Obama Politics

A true parable

A true parable about the difference between thinking conventionally versus thinking unconventionally.

The elements: a student, two professors, a barometer, a tall building, and a physics test.


The Candidates

A list of the candidates, to be updated frequently…

Foreign Policy Morality The War on Terrorism

Two Methods of Interrogation

The Interrogation of Abu JandelGoofus and Gallant on Torture

In October 2000, Abu Jandal was arrested by the Yemeni authorities in connection with the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. He was a member of Al Qaeda and had served as Osama Bin Laden’s chief bodyguard. After the attacks on September 11, the Yemeni authorities allowed Ali Soufan, one of eight FBI agents who spoke Arabic, to interrogate Abu Jandal.

The attack was fresh in Soufan’s memory. His friend and mentor, John O’Neil, who had dedicated much of his life to fighting Al Qaeda, had been killed in the attacks. Soufan was justifiably, righteously angry. The Yemeni authorities, not known for their squeamishness, gave Soufan wide latitude in the interrogation. The FBI gave Soufan the directive to identify the hijackers “by any means necessary”.

Despite the fact that Abu Jandel refused to cooperate with Soufan at first, Soufan remained respectful. Abu Jandel would rant about the evils of America–the single country, he believed, that was most responsible for the evils of the world. As an additional complicating factor, like many Al Qaeda members, Abu Jandel had been trained in counter-interrogation techniques. He agreed to those facts which Soufan knew and denied everything else. He tried to portray himself as a good Muslim who had at one time flirted with Al Qaeda.

This stonewalling lasted for several days. Soufan was patient, picking up small details he might be able to use. For example, he found that Abu Jandel was diabetic and the next day brought sugarless wafers and a history of America in Arabic. Abu Jandel read the book quickly and was astonished at America’s history. The very fact of Soufan’s existence–as a knowledgeable Muslim who loved America and was in the FBI–was a challenge to Abu Jandel’s conception of America.

Soufan also found that Abu Jandel was troubled that Osama Bin Laden had sworn fealty to Mullah Omar, the messianic leader of the Taliban.

For five days, Soufan and Abu Jandel debated the theology behind suicide bombing, America’s place in the world, and discussed Abu Jandel’s life. He refused to reveal that he had any significant knowledge of Al Qaeda.

On the fifth night, Soufan brought him a news magazine with graphic photos of the twin towers on fire, photos that brought home the scale of the death and destruction. Abu Jandel had heard that something had happened in New York, but was shocked by the events, and insisted that Bin Laden could never do that–he said it must have been the Israelis, or someone else. Soufan showed Abu Jandel a local Yemeni newspaper with the headline: “200 Yemeni Souls Perish in New York Attack.” “The Sheikh is not that crazy,” he insisted, referring to Bin Laden. Soufan asked him to identify a series of mug shots. Still disturbed by the images of the attack, Abu Jandel was able to identify seven men as members of Al Qaeda, but he still insisted that Bin Laden could not have ordered the attack.[digg-reddit-me]

Soufan responded that he knew for sure that the people who did this were Al Qaeda. “How? Who told you?” Abu Jandel asked.

“You did. You just identified the hijackers,” Soufan said.

Abu Jandel asked for a few moments alone. When Soufan came back, he offered to help, to reveal what he knew about the structure of Al Qaeda, the locations of hideouts, and plans for escape. “I think the Sheikh went crazy,”Abu Jandel said.

Abu Jandel’s information proved significant in the Afghanistan campaign.

The Interrogation of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi

In late 2001 or early 2002, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was captured by Pakistani forces while trying to escape Afghanistan . By the middle of January 2002, he was in US custody. He was one of several high value detainees whose interrogation and detention challenged the limits of what the CIA was willing to do. The Bush administration had just recently authorized “enhanced” interrogation techniques, includes, as revealed by the New York Times in a recent expose, “slaps to the head; hours held naked in a frigid cell; days and nights without sleep while battered by thundering rock music; long periods manacled in stress positions” and waterboarding. According to the New York Times:

With virtually no experience in interrogations, the C.I.A. had constructed its program in a few harried months by consulting Egyptian and Saudi intelligence officials and copying Soviet interrogation methods long used in training American servicemen to withstand capture.

Relatively little is known about the specific techniques used on al-Libi or about his interrogation. It seems certain however that al-Libi was subject to these “enhanced techniques” such as simulated drowning and the rest. Additionally, al-Libi was also transferred for a time to a foreign intelligence service in the rendition program, that began under President Clinton, where he was also physically abused and threatened with torture.

Under pressure and feeling threatened, Al-Libi provided the CIA and other officials questioning him with a wealth of information about planned attacks in Yemen and around the world. Most significant however, al-Libi was the primary source for the faulty pre-war intelligence about Al Qaeda-Iraq links. Al-Libi specifically said that Iraq had been training members of Al Qaeda in the use of chemical and biological weapons, a claim cited by President Bush, Colin Powell, and many others as a justification for the war.

This bit of intelligence, gained by torture and used to justify a war, was found to be false after the invasion.

Torture as a Symbol

These are just two of the most prominent examples of the interrogations of detainees after 9/11. Two examples cannot prove a point. They do illustrate an opinion that is held by many if not most interrogators: torture and other extreme techniques are useful in getting people to talk, but not necessarily to tell the truth. The harder and less television-friendly approach is often the best.

Torture, as a symbol, represents the bankruptcy of the Bush’s administration’s approach to the War on Terror. The decision to begin to torture prisoners was made without public debate of any sort, by distorting current law and common sense, by abandoning America’s long-held positions and values, and without any attempt at resolving questions of tactics or strategy.

The CIA thus began to develop a program that mimicked Soviet techniques America had long condemned–techniques that were not designed to elicit information, but confessions for show trials. While Guiliani, Bush, Cheney, Gonzalez, Addington, Scalia, and others have denied that they endorse torture, they have endorsed “enhanced interrogation techniques” inflicting physical and psychological pain short of death or major organ failure. To embrace torture (which is what these men have done) reveals a tactical and strategic deficiency. The focus is on looking tough and on taking postures of violent masculinity even if they are counter-productive.

E. B. White wrote an essay on New York City at the dawn of the nuclear age, saying:

“The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions…In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.”

We cannot accept such blunders, such a short-sighted strategy with so much at stake.

Domestic issues Election 2008 Foreign Policy Obama Politics The War on Terrorism

The Choice

[digg-reddit-me]Here’s the full transcript of Obama’s speech at DePaul University.

And a choice excerpt:

As Ted Sorensen’s old boss President Kennedy once said – “the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war – and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears.” In the fall of 2002, those deaf ears were in Washington. They belonged to a President who didn’t tell the whole truth to the American people; who disdained diplomacy and bullied allies; and who squandered our unity and the support of the world after 9/11.

But it doesn’t end there. Because the American people weren’t just failed by a President – they were failed by much of Washington. By a media that too often reported spin instead of facts. By a foreign policy elite that largely boarded the bandwagon for war. And most of all by the majority of a Congress – a coequal branch of government – that voted to give the President the open-ended authority to wage war that he uses to this day. Let’s be clear: without that vote, there would be no war.

Some seek to rewrite history. They argue that they weren’t really voting for war, they were voting for inspectors, or for diplomacy. But the Congress, the Administration, the media, and the American people all understood what we were debatingBarack Obama in the fall of 2002. This was a vote about whether or not to go to war. That’s the truth as we all understood it then, and as we need to understand it now. And we need to ask those who voted for the war: how can you give the President a blank check and then act surprised when he cashes it?

With all that we know about what’s gone wrong in Iraq, even today’s debate is divorced from reality. We’ve got a surge that is somehow declared a success even though it has failed to enable the political reconciliation that was its stated purpose. The fact that violence today is only as horrific as in 2006 is held up as progress. Washington politicians and pundits trip over each other to debate a newspaper advertisement while our troops fight and die in Iraq.

And the conventional thinking today is just as entrenched as it was in 2002. This is the conventional thinking that measures experience only by the years you’ve been in Washington, not by your time spent serving in the wider world. This is the conventional thinking that has turned against the war, but not against the habits that got us into the war in the first place – the outdated assumptions and the refusal to talk openly to the American people.

Well I’m not running for President to conform to Washington’s conventional thinking – I’m running to challenge it. I’m not running to join the kind of Washington groupthink that led us to war in Iraq – I’m running to change our politics and our policy so we can leave the world a better place than our generation has found it.

I had read with a bit of skepticism that the Obama team was holding “the full Barack” back to avoid peaking too early as Howard Dean and countless other alternate candidates have. But this speech is something different. Clearly, succinctly making the case for an Obama presidency and one part of the tragedy that would be Clinton II. I bear no ill-feeling towards Hillary, other than a vague unease. And I admit that the more I have seen her, the more I have come to respect her. That said: she represents convention, political caution, and the establishment.

The Establishment

As someone who respects and studies the “establishment” – as represented by such elite opinion-makers as the Council on Foreign Relations, The New Republic magazine, the Brookings Institute, The Economist magazine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, and a few other odds and ends – I believe Hillary is the candidate who best embodies what they have stood for and what they stand for today. She gives the answers they have scripted. She embodies the middle-of-the-road ideology embraced by most of these organizations, an ideology that focuses on economic liberalization and projecting strength and American power. This group is socially liberal, economically conservative, and hawkish on foreign affairs. They supported the Iraq war, immigration reform, Israel, combating climate change, and fiscally responsible policies. They are not some evil cabal as maintained by some conspiracy theorists, but rather are those who have taken it upon themselves to think deeply about these issues, those who are powerful enough to pursue their interests in politics, and those who once were in positions of significant power. Their contribution to the public debate is enormous. Their experience and conventions are well-worth hearing: if Bush had listened to them, he would have had a much more successful presidency. They did not push the Iraq war, but they acquiesced to it. They encouraged respect for military estimates and have been astonished by the Bush administration’s hubris and incompetence. It is largely because this group has been convinced that some form of universal health care is back on the table.

Hillary Clinton is campaigning as their candidate. But the funny thing is this: they have not embraced her yet. And while Senator Obama agrees with them in principle on many issues, he believes that these wise old men and women are part of the problem. And the funny thing is: many of them agree. The informal system that in so many ways has determined the policy and actions of America is broken. Not only did they get wrong the most important issue in the past decade, but they have been marginalized by the Bush administration which has not sought the held wisdom of non-ideologues.

The Choice

We need a president who will seek to challenge, reinvigorate, and reinvent this informal system. As a nation, we are headed into a half dozen enormous disasters on our current track – from the entitlement crisis to an invigorated islamist movement. We have been on this path for some time. This path has largely been set by the establishment, although the scope and consequences of our problems have been exacerbated intensely by the current administration. The wise old men and women do not know how to get us out; Hillary doesn’t know either. And neither does Obama.

But Obama sees and feels the problem – and Hillary does not. The choice we face is this: do we need a president who will be competent and strong, who will make few mistakes in the execution of her plans, who knows rather specifically what she wants to do, and who will oversee the downfall of American preeminence in the world? Or do we need a president who will make mistakes, who does not know precisely what he wants to do, who is intelligent and strong, but who sees the enormity of the challenge, and who stands an outside chance of reversing the decay and restoring America?

This presidential election should not, cannot be about which candidate will be the toughest on terrorism. What this election must be about is which candidate can rescue America from the precipice we are barely balancing on.

Foreign Policy Politics

Rationalizing inhumanity

In keeping with the natural workings of the U.S. political process, the question of whether to denounce, punish, or attempt to deter chemical weapons attacks against a largely defenseless minority was never explained to the American people. It was settled, as it usually is, behind closed doors, where special interests ruled the day and where narrow versions of national interest helped rationalize inhumanity.

Samantha Power in “A Problem from Hell”: America in the Age of Genocide on page 228 discussing policy deliberations on Saddam Hussein’s genocide against the Kurds in Iraq.

I’m still in the process of reading this impressive book. There are two additional factors affecting how I evaluate it: first, this book was written before Dubya’s Iraq war; and second, Samantha Power is now one of Barack Obama’s top foreign policy advisors, as is Tony Lake, another character in the book.

So far, the book seems be repeating the same story over and over with a few deviations:

  1. an authoritarian state under a charismatic and ruthless leader begins to commit genocide;
  2. the world and America know that something awful is going on and do nothing;
  3. millions are systematically killed, relocated, attacked, raped;
  4. the world and America realize that there is a genocide being committed, but try to deny it as long as possible;
  5. Americans who are responsible for formulating the policy for the region push for more aggressive steps to curb the genocide;
  6. Americans and other responsible for deciding what to do equivocate, claim they need more information, and otherwise abdicate their moral responsibilities;
  7. some outside force restores order and stops the government from acting for reasons have nothing to do with the genocide.

One of the moments that summarizes this entire situation comes during the first President Bush’s term of office in response to the Serbian genocide of Bosnian Muslims. Facing enormous pressure from candidate Bill Clinton who has taken a hawkish position in the campaign, enormous public support for intervention, his own State Department, and Congress, George H. W. Bush gives a speech invoking genocide, the Holocaust, concentration camps, and other atrocities. Knowing full well that he has a plethora of information on the subject, Bush declares: “We will not rest until…the international community has gained access to any and all detention camps.”  A pathetically weak response designed to sap the momentum from the growing movement to intervene to stop a genocide.

Of course, in another typical pattern, after Clinton’s election as president, he decides to effectively follow the same strategy as  President Bush.

Humor Politics

How the Clintons Relax