The Stoics would have approved of Costa Rica

I have begun writing (well, researching) a new book on why and how the public approves of and thus legitimises war fought in its name. In a democracy, if not also in a dictatorship, the people must approve of or at least tolerate war if the state is going to commit billions of dollars and thousands of lives to it. Each section of my book will explore the causes of war from the public’s perspective. Some questions I will ask include, why did the American public allow the US to invade Iraq in 2003? How do Israeli history books affect the way Israelis see Arabs? Why do Christians and Muslims in Jos, Nigeria, fight each other? And why did some Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka encourage the war against the Tamil Tigers?

I have several ideas for an introduction. One of them is to discuss Costa Rica. Costa Rica is surely one of the most peaceful countries in the world. It has done what so few other states have: abolished its military and replaced it with a civil guard. And yet, this apparently easy target has managed to avoid most of the bloodshed that its neighbours in Central America have suffered. Before going into why this might be, let us turn to the lens through which we will analyse Costa Rica: stoicism.

An article by William O. Stephens in Star Wars and Philosophy entitled “Stoicism in the Stars: Yoda, the Emperor and the Force” describes Yoda as a stoic. The stoics in ancient Greece believed in acting virtuously and in harmony with their fate. They remained happy by accepting the things they could not change. They were in no danger from the Dark Side of the Force.

Yoda was patient. He lived waiting for the jedi to arrive so that he could train him. When Luke Skywalker arrived in Yoda’s swamp, insisting that they hurry to be taken to the jedi master, Yoda bid him stay and eat first. During training, Yoda implores Luke to focus on the present. The jedi’s mind does not wander to future adventures but remains rooted in the present, choosing the right moves for the right time. Instead of seeking excitement and risk, the jedi seeks virtue through control of his emotions, equanimity and calmness. The jedi’s mind is at peace, even when all around is chaos. The jedi may be happy and humorous. He avoids anger, fear, aggression: The Dark Side of the Force are they. He uses the Force for wisdom and defence, but never aggression. Let us see how Costa Rica fits this mold.

First, as mentioned above, Costa Rica has no military. That means it cannot, at least not easily, prosecute a war of aggression. Not only is aggression clearly not a virtue in Costa Rica, it has become effectively impossible.

Second, Costa Rica ranks first in the 2009 Happy Planet Index, which measures happiness, health and sustainable development. This achievement accords with its rank of third in the world and first in Latin America in the Environmental Performance Index for 2010.

Third, its history has been more peaceful than those of its neighbours. It went through a civil war in 1948–for six weeks. Contrast this with Nicaragua’s ten year civil war and Guatemala’s incredible 36 year civil war and we see that Costa Ricans have escaped the misfortune that they could have. This observation of chaos outside its borders and peace within presumably allowed Costa Ricans the privileges of stoicism.

Oscar Arias Sanchez, elected president of Costa Rica in 1986, is a jedi. In 1987, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Esquipulas Peace Agreement that played a major role in ending the wars of ideology and beginning democratisation in Central America. He has also won the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism and is a trustee of the NGO Economist for Peace and Security.

Oscar Sanchez was reelected in 2006. At a speech in Trinidad and Tobago last year, he reprimanded fellow Latin American leaders for spending too much on their militaries and not enough on education. He was proposing they leave the path to the Dark Side and seek wisdom, enlightenment, peace.

Costa Rica is a strong example of a peaceful state. It could be an excellent introduction to my next book, as a contrast to the states I will be examining.

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Lebanon is moving forward

In my estimation, there are two basic long term solutions to civil conflict. The most effective should be interculturalism. Despite the enormous success of my book (just kidding), interculturalism has not been widely attempted. However, the second best method is democracy. Lebanon has the opportunity to achieve representative democracy that cuts across sectarian lines. It is time for the Lebanese to choose democracy over collectivism.

Thousands of Lebanese are marching in Beirut to end the current system of confession-based politics. Many Lebanese are choosing to end 67 years of divisive, sectarian politics and end the system that led to civil war on more than one occasion.

In 1943, behind closed doors, a Christian and Muslim Lebanese elites decided on a system for Lebanon to ensure that each of Lebanon’s 18 recognised religious sects would share power. Positions in government were starkly separated as the Maronite Christians, assumed to be the largest ethno-religious group, were assured the presidency, Sunnis the prime ministership, speaker of the National Assembly Shii, and so on. The Taif Agreement in 1989, negotiated to end Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, transferred power based on demography but instead of eliminating the problem it merely tossed it around like a hand grenade. The civil war ended but the divisive system remained.

The system itself has made politics problematic. The elites have little incentive to change the system because they are ensured a place at the top of the ladder. The people are frustrated because change means bargaining with all the other sects. Everything depends on which religious group you are from. For instance, under the current system, people are not allowed to marry outside of their confessional group. It is a system designed by and for racism.

(For further background on the political system and the causes of Lebanon’s civil war, see my essay.)

As I enjoy reiterating, I am no fan of “identity”, in the sense of loyalty to some form of ethnic group. It is exclusive and dangerous, as Lebanon’s history demonstrates as clearly as anywhere. One of the factors breaking down outdated groups is Facebook, because of its innumerable groups based on interests as opposed to exclusive categories that create unwarranted pride. The planning of this march began in a conversation in a Facebook group, which vindicates my earlier arguments about how Facebook can help us break free of the shackles of single-minded collectivism.

The right political system would provide incentives for voters to organise according to interest rather than ethnicity. Since forming groups based on political interests provides another layer of identity that competes with and dilutes their ethno-religious identity; and because people of opposing political ideologies are less likely (since the end of Marxism) to go to war with each other than those of opposing ethnic groups, more democracy would help Lebanon find peace. It will not be easy to simply change the minds of all Lebanese to think outside their confessional group. And a single march to the capital may not be enough to sweep away a system riddled with vested interests. But, if Lebanese history is any guide, it is worth doing so in the pursuit of peace.

The Israel-Anti Israel Conference on Web 2.0

One of the many wonders of the internet is that one can carry on conversations indefinitely with anyone in the world with a connection. Of course, the same wondrous development leads to the hardening and polarisation of attitudes, and the reduction of serious issues to shouting matches.

Part of the modern battle for hearts and minds can be found on Web 2.0. Long gone are the days when the only people who mattered were one’s compatriots and constituents. Now, everyone considers him or herself a stakeholder in world affairs, and has no qualms about expecting their leaders to force others to conform to their worldviews. Due to what I call the illusions of modern politics (see my Facebook blog), the people think their representatives can resolve these issues.

However, high-level political arguments are often over minutiae that, even if resolved, would not affect the larger picture. A good example is the recent media frenzy over the building of new settlements in East Jerusalem. This is the current issue, but if it were resolved, would the Palestinians suddenly have a state? Would Israelis’ fears suddenly be allayed? An argument over settlements may even distract from the very real issues of Palestinian refugees, Israeli fears of terrorism and war, the occupation and the blockade of Gaza. But those issues, along with history that goes back two thousand years, are being debated in the comment sections of every website.

Some of the issues are as follows.
-Has there been a continuous Jewish presence in Canaan since the Jews were ejected 2000 years ago?
-What was promised to whom during World War One?
-Who was at fault for the Arab-Jewish violence in the British Mandate period?
-Were the Palestinians told to leave by invading Arab armies in 1948 or were they chased out by Jewish gangs?
-Were the Arab states bent on destroying Israel in the Six Day War of 1967 or is Israel guilty of aggression?
-Are the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem really occupied territories or do they rightly belong to Israel?
-Was Israel justified in blockading and then attacking the Gaza Strip after it was taken over by Hamas?

None of these issues has been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, so everyone wants to continue the argument until they are.

I wonder how one can actually know facts when there are so many lies, distortions, exaggerations and poor memories. Facts are not as clear as ideologues make them out to be. For instance, one of the major points of contention is the Camp David talks of 2000. In 2000, Ehud Barak and his negotiating team met with Yasser Arafat and his at Camp David. The talks broke down, however, after something happened. What, precisely, happened? Well, we can never be sure: contradictory reports emerged about why the talks collapsed. However, the story the Israeli press latched onto immediately, and which has formed the dominant Israeli narrative since, was Barak’s: Arafat rejected a very generous
offer by Barak and started the second Intifada.

As a result of the clear thinking certainty can bring, the pro-Israel camp claims that one after another Israeli government have offered peace agreements and Arabs or Palestinians have rejected every one and renewed their struggle to eliminate the State of Israel. The anti-Israel camp (there is no unified Arab or Palestinian front) says the opposite: that the Arabs, including Hamas, has an open invitation to peace talks with Israel but Israel is not interested.

So the “discussion” continues. Racist comments about Muslim suicide bombers and Jewish Nazis, genocide, terrorism and so on are bandied about with such ease one would think hatred were a virtue. No problems are being resolved, no learning is taking place, only verbal violence.

Most people who read this post will say things like, “but Barak DID offer him 93% [or whatever the made-up number is] of the West Bank at Camp David” or “the Arabs are always offering peace but Israelis are expansionist and racist”. Those people prove my point. I am tired of disputing them. It takes a considerable amount of reading just to understand how people think and get a balanced perspective on such issues. People who take sides, dig trenches and adopt defensive stances have not done enough reading, unless they simply reject anything that conflicts with their prejudices.

But those people are everywhere. On every newspaper site that enables comments, every Youtube video that concerns Israel, every Facebook discussion becomes a forum to shout about which side is more evil. I have gone over most of the issues on this blog; suffice it to say, you are one keyword away from knowing all the extremist views. As you probably know, the same applies to any of the millions of other pointless conflicts in the world, from Russia and Georgia to India and Pakistan. Angry, prejudiced people are finding each other and getting angrier and more prejudiced with every comment.

The answer to the obvious question no one seems to be asking is to read and listen to the widest possible variety of perspectives and keep one’s mind equally open and critical to all of them. It is to engage constructively with one another. If the past is so important, let us work to understand each other to bring the truth into the light. We must shed our sensitivities to do so. My side cannot be right all the time, and I need to accept that if I want to work with others to make progress on these problems. Let us work together to forge a better future, instead of dwelling on the past. Or perhaps we cannot handle a future divorced from the past, and are doomed to relive it online.

Public Opinion: Afghanistan and Vietnam

Currently, my greatest interest is in how public opinion legitimises war. There is considerable evidence that, although military decisions are made behind closed doors by small groups, wars would not get fought if the people were vehemently opposed to them. Public approval, disapproval, demonstration for and against, discourse and apathy all factor into political calculations in a democracy (and to an extent in other forms of regime as well), and wars have major political consequences. Far from being inherently peaceful, democracies are sometimes more violent against non-democracies, turning wars into crusades against evil. The Cold War is one example: the Western public was convinced of its justifications for fighting the godless communists and their evil empire. World War Two was perhaps an even clearer example. The mythology of those quests remains to this day, continuing to influence culture.

The Leader of the Free World’s most destructive war since WW2 was the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War started and escalated with strategic decisions but ended with a public decision. The American people had had enough. Approval for the Vietnam War among American voters was highest in 1965, a year after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and Lyndon Johnson’s landslide electoral victory. It fell nearly every year after that. Although American soldiers usually defeated the Vietcong, the American government did not defeat the antiwar movement at home. Why did support drop?

One obvious reason is that Vietnamese and Americans were dying in the thousands. By the end of the war, nearly 60,000 US troops and some two million Vietnamese people died. The people could not see why American soldiers should be drafted just to die. Coffins with flags on them are a major cause of war weariness.

Another is some of the spectacular embarrassments the US war effort incurred. 1968 was particularly bad. In January was the Tet Offensive. Though a tactical victory for the US and its South Vietnamese allies, it was a propaganda victory for Ho Chi Minh. A spectacular surprise attack by the communists, the Tet Offensive marked a turning point in the war that reversed US escalation in Vietnam. Soon after the Tet Offensive came the massacre at My Lai. The US Army brutally killed some 400 or 500 Vietnamese villagers, all civilians and mostly women, children and elderly. When the news of My Lai came out, Vietnam war protests increased, as more moderates became vocal objectors.

By 1973, the US was out. Thirty years later, it was back in; except this time, it found itself in Afghanistan and Iraq. Barack is pulling most troops from Iraq but he is placing more in Afghanistan. The American public’s attention has largely refocused on what the president likes to call a war of necessity. The US public initially agreed with a US invasion of Afghanistan, but it could be waning.

There are differences between the two wars, but here we are concerned with public opinion. Americans are lukewarm on Afghanistan, about half approving of their country’s presence there. 60% of Canadians would choose not to extend the Canadian military’s role in Afghanistan beyond the scheduled 2011, even though there is no reason to believe a mere one more year will stabilise the country. About two-thirds of Germans want to bring the troops home. 64% of Britons polled think that the war is unwinnable, and 69% that the government has not done all it can to support its soldiers. With an election coming up, these figures are crucial.

Soldiers in Afghanistan and even Iraq have not died in nearly the same numbers as in Vietnam. But we are of a different generation. We are living in a time of fast food, high speed internet, immediate results and easy victories. If the Western allies who are again fighting an opponent they do not entirely understand do not show markedly improved results soon, governments will fall and the war in Afghanistan will end.

How long will the public approve of this war? Will they care enough about its stated goals to continue to support it? Is there any chance public opinion on the war will rise in the US, UK, Germany or Canada, even with some tactical victories? History suggests that, if there is an Afghan Tet Offensive or a Pakistani My Lai, the West will suffer another humiliating defeat in another faraway land.

Time for Turkey and Armenia to forget

President Barack and the EU Presidency have urged Turkey and Armenia to reconcile and build relations after about a century of tension. If we push aside our collective memory (Armenia) and collective forgetfulness (Turkey), we will have the chance to bond.

The barriers to reconciliation in this case are basically collectivist pride. Armenian President Sarkisian said that the matter of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the naming of it a genocide, is not up for discussion. In other words, he is living in the past. I do not see any reason to deny that the Armenian Genocide was less than a genocide (over one million Armenians died, some systematically and in the most brutal fashions), but I see equally little purpose in the symbolic naming and labeling of historical events. Of course, many Armenians would feel some form of catharsis if a high official of Turkey used the word “genocide” to describe the actions of a group of long-dead soldiers and rulers of a different regime but a coinciding nationality. But how could one truly feel the pain of something that happened years before one was born? Only by imagining it.

Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey, for the same reasons, should have no problem saying that his country (actually, its predecessor) committed genocide nearly 100 years ago. After all, what responsibility could he or any of his living compatriots possibly bear? But collective pride restrains much human progress. In the eyes of millions or perhaps billions of people, the nation state has become an idol, the cardinal source of identity and legitimacy. What one does, one does for one’s country. And apparently, 100 years is not long enough for a country to admit it has done wrong.

Political battles are being fought in parliaments around the world to recognise or deny the Armenian Genocide. Why? About twenty countries officially recognise that it was a genocide. Why not more? Conversely, why is it important that they do so? If we could only let sleeping dogs lie, they would stop hurting. Instead, we use history to create enemies that pose no threat, or deny facts for fear of losing face.

Diplomatic talks between top officials in Turkey and Armenia continue in every conceivable venue, from the World Economic Forum to the nuclear security summit. There are other issues between the two states, but this one will loom in the background of any negotiations over the others. I may be jumping the gun, but I think it is inevitable that Turkey will officially recognise and apologise for the Armenian Genocide. Armenians are looking forward to that day. I am looking forward to the day no one cares anymore.

The Real Reasons for Operation Cast Lead

Whenever one reads in newspapers about Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s War on Gaza of December and January 2008-9, it is usually referred to as a war against Hamas. This is a misconception.

Most Israelis will tell you that the reason the IDF attacked Gaza was to stop the rocket fire coming from Gaza on a daily basis. There are measures the state could have done stopping short of a war if it had wanted to, but Israel has little incentive to take them. As I have said many times, Israel has all the power in this relationship. Nothing demonstrates this fact better than the Qassam rocket. According to the Israeli government, 1750 rockets and 1528 mortar bombs were fired into southern Israel from Gaza in 2008. The fatalities these bombs caused were very few in number (22 since 2000), so few in fact that official Israeli statistics focus on the number of rockets fired and the “close to 30%” of residents of Sderot, the town that was usually the target of Qassam rockets, who suffered shell shock. (Israel accuses Iran of supplying Qassam rockets to Hamas. If this is true, which is probably is not, it illuminates how little threat Iran poses to Israel.) Is shell shock really worth killing 1400 Palestinians?

If there are two things the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have, they are intelligence and high technology. Having good intelligence means knowing where your targets are. In war, legally, you are supposed to have clear objectives, including the people you are trying to kill, and only kill those people specifically. Intelligence helps you locate the people you want to kill and modern weapons technology helps you target them. If the IDF were really after Hamas targets, why did they kill more than 300 children, 100 women and 200 police officers? (You can find all the figures on page 90 of the UN Fact-Finding Mission Report.) Why did they kill as many as 100,000 chickens? (Ibid., 205) The IDF plainly considered everyone and everything in Gaza a legitimate target.

Operation Cast Lead was not even really a war. A war is generally between two sides, two opposing armies that both have the chance to win. Cast Lead was more like a massacre. Those who call Cast Lead a war generally consider that, since 13 Israelis died during the fighting, since there were casualties on both sides, it must be a war, just a little uneven. But neither Hamas nor any other Palestinian group has anti-aircraft weapons, or precision rockets, or anything that could defend them against such an attack. Given that the number of Palestinians killed is 100 times the number of Israelis, let us look at the Israeli casualties. Three of them were civilians. They were killed by rockets fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip. The rockets that are fired from Gaza are usually said to be fired from Hamas, but they could have been fired by anyone. Hamas is not only a terrorist group, it is also a political party and a charity. Ten of the casualties were Israeli soldiers, though four of them were from friendly fire.

If you would like to know what kind of “war” Cast Lead was, go to Breaking the Silence. Breaking the Silence is an Israeli NGO that has Israeli soldiers speak about their experiences in the Occupied Territories. IDF spokespeople accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields, which is illegal under international and Israeli law and of course highly immoral. The UN Fact-Finding Mission found no evidence that Hamas used human shields, but Breaking the Silence has testimony that the IDF did. Soldiers have said the amount of destruction was “insane” and “incredible“. “You drive around those neighborhoods, and can’t identify a thing,” said one soldier. “Not one stone left standing over another. You see plenty of fields, hothouses, orchards, everything devastated. Totally ruined. It’s terrible. It’s surreal.”

For a final example, consider al-Quds hospital. Al-Quds hospital was part of the Palestinian Red Crescent. While the IDF gave slight warnings, mostly with warning pamphlets, about other attacks, there were no warning they would attack the hospital. Hundreds of civilians had gathered there seeking shelter from the rain of fire around them. There were no armed groups there. The targeting of hospitals is illegal under Articles 18 and 19 of the Fourth Geneva Conventions. The IDF used high-explosive artillery and white phosphorus in and around the hospital. The use of white phosphorus in densely populated areas is also illegal, as it is an indiscriminate weapon that spreads over a wide area and burns like acid through the flesh of anyone that it touches. And al-Quds was not the only hospital the IDF targeted. In short, it is clear that the real targets were not members of Hamas but everyone. The more people killed and terrorised, the better.

The objectives of Operation Cast Lead were twofold. First, to demoralise Gazans and force them to rise up and reject Hamas. Israel attempted to do the same thing in 2006 against Hezbollah in Lebanon but, as history will tell you, when a foreign power attacks, the locals rally round the tough-talking, security-promising party, not reject it. Second, because of its perceived failure in Lebanon two years earlier, Israel wanted to restore its deterrent capacity. In other words, Israel wanted to show to any potential enemies, Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, Iran, that it would be willing and able to strike hard and fast, to kill a thousand people without blinking an eye, and get off scot free.

For more on where this terrible situation came from, please see my essay “Paving the Road to Gaza: National Role Conception and Operation Cast Lead“.

The good news is that newspapers and commentators are still talking about this war. Ending the culture of impunity that Israel and all other human-rights offenders enjoy is necessary to live in a world of peace and justice.

Imagined Communities and the End of Lebanon

Lebanon had so much potential. Once lauded as the Switzerland of the Middle East, its collapse in 1975 was confusing. How could it happen?

This essay examines the short history of Lebanon before the 1975 civil war to identify the factors that led to the breakup of the state. It argues that Lebanese citizens’ loyalty to the state above their own ethno-religious group was so weak that when the outside world introduced catalysts of polarisation, namely pan-Arabism and, to a much greater extent, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians on Lebanese soil, the Lebanese state collapsed.

Much of the literature on war examines the role the elites play in precipitating it. However, many or most wars could not happen without the approval of the people in whose name they are waged. Loyalty to the state of Lebanon may have existed in 1975, but not among political opportunists and the militias they led. While the elites may have played the key roles in the crisis, the people were sufficiently loyal to their sects and disloyal to the state as a whole that they were wiling to kill and die for their group.