March 28, 2006

Our Dirty War: Only Evil

Olga Talamante, writing in the LA Times:
THE BURLAP BAG felt rough and scratchy against my cheek, but it also smelled earthy and deceptively comforting. Thick tape already covered my eyes, so the bag's only purpose was to frighten me. And it worked. I knew I had entered another dimension.

A day earlier I had been a not-too-unusual 24-year-old American student from UC Santa Cruz, working with the Peronist Youth organization for social change in Azul, Argentina. For the next 16 months, I would become one of thousands of political prisoners and torture victims taken into custody as Argentina first declared martial law and then later suffered a right-wing military coup. But I was one of the lucky ones — a survivor, thanks to family and friends in the United States who won my release on March 27, 1976.

When I returned home to California and testified about the torture, my stories horrified listeners. But we could feel safe here because torture was the province of brutal, unsophisticated despots. It was a time when the average American could not imagine our soldiers abroad participating in anything remotely similar. Now, three years into the Iraq war, we have seen the images of Abu Ghraib and read accounts of the atrocities at Baghdad's Camp Nama.

Americans once shocked by my experience now hear officials defend torture as a necessary evil in the war against terrorism. But it is only evil.

In my secret torture chamber — later it was confirmed to have been within the walls of the local police station — a slight turn of my head could bring on a new barrage of insults and fists.


Electric currents were applied to the most sensitive parts of my body.

All I could do was scream. The terror came after. They are going to do it again, I thought. Someone shoved a pillow over my face to muffle my screams. I panicked. To survive, I must be able to breathe and scream.


Now, every time I read a story about U.S. forces participating in similar acts, it takes me back to that torture room.

The Argentine military had its own sick rationale for policies that would ultimately "disappear" thousands of men, women and children — they were fighting an enemy from within. But the Argentine people had a better name for it: the "dirty war."

As Argentina marked the 30th anniversary of the military coup last week, ex-Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, key implementer of that dirty war, was under house arrest, with thousands of people camped outside his home. The former general has been convicted for multiple cases of robbery, homicide, aggravated false arrests, torture and torture resulting in death between 1976 and 1981. He has been sentenced to life imprisonment. The people are demanding that he serve out that sentence.

Iraq has become our dirty war. To those who defend torture there, beware. There will be survivors, and they will tell their stories.
Related Essays: On Torture

March 13, 2006

Getting Out of the Trap, I: The Old Theme -- A "Redeemer Nation," with Some Explaining to Do

A strategy exists by means of which we can neutralize the threat that a potentially nuclear Iran might represent to us. It does not involve military conflict in any manner at all and, in principle, it is remarkably simple and even obvious. But none of our major leaders of any political persuasion will even consider it, because it falls entirely outside the modes of thinking and analysis that we as a nation have utilized for well over a century.

In a column entitled, "Why They Hate Us," Jacob Hornberger lays out some of the history that most Americans prefer to forget, while those peoples who have been forced to endure the results of our incessant meddling in their affairs do not suffer from memory lapses of such magnitude. Hornberger notes that, in the wake of 9/11, the official explanation for the hatred directed at the United States was that "they" hate us "for our freedom and our values." He goes on to write:
What Americans didn’t realize is that federal officials were being disingenuous when they made that pronouncement. U.S. officials knew full-well that that their decades-old U.S. interventionist policies in the Middle East were at the bottom of the volcanic rage that people bore in that part of the world.
Hornberger traces the half-century of U.S. interference in the Middle East, from the CIA's role in the ouster of the democratically elected prime minister of Iran in 1953, through our continuing occupation of Iraq today.

In terms of a non-interventionist solution to the ongoing challenges we face, it is worth noting the concluding paragraphs of Hornberger's article:
U.S. government meddling in the Middle East occurred long before 9/11 and, in fact, was the motivating cause for 9/11 (and the previous 1993 attack on the World Trade Center). Thus, U.S. officials have it all wrong — the solution is not to invade, bomb, kill, maim, and meddle even more. That will only exacerbate the anger and rage that engenders retaliatory terrorist attacks. Continuing the same policies that have produced volcanic anger and rage will only ensure more terrorism, more counterterrorism, more infringements on the freedom of the American people, and more increases in the Pentagon’s budget.

The solution instead is for the American people to dismantle the U.S. government's overseas empire, requiring the federal government, especially the Pentagon, to withdraw from the Middle East (and the rest of the world) and also to liberate the American people to travel, trade, and interact freely with the people of the world (including both Vietnam and Cuba).

Dismantling the U.S. overseas empire would not, of course, end conflicts abroad but it would ensure that the U.S. government could not make matters worse, both for foreigners and Americans, with its meddling overseas interventions. The federal government’s power would be limited to defending the United States from a foreign invasion, a virtually nonexistent threat at present, and to prosecuting criminal acts committed on American soil.

Equally important, by ending the federal government’s isolation of the American people from the rest of the world, we not only would be restoring the constitutional republic our ancestors bequeathed to us, Americans also would once again have the opportunity to lead the world to freedom, peace, prosperity, and harmony.
I will discuss these principles in more detail in the concluding parts of this series. But as I said, the major points are remarkably straightforward: an end to military interventions overseas, coupled with genuine free travel and trade, including one related and crucial element in particular: free and open cultural and intellectual exchange.

What is remarkable is the extent to which such a course of action is almost never discussed at all, or even acknowledged. Such ideas lie outside the "conventional wisdom," and members of our government never treat them with any degree of seriousness. Given the disastrous consequences brought about by the "conventional wisdom," you would think more people would be willing to consider an alternative -- one that might lead to far better results, shorn of the endless cycle of death and destruction that now consumes us.

This is why I have discussed several of the major elements of the traditional Western approach to foreign policy in my Iran series: the idea of mythic war; notions of "Western exceptionalism" allied with a strongly messianic streak; and a particular form of the American mythology, one which carries inevitable racist implications. These elements constitute our basic frame of reference, one that is regarded as axiomatic and never to be questioned. Almost no one dares to step outside it. We can hope that at least some additional people will take up the challenge, before Armageddon is finally unleashed.

To demonstrate once again that nothing is new in our situation today -- except for the degree of lethality carried by the weapons at our disposal -- I return to the Spanish-American War and the ensuing Philippines episode. All the central components of the mindset that drives our leaders today were established then, and not one of them has altered in the century that has followed. I reposted the other day an entry about Thomas B. Reed, and why he finally retired from the House of Representatives. Reed saw all too clearly that the United States had decided to follow a fateful course, one bent on empire. He was irrevocably opposed to that decision, understanding it would lead, in time, to the destruction of the American republic. As Barbara Tuchman notes: "To retain office as Speaker would be to carry through a policy in the Philippines abominable to him."

Most Americans today know next to nothing about the history of our involvement in the Philippines, and how that history began. An important clue can be gleaned from the perspective of our president at the time:
At the end of the Spanish-American War, we collected Puerto Rico as a colony, set up a protectorate over Cuba, and annexed the Hawaiian Islands. President William McKinley also forced Spain to cede the Philippine Islands. To the American people, McKinley explained that, almost against his will, he had been led to make the decision to annex: "There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and christianize them as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died." McKinley was either unaware of or simply chose not to inform the people that, except for some Muslim tribesmen in the south, the Filipinos were Roman Catholics, and, therefore, by most accounts, already Christians.
That is a brief excerpt from Part III of a six-part series by Ralph Raico on American foreign policy, and it is one of the best treatments of the subject of which I am aware.

The paternalism and racism involved in the Philippines episode are genuinely shocking and shameful. Consider part of a very famous speech to the Senate by Albert Beveridge, "In Support of an American Empire":
MR. PRESIDENT, the times call for candor. The Philippines are ours forever, "territory belonging to the United States," as the Constitution calls them. And just beyond the Philippines are China's illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world. And we will move forward to our work, not howling out regrets like slaves whipped to their burdens but with gratitude for a task worthy of our strength and thanksgiving to Almighty God that He has marked us as His chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world.


It has been charged that our conduct of the war has been cruel. Senators, it has been the reverse. I have been in our hospitals and seen the Filipino wounded as carefully, tenderly cared for as our own. Within our lines they may plow and sow and reap and go about the affairs of peace with absolute liberty. And yet all this kindness was misunderstood, or rather not understood. Senators must remember that we are not dealing with Americans or Europeans. We are dealing with Orientals. We are dealing with Orientals who are Malays. We are dealing with Malays instructed in Spanish methods. They mistake kindness for weakness, forbearance for fear. It could not be otherwise unless you could erase hundreds of years of savagery, other hundreds of years of Orientalism, and still other hundreds of years of Spanish character and custom.
And to show yet another way in which there is nothing new under the sun, consider this:
Mr. President, reluctantly and only from a sense of duty am I forced to say that American opposition to the war has been the chief factor in prolonging it. Had Aguinaldo not understood that in America, even in the American Congress, even here in the Senate, he and his cause were supported; had he not known that it was proclaimed on the stump and in the press of a faction in the United States that every shot his misguided followers fired into the breasts of American soldiers was like the volleys fired by Washington's men against the soldiers of King George, his insurrection would have dissolved before it entirely crystallized.

The utterances of American opponents of the war are read to the ignorant soldiers of Aguinaldo and repeated in exaggerated form among the common people.
Attempts have been made by wretches claiming American citizenship to ship arms and ammunition from Asiatic ports to the Filipinos, and these acts of infamy were coupled by the Malays with American assaults on our government at home. The Filipinos do not understand free speech, and therefore our tolerance of American assaults on the American President and the American government means to them that our President is in the minority or he would not permit what appears to them such treasonable criticism. It is believed and stated in Luzon, Panay, and Cebu that the Filipinos have only to fight, harass, retreat, break up into small parties, if necessary, as they are doing now, but by any means hold out until the next presidential election, and our forces will be withdrawn.

All this has aided the enemy more than climate, arms, and battle.
Just as defenders of empire and government malfeasance always claim, the fault lies not with the policy itself, but with its critics. As I have said before, there is nothing new in any of what we are witnessing today.

And don't think that Beveridge was alone in his views, or out of the mainstream of commonly held opinion. Theodore Roosevelt wrote to the poet of empire, Rudyard Kipling, that before he could deal with the Philippines, he had to deal with "the jack-fools who seriously think that any group of pirates and head-hunters needs nothing but independence in order that it may be turned forthwith into a dark-hued New England town meeting." William Howard Taft, who became the Philippine commissioner in 1900, referred to "our little brown brothers," and contended they would require "fifty or one hundred years" of close supervision "to develop anything resembling Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills."

The Roosevelt and Taft comments are noted in a fascinating book, Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples At Home and Abroad, 1876-1917, by Matthew Frye Jacobson. I'm still reading it, and I expect to offer further excerpts from it in the future. In his brief concluding chapter, Jacobson summarizes the major theme of his book. Here are several excerpts, and you can see how Jacobson's points overlap with many of the issues I've been discussing in connection with Iran, and particularly with regard to the overall frame of reference that we bring to questions of foreign policy:
It is one of the strange throughlines in the history of U.S. nationalism that since at least the mid-nineteenth century Americans have fancied their country as the savior of the world's peoples--redeemer nation, civilizer, beacon of liberty, asylum of the oppressed--even as they have expressed profound anxiety that the world's peoples might ultimately prove the ruin of the republic. The period between the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876 and World War I was a critical epoch in the twin development of these contending ideas. Americans erected a magnificent statue in New York Harbor beckoning the "tempest-tost" and "wretched" refugees of the Old World through the "golden door" of new hope, and yet they developed in succeeding decades an elaborate biological explanation of the superiority of "old-stock" Americans and the undesirability of the "backward" or "useless" races who were overrepresented among the new immigration. ... What America had to offer seemed too good not to extend to the benighted peoples of the world (by force, if necessary); but what those people threatened to return in the bargain ultimately seemed too bad to risk.

My focus on the years 1876 to 1917 in this book is meant to redress two striking failures of our national memory--one regarding immigration; the other, imperialism.

Recent debates over immigration have revolved around highly idealized images of the "good" European immigrant of a bygone era.


It is useful to know, in this connection, that--however safely "assimilated" now--at the moment of their arrival the waves of European immigrants constituted a full-blown political crisis in the United States, and that it was a crisis articulated in exactly the terms used today by the likes of Patrick Buchanan, Pete Wilson, or Border Watch in reference to Asian and Latin American immigrants. ... The myth of yesterday's "good" European immigrant resides at the heart of this popular misreading of the period, screening the fact that today's "bad" immigration represents precisely the threat that the republic has faced and overcome many times before. Evidently the capacity of the republic to withstand its own diversity is greater than the capacity of many citizens to imagine an America that departs significantly from the demographic status quo (and lives to tell about it--in English).

The second piece of public amnesia addressed here concerns turn-of-the-century empire-building, an area even more striking for the totality of its disappearance from public discussion. ... Not only do most Americans know nothing about the conduct of the Philippine-American War; many do not even know that such a war took place.

The stakes are quite high for Americans' national self-conception. In expurgating the period of U.S. expansionism that bridges the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Americans adopt a broken narrative that casts Manifest Destiny and continental expansionism falsely adrift from "modern" U.S. history, and obscures the extent to which the modern state was built, and modern nationalism generated, in close relation to the imperialist project. The effect is to mystify U.S. involvement in global affairs by hiding the very moment when global power was so lustily seized. If there is no turn-of-the-century expansionism, then Manifest Destiny becomes an irrelevance of dim antiquity, and both the Wilsonian internationalism and the Cold War interventionism of the twentieth century can be imagined as developing upon an entirely different epistemological footing. Without the Philippines, in other words, it becomes easy to suppose a radical historical disjuncture separating the plains wars of the mid-nineteenth century and the Southeast Asian wars of the mid-twentieth: that U.S. soldiers referred to areas within Vietnam as "Indian Country" becomes a matter of simple metaphor, not of deeper ideology. But our first land war in Asia was fought not in 1950-53 but in 1899-1902, and it was waged largely by American officers who had received their practical training in campaigns against the "savages" of the Western plains in the 1870s.

This erasure has generally allowed a view that the United States has played its part as a power on the world scene only reluctantly. The triumph of American innocence, as Stuart Creighton Miller has called this willful revision, constitutes a pillar of twentieth-century American liberalism. Unabashed discussion of racial conquest has long faded from American political discourse; there is simply no longer a place in national self-conception for the rhetoric of "waste spaces" and of "unfitness for "self-government," or for the glorious war against "savages" that obtained in Theodore Roosevelt's day. And yet Americans still find themselves in possession of an empire marked by myriad alliances with pliant dictators, by an unbroken history of military interventions, by a twelve-digit defense budget, and by a global network of military bases--and so they have some explaining to do.
Jacobson's book was published in 2000. Unfortunately, events have proven him wrong in one crucial respect: he underestimated the extent to which the worst kind of atavistic racist impulses could be unleashed again after 9/11, and how many Americans would again fall prey to thinking of the enemy as embodying Absolute Evil, and of being "savages" worthy only of annihilation. Teddy Roosevelt would be completely at home with the vicious anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric that suffuses our discourse today.

But the broader point that Jacobson makes is of critical importance: our convenient historical amnesia allows the national myth to continue. It permits us to believe -- as Irving Kristol plainly stated, and as Andrew Sullivan still mindlessly repeats -- that our interference in global affairs and our desire to run the world according only to our own wishes is a fate forced upon us, and one we would not have chosen if events had permitted us to do otherwise.

And none of that is true. We deliberately and intentionally chose the course of foreign conquest, starting at the very end of the nineteenth century. But we pretend this part of our history does not exist -- and so, as Jacobson goes on to note, Woodrow Wilson was able to say that the U.S. became a global power "by the sheer genius of its people," and "not because we chose to go into the politics of the world." Jacobson continues:
When we recall and squarely face U.S. conduct in the Philippines at the dawn of Pacific empire in 1899, we [cannot] pass off the U.S. rise to global predominance as blind, unintentional, or accidental. Despite some opposition, the United States consciously chose imperial power along with the antidemocratic baggage and even the bloodshed that entailed; and many Americans--none more than Teddy Roosevelt--liked it.
And too many Americans like it still.

Today, all the leading national politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, lead us further along this course, and deeper into confrontation -- this time with Iran, where the stakes may well be horrifying on a scale that no one in public life seems prepared to name honestly or openly. More on that in the next installment.

Another "Quaint" Relic Down the Drain

We're somewhat clearer now on why the Bush administration speaks so disparagingly of efforts to treat terrorist acts as matters for the criminal law. Keep in mind that Zacarias Moussaoui is the sole individual charged in the U.S. for responsibility in connection with the 9/11 attacks.

And look at what the government has done:
ALEXANDRIA, Va. - An angry federal judge considered Monday whether to dismiss the government's death penalty case against confessed al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui after a federal attorney coached witnesses in violation of her rules.

"I do not want to act precipitously," U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said in scheduling a special hearing on the case Tuesday, but she said that it was "very difficult for this case to go forward."

Brinkema said a lawyer for the Transportation Security Administration sent e-mail to seven Federal Aviation Administration officials outlining the prosecution's opening statements and providing commentary on government witnesses from the first day of testimony. That was in violation of her pretrial order barring witnesses from exposure to any opening statements or trial testimony.

"An attorney for the TSA ... egregiously breached that order," she told jurors before excusing them until Wednesday. Of the seven, three were to testify for the government and four were potential defense witnesses.


Brinkema wanted to hear Tuesday from the seven and from the attorney who contacted them to help her decide whether to throw out the government's case. If she does, Moussaoui would escape the possibility of execution and be sentenced to life in prison without chance of parole.

She said the rule against witnesses hearing testimony in advance is "a very important protection of the truth-seeking process."


The stunning development came at the opening of the fifth day of the trial after the government informed the judge and the defense over the weekend of the attorney's contact.

"This is the second significant error by the government affecting the constitutional rights of this defendant and more importantly the integrity of the criminal justice system of the United States in the context of a death case," Brinkema told lawyers outside the presence of the jury.


Brinkema said she would need time to study what to do.

"In all the years I've been on the bench, I have never seen such an egregious violation of a rule on witnesses," she said.
What was that phrase once so beloved by Republicans? Something about the "rule of law"?

Why, how positively quaint.

March 11, 2006

Philip II May Finally Lose the "Wooden-Head" Title

Paul Craig Roberts:
March 20 is the third anniversary of the Bush regime's invasion of Iraq. US military casualties to date are approximately 20,000 killed, wounded, maimed, and disabled. Iraqi civilian casualties number in the tens of thousands. Iraq's infrastructure is in ruins. Tens of thousands of homes have been destroyed. Fallujah, a city of 300,000 people had 36,000 of its 50,000 homes destroyed by the US military. Half of the city's former population are displaced persons living in tents.

Thousands of Iraqis have been detained in prisons and hundreds have been brutally tortured. America's reputation in the Muslim world is ruined.

The Bush regime expected a short "cakewalk" war to be followed by the imposition of a puppet government and permanent US military bases. Instead, US military forces are confronted with an insurgency that has denied control over Iraq to the US military. Chaos rules, and civil war may be coming on top of the insurgency.


What is being achieved for this enormous sacrifice?

No one knows.

Every reason we have been given for the Iraqi invasion has proved to be false.


The brutal truth is that America's responsibility is extreme. We have destroyed a country and created political chaos for no reason whatsoever.

Seldom in history has a government miscalculated as badly as Bush has in Iraq. More disturbingly, Bush shows no ability to recover from his mistake. All we get from our leader is pig-headed promises of victory that none of our military commanders believe.

Our entire government is lost in confusion. One day Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld tell us that we are having great success in training an Iraqi military and will be able to begin withdrawing our troops in a year. The next day they tell us that we will be fighting the war for decades.

Bush's invasion of Iraq was a mistake. Bush's attempt to cover up his mistake with patriotism will ultimately discredit patriotism.

America has to be big enough to admit a mistake and to bring it to an end.
Roberts is entirely correct, of course. But our government will never "be big enough to admit a mistake," certainly not so long as the current administration holds power. Even now, they ratchet up the fear-mongering about Iran more every day. Here's Bush's most recent contribution: "US PRESIDENT George Bush has called Iran a 'grave national security concern' but said he would seek a diplomatic way to cap its nuclear goals." As most honest commentators know and as I've observed before, this is diplomacy intentionally designed to fail, precisely as was true with Iraq. Be sure to understand: they want a wider and more devastating war. They positively ache for it. Many people don't want to believe it. In the end, what many people want to believe won't matter a damn. And what is still worse, given the extent to which the Iran propaganda appears to be succeeding, a lot of people will cheer on the administration's plans to attack still another country.

One more time, Barbara Tuchman on why we will probably enlarge upon our tragic and calamitous mistake, rather than admit it:
Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts. It is epitomized in a historian's statement about Philip II of Spain, the surpassing wooden-head of all sovereigns: "No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence."


Persistence in error is the problem. Practitioners of government continue down the wrong road as if in thrall to some Merlin with magic power to direct their steps. There are Merlins in early literature to explain human aberration, but freedom of choice does exist--unless we accept the Freudian unconscious as the new Merlin. Rulers will justify a bad or wrong decision on the ground, as a historian and partisan wrote of John F. Kennedy, that "He had no choice," but no matter how equal two alternatives may appear, there is always freedom of choice to change or desist from a counter-productive course if the policy-maker has the moral courage to exercise it. He is not a fated creature blown by the whims of Homeric gods. Yet to recognize error, to cut losses, to alter course, is the most repugnant option in government.

For a chief of state, admitting error is almost out of the question. The American misfortune in the Vietnam period was to have had Presidents who lacked the self-confidence for the grand withdrawal. We come back again to Burke: "Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom, and a great Empire and little minds go ill together." The test comes in recognizing when persistence in error has become self-damaging.
Philip II may have been "the surpassing wooden-head of all sovereigns," but he has a lot of competition these days.

And at least he didn't have nuclear weapons.

Thomas B. Reed, an American Hero -- and a Hero for Our Time

[I'm republishing here a post from December 6, 2005. While World War I was the irrevocable turning point for the United States in many ways, the U.S.'s decision to engage in international expansionism through military force dated from an earlier conflict: the Spanish-American War, followed by the U.S. policy in the Philippines. I'll be writing more about the Philippines episode in the very near future, hopefully in the next few days. The motives that impelled our policies over a century ago are identical in many respects to those that continue to drive us toward ever-wider disasters overseas today. Because those motives were largely abhorrent, most Americans entirely ignore the central events of this period, and their wider meaning. This entry provides some useful background for my upcoming commentary on this subject. In addition, Reed's story is an unusually compelling and admirable one.]

Last week, I offered a poem by Siegfried Sassoon, "To the Warmongers." In my comments, I observed that World War I is the seminal event in the modern world. Understanding its causes, and appreciating all of the consequences that flowed from that devastating conflict, are crucial to grasping how we arrived at our present situation -- and in trying to determine how we can proceed without repeating the grievous errors of the past yet again. The consequences of The Great War affected every aspect of our lives: philosophy, art, commerce, technology -- and, of course, international relations. I traced some of the political results of World War I in the second part of my Iran series.

I indicated that I would be writing much more about World War I, and the world that existed before and after it. I've already begun reading and rereading several important books on that subject. I've referred before to the wonderful and endlessly rewarding work of Barbara Tuchman. In several essays over the last few years, I've offered some especially revealing and relevant excerpts from The March of Folly. The lessons Tuchman identifies about the U.S.'s enormously costly errors in Vietnam are ones that we still don't understand or appreciate. (See Part I of the Iran discussion, for example, and this part, too.)

Another book of Tuchman's is indispensable to understanding the impact of World War I and the world in which that conflict arose. The subtitle of The Proud Tower is: "A Portrait of the World Before the War: 1890-1914." Her chapters focus on several key countries (England, the United States, France, the Netherlands, Germany and England), and on two key groups, the Anarchists and the Socialists.

Tuchman provides a number of great joys to the reader. Her historical research is meticulously detailed and far-reaching. But unlike many writers of history, who too frequently offer a wealth of details in the manner of a random list, so that we are never entirely certain what is important or why -- with the result that we easily become bored and often simply stop reading or skip ahead -- Tuchman brings the great abilities of an accomplished author of fiction to her factual histories. The result is that we often feel as if we are reading a suspense thriller: we can't wait to find out what happens next, or how it ends. Since we know, at least in general terms, how it ends, the accomplishment is even more notable. Tuchman consistently utilizes another device found in the best fiction: she unerringly focuses on the one revealing detail, the single incident or statement that unravels the mystery. This provides the reader with that wonderful moment when comprehension settles over us, when we say to ourselves: "Ah, now I see!" Tuchman gives us many such moments.

I experienced all this again last evening, as I was rereading the chapter in The Proud Tower about America. I'll return to her treatment again, because Tuchman sets forth how and why the United States made the fateful decision to turn its focus from within its own shores -- to expansion overseas. The actual reasons for that decision are often not the ones commonly accepted today, and the identities of those who were most enthusiastic about military exploits abroad may surprise you. This particular decision, and the reasons that informed it, violated fundamental principles upon which our nation relied at its founding and which had guided it for its first hundred years -- and it explains much of why we face the crisis of the present moment.

For the moment, though, I want to discuss a narrower aspect of Tuchman's history of America in these crucial years: the story of Thomas B. Reed, a Republican member of the House of Representatives from Maine. Reed "was not nurtured for a political career by inherited wealth, social position or landed estate." In terms of "character, intellect and a kind of brutal independence," he "represented the best that America could put into politics in his time." One measure of that independence is that, while he once intended to go into the ministry, his extensive reading and his own reflections finally led him to form "religious convictions that were too individual to submit to a formal creed."

Reed was first elected to Congress in 1876. He became known, in the words of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, as "the finest, most effective debater" of his time. His arguments were greatly admired for their "lucidity and logic." Reed once remarked, with regard to the "five-minute" rule: "Russell, you do not understand the theory of five-minute debate. The object is to convey to the House either information or misinformation. You have consumed several periods of five minutes this afternoon without doing either." That provides some indication of the scathing wit for which he was also admired -- and feared. When one especially verbose Representative vehemently declared that he would always prefer to be right rather than to be President, Reed responded: "The gentleman need not be disturbed; he will never be either." You may be familiar with some of Reed's epigrams: "A statesman is a politician who is dead," for example.

In 1889, Reed became Speaker of the House of Representatives. At that time, the Speakership "was a post of tremendous influence, still possessed of all the powers which 1910 ... were to be transferred to the committees." It is the momentous battle that Reed undertook shortly after becoming Speaker that concerns me here.

Upon taking the post, Reed embarked on "a plan on which he had long deliberated." He talked to no one else at all about it, not even the members of his own party. He risked everything on it: "he would either break 'the tyranny of the minority' by which the House was paralyzed into a state of 'helpless inanity,' or he would resign." The problem was the "silent--or disappearing--quorum." The custom of the time was that the minority party could bring all legislative action to a complete standstill by demanding a roll call, and then failing to respond when their names were called. They could be physically present -- but if they did not say they were, it was as if they were invisible. Without a quorum, business could not be conducted. In this way, the minority could prevent any and all business from being done.

The issue for Reed could not have been more fundamental. I suggest you set aside the particular party designations in what follows: what concerns me is the principle involved, and the means by which Reed conducted this struggle. The lesson goes beyond party affiliation -- and is one almost every politician today desperately needs to appreciate:
To Reed the issue was survival of representative government. If the Democrats could prevent that legislation which the Republicans by virtue of their electoral victory could rightfully expect to enact, they would in effect be setting aside the verdict of the election. The rights of the minority, he believed, were preserved by freedom to debate and to vote but when the minority was able to frustrate action by the majority, "it becomes a tyranny." He believed that legislation, not merely deliberation, was the business of Congress. The duty of the Speaker to his party and country was to see that that business was accomplished, not merely to umpire debate.
And even if we set aside completely the particulars of this general question and whether you agree with Reed's position (and I can easily imagine many situations, if not most today, in which I would fully approve any method of forestalling dangerous legislation, beginning but hardly ending with the Patriot Act), the determination and unflinching courage Reed brought to the battle were a wonder. He was savagely attacked on all sides, and it is not that he did not suffer. He did, as we shall see.

On one particular item in contention, Reed was unquestionably correct in every respect. Among other legislation the Democrats intended to obstruct was a bill against the poll tax and "other Southern devices to keep the Negroes from voting." The Democrats also sought to prevent a vote "on the seating of four Republicans, two of them Negroes, in contested elections from Southern districts." When the first contested election appeared on the House's schedule, the Democrats called for a quorum and demanded a roll call. Enough of them were silent so that no quorum was present. Reed, convinced he would ultimately be upheld on the constitutional point, directed the Clerk "to record the names of the following members present and refusing to vote" -- and the entire list of those who failed to acknowledge their presence was then read. Chaos ensued, amidst literal screams of protest. It appeared Reed might be physically assaulted more than once. One Representative shouted that he denied Reed's right as Speaker to count him as present:
For the first time the Speaker stopped, held the hall in silence for a pause as an actor holds an audience, then blandly spoke: "The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman is present. Does he deny it?"
And here is the most important point of all:
As implacably at each juncture Reed counted heads and repeated his formula, "A Constitutional quorum is present to do business," the fury and frustration of the Democrats mounted. A group breathing maledictions advanced down the aisle threatening to pull him from the Chair and for a moment it looked to a spectator "as if they intended to mob the Speaker." Reed remained unmoved. Infected by the passion on the floor, visitors and correspondents in the galleries leaned over the railings to shake their fists at the Speaker and join in the abuse and profanity. "Decorum," lamented a reporter, "was altogether forgotten, Members rushed madly about the floor, the scowl of battle upon their brows, ... shouting in a mad torrent of eloquent invective." They called Reed tyrant, despot and dictator, hurling epithets like stones. Among all the variants on the word "tyrant," "czar" emerged as the favorite, embodying for its time the image of unrestrained autocracy, and as "Czar" Reed, the Speaker was known thereafter. The angrier the Democrats became, the cooler Reed remained, bulking hugely in the chair, "serene as a summer morning." Although his secretary saw him in his private room, during an interval, gripping the desk and shaking with suppressed rage, he never gave a sign in the hall to show that the vicious abuse touched him. He maintained an iron control, "cool and determined as a highwayman," said the New York Times.

The secret of his self-possession as he told a friend long afterward, was that he had his mind absolutely made up as to what he would do if the House did not sustain him. "I would simply have left the Chair and resigned the Speakership and my seat in Congress." He had a place waiting for him for the private practice of law in Elihu Root's New York firm, and "I had made up my mind that if political life consisted in sitting helplessly in the Speaker's Chair and seeing the majority helpless to pass legislation, I had had enough of it and was ready to step down and out." Coming to such a decision, he said, "you have made yourself equal to the worst" and are ready for it. This has a very "soothing" effect on the spirit.

It did more than soothe: it gave him an embedded strength which men who fear the worst, or will yield principles to avoid the worst, can never possess. It endowed him with a moral superiority over the House which members without knowing why could sense in the atmosphere.
Just a few days later, the battle was over. Reed had won.

I have additional reasons for my deep admiration of Reed, and they are equally important. As the war fever over Cuba mounted in the late 1890s, "Reed regarded the Hearst-fabricated furor over Spain's oppression with contempt and Republican espousal of Cuba's cause as hypocrisy. He saw his party losing its moral integrity and becoming a party of political expediency in response to the ignorant clamor of the mob." Reed even wrote a magazine piece, "to argue against expansion--in an article whose title, 'Empire Can Wait,' became a rallying cry for the opponents of Hawaii's annexation. It spoke the awful name; as yet the outright words 'empire' and 'imperialism' which connoted the scramble for Africa then at its peak among the European powers, had not been used in the United States."

Tragically for the United States, and for all of us still today, Reed ultimately lost this battle:
Reed's whole life was in Congress, in politics, in the exercise of representative government, with the qualification that for him it had to be exercised toward an end that he believed in. His party and his country were now bent on a course for which he felt deep distrust and disgust. To mention expansion to him, said a journalist, was like "touching a match" and brought forth "sulphurous language." The tide had turned against him; he could not turn it back and would not go with it.

Like his country, he had come to a time of choice.


To retain office as Speaker would be to carry through a policy in the Philippines abominable to him. It would be to continue as spokesman of the party of Lincoln, which had been his home for so long and which had now chosen, in another way than Lincoln meant, to "meanly lose the last best hope of earth." To his longtime friend and secretary, Asher Hinds, he said, "I have tried, perhaps not always successfully, to make the acts of my public life accord with my conscience and I cannot now do this thing." For him the purpose and savor of life in the political arena had departed. He had discovered mankind's tragedy: that it can draw the blueprints of goodness but it cannot live up to them.
In 1899, he let it be announced that he would retire from the House. He gave no public explanation, except to say in a letter to his constituents, "Office as a ribbon to stick in your coat is worth no-one's consideration." When reporters cornered him one day and insisted that the public wanted to hear from him, he said: "The public! I have no interest in the public."

America no longer wanted what Thomas B. Reed had to offer. Consider what we lost over a hundred years ago -- and grieve for your country.

March 09, 2006

The Myth of Safety

In my view, William Pfaff is one of the most perceptive and provocative thinkers and writers at work today. I hope to have time over the next few months to consider his recent book, The Bullet's Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia, in some depth. In my piece about Paul Berman, I mentioned parenthetically that Berman goes very badly astray in his analysis of romanticism, its meaning and sources, and its ties to the origins of terrorism as a political tactic. In addition to its many other values, Pfaff's treatment of some of the same issues in The Bullet's Song stands in stark contrast to Berman's: I view it as correct on the main points, and of considerable importance. (When I get to this subject, which is complex and of central relevance to many of the seemingly intractable problems that confront us today, I will also discuss Isaiah Berlin's illuminating discussion of many related issues in The Roots of Romanticism.)

I will be offering some further excerpts from another of Pfaff's books, Fear, Anger and Failure, in the near future. Those upcoming posts will deal with certain overarching issues of foreign policy, and of America's view of itself and its role in the world. For the moment, I want to focus on a narrower concern, but one that continues to significantly distort all our discussions about "national security." This more limited issue comes up all the time, and it has been part of the subtext of the UAE controversy. Set all the particulars of the UAE debate aside for the moment. What interests me is an underlying attitude that influences the manner in which all such discussions proceed: it is the belief that if only we do "X" -- or, in the case of the UAE deal, if only we don't do "X" -- then we will finally be safe. Harm will no longer be able to reach us.

As a nation, we continue to suffer from an exceedingly dangerous delusion: that if we only take the correct actions, we will somehow manage to insulate ourselves entirely from all those who wish to inflict injury upon us. To put it kindly, this reflects a rather astounding degree of immaturity. At the same time, we also know that no one actually believes this fable: while our leaders wage war on a country that was no serious threat to us in the name of "safety" and with the alleged aim of reducing the terrorist threat -- while in fact, the occupation of Iraq predictably has had exactly the opposite effect -- they regularly remind us that another attack is inevitable. The fact of a future terrorist attack is a certainty, we are informed; the only unknowns are when, where, exactly how, and the extent of the devastation.

This is another form of the seeming paradox I discussed in a recent essay about responsibility: our leaders seek leave to curtail our freedoms, to engage in widespread spying, and to take any number of further actions justified in the name of security, while they also tell us that we will definitely suffer future attacks. As I pointed out in the earlier post, they thus want to do whatever they wish, while they simultaneously tell us that all such efforts will be futile, at least in part. In this manner, they can act in whatever manner they choose and, when they fail, that failure will not be their responsibility. And when they fail again, they will propose the same solution: they will insist they need still more power and that our freedoms will have to be curtailed still further -- but even that, they will remind us, still will not guarantee our safety. There is only one winner in this perpetual game: an increasingly powerful and oppressive government. History has taught this lesson repeatedly, over thousands of years, and still we will not learn it.

Pfaff's Fear, Anger and Failure is a collection of his newspaper columns documenting the "War on Terror." The first column was written on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, and the final columns are from December 2003. It should be noted that Pfaff dates our "defeat in Baghdad" to the latter date, more than two years ago. But it is very striking to read (or reread) Pfaff's column from 9/11, and to see how accurate and prescient he was. Here are some key excerpts:
The first thing that must be said about the attacks in New York and Washington is that they have demonstrated the vulnerability of the United States, as of any modern society, to an intelligently prepared and determined attack.

Military officials, and the uniformed and civilian analytic agencies attached to the U.S. defense establishment, have for decades formulated speculative scenarios of attack on the nation, but their work has been dominated by the high-technology mind-set of the Pentagon and by the engineering ethos of American society.

The planning has always suffered from the planners' assumption that an enemy would attack in a manner symmetrical to the defenses they already had in place, or that they planned to have.


The defense planners were not interested in rogue commercial aircraft.

The first real lesson -- which was not learned -- was provided nearly 60 years ago, shortly before the end of World War II, when a U.S. medium bomber, lost in the fog, crashed into the Empire State Building, then the country's highest skyscraper, in New York City.

The lesson: exotic methods and high technology are not necessary to produce devastating results. Today the lesson was validated.


Such an attack is possible as long as civil airplanes fly, trains run, power systems and public utilities function, people go to work, and business and markets continue. Each can be subverted, or intervened in, or exploited in ways that damage their users and the larger society.

Even a totalitarian security state cannot deal with this, not even if it were to suppress basic civil liberties. It is extremely important to understand this, since there will be two natural reactions to what has happened, both of them essentially futile.

First of all there will be continuing calls for revenge against those responsible, presuming that the authors are eventually identified or identify themselves.

The practical uselessness of revenge has been illustrated repeatedly and continues to be shown in the Middle East, since those who employ terrorism are not functioning on a pragmatic scale of reward and punishment. ...

The second reaction will be that the United States needs even more elaborate defenses than now exist. Yet the Pentagon, the CIA, the National Security Agency and the rest of the American apparatus of national security proved incapable of preventing today's attacks. They are incapable of preventing a repetition in some other version.

There are no technological defenses, as such, against this sort of thing. ...

There are ordinary security measures that can be taken or improved, but the nature of attacks mounted from within the regular functions of society means that no comprehensive or conclusive defense exists. The history of terrorism in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has proved this.
We still have not learned this lesson, neither we as a people nor our political leaders. We still imagine the mirage of "perfect safety" before us.

A "failure of imagination" was offered as one of the excuses for our government's failure to protect us on 9/11 -- despite the fact that it is the task of the national security agencies to engage in just such "imaginative" exercises, and despite the fact that no imagination at all was required to conceive of airplanes flying into buildings. We were thinking only in the box that Pfaff describes, and we are still thinking in the same box today. While we endeavor to make our airports and sea ports safer, some terrorists somewhere are undoubtedly considering an attack using means that no one else is thinking about at all.

And if and when such an attack finally occurs, our leaders will once more insist that "no one could have thought of that" -- ignoring the fact that those intent on doing us harm did, while those whose responsibility it is to protect us did not. Once again, they will go on to describe how a still more intrusive government will be able finally to protect us and make us safe. And the futile cycle will go on.

Four and a half years after 9/11, our basic approach still has not changed or adapted. And the full truth is worse: while administration officials tell us that this is a "new kind" of conflict, they continue to make war on states as mankind has done for untold centuries, and even on states that were no threat to us. As a result, our situation may well be more dangerous now than it was before the attacks of 2001.

There are terrible costs for refusing to learn these lessons, especially when history teaches them countless times and provides so many warnings. We can only hope that the costs are not too high, and not too horrifying.

The Trouble with Propaganda

The trouble is that it works:
As the war in Iraq grinds into its fourth year, a growing proportion of Americans are expressing unfavorable views of Islam, and a majority now say that Muslims are disproportionately prone to violence, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The poll found that nearly half of Americans -- 46 percent -- have a negative view of Islam, seven percentage points higher than in the tense months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when Muslims were often targeted for violence.

The survey comes at a time of increasing tension; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq show little sign of ending, and members of Congress are seeking to block the Bush administration's attempt to hire an Arab company to manage operations at six of the nation's ports. Also, Americans are reading news of deadly protests by Muslims over Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

Conservative and liberal experts said Americans' attitudes about Islam are fueled in part by political statements and media reports that focus almost solely on the actions of Muslim extremists.

According to the poll, the proportion of Americans who believe that Islam helps to stoke violence against non-Muslims has more than doubled since the attacks, from 14 percent in January 2002 to 33 percent today.

The survey also found that one in three Americans have heard prejudiced comments about Muslims lately. In a separate question, slightly more (43 percent) reported having heard negative remarks about Arabs. One in four Americans admitted to harboring prejudice toward Muslims, the same proportion that expressed some personal bias against Arabs.

Though the two groups are often linked in popular discourse, most of the world's Muslims are not of Arab descent. For example, the country with the largest Muslim population is Indonesia.


Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, [said] Americans "have been given the message to respond this way by the American political elite, mass media and by select special interests."
As deeply troubling as these poll results are, they are not at all surprising. And it must be acknowledged that the fundamental failure even to distinguish between Muslims and Arabs is symptomatic of the worst and most primitive kind of racism. Such racism has a long and reprehensible history in America, and it manifests itself both in our international relations and here at home.

The demonization of Muslims and Arabs has grown significantly in recent months, with two stories in particular being the catalysts for these racist attitudes. First, we had the phony cartoon controversy, which I discussed here and here. From beginning to end, that story was propaganda of the most transparent and contemptible kind, but it was no less effective for that. And then we had (and have) the UAE ports deal story. I've discussed this story in two entries (here and here), and I will probably have more to say about it in the coming week or so.

For the moment, I will note that I've received the nastiest emails in response to those two entries that I've seen in more than three years of blogging. It appears I need to repeat a point that I made very clearly in my first post on this subject: I stated explicitly that I did not think that all those who questioned the UAE deal were motivated by racism. There are certainly legitimate grounds to question the advisability of this proposed arrangement. But many people appreciate the relevant point in other contexts, and this is particularly true of many liberals who often make this argument themselves about sexist or anti-feminist comments: comments or judgments need not arise from racist (or sexist) motives -- that is, they need not be racist (or sexist) in intent -- but they may nonetheless be racist (or sexist) in effect. This awareness seems to have deserted many commentators with regard to the UAE controversy. The impact of our national discussion about this story cannot be divorced from the overall context in which it arises, including most obviously our current foreign policy and the invasion and occupation of Iraq, or from a stream of stories like the Mohammed cartoon controversy.

(I will also note that I've heard a few liberal radio talk show hosts engage in precisely the kind of demagoguery for which they criticize Bush and his supporters so severely. I've heard a few of them say, for instance, that the UAE "funded" the 9/11 attacks, and that the UAE "sent two of its sons" to attack us on that day. These distortions, addressed in my earlier posts about this deal, are propaganda worthy of Cheney or Rumsfeld -- but now the shoe is on the other foot, so some liberals enthusiastically throw themselves into the same gutter.)

Given the kind of unreflective, unthinking racism of which far too many Americans are guilty and the preexisting cultural atmosphere, it is incumbent on critics of the UAE deal to be especially careful about the kinds of arguments they offer. And I would have hoped that Democrats and liberals generally would be especially reluctant to take comfort in polls that show widespread opposition to the UAE deal:
Most Americans oppose allowing a Dubai company to run some U.S. ports, even as a majority understands the U.S. would continue to control port security, according to a new FOX News poll. One in four sees the United Arab Emirates as a strong ally, but most either disagree or are unsure. The poll found that 69 percent of Americans oppose the deal — four times as many as support the deal (17 percent).
Do those Democrats who are now out-hawking the Bush administration honestly think such views reflect a knowledge and careful consideration of the various factors involved -- or that this opposition arises from dangerously racist attitudes of the kind revealed in the Washington Post story? But many of them see only the political advantage involved. And since many Democrats are just as or more eager than the administration for confrontation with Iran, it works out fine for everyone -- except for the many people who might die, and except for the fact that all of us will be in even greater danger.

And one final, more general note. This entire perspective -- one which relies on a certain notion of "Western exceptionalism" -- has a very long record of making Enemies of Our Own Creation. As James Carroll summarizes the main point in a column excerpted in that entry:
The point is that this conflict has its origins more in "the West" than in the House of Islam. The image of Muslims as prone to violence by virtue of their religion was mainly constructed across centuries by Europeans seeking to bolster their own purposes, a habit of politicized paranoia that is masterfully continued by freaked-out leaders of post-9/11 America. They, too, like prelates, crusaders, conquistadors, and colonizers, have turned fear of Islam into a source of power. This history teaches that such self-serving projection can indeed result in the creation of an enemy ready and willing to make the nightmare real.
And so we continue to approach a moment of still greater danger. Almost daily, the administration does everything in its power to make it appear that a military confrontation with Iran is "inevitable." Given the widespread and increasingly negative views of Islam and of Arabs, if and when we attack Iran, many Americans will accept it without protest -- and many will view our attack as a positive good.

So the propaganda campaign goes on, fueled by many people in all parts of the political spectrum -- and the prospects for peace dim to the point of invisibility.

March 08, 2006

"Within the Scope of His Employment"

What is within the scope of Rumsfeld's employment? Why, torture of course:
The U.S. Justice Department asked a federal court on Monday to dismiss a lawsuit charging that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld bears responsibility for the torture of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In its first substantive response to the lawsuit filed by two rights groups, the Justice Department said the suit against Rumsfeld should be dismissed based on the "absolute immunity" granted federal officials under 1988 legislation on civil lawsuits.

"That act bars suits against federal officials for conduct performed with the scope of their employment except for claims for violations of the Constitution or of federal statutes," the filing said.

The government also said that the court had no jurisdiction over cases seeking damages for alleged violations of international law.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights First filed suit on March 1, 2005 on behalf of nine men -- five Iraqis and four Afghans -- who said they were tortured by U.S. forces while in custody. None of the men were ever prosecuted. All were released.

The suit focuses on an order Rumsfeld signed in December 2002, that authorized new interrogation techniques for detainees in the "war on terror," including "stress positions," 20-hour interrogations, removal of clothing, the use of dogs and prolonged isolation and sensory deprivation.

The suit alleges that when evidence became overwhelming that prisoners were being tortured, Rumsfeld turned a blind eye.

"Secretary Rumsfeld takes the extraordinary position in his brief that ordering torture was 'within the scope of his employment' as Secretary of Defense. Especially in light of recent finds that no one at senior levels has been held to account for gross acts of torture and abuse of detainees, this is a remarkable abdication of the responsibility of command," said Deborah Pearlstein, a representative of Human Rights First.
As I've noted before, they want to be able to do whatever they wish -- and they never want to be held accountable for any of it, not in a court of law and not anywhere else at all.

Related posts: A Lawless, Barbarian Nation

On Torture

Undying Myths, and Sullivan's Lies on the Path of Penance

In several essays, I've explained that the most important decisions having to do with international affairs, and with war and peace, have almost nothing to do with military intelligence, or with "available facts": they are decisions of policy and judgment. As Barbara Tuchman summarizes the point:
Acquiescence in Executive war, [Fulbright] 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."


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.
As I explained in more detail in that essay, this is a deeply uncomfortable truth, one that most people still cannot accept. Nonetheless, it is the truth, as the last several years have proved still one more time.

Events throughout history attest to the accuracy of Tuchman's analysis (see also David Fromkin's description of the policy considerations that gave rise to World War I). As a consequence, all of the debates about "good" and "bad" intelligence are largely a distraction and a camouflage. Of course, it is vital that we have accurate intelligence. But in the end, it is not "secret information" possessed only by the government that informs the decisions of our political leaders: we, as "intelligent citizens," are capable of making the same kinds of judgments, and we possess sufficient information to reach conclusions that are equally legitimate. More recently, Paul Pillar has made the identical point, and he provides incontrovertible evidence to support the argument.

But the myth will not die, and the widely accepted narrative continues to be embraced: we insist that our leaders go to war because information that only they possess leaves them no choice, and they unleash destruction with only the best of motives. It is a comforting illusion, one that provides solace to many people who need it. But like all such illusions, it is profoundly damaging. We will be unable to prevent the next catastrophe if we can't appreciate what led to past disasters.

Two recent articles reveal the tenacity of this particular myth. The first is offered by journalist Kevin McKiernan, and he approaches the subject from a perspective to which I am sympathetic. In an article entitled, "Did US Know Iraq Had No WMDs?," he writes:
What if the Bush administration wasn't entirely convinced before the Iraq war that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, but simply invoked those "mushroom cloud" images to rally necessary public support? One source of such speculation lies in the administration's puzzling prewar failure to supply Iraqi Kurds, Hussein's closest and most likely targets, with gas masks and other promised protection.

While the White House has publicly maintained that the decision to go to war was not made until early 2003 -- and only as a last resort after the failure of both inspections and diplomacy -- I knew a full year before that Kurdish leaders were quietly tipped off to war plans just weeks after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Washington, D.C., representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which controlled the eastern portion of the Kurdish region, told me early in 2002 that he and other Kurdish leaders had been summoned to the Pentagon in October 2001 to meet Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense. One of the topics of conversation was the 1988 gassing of the Kurds by the Iraqi regime.


I then interviewed Dr. Abdullah Saeed, the director of public health for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controlled the western part of the Kurdish region. Dr. Saeed told me that several Americans -- he assumed they were CIA, but had no way of knowing -- had visited him about the same time and had promised that the Kurds would soon be supplied with antitoxins for nerve gas, face masks, and other protective gear.

That was welcome news, Dr. Saeed said, because there were more than 3.5 million Kurds and, unlike Israelis and Kuwaitis, they had no such safety equipment.

If cornered, Hussein was expected to retaliate with chemical or biological weapons. Kurdish targets, some as close as Brooklyn is to Manhattan, could be easily reached with old-fashioned artillery shells.


In late spring 2003, Bush proclaimed "mission accomplished" and I came home from Iraq. As I took my unused gas mask off my belt, my thoughts returned to Mrs. Ahmed's assertion that the Kurds had received no WMD protection because the West "just didn't care."

No one could doubt that the Kurds presented an easy target for expected retaliation by the Iraqi regime, but I had to believe that once the support of the Kurds had been enlisted by Rumsfeld, then their survival became a genuine concern to war planners.

The alternative scenario was just too disturbing: that the Pentagon knew all along that the Kurds, an exposed population of almost 4 million, would have no need for masks. Could the White House have conducted the war with actual knowledge that there were no WMD in Iraq? Was that why no one saw fit to protect the Kurds?
I honestly don't see how anyone can still consider this question to be unanswered, not at this point and given all the evidence that has emerged. Of course the White House knew there were no WMD in Iraq, at least not in sufficient quantities to be of any serious concern. And I recall stories about the lack of protection against WMD from the moment the invasion of Iraq began. It was obvious that the administration didn't view the WMD danger as one of great moment -- or that they were criminally incompetent to a degree that is almost ungraspable. Perhaps it was both factors, plus a few others. But they obviously didn't consider the dangers from WMD to our troops or to anyone else to be a grave matter demanding urgent attention.

Those who championed the Iraq invasion most vociferously had wanted this war for more than a decade. It doesn't matter what particular combination of factors influenced any specific player in this tragedy: whether it was a genuine belief in the Wilsonian project of "nation-building" and "spreading democracy" by military force; or whether Bush indulged a pathetic desire to be a "war president," thus hoping to ensure his place in history, or if he wanted to outperform his father and prove his "strength" and "manliness"; or whether they were driven by an unfocused and uncontrolled desire for revenge after 9/11.

Whatever the various elements might have been, it was a decision of judgment made entirely apart from information provided by intelligence, good, bad or otherwise. In this case, it was judgment fatally distorted by hubris, ignorance, and the basest of motives. McKiernan's article is only a recent example of countless similar stories, all of them confirming the same conclusion.

While I am sympathetic to McKiernan, the second example of these ongoing analytic problems elicits nothing but my deepest contempt. Andrew Sullivan receives far more attention than he deserves: rarely has one man been so wrong about so much, and rarely has a writer consistently revealed a self-absorption and a degree of self-regard that so far exceed the bounds of what is tolerable in decent society. Yet, he does capture certain key elements of the various ways in which "conventional wisdom" gets it so badly wrong, so his pigheaded, unrelenting determination to continue in error should be noted.

Sullivan's very, very late regrets and reservations about Bush's foreign policy have taken in far too many people. For reasons I have explained, his belated second thoughts are ultimately meaningless -- and his condemnations of torture are futile and unconvincing in the end, for reasons I discuss in detail here and here. (All the entries in my series, On Torture, are listed here.) Now Sullivan continues on his dead-end Path of Penance with an article called, "What I Got Wrong About the War." The short answer: nothing that matters a damn.

And the first of the "huge errors" that Sullivan identifies shows that he is still completely trapped by the falsehoods of the conventional wisdom that led to calamity in the first place:
In retrospect, neoconservatives (and I fully include myself) made three huge errors. The first was to overestimate the competence of government, especially in very tricky areas like WMD intelligence. The shock of 9/11 provoked an overestimation of the risks we faced. And our fear forced errors into a deeply fallible system. When doubts were raised, they were far too swiftly dismissed. The result was the WMD intelligence debacle, something that did far more damage to the war's legitimacy and fate than many have yet absorbed.
He still thinks the intelligence mattered in a significant way: he and the others made "an honest mistake." If only the intelligence had been right, everything would have been fine.

This remains absolutely, totally wrong. One more time: the decision to go to war was one of policy and judgment. In the end, the intelligence didn't matter in any way that counted.

The last mistake Sullivan identifies made me laugh out loud:
The final error was not taking culture seriously enough. There is a large discrepancy between neoconservatism's skepticism of government's ability to change culture at home and its naiveté when it comes to complex, tribal, sectarian cultures abroad.
Yes, those fundamental contradictions in the policies one advocates can be a real bitch. And with regard to 'taking culture seriously": some of us have been making this argument since well before the invasion began. Reading a history book -- almost any one at all will do -- makes this point in a conclusive, unanswerable manner. I suppose it must be added that one needs to understand the book as well.

But here is the passage that merits attention, where Sullivan indulges in the Big Lie that is crucial to the neoconservatives' foreign policy project:
We have learned a tough lesson, and it has been a lot tougher for those tens of thousands of dead, innocent Iraqis and several thousand killed and injured American soldiers than for a few humiliated pundits. The correct response to that is not more spin but a real sense of shame and sorrow that so many have died because of errors made by their superiors, and by writers like me. All this is true, and it needs to be faced. But it is also true that we are where we are. And true that there was no easy alternative three years ago. You'd like Saddam still in power, with our sanctions starving millions while U.N. funds lined the pockets of crooks and criminals? At some point the wreckage that is and was Iraq would have had to be dealt with. If we hadn't invaded, at some point in the death spiral of Saddam's disintegrating Iraq, others would. It is also true that it is far too soon to know the ultimate outcome of our gamble.
This has only one meaning: we had no choice. When the war began, "there was no easy alternative" -- and Sullivan then repeats the entirely false smear that if one opposed this disastrous war, "you'd like Saddam still in power." It is and was perfectly possible to deeply loathe Saddam and his brutal regime, and still to have opposed this war -- a war which has served only to undercut our national security, dangerously weaken our military, perhaps irreparably damage our reputation throughout the world, and embolden our enemies.

But this Big Lie is the same one announced by Irving Kristol in his "neoconservative manifesto," as I discussed several years ago. Like Kristol, Sullivan must convince himself that we had no choice in the end. As I wrote about Kristol's foreign policy views:
The lie contained at the heart of this paragraph is probably the worst and most shameful in the entire article (and the article contains a number of stupendous lies, so this is no mean achievement). To term our involvement in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Kosovo conflict, the Afghan War, and the Iraq War "bad luck" is an intellectual crime for which capital punishment would be too good, and too swift. In this context, "bad luck" has only one possible meaning: that we had no choice but to become involved in these conflicts, that the conflicts were "forced" on us against our will, and that we were merely passive observers in world affairs who became embroiled in one conflict after another, in an unceasing train of war, altogether against our better judgment.
This is Sullivan's view of foreign policy as well. I had many reasons for describing the program announced by Kristol as the "New Fascism." This is the overall program that Sullivan still enthusiastically endorses. He isn't sorry about a single damned thing of any consequence.

After this disreputable performance, Sullivan's concludes with a string of whimpering cliches:
We know that the enemies of democracy in Iraq will not stop there if they succeed. And we know that no perfect war has ever been fought, and no victory ever won, without the risk of defeat. Despair, in other words, is too easy now. And it too is a form of irresponsibility.

Regrets? Yes. But the certainty of some today that we have failed is as dubious as the callow triumphalism of yesterday. War is always, in the end, a matter of flexibility and will. And sometimes the darkest days are inevitable--even necessary--before the sky ultimately clears.
If I could somehow manage to forgive Sullivan for all his other sins, I still would find it impossible to overlook this one: he is an utterly unoriginal and thoroughly rotten writer.

I suppose it's only fitting that Sullivan is now hosted by Time. After all, this is the magazine that offered us a "morally and intellectually indefensible" cover story about Ann Coulter just last year. He's found his level, at last. While it is not precisely a celebratory occasion, it does carry a certain degree of justice. For the moment, that will have to suffice.

Perhaps I should leave the final word on this constellation of errors to Barbara Tuchman once again. From The March of Folly, where she summarizes the underlying causes of continuing, self-destructive mistakes:
Refusal to draw inference from negative signs, which under the rubric "wooden-headedness" has played so large a part in these pages, was recognized in the most pessimistic work of modern times, George Orwell's 1984, as what the author called "Crimestop." "Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments...and of being bored and repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity."
"Protective stupidity." I think that phrase covers it very well. Yes, very well indeed.

March 07, 2006

A Lawless, Barbarian Nation

If you can bear to, you should read the introduction by Tom Engelhardt and the following article by Dahr Jamail: "Tracing the Trail of Torture."

I will excerpt only the conclusion of Jamail's piece, which captures the scope of the legal and constitutional abyss, together with the horrifying and unforgivable legacy of the Bush administration -- a legacy that will haunt us for decades to come:
In A Question of Torture, McCoy quotes one CIA analyst, whose expertise was in the now long-departed Soviet Empire, this way: "When feelings of insecurity develop within those holding power, they become increasingly suspicious and put great pressures upon the secret police to obtain arrests and confessions. At such times police officials are inclined to condone anything which produces a speedy ‘confession,' and brutality may become widespread."

Testifying at the same commission of inquiry as Karpinski, Michael Ratner, once head of the National Lawyers' Guild, now president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and an expert on international human rights law, caught the essence of our present situation:

"Let there be no doubt this administration is engaged in massive violations of the law. Torture is an international crime. What [George Bush] has done is basically lay the plan for what has to be called a coup-d'état in America. [His Presidential Signing Statement attached to the McCain anti-torture amendment] makes three points… First, speaking as the President, my authority as commander in chief allows me to do whatever I think is necessary in the war on terror including use torture. Second, the Commander in Chief cannot be checked by Congress. Third, the Commander in Chief cannot be checked by the courts. In other words… George Bush is the law."

Torture is usually defined as "infliction of severe physical pain as a means of punishment or coercion," or as "excruciating physical or mental pain, agony." No civilized society can accept laws which justify the use of torture. So it's not surprising that Ali Abbas was astonished to discover Americans willing to inflict such humiliating and inhumane treatment on him while he was in their custody in Abu Ghraib. "They cannot be human beings and do these things," was the way he put it. He concluded: "This, what happened to me, could happen to anybody in Iraq."

Unfortunately, what happened to him can now conceivably happen to anyone, anywhere in the world, according to George Bush.

One of the last things Abbas said as our interview ended was: "Saddam Hussein was a cruel enemy to us. Once I made it to Abu Ghraib though, I wished I had been killed by him rather than being alive with the Americans. Even now, after this journey of torture and suffering, what else can I think?"
Related Essays: On Torture

All-Purpose Lies

Rush Limbaugh led with this item on his radio show a few minutes ago. He, of course, thought this was swell news:
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iran will not be allowed to have nuclear weapons and faces "meaningful consequences" if it persists in defying the international community, Vice President Dick Cheney said on Tuesday.

Cheney, speaking to the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, also reaffirmed that the United States was keeping all options on the table -- including military force -- in its determination to prevent Iran from developing nuclear arms.

"The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course the international community is prepared to impose meaningful consequences," Cheney said.

Cheney spoke as the 35-nation International Atomic Energy Agency governing board was meeting in Vienna to decide its next steps on Iran.

"For our part, the United States is keeping all options on the table. ... We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon," Cheney said.
In view of the Bush administration's deal with India -- a country which is not a signatory to the nonproliferation treaty, while Iran is (and note the points made by Cirincione, included in the Update to that post) -- this is warmongering of a particularly ludicrous kind. Our nuclear policy is incomprehensible and self-contradictory. But the main point is clear: we will decide who gets to have nuclear weapons and who doesn't, and we will enforce our inscrutable desires with bombs and death.

I mention Limbaugh because of what he then went on to say. Limbaugh denies that a civil war is even a possibility in Iraq: as you are doubtless aware, that idea is solely a creation of the evil liberal media. But Limbaugh heard one Iraqi being interviewed, and this Iraqi (although who this person is and why we should put stock in anything he says was not disclosed to us unworthy listeners) really "gets it," according to the laughable Limbaugh. The Iraqi said that Iraqis themselves don't want and would not tolerate a civil war: whatever trouble there might be is all being caused by...

Oh, come on. You know. Iran. All the problems in Iraq are being created by Iran to distract us -- while Iran builds nuclear bombs to kill us all. So the solution is obvious and indisputable: we need to stop Iran and we need to stop it now, by military strikes if necessary.

Just three years ago, all these same people were warning us about "mushroom clouds," and the great danger Saddam represented. If we got rid of Saddam, democracy would spring up in Iraq and spread throughout the Middle East. Peace on Earth would arrive to bless all mankind.

Not one of the hawks' predictions about Iraq has come true. Not a single bloody one -- and bloody is the operative word. But now we are told that the problem isn't Iraq any longer: it's Iran. If it were not for Iran, all the hawks' delusional fantasies would miraculously come true.

We remain trapped in mythic war. We must have endless enemies, and those enemies must embody Absolute Evil. When one enemy is disposed of, no matter how unforgivable and futile the destruction we have caused, we will find another to take its place.

So the demands for continuing, perpetual, endless war go on. All of it was lies from beginning to end three years ago -- and all of it is lies now.

The entire spectacle is sickening, contemptible and utterly transparent. And it is beyond forgiveness, now and forever.

March 06, 2006

Careful: Sanity May Be Catching

Christopher Hitchens -- yes, Christopher Hitchens! -- on the prospect of a nuclear Iran:
Assume that the Iranians are within measurable distance of nuclear status. Appearances sometimes to the contrary, they are not mad—or not clinically insane in the way that Saddam Hussein was and Kim Jong-il is. The recent fuss about the obliteration of Israel is largely bullshit: ... These people (who once bought weapons from Israel via Oliver North in order to fight Saddam Hussein) are cynical and corrupt. They know as well as you do what would happen if they tried to nuke Israel or the United States. They want the bomb as insurance against invasion and as a weapon of strategic ambiguity to shore up their position in the region.

But they have a crucial vulnerability on the inside. The overwhelmingly young population—an ironic result of the mullahs' attempt to increase the birth rate after the calamitous war with Iraq—is fed up with medieval rule. Unlike the hermetic societies of Baathist Iraq and North Korea, Iran has been forced to permit a lot of latitude to its citizens. A huge number of them have relatives in the West, access to satellite dishes and cell phones, and regular contact with neighboring societies. ... Opinion polling is a new science in Iran, but several believable surveys have shown that a huge majority converges on one point: that it is time to resume diplomatic relations with the United States. ...

So, picture if you will the landing of Air Force One at Imam Khomeini International Airport. The president emerges, reclaims the U.S. Embassy in return for an equivalent in Washington and the un-freezing of Iran's financial assets, and announces that sanctions have been a waste of time and have mainly hurt Iranian civilians. (He need not add that they have also given some clerics monopoly positions in various black markets; the populace already knows this.) A new era is possible, he goes on to say. America and the Shiite world have a common enemy in al-Qaida, just as they had in Slobodan Milosevic, the Taliban, and the Iraqi Baathists. America is home to a large and talented Iranian community. Let the exchange of trade and people and ideas begin! There might perhaps even be a ticklish-to-write paragraph, saying that America is not proud of everything it is has done in the past—most notably Jimmy Carter's criminal decision to permit Saddam to invade Iran.

The aging mullahs might claim this as a capitulation, which would be hard to bear. But how right would they be? The pressure for a new constitution and genuine elections is already building. Within less than a decade, we might be negotiating with a whole new generation of Iranians. Iran would have less incentive to disrupt progress in Iraq (and we should not forget that it has been generally not unhelpful in Afghanistan). Eventually, Iran might have a domestic nuclear program (to which it is fully entitled and which would decrease its oil-dependency) and be ready to sign a nonproliferation agreement with enforceable and verifiable provisions. American technical help would be available for this, since it was we who (in a wonderful moment of Kissingerian "realism") helped them build the Bushehr reactor in the first place.

Just a thought.
And a very, very good one. Given Hitchens' execrable performance over the last several years, you have no idea how much it pains me to say that.

(Via Matt B.)

Holy Mother of God

Via Steve Bartin, we have yet another horror story of government spying -- in the name, as always, of "national security":
"We're a product of the '60s," [Walter Soehnge] said. "We believe government should be way away from us in that regard."

He was referring to the recent decision by him and his wife to be responsible, to do the kind of thing that just about anyone would say makes good, solid financial sense.

They paid down some debt. The balance on their JCPenney Platinum MasterCard had gotten to an unhealthy level. So they sent in a large payment, a check for $6,522.

And an alarm went off. A red flag went up. The Soehnges' behavior was found questionable.

And all they did was pay down their debt. They didn't call a suspected terrorist on their cell phone. They didn't try to sneak a machine gun through customs.

They just paid a hefty chunk of their credit card balance. And they learned how frighteningly wide the net of suspicion has been cast.

After sending in the check, they checked online to see if their account had been duly credited. They learned that the check had arrived, but the amount available for credit on their account hadn't changed.

So Deana Soehnge called the credit-card company. Then Walter called.

"When you mess with my money, I want to know why," he said.

They both learned the same astounding piece of information about the little things that can set the threat sensors to beeping and blinking.

They were told, as they moved up the managerial ladder at the call center, that the amount they had sent in was much larger than their normal monthly payment. And if the increase hits a certain percentage higher than that normal payment, Homeland Security has to be notified. And the money doesn't move until the threat alert is lifted.

Walter called television stations, the American Civil Liberties Union and me. And he went on the Internet to see what he could learn. He learned about changes in something called the Bank Privacy Act.

"The more I'm on, the scarier it gets," he said. "It's scary how easily someone in Homeland Security can get permission to spy."
I have an easy rule now: I figure the government keeps tabs on everything I do. Everything.

It just makes it simpler. Not exactly "American," in the way that word used to mean something. But it doesn't seem to mean that any longer.