The Open Mind” is an ongoing series of exchanges between the conservative/libertarian ShrinkWrapped and this blog, the liberal the sad red earth. Earlier posts in the series can be accessed from the drop down menu above. ShrinkWrapped here offers the initial post of round four. Comments are closed at this site and should be made at ShrinkWrapped.

The Open Mind IV: Synthesis

Yesterday I described the Right’s Thesis and the Left’s Antithesis with regard to the current War on Whatever-And-Whoever-It-Is-We-Are-Fighting.  To suggest that we have lacked clarity about our enemies since shortly after 9/11 is to state the obvious.  As a nation our leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, have signally failed in convincingly explaining who the enemy is and how we should fight them.  President Bush’s initial inclination, that we were at war with radical Islamists, led to what can now be considered in retrospect to have been military overreach.  President Obama’s attempts to liberalize the Antithetical point of view, ie that terrorism was merely “man-caused disasters” that did not present existential risks and could be managed as a criminal rather than military matter, has led him into methodological cul-de-sacs from which he may have significant trouble extricating himself.

In his need to rationalize a quasi-criminal, overly legalistic military approach in areas where it clearly cannot work, ie Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, President Obama has managed to simultaneously vow to close Guantanamo while being forced to keep it open either there or in another facility differing only in longitude and latitude; he has offered criminal trials complete with full Constitutional protections to irregular combatants for whom such protections were never intended; he has continued most of the hated Bush administration’s “worst” excesses (“illegal wiretaps”, indefinite detention, renditions; extrajudicial assassinations) and has continued a policy, begun by the Bush administration, of catch-and-release for Islamic terrorist (with the destination du jour for both released Gitmo inmates and al Qaeda wannabes being Yemen.)  Worse, as Roger Simon noted, rather than clarify who and what the enemy is, we are now verbally attacking the second derivative of the function; wars, even mere police actions, are not won by attacking the second derivative.  It does not take a political genius to understand why Obama’s poll numbers are falling into territory dangerous to Democrats.  Although I rarely offer unsolicited advice* I would like to suggest some options for Obama which might help save his Presidency and prevent a “man caused disaster” from becoming an electoral catastrophe for him.

*[To be fair, I rarely offer solicited advice either.  People only take advice when it supports what they already want to do.  Then if it blows up on them, they can blame the advice giver.  Most of the time people have all the advice they can use by the time they come to me; all I can do is help them understand the import of their options so that they can make a more informed decision for which they can then take full responsibility.]

After the post-Iraq invasion disaster that followed “mission accomplished” it should have been obvious that a military approach to Islamic failed states would be problematic.  Steve Sailor notes that after Iraq, and back to the future in Afghanistan, we now have Yemen to worry about; his conclusion is priceless:


In yet another example of the workings of the bipartisan wisdom that “Because we must invite the world (it’s unthinkable not to), we therefore must invade the world to be safe,” Washington has responded to Nigerian Underwear Bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s fizzled attempt to blow up a plane headed to Detroit on Christmas by escalating American involvement in Yemen.

Senator Joe Lieberman declaimed, “Iraq was yesterday’s war, Afghanistan is today’s war. If we don’t act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow’s war.”

The logic of invite the world, invade the world is simple: Because we are so helplessly vulnerable to Muslim terrorists flying to the U.S. and blowing stuff up, we must tighten American hegemony over the entire Muslim world, even unto the highlands of Yemen, until they learn to stop resenting us.

The bombings of Muslim countries will continue until Muslim morale improves!

If apologizing and appeasing hasn’t made the Islamists like us better (as witness the accelerating pace of attempted terror attacks since 2009) then increased bombing is unlikely to either.  It just may be that they hate us for reasons over which we don’t have a lot of control.  Maybe they hate us for their own reasons?  In any event, it may well be necessary to continue bombing bad guys in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and wherever they show up next, but if the President deems it necessary to protect us with such efforts, an honest appraisal from him would be helpful.

The inference drawn by most Americans is that the Obama administration has tightened the reins under which the government operates to protect us.  As a result of a less rigorous approach to terror, the risks of successful attacks have increased.  Although the Bush administration held itself to high standards of political correctness, the Obama administration has gone even further.  This is held by many to be one of the unconnected dots that led to Major Hasan’s successful attack and the lack of credible profiling that facilitated the Christmas attempt.  The outcome of the failed attempt should worry civil libertarians, as noted by Matthew Yglesias (whose writing I have been enjoying more and more as he confirms many of my opinions even as he attempts to show their flaws; it is a delightful paradox!)

The Real Torture Debate

I keep meaning to comment on this Rasmussen poll about how Americans love torture:

Fifty-eight percent (58%) of U.S. voters say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information from the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 30% oppose the use of such techniques, and another 12% are not sure.

Predictably enough, I disagree. But agree or disagree, what I really wanted to draw attention to was how different this discussion is from the debater’s gambit arguments we’re used to having about ticking time bombs and city-destroying nuclear weapons. The fact that Abdulmuttalab was on that plane, alone, with a not-very-impressive explosive stuffed down his pants is about the best proof you can think of that al-Qaeda doesn’t have a massive nuclear weapon hidden somewhere beneath Manhattan that they’re about to set off. The guy may or may not have some information that would be useful to intelligence officials, but he clearly doesn’t have specific information about imminent attacks. The idea being endorsed here is really just routinized use of torture as an investigatory technique.

I disagree with Yglesias that water boarding as practiced by our interrogators is torture, but I also understand there are those who would never accept that opinion.  I also don’t know how he can claim that “(t)he guy … clearly doesn’t have specific information about imminent attacks” after he announced there are many others just like him waiting for their turn.  However, let us simply agree to disagree and also agree that in the near future only the most minimal of coercive techniques will be possible for interrogating any prisoners of this confusingly named war.  Where Yglesias is absolutely correct is his assessment that if Abdulmuttalab is the best al Qaeda can do, their line-up should not terrify anyone.

At the same time, Yglesias misses the crucial point that the war is a political fight with a dominant perceptual component, ie it is an information war only occasionally fought with kinetic means.  If Americans perceive their government as non-serious, ie not doing whatever is necessary to protect us, the response to a successful attack (and a successful attack is a near certainty) would be disastrous for the party he supports and for the civil liberties of all of us.  At the moment, the calculus the government might wisely consider would be weighing the inconvenience of profiled passengers, especially those who belong to just those groups which offer the largest number of terrorist recruits versus the civil liberties of the vast majority of American citizens.  (Giving up my freedom to micturate during a long plane flight is a significant curtailment of my civil liberties; it might even be considered torturous to the prostatically challenged.  Further, the loss of my water bottle the last time I flew and the loss of my Swiss Army knife with the one inch blade that I had to forfeit the first time I flew to visit my son in Monterrey in 2006, having forgotten to remove the dangerous terrorist weapon from my key chain are equally infringements on my civil liberties.  Multiply by millions and you end up with a lot of perturbed citizens, many of whom vote.)

The current approach, of profiling a number of countries, most majority Muslim, in order to avoid more rigorous and reasonable profiling of those most likely to attempt airplane terror is annoying and inane.  It will win us few friends and do little to convince anyone we are serious about protecting ourselves rather than serious about atmospherics.

[True story: in December 2001, during Christmas break from his first year in college, Oldest Son’s close friend flew to New York from Virginia and stayed with us for the entire break.  He is a Kuwaiti national flying with a Saudi passport and at the time fit the exact profile of the 9/11 attackers: a  Saudi, single, male, between the ages of 16-28.  In a tone mixing amazement and  horror, he wondered how he could have been allowed to fly without being searched.  He felt less safe because he wasn’t searched; he noted, if the airport personal didn’t search him, who were they searching?]

In my opinion, the Bush administration erred by relying too much on the military and for undertaking a poorly thought out nation building program in Iraq; the Obama administration is risking a half hearted repeat which is even less propitious in Afghanistan, and threatens to get involved in Yemen and unable to extricate from Pakistan.   Domestically, Bush at least protected us successfully while Obama has not offered a convincing case for relaxing our guard and has only luck to thank for avoiding disaster on Christmas day.

With that preamble, and in order to find a Synthesis between the Thesis which relies too heavily on a military approach to Islamic terrorism and the Antithesis of a purely criminal approach which risks being perceived by the public as non-serious, I would propose a few modest steps for President Obama:

1) Start with a speech, at which he excels, explaining that the War on Terror (not as accurate as “the War on Islamic Terror” but far better and less risible than “the war on man caused Disasters”) goes on but cannot be won by our military alone, or even as the primary force.  Each of us is involved in this war and, of necessity, we are all the last line of defence against those who wish us harm.  Recruit the American people as part of the defence of America and their fellow citizens!

2) In order to assure the American public that their government is doing everything possible to protect them, make it clear that treating enemy combatants as criminals deprives us of the right to humanely, ie without torture or coercion, interrogate our prisoners for actionable intelligence.  All future terorists will therefor be treated as enemy combatants.  (He could explain that this means KSM will not get a show trial in New York but more likely this will be left unmentioned and KSM will simply not be heard from until the next President takes office.)

[I appreciate this may not pass muster by the Supreme Court (as per M_O_M’s comment) however, the importance is to reorient the public perception that the Obama administration is soft on terror.  Beyond that, by the time an enemy combatant’s lawyers could get involved, useful information could well have been obtained.  This would be a cynical abrogation of some civil liberties, but in the long run, the greatest danger to our civil liberties remains a successful mass casualty attack.]

3) In the most difficult part of the speech, the President should warn the public that despite the best efforts of our military and our intelligence services, dedicated public servants all, etc, we can never be 100% safe.  The likelihood is that a terrorist will succeed at harming some Americans.  However, we are a strong nation that will not cower before our enemies and will not cede further civil liberties in the face of the threat.  (This will only work to inoculate the President if he first announces #2, since otherwise the Right will be able to use the outrage over a successful attack as a cudgel with which to hammer the administration as limp and ineffectual.)

4) After the speech, set in motion a military and political re-evaluation of our strategy in the military part of the war.  Find out if there is a way to disengage our troops on the ground while setting up clear trigger points for overwhelming responses.  In other words, assess whether a bargain can be arrived at whereby we continue to bribe war lords and Pakistani Generals to keep their subjects from attacking us, with the message that any successful attacks will be grounds for regime change by whatever means necessary and without the niceties of post-attack nation building.  This could be sold to the American public, who would like nothing more than to have as little to do as possible with “crazy Muslims” (sorry, but that is how they are portrayed by the multicultural, politically correct MSM) and would support such neo-isolationism going forward.  We may not know where al Qaeda in Yemen resides but there are Yemenis who do and if the current Generals, Imams, and Princes cannot keep them under wraps, we can find others who will be incentivized to do better.  This would be brutal realpolitik, amoral, and sleazy, but I suspect could be sold to an increasingly neo-isolationist public as a clear headed policy going forward ahead.

This would not be my ideal approach.  I doubt they would be Obama’s preferences either, however, I believe these moves would be the minimum he would need to take in order to preserve his Presidency’s viability in the event of a future successful attack.  Further, I believe these are standards to which a future Republican President could adhere, short of another mass casualty or WMD attack. The Synthesis would maximize our safety without sacrificing too many of our liberties; at the same time we need to recognize that it would not effect the long term course of the War, which is primarily a struggle within Islam to adapt itself to the modern world.

My preferences?

  • We should clearly identify the enemy as radical or expansionist Islam; repeat as necessary.
  • We should support true moderates in Islam (of whom there are a small number, most of whom live under constant threat from their governments and the Islamists.)
  • We should institute effective profiling, which would necessarily include an ethnic component.
  • We should reserve the right to use coercive techniques when in possession of terrorists, enemy combatants, who may have information about current capabilities and future attacks; any coercive techniques should require a Presidential determination so that our people on the front lines would not have to look over their shoulders and calculate the odds of future indictments from a future administration.
  • We should reserve any military responses to true WMD attacks, successful or failed.  We cannot drain the swamp but we can and should evaluate whether or not we can deny safe havens to our enemies.
  • We should begin a process of relative disengagement with the Muslim world.  For example, this means we should tilt more overtly toward India and away from Pakistan.  We can barely influence Pakistan with billions of dollars; directing its future course is far beyond our means.  India is an ally and in the front lines of the war.
  • In the same vein, we should be more vocal and emphatic about the need for the Arab world to start taking responsibility for their plight.  This includes expecting Arab nations to extend citizenship to those second, third, and fourth generation Palestinian refugees who desire it and to become serious about their acceptance of Israel’s reality.
  • Finally, we should grow up and start taking responsibility for our own outsized appetites.  That means, specifically, we must start to develop all of our energy sources, green and otherwise.  Sending billions to our enemies when we could spark an economic revival and lower the price of energy by drilling at home would not only be environmentally responsible but would also be the single most potent weapon we could wield against the Arab and Persian tyrants from whom the greatest threats emanate.
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