Thursday, November 29, 2007

Bad Blogger Habit

It is a very bad blogging habit to forego original thought and make posts that are just links to someone else's posts. Nonetheless, I recently saw a couple of comments that are just too good to pass up. Orcinus recently had a link to an earlier post on how to tell real conspiracies from paranoid conspiracy theories. Real conspiracies are characterized by:
  • Limited objectives (sometimes just a single, narrow purpose)
  • Limited duration
  • Limited participation.

As the boundaries of real conspiracies expand, the risk of failure or exposure increases exponentially. Paranoid conspiracy theories presuppose plots of virtually unlimited grandiosity, duration, and members. Real conspiracies break down long before they even approach such a scale.

Totally unrelated, but brilliant is the following epigram. "Conservatives love the (imaginary) America of the past, while liberals love the (imaginary) America of the future."


Saturday, November 17, 2007

Iraq: An Analogy Fit for Polite Company

If, as is much reported, the Iraqi civil war is currently winding down, that in no way vindicates the decision to invade in the first place. All civil wars eventually end. If this one ends after 4 to 5 years instead of continuing for 10, 20 or even 30 (as some civil wars have), that is certainly a development to be applauded. But it does not logically follow that our decision to invade, which set off the war in the first place, was sound.

Glenn Greenwald has likened treating the end of the civil war as a vindication of the invasion that started it to chewing up food and spitting it all over one's home for months and then expecting to be applauded for partially cleaning it up. Ever since reading that, I have been looking for a less disgusting analogy, one that can be used in polite society, including the campaign stump. Here is my effort.

Imagine that Crazy George believes that driving cars over cliffs is a cheap and effective means of repair. He sets out to prove the point with a beat-up old clunker that was in terrible shape to begin with. To people who question the wisdom of this course of action he responds, "What's the matter? Don't you think poor people with only beat-up old clunkers to drive are morally worthy of cheap and effective repair techniques?" He drives the car over the cliff and, suprise surprise, it is severely damaged in the fall. When people point this out, he says it is just a bit of "creative destruction" and once he finishes fixing up the damage, the old clunker will emerge in prime condition and everyone will want to drive cars off cliffs. For a seemingly endless time, he toils away at the car and succeeds only in exposing more and more damage. People urge him to give up the attempt as hopeless, but he perserveres.

Finally, he decides the real problem is that he was not devoting enough resources to the repair, buys a bunch of expensive new tools, and begins working on it 18 hours a day. After several months of this, he actually gets the car into a rough working order and is able to drive it for short distances. "See," he says, "I told you I could fix cars by driving them over the cliff."

The analogy is imperfect, of course, because when a car is truly hopeless, you can always junk it and buy a new one. That is not an option with countries, and it is callous to imply that it is. But, of course, that is all the more reason not to try to repair broken countries by driving them off the cliff.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

More On Lunatic Torture Hypotheticals

Katherine at Obsidian Wings has a brilliant response to the hypothetical ticking bomb. She counters with her own hypotheticals that have to be read to be truly appreciated. They are both side-slappingly funny and deadly serious at once. The point is, of course, that anyone with a modicum of imagination can invent a hypothetical to defend about anything. What's the point?

But that points up the brilliance of the ultimate hypothetical: would you have sex with a man to stop a terrorist attack?

Imagine it as a episode of 24. Yet another group of terrorists have planted one of those ubiquitous suitcase nukes to blow up Los Angeles. Jack Bauer and his team capture one of the conspirators and are about to torture him. Before they get the chance, he opens his shirt and shows the scars on his chest. A suicide device was surgically implanted in his heart and will go off with any severe stress and kill him. The crew confirms the device with X-rays. Any form of torture (including waterboarding) is out of the question. Then the terrorist takes Jack Bauer aside and confides a secret. He is really a closet homosexual and secretly hates his fellow terrorists for their anti-gay attitudes. He is willing to betray them by giving away the location of the bomb -- if he and Bauer can do the wild thing first.

How would Bauer and his editors handle it? The defense of torture, either on 24 or in any of the hypothetical arguments is the assumption that nothing short of torture can stop the attack in time. All other avenues of action are hopelessly blocked. But now (you can do anything in a hypothetical) torture is also blocked. The "only" option is no longer to do something terrible to someone else, but to submit yourself to supreme degredation. And why do I suspect that Jack Bauer, when faced with something he found truly repugnant (how repugnant can torture be when you do it so often?), would suddenly discovery that there were other options after all? And why do I suspect that the creators of 24, always so eager to prove that their hero will stop at nothing to keep us safe, could never bring themselves to make him do that?

Maybe the ultimate answer to the ticking bomb is not whether you would rape an infant to stop a terrorist attack, but whether you would be raped to stop it. Just imaging Jack Bauer facing such a dilemma should make clear how difficult such a choice might be.

(PS: This is my 100th post on this blog).


Thursday, November 08, 2007

Not-Quite-Torture and the Not-Quite-Ticking Bomb

Rich Lowry of the National Review recently defended waterboardking KSM as something short of torture and sort of a ticking bomb even if it was not the real thing. "Real life doesn't produce the kind of a-nuke-is-about-to-go-off scenarios featured on the television drama "24." The closest we are likely to get is the capture of high-level al-Qaida operatives like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed with knowledge of ongoing plots." Lowry acknowledges, then that the ticking bomb is a fantasy, but defends not-quite-torture of high-level Al-Qaeda operatives on the grounds that there might be a terrorist plot in the works that could be sort of a ticking bomb. But in acknowledging that a true ticking bomb is a fantasy and trying to stretch the scenario to include potential ticking bombs, he makes an excellent case why there should not be a ticking bomb exception to anti-torture laws.

The "ticking bomb" scenario assumes (1) an immediate, known danger that we lack one critical piece of information to stop, (2) a suspect in custody known to have that information, (3) no possibility of finding the critical information to stop the attack other than torture. As Lowry acknowledges, this situation is unlikely to occur in the real world. In the case of a captured Al-Qaeda leader we have (1) probable terrorist plots, at unknown stages of development, (2) a suspect in custody with knowledge about some (though not necessarily all) of those plots, and (3) captured documents, laptops, phone numbers, etc., and all the other resources that would be available if the terrorist had not been captured. It is true that there might be an immediate, ticking bomb danger that we do not know about. Or there may only be plots in early stages that remain months or even years from fruition. Or, the captured terrorist's co-conspirators may decide that any ongoing plots are compromised and call them off. We just don't know

And that is the real danger to making a "ticking bomb" exception to anti-torture laws. It is nearly impossible ever to know that any situation is a true "ticking bomb." But it is impossible ever to be sure that any situation is NOT a ticking bomb.


A Follow-Up on Plots Allegedly Disrupted by Waterboarding

When George Bush first publically argued in favor of a "program" of not-quite-torture, he identified a number of plots the not-quite-torture of Al-Qaeda captives had revealed:

(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. (The Library Tower plot?)

In response to his allegations that not-quite-torture was indispensible to fighting terrorism, I responded with a number of questions:

(1) How many false leads has not-quite-torture led to? . . . 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?

(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?

Apparently I was not alone in asking these questions. And now Gregory Djerejian (Belgravia dispatch) reports his research into the subject. His conclusions:

(A) Security at the Djibouti base left much to be desired, but he found no evidence of any planned terrorist attacks.
(B) There have been many terrorist attacks on the US consulate in Karachi, but no known plot matches the description George Bush gave.
(C) No one knows whether the Library Tower plot was ever more than idle talk
(D) An attack on Heathrow Airport does appear to have been thwarted, but our major break occurred before 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) was captured.

His overall, conclusion, then, is that there was no danger so urgent as to even approach a "ticking bomb."


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

We Won, Now What? (In the US)

I have discussed what Iraq's future may hold, now that we have AQI on the run. The next question is, what options does the US government, i.e., the Bush Administration, have. I see four:

Option 1: Declare victory and pull out. George Bush goes on national television and declares that AQI is defeated and the troops will now be coming home. They return home to ticker tape parades. The decision to invade Iraq will be proclaimed vindicated. In fact, if we have defeated AQI and are able to wind down Iraq's civil war, that is a vindication of Bush's decision to "surge" and General Petraeus' strategy. It is not a vindication of the decision to invade in the first place. Defeating AQI and ending Iraq's sectarian war are worthy achievements, but neither AQI nor sectarian war existed in Iraq before we invaded. Creating the conditions that give rise to a threat and then defeating that threat is a dubious victory at best. But this subtle distiction will almost certainly be lost in the victory celebration. George Bush's approval ratings will soar. All his other policies will presumed vindicated by implication. Democrats will lose whatever remains of their spines and give him whatever he wants. Republicans will win the Presidency and both houses of Congress by a landslide in 2008. All Bush's policies (preemptive war, warrantless wiretaps, torture, black sites, extraordinary rendition etc) will be locked in permanently. I certainly do not with continued war or any harm to either US soldiers or Iraqi civilians. But, unpatriotic as it may be, the prospect of George Bush using victory in Iraq to vindicate his policies alarms me.

Option 2: Stay the course (sort of). Our troops remain in place but do not seek out any ambitious new mission. Casualties continue to fall. No spectacular declaration of victory, but opposition to the war fades. What follows depends on the Iraqis. (See previous post). If Iraqis are willing to work hard enough to avoid continued war, then we may yet have a constructive role prodding along the sides to some sort of accommodation (probably a soft partition, even if they don't want to admit it). This will be less spectacular than a victory homecoming parade, but a reasonably good job of salvage. If successful and well-executed, I would support this course of action. If unsuccessful, we will be exactly where we have been for the past four years.

Option 3: Take on the Madhi Army. At least some people believe that, having defeated AQI, we will (or should) turn our attention next to the Madhi Army. Some hope they can be defeated in a "Shia awakening" similar to the "Anbar awakening" that defeated AQI. My own belief is that the Madhi Army will prove to be more formidable. AQI was always an alien imposition, with a foreign leadership (though mostly Iraqis in the rank and file), no strong ties to the country, and no real agenda other than kill, kill, kill, kill, kill.

The Madhi Army is a different matter. It is led by a member of Iraq's most respected clerical family, a mass movement with strong roots in many Shia communities. Its atrocities against Sunnis are well documented, and no doubt it has alienated many potential followers with its bloody clashes with the Badr Brigades and imposition of an overly rigid Islamic code. But it has also offered security, protection and social services to numerous Shiites when no one else was able to do so. It formed a strong organization in the slums of Bagdad even under Saddam Hussein's watchful eye, and continues to have strong support there to this day. It is strongly nationalist and has the streed cred of the only organization to defy Saddam while remaining in Iraq. It also hold posts in the government and remains (more or less) on the government's official side. The Iraqi government is apt to see any attempt to suppress the Madhi Army as a general attack on Shiite domination and resist. This will place us in the awkward position of claiming to be upholding Iraq's sovereign and democratic government while actively going against the government's wishes.

In short: The Madhi Army, like AQI, has many enemies. Unlike AQI, it also has supporters. Defeating it will be a messy business.

Option 4: Start a war with Iran. If you want to start a war with the 60% of Iraqis who are Shiite, with no guarantee of support from the 20% who are Sunni Arab, this is the way to do it. I remain optimistic that the Bush Administration is not this crazy.

Future posts on Iraq will depend on what course of action our President chooses.

Update: Glenn Greenwald also argues the possible wind-down of the Iraqi civil war is not a vindication of the decision to invade in the first place, with a (truly) pungent analogy:

It's basically akin to someone sitting on their couch and chewing up food and spitting it all over the floor and the walls and the furniture month after month until it piles up and congeals and grows into mold, turning the room into a repulsive, health-threatening mess. Guests come by and run away in horror at how repugnant it all is.

Then, one day, the person decides to pick up some of the congealed food from the floor and scrapes a little bit off the walls, making it a bit less filthy. Then he starts calling his friends, announcing: "You must come over. I've completely redecorated my home and it looks beautiful now. You have to see what I've done to it."

His reasoning is sound (if unduly gross), but I wish I shared his confidence that most people will agree. Maybe he should start a new career as a speech writer for his favorite Democrat.