Sunday, January 28, 2007

A democracy health check

Let me first open with an apology to my readers for the irregularity of my postings. A few months ago, my literary agent requested that I make some changes to the first part of the volume I have been working on for more than a year. As a consequence, I have been dividing my time between my regular job at the Taipei Times and, on most mornings, sitting in a coffee shop with coffee and portable computer, making said changes to my document. One casualty of this heavy intellectual schedule has been this site. Work on my book has progressed well, and if everything goes as planned, I should be done making the edits by the end of this month, after which point one can expect to see an upsurge in postings herein.

It is no small irony that the country that, without the approval of the UN Security Council and with world opposition, invaded Iraq to ex post facto rid it of a murderous dictator who didn’t care for the wellbeing of his people, is now being led by a president who has become so unaccountable to not only the people he represents but the very democratic institutions that give his power legitimacy as to claim that he will continue the course, add soldiers in Iraq and all the while backhand the advice given him by, among others, the members of the Iraq Study Group.

The Executive Branch of the US has become so powerful that even a vote in the Senate against the President Bush’s decision to augment the US military presence in Iraq by some 21,500 soldiers is incapable of preventing him from doing so. Even worse, a few weeks ago, Bush made the headlines when he said that he would stay the course even if he only had the support of his wife and his dog. Heck, even Saddam, at the height of his power, needed the approval of more people than that, as do the powers in Beijing, however undemocratic they are.

In many ways, the US has become a dictatorship where the militarized few can hide budgets, spend at will, and decide upon war and peace as they see fit.

The so-called exporter of democracy is slowly but surely turning into an anti-democratic force that promises to sow much discord the world over, with tremendous peril for all. Bush has become an emperor, confident in the infallibility of his vision, accountable to no one but to himself and, perhaps, to the god who purportedly gives him guidance and to the handful of advisers who surround him. His deluded mission is one to civilize and to liberate. It is, in many respects, akin to Japanese emperor Hirohito’s in the lead-up to World War II.

The state of US democracy, supposedly the very model for the world to adopt, has become so decayed as to perhaps necessitate, ironically, the very antithesis of democracy — a coup — to stop the decision-makers before they further enflame the Middle East or exacerbate its alienation of Beijing.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Blindly forward in Iraq

By any yardstick imaginable, 2006 did not end well for Iraq and its people. Even the execution, in extremis, of Saddam Hussein mere days after his sentencing didn’t bring the sense of catharsis that his executioners might have wished for. In fact, the hanging of the former president — in the spirit of the age caught on film and distributed via the Internet around the globe — may not have achieved more than bring satisfaction to his long-time enemies in the Shiite camp and to exacerbate the already gaping divide between the country’s — and the region’s — Sunnis and Shiites. After all, vengeance rarely, if ever, manages to bring the sweet taste that the perpetrator had sought while planning his actions.

As for the US, whether its ambassador in Baghdad requested, as the US claims, that the execution be postponed or not, it, too, comes out the loser, as the perception will always be that American hands were behind the hanging in yet another attempt to humiliate Islam and its people. Saddam’s ultimate downfall may have brought a modicum of celebration in Washington, London and Jerusalem, but it certainly hasn’t cleared the path to victory in Iraq. For all intents and purposes, the images of Saddam’s execution will have made matters worse.

More than ever, the so-called Coalition forces in Iraq will be looking for an exit strategy, as the body count in Iraqi lives — established at somewhere between 14,000 and 16,000 for 2006 — and now 3,000 for US soldiers, keeps increasing. Many had placed their hopes in the findings of the Iraq Study Group Report, a multi-month, much-lauded effort to look at the facts on the ground and establish a new strategy which in the end would allow for most US forces to depart the embattled country.

The report — published for public consumption last month by Vintage — will engender a necessary debate within society, and for the most part its findings are valuable. It is honest in assessing that the situation is deplorable and that victory (whatever the term signifies) is by no means a certainty. Gone is the hubris, the “can-do” attitude of the innocent Western agent sent abroad. Instead, the language of unwavering optimism which characterized the Bush administration’s view on Iraq in 2003 and 2004 has been replaced by the cautious “improve” and “no guarantee for success.” The report underscores the cold reality of the possibility of failure in Iraq, with dire consequences not only for the US but the region as well. The clear-eyed assessment of the situation in Iraq is the most valuable contribution this report is likely to make. Whether it is heeded by decision-makers remains to be seen.

Where the report comes short is in the recommendations that it makes, not so much because the strategy proposed makes no sense but rather because it perpetuates the lack of definition that historically has caused so much headaches to occupying powers facing an insurgency. Part of the new strategy involves giving the responsibility for security to Iraqi forces, with US forces providing training, weapons and, when needed, support. All in all, however, US soldiers are no longer to play a primary role in providing security to Iraqis. Moreover, the US would use a system of sticks and carrots whereby a failure on Iraq’s part to reach certain milestones and demonstrate that it is acting could result in a US pullout regardless of whether the country has been stabilized or not.

The report then says that US troops should move away from a policing role in Iraq and “fight al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations in Iraq using special operations teams.” (p. 72). Therein lies the major flaw in the strategy: the report does not provide definitions for what constitutes mere criminality, sectarian conflict, insurgency, guerrilla and terrorism, or what, for that matter, distinguishes al-Qaeda in Iraq from the Sunni-backed insurgency. What constitutes a terrorist act? Which definition will be adopted — the Israeli one, in which every single act of resistance is “terrorism,” or one that solely focuses on attacks on civilians? Granted, there is no way to clearly define violent activities in a place like Iraq. But by failing to even attempt to provide distinctions and thereby give focus to US military activities, US forces will be caught doing the very same thing they have been doing for years, a situation with thus annuls any benefit that might have arisen from a change in strategy.

A lack of definitions for fundamental terms — terrorism, insurgency — will hound US and other forces in Iraq for years to come, regardless of whether the recommendations made in the Iraq Study Group Report are followed or not. In the meantime, countless Iraqis will continue to suffer and see their world continue on the path to collapse. If the situation perdures — and if the conflict, as it very well might, turns into a regional conflagration — some might even begin to wish a return to life under Saddam, the deposed tyrant who we are told was the very reason the US invaded Iraq and whose execution last week failed to bring the sense of achievement, of finality, that the architects of the war surely had hoped for.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Turning up the notch on fear, again

Now that the holidays are over and that people have returned to their normal lives, the time has come to strike some fear into them lest the spirit of the holidays unduly spill into everyday life. After all, since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US, people in the West have come to expect that there are dangers lurking somewhere in the background. Governments tell them so. But perhaps the alleged plot to bomb aircraft at Heathrow Airport in Britain was already receding too far into the past. Something needed to be said — in the absence of something being done — to resuscitate the fear in people’s heart.

Cue, therefore, on Jan. 2, a report by the Canadian Press based on a document released by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) in October through an Access to Information (or is it Disinformation?) request.

According to the CSIS study, it is “quite surprising” that terrorists have not yet detonated a “dirty bomb” — known in the trade as a radiological dispersal device (RDD) — given that making such a crude weapon is, according to CSIS, relatively easy and the materials required to make one readily available to ordinary citizens.

“The technical capability required to construct and use a simple RDD is practically trivial, compared to that of a nuclear explosive device or even most chemical or biological weapons,” the study says, adding that the Sept. 11 attacks had raised fears that terrorists would try to crash airliners into nuclear power stations or find ways to disperse radioactive material with the intent of causing economic damage by rendering an entire area off limits.

CSIS claims that the detonation of an RDD is “undoubtedly the most likely” terrorist scenario involving radioactive sources, adding that “it is quite surprising that the world has not yet witnessed such an attack.”

This, again, is mere fear-mongering on the part of the authorities, as it uses that which cannot be demonstrated to create a monster on the wall. A closer look at the phraseology and choice of words in the report shows how shallow the assessment is. By saying that a dirty bomb is undoubtedly the most likely terrorist attack involving radioactive material, it is simply stating that other methods — breaking into a nuclear power station and somehow finding a way to cause a detonation, or building a nuclear device and managing to smuggle it to a targeted area — are more onerous. And they are. Putting a rifle in one’s mouth and pressing the trigger is also undoubtedly the most likely way someone would end his life — more likely than achieving death by waiting for UV rays from the sun to cause a fatal skin cancer.

What the report conveniently fails to mention — and this is the reason why it expresses surprise at the world having yet to suffer such an attack — is that physical aggression is contingent on two factors: capabilities and intent. Clearly, if building and detonating a RDD is so easy — after all, the materials required to build one are at hand in medical laboratories and universities — the variable that has been missing is intent. What the report also fails to mention is that would-be terrorists could also fairly easily build conventional explosives using ammonium nitrate — fertilizer — and other available chemicals to commit a deadly attack. That this hasn’t occurred in Canada is also a result of lack of intent.

The CP article then mentions that certain parts of the report were too sensitive to have been released through the Access to Information request. This likely is nothing more than the means by which CSIS leaves doubt in the public’s mind. What is that material that is so secret it cannot be made public? Could it be information about individuals known to CSIS who have been building such a device? By leaving black holes inviting wild fantasy, CSIS ensures that the information it gives is just enough to feed nightmares. In reality, however, this so-called sensitive information is probably little more than foreign agency information on which the CSIS report is based. The truth is, it is not the information itself that is of a sensitive nature — after all, everything in the report can be sourced in open — that is unclassified — material. The sensitive information is likely the name of the foreign agency which provided the information. In the name of good relations with its allies, CSIS is bound not to reveal the identity of the foreign agencies it deals with, and any reference thereto for public disclosure will consequently be sanitized.

Despite this renewed attempt on the part of Canadian authorities to increase the level of fear that there are terrorists out there picking apart a discarded X-ray machine to build a radiophobic’s worst nightmare, Canadians need not worry. There is a multitude of means and ways by which people with bad intentions can wreak physical, human and economic havoc. Modern society is filled with technologies that can be turned against us. In fact, certain martial artists make it their pride to transform everyday objects into deadly weapons. Murders can be committed using a pair of scissors, a pencil — heck, even a door stopper would do the job. Are the daily front pages plastered with such stories? No. Why? Lack of intent.

The fact that a RDD attack has not materialized is not for lack of opportunities. It simply is lack of intent.