July 26, 2006

Home Towns in the Age of the Terror War

The image below is from Google Earth, of the south Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil (Bint Jubayl).

Bint Jbeil.jpg

I've included the snapshot because this is currently the site of intense "close quarter" fighting between the IDF and Hezbollah, covered by Stratfor in this podcast. Stratfor presents the conflict as a trigger for a critical debate beginning in Israel. The "internal debate" concerns whether Israel has the fortitude to continue fighting under conditions where its forces sustain heavy casualties. It's ironic, in some ways, that Bint Jbeil is the locus of such a "bloody angle", because the town has prospered during peace, rapidly developing into a small city and commercial/administrative center. It even has its own website here. The text is in Arabic, but there's an English version here. The large red iconic letters introducing the town to the world send the message: "Resisting!"

This is how small towns in the age of the Terror War are likely to present themselves, if their culture is what the philosopher and sociologist, Ernest Gellner, called "charismatic." These places have the promise of economic growth and prosperity that could create a middle class, and a substrate for civil society and democracy, but they've "resisted" that fate in favor of another. Where Israel stuggles with the hot dilemma that a legal/rational society endures when faced with horrible sacrifice in a war it would prefer never to fight, Bint Jbeil (a city whose name literally means "daughter of byblos") has a self-image, lodged in its deepest heart, of a miniature Stalingrad.

Posted by Demosophist at 04:50 PM | Comments (0)

July 23, 2006

Steve Sailor: What You Mean "We", Kimosabe?

Steve Sailor asks: "Do we really know what we are doing over there?" That is, are the "good Muslims" the Shia'ah (who we're supporting in Iraq, but opposing in Iran and Lebanon) or the Sunni (who are willing to let the Israeli whomp the Shia'ah for awhile in Lebanon, and need our protection in Iraq)?

To me, if it were easier to draw that distinction between good and bad (apparently there are even some terrorist versions of the Sufi sect) we'd be in pretty dire straits. It's the very complexity of the situation that's its saving grace. And the fact that we can't immediately identify who is good and who isn't by which sect they belong to suggests not only that there's another influence at work... more akin to Hegel and Marx than Ali or Muhammed, but that there are some creative things to be done that work to our advantage. For instance, it'd be really neato if we could peel Syria away, leaving Iran in sole possession of the Hezbollah franchise.

Strictly speaking, I simply don't know enough about the religious edicts of various versions of Islam to make an informed decision about who is, or isn't, a potential ally. Instead, I suggest we just oppose the people who are trying to kill us and ally ourselves with whoever isn't trying to do that. Thus, we let people who claim to know a lot more about their own religion make the critical decisions.

But having said that, I'm willing to consider that Steve Sailor may not know Shinola from its various substitutes.

Posted by Demosophist at 03:59 PM | Comments (0)

July 20, 2006

Flandis the Magnificent!

Well, after Ullrich and Basso were ousted from the Tour de France for doping I figured it wouldn't be very interesting this year. So I haven't been paying attention... until Tuesday. Suddenly Floyd Landis took the lead from Oscar Pereiro by 10 seconds on the climb up L'Alp d'Huez, and I figured: "Can it be that we've got another US cycling champion on the order of Lemond and Armstrong?" Then Flandis had the dreaded "bad day", and on one stage dropped over eight minutes behind the lead, to 11th place. The other American, Leipheiemer, was ahead of him in 9th, but still over 7 minutes behind. No one has ever come back from that kind of deficit this far into the race, to win the GC (General Classification). (Strictly speaking it has happened, but not for a very long time.) Failure, quagmire, time to pull out and "acknowledge reality". But Flandis was, curiously, still smiling...

Today his team helped him take the lead early in the race, and with 25 km to go they were still over 7 minutes ahead of the main group (peleton). But my "inner Cindy" argued that they'd never be able to keep that lead for 25 km. Behold, Floyd crossed the finish line over five minutes ahead of everyone else in the field! Not just a stage victory, but an unprecedented victory! My inner Cindy was mortified.

Landis is currently only 30 seconds behind the lead, Pereiro, in the GC. Tomorrow's stage is flat, so things are unlikely to change, but the individual time trial, or what many have called the "race of truth", is Saturday. And for the first time in many years the final TT will probably decide who wins the TdF. And for the eighth year in a row, it may well be an American!

[See relevant video here.
And see Charles Johnson's posts on Flandis here, here, and here.]

Posted by Demosophist at 01:16 PM | Comments (0)

July 11, 2006

Joe Lieberman's Problem

On the inaptly-named Democracy Arsenal Susan says:

Lieberman's problem is not that he supported the Iraq invasion, nor that he thinks we need to stay in and finish the job.... The crux of Lieberman's problem is his unwillingness to acknowledge the severity of what's happened in Iraq, and to demand accountability for it. Iraq has now replaced 9/11 as America's "prism of pain" - - the trauma-tinged lens through which everything else is viewed. Everyone from Chuck Hagel to Richard Holbrooke to Ret. General William Odom has judged Iraq worse than Vietnam. Against that backdrop, its just not enough for Lieberman to quickly state that he's previously been "critical" of the Administration's post-invasion errors, and then move on to an impassioned plea about why we can't leave Iraq now.

Eli Berman has written a number of treatises about the economic logic behind adopting what are essentially patently illogical positions on certain issues, in order to obtain "club goods". The logic has to do with the barriers such beliefs demarcate and the "sincerity" they're capable of demonstrating, distinguishing the believer from the larger society. In other words, if someone is fool enough to passionately declare their belief in something that a ten-year-old can see is simply untrue other members of the sect can probably trust the believer's position on a whole range of issues that aren't as obviously illogical. The "illogical" belief is a shibboleth. It's an emblem or sign of membership in the club or sect.

And it is a tragedy of contemporary politics that the Democratic Party's shibboleth has become a conviction that the US is losing the Terror War and that almost all efforts at defense are illegitimate.

Posted by Demosophist at 09:05 AM | Comments (0)

July 08, 2006

More on the SWIFT Disclosure

Dennis Lormel on the Counterterrorism Blog has some additional thoughts. Excerpt:

In taking the argument out of the realm of the theoretical and into the operational, and coupling it with specific and not generic factors, one can better identify the multi-dimensional considerations that should be factored into the debate. The reality is the Times SWIFT disclosure has been harmful. At a minimum, it has disrupted an innovative and productive investigative tool. One fact is certain…the disclosure has received intense media coverage and has caused terrorists and their supporters to sit up and take notice. This will cause terrorist operational changes and significant new challenges for the Government in identifying and countering evolving terrorist financing methodologies.
People and institutions make mistakes, especially in war, and one of the maxims about conflict is that it's not those who strive to eliminate all error who win, but those who strive to make the fewest really awful mistakes. So this isn't about carrying a grudge against the NYT, but about the fact that they're apparently so clueless that they don't even know they've made a mistake. And since the expertise required for them to make informed judgments about which disclosures are harmful has gone the way of the Monty Python Parrot, they ought to be enjoined from making such decisions until they wise up. Watching Keller take wild swings at soft underhand lobs by Charlie Rose the other night, nearly all of which he whiffed, I realized that the primary problem wasn't that this fellow was an idiot, but that he has no incentive to get wise. And until some are devised, we'd better just assume that Katy's knocked the doggone door off its hinges again.
Posted by Demosophist at 08:50 PM | Comments (0)

July 07, 2006

Mexican Stand-Off: The Dangerous Paralysis of Civilization

It's "deja vu all over again". Apparently the ideological tie that afflicted the US Presidential Election six years ago, and the deadlock that Thomas Mann has been writing about for a number of years, isn't just an American thing. If Europe is becoming less convinced of its cultural bet on appeasement, as a result of recent events, that may simply mean the impasse is spreading. In the US the primary impact of the Hamdan Decision is to defer to congress certain powers of war-making that the founders intended the executive fulfill, because... indecision may be bad all the time, it can be downright catastrophic in the midst of a war. We just can't bring ourselves to the point of lifting the burden of our own "Mexican Stand-Off" from the Executive. So, we pass the buck to congress where they can wrangle and bloviate about things while we twiddle and dance. Like, we really have such a luxury.

At precisely the time in history when we need to be decisive, we're afflicted with paralysis. We've got two approximately equal sides, equally convinced that they're right, and in diametric opposition to one another about critical issues that can impact not only whether we suffer a massive attack, but ultimately whether we lose the conflict outright. And, like I said, it's not just us.

So, what's going on?

Well, here's a possibility. Some years ago, in a fit of condescension, the rapping academic, Cornel West, suggested that the real difference between "conservatives" and "liberals" is not the nature of the important variables, but about how various contingencies are weighted. This may be true. In fact, I tend to think it is. If so, here's the problem: the way both sides conduct analysis doesn't take into account the contingent nature of that weighting, and how it's related to reality. We employ methods of analysis, argumentation, and decision-making that, in essence, mix all the uncertainties and certainties we perceive into a big pot. But the recipes we use to dole out the proportions are different.

In fact, it may be worse than that. If one side believes the odds that a particular ingredient will influence the result is less than 50:50 then that ingredient never makes it into the pot at all. The ingredient in that side's dish gets tossed. And then we promptly forget that we tossed it, and why. We act as though everything's tossed into the pot in proportions that are dictated by some transcendent reality that we understand by virtue of simply being human. It's the way we're made. It used to serve us well as hunter-gatherers, but perhaps no longer.

Removing a single variable from the mix changes the very nature of the dish (worldview) that we're left with. In cooking, such a modest shift between, say, salt and sugar, changes the nature of the dish from savory to dessert. In the realm of foreign policy it changes the nature of the decision from war to diplomacy. And the problem is that some people have a built-in taste for one and not the other. The nature of the problem itself is secondary to how it's depicted. We start out with a preference for dessert, and so it's unlikely that we'll toss in much salt even if dessert is inappropriate for supper.

Ultimately, we end up with solutions that aren't all that closely tied to the problems we're attempting to resolve and people sort themselves into approximately equal camps... because we have no really unbiased way of resolving our uncertainties; especially those that co-blogger A.L.'s recent post identifies with the Rumsfeldian insight that there are "some things we don't know that we don't know". (And that set of unknown unknowns may be quite different for the two camps.)

Well, the point here is that this whole "mixing pot" method of analysis and argumentation may be wrong-headed to begin with. It's actually a short cut that people sort of adopted as the mainstream method some time ago, because it seemed to work well enough for many non-critical and non-complicated disagreements. It's easy, but it may also be inappropriate to a critical-path world.

A physicist named Edward T. Jaynes recently wrote a book about a methodological split in probability theory that I didn't know existed: Probability Theory: The Logic of Science. (h/t: Candace on NRO's PhiBetaCon) To make a long story short, it's a book extolling the virtues of Bayesian probability theory, which is a rather esoteric topic for the layman. But the basic idea of Bayesian probability is pretty simple, and intuitively realistic. It's that once an event happens, or we become certain of it's occurrence, it changes the contextual circumstances for the next choice or option in a critical path series of uncertainties or contingencies. That's kind of a mouthful, for the insight that "what happens matters".

For most of us the choices we thought we had prior to 9/11 changed radically as a result of that attack. But more to the point, we could have decided to look at our future some time prior to 9/11 by factoring in the odds that such an event would, or wouldn't, happen--and then have considered the difference between the two probability-sequenced critical paths. The idea here isn't so much about prevention of the attack, but about contemplation of the world such an event would leave us with. It enables us to make better decisions now, but it also does somethig else. It moves us inexorably in the direction of resolution...

Had we employed such an approach prior to 9/11 we might not be in the sort of near-deadlock we find ourselves in at the moment, where we seem unable to resolve whether the revelation of a secret-but-legal intelligence method places us in greater long term danger. How do we proceed to weight the various uncertainties, each of which will impact uncertainties further out or more distant? If we have no idea then we're more or less doomed to simply decide that there are too many uncertainties to deal with "realistically", and we end up with deadlock. And if instead we bit the bullet, and used some sort of critical path method, we still might not agree. In fact, we probably wouldn't. But at the very least we'd tend to know where the disagreements really lie and so could carefully monitor our uncertainties, adjusting the debate to fit the facts and contingencies as they become resolvable.

So, it's all about resolution. It's all about constructing a set of "lenses" for our poor tired society's eyes that correct for both near and far-sightedness at the same time. The bottom line is that we want our vision to improve, rather than degrade, over time.

So what do we need, at a bare minimum, to accomplish this? Well, I can think of two things that seem critical:

1. A "public intelligence system" that is efficiently self-correcting and transparent. That is, something other than mainstream media, which tends to propagate and justify mistakes rather than updating with chronologically-stamped revisions that facilitate decision-making and strategizing. Our current media has an interest in covering mistakes that are part of the critical path. Plus we need to learn to forgive such mistakes to some degree, in the interest of accurately resolving contingencies, so that we don't continue to debate things that have already been largely decided by events.

For instance: we don't need to keep debating indefinitely whether there were WMD in Iraq, and we can move on to a discussion of the significance of various kinds and stages of WMD that we know were there, or that we might find in the future, or that might have been developed had certain events come to pass. And we can dispense with concepts like "operational relationships" between al Qaeda and Saddam (or now the Mullahs) and can talk about contingent relationships between al Qaeda and other state actors that may or may not develop into "operational relationships" as a result of our actions, or inactions.

2. We also need an academic/research establishment that's more oriented toward this critical path/contingent mode of analysis, and is willing to talk in those terms to the public. Such an establishment would "raise the bar" for discourse, and I have no doubt that many of us in the intelligence consuming public would rise to the challenge. We're not as dumb as we look. If necessary we can employ technologies that help us "grasp" what's being discussed.

In other words at least some of the methodological issues that have distorted our social and hard sciences are endemic as part of the way we, as private individuals, do things. And this "two-dimensional viewpont" is embedded in the way we argue and debate issues. Well, often it's not even two but one-dimensional. This, we can't continue to tolerate, for while we get deeper and deeper into this Mexican Stand-off we're fighting an enemy that just doesn't have the same problem. They don't have the problem of paralysis because they're absolutists. Their minds are made up, and their debate, if it ever happened, is finished.

Posted by Demosophist at 11:40 AM | Comments (0)

July 05, 2006

SWIFT Outrage

Jeff Goldstein about catches the appropriate mood, with this:

Anyway, let’s count the boons to the “public good” here, shall we: 1) reporting on the classified information leaked them, the Times’ editors were told, would jeopardize three ongoing investigations; 2) the program and its searches were clearly legal, a fact made clear to the editors, who were shown evidence to that effect; 3) administration officials and others made it clear to the editors that printing the leaked classified information would jeopardize not only the ongoing investigations, but would irreparably damage a program that had been demonstrably effective; 4) despite all this, the Times’ went with the story—an editorial decision that in fact jeopardized three investigations, “outed” a legal classified program, and rendered an effective program for thwarting terrorist planning and rolling up cells impotent. In addition, they created problems for our allies, who will likely be far more circumspect about helping the US with any future programs for fear of being exposed by leakers with ties to the intelligence community.

And then they had the temerity to spill ink over their struggles with conscience—concluding, ultimately (and boy, here’s a shocker) that they owed it to the public to render useless the legal program that had actually been protecting them.

Which, while that certainly takes balls like casaba melons, is nevertheless still self-serving and repugnant rubbish that anyone with a bit of sense would dismiss as such.

There's apparently an investigation underway to find the leaker, and the American Spectator feels it's unlikely to be a current intelligence professional. Rather it's some former official with a grudge or score to settle, or perhaps an aspiration to fulfill. The whole episode has the smarm signature of someone like Richard Clarke. And strangely I have this irresistible urge to say "the late Richard Clarke", not because I think he's exactly dead, per se, or because I wish him so. But he seems to have transformed himself into some sort of wraith-like approximation of the human he used to be, once upon a time. Not someone one thinks of walking around in the sunlight.

Leaving that speculation aside, whoever the culprit is he/she/it must be someone whose ethical gears have been stripped, and is just grinding out what's left of its store of integrity into a greasy little pile in some darkened corner.

Posted by Demosophist at 06:07 PM | Comments (0)