Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Difference Between a Detainee and a Hostage

I've argued before that Iranian president Ahmadinejad believes an American or Israeli strike on Iran would be in his interest because his domestic support is flagging and a strike would rally the country around him.

Now Iran has seized 15 British sailors and Marines. The UK claims its people were two miles inside Iraqi waters when they were taken; Iran claims they were 500 yards inside Iranian waters at the time. Even if you believe Iran (I don't), you have to ask: why are they holding these people? It's been nearly a week. What is Iran getting out of it?

England is ratcheting up its rhetoric and today froze all bilateral business with Iran. So far, I haven't seen references from the British government to hostages, and the omission of the word is of course deliberate. The government is trying to avoid inflaming public opinion. I don't know what language the British press is using, but the Wall Street Journal referred to "Tehran's Hostages" in an editorial on Monday.

If Iran holds these British captives much longer, or explicitly attempts to exchange their freedom for British concessions, the world will (correctly) begin to refer to them as "hostages." British public opinion will be inflamed. Public opinion in America, which had its own unpleasant, and emotionally unfinished, experience with hostages in Iran, will follow suit.

I've argued that the Bush administration has its own political motives for wanting to attack Iran. Now the mullahs are offering an opportunity. Either the mullahs are exceedingly stupid, or they know full well that motive + opportunity = action.

That question again: If both the mullahs and the Bush administration believe they'll gain politically from an American attack on Iran, how likely is it that the attack will happen?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Clues in the News

So much going on in the world, it's hard to keep up.

Adm. William J. Fallon, the new chief of the U.S. military's Central Command, claims there's no civil war in Iraq. A Pentagon report sort of agrees, because the term "civil war" "does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict." For me, the report makes it sound like what's going on in Iraq is worse than a civil war, but I'm not sure the Pentagon meant it that way.

As for the firing of those eight US Attorneys, as always, the cover-up is worse than the crime. In fact, in this case, there was no crime: as the White House has repeatedly pointed out, "US Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president." (By the way, am I the only one wishing I had people who served at my pleasure? Not just working for me, but actually serving at my pleasure? I thought only sheiks and sultans and satraps had people serving at their pleasure, and never thought to aspire to such stations... but now I wonder if I set my sights too low...).

So yes, certainly the White House has the power to fire any US Attorney it wants, or even all of them, as President Clinton did, and presumably for any reason. But then... why all the obvious lies coming out of the White House and the Justice Department about why, how, when, and by whom these people were fired? Why not just proudly proclaim: "Karl Rove directed Alberto Gonzales to weed out US Attorneys who he deemed were pro-Democrat or anti-Republican. It was a political move, and within the White House's rights." There would have been a brouhaha, and then the story would have faded away because there would be no lies and other inconsistencies for the media to glom onto and use to keep the story front center.

Instead, as with so many cover-ups, the White House wanted it both ways. It knew it could fire the US Attorneys, but also knew it shouldn't. It had the power, but didn't want to pay a political price for exercising that power. If these guys just had the courage of their convictions, they could have achieved their desired result and paid a much lower price for it. As it is, they're exposed, not for the first time, as liars and hypocrites, and at a minimum will have to throw Gonzales over the side to keep the White House afloat. It'll be interesting to see whether the ballast clearing stops there, or goes further.

Back to Iraq: here's a useful barometer for how long we'll be there: Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Democratic candidate Barack Obama have both felt compelled to retract their statements that US lives are being "wasted" in Iraq, insisting they meant to say "sacrificed," instead.

Of course, the candidates' first choice of words is likely the more accurate reflection of their true thinking, but more importantly, the retraction demonstrates their political thinking. Both candidates have concluded that America isn't ready to admit to itself that the war is unwinnable. If the war is winnable and we ultimately win it, we can tell ourselves our soldiers' lives weren't wasted. If the war is unwinnable, substituting words like "sacrificed" for "wasted" becomes a significantly more difficult exercise. I've said it before, and McCain's and Obama's retracted diction is simply further evidence: we're going to be in Iraq for a long time to come.

Here's a terrific op-ed by Zbigniew Brzezinski from yesterday's Washington Post: "Terrorized by 'War on Terror': How a Three-Word Mantra Has Undermined America."

Friday, March 16, 2007

Homosexual Acts Are Immoral?

First it was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, opining earlier this week that homosexual acts are immoral.

Now Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback says he agrees: "I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts." (The irrepressible former lawyer in me seized on that "between individuals" qualifier, wondering whether Brownback was intentionally creating a safe harbor for group sex. But I digress...)

What's going on?

First, note the language. Both Pace and Brownback were almost lawyerly in their focus on homosexual acts, rather than homosexuality itself. In fact, Brownback explicitly claimed that homosexuality isn't immoral, while homosexual acts are: "I do not believe being a homosexual is immoral, but I do believe homosexual acts are."

Generally, I like a legal and moral focus on behavior rather than conditions, thoughts, feelings, or or other internal matters. Who cares what people are, or what they think or feel, when it comes to the organizing principles of a society? For all sorts of reasons, we should focus on what people do. So let's examine Pace's and Brownback's position as they stated it.

General Pace compared homosexual acts to adultery. Both are external behaviors, not internal states, so fair enough. But adultery necessarily has all sorts of negative consequences. Consensual sex doesn't. So I don't understand the stated basis for Pace's position. He does offer a clue, though: "My upbringing is such that I believe that there are certain things, certain types of conduct that are immoral." Let's come back to that in a moment.

The apparent basis for Senator Brownback's position is a bit more straightforward: "I'm a Catholic and the church has clear teachings on this."

This is interesting. Neither man claims to predicate his beliefs on reason: Pace cites his "upbringing," and Brownback his religion. It occurs to me that there is a huge cultural gulf at work here, a fundamental difference in worldviews. The way the cultural difference expresses itself with regard to views on sexuality is only a manifestation, a symptom of something much larger.

Perhaps this is the heart of the matter: there's a kind of person who accepts uncritically what's taught by parents, by religious leaders, or by other authority figures. And there's a kind of person who isn't satisfied with a "that's what I was taught" basis for morality, or anything else -- the teachings must also stand up to reasoned inquiry or they will be modified or rejected. Actually, the distinction is more subtle than that. Both groups do employ reason (Pace offered up the gay sex = adultery argument, which is at least an attempt at reason, however obviously flawed). But the first group uses reason to try to buttress a belief in which it's already invested, while the second group uses reason to examine the belief itself.

Put it another way: there are people who believe their subjective tastes are a sound basis for law and morality. And there are people who can use reason to distinguish between their subjective tastes and objective morality. One group believes certain views are ordained by God, and that those views must therefore be correct. The other group believes a wrong view couldn't come from God, no matter what's claimed in a religious text or by a religious leader or anywhere else.

Brownback also said, "We should not expect someone as qualified, accomplished and articulate as General Pace to lack personal views on important moral issues. In fact, we should expect that anyone entrusted with such great responsibility will have strong moral views."

I wonder why Brownback suddenly shifted his precise focus from external behavior to internal states? No one (no one reasonable, anyway) cares particularly about General Pace's private opinions. The question is, was it appropriate for Pace to air that opinion, particularly while in uniform, particularly while many gay Americans are fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan? Does Senator Brownback have any thoughts on that?

Sidenote: Senator Clinton's initial reaction to General Pace's comments was to courageously note, "Well, I'm going to leave that to others to conclude." My God, at least Senator Brownback wasn't so afraid or scripted or whatever that he professed not to have an opinion. Later, Clinton changed her stance: "I disagree with what he said and do not share his view, plain and simple."

Related news: today's Wall Street Journal reports that "Poland's schools chief said teachers who promote 'homosexual culture' to students will be fired, insisting he's not on an antigay crusade."

I'm always curious about these terms... "homosexual culture" and "gay agenda." What are these things? What would it mean to promote them?

I had some gay teachers in high school. I'm not sure if they were promoting anything beyond what they taught in the classroom. I didn't receive any brochures about the awesomeness of the gay lifestyle or anything like that, but one guy did wear pink shirts... was he trying to tell me something? Regardless, I seem to have turned out heterosexual.

Judging from my own experience, I believe most of one's sexuality is inborn, and that environment matters at most at the margins. So I can't help wondering if people who are afraid of some "gay agenda" or gay teachers or hidden messages in SpongeBob Squarepants cartoons or whatever sense that they themselves are perched precariously on some sexual fence, and that it would take only a slight environmental nudge to topple them over to the other side. Why else would they be so exercised about the susceptibility of others, if they didn't feel it in themselves?