In “Learning From Mistakes” Bobo tells us that the question, would you go back and undo your errors is unanswerable. He says the question is: What wisdom have you learned that will help you going forward? Mr. Cohen, in “The Presence of the Past,” says not o remember, or to be overwhelmed by memory, are equally dangerous. Mr. Nocera says we need “Chemo for the Planet,” and that instead of focusing on human behavior to reduce global warming, try using technology. Of course the “technology” he’s touting is, at this point, pie in the sky with rafts of unintended consequences such as ocean acidification which he glosses over. Here’s Bobo:
If you could go back to 1889 and strangle Adolf Hitler in his crib, would you do it? At one level, the answer is obvious. Of course, you should. If there had been no Hitler, presumably the Nazi Party would have lacked the charismatic leader it needed to rise to power. Presumably, there would have been no World War II, no Holocaust, no millions dead on the Eastern and Western fronts.
But, on the other hand, if there were no World War II, you wouldn’t have had the infusion of women into the work force. You wouldn’t have had the G.I. Bill and the rapid expansion of higher education. You wouldn’t have had the pacification of Europe, Pax-Americana, which led to decades of peace and prosperity, or the end of the British and other empires.
History is an infinitely complex web of causations. To erase mistakes from the past is to obliterate your world now. You can’t go back and know then what you know now. You can’t step in the same river twice. [How very Baba Ram Dass of Bobo…]
So it’s really hard to give simple sound-bite answers about past mistakes. The question, would you go back and undo your errors is unanswerable. It’s only useful to ask, what wisdom have you learned from your misjudgments that will help you going forward?
Which brings us to Iraq. From the current vantage point, the decision to go to war was a clear misjudgment, made by President George W. Bush andsupported by 72 percent of the American public who were polled at the time. I supported it, too.
What can be learned?
The first obvious lesson is that we should look at intelligence products with a more skeptical eye. There’s a fable going around now that the intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was all cooked by political pressure, that there was a big political conspiracy to lie us into war.
That doesn’t gibe with the facts. Anybody conversant with the Robb-Silberman report from 2005 knows that this was a case of human fallibility. This exhaustive, bipartisan commission found “a major intelligence failure”: “The failure was not merely that the Intelligence Community’s assessments were wrong. There were also serious shortcomings in the way these assessments were made and communicated to policy makers.”
The Iraq war error reminds us of the need for epistemological modesty. We don’t know much about the world, and much of our information is wrong. A successful president has to make decisions while radiating hesitancy, staying open-minded in the face of new evidence, not falling into the traps that afflict those who possess excessive self-confidence.
The second lesson of Iraq concerns this question: How much can we really change other nations? Every foreign policy dilemma involves a calibration. Should we lean forward to try to influence this or that region? Or should we hang back figuring we’ll just end up making everything worse.
After the 1990s, many of us were leaning in the interventionist direction. We’d seen the fall of the apartheid regime, which made South Africa better. We’d seen the fall of communist regimes, which made the Eastern bloc nations better. Many of us thought that, by taking down Saddam Hussein, we could end another evil empire, and gradually open up human development in Iraq and the Arab world.
Has that happened? In 2004, I would have said yes. In 2006, I would have said no. In 2015, I say yes and no, but mostly no.
The outcome, so far, in Iraq should remind us that we don’t really know much about how other cultures will evolve. We can exert only clumsy and indirect influence on how other nations govern themselves. When you take away basic order, people respond with sectarian savagery.
If the victory in the Cold War taught us to lean forward and be interventionist, the legacy of the 2003 Iraq decision should cause us to pull back from the excesses of that mentality, to have less faith in America’s ability to understand other places and effect change.
These are all data points in a larger education — along with the surge and the recent withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. I wind up in a place with less interventionist instincts than where George W. Bush was in 2003, but significantly more interventionist instincts than where President Obama is inclined to be today.
Finally, Iraq teaches us to be suspicious of leaders who try to force revolutionary, transformational change. It teaches us to have respect for trimmers, leaders who pay minute attention to context, who try to lead gradual but constant change. It teaches us to honor those who respect the unfathomable complexity of history and who are humble in the face of consequences to their actions that they cannot fully predict or understand.
Gawd, I wish he’d go back to politics. His recent crap is cringe-inducing. Here’s Mr. Cohen:
As we grow older, the past looms larger. There’s more of it. The past is full of possibility.
It is ever-changing, an eddying tide, subject to the gusts — and lacunas — of memory.
The future may seem wan by comparison and, for each of us, we know more or less where it ends. With a bang or a whimper, Henry James’s “distinguished thing” awaits us.
Who, a friend asked me the other day, would ever want to be 90? The answer is somebody aged 89.
Old age is not for sissies, my grandmother liked to comment. Nor, however, is the other option.
So on we go, accumulating past with reckless abandon, like children guzzling candies.
Yet as Faulkner observed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Or as a disillusioned Yugoslav Communist once put it, “The most dangerous thing for a Communist is to predict the past.”
The past is potent, subject to manipulation. Wars nearly always involve memory trafficked into inflammatory myth.
I am a newspaperman. I try to understand, evoke and make vivid the present. That is not possible without understanding the past. We are the sum of our lived moments. It is worth turning time’s arrow backward.
I had always wanted to tell stories, the inner within the outer, the intimate secreting the universal. I liked to be the outsider looking in.
Often the stories were about lives swept away in the gale of history: the children of Beirut in 1983 who could not sleep without the familiar and so reassuring sound of gunfire; a Polish priest who discovered in middle age that he was a Jew entrusted by his Nazi-murdered parents to a Catholic family; Argentine twins stolen at birth from their murdered student mother by a childless junta army officer; mixed Bosnian families broken asunder by the boozy Serb killers who injected the virus of sectarian hatred into Sarajevo; a German woman loath to contemplate her beautiful blue eyes because they reminded her of a former Nazi concentration camp commander — her father.
Mirages, shadows, specters: the stuff of memory. How we remember, as nations and as individuals, is critical.
I first began to think seriously about the ferocious force of the past as a war correspondent covering Yugoslavia’s destruction. The Serbs who threw hundreds of thousands of Muslims out of their homes had been whipped into a nationalist frenzy. They had been convinced by a cynical leader that these secular Bosnian Muslims, so recently part of the same country called Yugoslavia, indistinguishable in fact, were a reincarnation of the Turks of old, latter-day Ottomans determined to affix the crescent moon of Islam to the church spires of Christian Europe.
When the past is suppressed, memory becomes explosive. Bosnians, Serbs and Croats re-enacted, in the 1990’s, the civil-war horrors of the 1940’s whose mention had become taboo under the clamp of Tito’s postwar Communist dictatorship.
When the past is cultivated at the expense of the present, memory becomes a blind alley. Those keys to long-lost Palestinian olive groves are now open-sesames only to further violence.
When the past overwhelms, it can turn victim into oppressor behind a shield called “Never Again.”
History illuminates. It can also blind.
The world may broadly be divided into areas that are captive of their pasts — the Balkans, the Middle East for example — and areas that are hard-wired to their futures — the United States and most of Asia. Europe, I think, lies somewhere in between.
One of my sons lives in Vietnam. Whenever I am there I marvel at the graves among the rice paddies. It is a powerful symbol of the living and the dead mingling, present and past. It is an image of acceptance. Nobody wants to talk about the war in Vietnam that ended 40 years ago.
How different from the dead of the Middle East, venerated as martyrs, martyrs of Islam demanding further sacrifice of life. Those celestial virgins have a lot to answer for.
I love the lines of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai about peace only coming to the Holy Land when a Jerusalem guide tells his tour group: “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important. But next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
Fruit and vegetables, unlike that ancient arch, nourish a future.
The past is there. We must understand it, our own, our community’s and our nation’s. Suppressing it will only be achieved at a price. That price is often bloodshed. But nor can we be consumed by the past, re-fight its battles or succumb to the sterility of vengeance.
Not to remember, or to be overwhelmed by memory, are equally dangerous.
Only through a balanced view of the past, conscientious but not obsessive, may we shun victimhood, accept divergent national narratives, embrace decency, meet our daily obligations, and look forward.
And now here’s Mr. Nocera:
What’s the best way to reduce the chances of climate change wreaking havoc on Earth?
The most obvious answer — one we’ve known for years now — is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we’re pumping into the atmosphere. This can be done, for instance, by putting a price on carbon and thus create powerful market incentives for industries to lower their carbon footprint. Or by moving to renewable energy sources. Or by changing people’s behavior so that our collective actions radically reduce the amount of fossil fuel the world needs to power itself.
Despite this knowledge, however, few policies have been put in place to spur any of that. In the United States, the effective price of carbon, as Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman point out in their new book, “Climate Shock” is “about zero” (aside from California). Fossil fuels remain the world’s default energy source, and — despite the impressive growth of global solar capacity over the last decade — that’s likely to be the case for decades to come. A carbon tax on the worst emitters has gotten nowhere.
So maybe we need to start thinking about coming at the climate-change problem from a different direction. Instead of hoping that humans will start reducing their carbon use, maybe it’s time to at least consider using technology to keep climate change at bay.
The deliberate use of technology to manipulate the environment — usually in the context of fighting climate change — is called geoengineering. One method is carbon capture, traditionally conceived as a process that sucks up carbon from the air and buries it in the ground. A second is called solar radiation management, which uses techniques like shooting sulfate particles into the stratosphere in order to reflect or divert solar radiation back into space. This very effect was illustrated after the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991. Spewing 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide in the air, the volcano caused global temperatures to fall, temporarily, by about 0.5 degrees Celsius, according to Wagner and Weitzman.
Somewhat to my surprise, a good portion of Wagner’s and Weitzman’s book is devoted to the subject of geoengineering, especially solar radiation management, which they describe as relatively inexpensive and technologically feasible, with a serious bang for the buck. The reason I was surprised is that the authors have solid environmental credentials — Weitzman is an environmental economist at Harvard, and Wagner is a senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund — and many environmental groups object to the very idea of geoengineering. They even object to research into the subject, viewing the desire to manipulate nature as immoral. Ben Schreiber of Friends of the Earth, an advocacy group, recently described discussions about geoengineering as a “dangerous distraction.”
“Geoengineering presumes that we can apply a dramatic technological fix to climate disruption,” he said, “instead of facing the reality that we need to drastically reduce our carbon emissions.”
Schreiber was reacting to two reports by a National Academy of Sciences panel that came out just a week before “Climate Shock.” The reports concluded that, while “climate intervention is no substitute for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions,” the politics around carbon reduction have been so fractious that the day could well come when geoengineering was needed as part of a “portfolio” of responses to global warming. It urged further study for both methods, and, in particular, called for the establishment of a research program to examine the possible risks of solar radiation management.
Wagner and Weitzman do not deny the potential risks; indeed, they write quite cautiously about geoengineering. Wagner told me that it should be thought of as a last resort — something the world could turn to if it had to. He described it as a kind of “chemotherapy for the planet” — something you hope you don’t have to use, but you are ready to use if the need arises. And that requires doing research now to prepare for the future.
David Keith, a scientist who is perhaps the foremost proponent of geoengineering, told me that he believes that solar radiation management should be used even if decent carbon policies became law. “It has substantial benefits,” he said. “That would be true whether we were cutting emissions or not.”
But he also acknowledged that more research is needed. “If you put sulfur into the atmosphere, will there be a risk of ozone loss?” he said, as an example of the kind of risk that needed to be studied.
There is another kind of risk, of course: the risk that if people thought a technological solution were available to “solve” climate change, it would make it even less likely that they would collectively agree to do what is needed to be done to reduce carbon emissions. It is yet another reason that many environmentalists object to geoengineering.
Still, if disaster is truly approaching, wouldn’t you rather be safe than sorry?
I’d also like to be sure that what I was doing today wouldn’t guarantee a worse problem for my grandchildren.