Thursday, August 24, 2006

Security Narratives: Fallows to the Rescue

I went on vacation last week, and when I arrived at the airport I (as has become an air travel ritual for me) bought the latest issue of the Atlantic. As we here and liberals elsewhere struggle to find an answer to the neocon security narrative, it seems James Fallows has already come up with the solution. The article, Declaring Victory, is subscriber only, so I'll summarize it here (but you can read Fallows's post-London arrests addendum online). I apologize in advance for the length of this, but it is a blockbuster of an article and I want to do it justice.

Fallows argues that the war on global terror networks is over. Al Qaeda, as a functional organization, has been destroyed. The threat of terrorism has not ended (and might never end), but the threat from a cohesive international organization with operational capacity has passed. What we face now, those inspired by the movement, is a fundamentally different challenge that requires a different approach. We won. So let us celebrate our victory, publicize the thoroughness of the destruction of Al Qaeda, and open a new chapter in our approach to security.

Fallows refers several times to a quote from David Kilcullen, a counter-insurgency expert first for the Australian army, then the Pentagon, and now the State Department:
Does Al Qaeda still constitute an 'existential' threat? I think it does but not for the obvious reasons. ... It is not the people Al Qaeda might kill that is the threat. Our reaction is what can cause the damage. It's Al Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger.
So, how did we win? After the US action in Afghanistan Al Qaeda's training camps were dismantled, and their operatives were arrested, detained, and killed by the thousands, including some of top leadership circle. Moreover effective intelligence work by the US monitoring Al Qaeda's communications, travel, and finances has largely closed down the organization's operational capacity. Fallows quotes former DHS official Seth Stodder: "Their command structure is gone, their Afghan sanctuary is gone, their ability to move around and hold meetings is gone, their financial and communications networks have been hit hard." Kilcullen concludes "The Al Qaeda that existed in 2001 simply no longer exists. In 2001 it was a relatively centralized organization, with a planning hub, a propaganda hub, a leadership team, all within a narrow geographic area. All that is gone, because we destroyed it."

With Al Qaeda gone what we have seen instead are attacks by self-starter groups, generally inspired to some degree by Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. But Fallows argues that lacking Al Qaeda's organizational abilities the US is unlikely to face another 9/11-scale attack. This is generally not due to DHS and our increased security focus, which Fallows criticizes (in part on the same principle I raised in this post), but rather due to the structural strengths of American society. Arab and Muslim immigrants to the US assimilate far more effectively and thoroughly than in Europe. While ghettoized European Arabs riot and protest, American Arabs have higher than average incomes, education levels, and business-ownership rates than the American population as a whole. If the primary source of terrorism in the post-Al Qaeda era is indigenous, disaffected Muslims and Arabs, the US can count itself relatively secure. And it is not our paranoia that will protect us--quite the opposite, it is our open and welcoming culture that will provide our security. This, of course, means that we must strive to preserve our openess and welcoming atmosphere, which will necessitate a 180-degree reversal of our current approach to security. We cannot afford to alienate our Arab population through policies like racial profiling. What made sense in a time of organized international terror networks does not make sense now.

Finally, Fallows argues that while the US may have inflamed Muslim opinion against itself, so has Al Qaeda turned off the Muslim public towards them. Even as anti-American sentiment has risen in the Middle East, there has been no corresponding rise in opinion towards Al Qaeda's ideal of Islam. Attacks on Arab civilians by Al Qaeda in Iraq and Jordan soured many Arabs on Al Qaeda. Fallows quotes Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland: "What we see in the polls is that many people would like Bin Laden and Zarqawi to hurt America. But they do not want Bin Laden to rule their children."

So if Al Qaeda is no longer a threat, what does that mean for our security strategy? First it means (not surprisingly) that Iraq is a complete disaster. Bin Laden no longer has the ability to do real damage to the United States, but, Fallows argues, drawing us into a war in Asia that we couldn't win was central to his strategy (although Bin Laden thought the war would be in Afghanistan rather than Iraq). Bin Laden's plan was to do to the Americans what the mujahideen did to the Soviets. In that respect, even in obscurity he continues to hurt us. We're operating according to his playbook. His plan was to engage us in a war where primitive weapons could destroy our domestic morale, economic strength, military reputation, and moral leadership, and Iraq is accomplishing all of these goals. 9/11 was, in the words of one security analyst, "superpower baiting", and we took the bait.

Fallows does not provide any easy answers on Iraq, but he does argue for a broad-reaching rethinking of security. The wartime approach must go. The state of fear created by the metaphor of global war disserves our security interests in every possible respect. As we've seen time and again, overreaction is the fuel on which terrorists feed. But a wartime approach condones and even promotes overreaction. Additionally it frames our options. In a time of war, diplomacy and soft power are always lower priorities. Wartime creates polarization, and, as we saw in Lebanon, desensitizes the policy-making apparatus to the specific relevant details of the diverse groups who oppose us.

Our mission, according to Fallows, is now comprised of three parts: domestic protection, continued pursuit of the remnants of Al Qaeda, and an "all-fronts diplomatic campaign". On the last point, Fallows quotes Dwight Eisenhower's 1958 State of the Union: "The only answer to a regime that wages total cold war is to wage total peace. This means bringing to bear every asset of our personal and national lives upon the task of building the conditions in which security and peace can grow." The soft power resources at our disposal today, Fallows argues, are far greated than we possessed in 1958. We are more ethnically diverse, wealthier, endowed with stronger universities, charities, and NGO's, and our leading companies are integrated into economies around the globe.

Fallows closes with a hypothetical address to the nation:
My fellow Americans, we have achieved something almost no one thought possible five years ago. The nation did not suffer the quick follow-up attacks so many people feared and expected. Our troops found the people who were responsible for the worst attack ever on our soil. We killed many, we captured more, and we placed their leaders in a position where they could not direct the next despicable attack on our people -- and where the conscience of the world's people, of whatever faith, has turned against them for their barbarism. They have been a shame to their own great faith, and ot all other historic standards of decency.

Achieving this victory does not mean the end of threats. Life is never free of dangers. I wish I could tell you that no American will ever again be killed or wounded by a terrorist -- and that no other person on this earth will be either. But I cannot say that, and you could not believe me if I did. Life brings risk -- especially life in an open society, like the one that people of this land have sacrificed for centuries to create.

We have achieved a great victory, and for that we can give thanks -- above all to our troops. We will be at our best if we do not let fear paralyze or obsess us. We will be at our best if we instead optimistically and enthusiastically begin the next chapter in our nation's growth. We will deal with the struggles of our time. These include coping with terrorism, but also recognizing the huge shifts in power and resulting possibilities in Asia, in Latin America, in many other parts of the world. We will recognize the challenges of including the people left behind in the process of global development -- people in the Middle East, in Africa, even in developed countries like our own. The world's scientists have never before had so much to offer, so fast -- and humanity has never needed their discoveries more than we do now, to preserve the environment, ot develop new sources of energy, to improve the quality of people's lives in every corner of the globe, to contain the threats that modern weaponry can put in the hands of individuals or small groups.

The great organizing challenge of our time includes coping with the threat of bombings and with the political extremism that lies behind it. That is one part of this era's duty. But it is not the entirety. History will judge us on our ability to deal with the full range of this era's challenges -- and opportunities. With quiet pride we recognize the victory we have won. And with the determination that has marked us through our nation's history, we continue the pursuit of our American mission, undeterred by the perils that we will face.

Crippled Cell Phones

Here is an absolutely fascinating post I found on the UofC Law Faculty Blog by Professor Randy Picker regarding a new phone that Nokia is introducing that has integrated WiFi/VoIP capability. How awesome would it be to have a phone that can transition seamlessly between the CMRS (Commerical Mobile Retail Services, or cell phone) network and the Internet? Problem is, Nokia is disabling that feature in the US market (or is simply not including it in the phone at all--not clear how Nokia is going to roll this out), presumably because cell phone companies are concerned about the built-in competition it would engender.

Professor Picker asks why the European companies do not have the same concerns about the built-in competition. I would imagine the answer is that, if the companies were left as unregulated as companies in the US, the same thing would happen there.

I wonder whether market discipline will fix this problem. Usually, companies can come up with some bogus paternalistic reason why they have to restrict product choice (like "we are concerned for consumer safety" or "quality would suffer"), but here there is simply no good explanation. Perhaps cell phone companies will raise network security issues or something, but that would be silly.

Anyway, check out the blog post. And the comments are also worth the read.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Last Word on Lebanon

Gregory Djerejian at The Belgravia Dispatch has offered some of the best Lebanon commentary since the conflict started (I quoted one of his posts at the top of the month). Last week he wrote the definitive summary of the conflict. A teaser:
First, let me stress that no comprehensive, lasting settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict can be achieved by force of arms. So while Israel certainly has a right to self-defense, it should not labor under the misconception that it can eradicate or totally defang or otherwise defeat her foes militarily in some maximal fashion. This is simply not possible, short of a series of nuclear holocausts, perhaps, and so it was surprising to see so many rabid commentators, both here and in Israel, chanting on about Israel not having the will to win, to win totally, that is. This is claptrap, chimerical, absurd—although it appears to provide varied commentators here in New York City and down in Washington with a frisson of macho-thrill—that is, before they abscond back to their think-tank cubicles feeling manlier about having called for a good, old-fashioned bombs-away Armageddon in the Holy Land.

Let’s be clear. Beating Hezbollah ultimately must rely more on what might be described as counter-insurgency tactics, not some Dresden redux. To beat back Hezbollah one must moderate the 40% of Lebanese who are Shi’a, by over time having them pledge their primary allegiance to a strong central government, one that is sharing the economic fruits of Lebanon’s revival with all ethnic groups, so as to ultimately render the social welfare arm of Hezbollah largely irrelevant. Given this, it is manifestly clear that Israel’s reaction to Hezbollah’s provocation should have always been limited to targets south of the Litani River (save the very exceptional target to the north of truly imperative strategic value). This is so that the greatest pain would have been inflicted solely on the perpetrators of the rocket attacks and kidnapping themselves, rather than Lebanon writ large.

This piece is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the conflict and what must be done to effectively address the problem of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Is it too much to ask that we have someone like Djerejian running our State Department or the National Security Council? We need grown-ups in DC instead of kids on Big Wheels (Suskind quoting a "senior White House official").

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Finally Some Pushback on Earmarks

It's nice to see some happy news for a change. It is particularly nice to see this issue cross partisan lines. It will take a strong bipartisan coalition to make a real difference on the budget. On the other hand, the partisan aspects of the issue are are noteworthy and should be exploited to the fullest in the midterm elections. It's pretty clear from statistics like this from the story:
When Republicans took over the House in 1995, there were five earmarks in the Labor, Health and Human Services bill, amounting to $2.4 million. By FY 2005, the number of earmarks attached to this bill had soared to 3,014 or $1.18 billion.
If Democrats can use this stuff to their advantage it might light a fire under the fiscal conservatives remaining in the Republican party.

Foreign Policy Amateurs

It stuns me that there are people who think Condi Rice is a competent diplomat. Particularly when I see things like this line in a Jerusalem Post story on the conflict in Palestine:
Abbas's aides said he decided to travel to the Gaza Strip after receiving warnings from Israel and the US that he must resolve the case of Shalit as soon as possible or face more sanctions and military operations. According to one aide, Abbas even turned down a request from Washington to dismiss the Hamas government and to reinstall his Fatah party.
The only expertise of our current State Department appears to be in the field of making bad situations worse. Do they honestly expect a political moderate to take on Hamas at a time when Israel is killing Palestinians in droves and has locked up Palestine's democratically elected government? Is this what they view as an opportune time to have their closest ally in Palestine stick his neck out? The JPost story goes on to describe how the Israeli campaign in Palestine, combined with their apparent defeat in Lebanon, has boosted Hamas' standing and forced Abbas to politically realign himself nearer to Hamas. After months of Hamas desperately trying to get Fatah to join a unity government with them in order to create political legitimacy for their government, now Fatah appears to be pushing for a unity government and Hamas is playing coy, not sure that they want to share the limelight. Well done folks, well done.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

More On Security Narratives

First a little housekeeping. As I'm sure you've noticed, the blog looks a little different. I've had several requests for a newer look or more readable fonts, so I thought it was about time for a makeover. Henry requested dark fonts on light background, which I didn't do simply because I liked the look of this template. I certainly could go to that format if it is preferred, let me know what you think. Also I modified this template to widen the text space because it seemed awfully narrow and necessitated a lot of scrolling down to read anything. I, however, have a widescreen laptop, so I'm not sure if this will cause problems on standard monitors. Please let me know if any of you are forced to have a side-scroll bar and I can narrow it back down a bit.

On to the topic. Henry and Veritas both had excellent replies to my initial post on this, so I'd like to comment on those, and on the Sunstein blog post V mentioned.

Henry's comments reflected his usual deep pessimism towards the ability of the public to maturely deal with difficult topics combined with a remarkable optimism over the ability to essentially reprogram the public through a more enlightened educational regime. I share much of his skepticism on the former issue, but, while I am guardedly optimistic on the effect of his planned educational makeover, I am also highly pessimistic over the prospects for the implementation of such a regime. As such, I must ask what more pragmatic near-term steps might be available to us. Henry's forecast in that case is fairly bleak, and I don't think he's wrong.

In recognizing the contemporary political strength of the neocon approach, as we both do, we are propelled into the world of paternalism. This is a dangerous place to be, as Henry also acknowledges. It is relatively easy to see when our government is being stupid (particularly when it is monumentally so), but it is nonetheless difficult for an individual or group to justify appointing itself as the overseer of the public good, to maintain its power through deception or manipulation, to exercise it for the good of all. That sounds a lot like tyranny to me. But if tyranny wins elections, what then for democracy?

The upside is I think good narratives sell. We should all recognize by now the immense power of a good story. While it is unfortunate that it doesn't appear to make a big difference whether the story is true, or indeed even coherent, there is no reason why it couldn't be coherent and true. So I think the duty of a committed democrat (small d) in this era is to find ways couch truth and wise policy into a convincing narrative.

The obvious question then is to what degree complexity inherent in truth and good policy can be packaged in a narrative, and, failing that, to what extent it can be boiled away for the sake of storytelling while maintaining fidelity to a democratic ideal. Is it enough to believe in the big picture from which you've constructed your simple myth? Is it possible to avoid the pitfalls of paternalism while telling the public less than the full (tedious) story?

Then, of course, there is still the difficulty of V's comments on Sunstein's mortality salience. While I imagine the issue encompasses a broad sweep of irrationalities of which MS is only a subset, it's a good enough proxy for this discussion. This is, sadly, where the neocons truly shine. Not only have they recognized and embraced the need for paternalism to facilitate the implementation of complex policy, and the need for a simple narrative to sell their paternalism, they have crafted a narrative that appeals to deep emotional needs and responses within the electorate. They take our irrationalities and amplify them back to us. They only needed a violent conflict to tap those emotions and have now created one that will last decades.

As I mentioned in my initial post I am increasingly skeptical about all of this. V asked me in a recent conversation whether I believe we will see an American city nuked in our lifetimes, something he believes (correct me if I'm wrong) will happen. I replied that it is still avoidable. I don't think it will happen in the immediate future, nor do I think events have spun so far out of control that they cannot be reconciled before it's too late. But without any doubt the clock is ticking. And it will take a complete repudiation of everything the neocons have done and everything they believe to avoid a catastrophic global conflict. As much as people are growing frustrated with them, I'm not sure I see that happening. I doubt that we have time to just let things sort themselves out. These are difficult questions and difficult issues, but we need answers sooner rather than later. This country is in dire need leadership. No doubt there are great leaders here, it is only unfortunate that our political system does such a poor job of selecting for them...

The Voight-Kampff Test in Politics


Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Constructing a Salable Security Narrative

Israeli activist and negotiator Daniel Levy has an article in Ha'aretz wondering whether and how Israel can extract itself from a "pro-Israel" US foreign policy that appears fixed on using Israel to fight its proxy wars. The neocon foreign policy, he argues, has inflamed opinion against Israel even as it has eliminated any ability for the US to buffer Israel from hostility. As Levy notes:
An America that seeks to reshape the region through an unsophisticated mixture of bombs and ballots, devoid of local contextual understanding, alliance-building or redressing of grievances, ultimately undermines both itself and Israel. The sight this week of Secretary of State Rice homeward bound, unable to touch down in any Arab capital, should have a sobering effect in Washington and Jerusalem.
It should, but will it?

In the end Levy struggles with the same thing I struggle with, and that a post-Lieberman Democratic party is struggling with: how do you create an alternative narrative where peace and security are achieved with negotiations and painstaking diplomacy rather than bombs and missiles? As Levy notes, the neocon vision glosses over the complexities of local politics, the weighty and difficult to deal with matters of context. The neocon narrative is simple, pristine, and, above all, masculine. Like a good Bruckheimer protaganist, the neocon philosophy brooks no bullshit. It kicks ass and takes names. This, as Ron Suskind expertly points out in his talks and writing, is how the Bush political machine sells. The constituency of people tired of the overwhelming complexity of the modern world is vast, and furiously angry. Ultimately, however, policies born of oversimplification are doomed to disaster. Time enough has passed on the neocon experiment for that to begin to show, although the public has not yet begun to grasp the immensity of this disaster. The resulting dissatisfaction may be enough to turn the tide to a small degree, as the Connecticut primary showed. By a very slim margin.

As many Republican partisans have argued (and I think they're right), rejectionism is not enough to build a political movement. There must be an alternative narrative. But how do you sell complexity in a political system built around 10-second soundbites? How do you get a time-starved public with quick-hit media and short attention spans to engage in the labyrinthine terrain of Lebanese politics? I think a lot about this lately, and as yet I am unconvinced that it is possible. Hopefully there is someone out there in the wide world of politics who can prove me wrong.

Clan Democracy, Clan Warfare

One of the few views I share with neocons is the premise that the spread of Western style democratic government is a key element of lasting global peace. Because of that belief I also believe that it is critical that we start to understand what democracy means and how it works. That is why I've returned now several times to the problem of democratic government in situations where voting preferences are defined by the electorate's racial/ethnic/religious identities. As Fred Kaplan explains in an excellent column on Bush's foreign policy, the old maxim about democracies not starting wars does not apply to those situations:
Again, does the president really believe this? The main thing Iraqis expressed at the ballot box was that Sunnis wanted Sunnis to rule, Shiites wanted Shiites to rule, and Kurds wanted to secede. The election, inspiring as it was to behold, served as little more than an ethnic census. In the absence of democratic institutions to mediate disputes and legitimize outcomes, it might even have hardened the social, political, and religious conflicts that are now—by the testimony of Bush's own top generals—erupting into civil war.

The emergence of democracy marks the starting point of politics. Politics by nature involves conflicts. A democracy thrives or crumbles on how well it deals with those conflicts. There is nothing inherently civilizing about holding elections—nothing unusual, much less contradictory, about a putatively democratic government embroiled in war, civil war, or chaos.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Disengagement's Dead End

Jacob Weisberg has a great Slate article about economic sanctions that I think applies more broadly to the political disengagement tactics so popular within the Bush administration. Weisberg points out that isolation has some use as an international signaling mechanism of disapproval, but often has the unfortunate effect of playing into the hands of the local dictator. The examples of failed disengagements are many. Dan Drezner, while agreeing with Weisberg generally, offered a few counterpoints. Drezner noted that in addition to the popular example of South Africa (which Weisberg discussed), Libya may also serve as an example of a positive outcome of sanctions (I think he's right on that). Also Drezner, citing China, notes that engagement is not always a panacea. I think it's a fair point that economic and political engagement rarely leads to immediate sweeping gains, but I'd argue that China has been trending in a positive direction overall.

The Federal Government and Enron Accounting

I've blogged stories before about the questionable accounting used to tally the US federal budget deficit. A USA Today story is suggesting that even those more realistic assessments of the deficit (usually in the neighborhood of $700b) are far too low. They reached a similar number ($760b) just by applying some basic business accounting rules. But that assessment still does not account for social security and medicare liabilities. Standard corporate accounting practices require such liabilities to reported at the time they are incurred rather than when they come due. Using that system our annual budget deficits run around $3.5 trillion! By these measure the US should have reported $40t in losses over the past 9 years. The first step to solving a spending addiction is to admit you have a problem...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Corruption Watch: University Funding

Just a few quick hits today:

CSM has a strong article on the politicization of federal educational and research funding. It's just one more arena for compromised politicians to extend their tentacles into. Remember when Newt Gingrich built a Republican majority around the idea of clean government?

On to Lebanon. It seems that a small coalition of moderate-conservative realists is coalescing around the Andrew Sullivan blog. These include the Cunning Realist, Dan Drezner, and the Belgravia Dispatch. That last, the Belgravia Dispatch, is the source of the single best piece I've seen on Lebanon so far. Key point:

...this was more by way of an ill-advised temper tantrum than a serious military operation, as Arik Sharon would himself admit, if only he were aware of the disaster underway. Sharon would have recalled previous Lebanese quagmires and would have well understood (aided by the wisdom of years and the lack of any need to prove himself) that resort to airpower, in the main, cannot succeed in this context, with the specter of hundreds and hundreds of civilian deaths earning Israel international opprobrium in every world capital (save Washington), and that there is no real, sustained post-'82 appetite in Israel for a massive land incursion regardless, not least given the ultimate futility of same. No, Sharon would likely have chastised Ehud Olmert for his impestuous over-reaction, one so helpfully fanned on by myopic strategic blunderers and amateurs in Washington, both in policy and journalistic circles.

Also, here's a link to Ron Suskind's latest Miller Center appearance. He was there in late June speaking about the One Percent Doctrine. As always he was animated, entertaining, and insightful. He at moments comes off a little bit arrogant, a little pushy, and has the feel of a televangelist. But in general there probably isn't a more captivating speaker on politics and the Bush administration. I've gone back to the video of his last Miller Center speech several times, and I'm sure I'll come back to this one too.

And finally, this is a bit odd for TBWJ, but I thought I'd post a link to this TV ad. Yes it's for Dow Chemical, yes Dow is probably still evil. But it's some of the prettiest photography I've seen in any sort of video, much less a commercial. It plays sometimes before the PBS Newshour, and I can't recall the last time I was so riveted by a TV ad.