What to Do When You're Not Bombing: Think for a Change

I often disagree with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. But with his latest column, he's made a contribution to our malfunctioning political culture: He demonstrates self-reflection, a good faith effort at honesty, and relative freedom from the penchant for politically correct, "do something" tactics of knee-jerk violence. Most significant, he models what learning from (war) experience might look like. The column should be required reading for policy makers and "deciders" leading us, bleating, down the primrose path to bloody war yet again.

Friedman calls it like it is:

Ever since the Arab awakening in late 2010, America has lurched from one policy response to another. We tried decapitation without invasion in Libya; it failed. We tried abdication in Syria; it failed. We tried democratization in Egypt, endorsing the election of the Muslim Brotherhood; it failed. We tried invasion, occupation, abdication and now re-intervention in Iraq and, although the jury is still out, only a fool would be optimistic.

Just because it's cliché doesn't mean it's not true:

Maybe the beginning of wisdom is admitting that we don't know what we're doing out here...

Calls it like it is again:

We don't have the will to invest overwhelming force for the time it would take to reshape any of these places -- and, even if we did, it is not clear it would work. (Tom: "It is clear: It wouldn't work.")

He "has a take," as sports talk-show host Jim Rome says, and, as Rome likes to say, "it doesn't suck":

So if the Middle East is a region we can neither fix nor ignore, what's left? I'm for "containment" and "amplification."

Although I don't agree with every national assessment he makes, and he leaves out Israel, his strategy exemplifies what both Western medicine and Buddhism hold critical: "First Do No Harm" -- a calculus for good:

Where there is disorder -- Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya -- collaborate with regional forces to contain it, which is basically what we're doing today. I just hope we don't get in more deeply. Where there is imposed order -- Egypt, Algeria -- work quietly with the government to try to make that order more decent, just, inclusive and legitimate. Where there is already order and decency -- Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Kurdistan and the United Arab Emirates -- do everything to amplify it, so it becomes more consensual and sustainable. And where there is order, decency and democracy -- Tunisia -- give it as much money as they ask for, (which we haven't done).

He lays out working principles, based on lessons learned:

...Never forget: We can only amplify what they do. When change starts [with] or depends on our staying power, it is not self-sustaining -- the most important value in international relations.

After a long segment touting Dubai (no comment), he elaborates an often touted, rarely learned principle articulated by retired Lt Gen Daniel Bolger in his new book, Why We Lost.

The point: It has to start with them. The best we can do is amplify. David Kilcullen, the Australian counterinsurgency expert who served with the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, told me: "Just like there is a spark of life in a physical body, there has to be a spark of legitimacy and coherence in a body politic. And, if it is not there, trying to substitute for it is like putting a cadaver on a slab and harnessing a lightning bolt to it to bring it back to life. You end up with Dr. Frankenstein. You can animate a corpse and make it walk and talk, but sooner or later it's going to go rogue. ... When you don't have the local leadership, invading does not make things better. It makes them worse."

From the mouth of columnists:

"Singing words of wisdom..."

From your mouth, Freudman, to the "deciders' ears.

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