I was in another history discussion with my 24-year-old son last week. He had just seen Bobby, about Robert Kennedy, and was trying to catch up on what they didn’t teach him in school.
“I didn’t realize there were so many assassinations in those days,” he said. “It seemed like every time you turned around somebody else was getting shot. Why do you think it doesn’t happen now?”
“The Internet” was the thing that popped into my head.
“Gee, I hadn’t thought of that,” he said.
I hadn’t thought of it either but now it didn’t sound completely implausible. “It’s hard to remember, but in the 1960s there was a vast chasm between the world of television and the world of everybody else,” I ventured. “People didn’t have video cameras, they didn’t have blogs, the only way to bridge that gap was through spectacular acts of violence.
“The thing about those assassins was they were all complete nobodies. None of them ever had political motivation. Sirhan Sirhan claimed he shot Bobby Kennedy because of something he said about the Palestinians but that was just rationalizing. He was just another cipher who wanted his name in the papers. Marshall McLuhan noted all those assassins had the same habit of cutting out newspaper clippings and carrying them around in their wallets. Killing a famous person was their way of saying ‘Here I am.’ Today you can blog and do the same thing.”
“I guess Andy Warhol was right when he said, ‘In the future everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes,'” he said.
True. And the same thing applies to tin pot dictators today.
RIGHT NOW WE’RE TRYING TO DECIDE whether to let Syria and Iran play a role in the mess in Iraq. I think it’s worth remembering that in many ways these people have the mind of assassins. And that offers a clue of how to deal with them.
There are two things going on in the Middle East. First, the Sunnis and the Shi’ia still hate each other as they have for the last fourteen centuries. Second, everybody in the Middle East, Sunni and Shi’ia alike, wants to get on TV. They feel like second-class citizens of the world. What else was September 11 about except a nobody named Osama bin Laden wanting to get his name in the papers? My first reaction was the same as everybody else’s — Arab terrorists, what do they have to do with us? But that’s just the point. We’re John F. Kennedy. They’re Lee Harvey Oswald. It’s the chasm between us that invites assassination.
The Baker-Hamilton Report is urging us to bring Iran and Syria into the process. President Bush and the neoconservatives are resisting under the premise it would be humiliating for our President to sit down with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bashar al-Assad as equals. But this is the same dilemma President Richard Nixon faced when he pulled his brilliant opening to China. By swallowing his pride and treating Mao as an equal, Nixon achieved two things — he accomplished our policy objectives in the Far East and he won the Vietnam War.
As Baron von Clausewitz wrote, “War is a continuation of politics by other means.” The object of war is not to create heroes. It is not to win spectacular battles. It is to pursue clear political objectives.
What are our objectives in the Middle East? We want to create stable, modern societies that do not spend all their time slaughtering each other so that they eventually decide the only way to resolve their differences is to obliterate Israel or burn down buildings in the United States.
Our first impulse was to turn Iraq into a “Little America” with its own Declaration of Independence and Constitution so it would be “just like us.” That obviously isn’t going to work. But that doesn’t mean we’ve failed or that there is no other avenue for achieving our ends.
Calling together a huge conclave inviting Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Iran and the Gulf States to participate in stabilizing Iraq would accomplish two things: 1) it would put the Middle East in the world spotlight, which is where they want to be, and 2) it would give Iran, Syria, Egypt et al. a chance to act like mature nations, which they just might do. Right now the Sunni and the Shi’ia never talk about anything. All they do is quote the Koran, fund proxies armies in each other’s countries, and rage about Israel and the United States. Sitting down to help find a practical solution for stemming the violence in Iraq would put them in touch with reality.
TO SOME EXTENT, it’s already worked. Look at what has happened to Al-Jazeera. Right after September 11 the network was an Al Qaeda propaganda machine, reprinting every rumor, reciting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, openly jeering at the United States. Go on their website today and it hardly differs from Fox News. Did you know that the Sunni Gulf States are planning their own “peaceful” nuclear initiative in response to the perceived threat from Iran? Did you know people are setting off roadside bombs in Algeria? It’s a perspective we don’t get from our media.
Neoconservatives still insist we can “win” in Iraq “if we choose to.” All we have to do is throw in another 50,000-to-300,000 more troops into the pot. John Podhoretz, brigadier general of the New York Post, had a simple solution last week — kill all the Sunni leaders, then kill all the Shi’ite leaders. After that maybe we can turn Iraq into a parking lot and solve the problem in midtown Manhattan.
Last week the Post completely lost it, depicting Baker and Hamilton on its front page as the “surrender monkeys.” Substituting policy objectives for terms like “victory” and “surrender” might help us get a grip. Let’s use the Vietnam example once more.
People still insist we “lost” the Vietnam War, but what were our objectives? At the time Communist China was an overwhelmingly formidable enemy, free institutions had never gained a foothold in Asia, and the entire region seemed destined to fall under rigid Communist dictatorships. What happened? Our military effort in Vietnam stalled Communism’s advance. Then Nixon’s brilliant stratagem reversed the momentum of the entire region. The calming of East-West relations opened the way for post-Mao reforms. China eventually joined the world economy. Vietnam was the last domino to fall and today it is embracing free enterprise and begging the West for trade. Who won that encounter?
Yet all this was achieved only after we abandoned a concept of “victory” that would probably have us still patrolling the Mekong Delta. In Vietnam we began with a few thousand military advisors and eventually invaded with an army of 500,000. In Iraq we are now proposing the opposite — an invasion pared down to a few thousand military advisers. Either way the outcome is the same. It’s very, very difficult to impose your will on an alien people for an indefinite period of time.
Right now President Bush needs to pull a Nixon. He needs to open up the Middle East peace process to all those tinhorn dictators in a way that leverages our success in bringing down Saddam against the dreary effort of nation-building that lies ahead. In two short years he might just be able to rescue the lives of hundreds of American soldiers, thousands of Iraqis citizens — and his own historical reputation as well.