Thursday, September 28, 2006

Why Moral Authority Matters

I prefer my blog to be a place to express (semi) original thoughts, not simply regurgitate what someone else has said. But this article by former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky makes the case against torture so well that I have nothing to add.

Best and final quote:

America's leaders want to hunt terrorists while transforming dictatorships into democracies. . . 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. . . . "


Now What?

So, now that Congress has authorized unlimited detention and torture, what do we do about this monstrosity? It is pointless to hope that if Democrats take over Congress they would repeal this bill. Even if they can find their spines, George Bush would simply veto it. Nor can the courts strike the law down as unconstitutional, since it carefully denies any opportunity for court challenge.

So what does that leave? The best alternative I have seen to despair can be gleaned from this post describing the torture of American prisoners of war by the North Vietnamese. Three things stand out in this article:

(1) The Vietnamese torture of American POW's uses many of the same techniques of "enhanced interrogation" Bush is advocating (especially the use of stress positions).

(2) The situation of American POW's held by the North Vietnamese would seem infinitely worse than that of any detainee of the United States. The North Vietnamese had no opposition party to challenge their leader's actions, no Congressional committees to investigate what was being done, no independent judiciary to hear a habeus corpus petition, no investigative reporters to look into what was happening, no freedom of the press to allow such things to be published.

(3) And yet, in spite of everything, the North Vietnamese were subject to pressure. One prisoner won improvement for himself and the others by slashing his wrists and nearly bleeding to death (what Bushies call an insidious form of "asymmetrical warfare" when Guantanamo detainees do it). Another did not know why conditions got better, but speculated that treatment improved because his captors feared that they would look bad if he died. But above all the North Vietnamese stopped torturing prisoners when the story got out of what they were doing. Publicity forced them to change their ways. International opinion mattered.

And there, admittedly, our detainees are in a worse position than American POW's. North Vietnam was a minor country taking on a superpower. The North Vietnamese needed all the international support they could get. The United States is the most powerful nation in the world, with no serious rival and a leader famed for his contempt for international opinion. But counterbalancing this disadvantage are all the advantages of a free press and a democratic society.

And so we may consider that a challenge. If the North Vietnamese government, a Communist dictatorship, could be pressured into stopping torture, then surely we in the U.S., with all the advantages of a democratic society, can do the same.


Thursday, September 21, 2006

Al-Qaeda Detainees -- Not a Ticking Bomb

In my last post I acknowledged that I could not condemn torture in a true ticking bomb situation, i.e., one in which the threat was immediate and there was no other way of finding out. But that is not the case with high-level Al-Qaeda detainees. I know that Bush has said that he has gained valuable intelligence from the not-quite-torture of these detainees and foiled numerous plots. But even that, in my mind, is not enough to justify their not-quite-torture. That would be justified only if we could establish that there was no other way to stop the plots. And that seems unlikely.

Simply put, large-scale, elaborate terrorist plans create evidence. They leave traces. Preceeding both the Millenium Plot and September 11, there was great increased "chatter." In both cases, the government knew something was coming down the pike; it just didn't know what. Granted, in the case of the Millenium Plot we caught a lucky break. But, as it has been made clear, there were a number of lucky breaks waiting to happen in the September 11 plot as well. None of the lucky breaks quite broke, and I have already said I do not blame the government for missing them. But I will blame the government more in the future if they continue to miss lucky breaks, not that they have been so dramatically alerted to the threat.

As I have said before, the capture of an Al-Qaeda leader is more than the capture of an individual, it involves the capture of computers, documents, contact information, and other leads. These can be followed by analysis of the documents, wiretaps, surveillance, leads from informants, and cooperation with the intelligence services in other countries. And we can hope to learn more by classic interrogation techniques, i.e., by psychological manipulation, separation of the terrorists, confrontation with evidence picked up from other sources, confrontation with inconsistent statements and the like. Granted, hard-core Al-Qaeda types have been trained to resist such approaches. Granted, analysis of other information will be slower and less complete without the terrorists' "cooperation." But the best remedy in that case is to build up the translation and analysis sections of our intelligence services and to work with other countries that already have such resources. Let us not forget, the United States has a great advantage over Europe here. We do not have an local angry, alienated Muslim population who are likely to engage in acts of terror. Attacks by Islamic extremists are most likely to come from outside. This is logistically more difficult and will produce more evidence.

If the chatter increases and it becomes clear that an attack is pending, by all means, let us be aggressive in following up all potential leads, and in orthodox interrogation of terrorists in our custody. But even then, even then let us stick to orthodox methods. If it appears that zero hour is at hand (as was broadcast the day before the attacks, but not translated until after), if we have exhausted all other leads, if nothing, nothing is revealing what imminent attack is at hand, then I would say we have a true ticking bomb situation. But nothing short of that will count.


Monday, September 18, 2006

Torture and Ticking Bombs

Having condemned George Bush's advocacy of not-quite-torture, I suppose it is only right that I address that favorite challenge to opponents of torture, the ticking bomb. Would I justify torture in "ticking bomb" situations? This is a complex question and should be addressed on several levels.

Toture is immoral.

While I subscribe to the position that torture is immoral, it become more difficult in the ticking bomb situation. What if there is choice between torturing a guilty person or allowing him to kill numerous innocents? Not actually being in that situation, I am not sure that I can answer it. Before September 11, if someone had asked if the government would be justified in shooting down a commercial airliner and killing all the innocent people on board to prevent it from being used as a missile to strike a building and kill many more people on the ground, I have no idea what I would have answered. But the September 11 attack has made the answer clear; the government would be justified in shooting down that commercial airplane (although we are glad it didn't have to). Similarly, if terrorists had planted a bomb that could be revealed only by torture, I have great difficulty believing that I would morally condemn torture in such a case.

Torture is unreliable.

This is the secondary, fallback argument. I have always regarded it as something of a copout, a retreat from firm moral absolutism against torture. It is also not a very good argument in ticking bomb cases. When one seeks vague, general information that is difficult to verify (like the links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein), torture is unreliable and likely just to give what the torturer wants to hear. In ticking bomb cases, where the information sought is narrow, specific, and easily verified, torture is effective.

True ticking bomb cases are extremetly rare.

This is a tertiary argument, and may seem even more of a copout. After all, it would be easy to pull a similar copout to the question of shooting down commercial airplanes. How could anyone possibly know the airplane was going to hit a building? Well, now we know the answer. It seems extremely unlikely that we would know that the bomb had been planted, that it was going to go off soon, and that we had the terrorist who had planted it, but did not know where it was. But it is possible.

But I believe this is really the crucial argument. Perhaps torture may be moral in ticking bomb situations, but the rarity of such cases is why it should not be legal. No law can be so perfect as to foresee all possible future circumstances. Laws are best written only for what seems substantially likely to happen. If one leaves a loophole in a law against torture, the loophole is likely to grow. Make an exception, and the exception can become the rule.

People who have planted ticking bombs in the United States are very rare indeed. In Iraq, on the other hand, there are EID's everywhere. Learning the location of EID's can be a matter of life and death for soldiers on foot patrol. And no one really knows if the latest detainee has information about them or not. It won't take long in a war zone before almost everything is a ticking bomb situation. And when we capture Al-Qaeda members, well, they might have ticking bomb information. Why not play safe? Authorize torture in the presumably very narrow ticking bomb situation, and that exception may turn out to be less narrow than expected.

But what about real ticking bombs? McCain, as I understand it, said that anyone who tortures in such a case can plead extenuating circumstances. His opponents responded that such an attitude encourages contempt for the rule of law and it is better to legalize torture so it can be regulated than leave it illegal and unregulated. This is a sound argument for many things we may consider immoral -- drugs, prostitution, data mining, etc. But all of these are things that are common enough to be inescapable. Torture and ticking bomb are not.

I believe that Arne Langsetmo has said it best:

Extreme hypotheticals, of course, make bad law. But even so, here's a good rejoinder to such absurd hypotheticals: If you're convinced that you're doing "the greater good" by torturing the individual and getting the information to save those thousands of lives, go for it. Just don't expect to get off scott-free. Hell, if it's for "the greater good" for the suspect person to be illegally tortured to achieve this great savings of life, then it's also for the greater good for you to lay down your freedom as well, in order to save the masses. Do what you have to, and then take your lumps. You'll have the solace, as you sit and rot in prison for torture, of knowing that you saved all those people ... and you did it without corrupting the rule of law. . . . [I]f you think you can justify an illegal act to yourself as for the greater good, go do it. Then stand up and pay the price; it was you that made the determination, so stand by your decision.


Sunday, September 17, 2006

Idle Speculation (on the Need for Not-Quite Torture)

In a previous post, I raised a number of questions about George Bush's defense of not-quite-torture, including the ratio of true to false information and whether alternate sources of information were available.

At least a little more information has come to light on questionable statements made under not-quite torture. One of Bush's allegations I did not mention was that Abu Zubaydah began by giving information he considered nominal, but that such information included a hitherto unknown plot and led to the arrest of an operative in the United States. I did not mention this allegaton because Bush claimed to have gained this information by orthodox interrogation. Anonymous Liberal links to a New York Times article that this actually refers to the dubious Jose Padilla plot. Zubaydah appears to have given Padilla up as a harmless bone to toss to his interrogators because he did not believe Padilla was capable of any actual operations. More details have also come out about al-Libi's false statements under not-quite torture.

None of this has weakened George Bush's defense of his "program." The opposition of the JAG Corps, and the pleas of Powell, Vessey and other retired generals do not move him. Nor is he satisfied with the bill backed by Senators Warner, Graham and McCain, Republicans and respect veterans all, that bans detainee abuse but effectively disallows any enforcement mechanism. It seems too far-fetched that Bush would incur so much embarrassment simply to rally his base. I can only conclude, therefore, that he sincerely believes that his "program" of not-quite-torture is vital to fighting terrorists and that there is no alternative.

The question still remains, why is it so important. After all, when terrorist leaders are captured, documents, computers, contact information etc. is captured along with them. Al-Zarqawi in Iraq did not live long enough to be interrogated. No matter, he told us literally volumes from beyond the grave in the form of the volumes of documents captured. These, in turn, led to other hideouts, which led to yet more documents and so forth until we have effectively rolled up al-Qaeda in Iraq. So why can't we undertake a parallel action against al-Qaeda through captured documents, suveillance leads generated and the like? Granting that this would be slower than not-quite-torture, why would it not be ultimately effective?

I do not know the answer, and Bush is unlikely to declassify it, but allow me to offer an idle speculation. It is no secret that Bush is on poor terms with the reality-based intelligence community. The cynical might go so far as to suggest that he prefers not-quite-torture to reality-based intelligence because, unlike reality-based intelligence, not-quite-torture always yields the results he wants. But I am not prepared to be that cynical. On the other hand, it is also no secret that Bush's attempts to force the reality-based intelligence community to give him the answers he wants have hurt their effectiveness. The attached article in American Prospect gives further details.

Since Goss [since replaced] took over, between 30 and 90 senior CIA officials have made their exit, according to various sources, some fleeing into retirement, others taking refuge as consultants. Others, unable to retire, have stayed, but only to mark time at the agency. Morale, already low after several years during which the CIA was accused of a series of intelligence failures related to September 11 and Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, is now at rock-bottom. The agency’s vaunted Near East Division, in particular, which served as the “pointy end of the spear,” as one CIA veteran put it, in simultaneous wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the “global war on terror,” has been decimated.

And later

The purge was felt down the line, with various chiefs of station, division heads, and other top officials bailing out. No section was harder hit than the already rattled Near East Division. At least two consecutive Baghdad chiefs of station have quit or been fired, and division’s staff at headquarters has been nearly swept clean of its experienced officials. “All over the agency, the talk is about the steady stream of people leaving,” says one veteran CIA officer. “People are disillusioned, and there seems to be no relief from the sense that there is no fixing this.” In the Near East Division, especially in the section that focuses on Iraq, many are gone. “What you’ve got left is a bunch of kids,” this officer said. “You’ve got a bunch of newbies in there -- some very smart, but with no experience.” Another former CIA chief of station said: “There aren’t any Arabists left in the CIA. They’re gone. They weren’t with the program. It’s like Pol Pot, who killed anybody wearing glasses because they might be able to read.”

Most troubling to agency watchers -- including Harman, who says that the CIA’s “free fall” is a “very, very bad omen in the middle of a war” -- is that the people exiting the CIA are those with decades of experience. “The intelligence process is based on experience,” says one grizzled CIA veteran. “It’s the 10,000 at-bat syndrome. It’s more an art than a science, and it is very difficult to teach. We’re talking about an agency that has no bench. When you take out the A-team, there’s no one.”

So here is the idle speculation. Is it possible that George Bush is convinced of the need for not-quite-torture, not only because it is faster and easier than painstaking intelligence work, but because his insistence on loyalty over competence had seriously undermined the CIA's capacity for painstaking intelligence work to thwart terrorist plots? In other words, is it possible that Bush sees the need for not-quite-torture at least in part because his own policies have undermined the alternative?


Monday, September 11, 2006

Is Bush to Blame for 9/11?

With the anniversary of the September 11th attacks at hand, I might as well address the topic much debated among George Bush's critics -- should he be blamed for the attacks.

This question can be asked at three levels. Did the Bush Administration plan or participate in the attacks. Did the Bush Administration intentionally fail to stop the attacks. And was the Administration culpably negligent in failing to prevent the attacks.

Was the Bush Administration behind the attacks?

This is a question taken seriously only by conspiracy nuts, and is not worth wasting much time. I lack the time, resources, or technical expertise to devote to rebutting it, many others have already made such rebuttals. I will point out, however, one obvious flaw in the belief that Bush staged the attacks and faked Al Qaeda's role to justify his war. Since it should be obvious that the war he truly wanted was in Iraq, not Afghanistan, why not just fake Saddam Hussein's involvement? Granted, Administration members, particularly Dick Cheney, have made a couple of attempts, but they have all been signal failures. If the Administration could pull off such an elaborate hoax faking Al Qaeda's role and be so utterly inept in faking Iraq's?

Did the Administration intentionally allow terrorist attacks to occur?

This question deserves more serious consideration. After all, there can be no doubt that Cheney and many neoconservative members of the Administration wanted to invade Iraq and desparately hopes for a "new Pearl Harbor" to give them an excuse. The September 11 attacks were a provocation beyond their wildest dreams.

And yet they were not. While I do think it fair to say that the more hawkish members of the Administration wanted some sort of provocation to give them an excuse for war, the September 11 attacks were an entirely unexpected kind of attack from an entirely unexpected quarter. Many people have commented that the Bush Administration failed to take the Al Qaeda threat seriously until it was too late. The reason for this, I believe, is that so many members had served in the Reagan and Bush I administration, and were not in the government when Al Qaeda appeared on the radar screen. Their focus was on the Axis of Evil, Iran, Iraq and North Korea, and it was with this axis that they wanted war.

Thus I believe the Administration was eagerly awaiting the first plausible provocation from some member of the Axis, but preferably Iraq, to start a war. Saddam's expulsion of the weapons inspectors would have been the perfect pretext, but that liberal fool Clinton let it go, so the neocons could not use it. The discovery that some member had uranium centrifuges might have been an acceptable excuse, as would a variety of diplomatic incidents. Quite possibly, some of the more hawkish members of the Administration might even have been willing to provoke some sort of incident in the no-fly zones to serve as a new Gulf on Tonkin incident.

I see no reason to believe that the thought of an attack on the U.S. homeland ever occurred to anyone in the Administration. Once again, once it occurred perhaps it might have been considered a boon to the the more hawkish members who wanted an excuse for war. But it was also a serious annoyance because it came from an unexpected quarter and forced the Administration into the clearly unwanted distraction of having to invade Afghanistan instead of proceeding directly to Iraq.

I am not one of those people who thinks Bush cared so little for his fellow countrymen that he would allow such an attack. And even if he were, that attack only partly suited his purposes.

Was the Administration culpably negligent?

So, I have said that the Bush Administration were not intentionally remiss in allownig a terrorist attack because they did not realize the severity of the threat. Does that mean I think they were culpably negligent in failing to recognize it?

Yes and no. It may well be that the Bush Administration should have given a higher priority to terrorism in the months before September 11. But I see no reason to believe that doing so would have prevented the attacks. The U.S. went on super high level alert as the year 2000 approached. Yet this high-level alert did nothing to stop the Millenium Attack; rather we simply caught a lucky break. So we caught some potential breaks before September 11 as well; was the Administration remiss in failing to "connect the dots?"

I would say no. Saying that Bush should have connected the dots ignores the well-known phenomenon of "noise," i.e., all the tips, leads and clues that lead to nothing. The "dots" the Administration should have connected must be seen in the context of all the other "dots" out there. The ultimate emerging picture would be a huge, random set of "dots" that could mean anything only in the light of hindsight. No intelligence system is fail-safe. Sooner or later, something will slip by. The Bush Adminstration is being blamed for not being omniscient. That is a totally unreasonable demand.

In short, I do not believe that the Bush Administration is in any way at fault for the September 11 attacks and should be given a clean pass. The way they have exploited the attacks to their political advantage is bad enough.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Fascism and "Islamofascism"

Fascism is an epithet easily thrown around in general discourse and extremely frustrating for serious scholarship, and for a simple reason. No one really knows what fascism is. Communism, as an intellectual movement, wrote its own sacred scriptures and had clearly defined articles of faith. Fascism, deeply anti-intellectual, never established a clear creed. As a transnational movement, Communism had an elaborate international organization that (at times) would even determine the bona fides of anyone claiming to be a Communist. Fascism, profoundly nationalistic, never established a single organization.

Which raises the question of Islamofascism. What is this fascism, anyhow? And is Islamofascism a legitimate concept?

The term "Islamofascism" is often cynically used to lump together disparate phenomena and falsly imply an alliance between Baathists (particularly Saddam Hussein) and the jihadis. But that still begs the question of whether Islamic extremists can be legitimately called fascists. And that necessarily requires a definition of fascism.

Perhaps the clearest characteristic about fascism is its extreme nationalism. In historical, European fascism, this was a secular nationalism. Can fascism take the form of a sort of religious nationalism instead? I have described Bin Laden as a religious nationalist in the past. Clearly what fascism, Islamic fanaticism and, to a considerable extent, Communism have in common is an us versus them mentality. We are good, they are evil, morality is whatever advances "us" against "them," and any moral scruples about methods are simply weakness. But each of these ideologies identifies a different "us." In fascism "we" are a nationality and specifically a nation state. In Communism "we" are a social class (and its sympathizers). In jihadism "we" are a religion.

Communism, theoretically at least, rejected the nation state. Marx dreamed of the day when the state would "wither away." The working class, it was said, had no nation, meaning that the working class owed no loyalty to the nation state because the state was merely the instrument of the ruling classes. The proletariat's loyalty was supposed to be, first, to an international brotherhood of labor and, later, to an international organization of Communist parties. In practice, telling Communists to place loyalty to their party above loyalty to their nation state ultimately came to mean being loyal to the Soviet nation state instead of their own.

Islamic radicalism, likewise, does not necessarily think in terms of the nation state. Juan Cole had a link to an analyst making this point by review of Islamicists' writings, but I cannot find the link. The point, however, was that the nation state is not their primary frame of reference. If they can seize control of a nation state (like Afghanistan), fine and good. If not, they will establish Islamic rule in whatever enclave they can control. Establishing Islamic rule over whatever they control, rather than worrying about whether they control an entire nation-state that is the focus. And, of course, Islamicists have no regard for national boundaries. They may stage attacks in one nation state to retaliate for events that took place in another.

Fascism, on the other hand, focuses specifically on the nation state. It is notable for specifically identifying the nation (in the sense of the collective people or volk) with the state (in the sense of the government and its coercive power). Nation and state are strongly identified and aggrandizing one means aggrandizing the other. And fascism seeks national aggrandizement.

European fascism, unlike Communism, does not make atheism and article of faith, but unlike Islamic radicalism, it was generally a secular movement. In part, this was no doubt simply because fascism was the product of secular times in which the nation state had superceded the church as the primary object of people's loyalty. Furthermore, the nationalism of fascism is incompatible with the universalism of Christianity or (in Japan) Buddhism (or, at least in theory, Islam). But fascism did seek to harness religion to its purposes. Hitler tried to establish a sort of German paganism as the religion of Nazism. Japanese militarists set out to coopt tradtional Japanese folk Shinto (a harmless nature worship) into a religion of militant nationalism. Mussolini, on the other hand, sought reconciliation with the Pope, although one can wonder how much he was actually seeking to coopt the univeral Catholic Church into the Church of Rome. And the Ustasha of Croatia declared Catholic holy war against Jews and Eastern Orthodox Serbs, yet let Muslims participate in their holy war as junior partners because they were considered true Croats!

In none of these cases was the religious aspect of fascism primary. Yet I believe there is more at work here than fear that universal religions will undermine nationalism. I believe that fascism, like Communism, feared existing religion, even in secular times, as a rival for people's loyalty. Communism responded by seeking to suppress religion. Fascism responded by seeking to coopt religion. Especially in the case of Japan, fascists tried to fuse and subordinate religion to nationalism. And thus I would set forth, as a tentative proposal for a definition of fascism, "worship of one's nation state."

This is, as I say, only a tentative proposal and open to criticism. But fascism is to be defined as worship of one's nation state, then Islamic radicalism clearly does not qualify as fascist. Islamic radicalism unequivocally subordinates the nation state to religion.


Thursday, September 07, 2006

Bush Defends Use of Not-Quite-Torture

The newspaper today had a classically clueless headline, "Bush Acknowledges U.S. Use of Secret Prisons." The headline should read "Bush Defends Use of Not-Quite-Torture," because that was what his speech was manifestly about. Needless to say he did not actually say not-quite-torture, but used euphamisms such as "an alternative set of procedures,""this program," "sensitive questioning," and "the most important source of information on where the terrorists are hiding and what they are planning is the terrorists, themselves." Some of the speech was simply the usual blather that we don't torture, that all detainees in Guantanamo are hard-core terrorists, and that Guantanamo is a "model prison" where no abuse has ever taken place. This is not worth discussing. But more important are the clear and specific allegations about what we have gained by not-quite-torture. This is important, not just because these allegations are new, but because people who will lie in meaningless generalities are often ashamed to lie about specific details.

Some of these allegations were semi-general; that not-quite torture had identified terrorists (by photograph or voice), hiding places, structure, finance, communications, logistics, travel routes, and how to make sense out of captured documents and computer records. He did not explain why captured terrorists would be so eager to give us this information without being tortured.

In addition to these, Bush made some very specific allegations:

(1) The first high-ranking Al Qaeda member we captured was Abu Zubaydah, who was wounded but survived because of medical care provided by the CIA. Thanks to not-quite-torture, Zabaydah gave up terrorist Ramzi bin al-Shibh. The two of them, when not-quite-tortured, gave us Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the mastermind of 9/11.

(2) KSM, when not-quite-tortured, revealed a chain of terrorists, which led to the breaking up of a cell of 17 southeast Asian terrorists who were plotting attacks on the United States, probably using airplanes.

(3) Other plots KSM revealed under not-quite-torture included:

(A) A biological weapons program using anthrax
(B) An attack on Marines in Djibouti using explosive water tanks
(C) A car bomb attack on the U.S. consulate in Karachi
(D) A plot to hijack airplanes in England and fly them into Heathrow or the Canary Wharf
(E) A plot to blow up buildings in the U.S., planting the explosives high enough that people above the explosions could not escape by jumping out the windows.

It is an impressive sounding list, and abstract principles against the torture of the guilty are easily weakened in the face of evidence that it has saved lives of the innocent. On the other hand, given George Bush's general history of veracity in matters regarding the War on Terror, I would like some independent confirmation before accepting his statements at face value.

So far, I am only aware of the allegations about Zubaydah being directly challenged. KSM's capture has also been attributed to a tipster, who turned him in for a $25 million reward, or a lead from the Sultan of Qatar. Ron Suskind, author of One Percent Solution has alleged that Zubaydah gave a great deal of false information under not-quite-torture.

I am not aware of any direct challenges to Bush's other allegations, but then, most people do not have adequate information to know whether Bush is telling the whole truth. Before I accept George Bush at his word that we cannot win the War on Terror without resorting to not-quite-torture, I would like some of the following questions asked:

(1) How many false leads has not-quite-torture led to? We know of at least one, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi's statement that Saddam Hussein was training Al Qaeda members in chemical weapons. How many others? What is the ratio between true and false leads generated by not-quite-torture?

(2) How many of the genunie plots uncovered were "more aspirational than operational," as so many recently uncovered ones have turned out to be? Granted, there are good reasons to stop terrorist plots early on. But many "aspirational" plots fall through or are cancelled. And the less advanced a plot, the less the urgency and the easier it is to stick to legal methods without having to resort to not-quite-torture.

(3) How much of the information extracted by not-quite-torture could have been gotten, albeit more slowly, by other means such as signals intelligence, paying off tipsters, and study of documents and computers captured with the terrorists?

(4) And finally, granting that legitimate means of terrorist hunting are slower than not-quite-torture, how much could they be sped up and made more efficient by recruiting and training more translators and analysts who speak Arabic and understand Mideastern culture?

Needless, to say, we will not learn the answers to these questions. If pressed, the Bush administration will say that they cannot answer without revealing classified information vital to national security.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Neocon Who Can't See Color in Iraq

Thanks to Glenn Greenwald for pointing out the attached article as a classic example of black and white thinking. William Stuntz of the Weekly Standard is incapable of seeing color and misses large chunks of reality as a result.

Stuntz is arguing the need for us to stay the course in Iraq. He points out, and who would dispute, that the enemies we fight are evil. From there he leaps to the absurd conclusion that all the forces of evil are in league and that our side is necessarily good. Grudgingly, he admits that there have been exceptions in the past. In Vietnam, he acknowledges, the war was between two sets of thugs, only their thugs had more popular support than our thugs. But there is nothing thuggish about the Iraqi government today. Why?

Our side in Iraq holds elections. The other side kills people who stand in line to vote. America's military is fighting not to protect one set of thugs from another, but to allow a democratically elected government to establish itself in a society a majority of whose members want it to do so. It's hard to imagine a more morally worthy goal.

I will not go into all the details needed to refute this. See my previous post about the folly of making a fetish out of elections. Suffice it to say here that in Vietnam we held elections, too, to prove our moral superiority, but it did no good. An elected thug is still a thug. But there is one difference between this war and the Vietnam War. In Iraq our thugs really do have more popular support. To repeat the long familiar demographics, Iraq consists of 20% Sunni Arabs and 60% Shiite Arabs. Sunnis lead the insurgency; Shiites lead the government. But this does not make the government any less thuggish.

Stuntz then lays out his absurdly black and white view of the war:

We are fighting all three enemies in Iraq today: Baathist insurgents under the leadership of dead-end Saddamites, bin Ladenesque insurgents under the leadership of Zarqawi's successors, and Shiite death squads under the leadership of Sadr and his associates. Each of those groups loses big if a democratic regime is successfully established in Iraq. Baathist Syria will be less stable if Iraq is more so. A stable Iraq will show that Sunnis and Shiites can live together peacefully without a Sunni autocrat's boot, a terrible message for Sunni jihadists. And Shiite jihadism loses the most of all. Iran, now the biggest danger to American interests in the region, is potentially our most valuable friend, because Iran's population is more pro-American than any other Muslim people save the Kurds. A moderate Shiite-led democracy in Iraq would offer the Iranian people a picture of the alternative the mullahs and madmen who rule Tehran have denied them. That might mean the end of the current Iranian regime, in the not too distant future.

So, what's wrong with this picture? Well, for one thing, it implies (admittedly without actually saying) that these three evil forces are allies. True enough for the Baathists and the Sunni jihadists, who have formed a tactical alliance. But the Shiite death squads are their mortal enemy. Indeed, most of the fighting in Iraq today is a cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation between Baathist and jihadist insurgents and the Shiite death squads. Stuntz identifies Shiite death squads with Muqtada Sadr and his Madhi Army, and with Iran, both of which are true. But this account, though true, leaves out some critical facts. For instance Sadr and his movement, though hostile to us, are members of the ruling coalition. Furthermore, the leaders of this coalition, which we support, are the Supreme Counsel of Revolution in Iraq (SCRI) and the Dawa Party, both of which are associated with their own death squads, the Badr Brigades, which commit atrocities similar to the Madhi Army. It may very well be, though, that the Madhi Army commits its atrocities on a greater scale and is therefore worse that the Badr Brigades. It is certainly true that the Sadrists, although members of the ruling coalition that we support, oppose our presence in Iraq, unlike the more moderate SCRI, which supports it. On the other hand, our SCRI allies have much closer ties to Iran than our (sort of) enemies, the Sadrists. Given the ongoing sectarian strife in Iraq, Stuntz' hope for a "moderate Shiite led democracy" is a pipe dream. (He also neglects to mention that Baathist Syria and Baathist Iraq were deadly enemies, which they were).

Warning of the dire consequences of withdrawal, Stuntz warns:

On the other hand, if American forces were to leave Iraq now, the likely result would be an escalating civil war that would radicalize Iraq's Shiites, leaving Sadr and his ilk in control of either the whole country or its Shiite-majority region--along with most of its oil. That would give Ahmadinejad's Iran a chain of likeminded governments stretching from Afghanistan's western border to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. A jihadist Shiite superpower with nuclear capability at the head of such an alliance is a truly terrible outcome, comparable in world-historical terms to Hitlerite rule over Europe. It is well worth fighting to prevent this--indeed, it is worth fighting harder than America has fought to date.

Staying, on the other hand, appears to be leading to an escalating civil war that is radicalizing Iraq's Shiites and increasing the power of Sadr and his ilk. Indeed, it seems increasing likely that our enemy, the independent Shiite jihadist, will ultimately eclipse our ally, SCRI, the pro-Iranian Shiite jihadists. Either way, Iran's influence is expending.

Such are the perils of black and white thinking and oversimplied divisions into good and evil. I acknowledge that understanding subtle complexities of this kind can be frustrating, especially when they appear to defy logic. The analogy the cherries in a tree is a flawed one. Cherries, after all, are something people pluck because they are good to eat. There are no such tasty morsels in the Iraqi tree. But I nonetheless maintain that setting policy based on such failure to comprehend reality is as foolish as asking a color blind person which trees have cherries.