Happy New Year


AsianSecurity Blog needed a break these last few weeks. Blogging well is a lot harder than I originally thought. And given the topics covered – nukes, North Korean repression, terrorism – it can be fairly depressing too. It is tough to come up with something smart and creative 2 or 3 times a week. Looking back at the last 9 months, I have written a book’s length worth of posts. For any of you thinking about graduate school or other sustained professional writing careers, serious blogging is good way to accustom yourself to serious, regular writing.

See you all next year. Enjoy the goofy vid. It’s a lighter take on the one of the worst aspects of security in Asia.

TV Review: The Best Pop Culture Translation of the War on Terror is… Battlestar Galactica?!


It’s Christmas week, so here is something lighter than usual…

And yes, you read that title right.

Lots of people get their beliefs about big issues from pop-culture, a social fact wildly underappreciated in social science. Witness the stunning impact of “24” on US popular attitudes to terrorism. And of all the shows and movies I have seen about the GWoT since 9/11, none of them capture the tensions as well as the new Battlestar Galatica. This is not a replacement for actually reading something, but it was political TV entertainment with brain, and that strikes me as awful rare. I just watched it on DVD. The show really flies off the rails midway through season 3, but the first few seasons are much sharper than I expected regarding the GWoT.

In the show, a human people from a far away planet are being pursued across space by a mechanical race (the Cylons) which they created but who then turned on them. The creators used this plot, which was so bad in the first show in 1978, to build an extended metaphor about the US in the War on Terrorism. I found this remarkably clever, particularly given American science fiction’s preference for silly CGI space alien stories like Avatar. Here are a few good parallels:

1. The humans repeatedly face extreme and realistic trade-offs that result in mass fatalities. Usually GWoT movies and TV soft pedal ethically awkward choices by establishing one character as the bad guy, whose death will wrap up the morality of the story easily (see the bloodthirsty Christian prince in Kingdom of Heaven or the sleazy bad guys of 24). In BSG, some humans are sacrificed for the good of the greater number. Civilians are left behind to die; soldiers shoot civilians; defenseless enemies are butchered. No one leaves the show morally excused or pure and therefore easy for US viewers to identify this.

2. The torture debate runs throughout the show. Cylon prisoners are abused, beaten, even raped. And even more realistically, sometimes torture is shown to work, sometimes not. And in one episode, a prisoner released from torture promptly kills her guard – very believable and very uncomfortable punishment for doign the right thing. The Cylons too torture their prisoners. It’s blood and pain all around, which pretty much sums up the US flirtation with torture as a tool of national policy.

3. The shows nicely demonstrates the tension between civil and military command during wartime. At two points, there are military putsches and martial law – basically Chalmers Johnson’s fear about the direction of the Bush presidency.

4. Lots of decisions are made under conditions of extremely poor information. The show abounds in the moral dilemmas of ‘what if’ scenarios that leave more bodies behind. At one point, the civilian president and military second-in-command decide to assassinate the military first-in-command, because she is promoting torture and military dictatorship.

5. The show also channels the GWoT paranoia about sleeper cells. The Cylons have agents that look exactly look humans. This captures exactly the fear of Muslims in the West who seem just like us until something like the London bombing or Ft. Hood shooting happens. Inevitably after these things happen, neighbors always say, ‘they seemed like such nice young men, so normal.’ The show makes strong use of the paranoia this creates, and it shows the splits and divisions among the humans that such paranoia creates.

6. The most obvious parallel, which is probably overdone by the producers, is to make the Cylons crusading monotheists and the humans polytheists. It is almost too easy to see the Cylons as Islamic jihadis. But again, the show gets good intellectual mileage out of the issue of religious tolerance, and the show has multiple characters who invoke God to justify extreme behavior.

7. The show also displays well the long-term stress that constant war places on democracy. The humans slowly become more regimented. Their democracy is constantly under threat of military intervention justified as wartime necessity. The soldiers are constantly tempted by jingoism and strut. The parallels to barracks democracies like Israel and South Korea are rich, and arguably the show was warning against the drift of the Bush administration.

8. There are lots of subtle digs at the Bush people. One leadership character prefers a standing desk and authorizes torture – nice a Donald Rumsfeld reference. The president of the humans undergoes a religious conversion.

9. The show does have flaws. Like too much science fiction, the core audience is young male, so the show abounds in ridiculously out-of-place sexy women. The CGI is mixed. The show has the same military obsession with people in uniform that so much US TV and film has. Like so many US war films, there is a great deal of macho military posturing, saluting, and barking, but at least there is some critical perspective. But this adulation of the military values also reflects the Bush-era GWoT.

This is vastly superior to 24 and other GWoT junk like Stealth or Lord of the Rings 3. The moral dilemmas are sharply defined, the choices available are usually bad, and the ‘right’ moral choice is rarely clearly apparent. The same kinds of cost-benefit analyses under stress and poor information that characterize political decision-making during war are regularly displayed. I found this a breadth of fresh air after laboring through the action-movie and easy morality idiocy of 24.

The Delicious Irony of al Qaeda’s Looming Bankruptcy


One of the many ironies of Islamic fundamentalism – besides the most obvious of killing for God – is its dependence on money despite its overtly nonfinancial religiosity, and its theological commitment to wrecking capitalism.

Hah! So much for all that piety and devotion to Allah; better go sell some more heroin to southeast Asian drug lords.

FP has a nice bit on al Qaeda’s rocky finances, which raises the obvious question no jihadi would ever address – why should an aggressively religious-ideological organization require money at all?

The answer of course is just as obvious. Most ‘warriors for God’ are in it for the cash; God is just nice ideological cover. Lots of pirates, separatists, militias, and other brigands in Southeast Asia (Philippines especially) and Africa use Islamism as cover for pretty standard mafiaosi thuggery. If the Taliban ran out of drug money, how many of its ‘devoted’ warriors would show up the next day? In fact, we learned just how few, when the drug money temporarily dried up after the Northern Alliance victory in late 2001. It took about 5 years for the Taliban to get back on its feet, because it was broke. But aren’t martyrs looking to go to heaven supposed to fight for free? I guess not.

And how about using capitalist tools (fundraising, shadowy bank accounts, paychecks to fighters and video producers) against capitalism itself? Doesn’t the use of the tools bring those very pollutions into the heart of the jihadi effort?If capitalism brings ‘westoxification’ and ‘Jewish financial hegemony’ – hence the targeting of the World Trade Centers – how does one reconcile using it openly?

The answer is just as obvious – one can’t –  which tells you just how intellectually bankrupt Islamism, even in its softer forms, really is. Muslims, like everyone else, can be seduced by money. They are just as tempted to willfully misread their own private interest as aligned with their religious requirements. This must be a revelation to absolutely no one save the radical imams of the Middle East. In 1202, the fourth crusaders, supposedly off to save the Holy Land for Christianity, took a left turn to plunder other (byzantine) Christians for the cash instead. How nice. And what an obvious parallel to Saddam Hussein paying the families of Palestinian suicide bombers in the 1990s.

Further, the Muslim world is just as tied into the global economy as everyone else. You can’t ‘escape’ capitalism or the market, just like you can’t ‘escape’ gravity or the tides. Just ask the Soviets; 75 years of titanic effort and bloodshed still couldn’t keep Russians from trading on the black market for bluejeans. The non-western paradise Islamists want is just as illusory and ridiculous as the Aryan pre-modern paradise the Nazis wanted to build in Russia. If even al Qaeda has to use ‘Jewish’ money and capitalism to fight exactly those evils, then there’s no way they will win – no matter how many financial centers they blow up. The world has moved on; Islamists are on a fool’s errand to find a myth that never really existed anyway

Ft. Hood, the Unpursued Possibility of Mini-Terror, and the Failure of al Qaeda in America


I have been teaching terrorism since 2003, and again and again, I have asked where is the mini-terror campaign against American infrastructure and civilians?

Al Qaeda has a well-known penchant for mega-terror. 9/11 is an obvious example, as was the attempted sinking of the USS Cole in 2000. Other foiled plots included wild efforts to blow up multiple hijacked planes over the ocean, and this year’s more varied mega-efforts.

Yet this has always struck me as strategically foolish for al Qaeda after 9/11. Post-9/11, the US is pursuing al Qaeda all over the place. Institutional security, hardening of civilian infrastructure,and homeland defense are all vastly improved. It is much harder to hijack a plane or blow up a building now. Mega-plots are hard to organize. They are complex and expensive. They require more staff, more preparation, etc. With so many moving parts, it is easier to catch and unravel them, especially given the long build-up time necessary and the greater western vigilance post 9/11. The 9/11 plot was a one-off opportunity; its very completion eliminated such an opportunity for future plotters by insuring a major subsequent security beef-up. It benefitted from the low scrutiny and attention given to terrorism pre-9/11. Insofar as it permanently heightened western awareness of suspicious activity, it has become significantly harder to pull off mega-terror since then, at least in the west.

Given this western police awareness and sensitivity to big plots, why doesn’t AQAM (al Qaeda and associated movements) pursue mini-terror, like Fort Hood or the Virginia Tech shootings? Terrorism is well-known as an asymmetric tactic, so if western agencies are keyed into mega-plots, why not adjust and go the low route?

A mini-terror campaign would focus on the softest of western civilian infrastructure, as it does in Israel – malls, shops, buses, restaurants, etc. The sustained mini-terror campaigns of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad were brutally successful at destabilizing Israeli society in the 1990s, as the Bader-Meinhof gang was in the Germany in the 70s. If I were an enterprising young terrorist looking to make my mark (think Abu Musab al Zarqawi), I would take these urban war tactics right to the US. Consider:

1.  how easy it is to enter the US illegally; something like a million people a year do it.

2. how easy it is to buy a gun, legally or not, in the US.

3. how many people Nidal Hasan (Ft. Hood) and Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech) killed and wounded simply with pistols.

4. how many old people, children, and pregnant women go to your nearest shopping mall, and how obese the guards look.

5. the crippling, popular paranoia 2 or 3 such mall massacres would create in the US (imagine the Fox News response!).

This scenario seems so blindingly obvious to me, it cries out for explanation why it is NOT happened: three or four OBL-wannabes slip across the Mexican-US border, paying the vast human smuggling networks operating in northern Mexico to get them over. They then hit a gun show in Texas, because gun show gun sales require no background check. They then head off the nearest shopping mall. Learning from Cho, they chain or block the ground-level exits. They then walk in and start shooting. In 20 minutes they could kill 100+ unsuspecting, unprepared, slow-moving people. A few of these massacres would then create a massive populist outcry to treat US Muslims as we did the Japanese during WWII. And this is exactly what AQAM wants – the clash of civilizations right in the heartland of the infidel.

Given that this has never happened, especially when it would be so easy, a serious research project is waiting to be written. The answer is not simply that US Muslims are well-integrated. That did not prevent the 9/11 hijackers from penetrating the US, nor did it stop Hasan this month. I think a better answer is that of John Mueller – that the Islamic terrorist threat may in fact be wildly overblown. If it is this easy to kill so many Americans and stir up mass islamophobia, then the only reason it hasn’t happened is because there a lot fewer radical Islamist suicide killers than we think. This a guess though; this question needs a real researched answer.

The Ft. Hood Shooter and the Dual Loyalty Question


As has been noted, too much of the commentary on the Fort Hood shooting has avoided the fairly obvious, albeit very politically incorrect, explanation. Clearly Hasan, who yelled ‘Allah akhbar’ during the killings, was murdering out of jihadist-fundamentalist intent. These were the same last words heard from Flight 93 over Pennsylvania. Given that the US has a Muslim population of at least 2 million (the data are hotly contested), it is hardly unlikely that all US Muslims remain untempted by the binladenist call. In fact, given Europe’s thorny problems with jihadism, it is remarkable how little of this has happened in the US.

This does not mean, of course, that all Muslims are radicals or that some sort of ‘green scare’ is necessary or whatever. But that is a straw man used to deflect serious discussion. We should also not use ‘islamophobia’ as a racist slur to prevent a serious investigation of Hasan’s motives and a national discussion about the integration process that so spectacularly failed in his case. If anything, the initial US reaction was so adamantly worried about this possibility, that the analysis, for all its good intentions, has obviously missed the real reason. It is politically correct to suggest stress and syndromes and such, but it is also rather dishonest.

Hasan actually fits a fairly well-known profile of Muslim bombers and fanatics who have emerged from the West. They feel deeply alienated by the GWoT. They worry that it targets Muslims, not terrorists, and that the GWoT is really a Judeo-Christian crusade against Islam. They feel deep conflict between their ties of citizenship and religion. Frequently they are socially isolated, and their vague discontent is catalyzed and metastasized by some radical cleric or website. Olivier Roy has done a lot of good work on the alienation Muslims living in the West feel, and how that alienation can drive extreme cases into terrorism. Try here and here. This profile fits the 9/11 hijackers, the Scottish airport assailants, and the London bombers.

The issue we seem to loathe finger for multicultural PC reasons is the ‘dual loyalty’ problem, but it so clearly obvious here that it cries out for discussion. It should be blindingly obvious that most people hold multiple identities or roles and that these will conflict. They do so in our lives everyday. Our roles as professionals at work collide with our responsibilities to our families. But if we apply this strikingly obvious logic to race/religion/nationality questions, it simply becomes taboo in US.

Because the US is an immigrant country, this logic creates terrible tensions. So we have admirably tried to ignore it, but turning away doesn’t mean it goes away. Indeed, what softens that dual loyalty problem is integration over time – the Americanization that comes from living in the US for several generations. Just about everyone’s grandmother gets off the boat with deep ties to the Old Country. The parents straddle the Old and New Country with proficiency in both languages. The grandkids don’t speak the old language at all, indulging only silly multicultural fantasies of ‘finding their roots,’ even though anyone from the Old Country would immediately tag them as an American. By the great-grandkid’s generations, the Old Country is a misty myth, and the great-grandkid’s spouse is likely to be of another ethnicity anyway. Hence, Americanization.

As Samuel Huntington notes, the requirements of US citizenship are comparatively light. This means just about anyone can join the US national community. It also ensures a certain level of cultural frisson that simply would not be tolerated in many other countries. Clearly simply handing someone a flag or a driver’s license does not insure Americanization, nor, does even the military uniform of Hasan (a great surprise, that, actually). Far more likely is time and sociality. Mixing, learning, speaking the language, interaction, slowly wears away the sharp conflict of identities and helps each individual informally reconcile possibly competing loyalties.

Islam however does raise particular issues of integration, as Islam frequently defines itself as a ‘way of life,’ rather than simply a ‘go-to-service-on-the-weekend’ religion that most Americans profess. Insofar as Islam indulges totalist visions of religion as an all-encompassing lifestyle, the pluralism and tolerance necessary for living in the West may not come easy. (For a similar problem, consider the unique status of the Amish.) This seems to be Europe’s great problem. America’s Muslims seem to have made their peace with pluralism better. That needs to be explained; there is a good dissertation there.

Time for Indecision on Afghanistan


The growing pressure for a ‘big’ decision on Afghanistan is misguided. The neo-cons and other hawkish elements are raising the temperature on this unnecessarily by suggesting that Obama must go all in soon, or the Democrats will be responsible for losing another war. Slow down there, Tom Clancy. There is a case for muddling through also, not just leaving or going all in.

There is growing evidence that a big rush to judgment and commitment on Afghanistan is unnecessary. (Read Fred Kaplan’s last few columns.) I found this article by AJ Rossmiller most persuasive against the fallacy that Obama has to make One BIG Momentous Decision that will determine his whole first term. Rossmiller wisely suggests that there is actually no big need to ramp up huge forces there right now, with all the costs and commitments that come with a build-up. Muddling through is working pretty well.

It seems to me that the push to have one big decision is really a rhetorical strategy by Afghan surge supporters. By talking this way, they seek to create the view that if O doesn’t make a huge choice RIGHT NOW, all could be lost. This framing of the decision is designed to push him into the surge, by making it look like he is giving up if he doesn’t pile in. Better to lock in Obama on Afghanistan now, early, before he learns too much and starts to hedge.

The model for such a decision-making approach is Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, and LBJ on Vietnam after Pleiku. A new, unsure president gets pushed into a big war-making effort by a collection of advisors with deep stakes in the military-industrial approach to conflict. As a Salon blogger put it, LBJ probably should have listened to Norman Mailer (!) instead of Bundy or McNamara. I wouldn’t go that far, but the point is that these ‘strategic reviews’ recycle the usual suspects. Even better is Greenwald’s powerful column that the ‘foreign policy community’ as an industry has a vested interest in imperial overstretch and war as a tool of conflict resolution. I particularly like Greenwald’s identification that whenever you ring up Rand or the Kagans, the answer is more military action. Hah! Money quote:

As Foreign Policy‘s Marc Lynch notes:

“The ‘strategic review’ brought together a dozen smart (mostly) think-tankers with little expertise in Afghanistan but a general track record of supporting calls for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy.  They set up shop in Afghanistan for a month working in close coordination with Gen. McChrystal, and emerged with a well-written, closely argued warning that the situation is dire and a call for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy. Shocking.”

The link he provides is to this list of think tank ’experts’ who worked on McChrystal’s review, including the standard group of America’s war-justifying theorists:  the Kagans, a Brookings representative, Anthony Cordesman, someone from Rand, etc. etc.  What would a group of people like that ever recommend other than continued and escalated war?  It’s what they do.  You wind them up and they spout theories to justify war.  That’s the function of America’s Foreign Policy Community.

The model for going ‘all in’ of course is the Bush surge in Iraq. But there was hardly a decision-making ‘process’ with W, understood as a careful weighing of options and competing views. You knew W would not leave, but double-down instead: Iraq was the signature issue of his presidency in by 2007; he was obsessed with machismo and mistook bulheadedness for toughness; and no arguments were going to dissuade Bush, because the ‘decider’ was a ‘gut player,’ not a listener. There was no real debate; W blew off the Iraq Study Group and rolled the dice. Nor do we know if it was the surge that helped stabilize Iraq. A lot suggests it was the change in strategy from warfighting to COIN, as well as the the shady and mundane pay-off of Sunni insurgents. In short, it may not have been Bush’s heroic insight into the war, but simply handing bags of $100 bills to Sunni gunmen that helped quiet Iraq.

Six weeks ago, I argued to give McChrystal a chance on COIN in Afghanistan. I am not arguing now for the offshore CT approach, but rather for a little more muddling through. I still think we should stay in Afghanistan with a heavier footprint than VP Biden would like. But my concern here is to avoid pushing Obama into one great, over-heated ‘ALL OR NOTHING!’ decision. Framing the decision that way basically blackmails him into making the choice those framing the debate this way want him to make, ie, the big build-up.

The ‘War on Terror’ is not over just because We don’t use that Expression Anymore


The above silliness is what happens when you pretend Obama’s charisma can stop the GWoT.

If you have read this blog even a few times, you know I thought Bush was a pretty poor president. He got lots of things wrong, and the country is much worse off after W than before. But flagging the post-9/11 anti-terrorism campaign as the ‘Global War on Terror’ was a good rhetorical move, and the expression should kept, if only because no one else has come up with a good alternative – one that rings of the scope, focus, and moral weight of ‘GWoT.’

Getting the GWoT rolling was a success. Getting other states to take terrorism seriously in the wake of 9/11 was foreign policy success. There is no doubt that Islamic jihadists are targeting the US. OBL and the rest believe this is a clash of civilizations. They believe Islam is encircled by non-believers, and they will fight to defend the faith. Americans are the primary threat to it. Bush, for all his flaws, realized this. And he did realize that the enemy is dispersed around the umma. This will be a large, multi-front problem for awhile. That does not mean it must be ‘WWIV,’ but it does mean that terrorism, specifically Islamic terrorism, is the most important national security threat to the US and the West in general for the next decade. (China could change that if she goes belligerent, but so far she is following the rules pretty well.)

None of that brief analysis is very controversial anymore. And the term ‘GWoT’ captured this pretty well. It is a bit indelicate as a term of art. But still it captured the essence of the current struggle pretty well.

So I am disappointed at the continuing, almost ideological unwillingness of the Obama people to utter this concept. I know they loathe W, and I suppose they think the expression simply alienates the rest of the world. But it did bring clarity about this contest to the US population and rally them to sacrifice and commitment. And it does help strategists build ideas within it as a conceptual frame about the future of US foreign policy. (For a good example, see Thomas Barnett’s Pentagon’s New Map.)

Further, it strikes me as willful blindness: the war on terror is past because we just don’t talk that way anymore. Really? The war on terror is over just because W is out of 0ffice and McCain lost? Obama can’t even close Guantanamo or untangle the torture mess. And the jihadists don’t care at all if Obama is black or lived in a Moslem country. You can’t end the war on terrorism with a linguistic sleight of hand; antiwestern terrorism will not be slowed, just because we don’t say it anymore. This strikes me as a rhetorical arrogance, but then the Obama people seem to lay so much emphasis on his ability as a communicator.

In short, it seemed like a pretty good term to nail down an elusive problem and an even more elusive response. Yes, it is open-ended expression, suggesting war that could go and on with no end in sight. But there is not really much else to put in its place. Condolezza Rice once suggested the ‘campaign against global extremism’ or something awkward like that, but that got nowhere. And after 8 months, Obama and H Clinton still have no kinder, gentler replacement. I still use the expression when I teach, even though the new administration does not, because I’ve got nothing else that works so well.

So come on already. Admit that we are still in this thing, even if the O people want to fight it a different way.

TV Review: “24” Season 1 – If “24” is even Close to Accurate, then We are Deservedly Losing the GWoT

I have been teaching terrorism for about 5 years, but I am not a big fan of serial television. So I had never actually seen an episode of “24.” But my students always reference it in class, and ‘Jack Bauer’ has become synonymous with a no-holds-barred approach to the GWoT. GOP officials occasionally refer to the show, usually in praiseworthy or pseudomethodological terms – as in, ‘we need try to the Jack Bauer-approach to counterterrorism,’ or ‘Jack Bauer wouldn’t let politics stand in the way.’ (It always amazes me how congressmen, who we think have greater access to good or secret government information, nonetheless draw ‘knowledge’ from the same media flim-flam as the rest of us do. Please don’t tell me Congress gets its sense of counterterrorism from movies and TV!) My sense was that such Jack Bauer references meant we need to bend the rules, torture, and otherwise wander into Cheney’s famed ‘dark side.’ And so it was when I watched the show for the first time. I watched season 1 on DVD over the summer, and I was genuinely disturbed and depressed.

1. It is entertaining TV. It watches like a page-turner novel reads. Lots of twists and turns, and plots and counterplots. But this is the first error compared to real life intelligence. If the CIA, FBI, NCTC, etc, had as many moles, rogues, and traitors as the 24’s ‘Counterterrorism Unit’ (CTU) then the agency would be closed and cleansed, and lots of people would wind up in jail.

2. The plot, at least of season 1, bears little resemblance to the actuality of contemporary US counterterrorism (CT). Most of the work of intelligence is bland trolling through information, trying to piece together something useful for policymakers, and providing good, hopefully somewhat predictive analysis – i.e., a lot of reading and writing at a desk. And the cases are far less grandiose and exciting. Actual US CT is a lot more like busting those losers who were supposedly going to blow up the Sears Tower and those Lodi Muslims who were probably entrapped. The show depicts extremely well organized, well-funded, and elaborate plots. Planes blow up, cops get shot with abandon, traitors abound. This unhelpfully feeds the American paranoia of sleeper cells and incipient plots; I see now why the left disliked the show so much during the Bush presidency. It reinforced exactly the kind of hysteria that Bush stoked to get reelected. But actually, it is increasingly likely that 9/11 was an exception and that the domestic terrorist threat is quite minimal.

3. The Bauer character pulls straight from the disturbing Bush, do-whatever-it-takes playbook. So in one episode Bauer says both ‘forget the warrant,’ and ‘ignore the chain of command’ (!). In the real world this should get him disciplined and fired. In another, he shoots a superior with a tranquilizer gun. In the conclusion, he shoots the bad guy terrorist multiple times after he has emptied his gun and raised his hands. All this stuff may feel emotionally fulfilling, but of course, going out of bounds so regularly is exactly what lead to Abu Ghraib and torture. It may look necessary and heroic on TV, but in practice, breaking the rules around violence creates snowball effects, ambiguity, and bad precedents. If US CT staff is acting like Bauer does, with all the gunfighting, hyperventilating, and rule-bending, then our institutions are corroding because of the GWoT, not in order to win it.

4. Somehow the show’s CTU can get whatever doorcodes, email passwords, or other electronic access necessary. Again, this is terribly unhelpful. It suggests that your private life is unsafe before easy and unscrutinized government intrusion (PATRIOT Act, NSA illegal wiretaps). It feeds the paranoia.

5. The office staff seems to acquire and collate huge amounts of information quite quickly. Here is another slip with reality. As the Iraq intel debate showed us, most US intelligence agencies have little hard and secret information, and they struggle a lot to put it together properly. Most of what they use is the same ‘open source’ stuff that the rest of us see. (A friend at the CIA once told me that 95% of what they look at is open-source). The show wildly exaggerates the amount of good and covert information; the staff’s ability to sort it out from all the other noise and chatter that the intel agencies monitor; and perhaps most important of all – as the pre-9/11 investigation of the hijackers showed – how hard it is to connect all and only those dots. In short, the show wildly overrates the effectiveness of intelligence services.

So yes, it does channel the zeitgeist of the Bush-era GWoT well. As a trip down memory lane to the bad old days of torture and intel snafus, it is ‘enjoyable.’ As a teaching device, I suppose it is useful as the illustration of one manner of CT (do-whatever-it-takes), and the one the US (unfortunately) looked the other way on in the wake of 9/11. The show’s violence and law-breaking method feels to me like what Cheney had in mind when he said we must go ‘over to the dark side’ to fight terrorism. All-in-all I was pretty disturbed. If ‘24’ is our approach, then we deserve to lose.

Grotesque Misuse of a Korean Victim in the War on Terror

The following is a letter to the editor of the Korea Times on the killing of a South Korean in Yemen by a jihadist group. Published on June 26, 2009, it is available here.

“The tragic execution of Eom Young-sun reflects the barbarism of binladenist jihadism in the Middle East. But it is both empirically inaccurate and morally grotesque to suggest that her slaying a “reflects South Korea’s rising international status.”

Ms. Eom was murdered with eight others foreigners of various nationalities, suggesting she was a target of opportunity, and not chosen because she was Korean. It is correct that Korea is a US ally, but it is only nominally involved in the war on terror. And Islamic fundamentalism is most worried about theistic competition with other abrahamic monotheisms (Judaism and Christianity)  and Hindu polytheism. Korea (despite its growing Christian population) is culturally and geographically quite distant from these concerns. Islamic fundamentalists have shown little interest in religious competition with Buddhism or Confucianism since the destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas.

Morally perverse however is spinning a savage execution into a grotesque complement to Korea’s national stature. Small countries like Korea usually lament their low international recognition. This is understandable, as world attention focuses on great powers. This breeds status-craving and weak global self-esteem in wannabes like Spain, Italy, or Turkey, and Jon Huer has aptly made this point about Korea. But reading this homicide as a perverse ‘complement’ suggests not that Korea has “rising status,” but that Koreans crave it so much, they will look for even the flimsiest, most grotesque evidence. This is disappointing.

Korea is a fine place to live – wealthy, liberal, democratic, plural. It is patiently and steadfastly resisting the world’s last and worst stalinist tyranny without sliding into authoritarianism (as Pakistan and East Germany did in their local competitions). This is a huge achievement. That is the root of its prestige; that is what Koreans should take pride in.”

Obama In Cairo

Just about everybody has an idea for what the Great O should say. So here’s my run down:

1. Propaganda: One of the basic elements to successfully criticizing someone is to build up them before you tear them down. This is pretty simple psychology. Teachers use it all the time in trying to break it to students that their work is actually pretty bad.

Expect this from Obama, because Arab/Muslim prestige is such a big factor in Middle East politics. The ME has made it clear it would rather be right and poor than admit mistakes, flex, and get wealthy. Thomas Friedman (as well as B Lewis, F Zakaria, F Ajami, and countless others) has argued for years about just how deeply Arabs and Muslims want to fight to hang on to their ‘olive trees,’ regardless what it does to their economy, relations with the West, and overall ME power in world politics. And now, but for Africa, the Middle East is the worst governed region on earth. Yet the ME remains downright recalcitrant when it comes to learning from the West (Khomeini’s classic ‘westoxification’).

This is folly of course. One need only look at China, Japan and Korea to see how well emulation can work, and that it does not mean cultural Americanization, religious betrayal/Christianization, or wild Khomeinist Jewish conspiracy theories. Instead it it is the route to growth and weight in the international system. So 50 years ago, Nasser was more important than Mao, but today China is forging the future, and globalization is passing the ME by.

Nevertheless Obama must cater to this sensibility. He must throw out multicultural softballs about how Americans respect Islam, see it as one of the world’s great religions, value its past cultural achievements in areas like mathematics, etc. The irony of course is that none of this is true. Islam makes the West pretty nervous; its theology is radically simpler than Christianity, much less the western philosophical tradition serious thinkers must engage (and that helped make Christianity so much intellectually richer), so its unlikely most educated westerners ‘respect’ it; and who really cares about Islamic scientific progress several centuries ago? Who cares if Americans invited the lightbulb years ago? You don’t see the Chinese telling the West to respect it because of gunpowder, but rather because it is a growth dynamo, and we desperately need their savers.

2. Truth: Somehow Obama needs to say the same stuff W did about democracy, freedom, rights for women, open markets, and the US commitment to reduce terrorism. Thankfully Obama is a vastly better salesman for the ‘freedom agenda.’ 1. He is not an evangelical, but only mildly religious and mostly secular. 2. He is a Democrat, the party generally associated with multilateralism and internationalism in US foreign policy. 3. He is an intellectual and so probably understands what the freedom agenda actually is (unlike W who repeated it mantra-like, even as his administration undermined it at home). 4. His personal history speaks volumes.

So when Muslims hear a black secular liberal Democrat with the middle name Hussein who lived in Indonesia still say the same thing W did, then hopefully they will know we mean it. Just because Obama is new, young, black, more secular, whatever, doesn’t mean the region’s religious fanatics (including zionist settlers), autocrats, and terrorists should get a pass.

If Obama welches on this, if he avoids criticizing Mubarak, or if he looks a like he is accommodating Muslim supremacist thinking in order to end the GWoT, he will face crushing conservative criticism at home, and deservedly so.

3. Really Tough Truth: If Obama really has guts, he will talk about religious pluralism. To my mind, this is central cultural breakpoint between the West and Islam today. Islam as practiced today in the Middle East does not meaningful embrace religious pluralism or politically accept it. (Note: It does in Indonesia and SE Asia, which is exactly why the Saudi clerical establishment has funded the building of schools and mosques there.) ME Islam particularly seems unwilling to admit the equality of all religions before a neutral secular state. Parts of the world are still designated ‘Muslim lands;’ apostasy is still a crime in at least 8 Muslim-majority states; and even Iraq’s constitution declares it a Muslim state in which the Koran can be a source of law. So long as the supremacy of Islam is a defining feature of politics in the region, it will be hard for non-Muslims to ‘respect’ or feel comfortable with the ME. No other part of the world mixes religion and politics like this anymore. In the West, secular politics dates to the Enlightenment, if not the Reformation. When Westerners look at politicized religion in the ME, they see their own dangerous past of the religious wars of the 16th C.

4. Payoff: 2 and 3 would be pretty tough to swallow for the Islamic ME, so here is a great payoff that is good for the US (and Israel in the long-run) anyway: serious pressue on the Israelis to finally exit the West Bank and get the two-state solution rolling. The debate on this has changed enormously. For the first time since the first Bush administration, we have an adminisration ready to take on the Israel lobby at home and the Israeli government. The intellectual center of gravity has really shifted, so Obama and Clinton are now well-grounded in an emerging consensus in the US. Thanks for this most especially to Stephen Walt‘s tireless, much-derided but actually quite even-handed writing on this. You may have hated his book, but it did a lot to make clear how the the Israel lobby in the US has abetted the worst imperialist instincts of the settler movement and so made a meaning two-state deal impossible for decades. It is now clear to everybody but the most recalcitrant that Israel needs to get out. US pressure to this end will help the ME swallow points 2 and 3 at no cost to the US, because a two-state solution is now clearly in American’s interest anyway.

5. Prediction: Obama will overdose on the propaganda (watch especially, if he mentions Muhammad, if next he says ‘PBUH’ or ‘praise by upon Him’), ride gently with the truth, talk moderately but firmly in support of the two-state solution, and slide by the tough pluralist part. The reason, I think, is his desire to end the GWoT or at least tone it down, to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan as fast as possible, and then do what he really wants to do and spend where he really wants the US budget to go – on the US welfare state. If he can pull us out of the wars, draw a cool peace with the ME, and then add universal health care and green energy to the New Deal and Great Society, he will go down in history as one of the greatest presidents ever.