Asking the right questions

As a parent, one of the most difficult kinds of children to deal with is the one who doesn’t accept your answers without asking, “why”.  Being one such child myself and having not one, but four, yes, FOUR, such children of my own, who refused to accept pat answers, decades ago I realized that sometimes these questions served as pieces to a larger puzzle.  Defining that larger puzzle revealed answers to important questions we weren’t even aware needed to be asked.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a website called BookBub, where you can enter your email address, select categories of books you’re interested in and which type of e-books you want – kindle, b&n, etc.  Then you receive a daily email with great e-book deals.  So, I’ve been reading one of these BookBub deal books called, “Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love”, which explores how to create great work, by being willing to ask the right questions.  Here’s an example from this book on how a three-year old’s question led to an iconic American invention:

“It was 1944. The Land family was on vacation in New Mexico, hitting some sights and snapping photos. Three-year-old Jennifer had a question that was really bothering her. As described by her father, Edwin, “I recall a sunny day in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when my little daughter asked why she could not see at once the picture I had just taken of her.” Edwin explained to his little girl that the film had to be developed in a special place called a darkroom, and that the negatives had to be printed on special paper. Translated from the perspective of a three-year-old: blah-blah, blah-blah.”

“We all do this in our own way—explain why things are the way they are to someone who questions the expected— as if the current solution is some foregone conclusion, a done deal. Thank goodness Jennifer was a strong-willed kid who was not satisfied with her dad’s answer. She still wanted to know, “Why can’t I see my picture right now?” And that sulky disgruntlement got Edwin to thinking: “As I walked around the charming town I undertook the task of solving the puzzle she had set me.” Three years later, the camera, the film, and the physical chemistry came together as Edwin and Polaroid introduced the concept of “instant” to the photography world.”

Sturt, David (2013-09-02). Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love (Kindle Locations 531-540). McGraw-Hill Education. Kindle Edition.

Reading about asking the right question leading to new ways to approach a problem led me to wondering if we haven’t asked the right questions in regards to our American foreign policy.  The Great Work book offers this bit of trivia about queries:

“When early scholars wrote in Latin, they would use the word quaestiō at the end of a sentence to signal that it was a query. That took up too much space. So in the Middle Ages, quaestiō got abridged to qo, with the q appearing above the o. Then, over time, natural refinements shaped that stacked q and o into the well-known squiggle and dot that we use today. It’s a fitting symbol for all the curious hunches of a difference-making quest. Each is a journey that’s oriented and navigated, from departure to destination, by the question mark itself.”

Sturt, David (2013-09-02). Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love (Kindle Locations 728-733). McGraw-Hill Education. Kindle Edition.

Perhaps we need to ask more questions before we can find the “right” questions to ask to realign American foreign policy with American national interests.  As President Obama’s initial half-baked “strategy” to defeat ISIL/ISIS/IS falters,  the larger question, “why does American foreign policy seem to benefit a whole host of foreign countries, disparate interest groups and even our adversaries more than it benefits America?”, seems to be one such big picture question that might illuminate the larger puzzle.  Finding the pieces to solve this puzzle might lead us toward a more coherent foreign policy spanning the globe, not just dealing with the ISIL/ISIS/IS quandary.

Back in September, President Obama announced his “strategy”, stating, “we will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL”.  Here we are in November and  his “strategy” isn’t working.   We (the American taxpayers) have invested somewhere between 4-6 trillion dollars, not to even count the cost in American lives lost in the fight to defeat al Qaeda and it’s affiliates.  Along the way the strategy veered into nation-building, replete with trying to build western-style armies and police forces amongst people who have no understanding of western secular governance.   All sorts of tangential programs blossomed from drug eradication programs in Afghanistan to the tune of 7.5 billion dollars yielding an increase in poppy production, yes, an increase to misappropriated or unaccounted for spending on private contractors, bribe money to buy locals, etc., etc., etc.  We (our government and US Forces) tried to downplay that anti-American sentiment grew the longer we stayed and the more we tried to help.  We overemphasized small short-term successes, while ignoring large long-term failures.   And at the big picture level, we never pinned down what victory really was.  We went from 8 years of hearing that we mustn’t leave safe havens for terrorists to even more feckless announcements that al Qaeda was defeated and that walking away from the fight and declaring victory is the same thing as really winning the fight.

To expect coherence in American foreign policy at this late date seems to be more wishful thinking than realistic, but let’s ask more questions.   Supposing we actually defeated al Qaeda, ISIL/ISIS/IS, and all the other big Islamist terrorists, would the Islamist Ascendency come to a crashing halt?   Would the power vacuums in the region be filled by more moderate factions?  Are we viewing “victory” myopically by focusing on smaller parts of the Islamic world’s power struggles, without considering the larger battles between Shia and Sunni and between them and secular factions?  Do we even really have a good grasp of the power structure of these factions and of the “hearts and minds” of the people whom we’re ostensibly trying to help?  Is negotiating with Iran in America’s national interest and how does this impact our dealings with the Shia-aligned powers in Iraq or with our Sunni allies in the region?  Does removing Assad really open the door for those elusive “Syrian moderates” to crawl out of the woodwork and end the brutal civil war or will it be a green light to the most determined zealots to fight harder to seize power?  ISIL seems to be gaining allies (“Islamic State leader claims ‘caliphate’ has expanded in new audio message“),  while John Kerry is mum about the size of our “coalition”, should we be concerned?  And now the most basic question of all, “Is an American team, where the President of the United States does not listen to his own top generals on how to employ American military might, a larger national security threat than ISIL?”

Before we can figure out a strategy we need to define the strengths and weaknesses of the various leaders, the political alignments of the various, expanding number of factions, and the people (both at home and abroad).  We need to define America’s national interests in the Muslim world and to do that requires asking the troublesome questions about that “religion of Peace”, with its many faces of jihad.  And just maybe, we need to set our partisan blinders aside and take a good, hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves if after spending trillions of dollars on this “war on terror”, “American democratization project” or however you want to define the past decade we expect to defeat anyone with such a muddled, misguided, delusional foreign policy, while our enemy remains committed to the same clear strategic goals?  Can an America that remains divided by rancorous partisan politics ever be successful at agreeing on “American national interests” or piecing together a unified, coherent foreign policy?

Often I sit here looking at my bookshelves as I think about what to write and this morning, prodded by the focus on questions most assuredly, my eyes kept returning to Samuel Huntington’s, “Who Are We?” sitting beneath “Discourses on Livy” in a stack of books on my children’s little rocking chair near my desk.  Let’s hope the answer to all these questions isn’t the book underneath Huntington’s………  Colin Gray’s “Another Bloody Century”….
As a young child watching the news, I used to ask my mother why there’s so much fighting in the Mid-East and her answer made more sense than some of the most brilliant analysis by renowned foreign policy experts.  She would sigh and say, “They haven’t moved past throwing stones yet.”  She often followed that with little lectures on tolerance and turning the other cheek.  One can hide behind secular academic blather, but perhaps hate is the driving force behind the Islamic Ascendancy and that is a question to ponder long and hard upon.

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Filed under Culture Wars, Foreign Policy, General Interest, Islam, Military, Politics, Terrorism

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