The Long View 2003-11-10: Corrections, Mostly of the New York Times

John was a lawyer, so he noticed that you don't need the Patriot Act to try to force people to do things. Otherwise unknown laws often serve just as well, for example the All Writs Act.


Corrections, Mostly of the New York Times

Yesterday, the Times ran a think-piece entitled Iraqi Insurgents Take a Page from the Afghan 'Freedom Fighters.'. The author, one Mitt Bearden, is identified as a former senior manager for CIA clandestine operations. His comments about the parallels between the current situation in Iraq and that in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation might be well taken, though for the life of me, I can't see what Sun Tzu has to do with it. What caught my eye, though, was the bit at the end:

There were two stark lessons in the history of the 20th century: no nation that launched a war against another sovereign nation ever won. And every nationalist-based insurgency against a foreign occupation ultimately succeeded.

Neither of these things is true. Russia still holds the territory that the Soviet Union took from Finland during the Winter War: the same with the territory China took from India during the 1960s. For that matter, Iraq won its appalling war against Iran in the 1980s; it lost the territory later in connection with the Gulf War, but that was pure stupidity. As for regime change, Communist Vietnam practiced it quite effectively on Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

There were many insurgencies in the 20th century, most of which failed. The Times writer limits the list to situations where a foreign occupation was involved, so I am confined to citing counter-examples like Malaysia in the 1950s and Kashmir today. The wonder is that an old CIA hand could forget about the sporadic insurgencies in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe after World War II, and in the Ukraine even earlier.

As for Tibet, maybe it was not "sovereign" enough to go into the first category when the Chinese invaded it. If Tibet's long-suppressed nationalist movement ever succeeds, however, it will be because of international pressure, not because an insurgency succeeded.

The Times's exercise in alternative history is not just a case of faulty fact-checking. What we have here is an example of the transnational ideology of Jonathan Schell's Unconquerable World.

* * *

Here's a novel take on a story I had been following for some time, though I have not had occasion to mention it here. In the spring, the Bush Administration took steps to ensure that the long list of civil claimants against the Iraqi government did not get control of the Iraqi assets in America that had been blocked since the Gulf War. The executive branch actually has standing authority to prevent lawyers from taking control of US foreign policy in this fashion; the shame is that the authority is not exercised more often. With reference to the private contractors and insurers with claims against Iraq, the Times would no doubt agree.

However, the Times chose to run a story with the headline, U.S. Moves to Block Money For Troops Held in '91. The story quotes one of 17 plaintiffs, former POWs and their families, who sued for the assets and actually got a billion-dollar judgement: "The money in our case is just one drop of blood in the bucket."

Now these plaintiffs claim torture and maltreatment while prisoners, and no one denies that they merit special compensation. The bizarre idea is that the compensation can be privatized. Here is what the judge wrote who made the award, which the Administration rendered moot:

No one would subject himself for any price to the terror, torment and pain experienced by these American P.O.W.'s..[But] only a very sizable award would be likely to deter the torture of American P.O.W.'s by agencies or instrumentalities of Iraq or other terrorist states in the future.

Actually, the only thing likely to deter such behavior in the future is the certain knowledge on the part of the Maximum Leader that he faces an awkward interview with elements of the 101st Airborne if his treatment of American prisoners is in any way unsatisfactory. The Islamist conviction that the West responds to atrocity with nothing worse than litigation is one of the underlying causes of the Terror War.

* * *

Over the weekend, former Vice President Al Gore spoke before a meeting sponsored in part by the detestable MoveOn.org. He endorsed the repeal of the Patriot Act, despite these qualifications:

I have studied the Patriot Act and have found that along with its many excesses, it contains a few needed changes in the law...And it is certainly true that many of the worst abuses of due process an civil liberties are taking place under the color of laws and executive orders other than the Patriot Act.

As a matter of fact, just about all the recent claims of civil rights abuses, fanciful and otherwise, involve laws that antedate the Patriot Act. The real disturbance caused by the act is arising from quite a different quarter: the prosecution of public corruption and organized crime. As an example of the former, consider a recent case in Nevada, in which a strip-club owner is accused of bribing public officials. To get the evidence in this case, the FBI got financial records under Section 314 of the Patriot Act, which allows federal investigators to obtain information from any financial institution regarding the accounts of people "engaged in or reasonably suspected, based on credible evidence, of engaging in terrorist acts or money laundering activities."

Politicians from the state are outraged over the use of the act in this context. So is the ACLU. I for one have trouble taking this seriously as a civil liberties violation. What may be serious is where the support for repealing the Act may really be coming from.

* * *

Despite my continuing regard for Senator John McCain, I have never been much interested in campaign finance reform. I thus have little to say about Howard Dean's recent decision to withdraw from the public-financing system, aside from drawing attention to his wonderfully Clintonian disclaimer, "If we can get two million Americans to donate $100 each, then that is campaign finance reform." In any case, here are two statistics regarding the often-heard assertion that there is too much money in politics:

The movie version of Primary Colors, released in 1998, had a budget of $65 million. The presidential election of 1992, which the movie was about, involved the spending of about $256 million. Now, Primary Colors was a very good movie (the novel by Joe Klein was very good, too), but it was still a minor film, with a modest budget. In other words, the phenomenon cost only four times as much as the artistic rendering of it.

The day an election involves aliens and dinosaurs, the movie will cost more than the election itself. Campaign finance reform will only hasten that day. 

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