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Gregory Desilet Gregory Desilet is author of various writings on language and culture, such as Cult of the Kill: Traditional Metaphysics of Rhetoric, Truth, and Violence in a Postmodern World and Our Faith in Evil: Melodrama and the Effects of Entertainment Violence. See also:, which hosts an eulogy for Derrida. In his Misunderstanding Derrida Desilet questions Ken Wilber's understanding of postmodernism.


Further Reflections
on Complexity

A Response to Meyerhoff

Gregory Desilet

Obama's decision may indeed be the best course of action given the stakes and the forces and variables involved.

Jeff Meyerhoff, in his recent response "Transcending Complexity and the Pakistani Bomb" to my comments on his Integral World piece titled “The Personal, the Political and the Integral,” makes several notable points—some of which I disagree with but which are nevertheless worthy of response. I'd like to note how much I appreciate his style, tone, respect, and insight when responding to other's comments and the example I see him providing—which I shall try to emulate—when engaged in argument and discussion with others with whom he may disagree. In the current highly polarized political climate in the United States, it's refreshing to see Meyerhoff's approach.

In the first section of his response, Meyerhoff remarks on the issue I raise regarding the complexity of the forces at work in the Afghanistan region. He counters my assertions by saying “The only role that the complicatedness of the situation plays is a cautionary one.” I disagree. The complicatedness of the current situation in this region of the world—combined with the ever-present inability to rewind to a point in the past, begin again from that same point, and see where a different path would lead—means that we can never know with confidence in complex situations whether the path taken necessarily produced a worse outcome than another alternative would have produced. All such evaluation involves arguing through hypothetical situations and outcomes. In the parlance of football, this is Monday morning quarterbacking. This doesn't mean that we can't form judgments and offer opinions. It does mean that criticism of the decision-makers must be limited to “this was probably a mistake but history could yet judge otherwise and we can never know in such complex situations whether other approaches would have turned out worse.” Thus, we need to not only be aware of “the limits of our knowledge,” as Meyerhoff says, but we must also be aware of the limits of critical analysis.

This attitude of restraint need not be confused with the attitude that analysis is futile or that no one should be held accountable for decisions. We always need to hold each other accountable based on the consequences of what we do, even while acknowledging that we cannot see to the bottom of motives or situations and all the forces and variables involved. My use of the word “tragedy”— which gave Meyerhoff pause in this context— is meant to suggest, as in much Greek tragic drama, that the assignment of blame in cases of complex conflict is often difficult to assess and therefore unproductive to assign. Unfortunately (or fortunately when events go well) for presidents and their administrations, decision-makers must be held accountable for their decisions. But accountability is not the same as blame (or, as the case may be, credit). In many cases of failure, we may hold particular persons accountable by replacing them with other decision-makers but we are not thereby necessarily justified in finding them blameworthy in “wrongdoing” or “moral weakness.” The situation throughout the Middle East is of sufficient complexity that the assignment of blame for failures of policy in the region—except in instances of extraordinary negligence, law-breaking, or incompetence—is fruitless. However, I will agree with Meyerhoff that the cases of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld are certainly provocative in this regard and worthy of continued investigation.

In the section titled “Pakistan and Nuclear Weapons,” I agree with most of the substance of Meyerhoff's analysis and his citations here of others' analyses of the situation in Pakistan. We apparently differ primarily in our understanding of Obama's Afghanistan/Pakistan policy. In my view, Obama has clearly established his intention of withdrawing military presence in the area and his policy strikes me as consistent with what Tariq Ali has suggested regarding “strategic withdrawal.” Obama wants to withdraw from the region but, in doing so, he does not want to create a power vacuum that would initiate a new and more aggressive destabilization. This is what eventually happened in Vietnam and Obama surely seeks to avoid that outcome. Whether the United States can succeed in a withdrawal that does not make matters worse—whether ANY strategy could succeed in this regard—is a large question. But the stakes involved in the region require the effort. A crucial part of this effort must be, as Tariq Ali indicates and Meyerhoff rightly seconds, the process of involving other players such as the Russians, the Chinese, and even the Iranians. This will require expert diplomacy and diplomacy requires time. With a surge of troops in Afghanistan and 18 months before initiating withdrawals (the extent of which will be determined by “conditions on the ground”), Obama buys time to see if his diplomatic efforts can produce any significant results. Throughout the eight years of the Bush administration this kind of international diplomacy was not only sidelined but sabotaged by the unilateral thinking and attitudes of his administration. Given this history, there is reason to believe that such diplomacy is now worth an honest effort.

Concerning the stability of the Pakistan nuclear arsenal, Meyerhoff questions the likelihood of an Islamic fundamentalist takeover of the government by Taliban or Al Qaeda groups. In this context Meyerhoff cites Rahimullah Yousufzai. I respect Yousufzai's analysis but I don't know how even someone of his perceptiveness could accurately measure the potential that exists for persons or groups in the Pakistan military to be susceptible to radical agendas. It would take only one person or a small group with the right information and a stubborn, narrow, or pathological frame of mind to in some way compromise the security of a nuclear facility and gain access to a weapon or two. This kind of situation could more easily occur during conditions of political unrest and uncertainty. And we know from recent history in Pakistan that assassinations, a primary tool of military and political coups, are all too possible in the current political climate. All of these possibilities speak to the importance of the Pakistan governmental process earning the confidence of, and being responsive to, the people of Pakistan. I believe that Obama understands that the U.S. must find ways to play a positive role in this process.

However, Meyerhoff also claims that U.S pressure on the Pakistan military to pursue terrorists results in refugees, resentments, and greater insurgency attacks and instability. This may have a measure of truth, but, again, he fails to attend sufficiently to complexity. He fails to acknowledge that the history of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the poppy trade in Afghanistan offers sobering doubts about stability across the entire region in the absence of strong central government and the structure of law that goes with it. Confronting the tribal independence and the rule of “organized crime” and extortion that flourishes in the current vacuum of institutionalized forms of regulation of commerce and equity demands engaging in conflicts that will end the rule of guns and replace it with the rule of words and negotiations. This will require the strength to disarm a populace that may not willingly cooperate in the short term with policies that may be of greater benefit in the long term. And it will require the strength of central government to impose educational institutions as a priority over insurgency training camps. This reorganization will not be easy. I would hope not, but it may create more refugees, resentments, and violence in the process. It seems clear that the status quo and the current standard of living in the region are not acceptable to any of the parties in the current conflicts. Change is coming and the question becomes one of how to minimize the violence. I am ready to admit that I don't know what the cost of change in this region will ultimately entail because reliable institutions for handling difficult social, political, and economic transitions do not yet exist.

Regarding U.S. policy in the region, it's also worth noting, in response to Meyerhoff's rather careless comment regarding the “killing of civilians by US drone attacks,” that U.S. policy differs importantly from terrorist policy. Unlike Al Qaeda, the U.S. does not intentionally target civilians as part of advertised and routine policy. If the U.S. were to oppose Al Qaeda with the same policy by which Al Qaeda operates, that fact would be impossible to miss because the carnage and consequences would be beyond headlines. I would argue that this difference in policy obviates any moral equivalency between U.S. drone strikes and terrorist campaigns.

In the section titled “A Larger Perspective,” Meyerhoff responds to the issue of nuclear escalation and raises the question of the extent to which the United States, contrary to what it claims, may be trying to prevent nuclear escalation. Here I think he goes off the rails a bit with regard to reasonable analysis. While it may be true that the United States has played a role in the proliferation of nuclear weapons (and this is a long and complex story), that need not argue for the view that the U. S. cannot now play a significant role in non-proliferation efforts. And Meyerhoff's comment that Obama's “all options are on the table” remark is a “euphemism for threatening nuclear attack” (as a way of ending Iran's nuclear ambitions) is ridiculous. A pre-emptive nuclear attack by the United States anywhere in Iran, including its nuclear facilities, would bring more deadly fallout in reaction from nations around the world than a nuclear winter. Such an act would be global political suicide and no sane president would attempt it. However, without pretending to read Obama's mind, it is futile to insist that his remark cannot mean what Meyerhoff suggests it means—namely, a veiled nuclear threat. And Iran may also claim that it is such a threat in order to inflame opinion against the United States. But, again, no sane president would use nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive manner in a situation such as the one with Iran. Obama's remark is ambiguous in this regard in order not to needlessly foreclose any options in relation to unknown or unforeseeable contingencies in Iran, but is not, I would argue, intended as a veiled nuclear threat. Non-nuclear military action, even if uncertain to achieve the goal, is the highest card the United States would unilaterally think to play in this international contest of wills. I would bet that the leadership in Iran understands this very clearly and that this understanding contributes significantly to the boldness of their rhetoric and operations.

In the second to last section Meyerhoff responds to my mention of the desirability of including all the highly relevant perspectives, facts, and history when assessing the Afghanistan/Pakistan situation. He then asks, “What criteria will be used for judging the value and relevance of differing perspectives, facts and history?” With this question he makes a good point about relevancy and its difficulty as a philosophical issue. However, I raised the question of relevancy in specific reaction to his response to Benjamin. Meyerhoff says his [Meyerhoff's] “alternative vision of integrality has radical implications. It would include and integrate excluded perspectives, facts and history, like the views of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Afghan people, the American public, and the people and governments of other countries.” But I don't believe that the general philosophical difficulty of “criteria for relevance” need be raised in an instance where I have responded to his suggestion of inclusiveness. I go on to present an example of something he left out (the issue of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal), claim that it is highly relevant, and provide evidence (criteria) for its relevancy in the context of this particular discussion. This does not mean the evidence cannot be challenged, but raising the general philosophical question of the criteria for relevance seems rather abstract and off point in this context—especially since Meyerhoff grants the relevance of the Pakistan nuclear issue.

In his concluding section Meyerhoff summarizes a point he makes earlier when he states, “The complexity of such situations plays less of a role in debates about what to do than Desilet seems to think. Whether we say we appreciate the complexity of such situations or not we still have to assert our best understanding, defend it in discussion with others and take action.” As already stated, I disagree about the role that complexity plays. Appreciating the complexity of certain situations or conflicts plays a significant role in evaluating the performance of those responding to conflict. The Rubik's cube of the Middle East has frustrated many attempts to bring peace, stability, and prosperity. If Obama's present approach to the problems in the region fails to gain ground toward these goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it will be tragic but not necessarily a sign of blameworthy incompetence or moral weakness. As a nation, the people of the United States need to understand this and support leaders and their policies so long as those policies pass reasonable tests of competency and responsibility within fiscal, political, and moral constraints. No policy or strategy can guarantee success, even when people have acted intelligently and courageously—and that is one reason why life can often be tragic.

Nevertheless, that fact need not mean that people cannot or should not be held accountable when their actions can be shown to be negligent, irresponsible, or criminal. I have argued that Obama's actions and decisions for the region thus far do not at this point in time exceed reasonable judgment and justification with respect to what is at stake and do not constitute demonstrable criminal or moral lapses. And Obama's decision may indeed be the best course of action given the stakes and the forces and variables involved. Meyerhoff concludes his response by saying, “US war-mongering in Afghanistan and Pakistan will not make us or the world safer.” Given that Obama inherited the Afghanistan/Pakistan war, given what he has outlined as his course of action, and granting that this course of action is a plan consistent with a responsible strategic withdrawal, Meyerhoff's accusation of “war-mongering” is unjustified. He can assert this as his opinion but he certainly has not demonstrated as much in argument.

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