IN THE NEWS Just to let you know, I've had a week of intense writing projects for work, which has made it hard to post on this blog. Now that the writing load there has diminished, I'm hoping to pick up the writing pace here again.
IN THE NEWS
I'm not the only blogger writing about something not directly relevant
to the Schiavo controversy who nonetheless have succumbed to the urge
to comment on it. Clearly, this historical event touches on more than
the fate of a single woman and her tragically divided family. The
precedents it sets are important, particularly in a time when the
Republicans who dominate the three branches of the federal government
are eager to toss precedents aside in the name of "the war on terror."
Anyone with the most minimal knowledge of the law knows it's just plain
wrong to write laws that refer to a single individual. Both legislation
and court decisions state generalities. For example, if you are a
murderer who carefully and cold-bloodedly plots the demise of another
person, you fall in a category of punishment separate from those who
have killed in the heat of passion. No one would think of passing a law
for just one serial killer; however, they might contemplate how the
legal fate of a particular serial killer might point to strengths or
weaknesses in the current law.
The Schiavo law, therefore, breaks "the spirit of the law" that extends
from our own Founding Fathers back through the people whom they read
for guidance (Montesquieu, Locke, and others), all the way back to the
ancient scions of political philosophy like Aristotle. A law that
cannot be phrased as a general directive is a bad law. When you start
passing laws that only apply to specific people, or make judicial
decisions that allegedly only apply to particular litigants, you've
pretty much abdicated your responsibilities as a legislator or judge.
It's not alarmist to say that, once governments start picking out
individual citizens for specific punishment or reward, it's a quick
road to genuine tyranny from there.
If you think that the Schiavo controversy has passed its climax, I recommend that you read this article from The Marine Times. A North Carolina Congressman has drafted legislation that would dismiss all criminal charges levelled at 2nd Lt. Ilario G. Pantano, who is accused of shooting two Iraqi prisoners.
House Resolution 167, introduced by Rep. Walter B. Jones, R, states that Pantano, 33, was “defending the cause of freedom, democracy and liberty” in his actions on April 15 that resulted in the deaths of two Iraqis.
As the US government bangs the drum for democracy in the rest of the world, a Congressman here appears to need a refresher course on the rule of law. Obviously, this won't be the first time a Congressman has done or said something painfully stupid, but it is disturbing how quickly on the heels of the Schiavo resolution someone took inspiration from it.
IN THE NEWS When wars don't go as well as expected, people often devise bizarre theories to explain what is otherwise incomprehensible or unacceptable to them. During the American Civil War, many Northerners believed that the Union army lost key battles because certain Union generals, such as Burnside and Hooker, were actually secret Confederate sympathizers. As any aficianado of Civil War history can tell you, the truth of what happened at Fredericksburg, Manassas (twice), or Chancellorsville was a lot more messy and complicated than a diabolical conspiracy of one commanding general.
We're not immune to the lure of fevered fantasies ourselves. Recently, some observers have tried to blame the problems of the Iraqi occupation on Turkey. If only the Turks had allowed another prong of the invasion to come from the north, these people argue, Coalition forces could have swept through the Sunni heartland that much earlier, giving the resistance that much less time to organize. Tonight, I heard a resident scholar from the Center for the New American Century interviewed on the BBC make just such a claim, with what sounded like total earnestness.
Clearly, a hypothetical northern front in the invasion is a red herring. Insufficient troops to secure the country, near-total incomprehension of Iraqi society, the disbanding of Iraq's military and security forces, the opportunity for multiple insurgent groups to organize and equip for different objectives--the northern front would have had no impact on the real sources of two years of violence.
As the historian Richard Hofstadter argued in his famous essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," conspiracy theories are attractive when frightened people want the world to be a more manageable place than it is. It's more comfortable to believe in a world run by a cabal like the Rothschild family or the Bavarian Illuminati, Hofstadter argued, than to think that no one is really steering the course of history. We can blame Turkey for American casualties in Iraq, but ultimately, we might as well blame the Masons.
IN THE NEWS Thanks to Armchair Generalist for the pointer to this article from The Times. According to Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, Blair had decided to back Bush on the invasion of Iraq in 2002, knowing that the threat of WMDs was practically non-existent. MI6's report on the topic stated flatly, "There is more work to ensure that the figures
are accurate and consistent with the US. But even the best survey of
Iraq’s WMD programmes will not show much advance in recent years." However, Blair had already concluded that the invasion was inevitable, according to Dearlove, so Britain would go along with it regardless.
Of course, nearly everyone who thinks the Iraq invasion was a bad idea is probably jumping out of their chair to scream, WHY?!? The standard answers I've heard include two levels of Machiavellian logic.
Superficial Machiavellianism: Britain needed to back the United States so that it would stay on the good side of the world's only superpower.
Deep Machiavellianism: By staying the Bush Administration's friend, Blair's government could influence American foreign policy and, dare we say, contain US power.
If Blair had wanted to be a deep Machiavellian, he clearly failed. The Bush Administration is not contained, except by the realization (finally) of American military limits. Clearly, the White House has been impatient about the next phase, beyond Iraq, of its project to re-make the Middle East through the tender mercies of the US military. Britain didn't talk the United States out of bellicose language (and backstage military preparations) directed against Iran. In fact, Britain found itself trying to keep the public diplomacy with Iraq alive in spite of growling and snarling from the White House.
But even as a superficial Machiavellian, Blair has failed. Britain has not gained anything substantive from its alliance with the United States over Iraq. In fact, it has snagged itself in the same thorn bush, unwilling just to leave, and certainly uncomfortable with an open-ended deployment in Iraq. Britain's role in the EU hasn't improved either. Britain slogs through the usual problems with other European countries, such as the continued British violation of EU limits on deficit spending. In the same day's worth of news, Blair is working hard to convince his own electorate that the Anglo-American alliance against Islamic fundamentalism doesn't mean the British have to approve of American religious fundamentalism. (Funny how countries that have suffered sectarian conflicts, such as the English Civil War, have a much quieter but no less sincere version of faith than the thunderous millenarians.)
Americans, who love their dogs, often make jokes about how dogs train their masters, and not the other way around. I'm sure Blair heard one of these rib-ticklers from an American. I just hope he didn't take the idea too seriously.
IN THE NEWS When you first pick up a copy of Understanding Terror
Networks by Marc Sageman, a foreign psychiatrist and former foreign service
officer, you might be inclined to treat it as a typical academic book from a typical
academic press. Hmmm, bland title...Abstract graphic…The usual blurbs of praise
on the back cover… However, if Sageman publishes another edition of this book,
I urge him to re-title it, The Book You Should Either Read, Or Just Shut Up
I don't think Sageman has all the answers. I do think,
however, that this is a definitive book, the way, say, Black Like Me
encapsulated the experience of racism in the United States for many white
Americans who had little idea what all the fuss was about. The book may not be
the be-all, end-all. You may not agree with every point. You do have to read
What makes Sageman's book stand out is something that should
be otherwise unremarkable: a careful analysis of the social, economic, and
sectarian backgrounds of Al Qaeda terrorists. It's surprising that Sageman
stands almost completely alone in such an important field of study, but that's
a sad indictment of the state of our national understanding of "the day
that changed history." Sageman's topic is our enemy, the terrorists we
fear are plotting future 9/11-like attacks. He filters out terrorist whose
target is somewhere else, such as the government of the country in which the
terrorists are citizens (for example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt). Even Al
Qaeda doesn't see the United States as its ultimate enemy, but it has
concluded that it needs to defeat the "far" enemy before it can
finish off the "near" enemy (i.e., the governments of predominantly
Muslim countries). In short, Sageman provides Americans with the face of their
enemy, which is simultaneously more and less frightening than the current
unchallenged stereotypes depict.
Here's a brief run-down of Sageman's conclusions:
The entire Al Qaeda apparatus, prior to the invasion of Iraq, was not
that big—less than 200 dedicated planners, fighters, and support personnel.
The organization is indeed properly described as a network,
capable of adaptation and regeneration faster than a hierarchical organization
The network has four major clusters, largely based on region
or country of origin (for example, Maghreb Arabs vs. Egyptians).
These clusters exist because Al Qaeda built its organization
through prior affiliations—shared time in prison, familial ties, friendships
since childhood or adolescence, etc.
The stock explanations for why people become terrorists are
wrong. Poverty, low status, lack of education, lack of family ties, madrassa
indoctrination, and mental illness do no not manufacture Al Qaeda terrorists.
The statistics on Al Qaeda operatives are, if anything, skewed in the direction
of middle- to upper-class, decently educated, well-connected, and well-balanced
Al Qaeda's religious beliefs, the Salafist version of Islam,
is shared with millions of Muslims. Only a tiny fraction of Salafists, however,
support Al Qaeda. While recent conversion (or, perhaps more accurately,
re-affirmation) experiences figure prominently in the biographies of many Al
Qaeda members, Salafism, as uncompromising a creed as it is, does not ipso
facto drive people to acts of terrorism.
Al Qaeda's interpretation of Salafism does make it
impervious to compromise. Don't expect Al Qaeda to lay down arms and become legislative
candidates. However, when the targets of their scorn—purported Islamic
authorities and secular leaders—prove corrupt or ineffective, they do win
points with other Muslims, especially other Salafists on the fence about the
correct path for the Muslim world to take.
The core of Al Qaeda—its leadership, doctrine, organization,
and worldview—started with the Egyptian terrorist groups of the 1970s and
is important, but not as the cradle in which Al Qaeda was born. Certainly the
participation of some of its future members, such as Osama bin Laden, as part
of the "Arab Brigade" helped show that an armed struggle of dedicated
Islamists could defeat a superpower. However, the organization really got its
start in Egypt, not Afghanistan.
(Only one of the Al Qaeda members in Sageman's survey was from Afghanistan.)As a drama of heroic struggle, the war with the Soviets was
an important recruitment and indoctrination tool for later Al Qaeda efforts, broadening
the group's appeal after the war. However, the real turn towards violent
struggle against the United States
happened in the Sudan,
when people left or were pushed out of the organization, leaving a dedicated,
violent, and strongly anti-American core.
As I said, you can walk away from this picture with a
mixture of feelings. Will the war with Al Qaeda be easier or harder than most people originally thought? Here are a few possible answers:
Since we can dispose of the usual "root cause"
explanations for why people become terrorists (poverty, lack of education,
etc.), we don't have to depend on large societal transformations to turn the
spigot of Al Qaeda recruits down or off. In other words, we don't have to
remake the Middle East to defeat Al Qaeda.
The "quiet period" between 9/11 today, absent
further direct attacks against US targets, is no surprise. Al Qaeda is clever
and resourceful, but it is also small and, in some key ways, vulnerable. For
example, Al Qaeda leaders did not anticipate the speed and ferocity with which
the USA invaded Afghanistan
with its NATO allies only a few weeks later. Forcing Al Qaeda to lose its Afghan base of operations did hurt, but it did not prevent the organization from mobilizing its resources for attacks. Those assets were merely directed at different targets, such as the "3/11" attack in Spain.
The different parts of the network operate with a great deal of independence and initiative, so the Afghan invasion would not have stopped the 3/11 attack in Spain from happening.
Al Qaeda is not a big organization, and it
requires months or years to plan and execute attacks. There are not hordes of
terrorists slipping over our borders, but we would be foolish to ignore the
ones who genuinely may be out there.
We have to be careful about how our own missteps
can help Al Qaeda. From a pure counterterrorism standpoint, the Iraq invasion
is a complete disaster. The Al Qaeda network is now bigger, with new
"clusters" such as the al-Zarqawi group, Al Qaeda of Iraq. It also
has a new stage on which to play out, for a global audience, the mythology and
demonology of their brand of Salafist resistance.
Assuming the Al Qaeda organization doesn't continue to grow
at this pace, the overall size of Al Qaeda is still relatively smaller than
most people realize. Once the United States
leaves Iraq, most of the
violent energies once directed against us will stay in Iraq.
A conventional military approach to counterterrorism,
focusing on the geographic locations of terrorist camps or the regimes of
supposed terrorist patrons, will not destroy Al Qaeda. Unraveling the network
of associations, tracking down individual terrorists, and eliminating them as
threats is the only way to defeat Al Qaeda.
There is practically no likelihood, therefore, that the
large numbers of people we have detained post-9/11 from Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere have any
information that will help unravel Al Qaeda. Once again, Al Qaeda is a very
small terrorist network, not a Maoist-style guerrilla organization. We are
fighting a counterinsurgency war in Iraq, but you have to unravel that
conflict from Al Qaeda's global operations. Al Qaeda may be using the Iraq insurgency
for its own purposes, and some members of the Al Qaeda network are responsible
for attacks on US, Coalition, and Iraqi targets. However, these are the
exception that defines the rule. The vast majority of the people shooting at
Americans in Iraq
are not members of Al Qaeda, nor do they share its ideology and objectives.
In the political sphere, where we are trying to steer people
away from supporting or joining Al Qaeda, half measures are worse than doing
nothing at all. Al Qaeda's chief message is, "Those who claim to speak for God,
or who say that there is a separate sphere of sovereignty away from the
commandments of the Koran and the Hadith Reports, are either corrupt or stupid.
Judge for yourself by their actions and their results." If we set up our allies or ourselves for
failure, such as we have done with our inattention to "finishing the
job" in Afghanistan,
we should not be shocked if Al Qaeda benefits from the ensuing disappointment and
As you can tell, Understanding Terror Networks is a book
that gets you thinking. I strongly urge you to put it at the top of your pile of
books to read.
IN THE NEWS [I'm not usually big on cultural criticism. Lately, though, there's been so much to cover in that area that it's made me think, What the heck?]
A guilty pleasure of mine is actually making me feel guilty. We started watching the Fox action series 24 after the first season was already on DVD. After the first episode's amazing cliffhanger, we were hooked. We consumed episodes like popcorn, wolfing down the first season, then the second.
When we finally got to watch the third, we were disappointed. And the fourth, which is being aired now, has me worried.
You'd expect a lot of things about TV shows depicting counterterrorism to take dramatic license. For one thing, the whole format of 24 is based on something that really almost never happens, the "ticking bomb" scenario. Urgency about killer viruses about to be released, nuclear bombs smuggled into Los Angeles, or plots to kill the President unfolding keep the action moving. The real world of counterterrorism is a lot more boring, with most professionals never seeing the kind of action that's weekly fare on 24 and other shows (Alias, La Femme Nikita--heck, even the old British show, The Avengers).
I worry that an audience of people who have little or no exposure to what the real cat-and-mouse game between terrorists and governments is like will get the wrong impression from these recurring "ticking bomb" plots. After all, a lot of the changes to US federal law are based on the idea that, since the 9/11 attacks, we're always living on the cusp of another catastrophe. After seeing the frequency of torture increase from one season of 24 to another, I'm equally worried now about the normalization of torture--which, of course, is based largely, but not completely, on this sense of false urgency.
Without rehashing all the torture incidents in 24, let's just recount this season's:
An agent of the fictional Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU) tortured the son of the Secretary of Defense because he may have been withholding information about this father's and sister's kidnapping.
The head of CTU tortured an analyst suspected of being a terrorist mole. Later, when she complained to the CTU chief's replacement, she was summarily fired.
Later, CTU agents tortured the real mole.
Special Agent Jack Bauer, the lead character, tortured a businessman who had a partial interest in a building where terrorists had been working.
The head of security for a major defense contractor tortured the same businessman to find a critical document implicating the company in a terrorist attack.
Is this entertainment? In some cases, depictions of torture are not only palatable, but possibly necessary. You couldn't make a movie about Stalinism without, say, the straightforward torture inflicted on prisoners, or the creepy use of psychiatric drugs and surgery to control and interrogate dissidents. However, the writers of 24 have turned to torture as a plot device, and a reflexively used one at that. The action is flagging...time for someone to talk! Maybe by next season, the series will have reached the reductio ad absurdum of all the main characters torturing each other at least once by the 24th episode.
Of course, both the white hats and black hats have the same excuse: exigency. Bauer is always growling something about, "We really need this information." However, torture has turned into practically the only technique the characters on 24 know to get it from human sources. After all, a nuclear reactor is about to melt down, so who can bother with niceties--or even other possible sources, often more reliable than the words of someone who is trying to tell the torturer what he thinks his interrogator wants to hear?
The series has come under fire this season for its unflattering portrayal of Muslims, every one of who in the first several episodes was a diehard terrorist. (In the last episode, we got to meet a few "good Muslims." I don't know if they were part of the script all along, or a quick addition after Fox received too many complaints to ignore.) The normalization of torture should inspire as loud an outcry, on behalf of everyone. Torture is not only evil, it's ineffective. You have to wonder, therefore, about a screenwriter who blithely adds it as the tool of choice for fictional counterterrorism professionals, after what has happened in the real world of Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Base, Guantanamo Bay, and other US detention facilities.
In the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Americans as a whole took a different view on violence in TV and movies. The studio behind the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Collateral Damage delayed its release because the usual American action movie would have appeared unseemly to audiences fresh from the real-world carnage of 9/11.
I did think, and still do, that it's important to worry about what is unseemly entertainment in the face of violence in Manhattan, Oklahoma City, Baghdad, Kabul, Bali, London, Karachi, Paris, Bogota, and countless other places in the world. I don't think that violent TV shows, movies, video games, or books inspire violence in the real world. The problem with the casual use of torture in our entertainments isn't some insidious psychological influence that will program all of us to be proto-torturers. Instead, the dangers lie in overt policy positions about what's normal and effective when handling terrorists, their informants, their friends and families, their mild acquaintances. All of which, of course, presupposes the person at the center of this web of affiliations turns out to be, in fact, a terrorist, and not just, say, someone with a name that's the same as or similar to the actual terrorist.
P.S. 24 is also rubbing me the wrong way for the typical boneheaded decisions about casting characters of a particular ethnicity. One of the terrorists from a few episodes ago, Omar, was played by Tony Playa, an actor born in Cuba who usually plays Hispanics. Shohreh Aghdashaloo, who portrays the frightening "My Mother The Turkish Terrorist," is Iranian, as I could tell in 10 seconds of hearing her speak. Enough, already, of casting people for roles because the actors are, you know, swarthy.
It should be pretty clear what needs to be said. The Russian government took down Yukos and its CEO, Mikhail Khodorkhovsky, the same way it took down every other possible rival to Putin's nascent autocracy: a barrage of unpayable tax burdens and criminal accusations. The fall of Yukos should have been the last straw for anyone who wanted to give Putin the benefit of the doubt, but the former KGB officer knows when he's playing the stronger hand.
Putin knows the US government is keeping a code of silence with him. Bush doesn't say too much about Putin's power grabs (including the cynical use of the Beslan massacre to cancel the direct election of regional governors) and meat cleaver tactics in Chechnya. Putin, in turn, doesn't say anything about Bush's actions in Iraq and elsewhere, especially since they share a highly militarized view of counterterrorism.
Without any real leverage over Moscow, Washington can't go beyond the code of silence. The Bush Administration threw away its chief source of influence over Putin, good relations with the Western European governments that control a substantial amount of the aid and investment flowing into Russia. The Administration won't declare economic sanctions against Russia, since it's wary of doing anything to alienate the American business leaders who support Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress. So what other arrows are in our quiver? None, really.
During their recent summit, Bush and Putin did the minimum required in a highly public forum. Bush said something vague about American concerns over Russia's "direction;" Putin listened. Only the most pathologically optimistic person would expect more to come.
Since I'm in the mood for proverbs today, I'll close on a Russian one: Not every person who wears a cowl is a monk. And not every election elevates someone committed to democracy.
IN THE NEWS When you're like me, and you almost never watch TV news, it's easy to underestimate the magnitude (and stupidity) of media frenzies. However, with Congress' intervention in the Schaivo case, what was a cause celebre in some media outlets has evolved into something much larger.
So why am I, the author of a blog on national security affairs, mentioning this topic at all? To inspire, I hope, a moment of calm reflection, away from the angry cacophany of radio and television. I recommend that you take a few minutes to recall the Iraqi town in which US forces accidentally killed 40 guests at a wedding party. If you can't remember, it shouldn't take too long to use Google to find that fact. Next, find the names of the bride and groom, and also take the extra effort to learn if both, either, or neither survived the incident.
Then it might be a good time to return to the discussion of the uses of federal power to save lives, either in Florida or Iraq. It's also worth thinking about how mobilized political constituencies in this country get over one issue over another. At stake in one case is the life or death of a single woman, in a difficult circumstance that every family hopes it never has to face. At stake in the other case is the United States' progress in winning (however defined) the war in Iraq--not to mention the uncounted lives of the Iraqis themselves.
If you can't wait, highlight the text after this sentence to see the answers. The town in question was Husaybah. Both the bride, Rutbah Sabah, and the groom, Azhad Nayef, were killed.
The Pakistan/North Korea relationship was already well-known. The Pakistan/Libya connection, on the other hand, is news--not only to you and me, Dear Reader, but to China, South Korea, and Japan. The Bush Administration had assured them that the North Koreans were to blame for directly supplying "Daffy Qadaffi" with dangerous materials--an alarming indication, perhaps, of just how dangerous, desperate, and unpredictable the Pyonyang regime had become. North Korea still looks scary in hindsight, but not quite as erratic.
In fact, some of North Korea's actions look quite sane, from a brinksmanship perspective. While their recent announcement of having some nuclear warheads already produced may sound ho-hum, it does have substantial diplomatic significance. If they had continued to withhold this announcement, they could have struck a deal with the United States, directly or through other channels, that would have cost them no prestige. Not having admitted to possessing nuclear weapons, there would have been less embarassment if they had given them up.
The North Koreans have heard a lot of threats from the White House since 2001, but they also know how much strain Iraq has put on our military capabilities elsewhere. Despite his odd interest in the correct socialist haircut, Kim Jong Il is not crazy to think that he can afford to increase the pressure on the United States by reducing his own options. Whatever cost there would be for a Libyan-like arrangement with North Korea, it got higher once the North Korean government said it had nuclear warheads that it would now have to throw away--in the glare of the world's spotlight, with intrusive weapons inspections and all sorts of other embarassments.