Saturday, December 29, 2007

Wolf Munch Rock Award

Andrew Sullivan has announced the winners of his dyspeptic annual "awards," designed for the most part to highlight the dogmatism, intellectual dishonesty, mindless aggression, and self-promoting pretensions of our punditocracy.

As an antacid, let me introduce the first annual Wolf-Munch-Rock Award. Named for Financial Times columnists Martin Wolf, Wolfgang Munchau and Gideon Rachman, mainstays of that oasis of dispassionate analysis the FT Comment page, this award goes to an observer of world news and trends whose writings exhibit deep (if understated) expertise, fact- and evidence-based exposition, wide-angle perspective on large-scale trends, and theses based more on observation and analysis than ideology.

First year winners by decree: Martin Wolf, Wolfgang Munchau, Gideon Rachman. As an example of the way these guys deploy facts in support of a thesis --or plow through facts as they replay their search for a thesis - take Gideon Rachman's recent Five events that have defined 2007.

Rachman begins with a disarmingly modest, seemingly pedestrian justification for the 'exercise':
If you want to make sense of world affairs, it is useful to identify the most significant events. Also, I like making lists. So here goes.
Rachman's choices: 1) The surge, 2) Putin's Munich speech (accusing the Americans of "an almost uncontained hyper use of force ... that is plunging the world into an abyss of conflicts"), 3) the credit crunch, 4) Petrochina becoming the world's most valuable company (for a while), and 5) Musharrraf's 'mini-coup' in Pakistan. An odd mix of the military, the political, and the financial. Random? Bound only by his love of list-making? Not quite:

Is there a common theme linking these five events? Clearly. The link is the growing strain on the world's sole superpower. America is locked into a draining and demoralising war. Russia, an old adversary, is becoming more assertive. China, a new rival, is on the rise. Pakistan, a vital ally, threatens to fall apart. The US economy is under more strain than for years. Happy new year.

Surprise! A general unifying theory, delivered, again, with a modesty that implicitly acknowledges the complexity of events and the provisional nature of such judgments (as does the use of the perfect tense in the headline). This is not "the decline of the west," not a Jeremiad against American hubris, not a trump of doom - just a clear-headed look across disparate theaters at a "growing strain."

Wolf Munch Rock Award Part II is here
Part III is here

Friday, December 21, 2007

Shrieks on a Plane

Professor Bainbridge warns that unrestricted cell phone use on planes is on the way. Everyone who doesn't have the luxury of shutting off a hearing aid knows how bad this will be. And yet, there may be cause for all-too-distant hope. As a 10-year commuting vet on New Jersey transit, I’ve noticed an evolution in cell phone use on rush-hour commuter trains: most regular commuters do keep it down. Their fellow commuters have perfected the slow head-turn and glare, and the occasional ‘can you keep it down?’; most of us have grown at least marginally sensitive to the common interest in peace. It’s different, though, on weekend and off-peak trains: grandma doesn’t have a clue, teens don’t care, show-and-shopping excursionists are oblivious. I imagine that plane passengers will unfortunately be more like the off-peak crowd, except maybe on the major biz shuttle routes.

Attention, passengers: earplugs are cheap and reasonably effective, if a bit uncomfortable. They're not really good enough if the yakker is right next to you.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Torture in Democracies: Rinse, Repeat

Darius Rejali, author of Torture and Democracy. published an article this weekend in the Boston Globe (“Torture, American Style”) that recast my understanding of the place of torture in the history of the U.S. and all the western democracies. Surprise:

Torture isn't an alien force invading our democracy from the benighted realms of dictatorships. In fact, it is the democracies that have been the real innovators in 20th-century torture. Britain, France, and the United States were perfecting new forms of torture long before the CIA even existed. It might make Americans uncomfortable, but the modern repertoire of torture is mainly a democratic innovation.

In one instance after another, democracies developed new torture techniques, refined them, and then exported them to more authoritarian regimes. Americans didn't just develop electric power; they invented the first electrotorture devices and used them in police stations from Arkansas to Seattle. Magneto torture, a technique favored by the Nazis involving a portable generator, was actually developed and spread by the French. Waterboarding and forced standing owe their wide use to the Americans and British.

Rejali details multiple forms of torture employed by law enforcement and the U.S. military throughout U.S. history: electrotorture "in police stations from Arkansas through Seattle" in the first third of the twentieth century; waterboarding in the Philippines and then in military prisons and police stations in the same period; magneto torture in Chicago law enforcement in the 1970s (apparently imported by veterans who had learned torture techniques in Vietnam). Eradicating these practices has been a constant struggle:

[H]istory shows that the cycle of torture can be broken. Americans put an end to most domestic torture between 1930 and 1950. We did this, in part, by exposing torture. The American Bar Association's 1931 report transformed American law and policing. The document was cited in court decisions; newspapers and true crime books drew on the group's investigations to educate the public as to what the modern face of torture was. And police chiefs instituted more checks on police behavior, including clear punishments for violations of the law and regular medical inspections for detainees.

This history lesson is literally "disillusioning." Yet it's also oddly reassuring. It's not true that the U.S. definitively rejected torture 200 years ago and has now opened the floodgates. As with many evils -- political corruption, financial fraud, athletes' substance abuse -- the fight against torture is chronic and cyclical and must be fought in every generation.

Myth: democracies don't torture. Fact: democracies regularly sniff torture out, debate it, and usually reject it. Of course, that equilibrium could be destroyed any time; a public's sensitivities can be coarsened, its values corrupted, by sensational TV shows and demagogic politicians. But that danger, like its antidote, is perpetual.

Supergurus against Torture?

After invoking Gandalf in his case against torture (Torture as the Ring?), Andrew Sullivan has now drafted Yoda as well. Both supergurus warn against the seductive powers of the dark side.

I am tired of people trotting out Gandalf's two or three humane homilies to lend profundity to their arguments. Tolkein was as morally simplistic as Bush. The Lord of the Rings is built on the pernicious fantasy that agents of evil are purely and unambiguously evil, that wars are fought against inherently and irremediably evil enemies, that kings are fighting a constant rearguard action against the weakness of their people, and that history is a long tale of degeneration.

There are few evils more clear-cut than torture, which is why the campaign against it suits Sullivan's earnest nature, and why he has been so effective on this vitally important front. But fantasy-world invocations should be left to the neocon fabulists.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Bloomin' bromides revisited

Update to 12/15 post: a bit of unsolicited campaign advice to The Admirable Bloomberg is now in the Financial Times. Postscript: don't do it, Bloomberg! What a cruel irony if you were to throw the election to Giuliani...

Upholding Dodd-ering Civil Liberties

Chris Dodd has pledged to filibuster any FISA bill that grants retroactive immunity to telecom companies that have colluded in the Bush Administration's illegal and unchecked spying on Americans' phone traffic. Here is one response to Dodd's call for statements of support:

While America sleeps, our core Constitutional liberties are being stripped away as the Executive claims power to do whatever it wants to whomever it wants. Astonishingly, the Democrats continue to roll over and ratify the President's right to spy at will on Americans, hold suspects indefinitely without trial, and torture those deemed rightly or wrongly to have information about future terrorist attacks. Chris Dodd has been the only Presidential candidate with the courage not only to speak out in general terms against these outrages, but to take time out from campaigning to arrest the capitulation of the party he wants to lead. Anyone who acts effectively to check the steamrolling of the spineless Democratic leadership on this front deserves the support of all Americans who value the rule of law and the separation of powers.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bloomin' Bromides

In one of his split-the-difference, both-parties-have-lost-their-way and I'm-the-statesman-of-the-center feints, Michael Bloomberg positioned himself as a brave supporter of beleaguered free trade in the Financial Times last week.

Bloomberg has proved himself a highly capable executive and a fact-based, analytical policymaker. If I were magically empowered to appoint the next President, I might well choose him. All the more disappointing, then, that his free trade manifesto (America must resist protectionism, 12/11/07) amounts to little more than a collection of anodyne bromides. America "must capitalize on opportunities and confront the challenges" of increased global trade. "Countries that open fair access to new frontiers will be the winners." "We have a responsibility to prepare today's students for tomorrow's economy." Visionary.

If Bloomberg wants to help us truly "confront the challenges" of globalization, he might let us know his thinking on some hard questions: should bilateral free trade agreements between the U.S. and developing countries include stricter labor and environmental standards? Should U.S. tax policy provide incentives for companies to keep or create jobs at home? Should developing countries unconditionally embrace free trade, or protect key industries as Korea and Japan did?

Bloomberg purports to admire both Bush Sr. and Clinton for their courage in supporting free trade in 1992. At that time, it truly did take courage to tell laid off factory workers that the U.S. could not protect them from globalization, but only help them to retool their skills, as Clinton did. But today that's received wisdom, if not achieved policy. If Bloomberg is positioning himself as a presidential contender who tells the unvarnished truth, he'll have to show more 'courage' than he did in this piece.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Debriefing Kiriakou: What if Torture Works?

The Brian Ross interview with former CIA interrogator John Kiriakou, who interrogated Abu Zubaydah, is disturbing in the extreme in that Kiriakou declares reperatedly, matter-of-factly, and with apparent certainty that Zubaydah yielded large amounts of actionable intelligence as a result of torture, including waterboarding and sleep deprivation. These claims completely contradict Ron Suskind's account, in which sources say that Zubaydah was a psychotic with limited knowledge of Al Qaeda operations who, upon being tortured,

began to speak of plots of every variety -- against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target." And so, Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

According to Kiriakou, waterboarding was "like flipping a switch" that made Zubaydah decide it was Allah's will (revealed in a dream) that he should talk -- and "the threat information that he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks." Kiriakou claims that Zubyadah subsequently served as a reliable reality check for other intelligence that came in. Kiriakou also portrays him as rational, knowledgeable, far from insane in any conventional sense, and a high-level al Qaeda operative-- a logistics chief, a financier, and a close associate of Bin Ladin.

Kiriaku also counters the claim that other interrogation techniques are more effective than torture. He claims that the key differentiator was speed; that building trust or willingness (which he dismisses as impossible with the religious fanatics of al Qaeda) or engaging in psychological warfare are time-consuming, whereas waterboarding was, again, 'like throwing a switch."

Is Kiriakou to be believed? Over time, will enough Kiriakous speak out to create a general acknowledgment that torture can produce actionable intelligence? If so, we opponents of torture lose a major comfort and must rely on a braver and more nuanced cost-benefit assessment. Such as: the harm that torture does to the society that authorizes it outweighs the harm -- the deaths and destruction -- that it may in some instances prevent. We have already seen that torture cannot be contained with the circumspection that Kiriakou portrays - where every step, every slap, is deliberated and authorized. Instead, we have dozens of people killed in custody, thousands detained (in Iraq) under brutal conditions, and all kinds of random and sadistic abuses, the knowledge of which has generated so much further hatred against us throughout the Muslim world. Nor can its target be limited to "known" terrorists - witness the mistaken renditions and the abuse leveled on Iraqis rounded up virtually at random. American citizenship is no shield -- ask Jose Padilla. In concert with the denial of due process and the President's assumed power to deem anyone an enemy combatant, there is nothing to prevent its being inflicted on an ever-widening circle of alleged 'enemies of the state.' That is the real danger.

Andrew Sullivan points out that "The Zubaydah torture does not fit the category laid out by Charles Krauthammer as the criterion for legalized torture. It was done not because we knew something and needed to nail it down. It was done because we knew nothing and needed to find out more. The attacks it allegedly foiled were not catastrophic and not on the mainland of the United States." Does this kind of cost-benefit analysis make sense - that is, is the 'ticking time bomb' argument relevant? Is it wrong to torture someone if you think that doing so might thwart unknown attacks saving hundreds or thousands of lives, but right to torture in an attempt to thwart an attack known to be pending that might take hundreds of thousands or millions of lives? I think the answer is that the '24' scenario is a false choice, highly unlikely to occur in its pure form. Sullivan is right that it's fatal for a society to greenlight torture in anticipation of that choice. That's Cheney's 1% solution -- a permanent state of emergency authorizing absolute executive power because of an eternal risk of catastrophe.

In fact, that risk has been there throughout the nuclear age, and the remote possibility of a terrible choice has always been part of the burden of the terrible responsibility of those charged with the security of millions of people. I imagine that every president has left a corner of his mind open to the possibility of an emergency that will force him to act outside the law. But to pre-authorize a crime in a vanishingly unlikely scenario is not a solution.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Who Says Cheney isn't Pole-Driven?

A relaxed Dick Cheney in shirtsleeves, “his big chair swiveled” toward the target, took quite a stick to his Democratic opponents in a testosterone-charged pas de deux with Politico this week.

The lede gets all-to-quickly to the upshot:

Vice President Cheney warned in an interview Wednesday that a premature withdrawal from Iraq would invite “further attacks” against the United States and said he has been surprised by the weakness of the Democratic Congress.
Cheney fingers Dingell and Murtha as representatives (d) of this ‘weakness’:

[Dingell] and Murtha “and the other senior leaders … march to the tune of Nancy Pelosi to an extent I had not seen, frankly, with any previous speaker,” Cheney said. “I’m trying to think how to say all of this in a gentlemanly fashion, but [in] the Congress I served in, that wouldn’t have happened.”

...When asked if these men had lost their spines, he responded, “They are not carrying the big sticks I would have expected.”
Hmm...weaklings with small sticks, at least one of whom would force a premature withdrawal if he were more potent. That would be a pity, with consummation nigh:
We’re sort of halfway through the surge, in a sense. We’ll be going back to pre-surge levels over the course of the next year.”
Fortunately, the would-be withdrawers need not be stymied for long. Our premature-predictor-in-chief assures us that a “self-governing democracy [will] be firmly established in Iraq” by January 2009.

And if the U.S. can’t surge to that swift and satisfying conclusion, other enemies are poised to stick it to us. Take Iran, with its hot pursuit of superpower status:
“The long pole in the tent in terms of developing nuclear weapons, traditionally, historically, has been developing fissile material.”
It'll take a big stick to keep that long pole out of the nuclear end zone.

In any case, it’s reassuring to know that our avuncular veep does not demand perfection, or absolute power. Counterinsurgent NIEs, images of soldiers holding naked prisoners on leashes, news of destroyed torture videos—it’s alll in term’s work:
“Everything leaks,” he said with a chuckle.
That's why there's no safety in premature withdrawal.

Friday, December 07, 2007

A Still, Small Voice Says Israel is Right

Israeli unanimity about Iranian determination to build a bomb is troubling - though I must say that Israelis were also unanimous in support of leveling much of Lebanon in a futile attempt to crush Hezbollah. Nonetheless, Israelis have had their eyes fixed on Iran's nuclear efforts for nearly two decades, and a high level of Mossad confidence in that neighborhood seems more credible than the graded confidence levels of the NIE. Most troubling, Israeli intelligence experts don't dispute the core fact noted in the NIE - Iran's suspension of its 'nuclear weapons program' -- they just dispute its significance.

The New Republic's Yossi Klein Halevi has this from Shabtai Shavit, former head of the Mossad:

"My assessment is that, after they decided to aim for nuclear weapons, they advanced on three parallel tracks: enriching uranium, creating components for a bomb, and developing missiles. The missiles are ready for operation. As for enrichment, they have encountered all kinds of problems, like exploding centrifuges. I estimate that they made great progress, and very quickly, on the military track. Since they have problems with the uranium enrichment track, they can allow themselves to delay the military track, and wait for progress with uranium." [Halevi adds] Given that world attention has been focused on the military track, a tactical Iranian concession made sense.

This makes the Occam's Razor cut. It's the explanation that requires as few assumptions as possible -- in marked contrast to the NIE's judgement that Iran's nuclear activities are guided by a 'cost-benefit approach.' As another of Halevi's sources asks sarcastically, is it "a cost-benefit approach for one of the world's largest oil exporters to risk international sanctions and economic ruin for the sake of a peaceful nuclear program?"

One might respond that the perceived benefit is not energy but prestige, and risk management (keeping up with the Husseins), and keeping options open, i.e. getting 20 years of preparation out of the way so that a bomb can be produced at short notice. But the fact remains that getting the uranium enriched is the hardest part -- and that effort is going full steam ahead.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Democrat "for" McCain

Financiers, who know how to hedge, often contribute to candidates in both parties. Why not the rest of us? This letter accompanied my contribution today to the McCain campaign:

Dear Senator McCain:

While I will almost certainly vote for the Democratic nominee in 2008, I am contributing to your campaign because I fear for the future of American democracy should a proponent of torture and the destruction of American civil liberties such as Rudy Depends-who-does-it Giuliani or Mitt Double Guantanamo Romney win a major party nomination.

This contribution is to honor your sustained and essential opposition to torture, suspension of habeas, assertions of unlimited executive power, and wholesale flouting of the Bill of Rights. Should you win the Republican nomination, I will rest assured that Americans are not prepared to sell their ancient liberties for a little bit of perceived security.

I should add that I believe that your support of President Bush’s misadventure in Iraq contributed to that disaster; that your campaigning for Bush in the 2004 election helped bring on four more years of assault on our core liberties; and that the ‘compromise’ you green-lighted in the 2006 Military Commissions Act ratified the Administration’s abuses. I am also disappointed by your repudiation of your own principled opposition to the Bush Administration’s irresponsible tax cuts, and by your cozying up to corrupt theocrats.

Nonetheless, on the all-important issue of torture and civil liberties, history will recognize that you stood as the conscience of a party run amok with fear-mongering and power-grabbing.

American democracy cannot function without (at least) two viable major parties. Should you win the nomination, the Republican Party will have taken a giant step toward a return to responsible governance.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Gates "Validates"

Vintage Robert Gates here, as reported by Mark Thompson in Time :

Indeed, Secretary Gates, in Afghanistan this week, told reporters that the U.S. intelligence community has "more confidence than ever before" that Iran had a nuclear-weapons development program, one that Iran continues to deny it ever possessed. He urged the international community "to join the United States in bringing pressure to bear on the Iranian government" to keep its nuclear-weapons efforts dead. This, he said, will help "ensure that what apparently was a suspension in 2003 becomes a policy of the Iranian government and that they agree to the requirements of the international community in terms of their enrichment program." Iran, he said, had merely suspended — not terminated — its nuclear-weapons efforts. Tehran continues to "keep its options open," he pointed out. "As long as they continue with their enrichment activities, then the opportunity to resume that nuclear weapons program is always present."

However, Gates left no doubt where he stands on how to proceed, saying that the revised NIE shows that non-military measures are the best way to curb Iran's nuclear program. "If anything," he said in Kabul, "the new national estimate validates the Administration's strategy of bringing diplomatic and economic pressures to bear on the Iranian government to change its policies."

First, do everything possible to forestall reckless and ruinous military action (thank God there's at last a match for Cheney in bureaucratic infighting). Then tack about to highlight the remaining danger and head off a collapse of meaningful pressure. Simultaneously get across that Iran remains dangerous and yet responsive to concerted international action. Finally, magically recast the Administration's saber rattling as the hard-nosed peace through strength negotiation he would have it be.

Monday, December 03, 2007

"From the Shadows": Did Gates Shape the New NIE on Iran?

Having just finished Robert Gates' excellent book 1996 From the Shadows, my immediate reaction upon reading of a new National Intelligence Estimate that
downplays the likelihood of Iran developing nuclear weapons before 2015 is that Gates, a 25-year CIA veteran and former DCI, very likely had a shaping hand - if not in the report itself, then in its release. Until quite recently, Gates has kept a very low profile since becoming Secretary of Defense about a year ago, but the evidence is strong that he has had a calming, rationalizing effect on Bush Administration policy and rhetoric. Last week, in a speech at Kansas State University, he astonished Pentagon observers by telling students that the U.S. needed to boost the State Department's budget -- that is, redress the balance between hard power and soft power. Prior to that, the only public comments of his since taking office that I can remember cropping up in mainstream news were two checks to belligerent Administration rhetoric-- to say in one instance that Congressional debate on war financing put useful pressure on the Iraqi government, and in another that Hillary Clinton's request for contingency withdrawal plans was reasonable. Both of these interventions are in keeping with the balanced assessment in From the Shadows of the five presidents Gates worked for (Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr.). In the final section of that book, Gates notes that doves and hawks worked effectively, though often in bitter competition, to keep those five presidents on containment course, and that Congressional intrusion on foreign affairs could be meddlesome and counterproductive but also served as an essential check on executive power. Also, as a top member of Bush Senior's national security team, he lauds that team's cohesion and mutual trust, born of confidence that the National Security Adviser Scowcroft (and deputy Gates) would present all views to the President. The unwritten sequel haunts the book like a shadow limb: that Bush 43 in so many ways destroyed the balance born of separation of powers, bipartisanship, and competition of views within prior administrations.