Muckraking

Every once in a while, I read a story that renews my faith in journalism as a form of public service. Jeff Stein’s latest is one of those pieces. Read:

Rep. Jane Harman , the California Democrat with a longtime involvement in intelligence issues, was overheard on an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department reduce espionage-related charges against two officials of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington.

Harman was recorded saying she would “waddle into” the AIPAC case “if you think it’ll make a difference,” according to two former senior national security officials familiar with the NSA transcript.

In exchange for Harman’s help, the sources said, the suspected Israeli agent pledged to help lobby Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., then-House minority leader, to appoint Harman chair of the Intelligence Committee after the 2006 elections, which the Democrats were heavily favored to win.

Seemingly wary of what she had just agreed to, according to an official who read the NSA transcript, Harman hung up after saying, “This conversation doesn’t exist.”

Read on; it only gets seedier (and more impressive as a feat of reporting). Via Josh Marshall.

Mueller on Afghanistan

(Cross-posted)

Read. This, in particular, is critical:

The very notion that al Qaeda needs a secure geographic base to carry out its terrorist operations, moreover, is questionable. After all, the operational base for 9/11 was in Hamburg, Germany. Conspiracies involving small numbers of people require communication, money, and planning — but not a major protected base camp.

At present, al Qaeda consists of a few hundred people running around in Pakistan, seeking to avoid detection and helping the Taliban when possible. It also has a disjointed network of fellow travelers around the globe who communicate over the Internet. Over the last decade, the group has almost completely discredited itself in the Muslim world due to the fallout from the 9/11 attacks and subsequent counterproductive terrorism, much of it directed against Muslims. No convincing evidence has been offered publicly to show that al Qaeda Central has put together a single full operation anywhere in the world since 9/11. And, outside of war zones, the violence perpetrated by al Qaeda affiliates, wannabes, and lookalikes combined has resulted in the deaths of some 200 to 300 people per year, and may be declining. That is 200 to 300 too many, of course, but it scarcely suggests that “the safety of people around the world is at stake,” as Obama dramatically puts it.

Read the whole thing, as the kids say. The only thing I’d add is that by trying to paint al-Qaeda as some epically powerful actor and a big enough threat to justify a nationwide occupation, the Obama administration is playing into the group’s PR message and making it a whole lot more attractive to form one of the wannabe/lookalike groups that contributes to that 200 to 300 figure. I’d wager anything that if we were to begin a gradual replacement of military forces with development officers, governance experts, and other state-building staffers from multilateral institutions and NGOs, and more importantly if Obama stopped making speeches painting al-Qaeda as some kind of existential threat, the casualty figures would be considerably smaller than 200 to 300.

On Incentives and Results, Or “I Was Wrong”

(Cross-posted)

“Obama Calls for Thaw in U.S. Relations With Cuba.” That’s a headline I would have expected in July 2007, or October 2005. Hell, it wouldn’t even be news in 2003. But coming from a US president? A “thaw” with Cuba being proposed by a US president? This is really happening, I guess.

You know, I came out hard against Obama’s national security team when it was announced. I’ve had beef with Hillary for a while, and Gates had his baggage, but fundamentally I thought that slightly bolder, more controversial people (say, Brzezinski and Danzig respectively) had earned them by sticking their necks out, and that rejecting that was a betrayal. And to a certain extent I still believe that. It would have increased incentives for risk-taking among the wonk class if Zbig and Danzig were picked, and that would be a good thing.

But damned if keeping Bush’s SecDef didn’t end the F-22. And damned if picking the most right-leaning on foreign policy of your primary opponents as SecState doesn’t result in the beginning of the end of the Cuban embargo. While I have no doubt that a Secretary Danzig would want to cut idiotic programs like the Raptor, I’m not sure he’d have the standing to do it that Gates has. And while I’m sure Zbig wants to normalize relations with Cuba, he’d almost certainly be too radioactive a figure to lead the charge. It’s moments like these when I wish we had a non-clichéd expression to replace “Nixon in China”, because as overdone as that comparison is, the same mechanism seems to be at work here, and paying off splendidly.

So I was wrong. Whatever havoc their appointments wreaked on the future Brookings fellows’ willingness to take political risks, they have given cover for the most substantive progressive foreign policy achievements since the end of the Cold War. That’s a pretty easy tradeoff to accept.

“This is Absolutely Outrageous!”

It’s good to see The Crimson quoting me on the important things. Hopefully they’ll follow up with a story on Bill Posey’s grandmothers’ trists with alligators:

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Defending Angell

I’ve been pretty adamant about my Norman Angell apologism in the past, so let me endorse Matt Yglesias’ defense of The Great Illusion. The normative argument here is probably most critical; whatever predictions Angell got wrong or right, his policy prescription (“let’s not start wars of imperial conquest and encourage great power conquest”) was, as Matt says, preferable to ones the German and British governments actually adopted.

But while Angell’s central prediction – that economic interdependence will lead to a dramatic reduction in and eventual elimination of great power war – did not apply to the first war to occur after the book’s publication, it was certainly borne out by the post-WWII world order. While it’s impossible to prove causation, the fact of the matter is that a dramatic integration of the global economy coincided with the obsolescence of major war and a great reduction in armed conflict generally. Again, that’s not definitive proof that the mechanism Angell identified caused this increased pacification, but it does mean that Angell’s theory is worth seriously considering, and shouldn’t be lumped in with junk like The Threatening Storm or Empire.

Why We Fight

You owe it to yourself to read Stephen Walt on Af-Pak. For all the valuable discussion of the issue in terms of counterinsurgency doctrine – and if you haven’t been reading Tara McKelvey and Spencer Ackerman on that issue, you should be – the question of why we’re devoting so much effort to combating the Taliban and al-Qaeda has largely been absent from the debate. Yet, even as the State Department abandons the phrase “war on terror”, the fact remains that our entire South Asia policy has been devoted to fighting just such a war, against a menace that’s largely illusory. I’ll let Walt explain:

What we need, in fact, is a political elite (and a responsible media) that will help Americans keep the terrorism problem in perspective. Terrorism is a tactic that various groups have used throughout history, and it will remain with us for the foreseeable future. Dramatic incidents like the recent Mumbai attacks are going to happen again, no matter how hard we try to prevent them, and that includes the possibility of attacks on American soil. But if we can keep suicidal extremists from obtaining nuclear weapons, they will not be able to threaten our way of life in any meaningful way.

None of this is to say that we should ignore al Qaeda or any other terrorist group that is bent on attacking the United States, or that we should not sometimes act assertively to protect Americans at home and abroad. But the threat from al Qaeda does not justify increasing our military presence in Afghanistan, and certainly does not justify major military operations in Pakistan.

Read the whole thing. This argument has been made before – by John Mueller, by James Fallows, by me – but it needs to be repeated if it’s ever going to have political salience.

Happy Passover

In which I am happy that I live in a place where I can get a kosher dinner at Hillel every week or so with my friends, and not, say, Atlanta:

It should be noted that I don’t actually think all Southerners are anti-Semites, or have a ignorance that’s “more unwavering and steadfast” than that of the rest of the country. I was, however, shocked that there exist festivals in which you buy tickets in order to buy other things. Then again, I grew up in an area in which there aren’t people, so the necessity that sort of crowd control will always be somewhat beyond me.