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Surely Wrong

Mark Kleiman presents a compelling argument that American classification policy is very bad, and that there are far, far, far too many official secrets. Then he goes all Pundit's Fallacy on us: "Until the Democrats have candidates who can make that argument with a straight face, they’ll keep losing elections." Surely he doesn't really believe that. The 2004 election wasn't as close as the 2000 election, but it was pretty close: There are a lot of ways a Democrat might win. And there are certainly lots of ways a Democrat might win that have nothing to do with this secrecy business.

March 31, 2005 | Permalink

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» Democrats and national security from Mark A. R. Kleiman
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Comments

That paragraph is vaguely written, making it open to several interpretations. It could, generously, be read as meaning that Democrats have to be able to discuss national security and be taken seriously while doing so.

Posted by: QuietStorm | Mar 31, 2005 2:46:18 AM

What is the "Pundit's Falacy"? From context, I gather it's something like "This obscure corner of public policy is actually very important, because *I* happen to be writing about it at this moment." Is this correct?

If so, it sounds like a common malady among music critics, who have a tendency to declare every half-competent new band on the scene to be the Next Big Thing and the Future Of Rock And Roll - seemingly in the hopes that, if they ever do make it big, the critic can point to his prediction as proof of his awesome understanding of music and culture. Like pundits, critics can get away with this because nobody ever holds them accountable for their bad predictions.

Posted by: FMguru | Mar 31, 2005 2:53:23 AM

I think it is more along the lines of:

If politican X would ride my favorite hobby horse of an idea, he/she would ride to victory. In other words, that the pundit's idea is a big winner politically.

Posted by: QuietStorm | Mar 31, 2005 3:14:07 AM

I think that is about right, FMguru. Interestingly, if you google "pundit's fallacy" MY's page is really high up there. He is one of the term's highest ranking proponents. Score another Google coup for Matt.

And I would have to go with poor wording. No one would think that getting out there on the document classification issue is the key to Democratic victory. Would they?

Posted by: tango | Mar 31, 2005 3:20:38 AM

No, but someone might think, and be right, that a Democratic candidate who could have convinced the public that he was more serious than his opponent about keeping the nation secure wouldn't have lost the 2004 election. Of course secrecy policy, by itself, isn't a major issue. But we do need a candidate for whom national security is a strength and not a weakness.

Posted by: Mark Kleiman | Mar 31, 2005 3:39:27 AM

Rinky-Dink and Tabasco, huh? Had to look that one up in my atlas. Geez, they're all the way down there by Valenzuela! I always thought they were just south of Grand Pajama right through the Woodward Passage from Jamocha. Turns out I was thinking of the Jerks and Tacos. Don't ever let me steer the boat!

Posted by: Dick Eagleson | Mar 31, 2005 4:02:03 AM

No, but someone might think, and be right, that a Democratic candidate who could have convinced the public that he was more serious than his opponent about keeping the nation secure wouldn't have lost the 2004 election.

Certainly, I have no problem with that. Indeed, K. Drum just had fairly convincing little bit of data to back up that idea.

Posted by: tango | Mar 31, 2005 4:06:06 AM

I'm really confused. Wouldn't any Democrat who argued that we needed to have FEWED classified State secrets be immediately tarnished adn slandered as WEAK on security? Regardless of the policy implications, this strikes me as the sort of thing that would easily get spun very negatively in the media, and something that would be very hard to spin positively. People would assume the Democrat was doing it because they didn't like governmental secrecy - the idea that this would be good for national security is too counterintuitive for our current press corps or public to handle.

About Strength on National Security - Getting perceived as strong on National Security often requires making many bad policy judgments that work very well politically. Pro-National Security usually means Military bases and Production in my District, regardless of efficacy. It means, screw foreigners over stupid little things that just hurt us in the bigger debats but make us look strong.

I completely agree that Democrats need to get practically better at National Security, and Much better at the politics of National Security, but those 2 things often conflict.

Posted by: MDtoMN | Mar 31, 2005 6:30:54 AM

"But we do need a candidate for whom national security is a strength and not a weakness"

Mark, we HAD that, in the last two elections.

The problem is not the substance of our guys' positions--it's that we keep losing the spin wars.

Tell me how having a better substantive position on classification will help that?

Posted by: rea | Mar 31, 2005 6:42:35 AM

"Congressman Mike Donkey thinks Osama Bin Laden should have access to vital national security information!!!!"

Yeah, that'll make the centerpiece of a great campaign.

Not that he's wrong on the issue, but it certainly isn't a campaign winner...

Posted by: Atrios | Mar 31, 2005 7:50:31 AM

How about till we have a candidate able to point out the obivous even if means he or she might get hosed by the DLC that they are 'soft' on defense?

Posted by: jon stanley | Mar 31, 2005 8:31:54 AM

The government can not keep anything secret for very long. Not personally embarrassing ones about major politicians like Watergate, Lewinsky, or JFK’s dalliances, not technical ones like stealth, the atomic bomb, or sidewinder missile, nothing can be kept secret for very long. That’s why I never gave much credence to stories aliens at Area 51 (yea, like that’s the one thing the government has kept secret all these years handing down from government flunky to government flunk – sure).

The best kept secrets in Washington are the leakers (Jack Shafer’s anonomice). Case in point: Deep Throat. No one leaks on leakers. MSM in Washington lives on leaks, depends for their continued existence on leaks, but would never commit the act themselves and tell us who the leakers are. And as though they below to a secret fraternity, they never report on other members sources. The government could learn from the press on how to keep secrets.

Posted by: scou29c | Mar 31, 2005 8:33:56 AM

Do we really need secrets? Exactly what would happen if the US declassified virtually everything and became the avatar of openness? Would the Commies get the bomb?

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 31, 2005 8:56:16 AM

"The problem is not the substance of our guys' positions--it's that we keep losing the spin wars."

As long as you believe that, you'll keep losing. On some issues it's the spin, on others, it damned well IS the substance.

Democrats want to look more serious on national security than Republicans, you've got lots of options, since there are national security issues where the Republicans are almost inexplicably bad.

Southern border security, for instance. Here's a suggestion: Not, "Bring our troops home!, but instead, "Bring our troops home, and station them along the border with Mexico!"

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 31, 2005 9:18:59 AM

epistemology,
I would be for drastically less classified information, but we should not unilaterally disarm. Detailed plans for nuclear weapons, intelligence gathering, etc. -- we do need to keep some things under wraps.

Posted by: theCoach | Mar 31, 2005 9:28:05 AM

Kerry strong on national security? He came across as a waffler. Or maybu you bought into the decorated war veteran song and dance? Get real.

Posted by: John | Mar 31, 2005 9:30:59 AM

John,
Kerry just had to be better than Bush, a very low bar substantively.

Posted by: theCoach | Mar 31, 2005 10:05:15 AM

Well, this is a pretty convincing illustration of how keeping too much stuff secret makes it impossible for people to discus it intelligently. Must be a lot of young people here- not too many remember how Nixon blitzed the Dems with his "secret plan" in 1968. A plan so secret that even now nobody knows what it was. All we know is that it didn't work.

And wasn't it cool how all the "terror alerts" stopped after the election? Makes you wonder what kind of "intelligence" they were based on. Especially considering the morning's news reports that there are a lot of things about Iran and North Korea that we just don't know.

As for whether the 2004 election wasn't as close as 2000, well, that's another thing we just don't know. Too many secrets.

But don't worry, Dems, you can still play, even if you don't know the secret. It just makes the game a little more challenging....

Posted by: serial catowner | Mar 31, 2005 10:15:39 AM

Mark Kleiman's essay is not wrong, but incomplete.

Let's summarize his essay:

Excessive classification is harmful to the state by forestalling oversite.

Classification by reason of political expediency is much of the problem.

*AND THEN A MIRACLE HAPPENS*

Democrats need to be able to make an argument for transparency in order to win elections.

The problem is in the "miracle" bit. He left out the steps from point A to point B.

Let me insert them:

The Republicans in general, and the Bush administration in particular, use classification as a political weapon, such as:

* When they released only selected portions of the discussions with the Israelis regarding the Mark Rich pardon.
* Classified embarrassing portions of the 911 commission's report until after the election.
* Closed the hearings for the Iraq WMD intel failure to keep it out of the election.

Because of the politicization of the classification process (you saw it in 1988 when the Reagan admin released and suppressed things to help Bush I), it allows them to seize the foreign policy and security debate, and this makes it much more difficult for democrats to win.

It's not a failure of thought, it's a failure of rhetorical completeness.

Posted by: Matthew Saroff | Mar 31, 2005 11:06:34 AM

Not personally embarrassing ones about major politicians like Watergate, Lewinsky, or JFK’s dalliances, not technical ones like stealth, the atomic bomb, or sidewinder missile, nothing can be kept secret for very long

I'm still wwaiting to find out who killed Kennedy.

Posted by: Rambuncle | Mar 31, 2005 12:17:06 PM

Based on the comments here, I'm thinking that the best possible thing the Bush administration could do for national security is declassify virtually everything. Both the enemies of the U.S. and the Democratic party would refuse to believe anything thus declassified and would waste endless resources in futile attempts to ferret out the "real" truth that was "obviously" still being covered up.

Posted by: Dick Eagleson | Mar 31, 2005 12:33:06 PM

One more time:

We need a candidate who doesn't look as if he's uncomfortable wearing an American Flag lapel pin, and who obviously thinks, and more importantly feels, American military power is, on balance, a good thing, and that more of it is, on balance, better for the country and the world. If that person -- call him, for the sake of concreteness, Wesley Clark or Eric Shinseki or Sam Nunn -- says "And, as someone who has devoted a lifetime to making this country stronger, I tell you that excessive secrecy is a source of weakness," that statement will be credible.

Opposition to the Vietnam War, support for rapid cuts in military spending after that war, opposition to Reagan's arms buildup, and opposition to the pattern of U.S. intervention abroad on behalf of right-wing dictators were all core Democratic positions, and as it happened I agreed with all of them. But put them all together, and they don't seem to spell out instinctive patriotism of the dumb flag-and-uniform type.

When you see a car with an American-flag bumper sticker, isn't your first reaction to think that the person driving it is from Red America, culturally if not geographically? Mine, too. As long as the flag remains a partisan symbol, and not of our party, we start every election behind the 8-ball. Yes, we'll win some anyway, on domestic issues or because the other side self-destructs, but we'll lose more than our share.

Posted by: Mark Kleiman | Mar 31, 2005 12:38:22 PM

With apologies to Mark, my idea of instinctive American patriotism doesn't include the dumb flag-and-uniform variety. And I got most of that idea from my parents, both of whom served through all of WW II.

They thought that instinctive Americanism included stuff like one-person-one-vote, the Bill of Rights, and the government not telling you what to read or what church to go to. I guess they were really old-timers, because they thought flagwaving and uniform worship was something that happened in Mussolini's Italy, or Hitler's Germany. My dad summed up those countries in one phrase- The bigger they come, the harder they fall.

And frankly, I'm not signing on to the idea that what we need is even more military. We already spend as much as the rest of the world combined. If that won't get the job done, we need LESS of whatever it is we've been buying, and more of something else that we haven't been buying. And that's no secret.

Posted by: serial catowner | Mar 31, 2005 6:18:27 PM

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