Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Terrorism Alerts And Wagging The Dog
Why A Possibly Honest President Is Not Good Enough

Some have raised the possibility that the Bush administration has been issuing terrorism alerts for political reasons. Many of Secretary Ridge’s terrorism alerts have two features which individually and especially in combination make them suspect. First, they are issued at times that seem calculated to help President Bush politically; second, they tend to be either vague, uninformative and unhelpful or based on suspect sources of intelligence.

Charges of politicizing national defense are extraordinarily serious and must not be made lightly. Recall similar charges leveled at President Clinton when he ordered attacks on al Qaeda in 1998. Those charges were entirely irresponsible and symptomatic of the unhinging of the Republican leadership during the Clinton administration. In Against All Enemies Richard Clarke recalls worrying that the Lewinsky scandal would make Clinton hesitant to use force. But Clarke writes:

It did not. Clinton made it clear that we were to give him our best national security advice, without regard to his personal problems. “Do you all recommend that we strike on the 20th? Fine. Do not give me political advice or personal advice about the timing. That’s my problem. Let me worry about that.” If we thought this was the best time to hit the Afghan camps, he would order it and take the heat for “Wag the Dog” criticism that we all knew would happen, for the media and congressional reaction that would say that he was using a military strike to divert attention from his deposition in the investigation.

(Against All Enemies, p. 186)

Irresponsible charges of dog-wagging are harmful not only because they are likely to distract the President from matters at hand, but also because they raise the political cost of undertaking the right course of action, running the risk of making it less likely that that course of action will be taken. By way of analogy, imagine that you go to your doctor with a strange set of symptoms, and, exhibiting some alarm, he informs you that you may have a serious malady. He recommends a course of treatment. Supposing that your health depends on doing the right thing at this point (and that you don’t have the option of switching doctors), would it be rational for you to publicly and repeatedly accuse him of ordering the treatment that he did only for his own (say, financial) gain? That is, would it make sense to force your doctor to suffer a significant personal and professional loss every time he recommended to you a certain general type of treatment? Even a doctor of extremely good character might (perhaps unconsciously) allow this to affect his decisions.

One thing to remember here is that in the real world of actual decisions, the evidence is usually foggy and conflicting, and vague guesses about likely costs must be weighed against vague guesses about likely benefits. Under such real-world conditions even an undistracted person who will pay no personal cost for making one decision rather than another will make the wrong decision very much of the time. It is the height of irrationality to gratuitouly add extraneous, complicating personal factors to such decision tasks, especially when (a) the decision in question is important and (b) there is little reason to believe that the charges in question are true.

It is a testament to President Clinton’s character that he was so successful in resisting the external pressures placed on him by the dog-wagging charges. It is substantial vindication of the view, held by many of us, that, though Clinton’s character is sub-optimal in certain ways having to do with his private sexual decisions, it is admirable in ways having to do with the big issues. Persons who are, let us say, rather more straight-laced in their personal behavior but rather less admirable in their attitudes toward the big issues cannot necessarily be expected to resist such pressure as resolutely as Clinton did.

Which brings us to the current situation. When I began to hear the recent dog-wagging charges against the Bush administration, I thought them reprehensible and roughly equivalent to the charges against Clinton. In fact, some friends of mine were discussing Fahrenheit 9/11 after seeing it last weekend, and I was expressing skepticism about the charges when The Cusamano noted that using bogus (or quasi-bogus) terrorism alerts for political ends is no worse than deceiving the public about the strength of the case for war. This seems right, and, in fact, I am inclined to think that it’s not nearly as bad.

This being noted, here is the position we now find ourselves in:

(1) Issuing deceptive terrorism alerts is no worse than (and probably not as bad as) deceiving us in order to get us to support a war.
(2) If this administration is capable of deceiving us in order to get us to support a war, then they are capable of deceiving us with bogus terrorism alerts

(3) It is clear that the administration deceived us in order to get us to support the war in Iraq
(4) This administration is capable of deceiving us with bogus terrorism alerts.

This argument, of course, does not show that these alerts about terrorism are bogus, only that we aren’t in a position to say that they are not bogus. That is, this argument seems to prove that skepticism about these alerts is reasonable. Consequently, it is reasonable to voice such skepticism publicly.

Whereas Republicans had by far insufficient grounds for making dog-wagging charges against Clinton, Bush’s deceptions about the Iraq war seem to provide us with relatively strong evidence for raising such charges against him and his administration. Dishonesty about private sexual indiscretions is only very weak evidence that the person in question will be dishonest about profound and public matters. On the other hand, the Bush administration has already demonstrated its dishonesty about matters just as public and perhaps even more profound than terrorism alerts. This, in conjunction with the suspicious timing and content (or lack thereof) of the terrorism alerts does, I conclude, provide significant reason to doubt the veracity of the alerts and the sincerity of the administration.

There are, however, some substantial reasons to doubt the above conclusion. First, one might question conclusion (2) above. (In fact that means that it is really the inference from (1) to (2) that is questionable, but we needn’t worry about that). (2) seems questionable because, in my opinion, we are still not sure why the administration was Hell-bent on attacking Iraq. The real why behind the war remains, in my mind, its greatest mystery. They were probably to some extent swayed by the evidence, but they are not dim-witted enough to miss patent weaknesses there that were noted by everyone else in the world. They were probably motivated by the humanitarian case to some extent, but this alone cannot explain their actions given the fact of the right wing’s long-standing objections to using military force to achieve humanitarian ends. At any rate, despite Karl Rove’s injunction to Republicans to “run on the war,” we have no good reason to believe that the war was undertaken primarily or in large part for political reasons. We still don’t really understand why it was undertaken. The point is that we cannot infer from the fact that they lied to us about the war (for reasons we don’t understand) to the conclusion that they are lying to us in the terrorism alerts in order to win the election. They might, for example, genuinely believe that attacking Iraq was in our long-term national interest, and they might be willing to lie because of that and still be unwilling to lie about terrorist threats merely in order to win an election. However, the fact that so many people who have left the administration have testified to the fact that this administration is driven primarily by politics does give us at least some reason to believe that politics might very well have played some role in both cases.

Second, in the case of the most recent terrorism alert, vague worries supported by hand-waving about “chatter” was replaced by specific information about targets and about the source of that information.

So, I conclude that skepticism about many of the administration’s recent terrorism alerts is reasonable, though conviction that the alerts are bogus is not reasonable. It is perhaps worth noting here that this indicates one of the major reasons I believe that the Bush administration must go—we are justified in being skeptical about their honesty concerning matters of great importance.

The left tends to assert that we can be certain that this administration is dishonest. True believers on the right sometimes go so far as to argue that the administration is exceptionally honest, but a claim so preposterous as that does not warrant serious discussion. The more sensible on the right have usually settled for arguing that we don’t know for sure that the administration is dishonest—for example, it is often argued (falsely) that Bush never really lied about Iraq, or that he did not really say specifically that Iraq was an “immanent threat.” The point of a defense of this kind is to show that it is possible that the accused is innocent of the relevant charges—roughly, that we do not have proof of their mendacity beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a sensible strategy in a courtroom, but not when national leadership is at issue.

The problem is this: even if the sensible right is right, the Bush administration is no longer fit for power. A president and his administration are fit to govern only if we have good reason to believe that they are honest with regard to profound and public matters. That is, only if we have strong reason to believe, for example, that they will not politicize national security matters. But the most we can say of this administration is that we cannot be certain that they are dishonest. That is, it is reasonably clear that we cannot be sure whether or not they are politicizing national security. And that is very, very far from being good enough.


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