The Talking Dog

August 31, 2006, Iran to U.N.: Go Cheney Yourself

I know... it never gets old... And now that the shtick has a national radio audience, I fear I'll keep saying it. But there you have it; today is August 31st, the day that the U.N. Security Council had set as a deadline for Iran to stop enriching uranium and start talking about dismantling it's uranium enrichment program (as said on "Wait Wait," We definitely should talk about your proposal, but I can't take your call right now... I have to finish enriching this uranium, and I just can't hear you over my uranium enriching machine...")... yes' it's official... Iran has not stopped enriching uranium, and when not meeting with demolition contractors over plans to blow up the United Nations headquarters, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton has his team planning on a nifty sanctions resolution (which Russia and China will veto, if it ever even gets that far.)

And there we have it. It's not the least bit surprising. And there ain't a heckuva lot we can do about it (what with being tied up in Iraq and all) other than hope everything works out for the best... our diplomatic options will be limited by a U.N. structure that gives Russia and China veto power over any really nasty sanctions (not to mention our own bizarre refusal to engage Iran directly in any way)... and of course, because our military is... kind of busy.
(Mea culpa, btw; I had predicted a drawdown to under 100,000 troops by now, or something like it, but in the face of ever-increasing violence and the non-civil war civil war, troop levels have stayed pretty high-- in the 130- 140,000 range... with the ongoing U.S. casualties to show for it, though could any sacrifice really be too great for the honor of Dear Leader the nation?)

And so it goes... the good news-- I keep having to point this out-- is that Iran is really years away from actually being in the position of having a working nuclear weapon, let alone being able to deliver it to downtown Tel Aviv. The bad news is that while their progress toward that end is slow... it is ongoing. And unlike 15 year old empty gas canisters, a working nuclear weapon really would qualify as a "weapon of mass destruction."

So... here's hoping that President Ahmadinedjad remains merely a mad figurehead, and doesn't become anything more... because then this whole nuclear armed Iran thing might be, you know, really scary...

Comments (0)

August 30, 2006, Look over there!

When confronted with any... unpleasantness... the President quickly shifts into his favorite position (probably complete with camouflage-patterned underwear, though I have no evidence of this)... that being "the War President TM." This week, the President was forced to deal with the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the... less than fully effective... federal response, both at the time and with respect to clean-up (our friend Kevin Hayden of American Street has a multi-media compendium on Katrina matters)... and the blogosphere in general has many other discussions of the subject.

Not to worry. There is always an answer: the President, of course, plans to give more speeches on terrorism. (The same Grey Lady article, btw, alludes to Rumsfeld's sudden need to call Islamists "fascists", because, after all, misusing nomenclature is an essential part of the winning strategy...) After all, what else would you talk about? The decline in real wages I alluded to recently? The biggest plunge in SAT scores in over 30 years which occurred during the watch of "the Education President TM"? Or how about all that "good news" that keeps coming out of Iraq? Or even how stable his policies have made the Middle East?

No... best to... play on irrational fear! That's the ticket! The bet is that, coupled with the usual Al Zawahiri tape (probably during the Jewish holidays in late September or early October) and the bin Laden tape (probably a few days before Halloween) and the two or three "orange alerts" (and possibly the capture of another Al Qaeda Number Three TM, either in Pakistan or Afghanistan)... well, those people who, five years after 9-11, are still spooked by this... will still be spooked by it.

But one would think that number of such gullible people is declining (and one would think that, given that this is "only" a Congressional election, maybe the Bushmen's heart isn't in it.) Maybe things like deficits and wages and education and health care and the environment and social security and unfair tax policies, and yes, badly managed military actions, might matter more to voters than a shrill alarm about a real, though vastly overstated threat.

But as we've come to learn with American politics in the 21st century... that ain't how you bet.

Comments (9)

August 28, 2006, Perhaps it's the economy, stupid

The Grey Lady treats us to this discussion of the fact that American real wages are now at their lowest levels measured in appropriately "real" terms, to wit, as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, than at any time since they have been measured since the measuring began in 1947. "Worst ever" seems extreme even for me (I mean, even George Dubya can always point to Buchanan... James, not Pat...) so we'll just say "the worst in 60 years", and leave it at that. Which is pretty bad, all things told.

By contrast, corporate profits appear to be at their highest level, under the same measures. People kind of intrinsically figure this out for themselves, given their own financial realities, though the low wage level statistics reported would be even worse still if a portion of corporate earnings representing compensation of extremely high paid executives (in lieu of profits for tax or other reasons) weren't part of the wage calculations. Rising benefit costs had also kept total employee compensation levels propped up as an overall matter, but even these are no longer keeping up with inflation.

Again... corporate profits are way, way up. And the economists seem pretty much in consensus that this is directly the result of the lower wages. And this result also applies in other major industrial countries, where there is downward wage pressure.

Which, many will say (me included), all other things being equal, "is capitalism". People are in business to profit. People are entitled to a fair wage, but then, we still mostly have a free labor market, so if people want to earn more, they are welcome to peddle their human capital in the market, etc., etc. Of course, other things aren't really equal. We actually have government policies that are driving this result, including such disparate things as taxation policy, decisions not to enforce our immigration (and labor) laws against employers, trade policies (including subsidizing some of our most inefficient and destructive industries, like sugar growing in the Everglades), energy policies, etc., etc., all of which put the wage-cost squeeze on workers (at least, most workers.)

Now, to be sure, a lot of these policies play off each other, some offset each other, some exacerbate each other, and sorting out the whole thing is remarkably hard. So let me just state my view, FWIW: if every American ready, able and willing to work earned a decent, living wage, including access to health care, if we had a world-class educational infrastructure for all our children, if we could reduce child poverty and infant mortality rates to, say, no worse than Northern European or Japanese levels, if our national pension (including both social security and private pensions) were on solid footings, and our national finances did not appear to project unlimited deficits far into the future (both in terms of import/export and government spending)... it would be a lot easier to simply stop and say "well, that's capitalism; there's nothing INTRINSICALLY wrong with businesses making profits-- even humongous profits." And I'd probably agree. Resentment of the rich for being rich... doesn't play, politically... on the other hand, it seems that there is an appropriate level of social spending to ensure some semblance of a social safety net well above what we are currently spending, which we proved could be paid for at Clinton tax levels, which, at a maximum 39.5% rate, were not only far from onerous, but by the standards of the industrialized Western nations, remarkably low.

But I'm not sure that's how this is going to play. Note our pal Frank Luntz (discussed in my recent interview with Professor George Lakoff), commenting on how this economic situation will play (and be played), to wit, people will "blame corporate America" for any disparities and their own economic suffering, and not the Republican government which (the public just might perceive as...) bought and paid for by corporate America. Certainly, you might well see some right wing talking points about how this is "just" the ebb and flow of the economy, and (of course) while any good news at all is 100% the result of the President's tax cuts, any bad news is the fault of mysterious "corporate America." No, economic problems of any kind are NOT the responsibility of the Republicans who have controlled all branches of government for pretty much the last 5 1/2 years, especially those in Congress...

I don't know about you... but that tack doesn't sound very satisfying.

We'll see. Stagnant wages, rising petroleum costs, perhaps the tail end of the "housing bubble"... continuation of Republicans in Congress may prove a hard sell. The strategy of relying on fear of terrorism may overcome this, of course... or it might not. Unfortunately, thanks to gerrymandering and other reasons (including some lackluster candidates in potentially takeable districts) I'm not all that optimistic about Democrats taking back control of either house of Congress. However, at just over two months to the election, if news like this keeps trickling out there, and people realize that improving their own individual fortunes may require a change in national direction, not even the Democrats may be able to snatch defeat out of this.

Comments (1)

August 27, 2006, 15 Milliseconds of Fame

For people with an incredibly long attention span, you may listen to this week's edition of NPR's "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me", in the second question of the second "Who's Carl this Week?", somewhere around 45 minutes into the program,and you will hear a quote attributed to this blog (derived from this post.) (Thanks to Linkmeister, our man in Honolulu, for the heads up.) I'm sure the show is on hundreds of radio stations across the nation (at least one of which would seem to be in Hawaii), and if it's not... I'm certain to say it is, anyway.

Whether this is the embodiment of Marshall McLuhan's famous prediction (or Andy Warhol's), or one of the numerous precursors of the coming Apocaplypse, or none of the above, I leave to you.

Comments (4)

August 26, 2006, The other Democratic rock star

Yes, everyone is well aware who the uncharismatic-but-nose-to-the-grindstone frontrunner for the Democratic nomination is... none other than my own state's Junior Senator (with whom I share a birth day). Ah, but it seems that at least in some circles, especially in the land of his fathers (Kenya) my college class-mate (and Illinois's Junior Senator) Barack Obama... is the man.

Urging citizens of HIV-ravaged Kenya to get themselves tested for AIDS and HIV, Obama gave what amounted to a victory lap of Kenya, including visits to the village from which hailed his late father and grandfather, Obama was greeted with the acclaim of a head of state and rock star rolled in one.

And there you have it. Obama gave one of the great political speeches of all time at the 2004 Democratic national convention, to wit, urging ostensibly that we are all Americans, and therefore, that we can-- as he has-- transcend parochial matters such as race that have divided us and build a new future based on, well, that transcending thing. Really great stuff, when you think about it-- a real shot in the mouth to an opposition party who espouses similar rhetoric (mostly of the "personal responsibility" variety), but still seeks out-- and gets-- the support of racists.

No, let me go somewhere else. Obama, and his fellow Democratic senatorial rock star Hillary Cliinton, have been criticized for their reticence-- their refusal to cash in on their rock star status to actually take a leadership role in national issues, such as national security for example (to name one). It seems, for example, that an Obama (or Hillary Clinton) press conference or even a statement might get the kind of coverage that only the President (or at least, the Vice-President) might get... whereas no one will pay much attention to Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi, by contrast (let alone any other Democrat.)

Both Hillary and Obama have been content to relish their roles as relatively new senators "learning the ropes", hanging back and, well, not doing that rhetorical leader thing. Both (well, Obama, anyway) have been accused thereby of being "careerists", i.e., valuing their potentially vaunted places in the senate and collegiality with their Republican colleagues over partisan pissing contests.

Well, let's consider what it is that Hillary and Obama are supposed to be saying. And that's kind of the problem. While we have Joe Lieberman standing ready to undermine any message by any Democrat at any time... we're not quite sure what that message is! So... we were kind of hoping that Hillary and Obama did, but they're disappointing us by not coming up with it! So...

We'll start with the issue with which the President is beating Democrats over the head with, the simple question... of... "Should we get out of Iraq?" Simple as that. The Unseen Editor chides me for my own lack of clarity on this point, although the answer of "how the hell do I know?" seems to smack too much of... well, Democrats. I do agree that a weaselly timetable (such as that proposed by Congressman Murtha) really is wholly unsatisfactory, just as what I really do suspect is the wholly unsatisfying nature of "the answer" (i.e. we broke it, we bought it; we have now introduced instability in the region that good old Saddam was keeping in check for us for free, and now, we have to go do his job at our expense, lest the sectarian chaos spill over into Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other Gulf States, and drive oil prices to the stratosphere which would do severe damage to the world's-- not to mention our own-- economic outlooks... and therefore, we should hold over the possibility of pulling out as leverage from our European and Japanese friends so that they will contribute men, money and materiel to the mess we have created, lest we actually do unilaterally withdraw leaving Iraq to its fate, etc.)

So... that's the question. We'll forget the bygone and irreversible past of "should we have gone to war in Iraq?" because that egg has been broken and can't be undone. We'll go on with "should we stay..." the course, or whatever, i.e. continue a large military presence in Iraq. The inevitable consequences are outlined in the paragraph above: $6/gallon gasoline, or worse; we won't even talk about what might happen, for example, to Israel or the matter of terrorism, as we can expect a cascade of failed states in the heart of the world's oil patch...

Not to say, btw, that it might well be a perfectly rational decision to say: "Fine. Let's get out-- damn the consequences. Sure, oil prices go up. This will cause some disruption in the short term, but it's the only way we will get down to the serious business of conservation and developing long term viable resources, and maintaining a world-wide military supply line to keep our ever more tenuous oil routes open and the black stuff flowing is just too expensive and exposes us to too much lunacy like Islamist terrorists... best leave them back in their own hornets nests undisturbed, and the Asians and Europeans can deal with them to get their oil, while we move on to more reliable sources from less unstable places." We will save the blood and treasure costs of the Iraq war, and in my view (which, I admit, may be wrong) dramatically improve our own security by disengaging from parts of the world where we're not welcome, and frankly, have only exposed us to ill-feeling that we wouldn't be exposed to if we weren't there.

But pullout... at what cost? The reality is, oil prices really will go to the moon if we pull out of Iraq... on a timetable or otherwise. If we want an economy based on our people driving to their exurban McMansions in their SUVs to go on... we simply need to be in Iraq... period. Probably forever, or at least until we move past the need for Middle Eastern oil (i.e. forever.) In my view, that's political reality: we're stuck there. And while we didn't have to be, we are.

So... it would be nice if Hillary and Obama could lay these choices out for us (Bush will be campaigning as "all fear all the time"), but it's certainly understandable why they'd just as well stay away from them. And, given the Hobson's choice the issue presents, that may be the best idea of all.

Comments (4)

August 24, 2006, "German Taliban" to be released?

It would appear that German born Turkish national Murat Kurnaz is scheduled to be released from Guantanamo and returned home to Germany, by tomorrow. Kurnaz is one of numerous detainees (the overwhelming majority, actually) against the whom the evidence of terrorism connections is... attenuated at best, and in reality, ludicrous. My interview with Baher Azmy, one of Mr. Kurnaz's attorneys, is here.

Kurnaz is easier to release than most of the prisoners: we're not likely to see Germany imprison or torture him, unlike, for example, Saudi Arabia or Yemen where many or most of the Gitmo prisoners are from (or, for example, China as in the case of the Uighurs.)

Alas, the answer is ultimately going to have to be a "we broke it we bought it"... if we can't find homes for these overwhelmingly innocent men, we're going to have to eventually absorb them (or perhaps, if and when Mr. Castro kicks off, I suppose we can always try to leave them on the other side of the Gitmo fence line.)

Comments (4)

August 22, 2006, Divide and Conquer (the hearts of the rubes)

The Grey Lady gives us this further discussion and analysis of the President's press conference, wherein the President made it very clear that "the Democrat Party" wants to cut and run from Iraq, and, let's face it, if you vote for a Democrat in the mid-term elections, Osama bin Laden will personally follow you home and murder your children.

As we come up on the fifth anniversary of September 11, 2001, look for the fever pitch of this kind of argument-- which, when you look at it in the light I just presented it, is incredibily asinine. But, in substance, that's the argument. In practical terms, of course, the President runs foreign policy and the military; at this point, all Congress can provide is oversight and some level of accountability.

What the President (who famously said "I'm a uniter not a divider") means is that voters should irrationally fear the consequences of restoring checks and balances to the government, if they elect the opposition party to a majority in either house of Congress (let alone both), somewhat reminiscent of his lashing out earlier in the week at accountability from the judicial branch.

It really is as simple as that: his campaign for Republican control of Congress is based quite simply on that position: an accountable government, and the terrorists will win.

I suppose there are still people who fall for that sort of nonsense. By all means, they should vote Republican. For everyone else, this sort of appeal to baser fears and instincts has worn off. It's not even clear what effect the three or four "orange alert" terror scares between now and the election (by the way, this is the only country in the world that tells the terrorists how much we are paying attention so that they can best plan their attacks, if they were planning any), and the Zawahiri and OBL tapes we can expect in early and late October, respectively, will have on most people.

It sure looks like not even Diebold will be enough this time. Of course, I've been wrong before.

Comments (4)

August 21, 2006, Inevitable consequences

For those of you not familiar with it, here is a link to Sy Hersh's latest in the New Yorker about the really, really special relationship between members of our government and members of Israel's government that appeared to signal two things: (1) Israel was really peachy keen on having an excuse to take on Hizbollah, and the kidnapping of the two soldiers last month served its interests to do so, and (2) the United States was really peachy keen on Israel having an excuse to take on Hizbollah to show Iran all those handy dandy new bombs that could be unleashed by us against its underground installations (of the kind it helped Hizbollah set up in Southern Lebanon). To be sure, while the United States heartily approved of what Israel was doing, and indeed, did nothing-- NOTHING-- to dissuade it from doing so, Hersh's article makes clear that Israel acted independently, and may well have undertaken to bomb Lebanon (including not strictly Hizbollah targets) all by itself. Anyway, the conclusion is that, aside from the fact that Rummy wasn't all that jiggy with the whole thing, feeling that an Israeli embarassment, or worse, an actual attack on Iran (particularly by us), would be... really bad... for the current contingent already mired next door in Iraq, it seems that Cheney wants to step up the violence for it's own sake... so... NYAH!

Well, the consequence, aside from Hizbollah leader Sheikh Nasrallah being the toast of the Arab Street, he is also this week's cover story in the Economist, which observes given the insanely ambitious goal of destroying Hizbollah set by Israeli PM Olmert and the far less ambitious goal of not being destroyed set by Hizbollah... Hizbollah won (big time)... and it's chief sponsor Iran seems to be kvelling about that...

Not that Cheney will heed the lesson, of course (that being "don't start a half-assed war against a well-armed, well-trained, well-motivated foe who has dug itself a nice easily defended position and whose goals are far less ambitious than yours")... but Iran, evidently, has, and as virtually predicted by Hersh's article, it appears that Iran is about to tell the whole U.N. Security Council to go Cheney itself rather than give up its uranium enrichment program as a precondition to talks about... giving up its uranium enrichment program.

Just remember, as we contemplate the ayatollahs with their hands on nucular nuclear weapons: Iran was at one time willing to help us hunt down Al Qaeda, but the President deemed it more important to have a bogeyman he could call "the Axis of Evil."

Oh well. Perhaps it's time we all stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb. Or something. (In the end, the likeliest scenario even if Iran does acquire the bomb is that it, and Israel, and to some extent nearby Pakistan, will end up in a regional stalemate, and may ultimately force all concerned to be better behaved.) Of course, the lunatic figurehead Iranian President, who is as hellbent on initiating Armageddon as, well, too many lunatic Americans seem to be... could seize actual power there... or lots of other bad things could happen. But still... Thanks to the Bush Administration's bogging us down in Iraq ( which the President as recently as today assures us had absolutely nothing to do with 9-11, despite years of rhetorical juxtaposition)... we don't really have very many good options.

It's a damned good thing I'm an optimist.

Comments (5)

August 19, 2006, TD Blog Interview with George Lakoff

George Lakoff is Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, a senior fellow at the progressive think-tank Rockridge Institute, and is the author of "Whose Freedom: The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea" and a number of other books including a multitude of articles in major scholarly journals and edited volumes, as well as books such as Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, and Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values, Frame the Debate. Dr. Lakoff's current work discusses the concept of "framing", both deep frames representing an underlying value structure; for conservatives, the deep frames revolve around strict father morality, and for progressives, the deep frames revolve around a nurturant family morality, and "surface frames", which, in Dr. Lakoff's analysis, are the ideas associated with individual words and expressions and which make political sense only given the deep frames. The concept of freedom is one such case. On July 25, 2006, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Lakoff by telephone. What follows are my interview notes, as corrected where appropriate by Dr. Lakoff.

The Talking Dog: My customary first question is "where were you on 9-11"? I ask that because I happened to be at my then desk at my then job, across the street from the WTC.

George Lakoff: I was at home. I woke up late that day. Someone working in our garden called out "Turn on your t.v. the Towers are down!" My wife and I watched the television; I said "Oh my God! " and "What Bush will do with this?" I could anticipate what was coming! My wife had the same thought, that the Right would use this to gain overwhelming power.

The Talking Dog: Why, if you can tell me, has the 9-11 imagery been seized upon so potently as a right wing talking point, particularly, why it seems to mesh so well with what you conclude is the framing of the underlying moral world-view basis of right wing (the "deep frame" of "strict father morality") as opposed the underlying moral world-view basis of progressive thought (the "deep frame" of "nurturant family morality and empathy")? I should note that an attorney I interviewed who, like myself, was in downtown New York that day (he actually suffered burns to his eyes from the ash, and was covered in ash after the tower collapsed) suggested that people who DID NOT experience it personally actually have a harder time dealing with it than people who did. Do you have a view on that as a cognitive science matter?

George Lakoff: I actually have a paper out on the subject of the 9-11 imagery. There is a difference between imagery of someone who watches from afar, and the reality of someone who was actually there. The way the picture was shown, the buildings were hit, like a person being hit. The image would permit one to identify with the building-- as if it were you. This has to do with mirror neurons: in our brains, there is a system of neurons that fire when you are either doing something physically or seeing another do the same thing. Seeing the plane hit the tower over and over on tv is as if you were seeing someone in shot, over and over again. The twin towers, of course, were symbols of strength-- again, symbols that could represent personal strength of the person watching. Now, as to the effect of the repeated images, part one involves evoking fear, and of course, a need for protection. Part two involves conservatives who have bought into strict father morality to invoke their need for protection. Progressives, interestingly, don't have that, though their moral system does. The progressive underlying values (empathy and responsibility) imply that protection is actually the most important thing you can provide for your family. And this is followed through in the political realm with protections for consumers, for workers, for the environment and social safety nets, though less so in the area of military and police protection. This is a big mistake: it is a natural fit-- after all, nurture and care require strength. And yet, progressives have ceded strength and security to conservatives, who of course, have exploited it.

The Talking Dog: You've posited that the right wing has been very successful at building the infrastructure (think tanks, radio hosts, best selling authors, etc.) to get its ideas (which you boil down to attributes of "strict father morality") out there for decades, and particularly the framing and naming of these ideas, while progressives... less so, if at all. Have you seen any significant progress (besides the Rockridge Institute!) in this area, say, in the last 3 or 4 years, or are progressives still, by and large, abandoning the field to the other side?

George Lakoff: The Center for American Progress has been developed, and it was supposed to be like the Heritage Foundation or like the American Enterprise Institute-- but instead, it is the complete opposite. Right wing think tanks start with a concept-- a consensus of core ideas-- and then apply them everywhere. Progressives start with experts in individual fields, all separate, who never come together, and don't respond to anything in any coherent way. They, of course, share principles, but these are primarily unconscious. CAP gets very, very good people. But the set-up is backwards. This is true, by the way, of virtually every progressive institution. All issues are separated into silos, and the silos then compete with each other. The results are fragmented. For the right, by contrast, an understanding of general conservative thought leads to unity.

I do see some areas of improvement -- for example, in funding, great strides have been made by the the Democracy Alliance, funding the Center for American Progress, Media Matters, and so on. But then, by contrast, there is virtually no funding in two very critical areas: (1) long term framing and issue silos-- the deep frames I am talking about, which require infrastructure; the Democratic party vaguely speaks to long term values, but this is not integrated in the way that the right wing is; and (2) we are doing little or nothing in the child rearing area, compared to the vast funding on the right for Dobson and others.

The Talking Dog: Isn't that somewhat ironic given the "nurturant family" deep frame?

George Lakoff: It certainly is. On the right you have Focus on the Family, various fathering programs, Dr. Laura, the right wing has a whole well-developed concept of child rearing, and the right has been using it for thirty years. The Republicans have a better understanding of this than Democrats do because they understand the need for infrastructure.

The Talking Dog: By my observation, Republicans tend to come out of business, whereas Democrats tend to come out of academia and the law... could this account for this?

George Lakoff: Well, it might account for it, but whatever the reason is, there is no question that the Republican "businessmen" understand what they are doing, including long term infrastructure development, that progressives have simply not caught on.

The Talking Dog: You've observed that one of the first Democrats to pick up the term "tax relief" as if it were neutral was none other than Joe Lieberman. He, of course, is facing a strong challenge heavily backed by progressive activists especially on the internet. By voting record, of course, Lieberman is "mainstream" as a Democrat, though not always. Are you aware of other right wing talking points that Joe Lieberman has adopted, and is it fair to say that this sort of "frame adaptation" by a Democrat (albeit not a recognized "progressive") may be more significant in the great scheme of things than his voting record?

George Lakoff: I haven't studied Mr. Lieberman's language in all that great detail. I do know he frequently talks about school vouchers as if it were a neutral term. It is not a neutral term: it is part of a slippery slope process to destroy the public school system and replace it with a private and religious school system. While this might be because of Lieberman's support of religious education, the destruction of public education is, of course, outrageous.

Now, what's interesting about Lieberman is that he is what I call a "biconceptual". He is, on some issues, a nurturant frame progressive, while in others, he wholly adopts the strict father morality. What he is not is a moderate-- he is anything but. He is an extremist in both areas-- the exact opposite of a moderate.

The Talking Dog: In retrospect, do you think it was a mistake on the part of Al Gore, more or less running on what seemed to be the ultimate empathy/nurturant family frame platform, to select Lieberman, famous for standing for strict-father scold "morality" vis a vis President Clinton?

George Lakoff: Gore picked Lieberman to win Florida and mobilize the Jewish vote. You see how well that worked out! The answer to your question is yes, it was a major mistake. Lieberman adds by way of middle of the road consensus credentials. All he did was water down Gore's progressivism. Worse, his extremism on some issues has helped the right-- like the whole Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Rather than approach centrist voters on their terms, their tack has been to move to the right, which is a mistake.

The Talking Dog: How would you reframe the "war on terror", and in particular, WHAT WOULD YOU CALL IT, for one thing? Am I correct that in your view the fastest way to frame the Iraq war is to frame it as THE IRAQ OCCUPATION, to wit, when flight-suit-wearing Presisdent Bush gave his "mission accomplished" speech on the carrier Lincoln, we had, in fact, already won "the war", and left us with "the occupation"?

George Lakoff: There is no question that the occupation is and has been a disaster. Our troops were not trained for it. While a civil war was not predicted, it should have been, and the situation is now impossible for our troops, who have been regularly cut down ever since while being placed in the midst of it. It was the grossest of irresponsibility to think that we could have a quickie war and occupation-- a gross irresponsibility, to our troops, to the Iraqis and everybody else.

We also have to get a handle on definitions. You can't have a "war on terror". Terror is an emotion-- it is not an army who fights to control territory-- the definition of a party that you have a "war" against. That's not what terrorism is about... (Israel's current war with Hezbollah may be a bit different, as Hezbollah does appear to control territory, making it a more classic war- though still very different.)

Terrorism is more like organized crime. Indeed, immediately after 9-11, Colin Powell suggested that the 9-11 attacks be treated as a crime, and responded to as a crime, albeit a huge one. When we've been most successful against terrorism, it's been when we've treated it like organized crime -- combating it with spies, infiltrators, and with international police and intelligence cooperation. This is not an issue of war... it is more like busting a syndicate.

The Talking Dog: At least one of my interview subjects has suggested his problem with the term "war on terror" is that it doesn't describe the enemy we must overcome-- he would prefer "war against Islamist extremists"...

George Lakoff: Well, it again misuses the term "war"... at least presently, this is not a war about holding territory (though for a short time, to a limited extent, that was involved, at least in Afghanistan). No, this is something else.

But the biggest problem is that in the course of his metaphorical war, Bush has taken on very real war powers as President.

The Talking Dog: You would acknowledge that reframing of the basic issues that have been harped upon by the reactionary right to win elections has taken decades and billions of dollars, and the result has been fast, catchy code words like "tort reform" or "tax relief" or "death tax" and others, and the ideas, images and repetitions (not to mention bookings on talk shows and best selling books). Obviously, there will not be time for the infrastructure and groundwork of reframing between now and November, or in my opinion, between now and November of 2008. As such, do you suggest any ways to play against the right wing frame (on such issues as, say, the deficit or national security), and if not, what is the best "field first aid" that you have, and we'll address those issues? Is there a short way to get to "the vision thing" without identifying dozens of issues? Or... how can Dems get voters to "identify" with THEM? Are there any Dems out there (any level) that are doing well in terms of the "values, identification, trust" criteria you have identified that voters seek?

George Lakoff: The right has hired a lot of intellectuals. They have set up a communications network, with a lot of outlets, leadership training groups and so forth, and they have worked out the deep frames and the general values behind them. Once that is in place, it is much easier to make up the surface frames, because they will resonate with the deep frames.

Democrats are trying to do this (and progressives in general) by making up the surface frames without the critical deep frames.

As to how to respond, there are short, intermediate and long term things that can be done. In the short term, in the next couple of months, we could set up an echo chamber, and have progressives and progressive candidates just repeat basic values and elements of deep frames to get them out there. If progressive candidates were to unite around a small set of deep frames, they would be a lot better off than focusing on individual issues. Now.... why don't they? Well, people in individual districts come in and talk about SPECIFIC ISSUES. What's interesting, of course, is that there are underlying ideas that unite the issues that could be talked about in terms of deep frames and values. They could be talked about this way, but the preference is to talk directly to the issues... It's laziness, and it is something we are not getting done.

The Talking Dog: Do you believe that the media's wholesale adoption of the right-wing's frames and language is a result of a lack of sophistication, a complete default of progressives in providing challenges to it, or something more sinister (the words "Fox News" come to mind), or a combination thereof?

George Lakoff: Several things are going on. Media people are human beings-- when they hear words over and over, their own brains change. They use conventional language. When they hear a term enough, they ASSUME that the language is neutral, and that ideas are objective. THIS IS FALSE. Language and ideas are tied to frames.

We are in the 21st century - an era of mass communications - using an 18th century theory of the human mind - a theory without worldviews, deep frames, linguistic frames, metaphors, frame-based inferences, and so on. Even if we had a sophisticated enough media to pick up on this, we'd still have a problem because the audience must also be sophisticated about the nature of mind. So we have a big problem in this area. The response must be to create the appropriate genres to explore these issues, and to develop the appropriate framing and issue presentations in the media in progressive terms.

The Talking Dog: Would we be well-advised to consult the wit and wisdom of Frank Luntz in advance to see what talking points will be coming at us? And on that note, you've pointed out that on most frames, right-wingers are "sincere"-- that is, they truly believe in strict-father morality, personal discipline and such (why for example Arnold Schwarzennegger is an ideal candidate, having literally played a character ready made for this role). They are not sincere in their framing on issues where they are peculiarly weak, such as the environment, where they revert to Orwellian terms like "clean skies initiative" to permit greater pollution, or "healthy forest initiatives" to permit more clear-cutting, and your suggestion is that on these areas in particular, the terms and the policies can be more vigorously debated as literally a question of dishonesty. Can you comment on this?

George Lakoff: When I teach a class on this, I always tell my students they should read Luntz, and indeed, all progressives would be well-advised to read and understand what the other side is doing. I point out the difference between honest arguments that are consistent with their worldview and outright lies. Luntz seamlessly weaves them together. He uses various techniques, among them, lying with language. Luntz is a mixed bag. Progressives definitely need to read the other side.

As to the issues where they resort to outright lying, they are not only not sincere on those issues, they are actually WEAK on those issues, such as the environment.

The Talking Dog: Is there anything related to the subjects we discussed that I should have asked you but didn't, or otherwise, that you believe that my readers and the public need to know (besides "buy and read the book "Whose Freedom", which I heartily recommend!)?

George Lakoff: What we have found out in studying biconceptuals-- those who can simultaneously hold conservative and progressive views in different areas-- is critical. Many of these people have what we would consider progressive views, yet self-identify as conservatives.

There are areas where we can reach out to these people, Conservatives love the land, for example, but they should not be approached in environmental language (like "sustainability"). There are many people in this category who self-identify as "Christians", but they are progressive Christians and not conservative Christians-- they believe in helping the poor, for example, and they want to live in progressive communities. As business people, they are honest business people, and make it a point to engage in ethical business practices.

But these people don't see themselves as progressives in those areas. Progressives need to see these people-- perhaps a third of the country-- and reach out them.

The Talking Dog: On behalf of myself and my readers, thank you to Professor Lakoff for that informative and eye-opening interview.

Comments (3)

August 18, 2006, A light in the darkness (at noon)

Barbara of Mahablog treats us to this summary of a not-yet-ready-for-prime-online story from Harper's on the subject of the many forgotten victims of our nation's current policy in its conduct of the so-called "war on terror".

There is much we all are familiar with from our own queries of some of the same players; there is much that is new even to me, and hence, I commend Barbara for bringing these matters to our attention.

Hey everybody: ousting the party controlling Congress that enables these insanely illegal and counterproductive policies is more important than just about anything-- including replacing Joe Lieberman. Indeed, for the continuation of this Republic as we know it, it may well be essential to oust that party's control from at least one house of Congress to ensure at least some accountability... and as such, if his candidacy diverts the resources necessary for even one pick-up somewhere else, Ned Lamont may be a luxury we can't afford.

There. I said it.

And kudos to a courageous federal judge in Michigan for her finding that the President's warrantless search program violates FISA (for gawd sake, he said it does... and that he is proud of it) and the Constitution. (Hopefully, the ruling will survive appeal, though sadly, the illegal program will go on pending appeal.)
Yet another reason why the President's party must be defeated (for those who care about this sort of thing, of course.)

Comments (0)

August 15, 2006, Spinning out of control

While our friends at the Times are telling us about the new force in Lebanese politics and life (hint: it's called "Hizbollah") who has promised rebuilding aid with its bulldozers and a blank check drawn on Iran, it seems that our President was giving his own spin-account of how Israel has managed to crush... Hizbollah.

I'm trying to think of who it is I'm reminded of...

Comments (0)

August 13, 2006, London Calling Ahead

Fellow New Yorker Julia hits it out of the park with this observation (and remembrance of things past) about the (shall we say) propitious timing of the recent announcement of the thwarting of the purported terror plot involving U.S. bound airliners from Britain.

It seems that British and American officials were in a most heated debate about when and whether to "pull the trigger" and announce the interception and thwarting of the current plot. The British officials noted that many of the perpetrators weren't ready; passports hadn't been obtained, for example, among numerous other logistical issues. Further, the British believed that the highjackers "dry run" would provide valuable (and critical) additional evidence of their activities.

The American government, it seems, was more interested in having something major to announce, regardless of the consequences to, well, anything. It's not like we haven't seen this sort of thing before; we appear to have seen it, without exception, every single time the legendary threat level color coding system was changed from yellow to orange (and back again, usually safely after key Republicans have prevailed in an election) and now, for the first time, the use of the vaunted threat level "Red" (albeit, a very limited use thereof.) Needless to say, the Bush Administration takes the war on terror very seriously: it has extraordinary propaganda value.

While Julia intimates that the timing of this announcement may have something to do with the Lamont-Lieberman primary, I tend to think that these things are better thought out than that. Besides, Lieberman doesn't need Karl's help (though he has been offered it.)

No, my feeling is that it's simply August-- not the month you roll out new products (as Andy Card once said), but the month of re-runs and promos and "kick-off classics" and so forth. A brief consultation of these items pulled at random from "the planning page" of Karl Rove's daytimer will establish this:

August 2006

Announce thwarting of major terrorist plot in Europe
Renew warranty on President's chain-saw equipment in Crawford
Prepare for major Presidential announcement on Middle East peace

September 2006

9-11 9-11 9-11 9-11 9-11 9-11 9-11 9-11 9-11
Prepare drafts of latest talking points re: Democrats weak on terror
Release of videotape from Al-Zawahiri promising jihad against West

October 2006

9-11 9-11 9-11
Release of videotape from bin Laden promising jihad against West
Buy Halloween costumes for Jenna and Not-Jenna
Call Diebold, to make sure "everything's working"

November 2006

Call, visit Diebold (to make sure "everything's working")

December 2006

Buy CHRISTmas presents for Bob Luskin, Bill O'Reilly, Barb Bush

Rest assured, most of this stuff will happen regardless of other events and how they play out.

Comments (1)

August 10, 2006, London Stalling

The United States Department of Homeland Security went to its vaunted (and long-awaited) "red alert" for the first time after British authorities thwarted a plot to blow up a number of U.S. bound airliners using liquid explosives, apparently intended for Heathrow based flights on American, United and Continental Airliens. The red alert applies to certain U.S. bound flights. Air traffic on both sides of the pond, especially London's Heathrow, slowed down to permit additional security measures, including a virtual ban on all carry on items (save insulin and baby formula).

American authorities seemed quite willing to jump to the conclusion that the plot was of al Qaeda origins, while the British, who made nearly 2 dozen arrests, were more cautious, intimating that the plot might be more "home grown" (like last year's July 7th attacks on the London Underground.)

Obviously, there are at least two, and possibly three conclusions that can be drawn from this. The first, of course, is that Islamist extremist terrorism is here to stay, and we should remain ever vigilant against it. The second conclusion is that Britain apparently thwarted the plot through use of normal police and intelligence methods, and not through the use of police state measures or special "war powers" (however much its leaders-- and ours, of course, may have wanted them and may now insist that they need them.)

The third (bonus) conclusion is that our (and Britain's) foreign policy and policies associated with "the war on terror" have not, will not, and can not, eliminate the threat of terrorist violence against the West, even specifically Islamist terror. As a matter of induction, it is certainly not implausible to believe that our foreign policy actions in that regard may well inspire certain individuals who were not already "terrorists" to take up against us; this is not, of course, in any way denying our need to defend ourselves. I am simply suggesting that our foreign policy has fluid results, and acting irresponsibly in that area just may well be worse than not acting at all (if all we succeed in doing is generating more new terrorists than we are able to thwart with our own counter-jihad.)

In any event, kudos to Britain's police and security services for thwarting what could have been an extraordinary tragedy, on so many levels.

Comments (8)

August 8, 2006, TD Blog Interview with Erik Saar

As a sergeant in the United States Army, Erik Saar served as an Arabic linguist at the American detention facility located at the naval air station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, assisting in both interrogations and in routine translations between guards and detainees. He is the author (with Viveca Novak) of
"Inside the Wire: A Military Intelligence Soldier's Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantanamo". Mr. Saar now works as an analyst in the counter-terrorism field in the private sector. On August 2, 2006, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Saar by telephone. What follows are my interview notes, corrected as appropriate by Mr. Saar.      
The Talking Dog: My customary first question is "where were you on 9-11"?  In my case, the answer was in my office, across the street from the WTC; we know from your book that you were on an army base in Arizona.  If you would, can you expand on the explanation you gave in the book, and tell us the significance to you of having decided to be serving in the United States Army on that date, including, if you think relevant, the reactions of others you were serving with at the time, your family and friends?         
Erik Saar: When I enlisted, I chose to study Arabic because I was passionate about and was interested in the Middle East. It was a change for me-- my undergraduate major was in marketing. I thought it would be a region of great importance to the nation in the future. When I enlisted in 1998, certainly there was already substantial activity in the region. On September 11th, I and others in the linguists service and in the intelligence community knew our lives would be different.     
It certainly changed my life professionally. Obviously the importance of having learned Arabic was magnified. As to the reactions of my friends and family, people were certainly concerned that as an Arabic linguist, I could be deployed just about anywhere. People were asking questions about the threat posed by Islamist terrorist and others. I realized that my life was changing. A lot of people had different reactions from 9-11, of course-- anger, sadness, bitterness. I too experienced all of those emotions but in a way I also felt proud that I had a skill to contribute to the defense of this country.     
The Talking DogYou, of course, were trained as an Arabic linguist, by the Army, and had an interest in intelligence matters.  Besides your service at Guantanamo, had you had occasion to use your Arabic skills in the remainder of your Army service (and if the answer is classified, obviously let me know)?  Your book noted a chronic shortage of Arabic language translators at Gitmo that frequently resulted in involuntary extensions of soldiers' and translators' time there; did this condition improve during the course of your Army career, and if you know, was this situation more pervasive than at Guantanamo, and (as a bonus question!), do you have any idea what proportion (without disclosing anything classified!) of the military's "Arabic linguistic capacity" was devoted to the Gitmo operation?       
Erik Saar: When I left Guantanamo in June of 2003, I had a year left on my army enlistment. I spent that time assigned to the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland. Army wide, there was certainly a shortage of linguists.     
The Army's traditional way of training linguists is principally to read and to listen; the 63-week class is excellent, but its emphasis is on reading and listening with speaking and conversation secondary. Linguists' skills in these areas improve dramatically once deployed in the theater quite rapidly, but there has been a good deal of frustration that Army linguists, for example, usually couldn't go right up to a village leader or sheikh and immediately engage in conversation, because their skills are not up to that level just out of language school. To some extent, the Army has adjusted to this by hiring civilian contractors.     
During my last year, there was a stop-loss in effect for certain professions-- linguists among them, along with intel analysts and other job specialties - meaning that even when the enlistment was up, one couldn't leave the service. There were also entire units to which stop loss orders applied. The stop-loss was in effect before I left for Guantanamo; it was off by the time I left-- apparently, the Army caught up with its need for linguists.    
The Talking DogYou've suggested that Guantanamo is and was an intelligence failure, as you believe that little intelligence of any value arose from the interrogations.  Besides your personal knowledge, you've suggested this was "general knowledge" at Guantanamo... do you have any further basis to make this statement? You've suggested that at most a few dozen out of the then 600 and now around 500 detainees at Guantanamo were actual terrorists; what is the basis for your concluding that?    
Erik Saar: I have said-- for example, in my "60-Minutes interview"-- that I believed only a few dozen detainees were "hardened terrorists". However, I was told by our leadership, as were the Aamerican people, of course, that Guantanamo was to hold "the worst of the worst". In my view, hardened terrorists attended terrorist training facilities and training camps, and had the intention and capability of committing direct attacks against western targets. So defined, the number of such people at Guantanamo was at most a few dozen. Other detainees may certainly have attended a camp. Others were certainly "on a battlefield" for various reasons. However these are not, to my mind, "hardened terrorists", or “the worst of the worst.” There may be very good reasons to detain such individuals but my point is that American soldiers and the American people were misled. Gitmo did not hold the “worst of the worst.” Any member of the intelligence community could confirm that and tell you the “worst of the worst” are elsewhere.     
I anticipated this to be a bigger issue when I wrote the book-- I thought I would often be hammered on this point because I couldn't "prove" it. But I tend not to get that many questions about this-- perhaps because a whole variety of other sources have confirmed the same point... indeed, other government agencies have come out with similar accounts.    
I noted that around a year ago, the Pentagon itself released a report that tried to refute the point that Gitmo had been, if not an outright intelligence failure, at least not the source of very much useful intelligence. When I read the report, it seemed to indicate that a whole lot of valuable intelligence was coming from Guantanamo. Yet what the reader doesn't know is that this intelligence could have come from 20 different people or fewer, and been pieced together, or could have come from a very tiny number of people among the hundreds detained.    
Intelligence has to be placed in the context within which it is collected. In my view, when measured against the damage Guantanamo has done to to our international reputation that Guantanamo has caused-- we should ask ourselves if the "intelligence" (if any) we have acquired will be worth it if it creates new terrorists. I stand by my argument that in the greater war against terrorism, the "best stuff" isn't coming from Gitmo-- and never has. And it was to acquire that supposedly critical intelligence that served as the justification for the existence and manner of operation of Guantanamo in the first place.    
The Talking Dog: Let me follow up that thought, and ask if you can tell me the significance of "SERE", to wit the military acronym for "survive, elude, resist, escape", or the training given by branches of the military to personnel likely to be captured and interrogated... I noted that at least one of the attorneys I interviewed, and a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer
have suggested that some in the military have tried to "reverse engineer" SERE techniques by trying them out at Guantanamo... can you comment on that?
Erik Saar: I've never attended SERE school. I probably wasn't all that aware of SERE and related activities while I was at Guantanamo so much as after I left. As such, what I'll tell you is in the nature of my instinct and opinion-- really a hunch I have. My hunch is that the answer is yes-- SERE school techniques, especially the fear-up and humiliation techniques, were being used by Guantanamo interrogators. This month's issue of Esquire magazine
an article on "the confessions of interrogator" . The interrogator in that article uses these techniques. I would say that anyone who knows anyone who has been to SERE school would recognize the SERE techniques, and as such, it looks like these techniques were applied at Guantanamo.    
The Talking Dog: Let me follow up that by asking you about "BSCT's" (or "biscuits"), the military acronym for Behavioral Science Consultation Teams, where it has been alleged that certain psychologists and doctors may have used knowledge of detainees fears (or, it is alleged in some cases, medical conditions) against them... what is your knowledge of BSCTs at Guantanamo?    
Erik Saar: I knew that BSCTs existed, but I did not put detail about this in the book. BSCTs probably were involved in helping interrogators develop interrogation plans. I can't comment on how they set up interrogation booths, but certainly, interrogators had to prepare written interrogation plans. They certainly did so between January and June of 2003, when I was there. But things didn't always go according to plan... when interrogation took place, there was a detainee, a linguist and an interrogator; there was a room with no tape recorder, usually. What happened in the interrogation room doesn't always follow the plan. Interrogators were encouraged to be creative-- to use "unique approaches". Interrogators were given great latitude, and this latitude... often resulted in some of the situations described in the book.    
The Talking Dog: Let me ask you about your training in the Army Field Manual 34-52 on interrogations, which I understand contains limitations consistent with the Geneva Conventions...    
Erik Saar: Let me stop you there, because this is a critical point that isn't discussed much. I was NEVER trained in the Army Field Manual on interrogations. Indeed, no Army linguists as far as I know were trained in interrogations. Linguists were ordered NOT to question what they saw. Military interrogators and linguists were supposed to "balance" each other. Of course, linguists had a conflict. This was especially so among civilian contractors, who would frequently tell interrogators that what they were doing was outside the custom and norm of the culture of the detainee, and hence, likely to be counter-productive.    
Training is a critical factor-- training is everything in the service; we do nothing unless we are trained to do it first. We were, of course, lectured as I described in the book that we had "detainees" who were not POWs because they didn't wear uniforms and other legal explanations given and as such interrogators didn't have to comply with Geneva Conventions. BUT-- interrogators had been trained one way-- don't EVER violate the Geneva Conventions. Indeed, I recall one incident where an interrogation trainee made a joke during interrogation school about "now we go to the electric shock"-- he was almost thrown out of interrogation school just for joking like that.

The drill was all Geneva all the time, BECAUSE INTERROGATION IS AND CAN BE MOST EFFECTIVE WITHIN THOSE LIMITS. At Guantanamo, of course, the constraints were "relaxed" by various orders, but the interrogators had never been trained in the new methods.    
When I had the Power Point presentation telling us Geneva didn't have to apply, I left, not particularly outraged, but kind of confused. My thinking was a process-- when I left that meeting, my thought was-- this is contrary to Army practice-- we are not TRAINED for this... how can we use techniques that we are NOT TRAINED IN and how do we know this is effective?... Its not just the interrogation methods themselves that are contrary to every aspect of Army practice-- but using improvised, untested techniques that interrogators were not trained in, regardless of what they were-- is contrary to procedure as we were drilled.    
The Talking DogYou've suggested that it was conveyed to you that the detainees might try to manipulate you in the course of your translating for them; do you believe that happened?  To the extent you can, and if appropriate, without naming names... were there any detainees that particularly stand out in your mind as individuals, and what can you tell us about them?      
Erik Saar: Was I manipulated? No, I don't think I was, but that's probably what everybody says! Let me say that I had no decision making authority- I couldn't, for example, help anyone make a case of their own innocence or guilt. And for most purposes, this was irrelevant from where I stood.    
Yes, certainly detainees tried to "use" linguists, in two main ways. One was befriending linguists by being extra nice in the hope of getting the linguist to be an advocate. The other especially applied to Moslem linguists, by trying to make them feel guilty, as if they were traitors for contributing to the mistreatment of other Moslems. It had an effect. I'm not sure what benefit it had for the detainees... but being a linguist was a hard job-- a very difficult job, and probably more so for the Moslem linguists.    
As to the detainees... one detainee had a very compelling story. He was a Saudi described in the book. We talked outside the interrogation booth; he conveyed a long story. He told me that he knew nothing and did nothing; he said he never hated our country, but that he believed we stood for justice and liberty, but how can he any longer reconcile that with what we are doing to him and others?    
It didn't manipulate me, but it left an impression. Yes, he certainly might be lying... but what if he wasn't? What are we doing? That was the impression. He planted seeds in the nature of "what if what he says is true?" Yes, at some level, all of this is part of war-- even mistakes get made. But on the whole, it contributes to the whole sense that Gitmo is not worth it... especially when considering what it has done to our reputation and our ability to effectively prosecute the war on terror.    
The Talking Dog: Let me follow up on that reputation point... can you elaborate on that, and specifically, I take it you are referring to the unfortunate international reputation Guanatanamo Bay has earned, particularly in the Moslem world?      
Erik Saar: In criticizing my book, the Pentagon at times has argued that I am just a junior soldier, not privy to "the big picture".  But the Army trained me to be an Arabic linguist, and in doing so, I learned a fair amount about Arabic culture and context. I still work in the area of counter-terrorism research. As such, I am constantly reviewing what the jihadists are saying-- and Gitmo is in their verbiage every day-- they are constantly using it to try to prove their point... We may not believe this, but most Moslems now fully BELIEVE that we are hypocrites. How can we say that we stand for freedom, liberty, democracy, the rule of law... when we operate a place like Guantanamo which has become a stain on our democracy? It stands as a shining example of the worst impression we can make.   
The Talking Dog: Let me follow up on that "junior NCO"
point. In your book, you've described a "Potemkin Village" situation when, for example, visiting flag officers, government officials, Congressmen or other VIPs would come to Guantanamo, whereby "successful" interrogations with previously cooperative prisoners would be more or less re-staged for the VIPs benefit.  How many of these situations did you observe, did you participate as a translator in any of them, and did you ever complain to your military superiors about it?  And again, how do you respond to the Pentagon's counter-comment that you were just a junior linguist, and that the decisions of who and how to conduct interrogations were above your pay-grade, and other attempts to challenge your observations?
Erik Saar:  There is no question that I was a junior NCO-- and on policy issues surrounding intel gathering, there is certainly some validity to arguing that I was not in the inner circle. However, the argument is substantially undermined simply because I had access to every single detainee file. Guantanamo is, and was, a small community. One understands the impressions. One talks to interrogators, and comes away with a pretty good understanding of what is happening.  
Did I complain to superiors about this? No, I didn't. Did I participate in these staged interrogations? Not me personally, but my friends did, and I happened to be on the classified e-mail list on which were sent instructions that described how to handle VIP visits!  
What's interesting is that, just as the question above got little interest, this area has gotten immense interest, and yet I didn't anticipate it being a big deal! I thought that everyone involved-- especially the VIPs-- would have figured out the whole thing was staged! I mean, how could one not know they were being duped? Interrogations at 2 in the afternoon, when everything went perfectly?  
You just can't convince me that the people involved didn't know they were being duped. Now, why didn't a single one say-- I see the schedule has a 2:30 A.M. interrogation-- I'd like to see that? And yet-- no one did. Instead, six people sat in an air conditioned observation room around while a detainee and an interrogator eat McDonalds together creating this false impression that everything was great...  
They should have known it was all B.S.-- that it was all a big show.  
The TalkingDog: OK, let me use that a segue into a question I wanted to ask later, but I think applies to this. And that is my supposition that the higher ups simply didn't care whether they got any useful intelligence, i.e., they knew they by and large had people with no connection to Al Qaeda, but simply wanted to "look tough" for political or other "non-military" reasons?   
Erik Saar: I thought that was a most interesting question, and no one has asked me that question in quite that way. One part of me wants to answer "Maybe". But my answer is I don't think so, and here's why. To the point of complete ignorance, a lot of our leaders thought that Guantanamo was full of bad people-- actual terrorists, all with useful intelligence if we could get it out of them.  
The initial process of how detainees got to Guantanamo was what was most flawed. The mistakes just unfolded and compounded from there.  
The Talking Dog: And, of course, no one would admit that any mistakes were made...  
Erik Saar: No, and that's critically important. I spoke with someone who was an officer involved from the get-go in setting up the base for detentions. He certainly had a belief that we needed a place to send the worst people around, and that Guantanamo was that place and the people we were sending were the worst. The original concept was an effort-- or at least a belief--that the people sent to Gitmo only were hardened al Qaeda members. However I believe there both practical and political reasons that detainees often left Afghanistan and found themselves in Guantanamo’s legal black hole. Eventually detainees were sent so rapidly that who was who in an intelligence sense became hopelessly convoluted.  
Even if you put aside any moral problems with the possibility of detaining men who shouldn't be there, you're left with a hopeless problem of how can I-- a junior NCO-- figure out who is who? Some of these guys were trained terrorists; others were sheep herders in the wrong place. You're putting junior soldiers in a position of trying to sort this out, and you are asking for a disaster.  
The Talking dog: Well, it's 2006. Would you concur that by now, it's pretty clear that the only reason we are maintaining Gitmo to this point is a political one?  
Erik Saar: I think there are definitely political reasons for why more changes haven’t been made and why the camp still exists. There has to be a better option.  
The Talking Dog: Were you present as a translator during visits by the International Committee for the Red Cross?  You've said that certain prisoners whose heads and eyebrows were shaved were hidden from the Red Cross... how do you know this?  Are you aware of other prisoners hidden from the Red Cross?  Am I correct that you were under standing orders not to talk to the Red Cross?   
Erik Saar:  As to the Red Cross, we were certainly under standing orders not to talk to them. I certainly saw Red Cross personnel around the base. There was a period during early 2003 when the Red Cross trailer was empty-- no one was there! I must say, the base superiors said that they preferred it that way! I saw the Red Cross personnel go to where the detainees were held. 
As to the moving of detainees whose heads and eyebrows were shaved, I knew this because there was a list posted of the locations of detainees, as well as where Red Cross personnel were, and I knew from the guards where the Red Cross was going at a given time. Also, friends of mine were responsible for overall intelligence matters interally for the base, and they would explain this (hiding of prisoners, if you will) to me. 
The Talking Dog: As we're running out of time, before I ask you my all-purpose follow-up of telling me anything I should have asked you but didn't or that otherwise readers need to know, let me jump to one of the subjects I think you are invariably asked about, that being the interrogation you translated where a female translator attempted to break down a Saudi prisoner by pretending to smear his face with menstrual blood (which was actually ink), and preventing him from washing to ritually cleanse himself.  Let me ask the question this way: were there other interrogation methods that you observed that you consider abusive that you can talk about?   
Erik Saar: There are no other methods that come to mind as such... and I can talk about these. So, no, there are no other methods I would describe as what I would find offensive. Let me say it this way: different people have different sensitivities and sensibilities. My own views were formed by many factors. For example, I understand how some people might find chair throwing and screaming obscenities to be distasteful... but there may be a place for it. As to the "unorthodox" interrogation methods, (such as the disrespect of detainees' religion and the interrogation you described), let's just say that I have never-- NEVER-- seen these things actually work and would argue they are entirely inconsistent with the values soldiers are supposed to defend. 
Indeed, my knowledge of Arab culture tells me that these methods will NOT work. This is entirely separate from the moral argument that these methods are just intrinsically wrong-- let me say that if we are willing to go there-- if intimidation, fear, humiliation are to be used-- if we are to take ourselves to that level-- there damned well better be good intelligence resulting from havintg paid this price. But there isn't. And just being "creative" in a laboratory of testing new interrogation methods is NOT THE SETTING FOR IT. 
The Talking Dog: Not to mention a probable violation of Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.         
Erik Saar: Well, on that note, this hasn't been brought out, but let me say this: it hasn't been clarified in light of what the Supreme Court just ruled in the Hamdan case. What does this mean? What does it mean for junior soldiers-- like myself-- who may have been ordered to violate international law? How can you not look at what the Supreme Court just held, and separate it from the ultimate-- THE ULTIMATE-- failure of leadership. 
Let's look at Lynndie England. Should she have understood that she was receiving illegal orders? Certainly. Should she be punished? Sure-- but
11 years in prison seems excessive-- especially when only lower level soldiers are paying the price. A military organization's good order and discipline requires that soldiers follow their orders-- you cannot run an army if orders are routinely questioned. But... 
Since leaving Guantanamo I have discussed this with JAG officers... I asked "does this mean we all violated international law?" Needless to say, they couldn't give me a response! 
What would have happened if a junior soldier-- an interrogator or a translator, or both-- said "I'm sorry, sir, this order violates international law and I will not comply"? Best case their career would have been over. Worst case they would have faced discipline, if not outright court-martial and jail. Yes, they would have just been vindicated by the Supreme Court, but... who would do it? 
I WISH someone would have done it. They'd be justified now. But all along the way, no E-3, E-4 or E-5 should be deciding this. Culpability for this goes all the way up the chain of command... 
The Talking Dog: Would you say up to and including (if not
especially) the commander in chief?
Erik Saar: Absolutely. All the way up to the commander in chief. He forced people to break the law. And it wasn't necessary. Junior people have been hung out to dry, and at the end of the day, what has been gained from it? 
The Talking Dog:  Would you like that to be the last word?          
Erik Saar: Yes, let that be the last word. 
The Talking Dog: On behalf of myself and my readers, let me thank you for that candid and powerful interview.  

Readers interested in legal issues and related matters associated with the "war on terror" may also find talking dog blog interviews with attorneys Michael Ratner, Thomas Wilner, Jonathan Hafetz, Joshua Denbeaux, Rick Wilson,
Neal Katyal, Joshua Colangelo Bryan, Baher Azmy, and Joshua Dratel (representing Guantanamo detainees and others held in "the war on terror"), with attorneys Donna Newman and Andrew Patel (representing "unlawful combatant" Jose Padilila), with Dr. David Nicholl, who spearheaded an effort among international physicians protesting force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, with law professor and former Clinton Administration Ambassador-at-large for war crimes matters David Scheffer, with former Guantanamo detainee Shafiq Rasul , with law professor and former Army J.A.G. officer Jeffrey Addicott, and with law professor and Coast Guard officer Glenn Sulmasy to be of interest.

Comments (3)

August 6, 2006, When they stand up, we'll stand down... or something

The Grey Lady treats us to this discussion of increasing violence in Baghdad , where it appears that a reduction in American operations has been followed by an increase in violence. Why? Draw your own conclusions.

The correlation of these events seems clear enough for American commanders to double the American presence in the capital city from around 7,000 American troops to around 14,000 for what is described as a city of 7,000,000; I should note that I had previously seen Baghdad's population described as around 5,000,000. (That alone should tell you something-- our occupation levels in Germany, for example, were closer to 1:100; in Baghdad, we have increased from 1:1,000 to 1:500... and there is no question that "the mission" is one of occupation.)

In any event, the article does not paint a pretty picture of what is happening in Baghdad (most people won't leave their own neighborhoods; shops close at 2 pm, if they open at all, Moqtada "Baby" Sadr's Mahdi Army is patrolling the streets, etc.). Still, American commanders laud the competence and professionalism of Iraqi military and police, and note that they are simply overwhelmed by the level of violence.

Hmmm... Iraqis, we are told, have developed a fear of anyone in uniform, as sectarian militias frequently masquerade as the regular army (or worse, are regular army hours during business hours), while moonlighting as death squads.

American generals, meanwhile, note that the sectarian violence is getting worse, some contend the situation is devolving rapidly into a civil war, while our President assures us we need to "stay the course," whatever course that is. Democrats, for their part, insist that "a timetable" will do the trick-- forcing the Iraqis to realize that they can't rely on us forever, so that they will have to "step up". (Both views are duly lambasted in a Grey Lady editorial today. )

Short answer: while we had no particularly compelling reason to destabilize Iraq in the first place, we have done it. As such, while we can (and should-- endlessly) criticize the flawed (and incompetent... and corrupt) decision-making process that got us in the Iraq mess in the first place, it doesn't actually help to get us out of the mess. The reality is that abruptly leaving would leave us with a large failed state in the center of the world's premier oil patch, with not all that much preventing a spillover of sectarian chaos into, say, the oil-rich areas of Saudi, which, to the extent they are populated, tend to be populated by put-upon Shiites, who might well want to play ball with Shiite irridentists of the kind now seemingly dominating Iraq (and obviously in control of Iran) and whose Hizbollah proxies in Lebanon are giving Israel quite a fight.

In short, "we broke it we bought it" isn't really just an expression: it's now an unfortunate expression of reality on the ground. And until such time as we are all willing to drive Hondas rather than Hummers (seemingly a mad statement to most Americans), then we will need-- as in the same way we need oxygen, food and water-- to keep oil freely flowing from the Middle East, and hence, we will need to continue bleeding blood and money so that those supertankers can keep coming. [Note that I said absolutely nothing about combatting terrorism, because, of course, combatting terrorism has never had anything to do with any of this.]

This is reality. Sorry. Unfortunately, reality has never been an easy sell politically, especially compared to simplistic sound-bites. I can't come up with simplistic ways of selling any of it, however. Anyone got any ideas? Cause I got nothin'.

Comments (4)

August 4, 2006, Same Shiite Different Day

And so it continues... the insane Israeli bombardment of Lebanon continues with attacks against Christian-dominated areas north of Beirut, following over 100 Hizbollah rockets fired into Israel (killing at least 8), and for good measure, a rather large protest against Israel and the United States took place in Baghdad.

I realize that not merely as an American Jew, but as an American, neither I, nor anyone, is to question the actions of Israel (or of course, the United States). But things have gone way too far now: the ordinarily savvy Israelis (say what you will, but up to now, their actions have always seemed to have a purpose) have begun behaving like the George W. Bush led United States-- acting as if inflicting violence on people steeped in a revenge based culture is somehow desirable in its own right. It's as if Ehud Olmert is trying to show the Israeli public that his pair is every bit as large as Sharon's (it's not, of course) just as George Dubya is trying to show us that his pair is every bit as large-- or larger-- than his Poppy's (and it's not, of course, either).

Strange as it may seem to us, there were rules to the game as played between Israel and Hezbollah. (There are less rigid rules governing the interaction between Israel and Hamas and Israel and other Palestinian terror groups, the reality is that Israel-- like the United States-- invariably negotiates with terrorists-- usually reaching deals when things have quieted down.) The fact is, the party that wildly escalated here was Israel, which didn't play the game as expected (i.e. bomb limited Hizbollah targets in southern Lebanon, and then quickly undertake negotiations.) Playing it this way had resulted in the successful defense of Israel for decades, by managing the scope of conflicts... there seemed no compelling reason to change it, other than either panic or a desire to implement some preexisting and unrealistic plan designed to magically destroy Hizbollah.

While Hizbollah might have read the immediate response (insane overkill) that Israel took against Gaza after the kidnapping of a soldier there by Hamas, Hizbollah also had a fair amount of experience on its own that it would be treated somewhat differently than Hamas (Hamas now somewhat hamstrung by actually being the de jure Palestinian government, whereas Hizbollah is only part of the Lebanese government, and frankly, autonomous and probably stronger than the Lebanese state.) Instead, Israel attacked Beirut, and the Lebanese state writ large.

And so here we are. Hundreds dead on both sides... the Israeli penchant for accepting civilian casualties but not military casualties continues, resulting in the current raining of Hizbollah rockets on northern Israel, with threatened strikes on Tel Aviv.

Secretary Rice, who only has her job in the first place because of her unfettered and unquestioning loyalty to the President, has proven as ineffective as we all feared she might should actual trouble emerge; this would be a really good time for someone with actual international credibility, like Colin Powell for example. But that's neither here nor there: the situation has been allowed (quite frankly, by an excessively long green light from Washington, where our own government also believed in the fantasy that Hizbollah could be taken out by a few days of air strikes) to spin way, way out of control, and so here we are. It is unclear how many hundreds more will die (on both sides) while the players ponder just who will occupy "the security zone" in northern Lebanon that the range of Hizbollah rockets seems to make less important in reality than in Israeli opinion.

The reality is that... reality bites. While intractable problems may look easily solved to four year old children... somehow, when we hand the reins over to those four year old children to try their hand at solving them... we get situations like we are in now... the intractable problems remain unsolved, only we add still further problems (which end up making the previous ones look somehow less troubling, if not even less daunting.) In the last five years, we've grown used to that sort of thing here, of course. That we now see that situation apparently applies to the usually savvy Israeli leadership as well is a change. And not a welcome one.

Comments (5)

August 2, 2006, Natural selection

The Grey Lady informs us that the voters from Kansas have thrown out the members of the State School Board who imparted "intelligent design" to the state's science curriculum.

It appears that the primary voters of Kansas (at least a majority of them) have reconsidered, and perhaps realized that condemning their public school children in this ever more competitive world to a science curriculum at odds with the best rational scientific evidence available was not, as a curriculum matter, "intelligent design". The new board wiill be primed to reverse Kansas's current foray into the arguably unconstitutionally theocratic.

It would probably be unconstitutional in a public school classroom to start the day reading from the hymnal of any Protestant denomination (or Catholic... or Jewish... or Islamic... or that of any other religion or sect). Regardless of the feelings of many people (and in some states, such people may well number a majority), this doesn't mean that in public schools, religious doctrine and dogma get to be taught as part of the regular curriculum. It appears that while "intelligent design" may have "validity" in a religious sense, it has little or none in a scientific sense.

This specific issue was already decided in the Dover case by a federal court in Pennsylvania (albeit a trial-level court): there is no practical difference between "intelligent design" and outright creationism for purposes of this constitutional determination. Both violate the First Amendment. Either represents an intrusion of religion into the public realm in violation of the doctrine of the separation of church and state. I'm not aware that Kansas's "intelligent design" curriculum was tested in court... but the result should have been the same if it was...

And we're at least one-- maybe two-- Supreme Court justices away from saying otherwise.

Comments (1)