Peace has never been a particularly popular word in Washington, DC. This is, after all, the home of the Pentagon and the major military contractors, not to mention all the think tanks and congressional lapdogs that lie in the king-size family bed with them. But the word “peace” has acquired such a negative reputation inside the Beltway that the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), which saw Congress nearly ax all its funding over the summer, is now considering a name change.
“Peace,” the Institute’s president Richard Solomon recently told The Washington Post, “is too abstract and academic.” One alternative he is proposing: the U.S. Institute for Conflict Management.
Excuse me? “Conflict management” is less academic and abstract than “peace”? Get that man a thesaurus.
What Solomon really means is that “conflict management” is considerably more ambiguous than “peace.” USIP, which already gets funding from such dubious sources as Lockheed Martin, could probably extract even more loot from arms manufacturers with a deft name change. Conflict “management” sounds so dour and corporate next to its more hopeful cousins, conflict resolution and conflict transformation. Management is what you do to a disease when it resists all other medical interventions. Management is all about learning to live with the problem.
Unfortunately, Solomon is simply reflecting the shift in the Obama administration itself. Running for president, Obama flirted with the title of the peace candidate for opposing the war in Iraq and calling for early withdrawal of U.S. troops. Once ensconced in the White House, however, Obama has been firmly in “conflict management” mode. Indeed, in his Nobel Prize speech, he emphasized that he would resort to the instruments of war to preserve the peace, and he has subsequently deployed such tools as intervention, escalation, and targeted assassination. Obama generally eschews the Bush swagger and declarations of missions accomplished. A consummate technocrat, he believes that task forces and white papers and parboiled rhetoric can give the outward impression of adult supervision even as his administration expands the use of drones and the Joint Special Operations Command.
The presidential superego is in charge of the speeches. The presidential id, meanwhile, is in charge of the arsenal.
In Washington, at least, peace might seem to be a quaint artifact of the pre-9/11 era, of that decade of heightened expectation that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. Terrorism has become the problem that won’t go away, the conflict that the Obama administration is now tasked with managing. The Bush team did what it could to make this conflict as unmanageable as possible by pouring money into the Pentagon and playing up external threats as part of a substantial overhaul of U.S. foreign and military policy. From a president with a legendary drinking problem came Binge Militarism.
Ten years later, we are still dealing with the hangover. The aftereffects have been so extreme – the lost lives, the wasted money, the opportunity costs – that even some early enablers have recognized the problem. Journalist Anne Applebaum was gung ho about the Iraq War, faulting the Bush administration only for its inept arguments for the intervention. Today, as a Washington Post columnist, she laments all that America has neglected over the last decade in the relentless pursuit of global terrorism: the rise of China, the transformation of Russia, the dollars that could have been invested at home. Too bad she couldn’t have figured this out earlier, for instance, by reading the analyses in Foreign Policy In Focus, among other publications. Her colleague Richard Cohen at least manages a muted mea culpa for his role in stoking the fires of war, but then goes on to “blame us all for going along with it and then rewarding incompetence with another term” (jeez, the least you could do, Richard, would be to acknowledge the huge peace movement that didn’t fall in behind your banner).
Like most commentators reflecting on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Applebaum and Cohen both fall prey to the “it’s all about us” syndrome. By putting the United States at the center of all things, analysts confer on Washington the power and responsibility to manage the world’s conflicts. We either do it well or we do it poorly, and this becomes the yardstick for evaluating the legacy of the Bush administration and the conduct of the Obama White House.
But 9/11, for all the shock and horror the attacks caused here in the United States, was primarily not about us. “Al-Qaeda was certainly devoted to rolling back U.S. influence in the Islamic world, particularly in Saudi Arabia,” I write in an Other Words op-ed. “But its primary audience was Muslims. Its radical objective of recreating a global caliphate was part of a debate on how to engage with modernity that has been taking place among Muslims for at least 150 years.”
Al-Qaeda decisively lost that debate, even before 9/11. The vast majority of Muslims rejected al-Qaeda’s brand of Islam, its style of politics, and its approach to geopolitics. From Indonesia to Palestine, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the protestors in Syria, there has been indeed a great upheaval in the Muslim world that emphasizes ballots not bullets, that draws on an impressive history of nonviolence (check out Amitabh Pal’s recent book on the subject), and that rejects both the authoritarian allies of America and the imagined caliphate of Osama bin Laden.
Neither the U.S. war on terror nor U.S. policies in general toward the Muslim world made the big difference here. Washington has consistently alienated public opinion among Muslims, whether by invading and bombing predominantly Muslim countries, backing unpopular leaders, or continuing to supply economic and military aid to Israel regardless of what it does. The United States has kept up the attack on al-Qaeda for the last decade, but it was Muslims themselves that drove the stake through the heart of the terrorist organization. The Arab Spring happened despite, not because, of 10 years of grinding U.S.-sponsored war in the Muslim world.
So, if 9/11 was not really about us, if al-Qaeda is even more marginal today than it was a decade ago, if the world today is actually becoming less violent, peace should not be passé. The problem isn’t out there. It’s right here, in the minds of those who believe that the United States is essential to managing these conflicts.
In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs of all places, Melvyn Leffler makes the case that the Binge Militarism following 9/11 was not an aberration but entirely consistent with mainstream U.S. foreign policy up to and including the Obama era: “The United States’ quest for primacy, its desire to lead the world, its preference for an open door and free markets, its concern with military supremacy, its readiness to act unilaterally when deemed necessary, its eclectic merger of interests and values, its sense of indispensability – all these remained, and remain, unchanged.”
The last ten years of conflict enhancement and conflict management have been a disaster. Perhaps it’s finally time – and please pardon the hopelessly passé sentiment – to give peace a chance.
CIA and Pentagon Unmoved
The U.S. debt deal pointed in the direction of substantial cuts in military spending, with the Obama administration talking about $350 billion over the next 10 years. But don’t expect Pentagon rollback any time soon. “The projected defense cuts are not as guaranteed as the agreement would make it seem,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Keith Menconi in Cut Deficit, Increase Militarization? “Indeed, the initial $350 billion figure is misleading for several reasons. First, the figure assumes that the barrier between security and non-security spending persists over the next 10 years when in fact the distinction will be removed after 2013. Second, the estimate entirely discounts Congress’ likely predilection to look for cuts in non-defense accounts.”
While the Pentagon is resisting cuts, the CIA is resisting efforts to shine a light on its activities. “The CIA continues to engage in its established tradition of suppressing information that would damage it or the administration’s reputation,” writes FPIF columnist Hannah Gurman in The CIA’s Selective Secrecy. “According to the official narrative of the Obama administration, drone strikes, night raids, and other targeted attacks carried out by the CIA and Special Forces are the solution to winning the war against al-Qaeda, which will in turn curb the broader threat of radical anti-American/anti-Western Islamist movements. This narrative only makes a modicum of sense if you leave out precisely the kind of information that the CIA is keeping secret.”
Later this month, over the objections of the Obama administration, Palestinian representatives will go to the UN General Assembly to try to win recognition of Palestinian statehood. “As a primary issue among Arabs, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains a barometer that shows the willingness of the United States to grant Arabs equal respect,” writes FPIF senior analyst Adil Shamoo in The Upcoming Palestinian Uprising. “At this tenuous time in the Middle East, the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians by the Israeli military with U.S. acquiescence is explosive. But the United States can do something to change the situation. It can acknowledge the new realities in the Arab world by recognizing Palestinian self-determination at the UN.”
London Riots, Timor’s Oil
Riots spread through London and other UK cities following the police shooting of a Tottenham man on August 4. Top UK politicians attributed the violence to criminal elements. But that was misleading. “There is no all-encompassing meaning to the riots, but there are connections that can and should be made,” writes FPIF contributor Rehanna Jones-Boutaleb in The Politics of the London Riots. “As reporter Landon Thomas Jr. suggests, the riots indicate widespread resentment toward rising levels of youth unemployment. Currently, at least one million British citizens between the ages of 16 and 24 are officially unemployed. According to a 2010 report by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the UK’s record for social mobility is worse than that of any other developed country.”
Timor-Leste has a good deal of oil. It has followed the example of Norway by setting up a Petroleum Fund to provide stability, equity, and transparency while ensuring that petroleum revenues lift the country out of poverty. But as FPIF contributor Guteriano Neves points out in Timor’s Oil: Blessing or Curse?, the Petroleum Fund has some serious flaws. The country’s economy remains heavily dependent on oil. “Investments in productive sectors have been very low,” he writes. “Despite billions of dollars in foreign aid and the government’s huge spending over the last several years, the real impact on the domestic economy has been very small. The country still imports everything.”
Our latest poem, from FPIF contributor Pamela Uschuk, is Lines on Global Warming, which begins most provocatively:
Hopeless as swatting lies out of the White House
or trying to put out an oil field fire with a cup of water
is this war against the grasshoppers, who,
when I walk through weeds or rattle
the leaves on a pepper plant, leap
by the thousands to remind me
that power isn’t always held by Goliaths
but by the numerous and persistent.
Finally, we have two reviews. FPIF contributor Vivian Yang looks at China, the United States, and Global Order. This book by British scholars Rosemary Foot and Andrew Walter “tells an important story: norms do matter. Given common interests, the United States and China can indeed help facilitate a cosmopolitan understanding of global order.” And Rehanna Jones-Boutaleb reviews The Scars of the Erasure, about what happened when Slovenia erased the citizenship of more than 25,000 people. “Blending scholarly analysis and first-hand accounts, this publication offers a valuable insight into the means by which the erasure deprived residents of their legal status and rights,” she writes. “It allows the voices of the erased to be heard, loud and clear.”