When I was in kindergarten, we used to argue a lot about fundamental issues, like whose father was the strongest. We had a lot of discussions to prove our points, some rational, some not, but we sure felt strongly about the issue. We were too young I believe to understand that our arguments were irrelevant. I know now that our positions were irreconcilable, because the ultimate answer was tied into our identity, the very fabric of our worlds.
Maybe age has nothing to do with it. After all, when I hear about Iraq those days, it reminds me of those debates we had at school: a heated exchange of arguments, going nowhere (See side bar). Why do we discuss then? At the very basis of those oral jousts is the premise that if people disagree, it’s because they don’t have access to the “right” facts.
A sound argument is therefore all they need to see the truth and be enlightened…
But Kindergarten taught us that life is different. Of course, garbage in, garbage out. But if your mental model is designed to produce ‘garbage’, you’ll get ‘garbage’ whatever you put in. So, unless you work on the model itself, you’ll just get caught into an endless cycle of unproductive discussions. After all, isn’t HBS demonstrating day after day that two similarly bright people, faced with the exact same data, can come up with two equally argued but totally opposed positions?
Truth is you may understand what the position of the other party is, where it comes from and where it goes, and still disagree. Agreement then can only be reached at a deeper, more abstract level. Probably every leader wants peace and prosperity for its people, including Saddam. Where we differ is where the devil lies. In the details.
In the specific case of Iraq, the critical question is not about the reasons for a war, it is about the outcomes of a war. America has never lived external conflicts on its soil. It experienced most wars as a winner, taking advantage of the upside while limiting the downside. Each of them reinforced its self-confidence and sense of identity. There is therefore a positive imagery associated with the use of armed forces. For America, Wars means Heroes. For Europeans, they mean Orphans. We believe that they lead to nothing but blood, tears and rumbles. And in the end, more wars. Because we have seen so much violence, since even victory bears the bitter taste of ashes, since history taught us that the end of every fight is the seed for the next one, we tend to see War as the last resort. War for Europeans, is not a demonstration of power. It is an admission of weakness. It is, whatever the outcome, the victory of the animal in us over intelligence and civilization. This is why we agree with Sting when he says that “there is no such thing as a reasonable war, it’s a lie we won’t believe anymore”. And after all, maybe the Iraqis love their children too…
The naked truth is that supporting war would be, for most Europeans, a negation of their very own identity. As would be, for most Americans, not supporting it. We can hide those truths with all the logical arguments we want, but in the end, it is those beliefs in our blood that make us who we are, and they are the ones at stake behind all the rhetoric. Whatever their arguments, I never admitted that my little friends’ fathers were stronger than mine. It was a part of me. Whatever the reasoning, most Europeans will never agree in their guts with the idea of a war. It’s a part of us. Even with the best reasons of the world, we would still perceive an armed conflict as a defeat for the world. As Thomas Moore would have said, what matters is not that we believe it, but that we believe it. It’s what they call culture, I think.
Now with regards to my personal opinion, it all comes back to Kindergarten. We used to have a school bully. One day he messed up with the little sister of a big guy – he was 10-1 or 10-2, I don’t know, much older anyway than I could count -and they had this fight who degenerated. Two smaller kids got hurt before the school director was able to seize them both by the collar. As they started to accuse each other he said “I don’t care who started it. To me you are both guilty.
Grown ups don’t fight. Fighting is for babies. Grown ups talk it out.”. I wish he were there. There sure are many world bullies to be expulsed out of the world playground before ordinary people like you and me can enjoy it safely.
Typical Iraq discussion between Europeans and Americans
* Why are you, decadent Europeans, not supporting war against Iraq? Is it just because of your economic interests in the region?
* OUR economic interests? Come on… You guys just care about oil! And I don’t even want to speak about your position on the middle East, nor about the personal stakes of “W” !
* There is no oil there… I mean, it’s all rusted and destroyed; we would need huge investments to make it work. It’s said to be the most important reserves in a world of depleted reserves, but clearly, it’s overrated. I’m not sure we would want it even if Saddam gave it to us. No, we really do it for the world’s benefit, honest!
* Yeah… Like two guys on a camel are the fourth army in the world. But even if I were to leave this issue aside, Iraq would still be a convenient way to convince your people that something is done about terrorism. Where is Bin Laden by the way?
* Yes, we care about terrorism, which threatens all of us. What’s wrong with preventing Saddam to develop nuclear weapons? That’s something of which we would all benefit!
* Why do you want to go to war with a guy who may one day be dangerous and are not doing anything about Korea who is demonstrating everyday that it is? That just doesn’t make sense! If you really cared, you would have spotted Korea and done something long ago. But it was probably not high enough on the oil radar screen…
* You don’t get it… We do it for the Iraqi people. Freedom, American Freedom, is a universal value that deserves to be spread for the sake of the world’s prosperity.
* That’s just so hypocrite. You know the world cannot afford the living standard of the West, because the Earth just hasn’t enough resources!
* Even if it’s impossible, it’s still a noble dream, worth fighting for! Can’t you see we are on a moral crusade?
* Stop the moral [bull—-!] How can it be moral to press for War? Wasn’t Vietnam enough? Hasn’t this world been through enough violence?
* Yeah, we have seen what your peaceful inaction did during WWII…
* As we have witnessed how blind sanctions created the conditions for dictatorship and worldwide conflict after WWI. You are the one who created this mess by requesting too strict embargoes on the countries you don’t like.
* Even if that were true, what is done is done. Listen, Saddam is threatening the world’s peace!
* Who is talking about going to war in an exploding region?
* It’s by freeing the people there and establishing democracy that the area will become more stable, not by leaving a dictator in charge of the nukes.
* Freeing the people, like you did in helping South American dictators? Unless you are talking about Afghanistan…Why do you only seem to care about countries that present a political or economic interest?
* Stop this game, we are in this [sh–] together. At least I’m doing something. And you can talk about our interests in the war for as long as you want, but you are not all white either! We know that you guys have the hands tied in because you have so many Muslims in your countries. But look, other nations are joining…
* Yeah… Just after you said: we will have a party whether you come or not, so now who wants to join and get a piece of the cake?
* What’s wrong with being a leader? I mean I understand you’re nostalgic guys, but the old order has lived. You better get used to it and move on…
* This is not leadership! This is bullying! By asking for UN support and proceeding despite its opinion, you are in
fact weakening its credibility, much more than if you had done it without asking!
* Is that what you want? Should I do the dirty job alone? That would be so much more convenient don’t you think guys?
* Well… Hum… No… Clearly no! We should try and find a political solution…
* Talks never work! Look at Israelis and Palestinians. But give me a good fight anytime! This bastard won’t understand anything but force!
* That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard! It will just increase violence and terrorism everywhere! Is that what you want?
* We just want peace and prosperity for all, what’s wrong with you?
* That’s also what we want, what’s wrong with you?