For about 10 seconds our conversation was impossible. Two Navy jets on final approach to the US Naval Station just a couple of miles from where we are camped made a deafening roar that it was impossible to talk over. “The sound of freedom,” Mark declared after they passed.
That sentiment has provided me with a lot of food for thought over the last several days. It’s is emblematic of the widely held belief that our overwhelming military strength alone is capable of safeguarding our freedoms. Although I recognize our need for strength, I question the scale of our military and the focus. Russia and China together spend half what we do each year. I think a great deal more than military power is required to keep us free. In fact I’m coming to believe that the greatest enemies toward freedom lie within our own society.
Winston Churchill, with his famous biting wit, said, “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” That sentiment may be even more true today than it was in Churchill’s time. If all of us made the effort to be well-informed and to think critically we would have no worries about money in political campaigns or the control of media by special interests. We busy ourselves with our work and our entertainments and allow our opinions to be shaped by sound bites and crafty rhetoric. Consequently a relatively small number of people manipulate what Churchill’s “average voter” thinks. Actually thinks is a poor choice of words because by and large we are not thinking. We simply choose to believe.
Isn’t it curious to characterize the sound of jet fighter planes as being the sound of freedom? It’s the sound of an irresistible force, one that delivers hellish punishment. We continue to trust in that formidable might despite a lot of recent experience that battlefield dominance alone is not sufficient. But it feels good, even patriotic, to say it. We suffer the minor inconvenience of the noise because we are both proud and grateful for the men and women who serve.
In 2001 small band of terrorists killed 3000 Americans and destroyed iconic buildings at the World Trade Center in New York. In the wake of that horror, we raged and struck out with terrible and vengeful determination. Our military reaction in Afghanistan and Iraq has cost 7,000 American lives and between four and six trillion dollars [i].
This tally omits the direct and indirect costs of domestic security efforts. Consider the tens of thousands of hours travelers spend waiting in security lines at airports and the high cost of equipping and staffing for those inspections. One very conservative estimate is eight billion dollars a year in wasted time. We ignore the objective fact that we are not any safer now than on September 2, 2001 – just a lot deeper in debt and economically weaker.
Some of our leaders would like to foster and perpetuate this curious blindness. A friend of mine recently sent a link to the videotaped speech of Newt Gingrich at the January 24 Conservative Freedom Summit. Here is an outline of Gingrich’s major points:
- US is losing the War on Terror.
- Obama and Hilary Clinton are responsible and are ignoring and downplaying the threat.
- Gingrich and like-minded conservatives are like Winston Churchill in seeing the threat of radical Islam as a survival threat. (Churchill spoke out early and often about the threat of Nazi Germany.)
- US should commit money and troops to wiping out radical Islam.
- Radical Islam seeks to kill or convert all non-believers.
- Reagan saw Russian menace and committed the necessary resources to win the cold war.
- The GOP will put America “back on track” with military actions to meet the threat.
Newt Gingrich is a smart man. He speaks with confidence and authority and if you are an uncritical listener you might find him very persuasive. You might find yourself impatient and even angry that our present administration wasn’t dealing with the ISIS threat more decisively. I won’t belabor the many gross oversimplifications and omissions of Gingrich’s analysis. It’s sufficient to provide an outline for your consideration:
- We amassed huge debt “winning” the cold war, weakening our own economy and devastating Russia’s. Neither the GOP nor the Dems have a strategy or the commitment to pay those debts. Iraq and Afghanistan further exacerbated the problem. The Bush-era tax cuts continue to compound it. That’s not a metaphor, our debt literally compounds because the ongoing interest on the debt is not covered by current tax revenues.
- The Russian oligarchy and totalitarian system remains a menace as we are seeing in the Ukraine.
- Our own decaying cold war weaponry has become a menace to[ii] us.
- Military “solutions” have largely failed since the Korean War. We have not moved the cause of freedom forward in the world despite our good intentions and the sacrifice of our troops.
- Fear of Islamic Extremists has eroded our personal freedom: NSA domestic surveillance, TSA searches and body scans, militarized domestic police, arbitrary no-fly list, etc.
- Fear has also eroded American values. Examples: Guantanamo torture, Rendition, detention without trial, etc.
- Iraq was a staggering disaster and failure that was launched and politically exploited by fueling the popular fear and anger spawned by the 9-11 attack.
- Radical Islam is an ideology and a movement, not a political or geographical entity. There is no traditional way to win because there is no identifiable entity to capture or control.
- The “War” paradigm doesn’t fit. The rise of radical Islam is rooted in poverty and ignorance, conditions which war only worsens.
- The scale and threat of Radical Islam is dwarfed by immediate domestic and global threats to life, prosperity and freedom such as deepening poverty, climate change, decaying US infrastructure, failed school systems and widening social/economic inequality.
Currently there are about 30,000 ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq. This number is up from about 10,000 largely because, with the declaration of the ISIS Caliphate, military successes and highly publicized executions have brought about 20,000 new recruits from 90 other countries. These troops pose no serious domestic threat to the US. But the circumstances that motivate them to travel to the battlefield are the same circumstances that motivate those that share their worldview to become suicide bombers or plot other random acts of terror. One can’t fight an ideology with jets and bombs.
So why would a man as savvy as Gingrich wish his listeners infer that the US should be deploy our military against ISIS? Why would he fan fears by saying “they want to cut off your head” as justification?
- It’s politically useful to exploit the “average voter’s” belief that US military can end the threat:
- Discredits the Obama Administration diplomacy.
- Serves by funding the military-industrial interests. (The 1%)
- Diverts attention from more complex (and more dangerous) issues:
- Inequalities and inequities of opportunity, wealth, and income.
- Climate crisis.
- Unsustainable consumerism.
- Decaying US infrastructure.
- Crisis in US education.
- High levels of incarceration.
- Economic threats from China, India.
Obviously that’s only a partial list. But it is a telling one. American Freedom depends on our domestic vitality and sustainability, and the most basic internal threats are being ignored.
Our heroic military won WW2 not just by fighting well, but by having the logistics and economic strength to out produce our enemies. We supplied our allies and our own troops so that they could sustain and prevail. Though at first we lagged Germany in many technologies, we rapidly recovered and surpassed their ability to innovate and produce war materiel.
We prevailed over the Soviet Union in the cold war because we could carry huge debt and continue to out produce them. But as events in the Ukraine are demonstrating, we have not won peace.
Our past enemies were defined by their geographic base; we fought them for control of land and the people who lived on that land. Recent wars have ostensibly been for our security.
We seek to prevent the spread of beliefs which motivate people to commit acts of terror against us. We are motivated by fear. We are discovering that the jets, and bombs, and boots on the ground that successfully won control over geographic regions of land and sea are not cost effective in suppressing beliefs. Beliefs know no borders. They can only be combated by persuasion.
Radical belief is particularly enduring because it fosters isolation from competing ideas. We have yet to discover how to combat it at home. (Consider the many conspiracy theories, fundamentalist cults, and anti-science beliefs among the so-called wing-nuts of US politics.)
Extremism is born of conditions and circumstances that create discontent and isolation: poverty, ignorance, dogmatic religion, repression and lack of opportunity. Radicalization is avoided by attacking the causes, not killing the believers. And believers can only be converted by their making a choice — humans choose to believe — it’s not usually a rational process. We accept facts, we choose beliefs.
Winston Churchill observed, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government– except [for] all the others that have been tried.” The US democracy once was a beacon of opportunity. Our leaders called us to noble purposes. Not so much these days (video).
The ISIS fighters want theocracy – governance by rules they believe were handed down by their god, and will be implemented by their divinely anointed mullahs. It’s a cause they are prepared to die for. It’s a cause they gleefully kill for.
So, if the only effective response is to offer something better to choose to believe, what is the American witness and example that serves that end? How do American values, our love of freedom manifest in our society? The upper economic third of our population is doing great. But the rest of our society is not doing so well compared to other countries. Here are a few of the most embarrassing facts:
- US ranks around 38th in medical care[iii], but first in per capita medical cost (18% of GDP).
- The US ranked 22nd in education[iv].
- US ranks second highest in per capita incarceration[v].
- Opportunity is severely constrained by race, gender and socioeconomic status. (No reference necessary here, there are literally shelves of books to document this statement.)
How fearful is the ISIS threat? ISIS is killing about 1,200 people[vi] a month, mostly fellow Muslims living in the territory ISIS seeks to dominate. They kill those who refuse to submit to their authority, who refuse to adopt their radical beliefs. But to the faithful youth mired in abject poverty, they offer a violent outlet for the anger and frustration, and a vision of a heroic quest for spiritual fulfillment – even martyrdom.
To put the threat to Americans in perspective, almost three times that many Americans die in US traffic accidents every month. (We could halve that number if we stopped drinking.) Even more innocent people die in the US from gunshot wounds: 33,000 A YEAR.[vii] Clearly we have a lot more reason to fear our fellow Americans than we do ISIS terrorists. So why does Gingrich want the US to spend more lives and treasure on fighting ISIS? It’s because this misplaced and exaggerated fear has political advantages and diverts attention for problems his political philosophy does not address.
Gingrich likened himself to Churchill, as the herald of the ISIS threat that others under estimate. I say, Newt, you are no Winston Churchill. Actually, Churchill advised, “To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war.”[viii] He also said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”
Let’s not war-war; we have far better options to try.