What 24 Teaches Us About Nuclear Policy

So last night I was watching Monday’s episode of 24 on Hulu, and it provided a good opportunity to make a point about acquiring WMDs. Without getting too far into the details of the show and without revealing too many plot points that might imperil the enjoyment of future 24 watchers, the information you need to know is basically this: a maniacal executive of a private military effectively holds hostage the President’s decision making ability with the threat of launching these WMDs at American cities. Unwisely, the president complies. I know it’s easy to poke holes in the plot of 24, but I think this example is useful in illustrating a broader point about nuclear proliferation, and more specifically, the somewhat misplaced obsession on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Here goes:

The WMDs the private military obtained were literally smuggled onto American soil a matter of hours before the demand was made, which suggests the WMD capabilities of the organization are extremely limited. What’s more, though the private military resides on a medium-sized, heavily armed base, the base is itself overwhelmingly dwarfed by the broader capabilities of the American military. Given these constraints, the WMD capabilities of the private military operation can only be interepreted credibly as a deterrent threat. If the private military were to have launched the WMDs at American cities, verily, the casualities would have been tremendous. However, the American military would still be quite capable of responding with resounding force, destroying the entire base within a matter of minutes. This is not a scenario of mutually assured destruction; it’s simply one of suicide that no rational actor — profit seeking, or otherwise — would ever undertake, under any circumstances. The President should have called this bluff.

Similarly, many western commentators take for granted that a nuclear Iran would itself herald the eschaton. This is stupid. While there are a whole host of ramifications this would have on Middle Eastern balance of power, the notion that this would pose an existential threat is patently ridiculous. If Iran were to use a nuclear weapon to attack Israel, Iran would promptly cease to exist in any recognizable form. Of course, this is not a course a country acting in its own self-interest would pursue, which is why you frequently hear right wingers making the argument that Iran is an irrational and culturally suicidal death cult, informed by the logic of an individual suicide bomber writ large. However, there is really little in Iran’s foreign policy actions to believe that Iran is in fact a crazed and irrational actor. Though Iran’s blustery rhetoric might prove good fodder for advancing this view of a suicidal nation, their actions do not demonstrate any such desire. Thus, if Iran were to develop nuclear capabilities, it would certainly result in decreased western influence in the region, and indeed, this would be bad for American and its allies, but it would hardly rush in Armageddon.

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24’s Introspection

On 24, Kevin Drum remarks:

It’s turned into exactly the train wreck that I was afraid of when the season started.  Back when Jack Bauer merely tortured people as part of the script, that was one thing…  But this season Jack isn’t just spontaneously beating up on bad guys who know where the ticking time bombs are buried.  No.  This season Jack is beating up on the bad guys as part of a premeditated strategy and then talking about it endlessly.  And so is everyone else.  The writers are no longer content to merely suggest that (in their fictional universe) a bit of extralegal torture might sometimes be justified because it gets results.  They’re bound and determined to explicate it on screen every single time it happens and demand that we, the audience, actively approve of it.  This is not only depraved, it’s lousy storytelling too.  All the usual 24 preposterousness aside, it’s made the show cringe-inducing this season.

I am forced to agree with a lot of this. What’s been most remarkable about 24 this season is how little it’s adapted to reflect changing attitudes about the world we inhabit. Following 9/11 it was far more foregivable to produce a show — a fantasy — in which the United States is almost constantly fending off nefarious terrorist plots, but it seems that general anxiety no longer exists, I think primarily because we’ve been better able to gain perspective on the attacks. Our civilization is not under everpresent terrorist threat, and more importantly, I think there’s a better sense that terrorism does not result explicitly from “hatred of our freedoms” but from “hatred of our policies.” As such, the entire premise of the show just feels contrived — even more so than in the past — and any message the show may try to offer suffers for it.

That said, it still makes for pretty entertaining TV from time to time.

24-eign Policy

Ok, so I promise this will be the last post spent analyzing 24, but I just want to gripe again about the way the show presents foreign policy. President Taylor — the sympathetic character — seems to hew to the liberal interventionist tradition, which in gaining currency as a misguided rhetorical tool against George Bush’s neoconservatism occasionally became mistaken for mainstream liberal foreign policy. The argument basically followed that if we were going to undertake ostensibly humanitarian missions in Iraq, then why were we not unilaterally invade Darfur or Myanmar? Obviously, this is most effective as a form of calling Bush’s bluff, but as a foreign policy, is a truly daft. After all, if you thought invading Iraq was a bad idea, it makes more sense to oppose Iraq-like invasions than it does to advocate for even more unilateral invasions, but just under more morally sound pretenses.

Anyway, this is highlighted quite perfectly when President Allison Taylor — notice the syllabic similarity to Hillary Clinton? — is confronted with the decision of whether unilatarly invading Sangala to stop ethnic conflict is worth risking the lives of thousands of innocent American civilians. I mean, are you fucking joking? Is that even a decision? Clearly, you act to save the lives of the American civilians who put your dumb ass in office. Jesus, problem solved. Meanwhile, her Chief of Staff, who advocates the realist view (“super powers act in their own best interest”), is made to look like a heartless asshole. Would it be too much to ask to have just one sympathetic character on that show who isn’t a complete fucking moron?

24 on Torture

So after a long hiatus, I’m giving the erstwhile relevant 24 a second chance. So far, I’d be compelled to give it a B: it’s entertaining television and still chock full of absurdly bad-ass Jack Bauer moments (and of course, the return of Tony Almeda and Bill Buchanan is welcome). But 24‘s significance was never just about the absurd antics of Jack Bauer. Rather, the show reflected a particular moment of US history following 9/11 when the entire country was fairly paranoid about terrorist attacks and we all hoped and prayed that people just like Jack Bauer were keeping us safe. Of course, we’ve now I think realized — despite the best efforts of Republicans and DHS color coded warnings — that there isn’t always a terrorist lurking just out of sight, ready to cause immense psychological and physical damage. As such, the show’s lost a bit of its bite, and my sense is the producers understand this, and thus the topic of torture and “extreme interrogation” is now a featured theme. But this sort of misses the point.

Namely, Jack Bauer and 24 are a particularly bad vehicle for exploration of this theme because without fail, the facts always vindicate Jack’s actions. This has not often been in the case in the world in which we live. In fact, the primary problem with the U.S. torture policy — beyond the fact that it rarely produces anything useful — has been the problems engendered by its sheer notoriety.

I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It’s no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me — unless you don’t count American soldiers as Americans.

This provoked response is endemic to the U.S. public policy of openly torturing and illegally detaining anyone they choose, but not to the Jack Bauer “black ops” style of battlefield information gathering. It really doesn’t seem to be the worst thing in the world if special forces teams extract intelligence in the field with the use of force; rather, the problem emerges when indignantly arguing the U.S. has a right to ignore international law it has so long championed. As the former military interrogator argues in the piece linked above, this deleteriously impacts both our safety and foreign policy goals by distressing allies and justifying the actions of our enemies. Again, this couldn’t be further from the Jack Bauer brand of sub rosa torture, which always yields results. Of course, this brings us back to the original problem that Jack Bauer inhabits the delusory fantasy land of neoconservatives where of course torture is justified because the government is so blisteringly incompetent we’re lucky they can operate traffic lights. Andweredarnlucky too, because if it weren’t Jack Bauer’s disrespect for civilized society, the turrerists would win.

More succinctly, the real world debate about torture and 24 world debate about torture aren’t actually arguing under the same set of terms, which makes the 24 take pretty irrelevant.

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I’m a Huge Nerd Blogging

I know the outgoing President in 24 is supposed to be some sort of nefarious Dick Cheney like character, but (pending later plot developments possibly revealing illegal activities) I land on his side of the debate on intervention in “Sangala”, which hews pretty closely to the realist take on Darfur (I make the case here). Madame President seems to subscribe to liberal interventionist view, which while noble, is a rather naive view of American power. The world is a tough place. C’est la vie.

Also, it seems 24 is trying to cast the UN as a malign, heartless, possibly corrupt actor keen on obstructing egalitarian minded people. While the UN has its deficiencies, the criticism of the UN has generally been that it grants less powerful countries undue power to restrict actions of the United States, not that it’s a bunch of children hating bastards. Indeed, the UN isn’t much of an independent actor at all; its jurisdiction extends only as far as its member states grant. All of which is to say, it’s not only unproductive to UN bash, but it’s also basically wrong to direct ire at the institution itself.

Anyway, I’m unquestionably reading too far in to this, but all things considered, 24 thus far a) advocates broad use of American military power and b) casts the UN as a corrupt obstructionist. Sound like anyone else you know?

Of course, I’m sure that my self-indulgent wanking will all be rendered moot when Jack Bauer solves the Sangali political crisis on his Sprint phone flying back to Washington. On a side note, I assume everyone else saw the “This Season…on 24” scenes which showed a clean shaven Bauer in a suit in a decidedely non-Sub-Saharan setting. Does Jack spend the next 8 hours on a plane? Does he have to pay to check a bag? Is there a jump forward? Can they do that?