While we wait for the next “Pentagon Papers”

…the traditional policy process was viewed not only as unproductive but “perilous.” Information, that is, could slow decision-making; indeed, when it had to do with a bold and risky venture like the Iraq war, information and discussion — an airing, say, of the precise obstacles facing a “democratic transition” conducted with a handful of troops — could paralyze it. If the sober consideration of history and facts stood in the way of bold action then it would be the history and the facts that would be discarded. The risk of doing nothing, the risk, that is, of the status quo, justified acting. Given the grim facts on the ground — the likelihood of a future terrorist attack from the “malignant” Middle East, the impossibility of entirely protecting the country from it — better to embrace the unknown.

From Mark Danner’s “Iraq: War of Imagination.” On a side note, this appears to be very similar to the keynote address he would have given at the Bard College Arendt Conference had he been able to attend. The conference sorely lacked a keynote to compete with Christopher Hitchens. While Danner does not mention Arendt’s “Lying in Politics,” it bears a strong resemblance.

Update: Here‘s all Hitchens had to say on the event. I guess it didn’t make much of an impression.

Out of Iraq

George McGovern‘s plan to stabilize Iraq:

Step 1. Leave

Step 2. Deputize Iran (and other Arab states)

Step 3. Pay for our Mistakes (just like Iraq pays Kuwait)

I’m not sure what I think of this, but there it is. Leaving is a tossup: either the destabilized regions continue with their ethnic cleansing by scaring all the different people away, or else they move on to some full-scale religiously-directed genocide.

Re-liberation Theology: Imperialism, Insurrection, Insurgency

It’s old news that the US is scaling back in Afghanistan. With NATO in charge, there seems little chance that various national caveats to the standard rules of engagment will enable the military forces there to beat back the warlords. I doubt that anyone even thinks that’s a legitimate goal; most seem convinced that we need only wait until the world is distracted to pull out completely. Without security, the Afghans can never develop a functioning economy. Perhaps, though, they will be able to go back to their feudal system of mostly lowtech violence and homebred dictators. A small improvement, but an improvement nonetheless.

Speaking of old news: what happened to this story? US Plots ‘New Liberation’ of Baghdad was my pick for the August surprise. The notion was to work block by block, eliminating insurgents and installing or fixing infrastructure. This is basic politics, as well as good military strategy for a conquering nation. Frankly, a successful reliberation might win the Republicans the midterms. But the administration seems to have dropped this plan, or reference to it, completely. I suppose the vocabulary of ‘second liberation’ is all wrong. It makes it look like we didn’t do a good job the first time. (News flash: we didn’t.)

The core concept, however, wasn’t about liberation in any grandiose way. It was about SWET: “sewage, water, electric, and trash.” This is the Fox News bread and butter: the painted schoolhouses pale in comparison to large-scale improvements in the average Iraqi’s quality of life. I think of it as ‘extending the green zone,’ winning hears and minds in Iraq by giving them the things that all human beings want: a measure of comfort and security. This is liberation, or at least a prerequisite for it. So what happened? Since the April article, there have been no new mentions of a major military operation in Baghdad, and no new google hits on SWET or “sewage, water, electricity, and trash.” Either this is going to be a really big surprise, or the US was truly flummoxed by the Iraq VP’s request that we withdraw.

Of course, there could be a deeper game afoot. Perhaps the US military is still working the carrot approach with this amnesty deal for insurgents. Yet the amnesty excludes any insurgents who actually fought, which seems unworkable, and only separates the wheat from the chaff (or the sheep from the wolves.) I’m no fan of imperial incursions, but I am a fan of logic and good strategy. I like to think that imperialism is a bad strategy, but I’m willing to be proven wrong on that front. Nonetheless, at the level of imperial tactics, it’s a bad strategy to create a population of militants who can expect no reprieve. The US may not like admitting it, but most of those who attack and kill our soldiers in Iraq are defending their homeland from invasion. They’re not religious extremists so much as cornered lions. It’s convenient to think we’re facing the same terrorists who masterminded 9/11, but that’s simply not the makeup of the average footsoldier or suicide bomber. Why import zealots when you’ve got homegrown fanatics made desperate by the enemy’s excesses?

The whole foreign-fighter argument has always led the US astray; we made the same mistake in Vietnam when we assumed our enemies were foreign-born Chinese communists rather than local nationalists fighting for their own liberation. The refusal to recognize freedom fighters when we meet them is what makes imperial powers stupid. This refusal to offer a blanket amnesty will only harden the hearts of our opponents, who would rather risk death in battle than the ‘justice’ of an invading army. Before this thing is over, I expect to hear many more violent arguments from Baghdad over the meaning of freedom.

Gov’t taps ABC to root out leakers.

This strikes me as very important, at least domestically. ABC’s calls are being tracked, or at least that’s the claim.

We had all become comfortable with an uneasy cold war between the state and journalists, conducted with a string of double agents we called leakers and whistleblowers. The state was opposed to these unauthorized informants, of course, but in the way they oppose so many things, i.e. ineffectually. This kept leaking to a minimum, and only for important things. It also allowed various officials to use strategic leaks to release information that could not be challenged, as when Rove and Libby used leaking to propagandize for the war in Iraq.

Perhaps it’s good that our officials must again practice the tradecraft that led Woodward and Bernstein to have discrete conversations in parking garages. I like a good spy novel as well as the next guy, but 007 has taken it too far in the direction of technology. Dead drops, crossword puzzle cryptograms, and some good old fashioned codebooks are what we really need. That’s the stuff the NSA was built to combat, and it’ll be fun to live in a world where only the unlucky and the incareful get caught and arrested on trumped up charges. If V for Vendetta and The Matrix taught us anything, it’s that hostilities are sexiest when they’re open. It robs insurrection of its revolutionary joy if there’s confusion about who the underdogs are. I’m tired of the conservatives claiming all the Big Brother victimhood for themselves. Now we progressives can be victims too!

That said, it would also be nice if the legislature would pass laws protecting journalists and whistleblowers from persecution. Call it, I dunno, “freedom of the press” or something. It’d be significantly less sexy, but it also might go a long way towards preserving democratic legitimacy. If fidelity to principles sounds too boring, perhaps they could pass it off as a public relations ploy. Part of a brand new “America, Home of the Free” campaign. For the tourists, dontcha know.

Kendall-Smith and Kant: Can the Critique of Practical Reason make you ethical?

Ever since Adolf Eichmann pretended that Kant’s theory of ethics could be used to defend his actions, I’ve wondered whether moral philosophers really have any tendency to be better people, or to live better lives. As Arendt put it in Eichmann in Jerusalem, “He did his duty… he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law…. No exceptions–this was the proof that he had always acted against his ‘inclinations,’ whether they were sentimental or inspired by interest…. [Many Germans] must have been tempted not to murder… and not to become accompliced in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.”

Well, it looks like at least one British Royal Air Force officer has actually discerned his moral duty through the haze of propaganda and pathological temptations. Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith, an RAF doctor who wrote a master’s thesis on Kant, has argued that the illegality of Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq required him to refuse an order to deploy to Basra, after serving two tours of duty in Iraq. My favorite line is a direct reversal of the Eichmannian formula: “I am a leader. I am not a mere follower to whom no moral responsibility can be attached.”

Sadly, it would appear that he was not able to make the case for illegal warmaking, as the court martial argued, following Eichmann: “Such crimes cannot be committed by those in relatively junior positions such as that of the defendant.” By stripping him of the responsibility and capacity for judgment that would be necessary to object to illegal orders, the court martial declared that only powerful and important people have the moral authority to understand their legal and moral obligations. In this, they set a precedent for many more incidents likes those at Abu Ghraib.

I applaud Kendall-Smith’s refusal to sacrifice his own judgments for those of his superiors. I applaud his courage to stand for the moral law over the petty instantiation of it we saw in the court marshall. Would that others, on both sides of this conflict, had the same courage.