Archive for the ‘Middle East’ category

David Brooks Is Always Wrong, Part (n)* — Numbers and Horrors Edition

August 30, 2013

Despite its many flaws,The New York Times is an indispensible institution right now, producing more and better actual journalism than any other major American media outlet. Setting aside the low-bar-snark, though, its ongoing willingness to offer David Brooks a platform is a running chancre that infects every hard-won story from the real reporters whose beat has the ill-fortune to attract BoBo’s fancy that day.

That’s true even when he arrives at something of a defensible argument, because to get there, he pays his way in counterfeit intellectual coin.

PFA69874

See, for example, today’s dog’s breakfast of an attempt to go all big-think-wise-man on “the biggest threat to world peace right now.”

That would be his attempt to frame the situation on the ground now in Syria as an example of the great war of Sunni versus Shiite.  As he works his way through to a (to me) surprisingly modest end, Brooks displays several of the tropes that make his work such an embarrassment to anyone who actually cares about either journalism or honorable argument.

Let’s go to the videotape.**

First up, there’s an old Brooks standby:  useful innumeracy in support of a claim intended to raise stakes beyond the facts on the ground:

As the death toll in Syria rises to Rwanda-like proportions…

Bullshit.

What’s going on in Syria is awful. Horrible. Wretched. Vicious.  Supply your own adjectives.

That doesn’t mean it is comparable to what occurred in Rwanda.  In the genocide there, between 500,000 and a million Rwandan civilians  were slaughtered, accounting for up to 10% of the population as a whole. The best current estimates of the toll of the Syrian civil war place the number of dead at a still-horrific 100,000 or so – less than 0.5% of Syria’s approximately 22 million inhabitants.

In raw numbers and — to focus on Brooks own term — as a proportion of the affected population, the two disasters are not equivalent.

God_the_Geometer

I’m not suggesting, of course, that Syria is anything less than an utter humanitarian disaster and tragedy.  But holding on to the problem of Brooks here, look at what his rhetoric is doing:  calling something a genocide or its equivalent raises the moral and international-legal stakes for action by a lot.  Such claims need to be earned, not (as so often with this source) simply and wrongly asserted.

Onwards.  Brooks has a long-standing difficulty untangling cause and correlation, not to mention his long dance with the dread might/must fallacy:

Meanwhile, the strife appears to be spreading. Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq is spiking upward. Reports in The Times and elsewhere have said that many Iraqis fear their country is sliding back to the worst of the chaos experienced in the last decade. Even Turkey, Pakistan, Bahrain and Kuwait could be infected.

Some of the difficulty here isn’t simply a failure of causal argument.  Brooks is perfectly capable of making sh*t up.  Despite his claim that the current battles in Syria are causing violence in Iraq, Sunni-Shiite conflict is, as most of us with a functioning nervous system may recall, hardly a recent phenomenon. Consider just this cursory timeline, courtesy of the BBC:

2011 April – Army raids camp of Iranian exiles, killing 34. Government says it will shut Camp Ashraf, home to thousands of members of the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran.

2011 August – Violence escalates, with more than 40 apparently co-ordinated nationwide attacks in one day.

US pull out

2011 December – US completes troop pull-out.

Unity government faces disarray. Arrest warrant issued for vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi, a leading Sunni politician. Sunni bloc boycotts parliament and cabinet.

2012 – Bomb and gun attacks target Shia areas throughout the year, sparking fears of a new sectarian conflict. Nearly 200 people are killed in January, more than 160 in June, 113 in a single day in July, more than 70 people in August, about 62 in attacks nationwide in September, and at least 35 before and during the Shia mourning month of Muharram in November.

Nearly 200 people are killed in bombings targeting Shia Muslims in the immediate wake of the US withdrawal….

And so on.  But Brooks isn’t merely wrong as a matter of fact.  Rather, these facts point to the deeper problem, one that has crippled his (and many others’) arguments for American action in far off places.  That is:  the suggestion that Syrian events are driving Iraqi conflict includes a crucial unstated assumption:  that Iraq’s own problems, fractures, circumstances and history are irrelevant.

You get this a lot amongst grand strategy or Great Game thumb-suckers.  Countries, movements, peoples, funny-looking or sounding foreigners are all objects, not agents, mere counters in the game.  Except, of course, as we found out the hard way from 2003 onwards, they’re not. They’ve got their own stories and they stick to them, by gum. Does an increase in conflict, a decrease in stability within a region matter to countries nearby?  Sure.  But other things matter more.  Otherwise, El Paso’s murder rate during the last years of last decade might look a lot more like Ciudad Juarez’s than it does, if you catch my drift. (Happy to report, BTW, that the news there is getting a bit better.)

And there’s more! File this next one in the “fighting the last war” category:

It is pretty clear that the recent American strategy of light-footprint withdrawal and nation-building at home has not helped matters. The United States could have left more troops in Iraq and tamped down violence there. We could have intervened in Syria back when there was still something to be done and some reasonable opposition to mold.

I’m not actually sure what the hell Brooks means in the first sentence above.  We left Iraq under treaty, at the insistence of the Iraqi government.  Is Brooks really saying we should have maintained a force under those circumstances?  If so, he should make that clear, and then suggest some way that could be done…and then tell us how 100,000 or so (post-surge levels) US troops could actually police the kind of violence Iraq has seen in recent months and years.

Or to put it another way: this is pure REMF bullshit; thereoughtabealaw material:  Brooks only gets to say we need more armed Americans in conflict zones if he’s willing to embed with a tooth unit for a full year.

And as for that “nation-building at home” line — WTF?  Really — what does he mean?  Or rather, please, sign me up.  Get us a Nancy Pelosi speakership so that we could actually pass a jobs or infrastructure bill.  Then we’ll talk.

And last:  about that “we could have intervened in Syria back when…” Tell me, Mr. Brooks, what in detail you think we should have done.  “Intervene” is such a usefully vague word.

Hell, don’t.  Let’s read the chicken entrails you’ve left for us in this column.  To me, the most revealing note in the whole piece is that phrase “reasonable opposition to mold.”

That sense of a plastic organization ready for whatever the U.S.’s child-like hands chooses to pinch or fold recalls nothing so much as Chalabi worship, the delusion that actors in a place about which we know little are dolls for us to dress-up and move and pour pretend tea for as we choose.

Brigitte_mit_Puppe_Margret_Hofheinz-Döring,_Öl,_1946_(WV-Nr.20)

Never mind that they actually are the heirs and current proprietors of their ownlong history of faction and party and ideology and interest of which Mr. Brooks (and me, to be sure) have asymptotically close to zero grasp.  Does he think that American blood or just American artillery would have persuaded anyone involved not to fight their own corner?  Didn’t happen in Iraq, where US intervention brought out into the open long-(violently)-suppressed sectional conflict.  Flash forward to the harsh tyranny of now, and still Brooks offers not one shred of evidence or argument to suggest that we had a better grasp of internal Syrian tensions this time around.

Astonishingly (to me) — and in all fairness, to be lodged on the credit side of his ledger — Brooks does land at a more or less reasonable conclusion.  Echoing his colleague Nick Kristof, he endorses a strike against the Syrian government in support of what both columnists call the norm that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.  (More on that later, perhaps.)  But then he suggests something resembling restraint:

[There are] at least three approaches on the table. The first is containment: trying to keep each nation’s civil strife contained within its own borders. The second is reconciliation: looking for diplomatic opportunities to bring the Sunni axis, led by the Saudis, toward some rapprochement with the Shiite axis, led by Iran. So far, there have been few diplomatic opportunities to do this.

Finally, there is neutrality: the nations in the Sunni axis are continually asking the United States to simply throw in with them, to use the C.I.A. and other American capacities to help the Sunnis beat back their rivals. The administration has decided that taking sides so completely is not an effective long-term option.

Brooks even concedes the crucial uncertainty:

…at this point, it’s not clear whether American and other outside interference would help squash hatreds or inflame them.

Given that, he concludes:

Poison gas in Syria is horrendous, but the real inferno is regional. When you look at all the policy options for dealing with the Syria situation, they are all terrible or too late. The job now is to try to wall off the situation to prevent something just as bad but much more sprawling.

I’ll take it anytime an Iraq cheerleader reins in his or her lust for another great adventure for someone else’s kids.  Really.  So I’ll pull back on my own bridle and note only that the claim that we are on the verge of a great Sunni-Shiite apocalypse is a conclusion assumed in advance.

Once again, the idea that the Syrian conflict might be, well, actually and in important ways distinctly Syrian is never actually entertained.  The fact that the strife now in Egypt has nothing to do with sect-based religious rivalry and a great deal to do with very specific and long-standing fissures in Egypt’s society and polity never seems to enter Brooks spotless mind.  And so on.

Which is to say that a glass-half-full kind of person might say well, at least our Bobo is learning.  As for me, I’m no such Pollyanna: even when Brooks, blind pigging and all that, does reach a point that isn’t crazy, the way he gets there remains a problem.  I guess it is the incuriousness that gets me the most.  There’s a lot of sunshine in his spotless mind.

And as for the Times?  They’ve made their bargain:  Brooks’ celebrity is secure now; he gets clicks and he gets tons of exposure, both gold in this transitional media moment.  He’s a smooth — I’d say glib, but YMMV – writer, to be sure, but he’s a genuinely crappy thinker.  And that’s not going away.  Still, even if his work does or ought to bring a flush of shame to those  in the building who do put their minds (and sometimes their bodies too) out into the fray is something the powers that be in Timesland seem willing to worry about another day.  The tricky thing is that places are only indispensable until they’re not, and it’s after the rubble settles that those long-ago first cracks reveal themselves as warnings unheeded.

*Where n is an arbitrarily large number

**obligatory h/t to Warner Wolf.

Images:  Clara Peeters, A Vanitas Portrait of a Lady, c. 1613-1620.

Frontspiece of the Bible Moralisee, God the Geometer, c.1250.

Margret Hofheinz-Döring, Brigitte with Doll, 1946.

Blind Pigs, Acorns

May 2, 2013

I suppose it’s not really a surprise that someone who sprays as much verbiage as Mr. Newt Gingrich must on occasion come up with something which which I can agree:

It would be a major mistake to put American troops in Syria.

No one in the region wants us invading yet another country.

None of our allies want our strength diverted from Iran.

There is no practical mission American forces could accomplish without a very large commitment.

Yup, that’s about right.

But still, I’m not going to give Gingrich any props for this one moment of clarity.  The problem with Newt is not that he is incapable of clear thought at times, but that he chooses to relinquish that capacity when it’s convenient.

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_-_Le_Clown_(Claude_Renoir)

Which is to say that I’m with Tom Kludt, the author of the bit at TPM from which the quotes above are taken,  when he suggests that the odds of Gingrich saying something more or less sane sensitively depend on whether or not he’s running for something at the time:

At a Republican presidential debate last year in Arizona, the former House speaker mocked President Barack Obama for not doing more in Syria.

“This is an administration which, as long as you’re America’s enemy, you’re safe,” Gingrich said. “You know, the only people you’ve got to worry about is if you’re an American ally.”

And thus the real problem.  It doesn’t actually matter much what Gingrich says when no one (outside of the credulous Village) is listening.  We have a deep problem in our politics that derives directly from the fact that the leaders of that feral beast the Republican party has become give tacit and sometimes overt permission to the crazies that form the hardest core of their supporters. Ted Cruz and the Pauls, Bachmann, Gohmert, and all the rest talk apocalypse.  The allegedly “responsible” leadership — Gingrich himself in this case, domesticates the truly wild-eyed, the folks who accuse Obama of high crimes and misdemeanorsor.  Or recall Romney, dog whistling during the campaign last year:

“Sometimes I think we have a president who doesn’t understand America.” This line was straight out of the “Alien in the White House” playbook, a riff that reinforced the worst impulses of some in the audience, as one woman at a Romney rally named Katheryn Sarka eagerly reaffirmed when I asked her what she thought of the line: “Obama doesn’t understand America. He follows George Soros. Obama is against our Constitution and our democracy.”

After his big Nevada win, this line of Mitt’s scripted victory speech stood out: “President Obama demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy.”

As discussed yesterday, we live in a country where 3 out of ten Americans, and 44% of the GOP expect armed rebellion in the next few years.  This is not a view compatible with democratic process.  The destruction of the American polity is not a both-sides-do-it phenomenon.  It is a hail mary act of intimidation, and perhaps outright violence to come, by a failed political party, one whose hopes of gaining legitimate power shrink with every passing year of demographic change.

Hmmm.  A reckless, failing political movement threatening violence unless its minority hold on power persists.  When before now have we seen that in American history?

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Clown — Claude Renoir, 1909

A Reminder: What the Hagel Farce Was Actually About – Outsourced to Peter Beinart

February 27, 2013

I don’t generally link to the Daily Beast (for many and various reasons) but led by Bruce Bartlett’s twitterizing, I got to Peter Beinart’s clear, succinct description of what was really at stake in the Hagel nonsense:

The right’s core problem with Hagel wasn’t his alleged anti-Semitism. From Jerry Falwell to Glenn Beck to Rupert Murdoch, conservatives have overlooked far more egregiously anti-Jewish statements when their purveyors subscribed to a hawkish foreign-policy line. The right’s core problem with Hagel was that he had challenged the Bush doctrine. Against a Republican foreign-policy class that generally minimizes the dangers of war with Iran, Hagel had insisted that the lesson of Iraq is that preventive wars are dangerous, uncontrollable things. “Once you start,” he warned in 2010, “you’d better be prepared to find 100,000 troops.”

Sweerts,_Michael_-_Soldiers_Playing_Dice_-_c._1655

The point isn’t that Hagel “favors” containment and deterrence. Like virtually everyone else, he’d much rather Iran not get a bomb. But by reminding Americans of the potential costs of preventive war, Hagel was implying that containment and deterrence might be preferable. He was suggesting that if the U.S. can’t stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons short of war, it should make the same tradeoff that Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy made when they allowed the Soviet Union and China to get the bomb. This horrifies hawks for two reasons. First, some of them, echoing Benjamin Netanyahu, claim Iran represents an existential threat to Israel. But were that their sole concern, they’d pay more attention to the near-consensus view among top Israeli security professionals that although Iran poses a threat, it does not pose an existential one, in large measure because Iran’s regime, while vile, is rational when it comes to preserving its own existence.

The second reason hawks find Hagel’s view so frightening is that it concedes the limits of American power. Although Bush said that after 9/11 the United States no longer could afford to rely on the deterrence and containment of hostile states, what he really meant was that the U.S. no longer needed to rely on deterrence and containment, because it was now strong enough to prevent nuclear proliferation via force. For many hawks, conceding that the U.S. can’t do that means conceding American decline.

Beinart goes on to point out the absurdity of the neo-con fear that acknowledging the fact of limits to power equals American decline.* That’s another way of saying (a) read the whole thing and (b) there is a very depressing realization (familiar to readers of this blog) that sinks in should yo do so:  Beinart has achieved here nothing more than a well-stated penetrating glimpse of the obvious.

Or to put it another way: if America is in fact in decline then the cause isn’t that some of our leaders have noticed that the capacity to blow up any building anywhere in the world is not the same thing as exercising power to an end beyond rubble.  Rather, it is that so many in our media and political elites can’t or won’t.

*The concept of imperial or superpower decline is tricky.  Are we in decline if we continue to grow in wealth and capability, but other nations do so with enough vigor to approach levels that in the unique circumstances of the post-World War II decades we could occupy on our own?  Britain, shorn of empire, is wealthier, more equal, more comfortable now that it has ever been for the great bulk of its citizens, for all that Cameron and Osborne are trying to undo some of that.  Are we impoverished if we advance into a world in which the Chinese middle class, still a small proportion of that country, may soon achieve economic status equal to our own?

As I say, tricky.  One more thing, though. Such caveats to the threnody of decline do not in themselves mean that we cannot in fact propel ourselves into an actual, unmistakable loss of power, influence and so much relative economic standing that the conditions of national autonomy and agency the US now possesses will erode.  Could happen; may be happening.  But not because Chuck Hagel thinks it makes sense to ask first what one gets out of sending 100,000 American troops to the far side of the world.

Image: Michael Sweerts, Soldiers Playing Dicec.1655.

February 13, 2011

I mentioned earlier this week Bernard Avishai’s piece on the almost-nearly-but-not-quite peace deal Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas all but consummated in 2008.

Read the whole thing. Weigh it in light of what Avishai (and others, including your current absolutely non-expert correspondent) think is a last-best-hope raised by the Egyptian political earthquake.

Pay particular attention to this paragraph from the end of the piece:

Olmert and Abbas conveyed the details of what they had achieved to both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell, the Middle East envoy. Condoleezza Rice, Olmert said, prepared a confidential memo for the incoming administration. He could not understand why Obama “did not adopt these achievements as policy.” Abbas told me he is still waiting for an American initiative: “America is the broker; we cannot replace it.” Did he want the understandings he reached with Olmert to become the basis of new American-sponsored talks with Netanyahu? “I demanded this,” he said.

Avishai emphasizes that the missed opportunity of late 2008-early 2009 is still potentially achievable:

Olmert made his offer as a sitting prime minister familiar with the views of the Israeli general staff and military intelligence. Now, with a new regime taking shape in Egypt and serious changes under way in Jordan, Israel will be more dependent on American diplomacy and military support than ever. It is hard to imagine Netanyahu resisting an Obama initiative should the president fully commit to an American package based on these talks and rally the E.U., Russia and the United Nations.

Avishai, who has spoken directly to Abbas (and Olmert, and others) believes that Israel does in fact have a viable partner in this plan:

Abbas, for his part, still leads the P.L.O. and governs the West Bank. Hamas controls Gaza but has committed to honoring any deal Abbas negotiated for the 1967 borders as long as its terms would be submitted to a referendum, which Abbas has solemnly promised to call.

And Olmert at least, speaks as an Israeli with the full range of experience needed to judge, and concludes that this is truly a moment of opportunity:

“There is a danger that the events in Egypt will mislead some to lose hope in peace,” Olmert told me pointedly in an e-mail. “I think the opposite, that there can be another way to challenge the events near us. This is the time to move forward, fast, take my peace initiative with the Palestinians and make a deal. This will be my advice to Prime Minister Netanyahu. Don’t wait. Move, lead and make history. This is the time. There will not be a better one.”

All of which is to say that I will tomorrow morning be calling my  representative and senators and leaving messages at the White House and State Department switchboards to say that I support the rapid resumption of a strong US – led effort to bring the Olmert-Abbas almost-deal to fruition.  Follow suit as your judgment suggests.

__

In the meantime, again, I urge y’all to read what Bernie has to say.

Image:  Corrado Giaquinto, Justice and Peace, 18th c.

The Triumph of Hope Over Experience — Or….

February 11, 2011

…Can the Egyptian protesters of Tahrir Square save not only their own country but Israel, now seemingly committed to a slow murder-suicide pact with the Palestinians?

I’ve resisted commenting on the Egypt uprising because I have no real knowledge or historical depth to offer, and I lack both time and resources to do the reporting that would even begin to unearth useful nuggets from anyone else.

But I’ve just read Kai Bird’s piece in Foreign Policy, and he makes with actual local experience the argument I’ve been hoping might hold water.

That would be that a peaceful Egyptian repudiation of Mubarak would force on Israel the really hard choice it’s been able to resist until now:  how to confront the reality that an occupation larded with occasionally explicit hopes for permanent apartheid and/or ethnic cleansing cannot hold forever.

The outcome of four decades of occupation (beyond a seemingly bottomless well of individual tragedy) has been, of course, to hold both Palestine aborning and Israel itself hostage to the worst and most violent urges in the respective communities.  My fear and sorrow has been that there is no good outcome possible as long as Israelis have been able to depend on overwhelming military force to keep Palestinians out of meaningful contact both with them and their Arab neighbors.

But, as Bird points out, assuming that the removal of Mubarak leads to the creation of a genuinely democratic Egype, the game changes.

He writes:

…in the long run, the emergence of an Arab democratic polity should convince Israeli voters that their leaders have become too complacent and too isolationist. After Tahrir, a majority of Israelis may conclude that they can’t live in the neighborhood without forging a real peace with their neighbors.

The separation wall was never a real answer to Israel’s security predicament, and it will be less so when a democratically elected government governs Egypt. The policy of separation — hafrada in Hebrew — had some short-term strategic viability when the largest Arab country was willing to police Israel’s southern border and keep Hamas penned up inside its Gaza prison. But no legitimate government in Cairo will be able to continue its complicity with the Gaza blockade — particularly not if the Muslim Brotherhood is a player in a new government.

Bird (and I) understand that the endgame is not yet begun in Egypt.  Lots can still go wrong, of course.  But for a long time now plenty of Israelis have known (if not always acknowledged) that security and the tense calm of daily life inside the Green Line or in the Territories is not sustainable forever purely on the strength of the IDF.  The challenge has always been to drive that knowledge home hard enough to overcome the very real fears and the equally real, and perhaps more daunting domestic political obstacles to move forward on a liveable peace deal.

Here again, Bird is not a naif:

Hamas’s ideology is certainly vile, but it won the last Palestinian legislative election in 2006 and has more or less observed a cease-fire with Israel since early 2009. In December 2010, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, announced that his party would abide by any peace settlement if it were to be ratified by a referendum of the Palestinian people. Furthermore, as we recently learned from Al Jazeera’s Palestine Papers — the leaked documents on the 2008 Abbas-Olmert talks — the two sides are not that far apart on a comprehensive peace settlement that would create a Palestinian state.

[That last link takes you to a NYT piece. by my friend and fellow congregation-member Bernie Avishai.  Which means I can tell you that my personal knowledge of Bernie is both smart, deeply knowledgeable about the region, committed to peace, and at the same time is by no means a sucker.]

So, there it is:  it’s a dog-bites-man story that we often need most that which we like least.  Take your cod-liver oil folks (well–maybe not that).  In that vein, I’ve been thinking — and now Bird tells me I’m not crazy —  that this Egyptian demand that their voices be heard in Egypt, may be exactly what’s needed to compel Israelis  to confront the precariousness of their current approach to security in Israel and Palestine.

Bird again:

So here is the uplifting news: What is happening in Tahrir Square may actually propel the politicians in Washington, Jerusalem, and Ramallah to forge the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that all of us know is there for the taking. And if that doesn’t happen? Absent a comprehensive peace settlement, Israel and the United States will find themselves increasingly isolated in the new Middle East.

As Bird both hopes and fears, so do I.  But better that fraught hope — thank you, Egyptians  — than none at all.

Images:  Jan van Eyck, Jews and Heathens, Ghent Altarpiece, detail, 1432.

Jean Mielot, Jerusalem from the Dome of the Rock, Illustration from a French MSS of 1455 of  Descriptio Terrae Sanctae, Burchard du Mont-Sion, 1283

Sunday Post on Crypto, Trust, and Political Action on the Web — Outsourced to David P. Reed

September 26, 2010

I’m a lurker (mostly) on a listserv for MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media (C4), which pops up some fascinating discussions about news, social networking, and political life on and through the web.

Recently, there was a flurry of posts on the announcement from the Haystack that work on the system designed to encrypt and obscure the source of internet communications in Iran had halted.

That announcement was followed by the effective end of the project, which had aimed at providing political dissidents secure ways to communicate.

That sequence of events led to considerable back and forth among the C4 community, in part looking at the perennial problem of hype in the tech/software world outpacing reality.

The more significant strand to the convesation (it seemed to me) focused on something else: the underlying issue of whether or not it is possible to produce a genuinely secure set-up that could enable the kind of sunlight the Iranian dissidents sought (and needed) and their supporters outside Iran hoped to provide.

That’s something of obvious (again, to me) importance, especially in the context of the broad privacy-for-connection trade-off we are all committing ourselves to these days.

In that vein, MIT (and much elsewhere besides) computer scientist  David Reed weighed in with the crucial observation, which he kindly gave me permission to post below.

The shorter, just to get you going: computer/information security depends on two factors: the technical/technological and the human.  The strength or lack thereof of one factor does not alter the qualities of the other.  Therefore, no technological approach to information security (on which, in the Iranian case and many besides, lives depend) can provide genuine safety.

Key quote (from David’s conclusion):

Here’s the problem, then: we can’t even *talk about* the technology clearly, because we want to impute properties of perfection, goodness, morality, etc. to it.

And now to the whole thing:

Poking around a bit more on the [Haystack] controversy, let me suggest that it has roots back to anon.fi (the original “Swedish” anonymous remailer).  I (not so publicly) questioned crypto-activist friends promoting anon.fi at the time regarding their promotion of use of that service, given that their was no way they could *personally* assure us that anon.fi was not a trap placed carefully by one or more government or quasi-government agencies.

The response I got was that it was based on public key crypto, and the guy operating it was a “good guy”.

In other words – the crypto (which was undoubtedly strong, and open source) and the “goodness” of the guy were given equal weight, and both had to be working to ensure privacy of communications.  Despite most of these friends, who were well-known political activists, never having met this guy personally!

Here’s the problem, as I mentioned in part in my invited talk at USENIX Security this year:

Humans are prone to the “fallacy of composition”.  That is, there are certain properties of systems that don’t pass from the parts to the whole.  (the parts may all have X, but the system as a whole does not, OR the system as a whole can have X, when none of the parts have X).  Yet it is common for the brain to reason: “because one or more of the parts have X, the whole has X”.

Security is a set of qualities that are not composable.  They just aren’t.

We buy into the fallacy of composition because we (Hilary Clinton, the press, …) want to believe that we can fix a problem merely by using some wonderful “part” – in this case Haystack.

So where I’m going with this is that perhaps before we start trying to find “blame” in this hype-fest, we start by asking the question:
is it possible for someone to supply “security” in the form of an Internet service OF ANY KIND (open source or not, tested or not) that meets the goals?

Because security is not composable, the answer is NO.

So why are we beating up Haystack?  It can’t do the job, and one can tell just by looking at it from the outside – recognizing that any such system entails the fallacy of composition in many, many ways.

Is Tor better?  Not really.  If it had been reported like Haystack, it probably would have been “exposed” in the same way to have weaknesses that are honestly expressed by its own developers.  Would the developers have succumbed to the temptation to provide the “money quotes” supporting the hype?

What if Tor had been used by Iranian dissidents?   Given the weaknesses, surely they were putting their lives at risk due to its weaknesses, just as if Haystack were used.

I’d suggest that there is very little light, and a lot of heat, in the blogosphere and the press about this technology-centric view of political action.

There’s something broken in a world where someone can say with a straight face the phrase “liberation technology”!   Technology cannot be measured in that dimension in general, and if we are talking about the “fallacy of composition”, it applies hugely to the dimension of “liberty” (which has become a right-wing word) or “liberation” (the left-wing word).

Here’s the problem, then: we can’t even *talk about* the technology clearly, because we want to impute properties of perfection, goodness, morality, etc. to it.

To put all this another way, there is an old spook joke about secrecy and security:

How can you tell if a secret is safe?  If only two people know it…

…And one of them is dead.

My thanks to David for his willingness to share these thoughts to an audience beyond the C4 gang.

Image:  Henri Regnault, “The Spy,” 1880.

I’m Still Not Dead Yet: Return of Inverse Square/Quick Check on Daily Dish follies edition.

July 14, 2010

So, I’m trying to end what has been a longer-than-usual Wittgenstein moment for me.  Not that it matters, but some sad family news, among other things, knocked me for a loop a bit this spring, and I just haven’t felt much like talking for a while.

But I’m back, more or less, and thought I’d try and get things going with some tunes (see this blog, below) and some more or less science – tinged rage against the follies of the right.  As Andrew Sullivan has gone on holiday, leaving the keys to his blog to guests and his assistants, there are some targets of opportunity there, so I thought, why not.

First up is a bit of Likudnik wankery from David Frum.  There isn’t much that science can illuminate about Frum’s using his temporary Daily Dish pulpit to pump traffic to a post on his own site by Barry Rubin, but what gets my goat is the abuse of both language and sense in Frum’s claim that Rubin “debunks” what Frum terms “the President’s insulting explanation of Israeli mistrust of him.”

Frum and Rubin are perturbed by President Obama’s suggestion that his middle name, “Hussein,” might arouse concern in some Israelis minds.

Rubin’s piece is an astonishing one, if you haven’t spent a lot of time in the universe of those who think taht anything other than unquestioning support for anything Israel does is anathema.  In that looking-glass world, those of us who love Israel and wish to see it step back from what appears to be a pretty direct line to an assisted suicide are often seen as self-hating Jews (those among this camp that are Jewish) or simply anti-Semitic.

I count Obama as one of this party:  not an Israel-hater, but as one who loves it too well to wish it permanently engaged in a war in which, as Israeli leaders have famously said before, its enemies need win only one battle.

That’s clearly not Frum’s or Rubin’s view.  Rubin writes,

“Here’s a note to Jewish Obama supporters: Have no illusion. Among Israelis, and among Israelis who want a two-state solution and peace, concern over Obama is very high. Relatively few would accept the extreme right-wing claims that he hates Israel and wants to destroy it. The problem is rather that Obama basically has no warm feeling for Israel, does not understand its strategic importance, does not grasp the nature of the country and its people, does not comprehend the nature and goals of its enemies, and is just too unreliable and not tough enough.

I’ve no doubt that Israeli concern over Obama is high (though it is notable that the polls in Israel do not paint quite the unequivocal picture that Rubin does). I think they’re wrong, and that Obama could be the savior of an Israel unable to save itself from the long term disaster that it now risks.  (It’s not just simple destruction that is in play.  Rather, Israel faces more subtle existential dangers as well, as this story illustrates.)

But right or wrong, what galls me here is not Rubin’s belief, but his lack of argument:  he doesn’t like the fact that Obama suggests that identity politics, or even, (dare I say it) racism might cloud some Israeli’s ability to trust the President.  So he asserts that it could not be so.  Rather, it is Obama that is the fantasist — Rubin writes

“Obama shows an ability to rewrite history in his own mind and forget what has happened.  This may signal that in six months he will forget all of Israel’s cooperation and concessions, which is precisely what happened last time, between October 2009 and March 2010.”

It’s too easy here to make the charge of projection.  Rubin forgets, for example for Israel has done some things in that time period and since that no reasonable person can construe as concessionary, and it is with the totality of the situation, and not just those events which (some) Israelis and their lockstep right wing American friends choose to recall that the President must deal.

But none of that matters when Obama insults Israelis (and their American/Canadian supporters by suggesting that his name might color the atmospherics of the relationship.  Unpossible! After all, as Rubin notes, Israelis have liked themselves some folks called Hussein in the past.

Except, of course, in the US, as Frum and Rubin must know, rumors of Obama’s alien, Islamic nature have become a kind of political herpes virus, wrapped around the nervous system, apparently ineradicable.  Repeated polls have shown that 1/5th of those polled believe Obama to be foreign born, with the levels reaching almost one third among Republicans.

And so too in Israel, wheremore than a quarter of respondents in a poll taken at the height of US-Israel tensions in March held that Obama is anti-Semitic — i.e. bigoted against Jews as Jews, and for no other reason.  (This is, by the way, Obama selected an IDF volunteer as his chief-of-staff, but never mind.)  Given all that, does anyone seriously doubt that Obama’s name discomforts at least some (and not a tiny sum) Israelis?

That there are other factors in play in the state of US-Israeli relations and perceptions is certainly true.  But the inability to recognize that one is living in an echo chamber of one’s own making is an example of the damage one does to oneself by acting as the colonial power, the occupier is what’s really going on here.

All of which is to say that neither Frum nor Rubin “debunk” anything in their posts.  They assert, but they don’t assemble evidence or construct an argument.  Why then the word?  False legitimacy, of course — which is what got my goat in the first place. They want to win the argument without making it, for if they had to, they would open up the ground for dissent — and that, of course, is terrifying.  (It is also why, confounding neoconservatives, so much of American Jewry stubbornly refuses to accept the meme that criticism of Israel = hatred of same.  But that’s for another post.)

Image:  Nicholas Poussin, “Conquest of Jerusalem by Titus,” c. 1638-9


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