Scott Atran: Bush’s Blarney: A Tale of Wishful Thinking and Willful Ignorance

Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

In George W. Bush’s just released memoirs, Decision Points, America’s previous president tries to re-establish his battered reputation by defending his most controversial and consequential decisions. He audaciously asserts his belief that the decision (at first denied) to allow waterboarding of detainees “saved lives,” especially American and British lives; that the invasion of Iraq has led to a Middle East “more hopeful with a young democracy setting an example for others to follow”; and that nation building in Afghanistan, which he also thinks merits more troops and more muscular drone strikes into Pakistan, remains indispensable to winning “the war on terror.”

If you believe these assertions, as Mr. Bush himself and millions of Glenn Beck’s right-thinking “army of patriots” may, then I have a nice bridge to Brooklyn you can buy for a song.

American intelligence and security officials I have talked to were skeptical that information obtained by waterboarding or other brutal forms of “enhanced interrogation” produced information that was not already available by other means. For example, the claim that Abu Zubaydah yielded valuable information about Al Qaeda’s structure upon being waterboarded is undermined by internal CIA documents. These suggest that empathy shown by his American interrogators (who took over from their rougher Pakistani counterparts in treating Abu Zubaydah’s wounds) likely got him to reveal how Al Qaeda planned 9/11 and other operations.

In Britain, senior security officials have expressed deep skepticism that any actionable intelligence came from waterboarding — a preferred torture technique of the Holy Inquisition and the first form of torture denounced by the likes of Adam Smith, Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson in their arguments that the rights of man, including individual freedom and liberty, begin with an end to such “torments of the body” that deserve the “contempt of all mankind”. Sir John Sawers, head of MI6, Britain’s equivalent of the CIA, insists that his agents never participated in any such abuse. Eliza Mannigham-Buller, former head of MI5, Britain’s version of the FBI, says that her US counterparts never told her about the waterboarding, much less any positive results produced. Kim Howells, who chaired the Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee under Tony Blair’s government, flatly denies that waterboarding, “what we regard as torture, actually produced information instrumental in preventing plots from coming to fruition.”

Take Mr. Bush’s assertion that the waterboarding of 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed foiled a planned attack on Heathrow airport. In fact, the Heathrow plot was thwarted a month before Mohammed was arrested, when army tanks surrounded the airport (in what many considered an overreaction to a plot still far from any real plan or means of execution). David Davis, former shadow Home Secretary who was privy to the government’s intelligence deliberations, noted that the brutality euphemistically known as “enhanced interrogation” often produced erroneous information. For example, the “confession” from from Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, who allegedly “confirmed” the link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein as well as Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. Both of these claims Mr. Bush now acknowledges were false, although at the time he used them profusely to justify spending billions of tax dollars to send America’s young men and women into harm’s way. Additional hundreds of billions of dollars and many more lives were subsequently needed to root out new Qaeda volunteers from dozens of countries who then streamed into the new terrorist haven that Mr. Bush’s ill-informed and ill-advised decision created in Iraq.

Hardly anyone who is familiar with the situation in Iraq today believes it is a hopeful place, much less a beacon of democracy. As veteran war reporter Nir Rosen describes in his haunting new book, Aftermath, Iraq is presently riddled with feudal factionalism, murderous militias, confessional cronyism and endemic corruption. Iraq’s once thriving but now ever-dwindling middle class and intelligentsia — social elements universally acknowledged to be critical to the survival and prosperity of any democracy — desperately seek escape through emigration. And no one I have ever talked to in the Middle East — from the leaders of nations to people in the street — wishes upon themselves or their community what has been happening in Iraq.

Alan West, First Sea Lord under Tony Blair and later chief military and security adviser to the Prime Minister until May of this year, told me that he had opposed the intervention in Iraq because “there was no Phase Four — what to do after we won the war.” According to Lord West, Blair responded: “don’t worry, the Americans have it figured out.”

“Why,” I asked, “did Prime Minister Blair trust in The US government’s faith that all would turn out right, as a child trusts a parent?”

“Perhaps because he had personally bonded with President Bush him,” surmised Lord West.

Indeed, Mr. Bush reports in his book that the Prime Minister was ready to ignore political opinion in his own country (as well as the advice of his senior military and security experts, declaring: “I’m in. If it costs the [fall of] the [British] Government. Fine.”

On Afghanistan, Lord West stressed that he also opposed extended involvement in Afghanistan: “After the Taliban fell, we should have left as quickly as possible. When WW2 ended, we had three million troops in our sector of Germany and we brought in three hundred thousand administrators from across the British Empire. The Americans had three and a half million troops in their sector. And with all of this it was still a very hard job to rebuild Germany and move it towards democracy. But in Afghanistan we were to build a nation with almost nothing. We [the Brits] were supposed to secure Helmand Province with no real means or plan. That made no sense.”

Again, the Prime Minister told his doubting advisers to trust in the American President, who seemed so sure of this “eternally right” mission and its divinely sanctioned outcome. This, despite the fact that anyone with the least sense of history might have demurred, if only because the Soviets had recently lost a ten-year war to impose political and social change on the country, and Britain itself had previously lost three major wars in a century of fighting the very same Pashtun tribes that would compose the Taliban. No wonder that Mr. Bush lauds the former British Prime Minister as the one world leader with unwavering courage to match his own (as opposed, say, to Mr. Bush’s obvious disdain for German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who refused to join Mr. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing,” preferring instead to be part of what The New York Post and Fox News regularly referred to as “The Axis of Weasel” with France). If courage this be, it’s that of the blind leading the blind.

However psychologically compelling “gut feelings” rooted in friendship may seem, and however readily they resonate with the public, study after study in the social, political and economic sciences show that such “intuitions” often lead to erroneous inferences and misguided actions, and generally provide a poor basis for decision making. Two blind bats that personally bond for whatever emotionally obscure reason form a terrible basis for deciding the fate of nations, and perhaps the world.

America’s muscle-bound counterterrorism policy has, at best, produced contradictory results. Yes, it has thwarted numerous terrorist plots. But it has also created enemies of even greater strategic menace, like the Pakistani Taliban who seek to topple their nuclear state, but who first emerged only after the US prodded Pakistan’s government to attack those Pashtun tribes that were honor-bound to give sanctuary to their Afghan brethren (in my book, Talking to the Enemy, I chronicle these tribes, which had never supported the Afghan Taliban’s attempt to forcibly homogenize national life, much less Al Qaeda’s global jihad.)

Unfortunately, President Obama continues with this misbegotten policy, and is even exacerbating the problem by pumping up American forces and involvement in Afghanistan to the level of the Soviets, while also insisting that Pakistan abandon a century of a relatively temperate modus vivendi with its Pashtun tribes and hit them hard.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain’s Ambassador to Afghanistan until earlier this year, put it to me plainly: “There is no military solution to the problem of terrorism and to the insurgency in Afghanistan. But the Americans are not yet convinced of that. Only when the Americans seriously engage the Taliban in talks, will the Taliban take peace talks seriously. Without the Taliban, there will be no peace.”

On an even wider plane, former UK Metropolitan police chief Ian Blair commented to me: “America has perhaps too greatly militarized its approach to terrorism, and the wisdom of this approach is even less apparent dealing with the threat within our own societies, which is now perhaps the chief threat.”

Mr. Bush’s memoirs clearly show he still does not want to even try to understand what he does not want to believe.

Scott Atran, an American and French anthropologist, is the author of Talking to the Enemy: Faith Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists

From The Huffington Post

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