Seeing the Forest for the Trees

posted Feb 13, 2004

There's no question that it was extremely fortunate that this multi-nation plan was exposed when it was, even though it's likely that either Iran or North Korea have already managed to create enough fissionables for a few weapons. It would have been far better if it had been exposed earlier, but an additional ten year delay would have been catastrophic.

There is equally no doubt at all that those revelations were a direct consequence of the war the US is prosecuting, most especially in Iraq. It is by no means clear that without our war there would have been a significant chance of the plot being exposed until too late.

There is no doubt at all that previous nuclear non-proliferation programs and policies are now exposed as utter failures, which will have to be replaced with something more effective. - Steven Den Beste

It seems to me that one of the biggest distinguishing factors between "conservatives" and "liberals" today is whether they see the forest or the trees.

(Of course those are multifaceted terms, so they must be defined every time they are used; today, the sense in which those terms are used in this posting corresponds to how one feels about the war in Iraq. Liberals are the ones screaming about how it's an inherent disaster and it is literally impossible for good to come of it, and conservatives are the ones who both pushed it and believe it's doing good. In this instance, Steven Den Beste is pushing the "conservative" view, as I use the term in this post.)

A Liberal sees mostly/only the trees; they see the personal suffering caused by war, they see the limbs blown apart, the family shredded, the lives lost, and want to do anything to make it stop.

A Conservative sees mostly/only the forest; the suffering of an unfree nation, ethnic groups being wiped out, entire regions of the world intent upon destroying the United States as a result of their cultural failure (three forests in that clause: "regions", "United States", and "cultural").

It is very, very tempting and easy for a Liberal to become so obsessed with the trees that they completely lose sight of the forest. With six billion trees (*cough*) people in the world, there's more then enough misery in an hour to overwhelm any single person for their entire lifetime. It is easy to become trapped in very short-term thinking, alleiviating the present misery without regard to the fact that in the end, it may increase the total misery tommorow. It is also very easy to end up ignoring trees you can't see (North Koreans, many Africans), because after all there is way more misery that you can see then you can ever hope to alleviate.

It is very, very tempting and easy for a Conservative to become so caught up with the forest that they lose sight of the trees. With six billion people in the world, there are a lot of forests and a lot of things happening. The Flow of History, the Clash of Cultures, the Liberation of Countries, the Protection of My Country can become so compelling that it is easy to forget that each of these things is built on top of individual, valuable, unreplacable human beings.

(Please note I am not accusing Steven Den Beste of this; the only person I'm going to accuse of this is myself here in a moment.)

Of course, many if not most people do not fit strictly into either category. I myself find myself tending towards the Conservative side of this debate; I have supported the war in Iraq because I believe in the vision it represents. I looked 10 or 20 years into the future, and if we left the status quo in place, I see American cities nuked with effective certainty. Probably many of them. I held this view even before 9-11 demonstrated that there are people with the intent of committing massive murder; that leaves only the capability and over a decade or two, that capability would be acquired.

I see denial of the fact that intention and capability would eventually be matched as sheer wishful thinking. Too many people had too much intent, and only one little group needed to succeed for something very, very bad to happen. And the march of technology is only going to lower the barrier to capability; I've never seen anyone making the connection but I would expect that nanotechnology will almost inevitably make the acquisition of fissionables significantly easier if somebody deliberately tried to use it that way.

Something drastic had to be done, and forcibly dragging the Middle East into the 20th was the choice that was both the most ambitious, and the most likely to succeed if it worked. (The 20th is not a typo; we can drag them into the 20th but they'll have to earn their way into the 21st; we can't forcibly drag them that far and probably shouldn't, anyhow.)

Thus, while the war on Iraq has had and will continue to have many happy side effects in Iraq, such as the liberation of millions of people, and the nearly-inevitable social changes that any modern American should consider a good thing (improved women's rights, ethnic tolerance, etc.), for me the primary goodness of the Iraq war is that it is now much, much, much less certain that American cities will be nuked within 20 years. This will initiate cultural changes that will hopefully result in the defusing of the intent to nuke America, meaning that the capability will be much more amenable to being managed. (After all, both capability and intent are necessary; despite the possession of capability by many countries, nobody has yet matched it to intent since the US did in WWII.)

In the last three paragraphs you can hear my Conservative tendencies; the Clash of Cultures, the Nuking of America (millions dead), Cultural Climate Changes. And from my admittedly-comfortable position here in the heartland of America, I find it easy to forget that all of these things are happening right now, to real people, all over the world. So I have to remind myself. I've found some reasonably Liberal-leaning blogs that I read to remind myself that the trees matter, too. After all, what am I myself but a tree? Sure, their negative opinion about the war sometimes grate... Can't you see the forest?!?!?... but it's good for me to be reminded about such things.

If we take our goal as the rational minimization of misery in the world, where "rational" here is a reminder that nobody can every completely know the outcomes of their actions, we are obligated to do the best we can, and there will always be legitimate differences of opinion, I think the ideal balance tips towards the Conservative position I outlined but with a heavy dose of Liberal sensibilities. Excessive Liberalism results in short-sighted actions that too often end up increasing misery. And the Conservative position is as meaningless if stripped of its grounding in the lives of real people as a "forest without trees" is. Perhaps 75/25, to the extent numbers can be meaningfully used here ;-)

This is my primary justification for the war; it may be philosophical but in a way that directly connects with the real world. It is my honest belief that it will, in the end, minimize misery globally. I may be wrong. Others can legitimately disagree. I respect those whose disagreements come from honest disagreement. I don't really respect the opinions of those who disregard, intentionally or otherwise, the fact that there truly are massive forces at play and that Cultures really are Clashing and fighting for their lives, with those forces directly impacting the daily lives of billions of people.

I used Steven's article for a springboard to build this post of off because it vividly demonstrates the practical consequences that a proper application of the Conservative viewpoint can bring in the real world. Can anyone seriously argue that we would be better off without Libya's cracking? Everyone is better off, even Libya. No amount of small-scale, personal aid to individual people, no matter how desirable that may be, would have ever accomplished this goal. Indeed, it could have merely propped up the regimes (by removing their need to be concerned about revolution-due-to-starving-masses) that would have continued this work, instead of collapsing as they would have on their own. This is a goodness that will positively impact many individuals across many decades and could never have been obtained without a more global vantage point.

In the final analysis, my allegiance is to the trees because the forests are artificial constructions that do not intrinsically matter. But practically, in the real world, that means we must pay attention to the "forests", or we will miss powerful trends that affect those individual trees, and be unable to respond appropriately to them. These trends will not go away if we just shut our eyes hard enough. In the final analysis, the optimal Liberal position is to acknowlege the practical truth of the Conservative position and act accordingly, and for the inherent Conservatives like myself, it is optimal to make especially sure we remember the Liberal reasons for why we care about this stuff at all.


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