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Tortured Logic

Although we are squeamish about torture, to the point we can barely sit through a Quentin Tarantino movie without experiencing nausea, under certain specific circumstances we reluctantly countenance our government engaging in what is euphemistically called “enhanced interrogations.” Whenever American lives are imminently at risk, and there is a high degree of certainty that a captured unlawful enemy combatant has information that might help avert their deaths, we are inclined to allow the authorities wide latitude to interrogate away.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her fellow Democrats on the Senate’s intelligence committee take a harder line against torture, judging by the much ballyhooed report they issued about the matter. After six years and $40 million and no interviews of anybody they have accused, they have uncovered a few instances where agents of the United States government apparently interrogated suspects when there was no imminent risk and no certainty of useful information to be gained and the methods went even beyond the widest latitude we would allow, which is a service to the country, but we think they take an otherwise admirable aversion to torture too far. They are critical of techniques that have demonstrably proved helpful in the past, and are well within the bounds of the the public understands is going on, and would surely inhibit agents dealing with future imminent risks from subjecting potentially useful sources to anything harsher than a comfy chair and a cup of tea.
The report is clearly intended to remind America of the bad old days of George W. Bush, when Dick Cheney used to stick needles into the arms of innocent Afghan goat herders just for kicks, no matter how dissatisfied it might be with Obama and the out-going Democratic Senate majority. After so many years without a major terrorist act on American soil, unless you count the countless “lone wolf” attacks and plots that failed entirely to their own ineptitude or the sporadic incidents of “work place violence,” or the successful slaughter of Americans overseas, Feinstein and her fellow Democrats believe they can once again be indignant about the rough men who have been keeping them safe. The sense of moral superiority that comes with a willingness to sacrifice American lives rather than cause pain to an unlawful enemy combatant is irresistible to the likes of Feinstein and her fellow Democrats, especially when they sense a political advantage.
Recent polling suggests that much of the public shares the Republicans’ reluctant willingness to pay rough, though, and the argument quickly leads to the Obama administration’s alternative method of sending drones to vaporize the unlawful enemy combatants and whatever innocent Afghan goat herders happen to be standing nearby. This has the advantage of sparing the president the awkwardness of sending the unlawful enemy combatants to that nasty Guantanamo Bay detention camp that he’s been promising to close for the past seven years, and there won’t be any of that rough stuff that was done back in the bad old days, but it doesn’t provide any useful information from the sort of suspects that used to be nabbed by the special forces, and it tends to lose the hearts and minds of the relatives of those innocent Afghan goat herders who happened to be standing nearby, and we doubt that the unlawful enemy combatants find it preferable to a few rounds of water-boarding.
Current policies should offend the more refined sensibilities of the left, and alarm the more pragmatically ruthless right, so let that debate begin.

— Bud Norman

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The Islamist Threat Survives the Charm Offensive

As recently as the past presidential election the administration was assuring the country that the threat of Islamist terrorism had all but disappeared. Osama bin Laden was dead and General Motors was alive, the stable and democratic Iraq that America had left behind was one of the administration’s greatest achievements, that unpleasantness in Libya was a mere matter of an internet video that had unnecessarily offended Muslim sensibilities, and a deft mix of multi-cultural sensitivity and lethal drone strikes had left the Islamists on the run. There was no longer any need for an American military presence in the Middle East, such such measures as the previous administration’s harsh interrogation policy and Guantanamo Bay prisoner of war camp were no longer necessary, and the number of guns could now be reduced to pre-World War II levels in order to pay pay more butter.
It was an appealing point of view, and if you were willing to overlook that 13 deaths that resulted from the “workplace violence” of a man shouting Alahu Akhbar at a Texas army base or the ambassador and the three other Americans who died as a result of that unnecessarily offensive internet video or the slaughter being inflicted by Islamists in a variety of countries it was persuasive enough to win the administration re-election. Lately, however, the administration has been striking a more worrisome tone. No less an administration official than the Secretary of Defense is describing the Islamic State in Levant, the terrorist group that the president dismissed as a “jayvee” team last January and has since conquered a portion of Syria and Iraq the size of Belgium, as “beyond anything we’ve seen.” Among assets ranging from captured American military equipment to billions of dollars of stolen money to an overpowering ruthlessness, the group also claims more than 500 soldiers who hold western passports that will be waved through any airport in the United States, and a Democratic Senator loyal to the administration is among those warning that the president’s hometown Chicago seems a likely target. Even the president himself was obliged to delay his tee time at the Martha’s Vineyard golf course to deliver an impassioned remark about the beheading of an American journalist captured by ISIL, although he did assure the public that his Attorney General was working up an indictment and that the good guys always win.
The more worrisome tone has resulted in some action, including air strikes against ISIl that have apparently slowed its advance toward Baghdad, some of those always foreboding military advisors heading back to the once stable and democratic Iraq they had left behind, and a complete withdrawal from the Libya that our earlier airstrikes had liberated from a quiescent dictator and descended into the chaos that led to all the unpleasantness over that unnecessarily offensive internet video and where the Islamists now control the airport on the shores on the Tripoli. All of this is well and good, we suppose, and the administration should be commended for what must be a painful acknowledgment that the president’s Cairo speech and his boyhood days in an Indonesian madrassa and his uncanny ability to not do stupid stuff haven’t resulted in the promised world peace. We doubt that this administration is willing to deviate any further from its past campaign poses, though, and that leave us all the more worrisome.
Those western passports flying in from Syria and Iraq probably won’t get any more scrutiny than those of the wheelchair-bound old Eglish ladies behind them in the the line, lest the administration be accused of racial profiling, which it only countenances in the case of white police officers involved in a shooting. Our intelligence community might get wise to a terror plot against Chicago if it runs through your phone or internet connection, but they won’t learn about it by harshly interrogating a prisoner who has been brought to Guantanamo Bay. We’ll continue to seek diplomatic solutions, much like the ones that that have been going on with Iran during the past many years of their progress toward a nuclear weapon, but it’s hard to imagine even the most diplomatic diplomatic gaining any substantial concessions from the people who chop the heads off American journalists. Another aircraft carrier has been sent to the South China Sea to counter the aggressions that the Chinese hate lately made to take advantage of America’s suddenly many distractions in the Middle East and eastern Europe, but we don’t expect that the administration’s next budget proposal will include the money for what the Navy says it needs. Those military advisors might have some good ideas for the under-funded and under-armed allies who face our same enemies, but perhaps they’ll also tell them to fight with the same restraint that has been urged on our Israeli allies in their most recent fight against the same barbarism.
The Islamist threat to the world order has been around since it started attacking trade caravans some 1,300 years ago, and has driven as far into the western world as the Iberian Peninsula and the gates of Venice, and was seizing American sailors before our country had been around long enough to give any offense to Muslim sensibilities, and was never going to be pacified with profound oratory or even the most exquisitely sensitive treatment. The good guys have gotten the better of it for most of that that arduous time, and might yet ultimately prevail, but it’s going to take guns rather than butter and a willingness to admit that a war is ongoing.

— Bud Norman

A Minor Victory Among the Major Defeats

The Obama administration has been in desperate need of some good news lately, and seems to have at last made some with the capture of one of the terrorists involved in the deadly attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012. Even the administration’s harshest critics will be pleased that somebody might held to account for the tragedy, while the administration’s most fawning admirers at The Washington Post are calling it a “major victory,” but it raises questions that are likely to mitigate the good feelings.
Surely the administration would have preferred to tout some accomplishment that didn’t require a reference to Benghazi, which remains an undeniable deadly screw-up that was followed by blatant lies that made a mockery of the First Amendment by the terrorists who seek to deter any criticism of their deranged religious beliefs. The “leading from behind” toppling of the Libyan government that preceded the tragedy, and that country’s descent into murderous anarchy since, are also necessary background information that the administration would just as soon go unmentioned. These issues never provoked the widespread public outrage we thought they deserved, but they’re still proving troublesome for past Secretary of State and presumptive next president Hillary Clinton on her recent book tour and campaign launch, and the capture of just one middle-management terrorist involved in the fiasco is not likely to quell the controversy.
A casual news reader might also wonder why it has taken so long to bring any of the terrorists to justice, especially one who has been available to numerous western journalists for interviews in which he boasted of his high profile. Those interviews have also had the captured terrorists echoing the administration’s laughable line that the terrorist attack was a spontaneous reaction to an obscure YouTube video and not a coordinated attack, so the more cynical sorts will naturally wonder if that might be why he’s the only involved in the attack that has been captured.
The terrorist will be given an opportunity to tell that improbable story under oath in an American courtroom, as the administration is planning on trying him in the American justice system as an ordinary criminal rather than in a military tribunal as an enemy combatant. That raises questions, too, about the administration’s broader approach to what it still refuses to call a war against Islamist terrorism. With harsh interrogations ruled out the terrorist won’t provide any useful intelligence, he’ll be housed in an American prison next to some nervous community rather than in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp that that the administration is so eager to empty that it recently released five of its most dangerous inmates in exchange for a soldier who seems have to deserted, and a shrewd defense attorney will demand more evidence about the investigation and capture than the national security agencies will want to divulge, and as the story plays out over the coming months or years it will lead to debates the administration should lose.
It’s a good news story for now, though, and the administration is probably willing to swap future embarrassments for a bit of positive press now. The Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of the president’s political foes is becoming harder to ignore now that some potentially damning e-mails have suspiciously gone missing, the recent release of those five terrorists for the alleged deserter still leaves the terrorist ranks ahead by four, America’s foes are making land-grabs from Ukraine to the China Sea, the brave soldiers who fought against America’s foes are still stuck on waiting lists at Veterans Administration hospitals, the economy is still weak and lately showing worrisome signs of inflation, so the capture of one terrorist can be touted as a “major victory” and provide a brief distraction.

— Bud Norman

A Soldier Comes Home

Only the most hard-hearted won’t be happy that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will soon be coming home to his family after five years as a prisoner of Afghanistan’s Taliban, but only the most soft-headed won’t have worries about how it was accomplished. Soft-headedness being so much more prevalent among the American public these days than hard-heartendness, the happiness is bound to play better in the press than the worries.
Bergdahl’s release comes in exchange for the release of five very dangerous men currently being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, an arrangement of dubious legality, and is intended mainly to meet a pre-condition for negotiations with the Taliban that will likely lead to even more worrisome concessions. There are also questions about whether Bergdahl was a prisoner of war or a deserter, and ample reason to believe that he’s not the gung-ho soldier the script requires. None of this should cause any worry to the Obama administration, however, which will likely benefit from the inevitable news footage of the Sergeant and his mother embracing at last.
The emotions of that moment will be prominently displayed on the front page of every newspaper in the country and impossible to dismiss, while the potential carnage and heartbreak made possible by the release of five is less easily grasped and impossible to photograph. The Obama administration has always intended to empty Guantanamo Bay, and the return of lone American prisoner of the Afghanistan War provides an excellent opportunity to reduce its population of detainees by five. With the end of the war already scheduled to coincide with the next presidential election, regardless of conditions on the ground, the heart-touching photographs of a soldier back in his adoring hometown will be useful in the mid-terms. Should any of the released terrorists succeed in their stated goals of mass-murdering Americans, Bergdahl and the conditions of his release will be long forgotten and politely unmentioned by most of the media.
Any questions of legality should also be answered by that front page photo of the mother and child reunion. From Obamacare to the Mexican border to the bureaucrats of the Internal Revenue Service such niceties as the rule of law are routinely flouted, and few will insist on any sort of punctiliousness when the administration can claim with a straight face that after five years they had too short a time to comply with the law and still save Bergdahl’s life. That the law was intended to prevent the release of dangerous terrorists will be little noted for the reasons explained in the previous paragraph.
Nor will most of the public take notice that while the administration is declaring something akin to victory in Afghanistan it is opening negotiations with the enemy by making concessions. At this point the left that opposed the war from the beginning is willing to end it on any terms, the right that supported the effort has long since given hope that the current administration will see it to a successful conclusion, and the vast majority of those in the middle will be satisfied that they don’t have to hear about it anymore. The mother and child reunion will be the happiest memory of the war, and the only one that sticks.
If Bergdahl proves less than the heroic figure required for the role, they can always change the script. A man embittered by the futile war that George W. Bush started but but liberated from its captivity by the noble Obama who ended it will make a suitable narrative, no matter that Obama had also advocated the war and was running it at the time of Bergdahl’s capture. Even the most far-fetched story lines work when the visuals are so strong as a small town and a mother embracing a returning soldier.
Which is not to say that we’re so hard-hearted we won’t be a bit choked up when he’s back on American soil. We’re glad he’s coming home, and would advise any Republicans raising pertinent questions to make clear that they are as well. The cold calculations of war are unappealing, as as anyone who fell for the sappy sentimentalism of “Saving Private Ryan” should realize, and one should always make them with a realization of the humanity at stake, and not be indifferent to the emotion of a mother and child reunion. Still, those worries persist.

— Bud Norman

Europe Falls Out of Love

At this point we must reserve judgment about the allegations of American spying on our European allies, as the information that has thus far surfaced in the international press is quite incomplete. If it turns out that the National Security Agency has been snooping around only in the communications of Frenchmen and Germans who are Islamist nutcases planning acts of terror against the United States we will not be offended, nor care much if the French and Germans are offended, but if the spying turns out to be of a broader and more capricious nature and the allegation that European Union diplomatic offices were bugged is proved we will be forced to concede the Europeans have grounds to be irked.
No matter what the next news cycle might bring, however, there is already a guilty sense of satisfaction in seeing Europe suddenly disillusioned with President Barack Obama. French President Francois Hollande is so incensed with his American counterpart that he’s threatening to block a trans-Atlantic free trade pact, the German government has directed its prosecutors to commence a criminal investigation into the matter, and across the continent newspaper and television commentators are resorting to such foul language as “Bush” and “Cheney.” European patience had already been tested by Obama’s failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, his expanded campaign of drone strikes into Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries, and an American economy that hasn’t exactly kick-started a global boom, but the latest controversy seems to have at last turned European opinion against Obama.
One can only imagine the Europeans’ disappointment, given the high hopes that they had for Obama during the ’08 presidential campaign. During his triumphant tour of the continent that year he was greeted by massive crowds of adoring fans, the press was even more enraptured of his persona than its star-struck American counterpart, and both popular and elite opinion favored him with something scarily close to unanimity. Obama made much of the fact that he “looked different” than previous American presidents, and his dark skin provided Europeans with the same giddy sense of being absolved of racism that so many Americans found in supporting him, but more importantly the Europeans could look at his soft-power foreign policy promises, his spread-the-wealth domestic programs, and his post-nationalist philosophy of the world and see someone who looked very much like themselves. All of the European fears of American power, and all of the resentments that derived from the embarrassing fact that American power had thrice saved Europe from itself during the 20th Century, were alleviated by Obama’s smooth baritone voice and citizen-of-the-world oratory before those adoring crowds.
It was all simplistic nonsense that would inevitably be exposed by the harsh realities of the complicated world, but Europe’s enthusiasm was nonetheless one of the often-mentioned selling points for Obama’s candidacy back home. Self-styled sophisticates in the media and at your local barroom cited Obama’s sky-high approval ratings in Europe as proof of his messianic qualities. After eight years of international ignominy under the oh-so-gauche Bush, Obama’s supporters promised, America would once again be able to sit with the cool kids in the international high school cafeteria. Why supposedly smart Americans should be so concerned with what a bunch European rubes think is a question best left to future historians and psychoanalysts, but it will be interesting to see how the up-date-leftist in America responds to this recent change of international opinion.

— Bud Norman

National Insecurity

President Barack Obama delivered a lengthy address on national security issues Thursday, and we are left feeling rather insecure.
There were a few lines in the speech calculated to curry favor with conservatives, including a nostalgic paean to the “long twilight struggle of the Cold War” that actually sounded pleased with the outcome, a much overdue acknowledgement that the Fort Hood shootings were an act of terrorism rather than “workplace violence,” and a humble admission that there are some crazy people out there who are eager to kill Americans even if Barack Hussein Obama is the president, but otherwise it was clearly intended to mollify the left. Much of the speech was devoted to same sneering criticism of the George W. Bush administration that used to wow the crowds back in the ’08 election, as well as some dishonest preening about how he has differed from his predecessor, such as laughable claim that he has “expanded our consultations with Congress,” and the headline-making announcements that he once again hopes to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, will be cutting back on his aggressive use of targeted strikes by armed drones, and has declared something akin to victory in the war against Islamist terrorism and will be winding it all down because “That’s what our democracy demands.”
Less clear is why the president feels the left needs mollification, given that it has thus far been willing to go along with anything he does. There has been some grumbling about the more robust aspects of Obama’s foreign policy at the furthest fringes of the left, such as the founder of the Code Pink group of peaceniks who interrupted the speech with some characteristically rude heckling, prompting the president to assure her that she would be quite satisfied with what he had to say once the speech proceeded, but they are an infinitesimal constituency and cannot be mollified by anything short of complete capitulation to America’s enemies. Perhaps the president simply wanted to talk about something other than scandals swirling around his administration, although he did end up mentioning the Justice Department’s scandalous probe of several organizations because of its putative ties to national security leaks and there was a desperate attempt to blame the Benghazi fiasco on budget problems.
Most lefties who manage to slog through the speech will be pleased with it, we suspect, but anyone a notch or two to the right of Code Pink will find a great deal to argue with. Obama once again asserted that the Guantanamo Bay detention center is provokes such outrage among Muslim moderates that it is causing more terrorism than it prevents, but he did not explain why incinerating a terrorist with a missile from a drone is less offensive to Islamist sensibilities nor did he answer any of the questions about what to do with the detainees that have kept the center open since he signed an executive order to close it way back in ’09. Obama’s schizophrenic indictment and defense of his own drone policy wasn’t convincing, either as an indictment or a defense, and because of his high-minded aversion to detaining or interrogating terror suspect it raised the question of what, if anything, he will be doing instead. He called for an increase in foreign aid, perhaps to further enrich the treasuries of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and similar emerging theocracies, but he was not specific.
Most worrisome was the part about how “This war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.” The terrorists who are intent on striking at America see their efforts as just the latest skirmish in a war against the infidels that has raged since Muhammad launched his first jihad more than 1,400 years ago, but they are notoriously indifferent to history’s advice and at this point it seems unlikely they will end it just because that is what our democracy demands. There is always a way for one side of war to end it unilaterally, an old technique called surrender, and we hope that is not what the president has it mind.

— Bud Norman

Taking Both Sides

One might have gleaned from the past election an impression that Islamist terrorism had vanished forever after President Barack Obama personally killed Osama bin Laden with his bare hands, but apparently this is not the case. The bombings at the Boston Marathon and the Canadian government’s thwarting of an al-Qaeda plot to commit mass murder on a train heading to the United States are only the most recent events indicating that Islamist terrorism remains a problem.
Thus far the reaction to these events has been largely apolitical, as most of the country remains in one of those moments of post-terrorism unity that punish any attempts at partisan point-scoring, but the necessary arguments about how to proceed will soon commence. Already the well-rehearsed rationalizations are being trotted out in the liberal media, along with the usual hand-wringing about the great Islamophobic backlash that is ever feared but never realized, and the conservative press has begun easing into a full-throated critique of administration policies. All of the familiar points will be reprised, but the debate will be complicated this time around by the shrewdly political nature of Obama’s policies.
Obama has presented himself as a hard-nosed hawk who has continued such Bush-era protocols as indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay and the Patriot Act, ordered a surge in Afghanistan and prolonged the withdrawal from Iraq along the Bush timetable, prosecuted a terrorist-killing drone war with a ruthlessness that even Bush didn’t dare, and endlessly reminded the public of bin Laden’s death. At the same time he has cultivated a reputation as the Nobel Peace Prize-winning antidote to that awful cowboy Bush, and the impresario of conflict resolution who ordered a decrease in troop strength in Afghanistan and got us out of Iraq, won over Muslim hearts with his exotic background and eloquent apologias to Islamic culture, and banned such nastiness as the enhanced interrogation techniques that led to bin Laden’s death. As political strategy it has been a stunning success, with critics on both the left and right muted and the non-ideological center well satisfied so long as nothing was blowing up. A radical Islamist shouting “Allahu Akbar” killed 12 people at Fort Hood, Texas, but that was easily dismissed as just another instance of workplace violence, and an Islamist terror group killed an ambassador and three other Americans, but that was in some far-away place called Benghazi, Libya, and the Islamist governments being welcomed into power by the administration were reportedly an “Arab Spring,” so it seemed to be working.
Now things are blowing up, and too close to home for the media to ignore, and the policies don’t seem to be working to anywhere near the extent that the president and his supporters have promised. Specific questions will now be asked about the immigration rules that allowed the suspects into the country, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s aborted inquiries into one of the suspect’s increasing radicalization, the legal procedures being used to try the surviving suspect, and other matters arising from the Boston bombing, but there will also be a broader debate about the totality of the administration’s policies. Some will blame the hard-nosed protocols carried over and expanded from the Bush administration, while others will blame the tendencies to legalism, appeasement, and accommodation, but it will be most interesting to hear Obama defend his combination of the two.

— Bud Norman