A People at War

December 10, 2008

Two things I remember about the morning of 9/11: First is groggily logging onto AOL and seeing a picture of the first tower exploding, then glancing down at the date to see if it was April’s Fools day. It wasn’t. Second is leaving for work, then walking back to my apartment and changing my Rockports for sneakers. Outside again I stopped and looked at the sneakers, thinking: They got to me, they reached out and got to me. 

I don’t need to remind you of what happened the next five or so years. Let’s just say it was gut-wrenching and exhausting. It is certainly a relief that the reign of the madmen is nearly over…but the 9/11 era remains for me hauntingly unresolved. It seems that if some other date were to be seared in our memory, the same mistakes would be repeated. 

It’s not enough to point the finger at Bush, the mainstream media, and Congress, who all failed miserably. The American people were in there somewhere, too, and we’re still hugely around. Many of us fell back on politics as usual in response to 9/11; many were content to be told what to think; many clung tightly to fantasies. Various parties definitely reached out and got to us.

What follows is a proposal whose goal is to increase the quantity and quality of the public’s engagement with war, and to foster a clearer, more flexible and effective understanding between citizens and their war leaders.

The public will never sit at the mahogany table with the president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and hash out foreign policy or plan wars. Nonetheless, for all the reasons that democracy is good, a better informed, more engaged public would be good, too, especially when the president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff open the folder labeled WAR. How could this happen?

We already have unstoppably voluble presidents and Congressmen, a hyperactive mediascape including the press, TV, cable and websites….and even as soldiers die in Iraq, most Americans couldn’t locate that country on a map. 

A popular approach to the problem has been a critique of the media, a critique pioneered by the right and lately appropriated with a vengeance by the left. But typically critics who want to fix the media really want to fix the public. If a majority ran with them, their interest in critique would vanish pronto. 

A contrary approach‚ one that I will take‚ begins by asking: “How might the public like to become better informed, more engaged?” In sales parlance, this is the customer-focused question that replaces the results-oriented, salesman-focused question “How can I get the public to buy what I’d like them to buy?”

For debating war, my guess is that the public would like a process that was informative, but also entertaining, involving and convenient. Other people will have other guesses, of course. That’s dandy. The point is, once specific goals have been specced out, the high wall of public ignorance seems scalable and experiments conceivable. 

Here’s my big idea: a “war council” that culminates in a national referendum on a declaration of war.

  • Congress initiates a council when the president asks Congress for a declaration of war.
  • A council is a video debate staged by Congress. The president leads the pro-war side; Congress takes a straw poll, and “nay” Congressmen elect the leaders of the anti-war side.
  • A council lasts six days total. On Day 1, 2, and 3 there are two hours of debate during prime time. On Day 5, both sides deliver half-hour final statements.
  • The votes are counted on Day 6 and Congress ratifies the result.

Since voters matter directly, the debates will staged for them, unlike debates in Congress where politicians niggle with each other while awkwardly grandstanding for the camera.

The council will include absolutely anything: traditional exhortation, live testimony, maps, roundtables, charts, etc. The presence of Congressmen will be blessedly superfluous.  And as in trial, all the assets used will disclosed and shared beforehand, so whatever one side presents can be re-examined, re-contextualized, or just mocked. Each side will field a deft video deejay.

An official council constructed as a hybrid television trial/miniseries would leave the public vastly more informed than it is now. Also:

  • The fact that their vote will have an immediate impact on a specific, ongoing enterprise will sharpen voters’ attention.
  • Seven hours of debate is short enough to keep people focused, but long enough to impart a great deal of information. Do we want to be declaring wars that take longer to debate?
  • The staggered schedule maximizes information absorption, and allows each side to dynamically adjust presentations.
  • Forming an opinion on the basis of one dramatic, substantive event is convenient for people whose news consumption is spotty.
  • Having one formal event fertilizes debate because it offers a set of common facts for various parties to reference, whether anchors, or uncles pointing forks over dinner.
  • The extended debate format favors arguments rather than sonorous rhetoric, which is better for compressed, one-way monologues.
  • Like schoolyard brawls, debates are attractive, especially when they shape a pending course of action.

A war council would also enhance accountability for both presidents and voters.

  • The uniqueness of the event forces a president to gather the best of his case and sign off on it publicly. He can’t rely on leaks and media friendlies to create an echo effect that makes his case seem to be coming from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
  • The voter is forced to vote on war directly, so she can’t fob responsibility off on those dastardly politicians…and once the voter has personally committed to war, he is more likely to remain committed–as well as to take course corrections, Plans Bs, and other contingencies in stride.

One might wonder what wars voters will be willing to declare. Perhaps they’ll prove war-averse except for blatant cases of self-preservation…or will only green-light sure-things…or will embrace risks that shock experts. It’s possible that whatever maxims guide their opinions now will accurately prefigure their future decisions. To my mind, however, it’s likely that increased exposure to war deliberations will change both maxims and minds. 

Either way, if it is to be war, a national council will ensure that the military goes into battle armed with the deadliest of weapons–the informed consent of the public.

Presidents will no doubt complain that giving voters the power to veto a proposed war reduces their flexibility and adds one rather unpredictable step to the dance of diplomacy. For instance, what happens when troops are in place, ready for a fight…and the people go negative? In this as in most cases, Presidents can integrate the council into their tactics. Here, they could go to the people before placing the troops, not after. 

Getting the go-ahead beforehand puts a president in an excellent position; the enemy would understand that he has substantial support, and a president would retain the option of fighting or not, whichever makes sense as events unfold. With a council instituted, both presidents and voters could still bluff, but practically, this tactic would become rare: not only would more informed voters will be less willing to fight wars on trust, they’d avoid fighting wars just to back up a bluff.  

In any case, even if it could, should a superpower base its power even in part on unpredictability?

The obvious objections to a war council will focus on the capacity of the public:

  • Of all government functions, foreign policy is the most removed from public experience, and intractable ignorance will turn councils into rolling disasters.
  • The people think with their hearts rather than their heads, so they will be more easily angered or panicked than experts, and prone to making pleasing statements rather than effective policy, whether Don’t fuck with us or Give peace a chance.

These objections are related; I’ll counter the second (excess public feeling) and wend back to the first.

Anyone who’s ever participated in any tussle at the playground or office understands that conflict brings with it certain peculiarities.  High-stakes conflicts demand a countervailing certitude and inspire us to harden positions and filter out ambiguity, and usually, truth. Group conflict exacerbates these dynamics, and adds another: a desire for unity and leaders. (A war leader is like a car mechanic; you trust him because…well, what other choice do you have?)

So could we trust ourselves to keep our heads, say, after a catastrophic act of terrorism?

To answer, let’s start with a comparison: Who would think straighter in a crisis: the public under the status quo, or the public at a council? Frankly, there’s not much to debate here. Under the status quo, the public doesn’t think much because it doesn’t have to. Rather than responsibilities, it has emo.  In terms of wisdom, any council, no matter how lame, would be an improvement.

The more practical question is: What system would ultimately lead to wiser policy, one in which the leaders do all the thinking and the public does all the feeling, or one in which the leaders do most of the thinking, and the public does some? Until the council form is prototyped, this question is an imponderable.  In the meantime, I’d hazard that participation will yield wiser outcomes:

  • The better the public’s thinking, the better the president’s thinking, because public opinion in the long run will constrain the president. So even if he plays the public like a fiddle, over the long haul, an educated public will yield wiser results than a sly, conniving president.
  • What I’ve dismissed so far as public “feeling” isn’t necessarily stupid non-thinking. Take one powerful albeit implicit rationale for Iraq War II: to intimidate rogue regimes and Arabs by making an example of Saddam Hussein. Say what you will, that it’s ugly, counter-productive‚ it’s an argument of sorts, not just frothing.

In fact, all foreign-policy frameworks can be boiled to basic evolved intuitions: it’s better to be feared than liked…honey attracts more flies than vinegar…scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours…mind your own business. Any of these intuitions can become the basis for a sweeping, well-wrought theory of foreign relations. Unfortunately, such an ambitious theory will perforce be wrong, because these mutually exclusive intuitions are right or wrong depending on the circumstances. 

If we are acquainted with the circumstances, we can balance these intuitions with each other and the facts. Otherwise, these intuitions just offer facile expressions of personality or ideology. 

It may be true that the public is more factually clueless about world affairs than about other realms.  But, ironically, the public may be more prepared to think about world affairs than other realms, like economics. Consider that whether we watch soap operas or space operas, our imaginations gravitate towards conflict, means v. ends, detente v. cold war, cooperation v. anarchy, persuasion, negotiation, alliance, deception, murder, etc. 

In effect, our brains already hum like foreign-policy strategists’. All that’s missing‚ no small thing‚ are facts and responsibility. Add these, and the public will gain something better than trivia, it will gain emotional intelligence.

A national council would be the best conduit for these facts and responsibility. It’d also be a show…and why shouldn’t it be? Isn’t it pretty misleading to render war boring, and pretty deadening to demand that citizens feel outrage or solidarity but prevent them from entering more deeply into the matter at hand?

Hundreds of millions of people can keep track of byzantine twists and minor characters in a show like Lost, or the historic rivalries and institutional squabbling of the NFL–and these are often the same people who cannot find Iraq on a map. Isn’t it time we brought the intelligence of these myriads online?

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