Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Yes We Can

The administration took the same basic position as its predecessor but placed it in prettier wrapping.
President Obama has not changed much of substance from the late Bush practices, and the changes he has made, including changes in presentation, are designed to fortify the bulk of the Bush program for the long-run.
-Jack Goldsmith, The Cheney Fallacy in the New Republic

Jack Goldsmith is a law professor at Harvard, and was an Assistant Attorney General during the Bush Administration. He was also the guy in John Ashcroft's hospital room when Andy Card and Alberto Gonzales showed up to try and get Ashcroft's signature on the warrantless wiretapping memo.

In The Cheney Fallacy, he lays out eleven principles of the Bush era War on Terror, and then devotes a paragraph or two to how those principles, and the policies that flow from them, have evolved under the Obama Administration. The answer is not very much.

Aside from a rather tepid repudiation of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, the changes appear mostly to be rather superficial. Instead of altering the policies themselves, which is arguably what Barack Obama was elected to do, the Obama Administration has mostly just altered the way they are presented to the public. There's still warrantless wiretapping, we're still denying habeas corpus rights to the prisoners at Guantanamo (and afforing virtually no rights at all to the prisoners at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan), we're still killing fifty civilians for every Al Qaeda/Taliban leader we get with unmanned Predator drone attacks in the FATA in Pakistan, and we're still calling our conflict with several de- and semi-centralized non-state actors and terror networks a war, instead of a law enforcement action, thus triggering various commander-in-chief powers that Barack Obama, being only human, is apparently loath to give up.

And while the Bush Administration's various over-reaches and blunders were taken up and moderated, by Congress and the courts, during the last years of the Bush Presidency (the differences between 2002-3 and 2008-9 are significant, even if they don't go far enough for many, including this commenter), the case can be made, and Goldsmith makes it (unwittingly, perhaps, as he seems mostly to approve of the current state of play), that, so far at least, what Obama has done amounts, essentially, to putting lipstick on a pig.

Now, some of this stuff is not necessarily Obama's fault. The Bush Administration seems to have done its level best to tie Obama's hands, and many of the problems with the current state of play are the result of decisions made before Obama was elected President, decisions he might have made differently. I, for one, like to think that he would, partly for sentimental reasons, but mostly because I think they were the wrong decisions, from both a strategic and moral standpoint.

For those that take a Machiavellian view of the world, strategy and morality are separate spheres and, mostly, never the twain shall meet. Morality is lovely, no doubt, and most power players pay at least lip service to its virtue and desirability, but the world is a vicious and nasty place, filled with evil men who are willing to do anything to further their own interests, and we, powerful though we undoubtedly are, must bow to the realities we face in a Hobbesian state of nature and fight back with all means necessary. So, while we might, in a perfect world, extend civil rights to the 'enemy combatants' and other unfortunates sucked up in Af-Pak vacuum cleaner, and abstain from torturing them or extraordinarily rendering them to third countries that don't suffer the same (albeit shrinking) compunctions about torture that we do, or holding them indefinitely without charges while an ill-defined conflict with a nebulous, non-state network of enemies plays itself out, over the course of who knows how long, we do not, alas, live in a perfect world, and so, unfortunate though it may be, we must fight the enemy with all the means at our disposal.

Here's why this is wrong.

The real battlefield in this 'war' is the hearts and minds of world's peoples, most especially the world's Muslims. There are two sides, two alternatives for them to choose from. On the one hand, there's the Taliban and Al Qaeda, who represent the most radical and intolerant aspects of their faith (not unlike, perhaps, some of the more radical evangelical elements of the American population, only somewhat better-armed and more willing to actively kill people who fail to live up to their rather stringent standards of behavior and comportment), and who cut people's heads off on videotape and throw acid in the faces of women who take a walk in public without a male relative to escort them.

On the other hand, there's us, a more complicated case. We're more tolerant, more modern, have greater prosperity and more individual and collective freedoms. We also send evil robots to bomb the shit out of civilians in order to get at a few select targets who may or may not be players in the Taliban/Al Qaeda universe. We grab people off the ground, or buy them from their enemies, and put them in prison half a world away with little or no hope of freedom or even a fair trial.

George W. Bush used to say the terrorists hate our freedoms, and to some extent he was right. There is a hard core of dedicated Islamist nutjobs who genuinely hate the freedom we take for granted and exercise on a daily basis (never mind that there seems to be an almost equal number of radical evangelicals and conservatives that also hate this freedom). But the vast majority of people who take up arms against us do so for more personal reasons, like, say, we dropped a bomb on their cousin's wedding party, or we nabbed them and threw them in prison for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

And here's where the strategic meets the moral. To win the battle for hearts and minds, we have to be the good guys. We've already got the whole best outcome thing locked down. You can choose to live under Sharia law, and live in a medieval world of poverty and oppression, or you can choose engagement with the West, and move towards our greater prosperity, comfort, and freedom from undue government intrusion into your daily life (yes, I know we're not exactly doing a great job on this one lately, but compared to life under the Taliban, it's no comparison at all). If the world were made of rational actors pursuing enlightened self-interest, then it would already be no contest.

But the world is not made of rational actors pursuing enlightened self-interest, and so we must not only produce better societal outcomes in order to win the battle for hearts and minds, we must also be the good guys, the ones not willing to cross certain lines, even if the bad guys do. This is, in fact, the difference between being the good guys and being the bad guys, and while the bad guys almost always consider themselves the good guys, and the morally repugnant things they feel they have to do to win to be unfortunate negative consequences of the conflict they're in, in actuality, they are not the good guys, at least not in any objectively defensible sense of the term.

And while it may be that there's a case to be made about doing bad things in the service of good (there is certainly a strain of the American mentality that gets off on the notion, cf. every action flick ever), in the present case, where we are not engaged in a conventional war with a state or coalition of states that fields an army and meets us in battle, and our enemy, such as it is, relies on secrecy and terrorism, and depends on the good will of the surrounding population to stay hidden and thus out of our reach, it is not only morally necessary to fight with the proverbial one hand tied behind our back, it's strategically necessary, too.

Look, I understand that there is a hard core of dedicated extremists that will do anything, and I mean anything, in order to blacken our eyes and bloody our noses (which is really about all they're capable of doing at present), and that we have little or no choice but to hunt those men down and kill them, or, even better, throw them in prison for the rest of their lives (a much worse punishment in my, and probably their, view). But the vast majority of the world's Muslim population would almost certainly gravitate to our way of life and thinking if given half the chance, and the less we do to alienate them, the likelier we are to win the struggle for hearts and minds.

Win that, and we win the war.

Maybe then we can start ramping down from the national security state, and return America to the path it was meant to be on.

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