Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Lose the War Metaphor

The War on Terror is heading into its seventh year this fall. Six years and counting. That makes it longer than either World War, longer than the Civil War, and closing fast on Vietnam. The good news is that so far the casualty count is a lot lower than those other wars, even counting the people who died on September 11, 2001. It’s a low-intensity war, unless you’re unlucky enough to live in Baghdad or Helmand province. Once again, Americans for the most part get to watch it on TV.
Are we winning? You tell me. There hasn’t been another 9/11, and that’s good, but on the other hand, Iraq, where five years ago there were no suicide bombings, YouTube decapitations or Shiite death squads, is now a vast exercise ground for thugs of all stripes, most of them hostile to us. Whether or not going into Iraq has made us less safe, it has certainly made most Iraqis less safe, and given the ghastliness of the Hussein regime, that’s a real feat. Even if you concede that Saddam was a direct threat to us, it’s hard to argue that our invasion has had a successful outcome.
Afghanistan is different: pretty much everyone, even the nervous Europeans, agrees we had to go into Afghanistan, and if we’d left it at that we’d probably still have most of the world on our side. But even in Afghanistan the jihadists are far from beaten.
So it’s the shooting-war part of the War on Terror that seems to be giving us, the world’s undisputed military top dog, the most trouble. Why?
Maybe it’s a conceptual thing. I’m starting to think that ‘war’ is the wrong way to think about this. After all, the 9/11 attack was largely planned by a handful of guys in an apartment in Hamburg, and all the carrier groups and armored brigades in the world are useless against a roomful of guys muttering in Arabic.
George Soros raised howls of protest from conservatives a while back when he said that maybe we should have treated 9/11 as a crime against humanity instead of an act of war. The proper response to a crime, of course, is intelligent police work rather than war. That didn’t sit well with the hawks. I think the hawks should take a second and think again.
We love to declare wars in this country. We also have a War on Drugs, and there used to be a War on Poverty. I guess we must have won that one, because you don’t hear much about it anymore. Every once in a while some politician identifies a serious problem and decides he has to declare war on it. That’s supposed to get everyone mobilized for a big national effort, I guess. It’s supposed to justify extraordinary measures, and, usually, great expenditures. It signals that the politicians are serious.
The problem is that the war metaphor can mislead us, and I think it’s misled the Bush administration in a serious way in the current crisis. I think in the shock after 9/11 they looked at our first-rate military machine and saw that nothing could stand against it and therefore decided it would solve all our problems with Islamic thuggery. So they declared the War on Terror.
Here’s the problem with that: in a real war, the kind our military was designed to fight, there is an enemy government with a seat of power and a chain of command. It has at its disposal a military machine that can be located and engaged and, if you’re better, destroyed. And then the enemy government can be compelled to do whatever you want it to do, including coming out with their hands up.
But where’s Bin Laden’s capital? Where are his carrier groups and armored brigades? The September 11th attack was carried out by half a dozen guys with box cutters. Yes, there were the camps in Afghanistan, where those guys learned their tricks. And our military took them out in short order. Insofar as there was a locatable enemy, the shooting war worked just fine. But then it got harder. There are a whole lot of guys in a whole lot of apartments, muttering in a whole lot of languages. And you can’t send the B-52’s to bomb Hamburg.
George Soros was right: what we need to defeat Al-Qaeda is principally good intelligence and patient police work that doesn’t alienate the populations that shelter our enemies. We need people who can speak the languages and people who know how to cultivate informants, and flexible and adaptable security agencies that don’t squabble over turf. We need a lot of good smart tough cops, and we will need a lot of time.
That’s not satisfying to a lot of people. They want the bang. They want to turn sand into glass. They want to make somebody hurt. 9/11 was an act of war, they insist, so let’s give the bastards a war. Wasn’t 9/11 an act of war? OK, sure. How about Timothy McVeigh’s blowing up the Murragh Building? Was that an act of war? And who do you declare war on there? You don’t. You put the cops to work, and they track the bastards down.
Here’s another problem with calling this a war: in many people’s eyes, it grants legitimacy to the criminals. In a real war, it’s understood that the other guy is fighting for his country, just like you are. His government may be at fault, but you don’t hold that against him. Diplomats can argue about the merits of the case. Calling what we’re in now a war says to millions of people around the world that Bin Laden has a case, that the suicide bombers are more than deranged killers, that Musab Al-Zarqawi qualifies as a patriot. It grants the killers a status they don’t deserve. Sure, being a criminal suspect may grant you some procedural rights that being an enemy combatant doesn’t, but it’s a loss in the propaganda war. Calling the Al-Qaeda thugs enemy combatants grants them a dignity they don’t deserve. It undermines our case.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not pleading for appeasement or soft treatment. When the enemy is locatable and armed and hostile, I’m fine with sending in the Marines. The problem is that this enemy is so often not locatable, and when he is, he is hunkered down in a house full of women and children who don’t deserve to die with him. Or he is embedded in a university in Europe, or lying low in an office job in the U.S.
If we want to find him and stop him, we have to get smart. We have to stop thinking about invading countries and start thinking about intelligence and investigation and infiltration and patient assembling of data. We have the best military in the world, and they have done everything we’ve asked of them. But not everything is a military problem, and military action can alienate a population and turn it against us in the wink of an eye. I think the war metaphor led us into disaster in Iraq, and it’s time to retire it.

Sam Reaves

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Enough already...

OK, let’s see. We have, what, another year and change before we can vote on this? To look at the paper you’d think the presidential election was next month. Every other day there’s a debate, every other day somebody else throws his hat in the ring. Thompson’s in, Gilmore’s out (raise your hand if you ever knew he was in), Hilary’s not woman enough and Barack isn’t black enough, Mitt’s for the surge and Rudy’s for guns. Snore.
Other countries manage to pull off elections for the top spot in a matter of weeks. In a parliamentary system it’s a brisk, well-choreographed procedure. Here it’s a two-year death march. Maybe three.
I don’t know what can be done about it. You can’t forbid people to campaign; that would be a restriction of free speech. You can try and police how and from whom and how much money they raise, and you can get indignant about states moving their primaries farther and farther from the general election in a fatuous race to be first, but when it gets right down to it you can’t stop the ambitious and the wealthy and the deluded from launching what are nowadays essentially permanent campaigns.
Does this agonizing baby-kissing marathon make our democracy better? Does it produce stronger candidates, promote more thorough discussion of issues? Don't make me laugh. There’s a ruthless process of elimination, for sure. It weeds out the inadequately funded quite effectively. That means we’re left with candidates who know they have I.O.U.’s coming due, because not even Mitt Romney’s rich enough to fund a whole presidential campaign all by himself. The Darwinian process of a U.S. presidential campaign reliably produces candidates who are masters of horse-trading, back-stabbing and lip-zipping. The political process produces superb politicians.
The trouble is, they don’t always bring policy-making skills and insights along with them, and that’s what good government requires.
My standards for a U.S. president are actually fairly low. I have realistic expectations. I don’t need a genius. Reagan showed us that you can be an intellectual mediocrity and change the direction of the country, if you know how to delegate and nap. Clinton showed us you can preside over prosperity and positive social changes with dubious levels of personal integrity. (My expectations are a little higher than the current occupant of the White House, but I’m not going to pile on. There are enough people on the Bush beat already.)
What do you need to be a good U.S. president? First, I think you need firm principles that you can articulate clearly and keep sight of through the fog of war, even if it’s only political war. Oh, and they should be the right principles, too, did I mention that? Good means more than just effective. What are the right principles? Here’s where we might quibble a bit, but I think most of us will agree that the reason our country has always had more people trying to get in than trying to get out has something to do with high levels of economic, political and social freedom.
Second, a president has to be a competent administrator. This cannot be over-emphasized. It’s an administrative job. It’s delegating, hiring and firing, prioritizing, information-gathering and decision-making under pressure. Not everybody has these skills. Not even everybody who wants to be president has these skills. We should take a hard look at the field with an eye to who has high-level executive experience and who doesn’t.
Third, a good president has to be a salesman. He or she has the world’s biggest bully pulpit, and a president can shape the debate like nobody else. A good president can make us think about the world differently.
Sadly, most of the candidates are best at the third requirement. They wouldn’t be in politics if they weren’t great salesmen. But that’s not enough.
What are the chances we’ll get a good president out of this depressing cattle call? Slim, I’d say, going on past form. But you never know. Every once in a while somebody survives the process who actually fills the bill. We can always hope.
In the meantime, I’m already tired of these mopes. Wake me up next November.

Sam Reaves

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The end of the Outfit?

In the end it was a little anticlimactic. There were headlines, but they were overshadowed by remembrance of much bigger events on the same date, six years before. When it came, the decapitation of the Outfit came quietly. On Monday five top Chicago organized crime figures were found guilty of a smorgasbord of federal charges, racketeering conspiracy at the head of the list. Seventeen citizens in an uncomfortably warm room in the Dirksen Federal Building in downtown Chicago decided that a handful of old men were guilty of the crimes the U.S. government had charged them with. They made a fairly short job of it—after ten weeks of testimony and arguments, with mounds of evidence to wade through, they took only a few days to agree on the verdict. In the course of deliberations they asked the judge for a fan and a dictionary. The word was, they wanted to make sure they understood what usorious meant.
The federal government is about to put the top leadership of the Chicago Outfit in jail, for a long time. If you know anything about the history of Chicago, this is a big deal. For fifty years the Outfit acted more or less with impunity in this city. Prohibition had undermined the rule of law so thoroughly that the city’s political structure, court system and police were all deeply compromised by ties to the gangsters. Prohibition made the Capone gang rich and entrenched it in the city’s power structure. A nexus of crooked politicians, crooked cops, crooked judges and just plain crooks of all stripes insured that the hoods got their cut of just about every significant economic activity in the city. Reformers came and went, but nothing seemed to change. Mob hits went unpunished, payoffs went up the line.
Meanwhile, books and movies glamorized organized crime. We followed the Corleones and the Sopranos and cared about them. They became part of our historical narrative, immigrants scrapping for their share of the pie. Top Outfit guys in Chicago had celebrity status. They gave to the community; their neighborhoods were safe. Too often we forgot that gangsters are bullies, cheats, thugs, killers. They wouldn’t be gangsters if they weren’t.
It took the power of the federal government in the form of the R.I.C.O. statue and the Greylord investigation to start chipping away at Outfit power. Outfit guys saw the handwriting on the wall. They started keeping their sons out of the business. They sent them to college and watched them become lawyers, bankers, doctors. In the meantime, the world changed. The Next Big Thing in crime passed the Outfit by as the money shifted to drugs. The blacks and Latins assumed the role the Italians had played in the 1920’s: outsiders on the make. In a sense the decline of the Chicago Outfit reflects the rise of the Italian-American community as a whole and the changing demographics of the country. In the twenties it was the Italians who were poor, alien, excluded. Their criminals exploited Prohibition to gain wealth and power. Today it’s somebody else, but the story is the same. Smart thugs exploit opportunities.
Is the Outfit dead? Organized crime experts say we’d be fools to think so. As long as there’s vice, we’ll have organized crime. The Outfit isn’t going away. Somebody else will step up to take James Marcello’s place as boss, because there’s just too much money to be made off vice. But we can hope he'll inherit a lesser organization. We can hope that the days when the Outfit was a shadowy but real pillar of the Chicago power structure are over. We can hope it will never again have significant veto power in the courts, the police department, the state legislature. We can hope that the Outfit is just another gang now, and an aging one. And we can hope as we struggle with new gangs and new rackets and the eternal temptation to corruption that we won’t be fooled again.

Sam Reaves

Monday, September 10, 2007

Churchill didn't say it...

One of my favorite quotes is, it turns out, mistakenly attributed to Winston Churchill. I’ve been using this line for several years and confidently telling people that Churchill said it. You’ve probably heard it: “A man who is not a liberal at age twenty has no heart; a man who is not a conservative at age forty has no brain.”
There are variations; in some versions it’s “socialist” instead of “liberal”; sometimes the age is thirty instead of twenty.
Doesn’t matter. Churchill, it turns out, didn’t say it, or at least didn’t say it first. Apparently the existence of different versions reflects the fact that it has been said by different people at different times. The most reliable attributions appear to be to a couple of nineteenth-century French politicians, François Guizot and Aristide Briand, with Guizot saying it first. Maybe Churchill cribbed it from them in turn.
It’s a good line, which accounts for its popularity. But it bugs the hell out of liberals, which is understandable. Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn even ran a couple of columns about the line a while ago, inviting reader responses. I don't know if it bugged him; I’d call Zorn a liberal, but whatever he is, he’s a thoughtful writer who’s never afraid to consider the other side.
I didn’t get involved then, maybe because I wasn’t sure what I thought. But for what it’s worth, here’s what I think now: Guizot and Briand and Churchill had hold of a truth, and even if you didn’t wind up a conservative, there’s wisdom in it that you ought to be able to concede.
Full disclosure: I don’t know how much it had to do with my internal anatomy, but I’ve moved to the right in my political views over the past couple of decades. I’d still call myself a liberal rather than a conservative (how can a man who believes that both sodomy and cocaine should be legal be called a conservative?) but I’m a liberal in the way Gladstone or the young Churchill was a liberal. I’m a small government guy. I’m an economic conservative and a social liberal, to give you the usual oversimplification. (I'll break that down a little more some other time.) If you have to slap a label on me, you can call me a libertarian, though I’m not especially anxious to be identified with the black helicopter crowd. If this helps, I am the only person I know who has actually voted for Ron Paul.
We can argue about libertarianism some other time. For now let’s look at that quote: what does it mean, and is there a formulation we can all agree on?
When I think of the quote, I remember my own political trajectory: I grew up in a devoutly religious but intellectually stimulating household (no, it’s not impossible); one parent was a Democrat and the other a Republican who usually voted Democratic; I was a fairly standard peace and love and rock and roll liberal through college, flirted with Marxism, hung out with radicals in Chicago and outright Communists in France; voted for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, rued the election of Ronald Reagan, and all the time kept reading, thinking, talking with people. I lived in countries where things didn't work as well, and wondered why. In the middle eighties I finally got around to reading The Open Society and Its Enemies, by the man whom the title of this blog honors. That pretty much took care of the Marxist thing, which had always smelled a little fishy to me. I started to educate myself about economics. I read more Popper. I heard some people say that Reagan was ruining the economy and I heard other people say that Reagan was saving the economy and I had an epiphany: they couldn’t both be right. There had to be some empirical grounds for deciding the question. I looked into it and decided that the conservatives were mostly right about economics. The trouble was, they were still wrong about other things. I had kids and rediscovered the meaning of original sin. If I didn’t start believing in God again, I at least started to appreciate the ethical content of religious tradition. I became more intellectually humble. I learned that very few people are wrong about everything (OK, there are a few out there that are truly hopeless). I realized that political views are just hypotheses about how the world works, and that there shouldn't be any reason we can’t discuss those hypotheses as calmly as any others.
Look, here’s all that happened: life experience tempered the incandescent idealism of youth. And that’s all Churchill, or whoever said it first, was talking about. Even if you’re still out there on the left, I imagine you’ve undergone the same process: you see what works and what doesn’t. You learn that human life is a messy, chaotic process that doesn’t always cooperate with Utopian plans. Maybe you’re still a socialist, but you learned something from 1989. Maybe you’re still a passionate critic of our criminal justice system, but the time you got mugged cured you of your sentimental attitude towards street criminals. That’s all we’re talking about. That’s what the quote means, and because the men quoted above all wound up as conservatives, they put it in terms that favor that point of view. But there’s a core of truth in it for everyone. You’ve got to learn from the things life throws at you, temper theory with practical experience.
If your views didn’t get tempered by experience, if you’re still throwing Molotov cocktails at police cars or looking for excuses for Pol Pot, then you’re the guy Churchill was talking about who has no brain. I'm not sure what we can do for you.

Sam Reaves

Monday, September 3, 2007

These divided states...

I'm getting tired of hearing about the things that divide us in this country. Red states, blue states, black and white, haves and have nots... To hear some people talk, the United States is a balkanized patchwork of warring clans. On a sunny Labor Day with the usual ethnic and socio-economic grab bag jostling for grill space out by the lake, it's a good time to take a skeptical look at that notion.
All these divisions exist, of course, but they're greatly overrated. Start with the red and blue state thing: this is a media-created artifact of the electoral college system which greatly oversimplifies the political and social map. You can run a red and blue analysis county-by-county or township-by-township in any given state and come up with a more accurate map, but even that is going to steamroller complexity: heck, I grew up with "red" and "blue" factions in my family. In the reddest of red states you will find wine-sipping, sandal-wearing Kucinich enthusiasts, and in the bluest of blue states you will find Limbaugh-loving, gun-rack-in-the-pickup meat eaters. And everything in between. So give the color thing a rest. The truth is that we all live in purple states.
As for black and white, far be it from me to proclaim an end to racial divisions, but I can't be as pessimistic as the Faces at the Bottom of the Well crowd. Control for social factors that are not inherently linked to the amount of melanin in a person's skin, and racial disparities start to flatten out. That is, if you get an education, delay childbearing until you're in a stable marriage with a decent income, and don't blow all your income on intoxicating substances, the odds are you are going to have a successful life, whatever color you are. If you can't do those things, you will probably be poor and miserable, and this goes for black, white or any other color. I have a brother who is a prosecutor in a mainly rural Indiana county, and his description of the local white underclass sounds just like what we hear about the urban black underclass: absent fathers, substance abuse, disdain for education. In other words, even our underclass culture crosses racial lines. That's good news, because all these things are correctable problems, and there's nothing inherently black or white about them.
Even the real divisions of language and culture tend to disappear over time, as children of immigrants assimilate. This is happening even with Hispanics, who have found more accomodation for their language and culture than any other group in U.S. history. Our culture is powerfully assimilative, and if we let it work it will embrace all comers.
None of the foregoing is to deny that there are real conflicts of interest to be worked out in our messy society. But that's what the political process is for, on all levels from your local PTA to the Congress of the United States. We have a strong civil society and a panoply of institutions to work out the conflicts, and if we don't panic about our divisions, they will get worked out.
The things that unite us are stronger and deeper than the things that divide us. So don't panic. Human life is inherently messy, but American society is as good as any on earth at dealing with that messiness. And personally, I think that unruliness is part of the fun.
Sam Reaves
Technorati Profile