September 17, 2007

motives and incentives in the Iraq war

I'm generally against imputing motives to political leaders. I don't think we can know what they want; there are too many screens and interpreters between them and us. Motives don't necessarily matter, because a leader can do the right thing for bad reasons, or the wrong thing with good intentions. Finally, looking for motives encourages us to rely on the wrong criteria of judgment. For instance, a change of position looks like a "flip-flop," suggesting that the politician's motive is to attract votes. Consistency over time looks like evidence of sincerity. But we should want leaders to change their minds as circumstances evolve, not show that foolish consistency which is the hobgoblin of small minds.

Although I generally resist inferring motives, it is a different matter to analyze the incentives that apply in a given situation. Once we understand the incentives, we may be able to change them. And changing the incentives is worthwhile, because over time, on average, all else being equal, institutions will act in accord with the incentives.

It has been widely noted that the Bush Administration has an incentive to prolong the Iraq war until the next administration, which will then take the heat for the withdrawal. This does not prove that George W. Bush wants to "run out the clock." He may want to win and he may believe that some kind of victory is either possible or probable if we stay in Iraq. But the incentive structure probably influences and distorts administration policy in favor of staying the course.

Likewise, several commentators (e.g., Tom Friedman) argue that the United States should consistently and loudly denounce each major terrorist attack that kills Muslims, thereby contesting the false notion that we kill Muslim populations whom terrorists defend. But the incentive for the Bush Administration is to minimize all mass killings in Iraq, in order to argue that our troops are keeping the peace. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) says that civilians in Washington, D.C. are at "far greater risk" of violent death than "average civilian[s] in Iraq." I don't know why he and his colleagues say such things--maybe because they believe them. But the incentive for the administration and its allies is certainly to downplay mass killings in Iraq, even if the result is a lost opportunity for public relations.

Of course, the Democrats in Congress face incentives, too. If they do not shorten the war, there will be considerable disillusionment in the country, especially among new voters on the progressive side. But disillusionment by itself doesn't cost incumbents elections. Prolonged war will be much worse for Republicans than for Democrats. Democrats will have an antiwar presidential ticket, and in most of their districts, their candidates (incumbents or challengers) will be less hawkish than the opponents. If the war continues unabated, turnout may be low because of disillusionment, but I suspect that the Democratic margin will be enormous--a landslide. On the other hand, seriously challenging the president and shortening the war carries all sorts of political risks for the Democrats, who then become responsible for what unfolds in Iraq.

More incentives: To borrow $1 trillion to fight the war and let our children pay it off later with interest. To push our volunteer forces to the limit without expanding their numbers with any kind of draft. To remain in a state of high fear and antagonism toward several foreign countries, justifying all kinds of expansions in federal power and spending. To import carbon fuels from some of those same countries to burn in the atmosphere.

In short, the incentives line up to promote disaster. Even if one imputes somewhat decent motives to some of our leaders, we are in trouble.

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August 14, 2007


Americans may be bracing themselves for a replay of 1975, but the conclusion of the US war in Iraq will be quite unlike the debacle that ended our involvement in Vietnam.

Some in the Bush camp like to revive the specter of '75 because it makes any withdraw from Iraq seem disastrous. Surely we cannot once again allow Americans to be airlifted off the roof of our last stronghold in a key country. If Democrats cause such a withdrawal, they can be blamed for the defeat--that is the implicit threat. For some opponents of the Administration, the idea of Vietnam redux also has appeal: it associates George W. Bush with the ultimate kind of failure, a battlefield defeat.

But it won't be like that. In Vietnam, our sworn enemy--the Viet Cong--overran the whole country in which we had been fighting for more than a decade, established an effective but repressive central government, completely banished us and our allies, aligned the country with our global rival, and sent many of our former clients fleeing onto the high seas in tiny boats. This was a textbook example of the end of a war. We were the losers; they were the winners.

In Iraq, after major US combat operations cease, the flag will still fly over the US Embassy. The Embassy will probably remain one of the most important power centers in the country, disbursing billions in aid and coordinating various military operations for years to come. There will likely be whole brigades of US soldiers stationed "in country," at least in the Kurdish north. The national government may lack effective control over its territory or may tilt to Iran, but in either case I'm sure it will keep lines open with the US and Europe. Meanwhile, our sworn enemy, al Qaida in Iraq, will face serious challenges. The Shiite majority will do its best to wipe al Qaida out--with the help of Iran and some ruthless Shiite militias. Most of al Qaida's foreign jihadists will move on to countries where they can get an easier shot at the US, Europe, or Israel. Iraq may be in a desperate condition, but it will not be in the hands of our enemy.

If the US reduces its presence dramatically and a new administration directs its attention elsewhere, the Western press corps will pay diminished attention to the internecine conflict and humanitarian disaster that drags on in Iraq. That means that the domestic political consequences of withdrawing are smaller than people imagine--much smaller than the consequences of Vietnam. The moral stain of the War is enormous, but it won't play out as a military defeat unless our politicians collude in portraying it that way.

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May 1, 2007

American responsibility for the Iraqi civil war

Last week I posted what could be called a "conciliatory narrative" about Iraq (avoiding calling it either a "fiasco" or a "defeat.") Over at Philosophy, et cetera, someone who writes as Dr. Pretorius replied:

The sentence "That conflict is morally our responsibility, because we might have been able to prevent it" [from my blog] is almost certainly false. In, say, Darfur we might have been able to prevent some of the atrocities, and we may or may not be responsible for that. In this case, though, it is morally our responsibility because we caused it, not because we failed to prevent it.

Saying this, or saying that "A civil war then broke out," is just a cop out - the civil war didn't just break out (as if it was a matter of bad luck). It was caused by, oh, the speedy overthrowing of a stable dictatorship without any significant planning for what to do afterwards.

I don't want to evade or downplay US responsibility for the war in Iraq. I think it's our fault. However, the philosophical issues are complicated. First, it's problematic to draw a sharp distinction between sins of commission and sins of omission. As an exercise in comparing the two, consider our passivity during the Rwanda genocide versus our (alleged) killing of civilians during yesterday's fighting in western Afghanistan. The number killed in the Rwanda genocide was much larger, and our motives were worse. Yet we directly and intentionally hurt no one in Rwanda, whereas it was American guns that fired yesterday in Herat. I think we did much worse in the Rwanda case.

Then there is the complexity of assigning moral responsibility when an event has many preconditions. Perhaps J. L. Mackie's idea of an INUS condition applies to the Iraqi civil war. Our invasion was an insufficient condition, because the violence required not only our intervention, but also deliberate killings by various Iraqi factions. Our invasion was an unnecessary condition, because the civil war could have started another way, e.g., if Saddam had died of cancer or by an assassin's hand. The invasion was nevertheless a necessary condition of a sufficient condition because Iraqi factions could not have killed each other without our invasion, and once Saddam was overthrown, a civil war was basically inevitable.

That means, it seems to me, that we have complete responsibility for the civil war, and yet Iraqi factions who kill one another also have complete responsibility for it. Moral responsibility is not like a pizza, such that if you get two more slices, I get two fewer. It's more like a virus: you and I can both have it 100%. Which is about where we stand in Iraq.

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April 26, 2007

Iraq: the power of words

(From the Avis car rental office at O'Hare Airport, Chicago) Here are two critical issues of terminology that affect our conduct of the Iraq war:

Whom are we fighting?

Our enemy cannot be defined as the Iraqi unsurgency. That's a disparate collection of factions that are mainly fighting one another and will continue to do so after we leave. It cannot be "terrorism," because (as many have noted) that's a method, not a cause, an organization, or a movement. "Terrorism" cannot even be defined without courting controversy. But if we are automatically at war with any entity that uses terrorist tactics (as standardly understood), then we'd better prepare for combat in countries from Ireland to Sri Lanka--of which Sudan ought to be our top priority.

I certainly hope our enemy isn't Islam, because that's one of the world's great religions, and millions of our own citizens are members. Al-Qaeda is an enemy, but it's too loosely organized and small to define our long-term problem. If Al-Qaeda were wiped out, we would still have a struggle on our hands. The word "Islamofacism" has been criticized for causing offense. By itself, that objection wouldn't necessarily bother me; but it does seem a misleading and sloppy term. Fascism, invented in Italy in the 1930s, was anticlerical, secular, regimented and militaristic, enthusiastic about engineering and mass media, and committed to social order. Osama bin Laden appears to be on the opposite side of most of those issues. We need a word that describes a particular form of reactionary, violent, antisemitic, patriarchal, authoritarian politics that draws from Sunni fundamentalism but also from reactionary European thought; that mimics clerical titles without engaging the traditional clergy; and that embraces decentralized, anarchic tactics despite its vision of a unified, hierarchical theocracy. That movement is probably not our biggest problem in Iraq, let alone the world; but it is worth fighting.

2) What should we call the inevitable US withdrawal from Iraq?

The White House wants to call it a "surrender" or a "defeat." That's a tactic to make congressional Democrats look bad for demanding an end to the combat. And perhaps the president really feels that we would win if we did not leave; thus pulling out is a "surrender." However, the White House's terminology will have terrible consequences for the country. When we do leave Iraq--as we will--calling our own departure a "surrender" will give our enemies an enormous propaganda victory. At home, it will fuel a debate about which party caused the defeat. (Was it Bush, by starting the war, or the Democrats, by ending it?) That debate will be deeply divisive, especially because Republicans and Democrats tend to be separated by geography, ethnicity, profession, and creed.

Many Democrats will be tempted to call the withdrawal the end of a fiasco or a debacle. That terminology will be tempting because it is at least partly true, plus it piles lots of blame and shame on the incumbent administration. The problems are: 1) It makes our troops' sacrifices look completely pointless and hides the competent, ethical, and courageous soldiering that has occurred. 2) It gives Republicans--including those outside the administration--no incentive to compromise and help get the troops home. And 3) It fuels the same debate noted in the previous paragraph: not necessarily to the advantage of liberals.

I would therefore be tempted to take the following line: Whether or not we should have invaded Iraq in the first place, we succeeded in removing a hateful dictator and smashing a major army halfway around the world with hardly any casualties on our side. That is a sign of enormous strength. A civil war then broke out. That conflict is morally our responsibility, because we might have been able to prevent it. In any case, we are accountable for what happens to a population whose nation we chose to invade. Nevertheless, there is very little we can do to end the civil war. We lack the necessary skills and knowledge. More important, civil conflict is just not something that can be resolved by an outside force; it must be negotiated by the parties. Possibly, if we imposed an effective martial law for many years, the factions in the Iraqi domestic conflict would run out of energy and resources. But the odds favor disastrous results even from such an enormous investment of our resources. Therefore, it is past time to leave. This is a moral failure but not a military defeat, and it is certainly not a "surrender."

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March 21, 2007

is death worse than torture?

John Yoo, who wrote the official memo justifying the use of torture, still thinks that there are situations when torture is acceptable. "Look, death is worse than torture, but everyone except pacifists thinks there are circumstances in which war is justified. War means killing people. If we are entitled to kill people, we must be entitled to injure them. I don't see how it can be reasonable to have an absolute prohibition on torture when you don't have an absolute prohibition on killing. Reasonable people will disagree about when torture is justified. But that, in some circumstances, it is justified seems to me to be just moral common sense. How could it be better that 10,000 or 50,000 or a million people die than that one person be injured?"

I think that's a serious question, and I'm not fully satisfied with any of the five answers that occur to me:

1) There is a very old tradition of granting rights to prisoners. In war, that tradition goes back at least to the days of chivalry and is often seen as a mark of honor. In criminal law, the tradition goes back to Magna Carta with its rights of habeas corpus, trial by jury, and so on. But a tradition, by itself, is not an argument. Maybe the distinction between prisoners and others was arbitrary, or maybe it is obsolete in an age of strategic bombing and weapons of mass destruction.

2) Arguably, since we have unlimited power over prisoners, there must be checks on our power. Those checks include due process for criminal suspects and the Geneva Convention for prisoners of war. But note that we also have unlimited power over the people who are sitting below the bomb bays of our airplanes. Certain restrictions govern who may be bombed, but these rules are much weaker than due process. In fact, we can usually assume when we drop bombs that non-combatants (and non-criminals) will be injured, maimed, and killed.

3) Perhaps being tortured or held indefinitely is a special nightmare, more fundamentally dehumanizing than being blown to bits. Then John Yoo's premise is wrong; torturing one person is worse than killing ten. Perhaps--but I worry that our ability to imagine one person's torture exceeds our capacity to imagine the clean and rapid deaths of hundreds or thousands of people. Even our own demise is hard to conceive. That means that we may make an arbitrary distinction between prisoners and people caught on a battlefield.

4) There is a set of workable institutions for safeguarding limited rights for prisoners. These include courts, judges, defense attorneys, writs, treaties, and the Red Cross. These institutions work because there is time, once someone has been captured, to go through procedures and call on neutral parties. We have no workable institutions for safeguarding the rights of people on the battlefield. There just isn't a neutral judge who can be summoned to decide whether it is acceptable to open the bomb bays. That seems true enough, but we have to wonder whether our institutions are adequate and appropriate. Maybe if the English nobility had been worried about civilian casualties as well as their own fates in the king's dungeons, they would have created institutions to protect rights on the battlefield (not merely in the courtroom).

5) We have a good reason to safeguard the rights of captives: our own government can take us prisoner. If we lose habeas corpus for suspected terrorists, we can lose it for ourselves. That is certainly a concern, but it doesn't excuse acts of war on foreign lands that may cause individuals to suffer worse than they would under torture. A pacifist replies: War is never acceptable. But what about in 1940? Or 1861? Or 1776? If war is ever justified, then we will sometimes kill people. And if killing is worse than torturing, why should we ban the latter--especially if it proves an efficient means of preventing casualties?

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January 9, 2007

legislative strategy and the "surge"

For the good of the country, Congress should probably block any increase in the number of troops sent to Iraq. The most effective way to do that would be to add an amendment or rider to a military appropriations bill, because the president must sign that legislation. From a partisan political standpoint, however, the Democrats are probably better off objecting to the "surge" without actually blocking it with a rider. If they stop the president from fighting the war as he wants, he can blame them for the ultimate debacle in Iraq. If they use the "power of the purse" to stop the surge, their critics can say that they failed to fund our soldiers. On the other hand, if they allow the president to proceed with his surge over their objections, the blame will rest with him.

I'm for principle and national interests rather than partisan advantage and the avoidance of blame. However, I doubt that the Democrats have the votes to pass an anti-surge amendment in both houses of Congress. Therefore, principle will not prevail. Would the following idea work instead? Congress would pass the appropriation that the president requests (to fund our troops fully) and then debate a separate bill to prevent any additional Americans from being sent to Iraq. Of course, the president would veto that bill--if it passed--and would then implement the surge. Yet there would be several advantages to passing separate legislation. It would show that responsibility for the surge rested with the president. Arguably, Congress would discharge its duty by debating and (I hope) voting against troop increases. And Democrats from strongly anti-war districts would have an opportunity to cast a clear vote.

I''m not sure why Senator Kennedy introduced a bill "to prohibit the use of funds for an escalation of United States forces in Iraq above the numbers existing as of January 9, 2007." I would much prefer legislation that avoided any mention of "funds" and simply said, "To prohibit the escalation of United States forces." I suppose Senator Kennedy wants to stay on safer constitutional ground by invoking the congressional power of the purse. He may wish to avoid the argument that the president alone may decide how to conduct a war. But that argument is questionable. In any case, the president will veto Kennedy's bill unless it becomes an amendment to an appropriations bill. It might as well be written so it says what it should: No surge.

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January 3, 2007

what should we say to our soldiers in Iraq?

What should Americans who oppose the current war say to men and women who have served in Iraq, or to their families and close friends? I think the standard response is to sympathize with them, on the ground that our civilian leaders made a colossal mistake by sending them into danger and hardship with a foolish plan and insufficient justification. In a word, our service-people are victims.

That attitude must strike almost all troops--even those who oppose the decision to invade Iraq--as patronizing. If the whole war is nothing but a mistake, and our troops are mere victims, then everything they strive to accomplish from day to day is pointless. It doesn't matter whether they do their job excellently or perform it negligently. If such pity prevails on the left, we may face a long period of division and backlash.

I suggest an alternative view. In my opinion, the war was unjustified and its conduct was atrocious. However, it is crucial that the United States possess a lethal, efficient, professional, volunteer military under civilian control. Sometimes our elected leaders (with perhaps some help from the top brass) will make big mistakes in deciding how to use lethal force. Their mistakes may be strategic or moral; they may be sins of commission (e.g., Iraq) or of omission (e.g., Rwanda). The proper response is always to criticize our leaders and to offer persuasive alternatives in elections--something that the Democrats failed to do in 2004.

Meanwhile, by doing the best possible job under the circumstances, the professional military serves our democracy. Our officers and enlisted people learn; they develop experience. They save one another's lives. Through their daily choices, they can mitigate the harms caused by the elected leaders to whom they must defer.

Isn't there a point at which a person in uniform must nonviolently resist his or her government? Shouldn't an officer's conscience obligate him or her to resign? The answer is yes, but only in extreme circumstances. Hitler's General Staff should have resigned, even if that meant death to them personally. But there is a fundamental, categorical, moral difference between invading Poland and invading Iraq; between Auschwitz and Abu Ghraib. While I oppose the Iraq war--more clearly in hindsight than ex ante--it wasn't an infamous act. It reflected poor judgment, worse execution, and a questionable mix of motivations, but not a giant war crime.

In any case, I would set the bar for civil disobedience rather high for uniformed officers in an all-volunteer military that serves a democracy. Otherwise, every time the civilian leadership makes a moral mistake, the officer corps must all quit and we will have to start over. We need them to develop experience, to look out for their troops, to obey military ethics, and to improve the institution of the military.

In considering whether to use civil disobedience--for example, whether to resign a commission--one must consider the consequences, all things considered. It is not clear to me that resignations would shorten this war, especially since the public has already awakened and is demanding peace. (By the way, a military resignation need not be accepted.)

When the United States is judged for its decision to invade Iraq, it will not count in our favor that our soldiers learned from their experience there. We have no right to hone our own institutions at the expense of another people. But the blame must fall on our elected officials, on us for electing and re-electing them, and on the political opposition for its poor leadership. Our soldiers who do the best possible job under the circumstances may take genuine pride in their service; and we owe them a full measure of respect and gratitude.

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December 4, 2006

guest blogger: Lt. Brandon del Pozo

I've been corresponding with a reader who is a lieutenant in the New York City Police Department as well as a doctoral candidate at CUNY. Brandon del Pozo also holds an MPA from Harvard and an MA from John Jay. The following is a guest post by him concerning torture and combat:

The principal, recurring, line of argument against torture is that it is different from acts of harm and killing in combat and law enforcement in a way that makes the very framework of justification for these acts inadequate for justifying torture as well. This inadequacy is not meant to be one of degree; the argument is not that torture is too extreme a form of injuring and killing to be permitted. It is instead that torture is crucially different in a way that makes the conceptual extension of these justifications inappropriate in the first place. Given what torture is, justifications for how we act in war and self-defense cannot be invoked to do the work of describing the morality of torture. People who wish to talk about the torture must therefore do so without invoking justifications for combat injuring and killing, which are already thought to be arguments that define the outer limits of how we are permitted to treat other people. Unless a person can talk about the justification for torture in a different way that accurately accounts for its special nature, it must be placed beyond the pale.

This approach fails because it does not appreciate just what we seek to do when we make war against people. Henry Shue, and more recently David Sussman, describe at length the way torture violates the person in an extremely sinister way. They talk about the way torture makes a person feel, the vulnerabilities it exploits, and the way in which it turns the very substance of personhood against itself. It uses a person’s extension in the physical world to enslave her consciousness, devolving her personhood to a state where it is no more endowed with dignity and rational agency than the most primitive sentient being, all the while subjected to the most severe forms of distress, fear and agony that sentience permits. Sussman argues that “through the combination of captivity, restraint, and pain, the physical and social bases of rational agency are actively turned against such agency itself... [a] perversion of the most basic human relations.” Making clear that in his view this cannot be justified by our present understanding of when and how we may cause harm, he concludes that “whether such objections could ever be overcome by legitimate military or punitive interests is a question that waits upon more comprehensive understandings of the morality of punishment, warfare, and self-defense.”

The description of torture above is accurate. The problem, however, is that in both the case of Shue and Sussman it is simply presumed that this description alone, when done well, is enough to make the case that torture is different from combat not by degree but by nature. In order to make the best argument possible, it would be necessary to do at least two things. The first would be to accurately describe what torture is. The second would be to affirmatively show that combat is not the same in nature as what has been described as torture, and that it does not differ only by degree. Prior work has done a good job of the former, but seems to have ignored the latter, as if describing torture has made the prima facie case that it is different from combat by its nature.

If we do not acknowledge the prima facie case and instead consider this second premise as something that must be proven, then the argument becomes much less certain. If an exercise could demonstrate that is possible to torture someone without causing any pain or significant physical discomfort at all, then the crucial element of torture is the mental state it produces in the person who is tortured. Consider this question: if I threatened to painlessly remove the limbs and organs of a person in the course of a carefully supervised surgery, pausing between procedures to allow her to consider submitting to my will, would I be torturing her? It seems that I would, and because of the mental state I have produced in her more so than anything else.

This point can be mated with an account of combat that sees torture as its extreme case, because the definition of combat and torture differ only in ways that, when described accurately, allow for assimilation. Philosophers of torture have very precisely described the ecology of the torture act, and it seems that their argument, if we look at it carefully, is that torture is different than other practices because its ecology—both as it is manipulated and as it simply prevails—generates certain key moral differences. If the ecology of warfare can be shown to be related to that of torture by degree only, then the difference between torture acts and war acts may only be a matter of degree as well. The failure to appreciate or take seriously certain features of warfare may in fact be a neglect of its ecology, among other things. What is warfare, after all, but an attempt by one army to control and shape a battlefield’s ecology so that it not only kills the enemy, but induces mental states in the survivors that produce capitulation? Battle, when “properly done,” produces intense feelings of isolation, hunger, and exhaustion. It induces extreme fear, deprives of sleep, and causes a person to consider abandoning convictions that are deeply-held enough to fight and die for only for the sake of escaping misery and suffering. It seeks to exploit every type of physical weakness in a person in order to enslave her soul to them, so that she will give anything she is asked for rather than persevere. If war planners had a completely free hand, and the proper means, they would design a battlefield to be a torture chamber for those soldiers who are not directly killed. Lacking the control necessary to do so, they instead strive for close approximations.

Torture should still not be permitted, but not because it is a morally special act. Instead, it should not be permitted because the requirements of justice and our own ethics do not allow for its coherent practice. We must build requirements of certainty into our justifications for actions that harm others, and we have established certain thresholds before which we will not consider exercising certain harmful options. These thresholds and requirements grow in proportion with the magnitude of the harm we might inflict. These requirements are not only in effect in domestic settings, in cases concerning fellow citizens, but also in international settings, and in war, as well as in private transactions. They are designed to respect our own feelings of empathy for fellow human beings, to safeguard ourselves from the damage done to us as a person when we ignore them, and they also acknowledge the dignity and rational agency of others. If we honor these requirements, then we cannot construct a torture policy that would plausibly indicate its use. War gives us levels of certainty that are not present in torture; we can kill a man with a certain uniform, for example, because the uniform is meant to convey knowledge of his status, but we can almost never know if the person we may torture possesses the knowledge we seek, or if torture will produce the end we want, for all of its awfulness. To put it most simply, when applied to torture, justice and our ethics create practical epistemic and policy problems that simply cannot be solved.

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October 6, 2006

cause célèbre

(En route to Chicago for an American Bar Association meeting.) Last week, a leaked National Intelligence Estimate made headlines by asserting that the Iraq war was a “cause célèbre” for jihadists. That topic has since been knocked out of the newspapers by a congressional sex scandal, tragedy in Amish country, and other riveting stories. However, I’ll weigh in belatedly and say that I don’t believe the “cause célèbre” argument was ever a good one to make against the war. First of all, it’s a fancy French phrase. Besides, we sometimes should and must do things that rile up the other side. If (contrary to fact), the invasion of Iraq had been wise, legal, and in the best interests of that nation, it would still have given terrorists a “cause célèbre.”

For me, a sufficient argument against the war is that it violates one of the few substantial elements of international law. Members of the United Nations simply may not invade one another without the explicit authorization of the Security Council. However, this argument is not politically very potent, because it seems legalistic and likely to uphold UN interests against those of the US.

Thus I would emphasize a different argument, which (as Henry Kissinger once said on another topic) has the “additional merit of being true.” The invasion of Iraq was part of the war on terror, but it was a colossal strategic error in that war. It helped the jihadists by knocking off a hated secular dictatorship, under such conditions that fundamentalist movements would likely replace it. It put hundreds of thousands of mostly young Americans right into the Middle East where they were vulnerable to being attacked; more have died there than on 9/11. It created a profound dilemma: Winning the counter-insurgency would require deep and daily engagement with Iraqis, which would be extremely dangerous; whereas protecting US troops in Iraq would require separating them from the population, which would make it impossible for them to succeed. Above all, the invasion made the United State responsible for handling a violent struggle among Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds, Arabs and Persians that we are poorly equipped to understand, let alone resolve. And if we fail, the consequences range from a massive loss of credibility, to terrible suffering, to the creation of a jihadist state at the head of the Persian Gulf.

In fact, one could say that there were only two ways for jihadists to achieve a strategic victory against the United States after 9/11: by obtaining and using weapons of mass destruction on US soil, or by luring us into the middle of a civil war in the Mideast. We gave them the latter victory and must devoutly hope to avoid the former. That we also gave terrorist recruiters a “cause célèbre” is almost beside the point.

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September 26, 2006

torture: against honor and liberty

In the Hamdan decision, the Supreme Court said that torture was our responsibility. We couldn't allow the president to decide secretly whether and when to obey the Geneva Convention. There would have to be a public law, passed by our representatives, subject to our review at the next election.

Alas, the Congress appears likely to pass legislation that will permit torture, buoyed by polls that suggest the American people prefer to sacrifice our ancient common law principles in favor of spurious security. Our national honor and liberty are at risk. Those are old-fashioned terms, more securely anchored in conservative than in progressive thought. Yet they are precisely the correct terms, as I shall argue here.

Torture is dishonorable because of the perverted personal relationship that it creates between the torturer and the victim. That is why people of honor do not torture, and nations with honor do not condone it. As David Luban writes: "The torturer inflicts pain one-on-one, deliberately, up close and personal, in order to break the spirit of the victim--in other words, to tyrannize and dominate the victim. The relationship between them becomes a perverse parody of friendship and intimacy: intimacy transformed into its inverse image, where the torturer focuses on the victim's body with the intensity of a lover, except that every bit of that focus is bent to causing pain and tyrannizing the victim's spirit."

Torture may not be the worse injustice. To bomb from 30,000 feet can be more unjust, because more may die. To imprison 5.6 million Americans may be more unjust, because one in 37 of us spends months or years in dangerous, demeaning, state-run facilities. But there is a difference between injustice and dishonor. Bombing people and locking them up are impersonal, institutional acts. Torture is as intimate as rape. It sullies in a way that injustice does not. That is why the House of Lords ruled in 2005: "The use of torture is dishonourable. It corrupts and degrades the state which uses it and the legal system which accepts it."

Torture threatens liberty because it gives the state the power to generate testimony and evidence contrary to fact, contrary even to the will of the witness. It thus removes the last constraint against tyranny, which is truth. Torture was forbidden in English common law since the middle ages, not because medievals were sqeamish about cruelty--their punishments and executions were spectacularly cruel--but because a king who could use torture in investigations and interrogations could reach any conclusions he wanted.

Torture is personal, yet torture is an institution. One cannot simply decide to torture in a one-off case, a hypothetical instance of a ticking time bomb. To be effective, torture requires training, equipment, expertise, and settings. The bureaucracy of torture then inevitably seeks to justify and sustain itself--if necessary, by using torture to generate evidence of its effectiveness. As Phronesisaical says, "Torture requires an institution of torture, which ... entails a broader torture program than the administration would have us believe." Again, the Lords were right:

The lesson of history is that, when the law is not there to keep watch over it, the practice is always at risk of being resorted to in one form or another by the executive branch of government. The temptation to use it in times of emergency will be controlled by the law wherever the rule of law is allowed to operate. But where the rule of law is absent, or is reduced to a mere form of words to which those in authority pay no more than lip service, the temptation to use torture is unrestrained.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: Iraq and democratic theory , philosophy

September 11, 2006

Plamegate is over (I hope)

It turns out that the original leaker in the Valerie Plame case was not Karl Rove or another Administration heavy or hawk, but rather the relatively independent and distinguished diplomat Richard Armitage. It is still possible that Rove, Scooter Libby, and others tried to use secret information about Plame to impugn Joe Wilson. However I have been arguing since at least July 2005 that the whole Plame story is a snare and a distraction for the anti-war side.

The critical questions have always been obvious and public. Was the invasion ever legitimate? Was it ever wise? Was the US plan adequate? What is to be done now? Democrats and other potential critics of the Administration failed to persuade the public to see those questions their way in 2004 and 2005. If the public is outraged now, it's too late.

The opponents failed, I think, because they could not articulate an alternative policy for Iraq that was clear and persuasive. Having failed to win in the court of public opinion, some critics of the Administration were eager to prevail in a literal court--on criminal charges that might exemplify or symbolize the Administration's bad behavior. But ...

1. That approach would never address the crucial public issues: especially, What is to be done?
2. If someone had been indicted and convicted, it's not clear how the public would have responded. People might have concluded that Federal politics is not worth paying attention to, because it's an obscure battle between elites and lawyers. Or they might have assumed that liberal judges had once again victimized Republicans who were trying to be tough on America's enemies. Or they might have decided that they were hopelessly confused, because something complicated had happened, involving people with obscure roles and names like "Scooter." Or people might have concluded that the Bush Administration was generally dishonest about the War. But that should have been obvious already.
3. A prosecution in the Plame case would criminalize the disclosure of information. Although some leaks are criminal, and many are unethical, our strong presumption should be that information belongs in the public domain and speech is protected by the First Amendment. I was always uncomfortable with the precedent that might be set if Administration officials were prosecuted for leaks.
4. Resting hopes on the Plame case meant assuming that Joe Wilson was reliable and that Karl Rove and/or Scooter Libby had broken the law. It is always a bad idea to place bets on individuals based on their ideologies. Wilson sounds like an impressive diplomat with the correct views about foreign policy. He comes from a general milieu that makes me comfortable--I'd have a latte with him at Starbucks if he wanted to. In contrast, I loathe some of the Administration's principals. And yet Karl Rove may have done nothing illegal in respect to Valerie Plame, and Joe Wilson may have lied. People with good ideologies often act badly, and vice-versa.
5. Above all, the rule of law depends on making criminal cases out of specific, intentional violations of statutes--not behavior or policymaking that is generally harmful to the country or the world. We must address bad policy through public debates and elections, and leave courts to deal with actual lawbreaking. To confuse the two is dangerous, even when the people in the dock happen to be odious.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

August 21, 2006

Iraq: the next tragedy

Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack's editorial in Sunday's Washington Post prompts some questions that I have not seen discussed elsewhere. Why have we not seen the long columns of refugees in Iraq that are typical of civil conflicts? What would it take to cause massive flows of refugees? In particular, would the removal of US forces cause Iraqis to throw some possessions in suitcases and start walking for the border? Who would move, and where would they try to go? What would be the consequences if hundreds of thousands or millions of civilians attempted to walk into Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait?

I realize that there have been population shifts already, with Iraqis moving into more homogeneous neighborhoods and some middle class folks emigrating. Byman and Pollack estimate that about half a million Iraqis have migrated in those ways. But we haven't seen the equivalent of Kosovo (72 percent of the population displaced), or Congo (7.1 percent of the population killed). Anyone--Democrat or Republican--who wants to be part of governing the United States had better figure out how to prevent mass migrations in Iraq and what to do if they begin.

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August 2, 2006

engagement in the Middle East, without government

We can expect a big debate between 2006 and 2008 about whether America should disengage from the Middle East or continue to intervene there. Disengagement would require cutting our use of foreign oil, reducing our military aid to Middle Eastern states, and avoiding both military and diplomatic entanglements. Continued intervention would mean some more thoughtful and effective combination of diplomacy and occasional military force.

If you'll excuse the cliché, there is a Third Way. We could engage in the Middle East, but not through the federal government. We have deep experience now with informal diplomacy, with cultural exchanges through universities and other independent institutions, and with transnational social movements that can promote democracy without working through the state.

I think the fiasco of the current intervention in Iraq cannot be fully blamed on the Bush administration. It is a more systemic failure, and blame must be shared (in some proportion that I do not know) by the uniformed military, the press, the political opposition, and even American citizens in their relationship to politics. There are some general lessons here about the susceptibility of large bureaucratic institutions to massive failure, especially when they have vast resources and power and monopolize information. The argument for non-governmental politics seems stronger than ever.

[August 3: Coincidentally, the same topic is now under discussion at Crooked Timber.]

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July 2, 2006

more on spinning Hamdan

The scramble that I predicted last Friday--to fix the meaning of Hamdan--has begun. The Post's headline on Saturday read, "GOP Seeks Advantage In Ruling On Trials: National Security Is Likely Rallying Cry, Leaders Indicate." Just as I suspected, there have been efforts to link the Supreme Court's ruling against Bush to the New York Times' decision to publish national security leaks. "It will be worse for the Democrats to be seen as favoring the terrorists than favoring the New York Times," says one talk-show host.

The administration will want the following to be the popular interpretation of Hamdan: Five justices of the Supreme Court (a bunch of lawyers) found various technical grounds (including treaties negotiated by foreigners) to make life more difficult for the military. Congress now has a duty to support the Commander in Chief by creating military tribunals by statute. In the future, presidents will have to cross their t's and dot their i's in cases very similar to Hamdan. But in cases with significant factual differences from Hamdan, they can go ahead and act unilaterally again, and the Court ought to rule for the executive.

That reading of the case would be very bad for majoritarian democracy, the rule of law, and limited government--values of special concern to principled conservatives. (See, for instance, Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances). Just as true conservatives should want to restore the balance of powers, so partisan Republicans should see the importance of reimposing checks on the executive branch--otherwise, a Democratic president may use federal agencies to suppress rights that they value.

In my opinion, it's a rhetorical mistake for Members of Congress to emphasize their own prerogatives, as Senator Spector did by saying that from now on decisions will be made by Congress, "because it's our constitutional responsibility." That sounds like a matter of turf--and Congress is none too popular. I'd rather hear that the Court required us, the American people, to make difficult decisions about how the United States shall handle captives in the current struggle. Such decisions cannot be made by presidential fiat but must be debated openly, because they are our responsibility. Because Congress has the formal power to pass legislation, we must follow the Congressional debate, deliberate, express our views, and vote accordingly in November. That, after all, was how the framers intended us to govern ourselves.

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June 30, 2006

the meaning of Hamdan

The Hamdan decision is one of those texts whose meaning will only become clear once it has been thoroughly contested. Certainly, the 5-vote majority struck down the president's unilateral authority to create tribunals like the ones established for Guantanamo prisoners. That means that Congress must now act to preserve the tribunals, or else they will close. But what is the broader significance of the decision? It seems to me that everything depends on how the public interprets the case and digests bigger questions about presidential power and terrorism.

According to Public Agenda, "Polls taken when the idea was first proposed consistently showed majorities favoring tribunals over civilian courts in terrorism cases, but surveys since then have shown results changing when the question is rephrased. That's a classic sign of public uncertainly in survey research and a signal that the public is still working through its views on this tactic in the war on terror. When public opinion is firmly settled on an issue, changing the wording doesn't make much difference."

The unsettled state of public opinion makes several outcomes possible --and will encourage activists and ideologues to try to shape the public's interpretation of the Supreme Court's decision.

I can imagine, first, that Hamdan will become a watershed case, standing for the principle that the executive is a dangerous branch, especially when the country appears to be threatened. The executive has guns, jails, and interrogation rooms; it has the capacity (unlike Congress) to make secret decisions. It is prone to overreach and violate individual liberties. Hamdan could represent the idea that the president must obey laws, including such international treaties as the Geneva Convention. George W. Bush could become an illustration of a dangerous president who was brought under control by the court.

If public opinion crystallized around that view, then Congress would not pass legislation to preserve the tribunals. Many Members would share Rep. Adam Schiff's view that the Hamdan decision should not only close Guantanamo, but also end warrantless wiretapping. (As Jack Balkin notes, the administration's use of wiretaps without court orders had the same justification as Guantanamo: the use-of-force resoluton). It is even conceivable that prominent people would start clamoring for prosecutions of men like Donald Rumsfeld for violating Article 3 of the Geneva Convention in contravention of US law.

I can also imagine, however, that Hamdan will be wrapped together with the New York Times' leaks of banking surveillance and the Democrats' criticisms of the Pentagon. People will believe that various "elites" are putting the country at risk by following foreign opinion and hamstringing the president. Under those circumstances, Congress will feel safe in reinstating the Guantanamo tribunals by statute. The status quo will resume and the Hamdan decision will become a footnote. It will be cited when people want presidents to consult with Congress, but the executive will feel confident in refusing to do so. (For this scenario, see my colleague Mark Graber on Balkinization.)

One of my conservative friends, a supporter of executive power, believes that Bush botched that cause by overreaching. If, at the height of the president's popularity, he had sought congressional authorization for military tribunals and warrantless wiretaps, he would have won by large margins and established powerful precedents. Instead, he has provoked a fight over the principle that the executive needn't consult Congress--a fight that he is losing. That's a variation of Randy Barnett's view.

On yet another version of the future, the Administration will benefit by closing Gitmo without losing face. "The court really rescued the administration by taking it out of this quagmire it's been in," said Michael Greenberger, who teaches the law of counterterrorism at the University of Maryland law school.

I certainly hope that Hamdan moves the public to support the rule of law and human rights. I also hope that it establishes the principle that the US government acts in our names, so we're responsible for what it does. As long as the government acts secretly, we can avoid a feeling of complicity. However, if Congress now votes to allow military tribunals--or "waterboarding" and other forms of torture--that will be on our shoulders. I hope that citizens accept that resposibility.

Balkin emphasizes the shift of accountability to Congress. "What the Court has done is not so much countermajoritarian as democracy forcing. It has limited the President by forcing him to go back to Congress to ask for more authority than he already has, and if Congress gives it to him, then the Court will not stand in his way." That's correct, but since Congress acts in public and faces election, we could equally say that the Court has forced the President to go to the people for support. That's truly "democracy-forcing."

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April 18, 2006

on generals criticizing their bosses

A lot of us are hoping that the retired generals who are criticizing Defense Secretary Rumsfeld will prevail. That's because we think--or hope--that they have the right views about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, about the huge strategic mistakes that were made at the beginning of the Iraq war, about the value of changing civilian leaders right now, and about the folly of a preemptive attack on Iran. However, we don't know the full story, so we cannot tell whether they are actually on the right side of these questions. More important, in some future debate, the uniformed military could be wrong and the appointed civilians in the Pentagon could be right. So whether and when generals should criticize political leaders--a question that evidently vexes them more than anyone--should be considered as a general matter of constitutional design, and not simply in response to recent news.

I think several conflicting principles come into play:

1 Discipline. Although members of the armed forces must disobey patently illegal orders, they must obey all other orders without delay or public dissent that might undermine discipline. The rationale is that a military organization cannot be effective unless everyone does his part without trying to play commander-in-chief. One could, however, raise questions about whether that is the best organizational model in the 21st century. Further, it is unclear whether the demands of discipline apply to retired officers and to those who resign in order to dissent. Retired General John Batiste explains that he couldn't critize Rumsfeld if he were "still in uniform. ... I would be arrested." Even so, he calls his criticism "gut-wrenching, the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life."

2. Civilian control. The armed forces have the power to govern but no legitimate right to do so. To control them, we count on constitutional rules plus a strong tradition of deference to civilian leaders. The US armed forces are proud of that deference. General Richard Myers says, "In our system, when it's all said and done . . . civilians make the decisions. And we live by those decisions." If generals publicly criticize elected or appointed leaders in a way that changes the political situation, they have challenged civilian control. That has happened many times in the past, e.g., on issues like gays in the military and the procurement of weapons systems. Still, criticizing a Secretary of Defense for his handling of an ongoing war escalates the military/civilian struggle in a way that makes some uniformed officers uncomfortable--and for good reason.

3. Professionalism. A true profession is a defined group that has a legally sanctioned monopoly on certain rights and privileges. In return, its members must follow an elaborate ethical code and both unwritten and unwritten norms. Commissioned military officers are certainly professionals in that sense. Thus, on one hand, they ought to resign and complain rather than do things that violate their professional norms. On the other hand, those norms include discipline and deference to civilian leadership (see above). On such questions as the treatment of detainees, the two aspects of military professionalism have collided.

4. Public deliberation. The ultimate source of legitimate power is not the civilian leadership but the people. We citizens have an obligation to deliberate with good information. Candid comments by retired (or serving) officers could be an excellent source of insights and advice. On the other hand, generals can abuse their credibility by providing selective accounts of secret meetings or by claiming authority on the basis of their own service records.

5. Expertise. Uniformed officers are experts on fighting wars--more so than people like Dick Cheney, who has never been on a battlefield. Expertise is valuable and deserves respect. However, deference to experts always requires several demanding assumptions: (a) they are trustworthy and speak in the national interest; (b) they are reliable and have not succumbed to group-think or closed horizons; and (c) their expertise is about the right topics. In a complex situation like the Iraq conflict, expertise in war-fighting is not enough: you also have to understand various Iraqi cultures, diplomatic processes and techniques, nation-building, economics, and so on. If military expertise dominates, bad planning can result.

6. Policy versus implementation. In rebutting the dissident generals, the administration has argued that the President and his advisors made a decision about broad policy, for which they were accountable to Congress and the voters. They decided to invade; the generals then made the plan for implementing the invasion. This is the same distinction that has been used throughout the executive branch since the 1930s. We are said to live in a democracy, even though appointed experts hold enormous power, because they merely make tactical or technical decisions about implementation, whereas elected leaders set all the strategies and goals. However, a case like the Iraq war shows that no clear lines can be drawn between strategy and tactics or between policy and implementation.

7. A record of personal sacrifice. Military officers gain a huge rhetorical advantage from having volunteered for a job that doesn't pay well, that involves hardships, and that puts them in danger. Retired General Greg Newbold has written, "My sincere view is that the commitment of our forces to this fight was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions -- or bury the results." I find that persuasive, but then again, I agree with the substance of his comment. When generals said that Clinton was allowing gays in the military even though he had been too cowardly to serve himself, they were using their bona fides for a bad cause. We have to be careful to honor service without necessarily agreeing with everything a veteran says.

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December 27, 2005

privacy and domestic surveillance

Macon, GA: As I wrote recently, I think the biggest question raised by the warrantless surveillance of US citizens is whether the president knowingly authorized criminal acts under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). I don't know for sure that the acts he authorized were illegal; Orin Kerr says "probably." If they were, it is very disturbing. A criminal law should be a trip-wire that stops powerful people from doing what they want--or even what they think is best. Otherwise, there is no rule of law.

However, a second question is also interesting and important: Is the FISA a good law or not? Should the Act be changed so that the executive branch can conduct certain kinds of domestic surveillance without warrants?

It seems increasingly likely that the administration wanted to scoop up huge quantities of data in order to look for patterns. Perhaps the main goal was not to identify individuals for prosecution or for any other hostile action. Instead, the government may have wanted to draw statistical conclusions from masses of individual data, much as Amazon and Google learn about consumer tastes by aggregating their information about all our searches and purchases. So, for example, the government might be interested in the percentage of foreign calls placed to Afghanistan that are conducted in Arabic. They might want to know how many of those calls mention Osama bin Laden. They would hope to include calls originating from the USA in their statistics. Ultimately, this information might help to identify a terrorist who fit an emerging statistical profile. But it might also be useful for planning a propaganda campaign or a military strategy.

I suspect that the administration did not ask Congress to amend the FISA to permit domestic searches--nor did officials seek retroactive warrants from the FISA Court after they obtained data on US citizens--because the Constitution forbids the vacuuming up of citizens' data without their consent. The Fourth Amendment says:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

No searches or seizures without probable cause--but what probable cause exists when the government harvests masses of statistical data from private phone calls and emails?

Still, the Supreme Court might be persuaded to change its interpretation of the Fourth Amendment. It could say that international phone calls are not "papers or effects." Or it could decide that security threats are so important as to compel some limitations on the Fourth Amendment. After all, "the Constitution is not a suicide pact"; the Bill of Rights cannot be allowed to cause our destruction.

Thus the question is not whether warrantless searches violate Supreme Court precedents, but whether the Court ought to allow them under certain circumstances.

On one hand, we might say that a person's privacy rights are not compromised if the government scoops up vast quantities of data from huge numbers of people and uses the results for statistical research. Only once the government narrows its interest to an individual can there be any direct negative consequences from a search. Only at that point should a warrant be necessary. If the government wants to count the number of times that "Osama bin Laden" appears in my emails, I shouldn't complain. No human being will actually read my mail or even know my name unless something about me triggers suspicion. Then a human being must decide whether to monitor me and should seek a warrant to do so. If my information is only used to develop a profile of "normal" behavior so that terrorists will stand out as abnormal, then I have no grounds to complain.

On the other hand, there are arguments for privacy that count against warrantless domestic surveillance. In a 2003 paper for the Journal of Accounting & Public Policy, I listed 10 reasons why we reasonably care about our own privacy. Some of these reasons apply only (or mainly) to commercial situations, when companies want to collect data about our private behavior for marketing purposes. Below I list the eight reasons that are most relevant to the NSA wiretaps.

1. Limiting the power of the state. A government that can collect information about its own citizens and aggregate it in powerful databases without probable cause will be a very powerful government indeed--a kind of panopticon.

2. Freedom: The main concern here is a "chilling effect." If the government can collect masses of data about our private communications, then we may act cautiously in order to avoid scrutiny, even though we are not guilty of anything. For example, someone might avoid saying "Osama bin Laden" on the telephone, because that could trigger an actual search.

3. Rights of Association: We have both legal and moral rights to associate in voluntary groups. Part of what it means to "associate" is to share information only within the organizations that one joins. Freedom of association may be chilled if the state collects data about our group memberships and combines it with information about our ethnicity, religion, etc. For example, a Moslem might choose not to join a politically radical organization if he knew that the state could find out, because he wouldn't want to contribute to the belief that Moslems tend to be radicals. But he has a right to join any legal association he wants.

4. Property Rights: Perhaps information about me belongs to me, just as anyone's body is his or her property. If this is true, then the state may not collect information from me without my permission (or without probable cause). However, I do not have property rights to all information about me. For example, many people saw me go to the supermarket yesterday and have a right to know what their eyes showed them. So two questions arise with relevance to the NSA. First, are little scraps of private information (such as the destinations of my phone calls) my property? And second, if the NSA puts lots of separate facts about me into a database to create an overall portrait of me, does that violate my property rights?

5. Fair warning: As a general matter, the state is not supposed to interfere in people's private lives without at least letting them know. Normally, a search requires a warrant that the person who is searched can contest. The NSA's wiretaps, however, would be undetectable.

6. Personality Development: Perhaps we need opportunities for private reflection and experimentation if we are to develop complex personalities. We must be able to try out attitudes and values in private so that we can reject them later, without developing a permanent record in someone's secret files. Also, a complex person may act differently in public and private, but this is impossible if there is no private zone. For instance, a teenager should be able to say outrageous things about George W. Bush on the telephone without having to think that his conversation is being monitored.

7. Avoidance of Discrimination: Powerful people sometimes choose to act on the basis of morally irrelevant information. For instance, employers or the state may discriminate on the basis of sexual preference, religious belief, or disability. Laws against such discrimination are difficult to enforce. Therefore, perhaps it is better to prevent powerful people from obtaining prejudicial information in the first place by protecting privacy. This general argument applies to the NSA. If someone is a Moslem, the state has no right to know it, because governments have the power to discriminate on the basis of religion. Furthermore, we may not want the government to develop statistical theories that incline them to be suspicious of particular kinds of people, because discrimination may follow.

8. Happiness: Although there are other moral values besides happiness (consider justice, fairness, compassion, and freedom), we generally think that it is right to make people as happy as possible, at least all else being equal. Furthermore, human beings usually seem happier when they have a zone of privacy, a chance for solitude. Many of us would feel some discomfort if we knew that the NSA was reading our emails, and that is an argument against warrantless surveillance (although it might be outweighed by arguments in favor of security).

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December 8, 2005

what's wrong with torture?

For anyone who wonders why torture is wrong, an excellent argument can be found in David Luban's "Liberalism, Torture, and the Ticking Bomb," Virginia Law Review, vol. 91 (Oct. 2005), pp. 1425ff. Here I'll paraphrase a central part of the argument.

While there are no major ancient or medieval critiques of cruelty, the classical liberals (who were the intellectual ancestors of today's conservatives and progressives alike) focused on cruelty as a special evil because it represented what they feared most: state tyranny. Killing someone can cause more harm than torturing him. Throwing someone in jail for the rest of his life can be worse than inflicting a medium amount of pain. Nevertheless, the torturer is a perfect representative of a tyrannical state--more so than the executioner or the jailor. Luban p. 1430:

the self-conscious aim of torture is to turn its victim into someone who is isolated, overwhelmed, terrorized, and humiliated. Torture aims to strip away from its victim all the qualities of human dignity that liberalism prizes. The torturer inflicts pain one-on-one, deliberately, up close and personal, in order to break the spirit of the victim--in other words, to tyrannize and dominate the victim. The relationship between them becomes a perverse parody of friendship and intimacy: intimacy transformed into its inverse image, where the torturer focuses on the victim's body with the intensity of a lover, except that every bit of that focus is bent to causing pain and tyrannizing the victim's spirit.

Some people argue that torture is nevertheless necessary in a society threatened by people who are willing to detonate nuclear bombs in crowded cities. What about the "ticking time bomb"--the terrorist who must be forced to divulge his secrets before there's a big explosion? Shouldn't he be tortured to save innocent lives, much as Dirty Harry forced Scorpio to reveal where he'd hidden the kidnapped child in the eponymous 1971 movie?

There are two major responses. First, real life doesn't present ticking-time bomb situations, and even if it did, torture wouldn't work to divulge the necessary information, because terrorists can lie. In real-life situations, torturers try to extract whatever information they can from suspected enemies, hoping to gather data that strengthens their overall understanding of enemy networks. No single suspect holds secrets that can by themselves save lives. It follows that a strategy of torture will require lots of it.

In any case, you cannot torture just once in a while. Torture that has any chance of working must be professionalized. The state needs experienced (desensetized) torturers, torture manuals, torture training, torture equipment, and lawyers' memos rationalizing torture. The effect of all this "infrastructure" is not only to generate a new part of the government that will fight for its own survival. Worse, it tends to "normalize" torture. Normalization is a powerful and dangerous pyschological phenomenon. As Luban writes (pp. 1451-2):

we judge right and wrong against the baseline of whatever we have come to consider "normal" behavior, and if the norm shifts in the direction of violence, we will come to tolerate and accept violence as a normal response. The psychological mechanisms for this re-normalization have been studied for more than half a century, and by now they are reasonably well understood. Rather than detour into psychological theory, however, I will illustrate the point with the most salient example .... This is the famous Stanford Prison Experiment. Male volunteers were divided randomly into two groups who would simulate the guards and inmates in a mock prison. Within a matter of days, the inmates began acting like actual prison inmates--depressed, enraged, and anxious. And the guards began to abuse the inmates to such an alarming degree that the researchers had to halt the two-week experiment after just seven days. In the words of the experimenters:
The use of power was self-aggrandising and self-perpetuating. The guard power, derived initially from an arbitrary label, was intensified whenever there was any perceived threat by the prisoners and this new level subsequently became the baseline from which further hostility and harassment would begin... . The absolute level of aggression as well as the more subtle and "creative" forms of aggression manifested, increased in a spiralling function.
It took only five days before a guard, who prior to the experiment described himself as a pacifist, was forcing greasy sausages down the throat of a prisoner who refused to eat; and in less than a week, the guards were placing bags over prisoners' heads, making them strip, and sexually humiliating them in ways reminiscent of Abu Ghraib.

I think we should be very careful about any behavior that is not unjust in itself but that can escalate quickly and without natural limits. That is why imprisonment is better than corporal punishment. Ten years in jail is a worse punishment than a dozen lashes. However, an excessive prison term can be reconsidered before it is served, and there is a natural limit to imprisonment (a life sentence). There is no limit to the number of lashes inflicted inside of an hour. That is why the state should never be allowed to inflict deliberate pain, even if we believe that it may deprive people of life and liberty.

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November 23, 2005

Galston on the Democrats

The graph to the right shows the popularity of the Democrats and Republicans as recorded in NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls. Note the decline for the GOP and the failure of the Democrats to budge upwards even a tick. In essence, Americans have gone from favoring the Republicans to favoring no one.

My boss, Bill Galston, is leaving us in January to go to the Brookings Institution. I don't think any other academic in America has as much political influence on the Democratic Party. When he and Elaine Kamarck released their latest strategy paper recently ("The Politics of Polarization"), both The New York Times and The Washington Post ran news stories describing it. Bill and I very rarely talk about partisan or ideological politics, because our shared professional work is strictly non-partisan. However, he gave a public talk yesterday on his new paper, and I attended it.

We have intellectual freedom at the University of Maryland, so I reserve the right to disagree with my boss. Nevertheless, I'd like to emphasize part of the Kamarck-and-Galston argument that I particularly strongly endorse. This argument says that you can't get people to vote for you unless you have a plausible and coherent answer to national problems. No amount of skillful leadership and rhetoric and "framing" can paper over incoherence. Between 1988 and 1992, the Democrats had big internal fights over welfare and macroeconomics. I'm not certain that the best side won, but there was a decisive conclusion. Bill Clinton took control of the national party and balanced budgets and reformed welfare. As a result, the public's opinion of the Democrats on economic and social issues changed fundamentally and for the better.

However, the Democrats never resolved their profound disagreements over foreign policy. They won pluralities of the national vote in 1992, 1996, and 2000 without taking clear positions on difficult international and defense issues. They got away with that because foreign policy was less important between the end of the Cold War and 9/11/01 than at any time since Pearl Harbor. They cannot get away with it now. The Democratic Party includes genuine Peaceniks, John Murtha-style tough guys, Madeleine Albright internationalists who say "use it or lose it" about the US military, "bring America home" types, and everything in between. They will have to fight it out until one faction wins. They will then be able to present the public with a clear alternative to the Bush position.

Yesterday, Bill described John Kerry as the perfect representative of his party in 2004. Voting for the war and then against the bill to fund it put Kerry precisely at the median of the Democratic coalition. That is why he defeated primary opponents whose positions were more consistently pro- and anti-war. It is also a big reason why he lost in November.

The current unpopularity of the GOP means little. In 2006, they will be protected by the safety of congressional districts. In 2008, they will put up an entirely new face as their presidential candidate; he will probably criticize the Bush administration. The only thing that matters for the future of partisan politics is whether the Democrats can increase their support. Since the public is seriously concerned about foreign policy, the Democrats need a positive international vision with some detail and some bite.

Two competing visions might be considered:

1. Lower our international profile. Make concerted efforts to reduce dependence on mideast oil. Reduce defense spending over time and use the savings on domestic investments. Deal with issues like Israel-Palestine and the Korean peninsula only as part of coalitions. Disentangle from Iraq. Concentrate on remaining a major economic power that can afford a dominant but defensive military.

2. Aggressively pursue terrorists and rogue states. However, disentangle from Iraq, where too many of our troops are pinned down in unfavorable circumstances. Pursue Rumsfeld's pre-9/11 military reforms and use a lighter, quicker, more flexible military in North Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and wherever the situation favors us.

permanent link | comments (1) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

November 22, 2005

options for Iraq

Nothing is more important than having concrete alternatives for America's future in Iraq. There cannot be a useful--or even a barely dignified--debate until there are choices on the table. If the debate is only about whether Bush lied and whether the Democrats are cowards, then we are all guaranteed to lose.

The Murtha resolution has put a basket of general strategies on the table for our consideration:

Section 1. The deployment of United States forces in Iraq, by direction of Congress, is hereby terminated and the forces involved are to be redeployed at the earliest practicable date.

Section 2. A quick-reaction U.S. force and an over-the-horizon presence of U.S Marines shall be deployed in the region.

Section 3. The United States of America shall pursue security and stability in Iraq through diplomacy.

These ideas are separable, and each one is subject to interpretation. For instance, the "earliest practicable date" could be defined in many ways--from the moment when we can extract our forces safely (i.e., very soon) to the day when the Iraqi military is capable of ensuring order (i.e., maybe never).

The "quick-reaction" force could be deliberately located inside Iraq and deployed at the request of the Iraqi government (subject to US consent). Or it could be deliberately located outside of Iraq in order to signal that we have no ambitions to establish permanent bases there. It could be large or small, aggressive or basically just a deterrent force.

"Diplomacy" (mentioned in Section 3) is a good word, but a very vague one. With whom would we engage in dialogues and negotiations, and with what purpose? We could talk to the Iranians and Syrians about not supporting the insurgency; whether that would achieve anything depends on how important those countries are to the insurgents and whether they are open to negotiating. We could talk to the insurgents themselves, or persuade Iraq's Shiite leaders to do so. We could talk to the Europeans about providing more military forces and reconstruction assistance. I'm not sure what incentive they have to comply in a serious way. It would be interesting, however, if leading Americans outside the administration could work out hypothetical plans with leading Europeans and leading Arabs for a joint response to the Iraqi mess. They could then advocate this response in public forums in their respective countries. (By the way, that is a very appropriate role for leading Democrats between now and 2008.)

In general, our citizens could talk to Iraqis and people from other Arab and Moslem countries outside of governmental channels. Such dialogues are surely desirable, but not likely to produce enormous benefits in the short term.

Finally, in principle, we could try to organize a Mideast summit that considered Iraq, Syria-Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, and the Kurds all together. That sounds like a herculean task, perhaps best undertaken after years of preliminary work. Furthermore, it doesn't seem promising for the US to be the official convener.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

October 27, 2005

criminalizing policy

I don't know how many people agree with the following letter in yesterday's New York Times, but it expresses just the view that worries me most right now:

This investigation [of the Plame case] is not simply about the disclosure of the identity of an undercover C.I.A. operative or politics as usual. It involves the lies and deceit of an administration in taking this country into a war of incredibly stupid proportions in which the mainstream media, including your newspaper, played an important role.

The writer wants to make the criminal investigation of Karl Rove and Scooter Libby (and perhaps others) into a literal prosecution of the Bush Administration for its conduct in the Iraq war. Of course, I realize that the invasion was an enormously consequential decision: consider the 2,000 American dead and the more than 25,000 dead Iraqi civilians. At least in retrospect, it looks like a terrible choice. I also realize that the administration was dishonest in the prewar argument. However, politics is generally a serious business. Whether we provide military aid to Colombia, whether we permit or ban abortion, whether we prohibit or legalize cocaine, even where we set Medicaid reimbursement levels--these are decisions with life-and-death consequences. Moreover, participants in these debates quite routinely lie. It is crucial that we handle even the most consequential (and even the worst) of these decisions democratically, by arguing for one side and trying to mobilize popular opinion. Bringing criminal charges is a way of evading the democratic process.

Furthermore, I reject the diagnosis that we had a poorly informed national deliberation about whether to invade Iraq because some administration officials resorted to malicious leaks and general dishonesty. That's true, but it's far from the whole story. Even given the advantages that an incumbent administration holds in debates about foreign policy, the Bush team could have been challenged by the Pentagon, Congress, the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton and alumni of his administration, the Blair Government, academic experts, the press, and average citizens. The failure of almost all these groups to mount a challenge is evidence that we have a deep and widespread problem. Prosecuting people in the Plame case will do nothing to fix it.

I am not arguing that Patrick Fitzgerald should refrain from indicting anyone. He may conclude that laws were broken, and then the rule of law requires accountability. What I object to is the interpretation that the Plame investigation has put the Bush administration on trial for the whole Iraq war. That would be a dangerously undemocratic development--not to mention an excellent way for everyone else to dodge responsibility.

permanent link | comments (3) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

August 1, 2005

Tony Blair and the Doctrine of Double Effect

Reflecting on the July 7 bombings, the leftist MP George Galloway (on whom I have written before) said, "London has reaped the involvement of Mr. Blair's involvement in Iraq." Most people to Galloway's right--which means most people--think he is wrong to blame Blair for the terrorism. Yet it seems likely that a causal chain does connect the bombings to British participation in the Iraq invasion. Extremist Muslim radicals attacked UK targets only once they had become incensed by the presence of British "crusaders" in Iraq. The use of terrorism against civilian British targets was a fairly foreseeable result of the invasion and occupation.

I wouldn't try to deny Blair's causal role, but I would argue that someone can be a cause of something without being morally responsible for it. Blair set in motion a chain of events that led to the bombings, but the bombers are completely responsible for what they did, and Blair is completely innocent of it. Thomas Aquinas' Doctrine of Double Effect comes in handy here. The New Catholic Encyclopedia, as quoted in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, explains that the Doctrine excuses an act (in this case, the invasion) that has bad results under these conditions:

1. The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent. 2. The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary. 3. The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed. 4. The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect.

Thus, to take Tony Blair's side, we would say: The act of invading Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein was morally good. Even if its net consequences turn out to be bad for Iraq (mainly because of the incompetent US leadership), British participation was well-intentioned and reasonable. Blair did not will a terrorist response to the invasion, even if he had reason to predict it. The removal of Saddam was a direct consequence of the invasion; the London bombings were highly indirect results. Finally, the end that Blair willed was sufficiently good to compensate for the death of Londoners.

The Doctrine is relevant to other current events as well. For example, last Friday, the IRA promised to renounce violence. Did the Doctrine of Double Effect ever excuse its use of terror? Alison McIntyre would say "no." She writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia article, "The terror bomber aims to bring about civilian deaths in order to weaken the resolve of the enemy: when his bombs kill civilians this is a consequence that he intends." Thus bombing a pub or train station is a bad act with a bad intention, and the Doctrine never excuses it.

However, McIntyre thinks that bombing campaigns undertaken by people in uniform can be permissible under the Doctrine. She writes, "The strategic bomber aims at military targets while foreseeing that bombing such targets will cause civilian deaths. When his bombs kill civilians this is a foreseen but unintended consequence of his actions. Even if it is equally certain that the two bombers will cause the same number of civilian deaths, terror bombing is impermissible while strategic bombing is permissible."

Supporters of the IRA deny this distinction. They argue that it's unfair to defend established nations with large budgets that drop bombs from airplanes--yet damn individuals as "terrorists" if they kill smaller numbers of people with car bombs.

Of course, one response is that no one has the right to kill anyone else except in the most immediate self-defense. Then the Doctrine of Double Effect would not cover the IRA, but it wouldn't excuse Tony Blair, either. By invading Iraq, he willed the death of Iraqis (and Brits); a pacifist would deny him that right. But the true pacifist would also say that Neville Chamberlain impermissibly willed the death of civilians when he declared war on Hitler. Once we admit that someone can cause death for a good reason, then we are either "consequentialists" (i.e., we assess acts by subtracting their costs from their benefits), or we subscribe to the Doctrine of Double Effect.

In the last few months, three different people have told me that the IRA bombings had a good consequence: they brought the British and the Unionists to the bargaining table. I do not know whether this is true or whether the same result could have been obtained by peaceful means. Consequentialist reasoning might possibly rationalize the IRA bombings, but not those of Hamas and the other Palestinian terrorist groups. It seems to me that suicide bombings in Israel and the Occupied Territories have had one overall consequence: Israel has begun to build a security fence. Thus Hamas indirectly caused the fence. For consequentialists, that makes Hamas responsible for damage to Palestinian national interests--which is indeed what I believe. However, according to the logic of the Doctrine of Double Effect, Hamas might be causally responsible for the fence, yet Israel might have sole moral responsibility for it.

(See also a good short article by William Soloman from the Encyclopedia of Ethics.)

permanent link | comments (0) | category: Iraq and democratic theory , philosophy , philosophy

February 11, 2005

the Iraqi election, suicide bombing, & rational choice theory

An election is partly a public good, in the precise economist's sense. If representatives are selected peacefully and officials are made accountable to the majority, that is a good thing for most people. This good is indivisible. I cannot decide to forgo the benefits to me personally of democratic elections, nor sell my stake to someone else. Like national defense or the ozone layer, elections benefit all (or at least the whole majority faction), if they serve anyone.

There is a well-known problem with public goods. Whether a democratic election occurs depends on many people's behavior, yet each person benefits regardless of what he or she does. For example, you gain from our political system—whether or not you vote. Thus you may be tempted to free-ride and let others bear the burden of voting. Or you may feel that it's pointless to promote this public good, since others are unlikely to do their share.

The problem is not too acute when the only cost of an election is the time in takes to cast a vote. In the US, about half the eligible people choose to participate. But when voting is extremely dangerous, the cost becomes high indeed and we expect few people to turn out.

Fortunately, if many people publicly show that they are going to face the dangers of voting, then the calculation changes for other individuals. Everyone sees that collective action can work, that democracy can prevail. While the cost of their own participation remains high, the benefits also become tangible. Thus it was crucial that long lines formed early in Iraq and remained even when bombs went off.

Suicide bombing is a brilliant (although despicable) strategy for disrupting other people's collective action. It raises the "cost" of participation enormously by creating the distinct possibility that you'll die if you vote, join the civilian police force, or merely walk the streets. The best way to win a game of "chicken" is to remove your steering wheel and throw it out the window. Then it's clear that you're going to keep driving straight, and the other person must swerve aside. A suicide bomber is a person who has thrown his wheel out the window.

Nevertheless—and this is what I’m winding up to say—conspicuous collective action and solidarity can defeat suicide bombers, and that’s what seems to have happened in Iraq’s elections. I find this deeply moving. It's the best aspect of human behavior.

Elections have another side, of course. I have said that they are public goods because they produce better governments than other processes would. But elections are also competitive struggles to allocate scarce resources among parties with divergent interests. As soon as the collective ritual of voting ended in Iraq, the more mundane business of counting ballots began. As everyone knows, the detailed political situation that underlies the Iraqi vote is perilous: Shiites have too large a potential majority. They threaten to make the election a losing proposition (not a public good) for the Sunni minority. Creating public goods, a process well begun in the elections, will remain difficult for a long time to come.

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February 7, 2005

"every subject's soul is his own"

(Continuing Friday's theme. ...) There is no doubt, after Nuremberg, that soldiers must question the justification of their side's conduct during a conflict--and disobey any immoral orders. But should they worry about the purposes and legitimacy of the whole war? "Adam K. Anonymous" argued "no" on this blog. "In a democracy," he wrote, "the military is a tool, subjected to our elected representative[s], who should worry about the legitimacy of the war. The military, who don't represent the people, should not be in a position to make autonomous decisions about the legitimacy of the war." One could add that soldiers don't have all the information available to high elected officials, so they should simply follow orders about whether to wage war.

On the other hand, it might seem that soldiers in a democracy bear a particularly heavy responsibility for deciding whether to participate in a war. In a dictatorship, it's very hard to obtain information relevant to a moral assessment of your country's foreign policy. If you want to object, you may have no practical options; you certainly can't agitate publicly against the government. And passive resistance will probably just get you killed. All of these problems are less serious in a democracy, so perhaps the individual soldier must treat the decision to participate in a war--and thus to help kill other human beings--as a matter for personal judgment.

I'm not sure what to think, but I'm struck by the relevance of Henry V, act IV, scene 1.

King Harry is prowling through the English camp incognito on the night before Agincourt. His troops are weary and outnumbered five-to-one; they expect to die. He meets two disgruntled soldiers and defends the conduct of their leader (actually himself), ending: "methinks I could not die any where so contented as in the king's company; his cause being just and his quarrel honourable." The first soldier, Williams, replies: "That's more than we know." Williams implies that it's impossible for an ordinary "grunt" like him to assess the justice of the King's position in the war.

A second soldier, Bates, sees an advantage in their ignorance: they are absolved of moral responsibility: "Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough, if we know we are the king's subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us." (Today, most of us do not see a monarchy as legitimate, but in the world of Henry V, the religious foundations of kingship work like democratic elections for us--they render Harry a legitimate ruler.)

Williams sees a corrolary of Bates' point: if they are innocent because they follow the orders of a legitimate ruler who has access to information, then Harry is in moral peril: "But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection."

The King understandably resists the implication that he is responsible for everything his men may do. Still concealing his identity, he says: "So, if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the imputation of his wickedness by your rule, should be imposed upon his father that sent him: or if a servant, under his master's command transporting a sum of money, be assailed by robbers and die in many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the business of the master the author of the servant's damnation: but this is not so: the king is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death, when they purpose their services. Besides, there is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all unspotted soldiers: some peradventure have on them the guilt of premeditated and contrived murder; some, of beguiling virgins with the broken seals of perjury; some, making the wars their bulwark, that have before gored the gentle bosom of peace with pillage and robbery. Now, if these men have defeated the law and outrun native punishment, though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to fly from God: war is his beadle, war is vengeance; so that here men are punished for before-breach of the king's laws in now the king's quarrel: where they feared the death, they have borne life away; and where they would be safe, they perish: then if they die unprovided, no more is the king guilty of their damnation than he was before guilty of those impieties for the which they are now visited. Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every mote out of his conscience: and dying so, death is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained: and in him that escapes, it were not sin to think that, making God so free an offer, He let him outlive that day to see His greatness and to teach others how they should prepare."

To paraphrase: subjects must obey the king's decision to wage a war, at least after they have offered their services as soldiers. But their conduct in bello is their own moral responsibility. Left alone, Henry speaks a soliloquy about the lonely responsibilities of the king:

We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart's-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!

Henry V is one of my least favorite plays of Shakespeare. It seems impossible to separate the perspective of the playwright from that of the king, who dominates the entire work with his particular vision. A monarchical ideology is built into the structure of the plot, and dissonant voices (such as those of Falstaff's old crew) are virtually suppressed. In contrast, Shakespeare usually displays "negative capability," or the capacity not to hold a doctrine of his own. He is "myriad-minded"--inhabiting the minds of all his thousands of characters. Given the overall shape of Henry V, it is tempting to assume that Harry wins the argument with Williams and Bates. However, I'd prefer to see act IV, scene 1 as a place where Shakespeare employs his usual "dialogic imagination." Harry has one perspective; Williams another; and it's up to us to decide what we must think.

permanent link | comments (2) | category: Iraq and democratic theory , Shakespeare & his world

February 4, 2005

just war theory

I've been thinking about just war theory, mainly because my colleagues and I discussed a good paper on that topic by Judy Lichtenberg today, but also because of Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis' recent comments ("Actually, it's a lot of fun to fight. You know, it's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right upfront with you, I like brawling. ... You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil. ...You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.")

Just war theory, with its roots in medieval Christian theology, traditionally separates jus ad bellum from jus in bello. The former deals with justifications for waging war; the latter, with acceptable behavior during a war. For instance, some would say that a just conflict is one waged in self-defense or one authorized by the Security Council to promote human rights. Meanwhile, just behavior during a war requires, for example, not deliberately harming civilians, protecting captives, and not taking hostages.

These two issues are separated so that even a nation that is waging a just war must restrain its conduct during the conflict; furthermore, even soldiers fighting in an unjust war must obey certain norms. Because of the distinction between the two sets of standards, Nazi officers could be prosecuted for violating the Geneva Conventions, but not for invading Poland. Likewise, high Allied officials could be held accountable (morally, if not legally) for decisions like the firebombing of Dresden, which was an immoral and unnecessary act in the middle of a just, defensive war.

However, separating jus ad bellum from jus in bello raises its own problems. First of all, the separation can excuse professional military people from worrying about the most important question, which is whether they are fighting a legitimate war in the first place. How the Wehrmacht honored the Geneva Convention was a lot less important than its invasion of the USSR, which led to the slaughter of more than 13 million uniformed Soviet soldiers. It seems strange to demand that a German officer risk his career and even his life in defense of the rules of war, but to excuse him from waging that war in the first place.

Second, a lot of the traditional components of jus in bello seem outmoded or indefensible. For instance, the distinction between combatants and non-combatants doesn't always make a moral difference. Soldiers can be completely innocent draftees (or volunteers in a just war), whereas civilians can be causally responsible for wicked conflicts. It is sometimes a moral mistake to say that you may kill people in uniform but not civilians.

Still, there is a chance that positive results come from having separate rules of justice ad bellum and in bello. On the one hand, political decision-makers (including citizens in democracies) should always carefully consider moral issues before they support military action--no matter how professional and ethical their army may be. Meanwhile, professional military people should have an ingrained sense of proper behavior in bello, regardless of the legitimacy of any overall conflict.

It's too much to ask a professional soldier, whether a draftee or a volunteer in the army of a legitimate state, to ask hard moral questions every time he sees an enemy in uniform. There just isn't time; obedience and instinct must take over. But it is good if the soldier's conscience is triggered when he sees a civilian or a prisoner. The distinction between combatants and non-combatants may be somewhat arbitrary; nevertheless, the triggering of a conscience can help prevent atrocities.

This is why we may accept that General Mattis is a good Marine and a useful guy to have on our side in a war, yet we don't want him to tell his men that killing Afghans is enjoyable. His bold and ruthless behavior on the battlefield is acceptable, maybe even admirable, assuming that the war itself is just. But his expressions of enthusiasm for killing members of an alien culture threaten to erode the scruples that should constrain all soldiers in bello.

permanent link | comments (2) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

January 31, 2005

Carothers on democracy-promotion

It appears that voting has gone very well in Iraq. I take this from the Guardian and Le Monde as well as the US media. Michael Ignatieff is right that we should celebrate free elections in Iraq, mourn those killed as they tried to campaign or vote, and condemn the opponents of Iraqi elections as "fascists."

Nevertheless, the broader issue remains: Can the US directly promote democracy in the Middle East? On Friday, I had a chance to hear Thomas Carothers speak at Maryland. Carothers directs the "Democracy and Rule of Law Project" at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is a supremely sensible, cogent, experienced thinker about democracy. I did not take notes, unfortunately, but here are some key points as I remember them.

While American administrations have traditionally believed that our national interests are best protected by stability in the Middle East, the Bush people believe that the existing autocratic regimes hurt us, and that we would be better off with democratic ones. Many liberal types in Washington agree with this goal, although they doubt the administration's competence and sincerity. Thus "democracy-promotion" has achieved consensus in DC, at least as an ideal. However, in Western Europe and the Middle East, absolutely everyone is against a project of US-sponsored democratic regime change.

Carothers feels that the project will be extremely difficult, at best. The US lacks credibility with Arabs and Muslims because of our traditional support for autocratic regimes, our tilt to Israel, and our botched invasion of Iraq. Many powerful actors in the US have mixed motives, wanting to preserve cosy business relationships or to cooperate with Arab police states in the "war on terror."

Above all, democracy-promotion is difficult because regimes like those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, and Morocco are well-established, well-funded, and ruthless. They have plans for the orderly succession of power and face no dangerous insurgencies other than al Qaeda. It is extremely rare in human history for democratic movements to succeed under such conditions. This is not an argument that Arabs are unready or unsuited for democracy. However, democratic reform is always difficult, and the stars are very badly aligned in the Middle East.

Carothers doubts that there is any trick, any silver-bullet, any comprehensive strategy that we could employ to boost democracy in the region, even if our intentions were reasonably good. In theory, however, we could make democracy-promotion a consistent goal and then constantly seek opportunities to advance it: in diplomacy, military exchanges, trade policy, progaganda, and economic aid. If we also sought opportunities to work multilaterally--indeed, if we sometimes hid behind trusted third parties, such as the Nordic countries--then we could make incremental progress. At a minimum, we could gradually improve our credibility and thereby put ourselves in a position to help substantially if the situation ever changed in the Middle East.

permanent link | comments (2) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

December 2, 2004

why does the quality of journalism matter?

I have an article in the Fall 2004 National Civic Review entitled "Journalism and Democracy: Does it Matter How Well the Press Covers Iraq?" It's not online yet, but I've posted a .pdf of the final draft that I submitted to NCR. The same issue of the Review also contains articles by my friends Cole Campbell, Rich Harwood, and Lew Friedland on various aspects of journalism and public life. Many similar themes are evident in all three pieces.

My article mostly appeared first in this blog, in short segments. I submitted it many months ago, so it describes the 2004 election as a future event and Andrew Sullivan as a pro-war blogger (no longer true). I think I pose a fairly difficult question about why the quality of press coverage matters. I am not persuaded that we merely need good reporting to help us decide whom to support in the next presidential election; so I consider some alternative rationales. Unfortunately, my piece does a better job of raising questions than answering them.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: Iraq and democratic theory , press criticism

October 14, 2004

the "global test"

Thomas Jefferson said it best: "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to [do something drastic that affects the status of other nations,] a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them. ... To prove it, let facts be submitted to a candid world."

The founders of the United States asked for no one's permission to declare our independence (although they needed help from France). Nevertheless, they considered themselves obliged to submit "facts" in support of their decision. If their allegations had been false, then they would have failed the "global test," as the United States did in 2003 when we presented a false rationale for our invasion of Iraq.

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October 5, 2004

the Guantanamo problem

In my opinion, David Luban's 2002 article in Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly (pdf, pp. 9-14) posed the Guantanamo problem better than anything I have seen since. To paraphrase him very loosely: A state can legitimately hold someone against his will under two distinct circumstances. First, it can detain an alleged criminal in order to try him and prove that he knowingly committed a specific crime. If he is found guilty, the state may imprison him punitively, regardless of whether he poses any present or future threat. Second, the state may hold an enemy combatant during a war. The government need not allege or prove any violation of law, or even a hostile intention on the part of the individual prisoner. However, such confinement cannot be punitive, and it must cease immediately when hostilities end.

We do not want governments to cherry-pick the most convenient aspects of these two situations. But that is exactly what we see in Guantanamo, where prisoners are treated as combatants (insofar as they are detained without criminal charges or due process)--but also as criminals (insofar as they are held individually responsible for their actions and offered no hope of a negotiated release when the "war on terror" ends). This convenient mixing of two sets of norms certainly sets a dangerous precedent for civil liberties.

However, I think that the U.S. Government faces a genuine dilemma. (I'm now speaking for myself and not paraphrasing David Luban.) Hostile fighters picked up in places like Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be held for the duration of hostilities, because they don't belong to organized, hierachical groups with leaders who can possibly sign peace treaties. Nor can they be prosecuted as criminals under US law, which doesn't apply where they were captured. In many cases, they didn't even violate local laws. Yet some of them, surely, pose a genuine danger and can cannot simply be let go.

So what to do? I would suggest the following steps:

1) State very clearly and publicly that special circumstances arise when combatants who hold foreign citizenship are captured on foreign soil, fighting the US on behalf of loose networks instead of states. They cannot be accorded the full set of rights held by other categories of people, such as US citizens, people arrested for violent acts or conspiracies on US soil, or enemy soldiers fighting for formal organizations. The treatment of these Guantanamo-style prisoners sets no precedent for criminal law or the law of war. It is a regrettable exception.
2) Try to minimize the number of people held under these unusual circumstances, by (a) releasing anyone who is not a significant threat; (b) prosecuting anyone who is alleged to have violated US law; (c) turning over to foreign countries anyone who is alleged to have violated their laws, as long as these countries honor due process and human rights.
3) Accord appropriate but limited rights to the remaining prisoners. They cannot be tried in regular US courts, because they are not alleged to have violated US laws. But the government could be required to prove before a special tribunal that each prisoner poses a continuing threat. The prisoner should be able to rebut that claim. Furthermore, those who are held as potential threats should not be otherwise deliberately punished. They should be detained in reasonably comfortable settings.

I am aware that the US Government resists trying those Guantanamo prisoners who are believed to have committed actual crimes, because trials can disclose secret information. But this is where I think we should dig in our heels and say that the need for due process is more important than secrecy, even in a "war." If the basis for holding someone is a criminal allegation, then the prisoner should get a fair and speedy trial. Otherwise, everyone's rights are threatened.

permanent link | comments (1) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

July 15, 2004

dulce et decorum est

Last week in Burgundy, we noticed that every single town had erected a stone cross with the names of its dead from 1914-18 and 1939-45. Even a village of 50 people (according to our Michelin guide) might list a half dozen killed. A few names were marked “déporté”—taken east to die in slave labor or death camps. Overall, France lost 1,368,000 men in the First World War and 563,000 people (civilians and combatants) in the Second. That counts only the dead, not those grievously wounded, psychologically broken, widowed, orphaned, or deprived of young sons. France lost 11 percent of its entire population in the Great War, compared to a death rate of 0.37% in the United States. Even in World War II, the French lost twice as many people as we did, out of a much smaller population.

And then I think of the people, my fellow Americans, who claimed that France opposed our invasion of Iraq because they lacked the courage for war; the French were “surrender monkeys,” in the phrase that certain hawks borrowed from “The Simpsons.” These people remind me of the ones Siegfried Sassoon described in “Base Details”:

IF I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say—‘I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die—in bed.

permanent link | comments (4) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

June 21, 2004

listen to Bill

Bill Galston is my boss (and friend). Therefore, I got a big kick out of Kenneth Pollack's article in The New Republic, entitled, "Mourning After: My Debate with Bill Galston." It begins thus:

Bill Galston is one helluva debater. In the fall of 2002, well before the invasion of Iraq, I faced Bill--a University of Maryland professor and a former colleague of mine in the Clinton administration--in a public debate, and he kicked my rhetorical ass. He did it by holding up a copy of my book, The Threatening Storm, and saying to the audience, "If we were going to get Ken Pollack's war, I could be persuaded to support it. But we are not going to get Ken Pollack's war; we are going to get George Bush's war, and that is a war I will not support." Bill's words haunted me throughout the run-up to the invasion. Several months ago, I sent him a note conceding that he had been right.

permanent link | comments (1) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

June 18, 2004

home rule for Baghdad

A reliable friend gave me a professionally printed document entitled "The Law of Home Rule of the City of Baghdad: Enacted by the Baghdad City Council on Behalf of the Citizens of the City of Baghdad" (Draft, June 2, 2004. Adopted: ______ 2004). I cannot find this document with a Google search, but it looks genuine, and it's interesting on several levels.

First, style. The preamble seems to have been written by Baghdadis: "In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate ... Treasuring the many wonders of our unique City, recognizing that Baghdad has served as the [sic] cultural and educational center of the world and has a future as one of the world's greatest cities ...." The mayor or city manager is called an Amin, and his administration is the Aminate--in a nod to Arabic. However, many portions of the main text appear to have been borrowed verbatim from US boilerplate. For example, there's a "severability clause" at the end to ensure that the rest of the charter will remain in force if any part is struck down by a court. Other clauses sound to me like the work of US advisers who are trying to explain the document in lay terms. For example: "This Charter specifically does not set forth all the powers that may be exercised by the District Councils." This doesn't sound like legalese to me. I can imagine a nervous non-lawyer adding it to make sure that the District Councils are not overly limited.

Moving to substance: the charter basically creates a city manager system, on the model pioneered in America during the Progressive Era. All power is vested in an elected council that hires a professional Amin with considerable authority; he (or conceivably she) serves at the council's pleasure.

The city has home rule, but its independence is somewhat exaggerated. For example, one of the city's "authorities" is the police, but it turns out that Baghdad can only "consult and advise the Provincial Council and the Ministry of the Interior regarding requirements for adequate law enforcement services." The city doesn't actually run a police force.

In addition to the citywide council, there are to be District Councils and Neighborhood Councils. The District Councils can propose legislation (which must be voted in the City Council), they may review all appointments by the Amin, they may propose budgets for capital improvements, and they may be given additional powers. This sounds like real power to me. The Neighborhood Councils can propose legislation and are guaranteed a regular opportunity to see the city's annual report, budget, and plan. That is not a major allocation of power, but it may increase transparency and participation at the neighborhood level.

I'm not one to exaggerate the importance of constitutions, charters, and other pieces of paper. Political culture is more important, and it's hard to know whether the norms assumed by this document are realistic or appropriate. I'd love to know more about how it was written and what Baghdadis think of it.

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May 31, 2004

exploiting the war dead for "politics"?

Beth Gillin wrote Saturday's lead story in the Philadelphia Inquirer about peace activists who commemorate slain American soldiers in public ceremonies. She also discussed Ted Koppel's decision to read the names of the American dead on "Nightline," and Gary Trudeau's naming some fallen soldiers in Doonesbury. I saw this article because Gillin interviewed me and quoted me twice, but I didn't give her any interesting or profound ideas to use. (You have to register with the Inquirer to read the story, unfortunately.)

Many of today's peace activists say that they are against the war but not against our troops. They want to distance themselves from that wing of the anti-Vietnam movement that vilified American soldiers of all ranks. They explain that they are deeply saddened by the loss of American lives; indeed, that's one of their reasons for opposing the war. They want to grieve publicly and also to draw attention to our losses, as part of an argument against the invasion and occupation.

Koppel (whose program provoked massive controversy) denies having an anti-war motive, but he admits trying to make an editorial point:

The reading tonight of those 721 names was neither intended to provoke opposition to the war, nor was it meant as an endorsement. Some of you doubt that. You are convinced that I am opposed to the war. I’m not. But that’s beside the point. I am opposed to sustaining the illusion that war can be waged by the sacrifice of the few without burdening the rest of us in any way. I oppose the notion that to be at war is to forfeit the right to question, criticize, or debate our leaders’ policies. Or, for that matter, the policies of those who would like to become our leaders. “Nightline” will continue to do all of those things in the weeks and months to come. But not tonight. That is not what this broadcast was about.

Meanwhile, defenders of the war argue that it is wrong to commemorate our dead in these ways, at this time. They argue that it shows a lack of balance to emphasize casualties without providing context, such as lists of Saddam's victims. They accuse Koppel and Trudeau of doing something inappropriate for their respective roles. (Koppel is supposed to break news; Trudeau is supposed to entertain; and a list of people killed in the past is neither news nor entertainment.) They worry that public grieving will weaken morale. Finally, they smell political manipulation. They see reciting the names of dead Americans as a way to play on citizens' emotions, to attack the incumbent administration under the cover of patriotism. They claim that the deaths of military people are being exploited to attack the military itself.

I'm strongly in favor of these commemorations. Since I'm basically skeptical of the war itself, my stance wouldn't surprise or persuade anyone on the other side of this particular issue. However, I think it's worth considering a more general point. In modern America, we tend to see "politics" as deeply suspect. Thus any mixing of "politics" with journalism or with mourning and ceremony strikes us as inappropriate. But "politics" includes trying to persuade one's fellow citizens about important issues--including war and peace. Thus understood, "politics" is a very noble and serious matter. There's no pollution or manipulation involved in combining "politics" with other things. Indeed, one cannot create serious art, religion, or journalism in times of war without some admixture of "politics."

Many people have made up their minds about the war. They intend to vote accordingly in November, and they believe that everyone else should vote the same way, or else the election will be a travesty. In this context, people are looking very critically at news organizations, schools, and religious congregrations for signs that leaders are trying to influence the vote. Regardless of our opinions about the war, however, we ought to be able to stomach emotional and powerful statements by people on the other side. Otherwise, we evidently lack the maturity to handle "politics" when the stakes are high.

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May 13, 2004

John Kerry in London (a fantasy)

London, May 17--Senator John Kerry returned to London this morning after two days at Chequers, the Prime Minister's private retreat. Standing with Mr. Blair outside 10 Downing Street, Senator Kerry said, "We have agreed on a range of very promising options for managing the crisis in Iraq."

The police closed Whitehall, a broad street near the Prime Minister's residence, to accommodate a crowd that was estimated at over 20,000. There were some hecklers, but Senator Kerry drew a roar of support when he waved through the iron gates.

The two leaders refused to elaborate on their plans, saying that the situation in Iraq was changing quickly. However, Senator Kerry's entourage included Peter W. Galbraith, a former US Ambassador to Croatia who advocates dividing Iraq into three semi-autonomous constituent republics. Mr. Galbraith refused to comment.

Mr. Blair, pressed to say whether he was endorsing the Democratic nominee, replied repeatedly that British governments "never pick sides" in U.S. Presidential campaigns. "The choice belongs to the American people, and our government will work effectively with either party," he said. "This was simply an opportunity for us to exchange ideas with another American political leader."

Nevertheless, British commentators unanimously detect political advantage for Mr. Blair. Polls last week showed only 19 percent of respondents were satisfied with the Labour government, and Mr. Blair's personal loyalty to U.S. President George W. Bush has been a major liability. While most foreign leaders would hesitate to cross the President, Mr. Blair has kept 12,000 troops in Iraq and is immune to punishment. Any criticism from Washington would be a political gift. The Sun, a conservative tabloid, declared: "Bush's 'Poodle' Bites."

For his part, Senator Kerry gains stature and offers a sense that the Iraq crisis may be solvable. Bush Administration officials scrambled to counter any advantage. Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said, "Senator Kerry is desperate to show that he is qualified to lead America. After more than 20 years of voting against a strong defense, he has to cross the ocean in search of supporters." On the Senate floor, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) challenged Senator Kerry to reveal his "secret plan" for Iraq. However, another Republican Senator who asked not to be named said, "This hurts, because Blair is not some foreigner meddling in American politics. He used to be George Bush's best friend."

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May 7, 2004

the proximity of evil

I’m still at Wye River, at the end of two long but productive and interesting days discussing education and democracy. It’s a beautiful place. There must be four or five square miles of property, flat farmland surrounded by placid estuaries that drift imperceptibly toward the Chesapeake and buzz with insect life. Long paved avenues, lined by evenly spaced maples, connect the various buildings; in between are pastures with grazing cows, patches of pine woods, and open meadowland. During the break I saw deer, vultures, and schools of small fish. It’s very quiet here, and there’s been little time for following the news. It’s easy to make the evil world seem far away. Yet on the Web I see pictures of a smiling, wholesome, young American woman who has been credibly charged with torture in Iraq, and I reflect that the land that looks so lush and peaceful around me must have been worked by generations of slaves, brutalized by whips, guns, and rape, and I keep thinking that we need to face our own national character squarely. We do have a far better political system and a healthier culture than many countries’, but we also have a terrible tendency to sentimentalize ourselves. We like to think we’re all Jessica Lynch, the spunky survivor. But some of the alleged American torturers look just like her.

Some Americans think that our national record is basically one of sacrifice and service. We lost thousands of young men in two World Wars, saving our allies from tyranny. Thanks to us, there is democracy and prosperity in Japan and Europe (both east and west of the old Iron Curtain). We fought in Korea and Vietnam with good intentions, to say the least. Unfortunately, foreigners are often ungrateful for our aid and advice—perhaps jealous or resentful, or perhaps just so different from us that they can’t appreciate our help. This is what one group of Americans thinks, while another argues that our record is basically blood-soaked and imperialistic. We vaporized Nagasaki to intimidate the Soviets and to gain control over Asia; we created tyrannies in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Zaire, Chile, and elsewhere; and we support current dictators for financial gain. Which version of recent history you adopt will deeply shape your view of any contemporary American intervention overseas. My own position would fall somewhere between these two caricatures, but right now I’m very conscious of our faults. Americans were victims on 9/11, but that doesn’t mean that we are a nation of innocents. Democracy and service may be American traditions, but so is brutality. If we're going to try to improve other people's countries, we'd better remember our own capacity for evil.

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May 3, 2004

Iraq and the press: discussion

I chaired a public discussion today about the media and Iraq. The speakers were:

  • Susan Moeller, a former photo-journalist and now a Journalism professor at Maryland who has written a fine paper on media coverage of weapons of mass destruction. Susan has also taught at Harvard, Princeton, Islamabad, and elsewhere and has published two highly relevant books, Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death, and Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat; and

  • Christopher Hanson, also a Journalism professor at Maryland and a former reporter who covered the first Gulf War and the civil war in Rwanda from the field. Chris is interviewed here.
  • I talked about why the quality of press coverage matters, in the first place.

    It's hard to summarize a wide-ranging and serious conversation, other than to say that everyone is deeply critical of reporting about Iraq. Everyone would like to read broader and more substantive stories, not about the daily body-count but rather about the status of Iraq's infrastructure, or about Iraqi culture and history, or about the reasons for the diverse opinions that Arabs hold. We would at least like to know: how many Iraqis have working electricity today?

    Here are some additional points that struck me as particularly useful:

  • The policy of "embedding" reporters with military units has made them reliant on their sources, but this is nothing new--it's the problem that usually afflicts "beat" reporters, who become close to the experts and officials in their area of coverage.

  • All the critical questions that should have been asked about the War were asked before the invasion began, but not conspicuously. They appeared once on p. 18 or p. 25, while the Administration's line apppeared daily on the front page.

  • Reporters take their cues from conflicts among political elites. When there's little dissent among elected leaders, the press cannot (or doesn't know how to) create stories that are independent of the official line. Thus the lack of Democratic dissent before the War prevented the press from developing critical articles. Howard Kurtz makes the same point to the BBC today

  • When editors and reporters learn that the public is misinformed about a topic that they are covering, some reply (explicitly): "We don't educate. Our job is to uncover new information." They don't take responsibility for the public's failure to understand the "big picture."
  • Whenever I hear that there is a lack of substantive news coverage (for instance, about the state of the Iraqi infrastructure today), I always wonder what factors are to blame: the cost of researching such stories; the (perceived) lack of audience demand for substantive news; a lack of skills in the press corps; or some kind of editorial bias among editors and publishers.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Iraq and democratic theory , press criticism

    April 29, 2004

    why do we care about press coverage of Iraq?

    There's a very hot debate about the quality of news about Iraq. Some colleagues and students and I have created a special website with a lot of relevant information on that topic. I think the first step is to ask what's the purpose of press coverage. Here are some answers that seem to be implicit in the current debate:

    1. A citizen's main responsibility is to decide whether the Bush Administration has done a good job so far, and to vote accordingly this November.

    Some people feel passionately that the Bush Administration has been awful--either wicked or incompetent--and that the election results in November should reflect this verdict. For them, it is very disturbing that a majority of Americans still believe that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (or a major WMD program) on the eve of the invasion, and that world opinion is largely favorable toward the war. (See this PIPA report.) They believe that each of these beliefs is false, that the contrary positions make the case against Bush, and that the press is responsible for failing to convey the truth.

    Other people (for example, these folks) have the same view of the press' function (to inform citizens who are going to vote yea or nay on the Administration's performance to date), but they believe that Bush is a decisive, visionary leader. To them, it is deeply frustrating that the press emphasizes casualties and conflicts in Iraq, rather than America's work in rebuilding the country. Many of them were incensed when the press reported setbacks in the initial ground war, which quickly turned into a rout of Saddam's forces.

    In my own view, citizens need to do much more than vote retrospectively on a president, once every four years. I agree that a president's performance in his first term provides some evidence about how he would behave in the next four years, although this evidence is very imperfect. But if all I'm supposed to do is make a retrospective judgment of competence, and it takes a lot of my time to get adequately informed, and there are many other important issues besides Iraq, and 100 million other adults will also vote, I'm not sure it's worth my trouble to follow the war closely. Furthermore, I don't see a reason to care about the quality of news coverage if each citizen's role is so limited.

    2. We are morally complicit in what our government does, so we should understand the results and feel appropriate emotions.

    People who implicitly hold this view believe that we are part of a democratic community, so we are morally required to associate ourselves with the actions of the US Government. If Americans are brutally killed by terrorists, we should know all the details and feel a desire for vengeance. If American soldiers are killed, we should grieve for them and their families (and perhaps vent anger against the leaders who sent them into danger, if we think that the war was unnecessary). If our bombs kill Iraqis or Afghans, then we should see pictures and read accounts of what has been done. If people rage against the US in Baghdad, Athens, or New York, we should read what they say so that we can either take patriotic offense or come to share their judgment. Looking away from any of these events is a dereliction of our moral duty.

    For their part, news organizations have an obligation to describe events in all their emotional power. Thus it was right to show the bodies of American contractors in Falluja; and we should all view the coffins of the American dead.

    There are potential criticisms of this position, although I haven't seen anyone argue against it explicitly. Perhaps we shouldn't engage too emotionally with current events, because our job is to be sober and judicious judges of policy. Or perhaps we have no obligation to read upsetting news or see upsetting pictures, since we aren't very complicit in this war. We are not intentional participants in the group that's fighting. I might say: I didn't vote for Bush, nobody consulted me before they decided to invade, and I don't need to wallow in the bad news that has resulted. Finally, one could argue that the focus of our emotional engagement shouldn't be Iraq. Sadness about deaths thousands of miles away is cheap; we should spend our time worrying about the local homeless, because we can help them.

    3. Policymakers will respond to polls, so poll results should reflect good judgment.

    This is actually a variant of #1 (above), but it adds an important wrinkle. We don't just vote in November; in addition, we are polled at frequent intervals. Perhaps poll results shouldn't matter, but they do influence policy. If 90% of the public wanted us out of Iraq, we'd probably be heading out. Thus it's important that people pay attention and base their opinions on good evidence and careful consideration of alternative views. Unfortunately, the American people deserve no better than a "B" for knowledge and effort, according to this study.

    It's undeniable that surveys matter. But it's not clear that they should. Nor do I have a very strong obligation to inform myself and to participate in discussions about Iraq just in case a pollster decides to call me. It would be better to draw a random sample of Americans, tell them that their opinions will really count, and demand that they do their homework so that everyone else can get on with their private business. This is the Deliberative Polling idea--somewhat utopian, but worth thinking about as an alternative to our current system.

    4. The press is a watchdog or whistle-blower.

    According to this thesis, it doesn't much matter what average Americans think or know about Iraq. The purpose of the press is to "blow the whistle" when the government really messes up or does something unethical. The audience for such stories need not be especially large. It may be various elites. In extreme cases, the only people who have to read an investigative news report are Members of Congress and officials in the Justice Department, who will use the data in their legal actions against the administration.

    It's clear that the press has played this watchdog role well, from time to time. Watergate is the classic case. However, there are several drawbacks to the idea of press as watchdog. First, the only tribunal that should really judge a president is the people. So unless the people pay attention to the full range of news (good as well as bad), a president will not be fairly judged at the polls. If congressional committees, special prosecutors, and bipartisan commissions become the bodies that assess presidential performance, democracy is weaker--and we risk criminalizing policy mistakes.

    Second, the press has a legitimacy problem. No one elects the White House press corps to be Tribunes of the People. If we don't approve of their performance, we can't remove them. A skillful populist can discredit reporters precisely by making this point. Indeed, Bush's approval ratings rose when reporters began to hammer him on Iraq, presumably because a lot of Americans view the president as more their representative than the networks and major newspapers. Jay Rosen considers this phenomenon in a subtle essay.

    Finally, it really doesn't make much business sense to imagine printing a national newspaper or running a cable news network for the benefit of, 300 powerful policymakers. The news that appears on TV and in print must interest masses of people. This tends to distort any effort to investigate the details and complexities of alleged government misbehavior.

    5. Citizens Can Do More than Vote.

    People who know me have been waiting for this answer. We don't just observe policy and render occasional judgments. We can also do "public work." In relation to Iraq, we can choose to: organize political movements for or against the war; debate and try to develop policy alternatives for our government to adopt; follow the reconstruction effort closely to learn lessons for our own local work in battered American communities; develop relationships with individuals abroad and with immigrants in the US (in order to strengthen America's "soft power" and make us more responsive); raise money for NGOs like the International Rescue Committee; and even enlist in the US Military.

    I like this position best, for philosophical reasons. But we need to be realistic. A lot of these forms of engagement are very hard or cannot reasonably be undertaken by most Americans. For instance, approximately 0.04% of the American population is serving in Iraq. If we increased that number tenfold, we would still only be able to include four tenths of one percent of the American people in direct work "on the ground" in Iraq.

    Getting good information about Iraq is difficult, since much of the most important data is classified or inaccessible to Americans.

    Also, a lot of movement-building, advocacy, and deliberation work really aims to change other Americans' opinions. But what's the point of that, other than to help them cast the correct vote next November (see #1 above)? If voting is a weak form of citizenship, then trying to change other people's votes is not much better.

    As a personal matter, I feel compelled to watch the Iraq situation very closely and to express my views to anyone who wants to hear them. I try to be a responsible observer. I think this is because of #2 (above), a sense of moral association with the US Government. Perhaps my emotional response contains a dose of bad faith or self-indulgence or moral convenience, since I'm far from the suffering and have nothing to do about it. In any case, we need to decide what obligations we have as citizens, in order to decide what role our press should play, in order to assess the performance of the press in the Iraq war.

    [Two more answers to my original question ("Why should we care about press coverage of Iraq?"), added on May 1:]

    6. This war and occupation is a tremendous opportunity for us all to learn about profound and perennial issues.

    What better way to examine democracy, power, tyranny, military force, cultural differences, law, civil liberties, Islam, Christianity, economic development, and even human nature than to study the dramatic events taking place in Iraq? We ought to understand these issues, because they arise in our own lives and communities; because they are intrinsically interesting and morally serious; and because the views that we form in response to the Iraq war will not only influence next November's vote--they will shape every decision we ever make about national politics. If this is true, then we should expect the press to be an excellent educator, providing diverse opinions and useful information relevant to profound and lasting issues. We shouldn't much care why George W. Bush ordered the invasion, but we should ask what are the necessary conditions for democracy to take root. We should also be interested in such perennial questions as: Should societies use the talents of people who have committed wrongs in the past (e.g., former Baathists in Iraq)? What potential for good and evil do we see in Americans under stress, and how can we strengthen our best instincts as a people? How can a government respond when the popular press is fomenting hatred and violence?

    7. The "few-to-many" press is not important; it's the "many-to-many" dialogue that matters.

    All my previous answers focused on the mass media: the broadcast networks and major newspapers. But today there are said to be three million blogs, not to mention countless Listservs and printed newsletters. Most of this communication is not focused on Iraq, but a substantial portion is. There may be one million people who have created public, accessible commentary about the war and related issues. Perhaps we should prize this conversation. It is intrinsically interesting, it may shape broad public opinion, and it's so international that it may increase cross-cultural understanding. The paid, professional press still has a major role to play, providing most (although not all) of the basic information that feeds into these informal, public debates. But if we care most about the informal discussion, then we should ask whether the professional press is doing a good job in providing raw material. (I would say that it probably is.)

    permanent link | comments (3) | category: Iraq and democratic theory , press criticism

    April 12, 2004

    trying to be a responsible observer of Iraq

    As citizens (of the United States or the world) we want to understand what is going on in Iraq--not just the daily body count, but deeper questions like: How much needs to be done before the US can leave the country in Iraqi hands? Some percentage of the infrastructure that must be created before we can leave Iraq has been built, and some percentage was destroyed during the last week. ("Infrastructure" means buildings, power plants, army and police units, political parties, newspapers, etc.) From reading various observers, one might conclude that 10%--or 80%--of the infrastructure is now ready. It all depends on whether one looks at an aggregator of news stories who has an anti-war stance, like Juan Cole; a major news organ like the Washington Post or the BBC; a collection of Iraqi blogs; or a news-aggregator who supports the war, like Andrew Sullivan.

    The truth is not just in the eye of the beholder; there is a reality to be understood. But we face extraordinary disadvantages in trying to understand it. Much of the important information is classified or otherwise secret. It is too dangerous for reporters to go everywhere and to talk to everyone. Eye-witnesses have narrow perspectives, and those with a bird's-eye view don't know enough details. The culture of Iraq is distant, complex, and internally diverse. There are also practical and logistical problems. For instance, I found this BBC poll of Iraqis interesting. (The results were mixed and complex, belying what many pro- and anti-war partisans might believe.) However, as someone who's involved in polling Americans, I know that survey samples are usually unrepresentative even when we can reach most people by dialing random phone numbers. In 2001, there were only 2.9 telephone lines per 1,000 Iraqis, so random-digit dialing is out of the question, and I have no idea how reliable any survey is.

    All this leaves us with primitive methods for assessing information. We assume that eye-witnesses know something, so we hang on their words. (Yet eye-witnesses can be especially unreliable, over-influenced by the concrete sights they have seen). We prefer named sources to unnamed ones, even though people may speak the truth off the record. We discount positive news from officials and proponents of the war, even though they could be correct. (By the way, I spend a lot of time on the pro-war sites, because I desperately want things to work out OK, and the conservatives collect all the good news.) We believe those sources whose values most closely approximate our own, even though one can have the right values and be wrong about the facts.

    As a general rule, I think citizens should avoid such shortcuts and try to use solid information. For example, you don't have to listen to Democrats and Republicans argue about the federal budget and discount each side because all politicians have selfish agendas; instead, you can actually look at federal budget data and make up your own mind. But the "fog of war" makes that kind of analysis impossible in Iraq.

    In the absence of reliable information, we are especially likely to take refuge in ideology, to use ad hominem arguments (calling our opponents traitors or war-criminals), to deploy easy analogies, or to withdraw altogether from citizenship into spectatorship. Or, despairing about our ability to understand (let alone influence) this foreign war, we may concentrate on matters that we can understand, like the US election. But imagine what an Iraqi would think if she knew that Americans were following the uprising in her country because of its effect on their own electoral politics--this would seem the height of callous self-indulgence.

    I don't really know the solution, but I think that all of us should be somewhat cautious about our own judgments and open to arguments from the other side. We should look for constructive opportunities rather than wish that our domestic political opponents are damaged by the war. And we should hold onto hope, even if we believe that the invasion and occupation were grave errors in the first place. (Incidentally, because the Vietnam analogy forecloses all hope, I oppose it.)

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: Iraq and democratic theory , press criticism

    March 27, 2004

    the Frist speech in historical context

    Yesterday, Senator Frist charged Richard Clarke with perjury, imputing extremely dishonorable motives to this career public servant. If the Senator is correct, which is certainly possible, then he should produce proof and call for Mr. Clarke to be prosecuted for perjury. If he is not correct, then Senator Frist's denunciation reminds me of a famous moment in the US Senate, fifty years ago:

    I am equally troubled that someone would sell a book, trading on their former service as a government insider with access to our nation’s most valuable intelligence, in order to profit from the suffering that this nation endured on September 11, 2001. ... Mr. President, I do not know if Mr. Clarke’s motive for these charges is partisan gain, personal profit, self promotion, or animus because of his failure to win a promotion in the Bush Administration. ... Mr. Clarke has told two entirely different stories under oath. In July 2002, in front of the Congressional Joint Inquiry on the September 11 attacks, Mr. Clarke testified under oath that the Administration actively sought to address the threat posed by al Qaeda during its first seven months in office. Mr. President, it is one thing for Mr. Clarke to dissemble in front of the media. But if he lied under oath to the United States Congress it is a far more serious matter. As I mentioned, the intelligence committee is seeking to have Mr. Clarke’s previous testimony declassified so as to permit an examination of Mr. Clarke's two different accounts. ... Mr Clarke can and will answer for his own conduct – but that is all.  

    Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, March 26, 2004

    The Senator ... , in ... charging three members of the Select Committee with "deliberate deception" and "fraud" ....; in stating to the public press on November 13, 1954, that the chairman of the Select Committee (Mr. Watkins) was guilty of "the most unusual, most cowardly things I've ever heard of" and stating further: "I expected he would be afraid to answer the questions, but didn't think he'd be stupid enough to make a public statement"; and in characterizing the said committee as the "unwitting handmaiden," "involuntary agent" and "attorneys-in-fact" of the Communist Party and in charging that the said committee in writing its report "imitated Communist methods -- that it distorted, misrepresented, and omitted in its effort to manufacture a plausible rationalization" in support of its recommendations to the Senate, which characterizations and charges were contained in a statement released to the press and inserted in the Congressional Record of November 10, 1954, acted contrary to senatorial ethics and tended to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute, to obstruct the constitutional processes of the Senate, and to impair its dignity; and such conduct is hereby condemned.

    From the resolution to censure Senator Joseph McCarthy, Nov. 9, 1954.

    Nov. 9, 1954 was the end of McCarthyism, because on that day the Senate said that a Member could not make unsubsantiated, personal accusations on the official record, based on secret information allegedly in his possession, without bringing dishonor upon himself and the Senate.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

    March 25, 2004

    Richard Clarke, from an ethical perspective

    For those concerned with moral philosophy and ethics, this is the most interesting part of yesterday's historic testimony:

    JAMES R. THOMPSON, COMMISSION MEMBER: Mr. Clarke, in this background briefing, as Senator Kerrey has now described it, for the press in August of 2002, you intended to mislead the press, did you not?

    RICHARD CLARKE, FORMER NATIONAL COORDINATOR FOR COUNTERTERRORISM: No. I think there is a very fine line that anyone who's been in the White House, in any administration, can tell you about. And that is when you are special assistant to the president and you're asked to explain something that is potentially embarrassing to the administration, because the administration didn't do enough or didn't do it in a timely manner and is taking political heat for it, as was the case there, you have a choice. Actually, I think you have three choices. You can resign rather than do it. I chose not to do that. Second choice is...

    THOMPSON: Why was that, Mr. Clarke? You finally resigned because you were frustrated.

    CLARKE: I was, at that time, at the request of the president, preparing a national strategy to defend America's cyberspace, something which I thought then and think now is vitally important. I thought that completing that strategy was a lot more important than whether or not I had to provide emphasis in one place or other while discussing the facts on this particular news story. The second choice one has, Governor, is whether or not to say things that are untruthful. And no one in the Bush White House asked me to say things that were untruthful, and I would not have said them. In any event, the third choice that one has is to put the best face you can for the administration on the facts as they were, and that is what I did. I think that is what most people in the White House in any administration do when they're asked to explain something that is embarrassing to the administration.

    THOMPSON: But you will admit that what you said in August of 2002 is inconsistent with what you say in your book?

    CLARKE: No, I don't think it's inconsistent at all. I think, as I said in your last round of questioning, Governor, that it's really a matter here of emphasis and tone. I mean, what you're suggesting, perhaps, is that as special assistant to the president of the United States when asked to give a press backgrounder I should spend my time in that press backgrounder criticizing him. I think that's somewhat of an unrealistic thing to expect.

    THOMPSON: Well, what it suggests to me is that there is one standard of candor and morality for White House special assistants and another standard of candor and morality for the rest of America.

    CLARKE: I don't get that.

    CLARKE: I don't think it's a question of morality at all. I think it's a question of politics.

    THOMPSON: Well, I... (APPLAUSE [apparently for CLARKE])

    THOMPSON: I'm not a Washington insider. I've never been a special assistant in the White House. I'm from the Midwest. So I think I'll leave it there.

    In my opinion, what Clarke said in August 2002 was intended to mislead the press, because it contradicts what he is now saying under oath. Moreover, the choice between spinning a news story for your employer and resigning your job is certainly a "moral" one, just as Gov. Thompson claims. However, ...

    it is not necessarily an easy moral choice. Under particular circumstances, it could be the right thing to do to make somewhat misleading public statements in order to retain one's job and to push for better policies. Officials need to take into consideration all of the consequences of their actions, weighing the value of candor against other values.

    We can simplify the moral complexity of our lives by staying out of institutions that require us to be less than fully candid. Indeed, I doubt that I would ever want to serve in the executive branch, especially in agencies concerned with national security, because they require constant moral compromise. However, we do need such institutions, and we need good people to serve in them.

    Richard Clarke provids a good example of a legitimate moral compromise when he decribes his reluctance to wait until Al Qaida had been proved guilty before bombing its bases: "If people wanted to further study who was guilty of attacking the Cole, .... I thought fine. If you want to have that kind standard and you want to have that kind of process, fine. Then let's separate that and let's bomb Afghanistan anyway and not tie the two together." This is a glimpse of Realpolitik, and who can complain about it?

    Service in an institution precludes moral purity, but it definitely requires moral judgment. When Clarke calls his decision to spin the news "political" and not "moral," he may mean that he made a moral decision to continue serving in the Bush Administration, and that role required him to compromise his morals in other ways. Gov. Thompson tries to depict this choice as alien to Midwestern values. In Illinois, he implies, a person's word is his word. I agree that the moral balancing required of a bureaucrat is alien to most Americans (including many who live inside the Capital Beltway). But that is because most Americans, unfortunately, are not in the position to make political decisions. All who do possess public power--including governors of Illinois, by the way--face similar dilemmas.

    None of what I have written here exonerates Richard Clarke. For one thing, in his 2002 comments, he may have gone beyond merely putting the "emphasis" in the wrong place; he may have lied. There are actions that cannot be justified just because they promote good ends--and outright lying is usually one. Furthermore, Clarke may have made the wrong choice in continuing in the White House; and his reasons may have been less honorable than he claims. (Instead of choosing to remain in the government because of the importance of the cybersecurity issue, he may have held onto his job because it was exciting and powerful.) So my point is not to defend this man, but to suggest that the moral evaluation of officials is a complex matter.

    In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt writes, "For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same." Clarke supported the incumbent government of the United States, so he was responsible for what it did. Yet the government of the United States deserves support, and support sometimes requires obedience--at least the provisional obedience of people inside the administration itself. Politics is not a nursery; it's strictly for grown-ups. I thought Clarke's apology yesterday fully acknowledged that that's what he is--a responsible adult in a complex moral role, accountable for the totality of his actions.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

    March 12, 2004

    Media Coverage of WMD

    Susan Moeller has written an excellent paper about press coverage of weapons of mass destruction. (Short version; long version.) It's based on detailed analysis of major US and British news reporting during both the Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations. Moeller finds: "Poor coverage of WMD resulted less from political bias on the part of journalists, editors, and producers than from tired journalistic conventions."

    More specifically, she argues that:

  • In the "inverted pyramid" style, an announcement by a major figure is reported in the lead, and critics are quoted much lower down. This convention allows the administration to dominate news coverage, even when critics are more credible.
  • The White House has consistently set the agenda, determining what issues are prominent at any given time. When administration officials are not talking about WMDs, there is little coverage. Furthermore, heavy reliance on quotations allows officials to slip highly controversial and weighted terms (such as "terrorist state") into news stories.
  • National security issues involving highly technical matters are especially subject to distortion, because reporters have few well-informed sources other than political officials. Nevertheless, reporters need to rely less on off-the-record comments and be more alert to spin.
  • The press personalizes issues, treating Saddam or Osama bin Laden as the problem and speculating about their personal motives. This approach overlooks the role of scientists, bureaucrats, international rules, and popular opinion overseas.
  • Journalists are uncomfortable reporting uncertainty, e.g., that we don't know whether al Qaeda has chemical weapons. Instead, they often report statistics, even if those are irrelevant or uncertain. (This is also my experience in the much less important field of youth voting, where reporters always try to say how many young people voted, even though our only sources are polls, which are inaccurate.)
  • The US media covers the world from the US, with decreasing space and attention to foreign perspectives. This means that WMDs are described as potential threats to the US, when often the gravest dangers are in places like South Asia. Since neither administration wanted to emphasize the threat from WMD's stored in Russia, this story was underplayed, compared to stories about Iraq
  • The worst stories were filed by reporters who covered WMDs as part of US politics (e.g., as the subject of fights between Powell and Rumsfeld, or between the President and the Democrats); when reporters used anonymous sources; and when they signed "nondisclosure agreements" in order to get access to the Iraq battlefield.
  • (These are not necessarily the points that Moeller emphasizes most, but they struck me as especially insightful

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: Iraq and democratic theory , press criticism

    February 2, 2004

    website on Iraq

    Some colleagues and graduate students and I have created a new website called The War, the Press, and Democracy. It collects and organizes some of the best discussions of press coverage of the current war. We pose some questions about the obligations of the press and the public in wartime. There's also a discussion forum on which you can post your own comments. We encourage people to visit, participate in the discussion, and send advice on the site as a whole.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

    January 30, 2004

    the legality of invading Iraq

    I am open to the possibility that the US invasion of Iraq will ultimately turn out to be a noble and successful battle against tyranny. Thus I am not eager to complain that the war was illegal. But the relevant documents suggest to me, unfortunately, that the US violated agreements to which we had subscribed. ...

    The UN Charter is one of the few reasonably clear and binding elements of international law. Article 2 states: "All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations."

    Thus invading another country is illegal. The Bush Administration claimed, however, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD's) in violation of specific UN resolutions and in ways that threatened our own national security. The US thus appointed itself as prosecutor, judge, and executioner in the case against Iraq. Unfortunately, the specific charges appear to have been false. It is no excuse to say that Saddam was guilty on other counts, such as tyranny against his own people. The rule of law demands that one is only punished if guilty as charged. Besides, the Bush Administration does not want to establish a precedent of overthrowing foreign governments for practicing tyranny, since that would commit us to action in 20-30 nations, several of them our allies.

    The President and his defenders cite Saddam's failure to cooperate with UN inspections as grounds for war. (In effect, they explain the 2003 invasion as a resumption of the first Gulf War, justified because Saddam failed to comply with the terms of the original cease fire.) Now the relevant document becomes UN Resolution 1441, introduced by the US and allies in 2002, and approved by the Security Council.

    I invite you to make your own judgment of this long resolution. To me, it seems a very thin thread on which to hang a war. At most, one could say that Iraq violated this passage and a few others: "false statements or omissions in the declarations submitted by Iraq pursuant to this resolution and failure by Iraq at any time to comply with, and cooperate fully in the implementation of, this resolution shall constitute a further material breach of Iraq’s obligations and will be reported to the Council for assessment in accordance with paragraphs 11 and 12 below."

    Presumably, Iraq made false statements and refused to cooperate fully with inspectors. This was bad behavior, because it (a) disrespected the UN and international law and (b) suggested that Iraq actually possessed WMDs. Such bluffing undermines world peace. Note, however, that the resolution does not threaten war as a consequence of lying and stonewalling. It simply requires a report back to the Security Council.

    I suspect that the President did not know he was speaking falsely when he claimed that Saddam had WMDs. Whether he and other top officials had deliberately distorted the intelligence is interesting, but not overly important. To me, the important point is that false statements justified a war. Two conclusions follow:

    1. If the President leaves his own false statements on the public record and does not repudiate them, then they turn from errors into lies. One cannot state an extraordinarily consequential untruth and then leave it uncorrected. The President is not a liar, in my book--but he becomes one as soon as he fails to retract statements that he learns are untrue. If he is uncertain, then he is morally obliged to conduct a full and independent investigation that gets to the truth. Since David Kay's testimony, the clock is ticking; every day that the President fails to address the Kay's charges, his integrity looks worse.
    2. The whole doctrine of preventive war is now in shambles, because its first application was the very thing that the UN Charter aims to prevent: an invasion without a legitimate casus belli. We named ourselves the world's police, but our case was false.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

    January 19, 2004

    What stories are worth reporting

    Christopher Dickey, who covers Iraq for Newsweek, has decided against carrying a gun when he's in Baghdad. He doesn't think it would make him any safer. But he recognizes that reporters are in danger there; 19 have died so far. And he's increasingly unsure that it's worth risking journalists' lives to report the news from Iraq to an indifferent public. The TV networks have already cut their daily Iraq report to just over five minutes a day; and the public also seems to be losing interest. Dickey writes: "As my friend the newspaperman told me on a brief visit back to the States, 'You talk to people here about what's happening in Iraq and their eyes glaze over after two seconds. I mean, even members of your own family!'"

    Dickey mentions deaths (of American military personnel and Iraqis) as topics that reporters do and should cover. But do we need such directly observed reports of violence in Iraq? Perhaps--failure to report casualties might give the impression that things were going better than they are, and it would prevent the public from mourning the dead. On the other hand, some might say that Americans are rightly somewhat inured to such stories. Perhaps we need a different kind of reporting: journalism that discusses deeper and more lasting issues.

    I personally am not interested in detailed accounts of the latest car-bombings, but I do want to know how well Americans are doing at nation-buildng. If our soldiers and officers are doing a great job "on the ground," that is a story that should be celebrated as a model for civic work at home. If things are not going well, we should learn from their mistakes. Journalism about nation-building would be dangerous, and it might be overlooked by many Americans; but perhaps it would be more valuable than blow-by-blow descriptions of violence.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: Iraq and democratic theory , press criticism

    January 8, 2004

    taking responsibility

    In yesterday's Washington Post, Barton Gellman shows pretty effectively that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction after the early 1990s--but also that it was possible for American leaders to make an honest mistake about this. Saddam's history of using poison gas and his continued trickery made him look pretty guilty. I think, indeed, that he was deliberately bluffing.

    So wouldn't it be refreshing and disarming (no pun intended) if the President said the following? "We have captured a wicked dictator who killed hundreds of thousands of his own people and waged war on his neighbors. We are now doing our level best to build a democratic state in the middle of an extremely important region. We told you that the reason for the war was fear of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Like President Clinton and many foreign leaders, we were genuinely convinced that Iraq had live chemical and biological weapons and an advanced nuclear program. We were wrong, and we take responsibility for our error. You may hold us accountable for this failure of analysis. But we made an understandable mistake which may lead to a tremendous amount of good."

    George W. Bush is not the kind of guy who ever says things like this, and he would be a better leader if he did. However, it's also pretty obvious that the press, Democrats, and foreign leaders would jump all over him if he retracted his original reason for the war. We have a political culture that simply does not tolerate changes of mind, and that does not serve us well in times of deep uncertainty.

    permanent link | comments (4) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

    December 29, 2003

    Burke, Oakeshott, and Iraq

    The invasion of Iraq is the most radical project undertaken by our government in generations. It involves the use of coercive state power to redesign a whole society, ostensibly in the name of liberty and political equality. This sounds like a highly "progressive" program. Thus Leftist critics of the occupation resort to charges of duplicity: the aims of the Bush administration, they say, are not what the President now publicly announces them to be. He is not after democratic reconstruction, but rather oil or military bases or avenging a Bush family quarrel. Whether these charges are valid will be clear only after several years, once we can observe the whole course and consequences of the occupation.

    I find the conservative critique more interesting and perhaps more compelling. I've invoked Edmund Burke's name against the war, for that great conservative warned that it is always a mistake to try to change societies rapidly and wholesale, especially from afar and without due appreciation of local norms. Similarly, in Saturday's New York Times column, David Brooks conducts an imaginary dialogue with another major, dead English conservative, Michael Oakeshott. "Be aware of what you do not know," he imagines Oakeshott warning us. "Do not go charging off to remake a society when you do not understand its moral traditions, when you do not even understand yourself. Do not imagine that if you conquer a nation the results will be in any way predictable. Do not try to administer a country from behind a security bunker."

    Brooks' first response is reasonable enough: conservatism is usually good policy, but not in places like Saddam's Iraq, where there was nothing worth conserving. Brooks' judgment on this point will prove correct if (but only if) our forces help to create an Iraq that is distinctly and lastingly better than the awful society they helped to destroy. Burke and Oakeshott would be skeptical, but they were wrong about other things.

    Brooks' second reply invokes the American tradition of "modest" revolutions. The men who built our republic, he says, "didn't pretend to know what is the good life, only that people should be free to figure it out for themselves." Likewise, our forces had no "plan for postwar Iraq," but they were committed to creating a free society in which (presumably) the Iraqis will be able to decide their future for themselves. A revolution that expands liberty is not subject to standard conservative arguments against "social engineering."

    This is not a foolish point, but it overlooks some important complications. First, conservatives in the Burke/Oakeshott tradition would claim that rapid liberalization (i.e., quickly freeing people to make their own choices) is itself a form of social engineering. Like any imposition of a new value, liberalization can feel like cultural imperialism, it can unravel an existing social fabric, and it can generate unintended consequences. For example, the Washington Post reported yesterday that a US plan to replace food handouts with cash has been abandoned. "It's a great idea that academics thought up, but it wasn't in tune with the political realities," according to a US official quoted in the Post. "We have to look at what we gain versus what we risk. Right now, we don't need to be adding any more challenges to those we already have." Presumably, there were powerful local interests profiting from those food rations, and alienating them would have put the occupation in extra jeopardy. This would come as no surprise to real conservatives, who (unlike libertarians) recognize that economics is always enmeshed with politics.

    Second, freeing Iraqis to make their own choices is an ambiguous idea. It can mean freeing individual Iraqis to make choices for themselves in a marketplace. Or it can mean freeing Iraqis to make a joint decision by voting on their economic system. The first idea implies strong liberalization or marketization and constraints on the emergent Iraqi state; the second means allowing an Iraqi democracy to regulate markets if it so chooses. The second interpretation is presumably what Adel Abdel-Mahdi, a Shiite leader, means when he says, "The Americans ... need to let the Iraqi people decide the big issues." Indeed, the US Administrator of Iraq, Paul Bremer, who was formerly a proponent of rapid privatization, now says the scope of free markets is an issue "for a sovereign Iraqi government to address." In other words, he has interpreted "letting the Iraqis decide" as a commitment to democratic procedures, not markets. [All these quotes come from the Post.]

    Perhaps Bremer is right, although there is also a case for using American power to overturn an incredibly corrupt and ineffecient state-centered system, so that individual Iraqis can make free private decisions. In any case, true conservatives would view the imposition of either a market or a democracy as a perilous enterprise. Either way, the occupiers will make a decision that must rapidly and unpredictably change life in a far-away country that they little understand.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

    December 19, 2003

    The US and Saddam's use of poison gas

    The National Security Archive (a private group that sues to declassify government documents) released a set of very important materials today. This is the story they tell: in 1983 and 1984, Saddam Hussein's Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran and against Kurdish "insurgents" within Iraq. On March 5, 1984, the US acknowledged and publicly criticized these attacks. However, there followed a series of private meetings with Iraqi officials that had a "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" quality to them. At a meeting involving Secretary of State George Schultz, the Americans "clarified that our cw [chemical weapon] condemnation was made strictly out of our opposition to to the use of lethal and incapacitating cw, wherever it occurs. They emphasized that our interests in (1) preventing an Iranian victory and (2) continuing to improve bilateral relations with Iraq, at a pace of Iraq's choosing, remain undiminished." (Emphasis added.) These are quotes from a briefing memo for Donald Rumsfeld, who was preparing to go to Iraq, where he presumably delivered a similar message while shaking Saddam's hand. On Nov. 26, 1984, the US and Iraq restored diplomatic relations. In 1988, Saddam used chemical weapons on a much larger scale against Kurdish villagers.

    I recognize that the US had a legitimate interest in containing Iran. Furthermore, there is something to be said in defense of our system: despite its desire for good relations with Iraq, the US government had to acknowledge Saddam's use of poison gas publicly, thus embarrassing him before the world. On the other hand, the public denunciation had little force if very senior US officials also conveyed the message that our interest in good relations "remained undiminished." Thus the record should show that the US chose not to warn Iraq against using poison gas in 1984. The subsequent use of chemical weapons against Kurds constituted genocide, for which the United States must therefore bear some moral (if not legal) responsibility.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

    December 15, 2003

    Saddam and the US horserace

    Fred Barnes writes that it would be "crass" to "assess the politics of the capture of Saddam Hussein." (He proceeds to do so anyway.) Meanwhile, The New York Times webpage ran a story yesterday that began: "How big a political lift will President Bush derive from the capture of Saddam Hussein? Very big indeed, said several political scientists, who used words like 'huge, 'enormous' and 'profound.' .... 'My first reaction was, you might as well call off the election,' said Prof. Allan J. Lichtman, a historian at American University." By this morning, this story had disappeared from the Times, although it's still available via the International Herald Tribune. (The story that actually appeared in today's Times is more nuanced, less prominent, and focuses mainly on the dangers for Howard Dean.)

    I admit that one of my first thoughts upon hearing about Saddam's capture was: How does this affect the election? But I felt guilty about having that thought. On reflection, a number of (not entirely consistent) ideas came to mind:

    1. It would be completely crass for a candidate to talk about the effects of a major military event on his or her own political prospects--that would be putting concern for self over country. If a candidate has such thoughts, he should wish that he didn't and not utter them aloud. Thus we rightly expect Democratic candidates to praise the capture of Saddam and keep any regrets strictly to themselves. Likewise, it was obnoxious for Tom DeLay to disparage the success of the Kosovo operation under President Clinton. ("For us to call this a victory and to commend the President of the United States as the Commander in Chief showing great leadership in Operation Allied Force is a farce,” DeLay said on the House floor [Cong. Rec. 1999 p. H5210.)

    2. If you're a citizen and not a candidate, it is reasonable to wonder how a major event will affect the next election. After all, you may think that it is very important for the challenger to win, and thus your delight at the success of the American military may be tempered by regret at the advantage given to the despised incumbent. You may reasonably weigh the benefits of any victory against the damage that the president will do if he's re-elected. Republicans thought that Bill Clinton was harming America; thus they were entitled to think that any victory achieved under his Administration was partly a bad thing. The same applies to Democrats under Bush. However, patriotism requires that you not overrate the importance of your favorite party's winning. A great achievement by the current administration may be more important than the result of the next election. Indeed, this is why we don't want politicians to consider the effects of major events on their own election: we assume that they will overestimate their own significance.

    3. It is very hard to predict the effects of current events on future elections. For example, I can imagine a story appearing one month from now that begins, "The Bush Administration is no longer delighted about Saddam Hussein's capture. With Saddam out of the way and the violence continuing, it has become increasingly clear that the unrest in Iraq resulted from an extremely difficult underlying situation for which Mr. Bush was unprepared. ..." Or I can imagine that the capture and trial of Saddam will make a huge psychological difference and aid the transition to democracy. Who knows? One of the problems with speculative political press coverage is its unreliability. (Maybe the Times pulled the story that first ran on their website because they decided that political scientist Allan J. Lichtman is no expert on the Middle East.)

    4. Our job as citizens is to decide who would do the best job in the future. Whether an event will cause our fellow Americans to vote one way or the other should be irrelevant to that decision. Thus we shouldn't pay attention to "horse race" stories (ones that discuss the effects of current events on candidates). I realize that it's hard to resist an occasional look at such stories, but the less horse race news, the better. We want the press to tell us what happened today, and why--not what may happen as a result in November.

    5. Horse race coverage of foreign affairs generally hurts challengers. Journalists often say, "This victory in Iraq helps Bush; this disaster helps Dean," and so on. It's easy to draw the lesson that Democrats want us to fail. Democratic candidates may insist that this is not the case, but their message is overwhelmed by news stories that award them black eyes every time things go well. The same would happen to Republicans under a Democratic administration.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

    December 2, 2003

    Iraq and Al Qaeda

    Al Qaeda hasn't attacked any US domestic targets since 2001. Maybe this is because Osama bin Laden is only interested in worse crimes than the ones he ordered on 9/11, and he's now planning something truly devastating. Or perhaps Al Qaeda has been temporarily battered and foiled, but will soon strike again.

    On the other hand, could it be that that the invasion of Iraq has made the US a less desirable target? A "Tom-Friedmanesque" argument would go like this: Osama bin Laden is only interested in overthrowing secular or corrupt governments in Moslem countries. He doesn't care about an infidel nation like the US. He does, however, regard America as a source of support for the regimes in Egypt and the Gulf. Furthermore, he used to think that we would be easy to scare. Thus he believed that he could move toward his goal by striking a blow against the United States, thereby causing us to disengage from the Middle East. This was supposed to be an easy step in his overall plan. Instead, 9/11 led to the occupation of two historically Moslem states: Iraq and Afghanistan. To be sure, these US adventures have created targets and opportunities for Al Qaeda. But they also pose serious risks for Islamic extremism. Thus it's no longer clear that attacking the US is a logical step on the way to bin Laden's goals. Instead, he is now ordering attacks aimed at destablizing the regimes that he actually wants to overthrow, in Indonesia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

    By itself, this argument (even if true) would not justify a war against Iraq, but it would weigh on the scales of judgment.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

    November 21, 2003

    Protests from London to NYC

    Reading about anti-Bush protests in London reminds me that the Republican National Convention will be held next summer in New York City, where a lot of people are Democrats, against the war, and angry about federal economic policies, from the big tax cuts to the scanty post-9/11 aid for New York. I hope there will be massive protests, but I hope that the organizers will heed the following message, which Harry Boyte saved from the March on Washington in 1963. In the program guide, Dr. Martin Luther King and the other organizers wrote: "In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults; but when a whole people speaks to its government the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government."

    Specifically, I hope that the dominant tone in New York is one of sober disagreement with the incumbent administration and its explicit, declared values (e.g., opposition to taxes, unilateral preemptive warfare, and limitations on civil rights). I hope that the major images from New York City do not show protesters attacking symbols of capitalism or denouncing Bush as a war criminal or profiteer.

    First of all, those positions do not impress me personally. Starbucks is not a symbol of an economic system that we should overturn, although I'm all for reform. The legal justification for invading Iraq was dubious, but the president is not a war criminal, nor did he authorize an invasion to increase oil profits. In any case, I don't think that such rhetoric will have any resonance with mainstream Americans. People see Bush as principled and honest, but possibly superficial, inexperienced, and just plain wrong about some important matters, economic and military. So it's very important to engage him on what he says, rather than rely on personal attacks or conspiracy theories to turn people against him.

    In the Guardian newspaper, Harold Pinter writes, "Dear President Bush, I'm sure you'll be having a nice little tea party with your fellow war criminal, Tony Blair. Please wash the cucumber sandwiches down with a glass of blood, with my compliments." Just about the only thing that can make me defend George W. Bush is this kind of rhetoric; and I think my visceral sentiments may be in line with American public opinion.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

    November 11, 2003

    American radicals in Iraq

    In his Washington Post column today, E.J. Dionne writes, "Our foreign policy debate right now pits radicals against conservatives. Republicans are the radicals. Democrats are the conservatives." Republicans want to remake the world to match abstract ideals; Democrats are concerned about traditional alliances and institutions, unintended consequences, and appropriate limits on national power. In recent blog entries, I've been claiming that Democrats and "progressives" represent the more conservative voice in many areas of domestic policy. Dionne is making the same argument about foreign policy (writ large).

    Dionne's big point can be applied to the narrower issue of reconstruction in Iraq. Apparently, most Iraqis are members of groups (religious, occupational, ethnic, regional, and tribal) that have traditional rights and privileges. The system is unfair, because privileges are not equally distributed, nor can one freely move from the group into which one is born. This is also an inefficient and irrational way to organize a society. The Bush people understandably want to rationalize and liberalize the system. But since they are eager to impose grand and simple theories directly on reality, they tend to choose the most radical approaches, for example, the "flat tax" that they are considering for Iraq.

    They remind me somewhat of the French revolutionaries, who captured a regime that had conferred arbitrary privileges on most of its subjects. Even French peasants had often inherited special rights by virtue of the villages in which they were born. In contrast, the revolutionaries believed in equality for all, careers open to talents, property rights, and a system in which everything of value was exchangeable for money. Thus they revoked all special privileges (for egalitarian reasons). But this assault on the social order set them against most Frenchmen qua members of hereditary groups. The result, as Donald Sutherland shows, was a popular counterrevolution that developed almost immediately and that drew from the lower classes as well as the clergy and aristocrats (France 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution [1986]). The revolutionaries assumed that lower-class opposition must be the fruit of some conspiracy, so they turned quickly to Terror, with tragic results.

    In Iraq today, the counterrevolution appears still to have very narrow support. The American occupation has not yet repeated the mistakes of the French revolution. Still, this is a good time to remember that revolutions usually backfire and traditional arrangements deserve some respect.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Iraq and democratic theory , revitalizing the left

    November 10, 2003

    public work in Iraq

    Today is the beginning of CIRCLE's annual Advisory Board meeting, when we present our year's work for review.

    Meanwhile, I recommend this long but excellent radio program about neighborhood councils in Baghdad. (Thanks to Archon Fung for spreading the word about it.) At least once a week, I read an article about Americans and/or Iraqis who are improvising public services or creating democratic forums in Iraq. Even though the Army is a hierarchical and bureaucratic organization with a partly violent purpose, many of our soldiers seem to have a great capacity for improvisation and diplomacy and a deep understanding of liberal democratic ideals. There are plenty of stories about poor planning at the highest levels of our government (and in the Iraqi Governing Council), and about the inadequate training of the occupation forces; but these stories don't detract from the work that's being done by at least some of our rank-and-file servicemen and women.

    There is a danger that this work will go unappreciated and unstudied. Most experts on democracy are so angry about Bush and the war that they aren't alert to the grassroots public work that is going on over there. And most of the leading proponents of the invasion are hawks who are glad we blew Saddam out of Baghdad, but they don't see the nuances, complexities, and challenges of democratic reconstruction. On Veterans' Day, I think we should celebrate American soldiers as nation-builders, because the skills that matter most in Baghdad today are also needed back home.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

    September 26, 2003

    Moussaoui prosecution

    (On the way to Macon, GA): The government is moving to dismiss all charges against Zacarias Moussaoui, who is accused of being the 20th hijacker on 9/11—the co-conspirator who couldn't actually fly a plane because he was already in custody. Prosecutors now say that they are seeking to dismiss the charges so that they can appeal Moussaoui's right to question al Qaeda prisoners. But a well-informed person told me several weeks ago that he had heard from a reliable source inside the government that the real 20th hijacker is being held in Guantanamo. This would mean that Moussauoi is innocent of the precise charges against him, which may be the real reason why the charges are being dropped.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Iraq and democratic theory

    September 15, 2003

    Public participation and the war on terror

    Influenced by Harry Boyte, I believe that opportunities for people to contribute public goods have shrunk over the last century. Government is increasingly "rational" (in Weber's sense): this means that important functions are divided into specialized tasks and assigned to experts, who are given minimal discretion. The government as a whole does good, but relatively few people can gain deep personal satisfaction from their own public service. Meanwhile, the private sector grows ever more efficient and competitive. As a result, there are few niches for people who want to work in business for partly public purposes. (An example would be the demise of the old publishing houses, which were "for profit," but not very efficient about it; editors saw themselves mainly as friends of literature.)

    The loss of opportunities for public work is unfortunate, because we waste the talents and energies of millions of citizens. It also means that people lose the very special satisfaction that comes from creating public goods. And I believe that it partly explains the decline of other forms of citizenship, such as voting and reading the newspaper. People who don't make public goods are less likely to participate in other ways.

    Now we face a national crisis, terrorism, and it seems worthwhile to look for opportunities to involve many citizens in significant public work. Only an expert on national security could tell us what jobs people are equipped to do. Spying on our fellow citizens is not a good idea (the damage to privacy and due process is too great). Thus I offer some very ill-informed ideas about some other roles that citizens might play. My main goal here is to provoke others to think of better ideas:

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