Friday, October 06, 2006

Inside the War on Terror

Some weeks ago I referred briefly to Ron Suskind’s new book, The One Percent Doctrine, one of a series (including those by James Risen and now, Bob Woodward) attempting to uncover the inner workings of the most secretive Presidency since Richard Nixon. I have now had a chance to read it all, and while it is frustrating and in some ways disappointing, it contains a great deal of information both about the war on terror and about the way the White House works.

Suskind, who has left the Wall Street Journal, has essentially built a new career out of befriending those who could not stick with the Bush Administration. His first book focused on domestic policy through the eyes of Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, while this one draws heavily on George Tenet and a number of lesser figures within the CIA. Although Suskind spends too much time of atmospherics for my taste, his sources told him a lot about how the war on terror has really been going and how it has been waged. Brutal interrogations, evidently, have contributed relatively little—raids on Al Queda safe houses that turned up hard drives and documents have provided far more real information—something that will come as no surprise to any trained historian or intelligence professional. One of the first victims of our new interrogation tactics, Abu Zubaydah, was clearly a mentally disturbed individual who could not possibly be relied upon in any case. But according to Suskind’s sources, the President, has been deeply interested and involved in interrogations of suspects from the beginning. Being himself the kind of man who prefers to size people up in person rather than read up on them, he apparently believed that this was the way to find out about the next attack on the US. Not surprisingly, suspects in the midst of harsh interrogations have given up long lists of targets, but most, or even all, of them have not panned out.

This leads to one of Suskind’s main points: that the President insists on relying upon his instincts, and, inevitably, those around him have been reduced to the role of trying to validate them. The title of his book comes from Vice President Cheney’s belief that the Administration had to act to prevent anything that might happen, no matter how low the probability. This prejudices the leadership towards any indication that the worst is really likely, and makes it harder for them to face complex truths. The President himself was amazed to learn that Zawahiri, Al Queda’s second in command (whose death was falsely assumed in 2002 when some one else’s head was sold to the CIA as his), had canceled an attack on New York subways a year or two after 9/11. Even Suskind does not dare play with a fairly obvious conclusion. The 9/11 attacks brought American troops and Jihad into Afghanistan, and then into the heart of the Arab world in Iraq—a godsend to Osama Bin Laden, as many have noted. Another attack on the United States might actually destroy his sanctuary in Pakistan. Extremism is already winning the growing struggle in the Muslim world, and there is no need to risk the impact of the deaths of hundreds or thousands of additional Americans now.

What successes we have had—and there have been quite a few—have come from cooperation with foreign intelligence services in places like Pakistan, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. Cooperation hasn’t been perfect; the governments of those nations are obviously walking a tightrope (and as American policies in the Middle East make their lives more difficult, they will probably tack further towards the side of the insurgents.) Tenet, by his own account, became the key American diplomatic envoy to the region, relaying critical messages directly to his intelligence counterparts. Two CIA directors later, one wonders how well that cooperation has held up since his departure.

Suskind’s measured, often elliptical prose, struck me as inadequate to the task he had set himself. It is an almost conscious counterpoint to the blunt, often faith-based assertions of the Administration. He knows he belongs to the “reality-based community” which the Administration disdains, but he writes almost as an impartial observer, rather than as a partisan of rationality. I personally doubt that this kind of stance is a luxury members of the reality-based community can afford. In the same way, sooner or later, the religious right will have to be challenged by a renaissance of militant atheism if religion is going to return to its rightful place within an Enlightenment democracy—that is, a source of personal comfort rather than a reference point for public policy.

The One Percent Solution confirmed my belief that the Administration will not change its course, and my conviction that we must separate the actual war on terror—the identification and neutralization of terrorist networks—from our misguided plans to use American force to transform the Middle East. It highlights what is probably the worst threat we face—an alliance between Pakistani nuclear no-how and terrorists—but suggests that intergovernmental cooperation took care of that at a relatively early stage. (Much post-9/11 hysteria arose after a report of a meeting between Pakistani scientists and Bin Laden.) It suggests that traditional tools, enhanced by digital methods, can be successful enough against the terrorist threat to the United States, while taking no position on the future of the Middle East. But the Bush Administration, whatever the outcome of the midterm elections, will continue its apparently hopeless fight in Iraq, and may well send air strikes against Iran to try to eliminate its supposed (though certainly not yet actual) nuclear capability.

One passage from the book particularly caught my eye:

"The Cheney Doctrine released George W. Bush from his area of greatest weakness--the analytical abilities so prized in America's professional class--and freed his decision making to rely on inmpulse and improvisation to a dgree that was without precedent for a modern president."

On October 21, 2004, I posted "George W. Bush: Man of the Sixties." The President frequently refers to the supposedly discredited mantra of that era, "If it feels good, do it--if you've got a problem, blame some one else." But is there really any difference between relying on "impulse and improvisation" and simply doing what feels good? Isn't the Administration increasingly blaming the Democratic Party and the media for its woes? We are all, alas, marked by our generational impulses to some degree or another--whatever our politics.


Roger Albin said...

" We are all, alas, marked by our generational impulses to some degree or another--whatever our politics."

But it is or is it another example of an older an recurring theme, a la Hofstader's Paranoid Style?

Anonymous said...

Hippies? Isn't that Satan's motto, "Just do it."?