Thursday, April 30, 2009
The next group I'm reading consists of Against All Enemies, The Dark Side, and War and Decision.
If you were to read one or more of these books in the next couple of weeks, we could have some fine discussions here. For one thing, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State is a fascinating little book, and it is little. At 189 pages in all, it's an easy read, but there are intriguing ideas on every page. God and Gold is another book that is just rich with new and interesting concepts and connections. In God and Gold, Walter Russell Mead pulls together all sorts of political, economic, social and religious ideas to explain the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon people for the past 400 years.
If you've read something really good lately, feel free to contact me about posting a review on this blog.
Legacy of Ashes purports to be a definitive history of the Central Intelligence Agency from its founding in the Truman administration, to the subordination of the Director of Central Intelligence to the new national intelligence director. I’m not sure how “definitive” a history can be when a considerable amount of the evidence is still classified, but Weiner has certainly done a lot of work, interviewed many knowledgeable people, read a lot, and used the results of a quite remarkable oral history project.
This is a long book, arranged by presidential administration, in the manner in which, as Josephine Tey noted, English history is arranged by reign. There are 500 pages of exposition, 150 or more pages of notes, and an extensive index. It gives the reader the impression of having learned a great deal about the history of the agency, and even of have gotten the “inside story.” Since, however, the story of the CIA is the story of people who tended to lie rather easily, it’s hard to know how much credence to place in the insiders’ versions of things.
What is clear is that the CIA’s career followed an arc of sorts. It started with disaster and incompetence, when the covert operations boys got into the business of dropping anti-communist warriors into China, North Korea, and part of the Soviet Union. These teams of saboteurs and guerrillas were quickly swept up by the local authorities, even when these had not been tipped off in advance. There are some sad stories here, but the real theme is that the CIA early on developed a certain routine in which it persisted for its entire career, and which was of little use to the United States.
First, the CIA was never very good at the intelligence business. For a variety of reasons – the proclivities of its leadership, its recruiting methods, the desires of its customers – the CIA always emphasized covert operations at the expense of intelligence gathering and analysis. We have been told for years that humint was starved for money, while the military poured billions into satellites and listening devices, but reading Weiner’s book I had the impression that while the CIA never had the analytic capabilities it needed, it probably had as much as it wanted. The CIA did not have the language skills for its job, and it did not develop them. The CIA relied on foreign intelligence services for most of its information, including relying almost completely on the Israelis for intelligence on the Middle East. The Agency never developed a good system for filtering and refining information.
Second, fascinated by covert ops, the Agency not only failed to develop intelligence for its customers, it didn’t do very well by itself. Operations were often undertaken without either a serious intelligence objective or the information needed to give them any chance of success. Moreover, the CIA would get carried away with itself and create very destructive situations. On several occasions, from Hungary in 1956 to Iraq in 1991, the Agency encouraged local populations to rise against their tyrannical masters, and then watched helplessly as those foolish enough to listen to them were slaughtered.
Third, the CIA lied to its bosses, it lied to its agents, it lied to Congress, it lied to itself. This may have been especially true of Allan Dulles and Dick Bissell, but everyone was suppressing some piece of information. There were several internal reports which might actually have helped the CIA to find a useful role and an effective modus vivendi, if the various directors hadn’t carefully filed them away to be forgotten.
The CIA rose from its distressing beginnings to a peak under Richard Helms. It is notable that the CIA was probably at its best when it had Helms and William Colby, both career intelligence men, in the Director’s job. The end of Vietnam, the revelations in the mid-70s under the Church and Pike committees, the decline into such irrelevance that, at the time this book was written, all of the key players were either military or State Department veterans – not career Agency people. And, with 9/11, having proven once more that it didn’t know who was threatening the United States, what they might do, or when they might do it, the agency revealed its irrelevance.
One factor, which Weiner develops very well, was the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union, the Soviet “target,” as I heard it referred to, gave the CIA a mission. The Agency never penetrated the USSR, and it failed to protect itself against it, but the existence of the Soviet Union gave the CIA a focus, a guiding principle, something concrete to work on. At one point, when Robert Gates was running the agency under George Bush, he “compiled a to-do list for the new world, completed it in February, and presented it to Congress on April 2, 1992. The final draft included 176 threats, from climate change to cybercrime.” In other words, the CIA had no clear and self-evident mission, and it needed someone to give it one.
There are some people who would say that the CIA’s problem is not how to come up with a mission – counter-terrorism, say – to replace the all-consuming struggle against world Communism. The problem is how to get out of Cold War modes of thinking, how to learn to deal with non-state actors, and how to get out of crisis mode and into a mode of permanent operations. For many years, the Foreign Service has provided diplomatic services to the nation, in minor countries as well as great, keeping an eye on small American interests as well as the global threats and opportunities. Foreign Service Officers learn the languages they need to learn, they go where they’re told to go, and, in the course of a career, they generally gain the skills they need to operate at senior levels of government. The military has a similar system, and similar expertise. The CIA never developed that sort of combination of structure and esprit. Perhaps, just perhaps, the problem was that it was established to battle the enemy at Armageddon, not to live in the world as it is.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
It turns out the Judge Bybee was the head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department for some years, and was, therefore, responsible for, if he did not actually write, some of the infamous "torture memos." A man who is in favor of torture should not, some argue, be in charge of the administration of justice. It would make a lot of people feel a whole lot better to punish someone for advocating torture.
However, Mr. Bowman makes a good case that you can only impeach a Federal judge for misconduct on the bench. So, unless Mr. Bybee is caught taking bribes, or starts assigning cases only to lawyers with whom he has an arrangement, he may spend the rest of his life hearing cases in San Francisco.
Actually, considering just how conservative Mr. Bybee must be, having been assigned to the famous 9th Circuit may be punishment enough. Just think how badly he's going to feel when he has to rule that gay married couples are entitled to the same tax deductions as their heterosexual counterparts.
I have often been struck by the extreme examples proposed by advocates of torture. You know the sort of thing. Suppose a terrorist group (or a Communist cell, or agents of a foreign country, or aliens from another planet) has hidden a nuclear device in Madison Square Garden (or Yankee Stadium, or downtown Chicago), and we have captured a member of the group. In order to prevent thousands and thousands of deaths, wouldn't we use any means we could?
Well, maybe, and then again, maybe not. One of my problems with this scenario is that, in my opinion, if we knew enough about our captive to the sure that he was a member of the group, and to be really sure that he knew where the device was hidden, we wouldn't need any additional information from him. If we knew that much, we'd know where the group had hidden the bomb. (See, in order to have all that information, we'd have to have someone planted in the group.)
Moreover, having this captive where we could get out the old alligator clips and the crank-operated generator wouldn't change anything. We'd still have to try to evacuate New York or Chicago or wherever it was, because we couldn't be sure of obtaining enough information before the kaboom.
Anyway, I think it's just better all around not to mess with exceptions and gray areas. Torture is wrong. Torture is prohibited by law. Federal agents, military members, intelligence operatives, and Vice-Presidents are all subject to that law. Through Today's Papers you can find a link to Cohen's entire article.
Dahlia Lithwick also takes an absolutist position on torture. She is appalled that the debate has come down to whether or not torture works. It ought to be about whether it is wrong. And we know it is. I think it's a little much to say that we are all torturers, but we do seem to have become a little blase about the matter. One of my side questions is whether we'd be less insensitive if the people being tortured were nice-looking Americans.
More, much more, later.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
For one thing, the Chamber Orchestra performs in local churches - Saturday night at the Church at Broadmoor (UCC) and Sunday afternoons at First Christian downtown. The Church at Broadmoor is a wonderful building, whose multiple levels make the most of the hillside side overlooking a small lake. The sanctuary is all glowing wood and reassuring fieldstone, to which the huge beams of the ceiling form a striking counterpoint. The center of the ceiling is offset, so the right and left sections rise to the ridgeline at different angles. I think part of the idea is to convey the idea that one is sheltered by the legs of a cross.
Anyway, the concert opened with Mendelssohn's overture to Ruy Blas. This was one of the pieces neither of us had heard before, and it has all the elements of a good classical overture - drama, variety, pace, beautiful harmonics. (I've sometimes thought that the real function of the overture is to make sure that all the instruments are in tune, because a good one will tell you if they are not.)
Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D completed the first half. The soloist is a young violinist who was raised in Colorado, and has been in the first violin section of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic for the past two seasons. This was the one familiar piece on the program, at least as far as Helen and I were concerned, and it was very well played. Ms. Cedeno-Suarez had a few intonation problems, but her performance really engaged the work.
The second half of the program consisted of two choral pieces by Gabriel Faure. The first was the haunting Cantique Jean Racine, sung by a very young ensemble from the Colorado Children's Chorale. This is a setting of Racine's adaptation of an old hymn. I think this was the high point of the entire evening. Faure's Requiem followed, sung by a somewhat older chorus, with some passages going to an adult baritone. This was very well done. It is a quiet piece, in keeping with the theme of seeking rest for the souls of the departed.
Altogether, this was a fine end to a good season. We bought our season tickets for next year at the concert, and we don't know why we waited until 2008 to enjoy the pleasures of this very competent small ensemble.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
I subtracted The Brooklyn Educrat. I went out and visited each of the blogs on the sidebar today, and I found that The Brooklyn Educrat had not been updated since 2007. The author's profile indicated that he had two other blogs, and the most recent update to any of them was in 2007. So I'm counting that as an inactive blog, and there's no point in wasting my space and your time with a dead blog. The other one that hasn't seen much action lately - and I've been responsible for most of it - is Cafe Third Edition. It's on the short list for removal.
If you have any other blogs you think I should be tracking here, please recommend them.
Bourdain, Anthony. Kitchen Confidential. 2000. xviii + 312 pages.
Davis, Lindsay. Poseidon’s Gold. 1992. 336 pages.
Bourdain, Anthony. Kitchen Confidential. 2000. 312 pages.
Do you know why you should never order seafood on Mondays? You know Anthony Bourdain, don’t you? He shows up on Top Chef from time to time as a guest judge, always looking for the edgy, the innovative, the risky. He has his own show on the Travel Channel, No Reservations, in which he travels to faraway lands in search of amazing dining experiences. Anthony Bourdain, celebrity chef, who loves eating homemade Brazilian sausages, fantastic Japanese sushi, or Filipino goat’s head soup. Well, before he was famous, he was a drug addict, he worked in all sorts of restaurants that failed or that deserved to fail, and he had a wealth of experience. Kitchen Confidential is where he shares all that with you. This is a fun book, this is a book with lots of clues to good management, and this is a book that gives you a feel for how professional kitchens work. Mostly this is a book about the many interesting people Bourdain has worked for and with in all those kitchens. Oh, and most restaurants order their seafood on Thursday, for delivery Friday. What you get on Monday is a bouillabaise or gumbo or Portuguese fish stew made with five-day old fish and shellfish. Bon appetit!
Davis, Lindsay. Poseidon’s Gold. 1992. 336 pages.
Poseidon’s Gold is also set in a kitchen: the kitchen of a low-class lunch counter in second-century Rome. Davis has written a series of these Roman mysteries starring the whiny Marcus Didius Falco and with precious metals in the titles. (Here's a Didius Falco fan club.) They aren’t bad, and they have some interesting tidbits about life in ancient Rome. But Lindsay Davis ain’t no Raymond Chandler, and she doesn’t make the interaction of Roman social classes sing to you the way Los Angeles sings in Chandler’s prose. Light reading.
Some good stuff about the conditions necessary for a greener lifestyle on a scale that might do some global good.
On the other hand, I tend to think, and Fernandez' examples don't change my mind about this, that that sort of extreme situation is unlikely to arise. While torture will work, given time and resources, and may allow the torturers to round up dissident organizations, I don't see it working in a sufficiently timely fashion to be our salvation in a really critical situation. So, why should we reduce ourselves to the level of criminal sadists in order to obtain some marginally useful information?
Read Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana for more on the subject of torture and its uses in different societies. And then let's think about why we had allied countries to which we were able to send suspected terrorists to be tortured. Maybe we should reconsider allying ourselves with geriatric dictatorships and their machinery of torture.
To give Hanson his due, some countries do have their own ambitions for power, glory, or ideological transformation which might be hampered by America's presence. However, it isn't our mere existence that bothers Iran, to use his most extensive example. We and the Iranians have acted against one another. We backed the Shah for years, when it was obvious that the Iranian people weren't buying his brand of modernization. This identified us with the source of evil for all of the theocratic revolutionaries. When the Shah fell, they went after us, too. They went after us in Iran. They went after our embassy and our CIA station, where, in their mythology, we had developed plans to help the Shah torture and kill his Islamist enemies.
Maybe he's right that Khomeini was after regional power when he ordered human wave attacks in the war with Iraq. But it's also true that 1) Iraq started that war (and expected to win it) to gain regional hegemony; 2) the United States backed Iraq against Iran (at least until the arms for hostages deal); and, 3) an overexcited American Navy captain shot down an Iranian airliner loaded with civilians.
I think Michael Scheuer, in his 2008 book Marching Toward Hell, has some of this right. No, the Iranians aren't nice people, and neither are Al Qaeda and the other Islamist groups. But they wouldn't be turning their anger against us if we were not present in their world. To be more precise, it is the United States' uncritical support for Israel, our support for nasty dictatorships in a number of countries, and our outright warfare against Arab and Muslim people that causes these people to hate us.
Hanson is right about one thing. If Mr. Obama only changes the rhetoric of American foreign policy, the results are going to be disappointing. There is substance to the reasons some countries are hostile to us, and that substance is not going to evaporate under a wave of oratory. If we keep doing what we've been doing, we'll keep getting what we've been getting.
Friday, April 24, 2009
In the case of Afghanistan, I think that our allies are carrying part of the burden. Japan is paying the Afghan army's wages for six months, for example. It's just that only some of them are willing to put their combat troops into, well, combat. As long as they're used for jobs within the range of their abilities, they can be useful.
The second strategic error is our failure to attack Taliban strongholds sufficiently aggressively. For one thing, I think we've been aggressive enough to bring Pakistan to the brink of dissolution. To be more aggressive, we'd have to invade Pakistan.
I'm not sure yet, as I've just taken the matter under advisement, but I'm thinking that our strategic error in Afghanistan, and the only one that matters, is that we've been trying to establish a stronger central government than can be sustained by the political culture of the country. Perhaps our tendency to favor central governments over tribes is misplaced. When we started supporting and working with tribal forces in Iraq, we began to have some success. Maybe what we want in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan is a weak central government with strong regional powers, which we could play off against each other. By setting up a strong central government, with a well-equipped army, we create a prize for the provincials to fight for.
If, for example, the Pakistani central government were weak enough, and the provinces strong enough, it would be a matter of no concern that the Taliban are moving into Buner. If they took Islamabad, it wouldn't be worth much to them, and the other provincial powers would probably unite to drive them out. Paris might be worth a mass, but I'm not sure it's a good idea to have Kabul worth a Friday prayer service.
Sorry, Dahlia, I agree with Barack Obama and Hank Snow: It's time to move on.
As I see it, the problem is that any attention to the torture issue, which is, after all, the Bush administration's issue, is already off the track. Paying more attention to it simply keeps us on this siding that much longer, when we need to be catching the express to economic recovery. There's an old Hank Snow train song called "I'm Movin' On." I think Mr. Obama wants that to be his theme song as far as the Bush administration's misdeeds are concerned.
I might also note that one reason this story has legs is that it serves as a test of just how different the Obama administration is from the Bush administration. Just as many on the far right, those called "social conservatives" and "religious conservatives," for example, are disappointed when a Republican administration fails to impose the Christian equivalent of sharia law, so many on the left have been disappointed by Democratic administrations. The torture, abuse, intrusive intelligence issue - in short, the assault on civil liberties after 9/11, is a good test case for just how far left Mr. Obama and his people will go.
So far, the performance of the Obama administration has been equivocal. (Sort of "hate the sin, love the sinner," if you see what I mean.) On the one hand, staying in the wobbly center could prolong the controversy, and won't satisfy anyone. On the other, moving to satisfy the "hard left" will be seen as partisan and excessive. Believe it or not, there are people who don't want to see Dick Cheney behind bars.
It is worth remembering, though, that many of the "hard left" are also pacifist to the point of eschewing all forms of defense except chanting and strewing flowers. They see all of the military, all of the security forces, all of the intelligence people as essentially criminal. Their opinions on whether particular acts were illegal aren't worth a lot.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
The other issue I take with Mr. Green is about missile defense. Ever since Ronald Reagan was sold this idea, it has become an article of faith on the right wing. I don't believe a really useful missile defense is possible, so I'm opposed to spending money on attempts to build one.
President Obama is fond of saying we shouldn't be looking backwards; we should be looking to the future. There are a lot of dimensions to that kind of talk, but one of the big ones is that Obama wants to work on his own priorities; he doesn't want George W. Bush to impose his priorities on an Obama administration. But that's just what's happening with the torture issue, the Office of Legal Counsel issue, the whole package that was driven by George Bush's obsession with 9/11, and his determination to extract payment from someone for those dark events.
I suppose it would be unrealistic to expect that the Obama administration could just ignore something into which the Bush administration put so much brainpower, manpower, and energy for seven years. So does Obama first have to work for seven years to marry the ugly sister, and only then be able to marry the one he wants?
Let's hope the one he gets doesn't turn into a pillar of salt.
Today's torture story synchs up with that image, and that's why it will be persuasive to many people. The assertion is made that before they adopted the program of harsh interrogation, the Bush people didn't do their homework. They didn't realize that some of these tactics were defined as torture in government manuals, they didn't realize that people had been prosecuted for engaging in some of them, and they even know that our training program was designed to render them ineffective - so how could they work on Al Qaeda?
Actually, there isn't enough "there" there to make that last point. After the Korean War, when it became obvious that a lot of American soldiers succumbed to torture, the military began counter-interrogation training. What we don't know is whether it was actually any good, or whether other countries adopted similar programs. Now, if John McCain is an example, the Vietnam-era military may have stood up to torture better than their predecessors in Korea. On the other hand, McCain was regarded as exceptionally heroic, he was an officer, he came from a naval family ... maybe we cannot generalize from his case.
Anyway, there is more to come of this story.
I heard a radio interview today with Philip Zelikow. Those of you who have read my review of The Commission will know who Zelikow is. Zelikow asserts that there were those who spoke out against "harsh interrogation," and that he thought President Bush wanted to hear these contrarian opinions. The last assertion may be cast into some doubt when Zelikow notes that a memo he distributed while he was working at the State Department resulted in an order to gather up all of the copies and destroy them.
This is the way this kind of story grows legs. Every day there is a new revelation. The more investigations there are, the more sources for new revelations. It can become a self-sustaining cycle, and the signal to noise ratio can get into bad shape.
The key paragraph here is this one:
An already-cooperative al-Qaida prisoner, initially believed to be a senior leader but later determined to be merely a personnel clerk, was water-boarded, slammed against walls, confined in boxes, and deprived of food, despite his captors' belief that he knew nothing of further value, reports the NYT. An official involved in the interrogation said the treatment, carried out on direct orders from CIA headquarters, plunged the prisoner into the "depths of human misery and degradation" but produced no new breakthroughs. "He pleaded for his life," the official said. "But he gave up no new information. He had no more information to give."
One of the things that is going to become a theme here is that the torture didn't result in any significant results. The government is denying that, and asserting that useful information was obtained, but they are handicapped by two things: 1) public skepticism about self-serving statements by government agencies, and 2) their inability to publish a lot of the intelligence that would support their case.
The title alone tells us the attitude, and this is an attitude common on the Left: "Why are these guys getting away with terrible things? Shouldn't they be punished? And what about Dick Cheney?"
Personally, I rather like the President's position, though President Obama hasn't firmed his position up as much as some would like. We're not going to start a witch-hunt for people who were acting in good faith and had legal opinions in their pockets to justify what they were doing. On the other hand, if someone thinks that he or she has knowledge of a crime, that information can be laid before an appropriate law enforcement agency, and we'll see if some broke the rules.
Mind you, it may be difficult for people who were rendered into the custody of the Egyptian or Syrian authorities to find a friendly U.S. law enforcement guy to talk to, but that's how the cookie crumbles.
My main concern here is that this issue will become the equivalent of "gays in the military." That is, the left will get all excited about doing something the right really hates, and the right will get all fired up to stop them. Then, while everyone is all involved in arguing about this issue, the president's other initiatives lose steam. Will it play out that way? We'll have to wait and see.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
Today I was reading another book on my Current Reading list, Marching Toward Hell, by Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst, and a very provocative writer. In the middle of a chapter called "And the Islamists' Fire Quietly Spreads," Scheuer has this comment:
"Today the evolution of such cooption [of Muslim clerics and scholars by authoritarian Arab governments] has created an environment in which Muslim citizens or subjects perceive the senior levels of the religious establishment as an arm of the government, not as independent clerics fulfilling their role of ensuring that the regimes govern according to Islamic law - preventing vice and promoting virtue, as it were."
The key here, in terms of the intersection of Scheuer's work and Feldman's thesis, is that there is (or historically has been) a legitimate role for religious scholars ('ulama) in limiting the actions of government. The breaking down of this role opens the way, Scheuer contends, for Islamist influence.
This is interesting in at least two ways. First, according to everything I've read on the history of the Middle East, the 'ulama had been displaced from their as an effective legal and political body years ago. The Middle Eastern states adopted written constitutions, created legislatures and secular judicial systems, and confined sharia law to matters of personal status (what we might call "family law.") Certainly the scholars at Al Azhar had some influence in Egypt and the Middle East, and the Saudi regime was based on the support of Wahhabi clerics. Feldman starts from the position that the Islamic state went largely out of business when Ataturk reformed Turkey into a modern Western nation-state. So I find it notable that Scheuer is arguing that the clerics were still an influential body in Arab societies until 1990.
This could be another example of our failure to see through the public relations efforts of the Middle Eastern states, to see that the reality has been much more traditional and Islamic than one might have guessed from Arabic-language television programs.
The second interesting point is that both Scheuer and Feldman, coming from very different places, seem to be advancing the thesis that the traditional Islamic clerics could function as a firewall against Islamic extremism, if they were able once again to function as an effective check on executive power in Muslim countries.
I can tell that I'm going to come back to this topic in the coming days. I encourage all my readers to read these books, and to bring your comments and criticisms to the table. Is the United States barking up the wrong tree in opposing the restoration of traditional Islamic law in Muslim countries?
Sunday, April 12, 2009
This tripartite analysis is quite interesting, and, with one exception, useful in an analysis of the rifts within Islam today. The exception is that, in my opinion, Stephens has misplaced the Baathists and "other fascistic groups" in the anti-modern category. Fascism, like communism, is a relatively modern ideological creation, and one which depends upon a modern industrial society to flourish. The Baathists are modern types - murderous and authoritarian moderns, certainly, but moderns nevertheless.
I would ask the reader to compare this article to the analysis of British and American religious (and political) positions by Walter Russell Mead, in his fine book God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World. Mead contends that the forces of scriptura sola (embodied by the Protestant and evangelical movements), tradition (both folkways and the Christian traditions embodied in the Catholic Church), and reason (Enlightenment modernism) balance one another, so that society doesn't fall of a precipice of monism. That short description does not do justice to Mead's book, which is well worth reading, but it does set up a nice comparison with Bret Stephens's article.
The Muslim world can indeed be divided into three groups, and those three correspond to Mead's three forces:
- The "pre-moderns" are representative of tradition
- The "anti-moderns" are equivalent to the scripturalists (with the Quran replacing the Bible as the relevant scripture)
- The "moderns" are more involved with what we understand as reason.
The problem in the Muslim world is that only two of the three sides have any substantial political force. The moderns, far from being the strong force so often decried from American pulpits, are weak, few in number, and too much identified with foreign influences. And that sets up a nice dilemma: It would be good for America and the West to have the forces of modernity and reason strengthened throughout Islam, but any visible attempt to strengthen them will rather weaken them, by validating the accusations that they are foreign ideas which must be rejected.
Friday, April 10, 2009
Fiction and memoirs
Sea of Poppies: A Novel. By Amitav Ghosh. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 528 pages; $26. John Murray; ₤18.99.
Breath: A Novel. By Tim Winton. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 224 pages; $23. Picador; ₤14.99.
Lush Life. By Richard Price. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 464 pages; $26. Bloomsbury; ₤12.99.
The Secret Scripture. By Sebastian Barry. Viking; 304 pages; $24.95. Faber & Faber; ₤16.99.
Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future That Disappeared. By Andrew Brown. Granta Bookes; 352 pages; ₤16.99.
The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran. By Hooman Majd. Doubleday; 288 pages; $24.95.
Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape. By Raja Shehadeh. Scribner; 200 pages; $15. Profile Books; $7.99.
The Three of Us: A Family Story. By Julia Blackburn. Pantheon; 313 pages; $26. Jonathan Cape; ₤16.99.
But the facts, even as laid out in his own article, don't support that thesis. First, the British tried some Muslim extremists and decided to kick them out of the country. Then the European Court of Human Rights accepts and appeal from the Muslims. So, the first thing to say is that the British don't control the European Court of Human Rights, which isn't even in Britain, and it isn't a sign of British weakness that the defendants appealed their sentence to a higher court. After all, is the State of Texas any less bloodthirsty because of its death row prisoners pursue appeals through the Federal courts?
The second thing to say is that there is process and there is outcome. One of the problems with the Bush/Cheney attitude toward terrorism was that they didn't trust any process they could not control. Since you can't have a fair trial and guarantee the outcome, the past administration decided to do without trials. That isn't a sign of strength; it's a sign of unreasoning fear of legal process.
The author of this article seems to have confused British compliance with sort of due process that has made Britain worth fighting for, with some sort of weak-kneed pandering to the extremists.
A 'Phony War' On the Crisis
By David Ignatius
Thursday, March 12, 2009; A19
For all the legislative commotion surrounding the economic crisis, we are still living in the equivalent of "the phony war" of 1939 and 1940. War has been declared on the Great Recession, but it's basically politics as usual. The bickering and mismanagement that helped create the crisis are continuing, even though we elected a president who promised a new start.
History tells us that phony war doesn't last forever and that when it ends, all hell breaks loose.
First, don't even ask me why it has taken me almost a month to respond to this entry in the "panic-now-and-avoid-the-rush" sweepstakes. I've had other things on my mind.
Before we get to the propriety of Mr. Ignatius's reasoning by analogy from the phony war of 1939-40 to today's recession, I have to note that even as regards wars, history doesn't teach us anything like the lesson Mr. Ignatius claims that it does. I can think of two instances in which there was a longish pause between the declarations of war and the onset of hostilities, both of which were at least partly due to timing. One is the "sitzkrieg" alluded to by Mr. Ignatius, and the other is the period from the election of Lincoln until the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. In both cases, part of the hesitation was due to winter weather. In the case of the Civil War, the South was not prepared to initiate hostilities until Lincoln actually took office (March 4, 1861).
On the other hand, there was the Potato War of 1777-1778, the War of Jenkins's Ear, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and any number of other instances in which the war looked like getting off to a good start, and then it just petered out. The War of the American Revolution, for example, had several periods of less than active hostilities, alternating with periods of frequent battles. The difference was usually marked by an attempt by the British to go somewhere in the colonies by an overland route.
Now, as to the analogy with the economy, Mr. Ignatius seems to be concerned about the deficit. Why, we'll spend our way into the poorhouse! The Chinese own half the country now, and the Arabs own most of the rest! The next thing you know, the financial structure will collapse and we'll all be doomed!
Walter Russell Mead, in his excellent work God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World, points out that as soon as the British made their national debt a permanent part of the financial landscape, there were those who were sure this would be the ruin of the nation. Mr. Mead quotes Thomas Babington Macaulay as follows: "At every stage in the growth of that debt the nation has set up the same cry of anguish and despair. At every state in the growth of that debt it has been seriously asserted by wise men that bankruptcy and ruin were at hand. Yet still the debt went on growing; and still bankruptcy and ruin were as remote as ever."
Mead also points out that the British national debt was large by today's standards. "At the end of the American Revolution, the British national debt stood at 222 percent of BDP; at its peak in 1822 it was at 268 percent of BDP.
Actually, the national debt was a great source of strength, and the bigger it grew, the more closely it tied the nation to its government. As Mead points out, Alexander Hamilton did very well indeed to imitate the model of British finance when he nationalized the debt and set up the First Bank of the United States.
Before we decide to follow Mr. Ignatius over the cliff of despair at the lack of businessmen in the Obama administration, let us note that businessmen are the one who create crises and recessions. From time to time they have to be rescued from the consequences of their optimism.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
I posted a review of The Commission: The Uncensored Story of the 9/11 Investigation a few days ago. I would like for some of you to comment on the review (there are three comments so far, including my response to a reader.) I would like even more for some of you to read the book and then come back here to provide us with your own comments on it. Those of you who have read the 9/11 Commission Report might also tell us how Philip Shenon's account of the investigation and writing sorts with the report itself. (I have not yet read the report.)
I suppose I'd like to see more dialogue and debate here, and I'd like to have less of the feeling that I'm sealing messages into wine flasks and casting them into the sea. Perhaps book reviews are too much of a "closed" medium to attract a lot of comment.
This is the date of William Wordsworth's birth in 1770. Bertrand Russell said of Wordsworth: 'In his youth Wordsworth sympathized with the French Revolution, went to France, wrote good poetry, and had a natural daughter. At this period, he was called a 'bad' man. Then he became 'good,' abandoned his daughter, adopted correct principles, and wrote bad poetry."
Russell often preferred to be clever, rather than kind, and this may have been one of those occasions. I wonder if Russell was asserting that Wordsworth was a good poet (and a more sympathetic character) only when he was bad, and that good art is associated with bad behavior. Perhaps he was only suggesting that there is no correlation between one's morals and one's artistic abilities. It may come as a shock to some of you, but there doesn't seem to be any consistent relationship between one's "goodness" and one's skill at a given art or craft.
This may be because "goodness" is judged by society on the basis of conformity to standards of outward behavior, while artistic talent is judged by one's work product's conformity to standards of beauty.
I have been reading the book of Mark in the New Testament. My current reading plan has me reading a couple of chapters every day for a week, before going on to the next selection. In Chapter 7, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for preferring their traditions to God's laws. He goes on to say that it is not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, but what comes out of him, as lust, immorality, and so on. There may be less to this than meets the eye. Whether one is condemning a violation of the dietary law or judging the goodness of a person's heart, what one has to go by is the person's behavior. Perhaps eating pork does not make one unclean, but would a good person eat pork, knowing that such an act would be offensive to the community?
On this date in 1775, Samuel Johnson declared, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." I'm not so sure. In this day and age, a lot of scoundrels have chosen religion as their last refuge. Moreover, while a scoundrel may use patriotism as a refuge, many good people may perform patriotic acts of sacrifice. Does a scoundrel's use of patriotic cover may all patriotism suspect?
By the way, the Current Reading sidebar of the blog provides you with the titles of the books I am now reading. If you run out and find copies of them now, you could finish reading them by the time I come out with my review.
Monday, April 6, 2009
by Marcus Luttrell, with Patrick Robinson
Little Brown & Co, 2007
Most of the books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan we see reviewed here are either analyses of the policies that led to the wars or critiques of their execution. We tend to overlook a stark reality: The wars are being fought by individual soldiers who actually can get injured or killed in the process. Though they tend not to write books about their wars, when they do, we probably should read them. Indeed, in a very real way, they have earned our attention. One such warrior/writer is Marcus Luttrell.
Because I'm going to say some uncomplimentary things about this book and its author, I want to make something clear: Marcus Luttrell shed his blood attempting to carry out the missions his commanders gave him, and I admire him for that and appreciate his sacrifices very much. He's done things I know for a fact I couldn't do. This book is his account of Operation Redwing, which resulted in the deaths of his three SEAL teammates and of sixteen would-be rescuers in the mountains of Kunar Province, Afghanistan, in June, 2005.
It is a story that deserves to be told, but unfortunately, this book is very nearly unreadable.
First, the actual account of Operation Redwing comprises only about a third of the text. The rest is endlessly repetitive macho boasting. Luttrell is a rip-roaring, six-gun shooting, God-fearing Texan, as we hear over and over and over and over. The SEALs are the roughest, toughest, baddest dudes walking the earth, as we hear over and over and over and over. Do you remember those loud-mouth, over-bearing jocks you went to high school with? Luttrell is one of them.
Second, Luttrell's dramatic you-are-there account of his unit's heroic fight to the death against overwhelming odds is badly—and sadly—marred by his complete failure to comprehend why it happened the way it did. Three interacting factors led to the deaths of Operation Redwing's casualties: bad planning and intelligence, bad luck, and arrogance. Luttrell's four-person SEAL team was plunked down on a barren mountainside that offered little cover and, most importantly, no easy way to escape if anything went wrong. They were there to watch for and, if possible, capture or kill a Taliban leader believed to be in the area. Unbeknownst to the mission’s planners, he was there with hundreds of his fighters. While the SEALs were crouched on the mountainside watching, three goat-herders and several dozen bleating goats almost literally stepped right on them.
The mission was doomed at that point. The SEALs could have killed or detained the goat-herders, but their disappearance and the goats milling around on the hillside would have aroused the suspicions of the villagers. The SEALs chose to let them go, but then, for some unfathomable reason, they didn't immediately abort the mission and depart the area. A short while later, they were attacked by about a hundred Taliban fighters and cut to pieces. Luttrell was the only survivor, mostly because a grenade blew him into a ravine where the Taliban couldn't find him, and he eventually was rescued by some villagers who decided to protect him, even though they put their lives at great risk doing so. Later, a rescue helicopter searching the area at low altitude and slow speed was shot down by the Taliban with a rocket-propelled grenade, killing all sixteen aboard.
Luttrell believes that everyone died not due to bad planning and bad luck, but as a direct result of liberal politicians and media in the US, who won't let the military kill anyone they want. Luttrell preposterously claims that while his team was being shot at, they discussed whether the liberals would prosecute them for murder if they shot back. Of course, there's not a chance that really happened. Nor is there the slightest possibility that the hero of the book, Lt. Michael Murphy, who was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for his actions that day, took a vote about whether to release the goat-herders, and fear of liberals caused the SEALs to let them go.
Luttrell directly states that no civilians should have the right to even know what the military is doing, let alone the right to control it. Even worse, he is aggressively and arrogantly ignorant about the places he's sent to, the events that have transpired there, and the people who live there. He asserts that everyone who hates America in the region—Saddam, the Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias in Iraq, the Taliban, al Qaeda, the Iranians, and everyone else—are all in a carefully orchestrated conspiracy to destroy us. Further, there actually are weapons of mass destruction hidden in Iraq, but—you guessed it—the liberals won't let the military go after them. This kind of claptrap goes on for many, many pages.
Finally, the book is riddled with factual errors, some the result of Luttrell's braggadocio, but others more serious. For example, he tells us that his father was a Texan born and bred, but a few pages later, he was actually born in Oklahoma, then a few pages later, he's a native-born Arkansas woodsman. No big deal, really, but we also learn that the Pakistani border is in Afghanistan's northwest, that the C-130 that Luttrell flies in is built by Boeing, not Lockheed, that the Taliban are the Mujahedeen who fought the Russians, and so on. There are many, many such errors, and one wonders why a respectable publisher like Little, Brown apparently didn't do any fact-checking.
At its best, this book is the story of a man who is willing to go to one of the most dangerous spots on earth, knowing that there is a very real possibility he may die there, simply because he believes to the core of his being that he must do his duty. At its worst, this book seems to be nothing more than the story of a loudmouthed Rambo wannabe.
So, while I admire Luttrell for his sacrifices, the book he and his co-writer produced is so badly flawed as to be nearly unreadable. And that is a great shame.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
First, a note on the business of selling books through the encouragement of conspiratorial thinking. The subtitle of Philip Shenon’s The Commission might give the reader the impression that any other accounts of the 9/11 Commission’s activities have been censored. As far as I know, this is not true. In his bibliography, Mr. Shenon lists only one book which would fall into that category: Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission, by Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton (with Benjamin Rhodes). Although Governor Kean and Chairman Hamilton may have selected their material somewhat differently than Mr. Shenon has done, I doubt that they would characterize their book as the censored story of the 9/11 investigation.
That aside, The Commission appears to have had the intention of showing that the findings of the 9/11 Commission were flawed or in some way misleading because of the relationship of the commission’s executive director, Philip D. Zelikow, with people inside the Bush administration, and his particular friendship with Condoleeza Rice, President Bush’s national security advisor. If that was Mr. Shenon’s intention, he has failed of its accomplishment.
Professor Zelikow did have a friendship of long standing with Condoleeza Rice, and when Professor Rice moved to the State Department in President Bush’s second term, she appointed Zelikow the Counselor of the Department. Zelikow apparently had something to do with the demotion and sidelining of Richard Clarke, the chief voice for anti-terrorist analysis and action in the National Security Council staff. According to evidence provided by Mr. Shenon, Zelikow did attempt to make it appear that President Bush and his staff were more attentive to al-Qaeda, and to terrorist threats in general, than was actually the case. In other words, Mr. Shenon makes a good showing that Professor Zelikow made some effort to slant the commission’s report in a direction favorable to the Bush White House.
Mr. Shenon also makes clear any such efforts on Professor Zelikow’s part had little or no effect on the final report. This was for several reasons. First, other members of the staff, working with some of the commissioners, were able to nullify Mr. Zelikow’s attempt to spin the testimony of CIA analysts about the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) of August 6, 2001, entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Second, the biggest single area in which the report was probably deficient was its failure to examine the wealth of material in the National Security Agency (NSA) files. This was not due to any fault of Mr. Zelikow, nor do we know if the NSA material would have laid blame on the White House or elsewhere. Time and resources constraints prevented the commission from examining all the material it might have wished to.
Third, the primary reason that the 9/11 Commission’s report does not point fingers at President Bush or Professor Rice is that the chairs of the commission, Governor Kean and former Congressman Hamilton, were determined to avoid blaming individuals or institutions, in favor of recommending future courses of action. Thus, as an analyst cited by Mr. Shenon said in a critique of the report, every negative comment on an institution was balanced by some positive remark, and this was even more true with regard to leading individuals. Mr. Zelikow didn’t need to divert the staff or censor the report to avoid the attribution of blame to Mr. Bush or Ms. Rice; the commissioners took care of that for him.
Why did the 9/11 Commission choose to take such an approach, when the 9/11 families and a great many other people wanted villains to blame? The co-chairs were determined to have a unanimous report, feeling that any lack of unanimity would vitiate the impact of the report. On a panel composed of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, some on each side quite partisan, anything more than the mildest criticism of President’s Clinton and Bush, of Democrats or Republicans in Congress, or other partisan figures would have made unanimity unattainable.
Mr. Zelikow’s undoubted talents as an historian and a staff director brought into the report a great deal of material which made clear the failings of various federal agencies and political leaders, even if the report was not always explicit in pointing out individual faults. Moreover, there is general agreement that the 9/11 Commission’s report is perhaps the best-written such document in the history of blue-ribbon commissions.
If Mr. Shenon fails to make the case that Philip Zelikow somehow subverted the commission’s investigation in order to protect the White House, what story does he tell? He tells what is in itself a fascinating story of a group of experts, some academics, some experienced military or civil servants, pulled out of their normal lives and drawn together into an investigation that all of them seem to have felt was the most important enterprise of their lives. Whatever Mr. Zelikow’s faults, the commission staff nonetheless performed brilliantly, putting in months of their time digging through stacks of paper, sorting out truth from lies, and arriving at a coherent account of what may be the most confusing event in American history: the 9/11 attack.
One point that is made early and often is that the people in charge on 9/11, including many of the military and police officials who testified before Congress and various commissions, were often lying. The whole matter of whether the Air Force could have shot down the last of the hijacked planes was based on a timeline which was wrong. Once people had presented false information in sworn testimony, they were often reluctant to have the record corrected. (There was much internal discussion about the advisability of bringing criminal charges against some of these officials.) The “fog of war” was exacerbated by some officers disinclination to tell the truth.
Another point is that the consequences for some individuals and agencies were determined by reasons, as Shenon describes them, that might or might not seem sufficient. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and its then-new director, Robert Mueller, came out unscathed and with recommendations for increased resources, despite a dismal record of inattention and incompetence. George Tenet at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), on the other hand, while cooperative and helpful to the commission, convinced the commissioners that he was lying, and led them to recommend that the CIA be weakened, and the Director be replaced in his interagency functions by a new Director of National Intelligence. As I read some of the material on Tenet, I felt a certain amount of sympathy for the man. He was obviously in over his head, promoted far beyond his level of competence, to the point that the commissioners found it impossible to believe that a man in such a position could have such a poor grasp of the facts. What may have been merely a poor memory came across as willful obfuscation.
I think Shenon’s book is worthwhile reading for a number of reasons. It does provide a good look inside the workings of an investigation into grave and important matters, and shows how difficult it can be for such an investigation to get it right. It reinforced my confidence in the 9/11 Commission’s findings, if not in all of their recommendations. And it made very clear that Richard Clarke and others were correct in their opinion that President Bush paid little or no attention to terrorism or terrorist threats prior to 9/11, and that his National Security Advisor did nothing to bring these matters to his attention.
I think a reader would do very well to compare and contrast Condoleeza Rice’s performance as National Security Advisor, as revealed in The Commission, with that of her successor, Stephen Hadley, as portrayed by Bob Woodward in The War Within. Rice conceived her role as telling the bureaucracy what the President wanted them to do, not telling the President what the bureaucracy thought he needed to know. Hadley took the initiative to lead the President to see that a change of strategy in Iraq was necessary, and to agree that such a change could be accomplished. Neither of these people was a second Henry Kissinger, or even a second Brent Scowcroft, but Hadley came far closer to the kind of advisor the President needs, if not the kind the President always wants.