Friday, June 30, 2006

The Fear of Fear Itself

One of the concepts that stood out to me from Nadezhda's insightful post on the major themes of Ron Suskind's latest effort is the effect that fear has had - and continues to have - on the decision making process in the upper echelons of the Bush administration.

Suskind describes how, quite understandably, fear dominated the Bush Admin's initial improvised responses to having 9/11 happen on their watch, explains why the dynamics of a fear-driven policy apparatus have become self-perpetuating, and shows how the failure to adjust strategy and decision-making is becoming increasingly dysfunctional.

Human beings, as part of a series of defense mechanisms that have developed through centuries of exposure to environmental exigencies, have predictable reactions to intense feelings of fear. This is true whether one is at the helm of the most powerful nation on the planet, or just a civilian ensconced in suburbia.

One such response to fear-inducing stimuli is to puff up one's chest and opt for a display of "strength" - or what passes for strength in these contexts. But all too often, strength is perceived, incorrectly, as the use of force, regardless of the consequences of the actions.

Another typical response, closely related to the first and often quite destructive when combined, is to lapse into a form of paranoia - becoming prone to lash out at even vaguely perceived threats in order to preemptively neutralize the possibility of suffering a repeat of the traumatic event that gave rise to the fear in the first place. Thus, fear can lead to a greater willingness to use force, against a wider array of potential targets - regardless of whether or not such decisions would be made if calmer, more rational deliberations were undertaken.

What makes these fear-based responses particularly seductive is that they seem to serve a purpose in and of themselves. The brandishing of force can create the illusion of control over the chaos, unleashed psychically, by the fear-inducing event. As Bill Clinton is reported to have quipped, when fear holds sway over the populace, people "will opt for strong but wrong, not weak but right." It is the actual perception of strength, even ephemeral, gained from wielding force that people crave during times of heightened anxiety. But this is, ultimately, deeply misguided and likely to lead to many counterproductive results.

As I have argued before, the actual "strength" of a given policy lies in the results achieved - the "ends" not the "means" employed. But when fear is exerting undue influence over the process, certain "means" can take on an exaggerated luster. As Nadezhda recounts, the Bush administration, if not already predisposed, was at least enticed down this perilous path [emphasis hers]:

Suskind stresses two closely-linked articles of faith [for Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al]. The belief in the overwhelming utility of force relative to other means of influence -- because force is the only thing "they" understand, whether "they" be Al Qaeda or Al Jazeera. And "the one-percent doctrine": a deeply ingrained commitment to action against "worst case scenarios" despite a lack of evidence that a scenario is becoming, yet alone likely to become, reality.

These predilections have affected, and continue to affect, many policies adopted as part of the ill-named "war on terror" - from the invasion of Iraq itself, the disproportional response to the killing of the Blackwater contractors in Fallujah and the negative response to diplomatic entreaties by Iran in the aftermath of the invasion on the one hand, to the use of torture and extraordinary rendition in the interrogation of prisoners on the other. But what makes these tendencies a particularly bad fit for the "war on terror" is that, while often times at least temporarily gratifying to the population on the homefront, they tend to have enormous, and long lasting negative consequences with respect to the target population.

I agree, in many respects, with Francis Fukuyama's description of the "war on terror" as a counter-insurgency effort. This is even less controversial to say when referencing our military's current plight in Iraq itself. Effective counter-insurgency strategies require, to quote Fukuyama, "a tricky mixture of precisely targeted force, political judgment and extremely good intelligence: a combination of carrots and sticks." That delicate balance required by that "tricky mixture" is not well-served by an over-reliance on force - especially when the use of force is further stripped of restraint by the "one-percent doctrine."

The result is that the overly forceful tactics employed have a tendency to alienate the target population in which the "insurgents" operate. This causes the insurgents' popularity to rise in inverse relation to our own - increasing the levels of logistical, tactical and financial support the insurgents receive, thus making them more potent, freer to act and capable of repeating the attacks that gave rise to the fearful response in the first place. In this context, shock and awe is the fools gold of strategic thinking.

One example of these counterproductive, overly muscular policies that Suskind flags in his book has to do with the efficacy of using torture during interrogation - with captured al-Qaeda operatives Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi and Abu Zubaydah. When al-Libi was captured:

...FBI fought CIA over what to do with him. The FBI sent agents to Afghanistan with experience in interrogating al Qaeda members linked to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, a process of surprising suspects, who were prepared for barbaric treatment from infidel captors, with favors in exchange for information. It had been a successful method; productive relationships were developed. [emph. added]

The FBI approach reminded me of the substance of an article appearing in The Atlantic about a year or so ago that I wrote about here. That article cited the work of Marine Major Sherwood F. Moran, whose scholarship in the field of interrogations is considered seminal. From that post:

Despite the human impulse to drift toward using violence, abuse, and torture as a preferred means of soliciting information from prisoners - what would be considered the "gloves off" or "strong" approach that many just instinctively assume is the most effective but taboo because of "quaint" moral concerns - Moran found that:

...despite the complexities and difficulties of dealing with an enemy from such a hostile and alien culture, some American interrogators consistently managed to extract useful information from prisoners. The successful interrogators all had one thing in common in the way they approached their subjects. They were nice to them. [...]

The brutality of the fighting in the Pacific and the suicidal fanaticism of the Japanese had created a general assumption that only the sternest measures would get Japanese prisoners to divulge anything. Moran countered that in his and others' experience, strong-arm tactics simply did not work. Stripping a prisoner of his dignity, treating him as a still-dangerous threat, forcing him to stand at attention and flanking him with guards throughout his interrogation - in other words, emphasizing that "we are his to-be-respected and august enemies and conquerors" - invariably backfired. It made the prisoner "so conscious of his present position and that he was a captured soldier vs. enemy intelligence" that it "played right into [the] hands" of those who were determined not to give away anything of military importance. [emphasis added]

Like some of the interrogators that Moran encountered, senior officials in the Bush administration bought into the same fallacies about the use of force in interrogations. Force, after all, was the "strong" approach. Suskind details the tug of war between the FBI and CIA over who would get to interrogate al-Libi under what methods:

The CIA - under pressure from the White House for immediate, actionable information - claimed there wasn't time for such a measured approach. The debate went up to Mueller [FBI] and Tenet [CIA], and Tenet - appealing directly to Bush and Cheney - prevailed. Al-Libi was bound and blindfolded for a trip to Cairo, where he'd be handed over to...Egypt's intelligence chief. On the tarmac in Afghanistan, an FBI agent would recall years later to Newsweek, "the CIA case officer goes up to him and says, 'You're going to Cairo, you know. Before you get there I'm going to find your mother and I'm going to f--- her.' So we lost that fight. [emphasis added]

Al-Libi produced some of the now infamous bogus intelligence on Iraq that the Bush administration was seeking. Torture made him talk, and he told us what we wanted to hear, but it wasn't the truth. The results were lacking.

The case is perhaps even better illustrated by the successes and failures in connection with the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah - a mentally ill, low level al-Qaeda travel coordinator who was initially misidentified by Bush in speeches immediately following his capture as a more important piece of the terrorist organization. From Suskind:

"I said he was important," Bush reportedly told Tenet at one of their daily meetings. "You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?" "No sir, Mr. President," Tenet replied.

So, in an effort to back up Bush's earlier boasts, and after Bush inquired as to the efficacy of the "harsh methods" used by interrogators, Tenet's CIA proceeded to employ those "aggressive interrogation" techniques including water-boarding, threats of imminent death, withholding medication, sleep depravation, etc. to a mentally unstable individual already physically weakened by the multiple gun shot wounds he suffered during his capture. From a Washington Post review of Suskind's book:

Under that duress, [Zubaydah] began to speak of plots of every variety — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to" And so, Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

None of those leads panned out - despite the "strong" approach taken during his interrogation. Nevertheless, actionable intelligence was eventually extracted from Zubaydah - but observe the method that finally yielded results:

Then there was a small break. A CIA interrogator...was skilled in the nuances of the Koran, and slipped under Zubaydah's skin. The al Qaeda operative believed in certain ideas of predestination - that things happen for reasons preordained. The interrogator worked this, pulling freely from the Koran. Zubaydah believed he had survived [his violent capture], when several of his colleagues were killed, for a purpose. He was convinced that that purpose, in the fullness of time, was to offer some cooperation to his captors, something a dead man couldn't do.

Zubaydah provided his interrogators with the name and whereabouts of Jose Padilla and none other than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - the planner of the 9/11 attacks itself. It was a major breakthrough. As Suskind notes:

On the issue of interrogation, Zubaydah represented a first test, with results that could now be reviewed. It seemed as though the FBI - and those inside the CIA advocating a gentler model of interrogation - might be right.

As Nadezhda warned in her post, the Bush administration has been slow to adapt and reluctant to change course from the tactics and strategies adopted early in the game. This has given the jihadist terrorists an advantage on the battlefield - they can discover and exploit our existing weaknesses and adjust to mitigate our strengths. Some of these weaknesses include the stunning degradation of our image in the eyes of the world as a result of the adoption of so many morally, legally and ethically dubious tactics that run counter to our core principles.

To remedy this, and regain the initiative, we must disabuse ourselves of the knee-jerk assumption that the application of more force - a greater show of shock and awe - will be the panacea to the highly complex and nuanced problems that we face in the "war on terror." We must rethink tactics that on the surface may look effective, but in reality have limited practical value and many hidden costs such as tarnishing our image and standing to such an extent that they severely undermine our overall efforts. Think of all we are ceding to our enemies, and all for policies of highly questionable value! Major Moran's advice to would-be interrogators can be applied across the board to our leaders in the war on terror:

Moran was saying that an interrogator who is genuinely tough has the confidence to know that he will always keep the upper hand, even while being nice. "Enlightened hard-boiled-ness," he called this attitude. And he concluded that "strange as it may seem to say so," the most important characteristic of a successful interrogator is not his experience or even his linguistic knowledge; it is "his own temperament" and "his own character."

Let us not lose sight of our own character and our own temperament. Without them, we will never win the fight.

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