Sunday, May 20, 2007

Iraq: Not a Legitimate Humanitarian Intervention

Rich Lowry of the National Review has written a column defending Tony Blair as an honest and consistent liberal interventionist and condemning his critics as hypocrites. Why, Lowry asks, did so many liberal interventionists favor humanitarian intervention during the Clinton Administration and then change their minds as soon as a conservative Republican endorsed it. Why did they dismiss Tony Blair as a "poodle" for sticking to his old principles? Why would an advocate of liberal intervention oppose the invasion of Iraq, other than sheer partisanship?

As a supporter of humanitarian intervention myself, how do I defend opposing the invasion of Iraq? As an answer, let me run down the five guidelines recommended by the International Crisis Group and see how well they fit in the case of Iraq.

1) Just Cause: Is there serious and irreparable harm occurring to human beings, or imminently likely to occur [such as mass killing or ethnic cleansing]? The answer here was no. That Saddam Hussein was an extremely brutal and oppressive ruler no one disputes. At other times during his reign, particularly when he bloodily suppressed Kurdish and Shiite revolts, humanitarian intervention would have been justified. But the last such crisis had been in the wake of the Gulf War in 1991. After the revolt was defeated, there was a brutal and oppressive regime in power, but no crisis so grave as to justify military intervention. Atrocities committed twelve years ago do not justify an invasion here and now. Absent an immediate humanitarian crisis, the other criteria are moot, but I will address them nonetheless.

(2) Right Intention: is the primary purpose of the proposed military action to halt or avert human suffering, whatever other motives may be in play? I would qualify this requirement and permit interventions in which the primary motive is legitimate self-interest, so long as humanitarian motives are present and imperialist motives are absent. By these standards, the invasion of Iraq triply fails. The Bush administration did not claim that they were launching a humanitarian intervention; they said they were invading to get rid of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Like most people at the time, I did not question that Saddam had such an arsenal. But I did not see his arsenal as any threat to us, so the intervention could not be justified as legitimate self-interest. Saddam's arsenal might be a threat to his neighbors so acting in conjunction with them to remove Saddam might be seen as defending someone else's legitimate self-interest. But the neighbors did not seem concerned. As for humanitarian motives, some people in the Bush Administration probably had them, but in the absence of an immediate humanitarian crisis, they were not sufficient to justify the war. And as for imperialist motives, the invasion of Iraq was touted as part of Bush's general strategy of preemption; the doctrine that we were allowed to invade any country we wanted at will. That is the very definition of imperialism.

(3) Last Resort: has every non-military option for the prevention or peaceful resolution of the crisis been explored, with reasonable grounds for believing lesser measures will not succeed? It seems reasonable to assume that nothing short a direct invasion would have gotten rid of Saddam. But, absent an actual crisis, this does not justify intervention on humanitarian grounds.

(4) Proportional Means: is the scale, duration and intensity of the planned military action the minimum necessary to secure the defined human protection objective? Our problem was the opposite, that we did not have enough forces to secure the country. This problem is endemic to humanitarian interventions.

(5) Reasonable Prospects: Will intervention just make things worse? This one scarcely merits an answer. The question that will long be debated is whether a more competent occupation would have been more successful.

So, there were good reasons other than simple partisanship to oppose George Bush's invasion of Iraq. In this case, however, even purely partisan opposition would have been justified. Liberal/ humanitarian intervention belongs on the (growing) list of things conservatives do not do well. A distrust of this sort of mission ran throughout the Administration from the hawkish Cheney, who ran for office saying he opposed "nation building" and that the proper role of the army was waging war, to the dovish Powell, who said that military operations should include overwhelming force, defined objectives, and a clear exit strategy. People who at their core oppose humanitarian intervention and nation building are unlikely to do a good job of it. And when they claim to be undertaking such a mission, their statements should be regarded with skepticism.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Speculation Game

(NOTE: This was originally going to be an update to my last post, but the information grew so quickly as to overrun it).

Perhaps I owe James Comey (though not John Ashcroft) an apology. Comey gave dramatic testimony about the attempt to force Ashcroft to approve warrantless wiretapping in March, 2004, and how Justice Department officials, by threatening mass resignations, forced the Bush Administration to make modifications. I cynically pointed out that Ashcroft and Comey had been approving the illegal program for two and a half years before raising any objections and that even with modifications they did not actually require the Administration to comply with the law. This raises two obvious questions: (1) Why did they suddenly object after the program had been in place for two and a half years? (2) What "modifications" were made? (Which naturally also raises the question of what the original program was).

Professor Marty Lederman of Balkinization, has a plausible answer to the first question. Professor Lederman is a former official of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), the branch of the Justice Department that advises the President. According to Lederman, once the OLC gives an opinion on the legality of a White House action, the DOJ signs on 99% of the time. Prior to October, 2003, John Yoo headed the OLC and advised the the President's authority was essentially unlimited. What he authorized, John Ashcroft approved. In October, 2003, Jack Goldsmith replaced John Yoo and found a lot to clean up. Although it is very rare for the OLC of any one administration to change its mind, Goldsmith found many of Yoo's opinions (such as the Torture Memo) so odious as to require reversal. Reviewing and revising OLC opinions is time consuming; it took Goldsmith two months to reverse the Torture Memo and another three months to reverse Yoo's opinions on warrantless surveillance. Comey, as I understand it, came on board about the same time as Goldsmith and perhaps can be excused taking some time to become oriented. Ashcroft is a different matter; he know the Administration was violating FISA and regularly signed off on it until the OLC rebelled.

As to the second question, be have only speculation, but Professor Lederman offers a good roundup of the best guesses. There are two main speculations. The more commonly held view is that the change was two-fold. Prior to the DOJ revolt, the program was justified under John Yoo's theory of the President's inherent authority under Article II of the Constitution to conduct foreign intelligence surveillance, even in defiance of a Congressional statute (FISA). After the revolt, the justification switched to a claim that Congress authorized such surveillance when it passed the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUFM) against Al-Qaeda. This was not merely a change in rationale. The AUFM theory limited surveillance to cases in which some sort of Al-Qaeda involvement was suspected; the Article II theory imposed no such limits. Lederman appear to favor the alternate explanation. The original program began with wiretapping numbers captured from Al-Qaeda and then expanded out to their contacts, the contacts of those contacts, and so on without limit. The DOJ revolt set limits on how far the surveillance could extent.

Of course, we don't know. Both proposals are speculation. But since the game is on, let me add my own speculation. Following the initial report were later rumor that the program was much broader than just wiretapping caputured numbers. Instead, the NSA was engaged in computer monitoring and filtering of a wide variety of international calls. This was classic data mining, with nothing approaching probable cause. The estimate was that out of 5,000 calls screened, about 10 were worth seeking a warrant. Furthermore the NSA was asking the FBI to investigate its suspicions. Most leads the FBI was asked to investigate were false. Agents became so frustrated with false leads they began calling them "more calls to Pizza Hut." Could this broad system of data mining be what the DOJ demanded stopped? Far be it from me to gainsay the experts, but anyone can play the speculation game. And I will add one advantage to my proposal. As one
observer noted, the FBI seems very interested in what was supposedly an NSA program of wiretapping. What was their role? The Observer believes they were also involved. But maybe they just wanted to be spared investigating all those "calls to Pizza Hut."


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

John Ashcroft: Looking Better, but Not Good Enough

Indulge me in a brief stroll down memory lane. Not too far back, just to the days after the 2004 election when George Bush nominated Alberto Gonzales for Attorney General. Conventional wisdom held that he was a moderate who had, after all, once allowed a teen-age girl in Texas to have an abortion, that the strongest opposition would come from social conservatives, and that Democrats would not oppose him because he was Hispanic, he was moderate on abortion and, well, he was not John Ashcroft. To their credit, Democrats defied conventional wisdom. They grilled Gonzales over signing the "Torture Memo," and 36 Democratic Senators voted not to confirm him. Still, Gonzales was confirmed by a wider margin than Ashcroft. And Demcrats' questions to him, perhaps understandably, focused on more dramatic but narrow issue of the scandalously narrow definition given to torture and not on the deeper and even more disturbing implications of the Torture Memo -- that the President is above the law.

I thought about this while reading former Deputy AG James Comey's much-reported testimony about how Gonzales (then White House Counsel) and White House chief of staff Andrew Card sought to trick a hospitalized and very ill John Ashcroft into signing his approval of an unidentified "program" the Justice Department could not certify as legal. Although Comey refused to name the program in question, it has already been identified as the warrantless surveillance, which the Bush Administration has justified with essentially the same theory that the President is above the law that it used to defend torture. Comey, clearly an admirer of Ashcroft, tells a dramatic story of how Ashcroft, groggy and drugged after surgery, nonetheless rose to the occasion and gave a detailed argument of why he could not certify the program as legal. Comey relates that it was only when he, Ashcroft, their respective chiefs of staff, and Robert Mueller, Director of the FBI, all threatened to resign en masse that the President agreed to let them modify the "program" in such a way that they could certify it as legal.

It is a riveting story. Certainly Ashcroft, resolute on his sickbed and ready to resign on principle to uphold the rule of law, comes across a lot better than the sleazy Gonzales, seeking to manipulate a sick man into signing a document without understanding it. But before we go too far in admiring Ashcroft and Comey for their brave and principled stand, let us keep a few things in mind. Despite their insistence that they could not certify this "program" as legal, it had been going on since shortly after September 11, 2001, and this was already March, 2004. They had been certifying the program for nearly two and a half years before their sudden change of heart. Second, although we have only rampant speculation as to what changes were made, we do know one thing. Those changes did not go so far as to require a warrant before eavesdropping, which is to say, they did not require the program to comply with the the law (FISA) in order to be certified as legal.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Jihadis -- Professional and Amateur

No sooner had the FBI thwarted a terrorist plot by six Muslims in New Jersey to attack Fort Dix, then commentators of all persuasions began taking the opportunity to advance their various agendas. I might was well weigh in with my own unoriginal thought. The lesson I would take from this episode is that most jihadis are not all that bright or competent. How stupid can jihadis be? Well, these ones came to the attention of the authorities when they asked a local photo shop to put one of their terrorist videotapes onto DVD! The terrorists who planted a in the World Trade Center parking garage in 1993 were caught when they went back to reclaim a deposit on the rental truck.

I highly recommend the linked Christopher Dickey column that expands on this idea. Dickey argues, in effect, that terrorists may generally be divided into the amateurs and the professionals. The amateurs are the local recruits, angry, alienated and violent, but no smarter or more skilled than ordinary criminals. The professionals are graduates of terrorist training camps, smart, skilled, and deadly. The 1993 attack on the World Trade Center is a good illustration. The pros built the bomb, a job that called for skill. The amateurs planted it, a job that did not. (Although a little common sense might have been useful). Amateurs can graduate into professionals, but the time and expense of recruiting the most promising local talent, smuggling them into distant training camps, giving them a full terrorist training, and them smuggling them back home again ensures that the professionals will always be a small portion of the total.

Making this distinction offers some important insights into dealing with terrorism. One is that it makes a difference whether a terrorist attack is purely a local endeavor or whether the terrorists in question have ties to Al-Qaeda or have visited other training camps. It is the difference between bumbling amateurs and the truly deadly. Another insight is that from a terrorist planner's perspective amateurs are a whole lot more expendible than professionals. It is better to keep the few pros who know how to make powerful bombs out of harm's way and let local recruits be the ones to blow themselves up. This means not only that the amateurs are far less dangerous without professionals to guide them, it also means professionals will become less effective without local recruits to do their grunt work. (There are exceptions. September 11 called for the suicide of four members skilled enough to fly planes, and required all suicide participants to be sophisticated enough to blend inconspicuously into US society. But Al-Qaeda will end up harming itself if it has too many of its top talent kill themselves).

Finally, it offers the answer to the whole question of war versus law enforcement. The War on Terror has always been an uncomfortable fit because it deals with something that is more than crime but less than war. I would say, use the war paradigm in dealing with the training camps that make the pros. Use military force to take out the training camps, and jihad central will lose its ability to train professionals capable of waging war on us. Law enforcement is quite sufficient to handle the amateurs.


Monday, May 07, 2007

The Problem with Conservatives Who Cry Liberal Bias

It's an ongoing saga. Conservatives accuse some institution of having a liberal bias and set out to counter it. When the alternative goes against the judgment of experienced professionals in the field, conservatives dismiss this as evidence that the professionals have a systematic liberal bias. The examples are legion.

Fox New calls itself "fair and balanced" in contrast to the liberally biased network news. The Bush Administration stops having the American Bar Association screen its judicial nominees and refers them to the Federalist Society instead. Michelle Malkin defends the internment of Japanese-Americans and dismisses mainstream historians who disagree as "professor[s] whose tenure relies on regurgitating academic orthodoxy about this episode in American history." Douglas Feith selectively cuts and pastes intelligence reports on Iraq and says he is overcoming the CIA's anti-war bias. The Conservapedia sets out to counter the liberal bias of the Wikipedia. And now it appears that YouTube has a liberal bias and conservatives are founding Qube TV as an alternative. And then there are the alleged "alternatives" to evolution.

Two things invariably happen in all these cases. First the conservative alternative is invariably more biased than the original. After initial denials, conservatives admit it is true, but say that everything biased and they are simply providing a counterbalance. And I will concede their point that journalists, academics, scientists and lawyers tend to be liberal in outlook and that this may leak over into their supposedly objective work and create a bias. But a second and more important problem remains with these conservative alternative. They are invariably inferior to the purportedly biased mainstream versions.

So, unless we believe that reality has a liberal bias, why is that so? I believe the answer is that people creating conservative alternatives ignore basic rules of sound methodology. They tend to assume that sound methodology means methodology that yields results I like and is ideologically defined. But there are certain basic principles of how to analyze data to draw sound conclusions that are remarkably similar regardless of whether the field is science, history, journalism, intelligence analysis, etc.

  • Analyze the facts to reach a conclusion. Do not begin with a conclusion and arrange the facts to support it.
  • It is acceptable to approach the facts with a preliminary hypothesis, so long as the hypothesis can be modified or abandoned if the evidence warrants. What is not acceptable is for the hypothesis to be unchangeable regardless of facts.
  • Look for the broad general pattern, while noting anomalies for future investigation. Do not focus on anomalies and ignore the general pattern. (Do not conceal the anomalies, either).
  • Beware of single sources. They are apt to be anomalies. Reality leaves ample evidence.

These principles and not ideological. Neither, I admit, are they natural to most people's way of thinking. Most people have strong preconceptions that are hard to shake and are more impressed with a striking annecdote than a mountain of facts. But they are necessary for good scholarship or investigation.

If conservatives want to prove an institution liberally biased and offer an alternative, let them present evidence that mainstream members ignore these principles and offer alternative that adhere to them more rigorously. And if liberals wish to avoid being supplanted by inferior and more biased alternatives, then we need to teach people the importance of these principles for any sort of serious understanding.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Government Conspiracies, Real and Imagined

None of my previous posts are intended to deny the existence of real conspiracies. But the difference between real and imaginary conspiracies is that real conspiracies cannot help but create evidence. September 11 conspiracy theorists set out to poke holes in the "official" version of events. But not only do their own scenarios leave holes large enough to fly a 767 through, conspiracy theorists offer no positive evidence in favor of their proposed versions of events.

Consider the government's conspiracy to establish "black sites" (secret prisons) and practice "extraordinary rendition." These actions created evidence that simply could not be made to go away. This evidence included accounts by surviving victims, witnesses mysterious plane flights among different suspicious sites, and witnesses who saw handcuffed and hooded prisoners taken onto the planes. Sharp investigative reporters with the Washington Post were able to trace one such plane through its numerous stops, and to determine that the corporation said to own the plane and all corporate directors where shams.

Compare this to "no-planes" conspiracy theorists. Unlike the planes used in extraordinary renditions, neither the diverted planes, the drone substitutes nor cruise missile has created any flight record or been observed taking off or landing at any airport or landing field. Extraordinary rendition flights, despite all attempts at secrecy, cannot be concealed. 9/11 decoy flights are apparently invisible ghosts.

Granted, some conspiracy theorists accept that the planes hit their targets. But what of the explosives used to bring down the towers? When Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City federal building, government investigators were able to trace where he purchased and stored the fertilizer used to make the bomb. So where did the explosives used to bring down the WTC come from? What demolitions company had unaccounted explosives mysteriously disappear? Or had crews sent off on mysterious, unknown missions? Why did not one person notice strange maintenance work going on at three towers simultaneously? And just how many people were involved, for how long, transporting what quantity of explosive? Without arousing any sort of suspicion?

And there are countless other alleged events that should have left some sort of evidence. If the planes were flown by remote control, how was the remote control installed? Who operated it, and from where? If the telephone calls were faked, what evidence is there from flight records that someone was stalking crew members and regular passengers? And if there was a "war room" faking the calls, shouldn't that fact show up in telephone records? The more elaborate one's conspiracy theory, the more people involved and the more evidence it should have created. So why didn't it?

And finally, this link should be good for a laugh as it attempts identify all the conpsirators involved. The following are only a few of them:
  • Everyone responsible for planting evidence in the hijackers cars, bags and so on
  • Everyone responsible for planting evidence in the WTC wreckage (passports etc), or removing it (WTC black boxes)
  • Air Traffic Control and flight schedulers at the takeoff airports (to cope with the double flights), and to make sure they didn't follow procedure in reporting the hijackings promptly
  • Whoever prepared the "special" planes swapped for the real flights, complete with "missile pod" for firing into the towers just before impact, and the ATC and Norad staff who didn't mention the swap
  • Norad and senior officers working at the day (so they could lie about the war games and their lack of response)
  • Fighter pilots who deliberately flew too slowly so they wouldn't reach the aircraft in time
  • Whoever shot down Flight 93, and the senior officers who helped cover it up
  • Everyone who researched the passengers, then all the actors who used that research to make fake mobile calls to their relatives, and either the phone company or the FBI for covering up the phone records
  • Everyone involved in killing hundreds of passengers, assuming they didn't die in the crashes and were killed later
  • Everyone involved in transporting their bodies to the various scenes if they did, or faking the DNA evidence if they didn't
  • The people who researched the WTC to find out the best place to place explosives
  • The people who planted the explosives through the WTC towers and WTC7
  • Whoever detonated the WTC explosives at various different times of the day

The author concludes by recommending:

If you discuss 9/11 conspiracies online anywhere, try keeping your own list,and add to it everyone someone implies that another person or group was “in on it”. Then produce the list after a month or two and see just how realistic it looks...

My recommendation: Read the entire link.