Archives for August 2007

OPINION: The next war in Iraq

The next war in Iraq
By Joe Klein, Time, August 23, 2007

Prime Minister Maliki greeted by President AhmadinejadIt has been clear for months that Nouri al-Maliki’s National Unity government is, as a senior U.S. official said, “none of the above.” Senator Carl Levin called for it to be replaced after his and Senator John Warner’s mid-August Iraq jaunt. And Ambassador Ryan Crocker told me, “The fall of the Maliki government, when it happens, might be a good thing.” But replace it with what? The consensus in the U.S. intelligence community is that there’s going to be lots of bloodshed, including fighting among the Shi’ites, before a credible Iraqi government emerges. It also seems that the U.S. attempt to build an Iraqi army and police force has been a failure. Some units are pretty good, but most are unreliable, laced with members of various Shi’ite militias. This was clear from my conversations with U.S. combat officers on the ground in Baqubah, Baghdad and Yusufia. It became clearer when seven enlisted men serving in Baghdad wrote a very courageous Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on Aug. 19 in which they said, “Reports that a majority of Iraqi army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric.” [complete article]

See also, Iraqi premier rebuts Senators Clinton and Levin (AP) and Iraqi prime minister’s isolation growing (McClatchy).

Editor’s Comment — As the anti-Maliki chorus grows, it’s worth remembering what happened just a year ago when a foreign official — Mark Malloch Brown, then U.N. deputy secretary general — had the audacity to make a few remarks critical of the U.S. government.

John Bolton — then U.S. ambassador to the U.N. — called the matter “very, very grave” and sternly told Kofi Annan that “this is the worst mistake by a senior UN official that I have seen” since 1989.

But I guess when the boot’s on the other foot and American officials are bashing in the head of the leader of another government, it’s different. After all, if an Iraqi prime minister can only enter office once he’s been duly stamped, “U.S. approved,” it’s only fitting that he can later get stamped, “U.S. disapproved.” Which is to say, this must all look perfectly in accordance with the natural order of the world if you happen to be a senior U.S. official or one of their media mouthpieces.

One such mouthpiece — David Ignatius — is less than enthusiastic about Maliki’s presumptive replacement, Ayad Allawi. “Allawi has bundles of money to help buy political support, but it comes from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, rather than the United States.” No good getting a new prime minister if he’s not in your debt and you can’t tell him what to do. How frustrating it is trying to rig a democracy in the middle of a civil war!

But there is one particularly interesting glimpse that Ignatius provides inside the convoluted process of administration thinking (keeping in mind that this is an administration afflicted with multiple personality disorder). It is that the “contain Iran” faction (read, Rice et al), now anticipates the possibility that U.S. policy towards Iraq will also become one of containment.

Containment? Haven’t we been there before?


FEATURE: Challenging the generals

Challenging the generals
By Fred Kaplan, New York Times, August 26, 2007

On Aug. 1, Gen. Richard Cody, the United States Army’s vice chief of staff, flew to the sprawling base at Fort Knox, Ky., to talk with the officers enrolled in the Captains Career Course. These are the Army’s elite junior officers. Of the 127 captains taking the five-week course, 119 had served one or two tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, mainly as lieutenants. Nearly all would soon be going back as company commanders. A captain named Matt Wignall, who recently spent 16 months in Iraq with a Stryker brigade combat team, asked Cody, the Army’s second-highest-ranking general, what he thought of a recent article by Lt. Col. Paul Yingling titled “A Failure in Generalship.” The article, a scathing indictment that circulated far and wide, including in Iraq, accused the Army’s generals of lacking “professional character,” “creative intelligence” and “moral courage.”

Yingling’s article — published in the May issue of Armed Forces Journal — noted that a key role of generals is to advise policy makers and the public on the means necessary to win wars. “If the general remains silent while the statesman commits a nation to war with insufficient means,” he wrote, “he shares culpability for the results.” Today’s generals “failed to envision the conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly,” and they failed to advise policy makers on how much force would be necessary to win and stabilize Iraq. These failures, he insisted, stemmed not just from the civilian leaders but also from a military culture that “does little to reward creativity and moral courage.” He concluded, “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — While the constraints on innovation inside the military are obviously embedded in military culture and the promotions process, there seem to be a number of other factors worth considering.

As self-contained as military culture might be, it is surely influenced by trends evident in society at large. In late 2002 and early 2003, opposition to the imminent war was marginal. Not once was the American antiwar movement able to match Louis Farrakhan’s crowd-pulling power and mobilize a million-strong gathering in Washington. While most of the nation either actively or passively supported the war, it seems unrealistic to imagine that there would be many serious expressions of dissent from inside the military.

The uniformed leadership of the U.S. military are part of the Pentagon’s political culture. They might defer to civilian policymakers but they are an integral branch of the military industrial complex. As such, they have a vested interest in promoting and sustaining those programs that serve this matrix of political, commercial and budgetary needs. Innovation is likely to be deemed good, only to the extent that those needs continue being well served. Pen-pushing generals inside the Pentagon, once retired, slide easily into the boardrooms of a defense industry that ultimately has more interest in who places purchase orders than who uses their products.

The next major test of the moral courage of the generals will probably be whether they are willing to resign en masse rather than follow orders to attack Iran. Rumor has it that a number of generals are ready to rise to the challenge, but I have no confidence that this will happen. The heroism that promises a pension cut and no medals can only appeal to a rare minority. How many people can say that they achieved great success in this world by being true to their conscience?


NEWS: No big shifts planned after report on Iraq

No big shifts planned after report on Iraq
By Michael Abramowitz, Washington Post, August 25, 2007

Despite political pressure for a change of course in Iraq, the White House hopes to keep in place its existing military strategy and troop levels there after the mid-September report from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, administration officials said.

Even as the administration faced a new call this week from Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), a leading ally, to begin at least a symbolic withdrawal of troops by Christmas, White House officials said privately that they are not contemplating making major shifts before early next year. They said that next month’s report is likely to highlight what they see as significant improvements in security over the past year and that they expect the president to assert that now is not the time to dramatically change approaches. [complete article]


NEWS: Hear a general, hug a sheik: Congress visits Iraq

Hear a general, hug a sheik: Congress visits Iraq
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Damien Cave, New York Times, August 26, 2007

The meal was just one stop in a jam-packed tour that included visits with Sunni and Shiite tribal leaders (”a sheik engagement,” the Pentagon itinerary said), a chat with the Kurdish deputy prime minister and the all-important photographs with hometown soldiers to show constituents at election time. Just another day in Baghdad in August, high season for Congressional travel to Iraq.

The trips, highly choreographed affairs known as codels, for Congressional delegations, are an annual rite of summer for lawmakers, but they have taken on fresh urgency. With Democrats running Congress and Mr. Bush’s troop increase due for an intense re-evaluation in September, roughly 50 lawmakers have tromped through Iraq this summer, and their impressions are having a profound effect on the debate. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment
— I don’t imagine Congressional tourism is much different from tourism in general: it’s about the convenience packaging of experience for those who lack the time or interest to accumulate real depth of understanding and a true sense of place.


NEWS: Brzezinski embraces Obama over Clinton for president

Brzezinski embraces Obama over Clinton for president
By Janine Zacharia, Bloomberg, August 24, 2007

Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the most influential foreign-policy experts in the Democratic Party, threw his support behind Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy, saying the Illinois senator has a better global grasp than his chief rival, Hillary Clinton.

Obama “recognizes that the challenge is a new face, a new sense of direction, a new definition of America’s role in the world,” Brzezinski said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt.” [complete article]


NEWS: Spying program may be tested by terror case

Spying program may be tested by terror case
By Adam Liptak, New York Times, August 26, 2007

The case is significant in a second way, as a vivid illustration of a new form of pre-emptive law enforcement intended to stop terrorism before it happens, even at the expense of charges of entrapment.

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation has an obligation to use all available investigative tools,” prosecutors wrote in a brief urging the court to impose harsh sentences in February, “including a sting operation, to remove those ready and willing to help terrorists from our streets.”

The lead prosecutor, William C. Pericak, an assistant United States attorney, said the sting had worked perfectly.

“You can’t put a percentage on how likely these guys would have been to commit an act of terrorism,” Mr. Pericak said in an interview in his office at the federal courthouse here. “But if a terrorist came to Albany, my opinion is that these guys would have assisted 100 percent.” [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — The idea of “pre-emptive law enforcement” comes straight out of movies like “Minority Report” (representing a future in which criminals are caught before they’ve committed a crime). Anyone who finds comfort in this kind of security should kiss goodbye to democracy. This approach to national security doesn’t present the risk of leading to an authoritarian state; it exemplifies the operation of such a state.


NEWS: Israelis said to be mediating between Hamas and Fatah; Abbas opposes exchange of populated territory with Israel

Israelis said to be mediating between Hamas and Fatah
By Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz, August 26, 2007

The London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported Sunday that Israeli mediators are involved in efforts to reconcile rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah.

The southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, headed by MK Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsur, is involved in the mediation efforts, according to the report.

The newspaper also reported that the Hamas leadership is considering an initiative proposing it hand back Gaza Strip security compounds seized from Fatah in June in order to achieve reconciliation with the rival group. [complete article]

Abbas opposes exchange of populated territory with Israel
By Yoav Stern, Haaretz, August 26, 2007

Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas said Saturday he opposes the exchange of populated territory between Israel and the PA within the framework of a peace deal.

At a meeting with Hadash Chairman MK Mohammad Barakeh,
Abbas stated he is against a final status accord under which areas in Israel containing Arab Israelis would become part of a future Palestinian state’s territory. This would be in return for settlement blocs in the West Bank remaining under Israeli sovereignty. [complete article]


NEWS: Taliban raise poppy production to a record again

Taliban raise poppy production to a record again
By David Rohde, New York Times, August 26, 2007

Afghanistan produced record levels of opium in 2007 for the second straight year, led by a staggering 45 percent increase in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand Province, according to a new United Nations survey to be released Monday.

The report is likely to touch off renewed debate about the United States’ $600 million counternarcotics program in Afghanistan, which has been hampered by security challenges and endemic corruption within the Afghan government.

“I think it is safe to say that we should be looking for a new strategy,” said William B. Wood, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, commenting on the report’s overall findings. “And I think that we are finding one.” [complete article]


NEWS: Has Iran paused its uranium enrichment program?

Has Iran paused its uranium enrichment program?
By Matthew Schofield, McClatchy, August 25, 2007

Iran appears not to have significantly expanded its uranium enrichment program this summer, a development that has many experts wondering whether the threat of sanctions finally has had an impact on the Iranian government.

Experts won’t know for sure if Iran has paused its program until a report this week from a team of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, who were in Iran last week for the third round of inspections this summer. A public debate on the report is scheduled for the IAEA’s Sept. 10 meeting.

But after five years of frustration at a lack of Iranian cooperation, those who closely follow Iran’s nuclear program believe that Iran’s resumption of IAEA inspections coupled with the apparent halt in expansion may signal that the Islamic Republic is willing to compromise. [complete article]


NEWS: Dissent threatens U.S.-India nuclear cooperation deal

Dissent threatens U.S.-India nuclear cooperation deal
By Emily Wax and Rama Lakshmi, Washington Post, August 26, 2007

After two years of painstaking negotiations, a historic nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and India appears to be unraveling as a broad spectrum of political parties calls on the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to scrap the deal, saying it limits the country’s sovereignty in energy and foreign policy matters.

The landmark accord that just weeks ago looked like a major foreign policy triumph for this energy-starved subcontinent has become a political liability for India’s fragile ruling coalition.

The brouhaha over the deal has surprised some nuclear analysts in Washington, partly because the Bush administration was widely perceived as having caved in to key Indian demands. The administration had assured the government here that it could receive uninterrupted nuclear supplies from the United States and maintain the right to reprocess spent nuclear fuel — a potentially dangerous prospect because reprocessing technology can also be used to make weapons-grade plutonium. To many Western observers, India already had the upper hand in the deal, a testament to its growing international influence. [complete article]


EDITORIAL: Mysterious disappearances (and releases) in Pakistan

Mysterious disappearances (and releases) in Pakistan

On July 13, 2004, Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, a 25-year-old computer engineer, was detained by Pakistani military intelligence. The following month a Reuters report quoted a Pakistani intelligence source saying that:

“After [Khan’s] capture he admitted being an al Qaeda member and agreed to send emails to his contacts… He sent encoded emails and received encoded replies. He’s a great hacker and even the US agents said he was a computer whiz.”

Last weekend US officials said someone held secretly by Pakistan was the source of the bulk of the information justifying the [elevated Homeland Security “orange”] alert [which, just by chance, coincided with the Democratic National Convention] .

The New York Times obtained Khan’s name independently, and US officials confirmed it when it appeared in the paper the next morning.

None of those reports mentioned that Khan had been under cover helping the authorities catch al Qaeda suspects, and that his value in that regard was destroyed by making his name public.

A day later, Britain hastily rounded up terrorism suspects, some of whom are believed to have been in contact with Khan while he was under cover.

Washington has portrayed those arrests as a major success, saying one of the suspects, named Abu Musa al-Hindi or Abu Eissa al-Hindi, was a senior al Qaeda figure.

But British police have acknowledged the raids were carried out in a rush.

For the following three years, Khan remained in detention — but was never charged. This week, his case — along with that of over 200 other missing people — came before Pakistan’s Supreme Court. It was then revealed for the first time that Khan had in fact been quietly released a month earlier (July 24, 2007). The New York Times reports that, “American officials declined to speak for the record on Monday, but said they were dismayed at the news of his release.” They may have been dismayed but that’s not quite the same as saying they weren’t already aware of what had happened.

This story is hard to unravel and so far no one in the U.S. media seems to think it’s worth the effort. But there are numerous questions that need to be answered. Did the Bush administration receive advance notice of Khan’s release? Does the administration support the efforts of Pakistan’s Supreme Court to uphold the law and secure the release of uncharged detainees? Or, is the administration currently looking for new venues of secret detention outside Pakistan in order to avoid the risk of detainees being granted their legal rights?

Given the focus that this administration has generally had in finding ways to maneuver around the law, one assumes that it is currently busy exercising its well-honed skills in the outlaw domain where it most comfortably operates.

But as for America’s attitude towards Pakistan’s invisible prisoners — what does it say about us if we have more concern about a government’s efficiency in clamping down on terrorism than we have about its use of what at other times would have been seen as the instruments of state terrorism?

Who wields the more dangerous power? The terrorist who might blow up innocent people, or the government that can make suspicious people “disappear”?


EDITORIAL: Maliki: Iraq ‘can find friends elsewhere’

Maliki: Iraq ‘can find friends elsewhere’

In response to Senator Carl Levin’s call for the Iraqi prime minister’s ouster and President Bush’s expression of “frustration,” Nouri al-Maliki’s response was blunt:

“No one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government. It was elected by its people,” he said at a press conference in Damascus at the end of a three-day visit to Syria.

“Those who make such statements are bothered by our visit to Syria. We will pay no attention. We care for our people and our constitution and can find friends elsewhere,” al-Maliki said.

After a recent trip to Tehran and while now being welcomed by President Bashar Assad, Maliki had no need to name the friends he is courting. And the more alienated he becomes from Washington, the more appealing it might seem to forge a Sunni-Shia alliance that unites Iraq, Iran, and Syria. That nightmare scenario is going to precipitate some serious back-peddling from Washington, but in the end geography is likely to be the decisive factor. 2000km of shared borders is a reality that Washington can’t change — unless that is, the partitionists win. But that’s an option about which even Cheney long ago made clear his skepticism.


EDITORIAL: Iran isn’t scared

Iran isn’t scared

The latest move in the U.S.’s escalating rhetoric aimed at Iran is Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch’s claim — no evidence provided — that 50 members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are training Shiite militias, south of Baghdad, the area under Lynch’s command. He hasn’t caught any of them but he knows they’re there. He also confirms that after spending two months patrolling a 125-mile stretch of the Iraq-Iran border, his troops haven’t once intercepted shipments of illegal weapons. I guess it just goes to show what a devilishly cunning enemy Iran is: it can sneak in sophisticated bombs and train militias how to use them, all without getting caught.

What the U.S. seems to be doing is providing “proof” (threadbare as usual) as to why the Revolutionary Guard needs to be labeled as an SDGT (“specially designated global terrorist”). I’m sure Joe Lieberman thinks the argument is iron-clad.

What seems much less clear is whether there is any real strategic thinking going on here. Robert Baer says he has been told by an administration official, “IRGC IED’s are a casus belli for this administration. There will be an attack on Iran.” It’s a simple as that. Baer writes, “The feeling in the Administration is that we should have taken care of the IRGC a long, long time ago.”

Nothing better optimizes American hubris than the expression “taking care” — as though the solution to any problem merely hinges on whether the all-powerful U.S. of A. gets around to deciding to fix it. Meanwhile the world — convinced that the United States is much better at breaking than fixing — shudders at the prospect that the Pentagon is getting ready to engage in another bout of Middle East problem-solving.

As for how Iran is reacting to the administration’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric? It seems to be eagerly lapping it up.

The Ayatollah’s are far too sophisticated to use an expression like “bring ’em on,” but in effect, that’s what they are saying. Associated Press reports that last week,

Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami [not to be confused with former president Mohammad Khatami], who does not hold a government post but once a month delivers the official Friday prayer sermon, told thousands of worshippers at Tehran University in a speech broadcast on radio that the designation [SDGT] showed that the Guards were doing something right.

“I believe the U.S. decision for including the Guards in the list of terrorist organizations is an honor and a golden card in their file,” he said. “Whenever your enemy is saying something bad about an organization, it shows that the organization has been effective,” he added.

Now, in a move that seems calculated to demonstrate who really holds greater political influence in Baghdad — Tehran or Washington — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has accepted an invitation to the Iraqi capital. I doubt that President Bush will be able to avail himself of a similar photo opportunity.


EDITORIAL: How the Bush administration gave in to terrorism

By Paul Woodward, War in Context, August 20, 2007

Iraq Study Group ReportThe lie embedded in the conception of the “war on terrorism” was that it embodied the expression of American strength. On the contrary, what it did was capitalize on American fear by fostering the illusion that we could find safety through the might of the Bush administration. Anything that expanded that might would supposedly make us safer, while anything that diminished it would place us in jeopardy.

The goal of terrorism is and always will be to maximize the political scope and impact of isolated events. “Success” derives not from the act of violence itself but from the response that this triggers.

When Mariane Pearl was asked how the murder of her husband, Daniel Pearl, had changed her life’s purpose, her response was simple and resolute:

I think the point is that it hasn’t changed. That is my main achievement. Things like that happen to you, and the people that hurt you expect it to change your purpose. Part of my “revenge” was that my purpose wouldn’t change–not how I live, the work that I do or my approach to the world.

Historically, this is what “standing up to terrorism” has always meant and it is the reason politicians would insist, “we will not give in to terrorism.” But this is precisely what the Bush administration did — al Qaeda hoped to provoke a massive reaction; it was given exactly what it wanted.

Suppose the administration’s response had been low-key, bureaucratic, diplomatic, and political: air traffic halted for 24 hours; a comprehensive review and rapid improvement of airport and airline security procedures; likewise an overhaul of intelligence operations; a diplomatic initiative to lead an internationally coordinated response to terrorist threats; a regional political initiative drawing in support from Iran and Pakistan to apply pressure on the Taliban to shut down al Qaeda — not a shot fired. What rational person can dispute that had the administration adopted such a strategy the Middle East and the rest of the world would now be in much better shape and America would now be much less vulnerable to another major terrorist attack?

But that didn’t happen. Instead, President Bush declared a “war” and rather than performing an act of bold leadership, he capitulated to al Qaeda. A small organization that would never have the capacity to wage war was handed the greatest possible reward: it was elevated to the status of being an awesome global entity and absurdly treated as though it paralleled Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union. Al Qaeda’s limited organizational reach was transcended by its being provided with unlimited ideological reach.

The iconic power and political significance of September 11 was a product not simply of the events themselves, but derived from the reaction that those events elicited from the American government and the media. That response elevated and sustained a level of public fear sufficient to short-circuit reason, marginalize dissent, and subvert the democratic process. Six years later, the political damage persists and continues to shape American politics.

For this reason, the challenge for the next president goes beyond the need to reengage the world (a goal whose importance I would not diminish in the slightest way); it is nothing short of attempting to restore democracy within what — even before Bush and Cheney entered the picture — was already an enfeebled political system.


COMMENTARY: “There is no question that we are less safe today as a result of this administration’s policies.” John Edwards

Reengaging with the world
By John Edwards, Foreign Affairs, September/October, 2007

The “war on terror” approach has backfired, straining our military to the breaking point while allowing the threat of terrorism to grow. “War on terror” is a slogan designed for politics, not a strategy to make the United States safe. It is a bumper sticker, not a plan. Worst of all, the “war on terror” has failed. Instead of making the United States safer, it has spawned even more terrorism — as we have seen so tragically in Iraq — and left us with fewer allies.

There is no question that we are less safe today as a result of this administration’s policies. The Bush administration has walked the United States right into the terrorists’ trap. By framing this struggle against extremism as a war, it has reinforced the jihadists’ narrative that we want to conquer the Muslim world and that there is a “clash of civilizations” pitting the West against Islam. From Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, the “war on terror” has tragically become the recruitment poster al Qaeda wanted. Instead of reengaging with the peoples of the world, we have driven too many into the terrorists’ arms. [complete article]


EDITORIAL: ‘There is always something to be afraid of, because the threat is an ongoing threat’

‘There is always something to be afraid of, because the threat is an ongoing threat’

“Vague Threat Prompts Steps by the Police,” says the small headline in the New York Times‘ NY/Region section. The mayor’s office issues a statement saying that the city’s threat level has not changed. Meanwhile, the New York Post, issues its own “terror alert” with the headline, “NYPD ON THE ALERT FOR QAEDA ‘BOMB’,” and reports that “officers were mobilized and checkpoints set up throughout the city – at the Lincoln and Holland tunnels and various locations in lower Manhattan, including the Financial District – to conduct searches and monitor suspicious activity.”

Did something happen or did nothing happen? The man who triggered the alert stated philosophically (or hysterically), “There is always something to be afraid of, because the threat is an ongoing threat.”

Whatever else might have happened (or not happened) yesterday, it’s hard not to wonder whether this was a practice run; an exercise to answer this question: If a notorious Israeli propagandist shouts BOO! can he make New York jump? The Giuliani campaign is perhaps already reflecting on the results.

Here’s how Israel’s Ynet reports what happened:

Be it true or false, imaginary or realistic, DEBKAfile’s Giora Shamis can rest easy on Saturday, after having spun New York police into a frenzy following a Debka report that al-Qaeda might be plotting to detonate a dirty bomb in the city.

Moments before updating his site with new information obtained from world-wide sources, Shamis talked with Ynet and refused to take full credit for the incident.

“The New York Police didn’t have to take my information seriously,” he said. “They had other information, additional to ours.”

A Department of Homeland Security spokesman said, “There’s no information that leads us to believe that there’s an imminent threat.” So, contrary to the DEBKAfile editor’s assertion that NYPD had “other information,” it does not sound as if this was the case.

What can we infer from this incident?

If the NYPD, in coordination with the Department of Homeland Security, is willing to deploy hundreds of police in response to nothing more than a dubious piece of “intelligence” from a highly politically-motivated Israeli web site, it appears that U.S. homeland counter-terrorism operations are extremely easy to manipulate.

Terrorist organizations will take note of this fact and be able to exploit it in a number of ways. They will understand that:

1. Provoking false alarms is economically draining.
2. The more easily security measures can be triggered, the less confidence the public will have that government agencies actually have access to reliable intelligence.
3. The more often false alarms happen, the more complacent the public will become.
4. The more often security services are unnecessarily deployed, the less attentive they will become.
5. Provided with a heightened level of complacency among security services and the public, it will become easier to launch a terrorist attack.

The bottom line is that fear-mongering makes America more — not less — vulnerable to terrorism.

To be strong on terrorism means refusing to be governed by fear. Even though there is always something to be afraid of, it does not serve our interests to live in perpetual fear. Necessary vigilance needs to be coupled with a sense of proportion and a measure of skepticism. In the long run, the fear of terrorism can pose a greater threat than terrorism itself. What was true before 9/11 remains true today: The average American is vastly more at risk of being killed by an automobile than by a terrorist. In the last six years approximately 250,000 Americans have been killed in traffic accidents. There are no reports that any of the vehicles involved were being driven by members of al Qaeda.


EDITORIAL: Who’s in the best position to play a constructive role in Iraq?

Who’s in the best position to play a constructive role in Iraq?

In his patronizing, familiar style, President Bush yesterday said he’d need to have a “heart-to-heart” with his “friend,” Prime Minister Maliki, if the latter continues to insist that Iran is playing a constructive role in Iraq. Then, to drive his message home, Bush switched from friendly to aggressive by saying, “Now, is he [Maliki] trying to get Iran to play a more constructive role? I presume he is. But that doesn’t – what my question is – well, my message to him is, is that when we catch you playing a non-constructive role there will be a price to pay.” Bush staffers were then forced to untangle Bush’s ambiguous syntax by saying that it was Iran — not Maliki — that will pay the price. Vice President Cheney has already volunteered that that price could include airstrikes against suspected training camps in Iran run by the Quds force.

With a casus belli such as “catching a truckload of fighters or weapons crossing into Iraq from Iran,” the long-feared war against Iran now seems unlikely to start with a shock-and-awe strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Instead, a series of “incidents” spread out over a period of months might escalate into a conflict from which neither side can back down. If this happens, I would argue that it reflects a Cheney-inspired political strategy for circumnavigating high level dissent inside the Pentagon.

For some time, rumors have been circulating in Washington that a significant number of generals would resign rather than support military action against Iran. Yet in the scenario I describe, it would only be after the fact (and too late for anyone to preemptively threaten resignation) before everyone agreed that the threshold of war had already been crossed. The window of opportunity for a principled rebellion is rapidly closing.

Meanwhile, the White House’s more immediate preoccupation seems to be whether it’s going to continue treating Maliki as a friend or turn him into a foe.

If and when Maliki has this promised/threatened heart-to-heart with the president, he might consider asking Bush how Iraqis should interpret the following two contrasting images.

To Iran’s west we see an American-led reconstruction process in Iraq that after four years has yielded meager results. Oil production remains below pre-war levels, electricity supply in Baghdad is under a third of what it was, unemployment is around 50%, and 70% of Iraqis lack adequate water supplies. Until quite recently, the U.S. was characterizing “terrorism” — not Iran — as the primary obstacle to Iraq’s progress.

To the east of Iran, Herat (Afghanistan’s western-most city) is now being hailed as a demonstration of “the positive influence of Iran” — those being the words of Mohammed Rafiq Shahir, president of Herat’s Council of Professionals. Since 2001, “Herat has attracted $350 million in private investment for industry – more than any other Afghan city, including Kabul, which is some 10 times larger. In total, 250 medium- and large-scale factories have been built.” The driving force behind this economic boom has been Iran. It has built a highway to the nearby border and it has hooked Herat into the Iranian power grid.

No wonder that — unlike Bush — Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, views his Persian neighbors positively. At the same time, Nuri al-Maliki might well look forward to the day that Iraq is able to purchase cheap electricity from nuclear-powered Iranian power stations.

At the end of the day, what should be more important? Having friendly relations with your immediate neighbors or pleasing a distant, unpredictable and unreliable superpower?


EDITORIAL: Sustaining culture

Sustaining culture

We live in a culture marked by its inattention to the unseen. Small wonder that as we trample on other cultures we neither recognize the damage we are doing nor anticipate the unforeseen and unwanted consequences we will later reap.

In “Ancient Nomads Offer Insights to Modern Crises,” the New York Times provides a fascinating glimpse into some of the less-considered reasons why America got Iraq wrong.

Ilan Greenberg writes:

Recent investigations have challenged long-held views of nomadic culture as purely transient, with little impact on the urban, sophisticated societies that emerged later.

Instead, scientists like [Washington University archaeologist] Dr. Frachetti are discovering that nomadic cultures are flexible, switching between transient and more sedentary ways of life, and assimilating and inventing new ideas and technologies. Nomads created durable political cultures that still influence the way those countries interact with outsiders or negotiate internal power struggles.

While the view that tribe and clan — the basic building blocks of nomadic, or semi-transient societies — influence the contemporary politics of some countries is nothing new, specialists in nomadic studies argue that policy makers have overlooked important “cultural intelligence,” like family relationships, when analyzing governments that grew out of tribal traditions.

“Families, tribes these are the things that matter here,” said Oraz Jandosov, co-chairman of a Kazakhstan opposition political party. “Foreigners talk about these things, but it’s only talk. They don’t understand them.”

Countries like Iraq and Afghanistan may take on the trappings of modern, Western nation-states, with parliaments, justice departments and other governmental agencies, researchers say. But politics are still driven by the customs and institutions of nomadism, in which political disputes were settled at the level of family, clan and tribe.

“In and of itself you can’t graft what happened two thousand years ago and say that’s what it is today, but it helps to understand how these societies have found successful strategies and how they respond to outside forces,” Dr. Frachetti said. “By not exploring the depth to which nomadic populations have contributed to local political systems, we are naive to an important aspect of the social fabric of parts of the Near East and Central Asia.”

The United States military has learned the importance of tribes in Iraq, as evidenced by its policy of arming Sunni Arab tribal chiefs in Anbar Province to fight the leading insurgent group there, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

Yet, despite calls for a deeper appreciation of cultures far from the mainstream, “the United States government hasn’t been willing to pony up the money to educate” policy makers on “these areas with deep nomadic traditions,” said a Central Asia specialist working for the United States government.

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The conceit of those of us who inhabit technologically advanced societies is that we are as advanced as our technology. (Keep that thought in mind next time your computer or your car breaks down.)

I would contend, to the contrary, that the more we (as Thoreau said) become the tools of our tools, the more we lose our mastery of and appreciation for the real building blocks of culture. The advancement, sophistication, and development of our societies has brought with it an unremitting cultural impoverishment.

As we become expert in text messaging, we become less adept in conversation. We acquire megabytes of iTunes but never learn or pass along a single ballad. We know the storylines in many a TV show yet are barely acquainted with ancient narratives from epic verse and drama. The cultural repositories that once provided the primary stock in popular image, phrasing, and metaphor, have been marginalized by a mass media that operates in the thrall of manipulative advertising techniques and commercial imperatives.

Before we can be expected to respect and understand other cultures, we first need to appreciate culture itself. And while, with justification, we worry about the loss of natural resources and an imperiled environment, we need to pay closer attention to those equally fragile resources that can only be sustained within and between human beings. Otherwise we will end up impoverished and ultimately destroyed by our own wealth.