Wednesday, October 26, 2005

TIPPING POINT

Back in 2000, author Malcolm Gladwell published a short book entitled Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. The title is self-explanatory. And his theory is applicable to everything from lice to levees. The maddening thing about a tipping point is that one doesn't know he's passed it until after the fact. Thus, critics of the incremental piling on can be and are branded pessimistic naysayers who are all talk and no action, a very effective strategy appealing to core psychological and emotional values about not just accomplishment but remaining in the arena of work and play. In other words, more than winning, we ultimately want just to stay in the game, not kicked out for whining.

With regard to the war in Iraq, advocates for invasion roundly silenced critics with the damning label 'unpatriotic', arguably one of the worst epithets that can be cast around in the public sphere. We've now reached the mark of 2000 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, a number that is both arbitrary yet laden with emotional volatility. The patience for sacrifice is wearing thin among more and more Americans each day, and we may indeed be approaching the tipping point, tilting away for support to more and more dissent and perhaps even civil disobedience. But again, we won't know until after we've passed the point of no return.

It bears asking, though, how many young men and women have to die or be badly wounded before the Cheney Administration comes to the realization that we are indeed embroiled in an incremental war of attrition in Iraq? We now know that both President Johnson and his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara kept ramping up American involvement in Vietnam for the sake of political image: Johnson did not want to appear weak in the Cold War or ambiguous on the question of communist aggression. At the same time, however, the limits of Johnson's commitment to the war--brought about by Republican isolationism, antiwar dissent, and simple economics--paved the way for a North Vietnamese victory. American involvement (timeline here), which began in 1961 and concluded with the inglorious departure of U.S. Marines from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in 1975, reached its tipping point with the Tet Offensive in 1968. That's a sad and sobering seven years of costly descent down the mountain path of defeat.

Hawkish historians and political analysts like Michael Lind (who I often agree with on domestic issues), in his Vietnam: The Necessary War, have argued that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was a necessary and even vital aspect of the Cold War; it was a conflict that ultimately halted the spread of communism throughout much of Southeast Asia through the psychology of horror. I find this argument unconvincing. But even if this were accurate, had communism continued its relentless spread across Asia and South Pacific island nations, would such countries today still be communist? It's doubtful, as the economic collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as well as the reversal of socialism in India and other countries, demonstrates the unsustainable dynamics of a tightly centralized economy, to say nothing of the unscrupulous cronyism of a party of ideologues.

Is the war in Iraq winnable? If the U.S. were to commit more resources and implement real-world strategies instead scaling back troop numbers and continuing the short-sighted policies of political expediency, could we actually secure peace and leave Iraq a working representative republic with a healthy economy? (I'm not considering the possibility of simply nuking Iraq because it's much too extreme, impractical, and unconscionable and obviously would create far more disastrous consequences than imaginable.) Can the U.S. win the war in Iraq. I'm skeptical. Let's be realists on this issue. What democracy--or more accurately republic--was not established over centuries of gradual settlement and jolting civil war until reaching an acceptable measure of compromise tempered by oftentimes exploitative economics? The concept of representative democracy may be ancient, but the institution of the nation-state is young, a product of 18th-century liberalism throwing off the mantle of monarchy and over-privileged aristocracy. This was a gradual, violent process of reactionary and revolutionary extremes, well-illustrated by the American and French Revolutions and laying the ground for both World Wars.

The U.S. involvement in Iraq is an instance of imperialism, no matter how well one dresses it up in talk about freedom, democracy, elections or record-setting voter turn-out. The reality is that the term "Iraq" signifies not a viable nation-state enjoying political sovereignty and a working economy. Rather, it is little more than a U.S. colony currently under military occupation for the purposes of controlling its oil resources and for hawkish idealists like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle implementing a regional experiment in Middle East democracy. The ultimate intentions of such idealists must, however, be framed within the wider context of American global hegemony and domination of the Middle East.

If the long-term goal for "Iraq" is indeed objectively the realization of a Middle East democracy with a strong economy, then it will take the hard work of the Iraqi people, without U.S. policy manipulation and especially foreign control of its natural resources. The problem, obvious to all, is defining and ultimately establishing a national identity regarding "the Iraqi people," in the broadest sense comprised ethnically of Arabs, Kurds, and Persians and religiously of Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Much like France's colonial rule over and rather ignoble departure from Algeria, the United States will most likely conclude its involvement with Iraq years from now, long after the tipping point, when the number of dead is so high a painful silence will weigh heavily on our collective conscience, the planners of the disaster will have amassed billions in wealth and vanished from the public stage, and more importantly, the reigns of power in Iraq will have been gathered up by a mighty few and the people--that boundless entity of national identity--will have grown so weary of death and destruction that they will resign themselves to just about any form of government so long as it succeeds in stamping out dissent and halting the senseless carnage.

The irony--as there always is in these matters--is that in Iraq's long struggle to re-establish all the trappings of a sovereign nation-state, the institution of the nation-state itself will already be in decline, as it is today, to be superceded by the power and prestige of multinational corporations and economic blocs like the EU and ASEAN. And we who love freedom and democracy so much will be drawn down the winding road to feudalism.