Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 6, 2007

Pipes v. Gershman

My idea of uncomfortable is having one of my heroes attack another. That is how I felt when I read Daniel Pipes’s charge that Carl Gershman was among “government figures [who] wrong-headedly insist on consorting with the enemy.” Pipes is a prolific Middle East expert and indefatigable opponent of jihadism (as well as a longtime contributor to COMMENTARY) from whose writings I have profited greatly. Gershman is the president of the National Endowment for Democracy (and another valued contributor).

Pipes’s case against Gershman is that the NED supports the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and that Gershman himself spoke at its 2004 annual conference.

For all my admiration of Pipes, I think his attack on Gershman is off-base. For starters, Gershman is not a “government figure.” The NED is funded by Congress, but it is privately incorporated, and Gershman is chosen by its board of mostly private citizens, not by any branch of the government. This is not a nit, because the NED’s effectiveness depends on this modest margin of separation from the government.

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My idea of uncomfortable is having one of my heroes attack another. That is how I felt when I read Daniel Pipes’s charge that Carl Gershman was among “government figures [who] wrong-headedly insist on consorting with the enemy.” Pipes is a prolific Middle East expert and indefatigable opponent of jihadism (as well as a longtime contributor to COMMENTARY) from whose writings I have profited greatly. Gershman is the president of the National Endowment for Democracy (and another valued contributor).

Pipes’s case against Gershman is that the NED supports the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and that Gershman himself spoke at its 2004 annual conference.

For all my admiration of Pipes, I think his attack on Gershman is off-base. For starters, Gershman is not a “government figure.” The NED is funded by Congress, but it is privately incorporated, and Gershman is chosen by its board of mostly private citizens, not by any branch of the government. This is not a nit, because the NED’s effectiveness depends on this modest margin of separation from the government.

More importantly, I don’t buy Pipes’s take on the CSID or his criticism of Gershman for involvement with it. I myself am a member of CSID and spoke at its 2006 conference. In addition to speaking, I attended the entire weekend. I found it an interesting mix. It included Islamists or Islamist-sympathizers who called themselves democrats. It also included liberals whose democratic credentials were not in question.

Its keynote speaker was Laith Kubha of Gershman’s NED (the same man who was for a time spokesman for the Iraqi government). His speech was remarkable. Its main theme? How Iraqis, instead of focusing on what America did wrong in Iraq, should confront what they themselves did wrong. It was certainly not what one would expect to hear at a jihadist gathering, and it went over well. I share Pipes’s suspicion of Islamists who profess democracy. But I don’t expect genuine Muslim democrats to blackball Islamists who call themselves democrats. I expect them to argue with them. Which is exactly what was going on at the CSID conference. (Not to mention that the CSID puts the likes of me on its programs.)

Pipes has argued cogently that the solution to extremist Islam is moderate Islam. (I don’t like the term “moderate Islam,” but that is for another occasion.) The CSID looked to me precisely like an arena in which “moderates” were confronting Islamists. What sense does it make to anathematize that as “consorting with the enemy?”

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Was Scooter’s Sentence Too Light?

Judge Reggie Walton has sentenced Scooter Libby to 2 1/2 years in prison. In calculating this term, Walton relied on federal guidelines, which give him latitude. He also weighed letters, pro and con, written to the court by dozens of people. Many of them are friends of Libby, some of them are individuals who had encountered Libby in the course of their lives, and others are ordinary citizens. Almost all of the letters call for Walton to show leniency. A handful, going in the other direction, call for throwing the book at Libby. Those are the ones the judge chose to follow.

The letters in favor of leniency stress Libby’s long and distinguished career in public service, his dedication and goodwill toward subordinates and colleagues, his love of children. Some of these letters are self-aggrandizing. But most of them are poignant portraits of sides of Libby that the public has never seen. That is especially true of those written by low-level employees, like the chief steward on Air Force Two and a White House photographer, both of whom emphasize the simple human kindness that the Vice President’s chief of staff showed to them.

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Judge Reggie Walton has sentenced Scooter Libby to 2 1/2 years in prison. In calculating this term, Walton relied on federal guidelines, which give him latitude. He also weighed letters, pro and con, written to the court by dozens of people. Many of them are friends of Libby, some of them are individuals who had encountered Libby in the course of their lives, and others are ordinary citizens. Almost all of the letters call for Walton to show leniency. A handful, going in the other direction, call for throwing the book at Libby. Those are the ones the judge chose to follow.

The letters in favor of leniency stress Libby’s long and distinguished career in public service, his dedication and goodwill toward subordinates and colleagues, his love of children. Some of these letters are self-aggrandizing. But most of them are poignant portraits of sides of Libby that the public has never seen. That is especially true of those written by low-level employees, like the chief steward on Air Force Two and a White House photographer, both of whom emphasize the simple human kindness that the Vice President’s chief of staff showed to them.

The letters calling for a harsh prison sentence are something else again. One such correspondent writes: “I would prefer to see Mr. Rove or Vice President Cheney behind bars so, in a sense, Mr. Libby is their proxy. He was the puppet but they pulled the strings.” The writer signs his missive, “an angry citizen,” but declines to provide his name, saying of the Bush administration, “I don’t use my name because I don’t trust them, either.”

Another such letter, handwritten and signed with a scrawl, reads: “I strongly implore you to putScooter’ in jail”—underlining those three italicized words. Yet another correspondent writes that Libby “has committed some of the most serious offense against our country in its entire 231 year history. . . . I believe he is also guilty of, although he hasn’t been tried for, helping the enemies of the United States, Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda Afghanistan/Pakistan escape justice through his lies.” A former federal prosecutor goes even further: “In its ultimate effects on the security of the United States, is what was done here [by Libby] really that different from what was done by [convicted spies] Aldrich Ames, Jonathan Pollard, and Robert Hanssen?”

Although nicely printed, and not drawn in a scrawl, a New York Times editorial today joins with the ranters, calling Libby’s sentence “an appropriate—indeed necessary—punishment for his repeated lies to a grand jury and to FBI agents investigating a possible smear campaign orchestrated by the White House.” Considering that the Times itself has trampled on U.S. laws governing secrecy—something that Libby has never been accused of by a court of law—the newspaper’s participation in this chorus of half-witted haters, though not unexpected, is all the more revolting.

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Max Boot Wins the 2007 Breindel Award

Congratulations to contentions’ own Max Boot, journalist and senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Max received the Eric Breindel Award for Opinion Journalism, one of the biggest in the industry, last night. Max’s writings on war, military history, and security issues have garnered him a worldwide reputation, and we’re proud to have him as a blogger.

Congratulations to contentions’ own Max Boot, journalist and senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Max received the Eric Breindel Award for Opinion Journalism, one of the biggest in the industry, last night. Max’s writings on war, military history, and security issues have garnered him a worldwide reputation, and we’re proud to have him as a blogger.

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Three Interrogators

The Washington Post has a fascinating article by Laura Blumenfeld featuring interviews with three interrogators—one American, one British, one Israeli. Much of the focus is on the American, Tony Lagouranis, a 37-year-old military intelligence specialist who served in Iraq in 2004 and who has a new memoir out. He says he is anguished by his service, wracked by guilt over having to “torture” suspects.

Well, everyone is against torture in principle—at least everyone who is not a sadist. But what constitutes torture? That’s the nub of the problem. Blumenfeld’s article sheds interesting light on this vexatious issue by juxtaposing Lagouranis’s comments with those of his far more experienced Israeli and British counterparts.

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The Washington Post has a fascinating article by Laura Blumenfeld featuring interviews with three interrogators—one American, one British, one Israeli. Much of the focus is on the American, Tony Lagouranis, a 37-year-old military intelligence specialist who served in Iraq in 2004 and who has a new memoir out. He says he is anguished by his service, wracked by guilt over having to “torture” suspects.

Well, everyone is against torture in principle—at least everyone who is not a sadist. But what constitutes torture? That’s the nub of the problem. Blumenfeld’s article sheds interesting light on this vexatious issue by juxtaposing Lagouranis’s comments with those of his far more experienced Israeli and British counterparts.

First up is a man identified only by his first name, now living on an unidentified Mediterranean island because of death threats from the IRA. James, 65, was one of Britain’s most experienced interrogators in Northern Ireland. Starting in 1971, James said, he worked for the Special Branch of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), interrogating Irish nationalists Gerry Adams, Bobby Sands, and others whom the British government suspected of being terrorists. Blumenfeld’s article offers these vignettes of how James operated:

Once, IRA leader Brendan Hughes claimed that James had cocked a gun to his head. James does not deny it. “You fight fire with fire,” he said, the memory igniting his blue eyes. Another anecdote: “My friend once saw a guy planting a bomb,” he said. He laughed. “My friend tied a rope around the guy’s ankle, and made him defuse it. Now that’s how to deal with a ticking bomb.” Yet James denies being guilty of torture: “Yes, a bloke would get a cuff in the ear or he might brace against the wall. Yes, they had sleep deprivation,” he said. “But we did not torture.”

Then there is “Sheriff,” the code name of the recently retired chief of interrogations for the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. The article describes his technique as follows:

For Sheriff, interrogation was more psychological than physical. He used flattery on Palestinians who put bombs under playground benches: “You say, ‘Hey! Wow! How did you connect these wires? Did you manufacture this explosive? This is good!” He played good cop, and bad: “One day I was good. Next day I was bad. The prisoner said, ‘Yesterday you were good. What happened today?’ I told him we were short on manpower.”

Presumably those kinds of psychological ploys are exactly what opponents of “torture,” broadly defined, think we should use to extract information. Yet even for someone as skilled as Sheriff, they weren’t always enough:

But when the pressure mounted for intelligence, Sheriff said, the best method was “a very little violence.” Enough to scare people but not so much that they’d collapse. Agents tried it on themselves. “Not torture.”

James’s and Sheriff’s justifications won’t convince those who consider everything from the good cop/bad cop routine to “a little violence” as torture. That’s a comforting, consistent position to take. In fact, it is basically the policy laid out in the new Army Field Manual on Interrogations, a policy that prohibits many of the more coercive techniques employed in the days after 9/11.

But is this new policy sufficient to keep us safe? Sheriff doesn’t think so:

“You have to play by different rules,” the Israeli interrogator told an American visitor. “The terrorists want to use your own system to destroy you. What your President is doing is right.”

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