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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Thursday, 10 August 2006
Framing: What Proves What, Exactly?
Topic: Perspective
Framing: What Proves What, Exactly?
To frame things here's an interesting exchange, based on something Winston Churchill once said - "The opposition is not responsible for proposing integrated and complicated measures of policy. Sometimes they do, but it is not their obligation."

A reader writes to the columnist Andrew Sullivan at Time Magazine, who had opined that liberals are fond of complaining about the mess we're in - we've inflamed the world against us and are less safe and all that -but then they just don't offer alternatives, and seemingly just don't take the real dangers in this world seriously -
I'd say a perfectly responsible liberal take on the war is this: The best weapon we have against the Islamic extremists in the long haul is the soft power of modern culture - its comforts, its freedoms and, well, it's enlightenment. Modernization is appealing, and will win, if given half chance. But if by our clumsy, aggressive behavior we cause moderate, ordinary Muslims to confuse modernization with American aggression, with torture, with greed for oil, and with uncritical support for Greater Israel, then by that behavior we deprive ourselves of our greatest strategic advantage.

The right policy after 9/11 was to pursue the actual terrorists to the ends of the earth, but at the same time to have the nerve and maturity to do our best to avoid actions that would alienate the moderates and young people who would otherwise find modernity appealing. Bush of course did exactly the opposite.

To believe all this is not to believe the conflict is unimportant, as you charge, it is to believe that Bush's frat-boy bravado and general incompetence is everyday worsening our long-term prospects. And that winning control of at least one house of Congress in November is the necessary first step on the long road back to an adult foreign policy.
Sullivan's reply is this -
My only substantive quarrel with this is as follows: the proclaimed Bush policy was not mere deployment of brute force, torture, bombs and swagger as a response to the civil war within Islam. It was ostensibly to create a beach-head for modernity and democracy in Iraq. That, at least, was the rationale I signed onto. Now, maybe in retrospect, the idea of a beach-head for democracy was always just a cover for Rumsfeld and Cheney to try to terrify a bunch of "barbarians" with brute force. And in so far as the war was designed this way, the Bush administration's general incompetence and brutality has, of course, done the precise opposite. It's actually emboldened the enemy, made the West look weak, and lost us potential support in the vital center of Muslim opinion. Send too few troops into Iraq and of course the Islamists think we're unserious. That's why I couldn't support Bush again last time around; and why I hope the Democrats take back at least one chamber this fall - if only to put a break on the Queegs and Strangeloves in the Pentagon and the Veep's office. [Note: You have to know you classic Hollywood movies, of course. - AMP]

But, for all Cheney's and Rumsfeld's flaws, they are at least proposing something serious, however ineptly carried out. I have yet to hear anti-war voices on the left propose a positive strategy for defeating Islamist terror at its roots, or call for democratization of the Arab Muslim world. Indeed, I heard little but scorn or silence when Bush announced this vision in London. Do the Democrats stand for democracy in Iraq? Or in Iran? Do they favor … containment of Islamism? Nuclear deterrence against Tehran? Certainly, the Kossites [cf. Daily Kos] seem utterly uninterested in any of these subjects. That's their prerogative; and it's equally my prerogative not to take them seriously until they do.

The same goes for the Dems as a whole. Until the opposition party presents a progressive, democratic agenda to reform the Middle East - as Blair has done in Britain, for example - there's no reason to take them seriously on national security. Maybe their presidential candidate will articulate such a vision. So far, however: so not so much.
Okay then - who is serious now? This is set up as a choice between those who have the right idea - take care of the bad guys and win the world over to our way of doing things, and do it so badly the opposite happens - and those who have no real ideas at all, big or small.

This may be a false choice, but that's how the sides here are lining up, in the minds of many. How will you vote in November - for absolute incompetence that could very well plunge us into a real world war and total global economic chaos - or for emptiness and avoidance, with a touch of surliness? That's some choice. But that's the "narrative" we have.

And the events of Thursday, August 10, just made things worse, as one UK paper summarized -
British suicide bombers were within days of blowing up 12 passenger jets above five US cities in an unprecedented terrorist attack designed to commit "mass murder on an unimaginable scale", counterterrorism sources claimed last night.

Anti-terrorist agents said they had uncovered the plot from surveillance of a group of young British Muslims, which began nearly a year ago and was on a scale never before undertaken.

US and British counterterrorism officials claimed the men, the majority British Muslims of Pakistani descent, were going to disguise liquid explosive as bottles of soft drink and carry them in their hand luggage on to US-bound planes leaving British airports.

… A British government source said an intercepted message from Pakistan telling the bombers to "go now" had triggered the arrests. Security sources said they had been planning to break up the cells in the next few days, but were forced to move earlier to prevent huge loss of life; they believed the attacks were to take place in the next two days.
The rest of what happened needs no review.

In terms of the narrative, there was euphoria in Washington -
"Weeks before September 11th, this is going to play big," said another White House official, who also spoke on condition of not being named, adding that some Democratic candidates won't "look as appealing" under the circumstances.

This came at just the right time, after the one pro-war Bush-is-wonderful Democrat lost his primary election - the democrats would rather not have him represent them in the senate any longer (discussed here). Who's going to keep you safe after all? What better demonstration could you have?

And Senator Lieberman lost no time is saying that the guy who beat him was a fool - that this guy may have won but his Iraq policies would be a victory for terrorists. To be more precise, he told the Stamford Connecticut Advocate here that Ned Lamont's policy for an Iraq pullout would be a "tremendous victory" for and would "strengthen" the people who wanted to blow up the planes in the scheme foiled in England - "If we just pick up like Ned Lamont wants us to do, get out by a date certain, it will be taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these planes in this plot hatched in England. It will strengthen them and they will strike again."

Do you see the connection? We're tamping down a civil war in Iraq and hoping for the best, because if we don't do that some Brits of Middle Eastern descent will blow up airplanes. He says the two are directly connected. It seems we have to wage war badly and continue our occupation of Iraq to keep folks from getting murderously angry with us. That may be odd reasoning, but the Associated Press dutifully picked up the quote here.

It's the controlling narrative - the White House was saying pretty much the same thing - that all you fools thought you were safe and were ragging on us but, see, there are awful people in the world so let us do our job and just shut up. Actually the president said this airplane plot served as a "stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists." The message was the same - shut up and support us (and don't vote for any Democrat).

The attorney and best-selling author Glenn Greenwald here says the president is insinuating - or explicitly claiming - that this incident proves that Bush was right about the whole array of our country's foreign policy disputes, from Iraq to the current Israel-Lebanon war -

This naked exploitation of terrorist threats for political gain occurs every time a new terrorist plot is revealed, no matter how serious or frivolous, no matter how advanced or preliminary, the plot might be. Each time a new plot is disclosed, administration officials and their followers immediately begin squeezing the emotions and fears generated by such events for every last drop of political gain they can manufacture.

But this effort is as incoherent as it is manipulative. Nobody doubts that there are Muslim extremists who would like to commit acts of violence against the US and the West. No political disputes are premised on a conflict over whether terrorism exists or whether it ought to be taken seriously. As a result, events such as this that reveal what everyone already knows - that there is such a thing as Islamic extremists who want to commit terrorist acts against the US - do nothing to inform or resolve political debates over the Bush administration's militaristic foreign policy or its radical lawlessness at home. Opposition to the war in Iraq, for instance, is not based upon the premise that there is no terrorist threat. It is based on the premise that that invasion undermines, rather than strengthens, our campaign to fight terrorism.

Invading and bombing Muslim countries do not prevent terrorism or diminish the likelihood that British-born Muslims will blow up American airplanes. If anything, warmongering in the Middle East exacerbates that risk by radicalizing more and more Muslims and increasing anti-US resentment. And the more military and intelligence resources we are forced to pour into waging wars against countries that have not attacked us, the less able we are to track and combat al Qaeda and the other terrorist groups that actually seek to harm us. There are few things that have more enabled terrorism than turning Iraq into a chaotic caldron of anarchy and violence - exactly the environment in which al Qaeda thrives.

But it is hard to overcome the narrative in play.

Matthew Yglesias here gives it a go -

Bush says today's plots serve as a "stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists." If anything, it's a stark reminder of the reverse. A stark reminder that this isn't a "war" at all - you don't foil a plot like this with armored personnel carriers and JDAMs. We're also not going to capture the capital city of "Islamic fascism" - not Kabul, not Baghdad, not even Teheran and Damascus - and force our adversaries to surrender.

It's not at all difficult to kill or capture terrorists. Instead, what makes them dangerous is that they're hard to identify. What makes them doubly dangerous is that because they're hard to identify, the temptation is to target them very broadly. And as we saw in the administration's desperately failed strategies in the "Sunni triangle" when you tar huge numbers of not-yet-opponents in your effort to find the bad guys, you wind up generating a much larger number of adversaries. The great challenge is to identify strategies for targeting terrorists narrowly enough so that the number of terrorists actually declines as a result of your counterterrorism operations.

Bush keeps on doing the reverse - defining the enemy in very broad, very lazy ways; conflating issues that have little to do with each other; charging off half-cocked and pissing people off. Meanwhile, he hasn't managed to kill or capture Osama or Zawahiri and insists on reacting to everything that happens in the most-alarmist, most-partisan terms he can imagine. Worst of all, the continued failure of his policies to ameliorate the problem is then trotted out as a justification for continuing - or even intensifying - the same failed approach.

Yglesias thinks the man is "addicted to failure" but, really, he just deeply believes his own narrative.

Yes, he could have reassured America that the government will leave do everything possible to maintain the safety of American citizens, but he's pissed that no one thinks he's done or is doing the right things to get there from here. 

So it was attack day.

And there was what Vice President Cheney said when Lieberman, who supports the administration fully, lost his election -

Echoing a frequent Republican theme, US Vice President Dick Cheney said Democrats were purging Lieberman from the party over his outspoken advocacy for the war and displaying their "pre-9/11 mindset" and inability to protect Americans.

He said Lieberman's defeat showed "the direction the party appears to be heading when they in fact purge a man like Joe Lieberman, who just six years ago was their nominee for vice president," over his support for the war on terrorism.

"What is particularly disturbing about it is from the standpoint of our adversaries ... They clearly are betting on the proposition that ultimately they can break the will of the American people in terms of our ability to stay in the fight and complete the task," Cheney said in a conference call with reporters while on vacation in Wyoming.
What do you put at the end of a mathematical proof? QED. It is demonstrated.

Wesley Clark, the general who might have been, given some variations in the way things went, the Democrat who ran for president, not John Kerry, has his own, minority narrative -
You see, despite what Joe Lieberman believes, invading Iraq and diverting our attention away from al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden is not being strong on national security. Blind allegiance to George W. Bush and his failed "stay the course" strategy is not being strong on national security. And no, Senator Lieberman, no matter how you demonize your opponents, there is no "anti-security wing" of the Democratic Party.
But no one believes that. It doesn't fit.

What does fit is the whole Joe Lieberman thing is really part of a bigger narrative - his defeat means the end of all hope for the Democrats. You see that everywhere - the idea is this Ned Lamont is kind of like George McGovern, a total anti-war wimp and fool. It's 1972 all over again - the hippies in the party have rallied behind a coward. Yes, McGovern was a decorated war hero, but you know how that goes - same with John Kerry and Max Cleland. They're all cowards and George Bush is the warrior. Whatever. When you control the narrative you can make actual careers be anything you'd like.

The definitive argument that the hippies are back - long-haired, flag-burning, free-love radical whose girlfriends don't wear bras, damn it - and they've taken over the recently sensible Democratic Party is here, from Jacob Weisberg. He was four-years-old in 1968 but his mommy must have told him awful things about the hippies. He and most of the right have never gotten over the hippies. They've never gotten over the sixties at all. They hated the sixties.

There's a long discussion of that here at Hullabaloo, with a lot of political history, and it ends with this -
One of the hallmarks of liberalism is its belief in empiricism. When things aren't working we try to figure out why and solve the problem. Despite our unfounded reputation for starry-eyed naive belief in human perfectibility, we are the practical thinkers who are looking to the future and trying to figure out a way to make things better. It is a grave misreading of the current sentiment to assume that we don't care about national security. The reason we are trying so hard to change things is because we do care about it. I don't think I'm the only who feels much less secure than I once did knowing that we have alienated half the world out of some misplaced faith in machismo as a diplomatic strategy. The world stage isn't high school and I'd like to see something a little more sophisticated than locker room psychology brought to bear to solve these problems. In case nobody's noticed, the Middle East isn't looking so good right now and the Republicans are shrieking like banshees in ever more hysterical terms. Far be it for me to object, what with the need to live down the summer of love and all, but that just doesn't seem like a good situation to me.

Perhaps it's fashionable to adopt Weisberg's disdainful pose, but it's completely worthless on both a political and policy level. It's as if they are living in an endless feed-back loop and haven't thought a new thought in decades. I doubt that even winning a majority will convince these timorous chatterers that objecting to Republican national security policy isn't a death wish, but it won't matter. The only thing that matters is that the Democratic Party stops listening to them.
Yep, it is time to move on. It is puzzling when you've angered a conservative friend with your views, and they can think of nothing to say but to call you a damned hippie. There aren't any of those left. The older conservatives sputter and call you a communist, but they're stuck in 1953 or so. There aren't any of those around either. It's very curious.

As for who's really a radical, you could look at it this way -
Right now the extremist radical position is to stay the course in Iraq and just keep blindly flailing at terrorism with no real idea of how to tackle it on a long term basis. Consider this: George W. Bush turned the office of State Department undersecretary for public diplomacy into a patronage job and appointed one of his second rate office wives at a time when this country's greatest challenge is to win a war of ideas. He's kept Don Rumsfeld in charge of the war effort even as we have been watching him slowly unravel before our very eyes. Americans are hated by a majority of the world's inhabitants now. There is no Democrat in the country who would have done that.

Phantom hippies are the least of our problems. Is it too much to ask that the media not fall for Karl Rove's manufactured spin for just one minute and recognize that this nation's foreign policy is being run by incompetent political hacks and neocon fanatics at a time of maximum danger? It's fun to take these little trips down memory lane and all, but really, we have serious issues to deal with and the current government is doing a terrible job of it. Perhaps we could take our eyes off the rear view mirror for a minute or two and deal with the fleet of Mack trucks that are coming right at us.
But it's just hard to abandon the narrative that so convenient. It may have nothing to do with reality, but it sure is handy when challenged.

And as for these airplane bombing that were stopped before they could happen, see Bill Montgomery here -
One can choose one's degree of paranoia here, since the only information sources about the plot are the police and intelligence agencies involved, plus the political spinmeisters.

Many of us have grown accustomed enough to the pointless politicization of color-coded alerts to be instantly skeptical. But the idea that Al Qaeda had a "big one" in the works -- and would have loved to have pulled the trigger in the middle of Israel's war on Lebanon - certainly isn't inherently implausible. I've mentioned the possibility myself.

On the other hand, none of the previous known plots hatched by the British wing of the movement have come anywhere close to the alleged scope and sophistication of this one. To expect a bunch of idiots who literally couldn't figure out how to set their own shoes on fire to pull off the simultaneous destruction of up to 20 planes using liquid explosives is a bit of a stretch.

I'm also dubious about the claim that the plotters were following - almost to the letter - an 11-year old plan developed by Al Qaeda mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to blow up a dozen or so US airliners over the Pacific. Following the script for a previously exposed and foiled operation doesn't exactly seem like a global terrorism best practice. Are we dealing with professionals or amateurs here? Or is it a little bit of both, plus a healthy dose of hype from a couple of guys (Bush and Blair) who right now can use all the hype - and raw, adrenalized fear - they can get?

Like I said, it's a BYOP (bring your own paranoia) party. The truth behind the latest episode of the "Osama bin Laden Hour" is one of those unknown unknowns Rumsfeld talks about. Would the security apparatuses of two leading capitalist powers (including the commercial heavyweight champion of the world) really turn the global transportation system on its ear just for the sake of a temporary political advantage? And if that's really what's really going on, why isn't it October right now?

Maybe what matters most isn't the credibility of the plot - using whichever meaning of the word you think most appropriate - but the fact that five years after 9/11 British society apparently contains a large (and growing?) number of young Muslim men who would like to kill as many Americans as they can whenever and wherever they can.

It's a pretty ironic coda to the wingnut flypaper theory - under which we were supposed to "take the fight" to the terrorists in Iraq (and Afghanistan and Lebanon and, in time, Iran) so that we wouldn't have to fight them in the streets of New York and London.

… Either there are more than enough flies to go around or the flypaper has moved - or both.

… What can I say? We're stuck to our own flypaper. Which means that phony or not, today's hysteria probably is an authentic glimpse at the shape of things to come. We're going to have to get used to the idea of standing in two-hour lines at airport security and toting our carry-on items in a clear plastic bags. But these inconveniences are absurdly insignificant compared to other risks we face if we remain on the road we're on - the one that leads to that clash of civilizations the uberhawks are clamoring for.
They do want a war with Iran and Syria - to clear things up once and for all, which those two additional wars would not do. There'd be even more guys working on mass murder.

And as or the stopping of this plot proving the administration was right about everything, see Fred Kaplan here -
According to the Times of London, Pakistan's intelligence service worked "closely with MI5 and Scotland Yard" and, at the request of British authorities, supplied information that proved "crucial in thwarting the attacks" and in arresting the alleged conspirators, most of them apparently of Pakistani descent.

If police hadn't nabbed them in their homes during a sweeping raid, the plotters would likely have sailed through airport security. Metal detectors are blind to liquid explosives. Short of an amazing stroke of luck (along the lines of the flight attendant who sniffed out Richard Reid's attempt to ignite his shoe bomb on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001), not even the most astute guard would have looked twice at a soft-drink container or at the flash camera that was reportedly to trigger the blast.

By the same token, drones and radar-warning planes can't spot every potential terrorist scrambling across the border. X-ray machines cannot cope with the vast boatloads of cargo unloaded every day at America's ports (the standard estimate is that just 2 percent of containers are inspected). Nor can the radiation detectors deployed along New York City's bridges and tunnels pick up every gamma ray emitted by every truck that zooms by.

Border patrols and detection devices are necessary tools. Like locks on the front door, they make it harder for terrorists to make plans and wreak havoc. But there's always a back door or window that can be pried open. Preventing that from happening requires good intelligence, and good intelligence requires contacts with the sort of people who hang around the dark alleys of the world.

There's a broader lesson here, and it speaks to the Bush administration's present jam throughout the Middle East and in other danger zones. If the British had adopted the same policy toward dealing with Pakistan that Bush has adopted toward dealing with, say, Syria or Iran (namely, it's an evil regime, and we don't speak with evil regimes), then a lot of passenger planes would have shattered and spilled into the ocean, hundreds or thousands of people would have died, and the world would have suddenly been plunged into very scary territory.
What follows that is detailed discussion of how we have stopped all contact with those governments. Syria used to help us with all sorts of inside information on al Qaeda. They'll like to do that again, for various self-serving reasons. They might be willing to rein in Hezbollah.

But we don't talk with the bad guys - that would acknowledge then, and give them some sort of legitimacy they don't deserve. The Brits do.

And that leads to the obvious question -
It is time to ask: Which is the more "moral" course - to shun odious regimes as a matter of principle or to take unpleasant steps that might prevent mass terror?
Well, duh?

We get caught up in our own narrative of how things should be. And the Brits saved our bacon on this one. It's just that it isn't being framed that way. It's a bit mad. But what can you do?

Posted by Alan at 22:02 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 11 August 2006 06:52 PDT home

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