Tony Blair is the world’s greatest threat to rational thinking

Mr Blair, you will have us on. Tony Blair joked the other day in an interview with the BBC that radical Islam is the world’s greatest threat. He said that Islamic fundamentalists will stop at nothing to get their hands on biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and that since 9/11, we “could not take chances on this issue”.

For the sake of clear heads, I would like to exercise disagreement. First, a quick history lesson. The whole Islamic radicalism threat to the world was the creation of the colonial powers, Britain, France and the US foremost among them, and Israel. Resistance to colonialism and occupation in all its forms has been a feature of intellectual and political life in the Muslim world for a long time now. Where it started is debatable, but the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s oldest and largest political Islamic group, was founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928. It did not rise out of the sand. The Brotherhood, which brought us Hamas, was formed in reaction to European colonialism in Arab and Muslim countries. By no means are all its adherents or actions violent, but it nonetheless strikes fear into the hearts of white people who do not understand it, as well as reactionary governments like Egypt’s.

Since then, the United States especially has repeatedly penetrated the Middle East with its well-meaning but disastrous policies, culminating in the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many Muslims see Israel’s repression and killing of their co-religionists as an extension of this policy. As I have written elsewhere, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism was most stark after the Six Day War, which, incidentally, is when US support for Israel took off. If anyone wants to know why terrorists attacked the US so ferociously, they need but pick up a history book. They will see support for brutal regimes, oil plundering, cruise missiles and dead Arabs. Unfortunately, when the history books were most needed, on 9/11, they were not consulted.

Let us next consider Mr Blair’s fear that radical Islamists will acquire nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Having learned how unlikely that is from people who think and research for a living rather than speak, we can largely discard that idea. The most dangerous place for Islamist violence at the moment is Pakistan, where it is truly a major problem. However, even in Pakistan, the nukes are under lock and key, and they cannot be detonated with a simple strike of a hammer like everyone seems to think. Furthermore, even the most devout of the violently religious have shown they are not desperate to kill everyone in the world, just enough that they can achieve their political goals. Of all the reasons that were given prior to taking out Saddam, Mr Blair has settled on one: “his breach of United Nations resolutions over WMD.” The irony that Mr Blair’s government broke international law in order to uphold it was apparently lost on him. He says he is sorry for the faulty intelligence, but not for the war.

As important as his warnings of Muslim evil are, Mr Blair’s assumption is that we should focus all our efforts on combating Islamic extremism. Never mind what one man thinks: what do YOU think? Do you think that Islamic extremism is more dangerous than AK-47s, which have killed some hundred million people? Is it more of a threat to your life than climate change, earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters? Even the people of Pakistan are more at risk from floods than Muslim suicide bombings. Or if it is better to attack people’s ideas, why not push to eradicate nationalism and racism? If we want to avoid preventable death, we can start by ending those bad ideas. Radical Islam should be much further down the list. Finally, a truly radical idea that Mr Blair would likely scoff at: end the state’s ability to wage unnecessary war. But that one is just utopian.

Look at the war in the heart of Africa and tell me Mr Blair’s pet project kills more people or creates more suffering. If you want to stop something, stop the killing and rape in the Congo.

But perhaps when Mr Blair says “the world” he means Europe and North America. After all, scary Muslims chanting foreign languages seems a greater threat to the local ways of life to read any conservative newspaper’s editorial section nowadays.

If Islamic extremism is getting worse, it is because of the same reasons Muslims have been angry at Europeans for the past two hundred years since Napoleon, and during the Crusades: perceived foreign occupation. How many Muslims have to be bombed until the decision makers realise that?

The main reason Tony Blair wants us to believe that radical Islam is going to kill us all is to provide justification for his failed policies. We humans have a bias that makes us seek out legitimacy for our actions long after we have taken them. If we close our minds, which politicians almost have to do to keep their consciences under control, our beliefs get stronger with time. We can see the clues: in the lead up to Operation Iraqi Freedom and throughout the massacre in Mesopotamia, Mr Blair and his contemporaries warned endlessly of “terrorists'” acquiring WMDs; now he is repeating the refrain. (You will find he still has company.) Thank you, Mr Blair, for your humour, but I think it is lost on us.

Terrorism is overblown? You bet it is

Weeki Wachee Springs--Potential Terrorist Target

Is the threat of terrorism overblown? Could it be? I am still studying the American public’s answers to that question, but to scholars who study it, there is little doubt. The infinitesimal odds of dying in a terrorist attack are rarely made clear to many Americans, but if they were they could cast some doubt on the usefulness of the Department of Homeland Security (national security through colour code), the truthiness of political discourse and how threatening al-Qaeda actually is. Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them is clear and sensible thought for a world of headless chickens.

John Mueller, professor of political science at Ohio State University, who also wrote “The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons” for the journal International Security a couple of years before the Soviet Union collapsed, begins his book by throwing out empty rhetoric about “the age of terror” in which we live and ushers in some perspective. Statistically, including 9/11, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s is similar to the number killed by deer or allergies to peanuts. One is more likely to drown in a bathtub than be killed by a terrorist, and yet our reactions to the one successful terrorist attack on American soil have been so absurd that after invading two countries and killing hundreds of thousands, the American public still fears another surprise attack.

This attack could take the form of nuclear weapons, perhaps from the ever-present boogeymen of Iran or North Korea. But as Mueller points out in Foreign Policy (and in Overblown), terrorists’ exploding nuclear weapons all over the place is almost impossible. We have been afraid of them for more than 60 years, and since then not one has gone off accidentally, been sold to a terrorist or found its way to Manhattan. Chemical and biological weapons, too, fail the terrorist test: they are simply too difficult to develop and wield with any effectiveness. And why would they? The 9/11 hijackers had no WMDs because they did not need them.

And yet, the panic over nuclear or WMD terrorism, or any other kind, was high for years following 9/11. On Feb 11, 2003, FBI chief Robert Mueller told the Senate Committee on Intelligence “the greatest threat is from al-Qaeda cells in the US that we have not yet identified” and claimed somehow to know that “al-Qaeda maintains the ability and the intent to inflict significant casualties in the US with little warning.” When he went back to the committee two years later, he never mentioned the secret FBI report that said that after more than three years of intense hunting, the agency had not found a single terrorist sleeper cell in the US, even though the 2002 intelligence estimate said there were up to 5000 terrorists connected somehow to al-Qaeda. Perhaps this oversight was induced by paranoia, as was presumably that which led George Bush to talk about nuclear weapons and Saddam Hussein in the same breath.

The media have contributed generously to the terror potluck. Politicians and bureaucrats have an incentive to issue vague warnings from time to time in case there is an attack and they are accused of not preventing it. In Mueller’s words, “[s]ince 9/11 the American public has been treated to seemingly endless yammering in the media about terrorism. Politicians and bureaucrats may feel that, given the public concern on the issue, they will lose support if they appear insensitively to be downplaying the dangers of terrorism.” It is as if each news program, each politician, each government spokesperson baits his competitors into saying more about terrorism, how wonderful America is, and how bad our enemies are going to get it. But our enemies are not the only ones who have suffered at our hands.

9/11 has cost money. Nearly $10b per year is spent on airport security, not including Homeland Security’s $50b budget. A sense of urgency to protect every possible terrorist target has meant a big increase in government spending with the usual billion dollar riders tacked on to each bill. (Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs, in the photo above, was happy to receive funding for preventive counterterrorism. Fortunately, his water park has not yet been a victim.) Visa restrictions have kept out scientists, engineers and businesspeople who could have helped the US economy. But never mind those costs: they are for security. No price is too high for a colour-coded warning system. The true costs of 9/11 are in the wars that would not have been politically possible without it. Hundreds of billions will have been spent on Afghanistan and at least three trillion will have gone toward Iraq after it is all over. Surely if those wars have saved lives and prevented terrorism, they are good wars. But all accounts say they have not.

9/11 has cost lives. One estimate is that more than 1000 people died between September 11 and December 31 of 2001 after they canceled planned trips by plane and took their cars instead. Another study found that in the same time period, 17% of Americans outside New York continued suffering shell shock. More obviously are the two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, which have claimed thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis in the name of nebulous ideals, false security warnings and failed intelligence.

Professor Mueller provides refreshing views not only of the present unwarranted panic but of historically parallel ones too. Pearl Harbour was described by observers at the time as catastrophic, devastating, crushing, “the greatest military and naval disaster in our nation’s history”. More realistically, however, it was an inconvenience. A colossal overreaction ensued in which a hundred thousand Americans were killed for the loss of 2403 in the initial attack. 120,000 Japanese people, two-thirds of them American citizens, were sent to detention camps without trial. Much more historical analysis provided in Overblown describes additional speculative fears and their consequences that, with hindsight, were exceedingly foolish.

John Mueller is part of a line of thinkers, from sociologists and other scholars to Michael Moore and George Carlin, who explain the destructive effects of the fact that, in the latter’s words, Americans panic easily. From Afghanistan and Iraq to freedom at home, this panic has for years led to the trading of lives and liberties for the illusion of security. Professor Mueller does not touch on the less obvious effects of 9/11 that we are dealing with to this day. For instance, while I believe the Iraq War would not have happened without 9/11, I also believe it is the continued fear of al-Qaeda and militant Islam and the Middle East and anyone who wears a turban that is pushing some Americans toward war with Iran. The mentality seems to be, “You think 9/11 was bad? When Iran gets a nuclear weapon…” Such a belief is only speculation, though. Overblown offers a much-needed clearer-headed response to terrorism than to try to blow it up.

Greens, nukes, fears: untangling Iran

Iran is not a place easy to explain in a few sentences, or even in a few books. As those who observe (rather than avert their eyes from) Iran can tell you, it is a land of contrasts. It is simultaneously a democracy and a theocratic dictatorship. Its Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) is highly reactionary. Its president spouts silly racist slurs against Israel and Jews while ignoring the fact that Iran’s own Jewish population is a protected minority. Naturally, Iran poses us questions many feel must be answered soon. To reduce the dangers from the falsehoods typically circulated in our media, better understanding of Iran would be beneficial.

Twelve months ago, I cautioned against too much wishful thinking regarding Iran’s election and its Green Movement. People living outside Iran, many of whom do not know anything about the country, were quick to pounce on the claim that Iran’s election was fraudulent. Not long after, two scholars went through all widely-published accusations and discredited them. As the Green Movement protesters picked up steam, many well-meaning Americans and Europeans rooted for whom the media told them were the good guys. The news from Iran was so difficult to ascertain that the hopeful relied on rumours as much as reporting. Twitter was the frequently-quoted medium that was apparently being used by the Green Movement to coordinate their actions. However, as Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of “Balatarin,” one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, told the Washington Post, “Twitter’s impact inside Iran is zero…. Here, there is lots of buzz, but once you look… you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves.” Outsiders believed, for example, that Oxfordgirl, a Twitter profile, was, in her own words, “almost coordinating people’s individual movements” by cell phone on days of protests. She presumably hoped no one would mention that the Iranian government shut down cell phone networks on days of protests. It also made little sense for all the supposed protesters to tweet in English when they were in Iran. Oxfordgirl gained great publicity for herself, but did little to aid protesters.

The Green Movement was disappointing to those praying that Iran would collapse in on itself or undergo a democratic revolution. However, a revolution is not what all of its members were fighting for. The Greens have been better described as a civil rights movement than a revolutionary one. Siavash Saffari, a scholar at the University of Alberta, points to the various forms that protest in Iran has taken since last year’s election: a recent general strike in Iran’s Kurdish area, demands from labour organisations for rights and vigorous debate among Iranians about Iran’s direction. Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies at Colombia University, deplores the support the well-meaning crowd gave the Greens as typical, ignorant, self-indulgent Orientalism that is more likely to hurt relations with Iran than give the movement the support it needs. Twisted perceptions built up the Green Movement into something it was not and disillusion with it was inevitable. Only sober thinking will help us understand enough about Iran to make wise decisions regarding its nuclear programme.

Frankly, I am opposed to my having any power over another state’s goals, but the belief among Americans that the world’s business is America’s business is not about to go away. But perhaps the demonisation of Iran, its branding as a fanatical Muslim state desperate to get nuclear weapons so it can wipe Israel off the map could be dispelled with a little clarity. Iran is not Nazi Germany. It is not about to invade its neighbours or attempt to obliterate Israel. In fact, it probably could not if it wanted. In spite of its president’s posturing, Iran’s military budget is smaller per capita than any other state in the Gulf beside the UAE (an ally of the US). To whom does it pose a threat?

To Israel? To the Israeli Defense Forces, one of the best trained militaries in the world, with its nuclear arsenal and its ability to crush any military in the Middle East? I have discussed the infinitesimal likelihood Iran will attack Israel elsewhere. In my opinion, Israel is far more likely to use nuclear weapons on Iran than vice versa. Israel has been involved in numerous wars, large and small, since its founding in 1948. Iran has spent most of the last hundred and fifty years fighting colonialist oppression, and has not once in that time invaded a neighbour. Given their records, who is more likely to fire on whom?

Iran’s government is often accused of funding and supplying arms to Hamas. This support is then employed as an excuse not to talk to Iran, or Hamas as the case may be. However, former senior British diplomat Sir Jeremy Greenstock said in an interview with the BBC that Hamas is not politically tied to Iran. On a logical level, if Iran is supplying Hamas with arms, it is a sign of Iran’s weakness, not its strength. Hamas has no tanks, no aircraft, no ships, no artillery, no missiles besides Qassam rockets, which are so weak that of the nearly 10,000 fired at Israel in the past decade, just over 20 have actually killed anyone. It is well known that Iran supports Hezbollah (though that support recently came in the form of reconstruction aid, as Iran helped rebuild Lebanon after the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war), but like Hamas, Hezbollah poses little threat to Israel’s existence. Meanwhile, the Badr Corps, a key US ally in Iraq, was once part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The US government has designated the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organisation (even though it has never engaged in terrorism) and the Badr Corps a pillar of Iraq’s democracy.

In 2003, the US led an invasion of Iraq based partly on the testimony of a few exiled Iraqis and orientalist scholars who assured Americans they would be treated as liberators. Their Iranian counterparts and many of the same “experts” are providing Americans with the same lies in an attempt to lead the US into yet another foolish foreign adventure. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, who backed the invasion of Iraq, warns with his dispensable eloquence that Iran’s leaders might follow through on Ayatollah Kharrazi’s threat to establish a Greater Iran in Bahrain and the UAE. Such people have some difficulty in understanding people in other parts of the world because they are not able to put themselves in the shoes of those from other cultures. They believe that all the world’s people want democracy, which to them means political parties and a constitution. But Juan Cole, who has lived in and studied the Muslim world for many years, says that among Muslims he has met, democracy means freedom from foreign oppression. As ironic as it may seem, this revelation means that dictatorship would be viewed more favourably by Muslims than American-backed political competition. Iran, having suffered all manner of foreign intervention, is no exception.

Iran is probably developing a nuclear weapon, and its leaders will probably continue to promise violence. But a look at the evidence says there is little reason to worry that Iran’s leaders’ threats are worth heeding. What are we so afraid of? Listening to an adversary? Fortunately, the truth is available to all of us, waiting to be found, ready to disprove any of the fears that could warrant war with Iran.

Funerals, the Turkish public and war with the PKK

Anti-PKK demonstration in Turkey

For the past two decades, the Turkish military has been at war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a terrorist group once fighting for independence from Turkey for the nation’s Kurds (but now probably just fighting for amnesty). The conflict has become a drawn out war of attrition, and some 40,000 have been killed. Some of the 40,000 have been Turkish soldiers. We see in Turkish public reaction to the killing of Turkish soldiers a hardening and increased polarisation of attitudes, a push for an escalation of the fighting against the terrorists. This reaction can be found at the soldiers’ funerals.

Like most modern nationalists, Turkish nationalists consider Turkey’s territorial integrity inviolable. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey (Atatürk means father of the Turks), laid out the principles of the new Turkish nationalism in the 1920s, and one of them was complete independence and sovereignty over the land Turkey covers. Moreover, while Turkey comprises some 73 ethnic groups, they are all considered Turks. Ethnic Kurds, whose ethnic consciousness stretches back before the 20th century, and who make up about 20% of Turkey’s population, had their dreams of independence turned down. Atatürk’s successor, Ismet Inonu, stated “Only the Turkish nation is entitled to claim ethnic and national rights in this country. No other element has any such right.” Any movement perceived as inimical to the homogenisation of Turkey’s people and the unity of its borders needed to be crushed. The Turkish military would ensure, and die for, this principle. When soldiers die defending nationalist principles, nationalists grieve.

Though different cultures face death differently, such grieving mechanisms as crying, fear and anger are universal. People most commonly go through feelings of shock, disbelief and numbness, then guilt, attempting to comprehend the death, and in the end, recovery. Funerals take place near the beginning of this process, when people are still shocked, afraid, angry and ready to point fingers. Far from being a catharsis, funerals may fuel anger at the perpetrator. For years now, funerals for Turkish soldiers have become rallying grounds for expressions of anti-PKK sentiment.

In September 2006, dozens of Turkish soldiers died in skirmishes with the PKK in the latter’s one time stronghold, the southeast of Turkey. At the funeral of one soldier, thousands of people protested. The protest was as much pressure on the Turkish authorities to act as it was protest against the PKK. The government had recently introduced legal reforms proposed to let the air out of some Kurdish grievances, but they may have been too little, too late. The reforms may also have been merely cosmetic, designed to appease the European Union but do nothing to stop terrorism. An election was ten months away, and no party expecting to win could afford to look soft on terror.

October 2007 saw more fighting and killing between Turkish soldiers and Kurdish militants. Headlines in Turkey declared that the PKK wanted to split Turkey, they wanted war, they wanted to damage Turkey as much as possible. During one soldier’s funeral in Bursa, in northwest Turkey, 10,000 people are said to have paralysed traffic to protest and, in effect, demand military action against, the PKK. “We are all soldiers, we will smash the PKK“, they chanted in front of a mosque. Government and military officials attended the funerals, which were held 11 provinces in Turkey and broadcast live on several television stations. About a fifth of the population of a town southeast of Ankara demonstrated, shouting “the martyrs are immortal, the motherland is indivisible,” and “hang Apo”, the PKK’s jailed founder and leader. Each protest reflected and spurred a rising anti-PKK (and inevitably among some, anti-Kurd) nationalism in Turkey.

As a result of this pressure, along with political battles also taking place at the time, Turkey’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to grant the military greater freedom in the war on the PKK and approve of incursion into northern Iraq, where the PKK were hiding out. On February 21, 2008, between 3000 and 10,000 Turkish soldiers deployed in the region in Turkey’s biggest offensive in a decade. (See more on the incursion here.) But the violence did not abate, and five months after the conclusion of hostilities, the PKK struck again, this time on a street in Istanbul. Such incessant terrorism leads quite easily to the feeling among Turks that the terrorists are insatiable and will stoop to any level.

I should note that anti-Kurdish racism is not exploding. A survey of Turks and Kurds in 2009 found most willing to have the other marry into their families. Moreover, terrorism was not the most important issue to those surveyed–it was third, after the economy and unemployment. Nonetheless, the pressure on the government to act to end the war has not ended.

Attacks have occurred more recently (see here and here, for example). One online Turkish news outlet describes the soldiers killed and their funerals. At one, thousands of people, including senior military officers, attended. The crowd chanted “the homeland is indivisible” and “Kurds and Turks are brothers, separatists are hypocrites”. Eight Army Corps Commander Mustafa Korkut Özarslan spoke at the funeral, vowing that the Turkish army would never allow the PKK to achieve its goals. The people of Turkey are not about to let this conflict end inconclusive.

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.

Turkey’s Incursion in Iraq: Why No Legal Consequences?

Between October 2007 and February 2008, Turkey intervened into northern Iraq several times, by air and on the ground. On the face of it, without having been invited by either the Iraqi government or the Kurdistan Regional Government of northern Iraq, these acts were illegal. According to UN Charter Article 2(4), Turkey should not have used force against Iraq’s “territorial integrity or political independence”. But there are reasons it might have been permissible under international law.

This essay explores the legality of Turkey’s incursion and then the political discourse around it. It argues that, whether or not its incursion was legal, the reason no one attempted to charge Turkey with violating international law is that they consider good relations with Turkey more important than law.

Toying with history is a dangerous game

This post is largely based on Dangerous Games: the Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret Macmillan.

The recent history of history

During the Cold War, history was not considered as interesting as it is now. The capitalist and communist systems were about building a new world, not looking back; and old rivalries, such as Croats vs. Serbs, were supposed to have been lost in the swirling mists of time.

The 1990s therefore surprised everyone by ushering in a more complicated, international order. The ethnic conflicts that had so characterised the pre Cold War world had not perished but simply frozen, just under the surface. But an equally inaccurate reading of history led some to think that the new fighting was based on age-old conflicts, rather than, to go back to the example of Yugoslavia, on Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tuđman’s ambitious opportunism in carving up Bosnia between themselves. A merely superficial understanding of history meant that whether to intervene to end the war in Yugoslavia was a question that cost thousands of lives to answer.

Bad history hides answers

There is a mass of bad history out there, sometimes recognisable by its sweeping generalisations. It is conventional wisdom that the Treaty of Versailles led directly to World War Two. However, this account overlooks the fact that treatment was not as severe as many Germans claimed at the time. Germany only paid a fraction of the bill, and Hitler cancelled it outright. The Weimar Republic government’s mismanagement of its economy was far more damaging. Germany also had bad leaders, who thought they could control Hitler once he got into power. Hitler’s ambition and fierce nationalism were much more influential on the outbreak of the second war.

The manipulation of history is increasingly pervasive in our world. Many governments have departments devoted to commemorating history or “heritage”. They vet history text books to ensure their compliance with the approved version of the story. They believe the past should be used as a tool to create patriotic citizens.We hear one-sided or false histories employed to justify anything in the present. Though history, like the present, is very complicated, painting very blurred lines between good and evil, the abuse of history reduces the complicated to a simple pattern of our good deeds and their criminality. History can thus be an escape to a simple, innocent world from a Norman Rockwell painting. (A romantic past is also good for tourism.)

The descendants of the allies of World War Two believe it was the last clearly, unambiguously good war–even though they were allied with one of the most murderous regimes in history. In North America, Churchill is remembered as the hero who soldiered on alone against Hitler, rather than the author of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of World War One. And the romantic past can remind citizens who do not know history very well why they should support current leaders. George Bush compared himself to Churchill (the great commander, not the Gallipoli guy) and Truman (the unpopular one whom history has vindicated nonetheless); Stalin compared himself to Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, the iron-fisted rulers who made Russia strong; Saddam Hussein compared himself to Saladin, sultan of Egypt and Syria who fought crusaders; and Mao Zedong liked to draw parallels between himself and the Qin Emperor who united China after the Three Kingdoms Period. Analogies draw pretty pictures of ugly faces.

History and collectivism

Publishers and TV stations profit from idealised versions of history because they make us feel good about ourselves and our ancestors. Our approach to history strongly affects our collective self-image. Most people are collectivists: they feel they belong to a group that is bigger than they are, and that everyone else does too. They look to history books to provide not the truth but meaning. We tell and retell stories about ourselves and our groups, and since we do not want to feel bad about anything we associate ourselves with, our stories inevitably make us look good and feel proud.

That leads us to ask, what is history for? Is it to know the truth? To learn lessons for our lives? To create a community? To create patriots? To legitimise current government policy? Or to understand how we got here?

Why is truth important in history? Because only then can we understand the present, understand ourselves and most importantly, understand others. That means a) why our group is no more moral than any other group, b) why others are angry with us, c) what we should do to make things right. If we do not learn, or at least seek out, the truth in history, we will write off everyone else’s anger as irrational. We have given you so much and this is how you repay us? Without truth, or at least a consensus on what the truth is, we have only yelling.

Army regiments have official histories because they are unifying, but they are usually one sided or simplistic. Organisations and ethnic groups have their own heroes. We like heroes and we want our heroes to be pure, so we take inspiration in their good deeds, sometimes exaggerating or even inventing them to create a role model, and ignoring or painting out their faults. The public, and thus politicians, suggest huge honours for soldiers alive and dead, even though the veterans themselves are often non committal. Commemorating soldiers can be good for unity around values that politicians like: nationalism, war, duty, and so on.

History has taken the place of religion as our source of myth. Our group came before and will outlast us, and in a time where fewer believe in an afterlife, our group is a source of immortality. But if the essential features of history, context and causality, are absent, we can see history as an inevitable progression toward a glorious present or future for our group, when in truth it is much less clear. Please also see my book for a discussion of the futility of chasing our identity.

Whose fault is it?

Politicians are quick to make apologies: the pope apologised for the Crusades, for instance; Bill Clinton for slavery; Tony Blair for the Irish potato famine. Apologies are easy. But how do any of them help things? Dwelling on past events like slavery and the Holocaust can make it harder for us to deal with the here and now.

We usually see history through the lens of the present. After the imperialist Suez campaign of 1956, WW2 became seen as the time when all British came together and fought off evil. They felt nostalgia and pride. Churchill’s account of WW2 suggested that the war cabinet was unanimous that Britain must fight on alone. However, the historical account shows that there were long debates in the cabinet, sometimes exploring how to avoid war. A similar debate went on in the American administration over dropping the atom bomb on Japan. When historians began to show that the allies were not always united, and made some morally questionable moves, they were attacked in the press. The US Air Force itself even took offence. Many critics, some who never even read the books they were attacking, said that the historians could not possibly know what happened because they were not there. Margaret Macmillan was even told that, as a woman, what could she know about military affairs anyway?

“Being there does not necessarily give greater insight into events,” writes Macmillan; “indeed, sometimes the opposite is true.” Memory is highly flawed. We think we remember but our memory is often very inaccurate. It is selective and malleable, not set in stone, not recoverable. As Primo Levy, a prominent scholar of the Holocaust, said with a sigh after interviewing Holocaust victims, when a memory is evoked too often, it becomes set in stone, stereotyped, adorned and embellished. And collective memory is stronger because it lasts longer, adorned and embellished over generations. Some nations date their nationhood, or their great win that unified them and expanded their land, or their great defeat since when they have always struggled to regain their land, back hundreds or thousands of years.

The danger of nationalist myth

Israelis and Palestinians dispute every aspect of their history. Both sides tell and retell their own official histories. Since history lies at the heart of their identity and claim to the land, it is impossible for ideologues and hardliners on either side to agree on anything. They seem to believe that proving the length of their claims to the land would be a title deed to it. Fortunately, there are moderates on both sides working together to correct the mistakes and write fairer versions of history books for students to learn about each other, rather than the grievances of their own side and the evils of the other. Unfortunately, few teachers are using them.

Archaeology has assumed a central role in the land debate. But real scientists are not ideologues. Israeli archaeologists have found no evidence at all that Moses or Abraham ever existed, that either the Kingdom of Solomon and David or the Jerusalem of old were anything more than a town, and that there were any Jews in Egypt. Science threw the whole Old Testament into question. In fact, the Old Testament had never been meant as historical record. It was only in the past two hundred years or so, with the wide acceptance of science as a means of discovering the truth, that anyone tried to link religion with science. Nonetheless, Jews, Christians and Muslims repudiated everything the archaeologists found. The truth is a threat to identity.

Israel was founded by creating myths. The fathers of Israel looked back into Jewish history to sculpt their new country. They found Masada–the great defeat and martyrdom of Jewish zealots. But Masada was never particularly important in Jewish history until the modern era. Now, it has become a symbol for Israeli unity in the face of hostility: never again shall Masada fall. In practice, this has meant that no amount of brutality is too much to protect Israeli lives.

But Israelis are only newcomers to the idea of nationalism. Until the past few centuries, and in many cases until WW2, Europeans did not consider themselves part of a “nation” but part of a religion, or guild, or clan. Yet, nationalist historians claimed to have found evidence that there have been discernible German, French, Polish and other nations within recognisable borders for hundreds of years, ignoring the migration and intermarriage between groups. While some myth might make us feel good, we need only look at the nearly one hundred million people who died in the two World Wars, along with Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Tibet, Chechnya, Turkey and Sudan to see nationalist myth in its purest form.

History painfully challenges the assumptions of sensitive people, but to accept the truth is a sign of maturity. In the pre Civil War South of the United States, history books used to show a very simple and beautiful history. Life was easy, polite, cordial, even between slaves and their owners. Textbooks in the South played down slavery and made Africans seem fortunate to have been given the chance to come to America, though they were clearly not clever enough to rule themselves. After desegregation, museums, monuments and textbooks, embarrassed, rescinded most of their mistakes. In France, debate continues about the implications of the French Revolution, Napoleon’s conquests and France’s involvement in Algeria. French historians have tried to make people understand that Napoleon was more a racist dictator than a national hero; others want to erase the prior downplay of the brutality of the Algerian War of Independence; still more dispel the untruth that all French were united in resistance to the Nazis in World War Two. However, in the United States and France, like everywhere else, not everyone appreciates an even view of the past.

Nationalists use dreams of a Golden Age, a time when our nation was great, to motivate people to violence. Mussolini led Italians to believe in a new Roman empire, which led them to disaster in World War Two. Religious fundamentalists are much the same, wanting to restore the Golden Age when all the faithful lived in harmony, until pagans arrived to end it. In the hands of populists, history becomes prophecy. Each nation has a creation myth. Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, used the anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge to promote a more militaristic view of history–pride in Canada’s military accomplishments, rather than a critical look at them. China’s government is very selective about history. It cannot repudiate Mao completely because his legacy is their party, and thus their legitimacy rests on his memory. They order “patriotic education”, emphasising how patriotic all Chinese people have always been. They morphed socialism, which the Chinese no longer believe in, into patriotism by calling it “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. The past few hundred years of Chinese history is one long line of humiliation that is entirely the fault of foreigners, and conclude that the humiliation will never end until Taiwan is permanently reunited with the mainland. But stories of past glories or wrongs come at the cost of abusing history.

The rise of Hindu nationalism in the 1990s saw the destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya by Hindu nationalists who claimed it had been built on the birthplace of the god Rama. More than 2000 people were killed in subsequent riots around the country. In part of a drive to peg India as a strictly Hindu nation, whose worthwhile accomplishments were all made by Hindus, those who destroyed the mosque declared they would destroy more Muslim buildings around India. Of course, believing that one’s civilisation could ever be one pure religion, ethnicity or culture is nonsense: civilisations, societies, cultures and nations are very fluid constructs, as any balanced reading of history can tell us. But the communal violence India has suffered since Ayodhya is testament to the power of historic myth.

Playing the game

One factor that made the Cold War so dangerous was that neither side understood the other. Cold War policymakers paid little attention to the lessons they could learn from history about the other sides. US governments took the USSR’s threats and revolutionary utterances at face value, and the Soviet and Chinese communists believed that the capitalists were willing to go to war in their imperialist quest for wealth. American experts on China predicted the Sino-Soviet Split but were drowned out by Soviet-watchers and hardliners, who said that Mao was under Stalin’s control even after 1961. Russian and Chinese governments believed (and still do) that Western talk of human rights is a mere excuse to meddle in those countries’ internal affairs. “If you do not know the history of another people, you will not understand their values, their fears, and their hopes, or how they are likely to react to something you do.

“There is another way of getting things wrong,” continues Macmillan, “and that is to assume that other peoples are just like you.” Robert Macnamara worked hard after retiring from the US State Department to understand what went wrong in Vietnam. He believed that Americans pasted a portrait of themselves on Vietnam, believing they saw a thirst for freedom akin to the American experience. American officials also thought they could escalate the bombing campaign and raise the pain on the North Vietnamese to force them into a cost benefit analysis that would lead them to conclude it was time to throw in the towel. If they had looked more carefully at the war the Vietnamese fought against the French, they may have realised the determination of the Vietnamese independence movement. They failed to understand the culture and the politics of Vietnam and the personalities of its leaders. The US government has still not learned history very well, as evidenced in George Bush’s uses of the word “crusade” to refer to his manichean foreign policy, his lumping together of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and his administration’s belief that Iraqis would welcome the foreign powers as liberators.

History can show us who made different, better decisions. President Barack is in a similar situation to that of Nixon contemplating the war in Vietnam. Nixon opened relations with America’s enemy, China, which helped him manage Vietnam and the USSR. Barack might be wise to do the same with his Maoist China, Iran. Cooperation with Iran could mean help in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than hindrance of America’s efforts. (Please see my post on why Iran is the bad guy.) Ah, but of course, we should be learning not from Nixon in Nam but from Munich and the foolish Neville Chamberlain.

Talk of appeasement and Munich is bandied about as if to mean one should never talk to one’s enemies. Disregarding the fact that it was not at all clear what else Chamberlain should have done in 1938, the assumption behind allusions to Munich seems to be that everyone other than us knows only the language of force. It is necessary to treat the claims made in history’s name with skepticism, or leaders will use it to bolster claims about the present. Saddam was likened to Adolf, and we all know how to deal with Adolf. George Bush and American neoconservatives have invoked Munich as a clear signal that we should not talk to but isolate or even attack Iran and Syria. But are Iran and Syria Nazi Germany? Is talking to their leaders a sign of weakness? The Munich analogy has been applied liberally since World War Two: Anthony Eden used it to justify a disastrous episode of gunboat diplomacy in 1956, for example.

Learning history is important. We can learn about the world, learn about how to be successful and how to fail, how we should act and how others might react. But manipulating history for political purposes, or ignoring inconvenient parts of history, do not help make better decisions or forge a better future. We must learn to be thorough and think critically about history, to avoid believing the lies about history and its lessons, or we will be doomed to repeat it.

Why terrorism works

Why do we always fall for it? Since September 11, 2001, there has been one successful terrorist attack in the United States, and everyone says the world has changed. We indeed lost some of our freedom, our security and our rationality on that day, not in the attack itself, but in our reaction to it. Our overreaction, to be more precise, is why terrorism works.

Everyone was scared. I lived at the time in Victoria, BC, a town of 300,000, and even there people were afraid there would be an attack on their office. Meanwhile, in the US, the Patriot Act eliminated some of the basic freedoms Americans have enjoyed for over 200 years, and new airline security regulations made flying harder and longer and more invasive than ever before.

The media blared with warnings of who did it, where terrorists might bomb next, what they could do, what new security measures should be implemented, and where the US should invade to end terrorism. The bombs began to fly over Afghanistan, and then over Iraq in perhaps the most unnecessary and abortive military operation since the Vietnam War. One terrorist attack, two wars. This was an incredible overreaction, and it was entirely predictable.

One feature of human nature is our predictable behaviour. Not all of our behaviour is predictable, of course, but when an entire society is pushed to the limit of its fear it is certain to overreact. The US played right into the hands of the terrorists. It joined what Reza Aslan calls a cosmic war: a war for god and heaven and apocalypse. It is a war it cannot win. The US simply killed Muslims, which enraged moderate Muslims, pushing them into the hands of extremists. It also gave Israel the green light to use any measures it wanted against its own terrorists (who had nothing to do with the 9/11 bombers), deepening Muslim rage against the West. The extremists wanted polarisation and they got it.

Terrorism even works when it does not work. Witness the new security rules implemented after the failed attempt to use gelatine explosives–now we cannot bring toothpaste onto an aircraft. Observe the attempted “shoe bomber” incident–now we must take our shoes off before boarding a plane. Most recently, a Nigerian man failed to kill people on Christmas and security rules are tighter and stricter.

Some say that reactions to terrorism such as the invasion of Afghanistan were the right reactions, and that ending those wars and leaving Iraq, Afghanistan and the Saudi peninsula, ending aid to Israel and the House of Saud, and so on are wrong because they mean giving in to terrorism. This argument is misleading. It implies that, no matter what the right initial reaction would have been, reversing the chosen course would be wrong. However, if the initial reactions were wrong, that means reversing them should be considered. It still might be the right thing to do.

The War on Terror is unwinnable. It will only make people angrier and waste resources. Giving in to terrorism is not about pulling troops out of the Middle East. It is about not overreacting in the first place. Stay strong in the face of terrorism and it will not be terrorism.

Finally, an end to poppy eradication in Afghanistan

After years of wrongheaded “War on Drugs” policies in Afghanistan, the United States says it has changed. Richard Holbrooke, a highly experienced diplomat, now US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said “we’re going to phase out eradication” of heroin-producing poppies. This can only be good.

87% of the heroin bought in the world in 2004 was made from poppies grown in Afghanistan. (1) That number has climbed from 70% in the 1990s, a big drop in 2000 due to a ban on poppy farming by the Taliban (2), and a resurgence to as much as 90% today (3) (though figures vary).

Eradication efforts do indeed destroy some acreage of poppy farms, but they do not help reach any of the US’s goals. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime report that “the Taliban and other anti-government forces” earned between 50 and 70 million dollars from poppy production in 2008. (4) Antonio Costa, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, says that the same people may also be hoarding poppy stocks, in order to decrease the amount available on the market and push up prices. (4) Moreover, spraying crops punishes the innocent farmers growing them. If Afghan farmers lose their crops to foreign invaders, who are they likely to turn to for protection? If more poppies are eradicated, the price of heroin goes up, the so-called insurgents make more money and gain more allies. Is it any wonder they are putting up such a fight?

In fact, President Barack’s focus is shifting from Iraq to Afghanistan precisely because it is becoming the more difficult of the two conflicts to win. Iraq has always been seen as the pointless, unnecessary war, the bad war, and the one most frequently designated a quagmire. The reality has changed as Iraq has become more stable and Afghanistan conflict has become to look intractable. Richard Holbrooke has been saying since he was sworn in as Special Representative that Afghanistan will be “much tougher than Iraq” (5), and since a year earlier that US counter-narcotic policy in Afghanistan “may be the single most ineffective program in the history of American foreign policy”. (6) He also said that “Nato’s future is on the line”. He is surely right. More importantly, a collapse of NATO’s operations in Afghanistan could mean more violence in Central Asia, more radical Islamism and more suicide terrorism in America and Europe.

For now, let’s get back to drugs. There are alternatives to destroying poppies (though Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics might disagree (7)). Growing poppies could be considered an advantage rather than a scourge. The Senlis Council suggests using them to manufacture opiate-based, legal painkillers such as morphine. (8) Other countries, such as Turkey, grow poppies legally and sell opiates to the United States. Giving farmers a rich market for their crops would mean giving them a livelihood and delivering them from the Taliban. Decriminalising poppy production in Afghanistan will help the cause of NATO forces.

Spokespeople have used the words “phasing out” to explain their shift in policy away from spraying poppy fields. These words make it sound like a slow process that will not end overnight. Nevertheless, policy is moving in the right direction. An end to the eradication of poppies could be the turning point in the war for a democratic and stable Afghanistan.

Barack and Islam: the to-do list

President Barack has just given a speech in Cairo intended for an audience of the entire Muslim world. The speech was a good one–sincere, inclusive, friendly–but there is a lot more to be done.

Though I do not think Islamic terrorism is America’s biggest problem, nor will it ever be, I do think Islamic extremism poses a serious threat to American interests. Those interests include free markets, secularism, democracy and peace. And contrary to popular belief, extremism is caused far less by poverty and religious pluralism than by perceived injustice with no outlet through which to vent. And on this note, we begin Barack’s To-Do List for Better Relations with the Islamic World.

#1: Encourage freedom and support pluralism in Muslim countries

The Barack administration needs to work with its allies among Muslim countries to ensure everyone has a voice. With so many repressive states that are nominally Islamic, and so many of them (again nominally) aligned with the US, Barack and Hillary need to continue the pressure on people like the House of Saud to allow freedom of expression. Eliminating extremism is not a question of democracy per se; indeed, the idea of democracy has become a laughing stock among many Middle Easterners. The unpopular Bush administration promoted democracy as a panacea, and as soon as an Islamic party (Hamas) was “democratically” elected, it refused to recognise it.

But pluralism and freedom are still ways to promote peace–if you disagree with me, you can say so without getting arrested. To say they are not suited to Islam is nonsense: they were part of Islamic civilisation for at least 500 years during the Islamic Golden Age. Without pluralism and freedom of expression, Muslim civilisation would never have made such great scientific advances. Saying pluralism and Islam cannot coexist is like saying Muslims speak with one voice. Yet these values are at the root of the debate going on within Islam today. Having lived in Indonesia, Barack is in a good position to understand and sympathise with Muslims.

His charm is also handy. Though I do not like the idea that charm can move mountains, it can. They have won him his popularity up to this point, and have even slightly increased the United States’ abysmal image among Muslims. Charm has brought him to this point, but it can take him no further. It has opened up many doors, and Barack must enter with a plan. The focus of his plan must be understanding.

#2: Foster cross-cultural understanding

Back to the president’s speech. Barack set some things straight about religious freedom in America. “[F]reedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the US government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.

So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America.” (Youtube, 12:00)

He addressed the stereotypes many Muslims hold of America and Americans hold of Muslims. He has started the intercultural ball rolling. Other people need to run with it. Start programs that teach, at all ages, about each other’s culture and religion and help them to see each other’s points of view. Let them see and feel the plurality of views among the people, that the other side is not a monolithic or hateful mass, and the new ways of thinking all of us can learn from this interaction.

Even the language we use limits our understanding. It can be difficult not to speak and think in terms of “Muslim countries”, “Islamic states” and moderates vs. extremists, but there is so much more to the issues than this thinking implies. We need to realise that, like everywhere, there are nuances in the groups we are talking about that we can work with to achieve goals that benefit everyone.

“And I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our god. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity.” (Youtube, 12:30) Barack has begun to bring us all together in common humanity.

Another part of his plan is the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

#3: Close Guantanamo

Barack said “unequivocally” that he prohibited the use of torture by any forces he commands. This is quite the promise for an American president to make, as it is convenient to invoke the misleading ticking time bomb scenario and to the charge of torture plead patriotism. If no stories of torture emerge under his presidency, we should be impressed by his adherence to principle.

He also said, as he has done before, that he will close Guantanamo. Great. When? When everyone else agrees to take the US’s prisoners? I am not clear on why the prisoners at Guantanamo cannot be shipped to civilian tribunals in the United States. This is the most logical answer to me. By asking other countries to take them, the US government is asking favours. Charm has made closing Guantanamo a possibility, but it will not ensure the safe transfer and fair trial of its prisoners without costs to the US’s international political capital. And that capital will run out even faster if he does not do what he promised on the campaign trail.

#4: Bring the boys home from Iraq

Barack has promised to bring the troops home from Iraq by 2012. This may or may not be a good idea; suffice it to say, it is a promise, and fulfilling it will bring him credibility (right in time for his reelection). As part of the wider War on Terror, which many Muslims see as a war on their religion, the war in Iraq was framed as the way to keep the US safer. Having inflamed many a Mohamedan mind with images of fear, torture and killing, it has clearly had the opposite effect.

Part of the reason is the us vs. them attitude exhibited by all the War’s protagonists. We have a tendency to view struggles as good against evil, and I need to know who everyone around me supports so that I can know who the good guys are. But conflict is rarely about good and evil but two groups who do not want to listen to each other and admit they are wrong. Barack seems to realise this, and when he speaks of reconciliation with the Islamic world, he is trying to forge a wider “us”. Bringing the troops home from Iraq would mean that one of the biggest symbols of “them” to so many people, the continuation of a war on Islam, will be over. That is, unless American troop presences elsewhere become increasingly seen as illegitimate. The wrong moves in Afghanistan could reverse progress on Barack’s goodwill efforts.

#5: Win Afghanistan and Pakistan

The United States military, in conjunction with Pakistan’s, has an incredibly difficult task ahead of it: stabilise perhaps the most dangerous region on earth. They have scored some military victories, but the real question is, are they winning hearts and minds? This is war among the people, not between states, and it is not clear that technology and manpower will end it. What is needed are hospitals, schools, entrepreneurship, legitimate government, grassroots organisations and the rule of law. These are not possible outcomes in the short, election-focused, American political attention span.

Barack must make skeptical Muslims realise the benefits of this war, which will be very hard. Perhaps even harder, he also needs to show progress. “[W]e plan to invest $1.5 billion each year over the next five years to partner with Pakistanis to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses, and hundreds of millions to help those who have been displaced…. [W]e are providing more than $2.8 billion to help Afghans develop their economy and deliver services that people depend upon.” (Youtube, 20:16) Will it be enough?

Likewise, Barack must sell this war realistically to the American people. The American public needs to understand that Afghanistan is a twenty, thirty, forty-year project. Not resolving every last one of these conflicts in Barack’s term will not make him a failure. But no matter how long it takes, it will cost more money and more lives. If they are not clear on these points, they will demand the troops return home as soon as there is an Afghani equivalent of the Tet Offensive. If that happens, Afghanistan will become an oppressive, totalitarian Islamic state, a hotbed of extremism and America’s worst nightmare. It may go the way of Iran, or it may go a lot further. Ironically, Iran is a potential ally in defusing the Islamist threat on its borders.

#6: Stop antagonising Iran

That is just what the hardliners want you to do. When governments feel threatened, many, especially those whose economies are booming, will act tough. If their nation is threatened, proud nationalists in Iran will vote in a hawkish government, on the belief that it is better positioned to protect them. Pushing Iran on any major issue will give Iranian government hawks just the backing they need to escalate the country’s military and nuclear development. A conciliatory approach, however, will give liberals room to manoeuver in Iranian politics, and the results could be a partner in the wider fight against extremism.

It is very unlikely the US and Iran will get into any direct conflict, as I have said before; but Iran could still put a stop to Barack’s plans in the Muslim world, especially if oil prices rise again. If, on the other hand, the US reached out to Iran as a partner in the wider struggle against extremism, it may gain from it. It would be seen as less threatening to Muslims as once believed. Its government is not as psychopathic as some Americans seem to think, and the people have some power to choose their representatives. Iran’s government might look petty if it rejected an olive branch; then again, it might look justified. Iran’s people may perceive a bigger threat in the form of the equally belligerent Israel. With a lot of effort, Barack could smooth over the tensions between these two. This task will be easier if Israel cooperates. Progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace dialogue would not hurt.

#7: Resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

But how? Does he have a new road map? Will he try to resurrect an old one? Barack proposes a two-state solution. Is this idea viable? Creative, new ideas could be encouraged. Does he and his team have any new ideas, such as some of the ones shot down here, on any of the complicated issues? Will the president lead peace negotiations? Will he continue to back Israel unconditionally? If so, and it certainly seems so given his actions since his election and his use of the word “unbreakable” to describe the US-Israeli relationship, what are the consequences for the Palestinians’ security? For example, is the American government willing to provide more humanitarian aid to the Occupied Territories? What would it take for it to intervene to stop an Israeli offensive in its territories or neigbours? Will American-led progress elsewhere among Muslims make finding a resolution easier? The answers to these questions will determine the outcome of peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It might take a lot longer than eight years, but if Barack can move ahead on a resolution between the longtime rivals, he will have done his best. Honest efforts to end the violence in Israel will be viewed positively by some people, but let us hope Barack is not stepping into the crossfire with this one.

#8: Stop calling the United States a Christian nation

Every president the United States has ever had has invoked the Christian god in his speeches. It is time to stop throwing bones to the Christian majority of the United States and to start acknowledging what it really is: a pluralist nation. Actually, Barack has already done this one. So he is well on his way. This task completed, perhaps more Muslim Americans will emerge as political leaders, making American politics more pluralist, and thereby wiser.

In his speech, President Barack went into details about how American Muslims have helped make America great. “Since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch.” (Youtube, 8:31)

Barack and his administration have a daunting to-do list. Can he complete all these tasks and realise our goals of a more peaceful and just world? He has started many of them already, and eight years is a long time in the modern world. But anything could derail progress: another major terrorist attack in the name of god on American soil, broken promises, American domestic politics, nuclear weapons here, a collapsed state there. But I have confidence that the Barack administration can maintain the support and good judgement it needs to resolve one of the major conflicts of our time, between the US and Islam.

Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6BlqLwCKkeY