Free Opinions

In one of the comments to my Guy Fawkes Day Musings, anonymous asks:

What exactly is your position on Islamic extremism? … Your other postings about torture, surveillance and profiling are pretty meaningless as well, as you have never articulated your assessment of threat level. …

… A google search of your blog reveals no stated position on the Israel conflict, and little in reference to Islamic extremism. I am somewhat baffled how a discussion of contemporary civil liberties can be had without a statement of position on the threat (if any) to western freedoms posed by what is perceived to be a spreading doctrine of genocidal fascism. At a bare minimum, since a google search also reveals you to be Krugmanite economist, the profound affects on our economic stability (which I assume you'd agree is closely tied to viable liberal civil liberties) certainly bear mention with regards to oil prices.

I'm surprised this needs saying, but here goes: Since I'm not running for office, I feel no need whatsoever to have a position on every issue.

I write about the things that either interest me the most, or on which I think I have some value added to contribute. There are a huge number of issues that I think are important but that I don't write about either because I don't have the time, or because I don't think my opinions are all that likely to be of interest to anyone. I have much more to say about domestic matters than foreign (as opposed to international) because I live and vote here: I'm concerned about and responsible for US policy in ways that don't apply elsewhere, so naturally I write the most about the USA. I think the suggestion that a blogger has some sort of obligation to opine on every good or bad thing that every foreign government or organization does is a fairly risible idea. It's a big world.

In any case, I don't see “Islamic extremism” as a topic, much less one on which I have much that is unusual to say. It's complex, not monolithic. Like, say, “modern capitalism” which is also complicated and varies from place to place.

I do, however, have the following opinions, which you may have free of charge:

  • I think it is always wrong to target civilians with violence.
  • I disapprove of all non-democratic regimes, Islamic or not. The worse they are to their people, or their neighbors, the more I disapprove of them. I accept that there can be strategic reasons to ally with dictators, but I think that our policy makers take this option too often, because it seems to offer quick and easy results. In so doing, they frequently trade long-term results for short-term gains. See, e.g., the Shah of Iran.
  • I think we should make crash efforts to wean ourselves from our dependence on foreign oil for multiple reasons: ecological, economic, and geo-political.
  • I think the current administration's attempt to terrify the American people into submission with the fear of Islamic terrorism has done us (as a nation) more economic and political damage than even the violence of 9/11.
  • I blame the administration for failing to heed the clear warning they had: they ignored a report given to them entitled “Bin Laden determined to attack inside the U.S.. That doesn't excuse the 9/11 attackers, of course, but it does suggest that a competent administration, using ordinary tools of intelligence gathering and police work, would have been able to keep us safe. And that the various excesses we've had since, from airport shoe searches to waterboarding CIA prisoners were neither necessary nor appropriate.
  • That doesn't mean there is no threat of terrorism. It means that we are still at a threat level where we maximize our benefits by not being seen to respond in a such a panicky fashion. Over-reaction actually encourages terrorism, since they get a bigger bang for their … bang.
  • To the extent that there is a “spreading doctrine of genocidal fascism” outside the Balkans and North Korea, the things that most fan those flames are the occupation of Iraq, and the stalemate in the negotiations over the West Bank and Gaza. The administration totally screwed up the first, and failed to make the second a priority (they somehow thought it would be magically resolved once Iraq became a model democracy!).
  • I think the the label of “genocidal fascism” does a poor job of capturing much of what might be called “Islamic extremism”. Islamic extremism is in part a religious fundamentalism, in part tied to various nationalism, and in some much smaller part tied to pan-Arabism. It is very very difficult to change people's religious beliefs. It is much less difficult, although not always easy, to have some influence on the conditions that make religious fundamentalism attractive to nationalists. We could, for example, do a little more negotiating and a little less saber-rattling. (Whatever happened to the “speak softly” part of “speak softly and carry a big stick”?) Indeed there is evidence that Islamic-country viciousness is poorly correlated with Islamic religiosity:

    statistical analysis indicates little or no correlation between the absence or practice of torture in today's Muslim-majority countries and the degree of commitment these countries profess to Islamic law. Instead, this article concludes, the absence or practice of torture in a given Muslim-majority country today correlates with the same factor with which it correlates in a given non-Muslim-majority country: the absence or presence of democratic government.

    In that sense, and in other ways, the lip service that the Administration pays to the spread of democracy could have been justified; it is the means that they use in service of their ostensible end that are so awful.

  • I don't claim any special expertise in Middle East diplomacy, but what little I know does not make me optimistic: the current Israeli government is weak, which makes concessions difficult. The current Palestinian government is even weaker, and in the past not even the stronger Palestinian leaders have been particularly able to bring themselves to close deals. The US could help matters by leaning on Israel to stop settlements in disputed territory. I don't know if it has much in the way of leverage on the other side. Until both sides want a deal, there won't be one.

Worth at least what you paid for them.

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7 Responses to Free Opinions

  1. chris matthews says:

    You said:
    “I think the current administration’s attempt to terrify the American people into submission with the fear of Islamic terrorism has done us (as a nation) more economic and political damage than even the violence of 9/11”
    I am confused. Is the American people’s fear of Islamic terrorism justified or not? Whether the administration is acting appropriately (i.e. exploiting the situation for some nefarious end, to which we will “submit”, but you do not name) seems to me a separate question. You dance around the question of the legitimacy of the threat, I hope not because you fear CAIR is watching.

    You said:
    “I think the the label of “genocidal fascism” does a poor job of capturing much of what might be called “Islamic extremism”. Islamic extremism is in part a religious fundamentalism, in part tied to various nationalism, and in some much smaller part tied to pan-Arabism.”
    Again, confusing. Nationalism would seem somewhat irrelevant to extremists, who envision pan-Arabism and/or pan-Islamism. Indeed, CAIR would take issue with your use of the term pan-Arabism, as Islam-driven terrorism and fascism crosses racial divides. The Balkan muslims aren’t Arab, nor the terror groups in the Philippines, nor the “youths” that terrorize France and Britain. But aside from this, even if Islamic extremism is actually the three “parts” you enumerate, since all groups promoting those “parts” seek to impose same on others, and all involve a significant loss of civil liberties (for Americans) if adhered to, why is fascism so inappropriate? To the contrary, it would seem most appropriate. Nazism and Japanese “fascism” were also composed of “parts.” Have historians mislabeled those movements as well?

    You said:
    “It is very very difficult to change people’s religious beliefs. It is much less difficult, although not always easy, to have some influence on the conditions that make religious fundamentalism attractive to nationalists.”
    Again, why should nationalists (whatever that is) be any more or less dangerous than a religious fanatic who is not a nationalist? Indeed, the Ayatolahs of Iran have repeatedly stated their allegiance to a greater Islamic revolutionary world-state, and Iran is merely a temporary nation-state in the grand scheme (as an aside, “Iran” was named to mimic “Aryan”, as Hitler was much admired by contemporary Persian leaders).

    You said:
    “In that sense, and in other ways, the lip service that the Administration pays to the spread of democracy could have been justified”
    How could a pro-democracy campaign ever be successful given the American left’s championing of anyone who denounces America? Sean Penn and Jimmy Carter, along with all of their supporters (this blog?) make it very clear to the Islamic world that by adopting an American style of democracy they would merely be trading one form of fascism with another, the new form actually being incompatible with their religious views towards women, homosexuals, and infidels? Does the left think domestic comparisons of Bush to Hitler goes unnoticed by the Islamic media?
    But even if such a campaign could theoretically succeed, is there any historic precedence? Is “lip-service” meant as a derogatory? If efforts are non-violent, what else are they but “lip-service”? Should we be sending more money to those governments? To the UN earmarked for Iraq and Afghanistan?

    You said:
    “I blame the administration for failing to heed the clear warning they had: they ignored a report given to them entitled “Bin Laden determined to attack inside the U.S.”. That doesn’t excuse the 9/11 attackers, of course, but it does suggest that a competent administration, using ordinary tools of intelligence gathering and police work, would have been able to keep us safe. “
    Who is “the administration”? All Bush, or does this include B.Clinton? Do you reject the Baker Report in its entirety? Do you also reject the belief that protocols, instituted as a response to Watergate, seriously undermined inter-Agency communication, and played a major role in our ability to prevent 9/11? And anyhow, as you asked another poster, “are you serious?” Do you SERIOUSLY expect a reader of this blog to believe that pre-9/11 you would have supported any kind of investigation, let alone detention, of Saudi students merely because they were attending flight school? Short of mind reading, on what basis could their travels have been prohibited? How would probable cause have been established? Remember, just a few days before they were enjoying South Florida’s adult entertainment industry just like a certain UM race law professor (they were even at a legal strip club, unlike you know who). Pre-9/11, how more or less foolish would such an investigation seem in comparison to Falafel-gate you just got done ridiculing? (Insert favorite hindsight cliche here).

    You said:
    “Until both sides [Israel & Palestinians] want a deal, there won’t be one.”
    Do you mean Israelis do not want peace? Is there any concession Israel has not given, including land, humanitarian aid, etc? To the extent Israel is the Jewish state, do you mean world Jewry does not want a “deal” for peace? Now you have the ADL to worry about aside from CAIR.

    Perhaps if you can clarify your views, some of us will be more inclined to believe that your policy urgings appropriately account for Middle East threats.

  2. LACJ says:

    Wonderful! Excellent work Michael!

    I noticed that comment and marveled at the confusion contained within. Apparently all your posts about torture (which obviously makes a lot of people very uncomfortable and frustrated) can be invalidated because you failed to articulate your ‘threat assessment’.

    Convenient, that. I also would like to dismiss them. Unfortunately they are all too real and therefore cannot be ignored, however repulsive the subject matter.

    I believe the point is that, next to every Supreme Court decision, there should be a little ‘threat assessment’ flag to show under what circumstances the decision was made.

    And, speaking seriously now, I also think you should wrestle with the Con Law class. A little cynicism is good, but too much is very, very dangerous. Trust is established by pointing out where the court got it wrong and why. There have been big mistakes, and glossing over them is of no value.

  3. Michael says:

    “Chris Matthews” (strange pseudonym!) — To take your provocations more or less in order:

    Stuff like “the American people’s fear of Islamic terrorism” is too nebulous for me. I don’t know what the popular view is, although I suspect it’s less lilly-livered than that of the people who decided we have to go through security theater at airports. My view is that we are spending lots of time and effort ‘protecting’ ourselves against low-risk scenarios, and ignoring higher risk scenarios because the airport stuff is more visible to voters. Whether this is to scare them or reassure them is debatable. Heck, it could be both.

    Far better to spend resources protecting against attacks on chemical plants. Do I have a well-formed view on the absolute likelihood of these attacks? Not to the point to give you a number, although while it think there are real threats in general I think the threat is less than Dick Cheney says it is. But I do have pronounced views as to the relative likelihood of various dangers, and I think we’re protecting against many of the wrong things. Let’s work on encouraging nations with nukes and fissiles to keep better track of them. And there’s no need to worry about people photographing government buildings.

    My point on Islamic nationalism is very simple: there are large parts of the Islamic world where only the religious radicals are seen as standing up to what the locals see as toxic western imperialism. This, combined with the fact that the religious radicals sometimes are major providers of schooling and social services (e.g. Hamas in the West Bank) contributes to the attraction of the religion: people sympathetic with the political program, or the good works, join the community. They, or their children, get radicalized. This is not inevitable if the trigger points for nationalist angst are reduced, and if the governments or others can visibly provide services for the masses that enhance quality of life. The US too often worries about the military issues much more than the social ones, which is a very short-termist viewpoint and plays into the hands of religious movements that then own the nationalist card.

    I don’t see the relevance of the source of the name of Iran, but it’s fairly clear that even in the current radical government there is at least one powerful faction that wants to act sensibly. (And of course there’s a question as to how representative or stable this government is.) They made a significant diplomatic overture in May 2003. George Bush and Dr. Rice stiffed them. Read all about it. The attempt to demonize the Iranians to the point where diplomacy has no role and we should just bomb them is right out of Dick Cheney’s playbook, but it should not detain anyone with any sense of history.

    To the question of how one enhances democracy in the Muslim Arab world, I agree it is a challenge. The right way would have begun by being much nicer to Turkey than we have been, as that is our good example, and could have been democracy’s ambassador. US policy to Turkey since the start of the Iraq war has been very foolish and short-sighted, driven in part by pique that the Turks would not let the US use them as an invasion route.

    Who do I blame for ignoring the report “Bin Laden determined to attack inside the U.S.”? I blame the people who were given the report and ignored it: and that would be … GW Bush and his aides.

    As to “Do you SERIOUSLY expect a reader of this blog to believe that pre-9/11 you would have supported any kind of investigation, let alone detention, of Saudi students merely because they were attending flight school?” the answer is no, of course not — but there were a lot more clues than just flight school (although even there, they guy who wanted to learn to take off, but not land, might be a tipoff…). And, of course, there’s the story Sibel Edmonds has been trying to tell, of how the FBI screwed up pre-9/11. Investigations were not foolish: they were staffed by fools.

    You keep referring to CAIR – I can assure you that I never even visit their web site, if they have one. Same with the JDL.

    Do I think that “the Israelis” want peace? I think it’s a very divided nation — ever read about the Knesset? — but in general most groups would like peace on their terms. Few are willing to have peace on the (unreasonable) terms on offer. I don’t blame them for that, but I do blame them for some of the actions which have hardened the present impass.

    While my sympathies are more with Israel than with the inhabitants of the occupied territories, much less with most of the neighboring states, I think even Israel’s friends have to recognize that it has done many things that set back the peace process. The invasions of Lebanon. Much of Sharon’s administration. The ever-expanding settlements. The fence. The bulldozing of houses.

    Whether the brutal economic squeeze Israel is now applying to the occupied territories will in the end force some sort of concessions from a group of people whose leaders have heretofore made it clear they do not want to deal, I do not know, but that does not change the great harshness of the economic effects of Israeli policy — a policy that was prompted by the actions of the radical elements in the territories, to be sure. But that is part of the horror of the Middle East — it’s so rarely a simple black and white issue as when there’s a bomb attack on civilians, or a military incursion across a recognized border.

    Incidentally, when I write “Israel” I mean (this will no doubt surprise you) the state of Israel (government and/or citizenry). I don’t mean “world Jewry” whatever that is. I find the conflation of the two you so blithely suggest to be a suspicious move, as it is a move often engaged in by people of prejudice.

    I think this will be my last comment on this thread; do feel free to continue, however.

  4. chris matthews says:

    Thank you for “clarifying” your position. If your views on the nature of the threat facing America were correct, your position on many civil liberties issues would be far more palatable. Whether or not you underestimate the dangers is an open question though, which for some reason you now wish to close.

    I would like to point out one aspect of your views with which I strongly differ:
    “My view is that we are spending lots of time and effort ‘protecting’ ourselves against low-risk scenarios, and ignoring higher risk scenarios because the airport stuff is more visible to voters. Whether this is to scare them or reassure them is debatable. Heck, it could be both.”

    I think it is important to define “risk” within the context of terrorism. Terrorism is not necessarily most effective when mass casualties results. To the contrary, if Al Queda commits another act on the scale of 9/11, Bush would likely have the support to nuke several Middle East capitals and be done with it.

    Rather, it is the death by a thousand cuts that makes terrorism effective. If one doesn’t live near a chemical plant, nor a nuclear plant, nor skyscrapers, there is always the psychological protection of thinking it can’t happen to me. Chernobyl doesn’t scare me, I don’t live near a nuclear plant. But the most memorable attacks to Israelis have been airliners and the Sbarro cafe bombing (and British remember trains, buses, discos etc.) despite the fact that relatively small numbers of people actually died. The idea is to nurture the idea that no one is safe.

    People are by nature innumerate and misassess risk, but there is a certain moral inequity in death by a terror attack as opposed to an auto accident or cancer. A fearful nation becomes irrational, and far more likely willing to abandon civil liberties than what you claim is happening today. And far more likely to abandon all restraint and racial tolerance.

    So while your condemnation of security “theater” is perhaps correct in terms of saving life numerically, it is the small scale attacks (particularly airliners) that do the most social damage. Having said that, the threat we face is not so much another spectacular attack, rather many small scale attacks. An incredible number of plots have been diffused since 9/11, many of which barely received any press coverage by main stream media.

    Therefore, I do not think you correctly understand the threat.

  5. anonymous says:

    And so it goes, hot off the presses:
    http://blogs.abcnews.com/theblotter/2007/11/exclusive-fbi-a.html
    “The FBI is warning that al Qaeda may be preparing a series of holiday attacks on U.S. shopping malls in Los Angeles and Chicago, according to an intelligence report distributed to law enforcement authorities across the country this morning.
    The alert said al Qaeda “hoped to disrupt the U.S. economy and has been planning the attack for the past two years.”

    Here’s the proverbial 9/11 memo. Now what? No racial profiling, no wiretaps, no falafel tracking…. Should we just convert to Islam and be done with it? Stop shopping at malls? Are we allowed to be mad about this even?

  6. Michael says:

    Actually, this gang has cried wolf so many times that no one pays much attention. These reports have so far been a combination of CYA and trying to scare people.

    Even ABC has its doubts:

    The alert, like similar FBI and Department of Homeland Security terror alerts issued over the past five years at holiday times, raised questions about the credibility of the information.

    The bulletin acknowledges that U.S. intelligence officers are uncertain as to whether the information is real, and intelligence officers say there is a concern that it could be “disinformation.”

    And if this was a credible threat, would we still be stuck on “yellow” threat level?

    That said, some day one of these will turn out to be real — even a stopped clock is right twice a day. But it makes no sense to live in fear; in that case the terrorists win without doing anything.

  7. fatima says:

    I have read your article, and may I say that it is very well written and I must agree with it. Just everything is written beautifully. Your second last point stood out to me the most. So, go you.

    I would also like to post a little of my own response to this anonymous.
    First,
    Please getting your facts from media or wikipedia. There is no such thing in Islam as terrorism, bombing countries and governments. 🙂
    And secondly,
    Stop believing everything you read. Unless a real Muslim blows you up, you have no proof for holding a religion much less a person responsible for chaos.

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