Archive for August, 2007

Choosing Defeat

Sunday, August 26th, 2007

A common refrain is that the Iraq War is a “war of choice.” Or course, all wars are wars of choice. The early Americans could have decided to remain part of England with all the restrictions on liberty that would have meant and war could have been avoided. The Union could have accepted the secession of the Confederate states and avoided war. The South could have accepted gradually increasing restrictions on slavery and avoided war. Despite any provocation, one can always choose acquiescence, loss of liberty, or even loss of life over war. When some say that Iraq is a war of choice they mean to say that the negative consequence of not going to war are less than the negative consequences of war.

People can certainly make that judgment. It is clear that had the US known more precisely the level of weapon of mass destruction development in Iraq, the calculus of the decision would have been different.

Defeat can be an inevitable consequence of war, but it also become a considered and deliberate choice. Indeed, some Democrats have cornered themselves into a position that good news in Iraq becomes a political liability. According to the Washington Post, Democratic Representative James Clyburn, the House Minority Whip, warned that “We, by and large, would be wise to wait on the [Petraeus ] report [on the progress of the surge.” He, nonetheless, conceded that a positive report on Iraq, “a real big problem for us.”

Now, we can be sure that in his heart-of-hearts Clyburn wants the best for the US and US troops. However, if one’s political circumstances depend on bad news there is a natural human tendency to gravitate to such news. That is why the recent improvement in security in Iraq has not occasioned relief by Democrats but rather increased their concern about the lack of political progress in Iraq.

Sometimes, choosing defeat can come by accident as in the recent remarks by Republican Senator John Warner. He was trying to offer the argument that perhaps the US should use troop levels to put pressure of Iraqi officials to more aggressively to pursue political reconciliation. Warner’s mistake was to suggest that 5,000 troops be withdrawn to indicate that the American military commitment is not open-ended.

The idea was ill-conceived in many respects. The troop withdrawal is too little to have the desired effect. If it were large enough to signal a significant withdrawal, the withdrawal would undermine the surge with seems to been gaining traction on the security front. Certainly, given the political situation in the US, Iraqis already understand that they cannot count on support from the US past January 2009.

Moreover, Warner should have understood that his suggestion would be misinterpreted and trumpeting in headlines an influential Senator calling for troop withdrawal. Warner’s remarks would be viewed as Warner defecting from the Bush camp.

Warner’s too idle a suggestion masked the fact that Warner has confirmed that he would vote against any imposed timetable for withdrawal. You see the Democrats don’t want the US in Iraq and want a full-fledged withdrawal to begin in Bush Administration so that Democrats will not be blamed for choosing defeat. Warner’s mistake played into this plan.

Some Democrats speak of measured withdrawal, but once significant withdrawals begin, Democrats do not have the rhetorical ammunition to slow the momentum and prevent the rapid abandonment of Iraq to Iran and Al Qaeda.

In Vietnam, the security situation was manageable in 1973 and an agreement to cease hostilities in the Paris Peace Accords was reached. Of course, the North Vietnamese ignored the agreement. By 1975, the Democratically controlled Congress refused to provide military aid to South Vietnam and North Vietnam (amply armed by their sponsors) rolled their tanks into Hanoi in 1975. The Democrats had so demonized the war, that no will remained to support an ally that had been attacked in violation of the Paris Peace Accords.

Jose Padilla’s Conviction

Sunday, August 19th, 2007

One could almost feel the collective, mournful groan of the Left when Jose Padilla was convicted by a jury of “of conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim individuals in a foreign country, conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, and providing material support to terrorists.” Padilla’s complex legal case had come to symbolize for the Left what they view as lawlessness by the Bush Administration in its pursuit of terrorists. Given this symbolism, there is an extreme element of the Left that has demonstrated, as in the case of Alger Hiss, that it is possible for some to cling to protestations of innocence in the face of persuasive evidence to the contrary.

Padilla’s case is legally interesting because Padilla is an American citizen who was arrested on May 8, 2002 at O’Hare Airport, a port of entry, not quite in the United States. Should Padilla be treated conventionally as a criminal or as an combatant at war with the US? Was Padilla engaged in war against the US? Was he captured outside or inside the United States? On June 9, 2002, President Bush declared Padilla an “illegal enemy combatant” and the Administration held him in military custody on this basis. It is reasonable to ask what rights does a person so designated have to challenge the designation.

Rather than test the authority of the President in this case at the Supreme Court, the Administration formerly charged Padilla in civilian court on November 22, 2005 with the crimes of which he was ultimately convicted. Padilla’s attorneys fruitlessly tried to argue that Padilla’s incarceration had so damaged Padilla mentally that he was not fit to stand trial. The judge ruled otherwise perhaps convinced of the disingeniousness of the psychiatrists hired by Padilla’s defense. Dr. Angela Hegart testified that Padilla was unfit to stand trial because he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She was forced to concede during cross examination that Padilla had scored a zero on Hegarty’s post-traumatic stress disorder test and that this test result was omitted from her report to the court.

Padilla’s guilt does not demonstrate the legitimacy of the illegal-combatant-doctrine that he was originally held under. That question is orthogonal to the question of Padilla’s specific guilt or innocence. The Left should have been satisfied when Padilla was charged in a civilian court. However, it would have been rhetorically convenient for some on the Left if Padilla had been acquitted. It would have been evidence that the Bush Administration had not exercised its disputed authority in good faith. In this case, the Administration judgment about Padilla has been vindicated if not the legal doctrine under which he was originally held. It was a tactical mistake for those opposed to doctrine that the commander-in-chief can designate a person as an illegal combatant to tie the case so closely to the deeply flawed Padilla.

Pursuit of the Great White Whale

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

“Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round Perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! To chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of Earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now? I think ye do look brave.” — Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

Comparing the long-lived pursuit of President Bush’s adviser Karl Rove by Democrats armed with subpoenas in place of harpoons to Ahab’s pursuit of the great white whale is an overused metaphor. But its overuse is a measure just how apt the metaphor has proven to be. What is often forgotten is the origin of this animus.

For Captain Ahab the obsession with the white whale began when the whale took his leg. For Democrats the source of the obsession was the ever so close 2000 presidential election. The economy was humming along and we are not (at least we believed we were not) at war. Prosperity and peace is a conventional formula for victory. All the politically modeling would have predicted a 4 o 5 percentage point win by Vice-President Al Gore over the Governor George Bush.

Surprisingly, Bush parlayed personal affability, a popular distaste for President Clinton’s personal behavior, and Gore’s awkwardness as a candidate into a victory. The victory was even more frustrating for Democrats because Gore won the popular vote but not the electoral vote. Frustrated and angry Democrats believed the election was stolen.

However, Democrats could not blame President George Bush for their loss, because their own rhetoric had painted him as a simpleton. To give Bush credit for the victory, would mean that they had been outwitted by Bush. It was far easier to grant credit for the victory to Karl Rove, Bush’s evil political genius.

Then contrary to conventional political wisdom in 2002, the President’s party actually gained seats in the House of Representatives. How could this be? It must be clever manipulation by Karl Rove of the public anxious about its security.

We can then add to this the frustration of the substantial defeat of Senator John Kerry by Bush in 2004. How could urbane and intelligent Kerry lose to Bush? It had to be that mandarin Karl Rove who conjured up the Swift Boat veterans and led the blogs in their revelation of forged documents behind a CBS report surrounding Bush’s service in the National Guard.

One might have thought that when the Democrats won the House and Senate in 2006, their awe of Karl Rove’s expertise as well as their anger might have abated. No. The victory gave them a subpoena power with which to pursue Rove. Perhaps they could catch Rove in a misstatement that could be harvested into a perjury indictment.

Alas, Karl Rove has announced his decision to resign and go to other pursuits. There is no real reason to pursue Rove any further save vengeance. Nonetheless, Democrats do not appear willing to let the matter drop. As an exercise in executive privilege, the President will not permit Rove to testify before Congress. Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, still fumes at Rove:

“The stonewalling leaves me and the Senate Judiciary Committee with few options other than considering citations for contempt of Congress against those who have refused to provide relevant testimony and documents to the Congress.”

That is a prosaic way of saying, “…from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

Unfortunate Credulity

Sunday, August 12th, 2007

The late astronomer Carl Sagan would deal with UFO sitings or super natural claims that appeared to violate physical laws with the aphorism that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Given that physical laws have be validated and re-validated and that many phenomena could be mistaken for alien spacecraft, if an individual wants to dispute conventional wisdom, he or she has the burden of proof and that burden increases with singularly of the claim.

It is also true that most people operate from established world views in realms of inquiry far less certain than science. Everyone maintains a certain internal narrative about how the world works. Information that conforms with the narrative is granted credence with little or evidence. While those tales that tend to contradict our narratives are subject more scrutiny. In general, this attribute is a virtue. Otherwise, people would be all sails and no rudder, lurching from one idea to the other buffeted winds of information.

Now The New Republic (TNR) is a reputable left-center journal of politics. Except for a scandal involving fabricated stories from Stephen Glass, the editors have a reputation as serious straight shooters, not given to mendacity or hyperbole. This quality is what makes the current scandal surrounding US Army Private Thomas Beauchamp’s dispatches from the Iraq so problematic. Beauchamp, whose wife works for The New Republic, is an young and aspiring writer who has been sending dispatches from Iraq. In his dispatch “Shock Troops,” Beauchamp asserted that the Iraq War was brutalizing to troops and this had manifested itself in cruel jokes about fellow soldiers who had been burned by IED’s or a Bradley Vehicle driver who passed time running over dogs.

It is certainly true that the abrasions of war can raise life-long callouses on the souls of soldiers. Though the effect of war on people can be alleviated by good leadership and training, it is very reasonable to be concerned about these effects with respect to war in general and this war in particular. Unfortunately, the editors of TNR had already developed a rigid internal narrative critical of the conduct of this war and were thus susceptible to a story that played in tho this bias. It now appears the Beauchamp knew just what resonances to strike to sound credible to TNR editors. The tales of cruelty by American soldiers warped by the Iraq War rang true to TNR editors.

However, to those in the military, the stories from Beauchamp were discordant, and soon legions of Internet fact-checkers found series flaw in Beauchamp’s stories. For example, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle may protect troops, but it is certainly not nimble enough to go dog hunting in. The Army conducted its own investigation and discredited Beauchamp’s claims. According to The Weekly Standard, a Conservative opinion journal, Beauchamp has disavowed his stories.

Ultimately, TNR conducted an investigation and stood by the original story. However, they conceded that the cruel remarks made about an IED victim were not made in Iraq, but in Kuwait before deployment to Iraq. This mistake was not inconsequential. It struck at the fundamental thesis of the article. If you are making the case that war makes people cruel, evidence of people who are mean-spirited before they go to war provides no support to the case.

When the TNR editors were faced with this journalistic scandal, they could choose to be either the prosecutors ruthlessly determined to find how and why they were deceived or defendants making less and less believable claims until their own credibility erodes. They chose the latter. However, we hope that this incident will make the TNR editors sufficiently introspective in the future that they might be able to recognize false information even when in happens to support of their own world view. It is not an easy thing to do, but it is necessary for editors to have such skills.

CNN Europe Again

Sunday, August 5th, 2007

I know its true, but it never ceases to amaze me when I visit Europe just how unselfconsciously mean-spirited and anti-American the broadcast news is there. CNN Europe makes the CNN USA and MSNBC news channels look like Fox News.

In 2003, I spent a week in Toulouse France at the same time that Saddam Hussein’s sons, Qusay and Uday Hussein, were killed in a shootout with American troops. CNN Europe covered the success cynically, arguing that Iraqis were not likely to believe that the sons were indeed killed and no longer a threat unless some proof was provided. The very next day photographs of the corpses of the sons were made available. At this point, CNN Europe complained that the photographs were inappropriately proactive. Now, it is probably logically possible to hold the two positions expressed one day apart. However, it would have been heartening if they had at least acknowledged that the photographs had met the need for proof they had demanded just one day before.

I have just returned from a week and a half in Spain in Italy, with a renewed opportunity to experience CNN Europe. This time, CNN Europe was faced with the politically inconvenient fact that American troop casualties had fallen dramatically since May. This fact makes the fatalism about Iraq appear premature. To offset this good news, CNN Europe warned that the progress had come at the cost of accommodations with local Sunnis that might come back to haunt the US. The next day Sunni leaders walked out of the Iraqi National Assembly. CNN Europe then worried that without Sunni cooperation there was little hope of success in Iraq. It is hard to escape the conclusion that CNN Europe’s only consistent editorial policy is that what all news coming from Iraq must be portrayed in the most worst light possible. No wonder Europeans have such a negative view of Americans.

Free speech and a free press, even if so overtly biased represent important pillar in a free society. With respect to people who perpetrate incorrect opinions, Thomas Jefferson once noted that: “… let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” We can only hope that alternative media will be able to provide Europe with sufficient unfiltered information that reason has enough raw material with which to work.