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Tantrum Politics

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Tantrum Politics

A couple of years ago our California ballot offered voters the opportunity to support stem cell research in the form of a $3B state funding commitment to a targeted research program. I recall only the vaguest details of what I voted for, and I certainly had misgivings about many aspects of this initiative. This is not the kind of issue where direct democracy should be exercised. Other clear priorities for state funding were being neglected at the same time. Ventures established by the initiative process are difficult to fix later legislatively. Etc. But here was an opportunity to push back against our President's foolishness, and I was not going to miss the chance to send that message, even at such great cost. Because I was voting my emotions rather than on the merits, this was an instance of tantrum politics.

A year later our brutish governor came forth with a variety of initiatives on the ballot. The details, once again, are fading in my memory. A change in the way the state does redistricting is clearly needed, but a message in opposition to the governor's haughty unilateralism needed to be sent. The instrument was crude, but voters reached for it with gusto. The governor was deluged with a tsunami of no votes, and all his initiatives drowned at the polls. The merits of the individual issues hardly mattered. I'm sure there were some. We have here another case of tantrum politics, where the message had transcended the issues.

So now we come to our little war in Iraq. The people's will is increasingly solidifying against our government's policy. We don't know quite what to put in its place, but we are right to be uneasy about the drift of things. When the will of the people finally finds expression (the moment cannot come soon enough), I also fear that it may overshoot and unleash another case of tantrum politics. Major classes of policy options will be foreclosed for the foreseeable future as the country enters a refractory period in rebound from the stings of our recent experience, much like the country did after the Viet Nam war.

Many will not see a problem here, but allow me to make the case. It was after the disaster in Somalia that President Clinton must have been in his own personal "refractory period" so as to pay no heed to the unfolding carnage in Rwanda later. Only a modest show of force could have stopped the slaughter, but absent that show of force, essentially nothing stood in the way of a gruesome conclusion. Civil wars, and in-country genocide, must rank at the very top in terms of their all-consuming, shattering brutality.

Similarly, it took the massacre at Srebenica to awaken the Western conscience. I recall watching the news the day before and having a sickening sense of what was about to unfold. We had good reason to know what was coming, but we stood by. And then there was Kosovo. Did our intervention there not forestall a much worse outcome?

I was surprised, therefore, to read a piece by Edward Luttwack, military analyst, which made the case for allowing civil wars to take their natural course. He even defended our own Civil War for its having cleared away an issue that might otherwise have festered for many more decades. Having grown up in the South, I know that the issue still smolders more than one hundred years later. Slavery as an issue, divisive as it was, could never have opened up such fissures in our country as did the war itself. Further, the post-war history of the South makes it clear that the victory over slavery was not by any means complete. Blacks traded one kind of slavery for another. A more natural evolution of our politics might have ended slavery more benignly and comprehensively. Nowhere else in the world did the ending of slavery involve such a paroxysm. So we should be less cavalier about making the case for the upside of civil wars.

On the other side of the argument is the case of the British in Northern Ireland. Would anyone care to imagine what would be the situation now if the British military had not been there to restrain the violence and to midwife the impulse toward peaceful resolution?

So the question must be asked, what is our role if Iraq descends even more into civil war? Already the pace of killings exceeds anything that happened under Saddam Hussein, and also matches it in brutality. Soon there will be more families harboring grievances attributable to sectarian violence than to Saddam. Can we just wash our hands of this, and avert our gaze from the mounting carnage? We have a much bigger problem here than the fact that a naïve, blustering, and trigger-happy president insinuated us into the wrong war.

Congressman Jack Murtha may have had the answer for some while. American forces should withdraw "over the hill" into encampments. As a result, matters may indeed deteriorate on the ground over time. An international presence will then be invited into the country to restore peace. We will then participate in that international force as a partner, and as necessary.

We need a fresh start, one in which our role is seen differently because someone beside ourselves will have taken the initiative to invite us. We cannot expect to succeed as long as we are seen as an occupying force, and as long as our expressed desire to depart is not seen as genuine. If we stop occupying and start departing, the peace we are seeking may actually become a possibility. On the other side, the prospect of a full-blown civil war in Iraq is so grim that we should not turn our backs and yield calmly to such an outcome. That would be the worst kind of tantrum politics.
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Siegfried Othmer is a physicist who over the last 33 years has been engaged with neurofeedback as a technique for the rehabilitation and enhancement of brain function. He is Chief Scientist at the EEG Institute in Los Angeles. Coming to (more...)

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