The American National Character


1. Selfishness: The New National Value
2. For the Greater Good
3. A More Nuanced Explanation

1. Selfishness: The New National Value

What do recent issues roiling the American polity tell us about its national character? The "American dream" is symbolic of the idea that anyone can make it in this country, so long as they have a combination of talent and a willingness to work hard. Underlying the idea is not only the notion that America is a land of opportunity and equality in which merit is rewarded, but also a collective belief in the shared American character - a people who while fiercely individualistic, are also a people of faith, defenders of liberty, and believers in the values of democracy. Essentially, a good and decent people.

There is much in American history that bears out that self-image. But a review of recent issues would suggest that selfishness, egocentricity, and utter disregard for one's fellow man have also become defining characteristics of the national character. Take health care. This is a fiendishly complicated issue, but cutting through all the complexity, the most prominent objection of the massive numbers of American opposed to health care reform, and particularly the so-called "public option", is intensely personal. In the face of almost 40 million countrymen having absolutely no health care insurance whatsoever, the objection is basically: "damned if I am going to risk any reduction in my current health care". Rather they have none than me risking less. Similarly, aside from the 40 million people without now, in the face of the knowledge that the system cannot continue as it is for many more years, the collective response is simply to let future generations fend for themselves. The older generation is the most resistant to reform! To hell with the kids.

Similarly with global warming. The world is approach a point of no return. Nonetheless, the climate change legislation before the Senate is facing an uncertain future, and it is already too weak to really make a difference anyway. Everyone knows that a global agreement will be impossible without American leadership (American is responsible for over 20% of global emissions, and has by far the highest per-capita emissions in the world), but the collective American response is to avoid the economic pain of emissions controls. On one level this is somewhat suicidal, but on another it is an unbelievably selfish shunting of the problem to future generations, while externalizing the current costs to be borne by the rest of the world.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Again, while these are less clear cut or obvious, both of these wars can be explained as being efforts by Americans to ensure greater security at home. Flowing from the deaths of some 3,000 Americans, arose a policy to do "whatever it takes" to prevent any recurance, leading the United States to invade two countries, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and tens of thousands of Afghans, not to mention the other costs imposed on the region. Better them than us.

But as with health care, this selfishness is not simply reserved for foreigners. From issues as disparate as gun control and urban violence, gay marriage, the incredible disparity between Americans in terms of wealth, income, and access to basic education, the American political responses reflect a me-first, beggar-thy-neighbor, callous selfishness. It is often couched in terms of individualism and conservative anti-big-government ideology, and expressed in terms of the benefits of competition and realism. But at the end of the day, both the tenor of the public discourse and the actual results of the political process, make for a society that is on many levels morally bankrupt, and utterly at odds with the carefully nurtured self-image of its people. - Gamma

2. For the Greater Good

First, Scrooge McDuck is Scottish, not American.

Second, it shows an unnecessary harshness and distinct lack of civility to call Americans "morally bankrupt." And it is simply illogical to call them selfish. As you so eloquently point out, their actions only hurt themselves in the long run.

What makes the American psyche so astounding is, in fact, the opposite: their pure selflessness. Few other people on this planet are willing to put their personal interests aside for the sake of a higher good. Scratch that. Few other people are willing to put their personal interests aside for the sake of a perceived higher good.

You can disagree all you want with the substance of the right-wing, heartland, homeland, god fearing, I-hate-not-just-big-government-but-all-government, paranoid, racist ideology that has imbedded itself into the DNA of 15% of the American populace, but it sure as hell ain't selfish. These are people who are willing to do just about anything in support of what they believe to be the greater good. It just so happens that the greater good means no health care, a collapsing environment, and and indifference to international law.

And it is not just the extreme right - this is a characteristic that runs across the American political spectrum. As much as we may have sympathised and respected what Obama stood for in the last election, his success and the unprecedented enthusiasm that he generated reflected the same dynamic - not selfishess at all, but a hope for a greater country. It was the same energy that propelled Bush to power, only redirected towards a different end.

Looked at in this way, the great American character flaw may be simply pure gullibility. The history of the United States is larded with charlatans and snake-oil salesmen who have managed to convince great swathes of the population to put aside their self-interest join on some quixotic misadventure. More than any other people in the history of civilization, Americans demonstrate an indefatigable appetite for conspiracy theories, flights of fancy, huckster religions, paranoid alternate realities, simplistic political orders, and a range of other major and minor secrets, ideologies and empty myths. Easy marks? Maybe. Selfish? Never.

But the really notable thing about America and Americans is neither their pursuit of self-interest nor their capacity to believe any monorail salesmen that happens by, but it is that they, as a country, as a people, consistently defy odds and expectations. Despite how they can seem to get so many of the details wrong, they usually manage to get the big picture right. Here's hoping that continues. - Beta

3. A More Nuanced Explanation

Beta makes some very good points here, but they do not negate my argument. Rather, they illuminate the complexity of an issue that is difficult to do justice in a thousand words.

I quite agree that Americans demonstrate a remarkable capacity for mobilizing behind movements perceived to be for some "greater good". Sometimes that greater good is even fairly broad and inclusive. And as I alluded to, this tendency has often resulted in magnificent examples of apparent generosity. The Marshall Plan, under which massive amounts of financial and other support was lavished upon the defeated nations of Europe after World War II, can be seen on one level as one of the most extraordinary instances of magnanimity and altruism in history.

The problem is that the Marshall Plan was also very much a result of sober strategic calculation regarding Cold War realities, and the need to ensure that Germany remained out of Communist clutches. And so it is with much of American idealism. There is, as Beta says, an incredible desire to believe in campaigns for some greater good, but there is also a great talent for packaging policies that are entirely self-interested and instrumentalist as serving some grand and selfless ideal.

This perhaps captures some of the complexity and nuance of some generalizable American character. While disdainful Europeans so often view Americans as naive, simple, and yet hypocritical, this is at least partly due to their failure to understand an inherent paradox - an aspect of American culture that simultaneously embraces extreme competition, ruthless self-interest, and the application of cynical functionalist cost-benefit calculation to almost any circumstance on the one hand, and on the other, reveres grand ideas and ideals, the heroes that pursue them, and the notion that everyone has some duty to serve in their cause.

This is captured in the character of Alden Pyle in Graham Greene's allegorical novel "The Quiet American", an agent operating in 1950s Vietnam, at once naive, idealistic, deeply earnest and self-righteous, yet ruthless and cynical in his pursuit of both his own desires and American interests, under the guise of helping the people he is killing.

But while some Americans may manifest this paradox personally, my point really goes to the political system, the social structure and cultural dynamic, which together operate to produce results that can be incredibly harsh. It is often dressed up as serving some greater good, and many buy into that bill of goods, but at root it is pure calculated self-interest that drives the decisions. And to the extent that such collective results can be described by reference to a personal characteristic, selfish is the word to use. Making a collective choice to leave 40 million compatriots without access to basic health care cannot really be understood any other way. - Gamma

More U.S. Troops in Afghanistan?


1. Backward Causation
2. Counterinsurgency Has No Sound Objective
3. Hard Choices

1. Backward Causation

In this article, two eminent physicists, Holger Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya, hypothesize that the recent failures of the Large Hadron Collider are caused by - now this is the tricky bit - someone, or something, in the future that has taken steps to prevent it from working in the past. Nielsen and Ninomiya propose a simple card trick to validate their theory. Really.

At first, I experienced a vague sense of dismay that the collapse of science into abstract novelty might be at the root of the decline of rationality in our world. But then it hit me. Only backward causation could explain the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama.

Because it clearly could not relate to anything that he has done in the past, it must relate to something that he is going to do. Someone in the future has set a series of events into a backward causation motion resulting in his winning the prize. How could I have missed this? And here I was scratching my head at how out of touch the Nobel committee was.

Now that it is clear he has earned it ... or will have earned it ... I can't help but wonder what he did... is going to have did?...or will have did?...or will be going to have done?

My bet is that he won it for the peace accord with the Taliban that he is going to sign in 2014.

In late 2009, President Obama will authorize the deployment of an additional 35 000 troops. Then in 2012, after a surprising show of strength from the Taliban and the complete collapse of the fragile and corrupt civilian government, a further increase of 15 000 troops is authorized just before the President is re-elected (In case you're wondering: he carries the new state of Alberta and beats Meghan McCain in a squeaker).

By 2013, finally, a stalema te is won and the Taliban are more or less contained in their southern strongholds - the way they were back in 2008 and 2009. Then in February of 2014, President Obama accepts reality and, without the shadow of re-election, negotiates an end to the war and the Taliban ente r a power-sharing agreement with a new fragile and corrupt American-backed regime. Later that year, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee decides that Obama deserves the award but is afraid that the imminent collapse of the coalition in Afghanistan will make it look like a joke. So they arrange to have it awarded in the past. In 2009! It all makes such perfect sense.

It is not always easy to learn from our mistakes, especially the ones we have not made yet. But, in the here and now, in deciding whether to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan, the President woul d do well to remember that old adage: Those who forget the future are doomed to repeat be going to repeat it?... to will have re-repeated it? - Beta

2. Counterinsurgency Has No Sound Objective

Putting aside all the cute stuff about backward causation, let us begin with a digression on the Nobel Prize. While everyone was surprised by it, including President Obama, it is unfair to say that it was for nothing. Aside from changing the dynamic between Islam and the West and affecting the global sense of security in similarly intangible ways, Barak Obama has already changed the game in the world of nuclear disarmament. Beginning with his speech in Prague, continuing with his strong pressure on agencies within the U. S. to alter American nuclear strategy and posture, and his concrete steps on missile defense have all had an impact. Might it have been more meaningful to wait until he advances the ball further down the field? Sure. But it was more than almost any other person did for global peace in the last few years.

Now, Afghanistan. Beta's actual point, it seems, is that Obama is going to cave to pressure to deploy the 40,000 troops being demanded by Gen. McChrystal, and that it will be to no avail. In the end, the U.S. will be forced to accept some kind of power-sharing regime that includes the Taliba n in Afghanistan.

First, it is actually not clear that President Obama is going to go down that road. There is increasing evidence that reisistece is building within the administration to further escalation, and that Joe Biden's lonely position is gaining adherents. There is exhaustive research being done within the various agencies, and even some intelligent debate in the upper levels of public discourse on how the suppression of a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan may or may not be in the interests of the U.S.

Of course, in the wider media and political hackasphere there continues to be meaningless chatter about "winning" and "victory", and how the "surge" worked in Iraq so surely it must similarly work in Afghanistan to bring us "victory". This is in part a reflection of the American tendency to see war in sporting terms, as some grand football game, to be won, los t or drawn. War is not a game. Clausewitz famously said that war is the continuation of policy by other means - and that one cannot consider the means in isolation of the objectives.

The question is what are our objectives in Afghanistan? The initial objectives of disrupting al-Qaeda's operations and overturning the Taliban regime that was sheltering al-Qaeda, all to stop the attacks on the U.S., were largely achieved. Now they have shifted. what is our objective in fighting again st a nationlistic mutli-faceted insurgency?

There has been no clear debate on the issue of what we are seeking to achieve, and more importantly, why. But as Richard Haas argued in a debate last week, suppressing the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and propping up an increasingly discredited regime, is certainly not essential to American interests. It is no longer a war of necessity, and the cost, in terms of treasure, blood, political capital, and misplaced foreign policy focus, increasingly seems to outweigh the benefit. There is reason for hope that Obama will not wade deeper into the morass.

Turning to Beta's second point, that the U.S. will be forced to accept a compromise that involves the Taliban in a some form of power-sharing arrangement, I would tend to agree. It is an argument that is also beginning to get significant play in the informed debate in Washington. Moreover, there is evidence that the Taliban of today is quite different from that of 2001, with very different agendas. But in any event, unless we are prepared to be an occupying army for several decades, keeping the Taliban's hands off the levers of power seems an unrealistic objective. - Gamma.

3. Hard Choices

Physics is hard. War is harder.

There is no victory for the US in Afghanistan - only gradations of defeat. The Biden option of focusing existing troops on rooting out Al-Qaeda at least allows for a claim of "mission accomplished" before packing the whole the circus up and coming home. But, let's be honest, it is merely a cut-and-run strategy dressed up to look pretty.

The risks of narrowing the focus and developing an exit strategy are profound. The Afghan government is corrupt and weak and could collapse at any time. The Afghan army is years away from being a credible force for stability. The narco-warlord complex is powerful and violent. And the Taliban are no-good thugs who, by all rights, should never be given a role in any government. The Biden option accepts those risks as trade-offs for an easier exit.

There are many things about this option that must gall Obama. First, it would mean trusting Biden's instincts which are often wrong. Second, it is a wholesale abandonment of the Afghan people, greater by so many degrees than how the U.S. left them high and dry after helping them repel the Russians. Third, it is a "do less" option and the President is a "do more" kind of a guy. Fourth, and last, it is a gamble and Obama hates games of chance.

But hard choices define great men. I can only hope that Obama can see that the deaths of hundreds more soldiers and thousands of more civilians will do little to change the situation. It is ... sadly, unsatisfyingly, tragically ... sometimes better to cut and run. - Beta.

War With Iran


1. Flawed Premises in the Case for War with Iran
2. Which War Do You Want?
3. Fallacies, Stereotypes, and Our Own Lack of Principles

1. Flawed Premises in the Case for War with Iran

"Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.." So crooned Sen. John McCain to an old Beach Boys tune during the presidential campaign. With the recent disclosure of a hidden nuclear processing facility near a Qum military base, the rhetoric is again ratcheting up for the West to begin considering military options against Iran. Boiled down to their essentials, the arguments is that nothing but military action will prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons, and war is preferable to a nuclear-armed Iran.

Why is war preferable to a nuclear-armed Iran? We have acquiesced in the nuclearization of India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa, and most recently North Korea, without feeling compelled to go to war. Granted, all of these but North Korea were on better terms with us than is Iran. But notwithstanding the outlandish statements of Iran's president about the future of Israel, it has to be understood that nuclear weapons are primarily a defensive weapon - they are for deterrence, not for conquest. That is not to say they cannot be used offensively, but to do so, particularly for a small country with limited weapons and no missile defense system, would be suicidal.

In all our other policies, we quite rightly assume that the Iranian leaders are rational. That is the basis of our sanctions policies, our efforts at signalling, UN Security Council resolutions, and our negotiations. So why, when we contemplate their developing nukes, do we revert to thinking that they are crazed religious ideologues who are bent on national suicide in the name of some holy jihad?

Moreover, other regimes with either limited evidence of rationality (North Korea), or questionable stability and volatile relations (Pakistan) have managed to develop nuclear weapons without using them. What makes Iran so different that it justifies the use of force. For the second part of this equation is that war is preferable - and yet war against Iran will have horrendous consequences. We are already engaged in conflicts caused in part by the enmity of a small minority of radical fundamentalist Islamic groups. War with Iran would add immeasurable to that problem. Our security will be diminished.

Turning to the first premise, why is military action the only way to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons? The assumptions here is that Iran is both malevolent and hostile, and that it desires nuclear weapons to attack us. But is that assumption right? Iran is unquestionably hostile to Israel. It also seeks to expand its influence in the region. But it is also no doubt insecure and justifiably nervous about U.S. intentions. Memories of the U.S. orchestrated coup in 1953 are fresh in Iran. George Bush listed Iran as one of three counties comprising an "Axis of Evil", following which the U.S. invaded the first country on the list. Look at a map of the region and colour in red the countries in which U.S. forces are based - Iran is almost entirely surrounded. Seymour Hersh has written about the extensive operations that have been ongoing within Iran, by U.S. operatives and local agents under the aegis of the CIA.

Those who argue for military strikes assume that Iran will not cave to sanctions, UN Security Council resolutions, or other forms of political and economic pressure. But they do not consider the effect we might achieve by reducing their felt need to develop weapons systems as a deterrent against U.S. or Western attacks. Barack Obama was on the right track when he made overtures at the beginning of the year. The apparent illegitimacy of the election and subsequent human rights abuses complicate those efforts, but the right-wing realists now clamouring for war used argue against confusing human rights issues and foreign policy imperatives. We can make Iran feel safer without betraying the Iranian victims of oppression. But of course, those on the right cannot escape the paradigm of appeasement, as though Munich was the only lesson ever handed down by history.

At this juncture, the case for war with Iran, is no more sound than slogans like "better dead than red". War should always be a very last resort, and we are very far from that indeed. - Gamma.

2. Which War Do You Want?

Uhhh...I just don't think that we can hug our way out of this one.

It is not sensible to assume that Iran's leadership is governed by rationality. They are thugs, pure and simple. To make it worse they are thugs who cloak their actions in a paranoid religiosity. They are motivated by power and fear - irrationality's handmaidens - and they are deeply manipulative and dishonest. I would not expect game theory to run to your rescue.

But, those quibbles aside, you are right in that no-one should want war with Iran. What we have remembered with Iraq and Afghanistan is just how utterly horrible and destructive war is to peoples' lives, to our moral fibre, to our national character and to our economy. But the real threat of war is, sometimes, a necessary evil.

It was, I had hoped, going to be the next great age of diplomacy. So far, we have seen only glimpses of promise. There is still time but, as Garry Wills writes in the New York Review of Books, so many of the sins of the Bush administration have lingered in that of his successor. It is much easier to talk about new places where the ship of state ought to sail than it is to steer it there. But I digress. [Hours after I wrote this, Obama was awarded the nobel peace prize. Hard to fathom. Apparantly talking about what you would like to do is just as good as doing it in the eyes of the committee. Has it really come to this? - Beta]

Even if we give the velvet glove of diplomacy a chance, we need to be mindful of the need for an iron fist to back it up. Imminent violence lurks in the dark heart of effective diplomacy. As ghastly as it is to admit, without the threat of military action, words are drained of potency pretty quickly. And any such threat needs to be credible and direct and rational - and not just to Iran but also to her allies, enablers, and enemies.

So, in choosing a credible military option, ask yourself which war would you like to have (or to sell to your allies as part of a broader strategy):

1. the bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities and other military targets before they posess functional nuclear weapons;

2. the bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities and other military targets after they posess functional nuclear weapons;

3. the defense of Israel from regional foes in response to Israel's pre-emptive strike of Iran's nuclear facilities;

4. the punitive invasion of Iran after it - contrary to the dictates of reason - wipes out an Israeli city with a pre-emptive nuclear strike; or

5. World War Three.

If none of the above is not a viable option, I would take the first choice. And, I would hold it as a last resport but I would make damn sure it was on the table. And then I would sit at the table and get down to the serious business of diplomacy, including working on removing both real and perceived threats from the picture. This is precisely what we should have done with North Korea and other rogue states. Instead, we pussyfooted around, wagged our fingers and then shrugged helplessly as they nuked up. I'll admit that no-one tried getting all Dr. Phil on them as you're suggesting, but that just might be for the best. - Beta

3. Fallacies, Stereotypes, and Our Own Lack of Principles

Beta's argument provides an illustration of the fallacies and internal contradictions that are typical of the case for war. This begins with the caricature of the Iranian leadership as being irrational thugs - "motivated by power and fear...and...deeply manipulative and dishonest." As though from over there, our leaders do not look motivated by power and fear, manipulative and dishonest. Such stereotypes of course are an obstacle to true understanding and a recipe for serious misperception and miscalculation.

Beta next argues that effective diplomacy requires credible threats of military force. That assumes, necessarily, that one's adversary is rational. So we go from irrational thugs cloaked in religiosity, to cold-eyed Machiavellians who understand the logic of armed threats. Right.

Finally, there is the assertion that we should get serious in "removing the threats". But there is no principled reason why Iran, particularly, should be precluded from joining the nuclear club. Sure, doing so would be a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But the U.S. under Bush violated the three fundamental pillars that formed the quid pro quo that made the treaty possible - that the nuclear powers would make efforts to disarm, that they would commit never to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, and that only treaty members would be assisted with the development of non-military nuclear technology.

The U.S. has refused to ratify the test-ban treaty, it has developed plans to create new generations of warheads, it has developed a formal strategy that contemplates the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, and it has entered into an agreement to supply India, a rogue nuclear state and non-party to the NPT, with nuclear technology. Until we are ready to reduce the threat we ourselves pose to the world, we are in no principled position to "remove threats." Obama's movement in that direction partly explains his surprising Nobel Prize.

And, of course, simply because Iran is developing nuclear weapons would not form any basis under international law for a military strike against it. The Bush Doctrine is not law. So the final irony is that we will be citing breaches of the NPT, a treaty we ourselves have gutted, as a highly legalistic foundation for our own illegal military strike against a country that is little different from several other nuclear states - except that we consider them to be our enemy. - Gamma


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