Sunday, April 30, 2006

Symmetrical Diplomacy

Given a flawed blueprint, nature will sometimes use symmetry as a stand in. I learned this at a lecture by Greg Lynn on mutations in nature. One of his observations was that organisms attempt to create features even when they lack a complete instruction set. Lynn showed several examples of symmetrical mutations including a human hand with two mirrored thumbs. What initially appeared as just a random deformity now had a logical (albeit flawed) reasoning. Over the last year, as I have read story after story on Bush’s strategy for fighting terrorism, it reminded me of Lynn’s talk. In many ways, Bush is behaving like a mutation of American policy. In the absence of a rational blueprint, he is slowly and steadily resorting to symmetry as his instruction set for international policy.

Symmetry as a concept is not new to international policy. For years, the Pentagon has labeled the battle techniques used by terrorists as “asymmetrical warfare”. It was mentioned frequently in the wake of 9/11 and is a classic example of egocentric military thinking. The assumptions embodied in the term are absurd when you break them down. Asymmetry refers to the techniques, scope and technologies employed between two military opponents. Our preferred style of military engagement, the “shock & awe” approach, involves aircraft carriers, fighter jets, nuclear submarines, the best radar systems in the World, tanks, and the highly coordinated efforts of large ground forces. Their approach involves small, independent cells of fighters initiating small-scale attacks with homemade weapons. Asymmetrical warfare implies that the enemy has chosen not to engage us on a similar scale… as if they had a choice! I suspect that the Pentagon has finally stopped using the term because there is no other country capable of engaging us in symmetrical warfare. Symmetry also implies a kind of aesthetic judgment… as if two opposing symmetrical militaries was the only proper way to fight. You can almost hear the British Generals in the Revolutionary War complaining that the Minutemen did not know how to stand up and fight like gentlemen.

Symmetry as a policy for international diplomacy also has its problems. The Geneva Convention attempts to minimize the horrors of war by asking all nations to adhere to certain policies and restrictions. Things like civil treatment of prisoners, avoiding the killing of innocent civilians, and refusing to use chemical and biological weapons. When adhered to evenly by nations at war, the policy benefits everybody. The problem arises when so-called “non-state actors” like Al Qaeda engage in warfare since killing innocent civilians is core to their military strategy. They were never asked nor are they interested in signing the treaty. Given its focus only on recognized nations, the Geneva Convention starts to become an asymmetrical policy that favors Al Qaeda over participating countries. In this situation, what should the US do?

Alberto Gonzalez called the Geneva Convention, “quaint.” We remain a signer, but our day-to-day actions seem to be mirroring rather than countering the tactics of our enemies Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. We invaded Iraq because we said Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons and might be preparing to use them again. President Bush said that someone who would consider such diabolical behavior should be removed from power. But few Americans know that America employed chemical weapons during the battle of Falujah inside Iraq. We denied it until we were faced with clear evidence to the contrary and finally admitted to it. How can we justify using the very technique we are seeking to eliminate?

We have said that Saddam Hussein killed innocent civilians, imprisoned suspected militants without due process and engaged in torture. Again a policy that is antithetical to the principals the US was founded on. The policies remain ours of record but not action. We put captured Al Qaeda militants in Guantanemo to avoid due process rules and then proceeded to treat them inhumanely. By putting captured Iraqi insurgents in the Abu Graib Prison and then torturing them, we have literally followed in Saddam Hussein’s footsteps. Again, we denied doing it until the pictures came out to prove it. New pictures have recently surfaced that confirm the behavior continues.

In perhaps the biggest example of hypocrisy yet, we have been considering using our nuclear weapons to stop other countries from making their own. The original stated reason for invading Iraq was to rid them of their WMDs. We continue to condemn Iran and North Korea for seeking to develop nuclear weapons. But we do so as the World’s second largest possessor of nuclear weapons. The average American hopes we never use another nuclear weapon. But under Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld’s direction, we debated the use of small-scale nuclear weapons in Afghanistan and Iraq in order to penetrate under-ground bunkers. In Iran, we are again considering using our nuclear weapons to destroy their nuclear weapons facilities. I don’t know if this is ironic or shameful. So far, reason has prevailed but to have even considered it as part of our public discourse is highly hypocritical.

In all of these examples it appears that the US policy has moved from one that lives by the ideals set by our founding fathers to one that mirrors the policies of those that we oppose and detest. The average American still believes that the USA is a good country and in their own personal lives, most Americans are. But as Americans, we also have to take responsibility for the actions of those we put into power. There has been much discussion on the relationship between Al Qaeda and Islam. Moderates in the Middle East and here agree that it is not the religion but the few radical Islamic fundamentalists that are causing the problems. Our hope in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Iran is that the moderates will rise up and overcome this radical minority. Isn’t it time for the moderates of this country to rise up and get us back on the right course.

As a designer, it’s always interesting to see design terms used to describe something else. In design, symmetry is still used today for everything from wallpaper to typographic layouts. But one thing is always true about symmetry in design. It’s only worth copying something if you find the original beautiful and worth repeating. Al Qaeda is not the aesthetic choice.