Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A conflict relationship

If I'm in conflict, I pay no attention to the goals of my opponent, right? My goals are my goals; his goals are totally separate. Actually, no.
"Adversaries significantly affect each other's goals. A potential conflict group may formulate objectives that in some ways mimic those of its opponent or develop ones that magnify the differences" (Kriesberg & Dayton, 2012, p. 78).

Conflict is relationship. If I walk away from a conflict and can safely ignore it forever, I may still seek to attain the same goal my opponent already has, or is attaining in another fashion. No conflict, no relationship. Perhaps the desired resource is intangible and is illimitable, like freedom. Perhaps the contested area is only a small portion of the entire field and I simply move to see about getting my desired outcome elsewhere.

But this is often not possible, hence conflict. And the conflict goals very sensibly do often mirror each other in many ways.

And so, when I give a quiz to students on the 4th edition of Louis Kriesberg's and Bruce Dayton's text, Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution (2012), I often ask test questions such as:
Kriesberg & Dayton seem to assert that: Most adversaries tend to ignore the goals of their enemies and express their own goals that have no relationship to the desires of their opponents. Students will inaccurately choose True when, as the authors logically indicate, this is false. Certainly, there may be some adversaries who exist in a sort of Year Zero vacuum whose goals seem only connected to themselves, but they are the exception, as the authors note.

This is totally sensible. If I cannot feed my family and my employer lives in a mansion, we are opponents. We both want a bigger share of the income from the organization, whether that is a capitalist corporation or a nonprofit corporation. Our goals are our conflict. If I want more rock music pumped into my work area and the owners see no interference with the bottom line and they are not affected by that, my goal is not related to their goals; there will not likely be much of a conflict. But if I want more benefits and higher wages, the elites who control most of those resources will see my goal as a direct mirror of their goal. There may be many smaller differences, but we want to control the money. My goals are usually quite related to the desires of my opponent or we wouldn't usually be opponents.

And so, over time, the transformative conflict party develops a partnership and gradually turns an enemy into an opponent and then an opponent into a problem-solving partner. Quixotic? Naive? No, like so much that we study, practice, and research on the nonviolent side, this is the most gain for the least pain, the best sustainable and most cost-effective path to success. That makes it the most realistic choice of methods. The only thing we need to change is our ego-driven self-inflicted conflict management dysfunctions that produce terrorism, violence, and more war dead. It is always a choice and if you and I are in conflict, we almost always have goals that seem mutually exclusive but are completely linked in terms of what we each want. If you know what I want and you can figure out how to get me enough of it to make me happy while gaining a great deal yourself, you win. If you try to crush me, I'll see if I can make you lose too. Yes, the occasional conflict is zero-sum, but those are the most linked of all, usually.

Bottom line: where there is conflict, there is a relationship and we can keep it bad, make it worse, or fix it enough to win.


Kriesberg, Louis, & Dayton, Bruce W. (2012). Constructive conflicts: From escalation to resolution. (4th ed.) Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Raising hope leads to raising hell

Some societies will exist under extreme repression, poverty, disease, filth, violence, and illiteracy for generations without much of a murmur. Suddenly, they revolt, refuse all cooperation with a despotic government, and the government falls. WTF? Why were they so fatalistic for so long?

Hope is a very dangerous thing--it leads, say the conflict researchers, to action. Kriesberg and Dayton (2012, p. 49) note that for conflict to emerge, one of the normally necessary elements is that "members of the aggrieved party must believe that they can indeed bring about the desired change in the antagonist." Until some leader, some event, some campaign, some crack in the wall of oppression opens, people will remain long-suffering. Give them that inch of hope and they will try for a mile of results.
I use Kriesberg and Dayton--Constructive Conflicts--as a text book in a class and one of the ways I test students' understanding is basic True/False questions. Here is one: "Kriesberg and Dayton seem to say that, 'Conflict is most likely to emerge overtly once people with grievances believe that all hope is lost.'" Slightly more than half of my students answer that incorrectly--they choose True. This indicates that the 'common sense' approach is taken by some students who believe that the information they learn in my classes is just an academic expression of the normal received wisdom we all know. My quizzes are thus frustrating to those students who fail to study or fail to study properly, to note the concepts that might not be what their other general knowledge might make them 'know.' In many discussion posts I read variations of "the authors just say common sense information in fancy academic language." Actually, that is only true sometimes. Sometimes, research will disconfirm what is 'understood' in society.

This is related to some of the issues surrounding any emerging discipline, which is certainly what Conflict Resolution is. As more research informs our most academic, peer-reviewed writings by our experts, we will slowly be understood to be a science, not a mere intuitive art. Students struggle with this, understandably, and yet they will be the seed crop that helps society gain a new 'common sense' as they gradually learn and share the basics of conflict forensics we teach in our colleges and universities. It's a process with a few bumps in the scholarly road, but it is underway.

And when my students confront me about my tests, I know that they "believe that they can indeed bring about the desired change in the antagonist" (me), and sometimes they do--and sometimes I can help them see that we need to change what we 'know' in our culture.

Kriesberg, Louis, & Dayton, Bruce W. (2012). Constructive conflicts: From escalation to resolution. (4th ed.) Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Dear Bibi: STFU

The Obama administration is attempting to inch toward a tiny bit of rapprochement with Iran in an effort to make the world safer. Despite an astonishingly obdurate Congress and stuck-in-blind-hate Democratic Senators, the P5+1 has announced that it will offer Iran some sanctions relief if Iran freezes its nuclear enrichment program. Benjamin Netanyahu went ballistic, as always.
Bibi The Apoplectic--the Israeli version of Hair-on-Fire John McCain.
If you examine the steps proposed by the US administration, they do not even reach Baby's First Step. It reminds me of the Flip Wilson caricature of the black minister exhorting his congregation to give more into the donations basket, "Before this church can run, this church has gotta walk, and before this church can walk this church has gotta crawl!" [Congregation: "Let it crawl, Rev!"]. Seriously, the itty-bitty moves to temporarily relax just some of the punishing sanctions on Iran are bare motion, just enough to keep Iran from experiencing more humiliation. This is Just So Objectionable to the hawks who run Congress and former Bush regime officials who now paint the bare beginnings of sanctions relief as enabling Iran to--G-d forbid--survive by apparently selling some oil on the black market since moderate Rouhani's election.

It is long past time to cease all US military transfers, especially into the Middle East. The vast majority of those transfers go to Israel and Egypt, neither one of which uses them to do much beyond further aggrandizing power to militaristic cores of their respective governments. Obama should issue a Presidential Policy Directive banning all US arms transfers to the Middle East, which would have enormous peace incentivizing effect on Israel and democracy-promoting effect on Egypt. Would Obama face the subsequent wrath of the military dictators in Egypt and the hardliners in Israel and their allies in the US? Yes. He's a lame duck, so they could try to lame him more, but he's not going to be running for any office ever again. Just Do It, Mr. Obama. There are many other steps that would help bring peace to the region, but that would be the single most effective major first step.

We will see the pathetic alternative soon, no doubt. Not satisfied with a negotiated end to Iran's nuclear weapon program, nuclear-weapon-possessing Netanyahu will be clamoring for his hypocritical goal, to keep nuclear weapons exclusivity in the region. Bibi! It's time to face it; as long as you clearly hold at least 300 and probably more nuclear bombs on deliverable missiles--the world's most well known 'secret'--your opponents in the Middle East will also want WMD. You give them all the excuse that, well, Israel has them so we need them.

Time to end the flow of destructive instruments of death from the US to the entire world, but especially to the Middle East. We pay for it all and we vote. The American people should be able to force this. If we pay attention as much as we pay federal taxes we could help the world and this moment is one of those.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Seeing the Other

When we think of the tragic schism between Iran and the US we are mindful of the differing concepts of religion, human rights, the power of the state, national sovereignty, Judaism, military power, and the European Holocaust, inter alia. Is there hope or hopelessness in our wish for peace and comity between the two countries? Is Iran a pariah state or is the US?
Quiz: in what document do the following quotes appear?
1. "Promotion of human rights includes respect for those communities whose ways of life, means of subsistence, knowledge and practices depend directly on their local environment."
2. "Efforts to encourage sustainable development must recognise the relationship between human rights and the environment and ensure their mutual benefits are realised. Without integrating human rights and environmental protection, sustainable development and the green economy will not succeed."
3. "Effective alleviation of poverty constitutes a fundamental aspect of achieving sustainable development."
4. "Human rights and the environment can play an integral, indivisible role in achieving sustainable development and equality of access to basic needs such as freshwater, food, and employment while demonstrating how environmental and human rights policies affect each other and can support each other in common cause."
5. "Recommend that Civil society, including both women and men and non-governmental organisations, actively participate with governments and communities on the basis of equality in the development and implementation of sustainable development programmes."

1. Tehran Declaration on Human Rights and the Environment 2009
2. Human Rights and the Environment: Rio+20
3. Tehran Declaration on Human Rights and the Environment 2009
4. Human Rights and the Environment: Rio+20
5. Tehran Declaration on Human Rights and the Environment 2009

Every time Hezbollah attacks anyone--either as terrorists or as insurgents--they are smearing a bad image all over Iran. It is a pity and one wonders how people can sink to such levels of bloodthirstiness.

Every time a US drone kills a member of the Taliban plus a few children and other civilians who live or travel with Taliban members, the US sinks in worldwide esteem. One wonders how low they will go in their arrogance and murderousness.

When someone from the West hears some official from Iran rambling on and on about how glorious Allah is and the Prophet May Peace Be Upon Him we wonder how can people be so backward?

When someone from Iran hears some US official horking on interminably about gun rights even when little children have just been slaughtered by some angry white man with hideous guns that Iranian must wonder at the profound sickness in America.

Guess what? We are all full of it and we are all redeemable. We are all good on the outside with an evil core and we are chameleons who look horrific on the outside and are reachable and empathic within. We are human. Iranians, Americans, all human.

Humans mostly operate with some primal relationship to the Maslowian hierarchy and are long-suffering. They look out for themselves first, their closest relatives next, their "types" next, their nation next. Show me the truly compassionate selfless ones who don't operate that way and I'll show you someone not in power, someone most exceptional indeed.

So, security is key. Physical security, food security, shelter security all outweigh doctrine, profit, conflict management methods and pretty much everything else. You convince Iranians that Americans threaten security and you have Iranians willing to fight. You convince Americans that Iranians want to hurt Americans and you will get permission to act belligerently toward Iran.

The idea is to rip the lies off the real motivations.

Look at the conflict industry. Look at who's in political power, look who is making the nastiest high profits. See who is gaining from conflict and stop listening to them or their agents. Once we do that, we see the Iranians' security is indivisible from ours. Start there. The rest will follow.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Peace with Iran?

What is the master narrative about Iran in the US?

Iran is run by nutty, dangerous theocrats who would nuke Israel, Europe and North America if given half a chance.
What is the master narrative about the US in Iran?
America is a brutal robber empire who overthrew a wonderful Iranian elected leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, and installed their notorious puppet, Shah, until brave Iranians captured  some Americans--without injuring or killing even one of them--until Reagan was forced to leave Iran alone.

There is truth and fiction in both master narratives, but one truth in a meta-narrative is that the peoples of both countries are saturated in negative information about the other people. Serious progress will be very tough under these broken conditions.

Let's fix this.

First is a brainstorm of policy suggestions that might break the logjam or loosen pieces of it. Some are easy, some are hard, some are tried and some are outside the box--a box which has produced failure so far and may need to expand. Seize the opportunities as they pop up and create more of them.
  • The US should apologize for its role in the 1953 overthrow of Iran's democratically elected leader and for uncritical military support for the Shah. A simple apology without qualification, equivocation, justification or even explanation is best.
  • Iran should apologize for kidnapping 52 American in 1979 and holding them for 14 months. Again, don't couch it in contextuals that sound like excuses or justifications.
  • The US should initiate discussions about negotiating an end to any weapons-grade materiels produced from any Iranian centrifuges, and the US should offer to dismantle 200 or more nuclear weapons now in the US nuclear arsenal, as well as lift all US sanctions against Iran. These conditions should involve the IAEA inspections and possibly UN inspections teams on the soil of both countries to monitor compliance.
  • The two countries should each invite the other to open an embassy with the guarantee of the safety of the personnel that is backed by enormous collateral. The 2011 Obama initiative to maintain an online embassy is a good gesture and not enough; it is time for reciprocity and advancements.
  • The US should pull its military out of the ring around Iran as Iran moves concomitantly to affirm human and civil rights for its people. Iran has too long used US military dominance as an excuse to oppress domestic dissent and the US has too long used Iranian repression to justify its military encirclement of Iran.
  • Educational initiatives should be undertaken to document and highlight the many strongly positive aspects of the Iran-US historical record, while acknowledging mistakes by both nations. The record is long, complex, and full of admirable exchanges. Citizens from both societies should learn of this.
  • The US should immediately reassure Iran that it has zero intentions of attacking Iran but rather of negotiating an end to the long crisis that has waxed and waned between the two nations.
  • Iran should immediately reassure the US that Iran has zero intention of attacking the US.
  • The US should reassure Iran that it will not attack Iranian allies, such as Syria or Hezbollah in Lebanon, even if the US opposes them in principle and with other nonmilitary methods.
  • Iran should reassure the US that it has no intention of attacking Israel or any US friend in the region, even if it will continue to have conflict with those nations. Reducing fear reduces aggression which reduces fear which...
  • Renew cultural and educational exchanges between the countries.
This list could go on for pages. The keys are these:
  1. Generate grassroots support for one or more of these policies in both countries and focus on one success.
  2. Quietly work on the other initiatives until they are 'ready for prime time.'
  3. Build coalitions of middle class and working class support for these initiatives, beginning with the fastest.
  4. Go from easy to hard, incrementalizing the goals until they are winnable within short months, not a year or more.
  5. Celebrate and integrate every victory, no matter how small, as much as possible into each populace.
Most of all, each one of these initiatives is looking out for the future, for Iranian children and American children. Let the ancestors have their fights; we need to repair it as much as we can and move forward in partnership--if not singing kumbaya at least operating in increased mutual security and maybe someday, trust. Iranians are beautiful people and we're not so bad ourselves.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

From need to greed: Nonviolence to violence, truth to lies

Competition for our essential survival needs may or may not produce violence, but greed will almost certainly produce it. Resources are a factor in virtually all wars, not a necessary factor but a nearly ubiquitous and primary contributory factor. Yes, it's possible to just wage a war for ideology or identity or revaunche or irridentism, but the papered-over resource-control motivations are often stronger drivers for the war designers and can drive their misleading war promotion.

Even resource expert Michael Klare (2012) seemed to miss this a bit when he asserts that "For a few decades in the twentieth century, from the rise of fascism in the 1930s to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, resource concerns became overshadowed by ideological strife as the main cause of international conflict" (p. 209). Klare may be a bit credulous in this singular case; at least for the US, and very likely for the SU, resource issues were not overshadowed by those who fomented wars. Ideology is always a handy Great and Powerful Oz, billowing smoking and bellowing lies on the grand screens of manipulable millions, while most often resource control is the motivator for the little conflict industry men behind the curtain.
The Cold War conflicts almost all featured resource 'concerns'--more accurately, avarice and willingness to take control by violence. After all, rhetoric about democracy fell prey in reality to resource greed when the US overthrew democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala to make life safe for US corporate exploiters in Central America, and when the US removed fairly elected Mohammed Mossaddegh in Iran and gained a lion's share of oil profits there until the Iranian Revolution kicked out our installed dictator, Shah. When Congo elected Patrice Lumumba, which champion of democracy assassinated him and engineered a coup that brought in ersatz nationalist Mobutu Sese Seka so the DRC could be plundered at will by corporate extractive industry? How about all that copper in Chile, removed from US proxy control by the citizens of that country when they elected Salvadore Allende and retaken by a process made possible by US weaponry and training as they rebooted military dictatorship with Augusto Pinochet? These were all made possible by a fig leaf of ideology but were clearly about resource exploitation for the corporate masters who control the mainstream political 'debate.'

Violence is so tainted by corruption in so many cases that it requires a frenzy of propaganda to try to hide that incentivizing greed. After all, as Victoria University historian Phillip Deery (2012) notes about Cold War propaganda, "The allocation of immense resources to diplomatic manoeuvres and military preparations would count for little if societies did not endorse, if not champion, the values that demonstrated their moral superiority" (p. 15).

Only by the most specious exercise of the Big Lie could the US justify its role in any of the violent overthrows of democratically elected governments during the span of the Cold War. Of course, the Soviet Union made it pathetically easy by their own addiction to violence and terrorism. Once violence is the accepted method of struggle, the axiomatic truth misattributed to Aeschylus is ignited: "In war, the first casualty is truth." In the end, violence is based on lies so pervasive, repeated ad nauseam, that even the most attuned experts can be distracted by them.

Deery, P. (2004). PROPAGANDA IN THE COLD WAR. Social Alternatives, 23(3), 15-21. 

Klare, Michael T. (2012). The race for what’s left. New York, NY: Metropolitan. 

Friday, November 01, 2013

Sovereignty is dead: Long live sovereignty

If sovereignty of the individual--the most basic unit of sovereignty--is to be protected, it will require us to practice nonviolence, since violence violates someone else's sovereignty. Indeed, all violence is predicated upon the assumption that others have no such rights, just ourselves and the ones we care about. Just our race. Just our nation.

When I was working with fellow activist Walter Bresette, he framed much of what he was leading in tribal country as sovereignty. It was a struggle for sovereignty, of course, from a people who were overrun by European settlers and their military. I supported sovereignty for the Anishinabe people, of course. They were the victims. Walter and I had long and fruitful discussions for a decade about the relationship between sovereignty and nonviolence. We learned from each other, and he learned faster and more profoundly than I. I witnessed him defending Anishinabe sovereignty with some of the most robust and fearless nonviolence I've ever encountered. His fatal heart attack more than a decade ago was a tremendous loss. We miss him still, greatly.

Nowadays, following long observations and study while bearing in mind what Walter taught, I hold more complicated views of sovereignty. Should a culture get to protect its sovereignty by taking away the sovereignty of other cultures? Is sovereignty a zero-sum game? Does sovereignty include a state's ability to destroy the sovereignty of the individuals who happen to be born in that sovereign state? Are all sovereign rights created equal?

According to the most recent USDA report, approximately two percent of all US privately held farm and forestland is owned by foreigners. The total is more than 25.7 million acres, a larger total landmass than Hawaii and Massachusetts combined. Is this a threat to US sovereignty? Or does that depend? Images of the US as the new Tibet, with Chinese settlers taking over huge swatches of states, would differ for many from an image of Canadians owning land in Arizona where they overwinter like the snowbirds some of them are. Images of Saudi Arabian holdings of American farm and forests for shipments of food and timber to Saudi Arabia are one thing; Dutch wind energy companies paying American taxes to harvest windpower from the windswept wastelands of West Texas are another. Or are all these equally non-threatening? Equally threatening?

Now imagine living in Ethiopia on less than $1 per day with famine. Here comes the Saudi government to build sophisticated agricultural operations under armed guard. Starvation is common in Ethiopia and Saudi guards with AK-47s patrol the greenhouses of Saudi-owned tracts of agricultural land (Klare, 2012, p. 185). Is this a violation of anyone's sovereignty? Does anyone care?

Nonviolent civil society power is how people both recognize, seize, and activate collective sovereignty, which teaches us a great deal about capacity. People are learning to think in complex terms, to understand interests and positions, and to operate rationally from the less elite side of the question. This takes a willingness and skill to reframe the basic questions and arguments when we are so often presented false dichotomies or inaccurate conflict frames. Sandra Smeltzer (2009) discusses some of these dilemmas in the context of Malaysian civil society's response to US efforts to promote a fast-track free trade arrangement with that country's elected but autocratic government.

If and when citizens are made aware of the FTA’s importance, the next step is to get them involved in resistance activities – a difficult sell for civil society agents in a country with severely limited freedoms of press and assembly. Many Malaysians are, quite understandably,cautious about engaging in public displays of resistance, especially if the authorities might retaliate in the form of fines, physical, emotional, and/or financial harassment, or even imprisonment (p. 20).
As Smeltzer details, even in societies with those limited freedoms, determined activists will discover or create means of communication, making civil resistance more organized, but it is essentially a race against the more sophisticated and elite-owned mass media. Isn't this the case everywhere, however? It seems there is some tipping point that is determined by several factors, one of them being the perception of violation of sovereignty and another being the perception of impact of that violation. Civil society asks itself, one person and one local community at a time, one issue at a time, those two questions and rolls them up against the risks of resistance.

If the answers are, yes, this policy violates our sovereignty, yes, the impacts hurt our lives appreciably, and yes, we are willing to risk resistance, it will blossom. How it is organized, how alliances are made and activated, and what methods are chosen--these will be important, probably dispositive factors in the outcome. Bellwether communities can offer a window into likelihood of resistance; when health sovereignty is under lethal threat, barriers to resistance lower quickly and people will express themselves.
Finally, the core connection to the theories of conflict resolution and transformation all revolve around the essential trigger to sovereignty, the notion that one is being disrespected by another, that an identity group is disrespecting another identity group, and that disrespect, real or perceived, will precipitate resistance at some point, yet another argument for the commitment to nonviolence, which is far less likely to be viewed as disrespectful of others and more likely to affirm everyone's and every group's yearning for sovereignty.

Klare, Michael T. (2012). The race for what’s left. New York, NY: Metropolitan. 

Smeltzer, S. (2009). A Malaysia–United States free trade agreement: Malaysian media and domestic resistance. Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 50(1), 13-23. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8373.2009.01377.x