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November 26, 2004

The Moral Values Election

Joshua Cohen: November 26, 2004

The day after the election I had an email from a well-known political scientist, saying: "The gay marriage battle was, I suspect, crucial as a mobilizing device.  At the worst possible time in the national election cycle, Margaret Marshall handed this issue to the Republicans for use in mobilizing places like nonurban Ohio..." Some version of this view is approaching conventional wisdom. And maybe it is right. But a few facts that bear on the issue: (1) gay marriage was on the ballot in three battleground states, and Bush's two party vote share dropped from 2000 in all three (Ohio, Michigan, and Oregon): a slight drop, but a drop. The other states with ballot initiatives were all strongly pro-Bush in 2000 and basically uncontested; and in battleground states without ballot initiatives, Bush ran stronger (in two party vote share) in 2004 than in 2000; (2) if you look at the county level, you find the following: in counties that were strongly pro-Bush in 2000 (where he won over 60% of the two-party vote), Bush got an extra boost from a gay marriage initiative (ran better than in bright red counties with a ballot initiative at the state level than in bright red counties without one); but in counties that Bush lost in 2000, he did less well in 2004 when there was a marriage initiative than when there was not; and in contested counties (with Bush support in 2000 running between 50 and 60%), Bush did not do as well when a marriage initiative was on the ballot as when it was not. The presence of marriage initiatives may have been a net benefit to Kerry (analysis of the interaction effect from Ansolabehere and Stewart); (3) the standard economic models of elections predicted (on average) that Bush would win with 54% of the vote. It is cold comfort that he underperformed relative to predictions based on models that predict well, but in figuring out what happened, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the normal election-determining factors were all working in his favor; (4) a recent NYT/CBS poll (11.18-11.21) shows that most people disapprove of Bush on the economy, foreign policy, and Iraq, but strongly approve of him on the "war on terror."

Maybe it is basically Margaret Marshall's fault, or maybe she symbolizes something...that the judiciary is the only place left in which progressive values have any traction. But maybe not... If our concern (and it is a good concern) is to break out of pretty cloistered political worlds (85% Kerry voters in Cambridge), we need to be careful in understanding and navigating a complex terrain.

December 12, 2004

Speaking of Security/Terrorism

Joshua Cohen: December 12, 2004

What is the largest threat now to the security of this country? (Right now: this year.) The answer—taking into consideration both the probabilities of potential harms and the magnitude of those harms—is surprisingly clear: the largest threat is a nuclear 9/11. Say, a 10 kiloton bomb—delivered by car, truck, or plane—to Grand Central Station that kills a half million people immediately and does a trillion dollars of direct economic damage. If you imagine similar weapons, exploded simultaneously, in Chicago and Washington and San Francisco, you have horrifying death and destruction, and it is not clear that you still have a country.

How could there be a nuclear 9/11? The answer is that massive amounts of fissile material—hundreds of tons of both highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium—are located around the world, associated with nuclear weapons facilities and with research reactors, and are not particularly secure: lots of the insecure nuclear material is in Russia, but it is also in Pakistan, and elsewhere. When nuclear materials are not sufficiently secured, they can be stolen, sold, and transported. And once you have the fissile materials, making a bomb that can do horrific damage is not that difficult. In fact, the Chechens who took the Moscow theater in October 2002 apparently had initially planned to take a research reactor with enough highly enriched uranium to make a few dozen nuclear weapons.

It is also not that hard or that expensive to take actions that would significantly reduce this threat. And what you need to do to address it is not to fight a war against Iraq, because none of this stuff is in Iraq. It will not help to build a missile shield, because the nuclear weapons will end up on trucks, or buses, or planes, not on missiles. You do not need to violate anyone’s civil liberties, or close borders, or fight a war anywhere.

Instead what you need to do, for starters, is to make sure that weapons grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium are tied down. Preventing stuff from walking away in the first place is the key. The leading study of this issue—by Matt Bunn, Anthony Weir, and John Holdren—makes this point very forcefully: “nuclear theft” is “by far the most likely” route to nuclear terror, and also “the step in the pathway that can most directly and reliably be stopped. If effective security and accounting arrangements, capable enough to defeat all the threats a facility is likely to face, are put in place for every nuclear weapon and every kilogram of weapons usable material throughout the world, the threat of nuclear weapons terrorism can be dramatically reduced.”

So there is a serious danger: and as should be clear from the Chechens who took the Moscow Theater, the danger is not at all confined to US security. The greatest threat in New York is also the greatest threat in Moscow, London, Paris, Berlin, Mexico City, Djakarta, Beijing, and Islamabad. Are the loose nukes being tied down? In a word, no. More money was spent in 2002 on so-called missile defense (an extraordinary waste, as Ted Postol has repeatedly shown) than has been spent in the entire history of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program that aims to tie down loose nukes. And in the American government, this is no one’s job. (Graham Allison, who has been the principal national voice on this issue, points out that “in the two years following 9/11, we actually secured less vulnerable nuclear material around the world than we did in the two years before 9/11.”)

Why is so little being done to address this extraordinary problem? No one has a very good answer. But my own speculation (and it is just speculation) is that you can understand the inaction some by reflecting on what would need to happen to address the issue. In a word, it would require cooperation, in the first instance with Russia, which is where lots of the nuclear material is, but with Pakistan and other countries as well. Notice, incidentally, that the Russians have a deep interest in addressing this issue themselves: if the Chechens get fissile material, it will end up in Moscow, not in Grand Central Station. The problem is unilateralism: the people running the country have an ideological allergy to all forms of cooperation, which—to all appearances—they take to be a sign of weakness and an invitation to danger. (See the ABM treaty, Kyoto, the International Criminal Court, missile defense and preventive war). And their cultural allergy to cooperation seems especially strong when it comes to security—even if cooperation is required to respond to the greatest danger

What the nuclear 9/11 problem underscores is the depth of current American unilateralism, and its dangers. Addressing this issue is essential to ensuring our own security, and the first step in moving forward is to acknowledge that we are in the same situation as everyone else: that vulnerability is a fact of life, not a policy choice; that our fate depends on how others act; and that addressing our vulnerabilities requires cooperative action, not unilateralist ideology.

To be sure, the effort to tie down loose nuclear materials would be aided by other changes in US policy. This country has vastly more nuclear weapons than it needs for any conceivable circumstance, and now insists that a new generation of nuclear weapons is essential. But....enough.

January 13, 2005

Check the Mirror

Joshua Cohen: January 13, 2005

I just read Andrew Sullivan's NYT review of the books on Abu Ghraib and other sites of torture by Mark Danner and Steven Strasser (the latter contains the Pentagon and Independent Panel reports; the former includes these as well as Red Cross reports, a bunch of other documents, and Danner's NYRB articles).  I suggest that you all read the Sullivan review, and read the books.

After acknowledging that President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld, and Attorney-General-to-be Gonzales (among others) bear some of the responsibility for the torture, and that "the critical enabling decision was the president's insistence that prisoners in the war on terror be deemed 'unlawful combatants' rather than prisoners of war," Sullivan says:

But in a democracy, the responsibility is also wider. Did those of us who fought so passionately for a ruthless war against terrorists give an unwitting green light to these abuses? Were we naïve in believing that characterizing complex conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq as a single simple war against 'evil' might not filter down and lead to decisions that could dehumanize the enemy and lead to abuse? Did our conviction of our own rightness in this struggle make it hard for us to acknowledge when that good cause had become endangered? I fear the answer to each of these questions is yes.

American political polarization also contributed. Most of those who made the most fuss about these incidents -- like Mark Danner or Seymour Hersh -- were dedicated opponents of the war in the first place, and were eager to use this scandal to promote their agendas. Advocates of the war, especially those allied with the administration, kept relatively quiet, or attempted to belittle what had gone on, or made facile arguments that such things always occur in wartime. But it seems to me that those of us who are most committed to the Iraq intervention should be the most vociferous in highlighting these excrescences. Getting rid of this cancer within the system is essential to winning this war.

I was an opponent of the war, in part because of its predictable course, and I continue to believe that that opposition was fully justified. I also think it is disgraceful for Sullivan to chide Danner and Hersh for their alleged eagerness to use this "scandal" for "their own agendas." That said, I applaud Sullivan's willingness to look in the mirror and acknowledge that he shares in the responsibility for the disgrace, which was not simply about Abu Ghraib or about rendition. The incidents of torture "were everywhere":

from Guantánamo Bay to Afghanistan, Baghdad, Basra, Ramadi and Tikrit and, for all we know, in any number of hidden jails affecting ''ghost detainees'' kept from the purview of the Red Cross. They were committed by the Marines, the Army, the Military Police, Navy Seals, reservists, Special Forces and on and on. The use of hooding was ubiquitous; the same goes for forced nudity, sexual humiliation and brutal beatings; there are examples of rape and electric shocks. Many of the abuses seem specifically tailored to humiliate Arabs and Muslims, where horror at being exposed in public is a deep cultural artifact.

Participants in the exchange on "Kidnapping, Renditions, and Torture" who are "attempt[ing] to belittle what had gone on, or ma[king] facile arguments that such things always occur in wartime" ought to have the decency to follow Andrew Sullivan to the mirror.