Friday, October 2, 2009

What Would Likely Be the Result of an Iranian Bomb

In the wake of the revelation of the Qom reactor, it seem likely that Iranians are building their warheads, not for more than just power. Hawks report, ominously, that Iran is 3-5 years from reaching a nuclear weapon. People have been estimating that Iran is 3 to 5 years from building a bomb for the last two decades, but no matter. The conventional wisdom here in American that Iran is obviously going to build a bomb. Whether this conventional wisdom is true is unclear, it is at least as likely that Iran will halt on the brink of weaponization such that, in a pinch, nuclear weapons could be manufactured quickly.
The arguments that Iran ought not to be allowed to build a bomb are of several sorts, a similar to those which were applied to Saddam Hussein prior to the invasion. First there's the standard line that proliferation of any kind is to be avoided. A second argument is that Iran possessing a nuclear weapon would allow a "nuclear umbrella" and would galvanize anti-western forces throughout the region. This strikes me as overblown. It seems unlikely to the extreme that Iran's nuclear umbrella would ever extend to proxy forces, nor does it seem to me that a nuclear weapon would put Iran in any particular good place from a strategic point of view. Most countries in the region either are under US protection or possess their own arsenals. The only gain Iran might have from their weapons would be deterrence, which doesn't seem much of an issue unless we are contemplating the invasion of Iran.
Stephen Walt has a lengthy post wherein he considers the possible effects of an Iranian bomb.

The key point to remember is that a decision to build a bomb involves some complex cost-benefit calculations, and Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon would not necessarily lead any of its neighbors to decide that their best course is to follow suit. One reason they might hold back is simply the recognition that getting a bomb would not enhance Iran's influence as much as is sometimes claimed. China did not suddenly become a more influential power when it tested a bomb in 1964; its rise to true great power status came when it began to modernize its economy in the l980s. Getting a bomb may have reinforced Israel's "existential security" (which is why Ben Gurion wanted one), but having a couple of hundred nuclear weapons doesn’t enable them to blackmail the Palestinians or the other Arab states into doing whatever Jerusalem wants. Similarly, North Korea has hardly any influence in world affairs despite its recent entry into the nuclear club; the only thing that that Pyongyang can do with its weapon is discourage others from putting too much pressure on them. Americans really should understand this: we have several thousand nuclear weapons and we have a tough enough time getting other states -- even rather weak ones -- to do what we want. The same would be true for a nuclear Iran: it could not blackmail anyone because the threat would not be credible, and even nearby states might find it easier to adjust to than we sometimes think .
This strikes me as pretty sound. Iranian nuclear weapons would obviously not have a positive effect on the security in the region, but there negative effects are clearly massively over-hyped.
The final case is that a nuclear bomb represents a sort of final solution. This school of though points out the the USSR and Maoist China were fundamentally rational adversaries, whereas sees Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the ruling ayatollahs (the difference between the two is often brushed over) are motivated by Millenarian beliefs and therefore fundamentally irrational. Under this theory, as soon as Iran achieves weaponization, they will destroy the state of Israel.
On its face, this seems completely reasonable, but in fact it seems very overblown. If Iran is so irrational, one would probably see it manifested in their actions, yet this doesn't seem to me to be the case. Iran is happy to increase its influence by selling weapons and political support to anti-Israeli terrorist militias, but they haven't had Revolutionary Guards fighting on the the front lines against Israel. A fundamentally irrational regime is generally manifests some way in its actions. Idi Amin and the Pol Pot both led fundamentally irrational regimes, but it was easy to tell how insane there regimes were, and because of their irrational actions, these regimes were removed from power. The case that Iran is irrational is based on no action in particular, rather it is based on speculation and key misreading of statements by the Iranian president. Though proponents of the irrationality view tend to contrast this with the USSR and Red China, they conveniently forget that when we faced these countries, they were considered just as irrational as we now say Iran is. Later we'll be contrasting rational Iran with the suppoed irrationality of whatever future adversary we face.
No power would welcome an Iranian bomb, and no one is arguing that Iranian nuclearization is a positive development. I would say, though, that overheated predictions of apocalyptic scenarios is no help to the dialogue.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Visiting the Creation "Museum"

Last friday, 300 atheists descended on the notorious creation museum. The trip was in conjunction with a Secular Students Alliance conference in Columbus, Ohio. I was one of those 300 atheists.

above: the lobby of the creation museum
Why did I see the museum? Mainly because I was curious, not just of the creation museum itself, though that too, but also the trend it represented. The creation museum has become the symbol of the know-nothingism in American society. It seems likely that the creationist will not succeed in imposing their bizarre version of reality on the school-children of America, but the balkanization of reality and a disregard for objective facts exemplified by the creationists has already so permeated out discourse it has become almost impossible to have a reasonable political dialogue in this country. Elect a new president? We're told he's not born in this country, and secretly a Muslim anyhow. Want to reform healthcare? People scream that the new plan will euthanize old people. The creationists are symbolic of this irrationality.
It used to be people were welcome to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Today our discourse allows two sides their own facts as well. As Paul Krugman put it, if a small group of people began claiming the Earth is flat, the newspaper headline would be "Shape of the Earth: Views Differ". Stephen Colbert famously labels this phenomenon "truthiness".
One of the earliest exhibits in the creation museum perfectly illustrates this point. It shows two scientists on an paleontological dig. One scientist says the bones are roughly 100 million years old. The sees the same thing, but says the bones are about 4400 years old (just the idea of a creationist on a dig like this should raise some eyebrows). What is happening here is not two "interpretations" as the museum claims. Instead, the latter scientist has hocked back the facts provided by the find, and made up his own. Basically the museum is saying "age of the Earth: views differ."

The museum is at least consistent . It "teaches the controversy", the thing that the evolution deniers been encouraging rural school-boards to do since time immemorial. A whole section compares the alternate interpretations of "Human Reason" and "God's Word". I note some inconsistency here, a lot of this museum seems to be arguing that the precepts of creation are more reasonable than those of evolution, a feat requiring considerable twisting of the facts.

In a series of displays, we are shown both the fundamentalist interpretation on one hand and on the other hand, the scientific world-view is displayed. The creationists, despite what you may think, do in fact believe in evolution, indeed, they believe in evolution several factors of magnitude faster than anything any true scholar of the subject would ever propose. To the creationists, every animal evolved from several base types over a period of several thousand years since the great flood. This fact allowed Noah to only take on board the basic "types" and thus fit all the animals on the Ark (I was unable to maintain a straight face typing that last sentence). Via PZ Myers, (for soem reason, I did not photograph this) a picture of the genetic divergence of both the "monkey" and the human types. See if you can spot the difference.

Of course, the creationists can't just leave us with the appearance that both ideas might simply be equal so, we are then led in to what might be called atheistland, a representation of our dystopian present. Believers, you see, think of evolution as a sort of Pandora's Box, and when you open it, you never know what will jump out at you. Abortion, euthanasia, acceptance of gays; all these are horrible results of evolutionary theory. We walk through a what could be a recreation of a seedy New York City back ally, replete with newspaper clippings emphasizing these various hot-button issues. The next part of atheistland portrays the spirtual vacuum of a modern suburban home and a wrecking ball destroying a church.
This may be the real reason creationists insist on their cockamamie theories. They are convinced that in a world determined by evolution, people will grow wicked, so it is better that we don't question God's word, even in the slightest. This is highly idiosyncratic. There certainly are ills in our world, but it's very difficult to attribute any of these to evolutionary theory. What's more, our world is superior in a whole host of ways to the pre-enlightenment world, including in being less violent (see previous post). The creationists also ignore the fact that one could just as easily point to horrible things as resulting from christianity. For example, the museum draws a clear link between evolution and "scientific" racism, yet they are clear in embracing the Hammite descent of Africans, the most common justification used for slavery.

There's more material in the creation museum, but this post is getting long, so I will try to cover more in another post.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Is War/ Violence Becoming Less Common?

An interesting article by John Horgan in Slate seems to illustrate pretty clearly that war is indeed becoming a less common phenomenon, especially wars between states. Perhaps this is democratic peace theory at work.
Counting casualties is fraught with uncertainty; scholars' estimates vary according to how they define war and what sources they accept as reliable, among other factors. Nevertheless, a clear trend emerges from recent studies. Last year, 25,600 combatants and civilians were killed as a direct result of armed conflicts, according to the 2009 Yearbook of SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, to be released Aug. 17. Two thirds of these deaths took place in just three trouble spots: Sri Lanka (8,400), Afghanistan (4,600), and Iraq (4,000). In contrast, almost 500,000 people are killed each year in violent crimes and well over 1 million die in automobile accidents.

SIPRI's figure excludes deaths from "one-sided conflict," in which combatants deliberately kill unarmed civilians, and "indirect" deaths from war-related disease and famine. If these casualties are included, annual war-related deaths from 2004 to 2007 rise tenfold to 250,000 per year, according to "The Global Burden of Armed Violence," a 2008 report published by an international organization set up in the aftermath of the Geneva Declaration. Even this much higher number, the report states, is "remarkably low in comparison to historical figures."

For example, Milton Leitenberg of the University of Maryland's School for International and Security Studies has estimated that war and state-sponsored genocide in the first half of the 20th century killed as many as 190 million people, both directly and indirectly. That comes to an average of 3.8 million deaths per year. His analysis found that wars killed fewer than one-quarter of that total in the second half of the 20th century—40 million altogether, or 800,000 per year.

Even these staggering figures are low in comparison with prehistoric ones, if considered as a percentage of population. All the horrific wars and genocides of the 20th century accounted for less than 3 percent of all deaths worldwide, according to one estimate. That is much less than the probable rate of violent death among our early ancestors.

This seems to me both contrarian and convincing. Generally, we tend to ascribe violence in society to immutable human nature, and suppose we have some sort of natural tendency toward war and violence. This article explicitly argues the opposite.
Our prehistory seems to have grown more bellicose as time went on, however. According to anthropologist Brian Ferguson, there is little or no clear-cut evidence of lethal group aggression among any societies prior to 12,000 years ago. War emerged and rapidly spread (PDF) over the next few thousand years among hunter-gatherers and other groups, particularly in regions where people abandoned a nomadic lifestyle for a more sedentary one and populations grew. War arose, according to this perspective, because of changing environmental and cultural conditions rather than because of "human nature".
Steven Pinker also argues the same case, but expands it to all forms of violence, looking at homicide rates, harsh punishment and other forms of violence as well as war. He points out that cruelty was once considered high entertainment. The burning of cats to death was once considered very amusing for example. Another example is be bear-baiting, a sport involving a fight to the death between bears and trained dogs. This sport was a major form of entertainment in England until the 19th Century.

Since Pinker is known for, among other things, his blistering attack on those who deny the importance of genes in shaping human behavior, it is interesting that his argument is explicitly not that we have a genetic disposition toward violence, but rather that violence is rational. The logic of a the preemptive strike makes violence tempting option to both sides. If two armed groups exist because each side know that the other side could raid first, and therefore it seems wise to launch a first-strike. This dynamic can also be seen between nations. In 1967, the Egyptian army mobilized on bad information obtained from the Soviet Union about a looming Israeli attack on Syria. Israeli sources picked up the mobilization and the leader-ship decided, knowing the country to be vulnerable to a first-strike, and itself struck first. The result was the 6 Day War. Because they attacked, Israel was able to destroy the Egyptian air-force while it was still on the ground (it should be pointed out that, despite the fact that the war was a stunning success from an Israeli perspective, most of current the problems of the area grew out of the conflict).
John Quiggin of Broken Timber thinks thinks Pinker is confused and inconsistent as to the matter of violence.
I’ve seen this kind of confusion before. Rational egoist models like homo economicus, ’selfish gene’ models like evolutionary psychology, and ‘realist’ models of international relations (in which nation-states are viewed as unitary actors) use similar styles of argument and therefore appeal to the same sort of person, but they radically inconsistent with each other, because they each posit a single level at which everything can be explained, different in each case.

I don't see the inconsistency in the position. The logic Pinker is using is similar to logic used by those who espouse homo economicus and "realist" theories of international relations. "Homo economicus" and "realist" international theory are both suspect for different reasons, the former because it assumes the human being to be rational, the latter because it makes similar assumptions about states, when in reality foreign policy is generally the result of special interest infighting and politicians trying to maintain their power, not "great powers" attempting to maximize their power and influence. However, the argument Pinker makes about preemptive attacks doesn't rely on either of these (or even, in this case, on selfish genes). The level that this takes place in dispute, this effect clearly happens at the level of human organization, whether they are tribes, clans, mafia families or nation-states, as the 6 Day War illustrates.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


One story that has been getting a lot of play is the large group of people who don't believe that the president was born in this country. Obviously, those subscribing to this ridiculous belief simply don't want to admit Obama is a president, and the belief has racial overtones, clearly a stalking horse of those who don't want to accept a black president with a Arab sounding name. Disgusting.
The godmother of the birther movement, lawyer/ real-estate broker/ dentist Orly Taitz was on the Colbert Report. Apparently, Colbert wanted a chance to show just how crazy these people are. She didn't disappoint (also, where the hell did she get the idea that both your parents must be citizens for you to be president?)
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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On the other hand, is this really any crazier than the many people who think that George Bush had a role in the destruction of the twin towers? No. Both are stupid conspiracy theories. The difference how widespread the theory is, and who believes it. Only about 20% of southern whites gave the factually correct answer to the question of where Obama was born.

The Republican leadership seems to kowtow to this group of lunatics. If a substantial number of Democratic officeholders had refused to say whether they though George Bush had destroyed the World Trade Center, people would comment.

Show-trials in Tehran

The spirit of Stalin is alive and well. The New York Times:
The Iranian authorities opened an extraordinary mass trial against more than 100 opposition figures on Saturday, accusing them of conspiring with foreign powers to stage a revolution through terrorism, subversion, and a media campaign to discredit last month’s presidential election.

The Tehran Trials seem echo strongly of the Moscow Trials. In the Moscow Trials, Joseph Stalin liquidated all of the "Old Bolsheviks", as well as the entire Politburo, and the purge eventually spread to the general populace, and the secret police were given quotas of people who had to be tried. The (initial) logic of the show trials was to liquidate anyone who could possibly challenge the Stalin's authority.
The Iranian show-trials target reformist Iranian politicians. The even have the classic "confessions".These confessions were clearly obtained under torture. The radio program This American Life recently had a program in which a liberal Iranian journalist describes how he was tortured until he signed a wrote a confession admitting to be a agent of the United States attempting to foment a "color revolution". The segment points out that there have been forced confessions of reformists and journalist being aired on Iranian TV for a decade. The process of torture and eventual confession to bizarre conspiracies is almost identical to the practices of the Soviet government.
The program notes that confessions all have a sameness. Each one was written by the elements of the Revolutionary Guards. The have a preponderant worry about foreign governments, such as the United States and Britain, and with the CIA. The confessions also almost always talk about fomenting a "velvet revolution". These obsessions are easily enough explained, about hlf a century ago, the CIA did indeed over-throw the government of Iran, and the fact that the Revolutionary Guards are so concerned with a "Velvet Revolution" is because they know the regime is vulnerable to such an uprising. To get some idea of the strange paranoia of the Iranian Revolutionary of the conservative Iranian establishment, watch this video.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The End of the F-22

The president and congress went eyeball to eyeball on the F-22 Raptor, and it looks like congress blinked. The Hill:
The Senate’s decisive vote this week to cut off the F-22 program is resonating in the House, where leading appropriators on Wednesday said they would back away from an effort to continue production of the radar-evading fighter.

“When the Senate said 58 to 40, I think that ended the debate,” said Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee. “We have to be realistic about this.”

The vote on whether to extend money to the F-22 emerged as a crucial test for President Obama, who personally vowed to veto any defense bill that contained money to extend the fighter program. The Obama administration wants to cap the fleet at 187 planes.

Murtha last week included $369 million in the 2010 defense appropriations bill for advance parts for 12 more F-22s after 2010.

Now Murtha said he will seek to use the $369 million for spare parts and engines for existing F-22s and not as a down payment of sorts on any additional jets.

Matt Yglesias has an interesting piece dealing with the wider implications of the fight over the F-22
Once upon a time, it was generally agreed that spending on defense, like spending on roads or health care, counted as the expenditure of money. Perhaps a good idea, perhaps a bad idea -- it was, at any rate, spending. Spending that had to be judged relative to alternative expenditures of funds or the possibility of lower taxes. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, as an advocate of small government, was actually an advocate for restraint in U.S. defense spending. He thought that we could rely on our nuclear deterrent to secure ourselves and our allies from Soviet aggression. By contrast, big government Democrat John F. Kennedy argued in favor of more spending, both at home and on military forces. The particular merits of these debates aside, the point is that defense spending was generally acknowledged to be a form of spending as such.

Things changed when the modern-day version of the conservative movement came to power in the person of Ronald Reagan. Taxes were slashed. We were told that "government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem." Consequently, spending would be cut in line with taxes, and the size of government would shrink. But in reality, total federal spending was essentially flat in the Reagan years and the country witnessed its first peacetime debt explosion. The reason? Despite the drastic reductions in federal revenues, defense spending skyrocketed.

Under George W. Bush, the same pattern repeated itself. Taxes were cut massively, creating a situation in which we were told we "couldn't afford" various kinds of domestic social outlay. But military spending -- including the "regular" Pentagon budget outside the various war supplementals -- just kept going up. Alleged small-government conservatives enthusiastically support this agenda, and Blue Dog Democrats and other self-proclaimed "deficit hawks" in Congress did not raise a peep of opposition. Indeed, within the GOP caucus, opposition to the federal government having any money is strongly correlated with support for spending tons on defense. And within the Democratic caucus, proclivity to bleating about deficits is, again, correlated with support for massive defense expenditures.

To some liberals, any defense budget fight that doesn't actually reduce expenditures isn't a defense budget fight worth engaging in. But the first step to a serious debate about the necessary level of defense spending is to change the political context so that we're no longer doing fantasyland budgeting for which politicians pretend the Pentagon's bills are paid with Monopoly money.

One of the oddest things about the debate over military spending is those ostensibly against the inefficient use of government funds are those most dedicated to bloated, inefficient military programs. Saxby Chambliss, for example, excoriated Barack Obama's budget as spending to much money, yet fought tooth and nail to preserve the F-22. Unsurprisingly, Lockheed-Martin, the F-22's maker, is a big employer in Georgia, Chambliss's home state. This wider trend of conservatives supporting massive defense spending was true of George W Bush and Ronald Reagan, both of whom ran up massive debts in there time in part due to increasing defense spending.
It is interesting to think that once Republicans were suspicious of military spending. Dwight Eisenhower once warned in a speech in 1961:
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

Whether Eisenhower had the right answer (a force more reliant on the threat of nuclear weapons) is dubious, but he was completely right to warn of the creeping influence of the complex.
The junking of the F-22 Raptor is a loss for the military-industrial complex, but a minor one. Despite the way it has been portrayed in the media, Obama's budget in fact increases military spending from the Bush years. Leaving out the expenditures on Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama budget is $534 billion, the Bush budget was $513 billion. Though the Obama budget has tried to shift toward more relevant program, my guess is there's still plenty of useless projects in that budget as well. Still, it is hopeful that the president and defense secretary have signaled they are at least ready to take on these issues at all.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

F-22 Raptor and other Oddities

The effects of the military-industrial complex upon our politics only becomes most obvious when an attempt is made to cut a program. A fight has broken out between the White House and congress over the F-22 program. The problem with the F-22 is it's a program looking for a justification and the very definition of a boondoggle. The Raptor is not of use to any of the current strategic issue for the United States. I heard one caller on the radio put it "the president and the Secretary of Defense want to prepare to fight terrorist, congress wants to prepare to fight aliens" One would think, with the President, the Defense Secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff supporting the decision to cut the program, congress would go along. Alas.
Congress decided to end production of the costly F-22 Raptor fighter jet at 187 planes after a debate on the 2009 supplemental war budget last month. But the very next day, the House Armed Services Committee stripped $369 million for environmental cleanup from the fiscal 2010 budget to fund an additional 12 F-22s. The Senate Armed Services Committee went a step further, providing $1.75 billion for seven more F-22s without clearly identifying the source of funds.
The F-22 costs nearly $150 million per plane - twice what was projected at the outset of the program. Factoring in development costs, the price tag increases to about $350 million per plane for the current fleet of 187.

It may look as if the House Armed Services Committee has added "only" $369 million. But given that it would provide funds for 12 additional F-22s, each with a price tag of $150 million (excluding development costs), the real cost to American taxpayers would be about $2 billion.

The F-22 is the most capable air-to-air fighter in the Air Force inventory. Yet it has only limited air-to-ground attack capabilities, which makes it unsuitable for today's counter-insurgency operations. In fact, the F-22 has never been used in either Iraq or Afghanistan. It was designed to fight next-generation Soviet fighters that never materialized, and, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates has noted, it is nearly useless for irregular warfare.

The fact that the project has a massive budget overrun is not an accident, when the project was first proposed its cost was purposely lowballed. Part of congress's reluctance is also due to the fact that pieces of Raptor program were purposely placed in a number of politically potent districts.
The Raptor, by the way, is vulnerable to rain.
The United States' top fighter jet, the Lockheed Martin F-22, has recently required more than 30 hours of maintenance for every hour in the skies, pushing its hourly cost of flying to more than $44,000, a far higher figure than for the warplane it replaces, confidential Pentagon test results show.

The aircraft's radar-absorbing metallic skin is the principal cause of its maintenance troubles, with unexpected shortcomings -- such as vulnerability to rain and other abrasion -- challenging Air Force and contractor technicians since the mid-1990s, according to Pentagon officials, internal documents and a former engineer.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Climate Pessimism

I must confess, I'm very pessimistic about the idea of humankind turning around the effects of climate change before it's too late. This doesn't mean it's not worthwhile to try, but I can't help getting the feeling that it's not going to happen.
Take the bill that's making its way through congress.

Unlike Brad Lindsey, I am very worried about the idea that climate change could be an "apocalyptic problem", so the failure to deal with it is even more troubling to me, particularly the utter servitude of congress to agri-business, going so far as to muzzle the EPA on the matter of biofuels.
Yet worse is the failure of developed and undeveloped countries to reach an agreement on climate change at the G-8. Critics, such as the blogger I linked to, suggest that it's the patchy commitment of the United States to reducing greenhouse gasses that led China and India to reject the deal. My own opinion is that neither country is any more interested in reducing greenhouse gasses than the Bush administration was, and further, both nations feel it only just that they produce greenhouse gasses at the same rate western societies did when they industrialized. This is unfortunate, if, as seems likely, both nations pump out as much fossil fuel as they like as the become more developed, then there's no way of advert a possibly catastrophic change in the climate.
China and India have a point, most of the greenhouse gasses that exist were produced by the United States, and the "global north" nations never had to worry about cutting there emissions when they made the leap to prosperity. They are also foolish though. If climate changes drastically, it will be nations like China and India, much more than the United States and Europe, that will pay the price. There strategy should be one of clean development rather than refusing any climate agreement by (rightly) observing that the west lacks any moral high-ground on this issue.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

RIP McNamara

I'm back. From this point on, I'm going to attempt to do a post a day again.
Though our media has been fixated and the death of Michael Jackson, to me, the death of Robert McNamara is far more interesting. Robert McNarmara played a profound tragedies of American life in recent times. Probably the most interesting commentary I read on McNamara's demise comes from Stephen Walt's blog.
Some commentators see McNamara as a tragic figure; a talented, driven, and dedicated public servant who mishandled a foolish war and spent the remainder of his life trying to atone for it. The obituary in today's New York Times takes this line, describing him as having "spent the rest of his life wrestling with the war's moral consequences," and as someone who "wore the expression of a haunted man."

I see his fate differently. Unlike the American soldiers who fought in Indochina, or the millions of Indochinese who died there, McNamara did not suffer significant hardship as a result of his decisions. He lived a long and comfortable life, and he remained a respected member of the foreign policy establishment. He had no trouble getting his ideas into print, or getting the media to pay attention to his pronouncements. Not much tragedy there.

McNamara may have been a gifted analyst and corporate executive, blessed with a lot of raw smarts, but he was also one of those people who could not imagine being wrong or resist the desire to tell the world what to do. Failure in Vietnam did not teach him humility; he ran the World Bank with same ego-driven sense of infallibility he had brought to the Pentagon (and with predictably mixed results). Yet this second experience with failure did not temper his love of the limelight or his desire to prescribe How Things Should Be Done. He spent the last decades of his life offering high-profile advice on various aspects of nuclear weapons policy -- with the same degree of self-assurance he had always displayed -- and he sought the spotlight once again with a belated memoir on his role in Vietnam. As always, however, it was filled with "lessons" for others; to the last, McNamara retained an unwarranted confidence in his own ideas as well as an inability to keep quiet.

Overall, McNamara's post-Vietnam behavior raises a broader question about the role of former officials who have led their country into major disasters. Ordinarily, we should respect the men and women who have devoted years of their lives to public service and listen carefully to the counsel of those who have the benefit of long experience. Moreover, someone who is no longer competing for a job in Washington may be more likely to give honest advice than someone who is still worrying about the questions she might face at a confirmation hearing.

But in some cases -- and a lot of former Bush administration officials come to mind here -- the failures are of sufficient gravity as to render all subsequent advice suspect. And when a government official's repeated errors have left thousands of their fellow citizens dead or grievously wounded, along with hundreds of thousands of other human beings, it would be more seemly for them to remain silent, in mute acknowledgement of their own mistakes. And if they persist in pontificating -- as Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, and Dick Cheney are now doing -- a nation that understood the importance of accountability might have the good sense to pay them the attention and respect they deserve. Which is to say: none.

This seems to me slightly too harsh, but only just. McNamara, by his own account, was already convinced that the Vietnam war was futile well before he left office, yet he said nothing out of "loyalty to the president". Such loyalty is misplaced, McNamara should have first had loyalty to those who would die should the war continue, and only second to the United States president. McNamara also kept silent on Vietnam throughout the entirety of the Nixon years, a fact which can't be explained by loyalty to Lyndon Johnson. McNamara only brought his doubts forward in memoirs written 30 years later. Too little, much too late (This article from Foreign Affairs discusses the matter further).
Yet it's not fair too compare McNamara to the Bush neo-conservatives. Dick Cheney still aggressively defends the clearly criminal enterprises that he created in office. Neither he nor any of the other Bush administration show any contrition, or even seem to realize there is anything for the to feel contrition for. McNamara is at least seems genuinely tortured by what he did. It is not a coincidence that a man who could easily have been brought up on charges before a warcrimes tribunal has argued for international rules of war. McNamara realized he was wrong and regretted it. As weak a measure as that is, it's far more than I expect out of any of those responsible for war-crimes in the bush administration.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Berlusconi Chases Jailbait

It is generally the strict philosophy of this blog not to cover stories that I find overly trivial, I category that sexual scandals are emphatically falls under. While this rule is seldom broken, I am prepared to make my first exception since Eliot Spitzer.
Silvio Berlusconi's wife recently made known her desire to divorce the Prime Minister, of "consorting with minors". She further accused him of wanting to put up showgirls as candidates in his party.
The charges seem difficult to substantiate. They could just be a an embittered wife's attempt to sully her husband's reputation.
Since then, photos of a half nude party with young women (one 18) at a party with Berlusconi have appeared in al Pais.
The real issue of course is the use of public resources for private purposes. From the Guardian.
El PaĆ­s quoted the photographer, Antonello Zappadu, as saying that "virtually every weekend" Italian air force flights brought Berlusconi's friends, dancers and television hostesses to his 60-hectare weekend retreat. The paper said Zappadu had pixellated out the faces of his subjects to protect their identity.

Berlusconi has been accused of far more corrupt acts than this, and gotten around it by simply rewriting the law to prevent himself and his cronies from being prosecuted. No doubt he will avoid the law in this case as well.
The lesson of the Clinton impeachment is that sex scandals are bunk. Chasing jailbait does not make Berusconi unfit for governance, though it does make him a despicable human being. What makes Berlusconi unfit for office is that he is a corrupt, power-hungry charlatan.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Right-wing Extremist Violence

Dr. George Tiller, one of few remaining providers of late-term abortions in the United States, has been assassinated. He was shot in his own church.
A the gunman, a Scott Roeder, is in now custody, and some research into his background has (shocker) found that he is linked with right-wing extremist groups such as the anti-abortion group Project Rescue (now Operation Save America), the Sovereign Citizens and the Freemen. I Let me remind you that when the office of Homeland Security published a report on the threat posed by these groups, congressional conservatives threw a hissy-fit. Despite the politicking of the congressional Republicans the threat posed by right-wing extremists is all too real, as illustrated by this assassination, and the similar incident where a gunman began firing into a crowd in a Unitarian Church in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church with the intention of killing liberals. The 90s saw a spurt of right-wing extremist violence. My guess is that the election Obama will galvanize a new group of extremists.
The campaign of Christianists against Dr. Tiller has been long and ongoing. They've previously vandalized his clinic and shot both his arms (for a more full walk-through of the Tiller campaign, click here and scroll down). The campaign of terror waged by Christianists forces against late term abortion providers has generally been successful, and Dr. Tiller was one of the last. Late term abortion is morally repugnant, and it seems acceptable if the a legislature or the Supreme Court wanted to take action to limit it. What is not acceptable is what has happened: the use of violence by a narrow band of extremists to impose their opinions on society.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Pakistan Increasing Nuclear Spending

So say the New York Times
WASHINGTON — Members of Congress have been told in confidential briefings that Pakistan is rapidly adding to its nuclear arsenal even while racked by insurgency, raising questions on Capitol Hill about whether billions of dollars in proposed military aid might be diverted to Pakistan’s nuclear program.

Unless we can prove that somehow Pakistan's nuclear program is beggaring its counterinsurgency effort, saying that money is being "diverted" doesn't make a lot of sense. Pakistan hasn't dealt with the insurgency raging in its hinterland very effectively, but the problem would not be solved by throwing money at it.
Robert Farley on the buildup.
This fits in well with a developing narrative about how Pakistan's focus on India is the problem: The story goes that the Pakistani military still considers India its central threat and isn't overly concerned with the Taliban. There are also long-term concerns about growing Pakistani capability and especially of the dangers of some of that capability falling into Taliban hands.

With that in mind, I'm not sure that these reports are as alarming as they seem on face. Pakistan has long sought a more capable nuclear arsenal. This build-up is part of Pakistan's long-term national security strategy, rather than a response to the availability of U.S. dollars. The logic of the strategy itself can certainly be criticized, but that is an altogether different debate. Were the United States not allocating substantial aid to help the Pakistani military fight the Taliban, it's unlikely that any money would be drawn from the nuclear program. Rather, the Pakistani Army would simply be less capable at counterinsurgency. The nuclear program has occupied the highest point of prestige and importance in Pakistani defense circles since 1971, and it is unlikely that the growing strength of the Taliban -- or complaints from the United States -- can change that. If there were any direct evidence that U.S. aid was funding an increase in Pakistani nuclear capabilities above and beyond what Pakistan had already planned, I'd be more concerned, but this doesn't appear to be the case thus far.

For Pakistan, as conventional wisdom correctly suggests, the cold-war with India has a higher importance than the damage warlords and fanatics a wreaking on their frontier. The is illustrated very clearly by the fact that Pakistan is only beginning to divert sufficient forces to fight this group of rural yahoos.
Pakistan, needless to say, has a somewhat different perspective on the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (father of Benazir), who initiated the Pakistani nuclear program back in the 70s, said that Pakistan would build a bomb even if Pakistanis had to eat grass. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the scientist most responsible for the Pakistani bomb, is still regarded as a hero by most Pakistanis, even though he headed a network proliferating nuclear technology to rogue states. Pakistan's focus on the bomb seems folly, a bellicose one-upmanship with India which beggars the public good. The countries, it must be said, have behaved like the United States and the Soviet Union. So much the pity.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

India and Nuclear Diplomacy

India's recent elections come as a pleasant surprise, a big win for the ruling Congress Party, and a stinging defeat for the nefarious, nationalistic BJP. The Congress party should not have trouble forming a coalition, a departure from the difficult coalition forming that has characterized India politics for the last few decades.
The Times of India article:
NEW DELHI: India has yet again been surprised by Indians. Last time, no one thought a Congress-led UPA would emerge winners. It did. This time, many said Congress would be the single-largest party and UPA the top coalition, but few imagined Congress would retain office with 201 seats — the highest any single party has got in 25 years — and UPA 258 seats. And yet like a silent tsunami, the Congress swamped its rivals to triumphantly return to power.

This election was supposed to be without any national issue. The Indian voter, however, had different ideas — he has voted with his feet for a coherent and stable government. Manmohan Singh is set to take charge as Prime Minister and become the only PM since Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961 to be voted back after completing a full five-year term. What's more, he will head a government without the support of the Left, whimsical partners like Mayawati or any other coercive ally. The middle class would be heaving a sigh of relief.

Mark Kleiman thinks after this win, we should even credit Bush's policy of bringing India in from the cold and reversing the traditional US tilt toward Pakistan. This seems to me what the administration had in mid when it cut the nuclear deal with India: a "Nixon goes to China" moment of grand diplomatic thinking. If we've forgotten about Bush's nuclear deal with India, the New York Times wrote a piece on the Bush administration's relationship with India.
In July 2006, 15 years after the Soviet Union collapsed and five years after Islamic terrorists became America’s principal enemy, Mr. Bush decisively reversed course. Raising India to the status of a strategic ally, he cut a unique exception in the global nonproliferation regime, proposing that India be allowed to keep its military stockpile even as it gained access to technologies and fuel for its civilian reactors. Over the next two years Mr. Bush used dwindling political capital to get the deal approved by the Congress and foreign governments. When Pakistan requested a similar pact, it was told that such deals were reserved for “responsible” states.

This was the diplomacy of the grand gesture, and when this barrier fell others followed. The American and Indian militaries increased joint exercises. They exchanged trade delegations. Their companies won expanded access to the other’s markets. American officials began to talk up India as a rising great power in a new century.

This seems a basic problem with Bush's approach to nuclear weapons, the administration always approached such weapons with the attitude that such weapons are ok, in the right hands. He was doubtless right to pursue such a close relationship with India, but the means by which he did it are questionable. Though the deal is legal under non-proliferation law (the guidelines which would have prevented the deal were rewritten), it necessarily undercut the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty by giving India all the benefits guaranteed to NPT signatories. The message to countries that develop weapons outside of the nuclear non-proliferation regime: hold on, and you could get legitimated by the world only superpower, have your arsenal and nuclear technology cooperation. Not a bad deal.
It makes sense that the deal was not extended to Pakistan as well. The notorious Abdul Qadeer Khan famously sold nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya, the last of which snitched and thereby blew the lid off of the network. Though Khan himself took full responsibility for the entire program (though he was oddly let off the hook) I can see from a Pakistani point of view such a deal being regarded as scary from a strategic point of view. United States nuclear cooperation with India, though ostensibly only on the civilian nuclear program, necessarily. It's no wonder that Pakistan has tried to negotiate a similar deal with France and increased its nuclear arsenal.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Torture and Exposure

It certainly feels like my blog is morphing into a running commentary on the torture issue. The latest controversy is over centers around Obama's decision not to release the additional pictures depicting torture. The decision was a tough call. I think it's a pretty good guess that Obama heard from the military that releasing the photos would endanger the lives of American troops, perhaps even endangering his timeline for withdrawal. This sort of advice would be very difficult for a president of the United States to resist. I'm not completely decided, but I think I would lean toward declassification. The opinionator has a rundown of opinions on the issue. Particularly of interest is Joan Walsh:
For the first time in his presidency, I had the sick feeling that Obama was lying in his remarks on the photos, once when he said the new images "are not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib" -- I simply don't believe that -- and again when he insisted "the individuals who were involved have been identified, and appropriate actions have been taken." That is a flat-out lie. Out of eight prosecutions, mostly of so-called bad apples, only reservist Charles Graner sits in prison today, while the architects who "Gitmo-ized" Abu Ghraib and encouraged torture all went free.

Is Obama trying to cover-up the torture issue? I'm not convinced this is the case. Obama came out strongly against torture, the administration just seems to want to get it off of the agenda in order to concentrate on what they want to concentrate on. On the other hand, Nancy Pelosi is a different story. Conservatives are fond of responding, when one brings up prosecution of the torture team, by asking "which Democrat who was informed would you like to see prosecuted?" Actually, almost know one was informed outside the executive branch making it difficult for congress to curb the program. One of the few that was informed, though, was Nancy Palosi. While I don't think that there's a prosecutable case against Pelosi, she clearly was informed early on, making her complicit. She's been turning herself in all kinds of knots to avoid blame.
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Saturday, May 9, 2009

More on Torture

One of the biggest questions for the media is not whether "torture" ethical or effective, but simply whether to use the word "torture" (as opposed to a more neutral "aggressive interrogation") to talk about the policies of the previous administration. Most media outlets, such as the Times have opted for "aggressive interrogation, which very clearly sides with the previous administration.
Andrew Sullivan points out, these the Times has no such qualms about describing these acts as torture.
Col. Harold E. Fischer Jr., an American fighter pilot who was routinely tortured in a Chinese prison during and after the Korean War, becoming — along with three other American airmen held at the same prison — a symbol and victim of cold war tension, died in Las Vegas on April 30. He was 83 and lived in Las Vegas. The cause was complications of back surgery, his son Kurt said.

From April 1953 through May 1955, Colonel Fischer — then an Air Force captain — was held at a prison outside Mukden, Manchuria. For most of that time, he was kept in a dark, damp cell with no bed and no opening except a slot in the door through which a bowl of food could be pushed. Much of the time he was handcuffed. Hour after hour, a high-frequency whistle pierced the air.

As Sullivan points out, the techniques used by the Chinese in this case are the exact same ones which became the basis for the United States torture program (the techniques cribbed from the SERE program were the based on the techniques that Harold Fischer, among others, was subjected to.)
But I would like to know if Bill Keller will remove the t-word from this obit and replace it with "harsh interrogations" as he does when referring to the US government's use of identical techniques. If not, why not? Remember: these people won't even use the word torture to describe a technique displayed in the Cambodian museum of torture to commemmorate the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge - as long as Americans do the torturing.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Jon Chait on Torture and the Rule of Law

In keeping with this blogs recent focus on prosecution for torture, I recently read an piece by Jon Chait summing up how ridiculous the right's arguments about torture are.
Remember the Rule of Law? In the late 1990s, it was all the rage in conservative circles. Having maneuvered Bill Clinton into a position where he could either lie under oath or suffer massive personal and political embarrassment, conservatives reasoned that Clinton must be held accountable for perjury or the basic underpinnings of democracy would be shattered. The Republican sensibility was best reflected by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which not only crusaded for impeachment but demanded, in 2001, that Bill Clinton be indicted even after leaving office. The Journal rejected the logic of promoting healing and insisted that a post-presidency indictment would uphold "the principle that even Presidents and ex-Presidents are not above the law."

Over the last decade, though, the right's thinking on this question has evolved. Today, the administration malfeasance consists of illegal torture, a crime I'd argue is no less serious than lying under oath about fellatio. Yet Republicans now believe that the Rule of Law is not only consistent with letting administration crimes go unpunished but actually requires it. To prosecute the departed administration would make us (to use their new catchphrase) a "banana republic"--the premise being that banana republics are defined not by their use of torture but by their overly zealous enforcement of anti-torture laws.

The GOP line is once again reflected by the Journal editorial page, which now thunders against "a new Administration prosecuting its predecessor for policy disagreements." The editorial notably fails to even address the question of whether the previous administration complied with the law, which is apparently no longer an important element of the Rule of Law.

The right's newfound outrage is a more hysterical manifestation of the mainstream sentiment that it would be an unseemly form of vengeance or "looking backward" to hold the previous administration legally accountable for torture. It's a bizarre sentiment. The prosecution of any crime is inherently backward-looking. We prosecute law-breakers to keep them or others from breaking the law.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


The bombshell of today: Arlen Specter switches political party. This will not only give the Democrats the magic 60 vote Democratic majority (once the other shoe drops, that show is Al Franken), it also bring the per capita jowl of the party substantially higher.
Obviously, the Republican party wasn't too happy, and it fell on hapless RNC Chairman Michael Steele to respond:
Some in the Republican Party are happy about this. I am not. Let's be honest -- Sen. Specter didn't leave the GOP based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record.

This statement is illogical on many levels. If Specter did have a "left-wing" voting record as Michael Steele claims (left-wing is a very odd word to apply to Arlen Specter) than he did leave the party based on principle, the only way he betrayed his principles was being in the party in the first place. Second, why is it that Steele wouldn't be happy about this? If Specter is an opportunistic left-wing politician, shouldn't the party be glad to have him out?
Steele did get one thing right though, Specter's flip clearly wasn't based on principle, Specter said as much himself. He was oddly forthright in his explanation of why he switched parties. Like Senator Joseph Lieberman, Specter has certain views that are best characterized as centrist, chief among these that it is most important to look out for number 1. This is what ultimately drove Specter out of the part, he was completely forthright about this: he saw the poll, and promptly jumped.
The Republicans brought this one on themselves by running wing-nut Pat Toomey against Specter. What we've seen is the dynamic of "big tent" versus "little tent". The Democratic party is not rigidly orthodox, allowing many politicians who take positions different from, or even hostile to, the supposed Democratic consensus. The party is a coalition of moderates, center liberals and left-liberals. The Republican party on the other hand, is far more disciplines, and deviating too far from the party lines risks a primary challenger. This strategy just blew-up in the face of the Republicans, GOP purists aren't going to like how little clout they'll have as an ideologically pure party.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Debate Over Torture

In the past, I've read Michael Scheuer, and been favorably impressed by some of his analysis, but his recent op-ed in Washington Post strikes me as off of the deep end, indeed, if a moron like this was responsible for catching Bin Laden (Scheuer was "chief of Bin Laden issue station") it's no wonder the terrorist chieftain has eluded US capture.
Now, in a single week, President Obama has eliminated two-thirds of that successful-but-not-sufficient national defense troika because his personal ideology -- a fair gist of which is "If the world likes us more we are more secure" -- cannot tolerate harsh interrogation techniques, torture or coercive interviews, call them what you will. Surprisingly, Obama now stands alongside Bush as a genuine American Jacobin, both of them seeing the world as they want it to be, not as it is. Whereas Bush saw a world of Muslims yearning to betray their God for Western secularism, Obama gazes upon a globe that he regards as largely carnivore-free and believes that remaining threats can be defused by semantic warfare; just stop saying "War on Terror" and give talks in Turkey and on al-Arabiyah television, for example.
Americans should be clear on what Obama has done. In a breathtaking display of self-righteousness and intellectual arrogance, the president told Americans that his personal beliefs are more important than protecting their country, their homes and their families.

The last part reminds me of the scene in Dr. Strangelove where Buck Turgidson tells the president "Perhaps it might be better, Mr. President, if you were more concerned with the American People than with your image in the history books" when the president says he refuses to go down in history as the greatest murder since Adolph Hitler.
What Scheuer misses is that Obama's belief is that these techniques don't protect America. Even if you disagree, it is a bogus charge to say he is putting his personal beliefs before protecting the country.
Scheuer's version of events is contradicted by his agencies own finding that torture is not helpful in providing intelligence. Even so, the agency has greatly squandered its credibility. Unlike the FBI, the CIA was ready to violate the law by torturing prisoners. The agency has no background interrogation, but were chosen clearly because they can operate in the darkness outside the rule of law and accountability.
The kind of information that can be obtained from torture is generally what one already wants to hear. This should be no surprise, the forms of torture we use are in many cases cribbed from Maoist practices explicitly designed to illicit false confessions (such torture tactics were stored in US army manuals for resistance to torture), and this seems to be what they've been used for.
WASHINGTON — The Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist.

Such information would've provided a foundation for one of former President George W. Bush's main arguments for invading Iraq in 2003. In fact, no evidence has ever been found of operational ties between Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and Saddam's regime.

The use of abusive interrogation — widely considered torture — as part of Bush's quest for a rationale to invade Iraq came to light as the Senate issued a major report tracing the origin of the abuses and President Barack Obama opened the door to prosecuting former U.S. officials for approving them.

Generally, we hear torture justified by people pointing to a "ticking time bomb", and arguing that torture will save American lives. In this case, torture was used in order to attempt to justify US policy and provide political cover for an administration, after all, even if such links existed (they didn't) they were hardly a pressing national security priority, and certainly didn't merit abusive treatment.

Pork and Swine Flu

It appears that Republican's removed $900 million from the Stimulus Package dealing with a flu pandemic. Karl Rove, he of the of the supposed political genius, mocked the fact that flu preparedness was considered inserted into the bill. Susan Collins insisted that the spending be cut out of the bill
Collin's for her part disputes that the money would have helped:
's office dismissed the stimulus-linked criticism as "blatantly false and politically motivated," and claimed that she's long been a leader on pandemic flu preparedness as part of her work to fight bioterrorism in the Senate. Plus, as Collins' communications director, Kevin Kelley, wrote me in an email: "There is no evidence that federal efforts to address the swine flu outbreak have been hampered by a lack of funds," today.
But when Collins' spokesman goes on to explain what the government could be doing differently to prepare itself for the outbreak, the tone suddenly changes. "Senator Collins does, however, believe that it is a problem that the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services still do not have top positions filled," Kelley said. "She hopes the Senate will move promptly to confirm Governor Sebelius for HHS Secretary." So after pushing back against her liberal critics, Collins explicitly puts herself to the left of her GOP colleagues who have been trying to obstruct Sebelius's nomination. At the least, Collins hasn't given up on trying to redeem herself as a genuine centrist.

Even if this is the case, pandemic spending seems pretty important, yet Collin's played politics with its appropriation. More broadly, this illustrates a more general problem with theose who crusade against government "waste". Whenever crusaders identify programs that should be cut, the programs don't seems so useless. An example is when Bobby Jindal took a whack at volcano monitoring. Isn't that self evidently useful? Jon Chait pointed out a pattern of this during the McCain campaign.
No one would dispute that some of our money is wasted by the government, but I wish the "anti-pork" crusaders would identify the real wastes (agribusiness subsidies and useless military projects, to name two) and stop hamstringing useful spending.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Shadow of Torture Part III

Greg Sargent is worried that Cheney has succeeded in shifting the torture debate from whether torture is ethical to whether it is effective. I don't share that view. To begin with, I'm not sure if the ethical question is completely clear cut, torture is horrible, but is it morally worse than collateral damage? Its hard to say what principle says it is.
Second, there's lots of good evidence that torture is ineffective, and any worth it might have is outweighed by massive down-sides of using it. This is the position of Dennis Blair in a classified memo. He acknowledged the US had gained information from torture (though one cannot say certainly that these results could not be obtained by other methods), but pointed out the downside outweighed any benefit. Tortures biggest critics have generally been those with the most experience with interrogation. the British, for example, have shied away from the rough-tough interrogations because they've already learned that this is ineffective in Northern Ireland, and further inflames terrorist violence.
Another quarter that criticism of the torture regime has come from is the FBI. In an article well worth reading, special agent Ali Soufan lays out the case.
One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working. The next three memos cite the successes of those methods as a justification for their continued use.

It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.

We discovered, for example, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah also told us about Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. This experience fit what I had found throughout my counterterrorism career: traditional interrogation techniques are successful in identifying operatives, uncovering plots and saving lives.

There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

Defenders of these techniques have claimed that they got Abu Zubaydah to give up information leading to the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a top aide to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and Mr. Padilla. This is false. The information that led to Mr. Shibh’s capture came primarily from a different terrorist operative who was interviewed using traditional methods. As for Mr. Padilla, the dates just don’t add up: the harsh techniques were approved in the memo of August 2002, Mr. Padilla had been arrested that May.

Parenthetically, the op-ed adds
It’s worth noting that when reading between the lines of the newly released memos, it seems clear that it was contractors, not C.I.A. officers, who requested the use of these techniques.

I would hope that contractors wouldn't be allowed in these situations, and them setting policy is stunning. I suppose we see a link between privatization and human-rights abuse here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dick Cheney on the Torture Memos

I hope satan has a sweat-shirt, because today is a cold day in hell. Dick Cheney wants to see more torture documents released.
Mr Cheney said that the decision to publish the memos was a mistake.

And it was misleading, he said, because the documents did not include those demonstrating that harsh interrogation delivered intelligence "success".

"One of the things that I find a little bit disturbing about this recent disclosure is that they put out the legal memos... but they didn't put out the memos that show the success of the effort," Mr Cheney told Fox News.

"There are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of this activity. They have not been declassified. I formally ask that they be declassified now."

The American people should have a chance to weigh the intelligence obtained alongside the legal debate, he said.

Mr Cheney made his comments as US President Barack Obama visited the CIA headquarters just outside Washington.

If we're going to release the documents on the torture policy, it makes sense to release the documents that would be pertinent in evaluating the policy made by the Bush administration, if such documents do exist (that is a big if). Evidence suggests that Bush's "harsh interrogation" policy was not effective, so probably documents don't exist Up till now, Bush administration officials have assured us that "harsh interrogation methods" are effective, but they have shown no evidence. Perhaps Cheney knows no documents of this description exist, but is calling for their release to make it appear that Obama is with-holding these documents for political reasons.
Even if they exist, it would be hard to determine whether the torture is in fact an effective method. Even if Khalid Sheikh Muhammed broke under the 183 water-boardings he received, there's no way of knowing that another tact wouldn't have worked just as effectively.
My opinion: take up Cheney's challenge, and declassify as many documents as we can on the results of our torture policy. Whatever these documents show, it is better to have fuller transparency on what occurred.

Monday, April 20, 2009

In the Shadow of Torture Part II

Stephen Walt has some thoughts on the the impunity seems to be being offered for the torture committed by the United States.

First, a lot of countries (including the United States) have expended considerable diplomatic effort to hold people like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic or Liberia’s Charles Taylor accountable for their crimes. Apparently Obama feels that this principle can be jettisoned when it might be politically expedient to do so. At a minimum, we ought to remember this incident the next time we get upset that some other country is declining to prosecute a former leader, turning a blind eye to some other ruler's depredations (think Robert Mugabe), or cutting a deal with some warlord or terrorist leader. Maybe they were making pragmatic calculations too, and we holier-than-thou Americans ought to be a bit less judgmental.

Second, does our failure to prosecute open the door to other efforts to do so? A number of states (France, Canada, Belgium, Spain, etc.) have incorporated a principle of “universal jurisdiction” into their own domestic legal systems, when dealing with genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity (including torture). This principle can be invoked when the home country of the alleged perpetrator is "unwilling or unable to prosecute" Earlier reports suggesting that Spanish officials were going to indict six former Bush administration officials eventually led Spain's attorney general to say that U.S. courts would be the proper venue, but Obama has now made it clear that this isn't going to happen. I don’t know what the practical implications might be, but if I were Dick Cheney or David Addington, I wouldn’t be planning a summer vacation in Spain.

Third, for those of you who think that power is of declining relevance in world politics and that normative and legal standards are becoming increasingly important, I'd just point out that the various officials who sanctioned these abuses would be in a lot more trouble if they came from a weak and vulnerable state, as opposed to a global power like the United States. Not only does power corrupt, but it allows people who sanction torture to get away with it, albeit at some considerable cost to America's image and reputation. Those reputational costs will be borne by all Americans, who ought to be furious at the crimes that were committed in their name.

I'm somewhat disappointed by the lack of accountability for administration members, but not surprised. I would hope that a country like the United States, which has been a democracy (of sorts, at least) throughout its existence, would be politically mature enough to prosecute people who break international laws. Sadly, this is not the case now, nor has it ever been. Walt writes that "for those of you who think that power is of declining relevance in world politics and that normative and legal standards are becoming increasingly important, I'd just point out that the various officials who sanctioned these abuses would be in a lot more trouble if they came from a weak and vulnerable state, as opposed to a global power like the United States". This has also always been the case. Germany and Japan were rightly held accountable for war-crimes after World War II, but the US, Britain and the Soviet Union were not. Curtis LeMay, who had engineered the firebombing of Tokyo (killing roughly 100,000) commented that if we'd lost the war, he'd be tried as a war criminal.
In a similar vein, Telford Taylor (a chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials) commented in 1971 that if we applied the same standards to the architects of Vietnam that we did at Nuremberg and Tokyo, the leaders of the US would likely meet the same fate as General Tomoyuki Yamashita: hanging. I don't think this is any less true of the architects of the "War on Terror", who among other things have organized secret "black sites" in which to torture people, and have purposely sent people to be torture. The men who wrote the torture memo are no less callous and banal than Eichmann in Jerusalum. The difference is Eichmann got caught.
Fortunately, there is hope. The administration expressly ruling out prosecution of certain individuals opens the door (as Walt points out) to universal jurisdiction. Phillipe Sands, a longtime critic of the torture team, pointed out a year ago that this should be taken care of by the United States, or else we'd be face with international prosecution of US citizens. Though this would be far from the ideal solution, (the ideal being accountability for these individuals here in the US) I hope the international community takes action. It's time that citizens of powerful countries, not just two-bit dictatorships, be held accountable for their actions.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Shadow of Torture

The Obama team has published the notorious "torture memos". The author of the memos, James Bybee, remains obscenely remains a federal judge. Jeffrey Toobin:
Bybee is generally the forgotten man in torture studies of the Bush era. The best known of the legal architects of the torture regime is John Yoo, who was a deputy to Bybee. For better or worse, Yoo has been a vocal defender of the various torture policies, and he remains outspoken on these issues. But whatever happened to his boss?

Today, Bybee is a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He was confirmed by the Senate on March 13, 2003—some time before any of the “torture memos” became public. He has never answered questions about them, has never had to defend his conduct, has never endured anywhere near the amount of public scrutiny (and abuse) as Yoo. It is an understatement to say that he has kept a low profile since becoming a judge.

It would be nice to see an impeachment, though his appointment would sadly be upheld.

It appears Obama has reversed the Bush course on what is euphemistically called "tough interrogations". The big question now is whether there will be accountability for the abuses. Obama has shut the door on prosecuting low-level interrogators who acted in "good faith", while leaving a the door a crack open on prosecuting the Bushies. To me, the good faith defense is suspiciously close to the Nuremberg Defense (I'm pretty sure acting in "good faith" is code for doing what you were told to). It's also unclear whether the interrogators did in fact act in good faith. The memos specify one can be waterboarded 60 times a month (6 times a session, 2 sessions a day, sessions 5 days per month), yet Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in one month, and Khalid Sheikh Muhammed was waterboarded a whopping 183 times in one month. It would also seem that Obama's offer of immunity is against our legal obligation to prosecute torture.
I can understand why we've let accountability fall by the way side, but it's sad, nevertheless.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How to Solve the Pirate Issue, more thoughts

In the face of piracy, there has been disagreement about how best to respond. One solution suggested is to arm merchant ships. If I were unfamiliar with this, I'd be surprised that anyone would be heading into pirate waters not armed to the teeth. Unfortunately. there are issues with this strategy. The New Republic:
Among other issues, ship owners fret about the fact that most merchant sailors lack combat training, that a large cache of guns might make their vessels a target for marauders specifically trolling for weapons, that on-board firefights could lead to accidental fires or other disasters, that any move toward arming ships could provoke an unwinnable arms race with well-funded pirates, and that many ports' severe restrictions against vessels' docking with on-board arsenals could complicate shipping routes.

The post suggests that some of these problems would be easier if snipers were hired instead of handing out guns to the untrained merchant marine.
The most ridiculous objection to arming merchants ships comes from rush Limbaugh, who fears that arming sailors will lead to class-based fragging of captains (the captain is the CEO of the ship, you see). If this were the case, one would expect to see, and the left indoctrinates people to hate CEOs). If this is the case, why aren't people in our heavily armed nation shooting real CEOs?
This post discusses the entire crisis, and this one examines the trade-offs of appeasing the pirates vs confronting them. To me (and I think most other people), paying the ransom is the worst possible strategy , because it would provide reward that make the piracy business worthwhile. The post seems to concede that.
One significant problem is the low cost of entry into the piracy business. It would be much better if a single pirate leader controlled entry. Then we could do business with him, paying him a tribute (we might prefer to call it a “toll”) in return for a promise not to molest our ships. As a monopolist, he would have an incentive to limit “production” of piratical activity, relative to the unregulated market we currently live in. The monopolist essentially would be selling passage off the coast of Somalia, and would be constrained by competition from people who control alternative routes (which, unfortunately, seems limited). We might even expect the pirates to start organizing, or fighting among themselves, in an effort to establish a single firm that could obtain these monopoly rents. In the happy event that an organization emerged, we could call it a “state” and deal with it as we deal with any other state—paying it or pressuring to act as we want it to act, in light of its interests and capacities. We could even call this state “Somalia.” If the gains from rational management of this newly discovered resource—the power to block important sea lanes—provide sufficient incentives for Somalia’s warring clans to make a deal and reestablish a state that can control entry into the market, we should be sure to keep paying Somalia money (we might call it “foreign aid” if “tribute” or even “toll” is too irksome) rather than yield to the temptation to smash it to pieces. In the state system, sometimes you do better with an enemy than without one.

But that outcome is a long way off. In the meantime, governments will have to employ an unsatisfactory combination of carrots and sticks—mounting expensive patrols that spot and pick off pirates on occasion, while paying ransoms to those pirates who succeed.