Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Joe McCarthy and the war on al Qaeda 

I am in Denver for the night, settled into a room with some high-speed Internet access, and very happy about it. That's not the point of the post, but I know many of you have been concerned about my travel situation, so I'm coughing up an update.

As previously reported, I'm in the middle of George Friedman's excellent new book, America's Secret War, a dispassionate survey of the geopolitics of our war on Islamist jihad that I cannot recommend too highly. The book discusses the strategic and tactical challenges al Qaeda posed in the method of its attacks on September 11. Among Friedman's many interesting arguments is the point that our peculiar history of dealing with covert enemy operations makes it particularly difficult for us to hunt down al Qaeda cells located within the United States:
The U.S. already had experience in dealing with the possibility that covert Soviet operatives had penetrated the United States during the Cold War and had handled it so poorly that it traumatized an entire generation and caused U.S. intelligence and security services to shy away from anything that reminded them of that period. The ultimate legacy of Joseph McCarthy is that he left the United States institutionally and intellectually incapable of coming to grips with Al Qaeda on a domestic level without reviving a deep national nightmare.... [McCarthyism] ... defined what was impermissible in dealing with conspiracies. McCarthy became the negative standard against which all counterconspiratorial actions were judged. Al Qaeda was certainly a conspiracy. Fighting Al Qaeda became hopelessly entangled in the collective memory of McCarthyite excesses.

Friedman devotes a few pages to tracing the history of Soviet espionage in the United States during the Cold War, including Stalin's use of Communist Parties in the West, including in the United States, as tools for the recruitment of spies that would not only collect intelligence within the United States but which would wage war from within when or if the United States and the Soviet Union met on the battlefield.
What was required was a surgical tool to distinguish between members of the Communist Party who were simply engaged in political agitation [which was protected by the Constitution] from members who were agents of the Soviet Union. Another tool was needed to distinguish between former members who simply changed their mind about communism and former members who had been ordered to go covert. Unfortunately, no such tools existed. What happened instead was pure chaos, the issue being seized upon by political opportunists on both sides.... Both sides conspired to create an intellectual, moral, and security circus. Because of McCarthyism, the U.S. became increasingly incapable in dealing with deliberate covert conspiracies that arose in subsequent decades.

This tension between our need to hunt down covert operatives and our fear of McCarthyism has come to a head since September 11.
The problem with September 11 was that it was indeed a conspiracy. Even worse, it had to be assumed to be an ongoing conspiracy. Somewhere in the United States, there were men planning additional acts of mass murder. Moreover, this was not a randomly selected group of Americans. It was a group of Muslims. Not all Muslims were in Al Qaeda, but all members of Al Qaeda were Muslims. With some exceptions, Muslims can be recognized as Muslims, in the sense that in the United States, most have ethnic characteristics as well as religious beliefs.

Friedman concludes by describing the impact of the McCarthy era on the institutional structure and culture of the CIA, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, which remained deeply reluctant to pursue al Qaeda as if it were a conspiracy among extremist Muslims ("FBI agents hated assignments for monitoring political groups, since they had frequently ended careers.").

If you buy Friedman's argument, and I by and large do, it is then interesting to consider how differently we might be fighting the war on terror had there never been a Joe McCarthy. Would anybody actually think there was anything wrong with the Patriot Act, for instance? Would we find it so necessary to fight the war with our soldiers abroad if we were more willing to risk imprisoning or harrassing innocent people at home?


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Nov 17, 06:30:00 PM:

While the ugly history of McCarthyism I am sure does constrain us politically in some respects, our country has a long history of controversial abrogation of rights in wartime - The Alien and Sedition Act of the early 19th Century, the suspension of habeus corpus during the Civil War, and the internment of specific ethnic groups, esp people of Japanese descent, during WWII or clear examples. The Patriot Act is a modern day version of those actions, and a pretty liberal version at that.

I tend to think that our willingness to racially profile has been hampered more by our ugly history with slavery and Jim Crow, coupled with Japanese internment, than by McCarthyism.

And by the way, if there is another serious attack on US soil, that trepidation will go away and we will intern Muslims. Michelle Malkin is doing her best to lay an intellectual foundation for it, and we may need to do it. My goodness, the Dutch are the most liberal folks on the planet and look how they reacted to the death of one promiment guy (Van Gogh)--pretty aggressively.  

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