Thursday, September 28, 2006

Used to be One of The Rotten Ones, and They Liked You For That*

You know it's bad in Iraq when entire factions of armed Iraqi Shiites feel the need to part ways with Moqtada al-Sadr because he is not radical enough. I kid you not. Moqtada is losing his street cred - increasingly being viewed as a sell-out.

The violence also came amid reports from a number of senior coalition military officials that a large and powerful militia run by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has been breaking apart into freelance death squads and gangs — some of which are being influenced by Iran.[...]

“There are fractures politically inside Sadr’s movement, many of whom don’t find him to be sufficiently radical now that he has taken a political course of action,” said a senior coalition intelligence official who spoke to reporters in Baghdad on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak publicly on intelligence issues.

The official added that “there have been elements. I can think of about at least six major players who have left his organization because he has been perhaps too accommodating to the coalition.”

That Sadr's rather extreme position is viewed as the new normal just can't be a positive development. As a manifestation of just how bad the situation has become, check this out:

A quarter of a million Iraqis have fled sectarian violence and registered as refugees in the past seven months, data released on Thursday showed, amid an upsurge in attacks that has accompanied the Ramadan holy month.

As staggering as that 250,000 number is (that would be akin to 2.75 million American civilian refugees in proportional terms), consider that this tally is only for the last seven months. And even then, as the article notes:

The figures do not include an uncounted number of Iraqis who have moved home without claiming aid.

Keep in mind that the more that moderate and middle class citizens leave Iraq, the more that the population left behind becomes a self-selecting group of combatants and other zealots (though considerable numbers of hapless civilians will still remain caught in the cross fire). That type of distillation process does not bode well for the cessation of hostilities.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq, many opposed to the war predicted a refugee crisis. Because none ensued in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, this better-than-anticipated outcome has been cited by war supporters as proof that both sides were wrong in their assumptions. In general, this was a shaky bit of argumentation considering the overall tally of the comparative track records, and the number of far more important things that each camp got right and wrong, respectively.

But now we might even be forced to add the creation of a refugee crisis to the ledger of the opponents to the war. Well, war supporters still have the non-torched oil fields to point to. Those silly war opponents. Torched oil fields. Pshaw.

(* 1,000 TIA points for the musical reference here, no google cheating though)


I think I'm going to really lose it soon. I'm gonna start tearing my hair out in clumps - and given the current state of my ongoing battle with my hairline, that is a most extreme act. But I am being pushed to the brink by the repetitious drumbeat of warped logic issuing forth from pundits and politicians alike. The worst part is, they think that we are all dumb enough to fall for it. Worse still, we often do.

As a depressing follow up to my previous post, Matt Yglesias flags two more examples of the counterinsurgency Kryptonite that is all the rage these days for those Iraq war boosters who are either too immature, or too concerned with electoral backlash, to own up to the all-too-predictable reality that has resulted from their counsel. So instead, they make silly arguments that belie logic and only work in a world in which only binary choices, and black and white analysis, are available. First, Tony "How Far You've Fallen" Blair:

This terrorism isn't our fault. We didn't cause it. It's not the consequence of foreign policy. It's an attack on our way of life.

Next, because you knew it was coming, David Brooks shows off his talent for absorbing and regurgitating the talking points du jour:

...[M]ore and more people are falling for the Grand Delusion — the notion that if we just leave the extremists alone, they will leave us alone. On the right, some believe that if we just stop this Wilsonian madness of trying to introduce democracy into the Arab world, we can return to an age of stability and balance. On the left, many people can’t seem to fathom an enemy the U.S. isn’t somehow responsible for....

Ah yes. Which people exactly Brooks never does say. But they're out there. En masse. Oddly enough, Brooks does sort of stumble upon some form of insight - though it is encased in the usual shroud of ignorance. But still, it is instructive of how misguided his overall thesis is:

The blunt fact is that groups of Islamic extremists will continue to compete and grow until mainstream Islamic moderates can establish a more civilized set of criteria for prestige and greatness. Today’s extremists are not the product of short-term historical circumstances, but of consciousness and culture. They are not the fault of the United States, but have roots stretching back centuries. They will not suddenly ignore their foe — us — when their hatred of us is the core of their identity.

All together now: no we did not create extremism in the Muslim world, or elsewhere. But since that extremism exists, and it threatens us, it behooves us to try to craft a policy to help contain, mitigate and transform it. Instead, we adopt policies (the invasion of Iraq) that take a pre-existing problem and make it worse! The opposite of progress.

And if success and failure truly rests with the empowerment of moderate Muslims, which I believe it does ultimately, then we should be crafting policies and rhetoric that actually help those moderate Muslims! Instead, we adopt policies, and espouse rhetoric (clash of civilizations), that make the already precarious position of Muslim moderates and reformers weaker! The opposite of progress.

This should not be that difficult a concept. And it's not. I've explained it all in more detail (here, here, here and here). But Brooks and Blair know what they're doing. They're kicking up dust, and covering their tracks. The dangerous part is that in so doing, they may just be obscuring potential pitfalls that lie ahead (like those in Iran or Syria should our leaders decide that our actions have no impact on the levels and efficacy of extremist violence in the name of Islam). The veil of ignorance once brandished, is not as selective in its obfuscation as its wielders would prefer. Matt's admonition is all too credible:

To be sure, there are some implacable opponents out there who we'll have to do our best to kill. But there are also lots of other people out there -- placable opponents, young kids with unformed views, fence-sitters, whatever -- and our actions do, indeed, play a role in whether or not they become implacable opponents. This matters. It probably matters more than anything else. And the domination of western politics by people who don't understand that is going, one day, to get an awful lot of Americans killed.

And they'll shoot the messengers then too. Repeat cycle.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

All or Nothing

Kevin's right about this recent William Arkin offering. It really is far beneath Arkin's considerable talents. In it, he mostly makes a series of spurious arguments, taking down a caricatured version of Democratic thinking on Iraq and the larger war on terror - with some mundane criticisms of the Bush administration's approach sprinkled in for effect. While Arkin predominately takes aim at the easy targets presented by the obscure and uninformed fringe, while using their shortcomings to tar all Democrats, this paragraph really takes the straw-stuffing grand prize:

The simplistic story line that the Democrats are pushing is all about and solely about Iraq: withdraw U.S. forces, defeat the Republicans, tidy up foreign policy by giving human rights to prisoners and being nicer in the world, and voila, terror subsides.

Um, the Democrats are pushing this? Which Democrats are these exactly? Arkin never does say. I wonder why. Sounds more like a disingenuous redaction of the more nuanced position held by actual Democrats - the type of hatchet work usually practiced by the partisans found roaming the halls of the AEI, or venting in the colums of the Weekly Standard.

What this is at its root, though, is a clever reversal of the overly categorical analysis that I have been lamenting as of late (see Kevin's own relevant complaint). Arkin implies, through his exaggeration, that because getting Iraq 'right' now - or better yet never invading in the first place - would not solve all of our problems related to terrorism, then the counsel of those that point to the fact that Iraq has hurt the overall mission is somehow suspect and simplistic. Arkin argues that to mention Iraq's harmful effects, and the costs of abandoning democratic principles at a time when spreading democracy is supposed to be our foreign policy center piece, must, somehow, equal the position that these are the only policy areas needed to address in order to end terrorism for good. It's all or nothing I guess.

Arkin points out that, according to the just released key findings of the recently leaked National Intelligence Estimate, Iraq was only one of four major factors contributing to the overall terrorist threat:

We are not facing an age of terrorism spawned by the Iraq war, nor are we fighting thousands, if not millions, of jihadists because of misunderstandings about the goodness of America. [...]

Even without the Iraq war, the "grievances" would still exist....Furthermore, the "anger" and "humiliation" rampant in the Muslim and jihadist world do not find their origins in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

This is true, of course. The extremist violence in the name of Islam as practiced by al-Qaeda and its imitators did not begin, nor will it end, with the invasion of Iraq - nor are its roots and sole lifeline found in our recent abandonment of a more principled stand on human rights. Bravo Mr. Arkin. But, er, who exactly are you rebutting with that obvious observation? Nowhere in serious Democratic circles have I seen these basic truths contested, or even ignored - and such an ignorant position is certainly not ubiquitous enough to justify labeling it the Democrats' "story line."

The actual position of Democrats is much more realistic - fully recognizing that disentangling ourselves from Iraq, refraining from employing the tactics of despots, and preserving our enviable freedoms are only a part of the broader prescription for a more successful counterterrorism strategy. More profound success in this endeavor will ultimately require, as praktike and Matt Yglesias pointed out, a fundamental rethinking of many of the tenets that have guided our foreign policy decisions in that region for over a century. These tectonic shifts will be difficult to set in motion, slow developing once undertaken, and hardly aided by a noted lack of political will in many respects. These are the hard steps.

But there are easier ones too. For one, by focusing on the real costs of Iraq, and placing Iraq in its appropriately important context as one hindrance among a handful currently undermining our efforts in the war on terror, we can seek to avoid making a similarly counterproductive blunder in Syria, Iran or wherever else it is that the neoconservative wander/bloodlust would take us. Not invading yet another Muslim country in the span of a few years would be, you know, a positive first step even if that simple abstention wouldn't solve all our problems overnight.

Further, rehabilitating our image and fortifying our influence by aspiring to back-up Bush's soaring rhetoric with actual corresponding policies (ie, respecting habeas corpus, banning torture, etc.) - while not creating a solution "voila!" - will redound to our benefit in other areas crucial to our success. We would, among other things, decrease support for extremists, increase the likelihood of recruiting and maintaining valuable human intelligence assets, and help to secure the vital cooperation of a wide array of foreign governments and their respective intelligence agencies, on which we rely.

The use of human and signal intelligence, surgical military operations, marginalizing extremist organizations through the application of soft power in its myriad manifestations and fostering a more robust relationship with potentially helpful foreign national interests would all be attainable steps that would serve us well while we go about the larger, paradigm shifting overhaul cited above. There is more, both in specifics and in meta-analysis, if Arkin or any other critic bothered to actually plum the archives of liberal websites, think tanks and other Party resources. But with consistency, the war in Iraq serves as an obstacle to these paths, not a facilitator.

Nevertheless, as I said, ultimately Arkin is right to point out that Iraq is not the one and only source of our woes. It's just that this didn't really need mentioning. And trying to pin that drivel on the Democrats is the product of lazy thinking and sloppy analysis.

Consider this though: while Iraq certainly did not lead to the genesis of al-Qaeda, nor is Iraq extremism's only source of succor at this time, we're still talking about an invasion with a final price tag in the neighborhood of a trillion dollars. It has already demanded the sacrifice of over 2,700 US soldiers' lives, with over 10,000 more maimed and mentally scarred (and counting on each front). Many tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Iraqis have already died - and Iraqi morgues are filling to over-capacity as the civil war we helped unleash picks up steam. The region is teetering on a precipice, destabilized by the roiling violence released, and the competing ethnic and sectarian movements that are burgeoning. Our military is lowering standards, diluting the quality of our soldiers and nearing meltdown in manpower and equipment due to the strain. Iran, and other of our adversaries, have been empowered at the same time that our ability to act, and influence, have diminished considerably.

So even if Iraq is only one of the four primary sources of extremist terrorism, one would be justified in asking, was that worth it? Is it good policy? Is it helping or hurting? Or would the invasion of Iraq only have been an utterly tragic, enormously costly and counterproductive misadventure if the NIE had said that our invasion of Iraq gave birth to al-Qaeda and its offshoots, and our current involvement in Iraq is the only reason for terrorism's continued existence and other such nonsense?

In closing, Arkin offers this homage to fatalism and defeatism, that in reality is meant to serve as a blanket justification for any and all actions we undertake - even those that are fundamentally wrong-headed and accutely counterproductive:

If the Democrats had their way, and the "war" against terrorism were just accelerated in Afghanistan and Pakistan, my guess is that "it" would become the new "cause celebre."
Yes. No matter what we do, the jihadists will find a new source of outrage and motivation. There was no difference in the reaction in the Muslim world between our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Further, none of our actions have any impact on the underlying support these jihadists receive, or the size of their ranks. Why, we might as well nuke Mecca because it wouldn't matter anyway. There would still be jihadists either way, right?

Bill, why is it imperative to be so categorical?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Bush's Little Elves

With the stage hands busying themselves with the chore of taking down the elaborate set erected as the backdrop to John "Moderate Maverick" McCain's starring turn in the Republican's latest Kabuki theater release, the real work is going on behind the scenes. After McCain, Warner, Graham, Specter and the rest of the "sensible" Republicans strutted across the stage, fretting about the sanctity of the Geneva Conventions and the moral repugnance of torture - showing a brave and defiant face to the cameras in contrast to the morally bankrupt Bush administration - they proceeded to sign on the Faustian dotted line to be heard from no more. All sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But it gets worse. Not only did the McCain-wing endorse a radical departure from legal norms that have served this country for centuries, but with that victory in hand, the Bush administration and its Congressional Republican allies really went for the jugular of the blind lady of justice [emphasis mine throughout]:

Lawmakers and administration officials announced last week that they had reached accord on the plan for the detention and military trials of suspected terrorists, and it is scheduled for a vote this week. But in recent days the Bush administration and its House allies successfully pressed for a less restrictive description of how the government could designate civilians as "unlawful enemy combatants," the sources said yesterday. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of negotiations over the bill.

This is a diligent, fastidious group when it comes to stripping away human rights. It looks as if Bush will direct his efforts over the next two years to the task of leaving no rights behind. If only Republicans brought an iota of this zeal and industriousness to the task of governing, our nation might be in a better position along numerous fronts. Here's a look at the particulars, in all their ignominity:

As a result, human rights experts expressed concern yesterday that the language in the new provision would be a precedent-setting congressional endorsement for the indefinite detention of anyone who, as the bill states, "has engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States" or its military allies.

The definition applies to foreigners living inside or outside the United States and does not rule out the possibility of designating a U.S. citizen as an unlawful combatant. It is broader than that in last week's version of the bill, which resulted from lengthy, closed-door negotiations between senior administration officials and dissident Republican senators. That version incorporated a definition backed by the Senate dissidents: those "engaged in hostilities against the United States."

I want to focus on a facet of this story mentioned in the second paragraph. Therein lies the revelation that these radical new legal provisions could also apply to American citizens. If the Democrats are looking for an angle to attack this legislation, that is certainly one that should be pressed. It's one thing to torture and lock up a bunch of dark-skinned foreigners, with their heretical religion, latent violent urges, foreign languages and bizarre customs - or so, some may be thinking in a typically tribalistic and self centered way that characterizes human nature all too frequently.

But it is another thing entirely to contemplate locking up American men and women, and condemning them to be tortured for the rest of their lives without so much as a hearing to contest such detention. Granted, there is a tendency on the part of some to hold the position that even though the possibility exists, surely the government would never actually accuse "them," and that, relatedly, as long as they do nothing wrong, they'll escape such charges. Still, I think this ups the ante considerably. It shouldn't need to come to this, but I'll take what I can get at this point.

The possibility that Americans may react with more outrage if they are made to understand that they themselves might be "disappeared" reminds of a story I cited a while back:

A Los Angeles filmmaker [Cyrus Kar] who was imprisoned in Iraq for 55 days sued Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other high-ranking military officials Friday, alleging that his detention violated his civil rights, the law of nations and the Geneva Convention.

Kar, a U.S. citizen and Navy veteran, went to Iraq 14 months ago to make a documentary film about Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who wrote the world's first human rights charter.

On May 17, 2005, the taxi he was riding in was stopped at a Baghdad checkpoint and authorities found components in the trunk that are commonly used in improvised explosive devices. The taxi driver told military authorities that Kar and his cameraman knew nothing about the items, which the driver said he was bringing to his brother-in-law.

While in confinement, the suit states, Kar was at various times hooded, restrained "in painful flexi-cuffs" and "repeatedly threatened, taunted and insulted" by U.S. soldiers.

At one point, according to the suit, a U.S. soldier slammed Kar's head into a concrete wall at Abu Ghraib.

It's Karr's epiphany that interests me though:

What happened to him in Iraq was "a life-altering experience," Kar said. "I am not a left-wing liberal. I agree with many of George Bush's policies."

But, he added, "I don't think the Constitution has to be gutted to achieve our objectives" in the war on terrorism. "I felt it was my duty as an American to take a stand for the constitutional rights guaranteed to all Americans."

The hope is that first hand experience with Stalin-esque tactics would not be a prerequisite to marshalling the electoral and political will of the American public.

Consider, also, this warning: according to the proposed changes, such indefinite detention and abuse could be prompted by the frighteningly vague charge of materially supporting hostilities against military allies of the United States. Which nations, exactly, comprise the "military allies" subset? What activities would be included under the rubric of "supporting hostilities"?

Would that include US citizens protesting the actions of the Israeli government? Is it limited to nations in the coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq? How far away from a simple protest does the "supporting hostilies" standard require one's actions to deviate before being subjected to a lifetime imprisonment without trial - with extra-helpings of torture with each meal (at least the meals they deign to give you)? What about contributing to certain Islamic charities that may be secretly ciphoning money to extremist causes? Is that enough?

Not only does this standard have several layers of vagueness, but the only adjudicator of the correctness of its application will be those that capture, seize, arrest and accuse. Just ask the prosecutor, and he'll tell you if the defendant is guilty or not.

Yet, some people still intend to vote for Republicans in November. It boggles the mind.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Give Me Liberty or Give Me A Congressional Minority

Jim Henley tells the kind of jokes that make me want to cry:

The Senate has made it official: torture is official government policy so long as it meets the strict test of being called something else, said test to be proctored, taken and graded by the President in consultation with...the President.
Having given sufficient attention to the Senator McCain/President Bush plan to scrap the doctrine of habeas corpus as it applies to the suspects (some innocent, some guilty) that we detain in connection with the amorphous, perpetual and ill-defined "war on terror," I thought I might turn a bit of attention to the second prong in the Republican Party's attempt to pervert our system of justice: the use of torture. Again, this regime will be applied to the innocent and the guilty alike - though after torture has been applied, many of the innocent detainees will have been transformed into threats.

Matt Yglesias cites a column in the Washington Post that really touches on all of the relevant aspects of the way that torture corrupts the perpetrator, victim, underlying society, pursuit of truth and overall legal regime. I will highlight certain aspects, but do read the entire piece.

The very identity of the author of the column itself is instructive. His name is Vladimir Bukovsky. As the mini-bio at the bottom of the column explains, Bukovsky "spent nearly 12 years in Soviet prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals for nonviolent human rights activities." The man has first hand experience and, having lived in England for the past thirty years, is in a uniquely informed position to caution us about the path we are setting out on at the behest of the Bush administration and its GOP enablers.

Some history, and the suggestion that when Bush peered into Putin's soul, something might have been looking back:

This is a new debate for Americans, but there is no need for you to reinvent the wheel. Most nations can provide you with volumes on the subject. Indeed, with the exception of the Black Death, torture is the oldest scourge on our planet (hence there are so many conventions against it). Every Russian czar after Peter the Great solemnly abolished torture upon being enthroned, and every time his successor had to abolish it all over again. These czars were hardly bleeding-heart liberals, but long experience in the use of these "interrogation" practices in Russia had taught them that once condoned, torture will destroy their security apparatus. They understood that torture is the professional disease of any investigative machinery.[...]

So, why would democratically elected leaders of the United States ever want to legalize what a succession of Russian monarchs strove to abolish? Why run the risk of unleashing a fury that even Stalin had problems controlling? Why would anyone try to "improve intelligence-gathering capability" by destroying what was left of it? Frustration? Ineptitude? Ignorance? Or, has their friendship with a certain former KGB lieutenant colonel, V. Putin, rubbed off on the American leaders?
The fact that the Bush administration is battling, with tenacity, to undermine prohibitions on torture, and the doctrine of habeas corpus, is as much a comment on their actual attitudes toward the "democracy" that they claim to be so enamored with (and claim is the innate inclination of all human beings) as it is about the exigencies of national security. There is an admission implicit in these radical departures that, from the perspective Bush and his supporters, democracy is a weakness. A "quaint" throwback to some quixotic fancy of a bunch of British colonists who, through happenstance, were afforded the unique opportunity to put some crackpot theories into practice. Yglesias says it better than me:

Bush, Cheney, and those around them remind me of Nietzsche's line about staring too long into the abyss. They've become transfixed, hypnotized almost, by the evils they believe themselves to be fighting. Obsessed to the point where they've clearly developed an admiration for the brutal methods, ruthless dishonesty, and utter secrecy with which the enemies of liberalism conduct themselves.

But these things they're so eager -- determined, really -- to cast aside aren't frivolous luxury to be abandoned in times of peril. They're the very essence of what makes our system of government work. They're what makes it worth preserving, as a matter of ethics, but also as a matter of practice vital to the preservation of our way of life. Liberal democracy isn't a fluke occurrence that just so happens to have survived despite its drawbacks. It's actually a superior method of organizing a state. The idea that the country is being run by people who don't understand that is sad and frightening. The idea that the very same people claim to be embarked upon a grand mission to spread our system of government around the world is like a horrible tawdry joke, but doubly frightening in its own way.
Just as they are wrong about the resiliency and efficacy of liberal, democratic institutions, so too are they misguided by the seductive allure of false notions of "strength" that in the end just do not produce quality results. That is to say, we are trading in our Rolls Royce for an imposing looking and manly Humvee that, underneath the hood, is more like a Pinto. Bukovsky's brief anecdote is telling:

One nasty morning Comrade Stalin discovered that his favorite pipe was missing. Naturally, he called in his henchman, Lavrenti Beria, and instructed him to find the pipe. A few hours later, Stalin found it in his desk and called off the search. "But, Comrade Stalin," stammered Beria, "five suspects have already confessed to stealing it."
He also provides some greater detail regarding just how the process of debasement occurs:

Investigation is a subtle process, requiring patience and fine analytical ability, as well as a skill in cultivating one's sources. When torture is condoned, these rare talented people leave the service, having been outstripped by less gifted colleagues with their quick-fix methods, and the service itself degenerates into a playground for sadists. Thus, in its heyday, Joseph Stalin's notorious NKVD (the Soviet secret police) became nothing more than an army of butchers terrorizing the whole country but incapable of solving the simplest of crimes. And once the NKVD went into high gear, not even Stalin could stop it at will. He finally succeeded only by turning the fury of the NKVD against itself; he ordered his chief NKVD henchman, Nikolai Yezhov (Beria's predecessor), to be arrested together with his closest aides.
Not only do you tend to turn the qualified professionals away, but you further compound the problem by creating a system in which those that are left behind are less likely to even follow the rules regarding the acceptable parameters of torture that you bothered to establish. This passage in The Assassin's Gate, which I have cited previously, explains the problem well (p. 326):

There's an old aphorism: Keep it simple, stupid. KISS is the acronym. You always have personalities in uniform - I had them in Vietnam - who will take advantage of any ambiguity, any lack of clarification in the rules of engagement, and kill people, or whatever his particular psyche is liable to do. You don't have rules for your good people. You have rules for that five or six percent of your combat unit that are going to be weird. You need those people, because sometimes they're your best killers. But you need the rules. And when you make any kind of changes in them, any relaxation or even hint of it, you're opening Pandora's box.
Bukovsky again:

Even talking about the possibility of using CID treatment sends wrong signals and encourages base instincts in those who should be consistently delivered from temptation by their superiors. As someone who has been on the receiving end of the "treatment" under discussion, let me tell you that trying to make a distinction between torture and CID techniques is ridiculous. Long gone are the days when a torturer needed the nasty-looking tools displayed in the Tower of London. A simple prison bed is deadly if you remove the mattress and force a prisoner to sleep on the iron frame night after night after night. Or how about the "Chekist's handshake" so widely practiced under Stalin -- a firm squeeze of the victim's palm with a simple pencil inserted between his fingers? Very convenient, very simple. And how would you define leaving 2,000 inmates of a labor camp without dental service for months on end? Is it CID not to treat an excruciatingly painful toothache, or is it torture?

Now it appears that sleep deprivation is "only" CID and used on Guantanamo Bay captives. Well, congratulations, comrades! It was exactly this method that the NKVD used to produce those spectacular confessions in Stalin's "show trials" of the 1930s. The henchmen called it "conveyer," when a prisoner was interrogated nonstop for a week or 10 days without a wink of sleep. At the end, the victim would sign any confession without even understanding what he had signed.
As Yglesias alludes to, Bukovsky also does a find job of pointing out that the combination of these decidedly undemocratic tactics, with the overarching messianic foreign policy of exporting democracy to foreign lands, makes for a jarring juxtaposition. The contradiction and hypocrisy will not be lost on a target population that is already reflexively suspicious and cynical.

If America's leaders want to hunt terrorists while transforming dictatorships into democracies, they must recognize that torture, which includes CID, has historically been an instrument of oppression -- not an instrument of investigation or of intelligence gathering. No country needs to invent how to "legalize" torture; the problem is rather how to stop it from happening. If it isn't stopped, torture will destroy your nation's important strategy to develop democracy in the Middle East. And if you cynically outsource torture to contractors and foreign agents, how can you possibly be surprised if an 18-year-old in the Middle East casts a jaundiced eye toward your reform efforts there?

Finally, think what effect your attitude has on the rest of the world, particularly in the countries where torture is still common, such as Russia, and where its citizens are still trying to combat it. Mr. Putin will be the first to say: "You see, even your vaunted American democracy cannot defend itself without resorting to torture...."

Off we go, back to the caves.
Although I fully understand the fact that electoral politics require certain unseemly compromises in order to achieve the broader goals, I would rather the Democrats put up a pitched battle on torture and habeas corpus than to make big gains in the House or Senate. It's simply that important.

(*This post's title borrowed, with gratitude, from a commenter on Matt's proudly eponymous site)

Saturday, September 23, 2006

A Thorough Indictment

J.D. Henderson really hits it out of the park with this bill of particulars. Go read it. Trust me. Via Kevin Drum, who has more, including a link to an article discussing the contents of the new National Intelligence Estimate. Among other findings, the article observes:

A stark assessment of terrorism trends by American intelligence agencies has found that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Drum added this observation:

The point of an anti-terror policy is not to look tough. The point of an anti-terror policy is to reduce terror. Republicans pretty clearly don't get this.

No they don't, and far too large a bloc seems intent on repeating the same mistakes.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Explanations Are Not Justifications

I wanted to take this opportunity to clarify a point that I sort of left dangling in the post below (it was long enough already, wasn't it?). That is, I want to state emphatically that I in no way condone, justify or endorse the violent reaction to the Pope's ill-advised, and ill-intentioned, words. As praktike correctly observed, the belligerent threats, murderous decrees and violent displays are a curious way for Muslims to rebut charges of the religion's innately violent nature.

Of course, as prak also observed, "the vast majority of Muslims have done and said nothing. But the right wing is driving the bus right now, and they clearly see this as an opportunity to push a clash of civilizations narrative."

Which is the point that I was making about providing bin Laden and the "clash of civilizations" proponents such a helping hand. Or as Marc Lynch put it in a post that makes it look like I plagiarized him:

This is why Bush's recent "Islamic Fascism" speeches were such a gift to bin Laden, playing right to the al-Qaeda script, and seeming to confirm al-Qaeda rhetoric over a Western "Crusade" (and don't even get started on Bush's recent "religious revival" musings). And now the Pope has jumped in to lend a helping hand to al-Qaeda. Couldn't they have just sent flowers? I don't think that this is quite what the Counter-Terrorism Center at West Point meant by "stealing al-Qaeda's playbook" - we weren't supposed to actually run al-Qaeda's plays for them.
It is not impossible to hold both thoughts at the same time: that the Pope's words were reckless, if not deliberately inflammatory (not to mention daft from a counterterrorism perspective), yet the reaction on the part of the Muslim cadre of "clash of civilization" proponets and other assorted radicals has been shameful and self-refuting.

This reminds me of a piece by Gene Callahan that I cited last month in an effort to counter the claim that any attempt to examine the impact that our foreign policy choices were having on the growth of terrorism was akin to justifying those same terrorist acts. For the purposes of this discussion, I will replace "foreign policy" with "inflammatory rhetoric" and "terrorists" with "extremists" - which is meant to designate those radicals that have reacted violently to the Pope's words - in these excerpts from that post. The underlying point remains the same:
The question is not whether or not the actions of [extremists] are morally justified in light of [inflammatory rhetoric], but whether one can explain how certain of our [inflammatory rhetoric] can create a dynamic within which [extremism] might become an attractive option and otherwise flourish. Said Callahan:

The mode of historical discourse is that of just such explanations. The historian qua historian is not concerned with the morality of a course of action. He is concerned with explaining why that course of action, and not some other, actually was chosen. The result of his efforts is a coherent narrative that describes how historical events arose from various actors' understanding of their circumstances.

Moral justification does not concern itself with such explanations, but, instead, with whether or not some action conformed to a tradition of moral practice.
Through the same basic category mistake, [defenders of the inflammatory rhetoric] erect a useful strawman with which to criticize and belittle the work of political opponents, historians and commenters...who seek to probe explanations of the [extremism] phenomenon that consider cause and effect relationships and thus, hopefully, support and help craft policies [and rhetoric] designed to minimize their deleterious consequences. While many commenters...have explored the root causes of [extremism], there are only nominal numbers on the fringe that seek to morally justify those [extremist] actions by referring to our [inflammatory rhetoric].
The second point that I wanted to clarify is that it is not unreasonable to expect certain influential political and religious leaders to show more discretion and savvy than other less prominent citizens - and that even this heightened standard does not need to extend to absurdity. There is no magical blend of rhetoric, societal choices and expressions that are going to placate all Muslims, all the time. Neither should we, as a society, be under an obligation to seek out such a formula, or institute a policy of self-censorship that will in any material way curtail our freedom of thought or expression. Nor should we demand this of our leaders.

But this doesn't mean that just because we should not overcompensate through rote self-censorship, or perpetually walk on egg shells, that we should not strive for best or better practices, or that we cannot find some optimal balance. Especially when there is little gained by the particular inflammatory speech. At the very least, we should be able to ask that our most influential leaders, like the President and the Pope, not lead block for Osama's off-tackle runs.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Pope and His Shadow

I think Billmon is at least half-right about this:

Since at least the mid-'90s, Al Qaeda's primary objective -- its purpose in life -- has to been to provoke a religious war, one that would polarize the Islamic world and force most Muslims to line up on the side of jihad. Or so bin Laden and company hope.
The "religious war" is, in part, a means to achieve al-Qaeda's ultimate end-game: the creation of a unified Muslim caliphate. And the route to this religious war - through an emphasis and augmentation of the civilizations with the West - was deemed necessary for the achievement of the primary goal only after some initial failures. But first, a rough sketch of the background.

Since al-Qaeda's inception (and before for some members), the agenda was about creating a mass movement of Muslims properly radicalized and motivated that would eventually rise up in a chain-reaction of revolutions that would usurp the corrupt, apostate regimes currently ruling over Muslim nations. After these serial revolutions, a fundamentalist Muslim caliphate akin to Taliban style rule would be "restored" (created anew?) spanning the entire Muslim world (and some currently non-Muslim lands with historical connections). Once the formation of this religious society was achieved, Allah would reward these once-again pious Muslims with blessings that would, at long last, enable the Muslim world to catch up to, and surpass, the West.

Thus, bin Laden's vision provides an excuse and scapegoat for the humiliation and stunted progress in the Muslim world (ie, the lack of piety of its rulers, and their subservience to the West), as well as a romantic vision of some mythological past and possible future that could provide meaning and purpose to young Muslim men alienated, confused and unsettled by the tensions in their disjointed societies/personal lives.

Initially, however, al-Qaeda discovered that attacking the apostate regimes directly tended to alienate many Muslims rather than inspire them. Quite logically, it was Muslims that suffered losses in these attacks (when you bomb the Egyptian regime, Egyptians die), and thus al-Qaeda (and precursor incarnations) were being marginalized, not heralded as the vanguard of a mass movement.

That is when a decision was made to attack America instead of Muslim regimes. This would, in their estimation, serve multiple purposes. On the one hand, it would force America to withdraw support for the corrupt rulers which would weaken them and leave them ripe for overthrow. Second, targeting America would be far more popular for Muslims than attacking fellow Muslims - a target made more attractive by actual unpopular policies and virulent propaganda.

As added benefits, America could likely be provoked into over-reaction and heavy-handed, indiscriminate reprisals, which would only hasten the advent of pan-Muslim solidarity, radicalization and motivation. In this sense, America would do the work of radicalization for al-Qaeda - bleeding the former of vast amounts of money and resources, while al-Qaeda could reap the dividends.

Contra the overly simplistic characterization of al-Qaeda's purpose as expressed by Bush and others - that they attacked us because they hate us for our "freedom" - al-Qaeda had far more practical (if malevolant) designs.

The fact that bin Laden and Zawahiri viewed their mission in such pan-Islamic terms led to considerable tension between al-Qaeda leadership and their adopted representative in Iraq - Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - who often acted compulsively out of a deep-rooted hatred of Shiites. For Zawahiri and bin Laden, though, such internecine fighting was counterproductive and disruptive to the overall mission.

Zarqawi's replacement, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, on the other hand, has a close relationship with Zawahiri and is more prone to adhering to al-Qaeda's overall ethos - and thus less likely to alienate large swathes of fellow Sunni insurgents and potential Shiite allies in the hoped for mobilization of all Muslims. That is why I suggested that taking out Zarqawi (while an absolutely necessary action that I would never counsel against), might actually result in our confronting a far more formidable foe in Iraq.

As in Iraq, al-Qaeda's strategy has worked in many respects, but it hasn't been an unambiguous success. Despite the mandate to target the "far enemy" (America), certain elements and loose affiliates persist in striking nearer to home (Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Turkey, Indonesia, etc.). Although it may seem obvious to point out: it's hard to control decentralized groups of radicals. Also, despite al-Qaeda's "better" intentions, attacking Americans on US soil is not exactly easy to pull off - or at least not on a scale worthy of a follow up to 9/11. And regardless of the locations of the attacks mentioned above, many Muslims were outraged and turned off by al-Qaeda's brutality before 9/11 and since. Billmon again:
Like most extreme reactionary movements, Al Qaeda has no meaningful economic or political program (Land to the Tillers, All Power to the Soviets) to offer the Islamic masses. It's call for the strictest possible interpretation of Shari'a law is divisive and repels rather than attracts international sympathy. But what it does have going for it are wide and deep fears of cultural penetration and Western domination, and the ancient religious duty of all Muslims to defend Islam and the community of believers.
As pointed out in the second part of this paragraph, in far too many ways the Bush administration has been playing into bin Laden's hands - so as to minimize the impact of al-Qaeda's mistakes and the flaws in their overall message/methodology. By invading Iraq while Afghanistan was still smoldering, engaging in morally dubious policies of torture, rendition and unlimited detention, and hyping up the clash of civilizations rhetoric, the Bush administration is accentuating al-Qaeda's appeal and de-emphasizing its weaknesses.

It is not mere serendipity for Republicans that bin Laden and Zawahiri show a remarkably consistent penchant for releasing inflammatory audio, video and written messages during election seasons. Zawahiri and bin Laden are well aware of the domestic political dynamic, and how fears of terrorism - once stoked or primed - favor the GOP. There is an unsettling symbiosis, and the CIA came to this conclusion years ago.

This is part of the reason I have been so mindful of the use of the term "Islamofascism" (here, here, and here) and other such clash of civilizations type rhetoric. This overheated language is ripped right from bin Laden's script. Billmon again:
[The Bush administration is] conjuring up the spectre of a vast, monolithic and powerful Islamic fundamentalist movement, implacably hostile to the West. They're implicitly and even explicitly defining all who oppose their maximum program for a "new" Middle East as extremists -- the enemies of civilization.

They should be more careful what they wish for, because they might actually get it. This latest turn towards fear-mongering rhetoric is practically an open invitation to any Sunni Muslim who supports "traditional values" to line up with Al Qaeda. The Cheneyites are going to great lengths to alienate people who might otherwise find the jihadist ideology too radical and too destructive.
Not just Sunni Muslims, but Shiites as well. This echoes a concern I pointed out in the comments to this post about the use of the term "Islamofascism":

It tends to create a clash of civilization type of dynamic, and taint an entire religion. It instills the impression that we in the West paint Muslims with a broad brush - and an unflattering one at that (everyone from Saddam, to Arafat, to bin Laden, to Nasrallah, to Ahmadinejad are the same in our eyes).

Taking the time to distinguish between these groups that have, in actuality, significantly different goals, and labeling them accurately based on those positions, just seems smarter to me.

A funny thing happens when you pool people together into one group and criticize them as such, even if they traditionally have animosities, inconsistencies and incongruities. They tend to begin to think like a group, defend the entire group and get overly defensive and siege-minded. Here, that dynamic could be exacerbated by the fact that the phrase can be seen by those not aligned with these groups as targeting them as well.
In the wake of the recent fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, there was considerable disagreement in Sunni extremist circles about how to treat Hezbollah's efforts since Hezbollah is a Shiite group and not necessarily working toward the goal of a Sunni Muslim caliphate (this reflecting the Zarqawi-like hostility to Shiites who are viewed as heretics). But instead of trying to use these in-built tensions to our advantage as a wedge, and instead of differentiating between groups with divergent goals in order to counter eash with tailored policies, we adopted the position that they are all a part of the same phenomenon, with the same goals: all "Islamofascists." Some within these groups - especially al-Qaeda's leadership - began to think like this as well.

And for what? What do we derive from such rhetoric other than a smug sense of superiority?

I suppose the answer to those questions depends on who you would ask. While it has been terrible PR from a counterinsurgency perspective, there are certainly Western groups and individuals that are also pushing - as bin Laden is - for a clash of civilizations. The Western agitators call it "World War IV," and their incitements can be found on Fox News and the pages of the Weekly Standard, National Review, Washington Times, New Republic and elsewhere. For proponents of World War IV, there is much to gain from painting all such divergent Muslim groups with a common tag - the better to capitalize on the attacks of 9/11 and compel action against all disparate groups akin to the invasion of Afghanistan. They, like bin Laden, relish the idea of a religious clash of civilizations.

Within that context, we get the inexplicably wrong-headed words of the Pope - who seems to have cast his lot in with the World War IV advocates.
Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.
It's hard to argue that the Pope was not intentionally being inflammatory. This statement is really so far over the line that attempts to walk it back just won't do the trick - nor feeble defenses about it being just a quote (if I quote approvingly from the Elders of Zion, can I avoid being labeled an anti-Semite?). And the Pope's words have no doubt hurt us all - Muslims and non-Muslims alike. On the flip side, I'm sure bin Laden and Zawahiri are absolutely ecstatic. And so we get developments such as these described by Billmon:
What's alarming (or encouraging, from bin Ladin's point of view) is that the original covert war against a transnational terrorist group appears to have morphed into a connected set of traditional Third World insurgencies, in which Islamist guerrilla fighters have managed to find or create relatively secure bases -- the Taliban in Afghanistan's Orzugan and northern Helmand provinces, the core of the old Al Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas and, just perhaps, Al Qaeda in Iraq in Anbar Province.

Col. Pat Lang...calls these "redoubt areas" -- perhaps harking back to the so-called Iron Triangle, an expanse of rubber plantations northwest of Saigon that was one of the Viet Cong's favorite stomping grounds...

Such redoubts are essentially no go zones where the "legitimate" government has no presence and occupation troops rarely go (and then only in massive strength). This means they can be used as rear areas by the insurgents -- places to assemble units, rest and refit, build supply dumps, headquarters, hospitals, etc. Locals can be enlisted or dragooned into serving as porters, laborers, spies, etc. Redoubts are what southern Lebanon is to Hizbullah, and like southern Lebanon they may be honeycombed with tunnel complexes, command bunkers and underground ammo dumps and armories -- all the things a guerrilla army needs to survive a war with a vastly superior First World military.
Now think about it, would you rather try to foster the connectedness of these redoubts, or fragment, splinter and isolate their exploiters, and instead deal with them on an ad hoc basis? Is it in our interest to hype a clash of civilizations just like bin Laden? Do we want to have to tend to raging wild fires across a broad expanse, or manage a piecemeal process with more selectivity? Perhaps we may want to consider at least the possibility that if Osama wants an all out clash of civilizations, we may not. Maybe.

Of course, that would require that the Pope and President tuck away their feel-good catchphrases, slogans and historical analyses. It would require them to cease the deliberate campaign to agitate, provoke and exacerbate tensions and hostilities (I know, what an odd request to make of the Pontiff). Small price to pay though. Even if it upsets bin Laden and Zawahiri, and they decide to stop sending along campaign booster shots every October. Hey, you'll still have Rove.

Freudian Slip Five Car Pile Up

No, but seriously Congressman Westomoreland, tell us what you really think:

On Tuesday, Republican Congressman Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia proudly boasted to a local Chamber of Commerce that he had "voted for torture." Today he reconsidered, saying perhaps he should have "put that another way." ("I should have said I voted against the anti-torture bill," he explained. So he's not pro-torture, evidently--just anti-anti-torture.)

This is the GOP's radical and reckless version of America. Lieberman too. Thanks George. And Joe. But really, thank you Lynn Westmoreland for at least having the courage - or lack of political savvy - to use plain language to describe your position.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The One-Third Doctrine

Ken Silverstein of Harpers asks Dr. Emile A. Nakhleh six questions about the state of the war on terror, and US relations with the Muslim world. By way of background, "Dr. Emile A. Nakhleh served in the CIA for 15 years and retired on June 30, 2006, as the Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program, the intelligence community's premier group dedicated to the issue of political Islam."

All six responses to Silverstein's questions are worth a look, but this one in particular stuck out to me in light of the current legislative wrangling in the nation's Capitol [emphasis mine throughout]:

You traveled to Guantanamo in 2002. Were you surprised by what you saw there?

I spent hours talking with prisoners about why they had become jihadists and how they came to Guantanamo. Some of the detainees participated in jihad in Afghanistan, mostly against the Northern Alliance; others did not but were caught in the dragnet—having been at the wrong place and at the wrong time. Even the command down there knew that probably one-third of the prisoners were neither terrorists nor jihadists, and wouldn't have been there if we weren't paying a bounty to Pakistani security forces for every Middle Eastern-looking person they handed over to us. Almost every detainee I spoke to claimed that we paid $5,000 per person. Unfortunately, we treated everyone the same, which led the non-jihadists at Guantanamo to hate us as much as the rest, becoming more hardened in their attitudes toward the US and more disappointed in the American sense of fairness and justice.

One-third is a pretty big number. But it is not the biggest by a long shot. Consider that of the 14,000 prisoners detained by US officials in clandestine, extrajudicial sites over the past three years (that's fourteen thousand!), most of them have been in Iraq. This article tells a part of that story:

Captured on battlefields, pulled from beds at midnight, grabbed off streets as suspected insurgents, tens of thousands now have passed through U.S. detention, the vast majority in Iraq.

Many say they were caught up in U.S. military sweeps, often interrogated around the clock, then released months or years later without apology, compensation or any word on why they were taken. Seventy to 90 percent of the Iraq detentions in 2003 were "mistakes," U.S. officers once told the international Red Cross.

I don't suppose the 'non-insurgent' detainees in Iraq developed any fonder impressions of us than did their 'non-jihadist' counterparts at Guantanamo. Many of these innocent prisoners may be eventually released (the lucky ones already have) - but only after being radicalized and developing hardened attitudes that did not exist at all, or at least in such a virulent form, prior to their detention.

Either way, each of these 10,000-14,000 people have family members, friends, tribal relationships, fellow citizens and co-religionists. Each of these detentions sets off a shockwave of animosity. This is not a mere abstraction, or some vague and quixotic appeal to morality in a vacuum (though this should be enough - especially for the Party of good vs. evil, black and whie moral clarity). There are practical, pragmatic repercussions.

Keep these staggering numbers in mind, and recall the very real impact this is having on our ability to appeal to moderates, prospective allies and those not committed to act in a violent manner toward us - yet. Then please consider that George Bush and the media's darling, that "moderate, maverick with integrity," John McCain, are both advocating that we enact laws to officially sanction the indefinite imprisonment of so many innocents without so much as a right to know why they are being held.

That is the Bush/McCain version of America in technicolor. And it ain't pretty.

(via Kevin Drum)

Trenchtown Rocks!

Like Jim Henley, I came across the story of the new security plan for Baghdad at Needlenose, and I was as unimpressed by the prospects for success as Swopa. Take a gander at the plan in all its victory-assuring splendor:

Iraqi security forces will dig trenches around Baghdad and set up checkpoints along all roads leading into the city to reduce some of the violence plaguing the capital, the Interior Ministry said Friday.

. . . "Trenches will be dug around Baghdad in the coming weeks when the third part of the Baghdad security plan is implemented," [Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Abdul-Kareem] Khalaf said.

Khalaf said that except for the trenches, vehicle and pedestrian traffic would be restricted to just 28 entry points with manned checkpoints....

"They will surround Baghdad," he said of the trenches.

Yeah, that should just about do it. As an added bonus, I don't expect that such measures will further alienate Baghdad's residents or lead any to blame the American occupation for their continued hardships. Ripped from the pages of How to Make Friends and Influence People.

But Henley said it best with this snark-infused analysis:

And there’s your Iraq the Model....So contemplate, again, the stupendous disconnect between the Grand Dream and the reality. Khalaf is boasting of a plan to turn an Arab capital into a giant fieldworks. That will really stir demands for change in the hearts of the Arab world. Let’s be like that, they’re supposed to say; and then, no more terrorism! The people who came up with that one want to do even more of the same thing elsewhere. Any discourse that doesn’t recognize the sheer insanity of that is a mad discourse.

It is truly amazing the course of action that Iraq's architects are charting for the future. And just think, some people actually still listen to Michael Ledeen, William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, John Podhoretz, Stanley Kurtz, Michael Rubin, et al. Worse still, some of those people actually work out of the White House.

Mad discourse indeed.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Uh, This Is Saber Rattling Isn't It?

The position that I have been clinging to with an ever loosening grip on the issue of military confrontation with Iran - that we have been more or less rattling sabers since there is no viable military option - has always been a minority stance on the left side of the spectrum. And it's getting even minoritier. Matt Yglesias passes along some truly disturbing chatter:

Fred Kaplan wonders if the "prepare to deploy" order that's "been sent out to U.S. Navy submarines, an Aegis-class cruiser, two minesweepers, and two mine-hunting ships" means we're going to war with Iran. Sam Gardiner, former US Air Force Colonel, concludes that we are in a new report (availble in PDF) for the Century Foundation. Gardiner says the preparations for war "will not be a major CNN event." Instead, they "will involve the quiet deployment of Air Force tankers to staging bases" and "additional Navy assets moved to the region." Gardiner makes the point that while nobody's talking about a land invasion of Iran, significant elements in the government do have more ambitious goals than simple surgical strikes at Iranian nuclear facilities. Such strikes are very unlikely to actually resolve the perceived Iran issue, and there are administration figures who've convinced themselves that a sufficiently wide air target set will prompt regime change in Iran.

Fred Kaplan does note that the Time magazine story that he cites is reliant on "sources" within the DOD, and is heavily caveated with conditional language and the like. Kaplan quotes the Time article's author, Michael Duffy:

"The U.S. military routinely makes plans for scores of scenarios, the vast majority of which will never be put into practice." As one Pentagon official tells [Duffy], "Planners always plan."

Nevertheless, the "planning" described in that piece, as well as Gardiner's piece, has taken on an all too realistic hue. As such, Kaplan gives a fair airing to the two most prominently voiced possibilities: First, that this is actually what it seems - the preparations for war with Iran (or advanced aerial strikes). Or, in the alternative, that this is saber rattling in order to compel sought after diplomatic concessions from Iran with respect to its nuclear program (which has been my theory).

To the Bush administration's credit, if this is really saber rattling, they're putting on a fine show of it. Enough to prompt a little nervous laughter on my part, with my previous confidence unsettled by the possibility that this isn't in fact an elaborate ruse.

Of course, it may not be as black and white as the two choices alluded to above would have it. As I have acknowledged all along, there are competing power nodes in the White House, and the rhetoric, planning, preparations and intentions could mean different things to different factions. Kaplan ponders this possibility, as well as the potential for a hybrid. Neither are particularly comforting:

This leads to a third possibility: that the Bush administration is trying to pressure the Iranians and really preparing to attack. The two are not mutually exclusive, especially since various factions within the administration are split on the issue. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seems genuinely to be doing what secretaries of state tend to do—seek a diplomatic solution. Vice President Dick Cheney seems to be doing what he tends to do—heighten the confrontation.

Faced with internecine conflicts of this sort, President Bush has a striking tendency to avoid making a decision and to let the factions fight it out. It's possible, in other words, that the administration is playing both approaches—mobilizing as a tool of diplomatic pressure and mobilizing as an act of impending warfare—not as a coordinated strategy but as parallel actions, each of which will follow its inexorable course.

Once the weapons are in place, the airstrikes wouldn't follow automatically; the president would have to give the order. But if the attack is ready to go, and if the Iranians are still thumbing their noses, would this president call it off and start over? It's best not to face the situation to begin with. An attack, however tempting, would be a huge mistake, for several reasons.

It's a murky situation to say the least, and one fraught with peril. Any military confrontation with Iran would be a monumental blunder at this juncture, so this game of chicken (which is the best possible interpretation of events) is considerably risky. Still, I'll stay with my first impulse on this matter, and maintain that these events have more to do with saber rattling than actual war plans - although I admit that wishful thinking is taking on an increasingly pronounced role in this thought process.

And don't even get me started on what Matt calls the "Craziest Goddamn Thing I've Heard In a Long Time." Are there really two more years of this madness?

(hat tip to Kevin Drum, who has more)

Paved With Bad Intentions

In one of his least honest moments (and there are many to select from), President Bush said in an interview with the New York Times last year that:

...torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture.

On the contrary President Bush, through the practice of extraordinary rendition, the US government has been handing people over to regimes notorious for torturing detainees in places like Egypt, Jordan and even our putative "enemy" Syria.

While some government officials reach for the cover of a fig leaf by claiming that we require the these torture-friendly regimes to give us perfunctory assurances that such rendered detainees will not be tortured, it is precisely because these regimes employ such brutal interrogation methods that makes the practice of extraordinary rendition attractive: we can pass off a suspect for rough treatment during interrogation that, at least thus far, has been considered illegal and improper when occurring in US facilities. This tactic was first employed under the Clinton administration and was ramped up considerably during the Bush years - neither deserves a pass.

One of the most famous cases of extraordinary rendition is that of Maher Arar, whose ordeal I wrote about in a two-part series early last year. This is a part of Arar's story that I recounted in those posts, relying heavily on the revelations in Jane Mayer's superb New Yorker article:

Which brings us to the case of Maher Arar, a 34 year old Canadian citizen whose family had emigrated to Canada from Syria when he was a teenager. Arar's story began in late 2003 when he was returning from a vacation in Tunisia with his family. While changing planes in New York, he was apprehended by American officials, and although he was never charged with a crime, he "was placed in handcuffs and leg irons by plainclothes officials and transferred to an executive jet. The plane flew to Washington, continued to Portland, Maine, stopped in Rome, Italy, then landed in Amman, Jordan" and later he was driven to Syria.

What was his crime? "Arar was detained because his name had been placed on the United States Watch List of terrorist suspects." And what had Arar done to land on the Watch List? The brother of one of his co-workers was a suspected terrorist. Far from the previous standard of a foreign arrest warrant and a CIA dossier, this case appears to set a dangerous precedent for what type of tenuous connection can land a foreign citizen in a torturers den via US escort. I repeat: his co-worker's brother was a suspect.

Ten hours after landing in Jordan, Arar said, he was driven to Syria, where interrogators, after a day of threats, "just began beating on me." They whipped his hands repeatedly with two-inch-thick electrical cables, and kept him in a windowless underground cell that he likened to a grave. "Not even animals could withstand it," he said. Although he initially tried to assert his innocence, he eventually confessed to anything his tormentors wanted him to say. "You just give up," he said. "You become like an animal"....When Arar described his experience in a phone interview recently, he invoked an Arabic expression. The pain was so unbearable, he said, that "you forget the milk that you have been fed from the breast of your mother."

Today, Maher Arar is back in the news, and the timing is oddly synergistic considering the fact that the US is on the verge of creating a legal regime that would condone the use of torture for a whole subset of detainees, while stripping those same detainees of the right to protest their detention and demand some form of adjudication of their guilt or innocence.

Canadian intelligence officials passed false warnings and bad information to American agents about a Muslim Canadian citizen, [Maher Arar], after which U.S. authorities secretly whisked him to Syria, where he was tortured, a judicial report found Monday.

The report, released in Ottawa, was the result of a 2 1/2-year inquiry that represented one of the first public investigations into mistakes made as part of the United States' "extraordinary rendition" program, which has secretly spirited suspects to foreign countries for interrogation by often brutal methods. [...]

[The head of the inquiry commission, Ontario Justice Dennis] O'Connor concluded that "categorically there is no evidence" that Arar did anything wrong or was a security threat.

Although the report centered on Canadian actions, the counsel for the commission, Paul Cavalluzzo, said the results show that the U.S. practice of renditions "ought to be reviewed."

"This is really the first report in the Western world that has had access to all of the government documents we wanted and saw the practice of extraordinary rendition in full color," he said in an interview from Ottawa. "The ramifications were that an innocent Canadian was tortured, his life was put upside down, and it set him back years and years."

There is a very good reason why our criminal justice system is set up so that there is an impartial trier of facts tasked with determining the guilt or innocence of a given suspect prior to the dispensation of punishment. When you rely only on the word of the prosecuting body, or law enforcement agency, you establish a system that invites error, corruption and grave injustice.

The objectivity of the accusers, and the professionals tasked with prosecution and law enforcement, is often clouded by their worthy mission. I don't say this to denigrate those on the prosecutorial/law enforcement side of the equation, it is the same for the defense bar and those tasked with protecting the rights of the accused. But I would be equally, if not more uncomfortable, with a system of justice that allowed defense attorneys and rights activists to play judge, jury and exonerator.

And when the stakes are as high as prolonged depravation of freedom, torture, lifetime imprisonment and even the death penalty, the safeguards provided by an impartial judicial body that weighs the evidence presented by both sides, are absolutely necessary.

Even with a well-functioning legal system allowing for adversarial contests and impartial judges, a certain number of innocents inevitably get wrongly convicted and subsequently punished. But reducing the legal system to the whim of the executive is the type of kangaroo regime that we, quite rightly, condemn with vigor when put into use in despotic and dictatorial states, be they fascist, communist, theocratic or other. Such a perverse process defines injustice.

The fact that I am forced to write these words to my fellow American citizens in order to remind them of such basic truths - the principles that form the very bedrock of our society - is both confounding and deeply troublesome. The fact that such admonitions are falling on deaf, disinterested and cynical ears is infinitely worse. That our political representatives are the perpetrators of this ignominy is, in my opinion, a near-criminal violation of the oaths they took to defend the Constitution.

This is not the America that I know. This is not the America that I studied about in law school, and in history classes, with enormous pride. But it is the twisted image of America that President Bush, Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzales, John McCain, John Warner, Lindsey Graham and the rest of the Republican Party - together with whatever Lieberman Democrats they enlist as accomplices - would like to create.

Please reconsider the path they are blazing. It does not end well.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Going Down Swinging

As predicted, the media has treated the competing GOP bills designed to clarify issues regarding detainee classification, interrogation methods and related judicial procedures as defining the full parameters of the story.

In truth, there are important differences in terms of the way that the respective bills define torture, establish rules for the admissability of evidence and guarantee potential defendants' rights to see the prosecution's evidence and confront accusers if such defendant eventually reaches some form of sanctioned tribunal. In these areas, the McCain/Warner bill is better on all counts than the Bush administration's radical, reckless and paradigm shifting proposal. But as I mentioned at the end of last week, both bills are terrible on the issue of habeas corpus rights, and this crucial aspect of the overall story is being largely ignored. Publius offers a concise appraisal of this situation with this quote (which cites a Hilzoy post worth checking out):

First, let me again make clear that both bills are very bad. The main reason, which others have explained, is that it eviscerates habeas rights for all detainees. And contrary to what legal geniuses like Mark Levin might say, habeas isn't a right for terrorists. It’s a right for those who are wrongly detained as terrorists. There’s a Digby post on this somewhere, but a lot of the detainee procedure debate is beside the point because it doesn't address the threshold question – whether you are in fact properly detained. In other words, procedures are important not so much because honest-to-God terrorists deserve them, but to identify whether the person detained (perhaps indefinitely) actually is a terrorist.

And given that we've wrongly detained so many people (via Hilzoy), I’m wary of throwing habeas overboard. In fact, the mere existence of habeas (as opposed to its actual use) often eliminates the need for courts to consider it. That’s because if the detaining authorities know that they'll potentially have to justify their actions in a habeas proceeding, they'll take more precautions at the front end to detain the right guy. (Indeed, that's a key rationale for ALL constitutional criminal protections).
A fellow NYC lawyer e-mailed me a letter today from the Center for Constitutional Rights that also provides a concise distillation of the issue:

As you may be aware, Congress will soon be voting on a bill that would establish military commissions (trials) for Guantanamo detainees. Included within the proposed legislation, however, is a provision that would retroactively strip the federal courts of jurisdiction to consider habeas cases filed by Guantanamo prisoners, thus overturning recent Supreme Court decisions (Rasul v. Bush; Hamdan v. Rumsfeld).

The issue is tremendously important because nearly all of the detainees have been held for years, but have not been charged with any crimes and likely never will be charged. Without habeas, these prisoners could be held for the rest of their lives without any opportunity to have an impartial decision-maker consider the legality of their detention.
And yet, in today's America, that is not even controversial. This lurch toward the profound weakening of the rule of law is taken as the default position, with the only issues up for discussion being the treatment one should receive while in such Kafka-esque indefinite detention (it should be noted that even with respect to torture and other evidentiary matters, that treatment would only become an issue if charges are filed and a trial ensues which is kind of the point behind ensuring habeas corpus rights in the first place).

This is how far astray from our founding principles that the GOP and Bush administration have taken us: that it is accepted by the majority Republican Party that the President should be empowered to lock people up for the rest of their lives without so much as a trial to determine their innocence, guilt or other mitigating circumstances. As for the Democrats, they appear all-too-willing to go gently into that good night. I am thoroughly underwhelmed.

This matters. This will have long term and far reaching consequences. This should be covered with at least a shred of the attention that Jonbenet Ramsey, Anna Nicole Smith, Brangelina, Tom Cruise, Michael Jackson, Katie Couric, and the myriad other inanities that the corporate media obsesses over, receive.

I feel like a bystander witnessing a terrible crime without the power to prevent it, whose only recourse is to plaintively protest, "Somebody please do something." The entire population's hair should be on fire, not just the powdered wigs in the graves of the nation's somersaulting founding fathers.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Long Overdue

I've been meaning to get into the nuts and bolts of the dueling bills on detainee treatment, detainee classification and the related tribunals and legal processes that are currently before the nation's lawmakers, but the enormity of the topic has prevented me from making much progress. Lucky for me, and more importantly the reader, my scattered thoughts won't be necessary.

Instead, I submit the efforts of my betters: Katherine and Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings, Publius at Legal Fiction, Glenn Greenwald at Unclaimed Territory and the whole crew at Balkinization. Greg Djerejian does us all a service by putting most of these resources in one convenient place. So I'll steal from Greg in lieu of a bottle of scotch that he no doubt owes me for something or other:

A cri de coeur, and a righteous one, from Jack Balkin. An important post from Hilzoy. Meantime, Katherine, also writing over at ObWi, has been blogging up a storm too. More background notes from Katherine, with loads of links here and here.

I want to make two points in parting: First, the two bills are both bad. Choosing the McCain bill would still be a severe blow to our image in the world, and our legal traditions - even though the media will spin this as a real choice between vastly different alternatvies. It is not.

Second, this matter is far more important than -crucial even - than 99.9% of the other stories currently being discussed in the media. Forget about Whitney Houston's divorce, or Jonbenet Ramsey, these bils could re-define many of our most cherised legal doctrines.

All done at the 11th hour in an election year for the most cynical and rank reasons.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ya Don't Say

The eternal recurrence of the Bush administration:

U.N. inspectors investigating Iran's nuclear program angrily complained to the Bush administration and to a Republican congressman yesterday about a recent House committee report on Iran's capabilities, calling parts of the document "outrageous and dishonest" and offering evidence to refute its central claims.

Officials of the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency said in a letter that the report contained some "erroneous, misleading and unsubstantiated statements." The letter, signed by a senior director at the agency, was addressed to Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, which issued the report. A copy was hand-delivered to Gregory L. Schulte, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA in Vienna.

Wow. Who. Could. Have. Seen. That. Coming. Lest we all forget the respective track records here:

The IAEA openly clashed with the Bush administration on pre-war assessments of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Relations all but collapsed when the agency revealed that the White House had based some allegations about an Iraqi nuclear program on forged documents. [...]

"This is like prewar Iraq all over again," said David Albright, a former nuclear inspector who is president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. "You have an Iranian nuclear threat that is spun up, using bad information that's cherry-picked and a report that trashes the inspectors."

Meddlesome do-gooders that IAEA bunch. And sweet jeebus, they're not even changing the actors in the lead roles:

The committee report, written by a single Republican staffer with a hard-line position on Iran, chastised the CIA and other agencies for not providing evidence to back assertions that Iran is building nuclear weapons.

The report's author, Fredrick Fleitz, is a onetime CIA officer and special assistant to John R. Bolton, the administration's former point man on Iran at the State Department.

Jonathan Schwarz and Kevin Drum have more, but Matt really brings it on home:

Think about that for a while. And also think about the quality -- intellectual and moral -- of the men and women who would look at the past several years of American and world history and decide that an outrageous and dishonest report on Iranian nuclear capacities was exactly the sort of thing the US congress should spend its time working on. Simply put, there's a miasma of insanity, dishonesty, and hubris floating around the circles they operate in that makes them grossly unfit to govern.

Speaking of which:

Hoekstra's committee is working on a separate report about North Korea that is also being written principally by Fleitz. A draft of the report, provided to The Post, includes several assertions about North Korea's weapons program that the intelligence officials said they cannot substantiate, including one that Pyongyang is already enriching uranium.

I can hardly wait.

Natan Doin'

Natan Sharansky struggles to make a coherent argument in his recent op-ed in the LA Times, but mostly stumbles about taking alternate turns refuting himself and grasping at the flimsy threads of a tattered theory. For instance, see how Sharansky sets the stage for his discussion of the most pernicious threat currently menacing the world - a set-up that is, itself, not entirely outlandish. [emphasis mine throughout]

In the Summer of 2000, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin told me a story that I have been unable to get out of my mind. We were meeting in the Kremlin, and I raised the grave danger facing the world from the transfer of missile technology and nuclear material to the Iranians. In Putin's view, however, the real danger came not from an Iranian nuclear-tipped missile or, for that matter, from the lethal arsenal of any nation-state.

OK. Fair enough. I can dig it. There's more to fear from loose nuclear material ending up in the hands of non-state actors. Perhaps Putin is trying to solicit money to secure the former USSR's far flung and poorly secured nuclear material. Or maybe it's a warning about what might ensue if a state like Pakistan or North Korea suffers a meltdown and there is a subsequent power vacuum.

But Iranian nukes are not such a threat - nor "the lethal arsenal of any nation-state" per se - absent some intervening factors to remove the control exerted by that state. Probably has something to do with Mutually Assured Destruction or some such off-shoot. Got it. Sharansky continues:

The threat, Putin explained to me a year before 9/11, was not from this or that country but from their terrorist proxies — aided and supported quietly by a sovereign state that doesn't want to get its hands dirty — who will perpetrate their attacks without a return address.

Odd, that seems to directly contradict the previous paragraph in which it was explained that the lethal arsenals of intact nation-states were not a threat. I guess it all turns on the fact that nation-states can act through proxies that don't include a "return address" for the sponsors and thus their arsenals are in fact a threat. To bolster his point, Sharansky offers examples of nation states that have acted through proxies with impunity in the past, due to their ability to conceal their roles in the respective plots.

This scenario became real when Al Qaeda plotted its 9/11 attacks from within Afghanistan and received support from the Taliban government. Then it happened again this summer, when Iran was allowed to wage a proxy war through Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and northern Israel.

Yeah. There's no way we're ever going to figure out which nations were behind those proxy forces because of the lack of return addr...wait a minute! Sharansky just solved the confounding mystery of 9/11! He discovered the elusive "return addresses" in question. Someone alert the media. The President. Something must be done to these "Talibans" he talks of.

Sharansky proceeds:

President Bush abandoned the conventional approach to fighting terror by vowing that the United States would henceforth make no distinction between terrorists and regimes that support them....Now the Taliban regime was being held accountable.

This was critically important for two reasons. First, it recognized that international terrorism relies on the support of sovereign states. It is regimes, after all, that give terror groups territory on which to train, arm and indoctrinate their members, and regimes that provide them critical financial, diplomatic, logistical and intelligence support.

This just gets it spectacularly wrong on so many levels. Terrorism - international or otherwise - does not rely on support from sovereign states. It doesn't hurt to have some, for sure, and many terrorist groups would rather get such assistance, but it is by no means necessary. That's what makes terrorism such a particularly problematic phenomenon: the costs are relatively low, manpower required limited and other barriers associated with force projection greatly mitigated. It's cheap, easy and you get a pretty big bang for your buck - pardon the pun.

Given this reality, terrorists can thrive without sovereign sponsorship in weak states, failed states and even strong states in Western Europe and North America. While ETA, Tamil Tigers, Timothy McVeigh and the IRA may count as "national" and not "international" terrorists, that has more to do with objectives than whether or not a sovereign state is/was sponsoring these groups. If ETA believed it could help secure a Basque homeland by bombing France and Portugal, you'd probably see some attacks across those borders. Besides, the model for "international" terrorism doesn't look much different.

For example, which sovereign state(s) supported the Madrid attacks? London? Bali? Morocco? Amman? Which sovereign state was/is supporting Zarqawi and the present cadre of al-Qaeda in Iraq? Should we accuse Prime Minister Maliki of collusion? Bomb Manchester or Barcelona? Further, did al-Qaeda cease being a threat after their state sponsors in Afghanistan were deposed? Which sovereign states sponsor Abu Sayyef or Jemaah Islamiyah?

Sharansky continues to spin in circles:

Second, although shadowy terror cells are difficult to eradicate fully and suicidal fanatics impossible to deter, the regimes that support terror groups do have a return address and are rarely suicidal. Thus, holding the Taliban responsible for the actions of Al Qaeda, and elevating the logic for doing so to a central principle in the war on terror, greatly enhanced deterrence. Every single regime was immediately put on notice.

For those following along now, the narrative goes something like this: the biggest fear is not from the arsenals of nation states, but it is. Nation states are not deterrable because they can use proxies and conceal their return addresses, except they are deterrable and can't really conceal their return addresses as the two examples used to illustrate this point show. Terrorists rely on state sponsors, except when they don't. Solid.

All of this confusing, meandering, self-contradiction ends in a predictable fashion: with a call to arms against Iran. The cherry on top comes with Sharansky's version of the increasingly popular scare tactic du jour prophesizing an Iranian nuclear attack on an American city - or two (ala Stanley Kurtz). This should be viewed separately from the Saddam suitcase bomb threat which was so five years ago.

Considering the apocalyptic fanaticism of Iran's leader, it is an open question whether the current regime in Tehran is capable of being deterred through the threat of mutually assured destruction. But given how the world has responded to Hezbollah, the point may be academic. For surely Iran would be better served by using proxies to wage a nuclear war against Israel. And if there is no accountability, why stop with Israel?

The road to a suitcase bomb in Tel Aviv, Paris or New York just got a whole lot shorter.

He's got a point. If the world didn't react to the Hezbollah/Israeli fighting by attacking Iran, then Iran has probably concluded that they'd also get a free pass on nuking Tel Aviv, Paris or New York. Hell, probably all three. Same thing right? I mean, who would even know that Iran was behind Hezbollah's actions anyway? It's not like Hezbollah's gonna include a return address in Tehran. So sneaky those Hezbollahs.

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