Thursday, December 17, 2009

It's Good to Be The King

President Obama's Nobel acceptance speech has been praised by a number of people I admire. I wish I could agree with them. In fact, even apart from the "War is Peace" elements inherent in a man accepting the Nobel Peace Prize immediately after escalating one of the three wars he is waging, I thought the speech was insidious and appalling.

The speech is fulsome in its praise of the law, and in its call that nations that break the law be punished. "Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted," for example. So far, so good. But then Obama says this:

Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America's commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. (Applause.) And we honor -- we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it's easy, but when it is hard.

This paragraph is pleasant on the surface, and poisonous underneath. Obama has no more power to prohibit torture than Bush had to permit it. Torture is illegal in America. The law, not the president, is what prohibits torture. What would you make of it if the president said, "That is why I prohibited murder. That is why I prohibited rape. That is why I prohibited embezzlement, and mail fraud, and tax evasion." And the point applies equally to Obama's order to close Guantanamo (which, in any event, is nothing more than classic Obama sleight of hand) and his reaffirmation of the Geneva Conventions.

In America, the president doesn't make the law, nor does he rescind it. The president executes the law -- which is why Article 2 of the Constitution is called "The Executive Branch." Presidents who make and rescind laws at will are more commonly known as kings.

While we're on the subject of the Constitution, that increasingly quaint document, former Harvard Chicago Law Constitutional Law Professor Obama also said this: "But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation...". There is no such oath in the Constitution. Rather, Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution provides that the president will take the following oath: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

See if you can spot the difference between the oath Obama now says he took and the one he actually took. President Bush and Vice President Cheney didn't know the difference, either. That, or one or more of these men knows better, but finds distorting the nature of his oath politically expedient.

I suppose Obama felt there was no way around his speech's non-sequitur theme of "We must uphold the law, so I prohibited torture." Because he refuses to prosecute torture (the insane bromide "we have to look forward, not backward" is the real Obama Doctrine), he can't acknowledge torture is a crime. If it's not a crime, it must be just a policy difference. And, indeed, the implication of Obama's benevolent prohibition on torture and refusal to prosecute it is that a less enlightened future president might re-implement the "policy" of torture as easily as Obama rescinded it.

It's good to be the king.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

What Happens When a War Isn't Winnable?


I wrote the following piece over four years ago for Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind and the Philadelphia City Paper. On the eve of President Obama's announcement of a major escalation in Afghanistan, it's sadly timely. I hope there won't be cause to reprint it four years hence.

Remember when Blockbuster Video charged three dollars for a two-night video rental, and one dollar per night if you were late? They made most of their profits from late charges. Why? Because if you didn't get a chance to watch the movie during the first two nights and returned it at that point, you had to pay three dollars for nothing. If you kept it just one more night and watched it, you'd pay four dollars for something -- not as good as what you were originally planning, but a much better deal than the three dollars for nothing you were facing instead. Except... something came up on that third night, too. Now you're four dollars in the hole and still nothing to show for it. But if you hold on for just one more night, you can get what you originally hoped for five dollars, rather than nothing for four. Strong incentive to hang in for just one more night and turn the whole thing around.

By the tenth night, you were kicking yourself for having rented the damn thing in the first place. Even if you watched it tonight, you paid much more than it was worth, and you knew it. But there was nothing you could do to get that ten dollars back. If you could just watch the movie, at least you'd have something to show for the whole sorry enterprise.

But you didn't watch it that night. And maybe after two weeks, when you were down fifteen bucks in exchange for no value, you finally decided you were never going to watch it, it wasn't worth even a dollar more, it was time to cut your losses and just return the movie. And you did. You had nothing to show for the exercise, but at least you stopped the bleeding.

The example is trivial, I know. But dynamics at work for small things tend to apply to big ones, too.

Here's what I said over four years ago.


I've been thinking about what happens when a society goes to war for a limited objective but then comes to face what seems to be an unlimited cost.

The more blood and treasure a society spends on such a war, the harder it becomes to acknowledge that it can't be won. After spending so much, a retreat would be painful: The society would have to acknowledge that the entire enterprise — the lives lost, the money spent — was a waste (worse than a waste, really, because of opportunity costs and unintended consequences).

Any society would want to avoid the pain inherent in such acknowledgment. It would prefer to believe there is still some chance of winning. If victory is possible, even if securing it turns out to be costlier than first believed, at least the society would have something to show for what it paid.

If you were a member of the administration that launched such a war, and you understood these dynamics, what would you do? Even if you knew, up front or deep down, that the war couldn't be won, would you bring the troops home?

Not likely. You would have to take the entire blame for the failure, with no room for face-saving or rationalization. Most people wouldn't be able to face such an unarguable personal failure. Instead, consciously or unconsciously, such an administration would seek to defer the withdrawal to a successor. Doing so would obscure the administration's personal and historical culpability for the war: Members would always be able to say, "We could have won if our successors hadn't lost their nerve." And who could "prove" them wrong?

I expect such an administration would continue the war, trying to keep U.S. casualties close to levels the public had already proven willing to accept. Periodically, the administration would announce "turning points," the achievement of which would imply that the nation is indeed on the road to victory. As each previously declared turning point is reached and revealed to have no effect on the course of the war, the administration would articulate a new one, thereby maintaining the public's hope that there is still some purpose to the enterprise — that the war can still be won. Simultaneously, the sunk costs of the war would be increasing, deepening the society's need to win, somehow, if only to justify the increasing costs.

This is a potent political combination: undiminishing casualty levels, constant infusion of new hope, increasing sunk costs. Because this combination is relatively stable while the pain of a "we can't win" acknowledgment gets worse the longer the war drags on, the status quo would prevail for a long time. Eventually, the war could be passed on to the next administration. Blame for losing it could be passed on as well, or at least shared and obscured.

At some point, during the tenure of the administration that launched the war or of one of its successors, the war will have dragged on long enough to force the conclusion that victory isn't possible. It's not so much that the pain of what has been spent becomes overwhelming; it's the sense of nothing but further pain ahead, for no possible gain, that would bring about a new consensus on the war. Vietnam illustrates the point. I don't think what happened was, "We've lost 58,000 Americans and that's enough." It was more like, "We've lost 58,000, and even with another 58,000 I still don't see how we can win this." In other words, the pain of acknowledging failure was finally outweighed by the prospect of more pain for no gain. When a society reaches this point, it abandons the war.

In trying to articulate these dynamics, I've deliberately avoided mention of current events. Sometimes you can see more clearly by taking a step back from the matter at hand. But obviously I do think what I've described above applies to the Bush administration and Iraq. Maybe the question isn't just, "Is the war winnable?" but rather, "Even if it's not winnable, what will the administration and our society do then?" It's that second question that's important to answer.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Fear Itself

This morning, while reading The Washington Independent's Daphne Eviatar's excellent report on the death penalty for terrorists, two things occurred to me.

First, there's been much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the right about trying Khalid Sheik Mohamed in New York City because, apparently, KSM said he wanted to be tried in New York. As Rudy Giuliani said, "I didn't think we were in the business of granting the requests of terrorists."

Giuliani's point is of course silly -- as Dahlia Lithwick put it, "Funny, that. I didn't think we were in the business of caring one way or another what the terrorists want from us" -- but let's assume for the moment that Giuliani really wants to follow the principle he articulated. If we shouldn't grant terrorist requests, what would Giuliani have us do with terrorists who want to be put to death, who believe that being executed by infidels will make them martyrs? Would Giuliani argue that because a convicted terrorist asked for the death penalty, we shouldn't execute him? Hard to imagine. So what principle is really behind Giuliani's remarks? And if there is no principle, what's motivating him instead?

Second, a common complaint on the right is that we mustn't try terror suspects in America because doing so would make us unsafe (similarly, we can't imprison terrorists even in supermax prisons from which no one has ever escaped because... well, it's not clear why, exactly, but incarcerating terrorists in quality American prisons scares some people a lot). For example, John "Surrender is Not an Option" Bolton says he's practically ready to evacuate his family from New York if we try KSM there, because such a trial will render New York unsafe.

Let's do for Bolton what we've done for Giuliani -- extract the principle he's articulating, and see whether he's serious about applying it. The principle is: we should deviate from applying our rules of justice if we're afraid that following those rules could increase the danger of a terror attack. Well, what if it's possible executing terrorists would do just that? It's hard to imagine John Bolton or anyone like him arguing we shouldn't execute terrorists because doing so might lead to new terror attacks. But then what principle is really driving him? Or what's driving him in the absence of principle?

There was some spirited debate in the comments to my previous post over my use of the term "rightist." I'll have more to say on the topic of nomenclature in a future post, but for now: if you're talking about rhetoric and policy positions fueled by fear (or the cynical exploitation of fear), rhetoric and positions so unprincipled they crumble in the face of even the most cursory logical scrutiny (like that applied above) you're almost certainly talking about the right -- meaning the Republican party. I don't know why someone would dispute this. You can either embrace it ("Hell, yes, I'm afraid, and you should be too, and with good reason"); or you can disassociate yourself from it ("I'm not a Republican"). What you can't do is say, "Well, that's just George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John McCain, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachman, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Steele, Glenn Beck, Hannity, Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton, Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Andy McCarthy, Rich Lowry, et al. They're not really representative of the GOP."

One of the things I always find telling is when a person or institution stands for something, but won't acknowledge standing for it. If you advocate torture, say so! Why go all mealy-mouthed and hide behind euphemisms like "alternate interrogation techniques?" Similarly, if you're afraid and think the country should be afraid, too, why not say so? The GOP, by its rhetoric and policy positions, is indisputably the party of fear. And what's wrong with that, if we really ought to be afraid? It's the "Be afraid" rhetoric and positions, coupled with the refusal to own up to it, that makes me suspicious.

More on nomenclature, right and left, next time. Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Economist Again, and Those Funny Rightists

War is Good

I don't mean to pick on The Economist (and I doubt they'd care if I did). I love the magazine. But the oddities are piling up.

The current issue is dedicated to "Dealing With America's Fiscal Hole." In the leader of that name, and in "Stemming the Tide," the three-page briefing that follows it, the magazine proposes a number of ways America might reduce spending and reduce its current $12 trillion national debt. Yet among all its proposals, which include innovative and politically risky schemes like a carbon tax and a national value added tax, and which include a call to cut social security and health care spending, not a passing thought is given to war. Not a single word on the subject in the leader, and only a few lines in the briefing -- lines devoted to dismissing the notion of reducing military spending.

When military spending is so sacrosanct it doesn't even get mentioned as reducible in the service of America's economic health (if for no other reason), something seems amiss. Especially when one considers that our wars since 2001 have thus far cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $935 billion (eventual costs of the Iraq war alone are reckoned to be in the $3 trillion range).

The kindest explanation I can come up with is that The Economist, like others in the media, puts a high priority on war. I wonder, though, why they don't explicitly say so?

One of those Essential Rightist Moments

Here's Bill O'Reilly, declaring, "I don't care about the Constitution."

In fairness to O'Reilly, I imagine he'd explain his remark by saying he was just trying to get his guest to offer his personal views on the matter of terror trials in civilian courts: "The Constitution isn't here," as he put it. "You're here." But why would O'Reilly care about what someone thinks irrespective of what the Constitution provides? His follow-on is telling: "Don't be a pinhead." Translation: "Don't be one of them, one of the out-group. Show me you have the right loyalties, that your loyalties are tribal, and that those loyalties trump your adherence to an objective application of the rule of law."

I like this clip because it captures something essential to the rightist mentality. It's not that rightists don't care about the Constitution (despite O'Reilly's claim); it's more that they don't get the Constitution. They don't get that you can't apply the law through a tribal filter, with one set of rules for your group and another set of rules, or no rules at all, for the "pinheads," or "enemy combatants," or "terrorists," or whatever other designation the tribalist employs to avoid having to apply the law impartially.

Another Essential Rightist Moment

Another incident I like for the way it illuminates rightist thinking (or what passes for rightist thinking) is Obama's recent bow to Japanese Emperor Akihito. Obama's bow precipitated predictable outrage on the right, with cries of "treason," "weakness," etc.

It's as though these people don't know that in Japan, the bow is a sign of respect. Or maybe they know it, but believe the purpose of diplomacy is to show other countries we're so badass we can ignore their customs? That we can disrespect other countries and still get what we want? What do these people think diplomacy is for? Do they have any capacity at all to look at things from the other side? Or are they so insecure that they can only imagine a show of respect being taken instead as a sign of weakness?

Rhetorical questions, I know. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of temperament in America today: one that's so weak and fearful it declares a bow off limits even in the land of bows; the other confident enough to understand adopting your neighbor's custom will be taken as a sign of respect. One, delusional enough to believe you can get what you want in life through disrespect; the other, competent enough to understand that respect in human relations is essential. One, so brittle it's afraid -- literally -- to bend; the other, sufficiently supple to recognize that diplomacy without flexibility is just a metaphor for pigheadedness -- and futility.

Obama's bow was also useful because of the way it exposed rightist hypocrisy. Did anyone who criticized Obama for bowing to the Japanese Emperor criticize Bush for holding hands and kissing the Saudi King? If not, the kindest explanation for the discrepancy is that there's something more verboten in America about a man bowing to another man than there is about a man holding hands with and kissing another man. That would be a tough argument to support, given rightist homophobia, but even if I bought it, we'd be back to the explanation above: rightists are relatively brittle, fearful, and insecure.

Despite its shortcomings, though, the right does have a talent for communication (usually fear-based). True, Democratic marketing geniuses decided to apply the shockingly banal label "public option" to their health care reform proposals, thereby ensuring they would have the world's most boring rallying cry with which to respond to GOP "death panel" accusations. But still, think about it: the right managed to convince significant segments of the voting public that government subsidized health care would be bad for them -- and that trillions spent instead in Iraq and Afghanistan would be good! Even with marketeers as feckless as the Democrats for opponents, convincing people to turn away a government subsidy and send the money to foreigners instead is no easy task. I wish the right would do it for sugar beet farmers, bankers, and mortgage holders, too.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Afghanistan and the Death of Common Sense

I've been reading The Economist for decades and have always admired the magazine for its coverage, insights, and eclectic politics (who else in the media has called for Bill Clinton's resignation, gay marriage, war in Iraq, and drug decriminalization?). I've respected the magazine's opinions even when I disagreed with its conclusions. But lately, I find myself wondering about its common sense. Two pieces from the October 17 issue, Obama's War and To Surge or Not to Surge, both calling for escalation in Afghanistan, are useful to study not just to expose the flaws in escalation theory specifically, but to illuminate various species of weak critical thinking in general. Let's take the magazine's arguments for escalation one by one.

1. "A less intensive, more surgical 'counter-terrorism,' relying on unmanned air raids and assassination... is more likely to kill civilians and create new enemies than to decapitate and disable al-Qaeda."

Certainly killing civilians and creating new enemies would be counterproductive for any policy. It's reasonable, therefore, to ask whether sending tens of thousands of additional foreign troops into the country eight years into the war might have a similar effect, or even a worse one. Yet The Economist doesn't consider the costs of its favored policy. It's as though those costs don't exist.

The general flaw here is the assessment of costs only of one course of action, not of its proposed alternative. If your house and belongings were being ruined by a leaky roof and someone told you repairs would cost a thousand dollars, would you reflexively say, "Forget it, too costly?" Or would you also consider the costs of ongoing water damage caused by an unrepaired roof, and measure one against the other?

2. "Anarchy in Afghanistan, or a Taliban restoration, would leave it prey to permanent cross-border instability."

The specific problem here is that the argument ignores not just theoretical alternatives, but also actual history. If cross-border stability is a goal, it's important to ask whether there was more of it before or after the current war began. If the answer is "before," we can reasonably infer that the presence of foreign troops in the country is part of the cause of the current instability, and that more troops would make things worse.

The more general problem here is unexamined assumptions. Afghanistan has a whole history of instability. Why ignore that history when asserting withdrawal would worsen things? Why leave a critical assumption untested when you have so much data to test it with?

Note too the related assumption: stability in Afghanistan is so vital a western interest that no one even has to explain what the interest is. Stability is one of those words that just gets intoned, thought-free, by serious-sounding people who rarely bother to explain why the stability is important enough to warrant a war to maintain it -- and who even more rarely pause to consider how war might foster stability's opposite.

3. "Defeat for the West in Afghanistan would embolden its opponents not just in Pakistan, but all around the world, leaving it open to more attacks."

The argument is that we shouldn't do something to embolden our opponents, yes? Then why does The Economist not also discuss the way war -- particularly escalation -- emboldens our opponents? Or can only withdrawal embolden opponents, while escalation can't?

Again, it seems the only costs are those associated with the course of action The Economist seeks to dismiss. The magazine's preferred alternative is free of such costs, and apparently of other costs, as well. Wouldn't it be nice if life were really like this?

4. "Withdrawal would amount to a terrible betrayal of the Afghan people, some of whose troubles are the result of Western intervention."

I don't know how you measure something like this, especially after the kind of rigged election Karzai just pulled off. Regardless, will this always be true? Afghanistan seems historically a hard place to pacify. How long does The Economist propose staying to avoid betraying the Afghan people? How many lives is it willing to spend for this avoidance? How much money? It doesn't say.

Starting to see a pattern here? If a salesman were trying to sell you a car this one-sidedly -- "no costs, unless you don't buy the car!" -- would you get out your checkbook?

5. "The Afghan conflict, it is often said, has been not an eight-year war, but eight one-year wars. NATO comes off worse each time. And so the most important reason for persisting in Afghanistan: the coalition can do much better."

If you knew someone who had been married and divorced eight times, would you recommend he give it another go because he can do better? If, as you lay down on the operating table, you learned that your surgeon had killed her previous eight patients, would you take this as a sign your operation will be a success?

They say past performance isn't an indication of future results. Maybe not. But the notion that eight years of failure means ipso facto next year will be better is contradicted by history, everyday experience, and common sense. As an argument, it is, simply, delusional.

6. "The coalition’s leaders, at least, seem to have grasped that it must behave not as an occupying army but as a partner, whose aim is to build up the local forces that will ultimately ensure Afghanistan’s security. And soldiers and civilians are beginning to understand that development aid can benefit local people rather than foreign consultants and contractors."

If it took eight years for our leaders to figure these things out, is that cause for encouragement? Or despair? If you knew someone who'd been driving for eight years and only just figured out the importance of using the turn signal and rear view mirror and putting on the headlights at night, would you then confidently hand him the keys to your vehicle? Or would you instead sense that someone who learns this slowly will never manage to safely drive a car?

7. "The coalition, however, lacks three essential components of a successful strategy. It needs a credible, legitimate government to work with, the resources to do the job and the belief that America’s president is behind this war."

I think Rory Stewart said it best: "This is not a plan: it is a description of what we have not got."

8. "As for resources, it is worth remembering that in 2006, before the American surge, prospects in Iraq looked far bleaker than they do now in Afghanistan."

It's odd to tout Iraq as the kind of success we might emulate in Afghanistan. Andrew Bacevich:

Six-plus years after it began, Operation Iraqi Freedom has consumed something like a trillion dollars—with the meter still running—and has taken the lives of more than forty-three hundred American soldiers. Meanwhile, in Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities, car bombs continue to detonate at regular intervals, killing and maiming dozens. Anyone inclined to put Iraq in the nation’s rearview mirror is simply deluded. Not long ago General Raymond Odierno, Petraeus’s successor and the fifth U.S. commander in Baghdad, expressed the view that the insurgency in Iraq is likely to drag on for an-other five, ten, or fifteen years. Events may well show that Odierno is an optimist.

Given the embarrassing yet indisputable fact that this was an utterly needless war—no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction found, no ties between Saddam Hussein and the jihadists established, no democratic transformation of the Islamic world set in motion, no road to peace in Jerusalem discovered in downtown Baghdad—to describe Iraq as a success, and as a model for application elsewhere, is nothing short of obscene. The great unacknowledged lesson of Iraq is the one that the writer Norman Mailer identified decades ago: “Fighting a war to fix something works about as good as going to a whorehouse to get rid of a clap.”

For those who, despite all this, still hanker to have a go at nation building, why start with Afghanistan? Why not first fix, say, Mexico? In terms of its importance to the United States, our southern neighbor—a major supplier of oil and drugs among other commodities deemed vital to the American way of life—outranks Afghanistan by several orders of magnitude.

9. "Mr Obama... might well reflect on a line from a British counter-insurgency specialist, quoted in Lewis Sorley’s book 'A Better War,' which White House staff are said to be busily reading. South Vietnam, he says, could have been saved if America had not cut off military aid to its government. 'Perhaps the major lesson of the Vietnam war,' said Sir Robert Thompson, 'is: do not rely on the United States as an ally.'

Perhaps so. Perhaps the point would be more relevant if Sir Thompson and The Economist could point to the country whom South Vietnam could have relied on instead. Otherwise, you could as well argue that Bill is useless to have your back in a fight because he lacks mutant invisibility powers and titanium-coated skin.

10. "Most of all, Mr Obama needs to fight this war with conviction. His wobbles over the last month have done more to comfort his enemies and worry his allies than any recent losses on the ground. Only if he persuades his troops, his countrymen and the Taliban that America is there for the long haul does he have a chance of turning this war around."

This sounded familiar to me. So I looked up William Westmoreland on Wikipedia and found this in his 1967 address to a joint session of Congress:

In evaluating the enemy strategy, it is evident to me that he believes our Achilles heel is our resolve ... Your continued strong support is vital to the success of our mission ... Backed at home by resolve, confidence, patience, determination and continued support, we will prevail in Vietnam over the Communist aggressor!

Indeed, the oddest thing about reading The Economist's articles this week was my sense that, had the word Vietnam been substituted for the word Afghanistan, they could have been written anytime during that earlier war (and I'm sure they were). Well, those who don't learn the lessons of history and all that.

Measure the costs of all proposed courses of action, not just one. Identify and test your assumptions. Recognize that multiple failures and extraordinarily slow learning are not cause for optimism for success. Don't confuse a description of what you lack with a strategy for achieving it. Spot and learn from historical parallels. Common sense, you would think. But not, apparently, when such common sense is most urgent.

P.S. On the subject of weak critical thinking, conservative NYT columnist Ross Douthat claims the secular arguments against gay marriage can be summed up as "institutional support for reproduction."

Reproduction needs institutional support? I actually can't think of something that needs less institutional support. Breathing, maybe. And the guy calling for this institutional support for reproduction also calls himself a conservative, presumably in favor of small government and all that? Bonus points, Ross, for irony.

Monday, October 12, 2009

More Signs of the Creeping Militarization of US Society

Hi everyone, forgive my long hiatus. If anyone here is considering moving back from Tokyo, living in a house while it's being renovated, and finishing a manuscript all at the same time, I would advise... don't. But the worst of the storm is past, thank God, and it's good to be back at blogging. Lots to catch up on; here are three recent items that strike me as all being evidence (along with, say, the bizarre and unconstitutional reverence for "our" Commander-in-Chief) of the creeping militarization of American society.

1. On Fox News Sunday, Liz Cheney offered these thoughts on Obama's Nobel:

Well, I think what the committee believes is they'd like to live in a world in which America is not dominant. And I think if you look at the language of the citation, you can see that they talk about, you know, President Obama ruling in a way that makes sense to the majority of the people of the world. You know, Americans don't elect a president to do that. We elect a president to defend our national interests. And so I think that, you know, they may believe that President Obama also doesn't agree with American dominance, and they may have been trying to affirm that belief with the prize. I think, unfortunately, they may be right, and I think it's a concern.

Here are the main premises in the paragraph above:

A. America should dominate the world.
B. The president "rules" America.
C. Americans elect a president exclusively, or at least primarily, to "defend" our national interests.
D. The defense of America's national interests should not, and indeed cannot, make sense to the majority of the people of the world.

Let's examine the premises Cheney regards as axiomatic.

A. Is it necessary, desirable, or even possible for America to dominate the world? What are America's national interests, and is world dominance necessary for their defense? Do all countries require world dominance to defend their national interests, or is America unique in this regard?

B. Does the president "rule" America? (Hint: the president's job description is helpfully laid out right in the Constitution. Very handy document.)

C. Is it true that Americans exclusively or primarily elect a president to "defend" our national interests? What else do we want a president to do? What does it suggest when someone mentions "defense" as the only, or even the primary, role Americans expect in a president (as opposed to, say, advancing interests, or continuing to form a more perfect union... that kind of thing)? Especially when the same person suggests the president "rules" America?

D. Is it true that when the president defends America's national interests, his actions cannot and should not make sense to the majority of the world? Is a decent respect for the opinions of mankind incommensurate with the defense of our national interests, or a part of that defense?

2. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) supports a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which is good. But the senator also says, "It has to be done in the right way, which is to get a buy-in from the (U.S.) military (that) I think is now possible."

Huge majorities of Americans, including majorities of Americans with family members in the military, favor a repeal of DADT (it seems the military itself seems about evenly divided). Regardless: what, specifically, would the required military "buy-in" consist of? Was the military's "buy-in" also required when President Truman ordered desegregation? Are there other issues for which the civilian government and civilian population require the military's "buy-in?" Are there other institutions from which the President and Congress require buy-in, or is it just the military? What does Levin's notion suggest about current notions regarding military subordination to civilian leadership?

3. In a September 11 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Fouad Adjami, who writes like Peggy Noonan (this is not a compliment), claimed, "Wars are great clarifiers." Adjami was so certain of the truth of his statement that he didn't even bother to support it, and instead offered it up as an axiom.

Is it true wars really are great at clarifying things? Or do they tend instead to enflame and obscure? What does it say about a person's worldview when he believes it virtually goes without saying that wars greatly clarify things?

Against the creeping authoritarianism that today thoroughly infests the GOP but that shows increasing virulence outside it, as well, awareness, outspokenness, and familiarity with the Constitution are the best defense.

P.S. Glenn Greenwald has a terrific related interview with Jonathan Weiler, co-author of "Authoritarianism & Polarization in American Politics."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Double Standard for a Latina

I just read this article in today's New York Times: "Sotomayer Says Identify Won't Distort Her Positions."

"Judge Sonia Sotomayor insisted on Tuesday, in the face of sometimes skeptical questioning from Republicans, that she would never allow her background or life experiences to determine the outcome of a case if she were elevated to the Supreme Court."

Two questions and an observation:

1. Has a white man ever been asked if he would allow his background to determine the outcome of a case?

2. Is it even conceivable that a white man would be asked if he would allow his background to determine the outcome of a case?

3. Worse: a white man has claimed that his background affected and would continue to affect his decisions. That man was Justice Sam Alito, who said during his confirmation hearings:

"But when I look at those cases, I have to say to myself, and I do say to myself, 'You know, this could be your grandfather, this could be your grandmother. They were not citizens at one time, and they were people who came to this country...'

"When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account."

(Hat Tip Glenn Greenwald)

Imagine those words coming out of Sonia Sotomayer's mouth. Imagine the Republican furor.

So when a white man says his background will affect his decision making as a Justic, that's an asset for Republicans. A Latina, on the other hand, is forced to disclaim such a possibility.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Willful Stupidity of Anti-Gay Prejudice

This post began as a response to a series of comments on my FaceBook page, where I posted a video of Rachel Maddow interviewing Rep. Patrick Murphy, an 82nd Airborne Iraq war veteran, winner of the Bronze Star, and Congress's point man for the repeal of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) policy. You can find the full text of those comments here, and a similar exchange with a woman who conflated gays and child molesters, here.

After writing my response to the anti-gay commenters, I realized what I'd written would serve well as its own post. Here it is.

You know why these discussions can be so sterile? Because the people who talk the most and listen the least are the ones with the most nonsensical, ill-considered opinions. I guess this makes sense, in a way. After all, if you know deep down that your opinion will be exposed as nothing but ignorant, empty prejudice in the face of evidence, logic, argument, and even common sense, your best strategy will be to ignore such things any time you encounter them in favor of throwing up an unending stream of thoughtless bullshit.

So, Brentt and Colin, you ignored my request to substitute the word "blacks" for the word "gays." Here, let me do it for you in your own comments:

"It all comes down to following orders. If you can't abide by having to serve in an all-black unit and not being able to serve with whites, then you deserve whatever comes your way, and it makes me happy to see it... Just because you're black doesn't mean you get special treatment so grow up, man up and follow the rules... All I am saying is that in order to maintain professionalism in an all volunteer military, you volunteer once, and then do what you're told to do after that. It doesn't mean you have to like it, you just have to do it... Just because they are black they are exempt from the rules? I think not."

"I think all the blacks should be put into their own regiment. That would give them a way to show their true merit and defend or avenge their black buddies in battle."

How does that read to you? It's exactly what you're arguing.

Brentt, your thoughts on the discriminatory nature of DADT also ignore previous comments -- again, presumably because you're not reading them. As others here have said, and as even the most elementary common sense ought to suggest to you, DADT is indeed discriminatory because it only applies to gays. The only way you could miss a point so obvious is if you're motivated by something other than reason.

Here, let me clarify by substituting the word "straight" for the word "gay" in your comment:

"If any of you try to make this a debate about discrimination, you'd be wrong. The military is not saying that you can't be straight and serve in the military. They are only saying that you can't ask anyone if they are, or tell anyone that you are. It's perfectly fine for you to be straight and serve in the military and has been for 15 years or so when President Clinton enacted this policy."

Do you see it now? A law that allows one class of people to acknowledge their sexuality and punishes another class of people for acknowledging their sexuality is inherently, obviously, discriminatory. If you want DADT to apply across the board -- such that anyone who acknowledges his or sexuality, straight or gay, will be discharged -- then it won't be discriminatory. Otherwise, by definition, it is.

Really, to miss a double standard so blindingly obvious, you'd have to start with the premise, conscious or unconscious, that gays are in some way illegitimate. Which I guess is where you're coming from and is unlikely something you can be reasoned away from if you're sufficiently motivated to adhere to your view.

"So, the question here is this: Is the Military ready for homosexuals to openly serve?"

But I already specifically addressed this exact question in one of my comments above, in which I referenced Truman's desegregation order, the Civil Rights Act, and the attitudes of the military and society at large. I argued, in fact, that this is not "the question," nor should it be, nor was it or should it have been then. Now you're raising the question again as though for the first time, suggesting that for you, it *is* the first time, because the most charitable explanation I can devise for why you would ask the same question that has been responded to previously without even noting the existence of that previous response is that you're not reading the comments to which you purport to be responding. And because you haven't responded to a single one of the arguments Rep. Murphy lays out in the video interview I linked to, and because many of his points contradict your own, I imagine you haven't watched the interview, either.

Discussing -- if that's the right word -- an interview you haven't even bothered to listen to is odd behavior. I wonder what would motivate it.

Your conflation of sexual assault with homosexuality is borderline insane and regardless, has already been addressed in other comments here. Sexual assault and other forms of assault are and should be illegal, in the military and elsewhere. Assault has nothing to do with homosexuality or heterosexuality, and the fact that you would argue otherwise again suggests that your views are motivated by something other than reason.

As for your conflation of sexual orientation with marital affairs, this is as worthy an argument as your conflation of sexual orientation and sexual assault. Once again, if you can't understand the difference between orientation and behavior -- about the same as the difference between being left-handed, on the one hand, and a left hook, on the other -- something is going on inside you, and it isn't reason.

Your suggestion that most gays are just malingerers who are using their gayness as an excuse to get out of the military is similarly revealing. The only evidence you cite is that you have "seen many people" do so -- as though someone as prejudiced as you could be counted on to adequately account for someone's motivations -- and you ignore the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Rep. Murphy points out that over 13,000 military personnel -- over three combat brigades worth -- have been discharged for being gay. And you assume that a significant percentage of that number were malingerers? Based on a few people you claim to know? Without offering any other evidence for your opinion? Tendentious would be a charitable way of describing your views.

If you really believed your "they're all malingerers" theory, and you really wanted to stop the malingering you assume is so widespread, you would support ending DADT. But you don't -- leading me, once again, to wonder what's really motivating you.

Your fear that straights might freak out if they knew there was a gay in a communal shower is also strange. First, there already are gays in the showers, and good order and discipline seems to go on. Is your point that good order and discipline can be maintained if straights know there are gays in the shower, but not if straights know who some of these gays are? I guess you're arguing then, as Col. Jessup might say, that straights "can't handle the truth."

Well, what was your previous advice for gays? "Man up and follow the rules." I could be wrong, but I have a feeling most soldiers devoted enough to serve and brave enough for combat can handle knowing some of their comrades, equally devoted and brave, are gay. But don't take my word for it: watch the Rep. Murphy video you're pretending to discuss and see what he has to say on the matter.


I promised in a previous post to do an article on how to argue. I haven't forgotten and in fact have outlined some of the points I want to make. But the new book, a sequel to Fault Line called Inside Out, is due at the end of the month, and I've still got a ways to go, so I'm trying to keep my blogging semi-under control.

Pending the article on how to argue, I'll just say this: if you want your argument to be persuasive, and if you hope to be taken at all seriously, at a minimum you have to: (i) familiarize yourself with what's being discussed, whether it's an interview, an article, or the comments of other posters; (ii) respond to points that other people are making, ideally by quoting their exact words; and (iii) understand the difference between opinion and evidence and use the latter to bolster the former.

Final point: for anyone who wants to hear from me a little more frequently, I've been posting updates on Twitter. I confess when I first heard of a 140-character-per-post social networking medium, I thought it sounded silly. It's actually interesting, useful, and productive, though it can be a hell of a distraction, too. Anyway, if you're on Twitter, follow me, and I'll look forward to seeing you there.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Torture Temptation

What I find most remarkable about America's debate regarding torture -- beyond the fact that such a debate could even be necessary in America -- is the continual recourse of both proponents and opponents to the question of whether torture works. I can't think of any other illegal behavior -- not murder, not rape, not kidnapping, not assault -- that receives this kind of rhetorical makeover. When a murder has been committed, you don't hear people agonizing over whether killing can never, ever be justified. When someone has been raped, people don't ignore the crime in favor of a discussion of whether a rapist's satisfaction could possibly be proven to outweigh a victim's trauma and horror. If a child is kidnapped, the airwaves aren't polluted with discussion of whether kidnapping might actually be an effective way of acquiring ransom money. And so on.

Torture, apparently, is different. Let's talk about why.

Unlike other crimes, torture has a constituency, in the form of the architects who created America's torture regime. These are the people who feed the public discourse with a steady supply of, "Can you really say that torture never, ever works?" And, "What would you do if your child were kidnapped and the kidnapper refused to reveal the child's location?" And, "How can you compare enhanced interrogation techniquing one terrorist to the 3000 people killed on 9/11?" Etc. The architects, and their media allies, know that as long as the talking heads of television and gatherers by office water coolers, literal and electronic, are discussing the morality and practicality of torture, they won't be talking about the illegality of torture.

But this supply-side explanation is only part of what makes torture different. The supply would have nowhere to go in the absence of demand. And the demand is what we most need to guard against. Purveyors of torture excuses will come and go, but our psyches will never change.

I believe some deep place in the human psyche is attracted to torture. A fundamental aspect of human nature is an abhorrence of powerlessness and a concomitant will to power. And what greater confirmation of power, and banishment of powerlessness, is there than utter control over another human being -- body, mind, and soul?

We also abhor helplessness. It's horrifying to consider that over time we will never be able to entirely prevent terrorist attacks. We prefer to believe 9/11 happened because we failed to do something we could have done, that there's some extreme we can still resort to that will make us safe again, that if we do that thing from now on, we can gain greater mastery over the possibilities that frighten us. Because, for the reasons set forth in the paragraph above, torture is already seductive, we seize on it like a talisman custom-made for our fearful psyches.

So it bears reminding that the reason torture is universally illegal in the civilized world is a consensus that torture is not only evil, but also insidious, and that therefore we must guard against the temptation to torture by enacting and enforcing strict laws against it. These laws provide not just a bulwark against a recrudescence of torture, but act also as a signpost, wisely erected by generations before us, warning us to stand fast against the dark sirens of our worst impulses.

Leave aside the irony that it's self-styled "conservatives" who are so eager to ignore the accreted wisdom of generations past. That the consensus against torture is the work of generations -- the product of generations of mistakes and of continual, improbable appeals not just to morality, but to wisdom, too, to the better angels of our nature -- makes the more debilitating the right's progress in once again coloring torture as something respectable, even desirable.

It is nothing of the sort. Torture is an abomination. It is without exception illegal. Those who have authorized it and those who have carried it out have committed crimes. In the face of clear laws and clear evidence of violation of those laws, a rhetorical resort to theory or morality or practicality isn't just an attempt to obscure the commission of crimes. It's also an implicit debasement of the value of the law itself. Most of all, it's a profoundly unconservative attempt to reingest an evil seed civilization has over time and in the face of dark, conflicting impulses, managed largely to expel.

Cross-posted at Humanity Against Crimes. More here:

The Torture Mentality, Part 1

The Torture Mentality, Part 2

The Torture Mentality, Part 3

The Torture Mentality, Part 4

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

How to Give a Great Talk

This one's a little off topic, but enough people have asked so that I thought I'd post it here, too. If you want to know how to give a great talk, here are my thoughts following TEDx Tokyo. Enjoy.


Friday, May 29, 2009

The Torture Mentality, Part 4

It's impossible to keep up with the ever-creative arguments of torture apologists, but I'm trying. For the moment, let me step back from the cornucopia of metastasizing specific torture apologies and focus for a moment more on the larger picture.

Have you ever wondered how Dick Cheney can be a credible voice on torture? Can you imagine Cheney (or the architect of any program of at best dubious legality) saying, "Well, our intentions were certainly good, but nothing worthwhile came out of it. Definitely was worth a try though." Is there any way on earth Dick Cheney would ever say that? Of course not, and therefore, how can anyone take him seriously as the chief advocate for the illegal program he himself designed? We might equally expect George Bush to say, "Boy, the war in Iraq has really been a completely unnecessary catastrophe. Oops."

When a car salesman working on commission tells us we're going to love driving this car, we know to be skeptical because his opinion is not disinterested. Why does this sort of common sense evaporate when the salesman is a politician, and with far more on the line than the car salesman?

Why is it that the people who argue for torture have no experience with interrogations, while the most experienced are against it? Read this new article from Time magazine. Between them, Matthew Alexander and Ali Soufan have interrogated or supervised the interrogations of hundreds of war on terror prisoners. Both say torture doesn't work and that in fact it has cost thousands of American lives. Why are apologists so quick to dismiss as irrelevant the the experience of men like these in favor of their own evidence-free opinions?

You might have seen recently that rightwing talkshow host Eric "Mancow" Muller volunteered to be waterboarded so he could demonstrate graphically that waterboarding isn't torture. Here's his conclusion, unsurprising to anyone but himself. And bear in mind, this result was achieved in six seconds in the safest, most controlled, most friendly circumstances possible.

So: why not a torture Turing Test? If Liz Cheney can continue to maintain that Waterboarding Isn't Torture even while being waterboarded, she would be infinitely more persuasive. I wonder why Cheney the elder and Cheney the younger, and so many other apologists with so much on the line, refuse to make this extremely persuasive point? After all, they say waterboarding causes no permanent harm. It's just a dunk in the water, a no brainer, no big deal at all. So why not submit to an easy dunk and demonstrate powerfully and persuasively and once and for all for everyone to see that waterboarding isn't torture? Like Mancow did.

Given how strongly motivated some people are to believe in spite of glaring evidence to the contrary that We Do Not Torture, it might not help to repeat this. But still: waterboarding is hardly the only torture technique that was permitted or engaged in under the Bush/Cheney program. The UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment, signed by Ronald Reagan and ratified by the Senate, binds the US not just to not torture, but also not to engage in cruel, inhuman, or other degrading treatment. It specifically prohibits all exceptions.

But you never hear about the law from torture apogists. Instead, they want to make it all about theory: "What would you do if you had to torture someone to save a city? To save a loved one? Can you absolutely say that under all circumstances torture never, ever justified?"

Imagine you're a cop. You come across a dead body with a bullet hole in the forehead, and there's a guy standing over the corpse holding a smoking gun. You want to arrest the guy with the gun, and your partner says, "Hang on a minute there, pard. Can you honestly say that killing is never, ever justified?" This is exactly what torture apologists are doing in the face of actual laws and actual facts demonstrating that those laws were violated.

Really, I get so tired of the ridiculous and irrelevant question, "But wouldn't you torture someone if you thought it could save a loved one?" This is simply an argument for setting policy according to what we would do if we were out of minds with fear, rage, and desperation. How can any rational person believe that policy so devised would be in our interests? What are our rational minds for, if we're so eager to surrender them in advance?

The real question here is: if someone chained your stripped and hooded wife or daughter to the ceiling so she couldn't sleep for a week and the skin on her legs were nearly split with edema, and repeatedly smashed her into the wall, and left her lying in her own urine and excrement, and then waterboarded her again and again and again and again, would you dismiss it all as no worse than a bunch of fraternity pranks, just some "enhanced interrogation procedures?" Or would you recognize it as torture?

It amazes me, the awesome powers we've come to attribute to terrorist losers and misfits. Not only can they dissolve the concrete walls of America's most fortress-like supermax prisons, they're also impervious to the most sophisticated interrogation techniques. You'd think that people who had signed up for a cause as looney as worldwide jihad, who were such true believers that they were willing to blow themselves up along with thousands of innocents in the service of the cause to which someone recruited them, must by definition be reasonably amenable to psychological manipulation. They can be talked into blowing themselves up, but not into giving up information? When did we come to have so little confidence in ourselves that we started to view these cretins as more clever than we are?

I get a lot of mail from people arguing that we should torture terrorists (never terror suspects; after all, if the government says someone is a terrorist, he's a terrorist, because the government has never been wrong about such a thing ever). They're evil, they deserve it, blah blah blah. Even if "they deserved it" could magically render torture legal or otherwise desirable, shouldn't we take a step back and carefully examine our real motivations here? If we really, really want to torture these evildoers because they deserve it, is it possible we'll also want to retroactively invent other, more rational-seeming, respectable reasons to justify the underlying bestial desire? When you really, really want to do something, you start to look for reasons. If you can't find real ones, you might start to invent them. Rational people are aware of this dynamic and take steps to guard against it. Really motivated people don't want to be aware of the dynamic and don't want to guard against it -- they just want to do what they want to do.

It's fascinating to watch the people who argue that torture doesn't matter because people who want to kill us are going to want to kill us anyway. After all, The Terrorists tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993, before we started torturing, that kind of thing. And yet these same people also say Obama must never, ever release the new photos of prisoner abuse, lest they inflame anger against us.

Although maybe these photos would cause some inflammation. Some of them are said to depict prisoners being raped.

Okay, here are a few more specific pro-torture arguments. I'm numbering them to make it easier to reference them when I get repetitive pro-torture email.

1. "I'd take your criticism of the US more seriously if you'd also criticize al Qaeda. All we do is rough tactics; they cut people's heads off. Doesn't that bother you?"

This is a really weird argument in so many ways -- call it the Fairness Doctrine for Terrorist Criticism -- but it's out there so let's address it.

First, I wonder, does it only apply to terrorists and torture? Or does the equal time theory apply to other governments and other issues, too? "Before criticizing the US government for its approach to health care, you must provide equal time for criticism of the UK approach."

Look, I'm a US citizen, so naturally I tend to focus on the actions of my government. What my government does affects me, and because we're a democracy, there's at least a theoretical chance my criticism will have some effect. By contrast, somehow I don't think US citizens criticizing al Qaeda behavior is likely to reach the appropriate al Qaeda ombudsman. It might also be that Americans are more critical of their own government than we are of al Qaeda because we hold our government to a slightly higher standard. Are we mistaken in doing so?

Another reason Americans might not spend a lot of time criticizing al Qaeda is because there's no vocal contingent of Americans applauding al Qaeda's barbarism. By contrast, there's a large and vocal segment of the US population applauding torture, and their applause requires a response. So tell you what: when Fox news starts apologizing for and excusing al Qaeda's mass murder, you can count on me to publicly manifest my outrage.

2. "The Democratic party’s civil libertarians seem to believe that several medium-sized US cities would be a reasonable price to pay for insisting on ordinary criminal trials for terrorist suspects." via Clive Crook.

There's so much wrong with this statement it's embarrassing just to read it. An ordinary criminal trial for terrorists will cause the destruction of several medium-sized US cities? What is the connection between one and the other? Which terrorists? Which cities? Seriously, if we try terrorists in civilian courts, we will lose cities?

If Crook rephrases, I'll have another crack. As it is, it's very hard to know what he's talking about.

3. "We're faced with a ruthless foe, so we have to be at least equally ruthless."

I think I saw this one as a deep thought on Talking Points Memo: If torture so great, why have all the countries that used it -- Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union -- been defeated by the US?

And then there was Jesse Ventua on The View: If waterboarding etc isn't torture, why do we not use it more broadly -- on domestic criminal suspects, for example?

4. Here's one you hear a lot. "How can it be torture when we do it to our own people in military training?"

I don't know. How can it be rape when married couples do the same thing all the time at home? How can it be slavery when people do the same thing for wages?

And by the way, it's *not* just what we did to our own people. Dozens of prisoners were tortured to death (that is, murdered). As far as I know, the military doesn't torture soldiers to death as part of their training. Nor, for that matter, does it chain them to the ceiling for a week etc. before waterboarding them 183 times.

5. "You can't call it torture because some people say it's not."

I hereby apologize to anyone I might have misled by referring to the "Holocaust." Or for using without qualification the phrase, "Man walks on the moon." Or for suggesting that "Shakespeare" wrote all those plays and sonnets.

6. Here's a good one from Lindsey Graham: torture has been around for five hundred years because it works.

Hmmm... works at what? For extracting the false confessions torturers want to hear, it's been brilliant, no doubt.

Personally, I think torture has been around for a long time because people like doing it. What's Senator Graham's explanation for, say, oral sex? That's been around for a long time, too.

7. "Bush and Cheney kept the country safe. At least you can say that."

Nope. Not even close. Anyway, even if this outrageous whopper were true, the same is true of Bill Clinton, who kept the country safe from the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Personally, I think my books are what's kept the country safe. I sold the first one in late September, 2001, and have been writing about one a year ever since. Surely this can't be a coincidence.

Kept the country safe? The real bill for what they've done has yet to be presented.

I guarantee I'm going to get comments to this post from apologists who will simply repeat the usual torture hypotheticals while continuing their embarrassing, damning silence on the law and the facts of its violation. If you're one of the people who's going to take that route, could you just acknowledge this paragraph as evidence suggesting you at least glanced at the post before responding to it? Thanks.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

How it Looks to the Terrorists

Transcript of an intercepted conversation between two terrorists in a cave somewhere along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border:

Did you hear Dick Cheney's speech to the American Enterprise Institute last week?

I did. It was funny how Cheney said we think it shows weakness when the Americans argue.

I know. The truth is, I'm a little jealous of the way they get to argue.

I would never say this to my wife, but I think the way they argue is a sign of strength. It takes a lot of confidence to argue like that. I once tried to argue a little with Osama, and he told me if I did it again, he would cut my head off.

I know, I know, Osama doesn't like disagreement. But we have to remember, he's our leader and he knows what's best for us.

That's true. Not everyone has a leader as wise as ours. We're lucky to be able to follow him without question.

What was funny was, who cares about the arguing? And even if we did care, Cheney was arguing, too! It was funny to hear him say, "We must stop doing what I'm doing!"

Yes, that was good. It was like, "We must not be as weak as I'm being!"

In fact, it's the way they're surrendering the freedoms they claim to cherish that's so weak. One big attack and immediately they're torturing, kidnapping, wiretapping without warrants, imprisoning people without charging them... it was so easy! I thought it would be harder, but Osama was right -- America is a paper tiger.

Allahu Akhbar.

I have to admit, I was a little worried when they elected Obama. He seemed to understand that among the country's key strengths were its values.

Empty values, though.

Of course empty values. Equality, freedom, individuality, the rule of law... who wants all that when you can have submission to God, instead?

Allahu akhbar.

But still, a lot of people in the world find those values -- call them the American brand -- attractive. That's what I mean when I say American values were making America strong. Throughout history, the values attracted a lot of people to America's cause. Think of the American brand compared to the communist brand. The Soviet Union never had a chance.

Yes, I suppose that's true.

And it's a problem for us, too. Many people are so deluded that they would prefer equality, freedom, individuality, and the rule of law to submission to God. As though there could be any law but God's law!


Yes. But now that America is torturing, spying on it citizens without warrants, imprisoning without charge, and all the rest, the people who were attracted to America's values are recoiling. They are saying, America, the great hypocrite! And the ease with which the soft Americans have surrendered their "cherished" values shows America's enemies how weak she really is.

Then thanks be to Allah that Obama has reversed all those campaign promises.

Yes. For a while, we were afraid America was going to restore its brand and attract new followers again. But Obama is making sure not to do that. If he has his way, Americans will soon surrender more of their "values," including even this thing called "the right to a trial by jury."

You mean the US government will be able to imprison people without trial?


US citizens?




Wow. That is a huge victory for us.

Yes. And it came much more easily than we were expecting. Imagine how weak and frightened they must appear to anyone who might once have been attracted to their cause of "freedom!"

Allahu akbar.

I have to say, I don't understand their political system. The Democrats are afraid of the Republicans, and the Republicans are afraid of everything -- except the Democrats.

That is strange.

Yes. But it works for us. You know, when Bush and Cheney left office, Osama was very sad. But all the talk shows and speeches Cheney has been doing since then have given Osama a good idea.


I really shouldn't tell you, it's a secret...

I won't say anything.

All right. What Cheney and his allies are doing is trying to convince Americans that if there's another terrorist attack, it happened because Americans didn't give up enough of their values. Because they stopped torturing, for example.

You mean...

That's right. If we can attack them again, there's a better chance than ever, thanks to the work of Cheney, that Americans will quickly surrender even more of their values. That will make them even weaker, and us stronger.

They might torture more?

If we are lucky. Their torture of the brothers is the best recruitment tool we've ever had. It has won us many committed new followers.

They're so easy to manipulate, aren't they? We must take advantage of this opportunity Cheney is giving us.

Exactly. Who would have thought Dick Cheney would go on shaping the battlefield for us, that he would find new ways even after leaving office to encourage us to attack by increasing the benefits of an attack?

Allah works in mysterious ways.

He certainly does.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Our Warden-in-Chief

Mostly I agree with Glenn Greenwald that only a politician's actions matter, and speculation about his or her motives is pointless. But when a politician reverses himself repeatedly on core campaign promises and rhetoric immediately after taking office, as Obama has done, it's hard not to wonder what's driving him. It's not just that my day job is writing novels, meaning character motivation is a particular obsession of mine. It's also that in understanding what could cause Obama to make such a liar of himself regarding transparency, the rule of law, and civil liberties, we might learn something not just about the man, but about the system in which he operates.

The list of Obama's reversals is long, but in brief: amnesty for telecom companies that violated eavesdropping laws; abuse of the state secrets privilege; not releasing photos of torture at US-run prisons; continuing the Bush administration's plans to establish "military commissions" with lower levels of due process. Most outrageously of all, Obama now proposes that the government should be able to imprison people indefinitely without trial.

Pause for a moment and consider: the US government. In America. Imprisoning Americans. Who might or might not have committed a crime. Forever. Without trial.

Obama wants to call this "preventive detention." Pretty-sounding, isn't it? Detention is such a friendly word. It's what I used to get in high school when I didn't turn in my homework (here's more on the political abuses of "detainee" and "detention"). Rachel Maddow was being far more accurate when she used the language of Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's story, Minority Report: "Pre-Crime."

Now, some people see "Trial by Jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution." But what kind of of extreme-left, tree-hugging, blame-America-first, granola-eating, America-hating, socialist, ACLU card-carrying librul retard would believe something like that?

Well, Thomas Jefferson, actually. Obama's a pretty smart guy. But does he know better than Jefferson?

So now we come to why. Why would a guy who campaigned on promises of open government, the rule of law, and the importance of civil liberties and all that, a guy who actually taught Constitutional Law, suddenly position himself to become Warden-in-Chief?

I think it comes down to fear.

Americans have become so fearful of being Attacked by the Terrorists that the fear is increasingly distorting our politics. President Bush claimed his most important responsibility was to keep the American people safe -- despite the lack of any such provision in the Constitution. Dick Cheney distorts his oath of office to invent a responsibility to protect America rather than to defend the Constitution. Obama apes Bush in claiming to wake in the morning and fall asleep at night worrying about how to keep us all safe. Wouldn't it be great if these guys would read their job descriptions, as provided for in the Constitution, and try to govern accordingly?

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So Americans are afraid. The fear is fed by demagogues, mostly on the right, who either share the fear or cynically exploit it. As the fear worsens, the level of safety the populace expects and demands from the government increases to unreasonable levels. But because perfect safety is impossible in life, politicians know that, like other forms of crime, terrorist incidents are inevitable. Faced with the impossible demands of the citizenry, what's a politician to do?

Well, basically you do every batshit crazy, extremist thing you can think of: torture (sold for consumer comfort as "enhanced interrogation techniques"); secret prisons ("detention facilities"); preventive wars ("self-defense against mushroom-cloud smoking guns"); warrantless eavesdropping (the "Protect America Act of 2007"); secret laws ("Our Playbook"); show trials and kangaroo courts ("military commissions"); pre-crime prisons ("preventive detention"). Then, when the inevitable happens, the politician can say to the angry, frightened public, "Look what I did to protect you. No one could possibly have done more."

If Americans have become insane with fear, even otherwise responsible politicians might conceive of their job as just managing the insanity.

And that's my take on Obama. I could be wrong, of course; he could be a power-mad tyrant wannabe who -- muwahuwahuwa -- fooled everyone with all that talk of not sacrificing our values for safety, and certainly the powers he's claiming for himself would support that theory. But my essentially unsupportable sense, for what it's worth, is that he's someone with the education, experience, and temperament to know better, who's doing what he's doing merely to protect his political flanks.

What's the difference between a demogogue and a cynic, then? Or between a cynic and a coward?

In the end, perhaps not much.

But what's an honest politician to do? The people are so fearful, the Dick and Liz Cheney Be Very Afraid Show is playing 24/7, when the next attack happens the right will scream it was Obama's fault, he did this, he could have protected you but he didn't...

Yes, what to do. A difficult question.

Oh, wait a minute. A politician could, you know, lead.

Nah, that's crazy. What was I thinking. You're right, cash in the Constitution to protect yourself politically. What the hell, everyone's doing it, why shouldn't you.

But if Obama did actually want to lead, he could try something like this:

"My fellow Americans, there's no such thing as complete safety in this world. And that's always been okay for Americans. We're risk takers and we love liberty -- a combination perfectly summed up in Patrick Henry's 'Give me liberty or give me death.' There was a man who knew there were things in life more precious than safety.

"Actually, there is such a thing as perfect safety in the world. I've heard they have it in North Korea. Of course, the population there isn't safe from the government, but they are safe from pretty much everything else except malnutrition, and that might not be so bad. At least they're not being attacked by Terrorists.

"But is that what we want for ourselves, to cash in the freedom we cherish to make ourselves as safe as North Korea? Generations of Americans have fought and died to protect the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution. Are we really prepared to barter away the freedom they bequeathed us with their blood?

"No, we won't break faith with those previous generations of brave Americans. We won't allow the government to spy on us without warrants, or to govern under secret laws, or to imprison people without trial, or to torture. And if any of that puts us at some additional risk, that's fine. We're Americans. We embrace risk and we love freedom, and we'll be damned if we'll allow a bunch of medieval cave-dwellers to call our tune."

Obama could actually say all this, you know. But it wouldn't be convincing. After all, it would be awkward for the president to try to inspire us to steadfastness against terrorists while he's simultaneously caving in to fear-mongering from Liz Cheney.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Incoherent Truth Suppression

As op-eds go, this one in the NYT praising President Obama for reversing himself and deciding to block the publication of additional torture photos is particularly vapid and incoherent.

You have to read the whole thing to appreciate just how nonsensical and self-contradictory it really is, but here's the author's argument, boiled down:

1. The release of the Abu Ghraib photos in 2004 was good because the photos showed the Bush administration was lying when it said it didn't order torture.

2. But the Bush administration was able to wriggle free by portraying the soldiers who took the photos as rogues and prosecuting them.


3. Obama was right not to release additional AG-style photos taken at other prisons because new photos would enflame anti-American feeling while not telling us anything we don't already know.


By proving the AG techniques were employed at other US prisons throughout the world, the new photos would tell us *exactly* what we need to know, exactly what the Bush administration managed to obscure by painting the AG guards as a few bad apples: that these techniques didn't spring up at random in isolation, but rather were the result of centralized orders. The author, Philip Gourevitch, himself decries the Bush administration's ability to obscure this central truth of Abu Ghraib -- that what happened there wasn't an aberration -- and yet he salutes Obama for covering up the very evidence that would prove the "bad apples" narrative was a lie.

As for enflaming things, how would the new photos be inflammatory if they don't show anything new? Maybe there would be a little enflaming, but surely not nearly so much enflaming as with the AG photos in 2004? Gourevitch himself argues that the AG photos enflamed in vain. Now we have a chance to finish the job of demonstrating where the AG abuses really came from, at far lower cost of inflammation. But Gourevitch shies from the opportunity.

Gourevitch goes on to argue that:

"Crime-scene photographs, for all their power to reveal, can also serve as a distraction, even a deterrent, from precise understanding of the events they depict. Photographs cannot show us a chain of command, or Washington decision making. Photographs cannot tell stories. They can only provide evidence of stories, and evidence is mute; it demands investigation and interpretation."

If photos are so distracting and deterring, why was it good to release the AG photos? And really, "photographs cannot tell stories?" Is he serious? How does someone come to write something so self-evidently silly?

Regardless, why does Gourevitch set up his argument as though words and images are an either/or proposition, when obviously ideally we would have both? This is all especially confusing because we already do have words, born of "investigation and interpretation," proving that AG was not an aberration. Here, let me quote a few of them, from the bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee Inquiry Into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody:

"The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of “a few bad apples” acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority. This report is a product of the Committee’s inquiry into how those unfortunate results came about."

So we already have the words, and they've accomplished little about fixing appropriate responsibility for torture, as Gourveitch himself laments. It's the photos we need, but Gourevitch claims that (this time, as opposed to last time) the photos would be distracting, deterring, mute, unable to tell a story. Bizarre.

Gourevitch says "Mr. Obama is not suppressing information when he opposes the release of more photographs." It's difficult to imagine that he would say the same thing were Mr. Obama Mr. Bush.

The Torture Mentality, Part 3

Still trying to keep up with the messages I receive from torture apologists. Recently I received one from a gentleman named James R. Hostert on my Amazon blog. Mr. Hostert's opinions in favor of torture are depressingly common and therefore worth addressing in spite of his equally common refusal or inability to support any of these opinions with facts. In addition to the absence of evidence for any of these pro-torture assertions, note as ever the refusal to address the glaringly obvious point that *torture is illegal.*

Mr. Hostert's points in quotes below; my thoughts interpolated.

"Well, Barry, I don't think we'll ever see eye to eye on this."

James, that's the first accurate thing you've said in this thread.

"I don't understand how you can oppose torture to save lives."

Perhaps you don't understand my point because you're misconstruing it.

First, torture doesn't save lives. Torture costs lives, and indeed has cost thousands of American lives. I'm not asking you to accept my opinion on this point as a substitute for facts (note that your own opinions might be more persuasive to others if you would bolster them with evidence). Matthew Alexander, an Air Force interrogator in Iraq, himself claims that:

"What I saw in Iraq still rattles me -- both because it betrays our traditions and because it just doesn't work... I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It's no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me -- unless you don't count American soldiers as Americans."

And Alexander isn't the only one:

"Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists are taught to expect Americans to abuse them. They are recruited based on false propaganda that says the United States is out to destroy Islam. Treating detainees harshly only reinforces that distorted view, increases resistance to cooperation, and creates new enemies. In fact, the April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States" cited "pervasive anti U.S. sentiment among most Muslims" as an underlying factor fueling the spread of the global jihadist movement. Former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2008 that "there are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq – as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat – are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.""

And here's a Washington Post article from March this year. Headline: "Detainee's Harsh Treatment Foiled No Plots."

Are you starting to understand now? Why don't you do me and anyone else who's reading this a favor: read the articles linked above, and rebut Alexander's, Mora's, and the Washington Post authors' points based on your own experience with torture and interrogation. I'm not asking you to repeat your opinions. I'm asking you for a refutation based on facts (this is Question #1).

While you're at it, please answer this question: is saving lives the only, or even the highest value?" (Question #2) Was Patrick Henry wrong when he said, "Give me liberty or give me death?" (Question #3)

"Obviously, we don't begin by torturing someone."

Not that it matters whether we torture someone in the morning or later in the day, but in fact, like all the other unsupported opinions you've been offering up here, this one is wrong as a matter of fact. Torture was ordered and was used not just during interrogations, but to "soften up" prisoners before interrogations. Such softening up is the whole point of sleep deprivation, stress positions, manacling prisoners to the ceiling for days at a time, etc.

"We attempt to get the required information by other means."

Again, not that it matters, but so what if we also use other means? Are you saying torture is legal as long as we ask nicely first? (Question #4)

"However, I believe that if it comes down to it, torture is a viable tool to get information that can save lives."

Why do you keep repeating what you believe without offering any evidence at all for that belief? Do you expect to persuade people by repeating your opinions and without any evidence to bolster those opinions? (Question #5)

Here's a quote from General David Petraeus from May 2007:

"What sets us apart from our enemies in this fight… is how we behave. In everything we do, we must observe the standards and values that dictate that we treat noncombatants and detainees with dignity and respect. While we are warriors, we are also all human beings."

Please explain why Petraeus is wrong. (Question #6)

"So, you're telling me that you wouldn't allow a "bad guy" to be tortured to save your wife/child? Really? You'd actually allow them to die. I find THAT depressing."

Not as depressing as I find our failure to teach basic civics in high school, I'm sure.

Anyway, probably in extremis I'd resort to extremes. But James, wouldn't it be more productive -- and polite -- to answer the questions I've already asked you, before repeating ones I've already answered? (Question #7)

I have to say, it is continually fascinating to encounter people who are confident in their opinions despite a complete absence of any supporting evidence and in the presence of so much contradictory evidence. May I ask: since you are formulating and repeating these opinions without any regard at all to facts, what do you think is actually motivating you? (Question #8)

If you want me to respond to you again, please first do me the courtesy of answering each of the questions above. For your convenience, I've numbered them for you -- #1 - #8.