Downplaying a Massacre

I've chosen to not get involved in discussions of the current Syrian civil war. Unfortuantely, I am exposed to theses discussions anyway because of the people around me. Normally, I just ignore it. However, sometimes something comes up that I cannot ignore. One examplel is this tweet I came across earlier today:

This tweet includes a screenshot from a piece written by a Nassim Taleb. I've seen his name name has come up in some discussions, but I know almost nothing about him. All I do know is his reporting shown in that screenshot:

Note 2. Recall that I am a statistician. When I took a look at the statistics of the conflicts, most appear to be fabrications inflated by Qatari-funded think tanks and their useful idiots?—?by a mechanism the Indians call “Salma told Sabrina”. For instance, we know that Hama’s toll was not the 30–40,000 people report but the only real evidence is closer to 2,000.

Is wrong and should not be taken seriously. Given Taleb is downplaying a massacre, I thought I'd write a short post about this. Because, you know, downplaying massacres is a bad thing.

That excerpt links to another piece which drones on and on about how people are supposedly exaggerating a variety of numbers, but it doesn't provide any real numerical evidence. In fact, it doesn't provide any real evidence at all. Taleb concludes the piece by saying:

Trust none of what you hear, some of what you read, half of what you see goes an old trader adage. As a trader and quant/mathematical statistician, I have been taught to take data seriously, trust nobody’s numbers, and avoid people naive enough to engage in policy based on lurid but questionable pictures of destruction: the fake picture of a dying child is something nobody can question without appearing to be an asshole. As a citizen, I require that the designation “murderer” be determined in a court of law, not by Saudi-funded outlets — once someone is called a murderer or butcher, all bets are off. I cannot believe governments and bureaucrats could be so stupid. But they are.

But this shows all he has to offer in his piece - rhetoric and opinions, no facts. he doesn't provide a shred of evidence which supports his rhetoric or conclusions. Taleb only gets into evidence after the piece in two paragraphs. For today's post, I'll just discuss the first:

PS. It turns that the realistic toll for the Hama uprising by the Moslem Brotherhood of 1979-1982, usually reported to have caused between 30,000 and 40,000 victims, could be around 2,000. More critically, the mysterious swelling of the estimate took place over time, with no novel information. (Data on declassified reports provided by Sharmine Narwani.)

While I say Taleb "gets into evidence" here, I only say that to mean he refers to evidence somebody could actually look at. He doesn't provide the evidence. If a reader doesn't know what Taleb is talking about, they're just out of luck. Taleb couldn't even be bothered to say what "declassified reports" he's talking about.

As it happens, Taleb is wrong to refer to "declassified reports." What he is referring to is a single report by the Defene Intelligence Agency (DIA) from May, 1982 (archived here). Taleb has somehow exaggerated this single report into multiple "reports."

Leaving that aside, the report does appear to support Taleb's claim at first blush as it says:

But this report is not based upon any fact-finding by the DIA. Instead, the DIA report is based upon an examination of the various reporting that was going during and shortly after the 1982 Hama uprising. Here's a primary example:

This shows the sort of thing the DIA relied upon for its report. While Taleb says "we know that Hama's toll was not the 30-40,000 people report" and that "the only real evidence is closer to 2,000," the only things he could possibly point to are things like this - Contemporary reporting. That's not evidence. That's not facts. It's people reporting things during and shortly after a massacre.

Now, it is possible the early reporting on this incident was accurate. SOmetimes early estimates of casualties are right. Other times they are incredibly inaccurate. If we want to know how many people actually died during this incident, what we need to do is look at where different estimates come from. Taleb says:

When I took a look at the statistics of the conflicts, most appear to be fabrications inflated by Qatari-funded think tanks and their useful idiots?—?by a mechanism the Indians call “Salma told Sabrina”.

And:

More critically, the mysterious swelling of the estimate took place over time, with no novel information.

Which would be a good reason to doubt the higher estimates, if what he said were true. It is not. Taleb claims these estimates creeped up over time through what was effectively a game of telephone due to Qatari-funded think tanks and their useful idiots who changed these numbers without any new information. This is a strange delusion to hold.

Taleb may not know this, but there is usually a fair amount of international attention paid to reports of tens of thousands of people being being brutally massacred. In the case of the 1982 Hama uprising, multiple organizations investigated what happened. They sent people to investigate, collect information and do the sort of research you would expect. That is why we can find detailed reporting of brutal acts carried out during the Hama uprising, like this by the Syrian Human Rights Committee:

Although the massacre in February 1982 became very known worldwide, the Syrian regime committed, before this massacre, several other massacres in different places. Many of the losses were women, children and elderly. Of these massacres was the massacre on Jisr Alshaghoor, which took place on the 10th of March 1980. Some sources said that mortars bombed the city and 97 people were shot dead, after being taken from their homes, and 30 houses were demolished there. The massacres of Sarmadah which saw 40 citizens killed, and the massacre of the village Kinsafrah, which took place at the same time as the massacre of Jisr Alshaghoor. This massacre took place when the villagers asked for improved public services, one citizen was killed and 10 injured. Few months later, the massacre of Palmyra prison was committed on the 26th of June 1980, when around 1000 detainees were killed in their cells. Also the massacre in the Mashariqah neighbourhood, occurring on the morning of Eid Al-Adha, which saw 83 citizens killed after being forced out of their flats. And the massacre at the Sunday market where 42 citizens were killed and 150 were injured. Also the massacre of Al-Raqah, that killed tens of citizens who were held captive in a secondary school and burnt to death.

This is background information. I'm quoting it just to point out what happened in Hama was not an isolated incident, but rather, was part of a brutal regime that did horrible things on a regular basis. Here is some reporting on the Hama uprising:

During the two years, 1980-1981, the city of Hama witnessed several attacks that took the lives of hundreds of religious scholars, prominent people as well as ordinary citizens. But according to eyewitnesses and corresponding reports, what happened during the massacre of February can only be named as ‘mass murder’. Over 25,000 people were murdered by the Syrian authorities, which called upon the Special Forces and defence brigades and selected brigades from the army (brigade 47 and brigade 21) with their heavy arms supported by the air forces. Thus, the city became a large military work area. The canons and rocket launchers bombed the city haphazardly for four continuous weeks, during which the city was sealed off and the citizen’s exit was not permitted.
The destroying of districts and killing of the citizens, including entire families:
During the period of mass murder, the regime killed all citizens in certain districts and wiped out entire families.

The massacre in the new Hama district:
On the 3rd day of invading the city of Hama, the Syrian regime defence brigades gathered the citizens of the ‘new Hama district’, in the football field and shot them. Then they raided the houses and killed everyone there. They robbed the people of their belongings. Some sources estimate the victims of the district to be around 1500.

It goes on:

The massacre in the Sooq Alshajarah district:
On the fifth day of the massacre, Sooq Alshajarah district was heavily bombed and the Syrian regime forces invaded the district and shot the young and the old in the streets and followed those who sought refuge into the mosque and killed them all. The victims were estimated to be around 160. The members of the security intelligence and the army forces killed the families of Al-Alwan, Hamood, Kojan and Al Abu Sin including their men, women and children. Some of them were shot, some were stabbed and some of them died under the remains of their bombed houses. On the same day, the regime forces also killed over 70 people, including women and children, after being gathered in AlHabashi shop that sold grain. Then the forces set fire to the shop to kill those who hadn’t died.

And on, and on. I'll just give the taglines:

The massacre in Al-Bayadh district:
The massacre in Sooq Altaweel:
The massacre in the Dabagha district:
The massacre in the Bashoorah district:
The massacre in the Aseedah district:
The massacre in the North district:
The massacre in the East district:
The massacre in the Baroodiah district:
The massacre in the New Mosque:
The massacre in the Sereeheyn cemetery:
The massacre in the Porcelain factory:
The massacre of the blind teachers:
The massacres of the scholars:
The massacre of the children:
The massacre of the young girls:
The massacres of the national hospital:

The last of these is particularly gruesome:

These massacres were more horrible than then imaginable and described. Inside the hospital one of the death troops, which belonged to the defence brigades, settled continuously during all the days of the massacres. Their job was to kill the injured citizens. The situation inside the hospital was horrible; tens of dead bodies were everywhere in the corridors and in the back garden. And in some places, the dead bodies were piled upon each other, and the smell of rotten bodies was spreading. The majority of these bodies belonged to those who were sent to the hospital from the nearby school of manufacturing, which was turned into a prison, where tens of people died everyday.

The majority of the corpses were chopped, disfigured or crushed. Therefore it was difficult to identify them. Everyday, the corpses were gathered in the rubbish trucks and taken to the mass graves.

Sometimes some injured people came to the hospital, they didn’t have to wait long, as the death troops started killing and cutting the wounded bodies with knives and butcher’s knives.
Once they killed a wounded man from the Hawader district, called Sameer Qanoot, and one of the soldiers took out his heart!

Taleb would have you believe this sort of detailed investigation and reporting never happened. He would have you believe the estimate of people massacred in the Hama uprising was only exaggerated from 1,000-2,000 to tens of thousands because of biased individuals blowing things way out of proportion when all they had no evidence.

In reality, people put quite a bit of effort into trying to figure out what happened during this uprising. They started doing so shortly after it happened. While Taleb says:

More critically, the mysterious swelling of the estimate took place over time, with no novel information.

Estimates had risen to 10,000 to 25,000 casualties by the next year. Consider this, taken from a 1983 Amnesty International report:

The report contains a great deal of other troubling information which shows just how horrible the regime in question was, but that doesn't matter for the point of this post. The point of this post is Nassim Taleb wants people to believe the evidence indicates only ~2,000 died during the 1982 Hama uprising instead of the much higher estimates that are widely report. He then wants people to believe that exaggeration suggests estimates for other things are also exaggerated.

However, the only evidence Taleb has to support this view is that early reporting of the massacres in 1982 gave lower estimates of fatalities. He doesn't present this evidence to his readers. He doesn't even tell his readers what the evidence is (other than to give the vague and inaccurate description of "declassified reports"). At the same time, he hand-waves away all contrary reports as supposedly being based upon no "novel information," pretending extensive efforts and detailed investigations simply never existed.

Taleb tells his readers:

Note: Nobody can claim that I am an Assad apologist. Assad blew up our house in Amioun when in 1982 my grandfather, as a member of parliament, voted for Bashir. But I overcome my personal grudge to look at this as a scientist, and a humanist: Sunni Islamic Jihad is far too dangerous to let my grudge get into the way.

He also likes to call results he doesn't like "fabrications." Unfortunately, Taleb is basically just making things up to greatly downplay brutal massacres carried out by the al-Assad regime in Syria.* This post focuses on just one example. There are many more. I don't intend to pursue them because, quite frankly, Taleb's contribution to the discussion of Syrian issues is pathetic. Anyone with any real interest in the Syrian conflict should find better sources to pay attention to.

*Bashar al-Assad is the current President of Syria. The president responsible for the 1982 massacres in Hama and other brutalities of the time was Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father. I point this out both for clarity and because it is confusing Taleb says, "Nobody can claim that I am an Assad apologist. Assad blew up our house in Amioun when in 1982 my grandfather, as a member of parliament, voted for Bashir."

24 comments

  1. I don't comprehend the reason for 'blew up our house'. Is it supposed to be voted against Bashir, or perhaps a reference to Bachir in Lebanon?

  2. I have no idea MikeN. I couldn't figure out what he was saying there. My first thought was that he was saying his home was targeted by the President of Syria because his father voted for someone other than Hafez, but I have no idea if that's what he actually meant.

  3. Brandon, So how could such atrocities happen in countries dominated by the "religion of peace." Of course, there is a continuous track record since roughly 700 AD of this kind of thing. Actually, it makes perfect sense if you realize its really the "religion of submission."

  4. David Young, if you expect fo get anywhere with leading questions like that, I don't think you understand how discussions work. Anyone reading your comment is likely to either go, "I agree!" or, "That's a stupid comment that's wasting everybody's time." Which fine, you're welcome to do. Open comments are open to all sorts of rubbish. I just don't understand why you'd bother. I guess I should be thankful you didn't compare Muslims to Nazis this time though.

  5. Today's post is going to be a quick one. I just wanted to highlight an example of Ron Graf, I think Representative Gabbard is something of an idiot for the trip due to the politics of it. It will rarely be wise for minor House Representatives should semi-secretly meet with foreign leaders the United States in conflict with. I can't imagine how she'd expect it to turn out well.

    Outside of the politics of her move, I think she's doing a good job of demonstrating a view which is growing more popular. The idea is the United States should refrain from doing things, allowing brutal tyrants to go unchecked, because it'll be worse if we intervene. That view is somewhat infantile. There is precedent which seems to support it, but it is a self-reinforcing belief.

    To demonstrate, consider the primary problem with the Iraq invasion. Was the invasion doomed to have terrible outcomes from the start? No. Things went downhill because people screwed things up. There were some mistakes in the invasion itself (like allowing looting), but the biggest problem was just that the United States didn't commit enough resources to the occupation. If the United States had committed more resources to occupying and securing Iraq after the invasion then followed that by an intensive program to build up Iraqi infrastructure to maintain a stable government, things would have been okay.

    The problem was people weren't willing to go that far. There are various reasons, and Bush deserves a lot of blame for misjudging what was needed, but a not insignificant part of the problem in Iraq has been attitudes like Gabbard's. The belief our intervention will just make things worse causes people to resist committing resources. This undermines the intervention, causing the intervention to fall apart.

    If you're going to intervene in situations like these, you have to be willing to commit to the intervention. If you are half-hearted with the intervention, it will fail and make things worse. Syria would be better off if the United States had simply done nothing for the last ten years, but it'd be even better off if the United States would commit a significant military force into Syria to create a non-tyrranical government that wouldn't butcher its population.

    As long as the United States remains so unwilling to make significant long-term commitments to foreign intervention, it should refrain from these sorts of foreign interventions. You can't pussy-foot around things like this. This is especially true given Russian's involvement. Russia doesn't care a bit about the people of Syria, but it has recognized the weakness of the United States' position on Syria as a perfect opportunity for a power play. The united States hasn't had a coherent foreign policy for years, and that's why we keep screwing things up.

    But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. As long as politicians try to strike a balance between people wanting significant foreign intervention to oppose power-hungry tyrants and people who basically isolationists, any major interventions will fail.

  6. ==> If the United States had committed more resources to occupying and securing Iraq after the invasion then followed that by an intensive program to build up Iraqi infrastructure to maintain a stable government, things would have been okay. ==>

    It is always interesting, for me, to see when people, who are quite able of logical analysis, make completely confident statements about counterfactuals (i.e., without qualifications) in situations where (as far as I can tell) it actually isn't possible to have such levels confidence be evidence-based - and particularly in circumstances where (at least it seems to me) there is much evidence that lies in contrast to their confident assertions. Not to say that reasonable debate about such counterfactuals, where contrasting evidence is presented and evaluated to evaluate the likelihood of various potential outcomes, wouldn't be interesting and worthwhile, of course.

    This is also an interesting argument:

    ==> If you are half-hearted with the intervention, it will fail and make things worse. ==>

    Hmmm. "Half-hearted." By what objective measure is the magnitude of "heartedness" determined? Why is the committment of trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives and hundreds(?) of thousands of Iraqi civilian lives deemed "half"-hearted as opposed to "full"-hearted? Indeed, one could never reach a bar, from some perspectives, of being "full-hearted" in such circumstances. Is such a determination ever, anything more than subjective in nature? Couldn't one always make a determination that a commitment to such an effort is less than they thought it should have been, and thus "half" rather than "full?" Or on the other side, is such a determination ever, anything less than more than it should have been, and thus perhaps even more than "full"-hearted?

    Seems that the conflation of fact and opinion raises it's head once again.

  7. Brandon, thanks for a generously thorough response to my question. I agree with about 95%. I think Iraq did not have to be a mistake even with the failure to find active WMD. Their is no reason to believe that Saddam would have been nobler about acquiring WMD than Kim Jun Un or the Iranian Supreme Council. And, Saddamdid use WMD against his own people for cleansing, as Assad did in battling.

    Remembering the lesson of Viet Nam, we went into the First Gulf War with overwhelming force and quickly achieved a limited objective and then left. Part of the problem was that the force available after the Reagan administration build-out was more overwhelming than the one after Clinton "peace dividend" had been cashed in. The other half of the problem was that even if toppling a regime is easy, it is hard setting up a democratic one, especially since the mere fact that it was installed means that it starts an internal reference as less legitimate than any internal opposition, even a corrupt one. This also leads to the natural interest of the installed regime to gain its legitimacy (independence) by biting the external hand that helped install them. It is almost a no-win situation for the intervening power.

    Thus I can sympathize with the frustration expressed by DY. But we had to know that bringing a glimmer of democracy to the Arab world would be destabilizing. Hoping it would be bloodless was overly optimistic. I am not for or against intervention per se. I do think the Beatles and Levis had as much to do with the downfall of the Soviet Union as the Reagan defense buildup.

  8. Joshua:

    It is always interesting, for me, to see when people, who are quite able of logical analysis, make completely confident statements about counterfactuals (i.e., without qualifications) in situations where (as far as I can tell) it actually isn't possible to have such levels confidence be evidence-based - and particularly in circumstances where (at least it seems to me) there is much evidence that lies in contrast to their confident assertions. Not to say that reasonable debate about such counterfactuals, where contrasting evidence is presented and evaluated to evaluate the likelihood of various potential outcomes, wouldn't be interesting and worthwhile, of course.

    While you may enjoy talking about yourself, I don't think anyone else finds it interesting. If you wish to make some point, would you do so without relying on this longwinded backhanded approach? If you don't have a point to make and just want to talk about yourself, could you at least inform people so we can decide if we want to read it?

    Hmmm. "Half-hearted." By what objective measure is the magnitude of "heartedness" determined?

    Hey, let's discuss objective measures of what one can mean by semantic choices! Seriously, I'm game. It won't accomplish anything to focus on the choice of words rather than the point I was making, but I love discussing semantics.

    Seems that the conflation of fact and opinion raises it's head once again.

    Or, and I'm just going to throw this out there, you are resorting to uncharitable reading to reinforce your preconceived conclusions while failing to state your claims in a way that could be directly examined or questioned.

    In the meantime, since you're focusing on semantics, I'll challenge you to define what I meant when I said "things would have been okay." You appear to be trying to claim that is me conflating opinion with fact, but what opinion do you hold I am trying to present as fact? I am willing to bet you could not accurately describe what I meant by that.

  9. Ron Graf:

    Brandon, thanks for a generously thorough response to my question. I agree with about 95%. I think Iraq did not have to be a mistake even with the failure to find active WMD. Their is no reason to believe that Saddam would have been nobler about acquiring WMD than Kim Jun Un or the Iranian Supreme Council. And, Saddamdid use WMD against his own people for cleansing, as Assad did in battling.

    As much attention as the WMD issue has received, the Iraq invasion was not because of them. There were a ton of reasons the Bush administration wanted to invade Iraq, many of which were good. The WMD issue was only chosen because it was the issue the administration thought would let them rally the most support.

    If the Bush adminsitration could have just said, "Look, Saddam Hussein is an evil man doing horrible things so we should improve the world be replacing him," it would have. If it could have said, "Replacing the evil Hussein regime with a stable government that provided a free society will improve the world and strengthen our position in the Middle East," it would have. You just can't motivate the people of the United States and other countries with arguments like that.

    Remembering the lesson of Viet Nam, we went into the First Gulf War with overwhelming force and quickly achieved a limited objective and then left.

    It's always bugged me the United States intentionally failed to win in Vietnam for quite a while, allowing the opposition to build its forces to levels we couldn't handle. Presidents like JFK knew what they were doing wasn't enough but wouldn't commit more to the effort (JFK wouldn't even authorize some things which didn't require greater commitment of resources). It's disturbing how often the United States handles things like that. That politicians' careers will suffer if they commit harder or back out completely does not justify half-hearted commitments that cause further problems and get tons of people killed for no real reason.

    The other half of the problem was that even if toppling a regime is easy, it is hard setting up a democratic one, especially since the mere fact that it was installed means that it starts an internal reference as less legitimate than any internal opposition, even a corrupt one. This also leads to the natural interest of the installed regime to gain its legitimacy (independence) by biting the external hand that helped install them. It is almost a no-win situation for the intervening power.

    Which is why successful occupations of fractious regions are built upon the plan of staying for decades and not being especially democratic. Democratic elections can be good in an occupied country for the purpose of giving people representation, but ultimately, the occupying force has to remain in control. Ensuring stability during and after a regime change requires an overwhelming amount of force.

    Thus I can sympathize with the frustration expressed by DY. But we had to know that bringing a glimmer of democracy to the Arab world would be destabilizing. Hoping it would be bloodless was overly optimistic. I am not for or against intervention per se. I do think the Beatles and Levis had as much to do with the downfall of the Soviet Union as the Reagan defense buildup.

    The arms race with the Soviet Union was largely misguided. A lot of the time the United States was way ahead of the USSR yet kept insisting it needed to build more because of a perceived weakness. That's not important though. The USSR didn't collapse because of foreign intervention. Its collapse was due to internal issues. The arms race and other foreign influences certainly played a role on those internal issues (and the United States did actively encourage some of them), but ultimately, the USSR fell apart because it implemented policies for years or even decades that made the union impossible to maintain.

    But yeah, anyone who thought the intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq would be easy was overly optimistic. The invasions were easy because of military power, but forcefully changing the nature of countries is not an easy thing to do.

  10. I realize the Syria under the Assad family has been a blemish on the world for over half a century. Should the US have supported the first rebels trying to resist Assad? This was before ISIS formed but there were other anti-western radical Islamic groups in the fight. What if the rebels did not have enough power to succeed on their own? Should the US have given covert aid, or intervened with regular troops when the WMD red line was tripped? There is no good options. The CIA tried them all in the Cold War, including assassination. Any CIA involvement comes with a blowback of national outrage that lasts (well, we don't know yet how long). People have come to believe that, however heartless, non-intervention should be the default option unless there is a clear avenue for success. The problem with this is that dictators realize this and thus seek the poison pill of WMD to deter intervention. All this said, I think the US is ahead of the game with a president that is assumed to be reckless maniac with a hair temper rather than a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

  11. Ron Graf:

    I realize the Syria under the Assad family has been a blemish on the world for over half a century. Should the US have supported the first rebels trying to resist Assad? This was before ISIS formed but there were other anti-western radical Islamic groups in the fight. What if the rebels did not have enough power to succeed on their own? Should the US have given covert aid, or intervened with regular troops when the WMD red line was tripped? There is no good options.

    The United States shouldn't have sought to cause this civil war. I don't think the United States could have predicted the particulars of the course of events, but it spent something like a decade leading up to this war trying to destabilize the Syrian government. That was part of the general effort to move against tyrannical governments in that area. The theory was Iraq and Afghanistan would be made into new bastions of freedom and democracy which other nations could aspire to. That would be combined with destabilizing governments in other countries to try to make sweeping changes in the region. It was a grand idea, but of course, none of it worked.

    I imagine you're wanting to limit our hypothetical discussion to the period since ~2010 though. In that case, I would say there were two main options. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was pretty much the rebel force for the beginning of the civil war. It was a fairly respectable organization, embracing people of various ethnicities and religions, created with the intent to protect and serve the people of Syria. Supporting it would have been fine. in fact, the United States did provide it some small support to it, which was good. It never should have gone beyond that though.

    The trick with supporting the FSA was diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia did not like the FSA. Basically, the FSA wants good things for the Syria people (like freedom) and Saudi Arabia does't. Saudi Arabia isn't entirely opposed to the FSA so some support would be acceptable to it, but because Saudi Arabia wanted the FSA to fail,k the United States was never going to support it to any major extent. Given that, the United States should have perhaps continued low-level funding and providing technological support, but it should never have pushed itself further with its posturing like Obama did.

    That is, unless the United States wanted to finally do something about its bizarre relationship with Saudi Arabia. The United States wants to side with Saudi Arabia in its semi-war against Iran because Iran is both evil and sided with Russia (as well as simply needing allies in the region), but Saudi Arabia is not a good country to be allies with. One of the major problems the United States has faced during this civil war is Saudi Arabia's support of the (Syrian) Islamic Front, a group the United States doesn't want to do well.

    I could say a lot more, but the point I'm trying to make is this situation is very muddled. There's no simple answer. The Syrian civil war isn't the beginning of anything where we can easily start a hypothetical scenario. There's tons of history and context which influence decisions. I could tell you what the "right" thing to do would be in terms of moral decisions, but diplomatic and political realities means it wouldn't ever happen. The sad reality is the United States has been screwing things up in the Middle East for decades, and there is no quick fix. The simplest answers all go back to fixing Bush's incompetent handling of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with Obama's refusal to create a coherent policy for the situation.

    The CIA tried them all in the Cold War, including assassination. Any CIA involvement comes with a blowback of national outrage that lasts (well, we don't know yet how long).

    I'm of the opinion the CIA has done far more to make things worse than it has to make them better. The organization's history is terrible, though given some of the presidents it has operated under, I'm not sure how much blame it deserves. Even so, I'm not convinced the United States, much less the world, is better off for the CIA existing.

    People have come to believe that, however heartless, non-intervention should be the default option unless there is a clear avenue for success. The problem with this is that dictators realize this and thus seek the poison pill of WMD to deter intervention.

    The problem is the United States keeps getting involved when it's not willing to do the necessary work. Obama's posturing on Syria was stupid given he was never going to follow through with it. His handling of Iraq and Afghanistan was no better. In a lot of ways, Obama was doing nothing while pretending to take strong positions. That's dumb. But then, Obama's administration was dumb in all sorts of matters tied to foreign affairs that don't even get noticed by the public, so... eh.

    All this said, I think the US is ahead of the game with a president that is assumed to be reckless maniac with a hair temper rather than a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

    I still blame the public for most of this. The polarization in the nation ensures the lack of coherent foreign policies. Trump being president has some appeal in that he has shown an ability to push through polarization to achieve his ends, but given how incompetent Trump's administration is, the idea of him making any major decisions on foreign policy should frighten everyone. Trump's administration couldn't even draft his first week's executive orders in a mildly competent manner. Imagine if he had to manage a war.

    Another worrying thought is Putin is way better at the sort of maneuvering this sort of conflict involves. Look at what Putin got away with while we had a president like Obama. Any scorecard would show Putin beat Obama badly. That was with Obama doing very little. Imagine if Obama's success rate at handling Putin was just as bad but he and Putin had more conflicts. That's the best scenario we can hope with under Trump.

  12. ^That is why I try to avoid discussing politics. I have too much to say. Sadly, most people don't. Most political discussions have little substance and are really just about people expressing their feelings and beliefs about how the world ought to be. Call it polarization, tribalism, whatever. We live in a world where conservatives oppose gay marriage. There is no sanity or sense to political discourse.

  13. Thx Brandon. I concur 98.5%. I think phasing out the CIA and black ops (having any non-black ops duties replaced by other agencies) would gain more in security derived from goodwill then lost from throwing out a tool. We should do it if its even close for the same reason people are against water boarding. I am now against it also since the sunlight has so diminished the credibility of its threat to foes, thus its efficacy, so its not worth the political backlash. Better to ship a terrorist to Saudi Arabia for interrogation, one of the uses for the "strange" relationship.

    On Syria, I would give Assad the deal to allow him to re-establish control by helping him defeat ISIS if he gives amnesty to the FSA. At the same time we make a back deal with Russia that we partner first against ISIS then negotiate Assad into exile in Iran of Iraq (or even Israel). Trump should offer to partner with Putin to set up a democratic government that both agree to allow joint monitoring. Both take credit or making peace and allowing Russia a political legitimacy for having a positive impact. Meanwhile lift Russian sanctions and acknowledge Crimea's annexation in exchange for strong NATO presence on Russian border, all keeping hands out of Ukraine. What would be your advice for Trump?

  14. Ron Graf:

    We should do it if its even close for the same reason people are against water boarding. I am now against it also since the sunlight has so diminished the credibility of its threat to foes, thus its efficacy, so its not worth the political backlash.

    Water boarding was never useful. Torture isn't. There is not a single case where the United States torture program produced useful intelligence due to the torture. A number of people in past administrations have tried to hide this by pointing to examples where information was obtained after torture, but they intentionally don't try to show the torture is what got the information. They don't because they know they can't.

    One of the stranger things to me is in some cases, people were tortured before being interrogated. It might be true information was gathered after that torture, but it might also be true the same information could have been obtained just by interrogating the person. Of course, it was in a lot of people's best interest to shade the truth or even outright lie about the efficacy of the torture program.

    Ultimately, torture is counterproductive. It's not a viable means of gathering intelligence, and its use increases hostility toward the United States. Plus, sometimes you torture the wrong person because of mistaken identity (yes, it happened). That seems a bit bad.

    On Syria, I would give Assad the deal to allow him to re-establish control by helping him defeat ISIS if he gives amnesty to the FSA. At the same time we make a back deal with Russia that we partner first against ISIS then negotiate Assad into exile in Iran of Iraq (or even Israel). Trump should offer to partner with Putin to set up a democratic government that both agree to allow joint monitoring. Both take credit or making peace and allowing Russia a political legitimacy for having a positive impact. Meanwhile lift Russian sanctions and acknowledge Crimea's annexation in exchange for strong NATO presence on Russian border, all keeping hands out of Ukraine. What would be your advice for Trump?

    Putin would never go for that. Yeah, he'd like that people would concede Crimea to him as proof the world doesn't care about Ukraine's fate, but that and the lifting of sanctions would never be enough for him to give up his claims in Syria. The entire reason the United States hasn't partnered with Putin to combat ISIS is Putin doesn't want to. He certainly doesn't want to let Syria become a democratic nation that'd cost him his alliance with Assad.

    My advice to Trump would be to give it up. Revert the United States to a much more isolationist stance, washing our hands of most of what's going on in the Middle East and Asia. It would look terrible and cause tons of harm, but it is the cleanest solution. It'd be morally reprehensible, but it's the closest the United States can get to a "victory" right now.

    Mind you, I wouldn't do that if I were president. There's a reason I wouldn't ever be elected as president. I care too much about doing what's right. That's bad for a politician. Not only would it cause me to be unpopular with the American populace, it'd screw up a number of diplomatic relationships. I'd still do it though. Appeasing a tyrant bent on conquering other countries isn't something I could ever do.

  15. >By what objective measure is the magnitude of "heartedness" determined? Why is the committment of trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives and hundreds(?) of thousands of Iraqi civilian lives deemed "half"-hearted as opposed to "full"-hearted?

    There were reports that Rumsfeld was denied permission to attack targets in Iran. I forget if this was for Iraq or Afghanistan.

    Perhaps the vote was 'I vote for Bashar because Hafez is so bad.' like how Bernie Sanders can get an electoral vote.

  16. MikeN, there's an argument to be made that Iran has been the center of most problems the United States has faced in the Middle East for the last 30 or so years. It's interesting because I can't fault Iran for that. The people of Iran are, generally speaking, not a problem. It's just the government, a government which is supported in part because Iran fears countries like the United States will treat them poorly. That's a reasonable fear as foreign intervention in Iran has been pretty terrible throughout history. I can't support the Iran government, but at the same time, I can't fault the people of Iran for sticking with it. In their position, I'd probably do the same.

    As for voting for Bashar, Bashar only took office after Hafez so it wasn't a choice between the two. Bashar was chosen largely because of Hafez though. Bashar made all sorts of promises about reforms he'd implement to address concerns about his father's regime. That's why he was chosen. His fathers' supporters liked him because they felt he'd continue doing the things they wanted while the general population saw him as a person who'd make changes to help them.

    Of course, it was all a lie. Bashar just used promises of change to get into power. He was never going to implement them. He was still probably better than the alternatives though.

  17. I realize Bashar took office later. That's why I compare with Bernie's electoral vote. Perhaps someone voted for Bashar as a protest against Hafez.

    > It's not a viable means of gathering intelligence,
    Do you think it would work against you?

  18. MikeN:

    Do you think it would work against you?

    I don't want to sound cocky, but I like to think I have a pretty good tolerance for suffering. I suppose I might be wrong. It wouldn't really matter though. If you tortured me, I would either flat-out resist or just lie. Probably the latter. Actually, if I knew I were going to be tortured, probably I'd lie from the start. It's pretty easy to make up stories. Even if you could eventually make me tell the truth, good luck recognizing it amongst all the lies I'll tell you.

    And great, now I want to know how well I could resist torture. I wonder if there's an objective way to tell how much pain you can tolerate.

  19. According to Jose Rodriguez, the CIA officer in charge of the enhanced interrogations, there were only three uses of it, all were waterboarding causing no lingering damage, and there was intelligence gained, including the existence of a courier to Osama Bin Laden. Watch Zero Dark 30 and you get the whole story. Anyway, the best politicians are practical since all optimal circumstances are compromises.

    I don't think the middle east is hopeless. Trump may not be a clever chess player but he seems to learn very quickly. And we works 18+ hours a day. Trump will get better behavior out of Putin than Bush or Obama.

  20. Ron Graf, first off, I absolutely hate how people say Person X said Y without any sort of sourcing or reference. That's what we call "hearsay." You can't reasonably expect someone to look up material you claim exists in order to find out what you're talking about so they can respond to it. That's just rude.

    You know, that was going to be an aside, but I want to focus on this for a moment. Discussion require effort. A polite person will carry their share by contributing material and thought of their own. They do this so the burden of discussion is not placed on the other party. It's the same reason you shouldn't start a discussion by walking up to someone and saying, "Hey." In both cases, you are placing an expectation upon the other party to do more work than you are going to do. That's rude. That's effectively saying, "You aren't worthy of the respect of being treated as an equal."

    That's a pet peeve of mine. It's one of the minor cases of rudeness people often resort to during discussions. There are many others that are far worse. What baffles me about all of them is the people using them don't recognize what's wrong with their behavior. It's especially baffling because the same people will often get upset if someone treats them the same way they treat others.

    With that in mind, please understand when you say:

    According to Jose Rodriguez, the CIA officer in charge of the enhanced interrogations, there were only three uses of it,

    My view is you're wasting my time. Not only are you being a jerk by forcing me to try to look up whatever it is you're referring to, you're posting something which is disingenuous by pretending the only form of "enhanced interrogations" is water boarding. Anyone with any interest in the subject knows the torture program used by the CIA involved many things other than water boarding.

    Let's assume, for the moment, this CIA member told the truth about how many people were water boarded (even though there is clear evidence the CIA has repeatedly lied about its torture programs). That doesn't address the fact the CIA has done things like beat prisoners then restrain them them in positions which are awkward and painful and potentially life-threatening for long periods of time. It doesn't change the fact the CIA has stripped prisoners and left them in the sun on hot days for long periods of time. It doesn't change the fact the CIA has taken prisoners' meals, blended them into a fine paste and piped it into the rectum of prisoners'.

    Yes, the CIA has forced prisoners' meals into their rectums. In case it needs to be stated, it was against the prisoners' will. You know what we call forcefully inserting objects into a person's rectum for no purpose other than to inflict pain and suffering? Rape. Yes, the CIA raped prisoners by shoving food into their arses. That is the sort of thing you are pretending didn't happen by saying, "Oh, well, only three people were waterboarded:

    According to Jose Rodriguez, the CIA officer in charge of the enhanced interrogations, there were only three uses of it, According to Jose Rodriguez, the CIA officer in charge of the enhanced interrogations, there were only three uses of it, all were waterboarding causing no lingering damage,

    It's good to know you believe there was no lingering damage from the United States torture program which included food-raping prisoners. It would seem you think you'd suffer no lingering damage if someone shoved a banana in any one of your orifices. Maybe that's true. I don't know. What I do know is if someone forcefully inserted an object into my rectum to humiliate me, it'd haunt me for the rest of my life.

    and there was intelligence gained, including the existence of a courier to Osama Bin Laden.

    Because you couldn't be bothered to, I'll point out you are referring to the identification of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Here is part of what the United States Senate report on the torture program had to say about him:

    A review of CIA records found that the initial intelligence obtained, as well as the information the CIA identified as the most critical or the most valuable on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, was not related to the use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques,

    So while you can say:

    Watch Zero Dark 30 and you get the whole story.

    I think rather than watch a fictional movie, I'll try sticking with the non-fiction facts, evidence and other things like that. Knowledge, research, objective reality; these are the things I like to go with. They aren't as entertaining as Hollywood movies or as comforting as partisan lies, but there is a certain sense of security when one rejects tribalistic tendencies in favor of simple recognition of obvious facts.

  21. It occurs to me I should perhaps mention something about my motivation in lambasting things like this. I would like to say this is purely a matter of moral outrage. Anyone and everyone should oppose things like spending millions of dollars creating programs to food-rape people for no benefit. Even ignoring morality, everyone should be able to condemn the past United States torture program on practical grounds. It was useless, wasted tons of money and ultimately just helped terrorists by giving them a great propaganda tool.

    But this isn't just an abstract issue to me. I don't know how obvious it is online, but I have been a "freak" for as long as I can remember. I have routinely witnessed or experienced abuses of authority directed at me or other people. I have routinely experienced unlawful activity directed at harming me. Thanks to who and what I am, I have long had to live with the realization a not insignificant portion of society will happily mistreat and/or abuse me.

    Mind you, I'm not saying I'm a social outcast with no friends or acquaintances. I take comfort from the fact several attempted assaults have been prevented by decent people who were willing to move beyond inane biases and prejudices. Still, I know fully well how readily people will excuse and justify all sorts of wrongdoing.

    I can't pretend that doesn't influence my reactions. I imagine it does. I imagine part of the reason I feel strongly about issues like these is when I see people try to downplay mass-murders, defend abuses of power or justify immoral treatment of individuals, I envision them sacrificing me for their own convenience. I know from experience it would happen.

  22. >good luck recognizing it amongst all the lies I'll tell you.

    But lies can be checked. Then when they find out you are lying, you will get more torture that is even worse, likely to discourage further lies.
    While I can agree with your other reasons, the idea that 'torture never works' is ridiculous. I'm pretty sure it would work against me.

    I also doubt that it was a great propaganda tool. The Muslim countries are not known for being free of torture. More likely people just liked to say it was a great propaganda tool.
    Having people talk about the torture might even make people less likely to participate.

  23. MikeN:

    But lies can be checked. Then when they find out you are lying, you will get more torture that is even worse, likely to discourage further lies.

    Good lies are difficult to disprove, and once you tell enough of them, nobody will be able to tell when you are telling the truth.

    While I can agree with your other reasons, the idea that 'torture never works' is ridiculous. I'm pretty sure it would work against me.

    You can think it is "ridiculous" all you want, but the reality is there is no support for the idea torture produces useful intelligence. There has never been any. We have a ton of history we can examine to check this. Torture has never been effective. If you torture people, they will tell you anything to make it stop. The amount of bad intelligence will ensure it's a waste of time. That's exactly why the CIA's torture program failed to accomplish anything.

    I also doubt that it was a great propaganda tool. The Muslim countries are not known for being free of torture. More likely people just liked to say it was a great propaganda tool.

    You can doubt it all you want, but your decision to believe things without evidence or analysis won't make them true. It's pretty easy to check what sorts of things get used as anti-America propaganda. The torture program showed up quite often. Leaving aside tu quoque doesn't make people accept horrendous actions from their enemies,* you ignore the major issue the torture program demonstrated - United States hypocrisy. Supporting a torture program proved to many people the United States was lying about its ideals. That has long been a central theme for anti-America propaganda.

    *Or friends. It's not like every Muslim in the Middle East thinks torture is okay. Even ones who live in countries which use torture often think it's despicable.

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