Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Scant weeks before the London bombings, an official British government report said there were no professionals around planning attacks. Meanwhile, the the lefty blogsphere is noting with interest that if we are to believe the official story, the bombers made a number of incredibly stupid amateur mistakes (via King of Zembla). The more conspiracy-minded among us are asking if the whole thing might be a plot by the government itself, on either side of the pond, to spread terror for its own benefit. (That due process stuff was getting so passé). But to me, Occam's razor suggests a simpler explanation. As does Hanlon's ("never attribute to malice what can be reasonably explained by mere incompetence").

So, let's consider the possibility that the London bombers made a bunch of bloody amateur mistakes because they were, in fact, bloody amateurs, with jury-rigged equipment and lousy training despite their known connections to al-Qaeda in Pakistan. It's consistent with all available evidence that I'm aware of --- after a flurry of reports of "military-grade" bomb components, everything they used seems to have been made from components obtained over the counter at drugstores. And as to the noise I've heard about the precise timing of the attacks --- excuse me. But in this day and age, how much training does it take to get five people to each push a button around 9:00 AM, particularly if they all meet up at King's Cross Station half an hour ahead of time, as if to get a group shot on the surveillance cameras?

The basic premise of Dubya's "war on terror", and Blair's, is that the source of terrorist attacks is in quasi-military organizations with definite bases, if not definite territory. That is something which could be killed by cutting off the head (however much the fickleness of Dubya's pursuit of bin Laden --- and in particular the detour into Iraq --- might lead you to believe that wasn't his plan). But if any crew of disaffected amateurs with a few months of prep time can mount an attack, there are no bases. There's nothing to capture. And if the Western "counterattacks" breed more disaffection, that can only breed more attacks. As seems to be the case with the foreign fighters in Iraq itself, most of whom did not feel the need do anything military against the West until we invaded. (via Jim Henley).

Asking "why do they hate us?" is a really crappy way of trying to defend against this sort of thing. But the alternatives may be worse.

Of course, there's also basic police work and intelligence procedures. Like, for instance, protecting your sources. It's of no small import to the current story that Dubya's coup prematurely burned a Pakistani informant that could possibly have led them to the group that bombed London. I can imagine Dubya's defenders saying that with all the pressure from critics to demonstrate success in the wah on terrah, they had to put out a press release when there was genuine news, and that this all wouldn't be a problem if the critics would just shut up. This comes from the same crew that was spreading "Wag the Dog" stories when Clinton tried to bomb bin Laden, but I can imagine them saying it anyway...

Monday, July 18, 2005

A few months ago, John Perkins, a former big-name consultant to third-world governments made a splash with a book entitled "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man", which (between tales of sultry Back Bay liaisons with a seductive NSA minx) made the following shocking allegations:
  • U.S. trade policy is organized primarily around what the U.S. government sees in its own best interest, as opposed to the interests of, say, the peasantry of Guatemala..
  • Those interests can include political and strategic as well as economic goals, including access to resources.
  • The government maintains close ties to private-sector entities in these fields of its interest, which can assist with its policies --- close enough that, as in the nature of all these things, the tail sometimes winds up wagging the dog.
  • The results of all this for mere residents of third-world countries --- like, say, the aforementioned peasantry of Guatemala --- sometimes aren't pretty at all.

The last of these claims is a matter of public record. As to the others, they are transparently self-evident (except when Noam Chomsky says so, in which case they constitute a crazed conspiracy theory). What Perkins's book regrettably lacks is the kind of detailed evidence that would help you judge how much the peasants are being damaged (and what the alternatives would be).

Well, there's yet another consultant out with a similar book, except this one has meat: "Blood bankers", by James Henry. I'm not all the way through it yet, and I'll probably find something around chapter 10 or so with which I'll disagree violently just as punishment for posting this now. But the list of failed big-spending "aid projects" in Chapter One alone (heck, just the inoperable nuclear power plants in places like Brazil and the Phillipines) is worth more than anything in "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man".

But the most interesting thing, at this point in the book, is the contrast between two Pacific island nations that were devasted by World War II: Japan and the Philippines. In the Philippines, which the U.S. had already run for a few decades, we had ties with the corrupt local elites, and propped them up. In Japan, where we had no connections to the local elites, and no particular reason to like them, we worked on building sound, well-functioning institutions: putting new people in charge of preexisting banks, for instance, and making damn sure they knew their jobs.

The upshot decades later? The Phillipines are still, well, a good way-station for the Navy. But economically, they're a basket case. Japan has done a whole lot better.

So, what of our current nation-building exercise in Iraq, where we have a direct strategic interest in establishing a country that works? Well, instead of trying to build on local business, we're madly privatizing with no controls, so much so that eight billion dollars which were shipped to Bremer's ruling whatever-it-was to fund development have vanished without a trace; auditors literally have no idea what happened to it. (This includes billions of dollars of hard cash which were literally flown in on pallets). Instead of building on pre-existing institutions, and replacing the corrupt elites in charge of them with people who can do the job, we're wiping out pre-existing institutions (most notoriously, disbanding the army) and trying to cut deals with the corrupt factional leaders --- from the dual, dueling ethnic militias of the Kurds to sectarian factional leaders of all stripes --- with a clear eye to stablizing the situation for just long enough to not make it too embarrassing to pull out most of our troops.

Personally, I'm not sure we have a good alternative to doing that, having already screwed things up as badly as we have. But it's still worth noting that it's a pattern which has had bad long-term results in the past...

More: Billmon notes one difference between the local cronies we're cozying up to in Iraq and those we've cozied up to elsewhere: our Iraqi folks won't even avoid embarrassing us in public. The current Iraqi Prime Minister, a long-time Iraqi Shiite activist, just laid flowers on the grave of Khomeini...

Auditors link via several bloggers, including Avedon Carol, Tbogg, and others...