Sunday, September 11, 2011

Looking back at 10-years of War

It has been ten years since the fateful attacks of September 11, 2001. These attacks had a dramatic impact on the world and fundamentally shifted the direction of international politics. Although I recognize that much ink has been spilt on this issue already, I feel compelled to add my own personal reflections on these events. 911 had a direct impact on my life’s trajectory and through this post I aim to highlight some of its effects on me, America, and the world. I believe that we must reflect on the past if we hope to create a better, more positive future. If we do not, we will continue down our current path of perdition.

On 911, I was in the 10th grade at King High School in Tampa, Florida. I heard about the attacks just as I was about to leave my homeroom class that morning. I had been chatting with the always affable Mr. Carrell when an 11th grader came in and told us that a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York. We immediately checked the TV and, sure enough, there was footage playing of the burning World Trade Center. With that image in mind and having no idea what was going on, I headed over to Spanish class.

My memory of the rest of the day is a bit foggy but there are a few memorable moments that I do recall. I remember going into Mr. Cimorra’s Spanish class and doing our classwork as though nothing had happened. I remember going into my AP European History class and having an epic conversation on what was going on in the world. I led that discussion, even though I only had – at best – a very rudimentary knowledge of global politics. It seemed to me that something dramatic had happened based on the sketchy information that was available at the time and that this event would have global reverberations well into the future.

The news media and government almost immediately blamed the attacks on a loosely defined organization known as Al Qaeda, led by the former CIA-trained Osama Bin Laden. He was hiding out in Afghanistan at the time and President Bush belligerently declared to the world that “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” Although the Taliban had offered to hand over Osama Bin Laden for a trial to a neutral third country, the Bush Administration would hear none of it. Instead, President Bush preferred to entertain a Manichean fantasy in which the good guys – i.e. America – would righteously destroy evil doers all over the world in an epic war of terror.

For me, these events ushered in a period of intense personal growth. To say that I was at an impressionable age is a bit of an understatement. These attacks marked for me an awareness of my “Otherness,” since I was a foreign-born Muslim in a country whose President had decided to launch a “crusade” on evil doers who were exclusively Muslim. But why was the US doing this? And why was it targeting the Muslim world? I did not know the answer to these and similar questions, but I wanted to find these answers. I needed to know how and why this happened, both to satisfy my interest and to also be able to partially answer these questions for others. I thus set off on a multi-year journey to understand the broad arc of global history. What I found was that the more I learned, the more questions I had. After some time, I had managed to pick up a decent amount of history, but I was constantly in need of more answers. I became a sponge trying to understand the world. Every event was interrelated and so I had to keep digging deeper and deeper for more and more knowledge.

The journey for answers has taken me all over the world and I now can make some educated statements about 911, its consequences, and global significance. Although I recognize that it is next to impossible to cover these topics briefly, I will still attempt to grapple with some key themes.

911 was the direct result of terrible American foreign policy choices. By choosing to arm “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 80s, we laid the seeds for future attacks against America. By giving Iraq a green-light to invade Kuwait in 1990, we set the basis for the new unipolar world. We went ahead and attacked Iraq for invading Kuwait which, in turn, inspired Osama Bin Laden to launch a global jihad against America. The raison d'être for Osama Bin Laden and his ilk would have been eliminated had the US not based troops in Saudi Arabia and offered unconditional support for all Israeli policies.

As tragic as 911 was, the events of that day pale in comparison to what has happened since then. The US has doubled-down on failed foreign policy positions and has decided to fight fire with fire. The US launched immoral and illegal wars abroad, which caused the needless death of hundreds and thousands of innocent civilians. The hubris of imperial overstretch has drained our treasury and cost us our moral standing in the world. We have seen the evisceration of the rule of law and our government has destroyed core civil liberties in the name of security. Finally, the coup de grâce has been the bipartisan consolidation of the corporate/national-security state.

But how should we move forward? Since we have collectively destroyed the basis of our individual-rights based social compact, should we be like the Chinese and adopt a more collectivist approach to rights? Is it necessary to do so to deal with the myriad of problems that we face, from massive environmental degradation to increased competition over scarce resources? Should we continue to wage endless wars abroad and be distracted by the kabuki theater of electoral politics? Or should we demand more from our leaders, like much of the pro-democracy activists have been across the Middle East? And if we do, will we be coopted by counter-revolutionaries, as is the norm? Is it even possible to expect change, when we fall for craven salesman like Obama who offers us the Madison Avenue type of change that feeds us with the same – albeit more articulate – bullshit?

Honestly, I have no idea the answer to these questions. For America, our government behaves more like an African anocracy rather than a global superpower. And yet, there is hope in other parts of the globe. Much of Latin America has seen the rise of populist governments that have been more receptive and responsive to the needs of their people. Turkey has emerged as a regional power in the Middle East and an inspiration for the entire Muslim world. The so called “rise of the rest” has seen the redistribution of global wealth to many developing countries around the world and the improvement of millions of people’s standards of living. All of these things are positive indicators of change, but we need to do so much more.

We as a species have long since passed the point of no return. We are burning through more resources than our earth can replenish and yet we continue to maim and kill each other around the world. Although it is true that deaths from global conflict have dropped substantially and that there are many positive indicators across the developing world, there are still many changes that need to be made. If we as individuals can resolve to treat each other with respect, humility, and patience our species may yet still have a chance. Most importantly, we must truly want the best for our brothers and sisters around the world, and meet others with empathy and love, not arrogance and hatred. Then perhaps we can begin to make our Eden here instead of waiting for it in the sky above.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Technological Hubris

As Americans, we are hardwired to believe in technology and progress. We are taught from an early age about how important technology has been to the American experiment, from the cotton gin to the computer. We are told that through technology our lives will inevitably become better.

This technological triumphalism, however, is a myth built on a house of cards. So while technology has the potential to make our lives better, it also has the potential to cause debilitating harm. We have witnessed technological hubris first-hand with the massive oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico and are currently watching the nuclear meltdown of several power plants in Japan. These accidents were all man-made and a direct result of poor policy choices. What these catastrophes should make clear to policy makers now is that we need to immediately change course, especially on energy issues.

The most important issue that we must first deal with is how to end our reliance on oil. We can only do this by an immediate and rapid switch to renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, hydro, and thermal power. Each of these requires a great deal of investment in technology, which is the right kind of investment that will benefit us in long run. Yet, as Americans we have fallen behind China on investment in solar technology and other forms of renewable energy. Instead of being at the forefront of positive technological innovation, we’ve adopted some of the worst policy positions on energy using pernicious technology instead.

This fact is best illustrated by President Obama’s abysmal energy record. He opened up offshore oil and natural gas drilling off the coast of the United States in March of 2010. The very next month, the Deepwater Horizon explosion caused the worst oil-spill in our nation’s history. The short-term consequences from this event were a temporary freeze on new offshore drilling permits and the massive ecological devastation of the Gulf. The long-term consequences of this event are still being documented and it has already exacerbated the vast dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Instead of changing course, the Obama Administration has doubled-down on its wrongheaded strategy and has since lifted the ban on offshore drilling. What this tragedy should make clear is that adopting old technology to extract dirty sources of energy is extremely problematic for both us and the environment.

Another failure of Obama’s energy policy was his adoption of nuclear power as a “clean” source of energy. In fact, he supported an $8.3 billion-dollar loan guarantee for the construction of the first new nuclear power plant in United States in over thirty years. He took this position in spite of the fact that there are huge drawbacks to nuclear power, such as the possibility of apocalyptic nuclear meltdowns, there is no safe way to store nuclear waste, and that nuclear power plants are more expensive to build and maintain as compared to every other type of power plant. Furthermore, the nuclear meltdowns in Japan buttress the dangerous nature of this technology. It should be eminently clear that this archaic technology needs to be retired, not encouraged.

What is amazing about the previous two examples is that both offshore drilling and nuclear energy have been hallmark Republican energy proposals for last several decades that Democrats have traditionally opposed. Instead of listening to the saner voices in his caucus, President Obama has adopted bad policy positions from the Republican Party. These policies have been tried before and failed. The great compromiser Obama (well only with the Republicans, not liberals in his own party) would rather adopt failed policies from his political opponent’s rather than chart out a bold new path towards sustainable energy. The continued use of these antiquated, failed technologies is harmful for both us and the environment.

President Obama, Congress, and other policy makers need to rapidly change course on energy policy. Although President Obama has offered tepid proposals on sustainable energy, a lot more needs to be done and fast. Through our hubris, we have challenged the very laws of nature and are now beginning to feel the negative consequences. What all of these various technological disasters should demonstrate to us as a nation is that technology and progress do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Murphy’s Law often prevails. If there is anything good we can learn from the Gulf oil disaster and the Japanese meltdowns is that technological hubris will cause blowback. We must end offshore drilling and prevent the construction of new nuclear power plants. Instead of sticking to harmful and antiquated technologies, Americans need to rapidly adopt positive technology that will help us achieve a sustainable energy future. As Albert Einstein once put it, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Taking Freedom Seriously

One of the most important aspects of the demonstrations going on in countries across the Middle East has been that people are willing to challenge tyrannical governments through protest. In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Lebanon, thousands of people are coming out en masse to protest their governments’ actions. These mass demonstrations have already toppled the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia on January 14th and are having a dramatic impact on President Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. But why, after all these years, have people started to protest? Are protests an effective way to bring about positive change? And what implications does this have for other tyrannical regimes in the Middle East?

These protests have generally been explained as mass uprisings by lay people who are fed up with living under despotic and sclerotic governments. Some commenters have explained that the roots of these crises are people’s desire for freedom. Others have argued that these protests have a material basis, and that what people really want are jobs and lower prices for staple goods. A debate rages on about whether these protests are primarily about political liberty or economic security. Although it is unclear which of the two factors is more important, what is preeminently clear is that both of this issues matter and that there is tremendous dissatisfaction within the body politic.

But can protests bring about positive change? The answer again is unclear. There are examples of protests that have led to successful revolutions. For example, American colonists protested British taxation policies which, in turn, led to the successful America Revolution. More recently, decolonization across the world has led to the development of dozens of new countries. Hundreds of millions of people in Africa and Asia have been living in independent states for several decades now with mixed results. Some of these societies—like Malaysia—have prospered and are developing rapidly. Unfortunately, many other postcolonial societies ended up with regimes as tyrannical—if not worse—than their former colonial masters. However, what will ultimately determine the success or failure of these current protests is the degree to which these popular mass movements can gain control of the institutions of power in society and use these institutions for the greater good.

All of this suggests a complex future for the states across the Middle East. Countries like Egypt, with an unpopular government backed by the US, will have to reform or face revolution. At this point, however, it seems that incremental reform has become impossible. With protesters out in force from Cairo to Beriut and everywhere in between, we are entering a new chapter in the history of the modern Middle East. Tyrannical regimes in the region should be worried because they will have to answer to their people. It is my hope that the people of the region will reshape their states and create better societies for their own future.

I am encouraged by the fact that people across the Middle East are protesting and challenging tyranny. Far too often, people are cowed by traditional power-elites and do not take their freedom seriously. So I tip my hat to my brothers and sisters across the Middle East and support their peaceful fight for freedom. Liberté, égalité, fraternité for all!