A realist's fantasy in four parts

LET'S pretend.

It's been a bad few weeks, with the Israel-Lebanon confrontation daily growing more devastating and Iraq continuing its downward spiral. Why not indulge in a brief escapist fantasy?

So let's pretend -- just for a few minutes -- that we have a president who is serious about creating a more secure world for our children and grandchildren. What lessons would this imaginary president draw from the tragedies and mistakes of the last five years?

Lesson One would surely be this: Although there's a time and place for military force, technological military superiority is no guarantee of success. The weak will always seek -- and find -- asymmetrical methods of warfare against the strong.

More than two centuries ago, our own war of independence succeeded in part because we didn't "play fair." Our untrained soldiers wore dull, homespun clothing and sneaked around in the woods. In their proper red uniforms, the British soldiers were sitting ducks.

It's the same today, except that all the technologies are more lethal. Any reasonably capable teenager can manufacture a homemade bomb with instructions from the Internet, and the more talented can turn lampposts into crude but effective missile launchers. In Iraq, we're discovering all over again that technological military superiority is no match for a determined foe on fire with religious or nationalist zeal. In Lebanon, the Israelis are banging their heads against the same brick wall.

Lesson Two: If you can't defeat your enemy militarily, you need to take away his motivation to fight. Overly aggressive military approaches only increase the bitterness that caused the conflict in the first place. Unless we want to become the permanent global cop in a permanent global police state, we need to change our approach.

We want peace in the Middle East? Stability in Iraq? An end to terrorist attacks? We may not achieve any of those things even in the best of circumstances. But we certainly won't achieve them if we refuse to take seriously the idea that our enemies -- like us -- consider themselves good people, with legitimate grievances. Eliminate the grievances and you're on the way to eliminating the conflict.

When progressives say things like this, right-wing pundits immediately sneer: "What do you want us to do, sing 'Kumbaya' with the bad guys?" No. But you don't have to love your enemy -- or trust him further than you could throw him -- to recognize the benefits of talking to him and taking his concerns seriously.

That's not being "soft." It's being realistic.

Lesson Three: Imperfect solutions are better than none at all. Condoleezza Rice thinks a cease-fire in Lebanon would be premature because it wouldn't resolve the conflict's "root causes." It's sweet that she's so interested in root causes, but sometimes you've got to start small. When civilians on both sides are having their limbs blown off, it's hard for anyone to focus on root causes.

Lesson Four: If we want to build a safer long-term future, we need to start giving those root causes more than lip service. We need to invest our money and our political capital in spreading peace and prosperity for all people, not just those inside Fortress America (which -- pursuant to Lesson One -- can never truly be a fortress anyway).

That means there must be a genuine willingness to recognize that we are part of the world and will share its fate. It means a commitment to confronting the dark side of globalization: the deeper forces that create and sustain poverty, repression, conflict and terrorism.

More specifically, it means revamping U.S. foreign policy to dramatically increase our focus on foreign aid, disaster relief, conflict prevention, humanitarian interventions, peacekeeping, reconstruction, economic development, public health and environmental challenges, democracy and promotion of the rule of law.

And, perhaps most crucially, it means a renewed commitment to the international institutions we have recently scorned.


I know, I'm supposed to be part of the reality-based community. But with better leadership, this wouldn't have to be just a fantasy.

Even as World War II raged, an engaged and visionary U.S. president took the lead in planning the dense web of international institutions and laws that would help tamp down conflicts, spread global well-being and buttress American prosperity throughout the postwar period. Institutions such as the United Nations were never perfect, but for more than half a century they have kept our world reasonably stable.

Today, international institutions will need significant reform if they are to be effective against the challenges that have emerged in the 60 years since their creation. If we had a president who truly understood what it means to "lead the free world," he would embrace that task with enthusiasm, humility and hope.

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