MANICHEAN MACHINATIONS


Fred Kaplan wrote an interesting article today in Slate about what appears to be a diabolical terrorist plot that was foiled by British intelligence:

Little is yet known about the plot to blow up at least a half-dozen airplanes as they carried hundreds of passengers over the Atlantic Ocean from England to America. But one thing seems clear: The plot was foiled because of intelligence information, much of it provided by a nasty source that has itself been linked to terrorist organizations.

According to the Times of London, Pakistan’s intelligence service worked “closely with MI5 and Scotland Yard” and, at the request of British authorities, supplied information that proved “crucial in thwarting the attacks” and in arresting the alleged conspirators, most of them apparently of Pakistani descent.

If police hadn’t nabbed them in their homes during a sweeping raid, the plotters would likely have sailed through airport security. Metal detectors are blind to liquid explosives. Short of an amazing stroke of luck (along the lines of the flight attendant who sniffed out Richard Reid’s attempt to ignite his shoe bomb on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001), not even the most astute guard would have looked twice at a soft-drink container or at the flash camera that was reportedly to trigger the blast.

Preventing (terrorist attacks) from happening requires good intelligence, and good intelligence requires contacts with the sort of people who hang around the dark alleys of the world.

There’s a broader lesson here, and it speaks to the Bush administration’s present jam throughout the Middle East and in other danger zones. If the British had adopted the same policy toward dealing with Pakistan that Bush has adopted toward dealing with, say, Syria or Iran (namely, it’s an evil regime, and we don’t speak with evil regimes) (DRL: bullshit), then a lot of passenger planes would have shattered and spilled into the ocean, hundreds or thousands of people would have died, and the world would have suddenly been plunged into very scary territory.

It is time to ask: Which is the more “moral” course�to shun odious regimes as a matter of principle or to take unpleasant steps that might prevent mass terror?

The two courses aren’t always mutually exclusive. There are degrees of odiousness, some of them intolerable; and there are degrees of terror, some of them unavoidable.

In this light, it’s worth looking back at an article by Seymour Hersh in the July 28, 2003, issue of The New Yorker. Hersh reported that, in the months following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Syria emerged as “one of the CIA’s most effective intelligence allies in the fight against al-Qaeda.” Syria had hundreds of files on al-Qaida, including dossiers on those who had participated�or wanted to participate�in the 9/11 attacks. Syrian spies had penetrated al-Qaida cells throughout the Middle East, and Syrian President Bashar

Assad was passing on loads of data to the CIA and the FBI. Some of these tips apparently foiled al-Qaida plots, including a plan to fly an explosives-laden glider into the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters.

Assad’s interests in this exchange were straightforward. As he explained to Hersh, al-Qaida had links to Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, which posed a threat to Assad’s own government. “The need to cooperate [with the United States] was self-evident,” he said. Hersh noted a more opportunistic motive: Assad wanted to get off the official U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism; doing so would have allowed Syria to receive aid and investment. (In short, Assad wanted Syria to become the next Saudi Arabia. Both countries hate Jews, hate Israel, have given aid to terrorists, suppress human rights, and monopolize the world’s oil supply, by the way. But we’re “allies” with only one)
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In a passage that’s even more intriguing now than it was three years ago, Hersh reported that, in the fall of 2002, Gen. Hassan Khalil, head of Syrian military intelligence, told Washington that, in exchange for reopened relationships, Syria would impose restrictions on the political and military actions of Hezbollah.

A huge interagency feud broke out over what to do about the Syrian offer. The State Department and the CIA, which particularly valued Syria’s intelligence pipeline, favored pursuing the talks. The civilian leaders in the Pentagon opposed the move; they were in the midst of planning the invasion of Iraq, and “regime change” in Syria was next on their to-do list (as Gore Vidal claimed in his recent book, Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia). Why Syria in particular, only Bill Krystol, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, John Bolton, and John Podhoretz know for sure.

The debate was soon moot. Once the war in Iraq began, Assad stopped the flow. Yet there he was, a few months later, telling Hersh that he was willing to turn the spigot back on again�to no response from the Bush administration. (Either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists. Unless the terrorists have taken us hostage, in which case you’re with us because we’re with them. Or something like that).

It’s unclear�Hersh noted as much in his article�where resumed talks might have led. Would Assad really have lowered the hammer on Hezbollah? If he had refused to do so, how far could the United States have pursued the relationship?

Still, the episode clearly shows�as does Pakistan’s recent cooperation with MI5 and Scotland Yard�that the concept of morality in international relations is more complex than President Bush sometimes seems to recognize. Consider this: Had the CIA won the internal debate on whether to deal with Syria, is it possible that the current war between Israel and Hezbollah might never have taken place? How many compromises of “principle” would that have been worth?

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“If you can’t take a little bloody nose,” Q once told Picard, “maybe you ought to go home and hide under your bed.”

The Star Trek analogy that is even more apropos (almost deadly so) of this situation stems from a second-season episode of Voyager, “Alliances.”

A plot summary:

A series of brutal attacks by the Kazon (an emeny race with a really bad hairdo) leaves Voyager shaken and seriously damaged; the crew worried that if things continue in this manner, the ship will be destroyed long before it reaches the Alpha Quadrant (i.e. Earth). As a result, Chakotay suggests to Janeway that maybe the ship should do some Maquis-style thinking (i.e. realpolitik) and make a deal with the Kazon. Unfortunately, this goes against everything Janeway believes about Starfleet protocol and the Prime Directive issues (i..e. “stay the course,” “don’t negotiate with terrorists.”)

So, Janeway arranges a meeting with a Kazon vessel and its crew. This leads one outspoken Maquis crewman to voice his opinion: That Voyager should just give the Kazon the technology they want in exchange for a truce. Janeway flat out tells him that she would sooner destroy the ship than hand pieces of it over to the Kazon (“Starfleet rules prohibit giving “enemy” cultures such technology, but the premise of Voyager is that the ship is completely cut off from Starfleet; in the opening episode, it was hurtled 70,000 light years away from Earth, which means that it would take the ship 70 years to get back. Do/should/can these “rules” apply in situations never contemplated by their authors? Why, this almost sounds like an argument about….. never mind). Chakotay (Janeway’s first officer) thinks there may be a different way of bending the Prime Directive without breaking it completely.

Meanwhile, Neelix, the crew member whose function was never defined, prepares for a meeting with another Kazon faction (there are multiple factions, often with mutually exclusive interests). Neelix goes to the meeting by shuttle and is thrown into a cell with a group of Trabe refugees, a race despised mutually by all the Kazon factions.

Neelix allies himself with the Trabe to escape the Kazon in a jailbreak scene, and then Neelix and the Trabe rendezvous with Voyager. A Trabe governor named Mabus (Charles Lucia) lays everything down, including some interesting backstory explaining why the Kazon hate the Trabe, and why the Kazon have become a race of angry armies. It turns out the Trabe persecuted the Kazon like animals, almost treating them like slaves. Thirty years ago, when the Kazon finally got fed up, they exploded into violence and exiled the Trabe. Mabus admits the Trabe were wrong to treat the Kazon the way they did, and he offers to ally himself with Janeway. Together both Voyager and the Trabe would be less vulnerable.

This will surely make the Kazon furious. However, Mabus also believes that together, Voyager and the Trabe can negotiate with the Kazon and bring peace among everyone. It’s a genuine gesture that could benefit everybody, so Janeway accepts it. Mabus arranges a meeting on Sobras and invites all the Kazon sect leaders.
The meeting is bound to be problematic, however. Several Kazon bigwigs, upon hearing the news, begin plotting almost instantly. Neelix hears a rumor that someone is planning an assassination attempt. And no Kazon trusts the Trabe.

The episode culminates with a chilling revelation and special effects display, in which a Trabe starship tries to kill all the Kazon leaders by descending from space, hovering outside the window of the negotiation building and opening fire. Fortunately, Janeway realizes the Trabe’s deception just in time to warn everybody to GET DOWN!

The idea of the Trabe using Voyager under the pretense of peace just to kill everybody is a rather unsettling display that the Delta Quadrant doesn’t seem (mind you, this was season two of seven – so let’s emphasize those words “doesn’t seem”) to operate with many rules or underlying values. Janeway’s subsequent confrontation with Mabus over his deceitful actions is very potent, showing an extremely forceful and angry, but very plausible, Captain Janeway.

“Troublesome,” though, as a reviewer said, however, is the very ending, when Janeway tells the crew she thinks there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this: That in this chaotic quadrant of very few rules, the best ally Voyager has are the principles and rules of the Federation (i.e. “they hate us for our freedom.”). Sure, this is a nicely done speech, but I’m not really sure it’s that easy. Is not making a deal and doing, in Chakotay’s words, “business as usual” really going to help the crew in their next dealing with the Kazon? Or other enemy species? “I’m inclined to say no. This speech supplies a genuinely positive, non-cynical Star Trek ending, but it doesn’t sit right considering all the deceit in the episode. Under the drastic circumstances, wouldn’t Chakotay’s attitude that you have to do what you can to survive be somewhat more appropriate, or at least worth another look? The ending as it is presents a cut-and-dry solution to a complex problem, where a more ambiguous approach would have been better. I would just as soon prefer no speech at all, leaving it up to the audience to reflect on the events that have unfolded. Janeway’s attitude that the crew will get by if they hold to their principles has a strong air of naivete that rubs me the wrong way.”

Voyager lasted for seven years. The writers, from the point of “Alliances” on, made a conscious decision to write not a series, but a show consisting of self-contained, hour-long episodes, that basically played like “The Next Generation” in a far away place. Basically, it was as if they swallowed Janeway’s speech whole (on TNG< Starfleet rules were rarely broken). The effect of this non-rule-breaking was to squander the show's inherent potential to be something new and different - a show where survival depended upon creativity, compromise, and circumstance, not upon contrivance and coincidence. As our reviewer noted in his review of one of the very last shows (which, ironically, featured Voyager cooperating with a group of alien ships to escape a proverbial black hole – it was almost as if the writers – if they were conscious of what they were doing – were making penance for the sin of “alliances”) stated: “[I] think of [“Alliances] now as one of the biggest turning-point mistakes Voyager ever made. In that episode, a deal gone bad convinced Janeway that the Delta Quadrant was a socially turbulent and dangerous place. Her very naive solution was that staying the same would prevail over the prospect of changing.” At least Janeway’s intentions were noble. The Bush people don’t even have that excuse. Their Middle-East “allies” are a bunch of thugs, and the reason why they have allied themselves with some thugs as opposed to others is that the former thugs are better business partners and better arms traders. Every single reason the Bushies have given for refusing to work with admittedly despicable people (with whom they’ve already worked, just different ones) to gain valuable intelligence rings false: “Doing so would endanger democracy in the Middle East.” (Like they care about whether Israel or any other country there is Democratic). “We don’t negotiate or even talk to terrorists.” (Then why was our air base removed from Saudi Arabia when Osama requested it be removed shortly after Sept. 11th? What was Iran-Contra if not a giant negotiation with terrorists? Removing Libya from our enemies list? Negotiating with terrorists. We negotiate with whom its in our best interests to negotiate. Note how “best interests,” obviously, are the best interests of the American people only if the people are really, really lucky). “We have nothing to talk about.” (Instead of saying that, make clear that at the first sign of deception, there will be no talks, and no deals, and that the offending nation will return to pariah status). “It’s immoral.” (Please, please, Oh Lord Please). It arguably took Voyager a superfluos six years to get home simply because Janeway stood “alone with her principles” (had she opened herself up to alliances, she could have found a quicker way home). As long as we continue to abide by a Prime Directive that doesn’t even exist, we’ll NEVER find our way home.


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