Politics & Policy

We Can See Clearly Now

Why sometimes we can't just all get along.

I spent about a week in the woods of western Maryland, taking a well-deserved break from seeing the world translated into pixels — and ensuring that my dog got the vacation he wanted. I caught up on a massive amount of reading, and came to the conclusion that one cannot subscribe to Playboy “just for the articles.” I also concluded, however, that we are living in the first true era of realism in international affairs. I don’t necessarily mean the realism most often referred to by foreign-policy intellectuals; what I mean is that, unlike previous new eras, this one is being built on the dismantling of myths rather than on the creation of them.

Let me give you the best current example. While I was on hiatus from media-monitoring, it seems that India and Pakistan came perilously close to, in the words of Animal House’s D-Day, dropping the big one on each other (and no, I don’t mean catapulting Gerald Nadler or Michael Moore into Islamabad or New Delhi, respectively).

It now looks like these two nuclear powers are pulling back from the brink — which is good, since nuclear war is bad. Indeed, being against nuclear war is one of those easy positions, like opposing child abuse, puppy torture, or tributes to Barbra Streisand. So, obviously, it’s good news that these two countries have avoided nuclear war.

But look at the myths that have been shattered by this near-war.

First of all, contrary to what 8 trillion enlightened liberals told us for four decades, nuclear deterrence works. The Indians were not merely rattling their sabers. India would have leapt into the breach of war if Pakistan didn’t have the bomb (and let’s be honest, they would be right to: If Mexican-sponsored gunmen shot up Congress, the Marines would be encamped in Cabo San Lucas).

As an unnamed diplomat told the Washington Post during the height of tensions, “The fact is they don’t have any military options that are attractive. It’s either full-scale war or symbolic pin pricks.” But they’ve risked full-scale conventional wars before; they’ve mixed it up with Pakistan more times than O. J. Simpson’s been arrested. What’s new this time, is New Delhi’s ability to flatten Islamabad and vice versa.

Now, none of this means that we shouldn’t be fighting nuclear proliferation (imagine if Taliban-style radicals gained control of Pakistan — not an unimaginable prospect). But it does show that when relatively sane states are acting in their self-interest, the prospect of nuclear annihilation makes war less, rather than more, likely. This may be obvious to you, but it isn’t to all of those boobs I went to college with who always thought it was so clever to say things like, “Peace through strength is like virginity through f*cking.” And it remains incomprehensible to all of the fashionably naïve folks who drive around with that Einstein quote — “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war” — on their bumpers.

It’s the Little Things

But that’s not even the biggest myth debunked by the recent hostilities. How often do we hear that “understanding” brings peace? It’s a staple of the liberal view of the world that peace comes with mutual understanding; when people get to know each other, they don’t kill each other. “If we could just get both sides in a room to talk this out…” is the beginning (and end) of wisdom for this crowd.

I admit, this noxious axiom makes some superficial sense, especially when you apply it to your own personal life. Most people — though certainly not all — are less likely to seem like jerks when you get to know them. But applying the lessons of your day-to-day life to international affairs is one of the greatest blunders of world history (even greater than getting into a land war in Southeast Asia). Woodrow Wilson, for example, loved to talk — and think — about nations and peoples as if they would behave according to the same rules as the guy next door. And it is no understatement to say that Wilson screwed up the 20th century more than any other American figure.

The truth is that most of history’s greatest conflicts have been between peoples who know each other very, very well. Pakistan and India may be new nations, but they were essentially the same country for most of their existence. When they were both part of British India — and various other empires — their heritage was, for the most part, a common one.

Today, of course, Pakistan is constitutionally an Islamic country (the name means “Land of the Pure” — that is, pure Muslims), while India is predominantly Hindu, though constitutionally secular. But it’s worth noting that there are still probably more Muslims in India today than there are in Pakistan.

More to the point, ethnically, culturally, historically, and geographically, Pakistan and India have far more in common than they have separating them. Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, was born in India. India’s leading Hindu nationalist, Home Minister L. K. Advani, hails from what is now Pakistan. Like millions of Indians and Pakistanis, they understand both the grievances of their neighbors and their arguments. But these two countries are constantly flirting with armed conflict.

It’s not just them. Whatever you think of the differences between Palestinians and Israelis, you would be a fool to think they don’t understand each other better than the average American diplomat understands either. CBS’s 60 Minutes recently did a follow-up to one of their feel-good stories. About five years ago (I think), 60 Minutes profiled a summer camp where Palestinians and Israeli teenagers spent an idealistic New England summer getting to know one another. These kids spent hours, every day, sitting on the floor leaving no thought, no argument, no emotion unexpressed. In fact, many of them became great friends. When 60 Minutes revisited these kids — now college-aged — a few months ago, virtually all of them, Israelis and Palestinians alike, felt nothing but contempt for their former campmates.

Greeks and Turks, Serbs and Croats, Irish and British, Springfielders and Shelbyvillians: It is almost always the peoples who understand each other best who have the worst conflicts. Listen to an Eastern Orthodox priest and a Catholic priest explain the theological underpinnings of the “Great Schism” between their religions, or to two college professors who won’t speak to each other, and you’ll see that the most violent disagreements are just as often over the smallest differences. If mutual ignorance were the font of war, Mexico would be at war with Moldova and Alec Baldwin would be running around hacking to death everyone with an IQ over 80.

The reason for this is not that understanding necessarily breeds war, but rather that understanding doesn’t prevent it. Small differences can be the most infuriating. Between neighbors, small differences are seen as duplicitous betrayals, especially when they’re over territory — “They know this our land!”

In religion, small differences — between Shia and Sunni, Catholic and Protestant — are heresies from a common faith, as opposed to huge differences, i.e., of wholly different religions, which are much less offensive. For example, scholars of the three great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — have devoted lifetimes of study and debate to one another’s faiths. But you could probably scratch out what the average mullah, monk, or rabbi has to say about Shintoism or Scientology on the back of a business card (no offense to Shintoism).

Time to Get Realistic

September 11, and its aftermath, shattered any number of myths and clichés for those willing to look at the evidence rationally (see “Remembering the Obvious“); among them, the idea that everybody around the world is the same; that violence never solved anything; that supporting the U.S. government is a knee-jerk response of the uneducated; that dislike for “multilateralism” and disdain for the opinions of the “international community” are synonymous with isolationism; that all we had to do was “give peace a chance.” This week, we can add another to the list: the notion that understanding breeds peace.

To date, there is only one thing that reliably guarantees peace in the long term: democracy. The establishment of democracy around the world is a lofty and idealistic goal, but it is also in our best interests. The key word here is “interests,” because the only responsible way to pursue one’s interests is to be realistic about how the world actually works. This is the realism of the foreign-policy intellectuals. I would pursue this point, but I can see that I am out of time. Instead, I refer you to Ramesh Ponnuru’s wonderful essay on the subject, which is better than anything I could do. Meanwhile, I interrupt this cop-out of a concluding paragraph to move to the announcements:

1. Welcome aboard!

Rod Dreher, formerly of the New York Post — and, totally unreliable rumor has it, of the Salt Lick, Indiana, production of Mummenschanz — has signed on with National Review. This may be news to him, but a double-secret codicil to his contract requires him to bring Rick Brookhiser his slippers every morning. Also, and more importantly, it requires him to write for NRO on a regular basis. Because, as they say around here, you can never have too many overeducated, smart-ass journalists of the large-C Catholic persuasion. We are delighted to have him and more than a little honored. Welcome.

2. While I was gone, I listened to quite a bit of C-SPAN on my car radio (we get C-SPAN radio here). On several occasions they discussed media coverage of the war. Not once did I hear anyone call in to sing the praises of NRO. Considering the nearly 1 million people who visit the site every month (not to mention the espoused fidelity of the flying monkeys), this disappointed me greatly. We count on the hardcore readers of NRO to boost our product at every occasion (or at least at some). I’m not asking anyone to become the high-minded ideological equivalent of a Howard Stern listener, calling in to shows to ask Brian Lamb if he’s immanentized his eschaton lately, but it would be nice if you could swing the big foam finger with “NRO’s Number 1″ every now and then.

3. Another rumor has it that I will be on both CNN’s Reliable Sources this Saturday night and CNN’s Late Edition this Sunday afternoon. Check listings.

4. Amidst the scads of end-of-the-year e-mail criticizing me for this, that, and sometimes even the other thing, the most dismaying was the suggestion that I reference my dog too much. Cosmo is deeply hurt. But the criticism does offer me the excuse of not overly publicizing his terribly botched interview with the president of Pakistan.


The Latest