Friday, May 10, 2013

World War II, Ideology, International Relations, and Iran

*Well, the other day was V-E Day which usually prompts me to write about something pertaining to WWII on that day in my journal and lacking anything else to write about at the moment I'll just share those thoughts here:

There is a tendency, usually on the left but not always, to minimize or eliminate altogether the part ideology can play in the origins of international conflicts. A typical move is to reduce the set of grievances down to purely socio-eonomic factors. For example, there are many who argue that the state of poverty that many Muslims are born into is what leads some of them to become suicide bombers rather than any prior adherence to a radical belief system. So the thought here is that if you raise the economic status of these groups of people, they will then eventually become satisfied to such a degree that they will no longer seek destructive means of airing their problems. Realists will also often downplay ideological factors but for other reasons. Their emphasis is that most state actors are rational practitioners of power politics so that the problems that arise between states are not usually the result of a clash in the respective ideologies of these states but rather owing to each state pursuing its own national self-interests which of course often conflict with one another.

The importance of WWII concerning this matter lies in the unequivocally ideological nature of Hitler and the Nazi regime.  Hitler's own worldview as put forward in Mein Kamp is what powered German foreign policy before and during WWII. Hitler believed in Aryan racial supremacy and a twisted form of Darwinism (Social Darwinism) and sought to implement these twin beliefs by ridding Europe of what he considered undesirables and almost succeeded at this. Hitler desired Lebensraum (living room) for Germany and believed in a Grossdeutche (a greater Germany) both of which he accomplished by the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland and the Anschluss with Austria. Hitler considered Russia to be Germany's true, eternal enemy and so invaded that country in 1941. In other words every movement of Nazi German foreign policy corresponded with the ideological beliefs and goals of Adolf Hitler. Now of course Germany before and during Hitler's rule had harbored certain concrete geopolitical objectives that weren't necessarily ideological, but these become incorporated into the behemoth that was Nazi ideology so that one can still confidently say that it was the totality of Nazi ideology that formed the basis for German foreign policy in the 1930's and 40's. So then WWII offers the clearest example of ideological factors playing an important role in the outbreak of an international conflict.

The "ideology" question is not a moot one. For example, it has relevance to something going on today, namely, the negotiations with Iran concerning its nuclear ambitions. The question about how much ideology may be influencing the Iranian regime's actions is a pertinent one given its vitriolic rhetoric towards states like Israel. Now the realists could be right that Iran is just a normal, rational thinking state and if this is the case then allowing them to have nuclear weapons capability wouldn't pose a major risk to the region. (See for example Kenneth Waltz's article for a recent articulation of this view.) But the problem here is that we know so little about the true nature of the Iranian regime. For example, how much actual influence does the President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have over foreign policy? How much does the Supreme Ayotollah have? Or the Revolutionary Council? The danger is that if it's
essentially one person (like Hitler in Nazi Germany) running foreign policy then the likelihood of Iran pursuing a rational foreign policy is significantly reduced. And the fear is that it is actually Khamenei, the Supreme Ayotollah, who wields all the power in Iran. This is a major concern because of the apocalyptic nature of some of Shia Muslim belief that Khamenei seems to hold. And so if this is indeed the case, then allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons capability would be extremely risky. But on the other hand if power is spread amongst several players then the possibility that Iran is acting quite rationally, by IR theory standards anyway, is high. To clarify, if it's ideology that's driving Iranian foreign policy then letting them have "the bomb" would be a huge risk for the region; but if it's traditional, "rational" power politics determining their foreign policy then there is little to worry about. At this point we simply don't know.

Now, I usually count myself among the Realists in that I tend to assume that states typically act out of a "rational" calculation of national self-interests when conducting foreign policy. But there are clear cases in history when ideology has driven a country's foreign policy and so one shouldn't be too quick to dismiss ideological factors in explaining state behavior. To do so could be to invite disaster as the European countries did on the eve of WWII by assuming that Hitler was a rational state actor, merely  pursuing traditional German foreign policy objectives. Thus, current efforts at diplomacy with Iran should heed this lesson.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Origins of the Iraq War


We recently passed the ten year mark since the start of the Iraq War. And so it seems appropriate for me to finally comment on the origins of that controversial event. The general consensus among political scientists and the rest of the foreign policy elite is that the war was a major US blunder, misguided both in origin and execution. Basically, I agree with this fundamental assessment but differ in how I understand the origins of this war from many of these thinkers, many of whom seem content merely to explain US actions as stemming from an arrogant imperialistic mindset or as due to an ideological crusade on the part of a Republican administration. In other words, much of the analysis has been, well, not really analysis but instead has struck me as a sort of "competition of condemnation."

The passionate and partisan nature of this debate about the origins of the Iraq War is a major reason why I’ve been reticent about giving my opinion on the matter. Again, I agree with most in declaring this a huge misstep in US foreign policy that has had many adverse consequences. But I’m not merely satisfied running around self-righteously berating the policy makers involved. Instead I’m much more interested in a level headed analysis of the origins of the war. It is certainly a much more fruitful exercise to determine why and how this ill-advised war began than to simply prattle on about how bad and wrong it was.

At any rate, there are, in addition to the imperialist and ideological motivations mentioned above, many theories about the origins of the Iraq War. One of the more popular is that the war was started by a group of well-placed neoconservative advisers (who are supposedly by disposition quite hawkish) who deftly and sinisterly steered the various policy makers in the administration to war. Sometimes linked with this view is that the neo-cons teamed up with AIPAC (the Israeli Lobby) and some members of the Israeli policy making body to create a war as  a means of diverting the world from the rapidly deteriorating situation then occurring in the West Bank (the second Intifada was by this point in full swing). Closer to the conspiracy theory sphere are those that assert that Bush ’43 personally engineered the war as a means of vengeance against Saddam Hussein for his actions against his father, Bush ’41 (or something inane like that) or that the war was started by a military cabal or that it was begun to secure Middle Eastern oil (Desert Shield/Storm was actually more about oil than the Iraq War) or whatever.

Besides being rubbish what all of these theories have in common is the attribution of a pernicious and malevolent element to US geopolitical actions that I don't think existed. However, I’m not going to spend this blog post addressing this matter or any of these other theories. Rather, I want to put forth my own theory. Well, not my own per se since there are a few academics who share a similar viewpoint to mine such as Melvin P. Leffler of the University of Virginia.

The first thing that I need to point out is something that often gets downplayed or outright ignored in much of the discussion surrounding the origin of the Iraq War, namely the place of Iraq and Saddam Hussein in the national security policy of the United States before 9/11. This is crucial because many act as if after the 1991 Gulf War Saddam was of little to no concern in the making of American national security policy, that after the US “whipped” Saddam he basically minded his own business thereafter until the son of his adversary decided out of nowhere to peremptorily finish the job. But the reality is that Hussein remained a major problem, still continuing to top the list of threats that are given in the President’s daily national security brief. What to do about Saddam, who repeatedly was in violation of the no-fly zones, blocked UN weapon inspectors, circumvented the Oil for Food Program, continued to viciously crackdown on the minorities of his country (the Shia and Kurds especially), and more, was of principal concern to the Clinton administration which actually fired ballistic missiles at Iraq in 1998 and continually considered regime change as a proper course of action worth pursuing. The point here is that right up until 9/11 Iraq featured prominently in the discussions and concerns of United States national security policy.

Then 9/11 happened. Now I’ve suggested before that at least in the long term calculus I don’t think 9/11 was all that transformative. But for a brief moment it certainly had a profound effect on American foreign policy in that the paranoia created by the 9/11 attacks caused the US to magnify and exaggerate all other threats, especially those that had been brewing for quite some time. Moreover, 9/11 sent policy makers into such a panic that these major threats which were previously considered contained to one degree or another were instantly transformed into threats that urgently needed to be extinguished. And topping this list was Iraq.

So my thesis is as follows:

1.)   Iraq continued to be a major national security concern of the United States after the Gulf War and up to the 9/11 attacks.
2.)   The sudden 9/11 attacks created a state of paranoia that caused the US to egregiously augment prior threats from containment to necessary extinction.
3.)  Saddam Hussein was considered chief among these threats
4.)   Therefore, the United States invaded Iraq to eliminate what it perceived as an immediate threat to its national security.

My position then is that the origins of the Iraq War can be found in legitimate national security concerns that were unfortunately blown out of proportion because of the 9/11 attacks. The sense of urgency that this paranoia created caused policy makers to see connections that did not exist such as the dubious linking of Hussein with Al Qaeda. (The same could be said of the case made for Saddam having WMDs though what often gets overlooked here is the fact that just about EVERYONE, including most of the UN member nations, even France, as well as UN weapon inspectors, believed Saddam did possess WMDs before the war so I find much of the discussion surrounding the WMDs to be quite disingenuous.)

Now I don’t normally dabble in counterfactual history, but a further view of mine is that had Gore been elected I believe it is highly likely that the Iraq War would still have occurred. There are two key assumptions that I’m making here: 

1.)    Though the rhetoric may be different between Democrats and Republicans on foreign policy issues, when it comes to actually making foreign policy both parties act similarly. Therefore, I think a Gore administration would have fell victim to the same paranoia that the 9/11 attacks caused.

2.)   The personality of decision makers may matter a lot less than I used to previously believe. The more and more I have studied the history of foreign policy the closer I’ve come to a sort of fatalistic viewpoint. And so in this sense the Iraq War, because of 9/11, might have ultimately been inevitable. 

Topics worth pursuing more fully at a later time perhaps.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Grab Bag Thoughts: Evolutionary Psychology, Human Nature, and Predestination/Determinism

Every so often I seem to make my way round back to the question of human nature. This time it has been prompted by my recent interest in evolutionary psychology. Essentially, this paradigm asserts that current human behavior can best be understood by inference from our ( mostly primate) evolutionary past or ancestral environment. To give just one example, which happens to be one of the more controversial ones, the basic differences between males and females when it comes to sex is made sense of by evolutionary psychologists through positing that in the ancestral environment parental investment was a much greater affair for a woman since she incurred the many risks associated with pregnancy (such as death), but also because she had the lion's share of the burden of caring for a child over a lengthy period of time. By contrast, male parental investment probably rarely went beyond providing the sperm for conception and bringing back food for the tribe. Consequently, males could be quite free in their choice of mates because of the low reproductive and rearing costs to themselves. This is then extrapolated into modern times to explain why it seems that (most) women are much choosier than (most) men when it comes to sexual partners, i.e., because the risks associated with the consequences of sexual intercourse were far greater for the female than the male in the ancestral environment and which is still ingrained in human sexual behavior today.

The implications of many of the conclusions of evolutionary psychology for human nature are what got me thinking about this subject again. Of course the most basic question to ask about this long standing problem in philosophy is does such a thing as human nature even exist? (Modern day Lockeans and Behaviorists are among those who deny that it does). And if there is such an entity how contingent is it? Or to put a finer point on it, is human nature simply the result of millions of years of evolution in which our ancestral environment "produced" it (this is of course where evolutionary psychology lands)? Or is it rather something that's inviolate and so independent of factors such as evolution and/or culture?

Of course how one answers these questions will depend a great deal on whether or not one's worldview includes the metaphysical or supernatural. Those who believe in a deity or deities of some kind will generally affirm a human nature that is divinely created and immutable while naturalists, quite naturally, will tend to deny that such a thing exists or to assert that human nature is a product of various historical processes (e.g., evolution plus culture). Additionally, one's political leanings can also influence how one thinks about human nature. Conservatives will usually favor a view of human nature that is static whereas liberals will be more likely to see human nature as something more malleable. To use sex differences as an example again, conservatives will tend to stress that differences between the sexes are considerable and an inherent part of humankind; liberals on the other hand, in the interest of egalitarianism, will normally assert either a total lack of distinctiveness between the sexes or will only acknowledge a few basic, inconsequential ones.

For my part the first time I engaged to any degree of seriousness with the problem of human nature was indirectly during my former pious Christian days and my anxiety over Calvinism/Reformed belief, specifically over the pernicious doctrine of predestination. In fact, this theological problem was probably the first real rigorous intellectual topic that I had ever undertaken up to that point in my life (I believe I was around 16 or 17 then). The role that human nature takes in that debate has to do with the slippery Christian concept of "original sin." For Reformed Christians Adam and Eve's transgression in the garden of Eden implicated the entire human race to such a degree that man's nature became utterly corrupt and always predisposed toward evil. Because of this man is unable to save himself and so depends entirely on the grace of God for his salvation. Furthermore not only is man unable to achieve his own salvation, he is unable to freely choose to receive it. Therefore, God must enable a person to accept salvation by changing his sinful and corrupt nature. But of course in these Reformed systems of thought God only elects a certain number for salvation, i.e., he predestines those he has chosen to salvation aside from anything they have done or that is in them. The rest are consigned to damnation.

At that time this theological problem vexed me considerably. I eventually settled into a comfortable skepticism over the issue. But oddly it has come to rear its ugly head again but this time with a distinct naturalist coating: causal determinism.  One of the more uncomfortable potential implications of evolutionary psychology (with a bit of neuroscience thrown in) is that all of human behavior is causally determined such that the feeling of free will we have is merely an illusion fostered by evolution. (I should note that behaviorists usually also adopt some kind of causal determinism.) Of course there are all sorts of philosophical distinctions that have been made here to try and make this view more palatable (e.g., distinguishing between hard and soft determinism), but they all effectively say the same thing, namely, that man is “free” only in the sense that he can “freely” choose to act in accordance with his desires (or intentions) even if these desires themselves have been causally determined.

This implication causes me great discomfort for many of the same reasons predestination did so long ago principally because it seems to leave no room for any genuine notion of justice or responsibility except as merely social constructs intended to maintain order. And it’s not just this paradigm’s implications in regards to determinism that has made me feel considerable angst but much of its conclusions regarding other issues such as morality to name just one. Though I haven’t completely bought into this system of explaining human behavior (e.g., I doubt that the differences between males and females are as significant as does this view) it has immense explanatory power. Furthermore, my considerable discomfort over some of these implications may be a clue that much of this stuff is true. Often the discovery of truth is presented as refreshingly liberating and it certainly can be at times. However, at other times the process of uncovering the truth can be an extraordinarily painful one. Perhaps, at least for me, that is the case here. Further exploration of these issues is in order.