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Monthly Archives: April 2009

Links sent by readers April 22, 2009

April 23rd, 2009 - 4:51 am
  • The WSJ writes in Obama Among the Dictators that when an American President appears to be chummy with a dictator it sends a message to those he oppresses. The article uses a now-forgotten parallel. “The now-famous photograph of Barack Obama sharing a handshake and mile-wide smile with happy Hugo Chávez recalled to mind a visit years ago of Philippine strong man Ferdinand Marcos to The Wall Street Journal’s offices in lower Manhattan. … They had been sending the Philippines images of Marcos in the company of American symbols — bankers, journalists, politicians. Propaganda. The message for the Philippine opposition was: Behold, the Americans are with me, not you.”
  • Meanwhile, the AP says that Russia has moved troops closer to Georgia’s capital. “Russia has stationed its forces just 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the Georgian capital, in violation of the EU-brokered cease-fire that ended last year’s brief war. And in recent weeks, it has sent even more troops and armored vehicles to within striking distance of the city ahead of street protests against Georgia’s president.”
  • Pakistani government forces and the Taliban have clashed 60 miles from the capital. “Pakistani paramilitary troops rushed to protect government buildings and bridges from encroaching Taliban militants just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the capital quickly came under fire Thursday by gunmen who killed a police officer, authorities said. … In recent days, the valley’s militants have entered Buner in large numbers — establishing checkpoints, patrolling roads and spreading fear in an area some 60 miles (97 kilometers) from Islamabad. Their movement has bolstered critics’ claims that the [peace] deal would merely embolden the militants to spread their reign to other parts of the province bordering Afghanistan.”
  • General Petraeus, speaking at the Kennedy School of Government, urged the Pakistanis to de-emphasize their conflict with India and turn to what he believed was the real thread. “yesterday, at a forum here at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, U.S. Central Command chief General David Petraeus had a message for the Pakistanis: Get over it. These days, your biggest enemy isn’t India. It’s home-grown extremists.”

One more day

April 22nd, 2009 - 3:14 pm

James DeLong argues that while the US has been operating under the same Constitution since 1789, the rearrangements since mean that the US is operating under what he terms the Third American Republic. DeLong reckons that the Civil War ushered in the Second, while the New Deal ushered in this last. The defining criteria, in each case, has been the extent of the Federal Government and its relationship with other elements in society. He maintains that the New Deal established the “special interest State”.

The real-world answer imposed by the New Deal and its progeny turned out to be special interest capture on steroids. Control comes to rest with those with the greatest interest or the most money at stake, and the result was the creation of a polity called “the Special Interest State” or, in Cornell University Professor Theodore Lowi’s terms, “Interest Group Liberalism.” Its essence is that various interest groups seize control over particular power centers of government and use them for their own ends.

It is this combination of plenary government power combined with the seizure of its levers by special interests that constitutes the polity of the current Third American Republic. The influence of “faction” and its control had been a concern since the founding of the nation, but it took the New Deal and its acolytes to decide that control of governmental turf by special interests was a feature, not a bug, a supposedly healthy part of democratic pluralism.

But DeLong thinks that the recent financial crisis and the impending bankruptcy of entitlement programs mark the eventual end of the “special interest State” and hence, the Third American Republic, which is doomed because it simply can’t be sustained. “We are in a crisis of legitimacy,” he says, a crisis of a different kind because the system is not designed to resolve it without a lot of pushing and shoving.

But it is difficult to see any self-correcting mechanisms in the Special Interest State. Quite the reverse; the incentives all seem to be pushing the accelerator rather than the brake. Observers as astute as Jonathan Rauch and Michael Greve came up with little in the way of recommendations for reform, beyond exhortations to change our ways. Rauch commented: “Government has become what it will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed” (italics from the original). He recommended “maturely diminished expectations.”


Terrorism and moral torture

April 22nd, 2009 - 1:26 pm

Jeff Jacoby at the Boston Globe adopts what I think is a morally sustainable position on the use of torture. He declares himself against it even if its use were necessary to save a city. Unlike other pundits, Jacoby allows for the possibility that coercive interrogation will work; that it might save the lives of innocent people. He is simply unwilling to pay the moral price that is necessary to save them. Jacoby writes:

On this page a few years ago I wrote several columns arguing that torture was never acceptable – not even “as a last and desperate option” in the war against jihadist terrorism, a war I strongly support. At a time when not only conservative hawks but even some notable liberals were making the case for using torture to thwart Al Qaeda, I contended that the cruel abuse of terrorist detainees was something we could never countenance – not just because torture is illegal, unreliable, and a threat to the innocent, but because it is one of those practices that a civilized society cannot engage in without undermining its right to call itself civilized.

Torture very often does work. When Dick Cheney “urged the CIA to release memos which he says show harsh interrogation techniques such as water-boarding work,” according to the BBC, he did with the certain knowledge that some al-Qaeda members divulged critical information under duress.

“One of the things that I find a little bit disturbing about this recent disclosure is that they put out the legal memos… but they didn’t put out the memos that show the success of the effort,” Mr Cheney told Fox News. “There are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of this activity. They have not been declassified. I formally ask that they be declassified now.”

But I didn’t need Mr. Cheney to tell me that. When I ran safehouses in the anti-Marcos days the first order of business whenever a cell member was captured by the police was to alert the surviving members, move the safehouse and destroy all links to the captured person. That’s because everyone knew that there was a great probability that the captive would talk under duress, however great his bravery and resistance. Nobody I know, or have heard of who has had experience in real-life situations has ever said, “our cell should continue as usual and the safehouse should remain open, despite the fact that one of our own is being tortured by the secret police, because I read in the New York Times that coercion never works.” The probability is that torture works and for that reason its use constitutes a moral dilemma; and the reason why Jacoby believes he is expressing a noble sentiment when he forswears it even as “a last and desperate option” in the War on Terror.

But there was another oath everyone in the underground tacitly made, which is structurally identical to Jacoby’s own. It went something like this: “I promise never to reveal the whereabouts of my companions to the secret police however brutally they torture me.” We all accepted this charge as a moral statement of intention, without deceit or mental reservation, yet without having the slightest certainty that we could carry it out. And the reason for the uncertainty was simple. Nobody actually knows how long he can last until he’s actually in the situation. Anybody who tells you different is probably a liar or fooling himself. Some will go further — much further — under duress than they think. Others will break right away. But nobody can predict it in advance.

It is not often realized that the oath not to break under torture is very similar to Jacoby’s promise never to use coercion even as “a last and desperate option” against a brutal enemy. Fighting terrorism, like the promise never to break under duress, is a test of how much one can endure without crossing a line. And when fear and survival are stake, I am not sure at all what lines people won’t cross.


Not for all the locks on doors

April 21st, 2009 - 2:18 pm

The WSJ reports that “computer spies”, probably from China, have stolen terrabytes of data from the F-35 project. They exploited vulnerabilities in a contractor’s system to siphon out data, which they encrypted before putting it on the wire, so that it may still be unknown exactly what was stolen. However, sources believed that the really important system details had escaped compromise, on the basis of the isolation of the data from the stolen information. The intrusions were first detected in 2007 and continued into 2008.

Computer spies have broken into the Pentagon’s $300 billion Joint Strike Fighter project — the Defense Department’s costliest weapons program ever — according to current and former government officials familiar with the attacks. Similar incidents have also breached the Air Force’s air-traffic-control system in recent months, these people say. In the case of the fighter-jet program, the intruders were able to copy and siphon off several terabytes of data related to design and electronics systems, officials say, potentially making it easier to defend against the craft.

The latest intrusions provide new evidence that a battle is heating up between the U.S. and potential adversaries over the data networks that tie the world together. The revelations follow a recent Wall Street Journal report that computers used to control the U.S. electrical-distribution system, as well as other infrastructure, have also been infiltrated by spies abroad. …

Former U.S. officials say the attacks appear to have originated in China. However it can be extremely difficult to determine the true origin because it is easy to mask identities online. A Pentagon report issued last month said that the Chinese military has made “steady progress” in developing online-warfare techniques. China hopes its computer skills can help it compensate for an underdeveloped military, the report said.


Modern Times

April 21st, 2009 - 6:48 am

On the day after the NYT won five Pulitzer Prizes, Reuters reported that the company suffered a first quarter loss “of $74.5 million, or 52 cents a share, compared with a loss of $335,000, or nil cents a share, in the quarter a year ago.” Bill Keller claimed that Pulitzer Prizes showed why the NYT was an indispensable institution, citing its ability to hire lawyers to break a story. But if so, why is it losing its shirt?

Executive Editor Bill Keller of The New York Times said today’s Times sweep of five Pulitzer Prizes shows why his and all newspapers are still relevant — and should not be written off so quickly in the growing Web world.

“It comes in a year when a lot of newspapers are on the ropes, it is a reminder of what newspapers can do that others can’t,” Keller said just hours after the Pulitzer winners were announced. “Taking more than a year on a deep investigation, it helps to have lawyers who can file FOIAs and go to court when you need to.”

That year-long investigation was a reference to the David Barstow Investigative Pulitzer win for his work on the way retired generals were being used by the Pentagon to spread positive views on Iraq. The other Times’ winners came in Breaking News, for the Eliot Spitzer scandal; International reporting for coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan; Criticism for art critic Holland Carter; and Feature Photography for Damon Winter’s photos of Barack Obama on the campaign.

The quality reflected by the Prizes failed to pay dividends in ad revenues which declined severely last quarter and look to decline again. The Reuters article said that “ad revenue fell 27 percent. At its news media group, which includes its daily papers, it fell 28 percent. The second quarter’s ad declines, Times Co Chief Executive Janet Robinson said in a statement, so far looks similar to the first.” The indispensible NYT is being dispensed with by the market.


The Gates defense budget

April 21st, 2009 - 2:50 am

Max Boot looks at the new defense budget and concludes that although he agrees with particular line item cuts and realignments, that overall it is still an “austerity budget” premised on the calculation that the US will largely fight counterinsurgencies in the near future. But Boot is worried that the future may bring surprises and that the US may leave itself unprotected if other scenarios eventuate.

It still looks like cuts to me. … Wouldn’t any defense secretary want to hedge against a variety of risks? Instead he is taking difficult decisions which, as Kori Schake warns, risk focusing “on counterinsurgency . . . at the expense of other military capabilities. … Bob Gates’s decisions on individual programs are intelligent and defensible within the parameters he is operating in. But in a world where we are still fighting two wars and face growing threats from the likes of Iran and North Korea, even as our economy cries out for stimulus, there is a good case to be made for considerably more defense spending than this budget envisions. What puzzles me is that Gates isn’t making that case, at least not publicly.

Glenn Reynolds notes that the administration is hardly making an effort at cutting the 2010 budget of which the defense component is going to be hit hard by the proposed cuts. So the “reshaping” argument is a better intellectual basis for analyzing the proposed budget, since saving money does not seem to be an administration priority. Speaking of reshaping, Austin Bay looks beyond the shape of the defense budget proper and tries to estimate the defense potential of the Federal Budget, reasoning that the sum total of military, diplomatic intelligence and development resources is a better metric than simply trading off one weapons system against another.

The continuing tragedy is that the United States has yet to comprehensively integrate civilian entities and non-military governmental agencies into this process and thus never achieves “Unified Action” (Pentagonese for the synchronized use of diplomatic, military, information and economic power). The U.S. military is often the only agency on the ground. Infantrymen must act as diplomats in the morning, agricultural experts in the afternoon and cops after dark. Gates’ article noted improvements in inter-agency cooperation, but — with succinct resignation — concluded that “military commanders will not be able to rid themselves of the tasks … .”


Mosquito versus man

April 20th, 2009 - 8:58 am

The Los Angeles Times describes the development of the five pound Spike missile at China Lake. The missile represents the continuation of two trends: the requirement for weapons with controllable lethality and the rise of the unmanned platform as the premier weapons delivery system.

In recent months, the U.S. has used Predator robotic planes equipped with video cameras to carry out search-and-destroy missions against Al Qaeda hide-outs in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These attacks highlighted the rapidly changing face of warfare. But it was no big deal at China Lake, where weapons have been getting smaller, more precise and more powerful for a decade.

The new missiles being developed here are minuscule compared with the older, 100-pound Hellfire missiles in use today in Central Asia. A Predator, which can carry two or three Hellfires, would be able to hold as many as a dozen Spikes, extending its capabilities.

At the same time, experts say, smaller unmanned planes that could not carry weapons before could become deadly attack aircraft.

It is not clear how far the trend will go, but the Royal United Services Institute, a British think-tank, believes it will ultimately be possible to combine directed energy weapons and limited-effect EMP weapons with large and small airframes.

The universe of low life

April 19th, 2009 - 5:48 pm

Rod Norland of the New York Times writes that in Baghdad the best police sources on the activities of the JAM and al-Qaeda are prostitutes.

One police detective said he would not dream of enforcing the law against prostitutes.

“They’re the best sources we have,” said the detective. “They know everything about JAM and al-Qaida members,” he said, referring to Jaish al-Mahdi or Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia.

The detective added that the only problem his men had was that neighbors got the wrong idea when detectives visited the houses where prostitutes were known to live. They really do just want to talk, he said.

As I’ve written many times before, it is a mistake to think that “Muslim” pirates in the Philippine South are to be found praying five times a day in the mosque. You are going to have better luck wherever ladies and liquor are in more abundant supply. Although there are doubtless men who are motivated primarily by religious texts, I think they are outnumbered by those who have found religion to be the perfect cover under which to advance simpler ambitions for power and worldly desire.

This rarely comes as a surprise to the police. But it often comes as a complete shock to academics who believe what they read. Having found a reference to a Quranic text in a terrorist screed, they find it impossible, on aesthetic grounds, to imagine that the line might have been inserted into the communique in a dimly lit nightclub, mostly as a joke on academics and media anchormen, rather than on a windswept, desert mountain top.



April 19th, 2009 - 3:55 am

The New York Times describes in an ambush executed by a First Infantry Division platoon on an equivalently sized Taliban unit in the Korangal Valley, resulting in the death of 13 enemy and perhaps many more. The NYT says that “The one-sided fight, fought on the slopes of the same mountain where a Navy Seal patrol was surrounded in 2005 and a helicopter with reinforcements was shot down, does not change the war. … But as accounts of the fight have spread, the ambush, on Good Friday, has become an emotional rallying point for soldiers in Kunar Province, who have seen it as a both a validation of their equipment and training and a welcome bit of score-settling in an area that in recent years has claimed more American lives than any other.”

The Korangal Valley has been described by some publications as the “valley of death”. The importance of the Korangal, apart from its geographical location along the Pech River, is that it is rumored to play an important part in sheltering and perhaps hosting al-Qaeda’s command operations. As far back as 2006 the Asia Times was describing its supposedly special role in lurid detail

The Korengal was regarded as a key area by the Russians and the subject of operations by the USMC and other units. But perhaps there is nothing special about the Korengal so much as its representativeness of the kind of tough war that the US must fight. Deployed among small outposts in according to doctrine and necessity, the men must gain military ascendancy over their enemy in order to get out and win over with the population. It is possible that the tasks are actually one and the same and the episode described by the NYT by a line unit of Army infantry is a benchmark both sides are watching. Not just other Coaliton soldiers, but the tribal population are watching the contest for supremacy on the ground. The Taliban have long known that the US were their superiors in modern military technology, but to see a Taliban unit so thoroughly annihilated by regular infantry using organic weaponry is not only a morale booster for US troops, but probably something of a shock to the Taliban. They’ll be wondering what it means; whether just the luck on the day or something deeper.


Your turn

April 17th, 2009 - 5:43 pm

Glenn Reynolds has a set of links which survey the debates ensuing from Barack Obama’s release of Bush-era legal reviews of interrogation techniques. It raises two separate sets of issues, both of which are linked. The first is whether the interrogation methods used in the past are absolutely repugnant to the American people, and more narrowly, illegal; and secondly whether any of those techniques can be used in the future.

By releasing the memos linking the Bush Administration to coercive interrogation yet holding those who carried them out blameless, the Obama administration could neatly condemn his predecessor but leave leave himself somewhat free to act in the future. One commenter at Ann Althouse’s caught the problem neatly: “otherwise the Justice Department will never do anything out of fear the next administration will hang them out to dry.”

Glenn Reynolds excerpted a comment from an NYT blog site suggesting that the motivation for the ambiguous Obama stance was to avoid entangling Democrats in past liability, suggesting that Congress in its oversight capacity shared policy responsibility for the very things the memo described.

“Most prominent among those briefed on waterboarding was Nancy Pelosi. According to the Post’s interviews, members of the Congressional oversight committees understood that they had to weigh the limits of inhumane treatment of people known to have Al Qaeda connections against the threat of new attacks. They believed that these techniques struck the right balance in the circumstances. Yet I haven’t heard of any serious call for prosecuting Speaker Pelosi or any of her colleagues for complicity in torture.”