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Devil Management: A Case Study

We like war - there's no way around it. Whether we're fighting land wars or culture wars, and whether we're using bombs or words to destroy others' lives and chosen identities, we prefer to wake up to enroll in a holy cause against "those devils out there" than to reconcile with jerks or to compromise some aspect of our own identity. It may be high time for progressives to think differently - and more practically - about peace, based on the increasing evidence that human beings are built for war.

A colleague on a panel last weekend suggested that achieving Middle East peace in the near future isn't a reasonable expectation, given all the factors in that region. Blake Hounshell, managing editor for Foreign Policy magazine, apologized to the audience for his seeming pessimism -- but he may be properly realistic, in a way that should reshape our approach to that elusive concept of peace.

Blake and I were at a "Progressive Gala" for 200 students at the University of Chicago last weekend, on a panel organized by Olivia Renensland and the UC Democrats and by Arielle Fleisher and Campus Progress, to examine foreign policy challenges in the Middle East and South Asia. Our other panelmate was Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who this week co-authored an outstanding set of observations and policy recommendations based on recent travels throughout Pakistan.

Within the Mideast, the biggest obstacles to peace are angry beehives on both sides who believe that compromise equals defeat, and who won't soon be convinced that conciliation pleases the gods. Jerusalem can't be split, Palestinians must have the right of return, settlements must be abandoned, and so on. Peace involves un-ringing a series of bells. Good luck with that.

The Mideast remains the quintessential territorial contest, which Harvard evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson boils down to this reality:

[I]ndividuals hereditarily predisposed to defend private resources for themselves and their social group pass more genes on to the next generation. Humanity is decidedly a territorial species. Since the control of limiting resources has been a matter of life and death through millennia of evolutionary time, territorial aggression is widespread and reaction to it often murderous. It is comforting to say that war, being cultural in origin can be avoided. Unfortunately, that bit of conventional wisdom is only a half truth. It is more nearly correct - and far more prudent - to say that war arises from both genes and culture and can best be avoided by a thorough understanding of the manner in which these two modes of heredity interact within different historical contexts.

Mother Nature seems to have decided long ago that our survival as a species requires a mix of collaboration and competition - collaboration within a social group, competition to protect territory from rival groups. Six billion people later, it's hard to bicker with her reasoning. The approach has been labeled coalition aggression, a trait especially common among men, according to Rose McDermott, a Stanford University political scientist. (Indeed, studies show that male college students will be more generous than female students in raising money for a charity, if the fundraiser is framed as a battle against a rival school.)

What's the implication for foreign policy? Consider the famous words of Eric Hoffer: "Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil." Effective foreign policy requires effective diplomacy that helps frame devils productively and proactively. (See again Katulis' paper for a critique of American underinvestment in diplomacy).

This is where pragmatism comes in. The human species may someday evolve to the point where we can sell majorities on the warm fuzzies that come from compromise and hand-holding, but we're not there yet.

Take Pakistan as a devil-management case study. For decades, civilian and military leaders have managed public attention by rallying them against some "imminent" plan on India's part to take Pakistan over. My Indian friends insist that they wouldn't want Pakistan or know what to do with it. Just the same, enough woofing comes from across the Indian border to make the Pakistani public believe that the Indians are a greater devil than their own incompetent government.

A new coalition of civilian leaders, led by Pakistani-American rock star Salman Ahmad, has been revving up a reform movement called Pakistan Hai Hamara! (Pakistan Is Ours!), based on an old feel-good sports anthem by Ahmad's band Junoon. "This place is ours, dammit!" is a cunning strategy to rally a beleaguered people to take back their destiny from a meddling Taliban and from a corrupt political process. It takes the emphasis off foreign devils - not just India, but an America that has been viewed with so much distrust that the Taliban for a while seemed like a useful foil. It puts the emphasis back on matters that Pakistanis can feel competitive pride in taking ownership in. (Don't minimize the gains from spurring a people's pride and competitiveness - especially in shame-and-honor based cultures.)

We may well achieve a post-territorial, post-war mentality. We appear not to have evolved much physically in 100,000 years. But for the past 30,000 years we have begun evolving culturally at a fast clip. And in recent centuries, we may be evolving morally, increasingly rejecting such staples of homo sapiens as slavery and genocide.

But we can't get ahead of ourselves. To engage citizenries productively in the short term, we'll have to find demons that are both compelling and manageable.

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