What You Should Think About Belligerence

December 4, 2007

“There was never a good war or a bad peace.”

–Benjamin Franklin

As the autumn leaves brandished their colors in 2001, I looked forward to the prospect that something good might come out of a Presidency that had been consistently disappointing. Republican talking points were foreshadowing a call for immigration reform. No one fresh from the Texas Governor’s Mansion could side with the hateful rabble on that issue. Alas, I would not get to see the President make an appeal for something vaguely resembling decent public policy until years later.  Osama bin Laden and his associates made sure of that.

Instead, speeches that were initially disturbing for their lack of coherence and appeal gave way to coherent appeals to immanentize the eschaton. “You’re either with us or against us,” revealed that the President and his inner circle viewed the world in very simple terms. All humanity was reduced to black hats and white hats. Concern about a possible shortage of nuance was answered by flaunting a total lack of nuance. Our national leader seemed certain all citizens would look to him for clear answers about who was good and who was evil.

In international relations, messages seldom are so simple and clear as they were when the 2002 State of the Union address introduced “the Axis of Evil” to the pages of history. Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were the nations said to threaten national security and pose grave peril to all peace-loving human beings. One of the most overrated minds in the history of politics, belonging to David Frum, forged this powerful rhetorical implement of belligerence.

“Wise men talk when they have something to say; fools talk when they have to say something,” is an aphorism that is attributed to Plato, Benjamin Franklin, and Saul Bellow. Whoever actually wrote it, the sentiment surely applies here. Early in his first Presidential campaign, George W. Bush dismissed questions about recent events abroad by explaining that there was no cable television on his ranch. Both major party candidates in 2000 were clearly focused on a domestic agenda, and the nation itself had only recently shed the weight of the Cold War. Yet there is an enormous difference between being focused chiefly on domestic policy and being oblivious to world news.

Given how long it took overseers of Iraq policy to recognize the significance of the sectarian divide in that nation, it is fair to ask if White House insiders would have been able to find Iraq and Iran on an unlabeled map in early 2001. Though the time between the 9/11 attacks and the Axis of Evil speech was roughly as long as a typical undergraduate semester, whatever studying the President and his foreign policy advisors did during that time was unsatisfactory. Any astute assessment of their work makes this painfully clear.

Among the lessons they failed to learn was that Iran had made tremendous progress toward the restoration of secular rule. Years of relatively benign behavior and rhetoric from the United States robbed fanatics’ fires of fuel. Iranians old enough to remember the time before the revolution longed for a return to sights like women with loose hair in public places or progressive political messages in uncensored print. The original revolutionaries were growing old and tired, and their successors generally lacked the fervor so evident in the years just after the Shah was deposed.

Even in Iran, there was much sympathy for Americans blindsided by terrorism. Having restored authentic autonomy to a nation long dominated by Western puppets, the old guard in Tehran was circumspect about letting their homeland become a diverse and free society. Media censors rarely exercised their powers. Politicians called for an end to the theocratic institutions established during the revolution, and those calls resulted in increased popularity. Left to its own devices, Iran was months away from genuine secular governance.

Then the President of the United States took it upon himself to poke Iran with one very big stick. Suddenly militant Iranian conservatives stopped sounding quite so ridiculous as they railed against “The Great Satan.” The people of Iran felt threatened. This feeling emerged from the fact that they were threatened by the world’s only remaining superpower! Suddenly the work of censoring progressive media seemed much more important to Iranian officials. As the election approached, reinvigorated theocrats disqualified reform candidates and detained the most vocal protesters.

Yet even if old revolutionaries had not awakened police powers that had lain dormant for years, the people of Iran may have voted against reform. It is hard to be reasonable and thoughtful in a climate of fear. Much like Americans in 2002 and 2004, Iranians have suffered from a recent trend toward visceral politics. In both nations, the perception of a worldshaking menace threatening voters’ way of life mattered more than real issues and worthwhile ideas.

Enter Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Jubilantly pandering to Iranian jingoism, he was able to muster a strong level of popular support. In fact, it is a fair question to ask if he really is just pandering. Even today, American insiders seem unsure to what extent the Bush-Cheney team is intent on war with Iran. If you can get past the cyborg heart and secret underground lair, Dick Cheney is scary in ways unrelated to the archvillain stereotype. An Iranian firebrand could tell tall tales, but a sensible analyst may also raise alarms simply by focusing on what our Vice President has said and done.

There is no sane justification for the extent to which Americans have already changed our way of life out of fear. Though international terrorism provides a little core for this dark emotion, it has been built up to monumental proportions by the rhetoric of our own leaders. By contrast, no hyperbole is needed to make the threat of attack from the United States armed forces seem monumental. Peering across the border into Iraq provides a reality to generate that perception from a truly Iranian perspective.

This morning, President Bush took a number of questions from reporters, some clearly not planted there by his own administration. A recent National Intelligence Estimate suggesting that Iran has ceased work on military applications for nuclear technology was characterized as an opportunity to raise awareness about the “threat” posed by Iran. The President called for additional international pressure to isolate Iran. To Iranian observers, it must have seemed a “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” moment.

Assuming the President and his foreign policy advisors are not all mental defectives, we can infer from the garbage coming out of their mouths that there must be a great deal of garbage going into their ears. One might be able to make the case that Iran is troublesome because the government has some sympathy for Palestinian terrorists and may have some slight links to the insurgency in Iraq. Yet in making that case Saudi Arabia must be judged much more troublesome on both counts.

Perhaps the standard is that nuclear technology should be kept out of the hands of regimes that do not practice real democracy. How does this standard apply to China? Did Pakistan recently cross the line? Is Russia on track to “be against us” eventually? It seems as if U.S. policy toward a foreign government is influenced by no factor quite so much as the degree of personal animus George W. Bush feels for that regime. The problem with Iran is merely that the administration in the White House today is hostile toward the Iranian government. Just how is this the fault of any Iranian?

Okay, so it is fair to point out that President Ahmadinejad is just as quick to rattle a sabre as our own Warmonger-in-Chief. Yet it is vital to point out that the people of Iran are no less inclined than the people of America to seek peace. Outside the halls of power (and certain elements of each nation’s military-industrial complex,) there is widespread consensus in favor of focus of constructive actions by government. The average man, there as here, has no desire to feel foreign blood on his hands. If only the leaders of both nations could behave as well as average men, the world might be a more tranquil place than it seems to be just now.

What You Should Think About the War in Iraq

December 2, 2007

“He who wants a rose must respect the thorn.”

–Persian proverb

I recall being mystified at the enormous disconnect between reality and “journalism” as I watched a little Fox News Channel almost every day from the emergence of the Clinton-Lewinsky story up through the end of the impeachment effort. Yet bemused puzzlement gave way to alarm as I also made a point of keeping tabs on that network during the rush into the Iraq war. While they spoke in sure tones of Saddam Hussein’s advanced nuclear weapons program, I saw qualified unfettered weapons inspectors concluding no such program existed. While they predicted a quick clean military operation that might cost $1-2 billion, I foresaw a protracted bloodbath.

More disturbing still, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and MSNBC all made the same sort of mistakes FNC did. The “mainstream media” may not have been quite so willing to celebrate bloodlust. Yet every network on that list gave airtime to transparent partisan shills spouting extreme misinformation. Every network on that list presented anchors giving the voice of authority to false narratives generated by White House propagandists. If ever there was a time to rigorously check the facts in a story, that was it. Be it fear of public backlash or lack of access to government officials or parent corporations losing government business, something drove each of those media organizations to take an active role in a campaign of national misdirection.

In fairness, actual public officials were not quite so brazen as political operatives working the media. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seemed downright circumspect by comparison when he predicted a little complexity in the operation along with a total price tag that might run as high as $50 billion. Yet he joined the chorus of deception when it came to that “the Iraqi people will greet our soldiers with flowers and candy in the street” forecast. Even with thoughtful planning and minimal collateral damage, such an expectation was naïve. Blind faith in the certainty of such an outcome may explain why planning was so thoughtless and the invasion itself generated so many civilian deaths.

Like voting for George W. Bush in 2000, using overwhelming military force to accomplish regime change in Iraq may be regarded as a well-intentioned mistake. Real geopolitical or historical savvy would be required to see the folly of a brute force approach rather than (as was actually done in Afghanistan) working with indigenous people to help them achieve liberty with dignity and autonomy. On the other hand, by 2004 it seemed that outright idiocy was required to overlook the dangers of continuity of Iraq policy as well as the Presidency defined by it.

Though I am not aware of any loyal Bushies admitting to it, perhaps the underlying thinking was that a full scale invasion was required to secure control of Iraqi oil. Yet even if the policy was shaped by thoughts of a resource grab, it was not framed or implemented competently. Forces on the ground were given orders to leave military supply depots unsecured in order to provide immediate protection for the oil fields. What sort of thinking could possibly lead planners to believe forces hostile to America could do less harm with explosives stockpiles than with oil wells?

People with genuine respect for the lives of coalition soldiers and/or the lives of Iraqi civilians would surely have surely recognized problems and pushed for new ideas, perhaps even new leadership, at this point. Rather than accept Secretary Rumsfeld’s initial offer of resignation, the sitting President prioritized saving face over saving lives. The fall of Baghdad was celebrated and already marginalized critics were “put in their place” by jubilant (though also ignorant or dishonest) public figures. Up went the Coalition Provisional Authority; out went every cop, bureaucrat, utility worker, and teacher affiliated with the Ba’th Party; and some truly idiotic thinking about the importance of limited government was put to the test.

Rather than give Iraqi people genuine freedom along with encouragement and support to forge their own institutions of popular rule, a long list of mandates was imposed. At times it seemed as if Rush Limbaugh himself was dictating the shape of things to come in Iraq. For example, American authorities insisted that the new Iraqi government should accept an absolute limit of 15% on income tax. After all, we wouldn’t want the new Iraqi government doing crazy things like providing quality health care to countless collateral casualties or rebuilding devastated infrastructure at a brisk pace.

Most problematic of all was the American insistence that Iraqi oil resources be placed under private ownership. This went far beyond anarcho-capitalist ideology and into the realm of outright kleptocracy. Exxon did not generate this natural bounty. Chevron executives have no ancestral claim to Iraqi sands. Even from an American perspective, there was no justice in taking such a valuable resource out of the hands of the Iraqi people in order to let foreign corporations gorge themselves on oil profits. Imagine how that American directive registered in the minds of the Iraqi people, not merely in desperate need of that revenue, but also entitled to it by any reasonable standard.

Still, what is the plight of an entire nation when there is a Presidential face to be saved? Even as some understanding of Iraq’s internal politics slowly penetrated the thick skulls of relevant American officials, there was no acknowledgement of any legitimate grievances the Iraqi people might feel toward an occupying power. Of course simply maintaining an occupation is itself cause for concern. What American would be comfortable living under martial law imposed by a distant military power? How many of our citizens would stop at nothing to strike back against the invaders? Is it any surprise that in 2004 the most popular video rental in Iraq was Red Dawn?

In light of all this, what else could the White House do but stay the course? Apparently, they did eventually come to consider an alternative — the troop surge. In a land where military occupation is the primary fuel for the fires of anarchy and terrorism, more intense military occupation is the way to go?!? Perhaps today’s war planners are hopeful that insurgents and Al Qaeda affiliates will eventually lose interest in the causes for which they are willing to die. All that can be ascertained clearly from this policy is that there is no amount of blood and treasure that would cause George W. Bush to acknowledge the unthinkable — he might actually have committed a major blunder that changed the course of history.

In the end this disastrous reality may be a natural outgrowth of late 20th century conservative political thought. Again and again, errors are met with denials or evasions rather than recognition and change. It seems as if some people believe that strong enough faith in that which is untrue can reshape reality to make trickle down economics work or environmental damage inconsequential or even brutal warmongering constructive. Talk alone, growing less and less reasonable even as it grows more and more vehement, is employed as an alternative to adaptation in the face of serious problems.

Even if one grants that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man who had to go, it remains the case that the hardships of Iraq today are not caused by any threat that might be overcome with superior military might. Political problems require a political solution. It is inexcusable that the day after Saddam Hussein was pulled from his spider hole was not a day in which sweeping demilitarization of U.S.-Iraq policy was announced.

There is much work for diplomats, and perhaps spies as well, to perform inside Iraq. Perpetuating the bloodbath over there has added enormous difficulties to the challenges already inherent in the Iraqi situation. A new approach, in which officials make a good faith effort to face facts, then a similar effort to be honest with the public in both Iraq and the United States, would be a wonderful step in the right direction. Substantial reduction in the profile as well as the scope of the occupation would also be a form of progress. Instead policy seems oriented entirely around delaying the point at which error must be conceded. To me, it seems like this is procrastination of downright murderous proportions.

What You Should Think About Recession

November 28, 2007

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

–William Arthur Ward

My first experience analyzing the cultural resonance of the word “recession” comes from the media treatment of conditions leading up to the 1992 Presidential election. It is clear that the first President Bush presided over a weakening American economy as the end of his term approached. Yet it is also clear (all the more with hindsight) that a some of this was the inevitable adjustment of indicators and indices tugged away from realities by the fervor of Reaganomics jingoism.

Today, jingoism is almost too soft a term for an institutional predisposition to spin economic news. Anchors with almost every major network tiptoe around the fundamentals and treat “the R word” as if it were a vulgarity that should never be uttered in polite company. In fact, recession is a technical term that should be fluently employed in any applicable discussion of economics. Alas, it is also something of an ambiguous term, made all the more fuzzy by the abuses of journalists, pundits, and politicians themselves.

Perhaps the most sensible definition of “recession” holds that it is a period of time when economic growth across two consecutive quarters does not keep pace with population growth. Yet economic growth is itself a much fuzzier concept than tends to be widely believed. If an expensive and fragile device is replaced by a cheap durable device that fulfills the same need, adopting the innovation registers as a negative on the scorecard of economic growth. Acting promptly to minimize the damage caused by a natural disaster may also compare unfavorably with the activity involved in rebuilding efforts.

Then there is the matter of war. While much of education, child care, resource conservation, domestic toil, etc. is not included in the calculations that shape growth assessments, even the most destructive of military activities registers as economic accomplishment. For years the present Bush Administration has turned out mediocre economic performance — a feat that might be considered more than mediocre in light of the damage the attacks of 9/11 inflicted on key institutions as well as public morale.

Yet it is legitimate, even important, to have some sense of context in these matters. Attributing the economic components of declining public morale to terrorist attacks seems a serious error in judgement. If anything, the United States was energized and mobilized, more than at any other time in recent decades, as a response to the 9/11 attacks. A strong national leader with real vision about how to solve real problems could have accomplished amazing things while marginalizing apathy for the foreseeable future. As our sitting leader chose a different approach to directing the resources of the nation, we have experienced a different outcome.

Insofar as there are problems with public morale today, they have little to do with fears Al Qaeda is about to take the roof off the local Pamida store and more to do with weariness. People have grown weary of the persistent disconnect between the stated purposes and the predictable outcomes of White House initiatives. People have grown weary of the persistent deference to market forces in almost all matters, as if trickle-down thinking was still considered to be a perfect panacea to all social ills. Perhaps most of all, people have grown weary of a horrendously bloody and costly counterterrorism strategy that does at least as much to produce new terrorist recruits as it does to neutralize existing terrorist operatives.

The war in Iraq continues to bleed this nation, both literally and economically, to a significant degree. Yet that significance also registers as a net positive in the Gross Domestic Product. An end to the wartime spending binge would mean less spending to stimulate economic activity (unless policy also called for expensive peaceful initiatives like universal health care, universal access to higher education, and whatever else could be funded with the mountains of money funding the occupation of Iraq.) A short term thinker cannot help but see perpetuating the war as vital from the perspective that it also perpetuates wartime spending.

Yet focusing exclusively on short term thinking is almost never a sound approach to economics. So much spending creates more government debt. More government debt means more difficulty in securing creditors for the Treasury. Other than raising interest rates, there is little legitimate action a government can take to expand support from investors. Yet this all happens against a backdrop of interest rate cuts. Even now, Wall Street svengalis continue to promote loose credit as a way of encouraging business growth.

Somewhat like a balloon, applying hard restraints to the economy in one area at best merely transfers pressure to a different area. If our nation spends more and more while issuing bonds that are less and less rewarding, ultimately the medium of exchange itself takes a hit in value. While this eases debt pressure by reducing the real value of that debt, another inevitable consequence is increased pressure on working class citizens (or really all citizens with ordinary levels of personal income.) Less value in the dollar means more dollars are required to obtain goods or services of value — but the process does not provide more dollars to income recipients until terms of employment change.

On top of this great tangle of fundamental problems, oil speculators have driven energy prices up, and thus by extension made inflation that much more severe. If there is any bright spot in the big picture here, it is that the speculation cannot persist indefinitely. Unless the Bush-Cheney team starts a shooting war with Iran, the climb of oil should be arrested in spite of the continued decline of the American dollar. In fact, a general sense that U.S. belligerence is a declining phenomenon could drive a long-needed correction in the price of that particular commodity.

Still, when President Bush’s chief economic advisor Allan Hubbard declared that the prospect of a recession was more likely now than it seemed one year ago, he was doing so with some awareness of these hard facts. As this moment of frankness was almost immediately followed by a resignation, it is hard to say if many others inside the administration have even tried to wrap their minds around the particularly complex and particularly messy state of the national economy today.

Will the unraveling of Dubyanomics have such a severe impact as to bring about a national recession? This is a difficult question to answer, even if one accepts a concrete technical definition for the term “recession.” It may well be the case that American industriousness will sustain some measure of real growth even as the ongoing series of small shocks continue to reduce the median purchasing power of the American consumer. It may even be the case that a sense of hope brought on by a pending change in national direction could inspire major changes for the better.

Yet there should be no doubt — military aggression and widespread corruption fostered by this President have done no favors to the American economy. If we fail to get out economic house in order relatively quickly, the price we have already paid for his follies will be multiplied as it rests on the shoulders of future Presidents and even future generations of American taxpayers.

What You Should Think About Pervez Musharraf

November 5, 2007

“The power of the lawyer is in the uncertainty of the law.”

–Jeremy Bentham

As long as I have walked the Earth, Pakistan has been a complicated place. It was conceived out of religious strife boiling to the surface as the British Empire released its grip over the subcontinent. India has had its share of internal troubles. Even so, governing that vast and diverse land seems easy when compared to Pakistan’s internal problems. Even in the most sophisticated cities, progressive Pakistani people supporting secular governance are at odds with influential religious leaders eager to promote a crude and intolerant distortion of Islam. Then there are some regions that are under Islamabad’s control in name only.

Filled with rugged terrain and a suitably rugged indigenous population, Waziristan is a part of Pakistan. On the border with Afghanistan, Waziristan served as a refuge for Taliban militants fleeing efforts by American and newly empowered Afghani officials to hunt them down. With more than a few Al Qaeda personnel in the mix, this hunt has a legitimate role to play in the fight against terrorism. Yet the matter of Pakistani sovereignty raises serious problems when it comes to pursuing the hunt across that border.

Al Qaeda has long had ties to various tribes indigenous to Waziristan. In addition to being a CIA-backed anti-Soviet guerilla leader and a CIA-hunted anti-American terrorist, Osama bin Laden is also responsible for building roads, schools, and medical facilities in places where related services were previously inadequate, if available at all. This component of his activities improved the quality of life for desperately impoverished people in several parts of the world. It is with that in mind that many Waziri men were happy to take substantial sums of Al Qaeda money in exchange for a pledge to fight alongside the Taliban in defense of Afghanistan against foreign invaders.

Insofar as he may have followed the region with enough interest to pick up on such details, the indebtedness of Waziri men to Al Qaeda financiers did not make George W. Bush happy. It also did not make Pervez Musharraf happy. In one of the many unlikely (and largely unpublicized) twists of the Global War on Terror, Musharraf’s government arranged for Al Qaeda to be repaid. This freed Waziri men from their duty to fight in Afghanistan as a function of honoring debts. Even so, it did not prevent substantial numbers of them from fighting alongside the Taliban and Al Qaeda as a matter of principle.

I believe most experts on global security issues would put Pakistan, or perhaps even Waziristan specifically, at the top of a list of likely locations where Osama bin Laden might presently reside. Locals tend to be hostile toward outsiders even if they come from other parts of Pakistan. The U.S. has agreed to allow Pakistan to conduct all counterterrorism operations in that region (and most likely supplied advanced unmanned aerial vehicle technology in support of that mission.) However, it is thought that a major and sustained Pakistani military presence could generate a Waziri insurgency.  Any overt Western military presence surely would.

With all this in mind, it makes sense that the government of Pakistan might be a lot more uptight about maintaining control than in a place like the United States, where the idea of violent rebellion against federal authorities is only appealing to a fringe of extremists and the occasional little doomsday cult. The practical challenges of dealing with an insurgency among indigenous people, allied with terrorists and residing in mountain country, makes a brute force crackdown by the Pakistani army undesirable. On the other hand, exercising such limited control over a probable Al Qaeda haven poses problems of its own.

It is against this backdrop we see some truly bizarre antics taking place in Islamabad lately. Those who would challenge President-General Musharraf through the democratic process are not at all like the “extremists” that justify global concerns. For the most part, these challengers want to shore up Paksitani civil liberties, place an elected official above military officers in the chain of command (as is the case in the U.S. and so many other democratic regimes,) and rally support for progressive secular values. Surely a female head of state in Pakistan is a move away from, rather than toward, Al Qaeda’s call for hardline theocratic governance of Muslim societies.

Then there is the focus on lawyers. In addition to efforts at preventing judicial oversight of the previous Pakistani national election, Musharraf has ordered a roundup of legal advocates associated with Benazir Bhutto’s political party. If an emergency decree to ban public protest is intended to prevent large progressive gatherings that would serve as ideal targets for terrorists, then why also try to prevent lawyers from going about their role in a particularly murky incarnation of the democratic process?

That sort of action makes it difficult to take seriously Musharraf’s assertion that his recent behavior is focused on containing terrorist threats rather than silencing legitimate democratic opposition to his Presidency. It is as if he has taken a page from the Rove-Bush-Cheney playbook — pursuing policies that will only strengthen actual terrorist movements even as he abuses his authority to crush civilized peaceful movements constituting a loyal opposition. I can only wonder if our President regrets not having the power to jail Nancy Pelosi et al. as an alternative to allowing the 2006 elections to go forward as they did.

So far the advice from “the leader of the free world” to the leader of a part of the world that just became a great deal less free has been simple. Though he has made a half-hearted appeal to restore Pakistani civil liberties, Bush’s more pointed counsel has been that President-General Musharraf should dispense with the “General” in his title. Yet I understand, and perhaps even feel some relief, that there has been no rush into more decisive action yet.  This complex situation does place the American President in a tricky situation.

Were the U.S. to scale back aid to Pakistan or undertake other sanctions, the Musharraf regime could become less hostile to Al Qaeda. Some reports hold that Pervez Musharraf and Osama bin Laden generate fairly close results in opinion polls of the Pakistani public. On the other hand, never going beyond softspoken condemnation of this enormous setback for Pakistani democracy calls into question the validity of America’s commitment to spreading democracy as a means to marginalize extremist movements in the Muslim world.

Foreign affairs would be a very simple matter if everything could really be boiled down to, “you’re either with us or you’re against us.” Shortly after the September 11th attacks, publicly as well as privately, that stark choice was conveyed to the government of Pakistan. In hindsight it should become clear to more people what was immediately evident to me on witnessing our President’s crude approach — foreign affairs are almost never handled best with a simple approach. We can dumb down our policies as much as our leaders desire, but the world will continue to turn with all the same complexities and nuances . . . and perhaps a few more for failure to engage realistically with those complications in the past.

What You Should Think About State Secrets

October 16, 2007

“Secrecy, once accepted, becomes an addiction.”

–Edward Teller

It has recently come to light that an inventory of corruption in Nouri Al-Maliki’s regime was kept from public scrutiny because it was classified as an American state secret. It seems rarely a month goes by that there is not some news of a bizarre application of official secrecy by White House officials. After all, what possible purpose could this assessment serve if it was not intended to inform decisions related to our nation’s Iraq policy?

The pattern of secrecy practiced by the current administration supports a common criticism of their methods. It would seem they believe national discussions of Iraq policy have no place in national decisions about Iraq policy. In fact, the word “Iraq” could be struck from the previous sentence without rendering it untrue. From requiring audience members at campaign events sign oaths of political loyalty to banning protests anywhere near a location the President might catch sight of them, this administration seems to have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude about political dissent.

Dragging such an attitude into the loftiest halls of power is directly at odds with the traditions, and functional mechanisms, of democracy itself. In instances where dissent rests on falsehoods and misunderstandings, confronting it improves the quality of public information and increases support for legitimate policies. In instances where dissent derives from insightful critique, acknowledging that critique and adapting policy to the truths it contains will produce better results. Either way, the quality of national leadership suffers to the degree the existence of dissent is denied.

Ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu once wrote of secrecy, “through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible; and hence we can hold the enemy’s fate in our hands.” Countless follies have emerged from business managers applying Sun Tzu’s teachings without regard for the enormous differences between armies of slave-conscripts engaged in ancient warfare and workforces of free citizens engaged in economic productivity. I have no idea to what extent the Bush-Cheney team are students of Sun Tzu. Yet it would seem that they take this approach to secrecy into the realm of political debate.

A lesson learned too late, if it has been learned at all by White House insiders, is that there are real differences between methods that are effective in the short term and methods that produce sustainable success. At its simplest level this is an obvious lesson. Armed robbery is an effective way to get money. Yet it is no way to make a steady living. Destroying the reputations of political opponents is an effective way to win elections. Yet it is no substitute for leadership driven by good ideas along with clear communication that enables the public to understand the goodness of those ideas.

It should be no secret that authoritarian leadership rests uneasily on the backs of a population inclined to believe their homeland is governed by and for its people. As early as the transition from our second to our third President, this had been established. John Adams wielded the powers of his office in one blatant political maneuver after another. Thomas Jefferson was able to unseat the incumbent in no small part because of widespread concern that power had been abused.

A cynic might argue that there would have been a second term for our second President if only he had followed through on ambitions of a war against revolutionary France. A groundswell of public support appears to be a primal response to warfare. As it happened, more people felt threatened by authoritarian action menacing American civil liberties than French naval actions menacing American shipping. The end result was the empowerment of a liberal thinker who did much to expand the scope of the federal government, both institutionally and via the Louisiana Purchase.

A cynic might also argue that a state of perpetual warfare in Iraq provided a political form of job security. It seems an unreasonable assertion to argue that any President would wreak so much havoc for purely political reasons. No doubt the architects of existing Iraq policy were driven by a complex mixture of motives that varied from person to person. As hindsight now reveals even to them, mistakes were made in the planning and implementation of the initiative to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

Yet it is not as if the foresight to avoid these mistakes was missing from the entire American population. Credible weapons inspection experts recognized that prewar Iraq had become largely compliant with UN mandates. Credible military experts recognized that a large occupying force would be required to maintain order in the aftermath of an invasion. A wide range of credible voices recognized that a jubilant reception and instant harmony would not greet an army of foreigners on Iraqi soil. It seems as if much more effort was made to undermine the credibility of public figures expressing such views than was made to deal with potential problems at the heart of their concerns.

Terrorists attacking America and/or our allies certainly are enemies of the state. Insurgents intent on killing American personnel may reasonably be considered enemies. However, there is nothing reasonable at all about regarding political critics or even rival politicians as enemies of the state. For the most part, keeping sources and methods of intelligence gathering secret will give us an advantage over our enemies. In appropriate contexts, keeping the deployment and capabilities of military assets secret can also provide such an advantage. By contrast, there is no advantage to be gained through distorting public debate about the merits of major national objectives by concealing crucial relevant information.

It is lamentable yet understandable that there will always be some fringe of hotheads intent on characterizing the party out of power as “the enemy.” A mind both volatile and simple does not easily grasp concepts like friendly competition or loyal opposition. What is harder to understand is how this dangerous mode of thought should come to shape the work product of the executive branch. Do they desire an end to public debate about national priorities? Do they believe suppressing discussion of potential problems will alter reality to insure no actual problems occur?

From expanding domestic surveillance to conducting extraordinary renditions to reshaping interrogation policies to so many other bold initiatives undertaken by this administration, the quality of public information has been seriously degraded by sweeping exercise of the power to classify information a state secret. Has our enemy so succeeded in terrorizing us that all these national discussions must be silenced for fear of forfeiting a strategic advantage? Is it really plausible that any campaign of terrorist attacks could deprive our society of more than our leaders willingly sacrifice to the War on Terror as an institution?

Clearly a matter like the extent of corruption in the present Iraqi government has a crucial role to play in the ongoing national debate about Iraq policy. It may be fair to argue that a comprehensive report of this nature should remain classified in part, since it may contain plenty of innuendo along with real evidence. Yet to keep the real evidence classified as a state secret too — that leaves no doubt this administration wishes to suppress informed and honest debate about the future of U.S.-Iraqi relations.

It would be wrong to claim this pattern of behavior establishes George W. Bush as the real enemy of our nation. Yet it is not at all wrong to conclude that his administration regularly makes a mistake similar in form. Millions of loyal American dissenters should never be treated as enemies against which the need to gain advantage justifies exploiting the power of state secrecy.

Civic discourse is degraded to the degree participants sink to that level. Negative emotions can draw well-intentioned citizens into that trap, prompting even more politics of personal destruction. Yet, if you really think about it, demanding the best available information to inform public discussion of national priorities is the right response to this problem of pathologically secretive governance.

What You Should Think About the War

September 30, 2007

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

–Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Bonus points go out to readers reacting to this title with the thought, “which war?” Efforts ongoing in Afghanistan could be said to constitute a war. The stage has been set for perpetual warfare in Iraq. The latter is clearly the 800 lbs. gorilla in any room where American politics are up for discussion. Operation Iraqi Freedom is a worthy topic unto itself, as are many facets of it. It would be wrong to avoid it entirely in my first essay here to go beyond self-reference.

Yet I do want to take it in context. That means examining the Global War on Terror. Like the War on Drugs or the War on Poverty, it is an idea that wears its faults in its name. “War” is the clash of great powers employing force of arms to defeat dangerous enemies. Terror (as defined by the creators of GWoT) does not come at us with legions of uniformed soldiers. This is as true as the fact that there are no marines set to storm beaches in the name of Poverty nor an air force poised to rain down fire on enemies of Drugs.

The decision to couch counterterrorism policy in the language of war is deliberately misleading. The false narrative it promotes empowers Al Qaeda and so many copycat groups by raising them up to the level of dire threats capable of destroying the American way of life. Without that lie, their power is actually fairly feeble. What’s that? Terrorists are weak, and they do not deserve our fear? Then why has the world turned so in these past six years?

The world seemed to shake on September 11th, 2001. Actually, the globe’s vibrations were fairly normal. It was the hazy atmosphere around our world that was abuzz with the news of the day. Nearly 3,000 people, including citizens from dozens of other nations, died in attacks against powerful American institutions. Many great human beings were murdered by those malicious hijackers. Yet the most notable casualty of the day might be the myth of American invulnerability.

The desire to restore perfect national security was real, even if the security itself never was. Much time would pass before any voices of prominence asked, “how much safety is enough?” It would be a happy occurrence if we could keep traffic fatalities below 3,000 in any given month. Taking a rational approach, we should be a great deal more afraid of our cars than we should be of Al Qaeda. Unfortunately for the world, a pair of religious extremists (both formerly oil money playboys) made it their business to crush rational approaches to terrorism.

Admittedly, Osama bin Laden would be out of a job if his followers had the good sense to abandon violence and pursue other methods of advancing their agendas. On the other hand, it seems bizarre that an American President would want actual terrorist attacks (never mind intercepted chatter about terrorist attacks or idle speculation about possible terrorism) to successfully terrorize people. Yet again and again and again, this real threat is made to seem cause for much greater concern than many other equally real, and much more threatening, phenomena.

A false narrative exaggerating the power of terrorists is a really lousy thing for American morale, prosperity, etc. However, it is a very useful thing for purposes of consolidating political power and expanding the scope of the police state. Perhaps the executive branch really is run by some sinister Machiavellian throwback, or perhaps it is only that public policy has been painted with too broad a brush. Whatever the mechanism, its output is unmistakable.

“We have to do everything we can to support the troops,” becomes a mandate to ignore the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, ignore the shamelessly incompetent planning behind that war, and even turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of mercenaries far more eager to cash in on our flag than to honor it. “We have to do everything we can to keep secrets from our enemies,” becomes a mandate to stonewall all manner of legitimate investigations, conduct unwarranted surveillance on American citizens, and even operate secret prisons in far off lands where civilized oversight becomes a non-issue.

The Department of Homeland Security’s spending is so disordered that adequate records to certify an audit simply do not exist. Meanwhile the Pentagon continues a long string of failed audits. Hey, there’s a war on – bean counting will have to wait, right? The missile defense shield as it is already being built cannot defend against missiles? Don’t anybody dare let the public understand this or we’ll all look weak in front of those deadly terrorists! Even something like the political tactics that spawned the term “swiftboating” becomes excusable to an American coward living in constant terror of Al Qaeda’s next move (provided that same fearful patriot also buys into a false narrative implying a partisan monopoly on security and strength.)

If you live in, work at, or commute across a landmark famed the world over, perhaps it is excusable to indulge in a moment’s fear from time to time. Fear of terrorism is much like fear of flying. As feelings, neither can really be “wrong,” though preoccupation with such fears can be unhealthy. After all, we would be fools to let people living in constant fear of flying set aviation policy for the entire nation. By the same logic, our counterterrorism policy should not rest on a foundation of constant fear.

Did we need to expand our intelligence services and special forces programs so as to better locate and neutralize confirmed terrorist operatives? That sounds like a reasonable response to world events. Did we need to accelerate spending on a brand new fleet of stealthy air superiority warplanes? That has nothing to do with terrorism, but under the umbrella of “the best equipment for our armed forces” it adds many billions more to this unprecedented borrowing binge.

In the contorted self-serving logic of the political insider, this unilateral arms race must continue because the defense industry performs the indispensable role of funding political campaigns for individuals willing to facilitate runaway spending on big ticket military technology. From Russkies to ragheads, the true nature of a demonized adversary matters little. It is the climate of fear, promoted more effectively by our own public officials than any foreign attackers, that stifles vital legitimate questions about the usefulness of vast swaths of appropriations to the Pentagon.

While big (taxpayer) bucks for big aerospace remain untouched by present policy, several of America’s proudest traditions were not to be preserved intact. The terrorist menace demands that expanded security services possess expanded powers, and those damned terrorists are so clever and dangerous that not even investigative journalists with well-earned security clearances should get the facts about how these services actually operate. Imagine how quickly Katie Couric would lose her job if she ever modified the phrase “secret police force” with “American.” Yet what else are these security agents, legally exempted from judicial oversight while hauling suspects off to obscure foreign prisons, but America’s new secret police?

Soon I intend to address operations in Iraq and operations in Afghanistan. Actual “army in the field” wars certainly merit ample attention. Yet I believe this political context is the only way to make sense of executive work product shaping the courses of events in those nations. There was, and continues to be, far too much emphasis on preserving false narratives used to popularize White House policies. Reasonable informed discourse is typically crowded out by bickering about misinformation. Understanding the extent, and perceived value, of those lies may help pave the way for their decisive dismissal.

So, what should you think about the war? When it comes to the Global War on Terror, you should first and foremost think that terrorists are, in terms of actually killing Americans, somewhere in the same league as movie theater popcorn butter or black ice on the highway. A governmental response to terrorism is sensible . . . but this response?!? It seems to only validate the theory that America has been well and truly terrorized.

Whether or not that is true, just imagine the progress that could have been made concentrating hundreds of billions of dollars of American ingenuity and industriousness into an anti-cancer effort or an Apollo Program for alternative energy research. I’m enough of a patriot to think that we could have kicked cancer’s ass by now. What did our nation really gain . . . and what did we lose . . . by pursuing priorities emergent from the Global War on Terror?