Posts Tagged ‘Terrorism’

The Thinker

A week of preventable tragedies

Last week was a good week to stick your head in the ground. Unfortunately, we are not ostriches so we were left to endure two major tragedies instead: the Boston bombings and an explosion of a fertilizer factory in West, Texas. The former got disproportionate attention, but the latter actually caused more deaths.

Last Monday’s twin bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon murdered three people including a boy, left at least thirteen people with severed limbs, and more than 178 people were treated at local hospitals. It was arguably the first major case of terrorism within the United States since September 11, 2001. For some of us who were in or around the events of 9/11, these bombings evoked visceral reminders of that day. I was one of the people caught in Washington, D.C. that day. My way of coping last week was not to watch videos of this event, but otherwise the news was inescapable. The total deaths were really four if you include the MIT police officer Sean Collier, who was killed by gunfire from the bombing suspects, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev early Friday morning. Police killed Tamerlan, the elder brother on Friday morning. His brother Dzhokhar is now in hospitalized and in custody after a wild manhunt that shut down Boston and surrounding areas for much of Friday.

The visceral reaction to this incident was understandable, given that the Boston Marathon is a huge public event and perhaps the premier running event in the United States. In a sense it was an attack on all of us because it was so indiscriminate. The chaotic reporting of the event did not do credit to the media, social media or crowdsourcing. What was impressive was the effectiveness of law enforcement at city, state and the federal levels. Within three days of the event officials had identified two suspects from thousands of images in and around the event, and within four days one suspect was dead and the other was captured wounded in nearby Watertown after an extensive and scary manhunt that shut down the Boston area. Less noted by the press was what had not occurred in the twelve years in between these events. We know of some of the planned terrorist events that were thwarted by law enforcement over these years, and there are doubtless many more that we do not know about. This incident also demonstrated that when these events occur we can marshal the right resources to effectively manage and contain the event. We have also put in place an infrastructure that is generally effective at preventing most of these incidents. Our law enforcement community deserves applause from all Americans for their forceful and effective response to these tragic bombings. The citizens of Boston proved their resilience as well, by offering assistance to victims of the bombing and by keeping their cool while neighborhoods swarmed with SWAT teams.

Adding to the surreal nature of these events was the rejection by the U.S. senate of expanded background checks for gun purchasers last week. The legislation would not have stopped the bombings themselves, which were wrought by low-tech pressure cookers placed in backpacks. However, had the law been in effect it might have kept the Tsarnaev brothers from acquiring weapons in the first place. During the shootout with police Thursday night, the brothers outgunned the police, at least as far as the number of bullets exchanged. As the nearby Newtown incident demonstrated, it’s not hard to buy lots of bullets in this country. Both brothers were able to acquire guns that were used to kill Officer Collier. Authorities had previously interviewed the elder brother Tamerian because the Russian government believed him to have Chechen sympathies. If they appeared on any watch list, it did not appear to have kept them from getting guns.

While the news from Boston riveted our attention, arguably the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas near Waco on Wednesday was more newsworthy. While it’s unclear if the Boston bombings could have been prevented, the incident in West was eminently preventable and exacerbated by the Texan stubbornness not to allow zoning laws. Currently there are fourteen confirmed deaths and more than 160 people injured, mostly residents of this small Texan town. The town’s volunteer firefighters made up a plurality of those killed. They first successfully evacuated residents from a nearby nursing home before the plant exploded. OSHA had not inspected the plant itself since 1985. The Department of Homeland Security, which is supposed to regulate fertilizer factories like this one but depends on these factories to self identify themselves never was notified. The destruction amounted to sixty to 80 homes completely destroyed, including a fifty-unit apartment building. Fifty to 75 additional homes were damaged. The only good thing about the explosion is that a fire started at the plant before it exploded, allowing responders to get the elderly out of a nearby nursing home and residents from neighboring homes before the explosion. It’s hard to imagine what the death toll had been had there been no warning.

This incident is a prime example of a wholly preventable accident. Even if the accident could not have been prevented, zoning laws could have kept industrial areas far away from residential areas, as is common in the vast majority of states except for states with something prickly up their rears, like Texas, who think “freedom” trumps basic public safety. The state of Texas is hostile to zoning regulations of any sort, so it’s perfectly okay to put major industrial plants like this fertilizer storage facility close to residential areas. An incident like this would normally have state legislatures scrambling to enact zoning laws to give jurisdictions authority to put public safety first. This is unlikely to happen, so something like this is bound to happen again.

In fact, it has. Texas, known for its refineries as well as many other hazardous industries, has a sorry history of large and preventable industrial accidents. In 1947, the Texas City Disaster killed at least 581 people and left only one person alive in the city’s fire department. The culprit was a ship loaded with ammonia nitrate, the same stuff that blew up in West Texas, except it was on a ship and 2,300 tons of the stuff went up at once, creating an explosion so powerful it had the force of a nuclear bomb. Also in Texas City in 2005 the Texas City Refinery exploded, killed 15 people and injured 170 others, making it roughly equivalent to this latest incident. If you feel somewhat ghoulish, check out this slide show of large Texan industrial accidents. They will have a familiar ring to them.

Since 9/11 we have done a lot as a country to reduce terrorist incidents like the Boston bombing. We obviously could do more, but we could clearly do a lot more to prevent large-scale industrial accidents such as occurred in West, Texas last week. Like terrorism, it requires putting the public good ahead of private profit and convenience. Let’s hope we learn some new lessons here at least, but like the NRA’s successful effort to get the Senate to turn down legislation for expanded background checks of gun purchasers supported by ninety percent of Americans, it seems that Texans will put stubbornness ahead of public safety once again.

 
The Thinker

bin Gone, and good riddance

Lately my newspaper has seemed obsolete. Anything of importance, I usually learn about online the night before. Today was a happy exception. My Washington Post totally shocked me by being the first to inform me that our special forces had killed Osama bin Laden.

Today as the news ripples across the United States, it is impossible not to feel great joy and catharsis. Anyone age fifteen or older must have the memory of September 11, 2001 seared into our brains. Most of us shared in the experience by watching it unfold on television. Some of us who live in New York City, Washington D.C. or Shanksville, Pennsylvania had a closer encounter with history.

On that date, I was working in Washington D.C. in the Hubert H. Humphrey Building, a building close to the capitol. I first learned of the event when a breathless contractor told me to come to the TV quick where images of a smoldering World Trade Center were projected on a wide screen TV. We stood there open jawed trying to figure out what had happened. After some confusing minutes, we found ourselves outside the building staring out toward the west and seeing plumes of tan smoke rising from the Pentagon. We knew our nation was under attack. Our hearts were all skipping beats as we tried to pull together all the disparate information we were getting, much of it false. (A suicide plane is headed for the Smithsonian castle!) Landlines mostly worked but the cell phone system was overloaded. People were wandering the streets futilely trying to call loved ones on their cell phones. Sirens wailed endlessly. As our vanpool made a premature trip to get us all back home, the smoke from the Pentagon lingered in the air on an otherwise delightfully cloud-free and cool late summer day. We waited for hours in traffic to return to the relative safety of suburbia and embraced spouses and children with real tears in our eyes.

That day was followed by days of silence, not just due to mourning and shock, but also due to the lack of aircraft. We live a few miles from Washington Dulles and the dull roar of airport traffic is constant. The only thing in the air was military fighter jets, relentlessly circling the capital, which were much louder than commercial jets and rattled our windows. Mostly it was surreally quiet. I knew, as all Americans knew, that our national life had been altered fundamentally. I rate only one day in my life of more national significance, and that was when we landed men on the moon for the first time. It is unlikely I will ever be as close to disaster again.

Osama bin Laden’s death certainly does not end the war against al Qaeda, but it does finally release a large national bubble of psychic melancholy that has persisted since that day, which by itself helps in our national healing. Bin Laden’s death is one death that even I can feel happy about. I tend to avoid absolutes, but he was a very evil man. Even if terrorism against us increases as a direct result of his targeted killing, I still will be glad that he is dead, and even gladder that our special forces killed him. Justice was delayed, but nearly a decade later justice was finally meted out.

For a while, maybe a good long while, Americans can feel happy again. It will doubtless be reflected shortly in President Obama’s poll numbers. His high ratings will likely be transitory, although if there are no major crises between now and election day it should probably seal his reelection. The president may not be able to instantly turn around the economy and solve our budget deficit, but unlike George W. Bush, he can capture and kill Public Enemy Number 1. He succeeded by focusing on the problem and making sure our counterterrorism units and special forces had the resources to do the job correctly. Apparently, these things can be accomplished without pompously parading on aircraft carrier decks in a flight suit with a Mission Accomplished banner behind you. Apparently, it takes a sound strategy, executed with viable tactics to kill such an elusive mass murderer, rather than cowboy antics and red state platitudes. It is done through applying intelligence rather than ideology. This would be news to our right wing if they were to absorb it, which they will not.

It turns out our president is one cool and focused dude, much less concerned with pandering to politicians and pundits than working methodically at reaching a goal. I had this impression of him from the start, which is why I voted for him. Maybe America realizes the value of having a strategic president, blessed with intelligence and vision, but especially blessed with dogged tenacity and focus. These qualities eluded George W. Bush.

I hope Americans everywhere today celebrate, and celebrate lustily. There should be no shame in feeling good about killing this man. While the long war on terror will continue, let us justly and unashamedly revel in this symbolic but significant accomplishment.

 
The Thinker

Mission Accomplished in Afghanistan

Tuesday in the Afghani city of Kandahar, five cars rigged with explosives detonated simultaneously, killing at least forty-one people and wounding at least 66. This is just one of the most recent and egregious incidents of terrorism in Afghanistan, which has recently seen a significant upturn in violence. In July, American casualties in Afghanistan reached forty-five, their highest monthly level ever. Great Britain also recently marked a sad milestone, suffering its 200th casualty in the Afghani Theater. The higher casualty rates recently is likely due to the presence of an additional 21,000 American troops in Afghanistan since President Obama took office, as well as a change of military strategy to root out the Taliban by moving our forces into areas they control.

If this strategy feels foreboding, it is because it eerily similar to what we did in Iraq, both years ago as well as very recently. At least in Iraq our troops are now largely out of harm’s way. The Iraqi government has had us move our soldiers out of their major cities. Our troop transports now move largely only at night. Coincidentally, American troop deaths in Iraq have plunged. Unfortunately, as much as the people of Iraq might wish it, their sectarian conflicts have not gone away. Recently, there have been renewed car bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, the same ethnic tensions that existed while Saddam Hussein ran the country remain and will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

From my perspective, we are repeating the same flawed strategy in Afghanistan that we used in Iraq. We are not learning from our mistakes. Granted when he assumed office President Obama was very careful qualifying what constituted success in Afghanistan. Nation building and instilling democracy are lofty goals, but are expendable if need be. Our new general in the Afghan theater Stanley McChrystal seems intent on winning through intense nation building facilitated by having American troops control Taliban occupied areas of the country. In addition to the 21,000 new American troops now in the theater, it appears McChrystal will soon be appealing for additional troops.

It seems reasonable to predict our future “success” in Afghanistan based on our “success” in Iraq using this strategy. Why do we need so many troops in Afghanistan? What is it that we are really trying to accomplish? In 2001, we went into Afghanistan because the Taliban were shielding Osama bin Laden and the core elements of al Qaeda. Our strategy then was quite effective. Al Qaeda did a quick tally ho across the border into Pakistan, where they did not have to deal with the hassle of our troops and exploding bunker bombs. According to experts, al Qaeda no longer exists in Afghanistan. What remains of the top al Qaeda leadership (and it is likely that it is a shell of its former self) now exists in tribal northwest Pakistan. In short, we succeeded in our stated mission in Afghanistan: al Qaeda can no longer use the country as a place of organization, training and refuge for attacks against the United States.

We have also tried to foster democracy in Afghanistan. New national elections for Afghan president are being tallied this week. As in neighboring Iran, the eventual results look like they might reflect substantial ballot box stuffing. Our initial presence did drive the Taliban, an admittedly thoroughly loathsome regime from power. Inattention has allowed the Taliban to regroup. Our presence in Afghanistan has brought many good but likely temporal things, including some semblance of national government, economic growth, some restoration of women’s rights and more education to the populace. What our presence did not do, and really can never do, is allow complete control over the country. Afghanistan is far too large to be controlled by any occupying army. Even if it could be, occupying it will prove financially ruinous, as it has in Iraq.

Our expanded mission seems to be ensuring that the Taliban do not return to power.  Should the Taliban return to power, it is certainly possible that they will provide safe harbor to al Qaeda again. Most experts though do not believe the Taliban would be stupid enough to do this again. Al Qaeda’s goals have always been international. The Taliban has no such interests. It is a nationalist movement. It is interested in instituting a strict form of Muslim fundamentalism across all of Afghanistan.

Just as in Iraq, there has been a bad case of mission creep in Afghanistan. In this case, the American people seem to be saying that having been burned once in Iraq, we should not get burned again. A majority of Americans believe, as I do, that this war is not worth fighting. To the extent that we should have a role in the country, it should be to train Afghani troops, police and bureaucrats to secure, police and govern themselves, as we did with some success in Iraq. Regardless of whether democracy flourishes in Afghanistan in the future or not, Afghanistan is extremely unlikely to be part of a war aimed at the United States again.

Back in 2003, President Bush foolishly proclaimed Mission Accomplished on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. The irony in Afghanistan is that President Obama could pull the same stunt and plausibly get away with it. We really have accomplished our mission in Afghanistan, at least as it was originally defined. Al Qaeda is gone and is unlikely to return. Even if they try to return, the Taliban are likely to throw them out, knowing they lost power by letting them in. In fact, our original mission in Afghanistan has been accomplished for several years now. We won this battle.

Granted, it might not make a great photo op proclaiming Mission Accomplished when Afghanistan seems to be teetering back toward anarchy. Violence today in Afghanistan may be as bad as it has ever been since we engaged our military there. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that most of this violence is a direct result of our troops being in the theater. It is evidenced, not just by these car bombings but also by the many roadside bombings that are killing our soldiers, just as they did in Iraq. In short, many Afghanis, many of whom are also friendly to the Taliban but certainly not all, simply do not like having their country occupied. They are doing what most nationalists do in such circumstances: resisting through force of arms.

Thinking we can succeed in nation building through force of arms in Afghanistan of all places is foolish. To the extent we succeed in this expanded mission, it will not be because of military action, but because we helped create and provided effective aid and advice to the shaky Afghani government. Afghanistan has a long history of attempts at foreign occupation and none succeeded in the end. The USSR was the most recent country to fail spectacularly in Afghanistan. So will we, if we think we can build a new nation though our occupation, however benign and temporal our stated intentions.

It is up to Afghanis to chart their own way forward. Fortunately, despotic regimes like The Taliban rarely stay in power long. Any government that oppresses for too long meets resistance. In time, balance will be restored to something that approximates natural governance in Afghanistan. In the end, it is unlikely to look like a western democracy.

The only question for the United States is how many more lives we want to waste on a flawed military strategy after we accomplished our original goals. If we had the right general in the theater, which apparently we do not, he would be advising that this war cannot be won militarily, so we should no longer try. Instead, we should provide money and advice only and use our military inside the country only when we know al Qaeda has returned.

 
The Thinker

Terminal Insecurity

While on the subject of airports, as a semi-frequent traveler I have noticed that our airport security still leaves much to be desired. This is ironic when you consider how much money we are spending to protect our airports.

I am not talking just about the well-reported and gaping gap in screening aircraft cargo. I am talking about the gap securing our airport terminals. I hesitate to give terrorists ideas, but the costs to benefits ratio of striking the Great Satan America using airplanes no longer makes sense, not economically, not even to some whacked out deity. Airport terminals are much more vulnerable targets.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps airports secretly have dozens of operatives running around terminals looking for suspicious passengers. Perhaps terminals are rife with micro-sensors sniffing the air for the faintest whiff of explosives. I sure hope we are doing these things. The only obvious terminal security seems to be at Arrivals and Departures where, at least at Washington Dulles International Airport, there are plenty of security men watching your car and making sure that you don’t tarry too long dropping off or picking up passengers. I strongly suspect though that their motive has more to do with keeping traffic moving than with airport security.

Because if they are trying to improve security, how exactly does this help? I mean, let us suppose a terrorist has a van full of fertilizer and a hair trigger. Do you think he is going to pay any attention to a security guy at Departures asking him to hustle along? No, he is going to shout, “God is Great!” in Arabic and ignite that sucker, killing hundreds of people and taking down much of the terminal with it.

Moreover, shouldn’t we be screening passengers and their bags before they get into the terminal? Of course, people are hauling all sorts of luggage and backpacks into the terminal and queuing up in front of airline ticket counters. None of it has been screened. Also inside the terminal are hundreds of other passengers, none of whom is anxious to be martyred to facilitate the spread of Islam. Aside from the casualties that could easily be inflicted by a rouge terrorist inside a terminal, these structures themselves are critical pieces of infrastructure, in many cases costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Damaging a terminal arguably would inflict as much in the way of death and casualties as an Oklahoma City type bombing. It would shut down most commercial transportation at the airport for weeks or months. It would also disrupt a good portion of the airline economy.

Instead, we are trying to protect aircraft which are obviously expensive pieces of equipment but which typically have 100 to 150 people aboard. Assuming they can be hijacked, which is becoming much harder to do, then they could possibly fly into the Sears Tower or some other structure and repeat the events of 9/11. Most likely, the extent of their carnage would be the destruction of one jet and a few hundred deaths. All of this would be regrettable, of course, but it would hardly inflict much damage to our transportation system.

If we were serious about protecting airline passengers, you would not be allowed into the terminal at all unless you and your luggage had been pre-screened. I can only think of one viable way this would work. It would be to require passengers to check in at smaller screening stations scattered across metropolitan areas or at least several hundred yards from the terminal. After passing screening at a local screening station, the passengers and their luggage would be shuttled to the airport aboard an approved security bus. This would probably add half an hour to an outbound commute. On the other hand, there would be no need to check in at the airport. In effect, you would move most TSA personnel out of the airport and put them in local communities.

These screening stations would have to be numerous so that small numbers of people would be arriving at a station at any given time. You would probably have to go online and book an arrival time at a local screening station. I imagine you would have to electronically send the station your eTicket, credentials and the license plate of the car that would be dropping you off. These would need to be verified before you were let into the station.

Of course, air cargo needs better screening too, and Congress is reputedly working on that goal. It seems unthinkable that Americans will give up commuting by air. I once wondered if the price of oil went up to $150 a barrel whether we would even have an airline industry. With prices now around $110 a barrel the answer is clear: yes, and we will happily pay whatever additional money it costs for the convenience of traveling long distances quickly by air.

Given the criticality of our airports, it is time to do more than the half measures we are currently doing to protect passengers and airport property. At best, you can only breathe a sigh of relief now once you are past the security checkpoint. If you are like me, you feel very vulnerable while inside the terminal itself.

It does not have to be this way.

 
The Thinker

Wrong Target

Somehow, I could sense that Benazir Bhutto would not survive the year. Maybe subconsciously she had a death wish. Martyrs often live larger in death than they did in life. On October 18th, when the exiled former Pakistani Prime Minister triumphantly returned to Pakistan after years of exile, 145 of her supporters died from targeted suicide attacks during her welcome home rally. Yet she was not deterred and either fearlessly or recklessly continued campaigning to win power again. Today we learn of her assassination, which quickly escalated into yet another mass murder triggered by a fanatical suicide bomber probably linked to al Qaeda. At least twenty others were killed in today’s attack.

From our distant perspective ten thousand miles away, her assassination is more sad evidence that Pakistan and Afghanistan, not Iraq, should have been our real front in the war on terrorism. Sadly, it has all the right ingredients to be its front line. It is a sometimes democratic nation still without firm roots in democracy. It has known as much totalitarianism as democracy. It is a country that now has to grapple with whether it will be secular or theocratic. The Pakistani military rarely fights outside its borders. Instead, it spends much of its time unsuccessfully containing an emerging a civil war.

Unlike either Iraq or Iran, Pakistan has nukes. Their nuclear weapons are outside of our ability to control them. Should Islamic extremists gain control of Pakistan, they could be leveraged against us. To preclude that possibility, we may end up having to support its many totalitarian regimes. Democracy is a nice idea, but keeping nuclear arms from being used against us requires sane people in command. Dictators believe foremost in clinging to power, so they are unlikely to do anything too rash. This was why I was not surprised that we found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after we invaded.

Its old news, but we took our eye off the real target. Instead, President Bush squandered the last five years chasing an illusionary Axis of Evil. By invading Iraq, he unbottled its repressed sectarian forces and put our troops in the crossfire. Troops that might have gone into Afghanistan where our real enemies lied went instead into Iraq to try to contain a bloody sectarian civil war. Meanwhile, since we elected to distract ourselves, al Qaeda’s leadership moved into the relative safety of lawless northwestern Pakistan. The area may be lawless, but Pakistan still considers it part of its territory, so it prohibited us from actually sending in our forces to engage al Qaeda there. There is irony that our greatest enemy found relative sanctuary and new strength from our erstwhile ally. That new strength was on display yesterday with Bhutto’s assassination.

According to the latest National Intelligence Estimate, Iran ended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Despite having access to this intelligence, our administration chose instead to rattle sabers with Iran and thus inflame our diplomatic row with its leaders. Fortunately, with the release of this NIE we can at least rule out a preemptive war with Iran. You would think Bush and Cheney might have learned something from the Iraq debacle, but apparently not.

The irony is that if we really want to solve the war on terrorism, we need Iran’s assistance. It appears that it is reducing the number of arms smuggled into Iraq. Iran also helped us early in the war by lending its support to forces that undermined the Taliban. Iran is overwhelming Shi’ite. Al Qaeda is a force of Sunni extremism. Iran may be a quasi-democratic theocracy, but the last thing its rulers want is to be surrounded by states associated with al Qaeda. That was in part why they were providing arms to Shi’ite militiamen in Iraq; they saw it in their own self-interest.

Iraq may appear to be our quagmire, but it is unlikely that our national security would be undermined if we left. The people who live there might have to fight a protracted civil war, but they consider our presence counterproductive. Surveys of Iraqis consistently show they want us out.

It is hard to see though what we can now do in Pakistan to defeat Islamic extremism. A few surgical strikes against the leaders of al Qaeda might be effective but it might also inflame anti-American passions and thus prove counterproductive. Following the Vietnam model and placing hundreds of thousands of our troops there will not solve our problem either for the same reason the British lost the Revolutionary War: there is too much terrain to occupy. It is ruinously expensive to occupy any territory indefinitely, as we are finding out in Iraq. Just as Vietnam endured a civil war, so Pakistan is grappling with what looks like its own internal war. Foremost, we would like to ensure that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons never get into the wrong hands. However, it is unlikely that the Pakistani government will trust them to our safekeeping.

Thanks to Bush Administration bungling, our short-term options are now bleak. We may have to support Musharraf even though he is likely to continue to give democracy the short shrift. We would do so on the assumption that a dictatorship is preferable to wholesale anarchy. We can also keep pushing for democracy but it is tacitly understood that we will only be cheering for it from the sidelines and will not do anything meaningful to allow it to flourish. As we have learned in Iraq and Palestine, we have to be careful what we wish for. A democratic government in Pakistan may not be aligned with our national interests. However, it is likely that an enduring democratic government in Pakistan would promote long-term peace in the region.

As I have mentioned in other entries this war on terror cannot not won on the battlefield. It is a generational war that fades into gradual irrelevance by uplifting lives. The real causes of Islamic terrorism are not religious, but are a result of the persistent and pervasive feelings of hopelessness and the miserable living conditions within much of the Islamic world. To some extent, these conditions are fed by not embracing Western capitalistic values. (Note that few people in prosperous Qatar want to see the regime replaced.) Until governments there change to embrace the needs of the people, radical clerics will find they have a ready audience.

The United States must look long term. It is in our interest to quietly facilitate and fund as much humanitarian aid for the disenfranchised as possible in the Islamic world. This does not mean giving billions to Halliburton, but it does mean working discreetly with non-governmental organizations in the region and funding organizations like the Red Crescent to ensure they have the capital to change conditions on the ground. We also need to make our foreign aid conditional on meeting benchmarks for improving the living standards of people in a country. This conflict is about how Islam will fit into the 21st century. Right now, we are being used as proxies to inflame the conflict. We must change the dynamic and Pakistan is likely its front.

 
The Thinker

I smell a cover up

Curiouser and curiouser. Just how far down the rabbit hole does this domestic spying business go anyhow?

If the Bush Administration has its way, not even the Congress will know. Well, maybe a few key members of Congress with the proper clearance will know. Of course, because publicly revealing their knowledge would be a crime, they are keeping their lips zipped.

What we do know (at least at this moment) is that Congress is balking at extending existing wiretap provisions in the domestic spying legislation that it hastily passed this summer. Democrats in Congress want more court and congressional oversight on calls placed between American citizens and potential terrorists overseas. The current legislation delegates to intelligence agencies decisions that traditionally were authorized by the courts. In addition, President Bush is now insisting that the Baby Bells be granted retroactive immunity from the law for facilitating unlawful wiretaps and access to calling records. The Democratic Congress is asking the very reasonable question: “How can we know whether to grant the Baby Bells this immunity when you won’t tell us what they did?” The Administration retorts that it cannot tell the committees responsible for intelligence legislation because in doing so state secrets could be exposed.

Well! Something here stinks to high heaven, that’s for sure. The Administration seems to be tacitly admitting that the actions taken by compliant telephone companies was probably illegal. The nature, size and scope of the illegality though are largely unknown because only a trusted few know what the Baby Bells actually did. One thing is clear: the administration does not want them to held liable. Why? Because the Baby Bells were just doing their duty for God, country and the American Way, which means that if something illegal did happen they should not pay any penalty.

Naturally, I hope that the Congress refuses to pass a bill with such a provision without first knowing the full details of these transgressions. If, as I expect, President Bush vetoes a bill that does not contain the immunity provisions, then I make the following modest proposals instead. First, the bill should grant the Baby Bells immunity if and only if the President agrees to waive his right to pardon any individuals in his administration who may have facilitated this lawbreaking. Second, the bill should require that a special prosecutor to investigate this matter. This way if violations of the law occurred then those who instigated them could be held accountable.

The way I studied government, no one is above the law. Yet in this case, the Bush Administration appears to want to retroactively ensure that no one will have to pay a price for their decision. They want to frame the debate as one of national security, and not pay a price for the fact that they arm-twisted the Baby Bells into facilitating these likely illegal acts. They want us to believe what is simply not true: that they were not required to first petition Congress for these powers.

A decade ago, such an action would have been routinely dealt with by the Justice Department. If there were any concern that the Justice Department could not be impartial, a special prosecutor would be appointed. Few in Congress now trust the Justice Department to impartially go after any violation of the law. This sad and sordid squabble tells us just how badly our system of checks and balances has eroded during this administration. It simply does not give a damn about its duty to ensure that the laws are faithfully and impartially executed.

If the Democrats are more worried that they will be judged “soft on terror” then ensuring our civil liberties and agree to these requirements then the Administration wins through intimidation. Moreover, Congress’s ability to exercise meaningful oversight is further degraded. This is no time for the Democratic congress to capitulate yet again. It needs to demonstrate that it truly is a coequal branch of government. Moreover, in this case it holds the Trump Card. President Bush needs an extension to the badly named Protect America Act. These proposed minimal accommodations to the current egregious law are entirely reasonable. I hope the Congress stands firm. In the process, it will help restore both the rule of law and our system of checks and balances.

 
The Thinker

Quick Political Hits

Rather than focus on a single topic today, as is my usual practice, I just want to dump a potpourri of political thoughts that are running through my brain at the moment.

Karl Rove’s Resignation. There is plenty of evil to go around within the Bush Administration. Arguably, Bush, Cheney and Bush’s political strategist Karl Rove formed something that resembled a triumvirate of evil. Perhaps this was why Bush was so quick to notice an Axis of Evil: it takes one to know one. Cheney is the administration’s immoral head. Cheney is smart enough to know that certain actions like their torture policies, illegal electronic surveillance and the turning the Justice Department into another wing of the Republican agenda were both wrong and illegal. Rove was its amoral head. Rove simply did not care, which was arguably worse. None of them cared a whit about upholding the rule of law if it conflicted with their political agenda. It was always party first, country second. The U.S. Constitution became their toilet paper. At least with Rove’s resignation one of the heads of this hydra is gone. Karl, the 2006 election gave you the kick in the pants you deserved. The 2008 election will prove the ultimate undoing of your “legacy”. Good riddance.

Bombings in Ninevah Province, Iraq. These bombings were horrible but predictable. While it will take days to get an accurate death toll, it looks like al Qaeda terrorists murdered at least 200 Iraqis. How reprehensible but unsurprising it was that al Qaeda chose to target a small ethnic sect, the Yazidis, in these attacks. It is impossible to know whether these bombings were the consequence of our Whack a Mole strategy or not, but it seems likely. These bombings suggest two things to me. First, it demonstrates the ultimate futility of Bush’s surge. The price of modestly reducing the violence in and around Baghdad alone took most of our armed forces, yet no one is calling for a draft. In fact, it was explicitly ruled out recently. To apply our surge across the entire country of Iraq would require a draft. Yet even we could summon the will, this sort of carnage would still continue across Iraq. Second, al Qaeda’s real aims have little to do with destroying America. It is abundantly clear that al Qaeda’s goal in Iraq is to kill and terrorize Iraqis. To me the “fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here” strategy amount to voluntarily relocating our citizens 6000 miles so they can be targeted by terrorists. Since our presence seems to add to the violence and needlessly kill our soldiers, why the hell are we still there?

Iowa Straw Poll. What a meaningless event. The votes do not count. Those who bother to vote have to be bribed to attend. It seems to be a way for campaigns to squander their money and for campaign consultants to earn fat paychecks. Historically there is not much correlation between winning the straw poll and winning the Republican nomination anyhow. The mainstream media would do us all a favor by simply ignoring event.

Early Voting. This crazy strategy of states trying to one up each other to be one of the early states to have primaries and caucuses has to stop. It makes no sense to cast the first votes for a party’s nominee nearly a year before the election. It raises the cost of campaigns, limit our choices and lengthens the time between determining a party’s nominee and the general election. Increasingly, if you are not politically connected or have at least a hundred million dollars of fortune stashed away, you should not even bother to run for president. However, these early voting initiatives are a great way to establish an oligarchy. It strikes me that we are halfway there already.

Declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp “Terrorists”. This is just so wrong. When we have solid evidence that members of their Guard have been ordered to fill cars with explosives and blow themselves up in crowded markets then maybe we can call them terrorists. Calling them terrorists is like calling the Chinese Army terrorists for moving ammunition into North Vietnam to aid the Vietcong during the Vietnam War. This declaration is all about building a case for attacking Iran and is doing so using broad brush propaganda tactics worthy of Goebel. It is unworthy of our great nation. Iran’s guard may be supporting their Shi’ite brothers or may be helping Iraqis end an occupation, but that is not terrorism. Let us not cheapen this dreadful word, lest it lose its meaning.

 
The Thinker

No Easy Answers on Islamic Terrorism

Perhaps it got your attention on Wednesday when Senator and Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama said this about the Pakistani government:

There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. . . . If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.

From the back of the Republican pack, on Tuesday representative and presidential nominee Tom Tancredo had this suggestion for what we should do if there is another 9/11 type event:

If it is up to me, we are going to explain that an attack on this homeland of that nature would be followed by an attack on the holy sites in Mecca and Medina.

Obama at least tempered his remarks by saying that he would double foreign aid to $50 billion a year, and allocate $2 billion to combat the influence of Islamic madrassas schools and to improve our public relations. These are actions that I support. However, statements like those quoted suggest to me that neither Tancredo nor Obama are ready to be our next president. Perhaps this is why I find myself drawn toward candidates who truly grasp the dimensions and nuances of the terrorist threat. Maybe it is time for me to give money to Senator Joe Biden’s campaign. At least Senator Biden gets it.

There is no question that our erstwhile ally in the war on terrorism, Pakistan’s president and possible dictator for life General Pervez Musharraf, could do a lot more to root out elements of al Qaeda. It, along with the Taliban, controls a rather lawless area of northwestern Pakistan. Osama bin Laden, if he is still alive, is likely living in that remote area. Even if he is not, it is clear that what leadership al Qaeda has is likely concentrated in that area.

The real goal of the United States is to reduce and eventually eliminate Islamic sponsored terrorism. Would capturing Osama bin Laden solve this problem? It probably could not hurt. Certainly, the man deserves to be brought to justice. However, al Qaeda has no centralized leadership. Those who think al Qaeda would go away with his capture or death are likely deluding themselves. Indeed, it could be argued that we are better off with bin Laden alive but on the run than we would be if he were dead. There is no way to know for sure, of course. That is part of the problem. The chessboard we are playing is bafflingly complex. One thing we have learned is that our actions, which often seem entirely reasonable and logical, are often counterproductive. Our invasion of Iraq is a case in point.

If our military were to strike in northwestern Pakistan with a limited but sustained military campaign to root out al Qaeda, what would be the results? It is hard to say for sure but I doubt we would end up safer than we are now. I hope that we would not try to emulate our tactics in Iraq by essentially occupying that part of Pakistan and hoping for its eventual pacification. I hope that if we did go into that lawless area that our mission would be targeted, surgical and we would withdraw after a matter of days or weeks. However, even if we succeeded in finding bin Laden and destroying the nexus of al Qaeda in that area, I doubt we would end up more secure from Islamic terrorism. I think it is much more likely that it would inflame anti-American feelings, already very high in that area of the world. I think it would lead to the recruitment of fresh terrorists to take up their cause. Islamic inspired violence directed against our country would increase rather than decrease.

Osama bin Laden understands all this of course. The reason he chose to attack us on September 11, 2001 was that he knew we would respond with 20th century tactics to a 21st century problem. By doing so, it aided his ends, as the spread of terrorism inspired by al Qaeda since that event demonstrated.

Just as we cannot solve Iraq’s problems through military force, neither can we win the war on terrorism through military force. Iraq’s problems, in the unlikely event they can be solved at all, are political in nature. The same is true with our war on terrorism. This is a political war that is won through succeeding at political tactics.

Obama was half-right by realizing that in order to end terrorism we have to address the issues that feed it. It is much as firefighters create fire lines to stop forest fires. We need to focus most of our resources in the war on terrorism, not by sending occupying troops or selling high tech military hardware to Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, but by working toward political reconciliation and improving the living standards of people in the region. We must replace religious fanaticism, oppression and despair with its most potent antidote: hope.

Principally this means bringing a just and lasting political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It will require personal diplomacy, it will require the United Nations, it will require the organizations like the League of Arab States, and it will require any resource that can be brought to bear. While we are doing this, we must invest massively in sound non-partisan non-governmental organizations. We need to use these organizations as proxies to address the poverty, oppression and lack of opportunity that feeds the cycle of violence in that area. It means building schools by the hundreds in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It means creating affordable housing instead of refugee camps. It means building and improving roads, bridges and water treatment plants.

It also means making our military aid to Israel conditional on their solemn commitment to remove government support for Jewish settlements outside the state of Israel. It means making our aid to Israel conditional on their agreeing in principle that it will eventually withdraw to their 1967 borders. The conflict in that part of the Middle East is has its roots, not so much in the creation of the state of Israel, as it does in aftermath the 1967 Gulf War. Obviously, these are not easy things to do, which is why new workable political and economic tactics are vital.

Our real national security interests are in fact intimately tied to a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. We must not do this unilaterally but together with the United Nations and other multinational organizations. We need to reduce the number of sticks and increase the number of carrots. The one resource Americans have in abundance is money. We have huge gobs of money, which are a direct result of our peace, freedom and stable democratic government. By the time our debacle in Iraq is over, we will have squandered at least a trillion dollars. Yet even this vast sum will hardly be noticed in our massive economy. We can afford to sponsor a Marshall-type plan for the Middle East, through neutral parties, that should replace hopelessness with hope. We also need to provide huge amounts of basic humanitarian assistance for a region that is still very much war torn and overflowing with refugees. Any new Marshall plan should cost a tiny fraction of what we have already recklessly squandered away in Iraq.

Our primary goal should always be to do what we can to reduce the factors fueling Islamic terrorism. If a particular action is likely to add fuel to the fire, we need to assess whether it is really in our national interest. Certainly destroying cities like Mecca and Medina as Rep. Tancredo suggested would guarantee eternal war and enmity against our country. It would be the most counterproductive, not to mention the stupidest thing we could possibly do in reaction to Islamic terrorism.

Our next president, unlike our current one, needs to be fully mindful of these tradeoffs. He or she must be progressive enough to push for the real political changes that might actually solve our long-term problem with Islamic terrorism. Senator Obama’s unwise remarks suggest he has not grasped the totality of the problem facing us. Let us hope that Democrats choose a nominee, based not on how inspiring they find his or her speeches at political rallies, but on whether they have the maturity, wisdom and judgment to apply our country’s resources wisely in these areas of the world during these very turbulent times.

 
The Thinker

Mission disastrously unaccomplished

Today is the fourth anniversary of Bush’s dubious “Mission Accomplished” speech, which he gave on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. On that day, he said:

We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide.

Today, Congress is sending him a bill (which he promises to veto) to fund our troops in Iraq while beginning the process to bring them home from a civil war we cannot control.

I feel the need to say, “I told you so.”

I wrote this entry on July 23, 2003, two months and 26 days after Bush made this dubious speech. I wrote:

In retrospect I believe it will be shown that Bush jumped the shark on May 1, 2003. On this day he landed on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, somewhere off San Diego, emerging from a fighter aircraft in a flight suit. Pompously parading down the flight deck with a huge banner in the background that said “Mission Accomplished” Bush basically said we had won the war and there was just a little cleaning up to do. You know small things like bring civil order, turn on the lights, prevent looting and instill democratic values. Small stuff apparently. Just a few addendum to the nation’s checklist, hardly worth mentioning really!

The carrier episode, particularly in hindsight, was the defining moment. You can rest assured as this war of attrition drags on and on that you will see this video clip used endlessly against Bush in the general election next year. Michael Dukakis’s moment emerging from the turret of a Massachusetts’s National Guard tank has nothing on this wholly preventable photo op.

Nuff said.

 
The Thinker

Delusional Paranoia on Iraq

While I was driving home from church today, I was listening to a rebroadcast of NBC’s Meet the Press on CSPAN Radio. NBC reporter Tim Russert was interviewing Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The topic, of course, was our War in Iraq and President Bush’s controversial strategy to add tens of thousands more American troops in Baghdad.

Senator Graham was strictly towing the party line. Of course, he thought President Bush’s strategy deserved a chance to succeed. He decried Congress for trying to micromanage the war. He kept reiterating the same points. If we leave Iraq now there will be a bloodbath. The Middle East will explode into a regional conflict. Al Qaeda will have a new base for the training and recruitment of terrorists. He also said Iraq would become a puppet regime for Iran, Turkey would invade Kurdistan and neighboring Sunni states would support the Sunnis cause in Iraq’s civil war. He implied that all this would lead to the same paranoid conclusion shared by President Bush and many on Capitol Hill: the terrorists would follow us home. They assert that failure to confront the terrorists today in Iraq could then mean goodbye United States of America and hello Islamic Republic of America. Goodbye internets, hello burkas.

Senator Graham needs a reality check. No one knows for sure what would happen if America precipitously withdrew from Iraq. I will grant you that a couple scenarios are more likely than not. If we withdrew, I think you could count on more Sunni vs. Shiite violence in the short term, although arguably there is plenty enough of it going on right now. The de facto partitioning of Iraq, already well underway, would accelerate dramatically. Many of the other scenarios he posed sound dubious at best. I would call some of them ludicrous and ultra paranoid.

With much of Iraq in turmoil and ungovernable, I doubt the Iranian army would want to join in the fray. I also doubt that if a Shiite state emerges from the civil war that it will want to be at any other nation’s beck and call. Iraqi Shiites have lusted for a nation of their own for too long. At best, their army could only partially protect the Shiites. In any event, there are many Shiites in Iraq and armed militias like the Mahdi Army have proven they can fight effectively. Like the United States, Iran has a finite number of soldiers available for messy occupations, and occupying a large part of Iraq would be a tall order. In addition, Iranians are Persians, and Shiite Iraqis are Arabs. Iraqi Shiites speak Arabic and Iranians speak Farsi. This introduces both language and ethnic differences. They may all seem like towel heads to us outsiders, but it is very unlikely that Shiite Iraq could ever successfully work as a client state of Iran. Iran and Iraqi Shiites have religion in common and not a whole lot else. In fact, there is likely quite a bit of animosity that still lingers. Twenty-five years ago, Iran and Iraq were engaged in a bloody war that killed at least 875,000 people.

Turkey could invade Kurdistan, but it would come at a great cost. First, they desperately want to become part of the European Union. Invading another country is not a great way to go about it, particularly since the invasion would be unprovoked. Second, the Kurds are hardly helpless. While the rest of Iraq has descended into anarchy, they have used their relative tranquility to increase their armed forces and readiness; an invasion would hardly be a cakewalk. If Turkey did try to occupy Kurdistan, it would probably devolve into a bloody occupation like the one we are seeing in Iraq. Third, even if American forces did leave Iraq, most likely they would relocate to Kurdistan anyhow. It makes a convenient base to keep track on elements of al Qaeda in Iraq, check Iran’s influence, and dissuade Turkey from invading. At least initially, the Kurds would welcome our presence as a stabilizing influence. In short it is hardly a given that our withdrawal would cause the whole region to explode into conflict.

Why do Senator Graham’s warnings sound so familiar? Tim Russert nailed it: this line of thought is peculiarly reminiscent of the Domino Theory so popular and proven so incredibly wrong that existed during the Cold War. The theory was that if we did not check communism in South Vietnam, it would creep all over South Asia. President Lyndon Johnson himself figured we might have to surrender the Pacific Ocean to the forces of communism if we failed to contain it in Vietnam.

Then as now, we got it mostly wrong. At least that is the opinion of the noted late historian Barbara Tuchman. I am in the final part of her book, The March of Folly (1984). It concludes with a long hard look at the waste of time, lives and resources trying to keep South Vietnam from falling to the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. It is painful reading, and not just because tens of thousands of Americans needlessly lost their lives there. It is also painful because here we are forty years later and we are repeating the same stupid mistakes. Ironically, the people who put us in Iraq were the very same people who harbored so much resentment that we let Vietnam fall in the first place. Iraq became their ideological battlefield that would prove we could do a Vietnam situation again, only do it right this time.

Of course, many on the right will say that Iraq is not Vietnam. In some respects of course they are right. However, you do not have to get too far into this part of Tuchman’s book to realize that when it came to how the war was executed many of the same strategies were used. These included candid intelligence assessments that were ignored by politicians and trumped up incidents used to justify unilateral escalation of the conflict. Both conflicts also had numerous attempts by the U.N. to keep the solve the conflict before armed force was used, and in both cases we found we would rather fight and prove our manliness than use diplomacy. In both conflicts there was amply warning that we would be entering a Pandora’s Box, yet we let our fears and hubris dictate our actions. In both conflicts, we studiously chose to ignore the history of the region, assumed the best case and supported anemic and corrupt leaders on the assumption that it was better to support the devil you know.

In Vietnam, for example, Tuchman notes that China gave weak support to the Communist North Vietnamese government and the Vietcong. This was because historically the Vietnamese and the Chinese have not gotten along. The USSR’s support of North Vietnam was far more in the moral support area than in advisers and money. Vietnam was just one of many areas of influence around the world that interested them. (One of them was Iran, which led to our engagement in Iraq and providing Saddam Hussein with intelligence and munitions.) Moreover, communism in Vietnam was a logical response to the times. As Tuchman makes clear, France’s interest when Vietnam was its colony was simply to exploit its people and devour its natural resources. The French ruthlessly suppressed any dissent. Little thought was given to bridging the cultural differences between the western and eastern culture. Communism in Vietnam was a generally recognized pragmatic means by the residents of Vietnam to bring about their fondest goal: genuine Vietnamese nationalism and sovereignty.

The result of our hasty exit from Vietnam in 1975 was a united country that had been artificially split in two. The communist menace hardly leached across South Asia. It ended with Laos and Cambodia, and all our massive secret bombings failed to bring stem it. Today Vietnam, like China, is more communist in name than in ideology. Thirty years later, we have diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Cambodia is no longer communist. Laos remains a socialist state with a communist underpinning, yet remnants of the Hmong still wage occasional insurgent strikes to try to end the socialist state.

To me the lesson of Vietnam means we that should now exercise some perspective. Most likely, our worst fears are a result of our own paranoid delirium. For them to be realized depends on many really improbable ifs being executed. It allows for no possibility that other natural events and forces in the region might counteract these forces. It assumes, for example, that groups like al Qaeda can wield more power and influence than historic ethnic forces. Moreover, it assumes that by using our own force there that we can truly achieve our aims. One thing we should have learned to date from this conflict is that our presence (and in particular our use of armed forces) exacerbates the situation and provides much of the animus to keep the conflict going.

What is needed now is exactly what we should have done before we invaded Iraq: a cold, clinical and dispassionate assessment of the likelihood that our imagined risks will play out, as well as a comprehensive understanding of the historical forces at play in the region. Yes, I think further bloodshed is likely if we leave Iraq. I doubt strongly though that the terrorists will follow us home. As I mentioned in another entry we were the domino that fell on 9/11. We acted predictably and precisely the way that al Qaeda wanted us to act to effect a one time aim: inflame the Muslim world when we retaliated. At its heart, the violence underway today in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East is the result of the same thing that drove the conflict in Vietnam: the desire of a people to direct their societies consistent with their own culture and values. Instead, the Arab world is rife with oppression, hopelessness and poverty. “Moderate” states that we support like Egypt are actually secular states where human rights exist on paper, but not in practice. Al Qaeda is a sad example of the effects that extreme oppression can cause over many decades. Al Qaeda though is just one force at work. There are many others. They are already moving their chess pieces. The movement will continue whether we stay or go. It is folly to think that we can contain or redirect the energy of these forces. They must be expressed and they will be expressed whether we wish it or not.

Just as the USSR eventually collapsed under its own bloated weight, so must these oppressive Arab regimes. It is this oppression and not our occupation that is causing the kettle to boil. Our presence simply stirs the cauldron. I am convinced though that although the path to resolution of these feelings in the Middle East may be bloody and messy, it will be resolved most quickly and with the most finality when we come to our senses and allow these natural forces to play out.

 

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