Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Absolute Power

If democratic power means the ability to make other people do what one wants by means of constituent pressure, then absolute power in a democracy indicates the ability to execute one's agenda regardless of what your supporters may say. Absolute power is to make other people or states do what one wants by threat of force. Why is it absolute? Why is it not just one of many kinds of power like 'soft' power, which refers to the power of the media and entertainment in shaping cultural values, or people power, where some believe that major political and social problems can be solved by massing into populous movements, marching and rallying peacefully. Why is the threat of force absolute over economic power, which can bend entire countries into submission to another state because of their need for trade. Or the power of the 'haves' over the 'have-nots'?

What establishes absolute power over others is that it is willing to take the life of an opponent if necessary, thereby eliminating once and for all the barrier to you attaining one's goals. It's enough to make one's opponents promptly give in to demands, since for most people, survival is more important than sacrificing your life in violent resistance. Other kinds of powers mentioned above do not have this effect.

Cultural power may be able to build sympathy for your cause from your opponent, but it works so slowly and often leads to backlash (eg. Western Europe still will not join the U.S. in any endeavour just because they have been broadly Americanized during the last fifty years; Another instance is how American cultural exports have incited radical Muslim groups to react and oppress their subjects.) Economic power works in resolving conflicts between countries that depend on trade and money to finance their military forces, but as soon as those criteria are gone, there's no limit to what governments can do. The long lists of military dictatorships (Saddam, Mobutu, Mugabe) and rapidly impoverishing totalitarian states (USSR, Cambodia, Maoist China) testify to the inability of economic national interest to prevent violent war.

People power in the form of social movements are quite fragile and are only allowed to have any kind of effect in the most ideal, pluralistic, and civilized circumstances. Ghandi did not win India's independence, Britain gave it to him under a long planned time table. Martin Luther King did not free blacks single-handedly, the U. S. government and a series of court rulings before and during his time enforced these changes. King was fortunate to be in a place where he was quite free to express himself, assemble, and take advantage of free media infrastructure to persuade the majority. Had he been in South Africa, he would have been jailed for decades like Mr. Mandela. No social change of the kind we enjoy exist within totalitarian regimes, the only kind possible being the massive purges of entire political and ethnic groups so as to purify the population with only obedient subjects.

Absolute power requires power of arms. Every state responsible for its own defense knows this. Yet there are states who have forgotten this fact for the simple reason that they no longer provide for their own defense. Another country willingly does it for them. Western Europe has given this responsibility to the Americans after the conclusion of World War 2. In exchange for abandoning defense they pursued an expansion of the welfare state. Although this tradeoff has ensured a relatively high standard of living, it has emasculated their absolute power in arbitrating world conflicts. The European Union can negotiate trade agreements with other parts of the world, but it cannot threaten violent consequences to any enemy that intends to destroy them first. That is the job of the American ally, who benefits by greater control of its own self defense as well as enjoying a beneficial trade and cultural relationship with Europe. In spite of this seemingly successful symbiosis, this arrangement has produced resentment and discord on both sides. It has also distorted the worldview of Europeans. Having long abandoned any sense of military duty and diplomacy by way coercion, Europe's statesmen and diplomats believe that all conflicts are solvable by treaties, dialogue or verbal promises. Placed next to a power that disregards all these means as irrelevant to its main goal, Europe's standing in absolute power is far too insufficient to meet the biggest threats.

Europe's elites might not understand absolute power but all 'rogue' states sure do. It explains Iran's rapid development of nuclear weapons, Pakistan and India's nuclear programs, as well North Korea's Kim Jong Il flouting previous agreements with the Clinton administration to build his own arsenal. It's the one thing that will keep the regimes in control despite economic disaster and civil unrest. They understand Machiavelli's axiom: "It is better to be feared than loved". Could Saddam have been overthrown without American intervention? The burden of proof lies on those who argue this point. Since being decimated militarily and economically after the first Gulf War, Saddam was ripe for a coup. It did happen to a limited extent, when George H. W. Bush encouraged the Shias to rise up against Saddam. There was no tactical support from the Americans, and the rebellion was crushed with thousands imprisoned and executed. Saddam exercised overwhelmingly effective violence during that event to prevent later uprisings and secure his rule. In addition, he made everybody believe, including his own generals, the threats to use his giant stockpile of WMD's that evidently didn't exist so as suppress any resistance. Saddam had played the hand of absolute power so well that he could have stayed on in power to the end of his life, and likely having his sons succeed him without trouble.

Often the relationship between a state that is governed by absolute power and another that follows softer forms of power will subvert moral equality. Negotiations are decided by who will use force more willingly, while appeasement is the only policy for those who cannot take this tactic. However appeasement is not simply the desire to make reasonable concessions to ensure a peaceful outcome, but to agree to submit your country's moral integrity. European powers like Germany and France are a classic example, especially in how the latter promised Saddam protection from any UN resolution authorizing war in exchange for exclusive and massive Iraqi oil contracts. Since an appeaser’s destiny is directly tied to an aggressor’s threat of force, it is a policy of weakness. It is also usually immoral since peace takes precedence over everything else. Peace in itself is not necessarily a good if it consists of harming one group of people while leaving the appeaser alone. “Stability” is often the objective in international relations since it often means the absence of war. But it often means controlled tensions between states and nations, maintained by ruthless authority or some sort of mutually assured destruction.

9/11 was a breach against this stability. The tensions have boiled over, and since that day the world had to reconstitute a new form of stability. From the American point of view, particular that of the Bush administration, this was an opportunity to realign the Middle East from its old order of autocrats and fundamentalist insurgencies to one where democratic capitalism is transcendent. From a realist’s perspective much of this is wishful thinking. A realist believes in making deals with you enemies under threat of force regardless of idealistic intentions. America’s foreign policy was throughout much of its history realist: You give me parts of Mexico or I’ll whack your behind even more; You cede me control of Cuba and the Philippines, or I’ll destroy you (Spain) even more. During the Cold War, it was agreed that America would dominate Western Europe, and the Soviets could have the East and any transgression in either direction would result in nuclear annihilation. These policies had nothing to do about America doing right thing. It was purely in our national interest whether economic or defensive.

However, a simple realist approach was no longer reasonable after 9/11. Decades of Cold War policy in which America tolerated brutal nationalist regimes around the Third World for the sake of repelling Communism had come home to roost. At the time, it was sensible to champion the lesser of two evils. Remember, in realism it’s about you getting the best deal with the hand you are dealt. It has nothing to do about how charitable and sympathetic your style of play is. Playing nice in card games will be rewarded by loss. There was a famous saying back then, probably said by either President Nixon or LBJ: “He may be a sonofabitch but he’s OUR sonofabitch.” Well two of the sons of bitches were Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. OBL helped us out in ousting the Soviets from Afghanistan as part of the Mujahedin. Saddam launched a long war against our worse enemy at the time Iran. It was only a matter of time that they would refocus their targets on new enemies. They targeted America, not because we helped them before, but because we stood in the way of their own ambitions or ruling the Middle East. Bearing in mind the huge disparity in military power, OBL and Saddam could be perceived as nuts. Only a set of convictions that went beyond the quid-pro-quo of realism could explain this turn. It certainly wasn’t an attitude that could be negotiated with at the peace table, nor could a brewing conflict be resolved by threatening communiqu├ęs. It was an attitude that was definitely beyond any sort of rational conflict resolution. Therefore the only prescription was to uproot this radical mindset as completely as possible: a military strategy that would bring about a major cultural revolution.

George W. Bush understood this, and risked his entire presidency on such a bold move. Attacking Iraq was not popular, the occupation since the military victory has been derided on all sides of the political spectrum and many of his suspicions about what we would find there once we arrived did not materialize. It was a big gamble that will take a long time to determine its success. But the president’s boldness catapulted America’s prestige in the world in terms of absolute power. The balance of power in the world is shifting as a result in span of time far shorter than decades of treaties, broken promises and compromises. Many in Europe have gotten so comfortable to the previous Cold War state of things that don’t want it all to change. I am confident the President didn’t want to either, but outside events have a funny way of waking you up from your daydream. In any case, Bush’s first term will be compared to Truman’s first term in reshaping America’s response to the world.

For a failed oil businessman and frat boy who can’t utter a complete sentence without mispronouncing, that’s quite an achievement.

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