Saturday, August 07, 2004

Juan Cole on Khan and the Terrorism Alerts
Does the Anti-Bush Side Deserve Some of the Blame Here?

(Via Kos) Juan Cole cites a Reuters story indicating that, in its attempt to justify the recent terrorism alert, the administration outted an important double agent working for us against al Qaeda. As you know, I've been defending the administration's actions regarding this terrorism alert, but if Reuters and Cole are right, then my earlier arguments become irrelevant. (If I'm not mistaken, those arguments are still correct taken by themselves and given the information available to us when I posted them, but this new information changes things dramatically.)

Cole's arguments are not conclusive, but they are extremely strong. Apparently the currently most plausible explanation for the adminisration having revealed Khan's identity is that they were trying to deflect charges of wagging the dog. If true, this is inexcusable.

However it is worth reflecting on the context in which this occurred. It is not clear to me whether charges of wagging the dog with regard to the terrorism alerts were warranted before the information about Khan was revealed. Suppose for the sake of argument that such charges were not warranted. In that case, the unwarranted charges raised the political stakes and gave the Bush administration more incentive to do what they did as a way of deflecting those unwarranted charges. That does not excuse their actions, but only explains them.

One might argue that the reaction of the Bush administration was not a forseeable consequence of the making of unwarranted dog-wagging charges against them, and so those who made the (as we are supposing) unwarranted charges cannot be blamed for doing so. I disagree. Although this specific (alleged) action by the Bush administration could not have been forseen, it should be obvious to anyone that making such charges increases the cost of taking certain actions against terrorists by increasing the political cost of doing so. Irresponsible charges of dog-wagging are themselves irresponsible, as we should have learned from the Republican response to Clinton's attacks against al Qaeda in 1998. In Against All Enemies, Clarke makes it clear that Clinton refused to allow political considerations to interfere with decisions about attacking al Qaeda. But we all know that the right wing had so raised the political cost of those attacks that a less resolute president could easily have allowed such considerations to affect--consciously or not--his decision-making. It is to the great and enduring shame of those who mercilessly persecuted Clinton that their actions could so easily have, at that crucial time, worked to the benefit of al Qaeda.

Let us insure that we do not make a similar mistake in our--admittedly justified--anger at the Bush administration.

Of course in much of the above we were operating under the supposition that charges that the Bush administration was wagging the dog were unjustified. My position on this is complex. Until this most recent revelation about Khan, I believed that there was no good reason to believe that the administration was politicizing the terrorism alerts. I did, however, believe that there was reason to suspect that they might be, given that they have so politicized so many things, especially with regard to our efforts against terrorism. My objections to most of the recent dog-wagging charges were that (a) they relied on weak and impressionistic evidence about the timing of the terrorism alerts and (b) they were taken to strongly support conclusions that they in fact only weakly supported. That is, these arguments relied on the wrong evidence and exaggerated the strength of their conclusions.

At any rate, this all puts those who oppose the Bush administration in a tight spot. We suspect that this administration is dirty, but we also suspect that one consequence of this is that they are likely to get dirtier when their backs are against the wall. Obviously we cannot simply resolve to let them run amok in order to keep backs and walls separated; but what we can and must do is insure that our charges against them are well-founded. If they do wrong and we confront them with that fact, we are not responsible for any irresponsible actions they might take as a result. On the other hand, if we make poorly-justified charges against them, then--knowing what we know about how they are likely to respond--I suspect that we do bear some responsibility for the consequences.

But this is, of course, just what we should be doing anyway--making only justified charges and eschewing unjustified ones.

[Once again Kevin Drum beats me to the punch--but consilience of this kind does provide (very) weak evidence for the points in question. (But only because Drum and I are both such reasonable chaps, of course.) (I found Drum's reaction via a post at Majikthise, which post I think I sort of agree and sort of disagree with. I'm not familiar with that blog, but it seems to be coming from the same sector of conceptual space as my very own wee efforts.)]


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