Jeffrey Goldberg has been going after Chas Freeman, Obama’s pick to run the National Intelligence Council, for his alleged foreign policy biases. Although I enthusiastically endorse the idea of appointing more people named “Chas” to influential positions within the Administration, I don’t know much about Freeman’s politics. I did find this criticism peculiar, however (emphasis mine):
In this dialogue, Freeman also stated that “I accept that al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden almost certainly perpetrated the September 11 attacks,” but never mind this off-putting hesitancy; what’s particularly interesting is his desire to see an exploration of 9/11 cause and effect. Let’s posit as true that al Qaeda acted against America out of specific grievances (I think it’s also true that al Qaeda acted out of Muslim supremacist ideology, but let’s put that aside as well). What was the principal political grievance of al Qaeda before 9/11? The stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia at the request of the Saudi government, in order to protect the kingdom from Saddam Hussein.
Now, is it really odd for a political analyst to examine the causal factors behind the 9/11 attacks? Goldberg is a smart guy and a good writer, so I’m fairly confident he understands the distinction between justifying something and analytically exploring a specific chain of events. Arguing that the punitive nature of the Versailles Treaty helped bring Hitler to power, for example, wouldn’t be interpreted as an endorsement of Nazi foreign policy. Certain historians might question your methodology, but no one is going around academic conferences hurling epithets like “appeasement.” And yet when it comes to September 11, exploring “cause and effect” is still seen as akin to giving aid and comfort to Al Qaeda.
UPDATE: Scott McConnell has more on Freeman’s credentials.
Andrew Sullivan fisks Kristol’s latest on torture and presidential pardons. Obviously, I don’t want to see anyone implicated in torture get away scot free, but focusing on lower-level implementers – rather than the policymakers who implicitly or explicitly authorized their actions – strikes me as a bad idea. CIA agents who participated in waterboarding were probably operating under the assumption that what they were doing was both legal and necessary. The same goes for the NSA analysts who wiretapped phone calls without prior judicial authorization. Given the climate of political urgency immediately following 9/11, I think most low-level implementers should benefit from some legal latitude.
So in one sense, at least, Kristol is right. A public witch-hunt that hones in on a few hapless CIA agents misses the larger issue of the Administration’s complicity. As a matter of pragmatic politics, I also think going after a few big fish would be less divisive than the alternative. Low level bureaucrats following orders in the wake of an unprecedented national tragedy are actually pretty sympathetic figures. Bush Administration flacks who had access to the requisite legal background and were responsible for implementing an abusive interrogation policy, on the other hand, are not only more guilty, they’re also easier targets. Going after low level scapegoats is usually the path of least resistance, but Bush’s legacy of incompetence has laid the groundwork for holding people accountable. After eight years of disastrous mismanagement, an unforgiving public is a lot less likely to extend the benefit of the doubt to Administration higher ups.
Unlike many, I can’t say my outlook was dramatically changed by the 9/11 attacks. Even the event itself fades as time goes by. My most vivid memory was of a student returning to a class he’d skipped to inform our hapless math teacher that he thought “we were at war.” I vaguely remember the plume of smoke rising from the Pentagon, visible from the windows of our suburban high school. I also remember asking my AP English teacher if the government would respond by curtailing civil liberties – a hint, no doubt, of my nascent pro-terrorist sympathies.
I’ll restrain my commentary to this lovely piece from Culture 11, which does a wonderful job of capturing the fleeting sense of community engendered by great tragedy. My only criticism is that this sort of thing risks lapsing into disaster-fantasy. Yes, it was nice to watch everyone come together, but communal bonds are created and strengthened through thousands of more mundane interactions. We shouldn’t have to rely on great tragedies to remind ourselves of that.