This is one piece of summer entertainment that is definitely not mindless. When I say Iron Man belongs in the West Wing, I don't mean as President, but more along the lines of Special Advisor on National Security. I saw this movie on opening night last week at the Avalon, in the heart of think-tanky Northwest Washington and I left with a greater sense of the threats and challenges facing the world than most of what I might garner from watching mainstream news. My congratulations to everyone involved in this movie--you pulled off a more subtle treatment of hugely complex issues than what often passes for a Congressional hearing. Briefly, the setting for this film looks like Afghanistan and the violent conflict surrounding the hero reflects the sort of well-armed anarchy that exists in many places in the world today. It is the type of circumstances that our military and other international public servants like diplomats and humanitarians face: an environment where anything might explode where you're standing.
The film is a benchmark for the end of the Cold War and the start of something we can't even name yet. What we do know is that we've gone from warfighting that is linear, top-down and technological to violent disasters that are chaotic, random and very human. Many people call this surround sound threat the "dark side of globalization" Iron Man, with his ability to jet around the world knows this. Tony Stark--in his evolution from pretty boy to policy wonk--discovers this. Here's where the movie meets national security:
International Arms Trafficking is a growing threat made worse by US Government inaction:
Tony Stark's defense industry colleague and all around goon is the movie's antagonist (Jeff Bridges raises the bar for sketchy death merchants). Yet in real life, the United States government is a much bigger problem. Our elected leaders fail to recognize that murderous criminal networks thrive in the face of lax or non existent international regulations. Both commercial interests and hard core zealots feed off of this state of affairs. For example, the United States arms countries that it also lists as human rights abusers. Many of these countries received little if any funding prior to Sept. 11 due to human rights concerns and lack of economic openness and democratic reform.
However, U.S. military assistance to these places is on the rise, even as their human rights situations remain poor and, in some cases, have become worse, all justified by the badly misnamed "War on Terror". This defeats our purpose if we want to remain an advertisement for democratic open society on planet Earth.
Then, when it comes to curbing illicit arms trafficking, the United States is a big fat and un-funny skunk at the garden party. In 2006, when the United Nations took up discussion of an Arms Trade Treaty, the vote was 139 to 1 (the USA) to begin a framework process for global enforcement. In other words, creating mechanisms such as licensing of the arms brokers and shippers who are all too often at the center of illegal deals that have fueled warfare in Africa and other hot zones. We didn't even want to talk about it. The idea--of course--is to save a lot of innocent lives--perhaps too quaint for the Bush Administration, which packed the US delegation with no less than three Board members of the National Rifle Association. Yes, you got it, the NRA lobbies the UN against global weapons regulation. Their logic being that international arms control is the same as domestic attempts to restrict my grampa Frank's shotgun. Now, the NRA is full of reasonable Americans, but their leadership is just wacky on this--reminds me of some friends of mine in New Mexico who invited me to be in their cave on Y2K. They went back to their beautiful ranch outside Durango on January 2 ...much like the suits at NRA headquarters going to and from work in quiet, safe Virginia--a universe away from the random murders that have occurred in places like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola and Rwanda and seemingly unaware that their lobbying efforts are facilitating literal Wal Marts of weapons for criminals and possible terrorists in fragile parts of the world.
There is some hope for change in Congress. Senators Obama (IL) and Lugar (IN) and Representative Ed Royce (CA) are all working on legislation to get the United States moving in a more positive direction on this front. (The Senate Bill is 2256 and is very innovative, patterned on a successful policy to remove nuclear material threats in the former USSR) You can find organizations doing work on this here and here.
Protecting Civilians in Conflict Zones:
Iron Man had a built in gadget that was so smart and precise that it shot the bad guys and spared the mama and baby. To the opposite of the Dixie Chick hating "kill them all and let God sort them out" crowd, sparing civilians in this new warfighting environment is a big priority in the military. It has caused the Army and Marines to completely renew counter insurgency doctrine. Human skills like cultural knowledge and language training are of utmost importance in this environment, but technology plays a role. And, although underfunded, technological developments for civilian protection do exist. Some examples: positive identification tools like traffic control point kits (really simple stuff like loudspeakers and stop signs) and non-lethal weapons. These items never get their full measure of attention from the DoD. But ultimately, the technologies to spare lives are human: A friend who works in civilian protection told me that it's the human intelligence that often falls short. Targetting decisions are painstakingly undertaken by military lawyers;the decision to fire or not fire are not taken lightly. But a pilot is several minutes away from the intelligence some one the ground just offered and women and children don't move at a rate we can control. A distant Air Force lawyer on a planned strike is even further than that. They can fire a missile to hit a 6 ft target, but if it's the wrong 6 ft target, civilians usually bear the brunt. In Afghanistan, they've been warning local populations to evacuate - a good strategy when it's possible. In that case, the civilians remain alive, but without homes, food, water, etc.
Where the military is concerned, Rules of Engagement need to evolve, soldiers need civilian protection education fully integrated into their pre deployment training. Programs like harm and damage compensation for innocent victims need to be taken more seriously. Simple technologies for traumatized populations-like those used by the program STAR Tides--is where we our energy should be. Ultimately, though we all have to sit back and realize--like Tony Stark did before the entire press corps: that the best way to prevent all of this needless death is to completely re-arrange how we go about solving security problems in today's world. The opportunity cost for fixating on weapons and military solutions is a truly secure future. In other words, the safety of people must precede dated notions of "national security" if we want to save our own skins.
Making prevention an actual strategy.
A recently released book Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World-- takes this premise and attaches it to a strategy. It is written by Clare Lockhart and Ashraf Ghani--two individuals with extensive experience in Afghanistan and it puts forward a long-term institution building approach to security. (The American South is one of the case-studies!) They are going to be at booksoup in Los Angeles this coming Wednesday at 7 p.m. Go to it. I guarantee you will leave inspired. Then see Iron Man again. Ta dah!, then you can advocate a new security strategy for the next administration.