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The Two Bodies of Osama Bin Laden

In the Situation Room watching the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound.

According to official US statements Osama bin Laden is dead, but the fight against his legacy is not over. He lives on in the militant jihadist network he envisioned and then seeded. US counterinsurgency missions continue in the Middle East and Africa against ‘high value individuals’ associated with Al Qaeda’s network. Bodies pile up in a relentless cycle of tracking targeting and killing, but no matter how many ‘kills’ officers in US Special Operations Forces (SOF) collect, they continue to miss their target. They are unable to hit the object of fundamentalist Islamic political theology, that magical thing which makes bin Laden so attractive to his followers and repulsive to his enemies. The existence of this other body, bin Laden’s ‘body politic’, is larger than any individual life and transcends death. The US should be careful that it does not sacrifice its own body politic to endless targeted killings that always miss their mark.

Long before President Obama gave the order to take bin Laden’s life, bin Laden was already little more than an idea for all but his most trusted and intimate supporters. Having gone underground to evade execution, his public persona no longer had any physical presence. There are no pictures of him “looking at things” in the manner of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He rarely released video footage of himself with messages for his followers or enemies. The weight of his presence in the symbolic order–the everyday practices and beliefs that constitute lived reality and guide our actions–had already become so disassociated from his physical being, that his death felt overdue.

Bin Laden’s physical death had little meaning because his natural body is just as absent in death as it was in life. His corpse was never made available to the public for viewing and pictures of it remain closely guarded. President Obama explained his rationale for this policy in an interview on 60 minutes, saying that “We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies. We don’t need to spike the football…That’s not who we are.” The corpse was reportedly buried at sea, a decision which deprived bin Laden’s followers of any burial rites or destination to visit in reverence and respect, but also left the American public with out the satisfaction of a carnal victory.

Not surprisingly, a desire for bin Laden’s physical body persists, circulating in the form of garden variety conspiracy theories and, more importantly, a law suit demanding the release of Top Secret photos taken by US officials for internal circulation. Recently, a federal appeals court ruled that the Central Intelligence Agency was under no legal obligation to release photos of Osama bin Laden’s body. The determination of the three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was unanimous. They agreed that releasing pictures taken while US military personnel buried the Al Qaeda leader’s corpse could “could cause exceptionally grave harm.” The photos will remain classified as Top Secret, and therefore exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

For now, the only visual confirmation of Osama Bin Laden’s death available to the public is the iconic photo of President Obama and his top aids in the White House Situation Room on the afternoon of May 1, 2011, watching intently as Joint Special Operations Forces carried out a raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. The degree of remove between the event and direct access to any sensory knowledge of that event is remarkable. In so far as the picture communicates anything of substance, it depicts the gravity with which the principal US decision makers experienced the event–the intensity of Obama’s gaze and the tension evident in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s gesture, her hand raised to cover her mouth.

What we do not see is any still image from the live stream on which their gaze is fixed. Our view of the event is mediated first by the feed sent from thousands of miles away to the Sit Room and then by the camera lens of Pete Souza, the White House photographer. The image that we see is at least two degrees of separation from the people who are carrying out the mission. In an address at the US Naval Academy, Clinton revealed that the exact nature of what the officials in the Situation Room were watching was not clear, even to them. She reported that they “could see or hear nothing when [the SEALs] went into the house. There was no communication or feedback coming so it was during that time period everyone was particularly focused on just trying to keep calm and keep prepared as to what would happen.” Their experience of the event is also mediated, transmitted over thousands of miles, and obscured by technological limitations on real time communication.

Katherine Bigelow’s film, Zero Dark Thirty, has sparked an intense debate about its portrayal of torture, but its brilliance lies in the much more prosaic observation that it gives us our first and only glimpse of bin Laden’s “body.” In its climatic portrayal of the raid on the bin Laden compound, we, as viewers, get to watch the live stream as if we too were in the Sit Room with Secretary Clinton and President Obama, watching not what they actually saw, but what we desire them to have seen.

There is a sublime quality to iconic figures like bin Laden that makes even the most mundane aspects of their everyday existence an object of fascination: What does he eat? Where does he live? Is he like us? What makes him different? This same type of curiosity is what sells gossip rags with paparazzi photos that reveal celebrities live, “Just like us!” They shop, take their kids to the park, work out, and have bad hair days. And yet, the more ordinary details that these magazines reveal, the more special the ordinary aspects celebrities appear. Our collective fascination attaches itself to them. The more is revealed, the more we desire, and the deeper the mystery becomes. They are just like us, and yet, they are different because the mundane details of their lives carry a fascination and appeal that are banal when observed in others.

The problem for the United States is that it turned out that when the public finally had access to information about bin Laden’s material existence, he was, in fact, living ‘just like us’. Contrary to the musings of President George W. Bush, he was not hiding in a cave. Unlike Saddam Hussein, he was not retrieved from a hole, abandoned by his people, and begging for his life in a shameful moment of defeat. The announcement of bin Laden’s death revealed that he had been living in a compound in a wealthy suburb of Abbottabad, Pakistan surrounded by his family and supported by his network.

At that point, the US was a decade into two of the longest and most draining wars in US history and bin Laden’s death brought no victory or resolution. Although the US has withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is still carrying out targeted killings, especially in western Pakistan. However, as scholars at Stanford and NYU have shown, the more individual bodies they collect, the larger the body of resistance grows. In their report, Living Under Drones, the scholars make four points, all of which deserve to be repeated:

  • First, while civilian casualties are rarely acknowledged by the US government, there is significant evidence that US drone strikes have injured and killed civilians.
  • Second, US drone strike policies cause considerable and under-accounted-for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury.
  • Third, publicly available evidence that the strikes have made the US safer overall is ambiguous at best.
  • Fourth, current US targeted killings and drone strike practices undermine respect for the rule of law and international legal protections and may set dangerous precedents.

The US should ensure that the actions it takes in the name of national security meet standards of democratic accountability and transparency and that they comply with international humanitarian and human rights law–not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because staying true to democratic principles is the best strategy. If the US wants to hit its target, killing individual terrorists should remain secondary to maintaining the health of its own body politic.

Elegant and Simple

I am usually loath to out myself as an admirer of Waltzian structuralism. However, if there is one thing that even Kenneth Waltz’s most acerbic critics can admire about the legacy he left when he passed away on May 13th, it’s having written a book that others never tire of criticizing. Waltz’s Theory of International Politics replaced Hans Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations as the foundational text within the American field of International Relations (IR). Waltz’s obituary in the New York Times does an excellent job of describing the substantive contribution of his text to the field of IR. However, the staying power of his book is found in its particular combination of substance and style. As Waltz himself explains, his theory derives its power from its elegance.

Back when I was in grad school at Chicago, Bob Pape taught the ‘Intro to IR Theory’ seminar for graduate students. That was the course in which we read Waltz’s Theory of International Politics as well as the edited volume in which the responses to it were collected, Neorealism and Its Critics. What I remember from that course is how Bob delighted in Waltz’s rhetoric. In Waltz’s theory, states interact as if they are firms competing in a market. His primary contention is that this competitive space is governed only by the potential or actual use of military force. Therefore, the only factors that should be considered relevant to the explanation of state behavior are those which contribute in measurable ways to military capabilities. These capabilities are what determine the balance of power. All other factors that differentiate states qualitatively such as regime type (ie democracies versus authoritarian regimes), or qualities of individual leaders (ie charisma) are “reductive.” They dip inside the black box of the state to a lower level of analysis. These lower levels were messy and complex. They increased the descriptive quality of the theory, but reduced its “explanatory power.” Powerful theories are “elegant.” This is what Bob loved. He chuckled as he explained how no one wanted to be accused of being “reductive” or working at a “lower level.”

The irony, of course, is that the most damning critique of Waltz’s work in the accompanying edited volume came from Richard Ashley, who accused Waltz of a brand of reductivism all his own. Where Waltz saw elegance and simplicity, Ashley saw an impoverished depiction of a rational international system from which all political practice had been eliminated. Ashley’s work points towards the potential for another type of critical social theory, one which does not treat power as if it were an object that could be measured and weighed, but rather as a practice.

More than three decades later–after institutions and norms and the ‘tragedy of great power politics’–Waltz’s grand theory of international politics has yet to be displaced the way that Waltz displaced his predecessor. (Wendt’s contribution to this debate is best left for another post). I find myself repeating Ashley’s critique of Waltz, trying to find a way to make the charge of reductivism stick to its proper target. Escaping from the apolitical system of Waltz’s neorealist thought is one of the primary purposes of Nuclear Philosophy as an intellectual project, which is perhaps the highest compliment I could offer, barring the admission of my weakness for elegant theory.

The Price of Nuclear Reductions

Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, has threatened to block $75 million from the FY 2014 budget for reductions to the US nuclear arsenal. The planned reductions will bring the US into compliance with its commitments under the New Start Treaty. The bi-lateral arms control agreement with Russia commits the US to reducing deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 by 2018.

Public battles over funding nuclear programs are a major change from the blank check that Congress handed the US nuclear weapons complex during the Cold War. At the time, Congress related to the production and maintenance of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in much the same way the public relates to the manufacture of circulating coinage and paper currency. On the one hand, politicians knew very well that the U.S. arsenal was not free. After all, Congress financed the nuclear weapon complex. Yet, on the other hand, the arms race between the U.S. and Soviet Union proceeded as if it were costless. U.S. nuclear security policy was not set within the budgetary constraints that applied to other public programs. Nuclear weapons were considered cheaper than conventional forces because they offered “more bang for the buck.”  Nuclear weapons programs evaded the intense scrutiny of partisan politics and garnered strong bipartisan support. Moreover, the financial costs of nuclear weapons were shielded from public scrutiny by classification levels that kept most information about costs out of the news media. It was as if the supply of nuclear weapons was infinite, and the U.S. could just continue producing nuclear weapons much the way it minted money.

This practice of treating nuclear weapons as virtually costless changed after the Cold War ended. For the first time current and former costs of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex were subjected to ongoing scrutiny by nongovernmental organizations, and as the process of reducing the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal became a reality, budgets for research, development and modernization became tighter. (The effects of budget constraints are already visible to anyone personally acquainted with the National Labs.)

The biggest changes, however, are yet to come. In his first-term, President Barack Obama made reducing the role of nuclear weapons a central feature of his administration’s foreign policy agenda, an initiative that the Republican-controlled Congress vigorously opposed. Obama is said to be considering further reductions during hus second term. Given the resistance in Congress to passing New Start, Obama will likely seek an informal agreement with Russia in the form of a Presidential Nuclear Initiative, obviating the need to seek ratification in the Senate. That leaves the appropriations process as the battleground and will likely lead to a very public debate about the current financial costs of maintaining a nuclear arsenal.

And so it begins…the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee has made their approval of the $75 million for New Start reductions contingent on a report specifying the planned reductions. For his part, Rep. Rogers wants a “personal commitment” that  Obama “will not seek reductions that circumvent the treaty or the congressional authorization process.”

If You Are Transfixed…There Are Good Reasons For That: Hyper-Rationality in Cleveland

The discovery that three women, all of whom had gone missing a decade ago from their neighborhoods in Cleveland, had spent that time enslaved to a seemingly average middle-aged man has dominated the news cycle since Amanda Berry’s brave escape with her six year old child on Monday. Her first act of freedom was to borrow a phone from a neighbor to call the police, ending their imprisonment and leading to the arrest of the suspected perpetrator.

The man who imprisoned Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight ruled his house like a tyrant, but appeared to be an average guy. If he had the intelligence and opportunity to control a country he would have been the equivalent of today’s most most malevolent dictators, characters like Hussein, Ghaddafi, and Kim Jong Il. All of these men were socially adept–charasmatic even. They also all routinely committed atrocities.

Knowing that these men could or do control nuclear arsenals provokes a heightened level of threat perception because they might actually be crazy enough to carry out a nuclear attack. As a result there has been a healthy debate about whether or not they are “rational” or “irrational” actors. However, there is another possibility: We perceive them as irrational precisely because they actually approximate the rational ideal. They are hyper-rational because they lack the capacity for empathy. There is something about their rational pursuit of self-interest that is actually inhuman.

He Had to Have Two Personalities
The 24 hour news cycle has picked up this story and is providing a constant stream of information and commentary, which is no surprise because the narrative is transfixing. It has all the elements of a procedural crime drama like Law & Order, Cold Case or CSI. It involves everyday people caught up in an extraordinary series of events, at the center of which is an unthinkable act carried out by an evil-doer masquerading as “one of us.”

Neighbors reported that the perpetrator appeared to be a “regular joe.” He played bass in local Latin bands and made small talk with them. He drove a school bus and was known to offer kids rides to the park on his bike. He had a Facebook page where he thanked god for the beautiful day.

Even though Grimalda Figueroa divorced him back in 1996 after he beat her repeatedly, no one suspected the extent of what he was capable of when there wasn’t anyone looking. Learning his secret came as a shock. How could someone other’s expereinced as normal turn out to be such a monster? It just didn’t make sense.

Trying to reconcile this kind of extreme asocial behavior with the image of someone who appears to understand basic social norms and rules is not easy. We want to think of these people as different from us in a fundemtal sense. As the perp’s uncle put it, “He had to have two personalities.” There had to be something more about him that makes him irrational, unpredictable, and crazy.

If You Are Transfixed…There Are Good Reasons For That
The details of this crime are horrific, the product of a deranged mind, and yet we don’t look away in disgust. Why is that? In her coverage of the story, Rachel Maddow repeatedly reassured her audience that “If you are completely transfixed by this story, if you are glued to the TV on this one, there’s no reason to feel guilty about that, there are good reasons for it. This is a genuinely transfixing and dramatic human story. The reason it is genuinely transfixing and dramtic is because it is objectively so rare.” As she explained just prior to making this statement, only 2% of the people in the US who go missing each year are kidnapped by someone unrealted to them.

Maddow’s message is reassuring on multple levels. First, she alleviates worry that there is something wrong with feeling obsessed with the details of the crime. She tells her audience that the feelings they are expereincing are normal. Second, she explains to them why they feel transfixed by the event. She says that they are interested because it is so rare. This explaination has the has the added benefit of reassuring her audience that this kind of atrocity is unlkely to happen to them.

The problem with this explanation is that it misidentifies what is so transfixing about this kind of crime. Maddow is correct that this specific kind of abduction is statistically rare, but there are lots of uncommon events that do not call our interest, much less glue us to our computers and TVs wanting to know more. Rather than telling her viewers the uncomfortable truth, Maddow, like any good performer, tells them what they want to hear: They are safe and there is no need to worry.

We are transfixed by what happened in Cleveland not because what happened is rare (although it is), but rather because the desire to do harm is a forbidden pleasure. We all have dark drives that arise unbidden from the depth of our subconscious. We also all live in a culture in which acknowledging that we have these drives (even to ourselves) is taboo–a taboo that is constantly reinforced by procedural crime dramas in which someone with those drives is exposed, hunted down and punished–so we develop the ability to behave as if these drives do not exist. We all act as though we never have asocial thoughts of agression, control and domination (directed at ourselves or others).

The brave escape of Amanda Berry revealed to the world the forbidden fantasies that existed in one man’s head. We are fascinated by revelation, which provides us with an opportunity to reassure ourselves that even in our darkest corners we are not that depraved. This crime is so absorbing for the same reason that procedural crime dramas that run in sindication 24 hours a day on TV–not because the perp is so different from all of “us,” but rather because he is so much the same.

Thus, a more satisfying (if less reassuring) way to explain our fascination with what happened in Cleveland is to answer a slightly different question. Rather than asking what the perp has that we do not (i.e. a second personality), the most fruitful way of approaching the discomfort this crime evokes is to accept that we all have dark drives and ask “What is it that I have, but that he is lacking?” or “Why do I choose not to act on these types of asocial drives, while he does?” There is something that stops us, which this man this lacking.

The answer to what stops us is different for different people. Sometimes it is simply fear of the consequences, but more often than not it is empathy. Most people are prevented from acting out violent fantasies by connecting with it might be like to be on the other end of their actions. For instance, you may fantasize about revenge killing, but ultimately you are stopped by the thought of the pain it will cause. This is why soldiers dehumanize the enemy. The same is true of engaging in torture. Americans were so shocked by the pictures that came out of Abu Grahib, yet that dehumanizing behavior that was put on display is exactly what “enhanced interrogation techniques” require of the perpetrators (at least as it was portrayed in the film Zero Dark Thirty).

Many people can tap into their dark side in order to carry out acts of domination and violence–and even enjoy it–if these behaviors are made socially acceptable in the name of the greater good. Far fewer people have the volition to act out these fantasies on their own. What makes a man like the perp in Cleveland different from others is that he is always motivated by narcisstic self-interest, regardless of whether his behavior is socially acceptable or not. Even when he is behaving “well,” he is never motivated by the kind of shared experience that would require him to be able to empathize with others.

The Rationality of Irrationality
The success of nuclear deterrence requires us to be able both to make a rational threat of nuclear attack, while at the same time knowing that actually carrying out that attack would be irrational. Although Schelling does not actually endorse a policy of appearing irrational to enhance the credibility of a deterrent threat, he does make the observation that appearing crazy enough to carry out a nuclear attack may offer a tactical advantage. If my conjectures are correct, the reason to fear these individuals is not that they are irrational, but rather that they are hyper-rational. Unlike the rest of us who allow human emotions, like empathy, to interfere with our ability to maximize our individual goals, these men may actually be capable of a level of rationality that is the very definition of psychopathic, asocial behavior. They will be better at deterrence that the rest of us (not withstanding imperfect information and strategic mistakes) because their threats will always be more credible, precisely because we interpret their hyper-rationality as irrationality. There is a reason to fear these individuals, but it is not because they are irrational, but rather because they are so inhumanly rational that they just may be able to beat us at our own game.

The Irony of Deterrence Failure

Sequester was, in principle, set up as a strategy of deterrence. The idea was to create an outcome that would be so terrible for all of the parties involved that the costs of standing on principle would outweigh the benefits of compromise. Hence, the language of the Fiscal Cliff, with which all Americans are familiar. The Fiscal Cliff was a combination of across the board automatic government spending cuts (sequester), the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts, and the end of the pay-roll tax cuts. Unless Congress could pass a budget before the end of the year, taxes would go up and spending would go down, deepening the financial crisis. The budget debate dragged on throughout December as each side pulled the other closer to the edge of the cliff threatening to step off. Scrooge-like, the politicians begrudged the American public their holiday from partisan politics and the gloom of financial distress.

The fiscal cliff debate reads like a page out of Thomas Schelling’s instruction manual on nuclear deterrence. He instructs statesmen in how to manipulate the risk of nuclear war in order to prevail in a conflict of wills. Likening the situation to two individuals hand-cuffed to one another standing at the edge of a cliff, in order to prevail, one must convince the other that he or she is willing to jump, plunging both to their death, unless the other caves.

In the end, the threat of the Fiscal Cliff failed to do its job. It did not force a grand bargain, but rather a minor compromise (preserving  Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class, but raising taxes on the top 2%. and delaying sequestration). Deterrence failed and sequestration has now taken effect. And now for the irony. As Jeffrey Lewis so nicely points out here one of the only things not being cut is support for the US nuclear deterrent.

More Nuclear News

Self-licking ice cream cone?


The big news coming out of the current talks between the P5+1 and Iran in Almaty, Khazakstan is that the parties have agreed to…talk. CBS News reports that “Technical experts for each side will meet in Istanbul in mid-March to discuss the world powers’ offer and the high-level diplomats will re-convene again April 5 in Almaty.” According to what Steven Erlanger reported for the New York Times prior to the conclusion of the meetings yesterday, this outcome is what Western diplomats were identifying as a success. I guess if you set the bar low enough, success is all but guaranteed. In all seriousness, while continuing diplomatic engagement is definitely preferable to other alternatives, a quick look back at a summary of the June 2012 meeting held in Moscow (like this one from the Arms Control Association) made me wonder if I was experiencing déjà vu. Even the pictures out are eerily similar:

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton meets with Iran's Chief Negotiator Saeed Jalili in Moscow

Personally, I prefer Jalili in a gray suit. The softer color compliments his salt and pepper hair and lends him a distinguished air. The penguin suit is too severe.


Photos: The European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili. Top: New York Times Bottom: Reuters

Beauty and the Beast

Operation Hardtack

As anyone who works in the world of nuclear politics knows, the debate is profoundly repetitive. I was sitting in a meeting recently where one of my colleagues was reporting back to the group on the happenings of a conference on nuclear energy in Japan. When he was finished, a senior colleague related an almost identical experience that he had thirty years ago. Although the particulars of events change, the contours of the arguments remain the same.

It’s rare to encounter an argument that does not conform to expectations and that’s what makes Frances Ferguson’s article The Nuclear Sublime (Frances Ferguson, Diacritics, Vol. 14, No. 2, Nuclear Criticism (Summer, 1984), pp.4-10.) so remarkable. The irony, of course, is that this “new” argument is thirty years old and now it’s my turn to repeat it (in fact the entire issue of Diacritics is “nuclear philosophy”). And, if that weren’t enough, her argument is itself the repetition of a story about the tension between the beauty of human life and the janus-faced character of the sublime first told by Mary Shelly in her 1818 publication of Frankenstein.

What is so radical about Ferguson’s argument is that she enters the debate from a unique angle. She concerns herself solely with the argument for nuclear disarmament as one that lays its claim to legitimacy, not on an account of what maintaining a nuclear arsenal does to our lives today, but rather on the concern for the fate of those as of yet unborn. While the disarmament advocate Jonathan Schell identifies this future as one in which our progeny will be free from the feeling of claustrophobia generated by the constant threat of nuclear destruction, Ferguson points out the problem with a justification that prioritizes the claims of others, placing demands on and sacrifices from the self. The claims of the unborn to invade on our own claim to freedom: “To march off into a future free from nuclear peril is, from one direction, to free ourselves from claustrophobia, but it is, from another, merely to evade the claustrophobia inspired by the pressures of intersubjectivity…” The weight of the claims of the “unborn” is all the greater because the current non-existence of the future makes it pregnant with possibility, but whether or not the idea of this possibility inspires a sense of freedom or a different sense of claustrophobia is a matter of perspective.

By applying the logic of the “sublime” from an earlier era to the nuclear sublime Ferguson reveals that the disarmament advocate’s justification for eliminating nuclear weapons fails to identify or cope with that which gives rise to the desire for the sublime: to escape the claustrophobia of the everyday by existing in the presence of something greater than the self. The sublime is “the thing that is bigger than any individual, and specifically bigger in terms of being more powerful and, usually, more threatening.” From this perspective, the logic of the nuclear sublime as collective immolation is the expression of freedom in its negative sense: “the outcome of the subject’s search for self-determination is not the achievement of absolute freedom in a positive form but rather the achievement of a freedom from the conditions of existence by means of one’s nonexistence.” We are free to destroy ourselves. If the crush of the demands of others becomes too much, we are free to escape those pressures through death.

Ferguson’s writing style is so rich and pregnant with possibility itself, that it feels practically impossible to reduce her argument to a single conclusion. Each time I try, it seems like I have left the most important part out. However, what I take to be the lesson for the project of nuclear philosophy is that there is a tension between the sublime and the beautiful: “while the sublime courts the feeling of overextension as a version of individual freedom, the social world of the beautiful recoils at the way the notion of individual freedom seems stretched too thin to accommodates its various claimants.” She brings an awareness of the way that tension recurs in the nuclear debate and points us in a new direction. Rather than advocating disarmament in the name of the unborn or the fear of future destruction, Ferguson points us, instead, toward the notion that tackling nuclear disarmament is also about finding a way to live with the claustrophobia and beauty of daily life, which is different kind of imperative.