Monday, May 18, 2009

Respectable Gentlemen

There is small reason to fear the devil when we meet him alone, but the devil well attended by respectable gentlemen, -- that is the devil who is alarming. -- Theodore Parker

In this week's Sift:

  • No Ticking Bomb. What if torture wasn't about protecting the American people?
  • What's Cheney Up To? On the surface, the former VP's 24/7 media blitz looks like a political disaster. Is it some subtly brilliant trap for Democrats? Or is it just another episode in Dick's long-running series of screw-ups?
  • The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ... look for Reza Aslan's How to Win a Cosmic War. Aslan has great insight into fundamentalism in general, jihadism in particular, and what we should do about it.
  • Short Notes. A non sequitur from Pat Robertson. Jon Stewart finds a moral line we won't cross to win the War on Terror. Congrats to Marcy Wheeler. And more.

No Ticking Bomb
The week's most important story wasn't new and is still speculative, but the pieces are starting to come together: Torture wasn't just used to find ticking time bombs and save American lives. The Bush administration may also have tortured people for political gain.

The story has been percolating since a McClatchy Newspapers article April 21 (based on the Senate Armed Services Committee report), but the latest round started with Robert Windrem's article in Wednesday's online Daily Beast. Based on what has been written by Iraq Survey Group head Charles Duelfer (the guy whose report finally closed the book on Saddam's mythical WMDs) and interviews with two anonymous intelligence officials, Windrem claims that someone in Dick Cheney's office wanted a captured Iraqi waterboarded, even though those in the field (i.e. Duelfer) believed he was already cooperating. Why? Because he wasn't providing the information the administration wanted: a connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda.

Along with WMDs, the supposed Saddam-AQ link had been a big part of the administration's case for invading Iraq. Post-invasion, evidence of this link had no ticking-bomb value, but would have bolstered the administration politically.

If true, this is huge. The Bush administration has always presented its "enhanced interrogation" policy as a sound (if distasteful) moral trade-off: weighing the lives of innocent Americans against the pain of suspected terrorists. But Windrem is telling a story of pure corruption, in which the administration broke laws and flouted morality for no purpose higher than re-election.

The difficult-moral-trade-off frame has always been a key part of the argument for not investigating torture: Americans are probably happier not knowing about the ugly things that were done to keep us safe. (As George Orwell may or may not have said: "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.") But if our safety was not the point, if this is just about corruption, then how can we not investigate?

TPM provides a timeline of the torture-for-politics story, and Rachel Maddow clearly connects the dots while interviewing Duelfer and Windrem (part 1 summary, part 2 Duelfer, part 3 Windrem).

Republicans counter-attacked by trying to make Nancy Pelosi the center of the torture story. I'm startled by how nakedly thuggish this tactic is -- as if one Mafia family were warning another that investigations would be bad for business. This montage of right-wing pundits and spokespeople lays out that threat very clearly.
Before Jesse Ventura was a governor or a wrestler, he was a Navy SEAL and was waterboarded during his training at the SERE school. Here's what Jesse told Larry King last Monday:
I'll put it to you this way: you give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I'll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders.

A military mom responds to the claim that waterboarding can't be torture because we do it to our own troops:
My son did NOT volunteer to be tortured. He was NOT told what would be done to him at SERE. He was told he would be taught to survive. Instead he was tortured, humiliated, degraded, shamed, and told to keep quiet about it. ... These people, Cheney and his talking heads, everyone of them chicken hawks who avoided serving, should NOT be allowed to use torturing our troops as rationalization for their crimes.

What's Cheney Up To?
For weeks now, Dick Cheney has been on a media tour defending the Bush administration's torture policy. At a time when the Republicans are in post-defeat chaos, this has made the unpopular and untelegenic Cheney the Republicans' most visible spokesman, and has centered public attention on torture, which is not a good issue for the Republicans. It also has pushed attention backward onto the Bush administration and away from any new faces or new ideas the party might have.

President Obama had been eager to let the whole issue drop, but Cheney's tour has waved a red flag at Democrats, and greatly increased the likelihood of either a truth commission or actual prosecutions, possibly even prosecution of Cheney himself. So what's Cheney up to? Surely this is all part of some ingeniously complex scheme, a trap he is baiting that will snap shut as soon as Democrats commit themselves. Right?

Maybe not. The more I study the Bush administration, the less I believe in the myth of Dick Cheney as some kind of Doctor-Doom-style mastermind. On issue after issue, Cheney comes off as a profoundly ignorant man. Looking back, it's clear that he knew
  • nothing about Iraq. Assume for a second that he really believed we'd be "greeted as liberators". How ignorant was that? And then there was his unshakable certainty that Saddam was an ally of bin Laden. As the administration's WMD-hunter Charles Duelfer said: "That's just born out of ignorance. I mean, to anyone who knew anything about the Iraqi regime ... there was no logic for Saddam to have a connection at all with Al Qaeda."
  • nothing about Afghanistan. The Bush administration made the classic mistake of would-be conquerors of Afghanistan: to (in the words of counter-insurgency guru David Kilcullen) "confuse entry with victory". At a time when the Afghan War was just getting started, Cheney thought we had won and could move on to Iraq.
  • nothing about Islam. The tensions betwen Sunni and Shia, between secular leaders like Saddam and jihadists like bin Laden, between the traditionally recognized imams and the upstart theology of Al Qaeda, between local tribal traditions and by-the-book fundamentalism -- it was all lost on Cheney. Instead of isolating Al Qaeda and finding allies all over the Muslim world, we launched a "crusade" that validated everything bin Laden was saying about us.
  • nothing about terrorism or counter-insurgency. Cheney never got beyond a kill-the-bad-guys approach to fighting insurgents. He never understood that the War on Terror is a war of ideas, and the key battlefield is in the minds of 15-year-old Muslims all over the world. By giving up inspiring American ideals like decency and the rule of law, Cheney unilaterally disarmed the United States.
  • nothing about the traditions of our military. In instituting the torture policy, one of the administration's key problems was how to circumvent the military judge advocate generals. Ditto for instituting military tribunals, which came straight out of World War II as if the last half-century never happened. Cheney never understood the value that the JAGs -- and our military in general -- place on the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
  • nothing about the law. I'm coming to the conclusion that Cheney actually believed the absurd legal arguments put forward by administration lawyers. Numerous behind-the-scenes accounts indicate that Cheney's legal alter-ego David Addington was actually shocked by the defeats the administration suffered in the Supreme Court.
  • nothing about interrogation. Cheney's certainty that torture is the most effective interrogation technique does not come from our trained and experienced interrogators. Quite the opposite. Consider this advice from a memo by Major Sherwood Moran, the legendary interrogator of Japanese prisoners during World War II:
get the prisoner to a safe place, where even he knows there is no hope of escape, that it is all over. Then forget, as it were, the "enemy" stuff, and the "prisoner" stuff. I tell them to forget it, telling them I am talking as a human being to a human being, (ningen to shite). And they respond to this. ... To emphasize that we are enemies, to emphasize that he is in the presence of his conqueror, etc., puts him psychologically in the position of being on the defensive, and that because he is talking to a most-patient enemy and conqueror he has no right and desire to tell anything.
The history of the Bush administration is a history of blunders -- usually blunders that even a rudimentary knowledge of the field in question could have prevented. And if you trace those blunders back, you inevitably find Dick Cheney. He's not Doctor Doom, he's Wile E. Coyote.

So my advice to Democrats is: Take the bait. Walk into the trap. You'll find that it's as poorly constructed as everything else Dick Cheney had a hand in.

National Journal finds that most Republican insiders think Cheney is hurting the party. Says one: "The best thing he can do is disappear for the next 10 years."
Speaking of unattractive Republican spokesmen ... on National Review Online's conservative blog The Corner, Jerry Taylor had the courage to suggest that (in view of Rush Limbaugh's 19% approval rating) "the more people who think Rush Limbaugh leads the GOP, the fewer votes the GOP will get." So of course the other NRO contributors shouted him down. Matt Yglesias' assessment:
I just find the whole thing kind of mind-boggling. Rush’s defenders understand, I hope, that painting Rush as the all-powerful lord of conservatism before whom all else must submit was, in its origins, a political strategy devised by their enemies, right? So why are they jumping so quickly to prove that the argument is dead-on?
Memo to dittohead Republicans: 19% makes a great radio-show audience, but in any election it's a landslide defeat. So Rush can win while you lose.

Rush may drive his favorability even lower if he keeps arguing with 97-year-old ladies like Roberta McCain.

The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ...
... look for How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror by Reza Aslan. This is a different kind of war-on-terror book. It doesn't reveal new details about what happened on the battlefield or at Guantanamo or inside the Bush administration. It's about backing up, getting context and perspective, and making sense of things.

Aslan is an Iranian-American who came here when he was seven. He's also that rarest of birds: a liberal Muslim who can get attention from the media. His previous book No god but God (which I reviewed for UU World) retold the history of Islam as a liberal Muslim might understand it, and said that the current Muslim ferment was symptomatic of a reformation -- similar to the (sometimes violent) convulsions Christianity went through in the 1500s and 1600s.

Cosmic War starts with perhaps the most mysterious aspect of the War on Terror: the number of people on both sides who view it as a cosmic event.
A cosmic war is a religious war. It is a conflict in which God is believed to be directly engaged on one side over the other. Unlike a holy war -- an earthly battle between rival religious groups -- a cosmic war is like a ritual drama in which participants act out on earth a battle they believe is actually taking place in the heavens.
And so the 9-11 hijackers prepared themselves as if for a religious ritual. On the American side, Lieutenant General William Boykin (speaking in uniform at a church) said "the enemy is a guy named Satan," Donald Rumsfeld's daily war briefings for President Bush led off with Bible quotes, and Bush himself announced that the goal of the war was to "rid the world of evil". Such a goal, Aslan notes,
ensures that a cosmic war remains an absolute, eternal, unending, and ultimately unwinnable conflict.
Why would anyone sign up for such a thing? To say that they're just crazy, or that religion makes people crazy, just excuses our lack of understanding; it explains nothing.

I have a rule of thumb for judging explanations of bizarre behavior. Bad explanations make the explainer feel safe. They explain why he will never do anything like that, not why the other person did. (So: the religion-makes-you-crazy argument comes from Richard Dawkins, an atheist.) Good explanations are a little threatening. They start with motives we all share, and make us realize that everyone is a lot closer to the Abyss than we like to think.

Identity and Globalization. Aslan starts with identity. We all need to have a story about who we are and why our living-and-dying is worthwhile. Identity-stories usually involve boundaries, either physical or metaphorical. (People like me are here; people not like me are over there.) But globalization is breaking boundaries, and so threatening traditional identities.

Take national identity, for example. What does it mean to be English? It used to mean a lot of things: not just that you lived on a particular island, but that you had certain racial and ethnic characteristics; you spoke and thought in English; you probably had an ancestor someplace like Waterloo or Agincourt; you were a Christian who either belonged to or was alienated from the Church of England; you shared cultural heroes like Shakespeare and Newton, and had a strong opinion about Oliver Cromwell. But today, citizenship in the UK (or the EU) implies none of that. Being English is not something you can hang your hat on anymore.

Lots of identities don't work as well as they used to. You might live half a dozen places in your life and have two or three professions. Over time, you might have more than one spouse, more than one set of children, and a new best friend every five or ten years.

So who are you? What story explains why your living-and-dying is worthwhile? Who will carry on after you're gone? And even if somebody wanted to, what would they carry on?

A century ago, intellectuals took for granted that religion was a relic. Surely it would fade away as science explained more and more of life's mysteries, and as increasingly cosmopolitan people realized how parochial their local mythologies were. But the intellectuals failed to grasp something important: The modern world was killing off all the traditional identity stories, and people still needed to identify with something. So religion would thrive in the modern world; and the religions that created the most satisfying identities would thrive best.

Fundamentalism rocks as an identity. Whether you're a Pentecostal speaking in tongues, an illegal Zionist settler reclaiming Palestine for God's chosen people, or a jihadist training for martyrdom in the tribal areas of Pakistan -- you know who you are. You know who your people are and exactly what they will carry on after you die.

Islamists vs. Jihadists. A second important point of the book is the distinction between Islamists and jihadists. The jihadist is a cosmic warrior. The problems of his fellow Muslims, either locally or far away in Palestine or Iraq, form his identity as a member of an aggrieved community -- but his actions are not part of any worldly program to resolve those grievances. Rather, a jihadist acts to demonstrate the power of God, and it is ultimately God who must remake the world and solve its problems.

The Islamist, on the other hand, is motivated by his religion to solve worldly problems through worldly action. Aslan cites the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the ruling Justice and Development Party of Turkey as examples. He sees them evolving into the role that the various Christian Democrat parties play in Europe. Because their goals and methods are of this world, they can compromise and learn to work with non-Muslims.

The key question for the next generation of Muslims is whether they have sufficient hope to reform the world rather than blow it up so that God can start over. Can mere people organize to replace corrupt governments like Mubarak's in Egypt? Or must they rely on God to topple the whole world order first, starting with the United States?

How to Win. The answer promised by the book's title is simple: The only way to win a cosmic war is not to fight one. Otherwise, both victory and defeat are apocalyptic myths. And so we must simultaneously resist the efforts of our own fundamentalists to frame the current struggle in cosmic terms, and do whatever we can to break the jihadists' cosmic-war frame.

Aslan gives a clear picture of how jihadists -- like the 7/7 London bombers -- are made: First, legitimate local grievances (like the alienation of young British Muslims) are interpreted in religious (not ethnic, racial, or class) terms. Then distant problems (like the oppression of the Palestinians, Chechans, and Kashmiris) are built into an identity as an aggrieved global people. Then the apparent Muslim leaders (clerics, politicians, or tribal sheiks) are portrayed as corrupt collaborators in the current order. And finally an apocalyptic global jihad is presented as the solution.

He recommends disrupting that process at every stage: doing a better job of integrating Muslims into Western society, seeking justice for oppressed peoples worldwide, and working with non-jihadist Muslim leaders rather than regarding all Muslims as potential jihadist sympathizers.

Singapore has an interesting approach: They let Muslim clerics deprogram young jihadists. Teen-age jihadist foot-soldiers typically have only a slogan-based understanding of Islam. Like many fundamentalist Christians in this country, they can parrot scriptural proof-texts but know little about the larger context. At that age, regular one-on-one sessions with a trained Islamic scholar can make a huge difference.

Short Notes
Media Matters collects what the Right is saying about same-sex marriage. Pat Robertson has the clincher:
And what about bestiality? And ultimately, what about child molestation and pedophilia? How can we criminalize these things and at the same time have constitutional amendments allowing same-sex marriage among homosexuals?
A real conundrum, that is. Unless you actually think about it or something.

Jon Stewart connects some new dots: When the subject is torture, the Right claims we have to use "all our assets" to prevent another terrorist attack. But when the subject is don't-ask-don't-tell, they want to punt away assets like Arabic interpreters:
So it was OK to waterboard a guy over 80 times, but God forbid the guy who could understand what that prick was saying has a boyfriend.

An impressive set of graphics demonstrates something I've suspected for a while: Canada is pretty well governed.

My reaction to the Philadelphia Inquirer giving John Yoo a column: I don't want to hear from Yoo again unless he's under oath.
Double standard: Two guys cheat on their cancer-stricken wives. The Democrat (John Edwards) is a pariah. The Republican (Newt Gingrich) is a leading conservative spokesman.

The next time somebody tells you that newspapers do real journalism and bloggers just opinionate, have them read Marcy Wheeler, who just got a well-deserved Hillman Award.

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