A Fine Mess
Topic: Couldn't be so...
The president gave his September 11 speech - and as Bruce Reed says, there was nothing new there. It was "more or less the same speech he has given on many prime-time occasions before. With Michael Gerson's departure to become a syndicated columnist, the quality of Bush's imagery has slipped. Last night, he looked forward to the day 'when the people of the Middle East leave the desert of despotism for the fertile gardens of liberty' - which sounded more like ad copy for a Dubai desalination plant."
This was variations on a theme. After wanting to get him dead or alive, then saying he didn't really think about him much any longer, the president promised to find Osama Bin Laden and bring him to justice - one day after the Washington Post reported that our search party "has not received a credible lead in more than two years" and the trail in this particular manhunt has gone "stone cold" (item here). As Reed notes - "Most Americans have heard that speech so many times, they wouldn't be surprised if it bored Bin Laden." One assumes the ratings were low.
He kind of did the "epic struggle" thing - this war will go on for generations, and Iraq is just part of it, but a vital part, even if Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and all that. He gave that up - only Rice and Cheney now say there was a connection. Obviously the hard thing here is to sell the idea that, yes, Iraq didn't have those WMD, and, yes, had nothing to do with 9/11, there was no connection to al Qaeda at all, but the war there really was a fine idea. It's important in some large conceptual sense, or something. The rationales explaining why we had to do this, and why we keep going on, get more and more abstract - tethered to the real world of actual events be the thinnest of strings. It's fascinating to watch, in a morbid, "end of the world" sort of way.
The president's supporters in the House and Senate, up for reelection in November, were no doubt dismayed by this speech, these odd seventeen minutes. Two thirds of the country thinks the war is stupid, and over half think it has nothing to do with whatever "war on terror" we're in, and may be making things worse. They don't want an endless war in Iraq, followed by a succession of more wars. Folks want some sort of resolution. The idea was, however, that there will be no resolution any time soon, maybe not for many decades. Heck, there's Iran next, and Syria, and North Korea - and maybe Cuba or Venezuela as things are going now. When you're running to keep your seat, and your constituents are fed up, piggybacking on this sort of message is impossible.
It was whining, really - we did do the right thing, we did, we did. No one really understands - the country, the world, everyone is fed up with this - but we did do the right thing, we did, we did. Try selling that in Iowa.
But there were suggestions for how to resolve things in Iraq.
Reed mentions the Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson has left the White House. The Washington Post announced they've picked him up as a columnist - something about adding another conservative voice to their pages, as conservatives are so outnumbered and underrepresented in America. Right.
And to give this beleaguered minority a further voice, Tuesday, September 12, the Post published a column by the editors of our nation's two biggest conservative magazines, Rich Lowry and Bill Kristol, of the National Review and Weekly Standard respectively. That's here, and they claim the have they real secret of how we can "win" quickly and easily in Iraq.
Yes, things are a mess right now - they admit it - but the solution is stunningly obvious -
The immediate reaction from Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly is here -
The bottom line is this: More U.S. troops in Iraq would improve our chances of winning a decisive battle at a decisive moment. This means the ability to succeed in Iraq is, to some significant degree, within our control. The president should therefore order a substantial surge in overall troop levels in Iraq, with the additional forces focused on securing Baghdad.
... Administration spokesmen have jettisoned talk of "staying the course" in Iraq in favor of "adapting to win." If those words are to have meaning, the administration can't simply stay the course on current troop levels. We need to adapt to win the battle of Baghdad. We need substantially more troops in Iraq. Sending them would be a courageous act of presidential leadership appropriate to the crisis we face.
But that's what we'll do. There really are no more troops. Such a courageous act of presidential leadership is not possible. We have what we have. There may be no way out.
I swear, I almost think we should go ahead and agree to let them do this. If it would settle the question once and for all, I think I would.
But it wouldn't, of course. If it didn't work, they'd just write another column blaming the failure on something else. Lack of willpower, maybe. Or the French.
In any case, it's telling that they use the word "surge" and decline to provide an estimate of just how many more troops they think we need. A few thousand? Fifty thousand? Where are they going to come from? And do they really think that a surge would do the job? If they had the courage of their convictions, they'd provide a number, tell us what was needed to get the additional troops (pull them out of Korea? call up more reserves? extend tours of duty? institute a draft?), and admit candidly that these troops would need to be in country for at least several years. But they don't.
On the other hand, they're right about one thing: staying the course is the most irresponsible plan possible. There are arguments for withdrawing and there are arguments for sending more troops, but there's really no plausible argument for doing what Bush is doing. Staying the course is just another name for killing thousands more American soldiers for no reason.
But there is the bracing effect of really actually sending in many more theoretical troops. National Review editor Rich Lowry wants a massive escalation - and later on Fox News he reinforces the argument, claiming that if President Bush were to say, "we're going to send two more divisions into the city [Baghdad] and lock it down and secure it… people would actually react favorably to that." The video and transcript of that is here. Lowry seems to think all the polls have got it all wrong about the American people. We really do want thing this to "go big." We all long for it. One supposes this has something to do with who he hangs out with.
The note that accompanies the transcript is this -
But that doesn't seem to matter. We are a warrior nation, really. That's an interesting contention, given the facts, in this case the many, many polls. These neoconservatives seem to think that they really understand America. As with the president, everyone else is wrong. There's a bigger truth. The facts are biased, or something.
First, there is no indication from public polling that there is any US support for increasing troop levels in Iraq. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that only 17 percent of Americans supported increasing force levels, while 53 percent favored decreasing them.
Second, the argument wrongly suggests that violence in Iraq is constricted to Baghdad. In fact, as the senior Marine intelligence officer in charge of Western Iraq reported, the political and economic security situation there is - like Baghdad - rapidly destabilizing.
Third, escalation is the wrong remedy to the problem because it fails to understand the root cause of the problem. Increasing troop levels feeds the perception that the US is in Iraq to stay, thereby fueling the insurgency. Moreover, the numerous increases in troop levels throughout the occupation have not improved security on the ground.
Glenn Greenwald here -
Yeah, but who's listening?
One of the most depressing aspects of the Iraq debate is to watch the self-styled "experts" who advocated this war, such as National Review Editor (and Sean Hannity substitute) Rich Lowry, thrashing around, constantly grasping for new excuses as to why their war is failing, desperate to embrace any explanation at all other than the only true one sitting right in front of their faces - that the invasion was a bad idea from the beginning, that it was premised on false assumptions, that war advocates were wrong about everything they predicted would happen, and the ongoing occupation has produced incalculable disaster along with virtually no good.
... To Lowry, we're always on the cusp of winning. It's always - as he announced today - the "crucial moment." The "decisive battle at a decisive moment." Everything is always going really swell in Iraq. And all we need for it to get even better, to get to the finish line, is some more Churchillian "stirring rhetoric about the need for victory and for stalwartness in the face of setbacks." Anyone serious can see that that's all we need.
... as always with Iraq and terrorism debates, being endlessly wrong is a sign of profound seriousness, and cheering on wars - no matter how misguided and misinformed the cheering is - renders one a serious foreign policy expert who recognizes the serious threats we face in these very serious times. That's why, when the Washington Post wants to find someone to counsel us on its Op-Ed page as to what to do in Iraq, it turns to two of the Wrongest People in America.
If we had determined our Iraq policy over the last three years by picking proposals out of a hat, we would have been way more right than we were by listening to Bill Kristol and Rich Lowry. But they favor wars and more wars and put on a grave, serious face when they talk about The Terrorists, so they are Serious Foreign Policy Experts and need to be listened to.
Matthew Yglesias here runs down how these two have said such things for years and sums it up this way -
Neither has ever served - that makes the call easier.
I was going to call this the hawkery of fools, but really knaves is more like it. The wars are all going to be easy before we launch them, and the folks raising piddling questions should be dismissed. When the wars don't work out, it's always because we've been insufficiently warlike. When the wars produce broader strategic problems, we need more wars. And, of course, more troops. Always more troops.
All this would be just silliness, but that these two, particularly Kristol, speak for the neoconservative movement. Think of them as the voice of Dick Cheney, the power behind the throne, our boy-king's Richelieu. Something may be up. The critics cited above are mocking these two for what they wrote in the Post, but after the November elections something may have to be done. This is not going well.
So this may be dead wrong -
Maybe so, but maybe not. After November all bets are off.
Both Kristol and Lowry see the writing on the wall. The war in Iraq is a failure and the American public isn't going to tolerate a never-ending engagement. They are betting, probably correctly, that the situation will disintegrate further and they want to be able to distance themselves from that failure. But calling for redeployment or withdrawal is anathema to their followers and they don't want to be known as sell-outs. On the other hand, being on record as supporting Bush's doomed policy (one that really includes no plan) is also not appetizing. So, instead, they pimp a hawkish position that their readers will lap up and they can then lay future claim to the line that if we would've just kicked a lil' more ass, it would not have turned out the way it did. By then, they hope the viability issue of their proposal has long spiraled down the memory hole. And they do this knowing all the while that there is no chance that their proposal will be followed.
Why think that? Well, there is this, the video and transcript of Michael Ware of CNN, on Tuesday, September 12, reporting that US commanders in Iraq have privately expressed the need for an increase of three times the number of troops currently serving in Iraq. Officially, the military continues to say that "we have an appropriate level of force to do what we have to do within the confines of our mission." Off the record (to protect careers) the word is different.
Where we get another 280,000 troops is a good question. But that may not be what's going on. As noted here, the military is clearly letting reporters now know - for their future books - that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are responsible for the inevitable loss of what is supposed to be "the central front in the "War on Terror." It's another sort of career maneuvering.
This all has to do with the Sunni-dominated Anbar province of Iraq - a fifth of the country, west of Baghdad, bordering on Syria and Lebanon. The word is it's gone. That came Monday the 11th in the Washington Post, here, from their Pentagon reporter Thomas Ricks, author of the new best-seller Fiasco. He based his reporting on several accounts of a classified intelligence report by Colonel Peter Devlin -chief intelligence officer there - "Prospects for securing that country's western Anbar province are dim. There is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the political and social situation there..." It's the talk of the Pentagon at the moment.
CNN reporter Michael Ware, again, on the show Situation Room, the same day added this -
The next day the New York Times' Michael Gordon here carried the story forward - "The political and security situation in western Iraq is grim and will continue to deteriorate unless the region receives a major infusion of aid and a division is sent to reinforce the American troops operating there, according to the senior Marine intelligence officer in Iraq."
Wolf, it's absolutely nightmarish and "The Washington Post" story is an old one. US military intelligence has been saying this about Ramadi for a year and a half. I've been going out there since 2003. I've watched the steady decline.
Quite frankly, America is not committed to the fight. It is known - it is a stated fact that this is the headquarters of al Qaeda in Iraq, yet American commanders privately off camera will tell you that we only have a third of the troops there that are needed to even begin to make a dent in al Qaeda.
Will that happen? We have 16,000 troops there, but Gordon adds this -
The place belongs to al Qaeda and Gordon notes the Devlin report "describes Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia as an 'integral part of the social fabric' of Anbar. The organization, which is predominantly made up of fighters who are native Iraqis, is flush with cash, much of it earned from black market or criminal activity."
Since the intelligence assessment was prepared in August, however, no reinforcements have been sent. To the contrary, the strain on the American troops in Anbar has increased. An American Stryker unit, which was under the overall Marine command, has been sent from Rawa to Baghdad to help with the operation there. Also, military police who had been earmarked for training the Iraq police in Anbar have also been sent to Baghdad. The Marines have sought to make up the shortfall by using existing troops.
The Iraqi Army has deployed two divisions in the region with a combined authorized strength of some 19,000. But the Iraqi military is under strength. The two Iraqi divisions in Anbar together are some 5,000 troops short of that level, while hundreds more are absent without leave.
Now what? There seem to be no answers. Keep on keeping on is what we are given. It may be all we can do, and chunks of Iraq fall away.
But this war in Iraq is keeping us safer, as in this - Al Qaeda Will Nuke US in Late September - "A Pakistani journalist says that his sources in al Qaeda and the Taliban are claiming that nuclear material has already been smuggled across the Mexican border into the U.S. and that an operation bigger than 9/11 will be carried out during Ramadan - which begins later this month."
Don't worry. The source is not the best. So what are we doing in Iraq?
But we can't just leave, or so Lawrence Kaplan at The New Republic explains here -
He says it's just like Vietnam -
The truth is that, as the war takes a sectarian turn, the Americans have become more buffer and lifeline than belligerent. Earlier this year at his home near the Syrian border, Abdullah Al Yawar, a Sunni sheik in Nineveh province, warned me that "if the Americans leave, there will be rivers of blood." Hundreds of miles to the east in Baghdad, Sheikh Humam Hamoudi, one of Iraq's most powerful Shia, echoed the fear of his Sunni counterpart: Without the Americans, he said, Baghdad will become another Beirut.
... Withdrawal advocates who wear the position on their sleeves as if it were a badge of heightened moral awareness seem to forget that, as theologian Kenneth Himes wrote in Foreign Policy, "The moral imperative during the occupation is Iraqi well-being, not American interests." Having invoked just-war tradition to oppose the war's cause, they completely disregard its relevance to the war's conduct - namely, the obligation to repair what the United States has smashed.
Kevin Drum comments here -
Then, as now, responsibility for the war's outcome lay squarely with its architects. But the war's aftermath also bloodied the hands of critics who insisted on walking away without condition and regardless of consequence. The genocide that followed in Cambodia and the spectacle of Vietnam's reeducation camps will not be repeated in Iraq. But ask any American officer there and he will tell you that, absent US forces, Iraq's ditches will fill rapidly as the death toll multiplies tenfold.
There are no good answers.
There is, at this point, not much question that an American withdrawal from Iraq would lead to massive bloodshed, a Shiite theocracy, and considerably enhanced influence for Iran in the Middle East. It would be a debacle almost without parallel.
And yet, like most other critics, Kaplan offers no better answer. In fact, he gives the game away with a comparison to Vietnam (something that's apparently OK for conservatives).
But this is exactly the problem, isn't it? We stayed in force in Vietnam for nearly a decade, and we still couldn't accomplish our goals. Should we have stayed another decade?
Anyone who advocates withdrawal needs to understand just what the consequences would be. But, as Kaplan admits, responsibility nonetheless lies squarely with the war's architects. In Iraq, if anything, we are having even less success than we did in Vietnam, and there's hardly even a colorable argument left that we have any hope of turning this around. Withdrawing may be an appalling and grisly option, but would it be better to kill a few hundred thousand more people and then leave? Those like Kaplan who oppose withdrawal have a question of their own to face up to.
From out here in Hollywood one thinks of Laurel and Hardy - Oliver Hardy's catchphrase is often misquoted as "Well, there's another fine mess you've gotten me into." The actual quote is "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into." Another Fine Mess was the title of one of their short films from the thirties. Not that that helps very much. This is not funny.
On a cheerier note there's this -
The fun never ends.
Nonlethal weapons such as high-power microwave devices should be used on American citizens in crowd-control situations before being used on the battlefield, the Air Force secretary said Tuesday.
The object is basically public relations. Domestic use would make it easier to avoid questions from others about possible safety considerations, said Secretary Michael Wynne.
"If we're not willing to use it here against our fellow citizens, then we should not be willing to use it in a wartime situation," said Wynne. "(Because) if I hit somebody with a nonlethal weapon and they claim that it injured them in a way that was not intended, I think that I would be vilified in the world press."
Odd News and the Long View
Topic: Couldn't be so...
Odd News and the Long View
The odd news always comes on Friday. Friday, September 8, 2006 - the Senate Intelligence Committee announced that there's no evidence that Saddam Hussein had ties to al Qaeda or to that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi fellow before we invaded Iraq. The Washington Post story is here. One wonders what Christopher Hitchens will say. He scoffed at the doubters. The administration said Zarqawi has been there, and even if in the northern part of Iraq Saddam Hussein didn't control, that was good enough. The war resolution congress passed way back when, the authorization to use force to get the bad guys, justified that we invade Iraq and take over the joint, because they were part of this. The White House pretty much stipulated there was a connection - "pretty much" because it was just assumed by everyone. The Vice President harped on the Zarqawi connection, and Condoleezza Rice, who was National Security advisor at the time, said it was so - there's a neat video on that all here, with all the quotes.
And now this. This "oops" is part of a four-hundred page set of reports - summarized here if you're short on time. No one can get Pat Roberts, the Bush-is-God chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, get off the dime and investigate whether someone was manipulating information - that required report is three years late now - but the basic facts did get released, and Pat isn't happy. Of the two things to be investigated - prewar intelligence and the manipulation of same - we only get the first part. It'll do.
The new report "reveals" - for the first time - that a CIA assessment in October 2005 concluded that Saddam Hussein "did not have a relationship, harbor, or turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi and his associates." It also seems the CIA had been reporting the guy had all along been a bit afraid of al Qaeda - those mad jihad-types were, as Saddam Hussein saw it, a real threat to his power. Many had argued this, but now we get confirmation. Not that it matters now. When you're scammed, you're scammed. Suck it up. Move on.
The scam? Cheney and Bush repeatedly argued that there really was a linkage between Saddam and Zarqawi. Bush on October 2004 here - "Zarqawi's the best evidence of a connection to al-Qaida affiliates and al-Qaida." He kept that up through March of this year - six months after the CIA had concluded that Zarqawi had no relationship with Saddam. He didn't get the memo? One can assume the idea was that no one would double-check anything. But they did.
In the Associated Press account here, Senator John Rockefeller, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, says the new report shows how the Bush administration "exploited the deep sense of insecurity among Americans in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, leading a large majority of Americans to believe - contrary to the intelligence assessments at the time - that Iraq had a role in the 9/11 attacks." He doesn't like being the sucker while Cheney and Rove giggle. But it's a bit late now.
As for the committee's Republican chairman, Roberts, he says whatever Rockefeller is saying is "little more than a vehicle to advance election-year political charges." The Democrats are trying "to use the committee to try and rewrite history, insisting that they were deliberately duped into supporting the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime."
This is a very odd concept of what it means to rewrite history. And perhaps it doesn't matter. Suck it up. Move on.
The other odd story of the day concerned John Bolton, our UN ambassador, who the president put in place as a "recess appointment" because the Senate would not confirm him. The thought was that we needed someone up there who would tell all the others they were corrupt fools and probably common thieves, and the whole UN was a joke, and only the United States could save them from any more foolishness. But as a recess appointee, Bolton needs to be confirmed for real, before the new congress convenes early next January. Otherwise, he's out. And that not going well, as reported here, and many other places - the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has postponed a confirmation vote for the guy, as a key senator balked. It's just not going to happen. This is very odd. Will the president defy the Senate and just keep him on? Can he do that? We'll see. That would be a new constitutional crisis.
But wait! There's more! Osama bin Laden!
The CIA very, very quietly disbanded its "find bin Laden" unit last fall. And then there was this - in the Senate Thursday, Democrats pushed through a measure that would re-fund the unit. Democratic Senator Kent Conrad -"What does it say to violent jihadists that a terrorist mastermind remains alive and well five years after killing 3,000 Americans? Our bill tells the terrorists that protecting our nation is the first priority - and that we are going to deliver to bin Laden the justice that a mass murderer deserves." The Republican "bridge to nowhere" guy from Alaska, Ted Stevens, here whined that the measure was an election-year "slam on the intelligence community" - then he encouraged his fellow Republicans to vote for it anyway. Very odd, but it's an election year.
And there's this, regarding wiretaps and warrants - Senator Arlen Specter was forced to call off a committee vote on his bill to expand the president's wiretapping authority. That bill would make the president's following the law his own choice - the president would have the option to disregard the rules, and the option to, if he chose, to inform the Senate that he had. Russ Feingold spoke at length against the whole idea, and a group of senators from both parties called for hearings. Very odd, but it's an election year. There must be rumbling from the folks back home.
And there's this -
It seems you should be careful what you say is the truth. Things do keep coming up. Reality can be such a pain.
The US military hasn't had much success in building the hospitals or health clinics it promised, but the Iraqi government is moving forward on another building project: As the Washington Post reports today, the Iraqi Health Ministry plans to open "two new branch morgues in Baghdad and add doctors and refrigerator units to raise capacity to as many as 250 corpses a day."
There's plainly a need. Officials at the Baghdad morgue say they took in 1,536 victims of violent deaths in August. As the Post notes, their initial tallies for August suggested that they had received only 550 bodies - such a dramatic decrease from the 1,800 deaths in July that US and Iraqi officials began to claim that their security plan for Baghdad was working. As the Post says, the new number appears to "erase" most of that.
But all that is ephemera - detail. The fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks is coming up, and people are looking at the broader issues.
For example, Joan Walsh is working out What We Lost, and, after discussing how the number of American soldiers who have dies is now equal to the dead on that day five years ago - and our 30,000 military casualties and the reported 46,307 dead Iraqi civilians - she's pretty down. And she adds that quick victory in the Afghan war against the Taliban, which everyone here and around the world supported, now seems on the verge being just pointless - every week there's more killing, more repression and the New York Times reported that the Afghan city known as Little America is now the capital of Taliban resurgence and opium production. Add that global sympathy in the wake of what happened five years ago "has turned to global distrust and disdain." It's the usual laundry list.
But she gets personal -
Well, yes, that's about it. But not much can be done.
Maybe the loss I regret most was the shimmer of national and international unity we enjoyed after the attack - the warmth I felt from friends and acquaintances and even strangers those first raw days, a seriousness and purpose I felt more broadly in the following weeks. Like most Americans, I didn't vote for this president. To me, December 12, 2000, the day the Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount that Al Gore would have won, is another day of infamy in US history. But I was willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt in the weeks after 9/11, let him build on the global support we'd won and do something thoughtful and effective about al Qaeda. His response in those early weeks seemed uncharacteristically measured; he warned against targeting Muslims, he took almost a month before striking Afghanistan.
Since that time, though, we've seen hubris beyond imagination. We've watched an unbridled executive-branch power grab, warrantless wiretaps, the curtailing of privacy rights; a pervasive smog of secrecy descended to obscure our government. Outrage about torture, rendition and secret prisons here and abroad is dismissed with a flippant "We don't torture" from the president. And all of it has been shellacked with an ugly culture of bullying in which dissent equals treason, shamelessly, five years after the attack. Last week it was Donald Rumsfeld comparing war critics to people who appeased Hitler; this week we had Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying they're the sort who would have ended the Civil War early and let the South keep its slaves. Their intimidation is meant to say that the very freedoms worth fighting for - the right to dissent, the right to question our government - might have to be abridged while we fight. Politically, that truly is more than we can bear.
Still, we've seen nothing so brazen as the president's "war on terror" victory lap this 9/11 anniversary week, three speeches to tell us he's made us safer though there's still more to be done, and pay no attention to the carnage in Iraq.
She says that's not true -
And we don't always screw up? We'll see.
… there's reason to believe 2006 will turn out differently from 2002. This time around the midterm elections are looking grim for the GOP, thanks to the war in Iraq, high gas prices and overall gloom about the country's direction. A CBS News/New York Times poll reported Thursday that when asked if the government had done "all it could reasonably be expected to do" to prevent another terror attack, nearly two-thirds of Democrats and Independents said no. Even among Republicans, only 56 percent said yes. Bush's campaign to convince us we're wrong is just beginning, and maybe it will work as it did in 2002 and 2004, but it won't be easy. The great thing about freedom and democracy is we have multiple chances to get things right.
All of what Walsh says is very emotional, perhaps appropriately so. But can one look at all this dispassionately.
That is what Dahlia Lithwick, the legal expert at SLATE.COM, discusses here in her comments on the new book by Richard Posner, Not a Suicide Pact: The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency. That calls for a bit of disclaimer - a reader who has contributed these pages in the past has argued many a case in front of Judge Posner and has privately commented that the man is devastating brilliant (and fluent in French, of all things), and she preferred dealing with him and not Scalia down in DC at the Supreme Court, who she found just gratuitously mean.
Lithwick is impressed with Posner because in this new book he raises interesting questions that are above emotion, or below it, or beside it.
Here's how she frames it -
And in the new book he does just that, approaching the wartime civil-liberties problem "in precisely the manner the Bush administration will not: with a meticulous, usually dispassionate, weighing of what is gained against what is lost each time the government engages in data-mining, indefinite detentions, or the suppression of free speech."
The Bush administration is marking the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11 this week by launching a charm offensive touting its war on terror. At the less charming end of the spectrum: Donald Rumsfeld's nasty attacks on war critics. More charming: the president's new willingness to empty secret CIA prisons and put the 9/11 ringleaders on trial. But what's missing from all these election-year defenses of the government's actions is the same ingredient that's been missing from the outset: a fair-minded balancing of what's been lost against what's been gained.
Imagine, for instance, if the president had, in his speech this week defending his actions at Guantanamo, confessed that separating real terrorists from unlucky clods is next to impossible; that some detainees may still be there by mistake, but that the risks are worth it. Instead, he offered the preposterous claim that the 450 men who remain there are virtually all dangerous terrorists, even when evidence to the contrary is indisputable.
Like the administration's old rationalizations for the war on terror, the new ones write off the president's critics as "appeasers" or insist that we are foiling terrorist plots through torture (or, to use the most recent euphemism, "alternative interrogation procedures"). The president claims that his every suspension of the laws of war, the Geneva Conventions, and domestic civil liberties is justified because it is necessary, and, invariably, it is necessary because he says so. There is never even token recognition that any important freedoms are lost; that water-boarding a prisoner is more than just "tough, and … safe, and lawful"; or that programs like the warrantless NSA surveillance of citizens come at a price for everyone.
That is why Judge Richard Posner is such a welcome voice in the national conversation about balancing freedom against security. Posner, the brilliant and prolific federal appeals court judge, is renowned - and not always in a good way - for putting a price tag on everything. But whatever quibbles liberals may have with his law-and-economics approach to anything from rape to unwanted babies, they should celebrate the intellectual rigor he brings to the problem of civil liberties in wartime.
This of course makes him a hero with the pro-Bush crowd. With every new instance of the president breaking the law we all have our conservative friends who repeat that line that "the constitution is not a suicide pact" and how breaking the law is sometimes the right thing to do (sometimes quoting Thoreau from his jail cell). Of course this causes no end of other problems as that would make him a classic "activist judge" - one who says what the constitution literally means can be useless, as times change. That sort of thing led to the idea we have a right to privacy, and that led to Griswold and saying birth control and private sexual behavior was not the government's business and that Lawrence case where the gay guys in Texas said the state had no right to raid their bedroom and arrest them, and it led to the idea the decision to abort a pregnancy was really not the government's business.
Lithwick points out that a famous hyper-conservative blogger out here in Los Angeles, Glenn Reynolds, got all messed up when he snagged an interview Posner - here getting wrapped around his own axle regarding Posner doing the "living Constitution" thing. That's so BAD, but he likes the idea Bush can break the rules.
But how else do you determine which suspensions of constitutional rights are justifiable in wartime?
Lithwick is impressed because Posner is actually moving the whole issue beyond black and white, beyond all-or-nothing rants from the left or the right. It's far better than the president's simple-mindedness, or the convoluted constitutional theories of his attorneys, however clever. Put the passion and emotion aside. This is a cost-benefit calculation.
Here's the deal -
And here's the problem (emphases added) -
What Posner offers is the suggestion that careful balancing of liberties lost against security gained is a better alternative than the current regime that recognizes no cost to freedoms lost and no accountability for security achieved. By virtue of this careful balancing, Posner even criticizes a few Bush administration decisions. He questions, for instance, the decision to suspend the right to habeas corpus of US citizens or foreign terrorists captured in the United States because he deems the cost of indefinite detention to exceed the gain in public safety.
It is this exercise that makes Posner's book so important, as we begin the pre-election analysis of which elements of the president's surveillance, detention, and prosecution strategy have made us safer, and which actions have merely made us less free.
So doesn't that make the whole thing academic? Posner also argues that our judges don't have the institutional capacity to decide these questions of national security. So who does?
… if we are really to follow Judge Posner's lead; that is, if we are really going to undertake a sober national conversation on the costs and benefits of suspending civil liberties, we need better information on both. Surely Judge Posner would be the first to agree that a good consumer is an informed consumer. And ultimately, the question becomes whether anyone knows enough to engage in such a cost-benefit analysis. For instance, Posner seems to share Bush's assumption that torture is, broadly speaking, worth it, in that it generally extracts information that can disrupt terror plots. He goes on to argue that even in the face of anti-torture statutes, there is a moral obligation in, say, "ticking time bomb" situations, for state actors to exercise a form of "civil disobedience" and ignore those torture statutes. But without fuller information on who is being tortured, and how, and for how long, and how many false confessions are elicited, it's just not clear to me that a cost-benefit assessment is possible.
I am willing to be persuaded, five years later, that provisions of the Patriot Act really do make us safer. But I am not persuaded by assertion alone. How can I balance the security benefits of so-called national-security letters, or the subpoena of my library records, if the government refuses to disclose how that information is used and why? If I am only weighing the curtailment of my civil liberties against the government's bare assertions that such curtailment makes me safer, then there is no real balancing to be done. And if that information is unknowable, am I not just balancing my own subjective sense of freedom against the president's promise that I am safer?
The whole idea that anyone can decide these things seems silly. None of us has the right information, and everyone has an agenda.
But even so Lithwick says this -
Don't hold your breath. The elections are coming - overheated partisan shrieking is the order of the day. That's how we decide things.
The real power of Posner's project is that he is absolutely willing to stand back and measure whether Guantanamo is really worth it; whether wiretapping is really worth it. And even if we don't know enough to really offer final conclusions, the very promise of such a reckoning is a good start. It's proof that often the best cure for overheated partisan shrieking is a good old-fashioned pickup game of cost-benefit analysis. Now if the Bush administration would just follow suit by framing the debate about freedom and war in terms of painful civil-liberties sacrifices and corresponding gains in security (as opposed to cheap attacks on its critics or grandiose claims of unlimited wartime authority), we might begin to undertake the sort of measured, careful debate about this possibly never-ending war on terror - a debate that is long overdue.
And the week ended on a Friday full of the expected posturing.