The Hess Report

Friday, July 23, 2004

The Big Playground

I don't know when it started, but many years ago I began to think of international relations in terms of a school playground. It's fenced in. You have groups that hang out together. There's a gang or two. Some kids are tougher, richer or smarter than others. Some always whine, no matter what's going on. There are fights.

But the hypothetical playground has a few differences from ones in the real world. In this playground, most of the people are male, in late adolescence. Some of them carry knives. A few have guns. A very few have (but have never used, except on one occasion) some hand grenades in their backpacks.

Oh. One more important detail. The teachers are all around the front of the school, having a smoke. The kids are completely on their own.

I've yet to see a world event that cannot be understood through this model.

Who are we? Obviously, we're America. America is the rich, good-looking, super-smart, well-muscled kid with a Colt 1911 on his hip and a backpack full of hand grenades. He also has a ton of snickers bars in there, too, and he feels it's his duty to hand them out to the kids whose families don't have enough money to feed them breakfast before they head to school. He also helps them with their homework, if they need it. He has a couple of good friends - that leathery kid who's always inviting him over for the weekend cookout and saying stuff about "shrimps on the barbie", the Jewish kid that pretty much everyone else hates, and that other kid with the accent who used to push America around, until he became a Royal pain in the ass and America popped him in the nose several times since which he has turned over a new leaf.

When you reduce it to this personal a level, some things become obvious. Lots of kids on that playground hate us. Why? Try to remember what it was like, if you have any playground experience. Almost everyone hated the rich, good-looking, super-smart, well-muscled kid, just because he existed. It was a fact of life. Most of the kids just keep that hatred on the back burner, though. They're never going to do anything about it - America might give them a pop in the nose, too, after all. But if someone flicks him in the ass with a rock and he yelps? Oh, that'd be rich.

So what's the point of bringing up my internal model now? I've been reading many criticisms lately of the "War on Terror" (in reality a war on Islamic facism) and the strategy that has been involved thus far. And it's driving me nuts. Journalists and retired generals keep criticizing the current administration for not going after the real enemies: Saudi wahabi Islam, Syria and Iran. And if they keep blowing their horns like this, it could ruin the whole thing. Here's why:

There's this gang on the playground, eight or nine of them depending on who you count. Call them Iran, Saudi, Iraq, Syria, Jordan,Paki, Afghan, maybe Egypt. These guys have what everyone else on the playground wants: chewing gum. In fact, everyone else on the playground is pretty badly addicted to chewing gum. Sure, they can get it from a couple of the other kids too, but the gang that hangs by the middle east section of the fence has a great supply of it. And they milk it. It's made them enough money that you can see big gold chains peeking out from behind their silk shirts. They don't have quite enough for a chrome-plated Colt 1911, but a couple of them have zip guns, one a snub-nose .38 special, a few have been trying to make pipe bombs, and they all have a back pocket full of fire crackers.

Some things of interest about this gang: You've seen their kid brothers and sisters outside of school. They don't dress nearly as nicely as their bigger brothers you go to school with. In fact, they look downright impoverished. And you're also aware that big bro beats the crap out of them when he's not on the playground with everyone watching. You also know that this gang has decided that they just don't like everyone else on the playground. The gang all goes to the same church, and they simply can't stand the fact that all the rest of the kids go to different churches, or maybe even no church at all. They've decided that everyone's going to go to their church, or they'll start lighting firecrackers under the other kids' feet. If the others STILL won't go, maybe someone will have to be shot. They're that serious.

Well, a couple of weeks ago, the gang got tired of waiting. They figured that it was time to bring things to a head and fight it out with everyone else. And the best way to do that would be to sucker-punch that preening, Godless, grinning America. They were under the impression that the good looks and wealth meant that he was soft inside - really more a bully and a wuss than anything else - and that he'd sit down and cry in the corner if someone hit him really, really hard. So they sent Afghan, because he was always the craziest and hated America more than any of the others. Afghan snuck up behind America, whipped out hair spray and a lighter, and lit up the back of America's hair. It hurt.

When America turned around, drew it's gun and shot Afghan between the eyes, the rest of the gang almost shit their pants. What had they gotten themselves into?

So you're on the playground. You're tough, but you're confronted with six gangs members who know you just offed their buddy. What do you do? Announce to the playground "I shall now fight with all of the Middle East Fence gang! Prepare yourselves for an onslaught!"? That would be stupid. Or, you could pull out your pistol and start shooting, but that doesn't work for you. You weren't raised like that.

Instead, you go over to them, put your arm around one, let's say Paki, and start explaining why he's your new best friend. You keep him so tight against you that he can't pull out his zip gun. Then you explain to the gang that you really don't have a gripe with them. You don't care what they do to their kid brothers and sisters after school, what they charge for their gum, etc. Your only gripe was with Afghan, who lit your head on fire.

You know that Iran and Saudi are the real instigators here. But if you attack them outright, the others will rally, and it'll be six on one. You'll probably have to pull out the grenades, and no one wants that to happen. They leave big holes in the pavement and make everyone's ears bleed, whether they're part of the fight or not. So once again, what do you do? You decide to pick off the toadies first, with good excuses. You say to the whole playground:

"That Iraq kid is nuts. He's got firecrackers right here on the playground, and we all remember how he blew up his six year old brother with a pipe bomb last semester. He's too dangerous to keep his stuff. I say we make him give up his pistol and bomb-making junk."

The rest of the playground kind of mumbles that they agree, but they really don't want to see anyone else get shot, like that poor Afghan kid. Yeah, he was a wacko, but come on, dude! He only lit your hair on fire (which was really quite funny, by the way). And then Germany, France and Russia go off to smoke in the corner and think about third grade, when they were still cool.

So America makes it really clear to the rest of the Middle East Fence gang that he's only out to disarm Iraq and send him home so one of his nicer siblings can represent the family on the playground. But Iraq won't go along with it. And, as this is really part of something bigger and quite necessary, America doesn't have much of a choice. But he refuses to draw his gun, which would have made this so much easier. He has to prove to the rest of the gang, to keep them from rallying, that this is really just about disarming Iraq and sending him home, not about taking them out one by one. So America rolls up his sleeves and gets into a fist fight, which he wins. He's got a cut under his eye that he wouldn't otherwise have, but he's eliminated Iraq from the gang, replaced him with his little brother who mostly likes America, and the other gang members still don't realize that each and every one of them is on America's list. Of course, it turns out that Iraq's firecrackers were mostly duds, and his .38 wasn't loaded. But then again, everyone on the playground, even the other guys in the gang, figured it was loaded, so what are you going to do?

And just before the scrap, America had called home on his cell phone. While everyone was watching the fight, America's little brothers and sisters, rich, good-looking, well-armed geniuses themselves, were getting in touch with the kids back in Iran and Syria's homes. Letting them know what was going on. Giving them hope that they wouldn't have to take the beatings for much longer when big bro came home for the day.

That's where the playground stands right now. Syria's obviously scared, but with only a couple of guys left in the gang, there's not a whole lot he can do. His best bud Iraq just got hauled to the nurse with a broken arm. He's thinking that maybe he'd rather stay on the playground and start playing nice than have that happen to him too. Jordan's in the same boat, and he's always been a follower anyway, so he'll just go along to get along. Both of them are hoping that France, Spain, Germany and all those other kids will stop America from making them next, but really, all those guys are capable of is shooting nasty looks across the asphalt.

So now we get to the really bad kids. Iran has figured out how to build hand grenades in its basement, and he'll use them too. Especially on that damned Jewish kid. But Iran's siblings may be ready to push him down the stairs some evening. And Iraq and Afghan always had his back, at least against people outside of the gang. Now they're gone.

Saudi's always had the brains and the money, but things are kind of going crazy back at home for him. One of his brothers is a complete nut job, and he's been starting to hit back when Saudi smacks him around lately.

If I'm America, I'll be sending Krispy Kremes to Saudi, Iran, Syria and Jordan's brothers and sisters while the big guys are at school. Maybe martial arts workout videos, too. When I'm on the playground with the big brothers, though, I'll be their best friends in the world. And I'll be watching for an excuse to put one of them in a hammerlock and toss him over the fence. But it'll have to be a good excuse - one that doesn't look like an excuse - like the fact that Iran grabbed hold of Brit's kid brother and shook him around a bit yesterday. Or the fact that he keeps boasting about his homemade hand grenade lab and making veiled threats about using them.

Maybe the time is right to kick him in the side of the knee and let his brothers and sisters have a shot at the playground. Maybe that time hasn't quite arrived. But seeing as America has thus far been able to pick apart the gang without causing them to defend themselves as a group, I'd say that he knows what the hell he's doing. And the hot-bloods shouting "Hit 'em! Shoot 'em!" from the other side of the playground are only increasing the chances that the gang will get really scared and try to come together for one last stand. Then America would have to pull out the hand grenades, and I very much do not want that to happen. It seems to me that America knows exactly what it is doing. Anyone who supports the larger goal of taking out the Middle East Fence gang should at least try not to make that job harder.


Addendum: Things I learned while writing this post.

While searching the Internet for appropriate links to these samples, I was amazed and appalled at the number of wacked out links you have to go through to get to the good stuff. I was looking for mostly hard news links about subjects like the US and Pakistan creating close ties following 9/11, Iranian perfidy regarding their nuclear ambitions, and the current state of Syrian and Jordanian domestic politics. I am no neophyte to scouring the Internet, yet I was presented with page after page of results for each of these queries that mentioned the subject tangentially, then segued into a diatribe against the President. The BBC, Democratic Underground, and other leftist sites were clearly dominant. Many times I had to proceed through several pages of results, just to hit an actual news report about the subject, as opposed to a quick mention followed by a Bush hatchet job.

What does this mean? Well, as I'm using Google, it means that more people who have high page ranks linked to the hatchet-job pages than the hard news pages. Makes sense, I guess. Page rank isn't exactly a popularity contest, but it's close. So this means that a whole lot more people want to say bad things about America than don't. Fair enough. As previously stated, they can go have themselves a smoke and remember when they used to be cool. I'm sure Dick Cheney has something to say to them too.

The other things I learned, while looking for images for both the Hiroshima link and the Twin Towers link, were that A: seriously contemplating mass killing makes me feel ill. I'm already aware of the effect - when I've read eyewitness accounts of Saddam gassing a Kurdish village, or the log books from the Inquisition torture chambers, or the Japanese army tearing through the South Pacific on its last legs, or the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of course, there's 9/11 too. It's easy for me to see my family in those positions. Pick any one of those events and there was someone's kid or wife who died instantly, or in horrible lonely pain, who had just as much promise and love for them as my own for my family. But at the moment of their deaths, they were turned into meat or cinders, and every single precious instant of love in their lives was erased from this world. If I think about it for too long, I begin to feel kind of sick. I suspect that thinking about it too much can actually damage your soul, or at least your psychology. So that's an answer to the couple people I've talked to recently who claim that my support for the current war against Islamic facists means that I'm into killing people. Put simply: I'm not. But I'm even more against having other people kill me, my family, and my friends. So I'm willing to put up with thinking about us killing others, and the damage that might do to me, so that my kids won't ever have to make such decisions.

And B: I'm still angry about 9/11. After seeing page after page of images of the Towers on fire, smoking, falling, gone, I was ready to see the final image I linked: "Nuke Them All." As much as I just stated that I'm not into the killing, I see that image, and a part of me nods its head. "Nuke them all," it says. It's quiet, but it's there. I was never angry enough that I would have hit a button that just erased the entire Muslim population from the planet, which event some people I know have vocally wished for. Of course, there are millions of people in the world who would gladly press the reverse button, obliterating you and me. But was I angry enough to push a button that would erase all Islamic facists from the face of the Earth? No. If I were to do something like that, if we were to do something like that, it wouldn't be out of anger. It would be out of a sense of duty to the future world.

But we can't do something like that. We have to take the long way around, and listen to people who try to tell us to go faster or slower, or not to go at all. We have to live with the fact that lots of folks will hate our guts and say horrible things about us no matter what we do. And finally, we're stuck with what we have: some candy bars, a top-of-the-line Colt 1911, a couple of friends, and a bag full of hand grenades that we pray we'll never have to use.

A less abstract view: If this is a little fantastical for you, then check out this great summary in much more literal terms.

Excellent post. Well thought out and executed (not to mention funny). I think I will be reading in the future for sure.

Well, if you wish, compare international policy to a big playground, it's ok with me. But, what if america was not the muscled, wealthy good guy you describe. It could be, let's say, the dumb Football player spending his time harrassing the geeks. The guy that ends up in the pool, feet overhead, in a lot of American teen movies.
I'm european, and my judgement could be biased, but I don't hate american people as I don't assimilate a whole people to it's leaders. This is dangerous and leads to wars. I don't like muslim terrorists more than you do; however I don't assimilate muslim terrorists to muslim people. As I don't assimilate Israel's leaders to jews, nor integrist evangelists to christians. Those extremists, from whichever part of the planet, would burn me for my convictions. Your analyze could be alright if it was not based on the idea that people form a homogenous ensemble standing right back their leaders.
Indeed this is a simplification. If you carry any conceit too far, it begins to break down. To me, the model has been instructive regarding the way that governments deal with one another. Governments are not necessarily good representatives of their populace. In the case of the U.S., right now, though, the government is doing a fairly good job representing the will of its people.

Agreed that we might in fact be the jock harassing the geeks, but I don't think so. Pulling from Christian theology "By their fruits you shall know them." The comment cuts both ways, though. How is the U.S. to be judged? People worldwide hunger for our baser products (90% of Hollywood) while they condemn us. Is that our true fruit? Or is liberty, individualism and democracy our fruit? Certainly, the countries of the Arab world are currently bearing small, sickly fruits. Those of Europe, too.

All analogies aside, though, it's going to be a long time before a determination can be made as to whether what we are doing in the Middle East is the right thing or the wrong thing. Ten years? Maybe twenty? The answer may never be clear.

When Baghdad fell to U.S. troops, my daughter asked me if we could go there someday. I told her that I hoped so, and found that I really meant it. I would love to someday visit a free Iraq in the center of a Middle East freed from the dictatorships and radical Islam - a Middle East of renewed scholarship and scientific endeavor. I would love to visit the graves of the U.S., British, Iraqi, et al. troops who layed down their lives on the altar of freedom, and have no one think twice that a stupid American was tooling around Baghdad with his wife and daughters, trying to stay cool and mangling the language.
First of all, I'd like to thank you to be true to the first amendment, and to let my post out there although it's a dissident post. This will be my last comment since I know a blog is not a Forum.
But, one thing is that I would be glad to exchange thoughts with you via email as I believe we have radically different beliefs (I'm sorry for my poor english), and although I couldn't conveice you, nor you could conveince me, but we could make the gap narrower if we can't fill it.
Another thing is that, well, a society's imagery (like Hollywood) kind of reflects the society's aspiration. To me it's no surprise that the American President saves the world from Alien menace in movies. Nevertheless, I'm not sure that "democracy, individualism" and freedom, is what is perceived by European (or other) governments.
Indeed, a very important thing in our perception of the US is the Bretton Woods settlements. A lot of European people can't digest those. Of course, the US have helped a lot, but only after Pearl Harbor, so that many think the settlement is a useful fraud. I don't have any opinion on the subject, as I'm not really competent,
Regarding the fruits of the US. I do agree that the US have produced great things, but I don't think that a fully working is one of those. US have brought most of greatest techologies and pieces of art throughout the second half of the 20th century. US have also sustained the wealth growth of the world during that period. It is true. But US choices also turned out to be poisonous fruits. For example, US support to Pinochet's in Chille's Dictature, because of the cold war. And, unfortunately, there are many examples on the international scene (Talibans were trained and armed by the US when the enemies were the Soviets). Understand that I don't support the soviets, actually a lot of my family members' had to flee from Sovietic pressures.
My point is that foreign countries may have a lot of reasons to disagree with US' foreign policy. Although, I don't believe those should resolve into hate. And I do believe, that there's an amalgam here. And that you, correct me if I'm wrong, tend to assimilate disagreements to hatred. I feel this not really fair. Maybe, if you didn't, we could exchange ideas, like we can do on your blog, and find out our disagreements are not a so big deal.
1. It's not a First Ammendment issue, as that only regards Congress' explicit lack of authority for making laws regarding the freedom of expression. That said, I'll let any comment stand that is not vulgar, abusive or completely off-topic.

2. I'd be happy to continue this in email. Send your email address to me[at]harkyman[dot]com. I'll answer your last post then.
It's refreshing to see that "anonymous" (KS) really wishes for some real dialogue even though their viewpoints may differ. I think s/he will find that most of us are really just misunderstood or are victims of misinformation - on both sides of the pond.

And thank you, oh Blogmaster, for making my day. Your playground analogy isn't far different from my own of "the kids on our street" that I've used recently in regards to today's world. Yours is so much better. Your added thoughts even choked me up.
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