Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Diplomacy and the Bush Administration's Miscomprehension of What Diplomacy Is

As I was driving to school this morning, NPR was covering a press briefing by President Bush. He was addressing issues that have been important aspects of his administration's message over the last few months. One issue was that of Iran. What he said below (and this is not the first time I have been irritated by his position on the matter), really seemed to highlight the fact that his administration does not understand the purpose of diplomacy:

People say, would you ever talk to Iran? For you veterans here, for those who have been following this administration for a while, you might remember that I have consistently said that we will be at the table with the EU-3 if Iran would verifiably suspend their program -- and the offer still stands.

So what is the purpose of diplomacy?

Merriam-Webster defines diplomacy as:

1 : the art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations

2 : skill in handling affairs without arousing hostility

My understanding of diplomacy is that it is the dialog used to maintain relationships between states, designed for the continuation of peace.

adds this to the picture:

Diplomacy is the art and practice of conducting negotiations between representatives of groups or states. It usually refers to international diplomacy, the conduct of international relations through the intercession of professional diplomats with regard to issues of peace-making, trade, war, economics and culture.

The Bush Administration's actions do not indicate that they view diplomacy as filling this roll. On the contrary, the administration's position appears to view diplomacy as a means by which the United States can influence other "lesser" states.

The situation in Iran is really a fine example of why realism, a theory within the academic world of international relations and the method used by Bush's Administration, is not a viable approach for the maintenance of peace. Henry Kissinger is the best example of a realist I know of. Wikipedia defines realism as:

Realism, also known as political realism, in the context of international relations, encompasses a variety of theories and approaches, all of which share a belief that states are primarily motivated by the desire for military and economic power or security, rather than ideals or ethics.

What is not addressed in this definition is that realists view the attainment of military and economic power as the best ways to guarantee peace. In other words, we put ourselves in such a powerful position that the costs of confronting us greatly outweigh the benefits.

Diplomacy: the art of restraining power.

-Henry Kissinger

Another symptom of realism is that it inevitably leads to war. Such is the nature of power politics. Here is a brief scenario to explain what I mean:

Iran wants to develop nuclear power. As a sovereign state, they feel an inherent right to govern without influence from foreign states. Additionally, they feel threatened from neighboring states, a threat which they feel justifies the development of nuclear weapons (making themselves too powerful to attack).

The United States, already involved in the affairs of the Middle East, views the development of nuclear weapons in Iran as a dangerous ingredient in their efforts to "create democracy." Israel, an ally of the United States feels threatened by a nuclear Iran (a threat which is increased because of the rhetoric being espoused by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). Their [The US] reaction, as a realist state, is to threaten Iran: first with UN sanctions, then with indications that if Iran will not stop their nuclear program the United States will attack Iran.

This approach is counter-productive. Instead of persuading Iran to discontinue their program, it leads to increased Iranian resistance. For the many Iranians that are not wild about Ahmadinejad, support for him is far preferable to allowing foreign interests to tell them [Iran] what to do. This results in a renewed resistance, now fully supported by the Iranian people. Iran feeling an increased threat from the US, increases its efforts to develop a nuclear program, and adds that if Iran is attacked , tens of thousands of rockets will be fired at American forces stationed in Iraq...

You hopefully get the point. Diplomacy should lead to peace, not through power plays and bullying, but through recognition that peace is a shared objective, and one with enough importance to warrant bi-lateral compromise.

You are probably asking which method best suits this purpose. I think that a combination of a couple of theories likely leads to the best outcome. The first of these is Idealism, which the IR Theory Knowledge Base defines as:

Idealism then is not only heavily reformist, but the tradition has often attracted those who feel that idealistic principles are the "next-step" in the evolution of the human character. One of the first and foremost pieces of the "old world" and "old thinking" to be tossed on the trash heap of history by idealism is that destructive human institution of war. War, in the idealistic view, is now no longer considered by either elites or the populace of the great powers as being a plausible way of achieving goals, as the costs of war, even for the victor, exceed the benefits.

Another theory which deserves attention is that of Pluralism. Through a complex set of assumptions this theory boils down to one underlying recognition: We live in a complexly diverse world that requires compromise and recognition of diversity for there to be any hope of peace. IR Theory points out these assumptions, and this third one is especially important when comparing political theories:

Thirdly, pluralists challenge the realist assumption of the state as a rational actor, and this derives from the second assumption where the clash of competing interests may not always provide for a rational decision making process.

Six months ago, while I was still active duty Air Force, I promised Bridgett and myself that were we to go to war with Iran, I would file as a conscientious objector. Some may view this as cowardly, but I will not go to war against a nation, when my president wasn't even willing to talk with them. Of course they are acting aggressively towards us...we have done nothing but provoke them. If we truly are the world leader we claim to be, then we should demonstrate our leadership by swallowing our pride, compromising slightly, and talking with Iran.

This all follows along the same illogical line that led Bush to nominate John Bolton as the US Ambassador to the UN (a recess appointment of an individual that probably would not have been confirmed). Bolton, as was discussed in this interview with John Stewart, didn't believe in the UN. Now that I think about it, it all makes sense -- Bush apparently doesn't believe in diplomacy.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Travis County Veteran Issue

Over the past few months, several constables have been working to set up a commission for veterans in Travis County. This sounds like a great idea...we should be taking care of our veterans. But this is barely even a starting point. There is an average of over a hundred veterans arrested per month in Travis County alone. Many of these involve drug and alcohol related incidents. The county is working on building a relationship with the VA so that such veterans can receive treatment and get the extra help they need. This could be and would be a breakthrough program. As far as we know, nothing like this has been done anywhere else in the country.

But this is not enough!

Tyler Curtis escaped mortars, bullets and bombs in Iraq. Yet, he failed to survive his homecoming.

On Thanksgiving morning, three months after the young veteran returned home to Livermore Falls, he took his own life. The emotional wounds of war left him unable to go on...

This story (reported in the Sun Journal) is the most recent of an unconscionable number of veteran suicides, further detailed in this story from CBS News.

In 2005, for example, in just those 45 states, there were at least 6,256 suicides among those who served in the armed forces. That's 120 each and every week, in just one year.

I am not aware of the veteran suicide numbers in Travis County, but this is an issue which I, as a veteran, feel a personal duty to work to solve.

There have been numerous instances over the last few years of veterans coming home from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan with additional problems. Such as...

Because of the symptoms with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and other psychiatric problems developed while in combat, veterans have succumbed to alcohol or drug abuse. This is frequently an attempt to self medicate the pain. This typically results in a dishonorable discharge, which denies any veteran VA benefits. As such veterans are thrown into the civilian population, their drug and alcohol abuse continues, yet they have no way to seek treatment for the abuse and/or their severe psychiatric problems. Furthermore, it is very difficult for veterans with dishonorable discharges to gain employment. Thus the downward spiral continues with no apparent way out.

The second problem is equally bad, but much more despicable. What is happening is that veterans returning from combat deployments take the right steps to receive treatment for PTSD and other lingering mental issues. In some of these instances, the military has pressured (coerced) the service members to sign a document stating that their mental condition was pre-existing. Such veterans are then discharged, and again denied access to VA benefits (because their disability is classified as existing prior to the military). The two primary ways these service members have been so coerced are:

1) Military members are threatened with disciplinary action. Their fragile psychiatric condition makes it very difficult for them to challenge this threat. In addition, they are pressured into signing such papers, with the “promise” that once signed, they will be discharged, and not be in further trouble. (They of course cannot get in legal trouble for having a psychiatric disorder, though when so pressured, they do not realize that this is the case).

2) The second form of coercion involves a horrible play on the condition of the service member. They are told that if they do not sign the document, their discharge will take longer. The nature of their illness is often such that they see the military as a cause of their pain, and are willing to sign away their benefits so that they can be immediately discharged.

This story from the Times-Gazette in Ohio fills in some of these details.

The second thing we looked into was the effort to reduce costs and to reduce the number of returning soldiers that the medical units would have to include. The military discharged more than 20,000 young men and women needing medical attention by using Chapter 5-13.

This means that these soldiers were given a "pre-existing physiological disorder discharge" and therefore, were not entitled to medical help or any other benefits whatsoever - even though many of them had been wounded in battle and had come home with Purple Heart honors.

So what does this all mean for veterans in Travis County? The county is working to put in place a system to get these veterans treatment with the VA. For those veterans who don't have access to VA benefits, the newly formed Texas Law Veterans Association (TLVA — started by students who are veterans at the University of Texas School of Law) is working to set up a veterans legal program at UT Law. The hope is that the county will identify veterans that need assistance, and then the TLVA program will step in and provide the necessary legal support to make sure they can be treated by the VA.

The question is, are we going to stand by and simply allow the continued suffering of these men and women who have sacrificed so much for us?

I say no! Will you stand with me?

A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards.

-Teddy Roosevelt

Cross-posted from Burnt Orange Report and Daily Kos.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Inaugural Posting

Welcome to the first posting on Reflections on East Austin Conversations. As I said before, the basic intention of this blog is to convey my reflections on random conversations I've had or will have with average citizens in East Austin. My hope is that this blog will serve as a catalyst for accelerated public discourse. One final note before I begin; I have realized with this first conversation that it will be necessary for me to write follow-up postings, expanding upon and exploring further those issues which are brought up during conversations, and need further research/explanation.

My first conversation was with a young man named Ryan. He is an openly gay Latino American, and works at a retail store in East Austin.

I have to say that the first issue discussed somewhat surprised me. Ryan is concerned with prostitution and human trafficking in the local area. I honestly was not aware that this is much of an issue. This is definitely one of those issues which will require a follow-up, so for now I will concentrate on Ryan's concerns. He was (as one would hope) concerned for the well-being of trafficking victims, as well as women forced into prostitution. We both observed that in most cases, women are forced into this terrible profession due to either dependencies or severe misfortune and desperation. Ryan is uncertain, however, whether or not much can be done. As for the trafficking, there should be zero tolerance. Expanding upon poverty and class issues, we both shared a concern for the apparent large numbers of homeless people.

The next issue we discussed was gay rights. Ryan feels that gay marriage should be totally legalized. This is a conversation I have had several times, and I must admit, I have yet to come up with a personally satisfactory solution. My primary difficulty lies in compromising the long tradition of marriage with the necessary need for absolute equality. We all know it, but I love this portion of the Declaration of Independence "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." While to a limited extent, our founding documents are antiquated (not just men, slaves counting as 3/5ths of a man), the spirit remains forever relevant. We are all created equal...it is not equal for heterosexual married couples to receive 1139 rights that homosexual couples can only sometimes receive through complex legal procedures. What is the best solution? I don't yet have that answer; however, it seems to me that not granting the same rights to homosexual couples is far to close to withholding the unalienable right of the pursuit of Happiness. The bottom line is that we must be champions of equality.

As our conversation continued, I asked Ryan for one last major issue. He didn't have one, he had many. His concern is that there are far too many issues. How is one guy writing a blog going to begin to solve them? This is a good point, yet it is not necessarily my intention to solve the problems, but rather to proliferate discussion about them. And so we moved onto Iraq. Now Ryan did admit that he voted for Bush. That being said, he was not happy with our invasion of Iraq because of "so called terrorists." Furthermore, he questioned how a C-average person can run our country.

Moving on (and back to the root issue in Iraq) to Democracy, however, Ryan feels that there should be no poverty in the world and all countries should be developed...but how. I asked Ryan if he feels that it is the responsibility of America to accomplish these lofty goals, and he conceded that it is not. Ryan feels that responsibility lies with the leadership of the relevant countries. I agree, but am not certain how best to approach this reality. I am progressive, and as such, believe that in many cases, poverty and unrest persist due to global economic inequalities. Why should American companies be profiting so greatly in "third-world" countries? It seems to me that local populations should realize the greatest benefits from commerce within their borders. Unfortunately, it is far too often that those same benefits are exported, proliferating the poverty and inequality of our world. Furthermore, economic inequality tends to create feelings of inequality which lead to the far too common feeling that American's see themselves as superior.

Our final topic of discussion was the minimum wage. We both feel that it needs to be raised. Someone shouldn't have to work three jobs to survive. In fact, Ryan mentioned that a friend of his claimed the average single male in Austin needs to make 56,000 dollars a year to live comfortably, over 5 times the minimum wage.

This marked the end of our conversation. I am new to blogging, and will be learning to blog for quite a while. For the time being, I hope you enjoyed this reflection, and I welcome any and all feedback.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Hello Austin

Hello Austin,

As the title of this blog states, this is a blog providing reflections on conversations in will be having with citizens in East Austin. I plan on discussing both local and national issues, with no one in particular. My hope is that this will serve as a venue through which to catalyze the community's awareness, and bring about a greater consciousness for what is effecting those of us in East Austin.

As for me, my name is Doug Mayeux. I grew up in Dallas, but am thrilled to be living in Austin. I moved here in July with my wife Bridgett upon completion of six years of service in the Air Force. I am a senior at UT Austin, studying government. Bridgett is a law student at UT Law. We are both progressives, interested in leveling the playing field a bit, and creating an America that has civil righteousness, and is socially just. I hope you enjoy reading my reflections.