September 2004
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Day September 13, 2004

Orthodoxy and the “war” on terror: the lessons of 9/11

If there’s one meme that deserves a swift burial, it’s the notion that the “lessons of September 11th” demonstrate clearly the strategy we need to take. Rice Grad, writing at Southern Appeal, illustrates the type of argument:

Cheney was saying that if we get hit again, then the danger is that Kerry will treat the terrorist attack as a law enforcement matter. That is, Kerry shows signs that he has not learned the lessons of September 11th. He is still in pre-9/11 mode, whereas Bush sees the matter as an act of war, not a mere criminal act.

The mode of thinking represented here is insidious — if for no other reason than actual events have demonstrated the need for both a military and “law enforcement” (more specifically, investigative) capability in order to disrupt, defeat, and dismantle terrorist cells. 12 suspects were arrested in the UK during August, following the tipoff from Noor Khan and some dedicated police work. Earlier in the year, UK police arrested 8 suspects and seized half a ton of fertilizer, again through police work informed by intelligence data.

On the other hand, when you’re combing the mountainous Tora Bora and tribal regions of adjacent Pakistan, the police aren’t the solution, and even the FBI and CIA are of limited help. You need military manpower, on the ground and in the air. To secure Afghanistan, you need troops. Lack of troop strength, in fact, is leading to the resurgence of the Taliban in the west and south, and loss of control for the new government.

So I’m not quite sure what is meant when people — especially otherwise intelligent, informed people — refer to the “lessons of 9/11” and manage to dichotomize our approach so easily. The presidential campaigns dichotomize issues because they seek to maximize the separation between the candidates; this is clearly at play in Cheney’s words:

“It’s absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2, we make the right choice. Because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we’ll get hit again, that we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States,” Cheney said.

Nor is Senator Kerry entirely innocent of painting too simplistic a picture.

But it worries me that the meme is still spreading — beyond the campaigns that employ it as tactic, beyond the early anger at being attacked, and into general usage. Today, three years later, you’d expect a bit more analysis, more critical thinking about what the “lessons of 9/11” truly are. Rice Grad, writing in the passage quoted above, says with approval that Bush sees the matter as an “act of war.” And we’ve all heard the President and his team use those terms.

But three years later, I’m still not sure that “war on terror” is an accurate way to describe our present situation. We certainly have been attacked, and we certainly have attacked al-Qaeda leaders and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the nation of Iraq in return. But we are, demonstrably, also engaged in an intelligence and investigative effort, spanning national and local polices, to track and apprehend potential attackers. And those avenues, albeit less noticeable, are producing results — as evidenced by arrests around the world.

The real lesson of 9/11 is that it’s too early, and we’re too deeply involved, to be able to say conclusively which strategies and tactics will turn out to be the best. It’s early days in a diffuse global insurgency like this, and the evidence suggests that both “law enforcement” and military action are appropriate tools in their own contexts. Tactics and methods we haven’t tried yet, and technologies possibly yet to be invented, may aid in our efforts. Experimentation will be the norm, not the exception, as we try everything in the playbook to stop, destroy, or apprehend attackers before they strike.

And I haven’t heard either candidate truly suggest otherwise. Using the “lessons of 9/11” and “law enforcement” memes as a way to judge one’s choice of Presidential candidate is quite simply misguided. There will be little, if any, real difference on the ground in the methods used by either candidate should they win the White House in the fall. As a country, we are far better off judging our affinity with the candidates based on domestic policy and the probability of Supreme Court nominations, than we are chasing phantom differences in the ability of either candidate to be Commander-in-Chief.

(following up posts by Will Baude and Rice Grad and De Novo)

Chateau Climens 1971 Sauternes

I don’t open thirty-three year old dessert wines very often, but last week our tasting group met and my red wine was bland and uninteresting (Les Cailloux Chateauneuf 1994) so in order to avoid the slings and arrows of my fellow wine drinkers, I popped open some Sauternes to sooth their savage tempers. The 1971 Climens is an interesting wine, as it comes from the year Lucien Lurton took over the estate, which had been declining. Climens has since produced some excellent wines, gaining the reputation of being the nearest rival to d’Yquem.

The 1971 bears out this reputation fully. A number of folks in my circle of wine friends had bought bottled from Rare Wine Company in Sonoma, after tasting a truly spectacular bottle in 1999 or 2000. The bottle opened last week was excellent, but not quite the equal of the bottle we’d previously tried. Thick, with a really luscious texture, the wine has a deep honey and butterscotch aroma and flavor, with a long finish. Characteristically, I should have decanted it instead of just whipping it out during the tasting — this bottle improved greatly by the next day, and after a week the remaining portion of the bottle is still tasty, once it warms from refrigerator temp. This wine is not in danger of going over the hill, but will likely continue to improve as a superb example of mature Sauternes. Fortunately, I think I’ve got one more left…

Vladimir Putin’s constitutional slippery slope

The news today that Vladimir Putin is proposing major changes to Russia’s political system, in the name of the war on terror, will repay careful attention by those in the United States that believe terrorism justifies whatever a chief executive wants to do. Putin starts out reasonably enough, asking for reform of intelligence services and the building of a “single organization” to coordinate the fight against terror.

But this new organization, Mr. Putin claims, should have the authority to “destory criminals in their hideouts, and if necessary, abroad.” It’s hard to tell whether this means with or without any form of due process, but given Russian history, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to assume the latter.

But the far more insidious changes are those proposing structural changes to the Duma, or lower house of parliament. The proposed changes would destroy local representation in favor of pure proportionality of parties; this would make the Duma easier to control centrally. Putin also called for the upper house (filled with regional governors), to be elected by legislatures after nomination by the President. In other words, the upper house — and therefore, regional governors — would not be popularly elected.

Putin is putting his country on a classic slippery slope. Those who support any aspect of these changes may quickly find themselves back in a defacto dictatorship. Those who fear for constitutional government in Russia must therefore oppose all such proposals from Putin, possibly even some that will help in their fight against internal terrorist attacks.

The lesson here is clear, and needs to be learned by both parties — no agenda, however laudable, whether aimed at the national security or at social justice, is free of the slippery slope which erodes constitutional government if it ignores separation of powers and limited executive authority. Democrats have just as much to answer for in this regard as Republicans, since as I’ve mentioned previously, the modern notion of executive power is largely a creation of FDR. Not everyone is FDR, however. The world is also home to Vladimir Putin, not to mention politicians with even fewer scruples.