Thursday, January 22, 2009

On War Against Terrorists, part 1

During the Revolutionary War, British General William Howe's men captured the American Nathan Hale spying on British fortifications. Hale is immortalized among Americans for his final words, "I only regret that I have but one life to give my country". Few people remember that Howe was originally inclined to let Hale live, being impressed with his manners and courage. However, some British officers contended that Hale had been involved, possibly a leader, in the burning of Manhattan in 1776 (while a member of Knowlton's Rangers) to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. While mulling this charge against Hale, Howe was also advised that Hale allegedly participated in sniper attacks as a member of Ethan Allen's "Green Mountain Boys". Howe chose to believe that Hale had been a sniper, which in his view was an illegal and cowardly act, and he forthwith ordered Hale's execution. This incident was representative of the time; Americans revered Hale, Allen, and Washington as heroes while the British regarded their style of warfare as cowardly and unacceptable behavior for civilized military officers.

Even the British, of course, nowadays consider Washington a legitimate hero, but context is essential in grasping the meaning of public debates. It was said that Alexander ordered the immediate execution of enemy archers captured in battle, as he considered it unmanly to kill only from a distance. Of course, this was also the general whose siege tactics included catapulting the corpses of animals killed by plague into cities they attacked. In ancient China, an archer was allowed to shoot at his opponent, but could not fire his second shot until his opponent, if able, returned fire himself. Custom varied in different places and times, but was firm where it was known.

The Aztecs had a strict rule against deliberately killing an enemy on the battlefield, which sounds magnanimous until you consider that they thought it wasteful, the deaths serving a much more useful purpose as human sacrifices in ceremony. And of course in more modern times, there are the distinctive combat styles of the Nazis and the Soviets – the Nazis would commonly accept surrender from a town’s leaders only if they personally executed a number of ‘undesirables’ (partisans or Jews, for example), to show their loyalty to the Reich and by the way seal their own complicity in murder, while the Soviets often broke families apart in contentious zones, raising the children as parentless wards of the State in order to keep them “clean” of their heritage and any tendency to avenge dead parents.

All of this seems to apologize for the character of the terrorist. In fact, however, when examined more closely it reveals just how false the “culture” of the global jihad truly is. The Aztecs were brutal, yet controlled in their selection of victims and manner of killing. On the other hand, as mighty an empire as Britain was in its heyday, the British were extremely scrupulous about protecting innocents – not because the innocents had “rights”, but because as they considered themselves a superior people the British restrained themselves. Yet culture after culture has learned that it cannot compel its enemies to abide by its protocols. The Aztecs could not force the Spaniards to fight as they did, nor could Rome make Hannibal fight by its rules. Ask the British about their war in Ireland, or the Soviets about the mujahadin. Or for that matter, why China is having so much trouble crushing Tibet? No plan to fight terrorism is going to be effective unless you understand your enemy’s plan, boundaries, and limits.

Boundaries and limits are two very different things. The short explanation is that boundaries are what you will not do, while limits set off what you cannot do. Nations and cultures which enjoy a sense of superiority are likely to establish ethical boundaries which subversive groups do not use. It is an unresolved debate whether such boundaries are helpful or a liability in the war, the decision must be considered case by case but for here it is important to recognize that this difference exists in most asymmetrical conflicts.

For the civilized world (for here, we may simply say those nations which generally cooperate with the United States in security matters and which generally work to prevent terrorist operations in their territory or using their resources), winning against terrorists includes the identification of their limits – determining then implementing what would cripple their operational ability. Essentially this means attacking the three legs of recruiting, logistics, and communication of terrorist groups. The chief focus of the Bush Administration war in the Middle East employed these objectives to good result. Regardless of policy, the Obama Administration has both the resources and personnel to continue this focus effectively in a number of different ways.

The greatest threat from any terrorist group is the wide range of targets, methods, and tools it may use. The first attempt against the World trade Center in 1993 used a truck bomb, but in 2001 very different tactics were used. We are soberly reminded of the IRA taunt after an attempt on the Royal Family that evil men ‘only need to be lucky once’. No matter how Obama is seen by the world, it is certain that terrorists will attack the United States again as soon as they are able, and likely personally attack Obama as well.

Every President is a high-profile target, and the celebrity image of Barack Obama is certainly not masking his profile. This is not to say that things would be different for anyone else in the office, but that there is a clear and significant personal risk for Obama regardless of his policy or strategy choice. If by some chance that was not enough to lock his focus on the problem, President Obama should consider that his wife and daughters are also high-profile targets, especially to terrorists who consider Americans weak for valuing women as equal to men. The naïve idea that if we retreat that our enemies will leave us alone, is quickly dispelled by even a brief look at the history of terrorism, from the Black Hand in the 19th Century, to the various incarnations of Socialist radical groups in the 20th Century, to the Jihadist movements of the 21st Century.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Beginner

I try to be fair when discussing a new President. The fact is, I have not had one in my lifetime that really got me enthused at first. It may seem strange, since I am such a supporter now, but the main reason I was supporting W in 2001, was because he was not Al Gore. I despised Bill Clinton when he first took office, only raising my opinion of him after a few worthy accomplishments. Reagan won me over quickly, but even there at first I did not know what to expect from him, whether he would deliver on his promises. I saw Carter for the charlatan he was as soon as he decided to run. I liked Ford as a person (who didn’t?), but was never excited about him as President. And so on.

But in every case, there were at least clear indicators of how the man would lead. W Bush, Clinton, Reagan and Carter had been governors. The elder Bush had been in government service for many years, as had Ford and Nixon and Johnson. The only guy who was clueless in office at the start was Kennedy.

Oh yes, the “Camelot” President. In some ways, this is hopeful for President Obama. Kennedy pushed hard for Civil Rights, he pushed significant income tax cuts, and JFK was the muse for the moon missions. On the other hand, Kennedy badly bungled the Bay of Pigs crisis, his response to a steel strike was to all but nationalize the industry, and in general Kennedy’s term was a mix of going along with Congress’ policies-in-place, and getting the US deeply involved in Vietnam, although it took LBJ to really lock us there. Barack Obama is like John Kennedy in that he is a man of image far more than substance, that he lacks the political pull to compel Congress to give up its lust for spending, especially earmarks. Even if Obama means well, it is difficult to imagine him overcoming an entrenched DC machine and the Machiavellian workings of his own party.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Rest of Racism

The elites have their day. The media, Hollywood, and a certain demographic subset of the nation are rejoicing in the inauguration of Barack Obama. Certainly the historic nature of swearing in the first black President of the United States is evident, although its been more than slightly overdone in its impact. That was made evident to me earlier this year by my wife.

My wife happens to be Chinese, from HK actually but close enough to the mainland to resent the hell out of the idea that only blacks suffered from racism. Long after blacks gained their freedom, Chinese were routinely treated like slaves, and some of the most obscene hate crimes in history were committed against Asians. In his book “The Seven States of California”, Philip Fradkin quotes a historian who said that the Los Angeles massacre of Chinese on October 24, 1871 was “probably the biggest mass lynching in the history of California, if not the whole country.” (pg 369). In 1880, the Chinese living in the mining town of Hop Alley outside Denver were driven from town, and dozens of Chinese were murdered. The exact number is unknown because the bodies were dismembered and denied proper burial. Riots against Chinese, mass lynchings, and the burnings of their communities for no offense beyond being there were common in the United States for more than eighty years.

There has never been a formal apology from the United States government, or from any of the state or local governments concerned, for the murder of hundreds if not thousands of Chinese on American soil. Before 1917, Chinese were not even commonly recorded in census records and were generally denied the opportunity to become citizens under any conditions, even when they were born in the United States. I should not have to even mention the treatment of law-abiding American citizens of Japanese genealogy during World War 2.

This does not mean that Asians alone suffered. Historian Ken Gonzales-Day noted that American Indians and Latinos, along with Chinese, were regularly subjected to brutal treatment, and were victims of lynchings far more often than were blacks (Lynching in the West, 1850-1935, pg 27).

This is not to diminish the suffering of blacks in America, but to note the hypocrisy in the spotlight given only to that race when discussing race issues. When prominent activist groups want a discussion on race, the designated leaders are always black, and the issues always focus on their race first and foremost. Blacks are assured quota minimums in government money, jobs, school placement, and even government representation (recall the demand by Democrats that Obama’s replacement must be a black man or woman), at a time when no such privileges are extended to other races, and in the case of Asians a ceiling seems to be imposed to keep ‘too many’ of them from attending top schools. Simply put, for more than a generation there has been a strong push to advance black Americans, while ignoring other minorities who have suffered just as much, and in some cases personally worse, than blacks.

Barack Obama was not elected because he was the best-qualified candidate. He won because Americans wanted change, because he was able to win the job, and because as a black he had political capital that better-qualified opponents in his party could not access. In itself, this is no sin; many people have won office in the past under similar circumstances. But given the many claims that Obama somehow represents a victory over Racism, that America by his office has moved beyond the days where it should address its past, the disparity in how different races are treated, especially the preference granted blacks in almost all things, proves a different, a more insidious, form of racism still thrives in America.

Racism is not defeated by putting someone of the “right” color into power. It is not over when one group supplants another. It is not even finished by punishing a selected demographic, or by assuring advancement by skin color. It can only be ended when the character of the individual and the skill of his or her mind and work determine the treatment. Until then, for all his eloquence and grandeur, President Obama’s attention to Racism is no more than a new chapter in an old con game. But he’s not fooling everyone he believes are fooled.

Monday, January 19, 2009


I just heard I have to go back in for more medical 'consultation'.

The networks continue to compare Barack Obama to heroes both historic (Lincoln) and current (Sullenberger) on no basis other than being successful and black.

My dogs ate another sweater.

My Bears fell out of the AP Top 25.

My intention to produce a brilliant essay was pre-empted by meetings and lawyer discussions.

Yep, its Monday.