Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 8, 2007

Another Bad Idea on North Korea

Jason Shaplen and James Laney, writing in today’s New York Times, propose that China be deputized to hold Kim Jong Il’s stockpile of fissile material—primarily plutonium—inside North Korea as part of a larger arrangement to disarm that militant state. Even if one accepts the notion that a comprehensive deal is possible now, this suggestion is an exceedingly bad idea.

There is, of course, great doubt whether Pyongyang is serious about giving up its dozen or so nuclear weapons. President Bush, however, has overcome his concerns and is now pushing hard for an agreement (so hard that even the Chinese think the process is moving too fast). The issue in Washington, therefore, is what kind of inducements we should offer and what kind of concessions we should obtain.

Two decades of dealing with the Kim regime on nuclear issues suggests that there is one overriding principle to which the United States must adhere in making any arrangement: North Korea must completely, verifiably, and irreversibly disarm. In the past, the Bush administration used the acronym CVID to express this approach. Unfortunately, it has quietly dropped this language—and many fear that it is also abandoning this approach. The issue now is whether Bush will allow North Korea to keep fissile material on its own soil, as Shaplen and Laney suggest.

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Jason Shaplen and James Laney, writing in today’s New York Times, propose that China be deputized to hold Kim Jong Il’s stockpile of fissile material—primarily plutonium—inside North Korea as part of a larger arrangement to disarm that militant state. Even if one accepts the notion that a comprehensive deal is possible now, this suggestion is an exceedingly bad idea.

There is, of course, great doubt whether Pyongyang is serious about giving up its dozen or so nuclear weapons. President Bush, however, has overcome his concerns and is now pushing hard for an agreement (so hard that even the Chinese think the process is moving too fast). The issue in Washington, therefore, is what kind of inducements we should offer and what kind of concessions we should obtain.

Two decades of dealing with the Kim regime on nuclear issues suggests that there is one overriding principle to which the United States must adhere in making any arrangement: North Korea must completely, verifiably, and irreversibly disarm. In the past, the Bush administration used the acronym CVID to express this approach. Unfortunately, it has quietly dropped this language—and many fear that it is also abandoning this approach. The issue now is whether Bush will allow North Korea to keep fissile material on its own soil, as Shaplen and Laney suggest.

We can afford to pay a high price to buy the North Korean nuclear program. The key is making sure that we don’t have to buy it again in the future. The chief failing of the 1994 Agreed Framework, which the Clinton administration negotiated, is that it allowed Kim Jong Il to retain plutonium and the means to make more of it. As we now know, this is precisely what Kim did.

This time, we have to make sure that Kim retains no nuclear capability—no Yongbyon reactor, no hidden uranium facility, no arsenal of weapons, and no plutonium on North Korean soil, especially if it is under Chinese lock and key. This is no time to trust either Pyongyang—or its primary backer, Beijing.

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Weizmann’s Answer

It feels a bit grubby to address an argument that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly employed to deny the legitimacy of the state of Israel. But in this instance the Iranian president has said something on behalf of a surprising number of people—people who may not agree with Ahmadinejad’s tone, or the choice of words he employs, but who at bottom are sympathetic to core of Ahmadinejad’s case. He recently used Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day, the annual hate-Israel festival of the Muslim Middle East inaugurated in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini, to offer once again his final solution to the problem of the existence of Israel: Hold a referendum on the “settlement of Zionists in Europe or in big lands such as Canada and Alaska so they would be able to own their own land.”

In Ahmadinejad’s telling, Israel was created because of European Holocaust guilt—ignore his psychotic logic, which also holds that the Holocaust never happened—and so not only is Israel an illegitimate presence, but it is one that Europe and the West have a responsibility to remove. There are of course many layers of absurdity here: the fact that Zionism predates the Holocaust by more than a half-century, the Biblical promise of Israel to the Jews, the fact that the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917, that there has been a Jewish presence in Israel for thousands of years, and that it grew substantially in waves of aliya that started in the 19th century—never mind all of that. Ahmadinejad, with an obviously false note of curiosity, wonders why Jews won’t just go somewhere else.

Chaim Weizmann, the renowned chemist, Zionist statesman, and founding father of Israel, answered exactly this question in Great Britain in the years before the Balfour Declaration. A member of the House of Lords asked him, “Why do you Jews insist on Palestine when there are so many undeveloped countries you could settle in more conveniently?” Weizmann said: “That is like my asking you why you drove twenty miles to visit your mother last Sunday when there are so many old ladies living on your street.”

It feels a bit grubby to address an argument that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly employed to deny the legitimacy of the state of Israel. But in this instance the Iranian president has said something on behalf of a surprising number of people—people who may not agree with Ahmadinejad’s tone, or the choice of words he employs, but who at bottom are sympathetic to core of Ahmadinejad’s case. He recently used Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day, the annual hate-Israel festival of the Muslim Middle East inaugurated in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini, to offer once again his final solution to the problem of the existence of Israel: Hold a referendum on the “settlement of Zionists in Europe or in big lands such as Canada and Alaska so they would be able to own their own land.”

In Ahmadinejad’s telling, Israel was created because of European Holocaust guilt—ignore his psychotic logic, which also holds that the Holocaust never happened—and so not only is Israel an illegitimate presence, but it is one that Europe and the West have a responsibility to remove. There are of course many layers of absurdity here: the fact that Zionism predates the Holocaust by more than a half-century, the Biblical promise of Israel to the Jews, the fact that the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917, that there has been a Jewish presence in Israel for thousands of years, and that it grew substantially in waves of aliya that started in the 19th century—never mind all of that. Ahmadinejad, with an obviously false note of curiosity, wonders why Jews won’t just go somewhere else.

Chaim Weizmann, the renowned chemist, Zionist statesman, and founding father of Israel, answered exactly this question in Great Britain in the years before the Balfour Declaration. A member of the House of Lords asked him, “Why do you Jews insist on Palestine when there are so many undeveloped countries you could settle in more conveniently?” Weizmann said: “That is like my asking you why you drove twenty miles to visit your mother last Sunday when there are so many old ladies living on your street.”

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One Cheer for Jimmy Carter

I know it’s unusual, if not unheard of, to read a kind word about Jimmy Carter in these pages. But praise is nevertheless in order for his confrontation with Sudanese security officers during a visit to the troubled Darfur region last week. Carter had wanted to visit a refugee camp in southern Darfur, but was dissuaded by United Nations officials who advised that such a trip would be too dangerous. Carter instead chose to visit a World Food Program Camp in a town called Kabkibaya in the northern part of the region. There, the Associated Press reports,

[N]one of the refugees showed up and Carter decided to walk into the town, a volatile stronghold of the pro-government janjaweed militia, to meet refugees too frightened to attend the meeting at the compound.

He was able to make it to a school where he met with one tribal representative and was preparing to go further into town when Sudanese security officers stopped him.

“You can’t go. It’s not on the program!” the local security chief, who only gave his first name as Omar, yelled at Carter, who is in Darfur as part of a delegation of respected international figures known as “The Elders.”

“We’re going to anyway!” an angry Carter retorted as a crowd began to gather. “You don’t have the power to stop me.”

However, U.N. officials told Carter’s entourage the Sudanese state police could bar his way. Carter’s traveling companions, billionaire businessman Richard Branson and Graca Machel, the wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela, tried to ease his frustration and his Secret Service detail urged him to get into a car and leave.

“I’ll tell President Bashir about this,” Carter said, referring to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

This incident has won Carter many heroic headlines in the international press. It’s all well and good for Carter to speak truth to power like this. But perhaps, as a follow-up to this bravura performance, Carter could pay a visit to the starving and oppressed people of Zimbabwe, ruled by a tyrant whom he and his former ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, were instrumental in bringing to power.

I know it’s unusual, if not unheard of, to read a kind word about Jimmy Carter in these pages. But praise is nevertheless in order for his confrontation with Sudanese security officers during a visit to the troubled Darfur region last week. Carter had wanted to visit a refugee camp in southern Darfur, but was dissuaded by United Nations officials who advised that such a trip would be too dangerous. Carter instead chose to visit a World Food Program Camp in a town called Kabkibaya in the northern part of the region. There, the Associated Press reports,

[N]one of the refugees showed up and Carter decided to walk into the town, a volatile stronghold of the pro-government janjaweed militia, to meet refugees too frightened to attend the meeting at the compound.

He was able to make it to a school where he met with one tribal representative and was preparing to go further into town when Sudanese security officers stopped him.

“You can’t go. It’s not on the program!” the local security chief, who only gave his first name as Omar, yelled at Carter, who is in Darfur as part of a delegation of respected international figures known as “The Elders.”

“We’re going to anyway!” an angry Carter retorted as a crowd began to gather. “You don’t have the power to stop me.”

However, U.N. officials told Carter’s entourage the Sudanese state police could bar his way. Carter’s traveling companions, billionaire businessman Richard Branson and Graca Machel, the wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela, tried to ease his frustration and his Secret Service detail urged him to get into a car and leave.

“I’ll tell President Bashir about this,” Carter said, referring to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

This incident has won Carter many heroic headlines in the international press. It’s all well and good for Carter to speak truth to power like this. But perhaps, as a follow-up to this bravura performance, Carter could pay a visit to the starving and oppressed people of Zimbabwe, ruled by a tyrant whom he and his former ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, were instrumental in bringing to power.

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Taiwan’s Pride

The plan for Taiwan’s first national day military parade in sixteen years is much in the news today, notably on the front page of Thursday’s Financial Times. The reason is that rumor suggests the country’s new, indigenously-developed cruise missile, capable of hitting targets as distant as Shanghai, may be displayed publicly for the first time during the parade

We may confidently expect much misinformation to follow in the media, with the most important falsehood being an assertion the development of the cruise missile and Taiwan’s increasingly capable anti-air and anti-ship weapons, are a “provocation” against China, being cynically engineered by the unpopular current President Chen Shuibian for his own political purposes. So it is important to understand that Taiwan’s quest for defense capabilities beyond ambiguous statements by the United States has deep roots.

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The plan for Taiwan’s first national day military parade in sixteen years is much in the news today, notably on the front page of Thursday’s Financial Times. The reason is that rumor suggests the country’s new, indigenously-developed cruise missile, capable of hitting targets as distant as Shanghai, may be displayed publicly for the first time during the parade

We may confidently expect much misinformation to follow in the media, with the most important falsehood being an assertion the development of the cruise missile and Taiwan’s increasingly capable anti-air and anti-ship weapons, are a “provocation” against China, being cynically engineered by the unpopular current President Chen Shuibian for his own political purposes. So it is important to understand that Taiwan’s quest for defense capabilities beyond ambiguous statements by the United States has deep roots.

Taiwan’s indigenous self-defense programs date back to the 1950’s, when the dictatorial Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek was firmly in control and current President Chen Shuibian (born 1951) was a toddler. Important steps included the foundation of the science- and engineering-focused National Tsing Hua University, in 1956, and the establishment of the Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology, a military research center, in 1969.

Taiwan was clearly influenced by Israeli steps to ensure an indigenous defense capability. The first Taiwanese missiles are thought to have been based on the Israeli Gabriel (1962). From these steps flowed development of a carefully-considered array of defensive and counter-strike missiles as well as a nuclear program that made major advances before the United States forced its shut down in 1988.

My own view is that, judged militarily and strategically, such capabilities are essential to Taiwan. They give the country the credible ability to stop a Chinese attack on their own. I believe, moreover, that they will help stabilize the situation in the Strait by restoring some of the balance that was lost when the United States ended its military alliance in 1979.

Whether flaunting these new weapons in a politicized parade makes sense is, however, another question. (My own inclination would be to maintain a low profile and stress the country’s powerful desire for peace.) But the insistence of the 23 million Taiwanese people that they be recognized internationally is bipartisan. Furthermore, being quiet and low key (as we Americans invariably advise) has gotten them nothing, other than a steadily-building deployment of Chinese ballistic missiles targeted on them from just across the Strait, rigid exclusion from the international community, and American dithering over whether supply even of F-16′s is appropriate.

The current welling-up of national feeling in Taiwan is correctly understood not as the product of ploys by a president whose popularity has been plunging (as Washington regularly suggests). Rather it is exactly the sort of rooted and organic nationalism with which history and political scientists have long been familiar. It should tell us something that the person charged with planning the October 10th celebrations and parade is not a Chen Shuibian loyalist, but the speaker of Taiwan’s legislative branch, Wang Jin-pyng, from the opposition Kuomintang party.

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Letter from Baghdad

The most hated man in Iraq today is Senator Joseph Biden. Iraqis (except for Kurds) are outraged at the Senate’s adoption of a Biden bill, prescribing “federalism” for Iraq in terms that Iraqis take to mean partition of their country. My explanations—that Biden chose the anodyne word “federalism” because he couldn’t get support for “partition,” that the House was unlikely to pass a similar measure, and that even if passed, this bill was not binding—all fell on deaf ears. Sunni and Shiite politicians outdid each other in their denunciations. And some Iraqi lawmakers spoke of turning the tables by calling for the U.S. to be partitioned into sovereign black, white, and Hispanic nations.

During my stay in Baghdad I am bunking at CPIC (Combined Press Information Center) of the MNF-I (multinational forces in Iraq), where journalists are housed after catching either a “helo” or the “rhino” (armored bus caravan) from “BIAP” (the Baghdad International airport). The fortunate few get “manifested” in advance, but most have to travel “space A” (based on availability of space). A U.S. Army manual lying around our quarters gives this directive for dealing with the media: “avoid jargon, acronyms, slang and technical terms.” (The application for a press badge at CPIC asks, inter alia, for my “tribe” and “clan.” I figured I could put “Hebrews” for the former, but “clan” stumped me until the young lady soldier in charge told me I could leave those boxes blank.)

I am sharing space with journalists from Icelandic television, here to cover the exodus of their country’s contingent from MNF-I. Antiwar advocates will surely point to Iceland as yet another desertion from Bush’s coalition. But the significance is easy to overestimate. As the film crew informed me, they were here to cover the “withdrawal of the troop.” When I said, “troops,” they corrected me. There was only one soldier, a pretty 27-year-old blond. After spending the day filming her they returned to CPIC to tell me that she enjoyed her job training Iraqis and regretted being called home.

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The most hated man in Iraq today is Senator Joseph Biden. Iraqis (except for Kurds) are outraged at the Senate’s adoption of a Biden bill, prescribing “federalism” for Iraq in terms that Iraqis take to mean partition of their country. My explanations—that Biden chose the anodyne word “federalism” because he couldn’t get support for “partition,” that the House was unlikely to pass a similar measure, and that even if passed, this bill was not binding—all fell on deaf ears. Sunni and Shiite politicians outdid each other in their denunciations. And some Iraqi lawmakers spoke of turning the tables by calling for the U.S. to be partitioned into sovereign black, white, and Hispanic nations.

During my stay in Baghdad I am bunking at CPIC (Combined Press Information Center) of the MNF-I (multinational forces in Iraq), where journalists are housed after catching either a “helo” or the “rhino” (armored bus caravan) from “BIAP” (the Baghdad International airport). The fortunate few get “manifested” in advance, but most have to travel “space A” (based on availability of space). A U.S. Army manual lying around our quarters gives this directive for dealing with the media: “avoid jargon, acronyms, slang and technical terms.” (The application for a press badge at CPIC asks, inter alia, for my “tribe” and “clan.” I figured I could put “Hebrews” for the former, but “clan” stumped me until the young lady soldier in charge told me I could leave those boxes blank.)

I am sharing space with journalists from Icelandic television, here to cover the exodus of their country’s contingent from MNF-I. Antiwar advocates will surely point to Iceland as yet another desertion from Bush’s coalition. But the significance is easy to overestimate. As the film crew informed me, they were here to cover the “withdrawal of the troop.” When I said, “troops,” they corrected me. There was only one soldier, a pretty 27-year-old blond. After spending the day filming her they returned to CPIC to tell me that she enjoyed her job training Iraqis and regretted being called home.

To help soldiers pass their off-duty hours, bookshelves at this base are crammed with dog-eared paperbacks. Among the mysteries, romance novels, and sci-fi were two items that appeared much less worn. They turned out to be James P. Cannon’s History of Trotskyism in America and a 2005 edition of the journal published by his Socialist Workers Party, announcing, of course, the crisis of capitalism, now in its 160th year of imminence. Interviewing onetime members of the Baathist youth movement, I am reminded that such cockamamie western ideas provided intellectual cover for violent self-aggrandizement in societies bereft of peaceful political norms.

The principal thought on the lips of most Iraqi politicians I spoke to was the urgency of saving their country from domination by Iran. The dominant parties of Iraq’s Shi’ite government are viewed as subservient to Tehran. The new security services have been thoroughly penetrated by Iranian agents. The Sunni chief of a secular party told me that he had received offers of funding from Iran’s ambassador. When he reminded the ambassador that he was outspokenly anti-Iranian, the man replied suavely that Iran wants to help all Iraqis.

Much has been written in recent years about the decay of the U.S. intelligence in its collection and analysis functions. But what about the operational side, i.e., counterintelligence and covert action? One hopes against hope that it is equal to the power struggle in which we find ourselves. Ironically, while America is obsessed with Iraq, Iraqis are prone to see their plight as being the epicenter of a larger struggle. Iran is at war with us for dominance of the Middle East. Iraqis see it. Iranians see it. When will we notice?

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Party Games

The New York Times reports that, just days before the start of a major conclave, the senior leaders of China’s Communist Party are deadlocked on choosing the organization’s next set of bosses. At stake is the future of the world’s most populous—and potentially dangerous—state. The Times repeats rumors that General Secretary Hu Jintao, the country’s current supremo, is thinking of threatening war with Taiwan to help him obtain the support of the generals so that he can prevail in the increasingly unpredictable succession struggle. After years of relative political calm, the Party now appears headed for a period of heightened internal stress.

China watchers are fond of saying that Deng Xiaoping picked three of the four leaders of the People’s Republic. Deng picked himself and his two successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu. Hu now wants to choose his successor in Deng-like fashion. He is in favor of elevating Li Keqiang to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in today’s China. Many others, however, are trying to thwart Hu by promoting Xi Jinping. Li is a modestly talented cadre known to be totally loyal to Hu. Xi, on the other hand, is closer to Jiang and is thought to be more acceptable to other elements of the Party.

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The New York Times reports that, just days before the start of a major conclave, the senior leaders of China’s Communist Party are deadlocked on choosing the organization’s next set of bosses. At stake is the future of the world’s most populous—and potentially dangerous—state. The Times repeats rumors that General Secretary Hu Jintao, the country’s current supremo, is thinking of threatening war with Taiwan to help him obtain the support of the generals so that he can prevail in the increasingly unpredictable succession struggle. After years of relative political calm, the Party now appears headed for a period of heightened internal stress.

China watchers are fond of saying that Deng Xiaoping picked three of the four leaders of the People’s Republic. Deng picked himself and his two successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu. Hu now wants to choose his successor in Deng-like fashion. He is in favor of elevating Li Keqiang to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in today’s China. Many others, however, are trying to thwart Hu by promoting Xi Jinping. Li is a modestly talented cadre known to be totally loyal to Hu. Xi, on the other hand, is closer to Jiang and is thought to be more acceptable to other elements of the Party.

The lineup of the Standing Committee will be revealed when seven to nine men walk from behind a curtain onto the stage of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing at the 17th Party Congress, scheduled to begin on October 15. We are certain there will be great applause when they appear. What we don’t know is their identity or the order in which they come out, an indication of their rank. When the men emerge, we will learn who is the favorite to succeed Hu, scheduled to step down five years from now at the 18th Congress.

A half-decade ago most China watchers had said that the organization’s succession troubles were a thing of the past. Yet the transition from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao looked smooth only because it had been decided in 1992 by Deng. Now, Deng is gone and Party members are on their own. Whoever prevails later this month—Li, Xi, or some other official—will face years of infighting. The risk is that the struggle could spill out beyond China’s borders and end the long spell of peace in Asia.

Of course, if the Communists find it hard to pick their next chieftain, they could hold a free election. That would be better for everyone (except a handful of men who do not, frankly, deserve to lead a great people).

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Our Man in Mosul

Yochi Dreazen has an interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal reporting on the heroic efforts of Colonel Saleem Qader, an Iraqi army intelligence officer, to clean up Ninewah Province (whose capital is the large city of Mosul). Dreazen writes:

U.S. commanders give Col. Qader much of the credit for a striking improvement in the city’s security situation. There hasn’t been a car bomb or large-scale attack here since early May, and U.S. commanders say the number of attacks has dropped to seven or nine a day from fifteen to eighteen earlier this year. Fewer than a dozen Americans have died in Mosul this year, a sharp reduction from 2006.

What the article doesn’t mention is that the U.S. troop presence in Mosul is down to a battalion—about a thousand men. In other words, Col. Qader and other members of the Iraqi security forces are managing to maintain order in this populous and volatile region pretty much on their own. That’s a cause for long-term optimism: It is not inevitable that Iraq will dissolve into all-out civil war once the U.S. starts to draw down its troop presence.

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Yochi Dreazen has an interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal reporting on the heroic efforts of Colonel Saleem Qader, an Iraqi army intelligence officer, to clean up Ninewah Province (whose capital is the large city of Mosul). Dreazen writes:

U.S. commanders give Col. Qader much of the credit for a striking improvement in the city’s security situation. There hasn’t been a car bomb or large-scale attack here since early May, and U.S. commanders say the number of attacks has dropped to seven or nine a day from fifteen to eighteen earlier this year. Fewer than a dozen Americans have died in Mosul this year, a sharp reduction from 2006.

What the article doesn’t mention is that the U.S. troop presence in Mosul is down to a battalion—about a thousand men. In other words, Col. Qader and other members of the Iraqi security forces are managing to maintain order in this populous and volatile region pretty much on their own. That’s a cause for long-term optimism: It is not inevitable that Iraq will dissolve into all-out civil war once the U.S. starts to draw down its troop presence.

But premature and excessive troop withdrawals could indeed create disaster, as happened in Mosul in 2004 after the 101st Airborne Division (commanded by Major General David Petraeus) was pulled out and replaced by a much smaller unit. It is imperative to avoid such drawdowns until there are competent Iraqi police officers and soldiers—men like Colonel Qader—to take up the burden of maintaining law and order.

The major question—and the real unknown—is whether the Iraqi political system will reward and support those, like Qader, who are trying to enforce the law in a non-sectarian fashion. There is cause for real concern on this score. Dreazen writes:

Because Col. Qader, a 46-year-old Kurd, toiled loyally in the army of Saddam Hussein at the time of the former Iraqi strongman’s brutal anti-Kurdish campaign known as the “Anfal,” his job is threatened by his superiors. Gen. Babakir al Zibari, chief of staff for the entire Iraqi military and also a Kurd, has ordered Col. Qader’s commanders to replace him, said U.S. officials. The commanders have so far refused. Gen. Zibari responded by cutting off Col. Qader’s salary and delaying the promotions of his commanders, these people said.

The good news is that, for all the lobbying against him, Qader remains on the job and alive, having survived assassination attempts. There are many Iraqis like him, struggling against terrorists to serve their country as best we can. Let us hope that they will not be betrayed by corrupt Iraqi politicians or by misguided American politicians.

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A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed something called the Free Flow of Information Act, which will create a “privilege” for journalists, protecting them from being compelled to reveal their confidential sources by federal courts.

The Jim Lehrer NewsHour took up the issues of this “shield law” on Thursday (no transcript or audio file yet available online), featuring, in support of the bill, Lee Levine, a First Amendment lawyer who has represented journalists in some high-profile cases, and, in opposition, Rachel Brand, who until July was the assistant attorney general for legal policy at the Department of Justice.

Brand did a competent job holding up her side of the argument, explaining that subpoenas compelling journalists to disgorge their sources are rare, and that the Justice Department has its own stringent internal guidelines that vitiate the need for the law now moving forward in the Senate.

But Brand was playing defense throughout. The crucial moment arose when the host of the segment, Jeffrey Brown, asked his two guests a good question: is it not true that, even in the absence of a law shielding journalists, a great many stories based upon classified governmental information are still being written?

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Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed something called the Free Flow of Information Act, which will create a “privilege” for journalists, protecting them from being compelled to reveal their confidential sources by federal courts.

The Jim Lehrer NewsHour took up the issues of this “shield law” on Thursday (no transcript or audio file yet available online), featuring, in support of the bill, Lee Levine, a First Amendment lawyer who has represented journalists in some high-profile cases, and, in opposition, Rachel Brand, who until July was the assistant attorney general for legal policy at the Department of Justice.

Brand did a competent job holding up her side of the argument, explaining that subpoenas compelling journalists to disgorge their sources are rare, and that the Justice Department has its own stringent internal guidelines that vitiate the need for the law now moving forward in the Senate.

But Brand was playing defense throughout. The crucial moment arose when the host of the segment, Jeffrey Brown, asked his two guests a good question: is it not true that, even in the absence of a law shielding journalists, a great many stories based upon classified governmental information are still being written?

Levine responded by pointing out that “you never know what you don’t see on your television screen and what you don’t read in your newspaper,” and if one studies the record, “you will hear about stories that weren’t written, about sources that wouldn’t come forward because they were afraid that their identities would be revealed. And that’s a great loss.”

True enough, in the absence of a shield law, some stories will not get written. But is that “a great loss” to the public, or a great gain?

Under discussion here, as seems to have been forgotten by everyone, is that government officials who leak sensitive classified material are breaking oaths of secrecy and violating the law. Does the American public want more leaks that compromise vital counterterrorism operations, like the New York Times report on the SWIFT banking program that tracked al Qaeda financial transactions or, before that, its disclosure of the NSA’s program to monitor the international communications of terrorists?

As I have argued here, a shield law will enable leakers–typically, government bureaucrats who are elected by no one and who have political agendas of their own–to break the laws governing classified information with impunity. In that sense, the Free Flow of Information Act is aptly named.

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Pace David Brooks

In his October 5th column for The New York Times, David Brooks writes:

Over the past six years, the Republican Party has championed the spread of democracy in the Middle East. But the temperamental conservative is suspicious of rapid reform, believing that efforts to quickly transform anything will have, as Burke wrote, “pleasing commencements” but “lamentable conclusions.” The world is too complex, the Burkean conservative believes, for rapid reform. Existing arrangements contain latent functions that can be neither seen nor replaced by the reformer. The temperamental conservative prizes epistemological modesty, the awareness of the limitations on what we do and can know, what we can and cannot plan. Over the past six years, the Bush administration has operated on the assumption that if you change the political institutions in Iraq, the society will follow. But the Burkean conservative believes that society is an organism; that custom, tradition and habit are the prime movers of that organism; and that successful government institutions grow gradually from each nation’s unique network of moral and social restraints.

Brooks, who is not only an excellent columnist but also a fine and deep thinker, is raising a fair caution. The world is complex and change is often harder than we think—and rapid reform can often lead to “lamentable conclusions.” But let me raise a caution the other way as well.

In the mid-1990′s, some prominent conservatives opposed welfare reform on Burkean grounds. For example George Will, who traces the pedigree of his philosophy to Burke (as well as Newman, Disraeli, and others) chided welfare reformers as being “designers of a brave new world.” He praised Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s opposition to welfare reform, writing

Moynihan warns that welfare reform could produce a similar [to the "deinstitutionalization" of the mentally ill] unanticipated increase in children sleeping on, and freezing to death on, grates. . . . “There are,” says Moynihan, “not enough social workers, not enough nuns, not enough Salvation Army workers to care for children who would be purged from the welfare rolls were Congress to decree (as candidate Bill Clinton proposed) a two-year limit for welfare eligibility.”

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In his October 5th column for The New York Times, David Brooks writes:

Over the past six years, the Republican Party has championed the spread of democracy in the Middle East. But the temperamental conservative is suspicious of rapid reform, believing that efforts to quickly transform anything will have, as Burke wrote, “pleasing commencements” but “lamentable conclusions.” The world is too complex, the Burkean conservative believes, for rapid reform. Existing arrangements contain latent functions that can be neither seen nor replaced by the reformer. The temperamental conservative prizes epistemological modesty, the awareness of the limitations on what we do and can know, what we can and cannot plan. Over the past six years, the Bush administration has operated on the assumption that if you change the political institutions in Iraq, the society will follow. But the Burkean conservative believes that society is an organism; that custom, tradition and habit are the prime movers of that organism; and that successful government institutions grow gradually from each nation’s unique network of moral and social restraints.

Brooks, who is not only an excellent columnist but also a fine and deep thinker, is raising a fair caution. The world is complex and change is often harder than we think—and rapid reform can often lead to “lamentable conclusions.” But let me raise a caution the other way as well.

In the mid-1990′s, some prominent conservatives opposed welfare reform on Burkean grounds. For example George Will, who traces the pedigree of his philosophy to Burke (as well as Newman, Disraeli, and others) chided welfare reformers as being “designers of a brave new world.” He praised Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s opposition to welfare reform, writing

Moynihan warns that welfare reform could produce a similar [to the "deinstitutionalization" of the mentally ill] unanticipated increase in children sleeping on, and freezing to death on, grates. . . . “There are,” says Moynihan, “not enough social workers, not enough nuns, not enough Salvation Army workers to care for children who would be purged from the welfare rolls were Congress to decree (as candidate Bill Clinton proposed) a two-year limit for welfare eligibility.”

George Will concluded his September 14, 1995 column this way:

Conservatives say, well, nothing could be worse than the current system. They are underestimating their ingenuity.

Here is the late, great Senator Moynihan, expressing (on August 4, 1996) his opposition to welfare reform:

[O]pponents of this legislation were conservative social scientists who for years have argued against liberal nostrums for changing society with the argument that no one knows enough to mechanistically change society. Typically liberals think otherwise; to the extent that liberals can be said to think at all. . . . They [the Clinton White House] have only the flimsiest grasp of social reality, thinking all things doable and equally undoable. As, for example, the horror of this legislation. By contrast, the conservative social scientists . . . have warned over and over that this is radical legislation with altogether unforeseeable consequences, many of which will surely be loathsome.

So we see that some “temperamental conservatives” opposed on Burkean grounds what turned out to be perhaps the most successful social reform of the last half-century (forgetting perhaps the fact that Burke, a Whig, was himself a reformer of some note). The unforeseeable consequences were not loathsome; they were, in fact, enormously encouraging.

When it came to welfare and the underclass, the world was not “too complex” for rapid reform—and those who argued we should reject welfare reform on grounds of “epistemological modesty” and the “awareness of limits” were wrong. The reason they were wrong is that the poor (as other conservatives argued at the time) were fully capable of responding to rational incentives. They were not helpless and in need of a paternalistic state. They were actually able to get and keep jobs. And their children were not “collateral damage in a bombardment of severities” (the phrase is Will’s).

Perhaps the lesson to take away from all this is not to draw grand, sweeping conclusions when it comes to reforms. Maybe “epistemological modesty” should be directed not at reforms per se, but at those who think they can anticipate the outcomes and assume that success (or failure) in one area will lead to success (or failure) in another. (I would add that it’s still too early to declare that the effort in Iraq, which has been very difficult, is irredeemably lost. And Brooks fails to mention that foreign terrorists like al Qaeda in Iraq, and countries like Iran and Syria, have been the loci of many of the problems we’ve encountered. The ethnic tensions and cultural divisions in Iraq are real enough—but the situation there is far more complicated than Brooks presents in his column).

It’s worth recalling, too, that those who take the rigid view that “society is an organism” and that “custom, tradition, and habit are the prime movers of that organism” would in all likelihood have found themselves, intellectually at least, on the side of Calhoun and not Lincoln on the matter of slavery and the culture of the American South. And, by the way, on the opposite side from Burke, a committed abolitionist.

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