Author: Cliff Bob (page 2 of 2)

Fortune-Tellers of Foreign Policy

 Congressional hand-wringing over America’s inability to forecast the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts is unsurprising given the foreign policy hubris that dominates in Washington today.  How can it be, the cry goes out, that America, was blindsided by these earthshaking events?  Doesn’t “exceptional” America see further and act more wisely than other nations? 

Sadly, that arrogant and delusional mindset is unlikely to be changed even by this latest “intelligence” failure.  Rather than questioning whether anyone could have predicted this kind of event—let alone whether we should be trying to control the future of other societies—the response is likely to be:  let’s throw more money at the problem! 
In fact, this “failure” is part of a broader, failed effort to know and control the foreign policy future, led by groups like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and its Integrated Crisis Early Warning System (ICEWS).  As Noah Shachtman points out (h/t Dan Nexon), this project has gobbled up hundreds of millions of dollars.   Yet its predictions are no better than those of a handful of area specialists—or, probably, a cup of tea leaves.
In that light, ICEWS and DARPA are useful primarily to keep Defense Department and “intelligence” budgets growing.  What better way to generate a constant flow of dollars than having not only trumped up “threats” like terrorism–but also ” crisis forecasts” that would require immediate, costly “readiness” efforts?
Consider, for instance, what might have happened if ICEWS had in fact foretold Mubarak’s resignation a year ago?  What could the U.S. have done with that information?

First of all, unless the system was 100% accurate, it would no doubt have been dangerous or at least unpredictable to do anything.  In any case, doing something would no doubt have screwed up the model itself.  But leave aside that trifling matter.  Better yet, invent a technological fix, a feedback factor!  If the seers of DARPA can predict the future, let’s also allow them to feed any reaction into their computers and predict how it would affect the model, again with 100% accuracy.  
A year ago, our good ally and Hillary Clinton’s dear friend, Hosni, seemed untouchable.  Autocratic “stability” reigned supreme in the Middle East–just as America has long preferred.  In that case, top U.S. officials, perhaps Hillary herself, would no doubt have tipped him off to his predicted end.  Yet I somehow doubt that Mubarak would have taken the news submissively, cowed by some pointy-headed modelers.  Rather, he would have unleashed a wave of additional repression against those he deemed likely to foment unrest. 
What if we’d kept the prediction to ourselves?  Would the U.S. have started quietly pulling diplomatic staff from Egypt, discreetly advising tourists to head to Cancun rather than Cairo, or at least tipping off the hotheads in Congress who are desperate to be ahead of the curve?  Perhaps. 
But one thing is certain:  There would have been a large uptick in defense department contingency planning and spending—justified by “science,” but to little useful purpose.
What about a seemingly beneficent example of forecasting the future—to take the most extreme one, predicting when genocide will occur with the idea of preventing it?  Certainly, that would be a wonderful thing and could save countless lives—if, again, it could be done with 100% accuracy. 
But, just as in the Egyptian revolt case, there are far too many unknowns to predict this kind of result far enough in advance to prevent it.  Certainly, there may be  “warning signs”—like a repressive government suddenly issuing cards identifying all members of a nation by ethnicity, or preparing a plan to systematically slaughter them.  But do we really need massive computer programs to pick these things up? 
Our tools for doing anything in the face of these signs are in any case crude—though peaceful conflict prevention measures would probably be worth trying in some cases.  But what about a massive military intervention before a genocide had started?  This seems infeasible—and in fact likely to trigger the very thing it is aimed to halt.  Milosevic’s reaction to the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 after the Rambouillet ultimatum is a case in point—perhaps not genocide, per se, but certainly mass expulsions prompted by international actions against him.
Major events like the fall of a government or genocide are highly unpredictable beyond a very short time frame.  And, if one does not have 100% certainty, taking any action pre-emptively will often make matters worse. 
In short, programs like ICEWS are yet another case of spending huge amounts on efforts whose overt benefits are questionable—even if the covert benefits, for the government contractors and military, are huge.  Whether for good or ill, godlike efforts at predicting the future are sinkholes of squander.  Admittedly, they are small-scale in the deeply cratered landscape of wasteful defense department spending.  But wouldn’t it be refreshing if a few Congressional gadflies critiqued such programs not for their failures to predict the future–but for their very conception?
The underlying mindset is even riper for critique.  The self-styled deities of our foreign policy establishment do not rest content with predicting the future.  Their real intent is to play God—to control the future.  Consider just one irritating example, Aaron David Miller, on NPR yesterday morning.  (I do not know Miller and use him only as an example from among many possible figures who have made similar statements in recent weeks.)
In his view, the U.S. is “in the worst of all possible worlds with grand expectations and supporting very important values, but without the capacity and leverage to implement a preferred American outcome or even an outcome in Egypt that we can control.”  According to NPR, Miller believes this is a part of a long-term trend in which U.S. credibility is reaching all time lows. “We are neither admired, respected or feared to the degree that we need to be in order to protect our interests, and the reality is — and this is just another demonstration of it — everybody in this region says no to America without cost or consequences [Afghanistan’s] Hamid Karzai says no, [Iraq’s] Maliki on occasion says no, [Iran’s] Khamenei says no, [Israel’s] Netanyahu says no. Mubarak says no repeatedly.”
How shocking!  The leaders of independent states, even our own client states, say No to us!  Our vast “hard power” doesn’t put the “fear” of God into our enemies—or our friends.  The “very important values” we supposedly support don’t generate respect.  (Remind me by the way, what those values are, given likely extension of the Patriot Act, continuing detentions at Guantanamo Bay, rampant drone strikes, etc., etc.)  If only we had the right DARPA model!  Maybe then the people and the leaders of other countries would do our bidding.   
In fact, the idea that the Gods of Government can control the politics of other lands, when they can’t even control our own, would be laughable if it weren’t so costly in dollars and lives.  And that conceit, unfortunately extends well beyond the Beltway to the broader foreign policy “elite” in our country, as I’ve written about and critiqued before.
Don’t get me wrong.  As a social scientist, I think it makes sense to do research to understand and explain the world.  Public policy should be based on the best available information, and in some cases, it may be wise to make large public expenditures on the basis of predictions.  But controlling and even predicting human societies except in the broadest of generalities is a fool’s errand.
So, today, notwithstanding my happiness at Mubarak’s resignation and my admiration of the protesters, I can only hope–but certainly not predict–that Egypt will in fact develop a more democratic government in the future.  I can say that the Egyptian army, like militaries around the world including our own, is not exactly know for its democratic values.  I can say that “people power” may be able to keep the trend toward democratization going.  But in the end, the next stages of the Egyptian revolution are as unpredictable as any major social phenomenon–notwithstanding the fond dreams of the wannabe DARPA deities and their avaricious acolytes. 


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Egyptian “People Power,” Civil Society, and the U.S.

 The prospect of a new government in Egypt opens huge uncertainties for the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East.  At this point, no one can predict what that new government will be.  But it is clear that there will be substantial change, even if Mubarak hangs on.  A military regime is possible.  A transition government, perhaps led by Mohamed ElBaradei, leading to democratic elections also seems possible–and would be the best outcome.

Notwithstanding the uncertainties, it is worthwhile to think more about the implications.  In the long term, the events of last week would seem to mean more democracy or at least more democratic input into government in Egypt.   Regardless, any new government will likely mean leaders less willing to do the bidding of the U.S., whether because of their own beliefs or because of the force of popular sentiment.  (Certainly an important undercurrent in the journalistic reporting has been strong anti-American sentiments expressed by many of the protesters.)  It is good that American policymakers seem to realize this.  President Obama is quoted as stating several times at a high level meeting yesterday that “the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events”–or, in my view, much influencing them.

In the longer term, the U.S. needs to accept the likelihood that a new Egyptian government might be  “anti-American” and anti-Israeli.  Certainly this is likely if elected democracy eventually ensues.  Given huge, decades-long U.S. support for the unpopular and illegitimate government, it would be surprising if Egyptians felt differently.  The result is likely to be an Egyptian government which–surprise, surprise–does not share American foreign policy preferences.  Whether or not this is a more Islamically-influenced government matters less than the fact that it could better reflect popular sentiment in Egypt.

The U.S. has had a difficult time accepting the possibility that “Islamist” or even radical governments might actually be put in office by free and fair elections–by thinking people who see no better alternative in their societies.  U.S. opposition to the duly elected, Hamas government in the Palestinian Authority in 2006 is an obvious case in point.  But it is not necessarily the case that Islamist governments are so hostile to democratic values that after winning election they would destroy democracy.  Nor is it the case that, faced with the reality of governance, they would be unwilling to compromise.  Leaving aside the irony of such views when the U.S. has long supported our own set of Arab autocrats like Mubarak, experience in other parts of the world suggests that governments influenced or run by Islamically influenced political parties are not necessarily hostile to democracy and can be pragmatic.  Turkey is an obvious case in point.

Overall, the fact that soon we may no longer have pliable, autocratic clients in Egypt, Tunisia, and possibly other North African and Middle Eastern countries is, on balance, a good thing notwithstanding risks of short-term violence.  First, a more autonomous Egypt–or even simply a more unstable one–could exert greater pressure on Israel, expressly or tacitly, to reach a settlement with the Palestinians.  Added to American presidents’ ineffective “good cop” pressure on Israel will be another neighborhood “bad cop” that might help change the calculus of negotiation even among the Israeli right.  It is of course unclear how that might play itself out.  But a more democratic or more Islamically-influenced government will not necessarily mean war in the Middle East—and might even add pressure on Israel that would help promote peace.

Second, this and the Tunisian revolt once again demonstrate the force of “people power” seemingly untied to strong civil society associations.  Although the power of “spontaneous” nationwide popular revolts, whether made possible by new or old media, is ephemeral, it can of course have great effect—as centuries of revolution attest.

But the lesson for students of civil society—and for the American and other governments that seek to foster civil society–is broader.  When revolutionary moments end, civil society organizations probably will play an important role.  But in Egypt and other Islamic countries, a freer civil society is unlikely to look much like America’s.  

This seems to trouble U.S. policymakers. Consider this recent remark of Stephen J. Hadley, President Bush’s national security advisor:  “We should not press for early elections.  We should give the Egyptian people time to develop non-Islamic parties. The point is to gain time so that civil societies can develop, so when they have an election, they can have real choices.”  Hadley tacitly acknowledges that there are civil society groups in Egypt already—only, problematically in his view, they and opposition political parties are often tied to Islam.  That is in part a reflection of real sentiments on the ground, although in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have been caught flat-footed by the popular revolt.  It also reflects the kind of regime the U.S. has helped maintain in power with billions in aid for decades—one that has repressed much of Egyptian civil society, notwithstanding American lip-service favoring democracy.  

A revived Egyptian civil society will not be wholly or perhaps even predominantly secular.   Islamic organizations are likely to hold considerable sway.  But there is no reason to fear or denigrate religiously-based civil society organizations.  American civil society is of course replete with religious groups, and they exert great influence in politics.  The fact that in the Middle East and North Africa these will inevitably by Muslim organizations is not necessarily problematic either.  As long as they are willing to play by democratic rules, their presence should be welcomed.  And many Islamic movements are willing to do so.  

Finally and most broadly, an Egyptian transition unexpected by American officials would reinforce the need to curb American hubris about its role in the world.  Too much of the U.S. foreign policy and military establishment believes and acts as if the U.S. has the right and the ability to manipulate other countries’ political systems, “in our favor.”  This has created vast distortions in our own political system, starting with grossly outsized defense budgets completely disproportionate to the threats we face.  For all that, we have never been able to “control” events overseas, as the Iranian revolution against America’s good friend the Shah demonstrated decades ago.

Leaving aside moral issues of America’s acting as if we are the world’s “indispensable nation,” the events in North Africa should again emphasize that we see no further into the future, and stand no taller than other nations–notwithstanding Madeline Albright’s delusions of grandeur.  And because we cannot control events in other countries, we should curb our penchant for trying to do so.  

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Wikileaks “Document Dumps” vs. Government Secrecy Dumps

The Wikileaks releases are political dynamite not just because of the specific issues they discuss.  Also, and more importantly, they challenge a dominant mode of foreign policymaking in the U.S. and many other countries:  government secrecy dumps—routinely stamping vast amounts of information “top secret,” thereby placing it beyond the eyes of all us “untrustworthy” citizens.  For this reason alone, the Wikileaks releases are important—and important for us to continue discussing on this blog.

To take a minor issue first, pooh-poohing the releases as “nothing new” is misplaced.  This is obvious from the facts that the releases have dominated headlines worldwide for days, that authoritarian governments have tried to keep their publics from seeing any of them, and that democracies like our own seem to be trying to do the same.  (Recently, for instance, I could not access Wikileaks from its U.S. site, although it was easy enough to do so from a European one.)  At a minimum, we are getting a detailed look at diplomats’ interpretations of events and relationships that most of us knew about only in broadest stroke.  That is very worthwhile—and in any case, there is in fact lots that really is new too.

What about the alleged harm to America’s security and diplomacy that the Wikileaks releases will supposedly cause?  I am doubtful about this assertion, as I’ve written before.  This is not just because even government officials–with the most interest in claiming harms–have admitted that there have not been any (even while darkly intimating that they are coming).  It is primarily because I believe far too much of our foreign policy–as well as too much of our domestic policy–is now conducted behind veils of secrecy that make it difficult if not impossible for citizens to know what is being done in our names.

Sure, it may be true that more information does not necessarily lead to better decisions or outcomes.  But less information, strategically released by one side to an issue (the government), is far worse.  A basic fact about organizations is that they work to expand their powers and to protect themselves, fervently covering up their own uncertainties, embarrassments, mistakes, and corruption.  This is of course true of governments too.  In an admittedly small way, Wikileaks challenges that tendency—and provides information that citizens, and hopefully at least some of their elected leaders, can use to upend it.  In that regard, kudos to Rep. Ron Paul for being one of the few politicians, Democrat or Republican, to make that point publicly!

In light of the huge and concrete harms that have actually occurred in significant part because of government secrecy, Wikileaks’ releases offer a helpful alternative, with so far only abstract and possible harms.  If recent decades of U.S. foreign policy teach us anything, it is that the government and the military sometimes tell the truth–but also sometimes color the facts for their own purposes—sometimes make stupid mistakes–and sometimes lie to the American populace.  Those errors and lies cost huge amounts in money and lives.  The Tonkin Gulf incident, the build-up to the Iraq War, continuing incidents in Afghanistan—these are only the more egregious and costly cases of numerous others in recent decades.

In other words, the current regime of government secrecy dumps has not worked.  In that circumstance, I am open to trying a regime of substantially greater transparency–and think it would likely result in better decisionmaking.  Unsurprisingly, our politicians are unwilling to take such an approach.  They benefit too much from the lack of accountability it permits.  On the contrary, in recent years, they have vastly enlarged Top Secret America and hugely expanded their surveillance of ordinary Americans, all in the name of “security.”

In that circumstance, we are left with the press–some of which has remained skeptical and objective, but much of which has adopted cozy relationships with power—and has often cheer-leaded government policy and even secrecy.  That leaves us with various NGOs that try to improve government transparency, like the National Security Archive and Wikileaks.

The Wikileaks releases contain information that I as a U.S. citizen have a right to know.  After all, this is the government I support through my tax dollars and vote for in elections.   The cables document the extent to which current policies have failed, in ways that the government seldom admits to its own people.  To take just two examples: our “allies” in the Middle East failing to stop funding for terrorists, as today’s New York Times reports; and the despair of ground-level American officials about the epidemic corruption in our ally, Afghanistan.

Why should I have to wait for some government bureaucrat to perhaps declassify these materials decades from now—or possibly never?  Why is it wrong for me to know in detail about the ways in which my tax dollars and my government are operating?  Why should we not have more complete and accurate information, allowing us to check claims of government officials, before we spend trillions of dollars and take hundreds of thousands of lives in our wars?

The argument that we should wait 10 or 20 or 50 years so that serious academics can give us a full explanation of today’s events elevates scholarship over policy.  It also naively assumes we can trust our officials to release an objective account of events, even decades later.  I seriously doubt that.  

Of course, there is a need for secrecy in some cases.  The classic one:  troop movements in the midst of a war—or delicate diplomatic negotiations in real time.  The interesting thing, however, is the extent to which government officials strategically use leaks themselves to advance their positions in many situations.  Exhibit A:  the buildup to the Iraq War.  And again, those who should provide some check on the politicians, instead often act as mouthpieces for government positions.  Exhibit B:  Judith Miller of the New York Times.

The argument that most Americans don’t pay attention to foreign policy issues may be true.  But so what?  Even if true, and only a small foreign policy elite in government, academia, and the media pays attention most of the time, I think it is worthwhile to have Wikileaks-style material available, if only for them—so that they can more easily awaken the American public to the folly of so many of our policies.  More generally, if we had less secrecy about the trillions of dollars being wasted in places like Iraq and Afghanistan vs. the actual risks posed to us there, many more Americans might become interested—and disgusted enough to mobilize against our security policy rat-hole.

As for the claim that Wikileaks is engaging in a deplorable “document dump,” the reality is that this release is being done slowly, in coordination with major media around the globe.  And Wikileaks has improved its ways of doing so, in particular redacting names.  I’m all in favor of targeted releases of information on specific instances of hidden criminality or waste, of course.  But the reality is that there is a wealth of other matters that governments do that are not “criminal” or “corrupt”–but that citizens should know about to gain a fuller picture of what their politicians, bureaucrats, and soldiers are doing in our names and with our money.  In that respect, even if Wikileaks were simply “dumping” large numbers of documents, this would pale by comparison to the government’s security dumps.

Some have written that they fear these releases will simply drive more governmental communications into oral form, resulting in worse decisionmaking and less information in real time.  This is of course speculative—so let me add my own speculation.  The instinct to “cover your ass” is one of the most common in any organization.  I am confident that, up and down the chain of command, government functionaries will be reluctant to take questionable actions without written authorization, if for no other reason than CYA.  

The “torture memorandums” in the Bush administration offer a prime example.  One reason for their preparation and approval at the highest levels was to reassure government officials who would actually do the dirty work that they would not be prosecuted.  Without such written support, the possibility of prosecution would probably have deterred many from taking such dubious actions.

Will foreign officials be more reluctant to speak to American diplomats off the record—or, worse yet, stop inviting them to their cocktail parties and weddings?   Again, I doubt it.  Those officials invariably have ulterior motives for speaking or socializing with a superpower.   To think that they will cut us off in the future is shortsighted.  To think that they have always been candid with our diplomats in the past is naïve.  To continue with the secrecy that has enveloped these kinds of contacts in the past is perverse.   

If anything, we need more openness to avoid the costly missteps that crafty foreign leaders have manipulated us into in the past, due in part to our own misjudgment and credulity.  The possibility of disclosures could in fact make our diplomats think twice about what they are seeing and being told overseas.  If anything, we need more of that, given the gullibility and group-think of military and governmental officialdom.  Exhibit C:  Iraqi National Congress leader, Ahmed Chalabi; Exhibit D: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the “Taliban leader” with whom we “negotiated” this year, to the tune of untold American dollars—before discovering him to be a fraud.

Will the State Department instruct employees to be less blunt in their assessments of democratic  leaders, for fear of offending their tender sensibilities, if the info ever came out?  Please.  These are all adults engaged in politics, not children in a pre-school class.  Democratic leaders are used to being called names by their own countrymen.  If they don’t have thick skins, they have no business being in their offices.

As for hurting the feelings of various despots around the world, some of them admittedly “our” despots, I say, Good.  In any case, someone like Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, or anyone savvy enough to get the world’s only superpower to do his bidding, is not going to be fooled into thinking that a diplomat’s smile and handshake represent his real feelings.  Nor is he going to be shocked to find himself described in frank terms to American officials.

All that said, I have little doubt that “patriotic” government officials are already scrambling to come up with new ways to secure their vast secrecy dumps from (horrors!) the American people.  Joe Lieberman is already demonstrating the bluntest and most questionable ways in which our “public servants” are doing that.  But I am doubtful that the secrecy regime can be much more severe than it is today—and hopeful that the Internet, combined with the occasional conscience-stricken government official, will keep things at least as open as they are now.

Who knows?  Unlikely as it seems, the disclosures and the debate might prompt more Americans to question our secrecy dumps.  That might even move some brave politicians to change current policies toward real transparency.

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Pork Barrel Nation: From Prisons to Pentagon

Here is a fascinating story detailing how a network of legislators and corporations works together on bills such as Arizona’s recent and controversial immigration bill.  The two-part report shows corporations and trade groups writing laws, encouraging “lawmakers” to promote and pass them, then using the legislation to expand their businesses.  In this case, prison companies–one of the few bright spots in our woeful economy–were involved in writing the Arizona bill.  Now they stand to make millions from new jails for illegal aliens, especially women and children, awaiting deportation. 
All of this was conducted through an outfit called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which disingenuously calls itself a nonprofit—and apparently has the IRS status to prove it.  After all, it’s not lobbying, it’s “educating” legislators, as ALEC’s leader states in the report.   Of course, ALEC is “educating “our representatives to support the bill prepared by its corporate members so that they can profit off of it later.  But it’s still education!
The focus of the report may be domestic, but the implications are obviously wider, including to the mother of all pork-barrelers, the military and its corporate hangers-on.  According to the Wall St. Journal, defense now accounts for over $700 billion annually, amounting to over 50% of domestic discretionary spending and an estimated 19% of all federal spending (dwarfing Medicare expenditures). 

Of course, we’ve heard talk from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about the need to cut military spending.  The bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform has discussed this as well.  And, most fortunately, with the election next week, we are bound to see an influx of deficit-hawk, Republican legislators eager to cut wasteful spending. Right?
Not.  When pork wears a uniform, it has a thousand friends—or at least 535, the House and Senate members whose districts and states feed off the swill.  We’ve already seen pre-emptive strikes against defense cuts on the op ed pages of the WSJ.   And groups akin to ALEC are laying plans to do some “educating.”  The Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano, for instance, is talking about teaching benighted freshman who might somehow question whether, in an era when there are no serious military threats to U.S. national security, we must keep on spending ever more.   Nothing like bang for your education buck!

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Three Cheers for Wikileaks

The last few days have seen a fury of debate about Wikileaks’ latest disclosures.   To my mind, Wikileaks’ release of the Iraq and earlier Afghanistan documents is a public service—throwing critical light on the way in which America has pursued its wars at ground level.  


Some have dismissed the documents as nothing “new.”    Of course, it is true that we have had information about the wars, human rights violations, and civilian casualties in everyday stories by the media.  But much of that, among reporters “embedded” by the military, has been carefully screened.  Moreover, what has been written is also of course filtered through the eyes of journalists, with their own biases.  
I think it is extremely useful for the public to have the opportunity to see ordinary soldiers’ day-to-day experience of the wars in any number of incidents that have not in fact received attention.  This in my view makes the information “new”—and clearly worthwhile.   That is why the world’s headlines over the last few days have been full of stories about civilian casualties, torture, and the role of military contractors–based on the Wikileaks disclosures.  
As to the argument that the releases put civilians and soldiers at risk,

I of course believe those risks should be minimized.  It certainly cannot be denied that these documents could put some civilian informants in the two countries “at risk”—or more precisely at greater risk than they have already placed themselves.  And, as Charli Carpenter and others have argued previously, it does seem that Wikileaks might have done more to reduce that risk, particularly in the Afghanistan release.  But it is probably impossible to eliminate the risk of harm—other than not to have released the documents in the first place.  With regard to the actual level of risk from the Afghanistan disclosure, however, we do have some information.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, hardly someone to underestimate the peril, wrote in August that the Pentagon’s “review to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by the disclosure.”   Days ago, CNN also reported that “a senior NATO official in Kabul told [the network] there has not been a single case of Afghans needing protection or to be moved because of the leak.” (h/t Vikash Yadav)

Charli’s older idea that Wikileaks should do targeted document releases of potential war crimes may have some merit–but such an approach would essentially turn Wikileaks into a human rights NGO.  Admittedly, the world could use more of them, particularly in war zones.   But I see no value in Wikileaks transforming itself into something it is not, nor do I see anything wrong with Wikileaks’ continuing the mass data releases that it specializes in, albeit with some enhanced protections that it appears to be implementing already. 
Nor do I have a problem with lack of transparency about the organization’s internal operations—or, if you will, a lack of symmetry with its efforts to illuminate government activities.  Wikileaks, as a private entity, is under no obligation to disclose its internal operations, funding, and decisionmaking, beyond that required by law of other private concerns.  As a matter of organizational strategy, I would argue for Wikileaks to tell more—because failing to do so raises legitimate questions about the group.  But I would not dismiss its activities or discount its disclosures for this reason.  Nor would I focus attention on this side issue, rather than the main one–the information’s substance.
By contrast, democratic governments do have an obligation to disclose information to their citizens, except in rare and particular circumstances.  Yet from the U.S. to South Africa, governments’ knee jerk approach, especially when officials solemnly intone the magic word “security,”  is exactly the opposite–with dire costs to citizens who are paying the bills and soldiers who are doing the dying.
In any case, all of the worry about Wikileaks possibly putting civilians and soldiers at risk must be placed in context.  The Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which the U.S. started with so little justification and so little vision, have put millions of civilians and soldiers at actual risk.  Of course, it is far worse than “risk.”  Hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqi civilians have actually died as a result of our wars, with far larger numbers gravely wounded.  Thousands of American soldiers have actually been killed, and tens of thousands have had their lives shattered by injuries.  
The wars have also put our nation as a whole at greater “risk”—although it is critical to realize that the danger to individual Americans and certainly to our “national security” remains small and easily manageable.  Certainly, it does not justify the vast and wasteful expenditures we are making in the “GWOT.”  (This does not even take into account the huge direct and indirect monetary costs of the wars—or the costs in civil liberties eroded.)
A major reason that the Bush administration was able to start these wars was lack of information.  The evidentiary “basis” for them—and certainly against them–was not fully analyzed, the rationale for them not fully debated, and the exit strategies not wisely considered.  In this, many of our key “watchdogs”—journalists, “opposition” politicians, and academics—blindly bought the Bush administration’s line on the “threat.”  More information does not of course mean that misguided politicians will avoid doing stupid things.  Nor does it stop journalists from becoming handmaidens of power. But it probably makes it more difficult for these things to happen.  
In this context, the more information we have today about these misbegotten wars, the better.  In the past, much of what we have had came from government or military sources, with a clear incentive to paint a rosy or incomplete picture.   Journalists often ignored their obligation to be skeptical of officialdom.  A vast “top security” industry has grown up in the wake of these wars, full of private contractors and government employees only too happy to keep information from the public.  Because of the Pentagon’s strategic decision not to report civilian casualties, the human costs to the Iraqi and Afghan people can be found only through third parties.  Through clever accounting practices, the government has been able to hide and postpone payment of the war’s monetary costs.  And because of our volunteer army, the human costs to Americans have been confined to a tiny minority of our population.  
In other words, these wars have been conducted with the American people—who pay their costs and in whose name they were started—very much in the dark.  The mantra from our leaders is, “Trust us.”  And the furious response to the disclosures is to attack Wikileaks and, most pathetically, Julian Assange–for his personal life. 
Wikileaks is fighting against this self-servingly secretive mindset and may help bring these wars to an end sooner.  In that, the group will help our country be stronger, more secure, and more responsible.  I applaud the disclosures! 
I also recommend Steve Walt’s blog and especially Glenn Greenwald’s recent posts which get to the heart of the story:  what Wikileaks is doing; and how it is being attacked by government officials and much of the U.S. (but not foreign) press.
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When Myths Meet Reality in Iraq and Afghanistan

What are America’s prospects in Afghanistan?  Two articles from The New York Times today throw light on the question. 

[America’s Afghanistan] strategy looks a lot like the one that brought General Petraeus success in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. With Iraq engulfed in apocalyptic violence, American field commanders reached out to nationalist-minded guerrilla leaders and found many of them exhausted by war and willing to make peace. About 100,000 Iraqis, many of them insurgents, came on the American payroll. 
The Americans were working both ends of the insurgency. As they made peace with some insurgent leaders, they intensified their efforts to kill the holdouts and fanatics. The violence, beginning in late 2007, dropped precipitously. 
Can the Americans pull off something similar in Afghanistan?
The other article provides a preliminary answer—by undermining the question’s premise. 
Members of United States-allied Awakening Councils have quit or been dismissed from their positions in significant numbers in recent months, prey to an intensive recruitment campaign by the Sunni insurgency, according to government officials, current and former members of the Awakening and insurgents. 
Although there are no firm figures, security and political officials say hundreds of the well-disciplined fighters — many of whom have gained extensive knowledge about the American military — appear to have rejoined Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Beyond that, officials say that even many of the Awakening fighters still on the Iraqi government payroll, possibly thousands of them, covertly aid the insurgency. 
The defections have been driven in part by frustration with the Shiite-led government, which Awakening members say is intent on destroying them, as well as by pressure from Al Qaeda. The exodus has accelerated since Iraq’s inconclusive parliamentary elections in March, which have left Sunnis uncertain of retaining what little political influence they have and which appear to have provided Al Qaeda new opportunities to lure back fighters. 
The Awakening members’ switch in loyalties poses a new threat to Iraq’s tenuous social and political balance during the country’s ongoing political crisis and as the United States military prepares to withdraw next year. 
* * *
One Awakening leader in Diyala, Bakr Karkhi, said during an interview that nearly two dozen of his fighters had rejoined Al Qaeda during the past few weeks, a process he said had been occurring throughout Sunni areas of Iraq. Other fighters, he said, had abruptly stopped reporting for duty. “I became suspicious when some of them started making questionable comments, so I expelled them,” he said. “Others left the Awakening on their own and then disappeared from their villages. We found out they were conducting illegal operations and cooperating with armed groups, including Al Qaeda.” 
Sic Transit Pax Petraeus.  The supposed success of the Iraq “surge” is still anything but clear or assured—despite bipartisan acclaim for it here in the U.S.  The eagerness with which Republicans and Democrats embraced the surge was, of course, not based on long-term research or deep insight.  It was simply an easy way to declare a kind of “victory” in a hugely expensive and bloody war entered on false pretenses and without strategic vision.  In that, it was much like George Bush’s declaration of victory in Iraq onboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln back in 2003. 
On the bright side, the myth of the surge has provided short-term cover for a drawdown of American troops—though some 50,000 remain in Iraq.  That is progress of a sort, but leaves the U.S. heavily committed and the Iraqis still incapable of solving their problems on their own.
The Obama/Petraeus strategy in Afghanistan is to forge a similar myth—as a basis for a similarly slow and hugely costly “withdrawal.”  But if neither the Afghan nor Iraqi surges leads to durable peace–due to deep political distrust between the indigenous forces there–then the policies will in fact be failures.  Sadly, the straws in the wind from today’s news point to exactly that–the predictable result when myths meet realities. 
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Kandahar and My Lai; Drone Strikes and Carpet Bombing

 The New York Times recently posted reports about the U.S. military’s trial of soldiers accused of randomly killing civilians in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, “for sport.”  Apart from the horrors of the alleged crimes, there is a terrible irony in the stories.  This goes beyond the fact that these kinds of incidents are hardly news.  They are completely predictable in any war, even among the best-trained and most disciplined armies—let alone those in which governmental and military leaders provide signals that make incidents like Abu Ghraib possible.  

The irony also goes beyond the coincidence that this story appeared in the New York Times the same day as another, titled “CIA Steps Up Drone Strikes on Taliban in Pakistan.”  That story re-emphasized the open secret that Pakistan has become the new Cambodia.  Like that other unfortunate nation, Pakistan is being targeted because another of America’s wars is not going well.  But rather than accepting the original war’s folly, our military and civilian leaders, in their consummate wisdom, have expanded it to nearby countries.  Supposedly, it is these nations’ failures to control their populations and borders that explains the war’s failures.

But the real irony is the prosecution of these soldiers, when the architects of the war–responsible for placing the soldiers in Kandahar to begin with–are taking actions that predictably lead to large civilian casualties as well.  It is, of course, true that from a legal standpoint, there are differences in the intent of the killers:  in the first case, intentional; in the second, unintentional.  It is also true that in the first case, the soldiers allegedly knew their victims to be innocent.  In the second, military officers believe themselves to be targeting Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters—though of course their information is often faulty.  And, of course, the soldiers should be prosecuted for their alleged crimes.
But the strategic effects of these incidents is little different.  Who would you hate more if your home was destroyed and your children killed by Predators?  The Taliban fighters who the missiles were intended to kill and who were conducting operations in your area—or the American military and CIA personnel sitting at their desks in Creech Air Force Base?  Perhaps both equally—but, more likely, those who pulled the trigger.  Nor is a grieving Afghan likely to care about the legal niceties that help the drone controllers sleep at night–or be assuaged by the payments the U.S. government sometimes disburses to relatives of its collateral carnage.
To my mind, the closest analogy to this situation comes from Vietnam:  The well-deserved prosecution and conviction of Lieutenant William Calley for the My Lai massacre–at about the same time that the U.S. government was carpet-bombing Vietnam and Cambodia to the tune of untold thousands of civilian deaths—all with the broad rationale that we would thereby win hearts and minds.

No doubt our new smart bombs and drones kill fewer innocents–though still far too many, given the futility of the “war on terror.”  But if I were an Afghan grieving over a drone’s dismemberment of my family, would I care about this sign of “progress?”

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Homeland Security Heads Roll in Pennsylvania—But the GWOT Keeps on Rolling

 Two weeks ago, I wrote about Pennsylvania’s Perverted War on Terror.   This week the state’s Homeland Security Director James Powers, Jr. resigned.  Governor Ed Rendell had refused to fire him, saying Powers was not the only one responsible for hiring the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR).  True, enough:  Rendell had command responsibility, and Robert French, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, apparently had oversight too (neither has resigned).  But it appears that Powers was the person who okayed the $103,000 contract that resulted in numerous “intelligence reports” on everyday political activities here in the Keystone State, including environmental meetings against natural gas drilling—then passed some of those reports on to natural gas companies.  

In his resignation statement, Powers still seems confused—not about our country’s First Amendment this time, but about his former office’s responsibilities.  He wrote that “the primary goal of commonwealth preparedness strategies” and “our greatest challenge” is “to prevent, prepare for, respond to and recover from incidents resulting from all hazards (terrorism attacks, major disasters and other emergencies).”  With such an unlimited conception of homeland security’s role, it is little wonder that his department happily paid ITRR for its “intelligence reports.”  Of course, the far bigger scandal remains the “global war on terror’s” waste, hubris, and threat to our liberties.

For those of you worried about Mr. Powers, who did at least have the decency to resign:  the ex-Special Forces man will no doubt find a job with one of the many “homeland security” operations still feeding at the public trough.  Indeed ITRR is probably looking for a few like-minded employees.  
When I wrote my original post, I was unable to find their website; my mistake perhaps, but ITRR may have suspended it themselves (or perhaps been hit by the Stuxnet worm).  In any case, ITRR’s website appears to have re-appeared.  Check it out!  As a birdwatcher, I do have to say I was taken by the owl on the website’s frontpage (Great Horned, I think)–though wisdom does not seem ITRR’s strong suit.  In any case, ITRR links to an article justifying the surveillance on Pennsylvania’s environmentalists, written by Anthony L. Kimery, who describes himself as a “respected award-wining editor and journalist who has covered national and global security, intelligence and defense issues for two decades.”   It is also reassuring to see that ITRR,  along with Philadelphia University, will be holding a Hometown Crisis Management Series program on Oct. 22.  
I have not had time to peruse ITRR’s website fully, though it looks to make fascinating reading–perhaps worthy of another post one day.

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Marty Peretz, Harvard, and the First Amendment

 I attended the Harvard Social Studies concentration’s 50th anniversary celebration on September 25, well aware of the controversy over the University’s naming an undergraduate research scholarship in honor of New Republic editor-in-chief, Martin Peretz.  Generating the conflict were Peretz’s long history of contemptuous writings about Muslims and other groups and especially his recent, disgraceful statement: “I wonder whether I need . . . pretend that [Muslims] are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”

Peretz later retracted the statement.  On the eve of Yom Kippur, he also claimed to be atoning, primarily in private, because “in this past year I have publicly committed the sin of wild and wounding language, especially hurtful to our Muslim brothers and sisters.”  But Harvard’s agreement to establish the scholarship in Peretz’s name cast a pall over what should have been a celebration of a wonderful Harvard major.  It was a disappointment to me, many Social Studies alumni, and other Harvard affiliates.  More importantly, Peretz’s initial statement is indicative of disturbing trends that seem to be gathering force now, almost ten years after 9/11.

The reasons that Harvard decided to accept the $650,000 collected by Peretz’s friends, despite his long history of statements displaying contempt for Muslims, Palestinians, and others, remain unclear.  With by far the largest endowment in higher education, Harvard needs the money less than other universities.  It seems therefore that the decision was a misguided effort to honor someone the administration actually believes deserves to have his name permanently attached to the University’s.  Or, more likely, it was an effort to please some of the powerful alumni donors who funded the endowment.   Among many others:  Al Gore; Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne; top BP attorney Jamie Gorelick (identified in the Social Studies program only as former Deputy Attorney General); and a former co-chair of a Harvard Fund gift committee, Lazard executive and chairman of the New Republic Advisory Board, Larry Grafstein (who I unknowingly sat across from over lunch and with whom I had a pleasant interchange).  
At the event itself, Peretz’s defenders included Dionne, Gorelick, and political theorist Michael Walzer.  They all rejected his views about Muslims and the First Amendment and distanced themselves from some of his other controversial statements.  Asked directly during Q & A about her rationale for organizing the fund, Gorelick noted only Peretz’s decades-old role as a teacher, during his time as a lecturer in the Social Studies department.  In a message this summer that kicked off the fundraising drive, Gorelick had elaborated further that the Peretz fund would “strengthen the College’s commitment to rigorous intellectual inquiry through significant research experiences.” Peretz’s recent writings call into question his own commitment to that end, however.
In defending the fund, Dionne quoted Rodney King asking, Why can’t we all just get along?  Walzer alluded to the many left-wing student protesters of decades past who Peretz ostensibly if secretly helped avoid expulsion or worse.  To catcalls from the audience, he also suggested that a close review of the writings of most in the audience would turn up remarks as questionable as Peretz’s.
Critics of Peretz and Harvard were more numerous and vocal at the event.  Protesters gathered outside and harried Peretz as he walked between buildings.  At the panels, there were sharp questions, particularly about the compatibility between Social Studies’ claims to uphold critical thinking and analytic rigor—and its honoring Peretz.
For his part, Peretz remained mostly silent.  In the original program, he and Robert Paul Wolff, the first head tutor for the social Studies program, had been scheduled as principal lunchtime speakers.  But with the controversy, the program was changed to include only Wolff as principal speaker—and to demote Peretz to brief follow-up remarks, along with other head tutors in attendance.  Wolff gave an impassioned speech about the program, lambasting Harvard for honoring Peretz who sat a few feet away.  Minutes later, Peretz took a stab at his critics for having “started and exploited” the controversy—and for being simply a bunch of “professors who are happy to get applause.” As for himself, he claimed to be happy to rest on the 30 or so messages of support he said he had received from ex-students.
Beyond the incident itself, Peretz’s original statement, despite its hasty retraction days later under a firestorm of criticism, is indicative of a broader and troubling current in the U.S today.  If the Editor-In-Chief of the New Republic can so easily state that the Constitution should protect me—but not those with whom I disagree—its fragility is underlined once again.
Of course, Peretz is free to say almost anything he wants under our First Amendment—even something as foolish as that others should have that right withdrawn by virtue of their religion.  By the same token, Muslims should be free to build the Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, despite the hyping of this exercise in religious free exercise as “offensive.”  Those who oppose gas drilling in Pennsylvania should be free to organize and protest without fear of monitoring by government contractors and agencies in the name of “homeland security.”  And, yes, cranks in Florida have the right to burn holy books.

Different as these cases are and hard as it is for many to accept, “offensive” or politically “dangerous” speech clearly merits protection under America’s First Amendment.  But for an institution like Harvard to celebrate a man who can make such irresponsible statements, thereby suggesting not just their legality but also their acceptability in elite public discourse, undermines the University’s claims to intellectual and social leadership. 


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Pennsylvania’s Perverted “War on Terror”

How does America’s bloated anti-terror bureaucracy spend its time and our money? A story out of Pennsylvania last week throws light on the earth-shakingly important work these saviors of our soil perform, defending us all from the scary monsters who pose such a dire menace to America.

Or rather it illustrates, yet again, the myriad ways in which our homeland security hogs work to rationalize their existence and perpetuate their wallow in the “homeland security” slops-trough—even while eroding our civil liberties.

The swine this time: International Terrorism Research and Resources (ITRR), a recently formed company with the right sounding name and the right sounding “experts.” ITRR was hastily hired last year by the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security, just weeks before the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh.
(It’s not exactly news, but in these times of national budget woes it’s worth noting again: With the gusher of Homeland Security funding since 9/11, every state and numerous localities have formed their very own Mini-DHS’s pledged to defend their very own patch of the homeland. Austin Powers’s Mini-Me would be most proud of his pork-barrel protégés.)
The $103,000 annual contract called for ITRR to file reports three times per week about “credible threats” to “critical infrastructure.” ITRR apparently performed that contract to the letter—though its definitions of “credible” and “critical” may have been just slightly aggressive. But no matter, “intelligence bulletins” must be filed–and thrice weekly at that!
So ITRR began digging for threats—any threats. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, these included crowds expected at a Michael Moore film screening, gay activists promoting same-sex marriage, a protest against Arizona’s immigration law–and (shudders!) a rally against the mistreatment of a killer whale at a Florida aquarium. A particular favorite of ITRR’s monitoring: the budding environmental movement against natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale deposits.
Conveniently enough, ITRR sent some of the latter “intelligence bulletins” to companies planning to drill for the gas. In a memo leaked to the Post-Gazette, state Homeland Security Director James Powers, Jr. made his priorities (and profound understanding of “homeland security”) clear: “We want to continue providing support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against these same companies.”
But it was not just suspects on the Left who ITRR monitored. With three bulletins a week that must be written to keep the government checks rolling in, even an “intelligence” company must get creative. In fact, ITRR was an equal opportunity homeland defender—targeting activism of any political stripe. Its bulletins also covered tea partiers, gun rights proponents, right to life groups, and white supremacists.
All of this may seem a sideshow— a puny and pathetic one at that. A “deeply embarrassed” Governor Ed Rendell quickly terminated the company’s contract. Just as quickly, ITRR and its top officials dropped a Get Smart-style cone of silence around themselves.
But this case is in fact a microcosm of the whole “homeland security” cesspool. ITRR transformed legal political activity—the heart and soul of the homeland—into “credible threats.” It inflated nothing, literally nothing, into ominous “intelligence bulletins” emailed to various Pennsylvania government offices, corporate intelligence bureaus, and god knows who else.
It is little solace that a spokesperson for the state Attorney General claimed that his office saw “no value” in the bulletins and deleted them from in-boxes when they arrived. (For ITRR, of course, the value of those emails was $103,000 in taxpayer money.) Nor is it comforting that Gov. Ed Rendell felt shame—not when Pennsylvania doubtless has contracts with other similar outfits and the other 49 states certainly do as well.
But the bigger scandal is how the bottomless pit of “homeland security” dollars generates unstoppable demand for its own consumption. Consider the trillions spent or earmarked for “homeland security” and for the wars in Aghanistan and Iraq: When CIA Director Leon Panetta admitted a few months ago that “we’re looking at 50 to 100, maybe less” al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan and when National Counterterrorism Center czar Michael Leiter asserted that there may be somewhat “more than 300” in Pakistan, the eye-poppingly irrational dollars-to-“terrorist” ratio caused no embarrassment and generated no outrage. Nor, of course, did the collateral carnage regularly wreaked by what Colin Powell has called our “terror industrial complex.”
There are just too many proud “defenders of the homeland,” like ITRR, feeding at the trough to end the waste. And in any case it is simple to invent a new existential threat–the latest in, of all places, Yemen, one of the poorest and most backward countries on earth.
But, in fact, portraying Yemen as a “national security threat” is easy in the current craven climate–even to a country with the world’s largest military spending and biggest economy. After all, for the last nine years we’ve been waging war to the tune of billions per year in Afghanistan, also one of the poorest and most backward countries on earth.
Keep that gravy train rolling–all the way from Scranton to Sana!

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