Robin Wright wonders if our technological sophistication may be our undoing. Then MoDo writes on Tenet and Condi. Here’s Mr. Wright:
This week the mystery deepened: Why no space aliens?
On Tuesday, scientists reported finding the most “Earthlike” planet ever, Gliese 581c. Its sun is cooler than ours, but also closer, so Gliese is in that climatic comfort zone conducive to water — hence to life, hence to evolution, hence to intelligent beings with advanced technology. Yet they never phone.
It’s actually a serious question, long pondered by sci-fi types. Since a civilization whose technological evolution was ahead of ours by even a few centuries could contact us from far, far away (and certainly from Gliese, a mere 20 light-years away), what does it mean that we haven’t heard a thing from any corner of this vast universe?
That life got started on few or no other planets? That on other planets giant asteroids kept pressing evolution’s reset button? Or, distressingly, that when civilizations reach the technological level we’ve reached, they tend to wipe themselves out, or at least bomb themselves back into the Stone Age?
O.K., that last one is pretty wild speculation. But you have to admit that current events aren’t wildly at odds with it. There’s an apocalyptic vibe in the zeitgeist, and it’s not hard to imagine how the technological sophistication that got us to the brink of global civilization could be our undoing. Let us count the ways.
(1) Classic nuclear Armageddon. This threat is in remission. Economic interdependence dulls enmity among nuclear powers, and crisis-averting lines of communication have gotten stronger since the cold war. Still, things can change.
(2) Eco-apocalypse. Solving climate change and other global environmental problems is a political nightmare. Nations are tempted to play “free rider” and not join in the sacrifices, since they’ll share the rewards anyway. The good news is that past environmental problems have featured negative-feedback loops: when negligence makes the problem bad enough, political will appears.
(3) Terrorism. Alas, the negative-feedback loop — bad outcomes lead to smart policies — may not apply here. We reacted to 9/11 by freaking out and invading one too many countries, creating more terrorists. With the ranks of terrorists growing — amid evolving biotechnology and loose nukes — we could within a decade see terrorism on a scale that would make us forget any restraint we had learned from the Iraq war’s outcome. If 3,000 deaths led to two wars, how many wars would 300,000 deaths yield? And how many new terrorists?
Terrorism alone won’t wipe out humanity. But with our unwitting help, it could strengthen other lethal forces.
It could give weight to the initially fanciful “clash of civilizations” thesis. Muslim states could fall under the control of radicals and opt out of what might otherwise have become a global civilization. Armed with nukes (Pakistan already is), they would revive the nuclear Armageddon scenario. A fissure between civilizations would also sabotage the solution of environmental problems, and the ensuing eco-calamity could make people on both sides of the fissure receptive to radical messages. The worse things got, the worse they’d get.
So while no one of the Big Three doomsday dynamics is likely to bring the apocalypse, they could well combine to form a positive-feedback loop, a k a the planetary death spiral. And the catalyst would be terrorism, along with our mishandling of it.
Disheartened? There’s more: to avoid mishandling things, we may have to forsake our beloved evolutionary heritage.
We may more often have to resist the retributive impulse that worked fine in the environment where it evolved but now often misfires. We may have to appreciate how our moral condemnations — which can help start wars — are subtly biased by our primate brains in self-serving ways that, in some contexts, no longer serve our selves.
We may have to cultivate our moral imagination, putting ourselves in the shoes of people who hate us. The point wouldn’t be to validate the hate, but to understand it and so undermine it. Still, this understanding involves seeing how, from a certain point of view, hating us “makes sense” — and our evolved brains tend to resist that particular epiphany.
If salvation indeed means transcending engrained irrationality, then the odds may well be against us. But look at the bright side: if you do run into any space aliens, they’re likely to be reasonable creatures.
Robert Wright, author of “Nonzero,” is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and runs the Web site Bloggingheads.tv.
Poor Slam Dunk.
Not since Madame Butterfly has anyone been so cruelly misunderstood and misused. Slam Dunk says that when he pantingly told the president that fetching information on Saddam’s W.M.D. would be a cinch, he did not mean let’s go to war.
No matter how eager Slam Dunk was to tell W. what he wanted to hear while polishing the president’s shoes, the intelligence they craved did not exist. “Let me say it again: C.I.A. found absolutely no linkage between Saddam and 9/11,” the ex-Head Spook writes in his new book, self-effacingly titled “At the Center of the Storm.” Besides, Junior and Darth had already decided to go to war to show the Arabs their moxie.
The president and vice president wanted Slam Dunk to help them dramatize the phony case. Everyone had to pitch in! That Saturday session in December 2002 in the Oval Office was “essentially a marketing meeting,” Slam Dunk writes, just for “sharpening the arguments.”
Hey, I feel better.
Slam Dunk always presented himself as the ultimate guy’s guy, a cigar-chomping spymaster who swapped jokes with the president. But now he shows us his tender side, a sniveling C.I.A. chief bullied by “remote” Condi.
He says Condi panicked in October 2002 and made him call a Times reporter, Alison Mitchell, who covered the Congressional debate about invading Iraq. In essence, he hypocritically told Alison to disregard the conclusions of his own agency, which had said that the links between Saddam and terrorist groups were tenuous, and that Saddam would take the extreme step of joining with Islamic fanatics only if he thought the U.S. was about to attack him. His nose growing as long as his cigar, he said nothing in the C.I.A. report contradicted the president’s case for war.
“In retrospect,” Slam writes, “I shouldn’t have talked to the New York Times reporter at Condi’s request. By making public comments in the middle of a contentious political debate, I gave the impression that I was becoming a partisan player.”
Can’t a guy be a lickspittle without being an ideologue?
There were so many nasties trying to push Slam around: Vice, of course, and Wolfie, and Wolfie’s neoconcubine Doug Feith. Once, Slam writes, Wolfie “hounded” a C.I.A. briefer to translate the diary of Abu Zubaydah, a captured Al Qaeda official, even though the C.I.A. had decided it was just misogynistic ramblings “about what he wanted to do with women.” Oh, that sexy beast Wolfie. Look out, Shaha!
But even though he was paid a $4 million advance to settle scores, Slam can’t turn on W. Maybe it’s the Medal of Freedom. “In a way, President Bush and I are much alike,” he writes. “We sometimes say things from our gut, whether it’s his ‘bring ’em on’ or my ‘slam dunk.’ I think he gets that about me, just as I get that about him.” (He had me at “slam dunk.”)
The worst meanie was horrid Bob Woodward. Slam socialized with Bob and gave him lots of intel for his best sellers, but then Bob “painted a caricature of me leaping into the air and simulating a slam dunk, not once but twice, with my arms flailing. Credit Woodward’s source with … a fine sense of how to make me look ridiculous, but don’t credit him or her with a deep sense of obligation to the truth.”
A deep sense of obligation to the truth is something Slam keenly understands, even though he scurried around like the butler in “Remains of the Day,” trying to toadie up to the president while, as he belatedly admits, W. was going to invade Iraq without debate or a casus belli.
He says the C.I.A. warned Paul Bremer that demobilizing the Iraqi Army would be “madness.”
The two worst intelligence disasters in our history happened on his watch, but Slam says he was Cassandra. He says he gave intel to guys who wanted to ignore or warp it and make bad policy. What could he do?
A C.I.A. paper was given to the president’s national security team in September 2002 to sum up the possible negatives of invading Iraq, including anarchy and a breakup of Iraq, instability in the neighborhood, a surge of terrorism against U.S. interests, oil disruptions, and seething allies.
But it was discreetly tucked away in the back of the briefing book, after the stuff at the beginning about how great it would be to liberate Iraq and end threats to Iraq’s neighbors, and the stuff in the middle about reforming Iraq’s bureaucracy.
Slam gives tips to others who want to engage in public service, including: Don’t forget that there are no private conversations, even in the Oval Office. Another might be: If you worry about your own survival more than your country’s, you might end up as the whiny fall guy.