Wrong Target

The Thinker by Rodin

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 measure of a democracy

The Thinker by Rodin

Here in America we are trained to look down on our lawyers. We assume that lawyers are just petty ambulance chasers. We think they are eager to bend justice for their clients but only if it also obscenely increases their fortunes. We do not understand how anyone can justify billing rates of $200 or $300 an hour by doing something as dry as reading dusty old law books. Sometimes we grudgingly express appreciation for those lawyers who attempt to provide equal justice to the poor. We do so while sometimes also expressing unhappiness if their justice was purchased with our tax dollars.

On Capitol Hill, the Republican Party seems to have an animosity toward trial lawyers. This is curious since the ranks of Congress are rife with lawyers. Nonetheless, when trial lawyers are successful suing corporations for what are perceived to be excessive punitive damages, Republicans tend to get their dander up. Tort reform is usually near the top of their agenda, right after tax cuts. Greed may be good on Wall Street, but not when their actions affect stock values.

We want to believe that lawyers are simply unnecessary. We want to think that we should be able to reach agreements without having to legalize it with these complex paper instruments we call contracts. The reality is that we need lawyers. Laws and contracts may be time consuming and expensive but they also remove legal ambiguity. Imagine the potential mess of a business merger without an enforceable contact hammered out by lawyers. Imagine if you willed your estate to your family but they ended up inheriting nothing because a judge decided arbitrarily to ignore your will. It is not obvious but, yes, we really do need lawyers. They are part of the epoxy that allows society to function in a predictable way.

In William Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Dick suggests to the rebel Jack Cade that an excellent way to start an insurrection is to kill all the lawyers first. Dick may have been on to something. Lawyers are the gears that make the law work. Without lawyers, anarchy or dictatorships become possible. Most of us do not choose careers that we hate. The same is true with lawyers. It is likely that most lawyers are drawn to the law because they respect it. That so many lawyers populate Congress is likely due to their fascination with the law. (It also does not hurt that lawyers frequently have enough disposable income and the connections to be able to run for Congress in the first place.)

Perhaps like me you were stirred by the recent events in Pakistan. I was not surprised that with his grip on power loosening, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf would find it convenient to suspend the constitution and lock up most of his political opponents. Like most of us democrats, I was upset. Yet I was also very moved to see opposition arise almost immediately. Who led the opposition? They were the Pakistan’s lawyers, who marched in the streets by the thousands. By standing up for their democracy, they literally put their lives on the line. In fact, it is likely that at least hundreds of them are now in prison for doing so. So far, it appears that most of Pakistan’s masses have yet to become engaged in the struggle for democracy. The lawyers are proving to be the phalanx for the restoration of the rule of law in Pakistan. It is also clear from footage of their marches that they are passionate believers in the law and in democracy. As they proved some months ago when they stood up to Musharraf in support of their chief justice, they have the courage of their convictions.

I wish our many lawyers in our Congress had similar courage. In their case, much less courage is required. Yet most of them appear spineless. Today, for example, with the shameful support of a handful of Democratic senators, the Senate approved the nomination of Judge Michael Mukasey as our new Attorney General. Senators approved the nomination even though Mukasey could not assure them that waterboarding was a form of torture. As egregious as this was, Mukasey also stated his belief that the President might have inherent powers that puts him beyond the reach of the law. Somewhere up there, Richard Nixon has an evil smile on his face.

Fifty-six men were signatories to the Declaration of Independence. Twenty-four of them were either lawyers or jurists. In the declaration, they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to establish a new democracy called the United States of America. These were not just idle words. The British Army hunted down these signatories as treasonous rebels. If captured they would have paid with their lives. Some of them paid that price. Others spent the Revolutionary War constantly on the run leaving behind ruined families and businesses. Only one of those patriots, Thomas Jefferson, would survive and rise to become President of the United States.

I wish we had patriots in our Congress like this. We have many patriots in uniform overseas and I certainly do not mean to discount their patriotism. Thousands have died for their country, tens of thousands have been wounded, most on a mission in Iraq that will probably prove in vain. Their patriotism is beyond dispute. The least we could do to honor their sacrifices is to demonstrate patriotism by respecting the rule of the law in this country.

Congress can start by not allowing the telephone companies who broke wiretapping laws at the behest of the Bush Administration to get retroactive immunity for their illegal actions. It can do much better than this. Rather than just refer Representative Dennis Kucinich’s bill to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney to committee, where it will linger until this administration leaves office, it can press forward with real impeachment hearings. It can send a signal both to this administration and to future administrations that the egregious and unlawful unilateral expansion of executive powers by the Bush Administration will never be tolerated again.

Those courageous lawyers in Pakistan know that respect and adherence to the rule the law is the difference between civilization and anarchy. This is a lesson we should relearn now more than two hundred years into our own democratic experiment. If freedom is not free, neither is the equal application of the law. Our pragmatic founding fathers at least gave the branches of government power to check excessive power grabs by the other branches. It is long past time for the Congress, on behalf of the people who it serves, to restore the rule of law in clear and unambiguous terms.

No Easy Answers on Islamic Terrorism

The Thinker by Rodin

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.