November 21, 2005

Walking into the Iran Trap, I: A Decision of Policy -- and the Intelligence Won't Matter

The general terms in which the numerous and profound intelligence failures preceding the Iraq invasion are now being discussed create a very great danger. Without realizing they're doing so, even many strong critics of the Bush administration's foreign policy are making a preemptive attack on Iran more likely rather than less, perhaps an attack that utilizes even tactical nuclear weapons.

I'm not speaking here of the "misuse" of intelligence by Bush and others, although it is beyond dispute that they misrepresented, distorted and even lied about many aspects of Iraq's purported WMD (and probably most or even all of them) and that they heard what they wanted to hear, even from sources no one else believed (such as the notorious "Curveball"). The Bush administration led an extensive propaganda campaign designed to make the American public believe that Iraq constituted a very serious danger that could no longer be countenanced and that, in the wake of 9/11, action had to be taken now, not at some later date. To their shame, much of the national press went along with this campaign and only rarely challenged it. Our media are now repeating this same pattern with regard to Iran, and with Syria as well.

But I'm not talking about the many misuses of intelligence: I'm talking about the crucial emphasis placed on intelligence in the first place. Let me be very clear: accurate intelligence is vital to our nation's defense. We need to know about gathering threats, if a threat must be addressed and, if it must, how and when to best do so. But here I'm talking about a different aspect of the problem, one which ought to be considered separately, but usually isn't: the extent and manner in which intelligence, accurate or not, influences major policy decisions.

Because of the mistaken and dangerous approach that is now so common in this debate, I see that I have to resurrect an excerpt from Barbara Tuchman's invaluable chronicle of calamitous policy failures from history, The March of Folly. Because it is so important to these questions, I relied on this excerpt in several essays over the last few years. I will do so again now.

In discussing the monumental disaster of Vietnam that unfolded over the course of several administrations, Tuchman wrote:
For all their truths, the Fulbright hearings were not a prelude to action in the only way that could count, a vote against appropriations, so much as an intellectual exercise in examination of American policy. The issue of longest consequence, Executive war, was not formulated until after the hearings, in Fulbright's preface to a published version. Acquiescence in Executive war, he wrote, comes from the belief that the government possesses secret information that gives it special insight in determining policy. Not only was this questionable, but major policy decisions turn "not upon available facts but upon judgment," with which policy-makers are no better endowed than the intelligent citizen. Congress and citizens can judge "whether the massive deployment and destruction of their men and wealth seem to serve the overall interests as a nation."

Though he could bring out the major issues, Fulbright was a teacher, not a leader, unready himself to put his vote where it counted. When a month after the hearings the Senate authorized $4.8 billion in emergency funds for the war in Vietnam, the bill passed against only the two faithful negatives of Morse and Gruening. Fulbright voted with the majority.

The belief that government knows best was voiced just at this time by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who said on resumption of the bombing, "We ought to all support the President. He is the man who has all the information and knowledge of what we are up against." This is a comforting assumption that relieves people from taking a stand. It is usually invalid, especially in foreign affairs. "Foreign policy decisions," concluded Gunnar Myrdal after two decades of study, "are in general much more influenced by irrational motives" than are domestic ones.
This is the critical point that many commentators never grasp, especially those in our mainstream media, and that many others minimize. It may indeed be comforting to think that decisions of war and peace are made on the basis of facts, cold, clear logic, and "secret information" (information that is accurate, I hasten to add) -- but history, including our most recent history, does not support that view. We might think that is the correct method that should be utilized in pondering the fates of many thousands of soldiers and innocent civilians -- and indeed, it is the right procedure, if leaders were amenable to being directed solely by facts and what is in their nations' best long-term interests. But if leaders were ultimately moved by such factors, World War I would not have witnessed years of endless slaughter, it would not have lasted as long as it did, and it might not have begun at all. And if our own political and military leaders focused on those factors that ought to serve as their lodestar to the exclusion of all else, we would not have had the nightmare of Vietnam then -- or the nightmare of Iraq now.

The opposition conclusion -- the one Myrdal was inevitably led to after 20 years of immersion in the subject -- is that "irrational motives" impel foreign policy decisions. Here is how I concluded a piece on this subject at the end of January 2004:
It is simply not true that the Bush administration's decision to go to war with Iraq was the result of "bad intelligence." In the most significant sense, that decision had nothing at all to do with the quality of the intelligence they were getting. The decision was one of policy -- a decision that depended "not upon available facts but upon judgment." As the Star-Tribune editorial points out, the Clinton administration had virtually the same intelligence -- yet came to a different conclusion altogether with regard to the proper course of action.

But this tactic serves an important purpose: it passes blame off to another party, and in effect lets the administration off the hook. The administration thus hopes to insulate itself from examination, criticism and accountability. It's as if the administration is saying: "The intelligence made us do it."

But the intelligence, whatever it was, didn't make them do anything. They had already decided what they wanted to do -- and the intelligence was almost irrelevant.

Remember Tuchman's warning -- and hold the Bush Administration fully accountable. The intelligence didn't matter in the end, they knew what they wanted to do, and they did it -- with a great deal of enthusiastic support. Hold them all responsible for the consequences, whatever they may be.

And keep Tuchman's words in mind, the next time the war whoops begin to rise. And at some point they will: it's only a question of time, and which country will be the next target.
(You can read that earlier post in its entirety at the Liberty & Power group blog, where I had cross-posted it.)

But the misuses of intelligence by the Bush administration reveal the nature of a critical related point: the distortions of intelligence were used, not as the reasons for the invasion (since they were not true, and since they were not the actual reasons), but as the rationalization -- and as the justification used in the propaganda blitz. The effort to portray Iraq as a serious threat that could reach us even here at home served to make the war acceptable to the American public, even if many Americans still weren't enthusiastic about it. It justified the war for the public, and thus served its purpose.

This returns us to the danger that the current emphasis on "bad intelligence" represents: given the way the question is often discussed, an inevitable implication arises. We are left to conclude that the Iraq war was not justified because the intelligence was wrong -- but if the intelligence had been right, then the war would have been justified. Many commentators fail to go on to the next part of the argument: that, even if Iraq had possessed WMD, the danger still could and should have been contained. It had been for some years -- and, after all, we managed to coexist with the Soviet Union for decades. It's true that we came dangerously close to the abyss on a few occasions, but we managed to pull back in time. And the Soviet Union represented an infinitely greater danger than Iraq ever did. I would argue, and indeed I did argue at the time, that even if everything the Bush administration claimed had been true, the war still was not justified -- and that it was definitely not strategically advisable longer term.

I submit that even if WMD had been found in Iraq, the negative consequences flowing out of the U.S. occupation still argue conclusively against this war. As explained in this post and the Peter Bergen article it excerpts, we vanquished one foe only to breathe life into a worldwide jihadist movement. We traded one enemy for a multitude of enemies. Had Iraq possessed WMD, that is still a remarkably ill-advised exchange. And make no mistake: we would have had a prolonged occupation in any case, and it would have led to the identical, profoundly negative results.

So this is the possible calamity that now awaits us: if we concede, even impliedly, that the war on Iraq would have been justified if only the intelligence had been correct, then what if intelligence indicates that Iran represents a similar or even worse danger today? In fact, almost everyone already seems to be convinced that Iran does represent that kind of danger, a danger that exceeds that represented by Iraq, assuming all the claims had been true, by several orders of magnitude.

This could easily lead you to wonder why the war on Iran hasn't already begun -- or if, someday in the not too distant future, Bush will inform us, via a hastily announced presidential address to a waiting world, called amid black and threatening clouds and whispers of doom, about attacks on Iran only after they have started. I'll consider these aspects of the Iran dilemma and several related issues in future installments of this series.

UPDATE: If you want to read one altogether possible and nightmarish scenario of what might happen if we attacked Iran, I suggest this earlier piece: Unleashing Armageddon: What Then? As I explain, "What then?" is the question that neither the Bush administration nor its most vehement defenders considered with regard to Iraq, or that they appear to be thinking about in connection with Iran. Since the consequences may well be catastrophic, we ought to be talking about them now, not when it is too late -- and consider whether that is a risk we truly care to take.

November 16, 2005

Let's Talk About Sex!

Ah, I got your attention, I see. For the moment, enough about politics, war, death and destruction. Sex will be a welcome and much-needed relief. Besides, two reasons have led me to begin this discussion now. And talking about sex is good, clean, innocent fun! Or is it? Well, let's see what we find.

My first reason arises out of this post from last week [still to be republished], about Senator Brownback's anti-pornography crusade. My major concern in that entry was to rebut two very dangerous assumptions: that sex is inherently "dirty" and "disgusting," for reasons which are never identified; and that government has any business regulating and/or prohibiting the pornography industry. I maintain that it does not, and that it should not. The sexual behavior engaged in by consenting adults is none of the government's business, period. I emphatically include prostitution in that statement. Obviously, I am not referring here to actual criminal behavior, such as rape. But acts of that kind are already punished by the relevant criminal laws, as they should be. Here I am referring only to voluntary adult behavior. In large part, that post was simply a plea for an open, honest, informed discussion about sex, something which we as a culture still seem unable to have. The barriers that prevent that conversation from taking place is one of the areas that interests me so much.

But part of what I said in the earlier post was a badly mistaken oversimplification, and I neglected to take into consideration some complex, underlying issues. This passage is especially problematic:
It is certainly true that some pornography "involves exploitive images of men and women," although certainly not all -- unless sex itself is viewed as "morally repugnant and offensive." But such "exploitation" (which term itself requires careful definition) involves complex issues of gender roles and gender identity, among many other considerations. Government is singularly ill-equipped to address such concerns. More to the point, such "exploitation," if exploitation it be, is none of the government's business at all as long as it involves adults who voluntarily consent to be "exploited" in this way.
The error in my approach came to my attention by way of this entry from Echidne, and more particularly some of the comments. Echidne and I agree about the awful view of marriage offered by a woman who testified at Brownback's hearing, a view which sees marriage as an eternal manipulative battle where sex is a reward for good behavior. It's genuinely sickening. As Echidne observed:
Interesting that Pamela Paul knows so much about the negotiations supposedly ongoing between spouses before sex. Isn't there a single wife out there who tears her husband's clothes off when he gets out of the car after a long day at the office? And if there is, did she watch porn before this heinous act?
So we agree about that. Here are the comments that made me realize my error. Echidne wrote:
Arthur Silber's view is an interesting one, and I agree with quite a few things he says. But even he misses the point of what is deplorabl[e] about pornography: its male-centeredness. The idea in most of the porn I have seen is that women service men and that is it. This view of sex could cause some damage in real-world relationships, both to men and women.
This was followed by Miranda's comment:
I agree with you on this, Echidne. Silber's silence on the basic gendering of porn is a problem; another problem for me is his dedication to laissez-faire and individualism. Silber's a libertarian; while he's a good writer and has good commentary on many issues, the libertarian pov is not for me.
I appreciate the kind words. Because it's not relevant to this discussion, I won't engage the points about libertarianism. I observed recently in another post that what I mean by libertarianism is not what most other libertarians mean today, certainly not most self-identified libertarian bloggers. That is at least triply true with regard to the "libertarian warhawks," with whom I disagree about everything, beginning but hardly ending with every aspect of our foreign policy. But my entire approach differs radically from that of many contemporary libertarians, and our concerns are not at all the same. Furthermore, I think the issues they tend to focus on are the wrong ones in general, and singularly badly timed. I hope to begin a lengthier explanation of all those points soon. [I recently indicated that it might be most accurate to describe me as "leftist-anarchist-libertarian," if we use popular labels. I hope to have time to explain that in more detail soon.]

But about Echidne's statement that I "miss[] the point of what is deplorabl[e] about pornography": she's entirely correct. It was a bad oversight, and I'm very sorry I made that particular mistake. A large part of the explanation for my error is a simple one: I'm gay. I've hardly ever seen heterosexual pornography (leaving aside the very soft porn of Playboy when I was a teenager, but I quickly discovered the joys of Playgirl and never went back [well, almost never]). The pornography I've seen is entirely "male-centered," and I thank God for that fact almost every single day. (And since you ask, and I know you do: yes, indeed, I do watch and enjoy pornography. I even own pornography! Report me to Senator Brownback immediately.)

I don't offer the fact that I'm gay as an excuse. I could and should have known better. It's not as if I don't know a fair amount about non-gay pornography, or about the pornography business in general. Of course I do. We all do (if we're honest about it). My failure made me aware once more of a crucial issue: how important context is, including most especially our specific, personal context. When I first think about pornography, I think primarily about the pornography I've seen, and the function it serves in my life. When I wrote the post about Brownback's hearing, the point that Echidne makes honestly simply never entered my mind. The failure, which is revealed especially in my paragraph quoted above, was forgetting that much more was involved than simply what my own experience in this area has been.

Echidne states that "[t]he idea in most of the porn I have seen is that women service men and that is it." I don't know that from the porn I myself have seen but, as I indicated, I've read and heard enough about pornography in general over the years to easily believe that it's true. In fact, once I began to think about it, I realized that it had to be true. I say that because of the underlying issues that I began to reflect on. I wrote to Echidne briefly about this, and we exchanged a few emails on the subject. As we tossed some observations back and forth, I realized that there was infinitely more involved here than I had first realized -- and that I ended up with more questions than answers. So that's what I want to talk about now. In fact, I want to ask you some questions, and I sincerely hope that more than a few of you will respond, either on your own blogs or via email. I'm not even certain I'm asking the right questions, and I'm certain there are many more that haven't occurred to me yet.

Let me begin with a general observation. I try to avoid specialized terms in my writing as much as possible, so I apologize for employing some highly technical philosophic language here at the beginning. But I don't know any other way to say it. The more I thought about these issues last evening and today, I came to one conclusion above all others: most of what we think about sex in our culture is just nuts. Okay, enough technical lingo. It's not simply that our notions about sex are grounded in unexamined assumptions, although that's certainly true. And it's not only that our sexual views reflect deeply rooted and almost always incorrect views about gender identity and gender roles, although I also think that's true. And it's not only that many of those views are allegedly grounded in biology, even though I think that is demonstrably wrong. It's that virtually everything we think about sex arises from cultural and historic factors that we hardly ever examine. In that sense, but not in the sense that many people use the term, all our views about sex are "constructed." I think that almost none of the commonly held views reflect what is actually true, using "true" to refer to what the facts are out there stripped of the underlying cultural factors that explain them.

(For those who remember that, once upon a time, I thought very highly of certain of Ayn Rand's ideas, let me strongly state that I most definitely include Rand's major views about sex within the "nuts" description. Among other things, Rand believed that the essence of femininity was "hero-worship" and a woman's "surrender" to her particular hero. This led her to the conclusion, among others, that a "rational" woman would never want to be President and that, if she were, it would be a profound personal tragedy for her. Rand's sexual and romantic views are shot through with utterly traditional ideas about feminine submission and masculine dominance, and I think she was completely wrong on every point. I also think that these particular errors were especially dangerous ones, both because of the methodology from which they arose and because of their other implications, especially the psychological ones. I now think that it was that methodology and what it in turn relied upon that constitutes the particular danger of Rand's overall approach. If that were not enough, many of Rand's narrower conclusions are utterly arbitrary and without foundation in my view, a rather biting irony for a woman who championed logic and reason above everything else. But all that requires a much longer explanation, which I will get to in time. With regard to certain of the points that follow, the issues I identify apply to Rand, and in spades.)

After reading Echidne's post and as I thought about all this, I realized that our prevailing cultural views about pornography are only one symptom of the larger problem. Each of the issues listed below could easily be expanded into several lengthy essays, so here I will condense them as much as I can. And then I'll indicate the questions that I need much more information about. Please keep in mind that in what follows, I'm speaking very, very generally. There are obviously many exceptions and qualifications that need to be made about these points. Here, I'm only trying to get the "big picture" in focus, and we can all adjust the many details later -- and alter the big picture itself as necessary.

1. Cultural and Historical Factors

As I thought about the question of "exploitation" and the point Echidne made, I cast my mind back over history and the major cultures of the world. I realized one key fact: with only a handful of exceptions, women have always been in an inferior position in every civilization. This has been true (and is still true in many ways, even in the United States) with regard to every area: sexually, politically, economically, legally, and in every other way I can think of. The legal aspect is particularly revealing, I think, because of what it reveals about the other areas. Even in supposedly "enlightened" Western civilizations, including all the European countries and the United States, women were denied a number of fundamental legal rights until the twentieth century. Men could get a divorce; women couldn't. Men could commit adultery and often did, and were not legally penalized for it; women who committed adultery could be legally punished very severely. Men could own property; women couldn't. Men could vote; women couldn't. And then there were more general elements. Men worked outside the home; women didn't. Men served in government; women didn't. That is very far from an inclusive list.

To state it bluntly, women were chattel -- chattel belonging to men. Last night, I remembered a post I wrote several years ago, long gone now. It concerned the prohibition against incest. I may be misremembering some of the details, but I don't think so. (If you can correct me on any historical or other points, please do so. And if you can add further details, even better.) We tend to think that the incest taboo arose out of a fear of "inbreeding" and the "defective" or deformed children that might result. But historically, that in fact isn't true. In ancient tribes, women were partnered with outsiders to obtain property, to make peace with a former enemy, and for similar reasons. If women entered into alliances within the tribe, all those potential advantages were lost. Hence, the prohibition against women allying themselves with men in their own tribe. The relevant point is obvious: it had nothing to do with sex or inherited defects at all. And of course, that has to be true: until very recently, the very concept of genetics was unknown. A taboo such as the one against incest couldn't have arisen based on biological factors, certainly not in the sense that any such suspected dangers could be proven.

This exploitation of women for economic and social reasons has a long history, and is reflected in celebrated literature. Think about "Romeo and Juliet," or the novels of Jane Austen and many other English authors, as just a few examples. Women had to worry, and worry a lot, about the man they married. And if they never married, that could be a calamity -- not only for them, but for their entire families. Arranged marriages served to procure property or money. Women were part of the "property" used in the exchange. They became wives as part of a financial transaction.

You could multiply these kinds of examples a thousandfold. The point that concerns me is a simple one: in a very significant sense, women were not fully human the way men were. In many respects, they weren't people at all. They were objects, to be bartered and traded like other property.

2. What Those Factors Mean About Sex

The implications are unavoidable: sex was a service provided as part of the property women represented. I use "service" purposely: women were for procreation. Children were critical; a son was indispensable. Henry VIII, anyone? (Or a number of other English Kings, for that matter. The problem was not restricted to royalty: remember that women could not inherit property until very recently in historic terms.) Or as I mentioned earlier, women were needed for money or position. Women very rarely got married for love; that is an entirely modern invention, one which continues to be overridden even now by other considerations (although, one hopes, with somewhat more choice for the woman involved today).

If a man happened to find sexual and romantic satisfaction with his wife, that was a nice bonus. It was hardly ever a primary concern. When a man wanted to have fun sexually or experiment...well, that was what prostitutes were for. Thus, paying and receiving money for sex enters the equation. And note that men paid, and women received. Men chose and directed the transaction; women got what they could, and did the best possible. And the women who became prostitutes usually did so because they had no other choice; in that sense, it wasn't a choice at all.

The critical issue for me is this one: sex as an end in itself, sex engaged in solely because of the pleasure it provides, is fatally undercut on both sides. Sex as part of marriage was a duty, an act that was necessary for children, to ensure that the family name went on and that a son could inherit property. If sex within marriage was pleasurable, that was very nice -- but in the end, it didn't matter. The sex was required for other reasons.

And turning to prostitutes for sexual recreation was tolerated, but hardly approved of. It was viewed as "necessary." Men just have those urges and needs, you know. But it was clearly not "good" or "moral" or "admirable." It was unavoidable; accommodations had to be made. In more modern terms, sex for pleasure alone became "dirty." Besides, money was involved. Sex for fun involved business, too. So sex was a business transaction within the family, and also outside it. It was either a necessary duty, or a permitted dirty secret. (Sex outside of marriage was altered somewhat for the man who had a mistress he genuinely cared about. But even then, it was behavior that was tolerated, but not endorsed. And for the mistress, the arrangement was always extremely precarious and could be ended whenever the man chose. Think of "Camille," or the operatic version of the same story, "La Traviata," or Eugene O'Neill's version of the tale, "Anna Christie." Those stories never had happy endings, not for the woman.)

So we may have a large part of the answer to one of the issues I raised at the beginning. The idea of sex as good, clean, innocent fun barely existed throughout much of history. Even today, the idea is very new to us, and we still haven't gotten used to it or come anywhere near accepting it fully, let alone celebrating it.

3. The Myths Underlying these Views

I wrote the other day about the theme of this new blog : the power of narrative, and the power of myth. In connection with these issues, consider just one myth, one of central importance in Western culture: Adam and Eve. Think of just the central elements in that myth: while Eden remained a Paradise, it appears that Adam and Eve did nothing. They didn't work, they knew nothing about right and wrong, they had no idea what the concept of shame meant, and they never had sex. Who knows what they did. Enjoyed the garden, I guess.

And then the woman ate the forbidden fruit. Then they became aware of their bodies in sexual terms, and they were ashamed. Then they actually had sex, and they were overcome with guilt. Sex was Original Sin. And it was all the woman's fault. (Add to this that woman was created out of Adam's rib, to ensure her submission and obedience to him.) Part of the punishment -- visited with intended vengeance on the woman -- was menstruation. Until very recently, menstruation was very commonly referred to a "the curse." Now there's positive reinforcement for an entire sex's self-image! [I recently mentioned Elaine Pagels' important work on this general subject, and I urge you again to read her enormously enlightening book, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent.]

A brief autobiographical note: I grew up in a very well-educated, upper middle class family. My parents were both very leftwing in their political beliefs. Politics was very, very important in my parents' lives. They went on peace marches; we all went to the civil rights march in Washington in 1963 (I remember first hearing Martin Luther King's famous speech that day even now); my father had belonged to the Communist Party in the 1930s. They were seriously leftwing. My mother, a very intelligent and often very perceptive woman, casually and commonly referred to "the curse" all the time when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of her similarly intelligent women friends did, too. Many of these women were very accomplished and sometimes even very well-known, as activists or as writers. They all talked about "the curse." These attitudes have barely left us, and in some cases they haven't left us at all. It is still fairly common to hear people refer to someone as being "on the rag" (or the somewhat less crude, "Well, it's her time of the month") -- used to mean someone who's very angry or out of sorts, or who's behaving badly, or who is just generally unpleasant. I think people who still use phrases like those might want to think about their origins, and the kinds of attitudes and judgments they reflect.

There are other versions of the Adam and Eve story, and some of them are more "positive" in tone, both with regard to sex in general and women in particular. But the unfathomably negative one suffuses our culture, even today. It is almost impossible to capture just how negative and damning this myth is with regard to women, especially when you add in all the attitudes that flow out of it And this is just one myth.

4. The Implications for Prostitution and Pornography

So here is where I've temporarily arrived, having thought through some of these issues in a preliminary fashion. There is an enormous problem already built into any consideration of prostitution and pornography. And that is the fact that women enter into these professions from a position which is already one of diminishment, submission, disadvantage, discrimination and even deep condemnation. This is obviously true of women in many other professions, too, but I think it's especially relevant and obvious in the sexual ones. And sex itself has profoundly negative attitudes surrounding it, arising out of the factors mentioned above, and others as well.

For these reasons, I think it has to be true that women are being exploited in pornography, at the very least in general terms: they have been exploited in most cultures throughout history, and they continue to be exploited in many ways in our culture today. To put it another way: in terms of historical and cultural factors, women have almost always been powerless. I think that even today, many if not most men believe that to the extent women acquire power, they are taking it away from men. Most men seem unable to comprehend that there isn't a finite amount of power in the world. Most men compete with other men for power, money, position and prestige all the time. They also compete for women, of course. But the idea that a woman would take away some of the man's power, let alone most or all of it, is anathema to most men. That's certainly been changing, but I'm not at all certain how much it's changed. As just one significant indicator, remember that we still haven't had a woman President.

So this is one of the problems I'm left with in evaluating pornography from the perspective of exploitation: I think it's close to impossible for us to imagine pornography "pure," if you will, shorn of all these cultural and historical factors. What would it be like if women were genuinely, fully equal to men? And leave pornography aside: what would our sexual relations be like if women were fully men's equal? We certainly know anecdotally, hopefully from our own lives and perhaps blissfully including our own relationships. But we definitely don't know what our culture would look like if true and full equality suffused it entirely. Do we? I don't think we have any idea.

Well, shucks. That was a lot longer than I wanted it to be. I tried to condense it, I really did! So what questions do I have? I have questions about all of it. Am I correct, at least in general terms, about the historical and cultural roots of these attitudes about women, and about sex? Are there important differences between cultures of the East and West in these respects? What are they, and how did they arise? Are there counterexamples within the West itself to what I describe? What are they?

And what about myths that relate to these questions? What other myths shed light on these issues? What are positive myths about women, and in what respects are they positive?

And, of course, what do you think about pornography and prostitution? Am I right about the already inferior position that women have been forced into, and how that complicates our evaluation? If not, why not?

And on and on and on...oh, and there are at least five or six separate other issues that I haven't even gotten to yet. A major one is the idea that dominant and submissive roles in sex and with relation to gender identities more generally are rooted in biology. I'll be technical again: that entire notion is a crock in my view. Next time for that one.

So I hope that others will address these questions, ask new ones, and fill in some of the many blanks. I'm thinking through all this myself and, as I said, I'm not even sure I'm asking the right questions in the first place. (Email: arthur4801 at yahoo dot com. I'll be more than happy to post emails about this here, so let me know if that's alright and if you want to be identified or not.)

I look forward to hearing what others think about all this. And everyone loves talking about sex, right? So I hope the conversation goes on for quite a while. Thanks!

[I republished this essay in connection with a more recent one, about icky gay sex -- which, you know, isn't actually icky at all.]

November 14, 2005

Monsters with Borrowed Souls: The Horror Magnifies

Along with many other people, I've learned one especially painful lesson during the Bush administration's tenure: no matter the depths of depravity and inhumanity to which this group of thugs descends, and even when you are convinced that no additional atrocities can outrage you further, Bush and his fellow gang members will continue to astonish you. When you think it is absolutely impossible for them to do something still worse (and leaving aside for the moment, as we must to maintain what they have left us of our sanity, the unleashing of Armageddon), they do.

And so it is with this NYT article by M. Gregg Bloche and Jonathan H. Marks: "Doing Unto Others as They Did Unto Us." The authors pose this question at the outset: "How did American interrogation tactics after 9/11 come to include abuse rising to the level of torture?" They then focus on "the strategic error that...has been overlooked":
The Pentagon effectively signed off on a strategy that mimics Red Army methods. But those tactics were not only inhumane, they were ineffective. For Communist interrogators, truth was beside the point: their aim was to force compliance to the point of false confession.
This point is crucial, and the authors state it still more plainly toward the end of the article:
Yet the Pentagon cannot point to any intelligence gains resulting from the techniques that have so tarnished America's image. That's because the techniques designed by communist interrogators were created to control a prisoner's will rather than to extract useful intelligence.
Let's make certain we understand what this means: all the rationalizations utilized by the administration and its defenders in this matter -- every one of which relies on the notion that torture may help to save lives and prevent an attack, that is, that torture may "extract useful intelligence" -- has been and is a lie. This was never about obtaining intelligence at all. That needs to be repeated, because it is so monstrous in its implications: This was never about obtaining intelligence at all.

What appears to be new in this column is the history of how the U.S. military came to adopt these methods:
Fearful of future terrorist attacks and frustrated by the slow progress of intelligence-gathering from prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Pentagon officials turned to the closest thing on their organizational charts to a school for torture. That was a classified program at Fort Bragg, N.C., known as SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape. Based on studies of North Korean and Vietnamese efforts to break American prisoners, SERE was intended to train American soldiers to resist the abuse they might face in enemy custody.

The Pentagon appears to have flipped SERE's teachings on their head, mining the program not for resistance techniques but for interrogation methods. At a June 2004 briefing, the chief of the United States Southern Command, Gen. James T. Hill, said a team from Guantánamo went "up to our SERE school and developed a list of techniques" for "high-profile, high-value" detainees. General Hill had sent this list - which included prolonged isolation and sleep deprivation, stress positions, physical assault and the exploitation of detainees' phobias - to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who approved most of the tactics in December 2002.

Some within the Pentagon warned that these tactics constituted torture, but a top adviser to Secretary Rumsfeld justified them by pointing to their use in SERE training, a senior Pentagon official told us last month.
Pause to reflect how commonly this technique is used by the Bush administration, and how committed they are to their idea of "creating other new realities." This is exactly how a large part of the propaganda campaign leading up to the Iraq invasion worked: administration officials leaked misleading information (and sometimes outright falsehoods) to willing reporters like Judith Miller, the propaganda was then dutifully reported on the front pages of our major newspapers -- and when challenged about their assertions, administration officials would say, "But it was published in The New York Times! Look at this article! Obviously it's true!" The "new realities" the administration creates consist of its own previous lies and falsehoods, which it then relies on to further "prove" its case, in a kind of neverending loop. Not coincidentally, this is why it can often seem impossible to untangle the infinite web of lies, which turns back on itself over and over again. The only way to combat this intricate, systematic kind of falsehood -- the systematic behavior typical of a pathological liar, by the way, a description which appears to apply to the entire administration -- is to blast it entirely at the foundation.

The article continues:
When internal F.B.I. e-mail messages critical of these methods were made public earlier this year, references to SERE were redacted. But we've obtained a less-redacted version of an e-mail exchange among F.B.I. officials, who refer to the methods as "SERE techniques." We also learned from a Pentagon official that the SERE program's chief psychologist, Col. Morgan Banks, issued guidance in early 2003 for the "behavioral science consultants" who helped to devise Guantánamo's interrogation strategy (we've been unable to learn the content of that guidance).

SERE methods are classified, but the program's principles are known. It sought to recreate the brutal conditions American prisoners of war experienced in Korea and Vietnam, where Communist interrogators forced false confessions from some detainees, and broke the spirits of many more, through Pavlovian and other conditioning. Prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, painful body positions and punitive control over life's most intimate functions produced overwhelming stress in these prisoners. Stress led in turn to despair, uncontrollable anxiety and a collapse of self-esteem. Sometimes hallucinations and delusions ensued. Prisoners who had been through this treatment became pliable and craved companionship, easing the way for captors to obtain the "confessions" they sought.

SERE, as originally envisioned, inoculates American soldiers against these techniques. Its psychologists create mock prison regimens to study the effects of various tactics and identify the coping styles most likely to withstand them. At Guantánamo, SERE-trained mental health professionals applied this knowledge to detainees, working with guards and medical personnel to uncover resistant prisoners' vulnerabilities. "We know if you've been despondent; we know if you've been homesick," General Hill said. "That is given to interrogators and that helps the interrogators" make their plans.

Within the SERE program, abuse is carefully controlled, with the goal of teaching trainees to cope. But under combat conditions, brutal tactics can't be dispassionately "dosed." Fear, fury and loyalty to fellow soldiers facing mortal danger make limits almost impossible to sustain.

By bringing SERE tactics and the Guantánamo model onto the battlefield, the Pentagon opened a Pandora's box of potential abuse.
The article then describes one particular instance of this "abuse": the murder of Iraqi major general Abed Hamed Mowhoush, using these same SERE techniques.

And here is the authors' damning conclusion:
A full account of how our leaders reacted to terrorism by re-engineering Red Army methods must await an independent inquiry. But the SERE model's embrace by the Pentagon's civilian leaders is further evidence that abuse tantamount to torture was national policy, not merely the product of rogue freelancers.
Every expert on the subject emphasizes over and over again that torture does not work for the purpose of extracting good intelligence: if you inflict enough pain on anyone, he will tell you whatever he thinks you want to hear, whether it's true or not. And as these authors emphasize, truth was never the goal. Instead, "their aim was to force compliance," or, as they put the point more generally: "Americans desperately wanted mastery over a world that suddenly seemed terrifying." Our leaders felt out of control, as well they should have (and which was even understandable and justified to some degree, at least as an initial reaction). They wanted to reestablish control as quickly as possible, and to believe they directed events rather than the other way around.

To achieve this goal, they resorted to the most brutal methods of our former enemies: they sought to bend men to their will by means of brute force. The point was not what the prisoners might tell their captors: the point was that the prisoners' will had to be destroyed. They had to be made to obey. Just as was true of communist interrogators, the only goal was "to control a prisoner's will." Period. Our leaders deluded themselves that if the enemy was destroyed in this manner, they and we would be safe. But this particular kind of delusion should not properly be viewed as falling within the category of military strategy: it belongs in a textbook on clinical psychology, in a chapter describing exceptionally severe and destructive neurosis.

Thus, insofar as this aspect of our "national policy" is concerned, we are now a nation of inhuman brutes, committed to a policy that embraces the most grotesque and horrifying cruelty. This is the defense of "freedom" brought to us by the Bush administration. This is the "democracy" that Bush wants to establish around the world by means of military might.

In this context, it is impossible to say which is worse: that these monsters might have dreamed up these methods of torture on their own, out of their own diseased minds -- or that they simply copied these methods from those we ourselves had once fought, the very people we had once considered inhuman monsters. But, as you can always be sure will be true with this particular group of monsters, the second is probably worse -- and that is the route chosen by the Bush administration.

In their inhumanity, cruelty and barbarity, they are the crudest and most sickening kind of imitators. They have to rely on others to devise the means of torture first. They are the worst kind of monsters: monsters who borrow their corrupt, repellent souls from those who have gone before, because they are unable to originate anything on their own -- not even torture.

I would say that I find it hard to believe that my capacity for horror can still be further exceeded. But I dare not, for Bush and his fellow monsters will undoubtedly prove me wrong, still one more time.

November 01, 2005

Sabotaging the War, and Fostering a Global Enemy

Earlier today, I came across yet another article citing a couple of terrorism experts who maintain we are "losing the war on terror." It's not important which article it was; there continue to be many similar ones. I admit that I'm astonished that anyone might even consider such accounts "news" at this point. Leaving aside the vast conceptual errors in designating this war in such terms, as long as our major military effort is mired in Iraq, the truth is worse than our merely "losing" the war: we aren't even engaged in the right war against the enemy which ought to be our concern. So, yes, we are "losing," even if only by default: obviously the enemy will win while we decline to engage it.

But beyond these points, the fact that we are losing has been unarguable for anyone who has studied this question seriously for the last year or so. I suppose I should say: for anyone who has studied this question seriously and honestly, or perhaps seriously and sanely. I was reminded once again of a Peter Bergen article from the summer of 2004. Everything that Bergen said in that article, including the sources he cited and the arguments the piece made, are at least as true and relevant now as they were then. The article is titled, "The Wrong War." The caption is: "Backdraft: How the war in Iraq has fueled Al Qaeda and ignited its dream of global jihad." Here is the short version of Bergen's biography:
Peter Bergen is the author of the New York Times best-seller Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden. He is CNN's terrorism analyst and has written for such publications as the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, and The New Republic. A fellow at the New America Foundation, Bergen is also an adjunct professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
I set forth Bergen's qualifications to make the point that Bergen is an acknowledged expert in this field, in stark contrast to many warbloggers who pontificate endlessly and with solemn authority on subjects about which they are notably ignorant. Although I won't excerpt this particular passage here, Bergen minces the absurdly asinine "flypaper" theory -- once so beloved by the spectacularly ignorant Andrew Sullivan, among others -- into fine microscopic pieces of drivel, and does so with great economy. That particular idea was so obviously idiotic from the second it was first announced that it's almost enough to make me think bloggers should be licensed, and that many of those licenses should be immediately and permanently revoked.

I recommend you read the entirety of Bergen's piece. Here are two excerpts, one from toward the beginning of the article, together with Bergen's conclusion. I offer them because these facts, as truly awful as they are, remain fundamental to where we find ourselves today:
In more than a dozen interviews, experts both within and outside the U.S. government laid out a stark analysis of how the war has hampered the campaign against Al Qaeda. Not only, they point out, did the war divert resources and attention away from Afghanistan, seriously damaging the prospects of capturing Al Qaeda leaders, but it has also opened a new front for terrorists in Iraq and created a new justification for attacking Westerners around the world. Perhaps most important, it has dramatically speeded up the process by which Al Qaeda the organization has morphed into a broad-based ideological movement -- a shift, in effect, from bin Laden to bin Ladenism. "If Osama believed in Christmas, this is what he'd want under his Christmas tree," one senior intelligence official told me. Another counterterrorism official suggests that Iraq might begin to resemble "Afghanistan 1996," a reference to the year that bin Laden seized on Afghanistan, a chaotic failed state, as his new base of operations.

Even Kenneth Pollack, one of the nation's leading experts on Iraq, whose book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq made the most authoritative case for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, says, "My instinct tells me that the Iraq war has hindered the war on terrorism. You had to deal with Al Qaeda first, not Saddam. We had not crippled the Al Qaeda organization when we embarked on the Iraq war."

The damage to U.S. interests is hard to overestimate. Rohan Gunaratna, a Sri Lankan academic who is regarded as one of the world's leading authorities on Al Qaeda, points out that "sadness and anger about Iraq, even among moderate Muslims, is being harnessed and exploited by terrorist and extremist groups worldwide to grow in strength, size, and influence." Similarly, Vincent Cannistraro, a former chief of counterterrorism at the CIA under presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, says the Iraq war "accelerated terrorism" by "metastasizing" Al Qaeda. Today, Al Qaeda is more than the narrowly defined group that attacked the United States on September 11, 2001; it is a growing global movement that has been energized by the war in Iraq.
What we have done in Iraq is what bin Laden could not have hoped for in his wildest dreams: We invaded an oil-rich Muslim nation in the heart of the Middle East, the very type of imperial adventure that bin Laden has long predicted was the United States' long-term goal in the region. We deposed the secular socialist Saddam, whom bin Laden has long despised, ignited Sunni and Shia fundamentalist fervor in Iraq, and have now provoked a "defensive" jihad that has galvanized jihad-minded Muslims around the world. It's hard to imagine a set of policies better designed to sabotage the war on terrorism.
As I say, these observations are, if anything, even more accurate and critical today. All in all, it's quite an achievement for an administration that sings its own praises as America's strong and devoted protector, while simultaneously attacking the "patriotism" of anyone who dares to question the wisdom of its profoundly self-destructive policies.

It may be "hard to imagine a set of policies better designed to sabotage the war on terrorism" -- and yet the Bush administration may well be determined to make this baleful situation infinitely worse. I'll get to that, when I continue my series on Iran.

Unleashing Armageddon: What Then?

I want to discuss in some detail the propaganda campaign now being waged with regard to both Iran and Syria, as well as the ideological frame of reference that underlies the particular manner in which that campaign is being and has been conducted. I will address the nature and strategy of this campaign -- how such a campaign was waged with regard to Iraq, and how a similar campaign is now underway with regard to Iran and Syria (and has been for some time) -- in subsequent essays here. But I will begin by starting at the end.

I do that for a simple but crucially important reason. We now have a voluminous record, in news accounts, in government documents and in other forms, to prove beyond any doubt that the Bush administration gave almost no attention to the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. No one had any serious question about our taking down the Saddam Hussein regime, except about how long it might take and the details. Despite that certainty, we know that the Bush administration did not listen to many of its own experts and planners about what should be done once Saddam was gone. To put the point simply, the Bush administration never seriously addressed the multitude of inordinately complex issues encompassed in the question: What then?

They appear to have genuinely believed their own propaganda: that we would be joyously greeted as liberators (which we were at first by many Iraqis, but that response quickly wore off as the long series of disasters played out) -- and then, by means of some mystical, magical "somehow," a democratic Iraq would be born. They never troubled themselves to specify precisely how that might happen, and they also ignored a great deal of advice provided from many sources, including from within the government itself. An administration-wide self-hypnosis seems to have occurred: as they sought to convince millions of Americans about how "easy" it would all be (and about how grave a threat Saddam allegedly was), they themselves became the most devoted of believers. This is either a disturbing kind of almost religious devotion carried to criminally negligent extremes, or these are people of remarkably limited intelligence. Neither explanation is comforting -- not with regard to what has already happened, and not in connection with what may be in the future.

In exactly the same manner, many of the most vehement hawks now clamor for military action against Iran and/or Syria. Almost everyone, save a few hallucinatory followers who remain caught up in the fantasy to a degree that erases reality altogether, recognizes that we cannot stage any kind of land invasion; we simply don't have the troops to do it. But we don't need troops: we have planes, bombs and missiles -- and we have lots of those. Strategic strikes against both countries are entirely feasible in practical terms. And we are now hearing the "newspaper of record" (if the description can still reasonably be said to apply at this point to the NYT) tell us, as an uncontested fact, that "Iran has a nuclear weapons program." (See this earlier post for details.) And Iran is run by viciously destructive and dangerous leaders.

I have no argument on the last point -- except insofar as that dictates our military and political strategy. But the key to that strategy obviously lies in the first point: that "Iran has a nuclear weapons program," or that it will have one in the near future. This apparently commonly accepted belief is at the heart of the current propaganda campaign, and I will return to it in detail later. For now, I will say only that much of what many Americans think they know about this question -- and most of what is reported in the mainstream media -- is extremely misleading, and sometimes simply false.

But let's assume for the moment that the hawks are right in everything they contend, and that Iran represents an even more serious threat than Iraq did (I should say: than they claimed Iraq did). Let's say that the hawks have good grounds to demand that action be taken now, by means of strategic military strikes and related kinds of measures.

Just as was true in the case of Iraq, I have seen none of these hawks address this crucial question in any detail: What then? We attack Iran. Let's assume we manage to take out their major nuclear facilities. Given the manner in which Iran seems to have dispersed and hidden those facilities, that's a lot to concede -- but let's do so for the sake of this grim exercise. We're successful in our strikes...and then what happens?

Claude Salhani is a foreign editor and political analyst with UPI. He offered a fairly detailed scenario of what might happen in an article published in September 2004: "Four Day War -- The Iran/Israel Conflagration, a history." You should read the entire article; here are a few highlights.

Salhani notes that it may be entirely reasonable to think that Iran believes a nuclear capability is in its own interest -- but he also notes that such a belief results in significant part from the Bush administration's own actions:
From their perspective, Iranians feel they have good reason to want nuclear deterrence.

First, the United States’ invasion of Iraq served as a reminder to autocracies around the world of their need to be strong enough to deter potential U.S. intervention. If nothing else, Iraq’s invasion served as the poster child for nuclear deterrence against unilateral military action from the world’s remaining superpower. Repeated threats of regime change by the Bush administration have only increased Iran’s fears that they could be next in line. President George W. Bush’s campaign promise about “finishing the job,” if re-elected in November, is a slogan that must keep more than one ayatollah awake at night—and pushing for nuclear deterrence.
Salhani provides other valuable background, and then moves on to his (hopefully) imaginary war. It is launched by Israel, but "Iran retaliates," "[b]elieving that Israel would never undertake such actions without U.S. approval." On Day Two of the war, Iran sends thousands of Revolutionary Guards into Iraq where clashes with American troops result in many casualties, while Hezbollah attacks Israel. The chaos quickly spreads through the Middle East. The consequences continue to ripple out on Days Three and Four; Saudia Arabia is in turmoil, and Musharraf is overthrown.

Then, on what is only Day Four of this conflict, we see the following transpire:
Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI—a long-time supporter of the fundamentalists—in agreement with the plotters, takes control of the country’s nuclear arsenal and its codes. Within hours, and before news of the coup leaks out, Pakistan, now run by pro-bin Laden fundamentalists, loads two nuclear weapons aboard executive Lear jets that take off from a remote military airfield, headed for Tel Aviv and Ashdod. Detouring and refueling in east Africa, they approach Israel from the south. The crafts identify themselves as South African. Their tail markings match the given identification.

The two planes with their deadly cargo are flown by suicide pilots who, armed with false flight plans and posing as business executives, follow the flight path given to them by Israeli air traffic control. At the last moment, however, the planes veer away from the airfield, soar into the sky and dive into the outskirts of the two cities, detonating their nuclear devices in the process.

The rest of this scenario can unfold in a number of ways. Take your pick; none are encouraging.

Israel retaliates against Pakistan, killing millions in the process. Arab governments fall. Following days of violence, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt succumb to Islamist rebels who vow open warfare with Israel. The Middle East regresses into war, with the fighting claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. A much-weakened Israel, now struggling for its very survival, deploys more nuclear weapons, targeting multiple Arab capitals. The Middle East is in complete mayhem, as the United States desperately tries to arrange a cease-fire.

This was all a bad dream, or rather one writer’s dark vision of what might happen if the current situation is allowed to continue unchecked. What precisely are the chances of any of this coming to pass? The probability of Israel striking Iran is very real. That could happen at any moment. As for the rest, there is really no way to know what will ensue once the demons are unleashed. Events could unfold as described above, or they could develop a bit differently, give or take a nuke or two. Whatever the outcome, it will not be good.
One of the more horrifying ironies of this kind of scenario is that the hawks who are so militant about attacking Iran are also great defenders of Israel. It seems never to occur to them that unleashing these particular demons might well end in Israel's near or even total destruction.

I would add one further element to Salhani's nightmare. I think it more than probable that, if even part of these events were to transpire, various terrorist groups -- either independently or in some loose alliance -- would quickly dispatch agents to the United States, with directions to launch devastating attacks in the immediate future. The idea that "we're fighting them over there so that we don't have to fight them over here" would be brought to what may be a terrifying end, once and for all.

As Salhani indicates, there is no way to know if these events would occur in this precise way. But change a few details -- "give or take a nuke or two" -- and does this scenario become any more acceptable, and any less horrifying?

Those who so fervently agitated for the invasion of Iraq got exactly what they wanted, and they never considered or planned for the consequences. They employ the same defective and destructive approach in connection with Iran. They say that Iran is a threat that cannot be tolerated. They say we must attack Iran and neutralize the threat, and the sooner, the better.

And they never satisfactorily consider or answer the question: What then? It causes you to wonder exactly what value they place on human lives -- either those of others, or their own.