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?"


Mark Terry said...

I agree with you about the czar nonsense. When I heard they were considering a Car Czar, I suggested to my wife that that they appoint Afghani leader Hammad(?) Karzai, so we could then have The Honorable Karzai, Car Czar.

On the cynical side, all these czars and special envoys may very well be political favors. After all, what is a president to do about all those out of work vice presidents and congressmen? I know, let's form a Blue Ribbon Panel, appoint them to it, then ignore their advice.

On the positive side, I've wondered if it has to do with the fact that although, for instance, Hillary Clinton will be Secretary of State, which is to say, a diplomat, a supposed large part of her job will be to administrate a very large government institution, the State Department (yes, I know, that's what we have Deputy Secretaries of State and Assistant Deputy Secretaries and Deputy Assistant Deputy Secretaries for). Anyway, I suppose it's conceivable that while the Secretary of State (or whomever) is out being a diplomat and running a large government institution, little things like, uh, putting out fires in the Middle East, might not get the attention they deserve, so a Czar who can focus on just one thing is appointed.

1. I'd really like to put a stake through the heart of "czar" as a job title. It's annoying and fairly silly.

2. These Czars have a tendency to then lose their focus and bring on a staff, which needs more staff, and budgets, and pretty soon you've got all these redundant government organizations running around. That we taxpayers are funding.

Fran said...

Unwinnable concept "wars" irritate me anyway -- War on Drugs, War on Terror, they don't really MEAN anything, and there's certainly no way to stop either one (although I'd love a War on Stupid, but that's just as unwinnable) -- so have a Concept Czar is just another layer of lunacy, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I suspect the use of the term Tsar imply that the democracy has failed, and we need to bring tyrants to clean up the mess. How comforting!

JD Rhoades said...

The appointment of a "czar" is a symbolic gesture that we're really, really serious about this issue at last. It's window dressing.

FishNoGeek said...

Barry, you're an Economist junkie, right? Did you catch the tongue-firmly-in-cheek article "Tsarstruck" from the 14th June 2007 print edition? It's hilarious...well, to the extent that the Economist is ever hilarious.

Unfortunately, it's 'premium' content since it's over a year old. Try this link, then logon if you have a subscription:

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks for the link, FNG; re-reading the Economist article, I did indeed remember it. I don't know whether to be comforted or even more concerned that America is hardly alone in being Tsarstruck!

And thanks everyone as always for the additional thoughts.


Anonymous said...

Well written, Barry.

My only questions about the torture issue are: Aren't terrorists trained to claim mistreatment? And how exactly is torture defined?

Anonymous said...

I, too, would like you to define torture.

A friend of mine who served in the U.S. Navy gave me some firsthand information about the experience of waterboarding:

"I was waterboarded during SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) Training as a new Naval Aviator prior to reporting to my first squadron. The purpose of this training was to prepare naval aviators for what they may experience if captured during a time of war. This training was based on the experiences of Naval Aviators and others who had been prisoners during the Viet Nam War. I also believe that it is genearlly a correct assertion that stating what types of interrogation techniques we will or will not employ, allows the enemy to prepare for these interrogation during their training.

So, torture or not torture? He explained:

"Waterboarding is hardly torture. It does not maim, cause permanent physical damage,or result in death. It merely simulates the sensation of drowning and having no control over your ability to end the encounter for very brief periods of time. Khalid Sheik Mohammed was subjected to this interrogation technique and was able to resist much longer than would have been expected from an individual who had not been trained to resist waterboarding. This is an indication that our enemies are being prepared for the possibility of being captured."

So - our enemies are training themselves to with stand our 'cohersive' techniques to get them to talk. Isn't that special?

Tell us, Barry - as a former Intel professional - how do you get information from hostile individuals?

Anonymous said...

It just seems like those critics of the Bush administration who criticize the supposed use of torture are unwilling to define it. As if its obvious what is and isn't torture. Do we propose to serve a prisoner coffee and doughnuts, while pleading with them to give us confidential information?

Barry Eisler said...

Ben and anonymous poster, have you tried googling "Definition of Torture?" If you do so, you'll find the word is defined by both domestic US law and by international treaties to which the US is a party. If you believe in the rule of law, I'm sure you'll agree that your definition or mine isn't what matters here, but rather the way the term is defined by the law. Apply the definition of waterboarding to torture as defined at law and go from there, as impartially as you can. This will involve more effort than simply demanding (with little relevance) that I define torture for you, but I think you'll find the exercise more productive, too.

Even beyond the fact that waterboarding clearly is torture as defined by law, your argument that it isn't seems strange to me. You want to use waterboarding to break hardened terrorists but the technique itself is a big yawn? Something doesn't fit here. Regardless, your argument that waterboarding is okay because it leaves no marks does have historical precedent: the Gestapo made that argument, too.

"How do you get information from hostile individuals?" Anonymous poster, did you even read the post to which you're purporting to respond? There's a link to an op-ed by the author of "How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq." The title itself suggests a direct response to your question, so it's hard to understand why you've ignored it. If you want to dispute the author's experience and conclusions, that's fine, but simply ignoring the link while posing a question the link addresses seems a poor way to advance the discussion. Along with your failure to simply google "Definition of Torture" and follow a few links, the omission suggests laziness, a fear of information that might challenge your views, or both. If you really want me to take the time to respond to your questions, I have to ask you to put in a little effort yourself.


Anonymous said...

Well i am sorry to offend you so much Barry, although i can see why. I am not a big user of search engines, and i figure that a lot of the stuff you turn up in a quick search wouldn't necessarily be credible. If it is well defined, then thats great and thanks for the pointer. Anyway, i do think waterboarding is torture, and thought that we had only used it 3 times, or something like that.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks, Ben. No one's offended me and most of my response was directed at the anonymous guy regardless -- I should have delineated more carefully. I do assume that people who are sufficiently computer-savvy to read and respond to blogs are also capable of finding links to websites such as the UN Convention Against Torture, which is one place torture is clearly defined. I apologize if my response seemed harsh.


Anonymous said...

liked your first book and decided to check u out and am pretty shocked to read that you are a far left lib. going to pass on your other books. take care

Barry Eisler said...

New anonymous guy, not sure what would make me a far left liberal. Is it my opposition to torture? Insistence on adherence to the rule of law and support for the Constitution? Political labels are awfully flexible these days...

Regardless, this notion of not reading a book because you don't like the author's politics is something I need to think more about. Is it a kind of spite? A boycott? Would you stop going to a doctor whose politics you disagree with? Or is the reaction limited to writers? Not being sarcastic, just trying to understand, because I choose books based on whether I enjoy the writing, to which (for me) the author's politics have little relevance.

Anyway, thanks for enjoying the first one and for stopping by my blog.