Obama's speech on race

I never did a "part 3" of my look at Obama's speech on race (here are parts one and two) because I've been a bit stretched for time (comps, thesis, job hunt, other preparations...). So because I don't have enough time to write anything myself, here are my brief thoughts and some excerpts from other people's reactions to the speech that I think are interesting.

First, my own brief thoughts. First, the speech was brilliant in that it targeted Democrat superdelegates, the only people who can deny Obama the Democratic nomination, and the media class, those who have the largest impact on his general election campaign against McCain. The speech slyly attacked the media for focusing attention on the issue, and also slyly admonished sheltered white people who found the atmosphere in a black Christian church "jarring to the untrained ear."

Polls now show that the whole Rev. Wright flap hurt Obama minimally if at all (a far cry from being analogous to a "hooker in a trunk"). Of course there is always the possibility that this will increase the Bradley effect as voters might not feel comfortable telling a pollster that they don't want to vote for Obama because his pastor is a scary black man. We'll know in November.

As always, the reactions of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert shouldn't be missed.

My usual criticism of Obama's speeches, that he doesn't provide any concrete policy proposals and instead buries them in his website for policy wonks to find, doesn't really apply to this speech. It's not like you can pass an anti-racism law or something.

Now for other people's thoughts.

And sadly, those who do that fighting are often considered to be "unamerican" and "unpatriotic" because by demanding that America change, they are making a case that America is not perfect. For the chauvinist, nationalist, exceptionalist right, (and the mindbogglingly provincial thinkers in the village) that is something you are not allowed to admit.
Brown professor Glenn Loury:
Wright's error, Obama tells us, is that Wright's view of America is static, ignoring how things have changed -- so much so that one of his own parishioners now stands on the threshold of being elected to the highest office in the land. As a (more or less) angry black man of Jeremiah Wright's approximate generation (I graduated high school in 1965), and while offering no brief for Wright himself and no defense of the remarks that have created this firestorm, I nevertheless find that argument very patronizing. I know, just as Wright surely knows, that things have changed a great deal. I also know that, as I write this, one million young black men are under the physical control of the state; a third of black children live in poverty, and, the Southside of Chicago, with more than one-half million black residents, is one of the most massive, racially segregated urban enclaves ever to have been created in the history of the modern world... These things are a reflection of social, cultural, economic and political forces deeply enmeshed in the structure of American society. They are not merely the consequence of attitudes embraced by some more or less well-meaning but benighted black and white persons -- attitudes which can be thrown-off if only we were to become determined, under the inspiring and inspired leadership of the junior senator from Illinois, to work together to solve our common problems, etc.
He didn’t run and hide in Kerry/Daschle-esque cowardly fashion. He stood right up and said, “yes, he’s my friend.” He cast him as mired in the old world, to be sure, but he didn’t give into the Russert-style pressure to do some sort of Maoist confessional disavowing all association with the man. (I also thought it was savvy to preemptively ridicule the press if they continue obsessing about this story).

Say hello to the new-look Revs

The Revolution completely dismantled defending champs Houston Dynamo tonight, 3-0, despite being without three normal starters (Twellman, Thompson and Smith). Goals came from Ralston, Cristman, and Nyassi. Nyassi's in particular was a fantastic solo effort. Highlights (4 minutes) are posted below.

New England looked like a totally different team from last season - they have a flair they've been missing since Clint Dempsey left. The addition of Kenny Mansally, Mauricio Castro and especially Sainey Nyassi gives them speed and skill that they were lacking last season. Nyassi is incredibly fast, doing step-overs at full speed, and was sprinting back to play defense even in the 80th minute. He was man-of-the-match for me. He set up the first goal and the third goal.... well just watch the highlights.

Mansally also played extremely well, setting up Ralston for the game winner, drawing fouls and looking dangerous the whole time. Castro wasn't on the same page as his teammates, which is expected as he's trained with them for only a week and doesn't speak English, but he was still able to use his skill to frustrate Houston defenders. He drew a hilarious yellow card by doing three cutbacks in a row, running up and down the sideline, until the Houston defender got fed up and hacked him down. Kheli Dube came in for the last ten minutes, but didn't get enough action for me to tell whether he's good or not. And the defensive unit of Heaps/Parkhurst/Albright functioned well.

The amazing thing is that now the Revolution actually have depth. Nyassi and Mansally are the real deal. Castro looks to be a good pickup as well, once he integrates into the team. That means there will be 5 attacking mids competing for 3 spots, and at least three quality forwards competing for two spots. Despite losing four starters in the offseason, this team could in fact be better than last year.

Revs season preview

If you are looking for something more than just my cliff notes on the offseason, check out Jimmy Chowda's excellent 2008 Season Preview for the Revs. And it would be past time for Big Red to get the attention that over-the-hill Ben Olsen gets.

MLS 2008 season starts on Saturday!

The 2008 MLS season is upon us. The New England Revolution get a chance to avenge their loss to Houston in the MLS Cup Final last year (their third straight Cup final loss) on Saturday, playing Houston at home. Here's the cliff notes on the offseason.

The Revs lost four players in the offseason. Midfielder Andy Dorman went to Scotland where he now plays for St. Mirren. Striker Pat Noonan was bought by a Norwegian team, Aalesunds FK. Defenders Avery John is not returning for the team, reportedly hawking his wares in the UK. And James Riley (aka Giggles) was picked up by the resuscitated San Jose Earthquakes.

The loss of Avery John has been compensated for by bringing in US National Team defender Chris Albright (see him bonding with his new teammates in his underwear in a hottub in Cancun here). Amaechi Igwe, a rookie last year who played for the reserves, may also get playing time depending on whether the Revs play 3 or 4 at the back. Some people have been saying they don't expect much from Igwe because he didn't get any time last year for the senior team. However, Jeff Larentowicz played 5 minutes for the senior team his rookie year, and started half the games his sophomore year, so I won't write off Igwe. The Revs also drafted a defender, Rob Valentino, with their highest draft pick, and signed a local trialist, Sam Brill of Newton Mass. and Boston College.

The loss of Pat Noonan, who's contributions the last couple seasons were scant due to injury, will probably be offset by the development of Adam Cristman and Kenny Mansally, both rookies last year although Mansally didn't play last year due to visa issues (he is Gambian). Fellow Gambian Sainey Nyassi, a fast outside winger, arrived with Mansally last year. He played one sub appearance and I liked what I saw, although coach Nicol says he needs to develop aspects of his game that don't include running at defenders, beating them, and putting in crosses. Frankly I don't see why...

Hopefully Dorman's departure will be made up for by the signing of two players from Honduran clubs: Mauricio Castro and Argenis Fernandez (who is Costa Rican). Castro can reportedly play the creative midfield role that the Revs have been lacking since they let Jose Pepe Cancela leave a couple years ago. Fernandez is a 21 year old striker. The Revs also signed Kheli Dube, a Zimbabwean striker. They also drafted striker Spencer Wadsworth from Duke, making it five (six if you include Khano Smith) strikers competing for the honor of starting alongside Taylor Twellman. Mansally and Cristman are the favorites.

The core of the team remains intact. Shalrie Joseph and Larentowicz in the midfield are in my opinion the best central midfield pairing in the league. Steve Ralston and Jay Heaps are getting older - I'm not sold that either of them will be still starting come the last day of the season. Twellman will score goals. Michael Parkhurst is still the best central defender in the league - hopefully he doesn't leave for Europe as well. Reis is solid in goal.

In short, lots of changes in the offseason, lots of potential upside if even only two or three of the new young guys like Mansally, Nyassi, Fernandez, Dube, Brill or Valentino end up making valuable contributions. Because the two best teams in the East, DC and the Revs, both lost experienced players (DC lost Christian Gomez to Colorado) and one of the poorer teams improved (Kansas City got Claudio Lopez), I think the East will be pretty even between DC, New England, Kansas City, and Chicago.

Other relevant Revs news: the Revs have an official blog that is regularly updated.

Chelsea beats Arsenal!

Unfortunately I didn't get to see the game. Chelsea went down 1-0 with twenty minutes left, but Drogba fought back. Highlights are here, 13 minute highlights embedded under the fold.

I had written the season off for Chelsea in terms of trying to win the league. With this win and Arsenal's bad streak (6 games without a win), Chelsea are now five points behind Man Utd., with seven games left. On April 26th, Man Utd. travels to Chelsea for the third-to-last game of the season - it could decide the title.

Wright, Hagee and Parsley

This is part two of my three part look at Obama and race. Part one on Reverend Wright's controversial statements.

A constant theme among a lot of liberal blogs even before the Rev. Wright media spectacle has been “why haven't the mainstream media paid attention to McCain's courting of hateful religious Right preachers?” McCain sought out Rev. John Hagee's endorsement to help counter his 2000 statement that powerful preachers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were "agents of intolerance." He sought out Rev. Rod Parsley's endorsement in order to help him win Ohio in the general election. Why has Obama's relationship with Rev. Wright been more newsworthy and controversial than McCain's relationship with the much more radical and hateful Hagee and Parsley?

On Technorati as of 4PM on March 18th, a search for "Obama and Wright" yields 8,129 results. A search for "McCain and Hagee" yields 1,274. A search for "McCain and Parsley" yields only 232 results. A Lexis-Nexis news search for "Obama and Wright" yielded 329 results for the previous two years, versus only 31 results for "McCain and Hagee" and 9 results for "McCain and Parsley" (some of which were in newspapers' Food sections...).

There are a few reasons. First, because Obama's relationship with Wright is personally close and much longer than McCain's relationship with either Hagee or Parsley. Secondly, because Reverend Wright comes off as a scary black man.
The substance of Wright's controversial remarks may be less hateful than remarks by Hagee and Parsley, but the manner of delivery "jars" whites and brings up stereotypes of black nationalists and fears that Malcolm X will rise from the grave. Third, due to the religious Right's widespread influence, most members of the media are familiar with hateful statements coming from the likes of Falwell and Robertson, while they were surprised by the remarks and style of Rev. Wright, just as they were surprised by the poverty and resentment shown by Hurricane Katrina.

As for Hagee, from a quick scan of his Wikipedia entry we see that in his book Jersusalem Countdown, he wrote that Jews brought the Holocaust et al on themselves because of their “disobedience” to God. He said on NPR that New Orleans deserved to be destroyed by Hurricane Katrina because of its tolerance of gays. He also claimed on NPR that the faith of Islam is a military threat. Some Catholic groups (and this guy too) say he called the Catholic Church “the great whore” and “a false cult system”, although Hagee denies it.

Parsley is of a similar mold, but is even more anti-Muslim:
I do not believe our country can truly fulfill its divine purpose until we understand our historical conflict with Islam... America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed, and I believe September 11, 2001, was a generational call to arms that we can no longer ignore.
With Hagee and Parsley's nuttiness firmly established, let's move on to the respective relationships.

Why is Obama close to Wright? Because of factors that have nothing to do with Wright's controversial political views. Obama joined Wright's church looking for a sense of community and seeking to identify with the people he represented in office. Hilzoy writes more on the connection between Obama and his church. Bottom line – it's not about politics, it's about community and identity.

Why is McCain close to Hagee and Parsley? Precisely because of their controversial political views. McCain sought out Hagee's endorsement for the political benefits, and McCain became close to Parsley in order to win Ohio in the general election. If McCain cozies up to hateful preachers purely because of their political power, shouldn't he be held accountable for the political views that give them that political power?

The sad thing is that McCain once possessed the courage to denounce hateful religious Right preachers like Hagee and Parsley. McCain made the decision to embrace these people not, I think, because he changed his mind about them, but because of his ambition to be President outweighs his moral sense.

Thoughts on Rev. Wright's comments

I mentioned in my last post that I was going to write up my thoughts on the Rev. Wright media feeding frenzy once I got around to it. Turns out I have more thoughts on the issue than I realized. I'll have three separate posts: the first on what I see as the core issues in the Rev. Wright debacle; the second on comparing Wright's relationship with Obama with McCain's underpublicized relationships with Hagee and Parsley, and the third on Obama's speech itself. Wright's remarks that have received the most airtime are his “God damn America” clip and the post-9/11 speech.

The way I see it, the uproar over Wright's remarks comes largely from sheltered white people who haven't previously been in black churches or been exposed to black preachers. On Point had two good shows, the first on Wright's remarks, and the second on Obama's speech. In the first, Dr. Dwight Hopkins explained a bit of the history of the black church tradition. Dr. Wright:
“the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, is full of prophetic condemnation and damnation of peoples and nations... so when Rev. Wright says 'God damn America', he's actually, and if you look at the clips, he says 'it's in the Bible, it's in the Bible,' it's actually in the Bible, the word “damn”, in the Old Testament it means condemnation and sacred judgment... it's damning a powerful country that has the resources to bring about peace, build friendship, and help the poor; instead it's gone to war and occupied a smaller nation.”
Wright's remarks were:“God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people...God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.” Wright is damning the American government in that he is condemning it for being racist. Previously in his sermon he preached about how "governments change, God does not change" - i.e. that America must change or else it is worthy of condemnation, or in the language of the Old Testament, damnation.

In the same way, Martin Luther King preached “We've committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world ... God has a way of even putting nations in their place. And if you don't stop your reckless course, [God will] rise up and break the backbone of your power.” Some of you might have heard that MLK has his own holiday named after him - he's not (anymore) seen as an anti-American figure.

Wright's quote of “America's chickens are coming home to roost” are taken out of context to portray Wright negatively. In context, it's apparent that Wright is quoting Edward Peck when he makes the comment "America's chickens are coming home to roost." This statement is the non-controversial (except to Rudy Giuliani) theory of blowback. This clip is a non-issue on substance, but is another instance of an angry black preacher that in Obama's words are “jarring to the untrained ear” - i.e. they frighten sheltered white people.

The bottom line is that Trinity Church is neither anti-American nor exceptional. Wright grew up in the sixties who seemingly hasn't moved on, but on substance, there is no controversy worthy of the media's obsession.

The remarks that bother me most from Wright are when he says “Hillary never had a cab whizz past her and not pick her up because her skin was the wrong color.” He emphasizes racism so much that he ignores the equally real sexism that women face especially in politics. A problem, yes, but not one that reflects on to Obama (unless he has some legacy of sexism that I don't know about).

I urge everyone who's been up in arms about this spectacle to watch the two videos of Wright in context - the longer, unclipped versions are here and here.

Hopefully this post has helped put in context Wright's remarks. Next up is the comparison between Wright, and Hagee and Parsley.

Obama - "A More Perfect Union"

Below the fold is the youtube of Obama's 40 minute speech on race in America. My thoughts on it and the whole Reverend Wright 'scandal' will follow in a separate post once I get around to writing it.

Egyptian traffic

There was a big traffic accident in Egypt today that made the international news wires. A bus smashed into a truck on a highway. So far the death toll is twenty-three. At the end of the article there's a short bit on how Egypt has tons of traffic accidents. I thought I'd share an anecdotes about traffic in Cairo from when I was in Egypt in the early nineties.

Photo from GHAWAYESH

I accompanied my parents to Egypt when I was in 6th grade (November-December 1991 1995) as my dad was going there for a business trip. The first day we arrived in Cairo, after we checked into the hotel, I got a Pepsi and went out to the balcony which looked out on the Nile and a bridge across it. I sat down on one of the chairs and watched as a public transportation bus went the wrong way over a bridge and crashed into a dark blue station wagon. The bus ended up skidding and rotating so that it blocked off the entire bridge. Everybody piled out of the station wagon (like five people) and the bus (more like twenty) and then dispersed through the traffic jam that had piled up behind the bus.

I was fascinated by this and sat and watched while my parents were inside unpacking everything. After all the people who were in the bus or station wagon had left, the cars behind the bus just sat there unable to move. After maybe twenty minutes a policeman on a bicycle finally showed up. According to my Egyptian friends, after an accident everybody claims to have not seen anything when questioned by the police - if they tell details, they might spend the night at jail to make sure the police don't lose their witness. I never did see an ambulance arrive but I couldn't see that anyone was actually injured. By the time I had to go, there was still a bus sitting sideways across a major bridge on the Nile, spilling oil across the pavement with a destroyed station wagon in front of it and traffic backed up as far as I could see.

That was my introduction to Egypt.

AQIM/GSPC kidnaps two in Tunisia

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, aka the Groupe Salafist pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC, standing for Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) took two Austrian tourists hostage in Tunisia. The Austrians were kidnapped between February 18th and 25th, but the GSPC only put out an announcement on Monday. The two hostages are now apparently in Mali, near Kidal. This bears some resemblance to the GSPC's last high-profile kidnapping effort in 2003. As with everything in the Sahara, facts are hard to come by.

Here are the facts as I understand them about the current kidnapping situation. The two Austrians, Andrea Kloiber and Wolfgang Ebner, were kidnapped in February in Tunisia, or maybe Algeria. Ms. Kloiber is a nurse and Mr. Ebner is a consultant. Austria is proclaiming that it will not negotiate with the GSPC. A GSPC spokesman says that if their demands are not met by Sunday, the Ms. Kloiber and Mr. Ebner will be executed.

It's my guess that the GSPC held off on announcing their kidnapping until they had been transported from Tunisia to outside Kidal, Mali, where they possibly are being held. This is a journey of over a thousand miles. Assuming the couple were actually kidnapped in Tunisia rather than getting lost and ending up in Algeria, that means that the GSPC was able to transport two foreign hostages across the Tunisian/Algerian border, across the length of Algeria, across the Algerian/Malian border, probably through the smuggling routes near Tin-Za, and to north-western Mali. Even if the couple was abducted in Algeria instead of Tunisia, the GSPC still had to transport them across the entirety of Algeria and across an international border without being detected, demonstrating impressive logistics.

My guess is that they are somewhere in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains. This is due to the pictures I've seen and because they've been reported in both Kidal and Tessalit. If true this would mean that presumably they have come to some sort of arrangement with Malian Tuareg groups that control that region. The GSPC's guy in northern Mali, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has cooperated with Tuareg leaders in the past on smuggling, but they had a falling out in 2006 when the Tuareg rebel group ADC (Alliance for Democracy and Change) ambushed a bunch of GSPC fighters at a meeting over smuggling rights in order to get in the good graces of the Algerians who were negotiating peace between the ADC and Mali at the time.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, aka Khaled Abu al-Abbas, aka Benouar, aka "The One-Eyed", is more of a smuggler and criminal than a hardcore ideological terrorist. His outfit, also known as the GSL (Groupe Salafiste Liberation, or Free Salafist Group) started as a smuggling ring and joined up with the GSPC later, probably out of profit motive. He was reported killed in clashes between the ADC and his GSPC smuggling outfit back in September 2006. He was also reportedly killed last month. Apparently he's still alive, as I've heard recently from some local military people that he was trying to secure amnesty from various governments so he could take his cash and retire.

Clay Varney at Threatswatch writes that this move should be seen as a move targeting Westerners similar to the killing of four French tourists in Mali last December. First, as far as I know, there was no evidence of GSPC/AQIM responsibility for those killings beyond claims by the Mauritanian government. It's just as possible that the perps were common criminals. Second, I think it is more likely that GSPC is simply looking for leverage in attaining specific demands, especially if the GSPC simply came across these Austrians as they were lost in the desert, rather than planning an elaborate operation. GSPC claims to have treated the hostages well so far and is trying to use them for ransom, demanding the release of imprisoned GSPC members and possibly cash as well. If it was an attack designed to specifically target Westerners, Frau Kloiber and Herr Ebner would already be dead.

The GSPC is split between one faction who is ideologically close to Osama bin Ladin's Al Qaeda and focused on a global struggle, and another faction that is more focused on Algeria and opposed the two declarations of allegiance to Al Qaeda, the first in 2003 and the second in January 2007 that accompanied their official name change to AQIM. Abdelmalek el-Droukdel (aka Abu Musab abd al-Wadoud), the current official leader of the group, is the driving force behind the pledge of allegiance to bin Ladin. Hassan Hattab
is representative of the opposition within GSPC. He surrendered to Algerian authorities last October in order to gain protection from Droukdel's men who were trying to kill him. Belmokhtar, also against the name change and allegiance to Al Qaeda, had a falling out with Droukdel in January 2007.

Thus if it's true that the two hostages are being held in Mali, then it's likely that the Austrians were captured by GSPC elements loyal to Hattab or Belmokhtar and transported down to Mali so the kidnappers could benefit monetarily. It seems unlikely that Droukdel would take such trouble and risk to transport hostages over a thousand miles to Belmokhtar's area of operations given the efforts Droukdel has taken to marginalize Belmokhtar. Droukdel, the force behind the GSPC's increased targeting of Westerners, might not even be in the loop.

Bottom line: I don't know anything for certain! But this is what seems likely to me.

Updating the blogroll

I've added a few new blogs to the blogroll - here are some good posts you should check out if you have time.

Some guy "Rob" has a new blog Rob's Arabic Media Shack. Rob highlights interesting bits and provides summaries for the non-Arabic speakers among us, especially things that aren't covered in the U.S. press. Any blog that disses American media's foreign coverage as much as his does, I'm sure to like. He has good posts like:
Israel-Hezbullah II (wouldn't it be III?)
Zawahiri vs. Sayyid Imam
US-Muslim Brotherhood Rapprochement?
Funding for Middle East Related Think Tanks
The Insurgency Research Group blog is also new and so far has highlighted interesting COIN-related stuff from around the web. It's written by a couple academics in King's College, London.

Ghosts of Alexander is billed as Afghanistanica's replacement (which has unfortunately shut down). It's also new, with only three posts so far. It's first post is very good: A Strategic Communication Plan for Afghanistan.

Paul McCleary is a reporter for the Columbia Journalism Review and is currently reporting from Iraq on his blog War, the military, COIN and stuff. His posts are in depth and very good, for instance, this post The Sunni and the Shia are like the Tigris and the Euphrates, looking at how American soldiers are stuck trying to make sure the Iraqi Police, the Iraqi Army, and their new allies in the Sunni Awakening don't all kill each other.

USA vs. Cuba, Revs in Cancun

The US U-23 team played Cuba a couple days ago in Florida, tying 1-1 with a goal from Freddy Adu. Cuban national sports teams work under tough conditions - every time they travel to the U.S. play us, they always go home with fewer players:
Five Cuban soccer players went missing Tuesday night after the under-23 team played a key match against the United States, a team official said Wednesday.
Also check out this article on the New England Revolution's preseason in Cancun. Fans are welcome to travel with them, but for some reason only three did. That's amazing access for fans, perhaps next year if I save enough money and vacation days....
"My wife's kind of jealous," [Steve Ralston] says with a grin. "She's home with three kids. I call her and tell her, 'Honey, it's not that nice here. It's been really windy. The fields are bad. The food is not that great.' "

Why Telecom amnesty? And other FISA stuff

I don't really understand why telecommunications companies that cooperated with the NSA's warrantless domestic wiretapping deserve amnesty. The various reasons in favor all seem to be false. Here are the reasons I've seen offered in favor of amnesty and my understanding of why they're false. If any readers have additional reasons for telecom amnesty, or take issue with my "debunking", please comment. I'm no expert, just trying to nail the debate positions down on paper.

Reason #1 for telecom amnesty: if we do not excuse past law-breaking by telecom companies, telecom companies will not comply with legitimate government requests for information in the future.
Debunking: When presented with a warrant, a company is required by law to comply with the government's request for information. If they do not, they will go to jail and/or pay large fines. Thus there is no danger of a company refusing a legitimate request for information.

Reason #2 for telecom amnesty: the telecom companies didn't actually break the law, but they are prevented from proving so because it would require disclosing classified documents.
Debunking: FISA has always provided for this scenario - telecom companies can provide the classified documents to the judge only, with the judge then deciding the case based on those documents.

Reason #3 for telecom amnesty: telecom companies were acting as "good corporate citizens" by complying with with the government's request for information. Therefore the U.S. should shield them from punishment through amnesty.
Debunking: A "good corporate citizen" would demand a warrant, rather than volunteering sensitive information on their customers. Plus, telecom companies like as not based their cooperation on the continuation of large government contracts.

What other reasons are there in favor of telecom amnesty?

Check out Julian Sanchez's debunking of a Weekly Standard editorial.

Relatedly, Michael Tanji argues that the real solution to domestic intel collection problems is a combination of HUMINT collecting and oversight. I agree with most everything in his article except for two things. First, that telecom amnesty is necessary. Second, that
U.S. intelligence couldn't possibly do anything egregious because American intelligence officers are conscientious folks who would not break the law. The senior leadership of the Department of Justice must not have been so confident, otherwise they wouldn't have threatened resignation if Bush pushed for an illegal intelligence collection scheme. Also, I don't think COINTELPRO or other intel abuses can be explained solely by the FBI employing bad people and now they employ good people. Human nature applies to U.S. intelligence officers as much as anyone else - people are more likely to "mind their own business" than raise a stink. That's why the oversight that Tanji writes about is so necessary.

Torture and American strategy

It's an accepted fact that America has tortured alleged members of Al Qaeda. Everyone who reads this blog should read Col. Morris Davis' oped in the New York Times: Unforgivable Behavior, Inadmissible Evidence. This post will briefly look at torture through the lens of American grand strategy.

Torture is frequently justified at the tactical level (i.e. each individual case of torture taken separately) by referring to the "ticking time bomb" scenario. Assuming that torture is effective (which it can be), this makes it relatively easy to justify torture because you isolate each event from its long-term consequences. Looking beyond this artificial time-horizon is how utilitarians argue against torture: "The ultimate utilitarian objection to torture, therefore, is that it corrosively delegitimizes the state." This delegitimization harms the United States more than most other countries, as I'll show.

Chet Richard's most recent post reminds us of Boyd's conception of strategy as "pump up our morale, degrade that of our opponents, attract the uncommitted to our cause, and end the conflict on favorable terms without sowing the seeds for future (unfavorable) conflict." The use of torture alienates our allies, helps our enemies in their recruitment campaigns, and in so doing helps sow the seeds for future conflict. But how does torture affect efforts to "pump up our morale", or as Boyd puts it in his "Patterns of Conflict" briefing, "amplify our spirit and strength"?

For the United States especially, promoting internal harmony and strength within society should be the paramount goal of American strategy. The destruction of inner harmony damages the United States much more than it does other countries. Unlike other political communities, the United States does not have a specific shared heritage, ethnicity, religion, or race to fall back upon to unify the country. Instead America is based on a shared political culture, based around the Constitution.

America is perhaps unique among nations for the ability to commit suicide bloodlessly (I suppose the Vatican could as well if the Pope renounced Catholicism). If, for example, Japan were to engage in widespread torture, Japanese would still remain bonded to each other through cultural and ethnic ties. If the United States was to engage in widespread torture, it would represent a break with the fundamental values the country was founded on, and the political community would have less of a reason to exist. Simply stated, Japan does not become less Japanese if its government tortures, however America does become less American if its government tortures.

Even if it's true that we "only" tortured three Al Qaeda members, as Col. Davis says:
Saying a man is honest is a compliment. Saying a man is “generally” honest or honest “quite often” means he lies. The mistreatment of detainees, like honesty, is all or nothing: We either do stuff like that or we do not.
Whether you call it "morale" like Col. Richards, "spirit and strength" like Boyd, or "legitimacy" as Morgan does, it's the same thing. Stephen Colbert might call it "America-ness". Torture destroys it.

Why study the Tuareg insurgency?

"Why study the Tuareg insurgency?" People ask me this question in a variety of ways, from the polite "Oh that's very interesting, how did you pick that topic?" to the blank stare I receive after I explain to someone what my thesis is about. Obviously every conflict deserves to be studied, and I'd go nuts if I forced myself to study Iraq in depth for the next five months. In this post I'll explain why I picked this specific conflict to study and what I think the Tuareg insurgencies can teach us, specifically in comparing insurgent/COIN effectiveness, and looking at the impact of environmental change, smuggling, resource extraction, and U.S. involvement in local conflicts.

Over this past winter break, I was lazing around my parents' house watching the mediocre Matthew McConaughey/Penelope Cruz movie Sahara. In it, McConaughey is traipsing about the Sahara looking for buried treasure while Penelope Cruz is trying to find starving Africans to save. On the way they run into some rebels (in Hollywood, African governments are usually bad and the rebels are usually good).

I had just finished reading T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and so the prospect of studying a desert insurgency caught my interest. While watching the movie I decided to poke around Wikipedia to see whether there are any active insurgencies in the Sahara, and I found the entry for the Second Tuareg Rebellion. I had heard of the Tuareg because my mother is involved in African art and the Tuaregs have very good silversmiths. Reading the article, a couple things jumped out at me.

The Wikipedia article treats the conflicts in Mali and Niger as essentially the same conflict. While I'm now finding that the situations in Mali and Niger have a couple major differences, it's still a good opportunity to study the evolution of a transnational insurgency and compare counterinsurgency policies between Mali and Niger. Because every insurgency is different from every other insurgency, it can be difficult to draw comparisons between, say, Malaya and Vietnam, to see which strategy was more effective. This is true in all military analysis but especially so in studying insurgencies as politics matters much more. However due to the close links between Tuaregs in Mali and Niger, it will be possible to make some direct comparisons between the counterinsurgency strategies of Mali and Niger.

Another reason to study this conflict is because it involves some factors that I think will become more important drivers of conflict in the future. The first of these is environmental change. The Tuareg nomadic lifestyle is highly dependent on the environment. The desertification of the Sahel is putting more pressure on both nomads and farmers as they compete for shrinking resources. Global climate change promises that environmental change will be a significant driver of conflict (I've written more on this, for example here).

Second, the role of smuggling is important in the Sahara. The BBC program Secrets in the Sand gives a good overview of how smuggling is funding warlords like Mokhtar Belmokhtar, but also provides the backbone for local economies. If smuggling is eliminated through counter-terrorism programs, economies in Mali and Niger will be devastated. The importance of smuggling in this conflict provides a good backdrop on which to examine the "war as crime/crime as war" debate.

One of the few legitimate economic activities in the Sahara is resource extraction. For the Tuareg this means uranium deposits in Niger. One of the grievances of the MNJ rebel group is that the Tuareg don't see enough revenue from the uranium that the French uranium mining company Areva extracts. On the other hand the Nigerien government/military believes that Areva has paid MNJ leaders to attack rival uranium companies. Obviously the politics of resource extraction has relevance to Iraq (oil), Nigeria (oil), Sierra Leone (diamonds), Congo (everything), etc.

Finally, the U.S. has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the Sahara by training local militaries. Under the logic of "Phase Zero" operations, the Pentagon hopes that by assisting local militaries, local conflicts will never blow up big enough to require outside intervention by the U.S. This money is given on the assumption that Al Qaeda exists in the Sahara, which itself is a controversial assertion. In researching the current Tuareg insurgency, I'll be able to simultaneously evaluate the effectiveness of this policy.

In addition to these reasons, the notion of studying a conflict that nobody else knows anything about appeals to me for a couple reasons. First, I get to do a lot of original research, although admittedly not as much as I'd like seeing as I don't have the funds or language skills to do any fieldwork. Also, one of academia's big contributions to society can be studying obscure things on the off-chance that they become important to a broader segment of society. If I ever end up working for some think tank or agency, I won't have the freedom to study whatever obscure conflict I want - better use that freedom now.