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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Here's a nice, short piece - with a 'what-goes around-comes-around' angle - about why Otto Reich's nomination to be under secretary of state for the western hemisphere is almost certainly toast, done-for, kaput. Short run-down: support for anti-Castro terrorism no longer flies in the post-9/11 world.

Well, it's official: we're in a recession and the recession began in March 2001.

That's the headline in today's New York Times ("Economists Make It Official: U.S. Is in Recession") and many other papers around the country. "The group of economists that tracks business cycles," writes Richard Stevenson in the Times, "made official today what has been apparent to laid-off workers and struggling businesses for months: the longest economic expansion on record gave way earlier this year to the first recession in a decade and the 10th since World War II."

Only it's not official. The report is the product of a standing committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a quite well-respected but also quite private organization of academic and private sector economists - facts which are readily available on the NBER's website.

The Washington Post managed this one a bit better. "The U.S. economy has been in recession since March," says the Post's article, "the last month of a 10-year expansion that was the longest in U.S. history, a committee of academic economists announced yesterday."

Guys, how 'bout some fact-checking on this stuff?

This is a touchy topic. But I think it's gotta be broached. If you've seen Beneath the Veil, Saira Shah's riveting and courageous documentary about women under Taliban rule (running on CNN in the United States) you certainly remember the horrific images of a burqa-clad woman being publicly executed in a soccer stadium in Kabul. A reference to the video even made it into President Bush's recent speech at the United Nations.

In the context of the documentary you get the impression that the woman was being executed for going burqa-less, or schooling young women, or perhaps some sexual infraction the Taliban would have no patience for. You also get the impression this is a common occurrence.

But it turns out she was being executed for braining her husband with a hammer while he slept. And the execution, which took place in November 1999 (three years after the Taliban took power), was also the first time a woman had been executed under Taliban rule.

Don't get me wrong. The images are horrific. And the reality no less so: a crude, public death by gunfire - a gruesome spectacle after what I'm sure was a rather inadequate trial. I'm an ambivalent opponent of capital punishment. So I don't think people should be executed at all. But I couldn't help thinking at least a little differently about this one incident after I learned a bit more about the case.

The Taliban are such a rotten, barbaric crew that there's no shortage of reasons to despise them and root them out. And I'm not going to lose a lot of sleep thinking they got a bad rap for this woman's execution. But a little more context in this case was really in order.

I thought the last post was pretty clear about whether I agreed with using military tribunals to mete out punishment to people who might well be 'terrorists' but who couldn't be accused of any specific and definable crime. But I've gotten a few emails asking. So apparently it wasn't as clear as I thought.

The short answer is, 'no' I don't agree with it.

But if readers noted a tinge of ambivalence in what I wrote, it's because I think the problem is a serious one. What do we do if hundreds of hardened, bin Laden-worshipping Al Qaeda fighters fall into our hands? And what if we don't have any evidence of specific crimes they've committed? What do we do? Just send them on their way? That hardly seems wise. Especially given all the trouble, carnage and expense we've undertaken to destroy Al Qaeda.

But it's a question we may soon have to confront.

That's a real dilemma and I'm not sure what the solution is. I just don't think hiding whatever we decide to do with them behind the cloak of non-rule of law, drumhead courts is the way to proceed. But since this is the only situation in which military tribunals would seem to be highly useful, I speculated that this exigency might be precisely what they're intended for.

And by the way, here's another rock-solid column by Bill Safire on the military tribunal question. It turns out the trial of those Nazi saboteurs so frequently mentioned in defense of the Bush order may actually be an object lesson in why military tribunals are not such a hot idea. And by the way, if my recollection serves, the Nazi saboteur Safire mentions - the one who turned the crew in - was one of the two who escaped the chair. I think he got life. Which under the circumstances actually seems a bit harsh.

As noted before, I find it hard to sustain the argument that military tribunals are necessary to try terrorists who might under normal circumstances have been tried in civilian courts. But there is another possibility, another scenario, in which I can imagine the government might find them quite useful ...

Let's start with a question. Does anyone know what law it would be that the military tribunals would administer? As in, the US Code administered in the federal courts? The Uniform Code of Military Justice? I'm not a lawyer. But my layman's reading of the order tells me that this is left pretty vague and probably for the Secretary of Defense or the tribunals themselves to devise.

Section 1, subsection E says those called before military tribunals will be "tried for violations of the laws of war and other applicable laws..." The next subsection (F) says it is "not practicable to apply ... the principles of law and the rules of evidence generally recognized in the trial of criminal cases in the United States district courts."

Again, it sounds to me like these military tribunals are designed not just to give the government tons of leeway on the procedure end but on the law end as well.

And perhaps here's why.

We've heard a lot recently about these non-Afghan fighters (Pakistanis, Chechens, Saudis, etc.) holding out in places like Kunduz - many of whom are actually linked to Al Qaeda. For present heuristic purposes at least, let's assume these are hardcore, well-trained, well-indoctrinated terrorists - which indeed many of them are. In many cases we won't have any evidence of specific terrorist acts these guys (for once, I think we can say 'guys' with some confidence) have committed. In many instances, they may well not even have committed any particular terrorist act or crime - yet.

So what to do with them? Under American law, maybe not much. One can easily imagine a situation in which it wouldn't so much be hard to convict them in our courts, but impossible even to prosecute them, because they couldn't be shown to have committed any definable or specific crime which our law recognizes.

This is a problem which, for better or worse, military tribunals might be quite well-equipped to handle. American law - in fact the rule of law generally - looks not at what you are but what you've done. Military tribunals might be useful for doing the opposite.

It now seems increasingly clear, with a little reflection and after some more voices have chimed in, that President Bush's executive order creating military tribunals is profoundly ill-conceived. What damns it now is not so much the essence of the matter - the actual tribunals, which damn themselves sufficiently - but the outlying facts.

Consider a few ...

First, the fact that the order is wildly and recklessly overdrawn, when this is precisely the sort of order you'd want to draw quite narrowly. Anyone who is not a United States citizen can be bumped out of the civilian courts and into the ersatz military tribunal system on the simple say-so of the president. That is, almost by definition, arbitrary.

Second, not only did the president not call upon the Congress to enact legislation creating the tribunals, he also didn't announce his intention to issue the order (even if informally) ahead of time - something that would have allowed some de facto consultation and comment.

The best argument for the tribunals is the need to safeguard intelligence assets. But upon examination, the federal courts seem to have ample protections already in place to achieve that end.

The more irascible sort of conservative will likely see this sort of argument as liberal carping or out-of-touch civil libertarian fastidiousnes that disqualifies the arguer as someone not up to the challenge of facing the terrorist threat. But as we noted a week or so back, the issue is necessity. And there looks to be little here.

Coming up next, what military tribunals might really be for.

I just finished Robert Kaplan's Soldiers of God, his book of reportage of the Afghan mujahidin's fight against the Soviets in the 1980s, and I really recommend it. The read is engrossing. The prose is disciplined yet colorful. And reading the book, the Afghan people and place-names you're seeing on CNN will slowly break out of two-dimensions into three.

It surprises me that I'd have such a positive reaction because I've always had very mixed feelings about Kaplan's work, particularly based on his Balkan reportage, much of which is in Balkan Ghosts.

Kaplan's writing is about foreign cultures and geopolitics; but it's essentially travel writing, if of the very highest sort. And good travel writing is an inherently and deeply subjective genre.

Yet I always felt Kaplan had a tendency to go too native. A good writer has to understand the prejudices of the people he writes about. But in Balkan Ghosts, with respect to the Serbs, he seemed to adopt them. His view of the Serbs' self-explaining myths was such an internal one that they seemed to become his governing, if not wholly uncritical, vision of what was happening in Yugoslavia and Kosovo in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This caught my attention in Balkan Ghosts because I knew a bit about the topic. And so I had my eye out for it in Soldiers of God, which is about a subject I know much, much less about. And certainly sometimes it's there. As in this passage, in the chapter on Kandahar, where Kaplan describes the southern city's culture as "pure Afghan, untouched by the culturally corrupting influences of Iran that had bastardized Herat or those of the Indian subcontinent that had bastardized Kabul." (p.192)

But this fault, if it is a fault - and I'm not certain of it - is more than outweighed by the quality of the reportage and the wealth of very internal knowledge Kaplan is able to convey.

A few other small points. The book was first published in 1990 and this republication has a new chapter, 'The Lawless Frontier', which I think is based on a recent essay in The Atlantic. It's more rushed and overview-like than the rest of the book. And there's little editing to make it flow from the rest of the book - a shortcoming I'd have imagined could have been easily rectified, even in the rush to get it out quickly after 9/11 . But this new final chapter does give a chilling and Kaplanesque view of present-day Pakistan which makes you think that getting things in order in Afghanistan may only be a prelude to getting a handle on this wrecked and disintegrating country.

Today's Paul Krugman's column discusses a clear and damning truth. If anything, he underplays it. After 9/11 George W. Bush promised $20 billion to help rebuild New York -- the one part of the United States to suffer widespread damage from the attacks. (The attack on the Pentagon was a grievous wound to national prestige and honor and there was a terrible loss of life - but the physical destruction at least was contained and there's no reason to think there will be fall-out for the local economy.) That promise has now been broken. Instead of $20 billion, it's now going to be a bit more than $10 billion with some vague promises about a few bucks in the future ... maybe.

Of course, this ain't quite as serious as saying you didn't inhale when you did. But surely this sort of broken promise must count for something, right? Maybe the aid would have been more forthcoming if the attacks had centered on some 'bama catfish farms rather than lower Manhattan?

Sound like I'm reverting to pre-9/11 form? Well, just trying to get with the program. Everybody's doing it.

In response to yesterday's post on books about the Ottoman empire, a number of readers wrote in to recommend Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire by Lord Kinross. I've read the Kinross book and it's currently published in a big pulpy volume clearly intended to be a mainstay on bookstore shelves for decades to come. I will say that it is the best of the single volume histories on the subject that I've read. I just thought it was a bit heavy on political doings, recitations of Sultans (the achilles heel of Ottoman history writing), and just generally grade B history writing. But if you're hunting around for a full-length single-volume history of Ottoman Turkey that'd probably be your best bet, though I still think the slender Itzokowitz book mentioned in the post below is a tour de force and the best place to start.

Here is a very good piece by Anne Applebaum in Slate about Turkey and the prospect of the Turks leading a peace-keeping force in Afghanistan. The piece is really a paean to Turkish secularism -- or rather Kemalism, Turkey's state ideology, originated by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state.

Talking Points is an ardent Turkophile, for a number of reasons, several of which are touched upon in Applebaum's piece. I hope to be talking more about this. But for the moment let me just mention a few of what I've found to be some of the better books on the topic.

Though I've read many, I still haven't read a really good full-length, single-volume history of Ottoman Turkey -- that is, before the fall of the Sultanate and the end of the empire after World War I. Many of the ones I've read either treat the topic with a fanciful exoticism or just end up rattling off Sultans in a less than edifying or satisfying way.

But let me recommend one truly excellent book on the Ottoman Empire, Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition by Norman Itzkowitz. At a bit more than one hundred pages, you can easily dash it off in one sitting. But it's elegantly written, marvelously concise, and provides an excellent overview of a whole epoch of Islamic history, as well as some crucial history of Turkey. Another good read is Andrew Mango's recent biography of Ataturk, entitled, appropriately enough Ataturk.

Hopefully, more on this soon.

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