Barack Obama made history on May 27 when he become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, where on Aug. 6, 1945, we dropped the first of two nuclear bombs that destroyed two cities and killed 220,000 people. The bombs ended the world's most brutal war, a struggle that killed 60 million, 3 percent of the world population. The visit was a bold and humane move by our greatest president since Franklin Roosevelt.
Humans are the only animals that organize specifically to kill their own kind, although our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, form guerrilla bands that compete for resources. Mechanized warfare is a product of Homo sapiens' big brains coupled with primitive emotions. The hallmark of the modern age is the struggle to cope with the implications of this dangerous combination. The solution is surely to use our brains, in the light of evidence and reason, to guide our actions. But irrational passions have a way of thwarting gentle reason, leading to mindless crusades and war.
Many thoughtful people, such as the distinguished diplomats George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn in their 2007 statement titled "A world free of nuclear weapons," conclude that the right number of nuclear weapons in the world is zero, and that this should be a U.S. policy goal. But the nine nuclear nations together possess more than 15,000 of these weapons, with the U.S. and Russia each maintaining 1,800 on high alert. Given current tensions, it is still true that the two superpowers could engage in an all-out nuclear war that could end civilization. There are also local threats, such as terrorists with a nuclear device.
Nuclear weapons remain humankind's greatest threat, although global warming will probably assume this mantle shortly.
Humans have always had a sick infatuation with warfare. Thus America charged into "Operation Iraq Freedom" in 2003 even though we were already involved in a war in Afghanistan to remove the fundamentalist threat that had toppled New York City's twin towers. The Iraq war was an unnecessary and irrational invasion by a hawkish administration motivated by fear, military power and a self-defeating pursuit of control. Instead of Iraq's freedom, the toll turned out to be half a million Iraqi deaths, 4,500 American deaths, 32,000 American wounded, widespread post-traumatic stress syndrome, an unstable pro-Shiite Iraqi government, the establishment of Islamic State as a Sunni response to that government and to the U.S. invasion, and unending war spreading to much of the Mideast. It's hard to see how it will ever end without splitting Iraq into three entities: Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish.
America's desire for control leads us again and again to the same mistake: Regime change. Hillary Clinton, secretary of state at the time, was a strong advocate of war against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Five years later, Libya has descended into civil war, terrorists have confiscated Qaddafi's weapons, Islamic State has seized a new base of operations on Libya's Mediterranean coast, and Clinton now campaigns for regime change in Syria.
We must recognize that most of the Mideast is dominated by extreme religion, and that this region cannot sustain democracy until they become far more secular.
The Syrian civil war is yet another example of regime-change fervor leading not to democracy but war, millions of suffering civilians, endless refugees and spreading terrorism. Is deposing Assad really worth this price? The civil war is in reality an international Sunni-Shia religious war, with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the U.S. and rebels arrayed on one side, and Iran, Syria and Russia on the other. What would we get by dumping Assad? Another Assad? A Sunni extremist? The real threat is Islamic State. We should give up on the civil war, and ally with Syria, Iran, Russia, the Kurds and (if they will seriously join us) Saudi Arabia and Turkey to defeat Islamic State.
Our ability to control the world with military force is limited and counterproductive, but the appeal of peace is universal and powerful. I'm not a doctrinaire pacifist, but America is far too militarily strong for its own good, far too inclined to use the hammer of military power whenever we see a nail. We should instead use our resources to build infrastructures of peace, here at home first but also around the world in nations that want such assistance. The yearning for peace can conquer war fever, but peace always begins at home and thus the U.S. must begin by being more peaceful.
Commentary on 06/14/2016
Print Headline: A planet in need of peace