Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

16 May 2009

Keeping Our Eyes on the Ball


[For an update on May 17, 2009, click here.]

I supported President Obama as candidate with more money and more effort than I’ve ever spent on politics in any form before. Two of the main reasons I did so were his strategic vision and sense of perspective. These are quintessential traits of any leader, the more so at a time of multiple crises.

Luckily, Obama as President does not disappoint. In the crucial field of foreign and military policy, which is any president’s virtual fiefdom, he continues to draw criticism from extreme left and extreme right in almost equal measure. So he must be doing something right.

Since I have a firm conviction that former Vice President Dick Cheney has entered the lunatic fringe, I’ll focus on flack from the left. Two presidential decisions drew fire from that quarter this week. The President decided (1) not to release more classified photos of past detainee abuse and (2) to reform rather than abandon military commissions for trying suspected terrorists.

The first decision just seems common sense. We are an open society, but we are at war. Our troops are dying in Afghanistan and Iraq almost every day, and the Taliban recently came within 60 miles or so of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. All the Taliban or Al Qaeda has to do to change the world forever (and likely our democracy) is to get its hands on a single working nuclear weapon. Lefties tend to forget these high stakes.

In war transparency suffers. That’s a dreary but inescapable fact of life. Among other things, success in war requires deception and surprise, which require secrecy. Success also depends to some degree upon successful propaganda.

The last major war we won was World War II (I don’t count Gulf I as major). In it we had official military censorship of news. Of some 44,000 photographs of President FDR, only two showed the crippled man in braces, lest he and we seem weak. We’ve forgotten these unfortunate exigencies of war and need to relearn them.

During Dubya’s misguided reign, the public had to peer behind the curtain of secrecy in order to arrest an imperial presidency that was making horrendous military blunders and destroying our Constitution in the process. But there is no shred of evidence that the Obama Administration poses any such threat. Since we can now trust our leaders to do what is right and is reasonable, we can afford to let them draw the wartime veil more closely around us, unless and until there is good reason to reopen it. Looking backward at additional evidence of the last administration’s abuses and malfeasance does not seem reason enough.

On the military commissions, I admit I was shocked at first. I had hoped that we would at least revert to courts martial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which has had the benefit of decades, if not centuries, of careful thought and testing. The idea of developing a whole new legal regime, in haste, under extreme and deliberately provoked public fear seemed and still seems a bad idea.

But on reflection I think I know why the military and intelligence communities recommended keeping the military commissions and why the President relented.

Not only are we in two wars now. As I’ve described at length in another post, the wars we are in are unprecedented in human history. We face a new kind of enemy: isolated cells of non-state actors who deliberately target civilians not for military advantage but to sow terror and undermine civilization itself. Waging such a war successfully requires deception. If we abandon torture because it’s not reliable and destroys our own values, we must make ever more skillful use of deception to succeed.

Successful deception requires controlling information. A totally open society cannot deceive. Our interrogators must be able to deceive detainees, for example, by telling them different stories or implying that one has already spilled the beans and so another just might as well fill in details. They can’t do that if every detainee’s vital statements end up in the New York Times.

That, in a nutshell, is the Achilles’ Heel of both our federal courts and courts martial. The former are generally open to the public by constitutional command, and the latter are likely more open than may be desirable because they were designed primarily to protect the legal rights of our own soldiers. So something new may well be needed.

The process of reforming the military commissions and the resulting rules should be open and transparent. But the proceedings themselves should be as secret as need be to give our intelligence community every advantage in these unprecedented, asymmetrical wars.

We balked at giving Dubya and Cheney such power because they gave every appearance of stupidity, arrogance and utter disregard of our most sacred national values. But the Obama Administration has given every indication to the contrary. Already it has promised to close the “Constitution-free zone” at Guantánamo and abolished waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” as torture.

Under these circumstances, we can trust it to preserve defendants’ rights and our national values in reforming military commissions, at least until we have concrete reason for suspecting otherwise. And I can’t think of any person better equipped to supervise the delicate balance between human rights and deception for intelligence’s sake than our President, who was once president of the Harvard Law Review.

Three other points deserve mention. First, the President is drawing criticism from both extremes in part because he listens to experts. Dubya and Cheney failed at almost everything they did because they didn’t do that. Instead, like Mao, they consulted only their Little Ideological Red Book. The President is smart enough to know he doesn’t know everything and should listen to folks who know. Hallelujah!

Second, after less than three months in office, the President has already demonstrated the right way to exert civilian control over the military. As I analyzed extensively in an old post, the right way is to set general policy and remove and replace personnel. The wrong way is for politicians without extensive military expertise to play soldier, impersonate military experts, and micromanage.

That failing approach was responsible for our disaster in Vietnam and our near-disaster in Iraq, and Obama has wisely rejected it. Whether the idea to fire General McKiernan came from SecDef Gates, subordinate military brass, the intelligence community, or the State Department, it’s the right way to exert civilian control. Only time will tell whether the firing and the choice of replacement were right and sufficient, or whether further personnel changes are needed.

Finally, there’s that nagging matter of perspective. Ancient Rome was never the same after Alaric sacked it in 410, although he never occupied the city and died shortly thereafter. Just so, we would never be the same if a terrorist nuke exploded in one of our cities. They best way to avoid that catastrophe is for the President to respect the expertise of our military and intelligence services, put the best leaders in place, earn their trust, and give them the greatest leeway consistent with our national values and collective conscience. That seems to be exactly what he’s doing.

As for domestic policy, we’ve also got to keep our eye on the ball there. If we don’t solve our serious problems in energy, education and health care, the children of children born this year could be living in a has-been or third-world country. Next to those challenges, putting out a few more photos documenting the last administration’s well-known abuses doesn’t even show on the radar.

I’m on record on this blog as favoring at least a little looking back. But Obama has proven to be by far the wisest president in my lifetime, with the possible exception of Jack Kennedy. If he thinks that looking back would preoccupy our manic media and distract us from things that matter far more, who am I to disagree? We elected him in part for his sense of perspective, and so far he has given us no reason to doubt it.

P.S. Frank Rich and the Case for Looking Back

Frank Rich is a New York Times pundit whose work I greatly respect. Today he wrote a column pressing for a truth commission to investigate the Dubya Administration’s misdeeds. His piece presents the strongest case I have yet seen for looking backward and so deserves rebuttal.

Rich’s thesis is that the misdeeds we know now are only the tip of the iceberg. To prove his point, he cites three little-known or underappreciated facts. First, he describes how former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld seduced Dubya with simplistic biblical quotations in classified memos and so prolonged his disastrous military blunders and obsessive turf wars. Second, Rich discusses the Pentagon’s corruption and mismanagement surrounding our four-year effort to write a contract for a new tanker plane. Finally, he notes how the Pentagon, in the Dubya Administration’s last days, issued a bogus inspector general’s report to whitewash the corruption, and how the Obama Administration, in an unprecedented move, quietly revoked and repudiated that report.

Except for the second point, which I discussed in a post on this blog over nine months ago, these points are indeed little known or underappreciated. Rich has done a public service by emphasizing them in his widely read column. These facts should find their way into history, lest Dubya, Rumsfeld, Rove and Cheney be allowed to rewrite their disastrous legacy.

But I think there is little danger of that. Journalism, after all, is the first draft of history. Over the next few years, in books and articles, Rich and his colleagues will no doubt follow their outrage and tell the world just how miserable Dubya’s misrule was, in excruciating and exhaustive detail. They should do so, and their righteous zeal should be rewarded.

But if the truth be told, journalists have a special axe to grind. Except for a bare handful, (mostly from obscure publications) virtually all of them were had. Their zeal to correct the record comes in part from guilty knowledge that they helped falsify it. Among other things, their credulousness and herd behavior may have helped elect Dubya in 2004, after it was apparent to most informed people that Dubya’s administration was an unmitigated disaster in every respect save perhaps No Child Left Behind.

Collectively, our leading journalists were asleep at the switch. Their desire to correct the record now is understandable, but too little, too late. All that journalists can do now is insure that future history is accurate, lest misdeeds be repeated by others. While worthwhile, that task won’t help solve our present problems or prevent future misdeeds of a different character.

Right now, we have four major problems on our plate. We must help Pakistan avoid its government’s collapse and keep Al Qaeda or the Taliban from laying hands on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. We must completely restructure our energy economy and lead the world away from suicidal human-induced climate change. We must make our industry and our society competitive again by completing the task of overhauling health care, which has languished in our country (alone among industrial democracies) for half a century. And we must reform our system of primary education to avoid falling behind strong competitors that are growing stronger by the day.

Unfortunately, every one of these projects is now in jeopardy. For reasons I intend to analyze in a future post, Pakistan’s military-colonial approach in the Swat Valley is unlikely to succeed. While the President’s plans for energy are good, he has done little so far to implement them. Restructuring Chrysler and GM is just temporizing at saving jobs; except for GM’s Chevy Volt, these firms, however well preserved, are unlikely to be a significant part of a restructured energy future.

As for health care, the affected industries’ short-lived attack on costs is dying as it dawns on industry that lower costs mean lower profits. As a result, we are likely to see a revival of the same nonsensical but highly effective public-relations campaign that torpedoed reform in 1994. Remember Harry and Louise?

Our educational system is still wandering in the wilderness of a badly mismanaged No Child Left Behind program. A few journalists have analyzed possible remedies—David Brooks in Harlem and PBS in Washington, D.C., New York City, and New Orleans. But much more needs to be done to convince the public that solutions exist and deserve urgent implementation.

To maintain our world leadership, we must solve all four of these problems. Left unsolved, any one could relegate us to has-been or third-world status in the medium or long term or (in the case of Pakistan) perhaps even in the short term. Journalists should be all over these stories, every day.

You might argue that Americans can walk and chew gum at the same time. Certainly the President can, and probably some readers can. But time and time again, the media and the general public have shown they can’t. A single story of titillating controversy involving powerful figures, which is what a backward look at the Dubya Disaster would be, can distract the public’s attention for weeks or months. Just recall how the Monica Lewinsky affair virtually paralyzed Bill Clinton’s entire second term.

One of our President’s least appreciated qualities is his uncanny ability to sense the public’s mood and understand the limitations of public attention. That’s why, in my view, he quietly repudiated the Dubya Pentagon’s whitewash without fanfare. That’s why he decided to sequester the cumulative photos of detainee mistreatment and to quietly reform Dubya’s military commissions. He wants to keep these titillating, controversial distractions out of the news so we can do what we must to arrest our ongoing national decline.

That decline had and has little to do with our recent economic meltdown. It began decades before 2008 and would be ongoing even if all our commercial and investment banks had remained profitable since 2006. President Obama knows that historians ultimately will judge his presidency by how quickly and how well he arrests that decline, and that our nation’s future depends on his doing so.

If journalists want to help their country, they must do more than close the barn door they left open, allowing Dubya’s demons four more years of rampage. They should focus on these four chief problems as relentlessly and obsessively as their scatterbrained readership allows. Another two presidential terms of letting our collective eyes drift from the ball would virtually guarantee loss of world leadership.

The President is an extraordinary leader, but he’s not a miracle worker. He needs active, engaged media focusing on what is really important in order to enact his ambitious agenda to arrest our national decline. That’s why we all, including our media, need to keep our eyes on the ball.

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