Yes, Waterboarding is Torture

Christopher Hitchens, after voluntarily undergoing water-boarding, concludes, “if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”

Chistopher Hitchens has undergone voluntary waterboarding, and concludes, “if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”

Hitchens of course trusted his “captors,” knew that every effort would be made to protect his health, and had the benefit of a pre-arranged stop signal. How different from a detainee, who would be waterboarded involuntarily in a hostile environment where deaths have occurred, probably after a long period of “stress positions” and sleep deprivation, and perhaps other forms of mistreatment.

It is obscene that the Bush administration decided to use a technique we deemed a war crime when performed by Japan in World War II.

But even aside from concerns about morality and efficacy, what does it say that Cheney and Rumsfeld looked to our military’s SERE program for thinking about interrogation–this was the program that prepared service members to withstand torture by the Evil Empire and its proxies. The predictable result was that we adopted exactly the methods used to extort false confessions from US servicemen during the Korean War.

Iran, Bogeyman

A 2007 book by Trita Parsi on fifty years of Israeli-Iranian-U.S. relations, published by Yale University Press, argues that Iran’s external policies have been more governed by geopolitics than ideology, even when fronted by Ahmadinejad. Numerous occasions for U.S.-Iranian accommodation have been missed, only in part as a result of a political choice by Israel’s Labor government in the 1990’s to build up the Iranian threat to facilitate peacemaking with Palestinians and Arab governments. US policy has been more willful and ideological than that of either Israel or Iran. There are implications for near-term policy toward Iran, and also for an upgrading of American government capabilities for national security policy making.

Some time back on this blog, Harold Pollack modestly proposed a grand nuclear bargain between Israel and Iran. In the current New Yorker, Sy Hersh discusses the possibility that Cheney administration will deliberately provoke a war with Iran via covert ops inside Iran. Recent speculation points to “red lines” that may precipitate an attack by Israel on the known part of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure within the year.

All this is premised to some extent on Iran being a uniquely hostile and irrational regime that is unusually resistant to classical deterrence and liable to release WMD to terrorists. Ahmadinejad’s statements are indeed chilling, but how far do they represent the actual policy of the regime? A 2007 book by Trita Parsi, published by Yale University Press, argues that geopolitics, not ideology, has driven Iran’s policy since 1979 as well as before. Parsi’s thesis is that the U.S. missed key moments when Iran actively sought accommodation (notably ca. 1992 and 2002-2003), and that in part the US lack of acceptance of these strategic openings was driven by the residue of Israel’s Labor Party’s tactic during the 1990’s of building up Iran as an ememy to make peace with the Palestinians and the Arabs more palatable, and to limit the ability of the U.S. to pursue interests separate from Israel’s. You don’t have to buy every twist and turn of Parsi’s argument — particularly he seems to ignore events (see review in Commentary) that point to the messiness of policy as pursued by Iran’s multiple power centers — to accept the gist of his argument that:

1) Until the U.S. failed in subduing occupied Iraq, Iran operated from a position of weakness in the region.

2) Iran has modulated its support for terrorism and its WMD program in response to the geopolitical situation.

3) Iran’s rhetorical hostility to Israel and support for the Palestinian cause has been more tactical than fundamental.

4) Iran’s missile and nuclear programs were aimed at Iraq and other regional powers, and perhaps now at the US, at not at Israel.

5) Since 1979, the US has occasionally looked to what Iran could do for it, but never to what Iran needed in response or to an overall accommodation with Iran.

6) In fact, US policy has been much more ideologically driven than either Israel’s or Iran’s

The primary strategic benefit Iran would get from nuclear weapons would be to shield it from US (or Israeli) conventional attack, freeing itself for more support for proxies should it so desire, rather than for making actual threats or giving the weapons to third parties. Parsi’s account suggests that Iran has conducted its foreign policy in a manner that is at base prudent and rational, driven by national interests rather than ideology. While we may not like Iran any more than we liked the Soviet Union, there is little evidence that it is less deterrable or stable than the Soviet Union was, and thus nuclear weapons in its hands, while bad for the international system for all the reason Harold Pollack mentions, are not really the end of the world requiring the huge risks and costs that any attack by Israel or the US would entail. (The biggest risks are an immediate terrorist response against Israel and the US, further destabilization of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the appearance a few years down the road of a nuclear-armed Iran that is implacably hostile to the U.S.) It also suggests the possibility for a grand bargain, achieved not narrowly on the nuclear front by itself, but by ceding Iran a legitimate role in the security of its region.

However, even if Parsi’s argument is true, U.S. blunders in the region. high oil prices, the advancing Iranian nuclear program and the presence of US forces in Iraq serving as hostages have strengthened Iran enormously compared to when it made its offer for an accommodation of all outstanding issues in 2003 — and so we will be lucky to get anything like the same terms. At this point a quick negotiation cannot be expected; instead a prolonged period of trust building may be required.

See also Peter Galbraith’s review of Parsi’s book in the New York Review of Books.

Note: Parsi has come under attack both for his connections with felonious Republican Congressman Bob Ney and for his connections with organizations that support good American relations with the current Iranian regime. He was born in Iran and raised in Sweden. His narative should be judged on its merits and perhaps should be the subject of Congressional hearings. During the Bush administration, his account reveals another significant area where Cheney and Rumsfeld blocked policies advanced by Colin Powell that would have been significantly better for the country. During the Clinton administration, his account suggests that Tony Lake’s NSC machinery did not have a comprehensive view of Iran’s strategic perspective and as a result excluded it too facilely from the Middle East Peace process, with lasting ill effects. These are big questions that go to the heart of whether the US has a functioning foreign policy system, and that need to be answered before we embark on the next US administration.

Update David Ignatius’s take on the incoherence of America’s current stance toward Iran, here.

Piling on re Wes Clark on John McCain

Mark and Jonathan are entirely right about Wes Clark and John McCain. Clark’s criticism was not of the honor or veracity of McCain’s service record but of its relevance to his qualifications to be president. Clark in fact said McCain as a POW was a hero to him and millions of others.
On Capitol Hill, I can’t think of a lasting contribution McCain has made to defense or national security policy (other than the POW-MIA issue and normalization of relations with Vietnam), despite his powerful position. I invite readers to provide examples that I have missed.

The posts immediately below by Zasloff and Kleiman are correct on all counts. Let’s be clear that Wes Clark honored McCain’s service and said McCain was a hero to him and millions of other service members because of his time as a POW. Unlike the Swift Boat attacks, Clark did not attack McCain’s character or veracity, but only suggested that the conventional wisdom about the relevance of his record was wrong.

On the substance, I’ve been honestly wracking my brains to remember significant influences that McCain has had on foreign and defense policy. His role in supporting the surge in Iraq is well known, and seems to have come as much from the neocons Kristol and Kagan as from any independent judgment. Perhaps his advocacy in 2002 for action against Iraq as the “next front” should be better remembered. He deserves great credit for his role in tamping down and countering nutwing (if sincere) beliefs that many POW-MIAs were still being held by North Vietnam and its allies, and then played an important role in normalization of relations with Vietnam, but these were both intimately bound up with his own Vietnam experience. Recent coverage of his thesis written in a year at the National War College also showed that his time there — the only time in his military career when he was at all exposed to policy — was spent dwelling on his Vietnam experience.

More recently, he played a strong role in opposing a questionable tanker lease that Boeing had cooked up with the Air Force, and in that connection became such a foe of Boeing that he bears some responsibility for the granting of the $35 Billion contract to a European manufacturer fronted by Northrop Grumman — a decision that has now been effectively stopped by a Government Accountability Office review of a protest by Boeing. (The result of this has been to delay the rejuvenation of the tanker fleet by years and probably to cost the government billions of dollars.) McCain did break with many Republicans to more or less support the Clinton administration’s intervention in the Balkans, though he tended to view it through a Cold War lens of opposing Russian influence, which perhaps explains the apparent reversal from his opposition to the peacekeeping role of the Marines in Lebanon during the Reagan administration. On the other hand, when he was still in the House of Representatives, McCain voted against the Goldwater-Nichols reorganization of the Pentagon, that has been crucial to military successes achieved since then. He has supported missile defense in a sort of knee-jerk way, whether the systems work or not.

In other words, from what I can piece together from memory without doing independent research, McCain’s role on Capitol Hill — with the exception of the POW-MIA issue and normalization of relations with Vietnam — has been marginal. He enjoys hob-nobbing with the brass and especially going to international conferences (where his temper may or may not be on display) , but hasn’t produced much in the way of legislation or policy innovation. I can’t remember any special role he played in the rethinking of American national security policy following the demise of the Soviet Union, or again after 9/11. Instead, particular things grab his attention, he makes an issue of them one way or another, and history moves on without him having had a coherent impact. It is perhaps more important to him than he has taken an honorable stand than whether the stand is actually right–in this he may be dangerously similar to the Incumbent.

This is why the McCain camp had to respond so dramatically to Wes Clark’s reasoned discussion of the relevance of the McCain’s record — because there really isn’t much of a policy record for him to stand on. The mis-statements about who’s Sunni and who’s Shia are closer to the real John McCain. His judgment and the depth of his expertise are certainly open to question.

Let’s remember that McCain decided he wanted a political career during his time as Senate Navy Liaison, where, according to the New York Times, he was fondly remembered by Senators such as “monkey business” Gary Hart and soon-to-divorce Bill Cohen for taking them to events where “grounds for divorce were suspended” and for supplying John Tower (later denied confirmation as Secretary of Defense because of his drinking) with alcohol.

I invite readers to provide examples of McCain’s influence on defense and national security — positive as well as negative — that I have missed.

Update: Predictably NBC nightly news played the Wes Clark clip where he repeated Bob Shieffer’s phrase about “riding in a plane and getting shot down” not being a qualification to be president, and played it as a story of questioning McCain’s record or patriotism and whether the Obama campaign is on message. How stupid and lazy can reporting be?

Jihadi Violence: Grounds for Optimism?

Lawrence Wright (author of The Looming Tower) in the June 2 New Yorker gives significant examples of violent Islamic fundamentalists renouncing violence. How much better off would we be if we had not become distracted by Iraq and had held true to our values after 2001?

In the June 2 New Yorker, Lawrence Wright (author of The Looming Tower) teases out the implications of Dr. Fadl, the former terrorist leader of Al Jihad, a progenitor of Al Qaeda, rejecting Al Qaeda’s violence in a statement issued from an Egyptian Prison in May 2007. While Wright cannot be sure that Fadl’s voice was not coerced, he seems to credit the new writings as authentic, and he believes that they will have some influence in Jihadi circles. Fadl powerfully criticizes Al Qaeda on prudential as well as ethical and scriptural grounds.

Wright also tells the story of the Egyptian Islamic Group, which effectively renounced violence through moral discussion in (repressive) Egyptian jails. They were all released, and there were only two known instances of regression toward violence, In both cases the men were turned in by other members of the group.

Wright concludes with a section titled, “Is Al Qaeda Finished?” Egyptian intelligence believes that the core Al Qaeda numbers less than 200. While the virus is abroad, and there are now many others who would say as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad did, that “our business is terrorism,” it is also possible that with enlightened management of the ideological struggle, in combination with targeted intelligence operations, the “war on terror” against Al Qaeda need not be a long-term conflict. In Pakistan, increased flows of suicide bombers into Afghanistan coexist with public opinion soundings that have turned against terrorism. It is not at all certain which narrative will win out, but it is certain that America has woefully damaged its own position by its actions at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Nevertheless, America has to some extent been fortunate in its enemies &#8212 in the sense that Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and especially Zarqawi in Iraq have been so brutal and their tactics have been in favor of an ultimate goal that does not have a very broad appeal.

On the other hand, energy and food price trends are likely to exacerbate inequaility in the Islamic world, increasing instability and fertilizing the seedbeds of radicalism. And we will never be able to relax our defensive and intelltigence vigilance given the vulnerabilities that have been exposed for all to see.

It’s amazing to think how different the world might be today If we had stayed focussed on the real threat, not gone into Iraq, captured or killed Bin Laden at Tora Bora, and stayed true to our values and not built up the terrorist threat into some sort of global monollith (or trancendental challenge of the 21st century, in John McCain’s terms).

How different would our political culture be if the Bush administration had used 9/11 as an opportunity to unite around problem solving and policy discussion rather than to divide us with fear?

Continue reading for a sidelight on how the administration is so in thrall to the narrative of the “long war” that it won’t even use the elimination of a major long-time enemy to bolster its sagging approval.

Continue reading “Jihadi Violence: Grounds for Optimism?”

John McCain’s Jurisprudence

McCain’s reactionary Court-bashing should bar him from the presidency.

Today Senator John McCain attacked the Supreme Court’s death penalty decision as “an assault on law enforcement’s efforts to punish these heinous felons for the most despicable crime.”

The statement disregards the jurisprudence behind the decision, and falsely suggests that the majority regards child rape as less than heinous. It has the McCain trademark unnecessary hyperbole — (is child rape really more despicable than, for example, forcing a mother to kill one child with the hope of saving another, and then killing the other one also?) as well as reactionary “law and order” incitement against judges.

Last week McCain bashed the Court’s Guantanamo decision as one of the “worst” in the Court’s history.

It’s hardly moderate or statesmanlike or conducive to a new tone in Washington to undermine the rule of law through such incendiary language.

Either McCain doesn’t care about the legal basis of our Republic, or he is too ignorant to even begin to understand the Court’s decision making, or he is deliberately compromising his integrity to engage in these crude reactionary appeals.

Any of the three should disqualify him from becoming president.

You have to wonder whether he’d have any more regard for the rule of law than the incumbent.

Update: Barack Obama also disagrees with the Supreme Court. But note how his answer to a news conference question, as reported by the AP, is more coherent and temperate, (as well as more grammatical) than John McCain’s statement posted on his official Senate website (linked above).

McCain campaign slimes Obama on terrorism policy

It turns out that on national security the McCain campaign’s notion of discussing issues is Rovian name calling.
Update: Readers pitch in with additional substance.

The Page reports a concerted attack by the McCain campaign on Barack Obama’s answer in an interview regarding our ability to try terrorists in courts of law. Obama argued that holding terrorists indefinitely in Guantanamo has been bad for America’s image and hurtful to our success in dealing with the Muslim world, and that the successful trial of the first world trade center conspirators demonstrates that trials are possible.

Note that Obama did not say that prosecution should be the only means of dealing with terrorists.

But how does the McCain campaign deal with Obama’s attempt to reason with the American public in this policy realm? It first misrepresents his position, saying that Obama believes that does not believe in doing anything with terrorists other than “treating them as common criminals,” something Obama never said. Then in a play straight from Karl Rove’s book, it trots out former DCI Jim Woolsey to echo the campaign’s attack on this “September 10 mindset.”

But Obama was making a reasoned argument based largely on facts since 2001, so this can hardly be evidence of a pre 9/11 mind at work.

In fact it is McCain’s position that is, as Woolsey put it, “an extremely dangerous and extremely naive approach to terrorism.”

McCain’s argument that Obama doesn’t understand “our enemies” is simplistic and wrong. This slime of an argument ignores what even Donald Rumsfeld stated in a memo — that we need to keep in mind both how to deal with the already committed terrorists while at the same time impeding the recruitment of others, strengthening norms against terrorist behavior, and recruiting our own allies in other governments and communities to deal with terrorism.

Of course we need to maintain Special Operations and related capabilities for “direct action” against terrorists, and there will be times when intelligence and building court cases may be at odds. Barack Obama has consistently argued for a policy of striking terrorists where we have actionable intelligence. But often securing such intelligence and being able to act depends on the actions of other governments and communities, which in turn depends on a broader climate of relationships and how the US is viewed. Certainly our security would be much better today if we had better access to the Pakistani side of the Afghanistan border — What have Bush or McCain done to advance this? (Recall McCain’s sneering at anyone who advocated putting any eggs in any basket in Pakistan other than Musharraf’s.)

McCain needs to distract from the fact that his and George Bush’s policies precluded an effective attack on Al Qaeda ever since Bin Laden was allowed to escape at Tora Bora. It turns out that the McCain campaign can’t debate policy issues; it can only resort to Rovian name calling.

There is no hope that McCain would change the tone in Washington.

(For an earlier post discussing the politics of terrorism and the importance of maintaining a law enforcement element in terrorism policy, see here.

Update: The Obama Campaign Responds (as reported by The Page.

Also a reader quite properly points to the McClatchy reporting on Guantanamo for elaboration of how the clumsy and prolonged incarceration of detainees has backfired.

Finally, another reader cites Wikipedia to contrast the Republican failure to capture Bin Laden or deal effectively in the Pakistani tribal areas with the successful Democratic administration response to the 1993 attack on CIA employees going to work. According to this account, tribal leaders were key to the attacker being arrested in Pakistan, rendered to the US for trial and, ultimately, executed.

National Security Policy and Politics

Two articles in the June 12th New York Review of Books remind of us of the gulf between our politics and the reality of what is needed to manage the threat of terrorism. Is it hopelessly naive to think about what the Obama campaign could do to overcome this gulf? Or should it concentrate on beating McCain on the established terrain and transforming it once in office?

Two articles in the June 12th New York Review of Books remind of us of the gulf between our politics and the reality of what is needed to manage the threat of terrorism. Is it hopelessly naive to think about what the Obama campaign could do to overcome this gulf? Or should it concentrate on beating McCain on the established political terrain and transforming it once in office? Few questions of campaign substance will be as pivotal as this.

McCain’s national security experience and expertise is almost exclusively military. His argument that the surge worked ignores that it achieved few of the political milestones laid out for it. McCain was not heard in dissent from the administration’s policies that have nearly snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Can Obama in effect concede McCain has expertise in checkers when in fact we are engaged in chess– and Obama’s wisdom in understanding what game is being played trumps McCain’s narrow expertise that will inevitably be misapplied?

In February, EJ Dionne pointed to McCain’s identification of “radical Islamic extremists” as the “transcendent challenge of the 21st century” — that is, for the next 92 years, as a policy premise that renders all other international and domestic concerns secondary, and invited observers to question whether this was intellectually defensible or whether it was Bush-like misplaced ideological certainty. Continuing the current militarized approach to counter-terrorism is likely to make the “transcendent challenge” a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is the antithesis of hope.

Details on dealing with terrorism at the jump…

Continue reading “National Security Policy and Politics”

All you need to know about McCain, part 2

Analysis of 2 NYT articles on same page today:
1) McCain designated spokesperson on wiretapping has no legal or other related expertise
2) Carly Fiorina, who he listens to on economic policy, has no economic expertise or experience
3) Fiorina, while at HP, conducted illegal surveillance
Conclusion: No competence or disposition to obey the law, or help average Americans, here

On one page in the New York Times today, we learn the answers to some illuminating questions:

1) Who is the expert that McCain trusts to explicate his position that the President is above the law where wiretapping is concerned? It’s Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economist with no legal experience or knowledge.

2) Whom does he listen to about how the government should intervene in the foreclosure mess? It’s his top advisor Carly Fiorina, who has no relevant training or experience, unless you count almost destroying Hewlett-Packard. She received $42 million upon being fired from H-P. One guesses she does not spend much time in neighborhoods affected by economic uncertainty. (Also, as the Times notes, “Mr McCain denounced excessive executive pay in an economic speech in Pittsburgh last month.”)

3) Who else besides Republican Presidents might be above the law according to the McCain camp? While at Hewlett Packard, Ms. Fiorina sponsored a Nixonian investigation that used illegal methods to plumb leaks from her Board. Perhaps the Press will ask Mr. Hotlz-Eakin whether McCain believes that CEOs and his campaign staff are also above the law?

There’s no evidence here that his administration would be any more competent, reality-based, law-abiding, or have any more concern for the struggles of the American people, than the current one.

What does McCain’s speech on nuclear security say?

1. It’s addressed to the wonks, not the voters.
2. It won’t please the ultra-hawks; it puts daylight between McCain and Bush, at least rhetorically. But it assumes that generals, not civilians, make security policy.
3. It involves changes from McCain’s earlier positions without explanation.
4. Statements in it diverge from consensus reality at several points, especially in his characterizations of opposing positions.

What can we learn from McCain’s speech on nuclear security?

John McCain won’t get John Bolton’s vote, or that of many others who started out in 2001 to wreck the international arms control regimes. But while the speech signals a big turn away from unilateralism and toward realism in tone and substance in a restricted policy realm, it does so in language that is aimed more at the Council on Foreign Relations than the public, and it exposes question marks about his leadership style as well as political vulnerabilities.

As the official position of the candidate of the Republican party, this speech favoring reductions in US nuclear forces and consideration of a comprehensive test ban (long a bogeyman to conservatives) should make it much easier for a Democratic president to put realistic and cooperative policies in place, and to make progress on the real security agenda.

Details at the jump.

Update: Glenn Kessler in the WaPo and, especially,

Elisabeth Bumiller on the front page of the NYT provide context. Both refer to a McCain/Lieberman opinion piece in Tuesday’s WSJ Asia that appeared to take a somewhat harder line on North Korea than the Bush administration, underscoring the absence of clarity about how a McCain administration would deal with North Korea and Iran.

Continue reading “What does McCain’s speech on nuclear security say?”

Rats being forced off the ship department?

Mark has done a great job of drawing attention to the dictators’ lobbyists on the McCain campaign. See here and here.

Today comes word that Craig Shirley has been ousted from the McCain campaign after Politico asked about his connection to an anti-Democratic 527. In the 1990’s Craig Shirley was on payroll of the Serb side in the Bosnian conflict. Chalk up another McCain campaign connection to foreign dictators.