Democracy Arsenal

September 11, 2006


Moral Clarity, Inverted
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Today is September 11. It is almost impossible to tell. Nothing looks particularly different. Starbucks coffee tastes like it did five years ago (or does it?).

We don’t seem to act like a society at war. That, however, does not mean the task at hand – fighting terror and securing the homeland – is any less urgent. But we are losing, whether it is on the battlefields of Iraq or for the hearts and minds we began to lose long ago. A couple of days ago, a friend and I were talking about John McCain running for president. I ran through some of his good qualities: he’s relatively principled, sincere, I said, and he’s anti-torture to boot. Then I thought to myself – this is the legacy of the Bush administration: the moral bar has been set so low that now we get excited when a politician is against torture, which is, as far as I’m concerned, sort of like being anti-rape, anti-murder, and anti-child molestation. It’s really nothing to brag about, or at least it wasn’t before the Bush administration and their Republican enablers destroyed America’s moral compass. 

On the eve of this tragic anniversary, it’s baffling that the Bushies would coin as stupid a term as “Islamic fascism.” Wait, actually, it’s not. They want to rally their base with their red-meat appeals for the red states, who, so we are told, fancy hypermasculine posturing mixed in with their politics. When Bush decided to mix in faux Churchill in his garbage-man rhetoric, he put our troops and our country in ever greater danger. Every terrorist and religious extremist now has another talking point to whip up the anger of potential recruits. In short, this administration has sacrificed the safety of our troops and the security of the American people on the altar of domestic politics.

Yes, some of you might proceed to explain to me the meaning of “Islamic fascism,” and justify its usage. But what we, as Americans, think the term means is irrelevant. In today’s morass of miscommunication, what is said often has little to do with what is heard. And 1.4 billion Muslims, nearly all of them already quite angry at us, interpreted the words as distinctly hostile and an affront to their faith. In a culture which elevates honor and dignity, the spectacle of a man with little command of the English language, fronting in such a preposterous manner, is yet one more insult on top of many others. The scars of humiliation have not healed, while the indignities continue to mount.

As always, the price of such decisions, made in the name of "moral clarity," will have to be borne by us and our country, never more imperiled than it is today, five years after later. 

September 08, 2006


Credit where Credit's Due?
Posted by Michael Signer

In advance of next Monday's memorial of 9/11, the conservative strategists are performing an intriguing little dance nowadays -- like when little kids dare each other to run into a water fountain and come right up to the edge but retreat, nervously giggling. 

The question they're wrestling with:  are they going to start trying to take credit for five years without another domestic terrorist attack, or aren't they?  You can start to feel the credit-taking creep into their rhetoric, albeit hesitantly.  Check out this deliciously tantalizing bit of politics on House Republican Conference Secretary John Doolittle's site:

If Sept. 11, 2006, passes without a terrorist attack on our soil, Congress should thank our homeland defenders with a formal resolution. Before the November elections. And let's see who votes against it.

If?  It's not just morbid; it's alarming.  The broader questions are (a) is security ever properly the subject of partisan, campaign-type politics, and (b) is the basic proposition -- that we're safer now than then -- accurate?

Continue reading "Credit where Credit's Due?" »

September 05, 2006


"Safer, but not Yet Safe"
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

I haven't yet read the report from which that quote from President Bush is taken.  He's also due to give a speech later today which will, I'm sure, expound further on the idea.

But my immediate conclusion is this:  that the Administration has decided to end the debate among progressives about the "are you safer..." line of argumentation by pre-empting it. 

Continue reading ""Safer, but not Yet Safe"" »

August 29, 2006


ISO New Speechwriter for SecDef
Posted by Michael Signer

Donald Rumsfeld has just made an extraordinary speech at the American Legion's national convention in Salt Lake City, likening opposition to the President's policies against terrorism to appeasement of Hitler in the 1930's. 

Many people will have many things to say about the speech, which is just breathtaking in its manipulation of history and the harsh political polarization of any rational discussion of the Administration's policies.  But I want to focus here on a narrower question. 

What's up with Rumsfeld concluding with this quotation of George Clemenceau?:

"You know from experience that in every war -- personally -- there have been mistakes and setbacks and casualties," [Rumsfeld] said. "War is," as Clemenceau said, 'A series of catastrophes that results in victory.'"

Clemenceau was premier of France during WWI and a critical ally of America.  Good.  But he's not the most providential source of Administration-friendly quotes.  Here are the others that the Columbia World of Quotations offers:

"War is too important a matter to be left to the military."

"America is the only nation in history which, miraculously, has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization."

"My home policy: I wage war; my foreign policy: I wage war. All the time I wage war."

And, my personal favorite for this SecDef:

"It is far easier to make war than to make peace."

August 17, 2006


Two Wars on Terror
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Here's a piece I just published at the American Prospect Online

Five years after September 11, it is possible to take stock of what parts of the battle against terrorism are succeeding and failing, and why. The thwarting of an elaborate terrorist plot against trans-Atlantic flights last week prevented what some maintain could have been a second September 11-style attack. Regardless of what the would-be perpetrators were actually capable of, credit goes to the intelligence, law enforcement and transportation security agencies that uncovered the plan, caught the culprits, and protected the public.

The rest of the picture is bleaker. The announcement that more than 3,400 Iraqi civilians died in unrest in the month of July is a shocking reminder that the world’s most powerful military has, let’s face it, failed in its chief aim of stabilizing Iraq. The Israel Defense Forces’ inability to vanquish Hezbollah in a month-long fight further shows that when in on-the-ground combat, terrorist groups can stand up to the world’s most advanced armies

It’s clear that meticulous intelligence and collaborative criminal enforcement can curb terrorists’ ability to carry out episodic headline-grabbing attacks. But when it comes to uprooting endemic terrorist schemers with roots in unstable societies, at least as a military matter, the task is virtually impossible. The war on terror is happening on two fronts, but headway is being made on only one.

The conclusion is not a surprise. During the last three decades, Israel, despite preventing targeted killings and kidnappings around the globe, never effectively clamped down on the intifada back home. The United States likewise had an easier time defending itself against hijackings and assassinations than it had fighting Viet Cong forces hidden in jungles.

The reasons for the disparity are clear. To succeed in sowing fear, terrorist attacks must be carried out in places and against people who are well-protected and feel safe. Grassroots terrorist activity targets vulnerable populations in already unstable situations. High-profile attacks require perpetrators to risk suicide, capture, or life on the run. Endemic terrorists can melt away anonymously. Whereas splashy international terrorists must plot with utmost secrecy and isolation, domestic terrorists can draw succor from supportive civilian populations.

To read the rest, click here.

August 06, 2006


Too Ruthless to Win
Posted by David Shorr

With no apologies whatsoever to John Podhoretz.

What if our democracy has become so frantic about destroying our enemies that it can no longer keep track of who its enemies are, why we are fighting them, or what it would mean to win?

What if we assign so much value to our own people that we lose any sense of common humanity? Will the people of other countries believe us when we tell them our quarrel is with their leaders and not with them? Will we have fewer or more enemies if we dismiss all other concerns than the indiscriminate pursuit of our foes? Will other nations come to our aid if we brush aside their wishes and priorities?

What if our enemies refuse to learn the lessons we are so insistent on teaching them? What if, instead of being awed by our power and righteousness, they choose to continue the fight? Is there a point at which the costs exceed the conceivable gains? Don’t we expect our leaders to calculate the chances for and obstacles to success? How many enemies must we fight, for how long?

What if not every enemy can be defeated militarily? How do we know that political steps will never give a better outcome, that they will never reduce the enemy’s will to fight or their support and sustenance?

What if our soldiers are cut loose from "voluntary limits" in combat? What if limits are essential to keeping the conduct of war from becoming completely senseless? What if they are a fundamental part of the warrior’s honor? What if they are critical to the ability of young men and women to make sense of a searing experience? What will be the long-term effects on their psyche? What if we start measuring our own behavior against those of our enemies? What will we permit ourselves (our troops) to do because our enemies are worse?

Could somebody please remind me again what it means to win?

August 01, 2006


Kleinfeld on Podhoretz -- Ouch!
Posted by Michael Signer

For a vigorous and invigorating response to an op-ed by John Podhoretz's recent op-ed,  where he asks, and answers, this really, really dumb neocon rhetorical question:

WHAT if liberal democracies have now evolved to a point where they can no longer wage war effectively because they have achieved a level of humanitarian concern for others that dwarfs any really cold-eyed pursuit of their own national interests?

just click on this link to read Rachel Kleinfeld tee off, as she continues her brilliant stint for Anne-Marie Slaughter over at TPM Cafe.


July 30, 2006


We Should be Dividers, not Uniters, of Terrorists
Posted by David Shorr

The second item on Suzanne's key questions progressives must figure out was: Is the Fight Against Terror the #1 priority or simply a top priority? I'll offer a positive answer as well as a negative one on the need for a fundamental shift in how we view counterterror efforts.

To respond directly to Suzanne's direct question, I vote for "simply a top priority." Actually, my vote is for: a priority, with others, in need of broader strategic context. It should be possible to take this threat seriously without being consumed by it. Stopping terrorists is a minimum condition for security; taken by itself, it is not a vision worthy of American ambition or international common cause.

The best strategic vision I've heard articulated lately was by a fellow Iowan I met in Dubuque. Putting it in terms of other nations' ordinary citizens, he said our aim should be to: "make people around the world believe they're part of the world and not an ally of the nut down the street," meaning terrorist.

This is a hearts-and-minds approach only in the sense of how you gauge success. The aim is not merely to gain global sympathy for America, but to build a world with the broadest possible sense of shared stake and shared benefit. What we need is a growing law-abiding global majority that deprives warlords, WMD black marketeers, gun-runners, authoritarians, genocide perpetrators, and terrorists of all their oxygen. In other words, as more of the world's nations and their citizens find their voice and their prosperity, malefactors of all kinds will be increasingly hemmed in and under pressure. If this sounds like Richard Haass' The Opportunity, then call me a Haassian.

Now for the negative, what-the-counterterror-fight-isn't response. It is not a global confrontation between two great blocs. Here, again, is the distorting power of a monomaniacal focus on terrorists; frankly, this depiction builds up our opponent. The man in Dubuque had it right -- the terrorist is a nut. And therefore he shouldn't be dignified as a worthy adversary.

Remember the climactic scene of "The Wizard of Oz?" Dorothy and friends are in the wizard's chamber, his giant face staring down at them, while Toto notices someone off to the side. My question is this: is it in America's interests to cast terrorists as "Oz the Great and Powerful" or "the little man behind the curtain?"

The point is often made that terror is a tactic rather than a cohesive force, and scholars have analyzed the relationship of terrorism to different political, ideological, and religious objectives, but we are a long way from integrating this point into our strategy. The fight against terrorism is not actually a fight against terrorISM, but against terrorISTS. We should be driving wedges between terrorists rather than pushing them together.

Lorelei Kelly highlighted a relevant West Point study for us in a post last winter. The military academy's Combating Terrorism Center has done major empirical studies of terrorist organizations revealing frequent internal divisions over operational and political decisions. I'm just civilian policy wonk, but to me, that looks like an opportunity to divide and conquer. Or, to pick up where Heather left off with analogies from Soviet Communism, we should be using "salami tactics."

May 26, 2006


Bin Laden on Moussaoui
Posted by Michael Signer

It's hard to know what to make of the very weird story earlier this week about bin Laden's statement about Zacharias Moussaoui.  Bin Laden's statement has three parts:  first, he says that Moussaoui wasn't involved in 9/11; second, he engages in a somewhat elaborate logical and empirical proof of that point, reasoning that Moussaoui had been involved, the other 9/11 conspirators would have called off the attacks, as Moussaoui was imprisoned 2 weeks before 9/11; third, and most interestingly, he whirls off into a strange riff pleading for "fairness" for the prisoners in Gitmo. 

Harvard Law Professor Juliet Kayyem writes on TPMCafe of this part:

Its a good move on his part. Say whatever you will say about 9/11, he seems to suggest, but it is America now that has the dirty hands.

I'm pretty sure Kayyem, smart as she is, is wrong that this is a "good move" for bin Laden.  On the contrary, I think it shows him reasoning from a position of striking weakness; entangled in ridiculous double standards; and rather panicky.  The statement reveals bin Laden as weak rather than strong -- and suggests that this part of our approach against al Qaeda (the element concentrated on drilling known members of Al Qaeda into the ground) may be working better than many think.

Continue reading "Bin Laden on Moussaoui" »

March 08, 2006

Middle East, Terrorism

Any Storm in a Port?
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

The ueber-politics-watchers at ABC's The Note make a prediction today that I think is very smart:  the Dubai Ports World case will end with a whimper when the Administration persuades the company to withdraw the US portion of its bid.

This will, if it comes to pass, be both very clever of the Administration and the worst of all possible worlds:

  • The US takes a huge black eye in the Arab world, and elsewhere, for our anti-Arab posturing and for our tendency to say one thing about free markets and do another;
  • We lose the heat needed to do anything about real shortcomings in port security. that have much more to do with how the ports are supervised than who runs them; and
  • Commercially speaking, it probably chokes off private foreign investment in our already behind-the-times ports infrastructure.

(and, if I understand this right, it would still leave the ports in the hands of foreigners... oh, never mind...)

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