In solidarity with the people of France, and in support of human civilization, Trafalgar Square an hour ago:
(Photo Credit: Boris Johnson, Mayor of London)
Christopher Weyant’s cartoon in The New Yorker (HT: SP).
While elements of the left turned to revolutionary violence in most countries of the West at the end of the 1960s, three countries experienced this turn to a much greater extent than any other: Germany, Italy, and Japan. This fact has always intrigued me. Why these three? What facts of history or culture link the three? All three endured fascist totalitarian regimes before WW II, but so too did, say, Poland, Hungary, Greece, Portugal, and Spain. The countries of Eastern Europe, however, met the 1960s still under the Soviet imperium, and so opportunities for violent resistance were few, and in any case were unlikely to come from the left. Spain and Portugal and, for a time, Greece, were still under fascism in the post-war period, so opposition tended to aim at enlarging democracy, not at violent resistance. Perhaps that history is a partial explanation, with (some of) the first post-war generation, the 68ers (in German, achtundsechziger) seeking by their armed resistance to absolve their shame at the perceived lack of resistance to fascism of their parents’ generation. Certainly the writings of the Red Army Fraction (RAF), the Red Brigades, and the Japanese Red Army give this as a justification for their turn to violence.
I have always thought that another causal factor in common between these three countries was the absence of alternating left and right governments. With a succession of right-wing and centre-right regimes in Italy and Japan, and right-wing and grand-coalition (right-and-left-together) regimes in Germany, how were views in favour of socialist change able to be represented and heard? Indeed, in the German Federal Republic, the communist party had been declared illegal in 1956, and remained so until its reformation (under a new name) until 1968. And even the USA may not be an exception to this heuristic: In 1968, the candidate of the major party of the left, Hubert Humphrey, was a protagonist for the war in Vietnam (at least in public, and during the election campaign). And while the candidate of the major party of the right, Richard Nixon, had promised during the campaign to end the war, once in office he intensified and extended it. For anyone opposed to the war in Vietnam, the democratic political system appeared to have failed; indeed, one of those who had most publicly opposed the war, Robert Kennedy, had been assassinated. It is interesting in this regard to note that the Weather Underground only adopted armed resistance as a strategy in December 1969, a year after Nixon’s election. In Chantal Mouffe’s agonistic pluralism view of democracy, a key role of political argument and verbal conflict is to bring everyone into the political tent. If some voices, or some views, are excluded by definition or silenced by assassination, we should not then be surprised that those excluded try to burn down the tent.
And perhaps because I like the idea of acting according to (an empirically-grounded) theory of history, I always found the primary argument of the RAF very intriguing: That by engaging in armed resistance to the capitalist state, the revolutionary left would force the state to reveal its essential fascist character, and that this revelation would awaken the consciousness of the proletariat, leading to the revolutionary overthrow of the state. Although intrigued by it, I never found this argument quite compelling: First, it could be argued that a democratic state only has a fascist character in response to, and to the extent of, armed resistance to it. So predictions of its fascist tendencies become self-fulfilling. Second, the history of countries ruled by fascism in the 20th century surely shows that life under totalitarian rule makes organizing and engaging in dissident activities, particularly group-oriented dissident activities, less not more feasible. Third, I believe strongly that not only do ends not usually justify means, but often means vitiate ends. This is the case here: suppose the violent left’s violent resistance had indeed worked in overthrowing the governments they were directed at. What sort of society would have resulted? What we know of the personalities of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof and their revolutionary colleagues leads me to think that a Cambodia under the Khmer Rouges, rather than a Sweden under Olof Palme, would be a more likely description for life in a West Germany led by the RAF. Thank our stars they failed.
These thoughts are provoked by some recent reading on the subject of leftist urban terrorism in the West, both fiction and non-fiction. The fiction concerns the psychology and consequences of life underground, long after any thrill of plotting and executing armed resistance has passed.
First, a novel about the Angry Brigade (AB), the lite, British version of the Red Army Fraction: Hari Kunzru’s “My Revolutions”. This is a gripping first-person account by someone who had participated in AB actions, and now, 30 years later, is living under an assumed name. His past comes back to him, through some not-fully-explained, but dirty, tricks that British intelligence agencies seem to be running. These dirty actions are (or rather, appear to be) targeted against those who were on the edges of the violent left, but not part of it, who have now risen to prominence in Government (Joschka Fischer comes to mind), and the narrator is used by the shadowy intelligence forces to blackmail or destroy the career of the target of the action. The writing is fluent and plausible, and the tale engrossing. Only occasionally does Kunzru trip: Who ever uses “recurrent” (page 4) in ordinary speech? (Some people may say “recurring”.) Precisely how does the sun beat down like a drummer? (page 10). But most of the novel reads as the words of the protagonist, and not the words of the novelist, indicating that a realistic character has been created by the author’s words.
The same cannot be said for Dana Spiotta’s “Eat the Document”. Although this book too is riveting, it is not nearly as well-written as Kunzru’s book. The story also concerns the later after-life of some formerly violent leftists, presumably once members of the Weather Underground, now living in hiding in the USA, incognito. The story is told through the purported words of multiple narrators, a technique which enables the events to be described from diverse and interesting perspectives. I say “purported” because too often the words and tone of different narrators sound the same. In addition, often a narrator uses expressions which seem quite implausible for that particular narrator, as when the teenage boy Jason speaks of “recondite” personalities in suburbia (page 74): these are not Jason’s words but those of the author.
These works of fiction are partly engrossing to me because I once unwittingly knew a former violent leftist on the lam – the Symbionese Liberation Army’s James Kilgore, whom I knew as John Pape. I wish I could say I’d always suspected him, but that is not the case. Indeed, if anything, I suspected him of being a secret religious believer. He was serious, always intense, and softly-spoken, and ideologically pure to the point of having no sense of humour. The Struggle was all, and life seemed to be all gravitas, with no levitas (at least in my interactions with him. I have no idea how much of this serious demeanor is or was his true self.) Adopting a position as a committed revolutionary is certainly an interesting strategy for a cover; one does not expect underground weathermen to be regular attenders at Trotskyist reading circles, but Pape was. (And he did the homework!) But perhaps someone with a sense of humour does not join a movement of revolutionary violence in the first place, at least not in a democracy.
In the non-fiction category is Susan Braudy’s history of the Boudin family, one of whose members, Kathy Boudin, was a member of the Weather Underground. As with Kunzru’s and Spiotta’s novels, this non-fictional account is also riveting. It is, however, appallingly badly written. For instance, for a history, the book is very fuzzy about dates – when did Jean Boudin die, for example? And much of the text reads like third-hand family anecdotes, perhaps interesting or amusing to the family but not to anyone else. (Aunty Merle always was partial to rhubarb and once asked for it in a restaurant.) And lots of very relevant information is simply not provided, for instance the prison sentences given to Kathy Boudin’s fellow-accused in 1981. As a history book, this is certainly a book.
Finally, a quick report on Hans Kundnani’s superb analysis of the extreme German left, Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust. Kundnani argues that there were competing strains within the violent German left in the 1960s and 1970s: one strain engaged in struggle (against capitalist and western imperialist injustice) as a form of remedy for the failure – or at least, the perceived failure – of their parents’ generation to resist Nazism, and other strains comprising German-nationalist and, suprisingly, even anti-semitic tendencies. The presence of such tendencies at least explains how some on the far left in the 1960s ended up on the neo-Nazi right thirty years later. Kundnani’s book is superb – interesting, well-written, humane, engrossing, and tightly-argued. I had only one small quibble, which is perhaps a typo or an oversight: On page 252, Kundnani refers to German military participation in a NATO-led attack on Serbian forces on 24 March 1999 as the “first time since 1945, Germany was at war.” Well, the Federal Republic of Germany perhaps. The DDR sent troups to join the Warsaw Pact invasion of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in August 1968. If I was a former citizen of the DDR, regardless of my opposition to that invasion, I would be annoyed that my nation’s history seems to have been forgotten by people writing after unification on German history.
UPDATE (2010-08-25): My remark about participation by the DDR military in the Warsaw Pact invasion of the CSSR in 1968 is wrong. The forces of the DDR were, at the last moment, stayed, as I explain here. Thanks to Hans Kundnani for correcting me on this (see comment below).
Bill Ayers : Fugitive Days: A Memoir. Boston, MA, USA: Beacon Press.
Dan Berger : Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity. Oakland, CA, USA: AK Press.
Susan Braudy : Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left. New York, NY, USA; Anchor Books.
Uli Edel [Director, 2008]: Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex. Germany.
Ron Jacob : The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. London, UK: Verso.
Hans Kundnani : Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust. London, UK: Hurst and Company.
Hari Kunzru : My Revolutions. London, UK: Penguin.
Chantal Mouffe : The Return of the Political. London, UK: Verso.
Dana Spiotta : Eat the Document. New York: Scribner/London, UK: Picador.
Tom Vague [1988/2005]: The Red Army Faction Story 1963-1993. San Francisco: AK Press.
Jeremy Varon : Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies. Berkeley, CA, USA: University of California Press.
Technorati Tags: 68ers, achtundsechziger, Red Army Fraction, Red Brigades, Japanese Red Army, agonistic pluralism, Angry Brigade, Joschka Fischer, Weather Underground, James Kilgore, John Pape, Kathy Boudin, Utopia or Auschwitz, Hans Kundnani, Hari Kunzru, Chantal Mouffe, Dana Spiotta
At the end of December 2009, an Al Qaeda double agent killed himself and seven CIA agents and security staff at a US base in Khost, Afghanistan. Former CIA agent and writer, Robert Baer, has an account of the tragedy in a fascinating article in next month’s GQ, here. Baer argues, as he has before, that CIA management have systematically and deliberately destroyed the agency’s capabilities for human espionage – that field operations are devalued, that field operational skills are not taught, not learnt, and not acquired, that junior field staff are not mentored, and that field skills and experience are not rewarded within the agency. Organizational lack of attention to operational skills allowed a junior and field-inexperienced analyst to be appointed head of the Khost base, allowed that analyst to be appointed with neither knowledge of the local language nor prior local experience, allowed her to arrange a meeting with a human informant at the base (instead of off-base), allowed her to arrange a meeting with a human informant that no one locally had previously met, allowed numerous other people to attend this meeting, allowed this meeting to be discussed ahead of time back at Langley and in the White House, and allowed the informant to pass through three security checkpoints without being checked for weapons or bombs. They even baked a birthday cake for their visiting suicide bomber. The numbers killed made this the worst disaster for CIA since the 1983 bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut.
Retrospect, of course, is always wiser than prospect. But one has to wonder how low the level of espionage tradecraft could be that so many gross errors were made. Baer puts the blame squarely on the deprofessionalization of CIA’s field operations, especially since John Deutch’s time as Director (1995-1996).
At the end of his article, Baer says:
The United States still needs a civilian intelligence agency. (The military cannot be trusted to oversee all intelligence-gathering on its own.)”
In his memoirs, former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said that one lesson he’d learnt from the US military involvement in Vietnam was the need for an independent and objective source of intelligence on progress (eg, numbers and locations of enemy engagements; the outcomes of engagements; assessments of enemy strength and morale; etc). In Vietnam, this information was not provided to the White House by CIA or any other independent agency, but by the US military themselves, and was therefore subject to distortion, to bias, and to outright manipulation. The people firing the arrows were the same people drawing the targets for the arrows and counting how many bullseyes the archers had achieved.
A recent CNN interview with Robert Baer is here (conducted 2010-03-16).
A previous post which mentions Robert Baer is here.
Andrew Sullivan on torture expresses my views exactly. Richard B. Cheney and that egregious horseman of the apocalypse, John Bolton, keep making the macho-security argument – that only brute force and brutal methods will guarantee the West’s security. Not only are such means ineffective and counter-productive, their very immorality vitiates our ends. Just what western values, precisely, could be defended with torture and arbitrary arrest and detention? That we inflict cruel and unusual punishments, in secret, on our perceived enemies? That we treat even innocent people as less than human? That we think laws and due process are dispensible? Just whose western values are these?
The macho-security argument needs to be forcefully countered every time it is made, as Andrew Sullivan does here:
Actually, I can [believe that America is now safer because of the new restrictions on torture]. I think the intelligence we now get will be much more reliable; I believe that torture recruited thousands of Jihadists; I believe holding torturers accountable will help restore our alliances and give moral integrity back to the war on terror; I believe that without torture, we may actually be able to bring terrorists to justice; and that restoring America’s moral standing will make the war of ideas against Jihadism more winnable and therefore the West less vulnerable than it is now.”
The British Government has this week announced a secret inquiry into the invasion of Iraq in 2003. [UPDATE: The Government subsequently announced that the enquiry would not be held in secret.] How appropriate that a decision made in secret, with only scarce, belated and begrudging justification presented to the citizenry, should now be re-evaluated in secret. Even though today Gordon Brown says that the decision about secrecy is not his preference, he has delegated the decision about openness to the Chairman of the Inquiry. For this cowardice, Gordon Brown deserves the widespread contempt in which he is held.
On 14 February 2003, annoyed that the major public policy decision to invade Iraq had apparently already been made, and made in secret without due public consultation, I asked myself if such secrecy could ever be justified. The text below is what I wrote then. The existential wackawacka hunakuna about weapons of mass destruction since the invasion alters my arguments below not a jot.
In order to avoid re-appearance of comments I received in 2003, let me repeat that I make below no case about the worth of the invasion itself, neither for nor against the invasion. My case, is as the title says, a case for a justification for a claim, to be presented in public and subject to contestation and debate. If we’d had such a debate BEFORE the decision to invade had been made (ie, before July 2002) we would have either ended up with no invasion of Iraq at all, or one which many more citizens could have supported.
1. The debate has been strange because of the refusal, until recently, of the main proponents of military action against Iraq (which action I’ll call simply “war”) to defend their claim publicly. Only last week, 6 months or so after public debate on this issue began, did the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meet and debate the issue with ordinary people. Only last week, did the US Government present its intelligence evidence publicly to the UN. Only the week before did the UK Government release a document outlining its case (a document, it turned out, that was mostly plagiarised from public sources). As far as I’m aware, the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, has still not provided reasons publicly for his Government’s policy of uncritical support for the US position, a refusal which led to him being censured by a majority vote of No Confidence in the Australian Senate, the first such in its history. In Britain, the authorities which operate the House of Commons have recently refused to permit a debate in the House on the question.
2. Why is this? Why have the main protagonists been unable and/or unwilling to defend their position, on an issue of such manifest importance? After all, every bar and every cafe the length of Britain (and elsewhere, if TV news reports here are any guide) is filled with ordinary people discussing the proposed war, so it is not as if people are uninterested in the question.
3. So, I asked myself: What would be good reasons for a Government not to give public justification for its desired action of war against Iraq? I thought of the following possible reasons for not giving reasons (in each case, as perceived by the proponents):
3.1 Revealing the case for war would endanger national security.
3.2 Revealing the case for war would place at peril the lives of, or in other ways compromise, intelligence sources.
3.3 The case for war is weak. For example, this would be the situation if the evidence for Iraq having weapons of mass destruction is only circumstantial.
3.4 The case for war dishonours the proponents. This would be the situation, for example, if the reasons for war were: “To capture Iraq’s oil”, or “To avenge the attempted assassination of George Bush senior.”
3.5 There is no need to put a case for war. In Britain, for example, it seems, as the Defence Secretary reminded us all last week, that the Government can engage in foreign wars simply by convincing the Queen to sign the relevant order; there are no legal or constitutional requirements to convince the House of Commons, or Parliament, or the public at large. I imagine the US War Powers Act, which requires the support of Congress before the President can declare war, may limit the US administration’s freedom somewhat more.
3.6 The case for war is so complex that the public would not understand it.
3.7 The proponents do not respect the other parties in the debate (those opposed to the war, and those still undecided), and so are not bothered to put the case to those others. Many Australians appear to believe that this is the attitude of the Australian Prime Minister on this issue.
To me, speaking personally, reasons 3.1 and 3.2 would be a compelling justification for not revealing the case for war, but I don’t recall any of the proponents giving these as their reasons. None of the other reasons would be compelling to me as reasons for not engaging in public argument on this issue.
4. So, I then asked myself: How would I persuade the proponents of war to give us, the citizenry, their reasons for their proposed actions. Again, I thought of several reasons for giving reasons for war:
4.1 Failure to put any case at all leads people to suspect that the real case is weak or dishonourable. One might call this the Baskerville Argument for giving reasons: If the dogs don’t bark, then why are they silent?
4.2 Engagement in argument enables each side to strengthen their case: to learn of the possible attacks against it, to identify defences and counter-attacks for these, and so to bolster the arguments. The outcome of any comprehensive public debate should be a stronger case for war.
4.3 For complex public policy decisions, such as this one, there are usually many alternative action-options, and many and diverse implications and consequences of those options. In fact, the complexity may be such that no one person, or even no single team of people, could adequately hope to assess and comprehend all these. (This is especially the case for teams of politicians and bureaucrats, out of touch with ordinary reality, as the group think of the CIA in the Bay Of Pigs incident showed.) Only by allowing a full public debate before a decision is made can society be certain that all the relevant issues have been raised and have informed the decision, and thus that the best action-option has been chosen.
4.4 Military action is an example of a public policy decision where ultimate success or failure may depend greatly on the quality of execution, as much as on the particular action-option selected. This in turn may depend on the morale of the military personnel undertaking the action, which in turn may depend on the extent of public support those military personnel have. Without public support for a particular military action, it is much less likely to be successful, at least in a democracy. (I believe this argument is part of the so-called Powell Doctrine, formulated by the US Secretary of State when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of the Defense Forces Staff under US Presidents Bush snr. and Clinton.)
But public support depends crucially on public acceptance of the final decision made, and this in turn depends on the public believing that they have played a part in the decision process. Public debate is necessary, therefore, to establish and sustain public involvement in the decision-making process. People may support a decision outcome even when they disagree with it, if they believe they played an appropriate part in the decision-making process. (I believe this is is real lesson of the experience of the US and Australia in Vietnam: not that the decision to wage war in Vietnam was inherently wrong — it may or may not have been wrong — but rather that the public did not feel they had been sufficiently consulted before it was made, or sufficiently consulted as the military involvement increased. Thus, they did not support it.) Prior and ongoing public debate, rather than being a hindrance to execution quality, may therefore increase execution quality, and may in fact be essential to the ultimate success of the military action itself.
4.5 In a democracy, failure to justify and persuade the citizenry of the wisdom of some major policy is ultimately a mistaken strategy, electorally.
4.6 On important public policy issues in a democracy, consensus is unlikely if not impossible. It is therefore crucial to channel disagreement into public argument and debate, in order to prevent recourse to other forms of expression of opinion, such as mass protests and acts of violence. Public argument thus acts as a “safety valve”.
4.7 In a democracy, politicians have a duty to explain their proposed actions to the citizenry who pay their salaries.
5. Reasons 4.1 – 4.6 are instrumental: they are attempts to show that providing public reasons for war will behoove the proponents of war, and/or improve the quality of decision-making and decision-execution. Reason 4.7 is a moral claim.
6. Some of the arguments listed in Section 4 are not new. For example, argument 4.3 about deliberative processes improving the quality of decision outcomes was made by D. J. Fiorini in 1989, and, in a different form, by Bill Rehg in 2001:
D. J. Fiorino : “Environmental risk and democratic process: a critical review.” Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, 14: 501-547.
W. Rehg : “The argumentation theorist in deliberative democracy.” Keynote address to the Conference of the International Debate Education Association (IDEA), Prague, October 2001. Revised version published in Controversia, 1(1): 18-42 (2002).
Similarly, James McBurney and Glen Mills, briefly argued a case similar to my argument 4.6, in:
James H. McBurney and Glen Mills : Argumentation and Debate: Techniques of a Free Society. New York, USA: Macmillan, Second edition.
Moreover, my argument 4.4 may be a valid inference from the Powell doctrine, as I suggest above.
7. However, these works are all primarily concerned with other issues, and do not aim to present an argument for public argument over matters of importance. Does anyone know of papers or books which do put such a case?
Postscript 2 (added 17 February 2003): British political commentator, Andrew Rawnsley, wrote in his weekly column in The Observer yesterday:
“There are powerful arguments and there are dreadful arguments in favour of definitively dealing with the Iraqi tyrant, and it has been one of the failures of the British and American governments not to advance the better ones.” (Andrew Rawnsley: “It’s do or die, Prime Minister”, The Observer, 16 February 2003.)
Postscript 3 (added 17 February 2003): From an editorial today in The Guardian, a British daily newspaper:
“In fact, the public is wary of the power of argument because it is attenuated, circumscribed and distorted by political calculations. This may explain why many suspected the government of trying to scare people into war when tanks were placed near airports. The temper of these times is to distrust more than trust.” (“The march of history: A moment of truth for British politics”, The Guardian, 17 February 2003.)
Postscript 4 (added 26 February 2003): Finally, the British House of Commons is permitted to debate this issue. Here is Tony Blair’s statement to the House yesterday.
Postscript 5 (added 12 April 2003): Playwright David Hare is unable still – after three weeks of fighting and the capture of Baghdad – to determine the reasons for the war.
Postscript 6 (added 8 May 2003): At last, an argument I can understand decision-makers in the US and British Governments may have found was compelling: that, although the probability that the Iraqi regime had links with Islamic fundamentalist terrorists may not be large, the consequences of such links may be catastrophic. See the article by Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Unknown: The C.I.A. and the Pentagon take another look at Al Qaeda and Iraq” in The New Yorker magazine, published 10 February 2003. Why did the decision-makers not trust us citizens enough to share such analyses?
Postscript 7 (added 21 June 2003): Author and publisher Jason Epstein, writing in The New York Review of Books, May 1, 2003, in an article entitled “Leviathan” (pp. 13-14), said this about the Second Iraq War:
Meanwhile, Americans are sharply divided over a preemptive assualt whose urgency has not been adequately explained and for which no satisfactory explanation, beyond the zealotry of its sponsors, may exist. (page 13)
Postscript 8 (added 14 September 2003): The Observer’s superb political journalist, Andrew Rawnsley, argues in his column today that Tony Blair “didn’t trust the British people to follow the moral argument for dealing with Saddam. This mistrust in them they now reciprocate back to him. For that, Tony Blair has only himself to blame.”
Postscript 9 (added 28 November 2003): Thomas Powers, in an article entitled “The Vanishing Case for War”, in The New York Review of Books, 50(19): 12-17, 4 December 2003, says this (p. 12):
“The invasion and conquest of Iraq by the United States last spring was the result of what is probably the least ambiguous case of the misreading of secret intelligence information in American history. Whether it is even possible that a misreading so profound could yet be in some sense “a mistake” is a question to which I shall return. Going to war was not something we were forced to do and it certainly was not something we were asked to do. It was something we elected to do for reasons that have still not been fully explained.The official argument for war, pressed in numerous speeches by President Bush and others, failed to convince most of the world that war against Iraq was necessary and just; it failed to soften the opposition to war by longtime allies like France and Germany; and it failed to persuade even a simple majority of the Security Council to vote for war despite immense pressure from Washington. The President’s argument was accepted only by the United States Congress, which voted to give him blanket authority to attack Iraq, and then kept silent during the worldwide debate that followed. The entire process – from the moment it became unmistakably clear that the President had decided to go to war in August 2002, until his announcement on May 1 that “major combat” was over – took about nine months, and it will stand for decades to come as an object lesson in secrecy and its hazards.”
Postscript 10 (added 5 April 2004): Richard A. Clarke in his book, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (New York: Free Press, 2004), lists (page 265) five rationales which have been attributed to senior Bush II Administration officials (GW Bush, D Cheney, D Rumsfeld and P Wolfowitz) for seeking a war against Iraq. I paraphrase these here:
To finish the Gulf War of 1991
To remove a hostile enemy of Israel
To create an Arab democracy as a model for other regional states, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia
To remove a potentially hostile enemy of Saudi Arabia (and hence enable the withdrawal of US troops stationed there)
To create another friendly source of oil for the US, and so reduce dependency on Saudi oil.
Postscript 11 (added 15 August 2005): George Packer, in an article entitled “The Home Front: A soldier’s father wrestles with the ambiguities of Iraq” (The New Yorker, 4 July 2005, pp. 48-59) says this:
“In the fall of 2002, it still might have been possible for President Bush to construct an Iraq policy that united both parties and America’s democratic allies in defeating tyranny in Iraq. Such a policy, however, would have required the Administration to operate with flexibility and openness. The evidence on unconventional weapons would have had to be laid out without exaggeration or deception. The work of U.N. inspectors in Iraq would have had to be supported rather than undermined. Testimony to Congress would have had to be candid, not slippery. Administration officials who offered dissenting views or pessimistic forecasts would have had to be heard rather than silenced or fired. American citizens would have had to be treated as grownups, and not, as Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, once suggested, as ten-year-olds.” (page 54).
Former US Vice President Richard Cheney and former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice have been arguing of late that unless you were there in the White House on 11 September 2001, you can’t criticize the actions they took in response. Well, Richard Clarke WAS there, as the President’s chief counter-terrorism adviser in the NSC, and he does. I believe Clarke is still the only official from the Bush administration to have apologized for the administration’s failure to protect American citizens on 9/11. Clarke was a serious, dedicated and professional civil servant for 30 years, which is no doubt why he did not last very long under the Bush-Cheney administration.
I have previously defined marketing as the organized creation and management of perceptions, which I am sure is not a controversial definition among marketers. Effective perception management requires you to know and understand all the other entities in your business environment — your customers, your competitors, your upstream suppliers, your downstream distributors, other partners (such as providers of credit to your customers), and your regulators. What does it mean to “know and understand” someone?
Well, you can listen to their words and observe their actions. But words may not provide much guidance to actions – people are notoriously unreliable predictors – or even recallers – of their own behaviour, and they may have many reasons (legitimate or not) to prevaricate, dissemble or distort reality when speaking about their own past actions and intentions. And observing their actions may be too late if you have a major investment decision to make, such as Go-No Go decision for new product development or new venture launch. So, “understanding” people means you need to know their intentions, perhaps better than they do themselves. And for this, you need to understand people’s personalities, their attitudes, their cultures, and the environments in which they make their decisions. None of this easy, and it requires a great deal of empathy and sympathy with the people you are trying to understand. Marketing research might be defined as an organized attempt to identify and deploy rigorous methods aiming to know and understand a target group of entities.
The same deep challenge arises for intelligence agencies, who are also trying to know and understand a group of people. As CIA veteran Robert Baer (among many others) has argued, all the sophisticated satellite imagery and data-mined mobile phone calls in the world won’t tell you about what is inside people’s heads, and what intentions they have. For that (he argues), people on the ground are needed, able to operate seamlessly within the culture of the targeted community, listening and talking to the enemy. Empathy and sympathy are necessary here too, although these attributes are often disparaged by many involved as “taking the side of the enemy” or “going native”. I have long been struck by how much the people leading CIA and successive US administrations in the 1950s and 1960s were able – sometimes more so and sometimes less – to empathize with their opposite numbers in the Kremlin (eg, during the Cuban Missile Crisis), but completely unable to empathize with the supporters of the Vietminh and the Communist Party of Vietnam in the same period. Former US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, to his lasting credit, seems to have realised this, if only in retrospect. (This failure to empathize with the Vietnamese is even more remarkable given the USA’s own armed struggle to achieve Independence from colonial rule.)
Seeing last week Uli Edel’s film, Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex (a film treatment of Stefan Aust’s book) brought these thoughts to mind again, because the film portrays the primary intelligence official leading the West German Government’s anti-terrorist efforts against the Baader Meinhof Group (aka the Red Army Faction, RAF) in the 1970s as quite able to empathize with the RAF, or at least to understand with sympathy their reasons for turning to violence. When 10% of the population in northern Gemany (according to some polls) felt able to say to a pollster that they would be willing to hide members of the RAF in their homes if asked, then considerable tactical cunning and subtlety would be required to defeat the terrorists. Such tactics do not come from nowhere, but require empathy and sympathy of the terrorist cause for their ideation and effective execution.
Alex Goodall, over at A Swift Blow to the Head, has a new post trying to understand the historical motivations of the terrorists likely to have been behind the Mumbai atrocity last week. Such efforts at understanding are to be applauded. Were President-elect Obama to nominate me to the post of Director of CIA, my first action would be to commission independent historical analyses of Catholic resistance to the Protestant rule of Elizabeth I’s police-state in 16th century England (among whose victims was Robert Southwell), and of the anarchist and revolutionary socialist campaigns of terror and assassination in the second half of the 19th century common across the developed world. My aim in this would be to ask what lessons have been learnt from these past experiences. Which leads me to wonder: where is the intelligence community’s Centre for Lessons Learned?
Postcript: An immediate objection to the relevance of these ideas to contemporary events may be that the Catholic recusants in Elizabethan and Jacobean England were not, in general, suicide bombers. While it is correct that they were mostly not bombers, a characteristic common to the English Catholic priests illegally returning to England to work underground in this period was apparently a great personal desire for martyrdom. And in this desire they had – and perhaps still have – considerable sympathy in the Catholic community. The nearest Roman Catholic Church to where I am writing this post (in England), and built just 40 years ago, has a side chapel devoted to The English Martyrs.
Stefan Aust : The Baader-Meinhof Complex. London, England: The Bodley Head. (Translation by Anthea Bell.)
Robert Baer : See No Evil. The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism. New York, NY, USA: Three Rivers Press.
Uli Edel [Director, 2008]: Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex. Germany.
Errol Morris [Director, 2003]: The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. USA.
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