Moshe Dayan, the former Israeli defense minister, once said, “If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends, you talk to your enemies.”
As we watch the growing Iraq debacle continue to unfold, one can’t help but wonder: what if? What if we had put as much energy into our diplomatic efforts in the region as we have into preemptive military attacks?
But in foreign affairs, like fighting crime here at home, most politicians prefer to puff their chests and talk tough, rather than address the root causes. Sadly, fighting terrorism through diplomacy doesn’t sell like kicking Arab butt, at least not at the American ballot box.
In Iraq, President Bush and much of the U.S. Congress have chosen confrontation to difficult diplomacy. Talk to Iran and Syria? No way. They might be part of some potential axis of something not so good.
Try to broker a balanced peace agreement in the Middle East that demands equal compromise from all players, including Israel, the Palistinians and neighboring states? Sorry, we don’t have time with this War on Terror thing going on.
Actually visit North Korea to try to persuade its government that pursuing a nuclear capability is not in its national interest? Nah, their leader is crazy.
How about going to Caracas to meet with Hugo Chavez? Sure, he’s a blowhard. But so was Chairman Mao when Nixon went to see him in 1972. And despite our bloody history with Vietnam, including more than 50,000 American soldiers killed on their soil, President Clinton normalized relations in 1993.
The same lack of will to address root causes also goes for fighting crime here at home.
Name three of the largest and newest public buildings in downtown Albuquerque: Court houses. One for federal offenders, one for state offenders and one for local offenders. Name the largest public facility built in Bernalillo County in the last decade? That’s right, the 2,000-plus bed, nearly $100 million Metropolitan Detention Center on the far west side of the city. All of these are monuments to a failed treatment and prevention system.
Most experts agree that substantial investment in treatment and prevention for drugs and alcohol is the best way to prevent the majority of crimes. But that doesn't seem to resonate at the ballot box. You talk about addressing the root causes of crime, like poverty, drug abuse and mental illness, and people might listen. You talk about the myriad ways you will punish the “bad guys” and voters actually elect you.
When it comes to choosing our city councilman or our president, we gravitate to the one who talks the toughest on crime and terrorism. Poll after poll shows that the candidate viewed as softest on crime and terrorism loses. Talking peace instead of invasion is for pacifists. Advocating more treatment and less incarceration is for sissies. Americans don’t elect pacifists and sissies.
Most elected officials know we will never have enough police officers on the street or enough beds in our jails. But that doesn’t stop them from coming up with new and improved ways to punish criminals.
Nevermind that America already has the highest incarceration of any developed country at nearly 1 percent--more than two million people live in county, state and federal correctional facilities. Almost all of them had drugs or alcohol in their system when they committed their crime. For many, drugs or alcohol was their crime.
With those numbers one would think the war on crime would include at least as much money for treatment and prevention as that focused on law enforcement. Not so.
To be sure, making peace, like preventing crime, is harder than making war and locking people up. It takes time and energy.
In foreign affairs it means sometimes putting aside the bravado of a powerful nation. It also means that American soldiers, like the 50,000 who died in the lost war in Vietnam, or the more than 3,000 who have died in Iraq, might be spared. And the billions of dollars that feed the war machine could instead be used to rebuild cities like New Orleans, our public school system, our lacking national public transit system or, God forbid, a series of large public prevention and treatment facilities.
The Bush approach has been to demonize, marginalize and trivialize the very nations we should be spending most of our diplomatic efforts on. Instead of preparing for war with Iran, we should be looking for ways to engage with them diplomatically. Isn’t there something we have in common? Instead of isolating Kim Jong Il, we should send our best and brightest foreign service officers to find ways to bring them back from the brink. Instead of ignoring Hugo Chavez and his constant attacks on Bush, we should be looking for common ground.
American voters at all levels in all elections must start asking not just how tough candidates will be on crime and terrorism. We must start asking about how our leaders plan to address the root causes of both. The lessons of Iraq in foreign policy and two million incarcerated Americans here at home are that we ignore prevention and diplomacy at our own peril.
Talking tough is the easy part. Tackling the causes of crime and terrorism is where the real work needs to be done. Who’s up for it?