The Only Way to WIN in Iraq: Declare DEFEAT

Date March 27, 2007

We have found ourselves in a conundrum with regards to Iraq.

To summarize in simple terms:
1. Continue to fight as we have until now, gaining a little ground at great human and financial cost only to lose it right away to the insurgents; with every additional week of occupation and errant bomb, see the anti-Americanism in the Muslim world increase in its ire. Fight until we win, no matter how long it takes, because we must have victory.

This is primarily the Republican view, although there is lots of attrition in their ranks.

It is my opinion that this war is unwinnable and everything we do in our current strategy is for naught.

2. Withdraw (whether now or later doesn’t really matter) and see the country (and most likely the region) descend into chaos: civil war (and it will get far uglier before it is over), ever escalating Sunni-Shi’ite hatred, blame from the Muslim world and American allies towards the US for destroying the country and then leaving it to figure out the mess without us. We’ll claim that we gave them every chance for democracy, but it will only be blustering justification.

This is primarily the Democratic view, although the different presidential hopefuls are posturing some fairly minute differences.

So either way, we are screwed (pardon my English). There is no good way out of this ugly mistake without a tremendous amount of bloodshed and a generation of people that hate us. It’s an Al-Queda recruiting bonanza!

In addition, it is wonderful to see our political leadership argue, blame, spin, and yell about who is right in their opinion, when there is not a single viable plan to be seen anywhere. Once again, we’re in the wrong box.

So why is declaring defeat going to help us win this war?

First of all, the Democratic plan to pull out is going to leave a vacuum that is going to sicken all of us in the violence it begets. I understand the desire to leave instead of letting our soldiers die, especially when we think every additional death is senseless (which is my case). But let’s not fool ourselves that things will be ok over there. They will slaughter each other. I get ill to my stomach just thinking about it.

On the other hand, we (Americans in general, Republicans in particular) seem to have forgotten something very basic about human nature: humiliation is one of the most emotionally painful experiences a person can go through. It is a question of face. Our ego would rather die than suffer that, especially in a public way. An acquaintance of mine told me a story a few years ago about the Iraqi body guard of a journalist stationed in Baghdad leading up to and during the initial invasion. When the army fell so quickly, he was delighted that Saddam had fallen (apparently he hated him with a passion) but as an Iraqi he was ashamed of how their army had performed. This was someone that liked us. Apply that to a multitude of people who are predisposed to see us negatively, tired of being tread upon by a country that considers itself superior to everyone, have tremendous emotional pain due to lost loved ones and destroyed homes, see reinforcing images on TV, talk to their neighbors in ever escalating agreement on their hatred of the injustice, and … well, I guess I’ll stop there for now.

Conclusion: they will not less us win, even if they have to blow themselves up to the last man, woman, child.
And that is not because they don’t value life, but because they are human, they want to be respected, and being shamed by someone else makes them hate with a passion.
Were I, or you, over there, we would do the same. Perhaps we wouldn’t use suicide bombing as one of our main strategies, but we would rather die than accept defeat. History is covered with other cases.

So one of our key priorities needs to be to deflate this commitment to defeat us thru disengaging the mechanism I was describing above. We need to remove their humiliation from the equation.

Drastic times call for drastic measures:

The only way I can think of doing this is to declare defeat. We cannot possibly attain our goals in the region unless we calm down the emotional furor. A complicating factor is that there is as much, if not more, Shia-Sunni hatred as there is Muslim-US hatred, but if we can remove our part, it will let a tremendous amount of pressure out of the system.

It is a very basic, albeit counterintuitive, fact of human emotions and relations: when we are feeling really hurt by someone, and deeply angry inside, just about nothing can make that go away like a sincere acknowledgment and apology on their end. A new starting point becomes possible.

One of the reasons why we haven’t been able to consider such an option is that we have mixed up our goals in this war (stability, spreading democracy, cheap oil, …) with winning the war. If we look at JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was willing to let Khrushchev declare victory if JFK/the US obtained our goals (a nuclear free Cuba). Teddy Roosevelt did the same with Wilhelm II of Germany in the in the Venezuela Crisis of 1902.

— Are we willing to lose face to get what we really want in this situation (and save tens of thousand of lives in the process)?
— Said differently, are peace, stability, having our sons, daughters, fathers, etc come home safely important enough to us that we’re willing to let our reputation as an impregnable superpower be tainted a bit?

We haven’t been yet.

I think the angle is something like this:
“Look, we made a mistake (gulp). [If we elaborate here on what our mistake was and sincerely apologize for making it, it’ll help even more]. We got into it for the wrong reasons, because we were so sure we were right about the WMDs that we didn’t listen to anyone who disagreed w/ us. On top of it, we didn’t do our homework on the region and the culture; we had no idea what kind of pandora’s box we were opening (well, we didn’t want to listen to the people who suspected what might occur).
Now, it is a complete mess, and we don’t know what to do. We’re willing to publicly admit that we cannot win this war. If we just pull out now, your entire culture and region is going to destroy itself. Can you help us work this out?”

Who do we say this to? Let’s try:
Syria, Lebanon, Iran, to start with, as well as all the other Muslim countries out there that can influence the situation.
We can still make them our allies in this situation. They don’t want this to spiral out of control either.
We then work with the regional players in the area to stop the stream of arms, bombs and extremists flowing into Iraq. They work thru their networks and tribal connections to bring things under control. The only people at this point, I think, that can stem the flow of bloodshed are the suppliers and financial supporters of those fighting.

I admit that this plan has certain issues that I haven’t been able to think thru as of yet:

— What would be the long term implications of the US admitting defeat (ie, would it appear as another Somalia to the terrorist community, proving our weakness)? I’ll have to address this in another posting, as this one has become far too long.
— Are we willing to accept certain outcomes in whatever final solution is created that we don’t really like (something that is more to Iran or Syria’s liking, for instance)? This could be in terms of control of oil production, political system, influence of Islamic law, etc
— Are the Sunnis and Shi-ites capable, as an international community, of working out this situation without a full scale war?
— I believe that getting further into the details of such a plan would raise other issues we have with the regional players and that they have with each other that I am not informed enough to know of
— This strikes me as a totally untenable position to take politically if you are a presidential candidate in today’s politcal climate of non-dialogue

I can fully imagine that this is a strategy that opens itself to ridicule, especially from any hard-ass type (typically, but not exclusively Republican) who thinks that we need to be tough to maintain our superiority; that this is sniveling liberal weakness. But I am not interested in being nice nor tough, nor weak nor strong; nor do I think it important to protect our reputation abroad (primarily because I think that we have thoroughly trashed it). I am interested in achieving our goals in the region and stopping the pain and bloodshed.

I welcome comments and critiques, holes in the logic or missing elements that can forward the reflection.


Shayne Hughes


19 Responses to “The Only Way to WIN in Iraq: Declare DEFEAT”

  1. John said:

    Obviously you’ve chosen a big topic, and one worth much thought and consideration in my view. The idea of declaring defeat may indeed have some “heeling” benefits. Perhaps such a declaration by our country/culture would positively change the way we are perceived by people of other cultures; perhaps others would change their beliefs about us based on such conciliatory actions.

    Many, many questions arise from this contemplated strategy: 1) How long would our new reputation stay intact? 2) What else would be expected of us as a nation? 3) Do we know what others really want from us in order to disarm their negative emotional responses? 4) Are we willing to concede many things and change our ways substantially in order to appease “them” now on into the future? 5) Is there any consensus as to what “they” want us to do (heck, it seems “they” can’t agree with each other let alone come to consensus specifically about what “we” are to do)?

    The list of grievances about “us” is undoubtedly long and would come from innumerable groups. How many of those grievances will need to be corrected before our enemies abandon the hunt?

    I’m concerned that what is lacking is clarity: the grievances about the west are not clearly identified. As such, it is difficult to get down to the bottom of one of one of the biggest questions we can ask and know the answer to: how are our actions as a nation/culture causing the aggrieved inconvenience? Specifically, how do our capitalistic/imperial actions cause others real, tangible problems?

    With a clear understanding of the answer to that question (and many other questions), we would actually be able to move forward in correcting some of the issues, or not. But at least there can be dialogue and negotiation about how to meet somewhere near the middle.

    But, I’m afraid, that this practical approach will not even be considered or applied by “leaders” on all sides because much of this isn’t about what is practical. Much of it is about being “right” and about beliefs of entitlement. Until those convictions are challenged and tempered, I’m not hopeful that much headway will be made.

    Let’s entertain this fantasy for a moment: one particular aggrieved group will let us alone if we abandon all support for Israel. It would be great to know exactly how those making the demand are really being put-out by our support of another nation. If there are real, tangible issues, those can be addressed. But if the demand is that we go away so that Israel can more easily be wiped off the map just because they believe that Israel has no right to exist, it will be all too likely that we’ll get stuck. Until the belief changes, the trouble will continue, regardless of the practical concerns.

    As we see in Iraq today, and humans being who they are, people are apt to choose sides based on identity, something you mentioned in your blog. The current in-fighting in Iraq is euphemistically termed “sectarian,” which is to say that those who identify with one particular faction of Islam are fighting with people who identify with a different faction of Islam. Each side believes they are right, each side believes they are entitled to something (although I’m not sure that many are even sure about what that is).

    It seems to me that a new context for humanity will not be possible until people abandon the practice of drawing lines in the sand: one side has the in-group and the other the out-group (the Star Bellied Sneetches and the ones with none upon thars) and realize that we are all members of the same species. But, wow, that seems almost impossible. That would be asking people to give up their most cherished possession: identity. The statement: “I am a brown haired person” (well, it used to be!), makes sense. I am a Sunni or Catholic or…, does not; these labels are not what you/we are, they are simply identity labels devised and applied by yourself and other humans (do you think your dog looks up and thinks: my master is tall, has brown hair, blue eyes and is a Buddhist?). Until these kinds of assertions are no longer acceptable in human discourse, then people will fight for their entitlements. I’m not convinced that it will ever be possible to appease all groups all the time especially if a more realistic view of humankind, of what we are, is not widely adopted by the masses. This is the stuff wars are made of.

    There are genetic differences among us and each individual had no choice in the matter (literally) as to the basic building block of their physical/mental attributes. Accepting that reality, raising our consciousness and fighting our tendency to accept divisive, human-created boxes for us and other to fit in, I think, would go a long way to actually addressing our differences. Heck, if we do that, we might even survive as a species for some time to come.

    OK, someone else’s turn. Thanks for the blog.


  2. » Blog Archive » Reframe said:

    […] new blog launched today aiming for some serious reframing of big issues. The first post throws out the idea that we are now in a damned if we do/damned if we don’t spot in Iraq. We […]

  3. Dan said:

    I hate to say it but I think you are not being anywhere bold enough in your thinking on this. Yes we do need to admit defeat. But that is only a start. A big part of that admission requires a huge public penance for the horror we have collectively created. The rest of the world and most of us American agahst at this travesty will need concrete and visible punishment for the venal politicians, oil interests and the plutocrats who dragged us into this debacle.

    It wasn’t like this outcome was a surprise of history. There were plenty of people in the country 4 years ago who were screaming their heads off predicting exactly the outcome we now have. No this was a vast criminal enterprise and needs to be treated as such.

    Unfortunately for your reasonable approach, the rest of the world saw clearly that this war was a cynical and criminal enterprise, not just a misguided foreign policy adventure. Both political parties in our system are culpable for slavish obedience to the corporate interests who wanted the oil and the construction contracts. There was big money to be made and the nervous nellies warning of the stupidity of this war were to be ridiculed as unpatriotic traitors. Perhaps they were even French! So, in the best history of tragic rituals, real blood must be shed in order for balance and justice to return.

    The only way the world will forgive us this horror is if we literally and publicly flog the perpetrators. We need a collective act of contrition which will not only show that we abjure our previous hubris, but are willing to pursue a level of penance unseen in our history. We need to start with a Constitutional crisis which will culminate in the impeachment and imprisonment of B ush, Cheney, Powell, Rice, Wolfowitz and the crew. They need to be reviled, spat upon and held up to public himiliation for all the world to see. Yes this will be painful for Americans who have come to believe in their own election. However, the rest of the world will never again see a vision of promise in our American Dream unless we can whole heartedly repuditate the abomination it has become.

  4. Ike said:

    My concern is that it uses the same right wrong thinking to attempt to resolve the war that got us into the war.

    When I read the post I “hear” right/wrong thinking at two levels, at least. First when post uses “Defeat” in the title. That connotes to me win/lose, right/wrong.

    Second, there are references like the one below, to “mistakes” for which to “apologize” because we got it “wrong”.

    “Look, we made a mistake (gulp). [If we elaborate here on what our mistake was and sincerely apologize for making it, it’ll help even more]. We got into it for the wrong reasons,

    This is, to me, the imbedded language of wrongness, subjugation, and control.
    The paradigm that I am pointing to is one that shared by George Bush as well as the Osama Ben Laden. It is a characterized by the feelings of anger, shame, guilt, and depression. And it is also characterized by revolving those on the bottom to be on the top of those who were formerly on top of them.

    Now, please hear that I am not saying there is anything wrong with right/wrong thinking. I just don’t want to engage in it if my goal is to connect with myself and others. I have found for me that right/wrong thinking leads me to disconnect from myself and from others. I don’t like that consequence. Therefore, when I am present to myself, I generally prefer to think and speak in ways that connect me to me and to others.

  5. context said:

    It’s taken me a few days to ponder your very varied thoughts and comments. I was struck by the differences between them. Ike and Dan, in particular, seem to have startlingly different views. I’ve tried to regroup the lines of reflection.

    Paradigm shift in US policy towards the world
    To begin with, John reminded me of a point that I forgot to mention and that seriously undermines the practicality of my proposal (as if there weren’t enough problems already in my idea of declaring defeat): this strategy would require that we actually change our strategy of engagement in the world. Today, we operate like a swaggering cowboy, ignoring the pleas and arguments of our allies and other third parties (I’m avoiding the word “enemies” here as Iran, for example, is an enemy that really doesn’t need to be one).

    We (meaning the US in general over the past half-century and the current Administration in particular) don’t listen particularly well to opinions that differ from ours. Nor do we take orders from anybody (and why should we, WE’RE AMERICA!), and for the most part rules are things that apply to others. This is part of our cultural charm. It does have its drawbacks, however, and the rising death count in Iraq is a good example of one of them. May be the day we learn our lesson, we’ll stop creating these situations for ourselves.

    So, for the Victory thru Defeat plan to work (I’m trying to put a positive PR spin on it), we would need to be willing to engage the world on different terms: as an equal among equals as opposed to an authoritative parent directing recalcitrant children (some of whom seem to be entering their teenage crisis…). I’m not sure that we are ready for that psychologically or culturally, but our time is coming and it would take us out of the terrorist crosshairs a bit. This transition to a different rapport with the world is an entire line of thought worthy of exploration, but too long for tonight.

    Our behavior contributes to international insecurity and the creation of enemies
    I’ll mention, in case I don’t come back to this point in another posting, that one of the other consequences of our cowboy behavior above is that we make other countries afraid of us. We are a threat. I believe that Iraq, more than any other single factor, has incited countries like Iran to develop nuclear weapons. In some ways, they have no other choice. Were I Iran, I’d being doing it. Since the US didn’t listen to the UN Security Council re: Iraq, and invaded and decapitated that country despite a strong coalition of international disapproval, why wouldn’t they do the same w/ Iran? Who is going to protect me, little mid-eastern country? France? NATO? Saudi Arabia? No, probably the only thing I’m sure will give me security is a nuclear weapon.

    Right, wrong and the paradigm of blame and punishment
    Ike’s comments regarding my language of right and wrong were striking feedback, as you picked up on something embedded in my language/point of view that was invisible to me. I didn’t see myself as being in the paradigm of thought that created the war, but rather as trying to step out of it. Catching me red-handed like that, in public, well… luckily there aren’t enough people reading this blog for me to feel publicly embarassed. Still, it shows just how hard it is to step out of our own paradigm of right/wrong, the evaluations and judgments that we carry around with us. Most of us never even think about it, and even when we aim with all our might to clean the slate, we’re reminded we’re human.

    I think this simply reminds me of the size of the mountain that we need to climb in order to create something different in the world.

    It’s worth mentioning that “Defeat” was meant to be provocative to my readers and leaders, as well as startling to our enemies. Not provocative in an aggressive sense, but more to say that the most constructive path out that I see is located in a very different place than “fight to the end or withdraw” argument currently going on.

    I do have a question, though: I think that acknowledgment of our realization that actions we have taken have negatively impacted others, and a sincere apology and commitment to do something different, can be an important part of the healing process. Is it the idea that I’m proposing that you disagree with, or simply the language I used? I don’t think you are saying that there is no place for admission/acknowledgment/taking responsibility for our actions.

    I more get the impression that you are warning against the type of thinking that Dan raises – where angry punishment seems to be the focus. It appears to me that this could put us back into the type of “you are wrong and must suffer the consequences” thinking that characterized the Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI and sowed the seeds of Hitler’s rise.

    How else might we own something in this situation? What language would you propose?

    John’s question #5 [“Is there any consensus as to what “they” want us to do (heck, it seems “they” can’t agree with each other let alone come to consensus specifically about what “we” are to do)?”] raises more complex issues that my proposal clearly doesn’t address. Perhaps if we had a goals in our foreign policy that were not blindly focused on our self-interest, but actually sought to genuinely support other nations in an even-handed way, we could actually become a player in helping them create peace, or at the very least not be giving them opportunities to create war. This question would need to be explored using specific examples, and is probably a second stage after getting us out of the quagmire we are in.

    Identity and Us vs. Them
    In terms of John’s comments re: no longer “drawing lines in the sand” and in/out groups (accompanied by his reference to that great social scientist, Dr. Seuss (and I’m not being sarcastic one bit), this is a primary concern of mine in writing this piece. We are in an enormous Us vs. Them with the Muslim world, no different than the Us vs. Them’s that we find in organizations all over America, or in the Red – Blue divide. As is typical, we only experience it as “They” who are doing all these inappropriate, dishonest, evil (fill in your favorite pejorative adjective), and totally miss the fact that we are their “They”. Their list of complaints and beliefs about us is just as long and well-documented as ours.

    Still, your question of identity is a crucial one. A fellow thinker named Curtis Johnson who works in the national security community has been exploring how a powerful, hereto unaddressed component of the War on Terror is that of “Cultural Identity Threat” (his term). When a culture or people feels threatened, judged, attacked in its core values and identity markers, they go thru an intense emotional reaction as a peeple. The more they talk about it, the bigger the monster (the other side) becomes. And when people (whether it’s your co-worker, spouse/partner, child, or an ethnicty or country) feel threatened, they attack. This human component is totally missing from our approach. And as we are seeing, a purely or even primarily military approach to exterminating terror is a fool’s cause.

    So can we develop a sense of identity that isn’t based on what the other is not? Do we need to prove that our way is the right one and that others are off-track? Hoping that we’ll all realize that we are “one species” seems, as you point out, unachievable, like a utopian dream from the 60s. But is it really that hard to take concrete steps day by day to step out of this downward spiral we are in with the Muslim world? I’ve seen it happen in organizations, so I’m sure that it can happen here. It has to. The stakes are too high.


  6. Anonymous said:

    Read the blog. Intriguing idea and I can see why it is the only alternative. Which is pretty horrifying given that the chances of it happening are zero. I know I should not be such a nay-sayer, and I don’t think that’s a reason not to write it and push for it. I’m just feeling pretty pessimistic about it all. What’s worse is that this is PRECISELY the scenario an in-the-know military friend of mine spelled out before we went into Iraq (I think you also pointed out that many people predicted this outcome). And at the time, he said the military brass all knew it too, and some even considered whether the war was unethical, but not enough to defy presidential authority (which they can legally do). I have a hard time not demonizing Bush and his cronies. But I’m trying.

  7. Bob said:

    On reading The Only Way to WIN in Iraq, my initial reaction is 98% agreement. The Bush administration was either lying or hopelessly naive in the stated belief that the people of Iraq would embrace us a liberators and grab at the chance for democracy. They should’ve seen the near certainty of a civil war between Shiite’s, Sunnis, and Kurds. They should’ve seen “an Al-Queda recruiting bonanza” in the making. Colin Powell warned, “If you invade Iraq, you own it.” Yet the administration wasn’t ready to fully “own it.” Don Rumsfeld thought the high-tech, “shock and awe” victory could be followed by a minimalist occupation, and in so doing failed to secure the Iraqi Army’s arms supplies after it disbanded. Kicking all Bath party members out of their jobs destroyed the administrative infrastructure necessary to keep the country going. The result was several hundred thousand unemployed Iraqis with lots of AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and artillery shells with which to made roadside bombs. I love the author’s point about humiliation. Tom Friedman emphasizes this point in his great book, The World is Flat.

    My 2% disagreement is about whether declaring defeat and apologizing for our sins will be enough. I learned in elementary school, back when physical punishment was allowed in school, that when I was a bad boy, I got a whipping. Hiding out on the playground or in the bathroom only delayed the punishment, and sometimes made it worse. I agree that the USA and the other “coalition” members should pull out of Iraq, but I don’t think there is any way of doing so without horrendous bloodshed. The author rightly points to the “conundrum” that there will likely be almost as much bloodshed, and much more American bloodshed and pointless spending if we stay. In 20 years, the results will likely be the same either way. By the way, you can now buy Kentucky Fried Chicken in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

    Declaring defeat does have a chance, however, if the USA is sincerely apologetic, engages with Iraq’s neighbors, including Syria, Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, and its internal combatants, including Al Queda, with commitment to act in the most constructive possible way to leave behind a peaceful resolution. Unless the Bush administration has a revelation radically different from the biblical one now being pursued, the USA will not engage with the adversaries that matter most, and will not be willing to support a solution that would likely be developed if all the stakeholders were fairly engaged. But let’s be optimists and pray that the key decision makers on all sides will realize what could be done with the more than $8 billion per month the USA is spending if it were diverted from fighting insurgents to rebuilding a country.

  8. context for humanity » Blog Archive » Starting over with Iran & the Bush Doctrine said:

    […] I mentioned in my comment on Iraq , were I in Iran’s shoes, I’d be developing nuclear weapons just as fast as I could, […]

  9. Bravo said:

    The idea of declaring defeat is definitively out of the box. And we could debate about the choice of the words (which might be valuable). But mainly I wanted to stress that what your intent with this article is not so much to see who is to blame for what, who is the winner/loser as much as looking for ways to re-establish some type of dialog between the US (maybe even the West in general) and the countries of the Middle-East. There are many ways that that could be done. Declaring defeat and/or Apologizing would definitely be an amazing jump start that would probably open amazing doors, but it is unlikely to happen.

    That doesn’t mean however that dialog can’t be rekindled, in a less bold ways.

    I have only read the initial posting and not the replies ( even though they seem thoughful and interesting). So I hope I am not repeating something that was already discussed.

  10. Curtis said:

    My ears were burning.

    A few thoughts. My own vision is not that we cease to have group identities or that they cease to matter (one world). I don’t believe this is desirable or possible. We really fundamentally need these “handles” to understand ourselves and social situations and make decisions–I don’t think it would do for men to treat women the same as they treat men or vice versa. I think what is important is being more conscious about them and mastering many of our fears surrounding them. And I think there’s something to this Buddhist thought of seeing the myth of our individuality.

    I believe there are more and less constructive group identity constructions, and we need to find a way to help ourselves beyond some of the self-defeating ones when we fall into them (e.g., “we’re the victims of X”).

    Our host fell into that old Tom Lehrer joke/trap: “there are people who don’t love their fellow man. And I hate those people!” What’s important for me here is that choosing not to live in the space of judgment and right/wrong is not the same as complete moral relativism. It is one thing to regard an act as a mistake or to have an ethical standard, and it is another to demonize and disrespect others when they disagree or act out of accordance with our standards. This is important to me because I believe many people dismiss the ideas our host presents because they miss the distinction and believe they would have to give up their standards to agree with him. In the specific context, one issue here is that we are dealing with societies that have been unsuccessful by many standards–economic, human misery, human rights, advances in arts and sciences, gov’t by the consent of the governed, etc. This doesn’t mean that “we” have the right society for all and “they” have the wrong one. It does mean that humiliation is not just stemming from being conquered by foreign invaders, but also from failing to achieve desired goals on their own. And inequality is not merely military or monetary.

    I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to apply the psychological principles and tools we know to group egos and even to nations, and I find it all very puzzling and challenging. I do believe that public government apologies can and have mattered. The South African processes after Apartheid were very interesting–focused more on making the truth public and giving voice to those who had none than on trying and punishing the guilty. Meanwhile governments are not people–are not monolithic–and we look at others sometimes as individuals and sometimes as representatives or agents of groups, organizations, or governments. Whether we see an other as an individual or a group member can change in the blink of an eye, or merely because they changed into or out of a uniform. We don’t know and can’t entirely control whether we are being viewed as an individual or a part of a whole we may or may not even avow.

    The utility I have found so far for translating the psychological to the political is specifically in oppositional identity–when my group’s defines its own identity in opposition to other groups (we are the people oppressed by, superior to, inferior to, the saviors of, etc.). Oppositional elements are always present, so it’s really their significance and whether these are “healthy beliefs” that matters. These can be very complex. George Schopflin cites the Turkish/Romanian/Balkan identity of being the buffer zone that kept out the eastern hoards and enabled Europe to bloom and prosper (i.e., we were martyrs for Europe, we can never catch up to Europe, and Europe owes us bigtime (and we hate those eastern hoards). This doesn’t strike me as a healthy belief.

    When it comes to negotiating, changing practices, making promises, etc., I get very lost and don’t yet find that I have anything to offer the diplomats. I’m glad to see our host contining to search for something.

    Finally, I think it’s very important (and also useful for those trying to avoid demonizing their own leaders) to think about how we create our own leaders and what leverage we have. George Bush’s decisions after 9/11 were fueled by American passions–our passions. The war in Iraq is sustained with our consent. The French Revolution went on for eight or ten years–a time when it was acceptable to drag nobles out of their houses and dismember them–fueled by ordinary folks. Somehow norms were created that made totally unacceptable behavior acceptable. We have all witnessed this and partaken in it, at least on a small scale. I do believe the same forces that lead us as children to join in ridiculing some kid on the playground are at play in national politics and enable poor decisions and bad leaders.

    This weekend I got to thinking about the (in my perception) growing Christian/nonChristian identity conflict when I read a church billboard that said “No bunny ever conquered death!” I know many Christians who are afraid that moral relativism and diversity efforts are a threat to their existence. And I know many non-Christians or non-fundamentalists who believe that fundamentalism is a danger to our freedom, our health (abortion, etc.) and is a significant cause of our foreign policy. At first I thought both of these things can’t be true. Either we are at one end of the pendulum and at risk of outlawing religion, or at the other, and at risk of a religious state, but not both. Now I think that it is true–that when these conflict grow, they create polarization and continually increase the possibility of radical solutions on either extreme–fueled equally by the two parties.

    And so it is not just George Bush or the military leaders, or those of us in national security–it is all of us.


  11. context for humanity » Blog Archive » Inability to Dialogue on Iraq (or much else) said:

    […] unsolvable situation. We can’t leave and we can’t stay, and the idea I proposed as the only way to win in Iraq can’t be considered less out of left field. Unfortunately, we have reached a point where we […]

  12. h-tm said:

    I wanted to take a few minutes to capture what Curtis’ measured remarks stirred up.

    First, like Ike’s comment before him, C made reference to my language when he discussed the “Lehrer joke/trap.” Both seem to refer to language of judgment or right/wrong. There appears to be a level of anger or righteousness in my language that I don’t see (and that I certainly took pains in my writing to eliminate). I think their observations accurately identify how I feel on the inside, so it serves as another lesson how our true feelings come thru even when we try to hide them…

    There was much to learn from your comments, and I tried to soak it all in. However, your last thoughts on the polarization that we are experiencing reminded me of a high school history lesson I received from my favorite US history teacher. We were examining what led us into the Civil War, and one of the key factors that at last allowed our society to go over the edge, and the war to break out, was the loss of “the Great Compromisers”: key statesman in Congress like Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster. I suppose that today it is easy to judge the word “compromise” but these men were able to see beyond their differences in upbringings, beliefs systems and economic priorities, understand the other side (enough to build bridges anyway), and craft a path forward that preserved the union. As the decade of the 1850’s waned, these gentlemen retired, leaving more ‘extreme’ leaders in their stead. There was no longer the ability(?), commitment(?), awareness(?), desire(?) to fend off the unthinkable by finding a path forward. The leaders that replaced them knew to employ invective language, but not build from huge differences a common commitment to peace, to the preservation of society — or whatever it was that pushed the Compromisers to hold the North and the South together for so long. As you say at the end, it was we who voted them into power, so we reaped what we sowed? And so what are we sowing now?

    I have often thought of these men in the past few years, as I’ve watched Bush, Putin, Ahmadinejad, Bin Laden, Ehud Olmert and others speak in extreme language and act in bellicose ways. ‘You will do it MY way, or else.’ We are on a slippery slope; does any of us really know when we will pass the point of no return? I’m not sure that we recognize it until it is behind us. I personally think that we are far closer to a regional war with the Muslim world than we think. US aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and captured British soliders are all smoldering kindling; WWI was started with less. Tonkin Gulf, anyone?

    I didn’t mean to be flip above (well, yes I did), but this question of leadership is a crucial one. Not a swaggering tough guy leader (which we Americans seem to feel comforted by), but one who can empathize with the enemy, who gives a measured and thoughtful response when attacked, not a defensive one. Doris Goodwin in “Team of Rivals” (biography of Abraham Lincoln) gives a stunning account of AL’s ability, time and again, to act on his long term goals of what he wants to build and what society he wishes to see, instead of vindictively, angrily, destructively. It is time for statesmen (or women, I don’t care). If we (meaning the people of each of the pivot countries in our current stalemate) elect another set of leaders a little more on the extreme than those we have, I doubt we’ll make it thru the end of the decade. In this sense, I agree with the comment Bravo made on this site re: the change of the US’ role in the world. We need a strong leader to help us understand that we are no longer the ruler of the fiefdom called Earth.

  13. Would Someone Please Think When They Propose an Iraq Strategy? | context for humanity said:

    […] Why are we as the American public forced to choose between two polar opposite, although equally futile, proposals? Are any of our elected officials doing any serious thinking about this awful […]

  14. Maximus said:

    I would like to see a continuation of the topic

  15. Nathanael Stiegler said:

    Howdy! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new apple iphone! Just wanted to say I love reading your blog and look forward to all your posts! Carry on the excellent work!

  16. Anon said:

    I stumbled across this blog entry today, over 4 years after its publication, and I’m wondering if you still feel the US should have declared defeat? I am not a fan of the Bush years, but I do remember him saying that if a democracy was established in Iraq, the rest of the Middle East would follow. And now Arab Spring… could Bush, albeit misguided on the weapons of mass destruction front, have been correct in his vision all along? Has the establishment of a democracy (fragile, but a democracy none the less) in Iraq given the powerless and disenfranchised of the Middle East an alternative to Al Qaeda? And is a chance at freedom for the people of the Middle East worth the cost (talking human cost more than financial)? Knowing what your thoughts were 4 years ago, have you re-thought your assumptions about Bush or the Iraq war now?

  17. Shayne Hughes said:

    Ah, I appreciate such a thoughtful question.

    I’ll preface my remarks by stating that I’m not sure I’m right on this one. But my thoughts are the following:

    I stand by my post — in large part because the idea of declaring defeat was primarily a strategy to change our relational dynamic with the middle east. I believe ‘they’ have a lot of built up conclusions about who we are: colonizers, self-interested, indifferent to their needs, out to manipulate and/or exploit them. The idea of declaring defeat was to defuse the humiliation they felt at being dominated by us (militarily, economically, and perhaps to a lesser degree, culturally), and to give them ownership for stabilizing Iraq. If they could no longer see us as the enemy to be resisted at all costs, perhaps they might begin to focus on the issues and dissatisfactions stemming from that region (vs. caused by the US). I think that Obama’s more diplomatic stance towards the Mid-East has begun to change our relationship with them.

    This leads us to another possible interpretation of the Jasmine revolution: the Arabic-Muslim youth are now turning on their long-standing dictators because there is no longer a bellicose US ‘satan’ stomping around arrogantly, stirring up nationalist unity. In the limited reading I’ve done on internal Iranian politics, for example, this is clearly the case. The more threatening US leaders are, the more the Iranian clergy are able to use that to muzzle the Iranian youth. When we are no longer an outside enemy to circle the wagons against, the Iranians only have themselves to look at. Then there will be nothing to divert the Iranian youth from their dissatisfactions with their government.

    Could Obama’s less aggressive rhetoric, although not yet producing tangible results with Iran, be a key ingredient in the Middle East looking at itself instead of being angry at us? I think so.

    That being said, I also agree that it is highly plausible that the (fragile) success of Iraq’s democracy has been a beacon of possibility for Tunisia, Egypt and others. But if we were still threatening to invade Iran, would there be a context conducive to these peaceful uprisings? If we were still in a black or white mindset re: allies and enemies in the Mid-East, would we have taken the risk to encourage Mubarak to step down? Hard to judge such intangibles.

    And then of course there the advent of Facebook and Twitter since 2003, so technology is also part of the synergy.

    What do you think of all that?

  18. Anon said:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I agree with you on many points, including that a changing relationship dynamic with the Middle East was a needed (and successful) strategy. I respectfully disagree, however, on where the credit for that belongs. I do believe that establishing a democracy in Iraq had an impact (please don’t tell Dubya I said so!), but the majority of the credit doesn’t go to our leaders. I think the internet was the key ingredient, with Facebook and Skype opening up the entire world to a previously isolated people who were fed one world view but then got to see that there was more out there from which to choose.

    Its hard for me to believe that an apology would have been enough to make that change. I don’t believe any words come near to the power of the images and exchange of ideas that can be shared across the world on the internet. And, although he’s a gifted orator and a brilliant man, I don’t think Obama’s diplomatic skills had a major impact. From the point of view of an average Joe in the Middle East, his words may be meaningless in the face of continuing essentially the same policies as before. No one has better interpersonal skills than Bill Clinton, but Al Qaeda chugged along during his tenure as well. I don’t have as much faith as you in the power of just words and diplomacy.

    My last comment is that I don’t agree that these uprisings are peaceful or that the governments of the Middle East have had major changes in the way they view us (or Israel, or the small population of Christians in the Middle East). Iran hasn’t stopped their nuclear programs; they’re just distracted by their own population right now. And we in the US just hear less about it on the news because this isn’t an election year. It still may be all about oil, right? That’s why we joined France and Britain in interceding in Libya, which is a major oil supplier for Europe, yet we turn a blind eye on Syria and Bahrain, where the government crackdown is far more brutal and violent. We don’t know what the new governments will stand for, or what their policies will be towards us or their own people.

    Really, who knows? We all tend to interpret events through our own world views, with such different conclusions. But I appreciate this “conversation” as your ideas help me keep challenging my own assumptions – thank you for that.

  19. Shayne Hughes said:

    I find all your points quite valid.

    The interconnectedness of the internet is moving faster than I can adjust. It was only just in responding to you that I realized how different things were 4 years ago. We are running one really big, live experiment with the human race.

    Central to our discussion is the fact that rhetoric and diplomacy will have no net effect if they are not accompanied by a substantive change in our foreign policy. Herein lies a contradiction: we want to act out of national self-interest and we want to be admired as a beacon-on-the-hill democracy. Somehow, we struggle to understand the resentment and antipathy that comes from those people on the short end of our self-interest stick. As long, as you point out, our foreign policy is guided by oil (or other economic) interests, our intentions will viewed with cynicism. This is the way of the world — but let’s not be surprised by the negative reaction we receive.

    I am not a foreign policy expert, but in the work that I do with corporate groups, we see very similar dynamics: if someone (a leader or group) acts out of self-interest/self-promotion, there is a lot of negative energy and suspicion in the team or company against them. When leaders can act with the larger goal in mind (for the entire team or company), and put aside personal interests, then they are able to truly lead the people around them. I have seen radical transformations of inter-departmental dynamics. It has made me wonder on occasion what would happen if our foreign policy were less guided by self-interest and more by a contribution focus.

    Idealistic blasphemy, no doubt. But I firmly believe we would wield far more moral authority and be much less of a target.

    In this sense, a mere apology would have been completely useless. An apology, accompanied by a completely different approach — more humble, less selfish, more willing to respect other countries’ interests — could have lead to a less deadly resolution of Iraq. But it is easy to speculate from the sidelines. Dubya did the very best he could with the world view he had.