Steve Sachs Duke


Wednesday, October 29, 2003


The Elephantiasis of Reason: The bombing of the Red Cross offices in Baghdad was a great tragedy. Those who died were engaged in a selfless effort to help others in need. But as the occupation goes on, the tragedy may be compounded by a mindset that deeply underestimates the danger:

For the humanitarian agency, the blast shattered the belief that 23 years of good deeds in Iraq could be worn like protective armor against violence. "We were always confident that people knew us and that our work here would protect us," said Nada Doumani, spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Baghdad. "How do we understand this?"

For some reason, the answer doesn't seem particularly difficult--the people who killed UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, along with so many other innocents, don't care that the Red Cross does a world of good. They want Iraq to be unstable and insecure, because a secure, stable Iraq is one in which they can't easily take power. It seems unnecessary to point out, but they don't have the Iraqi people's best interests at heart.

Back in January, David Brooks had written an article in the Atlantic Monthly called "The Elephantiasis of Reason" (borrowing the phrase from Irving Kristol). It described the CIA report "Global Trends 2015," which attempted to predict the future through a focus on major social forces, ignoring the individuals such forces might affect. According to Brooks,

There are no human beings in the world described by the CIA. There are no passions or religious ideals, no dreams or urges, no altruism or malevolence. Instead there are only impersonal forces: technological developments, economic trends, and demographic pressures.

The CIA's approach, Brooks argues, relies on an unspoken assumption by analysts that "foreign dictators will behave as they--social scientists with Ph.D.s and homes in suburban Virginia--would behave in similar circumstances." Yet what it cannot account for is the potential irrationality, or at least apparent irrationality, that a dictator's behavior might display. Similarly, a worldview that considers all Iraqis to have certain universal interests (peace, stability, prosperity, etc.), and to pursue those interests rationally, will fail to understand how the terrorists could be murdering their benefactors. Consider the following statement by the president of the French Red Cross:

"This is very serious, because this is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, and Iraq is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions," said Marc Gentilini, a physician and president of the French Red Cross.

You know, I thought it was serious because so many people died. The fact that it violated the Geneva Conventions had kind of slipped my mind.

These sound like the words of someone who has spent so long in the world of international law that he has forgotten there's another world outside. So what if Iraq is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions? The government that signed them never kept them, and in any case, it no longer exists. Does Dr. Gentilini honestly think that the terrorists who planned the attack consider themselves bound by international agreements? On whom is he trying to impress the seriousness of this treaty violation?

If any demonstration were needed that the world does not operate in a calm, rational, lawlike fashion, this is it. If we want to make Iraq a better place for its citizens, we can't assume that the murderers who target their fellow citizens will be motivated for a desire for peace--and then panic when it turns out we're wrong. (How could the U.N. have possibly run Iraq if it has withdrawn almost all of its staff after two bomb attacks?) The most important thing for now is improving security, and that means going after these groups wherever they can be found. If that requires more troops and resources than have been invested thus far, so be it. But nothing can be accomplished so long as we ignore the true nature of our--and the Iraqi people's--enemies.




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© 2011 Stephen E. Sachs


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