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Thursday, December 22

Doom, Gloom, and knowing when to sit and when to get off your butt

"Sorry you're shutting down the blog. I guess you heard the bad news last night from Yossef Bodansky [on John Batchelor's show]. Iran has won this round in Iraq and they got Germany to capitulate on the matter of nukes. So it will be more rounds of negotiation with the EU3 that go nowhere.
Ahmed in Los Angeles"

Dear Ahmed:
Always keep in mind that whatever Batchelor's view of a situation, he presents intelligence rather than 'news' -- or rather he looks at news stories as intelligence, which is the right way to look at news, especially during war. But Seffy (Bodansky) is a card-carrying intelligence gatherer and analyst in the pure sense of the terms. So he takes some getting used to.

I nicknamed Seffy "Dr Doom" before I met him. (Our meeting described in a Pundita essay about my adventures at the National Intelligence Conference.) In person he was nothing like the voice of doom I'd heard on Batchelor's show -- until he settled down at a seminar to describe the hurdles that intelligence work faces when Washington politicians get to make decisions on national security. He switched to his professional mode, which is not geared to sunny days.

I learned that it helps to try and think like a general while listening to Batchelor's show. Do you really want the forward observers ringing you up on the satphone and saying, "Our side is beating the pants off the enemy."

No. You want all the bad news, every bit of it that can be dug up.

Iran is an endless source of delight for Doom & Gloomers because Iran is Bad News Central. But what was done over a generation in that part of the world is not undone in a couple years.

It helps Americans to remember that the map designations of "Europe" and the "Middle East" are artificial when seen from the viewpoint of history. The ancient trade hubs of the Middle East that became large cities had tremendous interaction with empires we associate with Europe. The interaction was at all levels -- war, trade, social.

Americans think of the Shah of Iran as an American puppet, but his rule reflected the European monarchical outlook (even more than the dynastic one of ancient Persia). The clans in the rural areas of his rule were treated in the manner of Europe's serfs during the feudal era. Meanwhile, the Iranians who served the Shah's government and who were educated in the US absorbed ideas they found useful, but they didn't come away from the experience with the American view of society.

A very different story for Iranians educated in Western Europe, simply because the "European" view of government was not foreign to them.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's views were profoundly shaped by European thinking and notably French thought. So when Saudi-educated Arabs were brought into the revolutionary government, Iran became in a very real sense "Eurabia." A traditional Wahabist set of laws was superimposed on a manner of socialist government that was lifted from Europe.

That's the ballpark for much of the Old World. Meanwhile, the American view languished behind the literal and figurative walls of diplomatic and military enclaves in the Middle East, and the very brief Gulf War did not change the situation.

To put all this in evocative terms, it was the ideas of French philosophers that were hotly debated in Cairo's coffee houses. To whatever extent the ideas of America's founding fathers made material for debate, it was highly abstract because the American experience was so foreign.

Ironically, it was the televising of the 9/11 attack and aftermath that brought many Middle Easterners their first empirical view of American life; i.e., a view that was not grounded in abstractions.

The strongest impression conveyed by the aftermath footage was of people not sitting around and asking what was to be done. Image after image showed civilian Americans running toward the disaster, pitching in to help in any way they could.

The history of the American democracy in one sentence.

Americans have a big heart, courtesy of the great freedom and vastness of our society and the profound influence of ideals on our thinking. We lead with our heart, which has its downsides, but that's our style.

The style needs to be tempered by knowledge while we're thrashing around in the Middle East. We're gaining the knowledge, firstly because we're now we're taking instruction directly from the peoples -- Iranians, Iraqis, Egyptians, Jordanians, and so on -- instead of policy analysts.

Secondly because we're getting the instructions in the manner of a climber following an experienced mountain guide. Instruction is very direct, life-or-death oriented, visceral: "Do this. Don't do that."

This kind of instruction also reflects the "Eastern style" teaching. I've met Westerners who have yearned to study with an Eastern master of the old school. I assure them the experience is hell for Westerners, particularly for those who have no military training.

There's really not so much need for that kind of teaching in a modern, highly civilized society, which is very safe. But it's still not a safe world and thus, the old school method of teaching still has it's place.

The basis of the Eastern method is that the Master knows everything and the student never knows anything. No matter how much the student learns, he's still a complete idiot. This style is very hard on modern Westerners, who are schooled to believe they have worth, that their opinions matter, and that they are progressing. So American students in particular create complex strategies to protect their ego, which only gives the Master more opportunity to show them for fools.

Only after you leave the Master do you realize from unfolding experiences that you developed some real wisdom during your time as the Master's student; you were the Eternal Stupid only within the context of the teacher-student relationship.

You don't become the fountainhead of wisdom because wisdom is as much a matter of living through many experiences as anything. But you learn to apply your knowledge and life experience in ways you didn't think of before. You learn when it's smart to play the Fool role you had no choice but to take on with the Master. You learn to really think about when it's wise to let others play Wise Man.

Within a year of leaving the Master, I figured a way to save 20,000 refugees from being slaughtered in cold blood by a military in the middle of a genocidal campaign. Yes, one person took on an entire military -- an entire government -- and won a battle.

As to how I did it -- the Master had taught me that if you've got nothing in your hand that means you're holding all the Joker cards and to keep playing them. I realized that I had one bit of information that the military did not have, and I played it to the hilt.

Yet I couldn't have done it without help from a group of incredibly brave and good-hearted Muslim men and boys. They really understood the kind of people they were dealing with in that military. It was their part of the world and they knew it inside out.

That, too, I learned from the Master: when it's vital to listen. Between what I knew and they knew, we worked a kind of miracle. And not one drop of blood was shed.

Americans in the Middle East are definitely in the role of the Fool, yet the more we stay in there and play (as against staying behind enclave walls and writing checks), the wiser we'll become.

They just got too much into the Endurance groove in that part of world, is all. When you can't pick up and leave your native region, you develop great patience and endurance. The extreme opposite is the United States of America, which evolved from people who said, "I'm not taking this shit anymore," and left their birth region.

There's a limit to the usefulness of any one way of dealing with things: the intense originalism and reflexivity of the American psyche, which comes from not putting up with things as they are, easily means short patience for situations that require endurance.

On the other hand, the tremendous endurance of the Old World psyche easily devolves to a futile reliance on patience when bold improvisation is clearly required.

Thus, the dialogue between the Old World and the New World began in earnest when we decided to stay on and hack it out in Iraq.
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