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War in the 21st Century

by David Brin, Ph.D.

There are examples of calm elective intervention that point to how Pax Americana can be a force for both good and its own pragmatic self-interest during the 21st Century. The Iraq War isn't one of them.

War in the 21st Century


Like most U.S. voters, I have strong opinions about the election of 2004. I'll express a few of those views here. But first a qualifier: While some of these sentiments may strike you as partisan, I also have a longstanding reputation for approaching politics with a degree of balance as an assertive... even militant... moderate. In a sidebar, I explain what I mean by militant moderation

As for the macro topic of "war in the 21st Century," I won't claim to offer the depth of sober analysis presented in longer works by more qualified hands. Read, for example, The Pentagon's New Map by senior military analyst for the U.S. Naval War College, Tom Barnett, Lifting the Fog of War, by past Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William Owens, or In Athena's Camp by John Arquilla, David F. Ronfeldt et.al., which offer nonpartisan (if worried) wisdom about this dangerous future.

What I am said to be good at is stepping to one side and proposing unusual perspectives about the future. That is what I offer here.

Among the features of this article are direct, line-by-line comparisons between our intervention in the Balkans and the invasion of Iraq. Also, discussion of Pax Americana and the subtle ways that power will have to be used during the 21st Century.

It is also — in part — an appeal to old-fashioned conservatives. History shows every movement gets hijacked by self-serving looters and extremist zealots, now and then. It happened at times to the left. Now it's the right's turn.

Read this indictment and do your duty. You have it in your power to rescue your country and your political movement from fanatics who do not represent your values.

1. neoconservatives veer — not "right" but weird

My kind of "passionate centrism" is devoutly loyal to the Enlightenment and — yes — patriotic toward a version of Pax Americana representing our best and smartest virtues. As a passionate centrist I can be roused by events to express vigorous partisanship in a particular election, not because I prefer simpleminded "left" or "right" solutions, but because overwhelming evidence leads me to conclude that civilization is in danger from a particular gang of manipulative rascals.

This is a weird new brand of "neoconservatism." Elsewhere, I try to look beyond this election, shedding light on the strange alliance of three strong-willed (some would say fanatical) groups that make up the Neoconservative movement that has (for now) taken over all three branches of the U.S. government. Purely as intellectual history, the roots of this alliance are fascinating: It lumps together the last great forces who oppose the Enlightenment.

Yes, that puts it strongly! Yet, I cannot overstate the extent to which the present U.S. Administration has discarded reason, abandoning conservative traditions, enlightenment values and the public interest in favor of ideological fanaticism and short term profit for a narrow elite. The evidence is so overwhelming, even dedicated pundits of the "extreme right" have taken note, as in the following:

We invaded a country that did not threaten us, did not attack us, and did not want war with us, to disarm it of weapons we have since discovered it did not have. We may have ignited a war of civilizations it was in our vital interest to avoid. Never has America been more resented and reviled in an Islamic world of a billion people. As custodian of the national economy and decisive actor in the management of the Budget of the United States, George W. Bush has compiled a fiscal record of startling recklessness. — Pat Buchanan, Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency

Now, of course, it's ironic for me to feature a quotation from a politician I generally oppose. Just as Richard Nixon sent Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt spinning in their graves... and Gingrich-Buchanan had poor Barry Goldwater whirring in his... the latest band of ideologues has spun-up guys like Buchanan even while alive.

Indeed, for all their faults, at least Nixon was a pragmatist (the China Gambit), while Goldwater was smart and honest. Bob Dole was brave and funny. And Ronald Reagan opposed a genuinely evil empire while speaking in clear English sentences.

None of these compensating or saving graces can be found in the present administration... although one quality — unswerving loyalty to the Saudi Royal House — does resemble a virtue that we find endearing in hounds.

the case for a smart, agile and decent Pax Americana

Let me make clear that my scorn for this gang is only glancingly related to that expressed by self-described leftists. Indeed, I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with many of the surface rationalizations expressed by administration dogmatist Paul Wolfowitz — while despising the destructive way they are implemented in real life.

For example, I believe:

America has (despite many awful mistakes) been overall a mighty force for good in this world. Having successfully opposed the great, dogma-driven evils of Fascism and Communism, we showed kindness to former foes and generosity to a ravaged world. America also set an example by fighting racism, sexism, corruption and many other traditional habits at home, under difficult conditions.

Moreover, our vast consumer purchasing power stimulated economies from Japan to China to India, almost singlehandedly pulling more than two billion human beings within reach of middle class comfort, safety and hope for their children. (The greatest untold story of all time, exceeding all "foreign aid" programs by at least an order of magnitude.)

Our laudable goal of improving and saving the world should not blind us to past progress. While determined to reduce further suffering, we must also concede that the fraction of humans who know starvation, war or tyranny has steadily declined during Pax Americana, to levels never seen in human history. (See more on the great untold story of hard-won and hopeful progress in my book review of The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, by Gregg Easterbrook.)

While some truly terrible blunders have been made — some out of shortsightedness or stupidity and others out of downright venality — America can compare its record as the era's Chung Kuo (central kingdom) favorably against any other nation or people who faced similar temptations of power. Most of the world's people know this, at one level or another. A majority will hate or resent us — as bullying empires are always hated — only if we drive them to it by acting stupidly.

Until such a day that a loose, diverse, limited and reliably-accountable Confederation of Earth assumes effective responsibility for such matters, I feel no remorse over the judicious use of Pax Americana power, applying it to a narrow range of noble purposes. For example, the efficient and careful removal of tyrannical monsters who are brutalizing their own people and threatening world peace. (When it's done right... well... ask the women of Afghanistan what they think of Pax Americana.) Advancing the spread of democracy is — in a general sense — worth pursuing judiciously, if for no other reason than societies that are open, accountable and free have a record of never waging war upon each other. (See "panic versus maturity," below.)

These statements may sound like neoconservative manifestos... and that is intentional. Because the neocons are twisting truths into rationalizations. The result has been calamitous betrayal of the very principles they claim to be espousing.

panic versus maturity

Several times in this article I will use the metaphor of emergency vs. elective surgery. For example, our rapid intervention in Afghanistan was a clear case when urgent action had to be taken, with little time allowed for careful planning or weighing of alternatives. (Fortunately, that had been done already under Clinton.) Certainly justification for crying "emergency" was evident. No lies were needed, so Pres. Bush offered few.

But "emergency" is a word foolish leaders all too readily overuse, to quell discussion and hurry rash actions. A wise person knows frequent or ongoing emergencies are evidence of failure (see "plummeting readiness levels"). If we hope to successfully cross the mine-fields of the 21st Century, shouldn't most problems be handled with care, calm, consensus and foresight, minimizing costs, divisiveness and damage to society?

The metaphor that contrasts to an emergency room is elective surgery. Undertaken with care and planning, elective procedures can often get the same job done more safely and simply, without panic.

I plan to show that the problem of Saddam Hussein — which was largely created by members of the Bush administration over the course of decades — did indeed need to be solved. But the Administration had its own reasons for stoking "emergency" passions rather than calmly pursuing planned consensus toward elective surgery under circumstance of our convenience. They did this with lies, deliberately stoked panic, divisiveness, immaturity and utter devotion to their own benefit.

There are examples of calm elective intervention that point to how Pax Americana can be a force for both good and its own pragmatic self-interest during the 21st Century. (See the devastating line-by-line comparison of Iraq with the Balkans intervention, below.)

For both pragmatic and moral reasons, we should re-evaluate whether we want men who are dishonest and incompetent panic-mongers in charge of our nation's affairs.

jingoist triumphalism is not patriotism

Do these statements make me sound like a neoconservative? Then also consider this:

Maniacal flag-waving is a well-known symptom of decline in great nations, from Rome in 400 AD to Britain in 1910. Our history shows that best results are achieved by a mixture of idealism, accountability, pragmatism, and adherence to truth telling. Fealty to these deeply-American (essentially Enlightenment) values will nearly always wind up serving the interests of the country, as well as our honor.

Idealism, accountability, pragmatism and credibility: These key elements of both honor and success have been abandoned by the group now controlling all three branches of government in the United States of America.

Well, you can argue that ideologues are idealists — after a fashion, though it grates to hear them prate crayola versions of things that I believe. These fellows base their dogmas on an emigré philosopher named Leo Strauss, sharing core values with Plato, Hegel, Marx, Goebbels and — ultimately — Muslim fundamentalists. See my article comparing the ideologies of neoconservatism & Islam. (For more on the crucial importance of accountability in maintaining the Enlightenment and western civilization, see "Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competitiveness.")

Can I back up that strong statement? In limited space, I must pick and choose from a wealth of evidence, strewn across a dozen years of neocon fanaticism and thievery, especially the last four, in which a tragic flameout-spiral of the conservative movement has hit what we can only hope and pray will be its nadir, before climbing back someday to the levels of honesty and intellectual integrity shown by Barry Goldwater.

If you feel nostalgia for a conservatism that was about "limiting big government" by keeping it out of bedrooms, libraries and private lives, encouraging accountability, fiscal responsibility and restraint in foreign affairs, while empowering creative and competitive small business, not welfare for corporate CEOs and aristocrats, then try checking out the Libertarian Party. Today's GOP represents none of these values.

2. the trend back toward a multi-polar world

Here and now, I'll focus on really dangerous stuff — like an almost Manchurian-Candidate-level demolition of American diplomatic, political and military influence in a dangerous world.

Five years ago, the USA was inarguably leader of this planet. And while some foreign politicians grumbled about "unipolarity," nobody was doing much about it. A few hand-wringing articles suggested China might get uppity by the 2020s. Big deal. Like the economy, we never had it so good.

Today there are meetings and discussions (see below) being held, almost year-round, in Beijing, Moscow, Paris, Berlin, Delhi and a dozen other locales, all with the same over-arching theme: What shall we do about America? And this leaves entirely aside the fever pitch of resentment in the Islamic world, that Pat Buchanan referred to above.

Emmanuel Todd's After the Empire exemplifies how seriously this is taken among leaders overseas. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. notes:

Todd has a formula by which, through an analysis of demographic and economic factors, he accurately predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union in his first book, La Chute Finale. This was in 1976 when the neocons' Committee on the Present Danger and the CIA's Team were predicting that the Soviet Union would very likely win the arms race. Now Todd applies a similar formula to the United States. He may underrate the resilience of the American economy, but in a not unsympathetic way he raises intelligent and disturbing questions about the American future.

The neoconservative movement knows this. What has been their reaction to these meetings and discussions? Essentially it is "Let 'em grumble!" or a triumphalist "We're on top; what can they do about it?"

Contempt for the impotence of protesting foreigners may be viscerally satisfying to jingoist fools. But is it practical, at any level, to express contempt as openly as so many right-wingers have? Each time they open their mouths, attendance at those meetings increases. Bright, influential and determined people in many lands have made it their priority to re-establish a multi-polar world, by hook or by crook, as soon as possible.

This it was not true during the previous administration. Moreover, it is not in our interest (see below). Even if you generally approve of Pax Americana — especially if you do — this kind of behavior (goading foreigners for their impotence) should seem immature at best. At worst positively moronic.

not in our interest?

One more reason why the US Intelligence Community is — according to all reports and numerous leaks — livid at the Bush Administration: James Bamford, in A Pretext for War, describes pressures brought by the war party in Washington on CIA analysts — e.g., meddling at a CIA staff meeting: "If Bush wants to go to war, it's your job to give him a reason to do so." Then, having done as bidden, the CIA got blamed for the nonexistence of predicted Iraqi WMD.

But above all, it is for patriotic reasons — seeing America's reputation in the world collapse — that the intelligence community seethes. An emphasis on "emergency room" panic — justifed by lying to the public — is simply not as much in the long term public interest as careful use of intelligence resources in the pursuit of "elective" interventions that take place under conditions of our own careful choosing.

Margaret Tutwiler, a veteran Republican who was in charge of public diplomacy at the State Department, testified before a House appropriations subcommittee in February 2004, declaring that America's standing abroad had deteriorated to such a degree that "it will take years of hard, focused work" to repair it.

3. war and intervention in the 21st Century

I promised that this essay would be interesting not only to liberal detractors of the administration, but also to moderates, conservatives, even those who believe in an activist foreign policy. So let's get specific, focusing on the pragmatic exercise of Pax Americana power, comparing three recent cases of U.S. military intervention.

First off, it is simply staggering what challenges we've recently tried to take on. If you had to name three places in the world where any historian would warn a great nation not to intervene, it's Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Balkans. Only America could have even tried. Let's see how we did.

Afghanistan: a genuine emergency

In the immediate aftermath of the tragic and dastardly attacks of September 11, 2001, Western Civilization had to respond decisively. Hence the actual events we witnessed that autumn, when President George W. Bush laudably went after a criminal and horrific Taliban regime that had inarguably sheltered and supported the Al Qaeda terrorists. While the "go-get-em" decision was entirely correct in this case, it is also highly indicative.

It is a dogma of faith among neoconservatives that — if he had become president — Al Gore would have fired a few cruise missiles, and waffled uselessly in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. We will, of course, never know. But saying something over and over, like a mantra, does not make it so. It should be remembered that the same political considerations would have applied to Gore. No U.S. President can afford to appear weak under those conditions.

The quickness of that response, ironically, points to lack of political interference by the administration in unleashing a plan that military professionals had already prepared during the Clinton Administration.

Find that hard to believe? The existence of this plan is apparent on many levels, for example in the rapid convergence of skilled special forces teams that were already trained to interact with well-developed contacts among Uzbeki, Tadjik and other tribal leaders. Moreover, the Taliban were clearly aware that such plans existed. On the morning of September 9, 2001, the formidable guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the opposition Northern Alliance, was assassinated by an Al Qaeda suicide squad at his base in Khvajeh Baha od Din, specifically in order to foil the cooperative campaign that was sure to be unleashed by America when hijacked planes were sent diving into New York and Washington, two days later. Osama bin Laden's operatives thus hoped to derail an allied retaliation scenario that had been in complex preparation for more than a year.

While we can fret over the unsatisfying aftermath of warlords, opium fields and other doubts, there can be no question that the initial portion of the Afghanistan Campaign was resoundingly successful — more so than any other foreign involvement there since Alexander the Great. Credit should be apportioned equally between the President who said "go-get-em" (without the catastrophic political meddling we saw in Iraq) and the previous administration, who assigned professionals the long and hard task of preparing.

Afghanistan scores even. The Clinton Administration indisputably made preparations, created the teams, forged alliances, crafted the plan. Bush backers are welcome to crow that their guy said "go-get em", while claiming (without a scintilla of evidence) that Al Gore (who helped with the planning) would not have. What-ifs are a matter of opinion.

The Balkans: urgent but elective surgery

One thing the Bush Administration wants to avoid, at all costs, is any comparison between the quagmire in Iraq and the stunningly successful Clinton Administration effort to straighten out the tangled mess of the Balkans.

And what a mess. The dissolution of Yugoslavia reminded everyone of a European truism — the Balkans are Eurepe's navel of pain. Vicious sectarian and ethnic fighting became genocidal as absurd mini countries came under the control of murderous tyrants. France, Germany, Britain and the European Union all wrung their hands and proved impotent. Citing history, they called intervention futile while innocents died.

As I've said, I do not mind toppling dictators and liberating populations from monsters. If anything can justify Pax Americana it is the judicious utilization of force to help create a better world. A world where force gradually grows less necessary... then obsolete... and finally forgotten. A world so just that Pax Americana can slip into well-earned and well-respected retirement as the "last empire."

The crucial difference between the Balkans Intervention and the present quagmire in Iraq derives from that word "judicious." While it seemed frustrating and slow at the time, Clinton's team carefully practiced something called diplomacy, first offering to support European endeavors, then prodding Paris and Berlin into partnership, and finally, when the locals had verifiably flaked-out, calling upon NATO and a US-led coalition — commanded by Gen. Wesley Clarke — to step in and get the job done.

The "go-get-em" crowd criticized the pace, spurning diplomacy as a waste of time... as they did from the beginning of our involvement in Iraq. But diplomacy affects outcomes, like it or not. Diplomacy, combined with judicious force, made the Balkans Campaign one of the great successes in the history of American foreign policy.

Likewise, throughout the Clinton Administration neoconservatives decried "pathetically utopian efforts at nation building." Today they are trying desperately to rediscover skills at both diplomacy and nation building, backpedaling on insults that were hurled at allies in 2003, while spending countless times as much on infrastructure in Iraq than was ever spent by Clinton in the Balkans. Incompetently and ineffectively, one might add.

Above all, while the situation in the Balkans was urgent — as dire but more pressing than Saddam's presence in Iraq — nobody screeched "emergency!" It was handled as a careful elective procedure, without lies or panic.

Now it's seen as of one of the great successes in the history of American foreign policy — a near-perfect archetype for how mature, patient, forceful, and ultimately successful Pax Americana intervention should be handled during a nervous 21st Century, for both our vital interests and the betterment of all humankind.

Listing outcomes of our Balkans Campaign, we find that:

A brutal dictator was toppled. (Actually, several.)

No American lives were lost.

The Western Alliance was strengthened.

No big lies; intervention was justified on its merits.

Readiness levels were preserved.

American public agreed with policy by consensus; it became a boring non-event.

Competent handling of nation-building aftermath — rapid economic, legal and social recoveries.

worldwide acceptance of US moral leadership increased.

Following protection of Bosnian Muslims, our credibility and friendships in the Islamic world increased.

And the fundamental strategic outcome — a European continent that now lives at peace and under at least some modest degree of civil society and accountable law, from Portugal to the Urals, for the first time in four thousand years.

You cannot argue with results.

And did I mention that no American lives were lost?

Now compare every one of those outcomes with Iraq.

Iraq: elective surgery in a messy emergency room

The American people are conflicted. They are right to feel, instinctively, that Pax Americana can be — as Abraham Lincoln said — "the last, best hope of humankind." At least until a day comes when force is finally replaced in world affairs by accountability and law.

Above all, the American people feel no shame over toppling Saddam Hussein or any other bully-as-leader. Nor should they. Indeed, I will surprise some by saying that we do not always need UN approval before acting against monsters. The UN is nothing like a sovereign and responsible Confederation of Earth.

No. Until some kind of trustworthy confederated era arrives, there are still worthy jobs for the Last Empire. But those tasks still need ratification. Experience shows that one and only one thing truly ratifies a U.S. intervention: Images of grateful populations welcoming and kissing our troops. It was the ultimate validation when we liberated captive lands in World War II and its absence proved the stupidity of entering Vietnam. That kind of scene authorized — post facto — Ronald Reagan's miniputsches in Grenada and Panama and their absence drove Bill Clinton out of Somalia. (I told you, I'm balanced.)

During a crucial test of American will and skill, the openly-expressed gratitude of the people of the Balkans — especially deliriously happy Kosovars and Bosnians, but also many delighted Croats and Serbs — palpably proved that we did the right thing there. Not only moral, but pragmatic, as well. (It's amazing how often these are the same.)

In 2003, while preparing to invade Iraq on the pretext of imminent, mortal danger to the American people from Weapons of Mass destruction, the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, confidently predicted that our intervention would receive similar ratification in the form of "flowers and kisses in the streets." Had this been true across the length and breadth of Iraq, all critics would be silenced, our moral authority would have risen, more allies would have stepped forward to assume duties, and our key military assets could have quickly returned to their essential task — upgrading readiness for further challenges. Moreover, rebuilding Iraq would have proceeded at a rapid clip, propelled by good planning, an eager population, re-established infrastructure and revenues from vast reserves of oil.

Such scenes would even have pushed aside the concerns of people like me, who saw "elective surgery" blown out of all proportions by a cynically contrived and politically motivated "emergency."

But such scenes are rare as hen's teeth. Instead, here is a list of outcomes from our adventure in Iraq:

One brutal dictator toppled.

Over a thousand Americans lost, with more dying almost daily and no end in sight.

Uncounted (and secret) numbers of Iraqi civilian deaths.

Scandals; poorly supervised thugs ruining our reputation for decent behavior.

A Western Alliance in shambles.

Relentless lies; intervention justified by fabricated evidence reminiscent of Tonkin Gulf.

Plummeting readiness levels — our military is being used-up.

Utterly divisive of American public, repeating the social effects of Vietnam.

Clever incarceration tricks overused as bludgeons, wrecking credibility and undermining due process.

Incompetent preparation and handling of the aftermath, featuring rapid deterioration of political, economic and social life in Iraq (see "Maps, Anyone?," below).

Worldwide acceptance of US moral leadership plummeting.

And the fundamental strategic outcome? Provoking a radicalized Islam, further stirred by Saudi-funded Al Jazeera Network and Saudi-funded religious schools, from Morocco to Mindanao, threatening a pan-Islamic coalescence into Jihad mentality for the first time in a thousand years.

again, you cannot argue with results

The only trait that the current Iraq intervention has in common with the Balkans is a toppled tyrant. At every other level, it could not have been worse had it been (mis)managed by the Three Stooges.

Want an example? Ask yourself: where are the maps?

Can anyone tell me why the news media won't provide us with maps that show our military's zones of control in Iraq? In other wars, the people back home were encouraged to follow a war's progress by seeing what fraction of the territory in question was "pacified" and how much remained "hostile." Even amid the rampant lying of Vietnam, such maps helped us sketch informed opinions about the war's progress and winnability.

But maps are largely missing this time. Because (I hear from reliable sources) the actual territory pacified and safe for US forces has declined steadily since President Bush declared "triumph" under a banner that blared "Mission Accomplished." (Certainly casualty rates have gone up during each of the last six months, something that even a cooperative news media cannot hide.)

Oh, and did I mention no American servicemen or women died from hostile action in the Balkans? Alliances were strengthened. Trust in our leadership increased.

4. about toppling bullies

On any playground, it is the duty of any big, good-hearted boy or girl to stop bullies from terrorizing the little kids. Americans know this in their hearts and feel no shame over knocking down a horror like Saddam. That's the good part. The part that resembles our role in the Balkans.

Liberals who ignore this when criticizing the goal and accomplishment of toppling Saddam are cluelessly and needlessly shooting themselves in the foot.

Embrace it. Or at least get used to it. Concentrate on a myriad other blunders. Criticize the lies that made going to Iraq an emergency, squandering that term. Or the utter, blithering incompetence in planning and execution of this mission. Or in the hypocrisy of the exact same list of names who coddled and supported Saddam, then slapped his wrist in 1991 instead of dealing with the problem then are the ones who are heading this fiasco. There is no need to exaggerate and hurt your own cause by calling the basic goal evil.

Looking closely — and implementing "balance" — I find that a core silliness undermines credibility among even the brightest and most sincere liberals. It arises when they preach as if an era of lawful international accountability were already at hand, or within easy reach. Too many, in their eagerness for a better world, seem to assume it will happen if only America would sit on its hands. But how? On what basis can we ignore 4000 years of dismal human history, in which the worst enemy of human happiness was not some distant empire but relentless oppression by local bullies? Care to ask the Kosovars and Bosnians and Kurds and women of Afghanistan what they think of Pax Americana?

The whole thing gets even more silly when leftist radicals decry globalization, a process which at every level offers the poor of this world their one hope against the feudal lords and petty gangsters who have savaged them for millennia. Citing illicit logging and Nike factories, leftists complain that globalization aggravates abuse of labor and the environment, completely forgetting how such abuses were stopped — or at least curbed somewhat — in the first world. In their own countries, the one thing that did the trick was law.

True, today's globalization is progressing unevenly, with many of the rules biased to favor the world's topmost corporate gentry. So? Do we help Third world workers and forests by leaving them exposed instead to exploitation by local, corrupt elites (a continuing horror seldom noted by the left)? Or by helping those countries get law and accountability, too?

Yes, worldwide accountability and law are on the way. The "right" is just as silly to ignore this fact, as the "left" is to assume the day will arrive on its own.

Our love-hate relationship with the mere concept of world "government" can and should be discussed, elsewhere. It is a huge topic that we've been avoiding — almost frantically — even thinking about. But honestly, what are you picturing? A sophisticated, interconnected planet in which individuals have no standing before worldwide institutions (the present situation) for how much longer? A thousand years? Two hundred? Can we stave it off for more than twenty?

We Americans had better start discussing it. Because right now Europe-influenced intelligencia on every continent are pushing ahead with ideas based on European bureaucratic-paternalistic models. No one is speaking up for the American preference — an emphasis on loose, limited and relatively hands-off governance while empowering individuals to have standing to speak for themselves.

The issue will loom in our lifetimes. And right now — to our peril — we are leaving the entire conversation to others.

Until a day comes that we can shrug off our duty as the world's "last empire," we are still needed. And the world will accept our leadership only if we act like grownups. That includes exercising patient diplomacy and telling the truth. But the world will only put up with "cowboy" stuff for so long.

Remember Vietnam, when brilliant but testosterone-poisoned LBJ went macho on us, plunging America into an ill-conceived land war in Asia? When fabricated pretexts like the Tonkin Gulf Incident combined with "domino theories" to justify carte blanche spending of precious American treasure and lives in a brutal struggle without clear goals, justification or exit strategy, dividing and almost tearing our society apart? When gung-ho elements (the same ones as today) chanted "kill em all!" as an intelligent response to subtle and complex problems?

When defeating the enemy called for judo... cautious appraisal, then surgically precise tactics... but instead we charged in like sumo wrestlers?

There were dozens of ways we could have eliminated Saddam other than calling an emergency, using-up men, tools and credibility that we may need later, and creating another divisive, lie-soaked quagmire (see "Redux," below).

redux on emergency vs. elective surgery

At risk of belaboring the metaphor (some of you may prefer the contrast between Judo and Sumo), going after the Taliban had bona fide "emergency room" urgency.

Toppling Saddam in 2003 could be likened to highly desirable procedure that could be done outside the unpredictable and festering helter skelter of the E Room, aimed at maximum benefit with minimized disruption, leaving the rest of their lives and capabilities unaffected. In other words, letting us argue normal politics about economy, debts etc, without giving the terrorists control over our national agenda as a reward for their evil deeds. But by stoking "emergency" passions, Bush has spent every reserve we may need in a real emergency. He has also robbed that word of its vital meaning.

For instance, in late September 2004, Julie Collins, a spokeswoman for the Army Human Resources Command, told Reuters that among those who have been called to active duty from the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) under "national emergency" mobilization, almost a third have either refused or failed to report on time.

Again, we could have had the one part of all this that the American people like — and the world approves — getting rid of Saddam, by calmly preparing a method of least force, least expense, planning for the aftermath and not demolishing our readiness for new emergencies. But that would not guarantee a wartime pitch of patriotic fervor during an election.

5. how dare they bring up "character"!

Alas, character is where the very worst accusation must be made. Emergencies and wars are election-winners. They make a leader look strong, whatever his true character may be. For these guys the lesson to learn was: Bosnia was too calm to benefit Gore in 2000, and Desert Storm ended too soon to benefit Bush Sr. in 1992.

For let's remember that we were led into this quagmire by The same bunch who cynically coddled and supported Saddam for years, posing with him for smiling pictures, helping cover-up his brutality, giving him every aid — in oppressing his own people, in threatening Israel and his neighbors, and in slaughtering a generation of young people in Iran.

The same team who had Saddam in their hands, in 1991 and let him go.

Oh, the club reacted swiftly when Saddam ultimately slipped his leash (as coddled madmen do). They sure leaped into action when their Saudi patrons panicked over the invasion of Kuwait! They leaped — and sent forth our sons to rescue the sheiks.

Only then, with that task done, they ordered a halt.

Have you heard tapes of then-President George H. W. Bush urging the Iraqi people to rebel and promising that "we're on our way"?

Have you read how General Norman Schwarzkopf begged for a few more days to finish the job... or even just twelve more hours to at least rescue the people of nearby Basra, who had risen at our request and in our name? Or about thousands of captured Iraqi soldiers and officers who pleaded to be re-armed and sent north, so they could take care of Saddam themselves?

Watch the George Clooney movie Three Kings for a glimpse of what we did, betraying a brave population to whom we had given our solemn word. A stain upon our honor worse than any I can remember, from my own lifetime or history. A stain so horrific that it alone disqualifies these people from respect.

Neocons defend that decision by hypocritically citing United Nations resolutions, of all things. As if they give two sheckels for the UN! Or by claiming "no one would follow us to Baghdad" — as if they cared about world opinion this time? As if going to Baghdad was even necessary in 1991, when Basra might have sufficed?

In blatant fact, the order to stop came from Riyadh. The Saudis — with restive Shiite populations of their own —did not want to see a federated or divided Iraq, with free Shiite Arabs just across the border. So they said "stop"...

... and this crew of great Americans snapped-to. They obeyed the one constituency who is always heeded. There is only one consistent explanation for the way both Bush administrations have behaved. They do the bidding of Riyadh. They do it even more reliably than they serve the interests of their fraternity brothers. It is an absolute predictor of policy. And whether you are a liberal, moderate or conservative, it should frighten the hell out of you.

They treat Desert Storm like it's ancient history, and their apologists shrug off that egregious blunder. But history is important. It reflects on the judgement of men who are now asking for our trust — and our sons and daughters — yet again.

No. They had Saddam in their hands, then consigned the people of Iraq to twelve more years of hell. And Rumsfeld had the gall to expect kisses and flowers, this time around?

How would you feel, if you were finally rescued by a snobbish clique that betrayed you horribly, a decade earlier? At best you'd say — "thanks for finally toppling our monster like you promised you'd do when I was young... now get the hell out!"

Which is what many people of Iraq are saying to us right now.

Oh,there are many issues. Many signs that these insufferably smug neocons are in no position to raise the "character" issue. But this one — the stain on our nation's honor — is relevant. They did this in the ultimate test of character. They did it and their rationalized excuses only dishonor us more. The exact same list of names.

6. conclusion: an appeal to moderates... and especially genuine conservatives

Enough. This is but a small fraction of the stuff that never went into Fahrenheit 911. Nor should it have. That was a irate polemic of the left.

This is an irate polemic of the center.

Which is why I am appealing to moderates like me... and even true conservatives from the libertarian and Barry Goldwater traditions.

Please, this is too important. Don't leave the vital and patriotic task of opposing these cretins solely to liberals. If the American people do wake up and eject these monstrous shills for a hostile foreign power, should liberals get all the credit? And if the monsters win, continuing down these paths to ruin, do you really want to share the blame?

Moderates and true conservatives, remember that every movement has its day in the sun... and every movement spends time hijacked by jerks. Right now, the most patriotic and politically savvy thing that you can do is help clean house on the right. Then nurture and send us honest American conservatives who will talk to their neighbors and treat them as fellow citizens, not enemies in a "cultural war." Decent conservative men and women who prefer "right-handed solutions" but are willing to argue fairly and negotiate openly, helping us all come up with agile ways and means to make a better world.

Moderates, conservatives, consider demanding some concessions from the Kerry team, in exchange for your grudging, short-term support. I pose one possible concession in an earlier political essay, "Honor the Losing Majority"... one that could set a precedent, helping us all turn away from the politics of isolated demagoguery toward an era of listening to each other again. An era of pragmatic consensus in dangerous times.

I appeal to you. If Clinton and the DLC could snatch influence away from the super-liberals and fanatics who once hijacked the left, can't you start a revolution to reclaim the soul of conservatism?


War in the 21st Century

about this article

"War in the 21st Century" (published in full here) was Brin's first large critique of the 2004 election. While this essay criticizes how dismally the Bush Administration performed even by the standards of conservatives who support the concept of a successful and wise Pax Americana, the second essay, "Neo-Romanticism: Why Neoconservatism is Waging War," deals less specifically with the election and more with the philosophical, ideological and psychological implications of the latest political alliance calling itself "neoconservatism."

Copyright © 2004 by David Brin. All rights reserved.

join David Brin's discussions

David Brin blogs at Contrary Brin and posts social media comments on Facebook, Twitter, Quora, and MeWe specifically to discuss the political and scientific issues he raises in these articles. If you come and argue rationally, you're voting, implicitly, for a civilization that values open minds and discussions among equals.

on balance

what is 'militant moderation'?

On Balance... lots of people claim to be 'balanced' — while steeped in 20th Century political clichés. I make the same claim — and plan to offer partisan statements in support. So how genuine is my political balance?

I often call the "Left-vs-Right" political axis a curse against clear thinking. It made no sense when the French invented it, in 1789! Do you know anyone who can define the awful thing clearly, in a modern context? Shall we face complex, dire and subtle quandaries of the 21st Century hobbled and blinkered by oversimplified dogmas? Yes, comforting nostrums make us feel righteous. But these demonizing caricatures are symptoms of the same disease that made the last century a hellish quagmire.

It may be a good sign if I manage to both affront and fascinate everybody! For example, liberal and conservative friends were equally offended when I apportioned blame evenly for the sickness of modern American cynicism. (See my review of The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.)

Yet, groups as diverse as the Libertarian Party, the Sierra Club, the Business Council and Chamber of Commerce, the Democratic Leadership Council, Procter & Gamble and the World Federalist Society have invited me to poke away at rigid assumptions that hamper agility in the modern era. I've spoken at the CIA, Pentagon and US Senate... and keynoted the 40th Anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. I have values — strong ones. But I'll talk with anyone who sincerely offers interesting points of view.

Evenhandedness doesn't mean lack of passion. My passion is for a civilization smart and adept enough to get us across the challenges of this generation, using every tool that's proved worthwhile, toward the practical goal of both saving our planet and inhabiting it with people who are safe, happy, responsible, diverse and free. (What other goal could matter?)

How ironic. After 4,000 years, we seem at last poised to understand which tasks are best managed by the "hand" of organized cooperative endeavor and which undertakings are best left to the "hand" of free individuals, competing creatively under rules that minimize cheating while maximally rewarding the delivery of quality goods and services.

It's all right to prefer one hand over the other. Libertarians and liberals may legitimately argue tactics. But to hate an entire class of human problem-solving modes can only be diagnosed as rigid, to the point of insanity. Like hating your own left or right arm.

This passionate centrist is devoutly loyal to the Enlightenment and — yes — patriotic toward a version of Pax Americana that represents our best and smartest virtues.

(To evaluate your own rigidity or agility, try taking my "Questionnaire on Ideology." I don't collect answers. It just helps reexamine dogmas from a fresh perspective.)

There is nothing contradictory when passionate centrism is roused by events to express vigorous partisanship in a particular election. Not because I prefer simpleminded "left" or "right" -handed solutions, but because overwhelming evidence leads me to conclude that civilization is in danger from a particular gang of manipulative scoundrels.

Of course there are always scoundrels. My centrism worries about all kinds, from commissars to corporate welfare queens. From Al Qaeda to John Ashcroft. Any elite seeking to avoid accountability and gather power over our lives, while rationalizing they are the good guys, doing it for a greater good.

We were all raised by movies and tales that preach Suspicion of Authority, but most of us then fixate on just one kind of worrisome elite, suspecting them of schemes to become Big Brother. Democrats worry about conspiring aristocrats and conniving corporate CEOs. Republicans fear snooty academics and meddlesome bureaucrats. Fundamentalists see elitist-humanists under every bed, conspiring to spread filth. Nationalists fret over foreign powers. Others focus on organized crime or a burgeoning techno-elite. In truth, human nature means that all power centers try to avoid scrutiny. All need it.

Today — with communism a laughingstock, with regulators in hiding and macho terrorists getting all the attention — one group seems especially worrisome to me: Neoconservatives — a pack of knaves who, in slavish service to a foreign power, are relentlessly and insatiably pursuing an agenda that endangers the civilization I love.

cited in this article

John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, In Athena's Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age (book #ad)

James Bamford, A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies (book #ad)

Thomas P.M. Barnett, The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century (book #ad)

David Brin, "America's Declining State of Readiness"

David Brin, "The Case for a Cheerful Libertarianism"

David Brin, "Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competitiveness"

David Brin, "Neo-Romanticism: Why Neoconservatism is Waging Culture War"

David Brin, "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (book review)"

David Brin, My Questionnaire on Ideology

David Brin, "Survival of the Fittest Ideas"

Patrick Buchanan, Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency (book #ad)

Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (book #ad)

Fahrenheit 9/11 (film #ad)

Hoover Institution, "What Neoconservatism Is —and Isn't"

William Owens, Lifting the Fog of War (book #ad)

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "The Making of a Mess"

Three Kings (film #ad)

Emmanuel Todd, After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order (book #ad)

the noose at the end of our rope

letting others have their say

Donna L. Armstrong, Seducing Ourselves: Understanding Public Denial in a Declining Complex Society

Len Colodny and Tom Shachtman, The Forty Years War

Jacob Heilbrunn, They Knew They Were Right

Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America

John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

Pankaj Mishra, Age of Anger

Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated


a brief intro to author David Brin

DAVID BRIN scientist


David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
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shorter fiction

Short stories and novellas have different rhythms and artistic flavor, and Brin's short stories and novellas, several of which earned Hugo and other awards, exploit that difference to explore a wider range of real and vividly speculative ideas. Many have been selected for anthologies and reprints, and most have been published in anthology form.
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Contrary Brin blog

Since 2004, David Brin has maintained a blog about science, technology, science fiction, books, and the future — themes his science fiction and nonfiction writings continue to explore.
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Who could've predicted that social media — indeed, all of our online society — would play such an important role in the 21st Century — restoring the voices of advisors and influencers! Lively and intelligent comments spill over onto Brin's social media pages.
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David Brin's Ph.D in Physics from the University of California at San Diego (the lab of nobelist Hannes Alfven) followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. Every science show that depicts a comet now portrays the model developed in Brin's PhD research.
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Brin's non-fiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, continues to receive acclaim for its accuracy in predicting 21st Century concerns about online security, secrecy, accountability and privacy.
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Brin speaks plausibly and entertainingly about trends in technology and society to audiences willing to confront the challenges that our rambunctious civilization will face in the decades ahead. He also talks about the field of science fiction, especially in relation to his own novels and stories. To date he has presented at more than 200 meetings, conferences, corporate retreats and other gatherings.
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Brin advises corporations and governmental and private defense- and security-related agencies about information-age issues, scientific trends, future social and political trends, and education. Urban Developer Magazine named him one of four World's Best Futurists, and he was appraised as "#1 influencer" in Onalytica's Top 100 report of Artificial Intelligence influencers, brands & publications. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others.
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