»  Radio Derb — Transcript

        Friday, May 6, 2011

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[Music clip: From Haydn's Derbyshire Marches]

01 — Intro.     And … Radio Derb is on the air. This is your adamantly genial host John Derbyshire with highlights from the week's news.

Not much doubt about the lead story this week. Around four p.m. New York time last Sunday, which was the wee hours of Monday morning in Pakistan, shortly after midnight, a unit of U.S. Navy SEALs shot dead Osama bin Laden at his home in Northern Pakistan. In our broadcast here I'll come at the story from a number of different angles. First, the military angle.

02 — A brilliant operation.     As a military operation, the assault on bin Laden's compound could hardly be improved upon.

It's true that one of the two Black Hawk helicopters crash-landed in bin Laden's compound. It's not clear what caused the problem, but the pilot managed to make a controlled landing anyway, and the guys just carried on with their mission.

The helicopter crash subtracts nothing from the glory of the operation. The contrary, in fact. As the old military adage goes: No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. The quality of a military force isn't in how perfectly they carry out a pre-assigned plan; it's in how well and how quickly they adapt to sudden changes and setbacks. By that measure, this operation was a thing of beauty.

Back of the military operation was a long build-up of intelligence work. Osama bin Laden had long since stopped using any kind of device that we could eavesdrop on. He'd also stopped moving around, reducing the need for communications between his handlers. For necessary communications of his own he was just using couriers, who were referred to by code names. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed down in Guantánamo had given us some of these code names. Then another detainee linked a code name to a real name, and the hunt for that guy commenced. He was tracked to Osama's compound nine months ago, and that's when planning for the operation started.

The word is that the courier made just one careless phone call to a counterparty whose phone was being tapped by our Signals Intelligence people. He was near Osama's compound at the time; and the facts that the compound had no internet or phone lines, and carefully burned its own trash, gave the game away. High-quality satellite photography of the compound took over, and Osama was seen taking a daily stroll around the courtyard there. Bingo.

It was painstaking, dogged, brilliant work by everyone concerned, crowned with a swift and ruthless military success. Four other people were killed in the assault along with bin Laden, only one of them a woman. None of the many children in the compound was hurt. There were no American casualties.

This was a simply brilliant piece of military work. Heartfelt thanks from Radio Derb to everyone who made it possible.

03 — The hard men.     Just a kind of footnote here on the military aspect of the story.

The SEALs who carried out this operation are an elite within the special-forces elite. These are the hardest, bravest men we've got. If you've ever mixed with these types, they make a real impression.

Back in my youth in England, forty or fifty years ago, I was a weekend soldier — National Guard kind of thing. Mostly we just did training and drill locally, but once in a while we'd get sent away for a weekend on some kind of instruction course. These things were staged at disused barracks, with which Britain was plentifully supplied since the end of conscription a few years earlier.

So there'd be ten or fifteen of us bunking in one of the huts in this mostly-empty barracks. (You can imagine tumbleweed blowing along the streets between the huts.) Usually there'd be some other training exercise going on, some branch of the regular armed forces also using that barracks. They'd be bunking in a different hut, but we'd meet them in the mess hall. Mostly there were just regular soldiers doing weapons instruction on the ranges or some such. They'd mess with us and tell us army stories in an open and friendly way, keeping their contempt for us part-timers well under control.

A couple of times, though, we shared barracks with special units. They didn't mix at all. They were polite if they had to be, but mostly they just kept out of everybody's way. You never knew who they were or what they were doing. They had nondescript uniforms and unfamiliar cap badges. And they had a look about them. It's difficult to pin down, but you knew these were the hard men. Just one eye contact, if you got one, told you that these were absolutely not guys you'd want to meet on a dark night in Abbottabad.

Hard men. George Orwell, in his essay on Kipling, remarked that, quote: "He [that is, Kipling] sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them." End quote. Kipling was of course right. So far as encounters with hard men are concerned, those slight, brief encounters in half-empty English barracks forty years ago will suffice me for my lifetime. I'm very glad never to have been at the receiving end of their ferocious skills.

In the spirit of Kipling, though, I'm also very glad to know they're there, doing what has to be done: mastering the deadliest arts and cultivating the fiercest spirits so that the rest of us can go on living our highly civilized lives. Thanks again, guys.

04 — Not mafficking.     The news of Osama bin Laden's death brought rejoicing crowds out into the streets of American cities in what used to be called — and according to my dictionary still can be called — "mafficking." I'll leave you to look up the verb "maffick" for yourselves— it has an interesting etymology.

I don't live in a city so I wasn't mafficking. I didn't feel much like it anyway. As satisfying as bin Laden's death was, the War on Terror has been conducted so wastefully, with so many blunders, as to take the edge off the pleasure I feel at our occasional victories.

Let me try to explain myself. Mid-morning on September 11th 2001, as I was watching the Twin Towers burn on my TV screen, I got a phone call from Kathy Lopez at NRO. Could I give her eight hundred words on what had happened? I said I sure could, and went to my computer and knocked out a column, and emailed it in to Kathy. It's there in the NRO archives somewhere, and on my own website.

Here's part of what I wrote, quote:

This is not an easy enemy to confront. This will not be a matter of great troop movements, of trenches and fleets and squadrons and massed charges. This will be small teams of inconceivably brave men and women, working in strange places, unknown and unacknowledged. But is the same enemy, the same truth, of which Kipling spoke: evil, naked and proud: "a crazed and driven foe." This is what humanity has faced before, since our story began to be written down. This is civilization versus barbarism.

End quote. Last Sunday's mission, the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, was precisely the kind of thing I was predicting: "small teams of inconceivably brave men and women, working in strange places, unknown and unacknowledged." That's the right way to conduct a War on Terror.

Our government had other ideas. We sent great armies into Afghanistan and Iraq. We spent colossal sums of money — well over a trillion dollars to date. We sacrificed thousands of our military personnel — four and a half thousand in Iraq, one and a half thousand in Afghanistan. Still it goes on: we've had eight combat deaths in Iraq this year, seventy-two in Afghanistan.

Osama bin Laden once boasted that his 9/11 operation was the most highly leveraged investment in history. It cost him $500,000, he said, but it had cost the American economy $500 billion — a return on investment of 99,999,900 percent. He was speaking of the operation's effect on Wall Street, on the stock of airline companies and so on.

If you look at the numbers I quoted a moment ago, though, they are just as embarrassing. Those 19 dead martyrs of his led to three thousand American civilian deaths and six thousand military. That's a rate of return of nearly fifty thousand percent. Taking the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan so far as one and a half trillion dollars, that's a return on investment of three hundred million percent. You see why I'm not cheering?

If we had stuck with operations like last Sunday's— the operations I foresaw on 9/11 — supplemented by the kind of diligent intelligence work that makes such operations possible, and further supplemented by the kind of remote drone attacks that have decimated Al Qaeda's senior ranks, there'd be cause for unrestrained jubilation at our victories. As it is, those victories are glowing lights in the shadow of much waste and folly.

05 — The political angle.     There is of course a political angle to the Osama bin Laden killing, as there is to any public event involving government action.

Conservatives would much rather such a triumph had not occurred under a left-wing administration — an administration that, while with one hand it has carried out this brilliant mission, with the other has been working to enlarge federal power, stifle our liberties, and further load down our struggling economy with taxes, regulations, and litigation.

Personally I'll give Barack Obama the credit that's due to him. He authorized this mission; he was involved in the planning of it at some level; and it would be churlish indeed to complain at his basking in the glory of its success; though I'll note that much of that dogged intelligence work that got us to the compound in Abbottabad was initiated and funded by the previous administration.

Furthermore, on Wednesday this week Obama came to Ground Zero here in New York and behaved like a real President for once, like an American gentleman. He met with cops, firefighters, and relatives of 9/11 victims — groups who, my intuition tells me, are by no means heavily loaded up with Obama supporters. Talking to the press afterwards, they all gave him top marks, said he was gracious and appropriate. I can't even imagine voting for Barack Obama; but he's the president, and for once he was presidential.

Will this be a boost for Obama in the '012 campaign? Nah. A week is a long time in politics, and there are 78 weeks to go before next November's voting. As several commentators have pointed out, we are only a little further along in the '012 election cycle than Bush 41 was in the 1992 cycle at the time he pulled off a stunning victory in Gulf War I. That victory didn't help Bush; this one won't help Obama.

All the issues that have filled our newspapers this past few months — the crises of debts and entitlements, high unemployment, feeble recovery, the sinking dollar, bankrupt states at war with public-employee unions — all these things will be seven degrees worse going into the '012 election, unless there's a minor economic miracle. If Republicans can't come up with a convincing challenger, Obama may be able to pose as the guy with solutions. Or, if things get really bad and the GOP puts forward a strong candidate, the electorate may dump Obama. Those will be the dynamics of the '012 election. Osama bin who?

06 — Innocents abroad.     Along with domestic political considerations, there is also foreign policy to be reconsidered.

In particular, the question of what the heck we do about Pakistan is going to be at the front of public discussion. I guess it's just possible that nobody in the Pakistani state apparatus had any idea that Osama bin Laden was living in the Pakistani equivalent of Maclean, Virginia, but I have yet to meet anyone who believes it. What everybody I meet does believe is that we've been taken for suckers, to the tune of three billion dollars a year.

I don't mean to give any offense here, but there are matters of national character involved. Americans are very nice people who want to do good in the world. We believe that we, our country, is possessed of a special kind of democratic virtue, with a special mission to spread that virtue in the world, and a special desire to be admired for it.

I have to tell you, as a naturalized citizen born and raised outside that righteous, confident glow, that all too often these good and noble instincts set us up to be chumps. Generosity of spirit, conviction of virtue, missionary endeavor, and a desire to be loved are all very well: but in a world of amoral gangsters, wily bazaar traders, and hundreds of millions who like their customary way of life and prefer it to what we offer them, we are easy marks.

If we want to stay in Afghanistan, we need Pakistan's co-operation, so we have to swallow our anger and try not to think about Pakistan's movers and shakers rolling around on the floor laughing helplessly at what clueless suckers we are.

That's if we want to stay in Afghanistan. Why do we want to stay in Afghanistan, though? The war we're fighting there has long since ceased to have any point. Hamid Karzai and his kin are milking us just as cynically and ruthlessly as the Pakis are. The Taliban are just waiting us out. Nine years after Dick Cheney said, quote, "The Taliban regime is out of business, permanently," nine years on, the Taliban are dominant in a third of Afghanistan's provinces. We should cut a deal with them, make quite sure they know what will happen if they ever again allow their country to be a base for our enemies, and get out of there. As well as wrapping up a futile war, this will have the great advantage of removing Pakistan from the list of countries we need to be nice to.

Let's face it, in dealing with hardened thieves and liars like the people who run Pakistan, we Americans are babes in the woods, innocents abroad. This is not the kind of thing we're good at.

As a patriotic American, I don't want to see my country go on being the chump of the world. If we can't be as wily, cunning, and ruthless as these Third World godfathers, let's just keep them at arm's length. We're fourteen trillion dollars in debt. For starters towards dealing with that problem, let's stop writing checks to Ali Baba and the forty thieves of Islamabad.

07 — Innocents abroad.     The killing of bin Laden, and the circumstances surrounding it, were a feast for conspiracy theorists — a category of humanity that seems to include around ninety percent of Muslims.

Along with … Cindy Sheehan. Remember Cindy Sheehan, with the Homeric epithet "antiwar activist."? Here was Cindy writing on her Facebook page Monday, quote: "I am sorry, but if you believe the newest death of Osama bin Laden, you're stupid. Just think to yourself — they paraded Saddam's dead sons around to prove they were dead — why do you suppose they hastily buried this version of Osama bin Laden at sea?" End quote.

Jeez, I dunno Cindy: For just the reasons they said, perhaps? I'll allow those aren't very smart reasons, but then, this is government work. Perhaps they used up all their smarts in the actual raid.

There's no stopping the conspiracists, though. Just four days after the event I've logged the following:

  • Bin Laden died in December 2001 from a lung disease. The Taliban held a funeral for him. This made-up story about SEALs is just an opening shot in the 2012 election campaign.
  • A variation of that: Yes, bin Laden died years ago, but we've kept his body on ice all this time.
  • Bin Laden was a tool of ours all along. He planned the 9/11 attacks under CIA direction, to strengthen the war faction in George W. Bush's government. We'd heard that bin Laden was about to spill the beans, so we offed him.
  • We've known bin Laden's whereabouts for a long time, but wanted to stage the killing at the right time. This is the right time because Obama wants cover for a pullout from Afghanistan.
  • The killing of bin Laden was initiated by the Pakistanis. Bin Laden had outlived his usefulness to them, so they revelaed his whereabouts to us.
  • The SEALs captured bin Laden alive, but after a debate in the White House were ordered to shoot him.
  • The reason for the sea burial is that bin Laden was actually shot in the back, trying to get away from the SEALs.

Et cetera, et cetera. To the great tribe of people who sit muttering to themselves in public libraries and on park benches, to all the Truthers and Birthers, you can now add another cohort: the Deathers. We shall be hearing from them for years, you may be sure.

I speak here as a person just temperamentally allergic to conspiracy theories. They belong, in my mind, to that much bigger continent of ideas whose central organizing doctrine is that things are other than they seem, the continent of gnosticism.

Now I know of course that things sometimes are other than what they seem. As a connoisseur of mathematical paradoxes and sometime student of relativity theory and quantum mechanics, I'm very well aware of that.

In human affairs, however, it's not the way to bet. Furthermore, it engenders a suspicious, mistrustful cast of mind that can all too easily tip over into paranoid insanity.

It's especially not the way to bet when discussing government action. Government, most of the time, is a great blind blundering beast, incapable of any kind of subtlety. What you see is what you get, with due allowance for stupidity and incompetence.

So no sale here on conspiracy theories. I don't doubt the administration fudged up some of the details, or just got them wrong, but I don't see any strong reason to doubt that what happened in Abbottabad and the Arabian Sea on Monday is pretty much what we've been told happened.

If there's even halfway-convincing evidence to the contrary, I haven't seen it. And if Cindy Sheehan thinks I'm stupid, I guess I'll just have to live with that as best I can.

08 — Sidebar issues.     The Osama bin Laden termination story came with a bunch of sidebar issues, all of them good for discussion round the office water cooler.

There was for example the issue of bin Laden's burial at sea. A lot of people thought this was a dumb idea. The logic was easy enough to grasp. A burial on land, or even a cremation and the scattering of ashes, would invite pilgrimages to the scene. The downside of a burial at sea is that if at some future date you need to examine the body, you don't have it.

There were ways this could have been finessed. The U.S. military has plenty of land, including entire islands inhabited by no-one but our military. They could have buried him there — on Diego Garcia, for example. I guess the argument for a sea burial was one of closure. Why, after all, would you ever need to dig the guy up? Only to counter some conspiracy theory, surely; and conspiracy theorists are ingenious enough to always counter-counter your counter. On balance I think the sea burial was right.

Then there's the matter of releasing photographs of the deceased. Should we or shouldn't we? I confess I can't really engage with this. Again, the main impulse here is to quash conspiracy theories; but conspiracy theories by their nature can never be squashed. I can't see any reason why pictures shouldn't be released, but if they're not, I won't lose sleep over it.

The Department of Defense seems to be arguing that releasing pictures of the dead bin Laden would cause offense to Muslims. I'll leave you to figure out for yourself what I think about that.

Then there are some issues over the legality and morality of the killing. Eric Holder came a-lawyering in to assure the Senate Judiciary Committee that, quote, "The operation in which Osama bin Laden was killed was lawful." We all politely tried to pretend we were not thinking about what Holder would be saying if the operation had happened under a Republican administration. Still, since none of his people seem to have been hurt by the SEALs in Abbottabad, I guess there are good psychological grounds, as well as political ones, for the Attorney General's insouciance.

Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, begs to differ with our Attorney General. She has demanded that the administration offer proof that the bin Laden operation complied with international law. Yo, Team Six, there's your next target right there.

Another sidebar issue was the use of "Geronimo!" as the SEALs' code name for bin Laden. This brought out the usual chorus of professional victims keening and weeping and displaying their sores — in this case Apaches and other Indian tribes. You can cut this one a couple of ways.

To white settlers in the southwest, Geronimo was a psychopathic murderer who deserved much worse than he actually got. For them, the name of Geronimo would be a foul curse word. To the Mexican and American soldiers who had to engage in combat with him, on the other hand, Geronimo was a brave and resourceful warrior and worthy opponent, so they probably took his name as a compliment.

The argument is embedded in the larger issue of what we should think of the subjugation of the Indian tribes by Europeans in the 19th century. Speaking personally, as a person who thinks that civilization is much preferable to barbarism, I believe it was a good thing; but I don't expect Apaches to agree with me. I suppose they would have preferred something else for the SEALs' code word: "Custer," perhaps.

Well, vae victis, guys. Suck it down.

And then there were the celebrations, all that mafficking. Some commentators of the prissier kind said it was all in disgracefully bad taste.

I don't know about that. As a long-time resident of New York City, I have been steeped in exquisitely good taste for so long, I wouldn't know the other thing if I saw it. In this context, I'll only note that among the cocktails available in city bars this week are one called the Double Tap, that's two shots of any American whiskey on the rocks, and the Osama bin Shot, which is one shot of vodka topped with blood-red grenadine. Ah yes, New York, the world capital of good taste.

09 — Aftermath.     Finally: What happens now? Where does the War on Terror go? What will be the long-term effect of Osama bin Laden's killing?

The War on Terror I'm afraid will grind on. I'd like to hope it will grind on in the manner I foresaw on 9/11 — as a war by small units operating covertly in raids like the one we saw last Sunday, supplemented as necessary with drone attacks, backed up with good electronic and human intelligence gathering.

As long as there are crazy Islamists like Osama bin Laden determined to make asymmetric warfare against our country, we have to fight back, hunting them down and killing them. There's no reason to think this will stop just because bin Laden is dead.

Will enraged terrorists bend their efforts to wiping the smile off our faces by staging something soon, likely on September 11? I wouldn't be surprised, and I'm sure they'd like to. Those covert small-unit operations I dreamed of on 9/11 have degraded their capability, though, helped of course by drone attacks and improved intelligence. That building soccer fields in Kandahar or installing an Iran-friendly government in Baghdad have had anything to do with it, I seriously doubt, but I don't think anyone could say terrorism is as big a threat today as it was ten years ago.

They'll get lucky once in a while. We'll mourn our dead, then go on a hunt for the people responsible. That's the nature of the thing. In a nation where 45,000 people die in traffic accidents every year, terrorism is a nuisance. The thing we have to dread is nuclear terrorism; but you can argue that our heightened vigilance since 9/11 has made that ultimate horror less likely.

The jihad will rumble on, though. Bin Laden's death may even be an inspiration to the jihadists. Peter Bergen, in his recent book The Longest War, reminds us that Sayyid Qutb, the godfather of modern jihadism, who was executed by the Egyptian government in 1966, was revered by Osama bin Laden and presumably is still revered by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who may succeed bin Laden as leader of al-Qaeda. Quote from Peter Bergen's book, page 349 — and note the book was published in January this year, while bin Laden was still alive — quote:

In the longer term bin Laden's "martyrdom" would likely give a boost to the power of his ideas. Sayyid Qutb, generally regarded as the Lenin of the jihadist movement, was a relatively obscure writer before his execution by the Egyptian government in 1966. After his death, Qutb's writings, which called for holy wars against the enemies of Islam, became influential. The same process will likely happen with the death of bin Laden, but to a larger degree, as bin Laden's prestige and fame far eclipses Qutb's. And so, in death, bin Laden's ideas will likely attain some lasting currency.

End quote. My guess is that Peter Bergen is right. There are plenty more where Osama bin Laden came from, and there's plenty more War on Terror still to fight. Let's not decommission the Navy SEALs just yet.

10 — Signoff.     There you are, ladies and gents: a full Osama bin Laden termination-a-thon. I think I covered all bases; and I don't believe I even once said "Obama" when I should have said "Osama," or vice versa, which — asks anyone who does public commentary for a living — is surprisingly hard to avoid.

Good riddance to bad rubbish, as we say back in the Mother Country. The conspiracy theorists can gibber away to their heart's content, but I say our government, and our president, did a good thing for once, and the world's a better place this weekend than last.

Now: about spending, the deficit, the national debt, entitlements, unemployment, the education bubble, multiculturalism, state finances, illegal immigration, legal immigration, energy policy, health care, the drug wars, the dollar, the EU, China, …

[Music clip: From Haydn's Derbyshire Marches]