have resulted in the complete abandonment of logic, such as can be seen in The New Republic magazine, which was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq and now seems to be equally enthusiastic in urging wider war. One does not know whether to laugh or cry at the subheading of an article by Michael B. Oren in the July 17, 2006 online edition that says “To prevent a regional conflagration, Israel should attack Syria” (That subhead has since disappeared but Brad DeLong caught it.)

It seems like we have actually fulfilled Orwell’s 1984 prediction of someone seriously saying “War is Peace.” The real test will be in seeing how many people believe it.

Next: The seductive illusion of power

POST SCRIPT: First hand account from Beirut

Cleveland Peace Action has published an email from Michael Provence, a Cleveland native who is a historian at UC San Diego and is spending a year at the American University in Beirut. He describes what is currently happening in Beirut, and his efforts to leave with his family. It is an eye-opening first-hand account, giving the kind of details that you are unlikely to find elsewhere.

In the course of his email, he says: “There is some talk that the Embassy may be sending an aircraft carrier 
from the Red Sea to evacuate us to Cyprus. The email notice they have sent out states that citizens will be required to sign a financial 
release and apparently pay for the helicopter ride to the ship.” (my italics)

Apparently getting people to pay for their rescue is the law, irrespective of the level of danger and even whether the evacuee is alive or dead. The government, so profligate when it comes to spending money waging war on remote threats, and so cavalier about obeying the law in other areas, turns surprisingly frugal and law abiding when it comes to saving the lives of its own citizens from actual and imminent danger.

The warmongers

(See part 1 and part 2 of this series.)

Most people are rightly appalled at the rapid escalation of war in the Middle East region, knowing that it will worsen an already bad situation. But not everyone is dismayed. Some people are actually pleased that this crisis has arisen.

It has to be recalled that it has long been the aim of the neoconservatives in the US to overthrow the governments of Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and replace them with regimes that are friendly to the US. This would give the US unparalleled control of the huge Middle East oil reserves, and strategic and military control of the entire region. For these people, the invasion of Iraq was seen as just phase one in this grand plan, to be rapidly followed by invasions of the other two countries.

Of course, that plan ganged agley in a major way in Iraq, with the Iraqis refusing to follow the script and play their designated role of being grateful for the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein, throwing flowers at the US troops, and then allowing their country to be the staging ground for the attack on Iran. Iran, sandwiched between US forces controlling Iraq and Afghanistan, would supposedly fall like a ripe fruit.

As a result of this delay in advancing their agenda, these people have been chafing, even resorting to criticizing their former hero George W. Bush for delaying and essentially wimping out in the implementation of their grand plan. Neoconservative William Kristol, writing in the The Weekly Standard which he edits, says that as a result of not already taking military action against Syria and Iran “We have been too weak, and have allowed ourselves to be perceived as weak.”

Such people see the current conflagration in Gaza and Lebanon as providing a golden opportunity to get their grand scheme back on the fast track by widening the war. Already allegations are being made that Iran and Syria are behind the Hezbollah and Hamas forces and directly instigating them, and it is clear that the groundwork is being laid to justify attacking those countries, just like the fake allegations of Iraqi WMDs and Iraq-al Qaeda links were used to stampede the American public into supporting an ill-conceived, illegal, and immoral attack on Iraq. For these warmongers, creating a sense of crisis and urgency is important because when people get frightened, they don’t think clearly and tend to turn towards authoritarian figures to ‘save’ and ‘protect’ them. The current state of hostilities in Gaza and Lebanon provides them with those conditions and they are quickly moving to take advantage of it. They know that advocates of negotiations and peace, both in Israel and elsewhere, have started to mobilize, and they want to quickly start these new wars soon before, god forbid, those groups start to have an effect and peace breaks out.

Glenn Greenwald describes the rhetoric used by warmongers such as William Kristol. He quotes Kristol saying:

The right response is renewed strength–in supporting the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, in standing with Israel, and in pursuing regime change in Syria and Iran. For that matter, we might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait?

The eagerness of these people to go to war is palpable. Of course, the US military is already stretched thin, bogged down in Iraq, limited largely to its bases there, while a civil war takes the lives of numerous civilians. So even a person who supports widening the war might reasonably ask where Bush is going to get the troops to engage in two new battlefronts. After all, even if the US military able to overthrow the governments of Syria and Iran by mostly using aerial bombardment, the most probable outcome are two more protracted insurgency and guerilla wars like the current one in Iraq. In fact, it is likely that the opposition in Iran will be even stronger than that faced in Iraq since the Iranian government is an elected government with considerable popular support, unlike the case of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Iranian people have long memories and know that in 1953 the US overthrew its popularly elected government of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh and replaced him with the deeply hated Shah Reza Pahlavi. They are not likely to welcome a rerun.

Kristol dismisses this possibility with the breezy “Yes, there would be repercussions–and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.” And what form might these things that that he coyly refers to as “repercussions” take? He does not elaborate but developments in Iraq mean that we can easily guess. Perhaps another decade of fighting in Syria and Iran? Another hundred thousand civilian deaths and injured in each those countries? Destruction of the economies and infrastructure of two more countries, setting their development back a generation and leading to widespread impoverishment and anger? Tens of thousands more US troops dead and injured? Another trillion dollars used for the purposes of destruction or to enrich the military industry and its civilian hangers-on? But, for Kristol, all that would be worth it because we would be projecting to the world that the US is “strong.” Is there no limit to this disastrous macho posturing, especially when it is others who are paying the price, never the speakers? Even George Will finds Kristol to be over the top, describing his comments as “so untethered from reality as to defy caricature.” And yet, Kristol and other warmongers are always invited back by the mainstream media to propagate this kind of dangerous nonsense.

The answer to this puzzle of whether the US should expand the war to three fronts when it is already bogged down on the first one is quite simple. Another protracted war against Iran and Syria is not something that can be sustained and would not be the choice of any rational policy maker or military leader. This becomes especially so when the other, forgotten, front in Afghanistan, that supposedly ‘successful’ war which was supposedly ‘won’ in 2001, has opened up again with a resurgent Taliban becoming more aggressive and regaining control of territory it had once lost.

What worries me is that the neoconservatives might try to escalate the current crisis in order to drag the US into it despite such an action going against its own interests. One has to suspect that they hope that the use of nuclear weapons would be envisaged as a possible option to provide a quick end, as Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker magazine.

As Greenwald says:

The mindless casualness with which such people blithely advocate starting a new war — like it’s no different that deciding what one will eat for dinner tomorrow — is breathtaking. There is an influential and determined minority out there craving U.S. intervention in this war. They are searching for any means to expand the war in Iraq to additional countries, all as part of our Epic War of Civilizations, and given their past success in inducing the U.S. to invade Iraq, I think it’s a mistake to assume that what they are advocating is too extreme and self-evidently disastrous to become a reality.

Stephen Colbert provides a quick compilation of pundits discussing how we are now in World War III. What is remarkable is how casually pleased they seem to be at this state of affairs. Their only point of disagreement seems to be whether we are at number III or IV. The reason they are so eager to hype this ‘world war’ label is that it frightens people, making them think that we are in apocalyptic conflict in which ‘our’ side must win or it would be disaster for humanity, when in actuality what we have is a regional conflict for which there can be political solutions. (James Wolcott skewers this overblown rhetoric in his inimitable style. Read his piece to get a laugh from an otherwise grim situation.)

While many people will be appalled at the idea of widening the conflict, there is one other particular group that is positively salivating at the prospect, and deliriously awaiting increased chaos and bloodshed. These are our old friends, those people who believe in the ‘rapture’ and think that the Armageddon that signals the second coming of Jesus should arrive any day now.

The signs of impending Armageddon are increased turmoil in the world, and so these people are ecstatic at the current turn of events. The Rapture Ready website had a forum titled “Is it time to get excited?” in which the people who posted were almost giddy with anticipation at the thought that the current round of bloodshed in the Middle East was the fulfillment of the rapture prophecy. That particular forum seems to have disappeared, perhaps because of the unwelcome attention it received from people making fun of it, but some of the discussion was captured and can be read here. Here’s a sample: “I too am soooo excited!! I get goose bumps, literally, when I watch what’s going on in the M.E.!!” The commenter is also pleased that the Boston tunnel collapsed killing a religious woman, and is delighted at the terrifying storms that hit nearby areas. All these events, which others would regard as tragedies, are for rapture lovers good things, because they signal that Jesus is coming. “But, yes. . .it is most indeed a time to be happy and excited.”

While it is tempting to dismiss and ignore such people as misguided crackpots, we must not forget that they represent a large fraction of the American people (with some estimates ranging as high as 44%) and provide mass support for the more cynical calculations of the neoconservatives. The neoconservatives and these Christian extremists may make an unlikely couple but they do represent a potent alliance that is a powerful driver for the madness of widening the conflict, and a significant obstacle to finding a peaceful resolution.

The drive for wider war in some quarters seems to have resulted in the complete abandonment of logic, such as can be seen in The New Republic magazine, which was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq and now seems to be equally enthusiastic in urging wider war. One does not know whether to laugh or cry at the subheading of an article by Michael B. Oren in the July 17, 2006 online edition that says “To prevent a regional conflagration, Israel should attack Syria” (That subhead has since disappeared but Brad DeLong caught it.)

It seems like we have actually fulfilled Orwell’s 1984 prediction of someone seriously saying “War is Peace.” The real test will be in seeing how many people believe it.

Next: The seductive illusion of power

POST SCRIPT: First hand account from Beirut

Cleveland Peace Action has published an email from Michael Provence, a Cleveland native who is a historian at UC San Diego and is spending a year at the American University in Beirut. He describes what is currently happening in Beirut, and his efforts to leave with his family. It is an eye-opening first-hand account, giving the kind of details that you are unlikely to find elsewhere.

In the course of his email, he says: “There is some talk that the Embassy may be sending an aircraft carrier 
from the Red Sea to evacuate us to Cyprus. The email notice they have sent out states that citizens will be required to sign a financial 
release and apparently pay for the helicopter ride to the ship.” (my italics)

Apparently getting people to pay for their rescue is the law, irrespective of the level of danger and even whether the evacuee is alive or dead. The government, so profligate when it comes to spending money waging war on remote threats, and so cavalier about obeying the law in other areas, turns surprisingly frugal and law abiding when it comes to saving the lives of its own citizens from actual and imminent danger.

The balance of power in the Middle East

The recent attacks by the Israeli armed forces in Gaza and Lebanon is evidence, if anyone needed it, that Israel is the overwhelming military power in that region. The reason it could bomb Beirut and other parts of Lebanon and impose an air and sea blockade on that country is because it can do so without fear of meeting any major resistance. What we are currently witnessing is a demonstration of unmatched power.

Thanks to sustained economic and military support from the US (Israel is the single largest beneficiary of US aid, with about $3 billion annually in aid), Israel not only has developed overwhelming conventional military power over its immediate neighbors in the region, it is even a nuclear power. Estimates give Israel about 100-200 strategic nuclear weapons, well ahead of India and Pakistan, and comparable to England. When this military dominance is coupled with the diplomatic backing of the US, which provides it with cover to prevent any international diplomatic moves against its use of this power, this enables the Israeli government to take military actions against its neighbors that would be unthinkable for almost any other state.

The passive response of the world to the current actions by Israel in Gaza and Lebanon is symptomatic of this situation. The US has vetoed UN resolutions calling for a halt to the attacks on Gaza and blocked international attempts to call for a ceasefire in Lebanon, as requested by the beleaguered government of Lebanon, thus enabling Israel to proceed unchecked.
Other governments that responded to provocations the way Israel has would face immediate condemnation. India and Pakistan have long shared a tense border with Kashmir, where along the ‘line of demarcation’ it is almost routine to have border incursions and skirmishes of the kind that just occurred in the Middle East. In addition, just this past week we also saw the bombing in India of commuter trains that killed about 200 people. There are strong suspicions being voiced that the perpetrators of this atrocity are Islamic groups based in Pakistan. But India did not unleash an invasion of Pakistan, say by bombing civilian centers like Karachi and Islamabad, because Pakistan is a nation of comparable strength, able to defend itself and even retaliate, and for India to do so would have been to invite worldwide condemnation for over-reacting. This necessitates that the two countries try and talk their way through the tensions.

As another example, the Prime Minister of India (Rajiv Gandhi) was murdered by members of Tamil separatist groups from Sri Lanka. India did not invade and bomb Sri Lanka in response, which it could have easily done if it wanted to because of its overwhelming military superiority, because that would have been a hugely disproportionate response that would have invited immediate worldwide condemnation.

The fact that the US has enabled Israel to do what it likes militarily is perhaps why Israel is so isolated politically. When you have unmatched military power and also no diplomatic constraints, leaders tend to succumb to the fatal temptation of thinking that they can use force to solve political problems, and spurn diplomatic avenues. There is no incentive to try and negotiate long-term political solutions, even though those are the only ones that can promise any kind of peace and justice for all. Because it can so easily unleash military power in response to any provocation, Israel can avoid the necessity of seeking diplomatic and political solutions to the problems in that region.

But despite this clear demonstration of power disparity between Israel and the Palestinians, the myth continues of Israel as the underdog in the region, constantly fearful for its existence. Does anyone (other than the irrationally insecure) seriously think that the actual existence of the state of Israel, the fifth largest nuclear power in the world, is in any danger? To do so is like seriously thinking that al Qaeda can overthrow the US government. Yes, you get the occasional threats and boasts of few people, and some militant groups opposed to the existence of Israel are capable of striking the occasional blow here and there, but they are nowhere close to being a serious threat to the actual existence of the state. No state in the region, however belligerent its rhetoric, is going to actually attack Israel with a view to destroying its existence, because almost the entire world would condemn and oppose and rebuff this attempt, let alone the fact that Israel is quite capable of defending itself without any outside help. The worldwide response when Iraq invaded Kuwait, a far less influential state than Israel, should persuade people that the territorial integrity of Israel is secure.

But the idea of a beleaguered state that is facing an existential threat has always been useful because it enables countries to unleash disproportionate responses to attacks. This has been the practice of many governments in response to even minor threats to its authority. The US has done it with terrorism, creating the feeling that the whole country is in danger in order to dismantle long standing civil rights protections at home and wage war abroad. And now Israel has used it to respond with disproportionate force in Gaza and Lebanon.

In this case, the capture of an Israeli soldier near the West Bank border, and the capture of two soldiers near the Lebanese border, were used as justification for invading Lebanon and Gaza and bombing its cities, resulting in enormous numbers of casualties. The whole of Lebanon is now under siege and blockaded, its airports and highways and residential areas indiscriminately bombed, and its infrastructure in shambles. It is, of course, a given that any nation has the right to defend itself from external aggression but to argue that the capture of one or two soldiers near a tense border is sufficient cause to unleash a massive assault on civilians centers in a neighboring country is to lower the bar for inter-nation warfare to such a low level that almost any country that shares a border with a hostile neighbor will be in a state of permanent warfare.

And even before this, for a long time now, Israel has responded to attacks from missiles or by suicide bombers by massively retaliating against the Palestinians. Attacks on Israeli territory and settlers by individuals have been used to arrest family members and friends of the alleged perpetrators, bulldoze their family’s homes, destroy their farms and communities and villages, and imprison large numbers of people. Such collective punishments violate the norms of justice and proportional response. What is currently taking place in Gaza and Lebanon is another over reaction to an undoubted provocation.

As a result of its power dominance in the region, there is no compulsion for Israel, at least in the short run, to seek a just and permanent solution to the core issue of Palestinian statehood, the very thing that inflames the passions. In fact, the ongoing creation by Israel of settlements in the West Bank is resulting in no viable Palestinian state being possible. What is being offered by Israel to Palestinians is a kind of Bantustan, a Swiss-cheese like entity consisting of enclaves (‘cantons’) of non-contiguous Palestinian areas, that are broken up by Israeli settlements and roadways that will result in Palestinians having to pass through Israeli checkpoints to go from enclave to another. Bantustans were created in South Africa under the former apartheid regime and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who experienced them first hand, said at a Boston conference in April 2002 “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land. It reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.”

Professor Jeff Halper, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Ben Gurion University in Israel and a peace activist, says that the goal of Israel seems to be to:

establish a tiny Palestinian state of, say, five or six cantons (Sharon’s term) on 40-70% of the Occupied Territories, completely surrounded and controlled by Israel. Such a Palestinian state would cover only 10-15% of the entire country and would have no meaningful sovereignty and viability: no coherent territory, no freedom of movement, no control of borders, no capital in Jerusalem, no economic viability, no control of water, no control of airspace or communications, no military–not even the right as a sovereign state to enter into alliances without Israeli permission.”

Is it any surprise that Palestinians would reject such a future?

I myself had not realized how bad the situation was until a talk given at Case last year by Professor Halper who explained in alarming detail how the settlement building on the West Bank is surely extinguishing any hope for a lasting peace settlement. He presented detailed maps that showed how what is envisaged by Israel and the US for Palestinians is life under permanent Israeli control. He pointed out that even if the entire West Bank and Gaza were handed over to a Palestinian state, that state would still constitute only about 22% of the total land currently occupied by Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, but what is offered is far less than that.

While there is a huge amount of coverage of the Middle East, most of it is simply a lot of blather about whether the “peace process” is on track or off, dead or alive, and one rarely gets crucial details about actual plans or sees actual maps detailing what is happening in the West Bank and Gaza and what is being proposed for Palestinians. Hence most Americans have no idea about what is being offered to the Palestinians and cannot understand why it is being rejected. They are simply told that the Palestinians are ungrateful for rejecting a ‘generous’ Israeli offer of land, but are not given the data to evaluate the merits of this offer for themselves.

If we are going to have any kind of resolution to the problems of the Middle East, a viable and independent self-contained Palestinian state has to be created, which will then have a vested interested in building itself in peace. Creation of that state will require the withdrawal of Israel to its pre-1967 borders and the dismantling of the settlements in the occupied territories. If instead what Palestinians are offered is a non-viable state with non-contiguous pieces of land under Israeli control, we are all doomed to an endless cycle of violence that will repeatedly spill over into the rest of the region, and perhaps engulf us all.

Next: Why some people are pleased at the recent upsurge in violence and want an even wider war.

Israel and the Palestinians

If there is one thing that lies close to the heart of the problems in the Middle East, it is the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. The status of the Palestinians has been a scandal for over a half-century, and resentment over their situation has created the breeding ground for the unrest that regularly and periodically spills over into outright violence. The current invasion by Israel into Gaza and Lebanon is just the latest direct manifestation of the consequences of leaving this long-standing problem unresolved, though the Iraq war and the attacks of 9/11 can also be seen as other less direct ones. After all, bin Laden and al Qaeda stated explicitly that one of the reasons for their actions was because they were opposed to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and America’s support for those policies.

Even since the state of Israel came into being, the Palestinians have been dispossessed of their land and homes and left stateless, many of their people shunted to refugee camps and denied any meaningful form of self-governance.

The fact that the world has allowed the wretched plight of the Palestinian people to continue for so long is unconscionable. There has to be a permanent and just solution to the problem of the statelessness of the Palestinian people. The lack of such a solution has resulted in spiral of violence and counter-violence that cannot be stopped by merely looking at the immediate causes of the current crisis.

In order to achieve such a long-range solution, it will help if we stop thinking so reflexively in terms of ethnicity and religion and nationality, as if these purely human constructs have any deep meaning.

I have long felt that dividing people and nations along the lines of ethnicity or religion is absurd, a relic of ancient tribal histories that should have long ago been rejected by modern people. My own personal philosophy and sense of identity is captured exactly by the philosopher Tom Paine, when he wrote in his Rights of Man: “My country is the world and my religion is to do good.” Or if we want more modern examples of famous people who were able to overcome parochial thinking, we have people like Albert Einstein who felt that he was a citizen of the world, and for whom allegiance to the fundamental principles of shared humanity were more important than sectarian thinking.

There is no biological basis for distinguishing between ‘races,’ and myths abound in the stories, such as those in the Bible, of people’s ancient origins, making them of little value as historical records. People’s religion, ethnicity, and nationality are almost entirely predictable based on the purely accidental factors associated with their birth. By virtue of being born and growing up in a particular community, people identify with and acquire the characteristics of that group, and there is no deeper significance to that affiliation, although people may like to think that there is.

This situation is not unlike the fact that most people born in the Cleveland area are fans of the city’s football team, the Browns, and the people who grow up in Pittsburgh are Steelers fans. To be ‘proud’ of belonging to a particular ethnicity or nationality or religion makes as much rational sense as being proud of being a Browns fan and to link one’s self-image with the rise and fall of that team’s fortunes. To go to war based on those identities is as ridiculous as the city of Cleveland going to war against the city of Pittsburgh because some of their fans taunted and beat up on some of our fans.

The only positive advantage to labeling people according to their ethnicity, religion, and nationality is as a tool for research, for statistical, demographic, and sociological purposes. But unfortunately ethnicity and religion and nationality have always been useful to those who seek and benefit from war, using those labels as a means of fomenting conflict between peoples who would otherwise have no real quarrel with one another. After all, let us not forget that war has been a source of enrichment and power and control for political leaders from time immemorial. Some people see a real benefit in keeping people fearful and tense and paranoid about others, and religious and ethnic and nationality differences have always been convenient for getting people to be suspicious of one another.

I tend to favor secular states and oppose identifying countries according to ethnicity and religion. This is also why I feel that there is no intrinsic reason why the people of Israel and the Palestinians could not have shared the same geographical region that is now labeled as Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Or, for that matter, why the Sinhala and Tamil people in Sri Lanka could not continue to share one state.

But the realist in me sadly recognizes that thanks to religious and ethnic partisans who have been successful in pushing their divisive views and building hatred between groups by appealing to their tribal allegiances, that dream of peaceful coexistence, of people simply living their lives together according to common secular and human interests and principles maybe dead, and we may have no alternative, at least in the short run, but to go to two-state solutions based on ethnicity. (The situation in Sri Lanka is not yet as dire as in the Middle East but the way it is heading, that country too may have to result in partition.)

What we need are solutions that are just and equitable and provide long-term peace and security, so that the bitter past can fade into obscurity. In the case of the Middle East, the basis for a negotiated two-state solution has always been clear. It requires that Israel withdraw completely from the West Bank and Gaza (the areas occupied in the 1967 war) and a Palestinian state established there, with international pressure and monitoring and security guarantees to ensure that the two states leave each other alone and in peace until decades have passed and the bitter enmity that has been allowed to be generated dissipates. The optimist in me even hopes that after a long period of time, the two states may even form economic and political alliances, the way that the countries of Europe have overcome warring pasts and come together to form the European Union.

It also means that we have to get beyond the proximate causes of the immediate conflict, and shelve questions of who is responding to whose actions, and who is provoked and who is doing the provoking. The conflict has gone on for so long that looking for prime causes is futile. Each side can provide an antecedent cause to justify any action.

What we can be absolutely sure of is that the ultimate losers in this conflict, as in any conflict, are ordinary people, men, women, children, old and young, people who are just trying to live their lives. They are the ones who will pay the highest price. The bombardment by Israel of Lebanon and Gaza has already resulted in hundreds of deaths and displacements of civilians. The rockets being hurled by Hezbollah forces into Israeli cities are killing Israeli civilians. And it is going to get worse, since modern warfare has the creation of civilian terror as a key objective, and access to ever more powerful weaponry is getting easier. This is so obvious and drearily predictable that it amazes me that people still support war.

Why has the Palestinian statelessness issue been allowed to continue to fester for so long? Why is it that their legitimate right to a state where they can truly govern themselves and live in dignity been ignored? Why isn’t the granting of that basic need at the forefront of discussions?

For those in the Middle East (and Sri Lanka) who think that their national and ethnic identity is so important, and their own religion so noble, that their self-image is inexorably bound up in them, I recommend this Richard Dawkins quote (thanks to MachinesLikeUS.com), where he speaks with typical lucidity:

Out of all of the sects in the world, we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority just happen to choose the one that their parents belong to. Not the sect that has the best evidence in its favour, the best miracles, the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count for nothing, compared to the matter of heredity. This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could seriously deny it. Yet people with full knowledge of the arbitrary nature of this heredity, somehow manage to go on believing in their religion, often with such fanaticism that they are prepared to murder people who follow a different one.

Until people realize that their allegiance to their nationality or ethnicity or religion has the same superficial significance as support for their favorite sports team, we will continue to have wars, with people having this bizarre notion that it is actually noble to kill or die for their flag, their race, and their god.

Next: The balance of power in the Middle East.

The origin of life

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection deals with the question of how life evolves and does not directly address the question of the origin of life itself. The fields of cosmology and physics and chemistry have provided models of how the universe evolved and created the solar system, among other things. But those theories do not explain how organic molecules, the basic building blocks of life, came about.

An article by Gareth Cook in the August 14, 2005 issue of the Boston Globe examined this question in the light of an initiative (known as the ”Origins of Life in the Universe Initiative”) by then Harvard president Lawrence Summers to invest millions to investigate this important question, partly in an effort to have Harvard try and catch up the leaders in this field at the University of Arizona, the California Institute of Technology, and the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif..
[Read more…]

The origin of life

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection deals with the question of how life evolves and does not directly address the question of the origin of life itself. The fields of cosmology and physics and chemistry have provided models of how the universe evolved and created the solar system, among other things. But those theories do not explain how organic molecules, the basic building blocks of life, came about.

An article by Gareth Cook in the August 14, 2005 issue of the Boston Globe examined this question in the light of an initiative (known as the ”Origins of Life in the Universe Initiative”) by then Harvard president Lawrence Summers to invest millions to investigate this important question, partly in an effort to have Harvard try and catch up the leaders in this field at the University of Arizona, the California Institute of Technology, and the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif..
[Read more…]