How Ever Do the Handcuffed Suicide Pactists Manage?

In the recommended New York Times article on Iraq propaganda I linked to below, there was another quote worth pondering:

"I'm not surprised this goes on," said Michael Rubin, who worked in Iraq for the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003 and 2004. "Informational operations are a part of any military campaign," he added. "Especially in an atmosphere where terrorists and insurgents - replete with oil boom cash - do the same. We need an even playing field, but cannot fight with both hands tied behind our backs."

Italics mine. File these under the same category as ticking-time-bomb scenarios, zero-sum liberty-for-security trades, and the Constitution-as-death-pact. (Other nominations gladly accepted in the comments.) Each phrase is vivid and catchy, totally agreeable upon first or even second glance, and used in the service of actions that gobble liberty while doing squat for security.

The "even playing field" and "both hands tied behind our backs" fantasies -- shared fervently by Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and their boss -- is bogus on at least four levels.

1) No fighting force in the world is within shouting distance of the U.S. military's "playing field," largely because of the fruits of our comparatively free market, combined with policy choices and embrace of universal ideals, which have allowed Washington to afford a defense apparatus no other country could dream of. To somehow "level" the playing field would require radical and unprecedented disarmament.

2) As such, you simply cannot describe such a powerful military -- one that is expected (if grudgingly) by the world to take a lead role in the internal affairs of faraway countries -- to be fighting "with both hands tied behind our backs." Whatever happened at Abu Ghraib was not the result of a shackled fighting force.

3) Less literally, there is this strange assumption that the terrorists and/or insurgents have an unfair advantage, one which we need to erase by adopting their tactics, however unsavory. If that's the case, why aren't we teaching our 12-year-old girls to strap nail bombs to their bodies before riding the bus? Terrorists, who by definition are people who couldn't win a fair fight, use unfair tactics out of desperation, and also to horrify the sensibilities of citizens living under the terrorists' enemy's government. Their actions are almost always incompatible with spreading the cause of freedom. A military which sinks to their level risks alienating the very people they're supposed to liberate.

4) Noble ideals are not just noble because they sound pretty, they're noble because they work. Soldiers aren't taught the Geneva Conventions grudgingly, as some kind of suspiciously European scam to ignore when the going gets tough, but rather as part of a larger American fighting ethic that assumes we'll use cleaner means than our enemies, and benefit by doing so. Corruption of that ethic saps morale, and kneecaps PR.

The Constitution is not now and has never been a suicide pact, even back when the country was truly vulnerable to foreign invasion, like, oh, when the thing was written. On the contrary, it's arguably the best democratic defense mechanism known to man. If liberty and security were at zero-sum odds, the world would still be disgraced by Ceausescu, Husak and Honecker. And if rights and ethics were handcuffs, America would have been hauled off to prison decades ago.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    File these under the same category as ticking-time-bomb scenarios, zero-sum liberty-for-security trades, and the Constitution-as-death-pact. (Other nominations gladly accepted in the comments.)

    These things should be filed under the same category. I was thinking of things to nominate for the category, and it struck me that we also need a buzzword for the category.

    ...something that smacks of selling out or treason but also suggests cowardice.

  • ||

    Matt,
    I totally agree with you on #4. But I think that one or two of your 4 arguments may have fallen prey (if only glancingly) to your own statement that "Each phrase is vivid and catchy, totally agreeable upon first or even second glance..."

    For instance, I fail to see what Abu Ghraib abuses mentioned in your second point, has anything to do with the idea that we might actually be fighting a foe that has some asymmetrical advantages. Or that the US might find some use for propaganda (though I think it's a BAD idea) against an unconventional foe who is fully cognizant of - and relying on - our vulnerability to 4th Generation Warfare principles.

    Let's face it, as long as we take the moral high ground that we agree (in #4) is one of our strengths, it will also be one of our weaknesses against a 4GW foe.

    "4GW is fought on the tactical level via:
    - Rear area operations: 4GW warriors do not confront a nation-state's military but rather it society.
    - Psychological operations: terror.
    - Ad-hoc innovation: use of the enemy's strengths against itself."

    http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2004/05/4gw_fourth_gene.html

  • ||

    Craven sophist mendacity?

  • ||

    ...when I read:

    For instance, I fail to see what Abu Ghraib abuses mentioned in your second point, has anything to do with the idea that we might actually be fighting a foe that has some asymmetrical advantages.

    ...I thought, "Asymmetrical Rationalizations"! ...but that wouldn't make for much of a buzzword, and, besides, it doesn't convey the kind of treachery and cowardice these arguments represent.

  • ||

    rob,

    "I fail to see what Abu Ghraib abuses mentioned in your second point, has anything to do with the idea that we might actually be fighting a foe that has some asymmetrical advantages."

    That was an example, in direct and specific response to the assertion that if we can't do like the terrists do, then "our hands are tied". It's a pretty valid point, and the Abu Ghraib incident is a pretty salient example to drive that point home.

    "Let's face it, as long as we take the moral high ground that we agree (in #4) is one of our strengths, it will also be one of our weaknesses against a 4GW foe."

    We can agree on that===but then, the obvious question that follows is, which is more important: the concept of a constitutional republic bound by freedom, liberty and justice, or winning a "war" against a 4gw foe.

    In that light, your point about 4gw opponents is valid, but inconsequential.

  • Johno||

    Matt, why, oh why, do you hate our FREEDOM?!??


    *ducks*

  • ||

    For instance, I fail to see what Abu Ghraib abuses mentioned in your second point, has anything to do with the idea that we might actually be fighting a foe that has some asymmetrical advantages.

    For instance, I fail to see what the reluctance to censor satellite radio has anything to do with the idea that children might be in the backseat listening.

    For instance, I fail to see what the opposition to gun control has anything to do with the idea that a lot of us get shot by hand guns.

    For instance, I fail to see what the opposition to the Patriot Act has to do with the idea that we might have to stop domestic terrorists like Timothy McVeigh.

    For instance, I fail to see what the opposition to buckle up laws has to do with the idea that we might actually save some people's lives.

    For instance, I fail to see what opposition to the drug war has to do with the idea that we might stop some people from getting into drugs.

    blah blah blah

  • ||

    Matt,

    I don't care what anyone says, that last paragraph is inspired by higher authority. I literally sat up straighter while reading it. Keep up the good work.

  • ||

    At first, I thought "chicken littles" might be a good name for the category, but it doesn't quite stretch.

    Chicken Little ran around yelling that the sky was falling, getting everyone all riled up. And what did he want everyone to do? Why go to the only person that could save them--the King! ...The term "chicken", of course, also implies cowardice.

    Unfortunately, the sky wasn't really falling, and these people sometimes cite very real dangers when they want us to abandon our principles. ...Naw, there's gotta be a better buzzword out there somewhere. ...and "chicken little" doesn't convey the kind of Constitutional treachery these people exhibit.

  • ||

    So in a war it is ok to kill the enemy but it is not OK to lie to him?

  • ||

    joshua corning - Remember that the original concern, established many threads ago, was that the US MSM would pick up these stories and print them as "Ah hah, those Iraqis really are (fill in the blank)."

    Lying to the bad guys? Not a prob. Lying to we USonians? Bummer.

  • ||

    matt,

    I'm with BLG. Great piece.

  • ||

    What the hell does propaganda and information operations have to do with torture? This whole story is a big so what. Yeah, we use propaganda and should. Its not like we are killing babies or something. Why does everything concerning Iraq somehow have to relate to Abu Garib. I just don't get this entire post.

  • ||

    Terrorists, especially ones working in their own country under occupation, feed on latent frustration such as Rubin's. Their aim is to confound the clearly stronger occupying army to the point of inciting a barbaric backlash.

    The massacre at Cruagan Field (Bloody Sunday, Nov 21 1920), in which British paramilitary police opened machine gun fire into the packed stands of a soccer game, in response to the execution of twelve cops by IRA goons, was one such backlash, and was the beginning of the end of British control over Ireland. The 1919 massacre of 400 civilians at Amritsar in India turned millions of Indians against Britain and helped launch Gandhi's civil disobedience movement.

    Whether the Repugs understand it or not, the US military is one atrocity away from worldwide condemnation and a mass uprising. All it takes is one frustrated maverick field commander exceeding his orders.

  • ||

    And I have to stand with BLG: I too was struck by the last paragraph as i read it. Nice work.

  • ||

    Ken Schultz,

    I fail to see what the hell you are talking about. I don't see any analogy to any of the examples you give.

  • ||

    cdunlea,

    A mass uprising by whom for what? I don't think you can compare Bin Laden or the North Koreans to Ghandi. Do you really believe the Iraqis want the U.S. to leave and leave them at the mercy of Al Quada and the former Bathists? Your statement is one of those things that sound nice until you really think it through and consider who are enemies are. They are nothing like Indian or Irish nationalists.

  • ||

    Matt Welch-

    Excellent post!

    Its not like we are killing babies or something.

    Glad to see that John has high standards.

  • ||

    John, I'll respond to you piecemeal:

    I don't think you can compare Bin Laden or the North Koreans to Ghandi

    Not my intention at all.

    Do you really believe the Iraqis want the U.S. to leave and leave them at the mercy of Al Quada and the former Bathists?

    Not at the present time, no. But the longer we stay and are the present irritant--and I assure you, the irritation will grow over time, not decrease--the Iraqis will forget how horrible the homegrown Ba'athists were--they were Iraqis, after all! Just last week Allawi, of all people, mentioned how things were better under Saddam, at least in terms of infrastructure. That's not a good sign, even if you discount its veracity.

    Your statement is one of those things that sound nice until you really think it through and consider who are enemies are

    But here's the question, John: are our enemies their enemies? I don't think al-Quaida will be blowing up Iraq once we leave; there will be sectarian violence and homestyle factions shooting in the streets, but our enemies will leave Iraq in peace, especially since I suspect Iraq will enforce its Islamist constitution we set them up with. Most of the insurgency is Iraqi, with some funding a support by a-Q, but the people wearing nail bombs are Iraqis, not foreign.

    They are nothing like Indian or Irish nationalists.

    Only to the extent that neither insurgency used suicide bombers to any degree: the Irish because they considered it unChristian, the Indians because Gandhi's control of the independence movement was such that, until Independence and Partition, violent factions were kept under check, as disobedience was clearly working.

    The Irish (disclosure: I had relatives in Cork who supposedly smuggled munitions in a donkey cart) were bomb throwers, did shoot policemen in their beds, set the homes of Tory informants on fire; they were not saints and they resorted to a short-lived but violent civil war in the mid-1920's to settle local scores. The Indian movement broke down along religious lines and began decades of conflict still going on today.

    Only the veneer of nostalgia and time allows us to look back at these groups and see them something other than what they were. To their contemporaries, especially the authorities, both groups were considered saboteurs, murderers, and traitors

  • ||

    Here is the thing. Terrorists are extremely tough to deal with because they enjoy several advantages. Just off the top of my head:

    1) Their lack of nationality makes them unapproachable through political means, and provides anyone dealing with them plausible deniability such that they don't in general need to fear political consequences either.

    2) The nature of their acts and the nature of their bases of operations make them difficult to impossible to identify through purely investigative means. The context of American law enforcement is hideously inadequate to address threats of this type.

    3) They don't care who they kill at all. If they kill you, that's good. If they kill their neighbors, that's good too.

    4) They retain the ability to deny that whatever agreements they make are binding on this or that splinter group. "Bombs keep blowing up, but don't worry that is just a fringe group."

    5) Their generals are deterrable, but their soldiers generally aren't.

    6) As much pooh poohing as there is around the ticking timebomb, nuclear terrorism is serious shit and is a plausible scenario. The broad description of this problem is that it may take a large force to engage a large force, but it only takes one guy to blow up a whole city.

    7) They enjoy broad support across numerous countries by people who are not active supporters but who have absolutely no problem with the methods employed by terrorists. These people all act as willing shields. Yes some people are afraid of the terrorists, but many aren't. Note the popularity of AJ coverage. Just like here, people get the version of the story they prefer to hear.

    I see this conflict as the struggle to remove as many of those asymetries as morally possible.

    Now, counting propaganda among the more significant of advantages strikes me as silly, but I would agree that restricting ourselves from a truly effective tool can have monstrous consequences. My problem with the propaganda discussed here is that it is childish and too obvious to be effective.

  • ||

    I don't see any analogy to any of the examples you give.

    Every example I gave suggests that we abandon our principles in the name of security. ...just like *ahem* rob's comment did. ...You know that.

    Did you see the following part of Matt's post?

    "File these under the same category as ticking-time-bomb scenarios, zero-sum liberty-for-security trades, and the Constitution-as-death-pact. (Other nominations gladly accepted in the comments.)"

    My examples would have gone under "Constitution-as-death-pact" or "liberty-for-security trades"; I suppose you could file rob's comment under either. Get it?

  • ||

    "They don't care who they kill at all. If they kill you, that's good. If they kill their neighbors, that's good too."

    Hmmm. Is there a reason why we're not tallying Iraqi civilian casualties? What is the definition of the term "collateral damage?"

    Not to say that we are equivalent. Just that your statement equally applies to us. If you want to say that we don't intentionally target civilians (now), that's a valid distinction. But we most certainly knowingly and/or recklessly kill innocent civilians - and the fact that we continue is sufficient to prove that we don't care, as long as we accomplish our other objectives. Much like terrorists/insurgents...

    "As much pooh poohing as there is around the ticking timebomb, nuclear terrorism is serious shit and is a plausible scenario"

    At about the same probability of global warming, for most of us. And really, the only way to eliminate it - the probability - is to completely ban all nuclear energy, everywhere. Even our vaunted military. Since I don't see that happening anytime soon, it looks like you'll be living with that threat regardless of whether we're spending 7 billion a month in creating enemies in the middle east...

  • ||

    What's wrong with fighting a War of Words anyways?

  • ||

    quasibill:

    The distinction I'm making with regard to bystanders is in the incentive. Collateral damage hurts our mission and helps theirs. It doesn't matter who pulls the trigger. Ergo, they are trying to cause collateral damage and we are trying not to.

  • ||

    quasibill:

    On the way to the very far away 'eliminate', we pass 'reduce' and 'minimize'. I said that I wanted to remove as many of the strategic advantages to terrorism as possible, but implicitly, I'll settle for reduction if removal is implausible.

    I brought up nuclear terrorism because, to me, that is what is on the table if we permit terrorists to function as freely as they can up to the point that we have a CSI-tight case against each individual actor. Under those terms, we are granting them every strategic advantage and the cost could be a mushroom cloud. It is a given to me that they are trying to do everything they can to hurt us until we take some of their advantages off the table. Yes, that is a ticking time bomb argument of sorts, but there seems to me to be an entirely legitimate point in there given what we have seen terrorists do already.

  • ||

    "On the way to the very far away 'eliminate', we pass 'reduce' and 'minimize'"

    Spoken like a true Kyoto supporter.

    Once you ceded the responsibility for risk management to the state, you've lost the war.

    "Ergo, they are trying to cause collateral damage and we are trying not to."

    I know - and I acknowledged that currently, we don't intentionally target innocents. That is a valid distinction between us and them. However, not caring if we kill innocents in obtaining our objectives is not a valid distinction - both sides are guilty of that mindset.

    Although I would take issue with your assertion that targeting civilians helps them. I don't think it does, and going by their more recent behavior, neither do they. They've shifted their targets to us and our proxy police forces.

    Not to say that they wouldn't revert to targeting civilians if they thought it would help them, but then, based upon our history, I don't think we'd hesitate to do that either...

  • ||

    The law enforcement model has also failed to break the back of the Mafia. Should we toss aside our traditions and institutions to fight that deadly organization as well?

  • ||

    quasibill:

    I was not here discussing moral differences, but strategic advantages.

    There is a contingent that is primarily interested in proving that people won't and can't be better off. Every time they kill people and hurt them through infrastructure destruction, they make their point. There may be a limit to what people will tolerate and still blame the Americans, and perhaps reaching that limit what what it takes to eliminate this advantage.

  • ||

    quasibill:

    The issue with Kyoto is that people conflate reducing greenhouse gasses with reducing global climate variation, when we know for a fact it doesn't work that way until you get in to very very large reductions in emmissions that cost astronomical sums.

    The issue of reducing the probability of nuclear terrorism seems to me to be entirely different. Neither the specifics of the harms nor the mechanisms of proposed fixes line up. I think you are predisposed to see them as the same problem, but I don't see a compelling connection.

  • ||

    quasibill:

    This is kind of like the war on terror = war on drugs = war on poverty line that I find utterly unconvincing.

  • ||

    the war on terror = war on drugs = war on poverty line that I find utterly unconvincing.

    There are differences, but the similarities are eerie. PATRIOT was supposedly cobbled together from a drug war wish list. And during the subway bag searches, NYPD officials admitted that they were unlikely to find bombs but they'd probably find some pot.

    As to the war on poverty analogy, not too long ago we heard a lot of talk about draining swamps and changing cultures and transforming attitudes. That sort of talk reminded some of us of social engineering rather than warfare.

    So the confusion is understandable.

  • ||

    "The issue of reducing the probability of nuclear terrorism seems to me to be entirely different"

    It doesn't seem so to me. In both cases its risk management, not self-defense.

    "This is kind of like the war on terror = war on drugs = war on poverty line that I find utterly unconvincing"

    I know you do, but I have yet to hear anyone refute it logically. I happen to find it utterly convincing. Risk management = risk management, whether it is done in the name of crime prevention (war on drugs, war on poverty) or in the name of crim, er I mean terrorism prevention (war on terror).

    See thoreau's post for the similarities in the results if you still don't see the similiarity in the intentions.

  • ||

    quasibill and Dr.T:

    To me, you are both conflating the rhetoric, which I agree is similar, with the facts of each, which are substantially different.

    Suppose I were to declare a War on Property Crime. Can I expect that you would just decry this as no different than the War on Drugs, which is to say that it couldn't possibly reduce property crime or that the costs of doing so are a priori too high? How about War on Violent Crime?

    As for Dr. T's similarities, those are an entirely different beast from the premise that a war on terrorism is structurally doomed to fail because it is no different that the war on drugs.

    Painting with an insanely broad brush, quasibill suggests that any action taken as a risk mitigation measure must fail.

    The analysis is entirely too simplistic, and completely unravels when looking at details.

  • ||

    Remember that the original concern, established many threads ago, was that the US MSM would pick up these stories and print them as "Ah hah, those Iraqis really are (fill in the blank)."

    Did anyone come up with any evidence of this happening, yet?

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement