What You Should Think About Fear

July 1, 2008

“Fear is not the natural state of a civilized people.”

–Aung San Suu Kyi

Senator Joe Lieberman is a fascinating study in missing the point.  I first became aware of this when he embarked on a campaign to censor violence in video games.  Here was a grown man, well-educated, commanding a large capable staff, and placed in a position of moral obligation to be astute on a wide range of issues.  Yet he was convinced of a strong causal link between an entertainment medium and the worst sorts of human behavior.  In joining that misguided crusade, he fell in line with a shameful tradition of cultural conservatives ignoring substance in order to attack music or films or books or even plays.  The same buffoonery has been going on in public squares since the Agora of Athens was established.

Still, this particular Senator never fails to disappoint.  Forget about failing to deliver Florida in the 2000 election (after all, Vice President Gore’s organization bungled Tennessee even worse.)  Senator Lieberman’s misadventures go well beyond an ineffective run for his own Vice Presidency.  Whenever presented with a chance to display some insight into international relations, security issues, and counterterrorism policy; the man displays a natural gift for apparently sincere obliviousness.

Either that, or he is truly a coward.  If this is the case, then he is not merely cowering in fear for himself, but coweing in fear for the entire nation.  After all, less than eight years ago, this great nation was attacked by nineteen men with small knives.  Of course that means we must escalate warfare throughout the Middle East until both Iran and Iraq are merely parking lots for the great shopping malls of Dubai and Saudi Arabia, right?

This is the thing to keep clearly in mind as the security debate unfolds.  Armed only with a clever plan and a few inches of sharpened steel, nineteen men brought the United States of America to tears.  Perhaps because of one subject that is still taboo — the extraordinary weakness that enabled such a modest effort to produce such horrific results — we made a collective choice to fight first and think later.

Thus this choice was made without regard for little matters like target selection, means of engagement, post-invasion planning, etc.  Rather than fight back against those who had bloodied, terrorized, and (dare I say it) shamed us; this nation chose to fight for fighting’s sake.  We did not reform transportation safety to bring about real security upgrades.  We reformed it to satisfy the political desire to make people feel as if action were being taken.  We did not deploy armies to neutralize the actual threat to our safety.  We deployed them to satisfy a convoluted mix of political goals, with greater emphasis on acts that would predictably strengthen Al Qaeda than those that would be likely to weaken or eliminate the group.

For people acquainted with relevant facts, it seems hard to imagine such a stupid response to such an important issue.  In the coarsest levels of political dialogue, many conclude that this is because people like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and even Senator Lieberman are all evil men intent on bringing the nation to ruin.  I suppose there is some possibility that apocalyptic delusions of grandeur influence the sitting President’s worldview, and Dick Cheney is disturbingly comfortable in the role of a latter day Darth Vader.  However, I believe that it is nonsense to suggest either of them actually hates America or desires ruin befall our people.

They are simply terrorized.  The goal of the terrorist is to strike fear into the hearts of many people.  Even with the stunningly lethal outcomes of the 9/11 hijackings, American security was not significantly changed.  Rare is the month our driving habits fail to kill more people than died in those terrorist attacks.  A perfectly rational response would be to pursue the perpetrators and their accomplices, implement a sensible transportation safety plan, and go on about routine business.  An understandably irrational response would be to dwell on a mix of anger or sadness for a time, then go forward with the rational response.  Given national leadership that was adequate or better, recent history would have played out along understandable lines.

It did no such thing in large part because a particularly twisted and corrupt subset of politicians happily exploit the fact that fear is power.  Making the absurd leap from Saudi men with boxcutters to an Axis of Evil intent on nuking our homeland was only possible because a traumatized people are vulnerable to the absurd.  It was all made much worse still by political hate media — the sort that continues to draw enormous audiences no matter how profoundly wrong its content has been in the past.  Perhaps there are still some sensible voices on the American political right wing, but they are largely drowned out by other voices that cunningly exploit negative emotions — fear, anger, and hatred — to galvanize resistance against constructive political change.

When Senator John McCain’s campaign recently floated the “we put the nation first, the other candidate puts his left wing agenda ahead of the nation” campaign theme, it seems as if it could only have emerged from a circle of terrorized political advisors.  Like Senator Lieberman, it seems Senator McCain and most of his inner circle are still deathly afraid that the United States of America will prove no match for the next band of fanatics to arm themselves with innocuous tools and a cunning plan.  To hear them speak of strength and experience, to hear them criticize the opposition as weak or soft — the irony that such craven jellyfish would take that tone should be lost on no one.  Alas, it is lost on virtually everyone, including many of their critics.

It would have been a great thing for the world if cooler heads had prevailed in late 2001 and beyond.  Heck, it probably would have been great for the world if cooler heads had taken charge in 2004.  This fall, another opportunity presents itself to let cooler heads prevail.  John McCain may not be more quick-tempered or loud-mouthed than Barack Obama.  However, his continued embrace of bloodshed justified by only the most absurd and implausible of political narratives is a shameful misjudgement that threatens to pile misery atop misery, slaughter atop slaughter, all in one of the most oppressed parts of the modern world.

We should fear terrorists . . . we should fear them even more than we fear lightning strikes, but certainly much less than we fear smog.  All these risks are real, yet they are also all no reason whatsoever for a routine day to be uncomfortable.  The more our behavior reflects a terrorized mindset, the less keenly we will be able to focus efforts on neutralizing actual terrorism.  Even worse, the blundering and slaughtering will continue, perhaps even escalate, while decisions are made based on this terrorized mindset.

It is long past time to overcome this insipid fear, spawned by nineteen suicidal fanatics and nursed into a behemoth by years of carefully calculated political misinformation.  The best security credential anyone could bring to a bid for the Presidency in 2008 is a clear history of opposing misguided military aggression in a climate when such opposition was boldly unpopular.  If we truly want to be strong as a nation, then the time has come for us to show the world no fear.  Endorsing the views and candidacies of leaders still clearly and deeply terrorized by the events of September 11th, 2001 is showing plenty of fear — the very fear by which our true enemies define their own successes.

What You Should Think About the War in Afghanistan

December 19, 2007

“A tilted load will not reach its destination.”

–Afghani proverb

When an opportunistic local leader seized the goods from a trade mission dispatched by Genghis Khan, world history would undergo some major changes. Reaching toward the West in the hopes of fair trade, Mongolian envoys were not merely thwarted but also insulted by aristocrats from the Kara-Khitan Khanate, a political entity that overlapped modern day Afghanistan. Treasures were confiscated and beards were forcibly shaved. The Mongolians’ violent response would raze cities and shatter empires, yet it would also facilitate commerce and cultural exchange between Western Europe and the Far East.

When a terrorist organization with ties to the government of Afghanistan launched an effective attack against a powerful nation far off to the west, some parallels would follow. An unstoppable military force moved into the region, generating an enormous body count that few would have predicted. Yet leaders of that terrorist organization were among those few.

The Global War on Terror was no cunning application of force unanticipated by Al Qaeda. Public statements made by various terrorist leaders foretold of American belligerence that would spread violence across the globe, generating legions of widowers and orphans consumed by the desire to strike back. There is little prospect of war in Saudi Arabia, and cooler heads may yet prevail in the determination of America’s Iran policy. Yet broadly speaking, it seems the only people not surprised by the scope of violent response from the United States were leaders of the U.S. government and leaders of Al Qaeda.

Declaring a global war on an abstract concept was a horrible idea that inevitably gave rise to horrible policy. Yet not every aspect of the American response played into Osama bin Laden’s hand. The prewar regime in Afghanistan could not be permitted to stand. This was not because they were destroying ancient wonders or enforcing barbaric laws. The legitimate imperative was a function of the Taliban’s refusal to cooperate in essential counterterrorist operations.

It could be argued that the American approach to seeking that cooperation was so dictatorial and insulting that immediate cooperation would constitute being bullied. Yet the Al Qaeda threat was real, and effectively neutralizing it would have served American national security as well as America’s national lust for blood. It is hard to deny the disastrous nature of doing so much more to focus on the satisfaction of that bloodlust and so much less to advance an effective security agenda. Yet it is also hard to deny that the pursuit of regime change in Afghanistan was an essential component of any credible American security agenda.

Beyond having some justification, it seems that the initial campaign in Afghanistan benefited from some forethought. Rather than sweep in with overwhelming force and impose martial law throughout the territory, Western invaders formed alliances with indigenous factions already uneasy with Taliban rule. Joined by soldiers from many other nations, American military personnel provided decisive support to these indigenous factions. Yet it would be Afghani fighters on the front lines of the greatest battles against the Taliban. Thus the military victories were much more than triumphs of foreign powers — they were also triumphs in a genuine liberation of Afghanistan.

Obviously this is a sharp contrast from Iraq. It is not the only one. While few other nations were eager to support the American invasion of Iraq, successful regime change in Afghanistan was viewed as a worthwhile goal from almost every part of the globe. Even so, America’s leadership role has always remained clear. NATO’s function coordinating military operations in Afghanistan influences that, but even more influential is the historic place of the United States in all of this.

Alas, American leadership in Afghanistan means that America’s present political leadership has the final say in terms of occupation activities. This is problematic on multiple levels. At the foundation is the sheer simple-mindedness and unrealistic idealism evident in White House work product up to this point in the 21st century. To hear Richard Perle reflecting on the commerce at a Kabul street market, one would think haggling over the price of toothpaste was prohibited under Taliban rule. Much of American foreign policy seems to be driven by the foolish belief that all problems around the world are caused by a lack of capitalism and can be solved by the spread of it.

Making matters worse is the fact that whatever brainpower is available for shaping American foreign policy is largely consumed by the situation in Iraq. Rushing to do battle with a fabricated threat is never good for the outcome of ongoing conflict with a real threat. If national attention had not been so profoundly misdirected, how would things be different? Would there be such severe compromises when it comes to personnel and equipment deployed in the hunt for bin Laden? Would a policy of killing up to thirty innocent Afghanis per Taliban or Al Qaeda suspect targeted by an air strike have gone unquestioned for so long for so long?

The challenge the world faced after discovering just how potent a terrorist attack can be was not an easy one. Had it been the sort of challenge that could be overcome with raw firepower or astronomical spending, then it would have been easy from an American perspective. Instead it was, and remains, a challenge that requires sophisticated, sometimes even delicate, action. Technocratic pragmatism, not fuzzy jingoism, sheds light on the best possible policies to guide this action.

Fortunately, the way Afghanistan will be left after foreign military occupation ceases remains an open question. Reliance on indigenous forces in the beginning struck a tone that continues to resound pleasingly in the ears of many Afghani people. Insofar as the Taliban were ever popular, it was because they were linked to the insurgency that drove out Soviet invaders. The greater freedom of democratic self-governance remains appealing to many. Yet every instance of overkill in counterterrorist operations, every instance of Western rhetoric clashing with evident facts, every instance of U.S. officials applying pressure to Hamid Karzai’s regime — these undermine the prospect of a future in which most of Afghanistan is committed to secular self-rule.

When speaking out against The Global War on Terror, it is important to remember that it is a rhetorical device to legitimize some horrible security policy by lumping those measures in with sound security policy. It is not entirely stupid. Democratizing Afghanistan was, and remains, sound security policy. The approach taken was not perfect, but it was also not the demented imperialist approach pursued in Iraq.

Should the call for political change effectively dismantle the useless and counterproductive elements of existing counterterrorism policy, it is vital that it should not go further and also dismantle useful counterterrorism measures. International cooperation has already become essential to national as well as global security. Given some positive turns, Afghanistan could continue to be a nation that will cooperate readily with the United States long after our armies withdraw from their lands.

What You Should Think About Privacy

November 10, 2007

“The personal life of every individual is based on secrecy, and perhaps it is partly for that reason that civilized man is so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.”

–Anton Chekhov

What goes on behind the scenes in government is almost always much uglier than the official facade crafted by political leaders. This is especially true in times of crisis or violent conflict. That is all the more reason to avoid letting our own leaders exploit and amplify the terror sowed by terrorists as officials here set about pursuing any agenda that would expand the powers of government. Seldom has the disparity between a party line and a leader’s actions been as dramatic as we have seen with the Presidency of George W. Bush. Seldom has such a vast gulf been inspired by reaction to an enemy with such limited capabilities as well.

By far the most dangerous thing about Al Qaeda and related organizations is that they command the loyalty of people who are willing to die for the cause yet not so debilitated by their insanity as to be unable to follow through on a complex coordinated plan. Yet in the end that is the worst of the threat. Terrorists do not have an air force or a navy nor even an army that could go toe to toe with a mere 1% of our own armed forces. Only an assortment of people willing to train hard then die in acts of spectacular destruction gives our enemies real power.

Yet substantially the American way of life has changed as a response to this threat. For the most part those ways are not well-publicized. Ideally our nation would have reacted by promoting awareness of realities on the ground in the Middle East, implementing truly useful precautions at airports and seaports, and taking action to undermine the hostility coming from the “death to America” crowd. Instead it seems that our government has promoted fictions about the Middle East, pursued the placebo effect more than real countermeasures at points of vulnerability, and taken action to partially validate the criticisms of anti-American clerical firebrands.

Though much less prominent than the war in Iraq, part of this administration’s blundering involves propping up the notion that America’s dedication to liberty is more window dressing than a core value. We accept much higher mortality rates due to car travel, toxic emissions, workplace safety, et al. than terrorism could plausibly cause without compromising our way of life. Yet this source of death is exploited as justification for the widespread erosion of America’s traditional “right to privacy.”

It is true that the Constitution does not speak directly to the matter of privacy. It is a legal right constructed from interpretations of that document, with particular focus on the 4th Amendment. That language forbids “unreasonable” government exercise of powers to search for and confiscate evidence. Important legal doctrines follow from this, including the idea that enforcers must act based on “probable cause” and that intrusive searches that are not a spontaneous response to exigent circumstances must be warranted by judicial approval.

In 1978 the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) established a secret process that would enable counterespionage investigators to obtain judicial approval for their searches without compromising legitimately covert aspects of their operations. In 2001 the Patriot Act modified this process so that it might also be used by counterterrorism investigators. Unfortunately, under Presidential guidance, organizations like the NSA cast an extremely wide net. Rather than focusing precious investigative and analytical human resources on the most promising leads, everyone from Quaker pacifists to harmless schoolteachers was swept up in the search.

President Bush has often referred to this scattershot approach as a “vital tool” in efforts to deal with terrorist threats. Yet the executive and legislative shenanigans involved in dealing with the legal ramifications of this pose serious problems. FISA courts cannot hope to keep up with thousands upon thousands of investigations spawned by causes that are so far from probable. Even if political pressure caused those judges to behave like a rubber stamps, the sheer volume of bogus cases is overwhelming. Thus the matter of unwarranted wiretapping made the news, and eventually the Congressional docket as well.

This all feeds back into what foreign critics of the United States have been saying about our hypocrisy. Amidst the echoes of a litany of accurate statements about the expansion of the American police state (among other abuses of power,) it becomes easier for potential radicals to be duped into believing the worst of our system and even our people. After all, the authoritarian bent of the Bush-Cheney team was no secret in 2004, yet most of our citizens casting votes that November actually endorsed the incumbents. If we seek to live in a world where hate for America is not widespread, we would do well to condemn, rather than endorse, acts of outright villainy.

The expansion of federal police powers poses other problems as well. Some people take comfort in the mental refuge, “well, they’re only using these powers against terrorists.” The presumption of innocence is not something to be dispensed with lightly. It is a crucial part of the foundation of any legal system in a free society. Technically, they’re only using these powers against suspected terrorists. That one word makes a world of difference. Just as all it took to become a Salem witch was an accusation of witchcraft, even if it was uttered under extreme duress, similar accusations contribute to the ever-expanding list of suspected terrorists.

Then there is the impact on actual investigatory efforts. Even the most diligent G-man can only chase down so many false leads before his zeal for the hunt gives way to frustration or even cynicism. Rather than keeping our counterterrorism personnel focused on pursuing credible threats to national security, the existing approach turns them into blunt instruments. The expectation of disappointment has become the norm, not just among FBI agents, but throughout the web of agencies and military units tasked with hunting down suspected terrorists.

Personally, I believe that it is important to maintain a high standard of personal privacy because that standard is an invaluable comfort (if also something of an illusion) to almost all adult Americans. Even if that comfort is regarded as an expendable luxury, it is also much more than that. It is a vital constraint that minimizes government victimization of innocent people while serving to focus the efforts of the state on suspects that might reasonably be involved with terrorist organizations.

A hammer is a vital tool for building houses, but it tends to work best when it is directed only at nails. Executive orders and legislative proposals emergent from the White House at present take their “vital tool” and use it to bash haphazardly at all manner of targets. In the end, this produces a much weaker structure than if the tool were used with some sort of reasonable control and precision. If the common goal shared by our entire population is to reduce the level of danger posed by terrorist activity, the last thing our policies should do is validate a portion of the radicals’ narrative while spreading counterterrorism resources so broadly as to violate both our proudest traditions and basic common sense.

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.