January 28, 2012

Seeming Madness: The Suffocating Unreality that Kills

I occasionally remark that the most compelling reason for which I write about politics and foreign policy is that "the lives of countless people are affected because of the decisions we make." As I went on to say, in the first of my articles about the devastating effects of tribalism generally, and in politics more particularly: "[T]he final significance of all these issues is intensely personal: these questions matter so desperately because of how they affect me, and you, and all of us."

I recalled these earlier observations because I was searching for a different way of highlighting a particular aspect of the seeming madness that threatens to lay waste to much of the world as we know it today. I use the phrase "seeming madness" deliberately and with care, as I hope to make clear shortly. The two words convey different aspects of the problem I view as of critical significance.

To underscore the personal meaning of events of international scope, I offer three scenarios on a small scale. These events don't involve countries and entire peoples. The players are a few individuals, and the setting is a single neighborhood.

It's your neighborhood, and you're one of the players.

Situation One:

Several of Sam's friends are viciously murdered. Sam says he knows who did it, and he can prove it. Most people, including Sam, think that the suspected murderer is hiding in Tom's house. Sam demands that Tom surrender the alleged killer. Tom responds that he'd be happy to do so; Tom requests only that Sam show him the evidence that the suspected killer is, in fact, guilty. Sam insists he has the evidence, so Tom can't imagine why the request would be problematic.

Sam refuses Tom's offer and repeats his demand that Tom surrender the supposedly guilty man without conditions. Tom says again that he'd be glad to comply with Sam's demand; he only asks that Sam offer the evidence that Sam says he has. This back-and-forth continues; neither Sam nor Tom will alter his position. In frustration, Tom finally declares: "Look, I'll do everything you demand. You say you have evidence proving he's guilty. So show it to me. Then you can have him. You can have everything you say you want."

At that point, Sam yells: "THIS MEANS WAR!!" Sam means it. He kills Tom and his entire family, destroys Tom's house, murders several of his neighbors and wrecks much of the neighborhood.

Situation Two:

It's a short time later. Sam thinks that one of his neighbors, Henry, is hiding a huge stock of weapons. Many people aren't entirely sure why Sam believes this, but Sam never liked Henry very much. Maybe that's the explanation. (Sam would occasionally use Henry to cause harm to other neighbors Sam liked even less, but Sam still never liked Henry himself.) Sam regularly adds, in an especially threatening tone of voice, that Henry has a lot of weapons that are illegal. It's not clear to anyone why Sam believes this, but Sam repeatedly says it as if it's a fact beyond dispute. A lot of people are additionally puzzled by the fact that everyone knows Sam himself has the biggest collection of weapons in the neighborhood, in the entire city in fact.

Sam keeps repeating his accusations about Henry, and he keeps making them sound more and more ominous. Even if Sam's accusations were true, it's not readily apparent why that would represent a problem. What would Henry do with his weapons? It doesn't appear Henry could do much of anything. Despite all these questions about Sam's views and his reasons for them, Sam repeats the accusations over and over again -- and he regularly adds that something needs to be done.

Henry just wants to avoid trouble. So he tells Sam that Sam can send people to his, Henry's, house and search it from top to bottom. Henry knows they won't find anything. Sam takes him up on the offer; none of the dreaded weapons are found, and certainly no illegal ones, just as Henry had said. But Sam says that's not good enough. He knows that Henry's hiding something! So Henry says: "Then send the people to inspect my house again! You won't find anything. Inspect it as much as you like! You can have everything you say you want!"

At that point, Sam screams: "THIS MEANS WAR!!" Sam means it. He kills Henry and his entire family, destroys Henry's house, murders several of his neighbors and wrecks more of the neighborhood. This time, Sam also destroys part of the surrounding city.

Situation Three:

A few years have passed. These events are almost an exact replay of Situation Two. This time, Sam believes that a different neighbor, Charlie, has a secret weapons store. Sam again insists that some of Charlie's weapons are illegal. Just as before, many people have no idea why Sam believes any of this, but Sam keeps saying he has evidence! (That's just like Situation One, too.) All the other elements are the same, as well. Even if Charlie had the weapons, what could he do with them? Not much, it seems -- except perhaps use them to defend himself if somebody decided to attack him. Maybe someone like Sam.

Sam didn't like Henry, but he hates Charlie. No one knows why exactly, except that Charlie goes his own way. Most of the other neighbors follow Sam's lead in almost everything (remember Sam's own huge supply of weapons, bigger than anyone else's -- and Sam uses it). Charlie doesn't do whatever Sam says. Maybe that's why Sam hates him so much.

But Charlie saw what Sam did before. He knows what happened to Tom and Henry. Charlie desperately wants to avoid trouble if he possibly can. So he encourages Sam to send as many people as Sam wants to inspect his house. Sam sends a lot of people, many times. They don't find anything that could possibly cause serious concern. Despite this, and just as he did before, Sam keeps voicing his dark suspicions over and over again. And Sam always adds, "Something will have to be done." By this time, everyone knows what that means.

Because he doesn't know what else he can do, Charlie tells Sam many, many times that he will comply with all of Sam's demands -- and Charlie points out that he already has complied with those demands. Charlie says again: "You can have everything you say you want!"

As on the other occasions, Sam yells: "THIS MEANS WAR!!" Everyone knows Sam means it. And Sam gets ready to murder Charlie and his entire family. Sam also makes plans to destroy Charlie's house, to murder some of his neighbors, and finally to destroy the neighborhood entirely.

No one doubts that, this time, the neighborhood will no longer exist. If Sam should attack Charlie, they wonder if the city will survive.


How would you describe Sam's behavior? Note that, in all of these scenarios, Sam's victim repeatedly assures Sam that he can have whatever Sam says he wants. Every time, despite the fact that Sam can have everything he says he wants -- and despite the further fact that Sam gets everything he says he wants -- Sam's only response is: "THIS MEANS WAR!!"

We can certainly conclude that what Sam says he wants is not what he actually wants. The scenarios compel a further conclusion, an especially terrible one: what Sam actually wants can be achieved in only one way -- the destruction of his victim. And as I've indicated, the destruction always encompasses more than just a single victim: other people are destroyed as well.

It is tempting to say that Sam is a homicidal maniac. In one sense, that's true, and I will not argue the point. But the full truth is far worse: what if Sam isn't "just" a homicidal maniac? What if he knows exactly what he wants and has set in motion a plan to achieve it? Note this: so far, Sam's plan has worked.

You realize, of course, that the scenarios I've described follow events of the last decade. In Situation One, Tom is the Taliban; the neighborhood is Afghanistan (and Pakistan). (Here is one story out of countless stories documenting what happened.) In Situation Two, Henry is Saddam Hussein; the neighborhood is Iraq. (Here is one story out of countless similar stories describing some of what happened.) In Situation Three, Charlie is the leadership of Iran, and Iran is the neighborhood, as I discussed this past week. The destruction that would almost certainly follow an attack on Iran would be ungraspably horrifying; while Iran would be the immediate neighborhood, the full effects of such an attack would be felt throughout much of the world.

I offer the above scenarios to highlight an additional element: the suffocating air of unreality that suffuses all these events, past and present. It is that unreality that makes it so difficult to grasp what is happening. What can you do when, in the course of a heated argument with an acquaintance, you keep repeating, "But I've told you and told you: you can have whatever you say you want!," and the acquaintance will only respond: "Then I'm going to kill you!" It may be insane -- on one level, it unquestionably is -- but you also know that he means it. You also know he'll do it -- for he's done it before.

Obama and the U.S. Government repeatedly insist that punishing sanctions against Iran are intended to avoid war, that they are meant as an alternative to war. The purpose, we are told, is to compel Iran to cease its attempts to develop nuclear weapons -- attempts which Iran denies it has ever made or is making now, and for which no evidence exists -- so that Iran may rejoin "the world community." This is exactly what the U.S. Government said about the sanctions against Iraq. It was a lie then and it's a lie now. What the U.S. says it wants is not what it actually wants.

In addition to the arguments in the recent post, here is a passage I wrote in October 2009:
It is at this point that I must remind you of one issue which most people remain determined to deny, even as the world plunges into agony and death:
A sanctions regime is not an alternative to war: it is the prelude to attack or invasion. Moreover, sanctions murder a hideous number of innocent people as surely as more overt acts of war.
This is the exact pattern that unfolded with Iraq, where the Clinton administration's loathsome sanctions regime inevitably and necessarily led to the invasion in 2003. And now, possibly encouraged by this obscene Nobel Prize, the exact same pattern is likely to be repeated with Iran.
(In that same article, I said, commenting about the Nobel Peace Prize that Obama had just received, that "this Nobel may, if anything, make active military confrontation with Iran more likely, not less." As I discussed, that was not the view commonly held at the time.)

Clinton's "loathsome sanctions regime" is detailed in a post which also answers the critical question: "So Iran Gets Nukes. So What?"

The lies about the Iranian sanctions and their purpose are starkly revealed in this recent New York Times story, which opens with this:
As the Obama administration and its European allies toughened economic sanctions against Iran on Monday — blocking its access to the world financial system and undermining its critical oil and gas industry — officials on both sides of the Atlantic acknowledge that their last-ditch effort has only a limited chance of persuading Tehran to abandon what the West fears is its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

That leaves open this critical question: And then what?
The story goes on to make painfully clear that the sanctions will not work, and that everyone involved knows they will not work -- that is, they will not work with regard to what the U.S. and the West say they want. It's even worse than that. The story also establishes that sanctions may very well make it more likely that Iran will conclude it should develop nuclear weapons, and the sooner the better:
In debates at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, administration officials say they have gamed out several possibilities, including an alarming one: that tougher sanctions and increased global isolation might compel Iran to decide that the only way to get the West off its back is to speed up its program and become a nuclear power.
The article offers the wan hope that the only way out of the dilemma would be if the West, i.e., the U.S., was able to "trust[] the regime." The hope is not only wan, but non-existent, for everyone knows that nothing Iran does will cause the U.S. to declare such "trust." ("You can have everything you say you want!" "THIS MEANS WAR!!")

And the article grimly concludes:
Mr. Takeyh ["a former Obama administration official and an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations"] warned that at some point soon — maybe in a year, maybe two — tightening the noose in the hope that Iran decides to negotiate could give way to a military strike or a nuclear Iran, or both. “At some point,” he said, “the song stops playing and you’re in a different, and more dangerous, place.”
The New York Times is far too "respectable" to state the only possible conclusion: that "more dangerous place" is precisely where the United States wants to be.

What does the ruling class of the United States actually want? On this point, the ruling class has been hugely cooperative: they have stated their ultimate goal repeatedly, and with great clarity. What they want is "Dominion Over the World," which is why I chose the phrase as the title for that series of essays. In the linked article from that series, I included comments from William Pfaff. Here are some of Pfaff's observations (the full article has longer excerpts, and much more on the general subject):
Militarized or otherwise, American policy remains under the influence of an unacknowledged and unjustified utopianism. This is the unanalyzed background to the work of all Washington's foreign policy agencies. It permeates the rhetoric and thinking of Republicans and Democrats alike. It is the reason Americans can think that history has an ultimate solution, and that the United States is meant to provide it.
And also from Pfaff:
The Washington political class remains largely convinced that the United States supplies the essential structure of international security, and that a withdrawal of American forces from their expanding network of overseas military bases, or disengagement from present American interventions into the affairs of many dozens of countries, would destabilize the international system and produce unacceptable consequences for American security. Why this should be so is rarely explained.
In an earlier age, when the U.S. made the decision to embark on empire, political leaders spoke more plainly about their motives and attitudes. Here is Senator Albert Beveridge, addressing the Senate on the subject of the necessity for subjugation of the Philippines:
MR. PRESIDENT, the times call for candor. The Philippines are ours forever, "territory belonging to the United States," as the Constitution calls them. And just beyond the Philippines are China's illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world. And we will move forward to our work, not howling out regrets like slaves whipped to their burdens but with gratitude for a task worthy of our strength and thanksgiving to Almighty God that He has marked us as His chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world.


It has been charged that our conduct of the war has been cruel. Senators, it has been the reverse. I have been in our hospitals and seen the Filipino wounded as carefully, tenderly cared for as our own. Within our lines they may plow and sow and reap and go about the affairs of peace with absolute liberty. And yet all this kindness was misunderstood, or rather not understood. Senators must remember that we are not dealing with Americans or Europeans. We are dealing with Orientals. We are dealing with Orientals who are Malays. We are dealing with Malays instructed in Spanish methods. They mistake kindness for weakness, forbearance for fear. It could not be otherwise unless you could erase hundreds of years of savagery, other hundreds of years of Orientalism, and still other hundreds of years of Spanish character and custom.
We may fervently wish that such sickening and despicable views had altered in the hundred years that have passed. In what represents one of the most terrible of crimes against all of humanity and against history itself, they have not. As just two examples out of so many that we must recoil in horror, consider these typically vile comments from Hillary Clinton (which I coupled in that post with a different passage from Beveridge's speech, to stress the continuity) -- and consider that what Beveridge said is what Obama means when he declares that "the American moment" is to extend for "this new century."

For this is the view of the ruling class: "America is God. God's Will be done."

What they want is dominion over the world. They intend to have it. In pursuit of this aim, as they believe the necessity arises, they will destroy anyone and anything that stands in their way. To describe their behavior as insane is to miss the much more critical point, and to minimize the far greater danger. They know exactly what they're doing. They're hoping that you do not. To date, far too many people oblige them.

Don't help them in their pursuit of brutality, oppression, murder and vast destruction. I state again: they know exactly what they're doing. Be sure you judge them accordingly.