The great British singer-songwriter Nick Lowe was prescient. In 1974, when the drumbeats of Vietnam still echoed, he wrote a song asking “(What’s So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” that would be made semi-famous five years later when it was covered by Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Meanwhile, for most of the 46 years since the ink dried in Lowe’s songbook, the rulers and alleged “thought leaders” of the United States have treated ideas about global peace and understanding as if they were a joke.
That was hammered home on Thursday morning when the Washington Post published a remarkable story pointing out that, today, fully one-quarter of Americans have never been alive when the United States was not at war, while 18-year-olds born after the first U.S. assault on Afghanistan are now old enough to enlist and fight there.
Of course, one could have simply watched President Trump’s bizarre, slurred address to the nation on Wednesday about the amped-up military tensions with Iran to see what we’ve become. A retaliatory missile launch by Tehran that caused no casualties seemed a rare opportunity in the current climate to pivot from a war footing to talk of peace, but our bellicose-talking narcissist-in-chief failed to take the bait.
Trump arrived at the White House lectern flanked by generals — the kind of thing you’d expect to see in an authoritarian banana republic — and the good news of an apparent Iranian stand-down was buried in martial talk that included a threat of more economic sanctions but nothing that resembled an olive branch. One more chance for peace … squandered.
But the magnetic pull of Trump — who promised just 12 short months ago to “end the endless wars” — into a new decade of perpetual bloodshed didn’t happen in a vacuum. The president is an addicted cable-TV news watcher who’s surely seen the last 20 years of “the generals” who retire into six-figure gigs as pundits to cheerlead for militarism, the feckless (and mostly chicken hawk) pols determined not to ever lose an election as “weak” on foreign conflict, and the shift toward defining American Exceptionalism not as alluring democratic ideals but as building the most tanks.
In the 2010s, there was an ultraliberal Democratic congressman and sometimes presidential candidate named Dennis Kucinich. A quirky and arguably flawed politician who was either 20 years behind or 20 years ahead of those hawkish, 9/11-ish times (he backed universal pre-K and ending the death penalty), Kucinich’s signature proposal was the creation of a cabinet-level, $10-billion-a-year U.S. Department of Peace that would push diplomacy and serve as a counterweight to the militaristic counsel of the Pentagon. Kucinich’s idea was of course laughed out of the political water, because in the nation that literally invented “the forever war” there is nothing more hysterically funny than peace, love, or understanding.
What really stood out for me during an unforgettably terrifying first week of the 2020s, in which the United States — with its dramatic escalation by the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani — and Iran moved to the brink of a catastrophic war and still remain far too close to the abyss, is what Sherlock Holmes famously called the dog that didn’t bark. A dog named Peace.
In the corridors of Capitol Hill and through the ever-flowing electrons of cable TV, there was endless talk of possible escalations by both sides — missile strikes, terrorism, cyberattacks — but next to no discussion about de-escalation, diplomacy, and how to ratchet tensions downward. Indeed, as the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan and other media critics noted, there was a steady TV stream of the warmongers who sold pointless bloodshed in Iraq in the 2000s, but few of the many voices who voted against or otherwise opposed that war.
Did you know that countries such Oman, Japan, and Switzerland could be in a position to get involved and try to broker a peace deal between two nations that have been openly hostile for more than 40 years? Not unless you were diving deeper than the veneer of ratings-driven tension that is Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC. The United Nations, created in 1945 with the primary purpose of ending war, has been nowhere in sight. In Washington, efforts in Congress to take back the war-making powers granted by the Founders are labeled naive by the Beltway elites.
Trita Parsi — the executive director of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a longtime expert on relations between the U.S. and Iran, where he was born but fled political repression with his family at age 4 — said Iran’s no-casualty missile strike was the perfect moment to initiate real diplomacy in the region.
“Both countries should, in our view, take advantage of the offers from other counties to facilitate a dialogue,” Parsi told me by phone this week. But he conceded that Trump’s attitude toward diplomacy — preferring photo-ops like the ones he’s obtained in his otherwise fruitless talks with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to hard work and (heaven forbid) concessions — has foiled past proposals by France’s Emmanuel Macron and others.
The organization that Parsi cofounded — the Quincy Institute — was initially funded by arguably the strangest billionaire bedfellows in political history, the ultraliberal George Soros and the ultraconservative Charles Koch, to create a home for peace advocacy in international relations, which seems today to exist nowhere else in today’s official Washington.
Its president, Andrew Bacevich — the retired colonel and Vietnam veteran who has become our fiercest critic of post-Cold-War militarism — argued in a recent op-ed that the Soleimani assassination epitomized "the intellectual bankruptcy of the foreign policy establishment, which remains wedded to a highly militarized conception of ‘American global leadership.’ ”
Dissenting voices like Bacevich, Parsi, and the experts of the Quincy Institute occasionally cut through the clutter of retired generals and Bush-era war criminals, but not nearly enough. America’s “forever war" really will last forever, and this week’s Iran agita will become a recurring feature, unless we take the following steps.
Restore sanity to media coverage. “Balance” is an oft-used, and misused, term when it comes to today’s journalism. But regarding America’s myriad wars and military conflicts, it’s imperative that TV producers, newspaper opinion editors, and other media decision-makers start choosing to also amplify voices from those who were correct in opposing the 2003 Iraq War, and those who consistently push for peaceful solutions to conflict.
Restore the role of Congress in approving — or limiting — war. In the debates that led to the Constitution in 1787, the Founders agreed that vesting war-making powers solely with the executive branch would turn the American president into an elected monarch. That is exactly what has happened with the rise of the imperial presidency, and its undeclared wars, since the end of World War II. The expected House passage of a resolution under the 1973 War Powers Act to limit Trump’s actions on Iran may get swatted down by GOP and White House opposition, but it is still a baby step in the right direction. Congress must also repeal the war-authorization votes of the early 2000s that have been abused by every president since.
End America’s insane levels of defense spending. There was almost no discussion or debate late last year when Congress approved a $738 billion defense bill in which both Democrats and Republicans agreed to pretty much hand the Pentagon whatever it wants. That approach turns America into an international carpenter that sees every problem as a nail to be hammered with our overpriced weapons — and it deprives everyday Americans of universal health care and higher education and the infrastructure repairs that we so badly need.
Those things would be a formula for Americans to relearn the totally lost art of making peace, not war. They also ignore the 243-pound elephant in the room, a president who despised the only bit of successful large-scale American diplomacy of the 21st century — Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran — so much that he ripped it up, which is what brought us to this dismal point.
The good news is that we could be only 377 days away from a new president. And every woman or man looking to succeed Trump in 2021 needs to answer the following question: What’s so funny 'bout peace, love, and understanding?