Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Czar Kudzu

Recently I've noticed a trend where the government, apparently dissatisfied with normal channels, insists on coming up with some special means for accomplishing what the normal channels were always intended to do. I first started ruminating on this when various pundits and politicians began calling for a bailout and restructuring of Detroit's Big Three, a process that sounded to me remarkably like Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. Restructuring and refocusing a company while eliminating unsustainable obligations is the purpose of Chapter 11. So why reinvent the wheel? Why isn't the existing system adequate?

Then I started thinking about the Military Commissions Act, which created special tribunals to try accused terrorists. Did this mean existing courts were no longer adequate to protect society and dispense justice? And if they were adequate, why invent a new system of parallel courts?

(Actually, that last question might be a tad naive).

And we're always appointing someone "special envoy" to the Middle East or somewhere. Why do we need a special envoy? Isn't diplomacy, even (especially?) the most difficult diplomacy, why we have a State Department?

Remember when a year and a half ago, President Bush created a "War Czar?" The guy, Lt. General Douglas Lute, seems to have disappeared, but what was he supposed to do in the first place? If the Defense Department can't manage a war, what exactly is its purpose?

Then I read this excellent article in the Wall Street Journal on all our different "czars." President-Elect Obama is going to have (in addition to the usual Secretary of Energy) an energy czar; in addition to the usual Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, an urban affairs czar; in addition to the Secretary of the Treasury and a Council of Economic Advisers and a National Economic Council, an economy czar. And of course we have a drug czar and a Drug Enforcement Agency, the FBI apparently being inadequate to the task of fighting drug crime.

All the war on drugs duplication and the war's concomitant ongoing success (insert sarcasm emoticon here) makes me wonder: how high is the correlation between the severity of a policy failure and the amount of governmental duplication dedicated to it? Pretty high, I'll bet. Whether the correlation is also causal is debatable, but I have a theory: the more certain a policy is to fail, the more politically imperative it is for politicians to appear to assault the underlying problem with czars and commissions and special overseers. Then, when the inevitable failure occurs, the politician can say, "But look how much I was doing! No one could have done more."

In a sane world, we would simply end drug prohibition the way we sanely ended alcohol prohibition (after insanely criminalizing it). But because that route apparently is politically untenable, politicians have to do something to pretend they're really trying. So they create new positions and new departments. In politics, I suppose, the appearance of trying is almost as good as actual success.

Drug Czars, Special Envoys to the Middle East, War Czars... if duplication is predictive of failure, Obama's emerging org chart is less than comforting.

P.S. Here's some follow-up to my previous post, The True Price of the Dark Side.

First, here's the bipartisan "Senate Armed Services Committee Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody." Anyone still clinging to the fiction that Abu Ghraib was just a "few bad apples" should read this report, which makes plain that what happened at AG was ordered by the Bush Administration. You'd think a bipartisan Senate report proving the White House guilty of war crimes would be heavily covered in the mainstream media. You'd be wrong.

Second, here's some information on various flaming leftists -- such as 40+ retired Generals and Flag Admirals -- who are opposed to torture.

Third, here's a recent Washington Post op-ed by an Air Force interrogator, whose new book, "How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq," is available at your local bookstore. The article, which condemns torture on moral and practical grounds and is based on searing experience, is well worth reading.

Finally, a common thread I've noticed in many of the pro-torture arguments I've been receiving is a focus on the exception to the exclusion of the rule. I've noticed this tendency before in other contexts and it's always struck me as poor reasoning. A couple examples:

"I'm thinking about taking up judo. But who would win between a judo master and a karate master?"

I don't know that the question is wholly irrelevant to what art you might want to pursue. But are you planning on becoming a master? Do you think you might face unarmed combat against another master? If the answers are no and no, why is this question the foundation of the inquiry?

"I've written a manuscript. Can't I just send it directly to a publisher without an agent representing me?"

I know of at least one such success story (Judith Guest's "Ordinary People"), which proves that the un-agented route is at least possible. But is it *likely* to work? Does it make sense to try to get published in a way that almost never works, while ignoring the route that is proven most likely to work?

Similarly, when it comes to torture, proponents have a tendency to focus on the Ticking Suitcase Nuke in Manhattan scenario, something that so far as I know has never happened and the necessary facts of which are highly unlikely, while simultaneously ignoring the actual, demonstrated costs on torture, including false intel and a propaganda bonanza for our enemies.

In all cases, the thinking at issue strikes me as so tendentious that I suspect something subterranean is motivating it. As Dox might say (for those of you have read "The Last Assassin"): "This isn't really about hunting, is it?"