Thursday, November 30, 2006

Non-violent Influence

One of the issues brought up by my friend in discussing Iraq is whether non-violent means can ever really influence intransigent leaders like Saddam Hussein.

There are three places that any tool can be used: internally, externally, and at the boundary of the nation.

In a community of countries that respects national sovereignty, internal operations are generally frowned upon except where conditions are dire (many people are either dying or threatened with death). Non-violent, internal operations such as food distribution, medical services, and education are being provided increasingly by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which are often under no such constraint.

Non-violent means can be applied externally to alter the economic and physical environment that the errant leader must deal with to acquire resources and dispose of waste. Also of interest to any leader is the possibility of extending power to other countries, and this too can be controlled.

The boundary of the errant nation is where most direct diplomacy (perhaps the most familiar form of non-violent activity) is applied, modulating the inputs and outputs via agreements between the nation's leadership and the rest of the world.

It is fair to say that any one of these regions of operation may not be sufficient to have an effect, but two or more of them may. It would be interesting to do a thorough study of history to determine what correlation exists, if any, between the region(s) of operation where non-violent action has been taken and the successful influence of intransigent leaders.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Disagreement over Iraq

Since before the Iraq war started, I have had a disagreement with a friend over whether it was justified, what the president’s motives were in starting it, and whether the Bush Administration behaved inappropriately in selling the war to the American public.

My friend contends that Saddam’s lies about having WMD were plenty of justification for the war; while I contend it was not justified, based on the available intelligence and the possibility of getting full access for the U.N. weapons inspectors. I do agree that we would likely have had to deal with Saddam militarily, but at a future date and with a full understanding, by the American people, of why we were doing it, as well as a full set of plans for doing so. My friend’s opinion is that if there was even the slightest chance of Saddam having WMD, it was worth it to invade Iraq and make sure he couldn’t use the weapons. That is, the nature of the threat was such that we couldn’t afford to wait for more concrete evidence, which Saddam was unlikely to provide anyway.

As for Bush’s motives, extensive reading convinces me that until 9/11/2001, Bush was gradually being convinced of the neoconservative agenda of U.S. hegemony, beginning with the Middle East, but the terrorist attacks pushed him over the edge. Starting with Cheney, Bush and his administration became extremely paranoid, so that they were willing to attack any nation that looked like a possible threat. They decided to make an example of Saddam, who we already had some bad history with, so as to scare any other potential state sponsors of terrorism. That this would be a convenient first step in transforming the Middle East into a democratic region was a bonus, if not a valid long-term justification. My friend does not buy the neocon angle, believing Bush acted merely in defense of the country. He does however admit that Bush probably became paranoid after 9/11, and that he did what any politician would do, using the terrorist attacks to sell the war.

Where my friend and I have the strongest disagreement is over the validity of the tactics used to go to war. I have little doubt that the Bush Administration lied to Congress, the American public, and the world, to gather support for the invasion of Iraq. There is ample evidence that our leaders knew that what they were advertising as certain facts were actually shaky suppositions based on questionable information. My friend rejects such evidence as “Monday morning quarterbacking” led by disaffected public servants, and believes that there was almost no credible evidence one way or the other about WMD (largely because the CIA was untrustworthy after missing the existence of WMD prior to the Gulf War). That there was even a slight chance that Saddam had weapons, implied by his statements to that effect after kicking out the weapons inspectors, was reason enough to cherry pick the intelligence, flawed as it might be, to make the case for war. My friend insists that Bush did not lie, but rather made a judgment call as to the validity of the intelligence he had. My attitude is that Bush should have made the case honestly, and taken the consequences if it did not fly with the people; but my friend argues that this would have carried too much of a risk, that debate and diplomacy typically result in doing nothing, which could have been catastrophic.

Whatever the justification, the motives, and the tactics in marketing of the war, the result has been a disaster; though here, too, my friend and I disagree. He believes that if the U.S. had not toppled Saddam, Iraq would have been plunged into civil war as soon as something else happened to the dictator. The difference is that our forces are there to keep organized armies from forming, and to keep foreign forces (such as terrorists) from taking over the country. The Iraqis, in his opinion, are actually better off. My attitude, by contrast, is that if resistance to Saddam was home-grown, then the Iraqi people themselves would have been be able to make a decent transition to a new state; and encouraging such resistance through dissemination of information and humanitarian supplies, as well as selectively strangling military inputs to the economy, was our only legitimate option. Now all we have is a destabilized country with hundreds of thousands of innocent people dead offering a terrorist training ground that didn’t exist before, and a radicalized region on the verge of triggering a world war. Somehow, I don’t think that they, or we, are better off.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Roots of Violence

Like many people sitting outside of Iraq, I have a hard time grasping the reasons for the violence. I understand that it is related to the ethnic cleansing that has gone on elsewhere, especially in Darfur, and that such activity is so common as to be considered a natural consequence of human nature.

As part of the research for my novel Lights Out, about the consequences of a large electromagnetic pulse over Hawaii, I've developed a simple model of behavior based on the "Big Five" personality traits defined by McCrae and Costa. In this model, everyone in the population has a "comfort zone" in each of the personality dimensions, corresponding to their personality. They attempt to influence their local environment to match their personality (for example, highly social people try to be around more people, and loners tend to stay away from people). To the extent that the environment does not support a person's comfort zone, the person will experience stress.

The model predicts that the situations with the highest stress on the most people involve high uncertainty about how to reach their comfort zones, coupled with an environment that is near one of the extremes. The uncertainty can be manifested in either ignorance of the environment, or ignorance of how the environment works (what to do to alter it). Conversely, the situations with the least stress involve high certainty and knowledge about the environment, which tends to be near the middle of the continuum of states (in the comfort zone of the average person in a random population).

Given the huge stress experienced by the people in Iraq, I can't help but wonder if my model's predictions apply to them. One huge source of uncertainty in their lives, we know, is that they don't know who to trust. Since other people are the most influential parts of our environment, it makes sense that this will be the greatest source of stress. To reduce that stress, they could be expected to latch on to people who have obvious, common traits (such as religion); and resist, if not destroy, those who don't. In terms of the personality dimensions, I would expect need for stability and accommodation to play the largest part, with extraversion close behind.

What does all this suggest about how to stop the bloodshed? For one, the sources of uncertainty have to be disabled; and my guess is that these sources are primarily low-accommodation people who have significant power over the others. In addition, a system for providing accurate information and understanding to the most people needs to be established; this should be the basic role of any central government, and might be manifested as a public education system. "Security" has been discussed a primary requirement, but I would argue that you can't enforce behavior that hasn't been properly defined or agreed to; this is where communication between people is critical, operating from a common set of facts.

One thing I do know is that people are least likely to attack others they identify with, and establishing a basis for community is the most important prerequisite for civilization.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Thanksgiving 2006

Thanksgiving day traditionally marks the beginning of a season of humility and generosity. That season, ending with New Year's Day, has become, over time, a season of competition and gluttony. These new characteristics, masquerading as the original ones, have been hardwired into our (U.S.) economy so that the survival of entire industries now depends on them.

Like anyone else imbedded in a culture, I have gone along with the traditions, though to a lesser degree than many (due more to my personality than any conscious effort). As I face this new season with a heightened awareness of the consequences of consumption, I feel more drawn than ever to its roots.

Humility is an appreciation of our true value and scale, as part of a greater whole. Our value stems from the fact that without us, the whole wouldn't exist; yet in terms of scale, most of us are pretty minor parts. When we extend this appreciation to others, we are drawn to care for them as we do ourselves, which is the essence of true generosity.

It is obvious from these definitions that what has gone so horribly wrong in recent years is the decoupling of generosity from humility. Without humility, generosity has no context and can easily become something else: a frenzy of consumption, involving the exchange of material wealth between people who are just as likely as not to be equals. With humility, generosity can take many forms, material and non-material, and finds its most potent expression between those with a lot and those who have little. Generosity can then also be applied to future generations, involving investment in the welfare of those yet to be.

This year my wife and I hosted Thanksgiving for the first time as a married couple. We are most thankful for the fate that brought us together, and the relationships, starting with our own, that have developed since then (the most meaningful kind of growth imaginable). We celebrated those relationships, with the traditional meal as a backdrop.

As part of the preparations, we cleaned out our basement, giving away books and other items that others could get much more use out of. This had the combined effect of reducing consumption (giving people things that won't have to be produced new), improving other people's lives, and freeing up living space.

I will be looking for more creative ways to share and express my rediscovered humility in the days ahead, and hope that you, dear reader, will be inclined to do the same.


Hello, and welcome the new Idea Explorer blog!

Here you will find a variety of content that will hopefully challenge you to see the world differently, but not necessarily as I do.