Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Glide on the Peace Plane

"What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children-not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace for all time." -JFK
Perhaps President Kennedy didn't realize how much money there is in selling American weapons of war.

A recent article in Fortune discusses the potentially disturbing circumstances surrounding the business of arms exports in the United States. Evidently President Obama is actively trying to increase sales and make it easier for our allies, or would-be allies, to purchase weapons from us.

The above picture is a Boeing-made F-15 fighter jet manufactured specifically for Saudi Arabia. I can't help but notice the Arabic letters emblazoned on the fuselage; the juxtaposition of those foreign characters and the classic, stenciled English titles would almost be hilarious if it didn't represent such a seemingly dark and chaotic reality.

The scope and magnitude of these arms sales, coupled with recent tumult throughout the Middle East, gives me pause. It's a dangerous world, and even the experts can't say for sure what our best move should be. So for me to weigh in is a little like trying to send forth some kind of personal cosmic energies towards and on behalf of a favorite sports team.

As a citizen of this planet, though, I have a vested interest in life moving on without death and destruction on a massive scale. And so, President Obama, what's the plan? The whole world is looking to you for an ingenious solution to terrorism, nuclear weapons, desert insurgencies, domestic woes and the tragically unrealized hope of a world without war and poverty.

The president has gotten criticism for not doing anything regarding Libya, then for doing too much, then for not doing enough. The criticism may be deserved in this case, however. Not because, as my conservative counterparts may insist, President Obama is weak and ineffectual. Rather, it's because nobody knows the answers or can identify the correct path.

I don't have a clue if we should bomb Libya, liberate Libya, or leave Libya the hell alone. Some critics have harangued the president about his lack of consistency in dealing with the various Islamic hotspots in recent months. Other, more liberal, critics have scoffed at the idea that the President would make decisions based on what was best for global U.S. interests(even The Daily Show).

There have been some well-branded doctrines and taglines in past administrations that have helped Americans understand and connect with the foreign policy choices and the reasons behind them. (Think Monroe Doctrine, Bush Doctrine, Shock and Awe, Axis of Evil) What is the Obama Doctrine? People have struggled to figure that out, and I tend to think that it's because there is no such doctrine. We seem to expect our presidents to develop and adhere to monolithic dogmas that act, at best, as guidelines for foreign policy decisions and, at worst, as blind templates to be used in any situation. The world is increasingly a place, though, where such expectations are foolish.

But what of arms sales? Where does that fit in to the president's plan? It is certainly disturbing to think of the U.S. selling arms to countries who might use those very weapons against us in the future. On the other hand, the Fortune article points out that, in virtually every case, the weapons we're selling aren't exactly top-of-the-line. The F-15, for example, is a 30-year old design. We sell Patriot Missiles, and those haven't been in vogue since the first Gulf War.

There are various theories surrounding the rationale for selling these weapons. The most interesting one suggests that the U.S. is essentially duping the Saudis and others into buying 'second hand' goods; we get all the upside: money, jobs, allies, and the buyers can't ever effectively use them to seriously harm us or anyone we care about. Moreover, nations like Saudi Arabia, armed with second-tier U.S. weapons, can help isolate wild cards like Iran.

I don't think there is an Obama Doctrine, but if there is, maybe it's an effort to reposition the United States as that girl in high school who tries to be everyone's best friend: not many really like her, but they definitely don't hate her. Conventional wisdom says that engagement and proximity are crucial for peaceful coexistence, whether it be in the form of global arms trade or navigating the dicey waters of a teenage girl's social life.

As a grad student 5 weeks away from completing his MBA, I tend to believe that it's hard to get mad at the people you do business with. So maybe that's our goal: let potent economic forces stir the cooperative self-interest in all of us.
"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages."
-Adam Smith

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