Go ask Agamemnon
America’s ‘gift’ for self-fulfilling prophecy foretells a future of more strife.
CASSANDRA IS REMEMBERED FOR HER GIFT OF PROPHECY, but her skills would not have seemed so im-pressive were it revealed, say, that she schemed for the destruction of Troy or the murder of Agamemnon even as she foretold their unfortunate ends. Like the tragic Cassandra, contemporary political prognosticators occasionally try their hands at geopolitical divination that can also prove unpleasantly prescient.
In fact, we Americans suffer from a peculiar gift for self-fulfilling prophecy. Eisenhower’s “falling domino” principle and more recent incarnations, like our great “clash of civilizations,” are stand-out examples of this phenomenon.
In the former, U.S. strategists agonized over the possibility that Southeast Asian nations would succumb to the subtle charms of global communism, either at the ballot box or the business end of an AK-47. So they set in motion a series of death-dealing policies that terminated in the outcome they were seeking most to avert: the rise of radical communist regimes in a war-devastated row of “domino” nations—Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Similarly Samuel Huntington’s academic projection of an impending clash between Islam and the West seems to have become frozen into a geopolitic inevitability in the imagination of some “serious” thinkers in Washington who have begun crafting policy almost perversely bent on accelerating, rather than avoiding, that clash.
The fiasco that has been America’s diplomatic excursion on the Korean Peninsula over the last few years joins this dishonor roll. It certainly can be argued that no amount of positive intervention could have deflected the thuggish and bizarre leadership of North Korea from its bum-rush into the nuclear club, but one observation can be made with some confidence: When dealing with a paranoid it is perhaps best not to nurture his most dangerous delusions.
The bombastic style of the Bush administration’s non-negotiation with North Korea’s great bouffanted leader surely contributed to Kim Jong Il’s reckless determination to become a nuclear power. Now other regional players—South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan—are now contemplating their own nuclear deterrent, and the threat of the proliferation of nuclear technology to dangerous non-state actors, such as Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, grows more worrisome.
Complicated connections in the strategic succession of America’s global interventions propel this phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecy. These connections are difficult to trace but absolutely vital to understand if we are to avoid more perverse outcomes like Korea and Iraq. Before contemplating another military adventure in another Islamic state, for instance, let’s try to remember how the Carter administration’s “success” in drawing the Soviet Union into its ruinous intervention in Afghanistan—at the cost of 2 million Afghan lives—laid the foundation for our own debilitating adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It is hard to understand the odd comfort humankind derives from bellicose stances in reaction to breakdowns in international relations, but we homo sapiens as a breed seem queasy about dialogue and negotiation. Thousands of years of civilization have passed since amber waves of grain were first harvested in the Fertile Crescent, and we still can conceive of no better way to approach the “other” when discord inevitably arises.
Just listen to the outraged choruses of “appeasement” provoked by calls to diplomacy, as if all of today’s global clashes could be reduced to mini-me’s of Chamberlain’s Munich (and recall that Chamberlain’s failure in 1938 runs directly from 1919’s Treaty of Versailles, when retribution, not reconciliation, won the diplomatic day). Like gorillas posturing and huffing over a disputed water source, we respond to conflict or threats of conflict with more conflict or threats of conflict, as if somehow more violence and aggression will lead us to the peace and security we desire.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” (John 14: 27). Jesus, a “political philosopher” often spoken highly of in Washington, offers a shocking and awesome counter to our first brute impulses of suspicion and aggression. His radical mercy and compassion is not meant as a beatific, unattainable model. It is, in fact, the way we are intended to live together in justice and peace.
Here is my small prediction: We could be that peace in the world, if only we had the courage and the faith to be worthy of it.
—By Kevin Clarke, senior editor at U.S. Catholic and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications.