Sunday, March 28, 2004

John Quiggin asks why no one is talking about Zarqawi anymore.

And it's a damn good question.
Light posting ahead . . . I'm really busy. Amuse yourself by clicking on the linked blogs to the right.

And don't forget to buy your "No Bush in '04" thongs. Link also to the right.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Newbie blogger Noam Chomsky writes:
There is reason to believe -- as Halliday and von Sponeck had argued -- that if the vicious sanctions regime had been ended the population of Iraq would have been able to send Saddam Hussein to the same fate as other murderous gangsters supported by the US and UK: Ceausescu, Suharto, Marcos, Duvalier, Chun, Mobutu.... -- quite a rogue's gallery, some of them easily comparable to Saddam, to which new names are being added daily by the same Western leaders, whose values are unchanged. If so, both murderous regimes could have been ended without invasion. Postwar inquiries, such as David Kay's, add weight to these beliefs by revealing how shaky Saddam's control of the country was in the last few years.

We may have our own subjective judgments about this matter, but we should at least have the honesty to recognize that they are completely irrelevant. Completely. Unless the population is at least given the opportunity to overthrow a murderous tyrant, as they did in the case of the other members of the rogue's gallery supported by the US and UK (including the current incumbents), there is no justification for resort to outside force to do so. Another truism, which has repeatedly been pointed out -- and systematically ignored within the doctrinal system.
I would like to know what those reasons are. Just about the only thing Saddam Hussein was good at was maintaining power. I do think that the sanctions regime helped to further entrench Saddam Hussein in power. And we'll never know what might have happened if the sanctions had been lifted. But all we have to go on here are reasonable guesses, and Chomsky's parallels aren't especially encouraging.

Chomsky also focuses in this post about the sanctions regime. I don't read enough Chomsky to know exactly what his full view of the matter is. I expect if he had a bit more time he would have mentioned that the deliberate destruction of the civilian infrastructure during the actual Gulf War campaign caused many of the deaths in the early days of the sanctions. Sometimes those deaths get lumped in with the general problems with the sanctions (Kenneth Pollack's book has some great examples of this). And, I think Chomsky would agree, that lets coalition military and political leaders off the hook way too easily. These were war crimes, don't forget. It's also worth noting that the sanctions regime grew more effective as time went on - in the year before the war there were credible reports that health was improving in most parts of the country.

What I'm less confident Chomsky would say - or at least be inclined to dwell on at any length - is the extent to which Saddam Hussein's own response to the sanctions regime damaged the country. He played all kinds of stupid, pointless games precisely because he saw that it worked to his advantage to have his Iraqis dying under the sanctions regime. That's also an important part of the story.

Friday, March 26, 2004

The Bush Administration: weak and unassertive.

Why would you be so willing to piss off France and Germany and yet so absolutely terrified of uttering even the slightest hint of criticism against Saudi Arabia.

Oh, how I yearn for an "Old Saudi Arabia/New Saudi Arabia" comment from Rumsfeld, if only because it would get him fired.
I've noticed in the past year that an increasing number of pundits, professional and amateur, are claiming to have supported the full-scale invasion of Baghdad back in 1991. For some the point is "better late than never" for others it's "too late now, but don't think me soft". I might be wrong, but from where I sit the ranks of the "full deal, first time" crowd seems to swell as the particulars of the case recede into the mists of history and memory. If you'll indulge me in a hackneyed comparison, this reminds me a bit of attendance at Woodstock, which underwent a curious inflation as the years went by. Of course, some people did want the full deal for Iraq back then, and I'm sure most people are being sincere, but many of these claims strike me as the pundit's version of, "Man, I was there. I used the can right after Jimi."

It's worth sorting through the retrospective case for the whole deal to distinguish the plausible elements from the elements of sheer fantasy. I'll bet you can guess already which I think predominates.

First the positives. Back in 1991 folks in the South of Iraq were generally much keener for the U.S. They hadn't yet been stabbed in the back, slaughtered with impunity and then ground down over a decade of sanctions and neglect. Indeed, the entire country was still much keener on the U.S. in general, and in much better shape by almost every measure. Rebuilding would have been correspondingly that much easier. Remember also that the sanctions played an important role in the maintenance of Saddam's power, since he was able to use the resulting corruption to enrich his clan and tighten belts everywhere else. Interestingly, the Kurds were less supportive of the U.S. than they are now, since their betrayal was in the not very distant past, and they had yet to benefit from the protective umbrella of air support that George the elder reluctantly bestowed upon them. But on balance, in this respect the U.S. had a lot more going for it back then than it does now.

If it had taken place in 1991 the full deal would also have come at a better time, as an immediate response to something unequivocally wrong, rather than as an ad hoc war tied to an unrelated threat. The U.S. had assembled an impressive coalition - savour the memory - and enjoyed quite a bit of support in the region, at least compared to now. The U.N. had given its stamp of approval. And don't forget that back in the day the U.S. had a much larger military, so it would have had the boots on the ground to ensure immediate stability in the aftermath of a regime-toppling invasion.

Moreover, the full deal would have obviated the need for the crippling sanctions, the cat and mouse inspections game, the gradual corruption of the entire region as Saddam bought off the various players with oil and promises of more oil, and many other consequences that not even the mother of all battles could love.

Fine. But I think that many pundits are holding this rosy picture in their minds and then adding more of their favourite details without much regard for how the whole is supposed to hang together. For one thing, as the advocates of ad hoc coalitions are always reminding us, broad coalitions are fragile things built on compromises. The fact is that most regional support for the coalition - think especially of Saudi Arabia - was only built on the explicit promise and the honest expectation that George the elder would never try anything as crass as democracy-building in the Middle East (See Kuwait, post 1991 restoration). If George had marched on Baghdad, the coalition would have fallen apart, or at least undergone a dramatic thinning at exactly the time it needed allies in the region the most. (And yes, I'm implicitly conceding that this time around, it would have been very hard to get together a genuinely multilateral democracy-promoting invasion of Iraq.)

Recall also that the first time around the State Department, fearful of a leak which would undermine the coalition, basically refrained from any planning for a new regime in Baghdad. This time, the uber-hawks chucked out the wisdom accumulated over a decade of peacekeeping missions. But remember, in 1991 there was no planning, and no decade of intensive peacekeeping missions to look back on for lessons. I'm not suggesting that they would have been flying completely blind, just that inexperience can be functionally equivalent to the kind of the arrogance that turns its back on experience. The Greeks used to say that you should practice pottery on a small jar. Iraq was a jumbo-sized pottery project for people who hadn't worked much with clay in a long time.

Rumsfeld's post war plan of winging it might have been an error on a world-historical scale, but we should also bear in mind that the capture of Baghdad itself, and the toppling of the regime, was an extraordinarily impressive military feat. Those of us, present company included, who fretted about a bloody street-by-street fight through Baghdad were proven spectacularly wrong, thank goodness. But as far as I can tell, much of that strategy was developed in the light of fairly recent military experience and made possible by high-tech communication systems which weren't available in 1991. The plan was also developed as a direct consequence of, and partly to provide evidence for, Rumsfeld's idiosyncratic views about modern warfare. Why think that the toppling of Baghdad would have been as quick and easy in 1991? Well, as I suggested, I think daydreaming pundits are holding fixed the elements of the story they like and substituting better elements from imagination when it suits them. Isn't punditry fun, kids?

Remember too that back in 1991 Saddam's military was both larger and far better equipped than it was more than a decade later. The main part of the army might well have turned on Saddam and joined the U.S. - after all, much of the regular army mutinied after 1991 on a hint from George the elder. But the Republican Guard fought hard even in lousy conditions. If the Guard had been withdrawn into the city I shudder to think of how things might have turned out. It's quite possible possible that you would then have had a brutal, drawn out siege played by Saddam for all it was worth on the world stage as Georgie's coalition fell apart for once and for all.

But suppose that the coalition had been able to decapitate the regime quickly and easily, the coalition had held together, the Guard had capitulated, and a large standing coalition army had been able to hold the peace in the immediate aftermath. And forget the inconvenient fact that George the elder had zero interest in democracy promotion. What would the prospects for success have been in that case?

Well, obviously better than the picture I've painted so far. But still, I think, problematic. On the one hand, the whole country, and especially the South, would probably have been more amenable to compromise than it is now. Even so, it would not exactly have been smooth sailing. Possible complications include: strong tensions as the imperatives of demography clashed with Sunni Arab historical entitlements, lack of support in the region, the meddling of Iran, alarm in Turkey, insurgency from nationalists, and so on. In other words, many of the same things the U.S. faces now.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait presented the world with an extraordinarily thorny issue, and none of the options available to anyone were especially good. Some time I'll try to write about the other options; just to give you a sneak preview, they all sucked for various reasons. But the pundits who fantasize about how great it would have been if the U.S. had just done it right the first time - well, as people who were "at Woodstock" will tell you, not every flashback is reliable.
Innocent question about Richard Clarke: Clarke's very credible testimony at the 9/11 Commission has been a nightmare for the Bush admin. Of course, I would say that, wouldn't I?

But there are a few things about his remarks that puzzle me. For example, I'm not sure what to make of Clarke's story about being buttonholed by the President in the situation room and told, semi-coherently, to investigate an Iraq-AQ connection. As some people have pointed out, there's not really anything wrong with being asked to double-check something like that. But more importantly, Clarke describes the President as threatening and intimidating when he asks the question.

Does Clarke strike you as the sort of guy who would be intimidated by Bush?

No, he does not strike me that way either. I suppose that's why I find the spin he puts on this story a bit odd.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

. . . More on Sudan from The Head Heeb, a great source of Africa news, among other things.

UPDATE: And for those who just can't get enough, there is also this.
Show me the Nuance!

(If I were a better man, I would not have written that header.)

Mr. Maguire (Minute Man) has graciously responded (to this) in the comments section of his blog. Watch as the bristles slowly go down on both our necks:
I'll follow the link, say "thank you" for the kind words as I skip past them, and highlight this:
...recently, MM's blog has been awfully limp. My guess is that this has to do with the total collapse of any rational basis for trust in George W. Bush. Of late, MM has been flailing at Kerry, which is perfectly respectible, but unless I'm mistaken there just isn't the same love for the task I used to see in his writing.
I agree that it looks like a long spring and summer ahead of us. "Us", of course, being anyone who sticks around as my morale is ground down to a fine powder.

Anyway, I appreciate the clarification. Since members of the lying, crooked RAM hear explanation (1) a lot (hey, follow his links), I got a litle bristly.

On a sheer tastelessness front, however, well, I threw in the "glazed over" to warn folks that plot twists lay ahead. Since it was in there for shock value, I can't complain if folks were shocked. I also tossed in the bit about "it may be a wonderful opportunity for the US to show it is a multilateral do-gooder" just to show my sensitive, caring side, and you can bet that won't happen again anytime soon.

Now, there is a rule about never, ever explaining jokes, and I won't break that now. However, let me respond to this:
Look, can you imagine someone writing a post like this about mass murder elsewhere in the world?
No, I can't either. But the story *is* in Africa, and I have been reading versions of it since the Biafran babies in the early 70's. Tribal warfare with famine and starvation as a military tactic are common in Africa and rare elsewhere. My perception is that the American public is de-sensitized, and I chose a fairly ghastly way to illustrate that.

Secondly, I am intrigued by the notion that more folks in this country can identify Jar Jar Banks, and are familiar with the controversy around him, then will ever know about the "janjaweed". Steven Spielberg made "Schindler's List", and good for him, but is anyone in Hollywood ever going to make a big film about the Sudan specifically, or African atrocities generally? "Black Hawk Down" was not really about the locals, I don't think. "The Killing Fields" obviously doesn't count, and ties in to our post-Vietnam angst.

So, big finish, do I really think rape and murder are funny? Let me get back to you. Did I choose an arguably tasteless way to illustrate some of the challenges Mr. Kristof might encounter on his current crusade to rally the American public? I think so.

And I still say, we are not going to war against the janjaweed.
If you've been following this, I objected to a post of Maguire's. He responded. I tried to clarify my position. He clarified his.

Folks, just feel the nuance!

If I can just make a few more comments before Maguire decides for once and for all that he's sorry he ever acknowledged my existence . . .

First, Maguire seems to treat all of Africa as of a piece: the whole place is always going to pot and what the hell can you do? This is an idea with real consequences, most of them unfortunate. For example, it was the idea that the U.S.'s experience in Somalia shed helpful light on the situation in Rwanda in 1994 that led the Clinton people to conclude it was better to do nothing. In fact, Somalia's political culture was (and is) utterly unlike Rwanda's and thinking the two cases relevantly alike was about as silly as trying to predict the U.S.'s behaviour from closely studying Peru.

(Sorry, but I can't leave Rwanda that quickly. I'm not an expert on the region, but the reading I've done convinces me that the case probably offered one of history's all time bargain basement resources-to-lives-saved deals - even if you ignore the role that the genocide had in destabilizing neighbouring countries and plunging the region into a bloody war. Too bad the lives weren't strategically significant. The Hutu Power government had an anxious eye on world opinion, especially France's and the U.S.'s, during the buildup to the genocide. They were probably highly deterrable. Moreover, even jamming radio stations or bombing a few of them would have saved thousands and thousands of lives.)

There are times when intervention is sensible and times when it's unlikely to do much good. I haven't the faintest idea whether an intervention would be useful now in the Sudan. Frankly, I doubt it, but I'm not really sure. A full and careful case for intervention would have to consider the prospects for success, peaceful alternatives, past behaviour, the current burdens and committments of the would-be interveners, and so on. But the main thing is that while much of Africa is a mess, it's also highly differentiated politically and culturally. So it can be deeply misleading to try to generalize about the continent.

Second, notice how quickly Maguire moves from talk of intervention to talk of doing nothing. It wouldn't be fair of me to suggest that this is a settled tendency on Maguire's part. I haven't read his site carefully enough to say. So let me just say that this basic tendency is extremely common. The problem with it is that there is a usually a whole range of measures short of an intervention that are often open to parties who genuinely wish to make a difference to some troubled area. In the case of the Sudan, these might include: support for Chad as it copes with a refuge crisis, publicization of the issue internationally, targetted sanctions, organized diplomatic pressure, the right kind of incentives, and so on.

If I can briefly break my rule and free associate about another region of Africa, it's now pretty clear that three million people died in central Africa over the last few years in a war fueled very much by demand for resources which were snapped up by companies from Western countries (and non-Western countries, of course). Putting an end to that would not have dried up the conflict right away, but it's the sort of measure which is realistic and achievable but which falls well short of an intervention.

Finally, I can't resist twitting Maguire for his remarks about holding on to support for Bush. Now that I've got his attention - if I still have his attention - I might as well ask him: What in the world is there left for a supporter of Bush to believe in? That Bush restored honour and integrity to the W.H.? That Bush would bravely hold the line on domestic spending? That Bush would attack terra effectively?

I admit that I live a blinkered little world in which people willing to praise Bush are as rare as mercury-free tuna. (The last time I actually heard someone say something nice about Bush in person was a few months ago on the subway. He was a drunk, homeless fellow whose admiration for Bush seemed rooted mainly the latter's willingness to kill Arabs - at least judging by the things that he was shouting.) So perhaps my astonishment at Maguire's stamina on this issue is an artifact of my limited experience. I am also, I blush to confess, a Canadian. But what appeal could Bush possibly hold for someone who actually follows the news? I'm hard-pressed to work up much enthusasm for Kerry, but for Pete's sake, what would it take for Maguire to abandon Bush?

Isn't the least demoralizing position for a Republican at this point something like: "Yeah, Bush has deeply disappointed me. He's screwed up everything he's attempted and betrayed the principles that led me to the Republican party in the first place. In order to save the credibility of the party, and my own damn credibility, I'm recommending that we cut him loose. This pains me, since I have nothing but contempt for the losers in the Democratic party who will no doubt do things I hate. But I've come to see that Bush is bad in a way that transcends politics. And anyone who believes in accountability has to believe that the buck stops with him. Let's cut our losses, regroup, develop credible alternatives and push for a real candidate the next time around."

I'm being condescending, I understand. But it's the best I can do in the circumstances. And I'm right, no?
The Minute Man detects furrowed brows over at See Why. The brows were furrowed here over this. Minute Man responds:
UPDATE: Oh, dear, a furrowed brow. Follow the links to see why. I'm not sure what is being insinuated with the "Hint", but that is why I have a comments section. I would be especially delighted if the explanation noted my post that, by non-coincidence, followed this one.
MM is right that my hint is unclear. Here is the original post, hint and all:
Wow, this is really tasteless.

What it is about this case that makes it safe to make ignorant and tasteless jokes about ethnic cleansing, rape and mass murder? (Hint: The events are occurring in Africa.)
I regret the "hint", because it's multiply ambiguous. To take two extremes, it might mean either:
1. Hey, I betcha if we jump MM in the parking lot and steal his wallet, we'll find his secret KKK membership card - and who knows what else?

2. Wow, that's really insensitive. The mass killing is going on as we type. Do you think we might hold off on the Ewok jokes and complaints about glazed eyes at least until it's over? Look, can you imagine someone writing a post like this about mass murder elsewhere in the world? Run through the substitutions yourself: "Nicolas Kristoff warns us about . . . as our eyes glaze over." It's not impossible, since people are tasteless about a lot of things. Still, it's much easier to find this sort of tastelessness when people write about Africa. Would that it were not so.
For the record, it was the second interpretation I had in mind. One hint that that is so is that I complained that the post was really "tasteless", rather than "racist". Still, the topic is pretty charged, so I might have made that clearer.

That said, it really was tasteless. Most people who have a blog end up writing stupid or insensitive things. So why not just admit it and move on?

(A glimmer of doubt creeps in: What if it's just that Kristof bores MM, and not ethnic cleansing? Well, no one could be faulted for finding Kristof boring. Still, it's unclear and the Ewok jokes don't exactly point in a promising direction. MM seems to perk up at the chance to make a 12-year-old's joke about Kristof's subject.)

Anyway, a general point about MM. He's usually wrong, but he can also be very funny. That's why the lucky devil has a spot on my blogroll. If I wanted to explain the appeal to my liberal friends, I would say "He'll have you laughing out loud - through gritted teeth." I even nominated him for some stupid blog award or other once (stupid, because I was crushed by the competition when my own site was judged). But recently, MM's blog has been awfully limp. My guess is that this has to do with the total collapse of any rational basis for trust in George W. Bush. Of late, MM has been flailing at Kerry, which is perfectly respectible, but unless I'm mistaken there just isn't the same love for the task I used to see in his writing. Can any sentient person really throw themselves heart and soul into any part of an effort to retain George W. Bush? My hope is that Kerry will win, the Republicans will regroup and present themselves as a more credible alternative, and MM will grow funny again, just like the old days.

UPDATE: Oh yes, and kudos to MM for not sulking about "political correctness".

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Bush Fulfills Campaign Promise

In three years, Bush has managed to bring together an astonishing coalition of critics, from Richard Clarke and Paul O'Neill right on down to Noam Chomsky. That is an astonishing accomplishment, matched only by Nixon at the peak of his powers.

Give the man some credit. He's a uniter and not a divider.
Wow, this is really tasteless.

What it is about this case that makes it safe to make ignorant and tasteless jokes about ethnic cleansing, rape and mass murder? (Hint: The events are occurring in Africa.)

UPDATE: Get yer latest here.
Thanks to a link a week or two ago from Brad DeLong, I've been enjoying this very odd blog recently.

It's very, very odd. But funny.
Via Robert Tagorda, I see these remarks by Peter Feaver, which I'd like to riff on briefly:
[Madeleine] Albright is partly correct; there was a pre-9/11 mindset that shaped Clinton-era responses. The mind-set was "counterterrorism as law-enforcement." The role of the military was at best a supporting one. Moreover, because the uniformed military themselves opposed a military role, the law enforcement mind-set was reinforced by Clinton's pathological civil-military relations. Even if President Clinton wanted to conduct military operations against al Qaeda, he was simply too weak a commander in chief to prevail over a military that wanted nothing to do with a war in Afghanistan.

The Clinton record on military operations was clear: frequent resort to low-risk cruise-missile strikes and high-level bombings, but shunning any form of decisive operations involving ground troops in areas of high risk. The Clinton White House was the most casualty phobic administration in modern times, and this fear of body bags was not lost on Osama bin Laden. Indeed, al Qaeda rhetoric regularly "proved" that the Americans were vulnerable to terrorism by invoking the hasty cut-and-run after 18 Army soldiers died in the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" events in Somalia -- a strategy developed and implemented, ironically enough, by the same Richard Clarke who torments the Bush team today.

So Albright is correct that Operation Enduring Freedom, the campaign to topple the Taliban, was not possible with a commander in chief who was afraid to lead the public to accept the human costs of war.
After quoting a bit more, Tagorda remarks:
Seriously, I think there's something to be said about how Clinton's "pathologies" limited his military options, as well as how Bush's leadership helped the push for decisive action, and they should have probably been raised before the commission. But, at the same time, Feaver seems to put more emphasis on these factors than they deserve. In the end, public awareness is the "elephant in the room." Though we should also examine other dimensions, we should stress that they existed within the broader context of public attitudes at the time.
I'd just like to point out that one of the main reasons for Clinton's uneasy relationship with the military was that his draft-dodging was held against him. It may be hard to remember, but this was a huge issue for many people and Clinton was never allowed to forget it.

I think that's why it drives me so completely bonkers that Bush gets a pass on all the Vietnam stuff. I don't mean he gets a pass in the press - though it's also that. He gets the most leeway in the popular idea that he's a decisive military leader who has some right to prance around on aircraft carriers. And that supposedly gives him much greater leeway to use military force. None of the people who sneered at Clinton for his Vietnam era behaviour are able to work up much resentment at Bush for behaviour that was even less principled in its way than Clinton's. And this shows itself in countless little differences in reporting and public opinion.

So, yeah, there's lots of pathology here. But I'm not sure it's the sort we hold against Clinton or give any credit to Bush for - not at least if we're being consistent.

A nice little bit of political jujitsu on the question of same-sex marriage.

Via Metafilter.
Ian Ayres and Barry Nalebuff to Antonin Scalia:"Tisk tisk, we know where the real ethical quandry is, you naughty boy."

Hope none of them ever have a case before the Supreme Court.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

I wonder if this is the sort of unintentional quasi-plagiarism that could happen to anyone. Here is Fred Kaplan, bless his soul, defending Richard Clarke:
To an unusual degree, the Bush people can't get their story straight. On the one hand, Condi Rice has said that Bush did almost everything that Clarke recommended he do. On the other hand, Vice President Dick Cheney, appearing on Rush Limbaugh's show, acted as if Clarke were a lowly, eccentric clerk: "He wasn't in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff." This is laughably absurd. Clarke wasn't just in the loop, he was the loop.
And here is Josh Marshall, bless his soul too, also defending Richard Clarke:
So Cheney's claim is that Clarke "wasn't in the loop ... on a lot of this stuff."

Consider what that means.

Clarke, as we've said, was the counter-terrorism coordinator at NSC. That means he ran the inter-agency process on terrorism issues. Cheney says Clarke wasn't in the loop; but that means that he actually ran the loop.
It's an obvious point, and an obvious retort. Still . . .

Anyway, I've wondered once or twice if Krugman was unconsciously deriving inspiration from Marshall too. The "up-is-down-ism" crack in one of his latest columns struck me as very Marshall-istic in tone.

Just thought I'd point that out.

UPDATE: Oh yeah, and another thing. Why does Marshall cut out the "frankly" in Cheney's comments? That "frankly" is very like Cheney. I have the (perhaps mistaken) impression he says "frankly" a lot in interviews, especially when he's lying.
Just a quick snark: Hitchens was right about at least one thing. Remember John Walker Lindh? The kid joined the Taliban and got right up close to bin Laden lickety-split. After 9/11, Hitchens was one of the few people to point out what an enormous hole this blew in the theory that the B.L was an invisible and untracable international man of mystery. If someone wants to ask a real question at the 9/11 hearings, why don't they bring up Lindh?

Also: I can understand that 9/11 changed a lot of perceptions within government, and that it's best to focus on what happened after 9/11 rather than what happened before it. But was it really so hard to figure out that the US mainland would be targeted by Islamic extremists? I mean, give me a break. My impression may have something to do with the fact that I'm such an outrageous, over-the-top geek that I was reading books on blowback before 9/11. But it's not like that should have put me in a better position to judge these things than the people tasked with the security of the U.S. No?
I really do like Abu Aardvaark. Don't always agree with him, but he is a really wonderful voice in the blogosphere, and someone I learn from regularly. This is yet another example what makes him invaluable: it's a nice explanation of why the U.S.'s media strategy in Iraq is so bloody awful.

Mr. Aardvaark confesses that he's beating a dead horse. Ah yes, but the brute really deserved it.
Busy, busy. I've got a few crushing deadlines coming up, so I'm going to try to go a little lighter on the blogging. Don't complain! I know you don't read all the posts anyway. Hell, I don't read all the posts. My Proust-like blogging frenzies have gotten a bit out of control lately, and as much as it hurts, from now on I'm going to have to limit myself to 5000 words a day, tops.

By the way, I've updated the post immediately before this one, to ward off a possible misunderstanding (of mine).

One other thing. I read somewhere recently that some rich lawyer blogger was rewarding readers for pointing out spelling mistakes or places where his prose could be improved. He was giving out big bucks too, so I don't know why you're wasting your time here. But, except for the fact that I'm really very broke, it seems like a splendid idea to me. In the year I've been blogging, I think my writing has improved a bit. But it's still so wretched most days I can hardly bear to look at the screen. So if you have any suggestions or corrections or admonishments, by all means send them my way.

Some problems I'm already aware of:

-Tense problems, especially involving subjunctives. "He should have seen that it is wrong to think that it would be fair to . . . . " Help! This just gums up my prose when I'm trying to talk about what would have been right to think about the war and describing things that are still the case. That kind of thing.
-Long, unwieldy sentences. I need to break these up into tasty bite-sized pieces.
-Lame jokes.
-Piss-poor proof-reading.

Anyhow, if you read something that has you wrinkling your nose, cut and paste it into an email and try to shame me into better prose. Thank ya in advance.

Monday, March 22, 2004

The March of Progress Goes On!

Norm has responded to another one of my posts.

Norm's first response to me was a bit of a fiasco (UPDATE: For me, I mean.). I had much unhatched chicken reproduction unit on my face after that one. This one, I think, leaves us both looking just fine - at least if you were disposed to think that before you read it. For the disagreement noted here is a poor, malnourished little thing indeed. Norm mentioned in the course of a post that the anti-war crowd ought to just move on. I responded, agreeing with most of the post, but adding a dissenting note or two. Norm has now pointed out that the dissenting notes have actually gotten a lot of play on his blog. And so they have. Duly noted.

Too much agreement is a bad thing, so let me protest the hook Norm uses as an excuse to get the post going. The hook is a letter in the Guardian:
Asked why she was protesting on Saturday... an anti-war demonstrator replied: "Because I have the right to tell the government that I don't approve of what it did." Fair enough, but the invasion gave the Iraqi people a similar right, which Saddam's continued existence would have denied them. Apparently this hadn't occurred to her. Extraordinary.
Now, you see that's exactly the kind of silliness that had me throwing tantrums at Norm a few months back. Why oh why does the letter writer assume that this hadn't occurred to her? What presumption - what galling presumption - to judge this from a simple remark about the protester's entirely legitimate displeasure with the government! And why does Norm approve of this? Does he not detect an unpleasant echo of the Cold War superhawk's refrain "Why do you hate freedom so?" which always carried with it the implication that to reject his methods was equivalent to hating freedom?

Good golly, it hath driven me mad!

Anyway, as a result of Norm's post, I've just discovered another very interesting looking blog, Short Hope Unfiltered. Interesting, I say, but for that reason it's all the more annoying that it lacks an RSS/Atom feed. Dude, it's 2004 - where's your frickin' feed?

Finally, it seems to me that Norm is now doing warm-up exercises to prepare for the tougher stuff ahead. I don't want to rush him - and I wouldn't presume to dicatate the exact sequence in which he refutes me. For what it's worth, though, it's really this post that I'm dying to see an answer to.

UPDATE: Now that I've slept on it, it occurs to me that I may have misunderstood the letter Norm quotes. If the letter writer is responding to an original piece in the Guardian which I haven't seen, it might be that there is enough context in the original piece to start throwing around blame. If so, then I suppose I would scale down my criticism a bit. Whatever the case, though, it's annoying to be playing this game of look-how-stupid-a-random-person-who-disagrees-with-me-is. It's one thing to point to prominent spokepeople on the left and scrutinize them for stupidity. It's another to pick some person off the street and pretend that a great deal hangs on it either way. A lot of people protested for perfectly good reasons and a lot of people came down on both sides of the issue for wildly idiotic reasons. I think that really ought to be acknowledged.
Mark Felber asks the essential question, and gives a pretty decent answer:
I guess the essential question is this: What would it take for Bush's supporters to believe that the Iraq war was policy from the start, and that the War on Terror and US intelligence were cynically twisted to bolster public support for this agenda? Who would have to leave the administration, write a book, and go on "60 Minutes" with anecdotes and documents before America's Bushies began to smell something rotten?

You can answer in the Comments below, but it's my suspicion that if George W. Bush himself resigned, wrote a book entitled "I Lied to You All, Especially About Iraq," and confessed tearily to Lesley Stahl that he'd been "a very, very bad boy," the next morning Scott McClellan would express President Cheney's disapproval, assert that Bush missed most of the meetings that involved national security and Iraq, and point out that Bush was never really in the administration's inner circle.

And a lot of folks would buy it.
Rice is still refusing to testify under oath at the 9/11 commission.

The piece I've linked to doesn't even offer her explanation. In fact, I've never even read the official reason for this, let alone the real one. They're going to take a huge amount of flak over this - it's a bloody election year, remember. What the hell is going on? What does she know that makes her testifying under oath so dangerous that a rational cost/benefit analysis rules it out of the question?


Read this extremely interesting interview with Norm Geras. It's far better than a blog entry, and much more to my taste, since he very carefully qualifies many of the claims that he leaves unqualified on his blog. (And I'm a hopeless qualification-addict.)

Very long, but very worth reading.

Via BertramOnline.
An observation: Everyone is gearing themselves up for the admin's anticipated smear job on Clarke. But, really, was the smear job on O'Neill so bad? What are they going to do?

Course I'm not the one standing in the line of fire.

UPDATE: Instant support for this observation, via War and Piece.
The ever-thoughtful Mark Kleiman writes:
Today's New York Times reports that the fall of the Baathist regime in Iraq has given heart to dissidents in Syria. That's exactly the sort of thing the "neocon" architects of the Iraq invasion were hoping for. Like the end of the Iraqi tryranny, it has to be, on any reasonable accounting of the costs and benefits of going to war, an entry on teh credit side.

I wish that those who criticize the war were more willing than they seem to be to acknowledge its benefits, as I wish that those who still think it was a good idea were more willing to acknowledge both that the fear of a major Iraqi WMD program was central to the argument for war as it was actually made at the time and that it has proven in retrospect to have been seriously overestimated.

What the anti-war and pro-war sides have in common is an almost total unwillingness to acknowledge what seemed obvious to me: this was a hard problem, with no obvious right answer. No which side you were (or are) on, there are patriotic, humanitarian folks who know more than you do about the problem who disagree with you. If that were better understood, there might be a little less vitriol in the conversation.
Well, that sounds a bit like stuff I've said here at See Why. Still, I'd like to make a few qualifications to Kleiman's point.

Set aside for the moment reservations about the NYT piece expressed by the equally thoughtful Abu Aardvaark. For it's a rare policy that has no advantages whatsoever, and so I have no objection, in principle, to recognizing all kinds of benefits of the war. Grant, then, Kleiman's point that people should be more willing to acknowledge the benefits of the war, even as you forgive those who drag their feet a bit because they (correctly) see that concessions about benefits are often twisted into drammatic rhetorical victories by their political opponents.

And yet, as much as I like what Kleiman is trying to do in this post, I'm looking for a little more nuance on this question of vitriol.

As far as the prudential case for the war goes, I think Kleiman is just wrong: It wasn't a hard problem, and there was an obvious right answer. I think smart, well-meaning people were suckered into thinking that it was a bright idea, but that's because I think that smart, well-meaning people can be suckered into all sorts of stupid ideas. Study enough intellectual history, and you'll start to think that that's the rule, rather than the exception. It's now commonplace to point out how the war on Iraq diverted resources from other worries like instability in Pakistan, rebuilding Afghanistan, fighting AQ, and so on. But during the buildup to the war, I watched in astonishment as one highly intelligent person after another focused on the question of Iraq with laser-like intensity and to the almost complete neglect of the broader foreign policy priorities that we could all agree on. It was stupid. Forgivable, but stupid. But recognizing this is also compatible with respecting people's intellectual and moral capabilities.

We don't have to choose between seeing the question as difficult and seeing it as a cause for vitriol - even if the questions we're debating are life and death issues.

As far as the humanitarian case for war goes, I think it was a very difficult call. And although I think the humanitarian case was premised on a number of naive assumptions, I think anyone who has read much about Saddam Hussein's regime will be familiar with the deep longing which comes over one as page after page of atrocity goes by. (And anyone who has spoken with Iraqi exiles knows this feeling even better.) For many this longing was overpowering. And this I respect very much. No vitriol for these chaps. Impatience, exasperation, sharp questions, the odd rhetorical jab - we're only human, after all - but no vitriol.

But before you swear off the vitriol altogether, consider that there were many people who supported the war for reasons that were both stupid and immoral, and for whom the humanitarian argument was a cynical and insincere cover. There were reasons and there were reasons, some of which we should respect, and some of which we should be in the business of shaming as vitriolically as we can. Kleiman is absolutely right that we ought to be careful not to impugn the integrity of people simply because we find them on the other side of this difficult issue. You're relying on a very odd intellectual taxonomy if you just lump Rumsfeld in together with Norm Geras. They don't fit together at all, even if they found themselves on the same side of the issue. But some people on the other side of the question, like Rumsfeld, are just plain asking for it.

Now, there are more controversial cases. Kenneth Pollack, for example, was highly regarded for his extremely careful and influential book on Iraq. But as a public intellectual with a high degree of influence, I think he had correspondingly high responsibilities. He failed, in my opinion, and miserably at that. His book is in fact a deeply dishonest work, as I would have documented by now if I weren't such a lazy bastard. I don't think he should be readmited to polite society, not at least until he does a more honest penance than one slick, ass-covering article in the Atlantic Monthly. From me Pollack gets nuttin' but scorn.
Innocent question of the day

Why did it take until a week ago for me to learn that Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the Sept. 11th Commission, has a whopping conflict of interest?

I spend half my life reading the news. I suppose this coulda just slipped past me. Things do, especially now that I've reached the hoary old age of 30. But still . . .
Re: Richard Clarke interview

Good golly, if Bush can survive this . . .

It doesn't matter if Kerry is exposed as the long lost brother of Bashir Assad, or it turns out he secretly sports an "authentically French" tatoo on his butt, or he is revealed to be a member in good standing of a secret Washington intern dating service.

If Bush can survive this, I just give up . . .

. . . No, I don't. But you know what I mean.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Re: Torture.

Forget the moral problems with it for a moment. There are also rather formidable epistemological problems with it.
Here's an interesting piece in the NYT. Powell is apparently traveling through the Middle East promoting democratic reform. The first paragraph is worrying:
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell sought this weekend to allay the furor in the Middle East over the Bush administration's proposed democracy initiative for the region, assuring the leaders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia that there was no intention to impose reforms on their countries.
But the key word here is "impose". Powell is pushing the line that reform has to come from within, and has to draw on the resources of the local culture.
But when he was asked in Saudi Arabia whether the United States would be satisfied if the Arab League adopted a democracy resolution, Mr. Powell bristled.

"It's not a matter of satisfying the United States," he said. "It's a matter of satisfying the aspirations of the people in the Arab world."
That's not a terrible line to take, but rhetorically and substantively.

But notice the careful deference to the region's rulers reported in the piece. It stands in quite jarring contrast to much of the admin's tough talk. Once again, the problem with the Bush admin is not that it's arrogant and pushy - it's that it's arrogant and pushy and cowardly and appeasing in turns, and always at the wrong times with the wrong people. Compare, for example, this diplomatic line with the (wholly counterproductive) warnings and admonitions for the people of Spain that we heard from senior administration officials recently.

Powell has a difficult task here. There really is a risk of backlash if he pushes very hard, very fast. But against this are two considerations which suggest he ought to be pushing a lot harder and a lot more publicly than he is. First, there's the fact that the U.S. is strongly associated with the undemocratic autocrats in the region. Never push governments in the public eye, and you never really get a chance to challenge that perception. The second is that so long as this is just words, it doesn't count for shit. To take one example, Powell needs to make clear that further assistance to Egypt is out of the question barring a long list of democratic reforms. Until he does that and other things in that spirit, the U.S. is simply enabling authoritarians in the region and then tisk-tisking them about it. Everyone knows this, so this sort of talk only adds to the cynicism about the U.S. in the region (and elsehwere) if it isn't followed up in any way.

Let me conclude with one observation: At the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Kuwaiti women were still not allowed to vote. In fact, torture is quite routine in Kuwaiti prisons, and there are a whole host of other human rights concerns about the place. And this was 12 years after the country had been restored by the U.S. The U.S. had a dozen years to push for reforms in a tiny country which was completely dependant on it for security and which owed it an extraordinary debt.

Kuwait is much better now than it would have been under Saddam Hussein. But it is very much worse than it would be if the U.S. had cared one whit for reform in the country. So if the U.S. couldn't - or wouldn't - induce very much change at all in that case, why oh why would anyone believe that it could - or would - induce it in Iraq in almost incomparably more difficult circumstances?
In the past, I've complained a bit about yesterday's march (unequivocally here; rather equivocally here), but this kind of complaining is just silly. Really, it reads like a Nabakov story in which an unreliable narrator slowly reveals just how unreliable he is.

This isn't especially impressive either. I can understand strong disagreement with the anti-war crowd, even anger. But there's a palpable contempt here that seems to extend to the whole anti-war movement, and which strikes me as unfair and counterproductive.

Different people had different reasons for supporting or opposing the war. Contempt is fine, when it's appropriate. I have a finely honed contempt for Rumsfeld, for example. But throwing everyone on the other side into the same pile just isn't right. In fact, it's a decent sign that you're missing something.

I just want to reaffirm my disgust at Colin Powell's cynical attempt to use the Halabja massacre to score political points. Colin, if you can't say something true, then don't not say something that isn't false. Got it?

I also want to say that I'm sort of pleased with myself for coining a new phrase: The Chomsky-Wolfowitz Theory of Root Causes. It's catchy and mildly amusing, and I urge everyone to use it.

Finally, I just can't stop thinking about this passage from a Thomas Friedman piece that I quoted earlier:
The real reason for this war - which was never stated - was to burst what I would call the "terrorism bubble," which had built up during the 1990s.

This bubble was a dangerous fantasy, believed by way too many people in the Middle East. This bubble said that it was OK to plow airplanes into the World Trade Center, commit suicide in Israeli pizza parlors, praise people who do these things as "martyrs," and donate money to them through religious charities. This bubble had to be burst, and the only way to do it was to go right into the heart of the Arab world and smash something—to let everyone know that we, too, are ready to fight and die to preserve our open society. Yes, I know, it's not very diplomatic - it's not in the rule book - but everyone in the neighborhood got the message: Henceforth, you will be held accountable. Why Iraq, not Saudi Arabia or Pakistan? Because we could - period. Sorry to be so blunt, but, as I also wrote before the war: Some things are true even if George Bush believes them.
Sorry, Thomas, but some things aren't true even if they're said by people who say that they're true even if George W. Bush believes them.

I feel a primal scream coming on . . . .

By the way . . . if you read this site regularly, you're probably a news addict like me. In that case, if you're not using an RSS aggregator, you're probably wasting a lot of your time.

Very briefly, an RSS aggregator gathers together the "feeds" that your favourite sites offer. For example, check out the link at the top right of this page which says "Atom Feed". It's not very pretty when you click on it in a web broswer. But if you enter that address into an RSS aggregator then your aggregator will poll my server at set intervals to notify you when the site has been updated.

This doesn't sound like much, but it makes a huge difference in practice. I can monitor hundreds of pages without ever opening my browser, and very quickly since the entire page doesn't need to load to figure out whether it's been updated. That means that I can get much more procrastinating done in a given amount of time.

You can get a list of aggregators here. I use the FeedDemon. Unlike most aggregators, it actually costs money. But it's one sweet little app.

UPDATE: Oh yeah, and if you have a blog and don't have an RSS/ATOM feed, then by golly get off yer duff and get one! Email me if you can't figure out how to do this.
For anyone in the NYC area:

Please join us for the following event:

Remembering Rwanda: Africa in Conflict, Yesterday and Today
NYU Kimmel Center, 60 Washington Square South, Room 914
Monday, March 22, 2004, 7:00-8:30

The presentation will discuss the devastating events culminating in the death
of over 500,000 Rwandans in 1994 and highlight the similarity of conflicts and
human rights abuses in Africa today. The lecture will be followed by a Q&A.
Seating is limited, and admission is free. The speaker will be Human Rights
Watch Africa Division Counsel and Harvard Law School lecturer, Binaifer

The event is sponsored by Human Rights Watch and Co-Sponsored by NYU Black
Family Reunion, NYU African Students Union, and the NYU Undergraduate Law
Jay Rosen to stupid campaign strategy stories: "Die, strategy news. Do it this year, 2004. And we'll dance the dance of real politics on your grave."

Amen, brother. Amen.

UPDATE: Napsterization has a nice discussion of this as well.
Random Sunday musing: I'm really a bit surprised that Left Blogistan hasn't made more of the fact that Paul (or Jerry or whatever) Bremer is a close (former) associate of Henry Kissinger.

I'm not saying that it's never discussed. Juan Cole made a remark about it the other day. Still, given the extent to which Kissinger is hated on the left I had expected it to be added to the standard litany by now.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Three more piles of vomit cleaned up, and I'm also futzing about with Mozilla Firefox (am I really ready to take the big plunge?)

So perhaps it won't be like Chariots of Fire today . . .
The first paragraph in today's Today's Papers:
The NYT leads with the president's short-term campaign strategy: Define John Kerry as indecisive before Kerry manages to define himself. To that end, Bush has outspent Kerry 10-to-one since Kerry clinched the nomination March 2.
But . . . but, I splutter, Bush is getting his ass kicked in the blogosphere - or at least, the part of the blogosphere I hang out in. 10-to-one? Perhaps I might have noticed if I didn't live in New York City, or if I watched television.

And I wonder why I suck at calling elections. Hello (hello, hello, hello) is there anybody (anybody, anybody, anybody) else in the echo chamber (chamber, chamber, chamber) who has the same problem (lem, lem, lem)?
Recently I wrote:
This piece by Paul Krugman is really very good, but I find this throwaway remark attempting to exonerate Clinton highly suspicious:
There has been much speculation about whether officials ignored specific intelligence warnings, but what we know for sure is that the administration disregarded urgent pleas by departing Clinton officials to focus on the threat from Al Qaeda.
Unless I'm mistaken, the source of this story is . . . Clinton or someone close to him. That doesn't mean it's false. But the burden of proof is pretty high here. I want to see briefing papers and transcripts before I buy this one. (Though perhaps the Bush admin's failure to immediately leak the relevant briefing papers and transcripts says something.) Whatever the case, I'll wager that "urgent" is a bit over the top.
It looks like I may get my briefing notes, after all.

Just to pat myself on the back a bit, I'm willing to admit that Krugman was right, even though I've harshly criticized him in the past. Now why can't Andrew Sullivan do the same thing?
The dog is sick. For some reason this invariably happens when my wife is away. I swear it's not a quality of care issue. I think he's just a moma's boy.

So, hardly any sleep last night. And I just spent a lot of time cleaning up vomit in several hard-to-reach places around the apartment.

After the dog and I went for a refreshing 3am spin, he kept me awake by wimpering and climbing on top of me repeatedly. Not sure if I ever really got back to sleep.

Deep thought at 4am while listening to a car alarm sound off for the second time in 10 minutes: Given that the car is almost certainly not worth stealing, that no one looks when they hear a cheap car alarm go off, and that it is 4am - perhaps this ought to count as a capital offence. A worthy exception to my general position against capital punishment, no?

Unfortunately, all this sets me behind in my blogging. Will I catch up? You betcha! It'll be just like in Chariots of Fire when the guy slips in the mud (for me: vomit) and then gets up and wins the race!


Friday, March 19, 2004

Torture yourself with this column by Oliver North.

Via Boing Boing
Harry urges you to do something for the Marsh Arabs.

He's right too. If you can spare anything, you should.
From Back in Iraq:
"Who would prefer that Saddam's torture chambers still be open?" Bush asked. "Who would wish that more mass graves were still being filled? Who would begrudge the Iraqi people their long-awaited liberation?"

Well, no one is. What's being begrudged is the way Bush screwed up the march to war in the United Nations, the lack of post-war planning and the sheer arrogance the White House has shown to anyone who disagrees with them. When John Kerry said more foreign leaders supported his candidacy, it was a gaffe not because it isn't true, but because it is.

So good on ya, Mr. President, that Saddam is gone. And I sincerely mean that. I was in Iraq in July 2002 and saw the front between the Kurds and the Iraqi troops. I talked with survivors of the Halabja massacre. I met with families who had fled Kirkuk when Saddam "Arabized" them out of their homes. I was there during the war, and saw how happy many Iraqis - Kurds and Arabs alike - were that Saddam was gone.

But things are not going well now, and that's mostly your fault, Mr. President. I didn't oppose the war in Iraq because I'm a pacifist - I wholeheartedly supported Afghanistan. And I didn't oppose it because I'm a supporter of tyrants. I opposed it because it was poorly planned from the get-go, cynically sold to the American people, alienating to American allies and a distraction from the real enemy - al Qaeda and its constellation of terror groups. You have yet to convince me that toppling Saddam was worth the deaths of 676 coalition troops and thousands of Iraqi conscripts and civilians despite the immediate benefits of the war. A year later, I'm not alone in still wrestling with this conundrum, and your simple black and white, "no neutral ground" statements don't make the issue any clearer.
Now compare this to this snippet of an interview with Hitchens that I just found on Normblog:
Whitney: So you would consider then supporting the war in Iraq a properly leftist position?

Hitchens: Yes, I think it's the only one. The leftist position is that co-existence with totalitarian dictatorship is undesirable and impossible. That's the [principal] position. That is, or should be the left position. It used to be.
Got that? It's not just the correct position, or the position that he arrived at after carefully weighing the terrible consequences on either side. It's the only position.

I'm pretty damn sure I'm right about the war, but at least I can see why a well-meaning person would support it. Hitchens apparently can't. I think this explains a lot about his writing: He gets some great rips off, but the underlying argument is almost always extremely weak. That must have something to do with the fact that he doesn't seem able to think through the kinds of considerations that might move (the smarter and more decent among) his political opponents.
I am reliably informed that another person has bought a "Not Bush in '04" thong. (See the link to the right.)

Kinky - and political!

(I don't make any money from this. I think my friend is just aiming to recoup his losses.)
Via Rubber Hose, I found this very funny mini-mocumentary on the Homeland Security warning system.
Charles Krauthammer tells us how to win the war on terror:
How is it won apart from hunting down terrorists and destroying terrorist regimes? By reversing the Arab-Islamic world's tragic collapse into oppression, intolerance and destitution, in which popular grievances are cynically deflected by repressive regimes and clergy into the virulent anti-Americanism that exploded upon us on Sept. 11, 2001. Which means trying to give desperate and oppressed people a chance at the kind of freedom and prosperity that we helped construct after World War II in Europe and East Asia.
Yes, there's more to it than that, of course, but I think it's worth pointing out that this claim, which I like to call "the Chomsky-Wolfowitz theory of root causes," is really on the right track. The problem is that the Bush administration is stuffed to the brim with cowardly appeasers who refuse to stand up to authoritarian governments like Egypt's and Uzbekistan's because these governments offer some short-term strategic advantages.

What follows is the same old sad dynamic drearily familiar from the Cold War: U.S. policymakers tell the public that now isn't the right time to push crucial allies on human rights since they have bigger fish to fry. The authoritarian governments know perfectly well what they can get away with so long as they offer nominal support to the fish-frying effort. And everyone in the whole bleedin' world comes to associate the U.S. with the authoritarian governments, including anti-government radicals. Much pain and long-term instability ensues.

I honestly wish that Bush were a little less diplomatic and nuanced here, that he was a little more unilateral in insisting on human rights, that he was a bit less cautious and fearful about offending allies.
I had another argument with a friend about the march tomorrow ("We Still Oppose the War"). My first take on the march is here. What follows is a rather idealized version of the argument.
Her: I can't believe you're not going to the march. What the hell is the matter with you?

Me: It's a terrible idea. Before the war I was able to rally behind a fairly straightforward slogan opposing it, despite all my differences and reservations about many of the standard reasons given for rejecting it by my fellow marchers. But now, now - even though it was a mistake, and I want Bush and his gang punished for it, I do badly want the project to succeed. It's partly just a question of where I want my energy to go. It's not too late to punish the pepole who led the U.S. into war, but it is too late to actually oppose it. Now I want to turn to finding solutions for the mess that the U.S. is in, and I desperately want to avoid advocating any position that would make things worse by prematurely drawing troops down. I admit, the U.S. has done little to justify any confidence here, but I still think things would be much, much worse if they just up and left. And the organizers of the protest are calling for exactly that.

Her: Yeah, I don't want them to just up and leave either. Fine, but you don't have to agree with everything that they say. You're marching to express your anger at how badly things have gone and at how dishonest the Bush administration has been. If you were willing to march to show your anger before the war, and you haven't changed your mind, then why not march now?

Me: You know what, the bit about calling for an immediate withdrawal of troops is just so irresponsible that I refuse to have anything to do with them.

Her: You're not listening. I agree with you here. It's not as if they're just going to pull out and leave because we're saying that. You agree with the basic point that the war was wrong. That should be enough. What are you going to do, hold your separate "nuance rally"? Make your own sign with your own message if you feel that strongly.

Me: What will it say? "Don't withdraw the troops"? Anyway, saying that the Bush administration isn't in any danger of taking the advice of protesters is wrong in two ways. First, the pace of withdrawal is really too fast. They're already doing it, and at an irresponsible pace. Second, this bullshit about "Don't worry they won't take us seriously" is exactly the sort of nonsense that discredits the opponents of the Bush administration. The only way we can succeed is by formulating credible alternatives and trying to win people over to them. So I'm not going to console myself with the thought that no one really wants to draw down troops.

Her: Well, if you're in favour of strategic voting, why do you reject strategic marching? Look, you said yourself in a recent post that you think people should vote democrat even if the democrats are a bunch of corrupt weasels. And you've voted in the past for political parties you weren't happy with because you thought that on balance they were the best possible alternative. And you're like most people in that respect. So why does everyone treat marches so differently? Why do reservations count so much more when it comes to marching? How can you justify that?

Me: I hadn't thought of that. I suppose I was really upset for the reasons I mentioned. I guess you have a good point about "strategic marching". But I suppose this effort seems to me badly focused. I'm also sceptical about it because I think that by framing it in the way they have the organizers have made it especially easy to misrepresent. But your point is a good one - perhaps I was a bit too harsh, at least towards the people who decide that on balance they do want to march.

Her: Also, think about this: You've said that it's now too late to get the UN and Europe really involved. You're right in the sense that most European countries are extremely reluctant to do anything now that would help out Bush. They're quite aware that Bush pinned his reputation on the invasion, and they're not willing to lift a finger to do anything that might help him get reelected. But are you so sure that it's too late? That it's absolutely impossible?

Me: Yes, why not? It's just too politically difficult at this point for the leaders of these countries to send troops off to fight and die in a war that their own citizens opposed so deeply.

Her: But what if Bush really backed down? What if he admitted serious errors of judgment? What if he did that in a way that made it politically much easier for the U.S.'s allies to support the U.S. in Iraq? Here's my basic question: Are you saying it's politically impossible - or that it's politically highly unlikely, given how proud Bush is, and how climbing down in this way would doom him politically?

Me: I admit, I suppose I was thinking the latter was the case. Bush really would have to back down in such a way that sealed his fate politically. And I was assuming that he wouldn't do that.

Her: Then you've rather misrepresented the case against future U.N. and European involvement here. That's because you've just accepted without questioning it the assumption that Bush isn't going to back down in ways that would produce a better outcome for the country but a worse outcome for himself and his party - in other words, that it's just out of the question for Bush to act like a real leader willing to do what is best overall. Don't you see how much you've conceded to Bush by framing the issue in this way?

Me: Woah! Look at the time. Don't you have to go now? Hey, is it hot in here?
Welcome to See Why, the home of self-doubt and internal contradiction.
The invaluable John Quiggin makes a point I had been meaning to make about the Spanish election and a popular fallacy about the "general will".

In general, I think there is a lot of very confused talk about collective judgments. But discussions of the Spanish elections took the confusion to a new level. At least, I've noticed it more lately. Unfortunately, these confusions are closely connected with a whole series of confusions about collective responsibility. But that's for another day . . .

This is just so romantic.
Light posting recently. A friend is visiting from out of town. . .

From Slate today:
Oddly enough, the same shadowy Islamist group that claimed responsibility for the attack—and then offered a Pan-European truce following the Socialist Party victory—also supports President Bush against the more "cunning" John Kerry. "We are very keen that Bush does not lose the upcoming elections," wrote Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade in an e-mail to London's al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper. "We know that a heavyweight operation would destroy your government, and this is what we don't want. We are not going to find a bigger idiot than you." (The group is thought to lack credibility by many Western intelligence agencies, especially after it tried to claim credit for last year's U.S. power blackout.)
I think it's all but certain that the shadowy Islamist group here is a bunch of jokers. Their attempt to claim responsibility for the power blackout last summer has to have been one of the silliest and least successful attempts to scare Americans ever. So the say-so of this group counts for nothing. But it's also worth pointing out that if I were in a radical militant Islamic group, I would certainly be rooting for Bush. He really is a dream come true - so divisive, so hated, and with so little credibility. I'm not sure I would be bothering to point this out if I hadn't seen how stubborn the "A vote for Kerry is a vote for bin Laden" idea is in some quarters.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Earlier today Calpundit - excuse me, Political Animal - attacked a column by Thomas Friedman in Today's NYT:
SPANISH APPEASERS?....Speaking of Warmongers vs. Appeasers™, Tom Friedman's latest column is simply revolting:
The new Spanish government's decision to respond to the attack by Al Qaeda by going ahead with plans to pull its troops from Iraq constitutes the most dangerous moment we've faced since 9/11. It's what happens when the Axis of Evil intersects with the Axis of Appeasement and the Axis of Incompetence.

....I understand that many Spanish voters felt lied to by their rightist government over who was responsible for the Madrid bombings, and therefore voted it out of office. But they should now follow that up by vowing to keep their troops in Iraq — to make clear that in cleaning up their own democracy, they do not want to subvert the Iraqis' attempt to build one of their own. Otherwise, the Spanish vote will not be remembered as an act of cleansing, but of appeasement.
So even though the Spanish voters elected the Socialists for perfectly good reasons completely unrelated to appeasement, and even though the Socialists were planning to withdraw from Iraq all along, and even though the Spanish populace never believed the war in Iraq had anything to do with fighting terrorism in the first place, and even though Friedman acknowledges that the Bush administration has shown demonstrable incompetence and a transparent lack of dedication to really building democracy in Iraq — despite all that the Spaniards should change their minds and do what Tom Friedman wanted them to do all along simply because al-Qaeda committed a horrible terrorist act on their soil. If they don't follow Tom Friedman's advice, they are appeasers.

This is both preceded and followed by a steaming mound of wishful thinking unmatched since LBJ saw a light at the end of the tunnel.

This kind of stuff belongs on the pages of a third tier warblogger, not the op-ed page of the New York Times. It's juvenile and disgusting.
There's an interesting response to this by Laura Rozen over at War and Piece:
I don't understand Kevin Drum's hostility to Tom Friedman's oped. The bulk of Friedman's piece is a smart, Kerry-esque critique of the Bush administration's "pig-headed" insistence on doing the Iraq post-war on the cheap -- and risking real failure. The second part -- that encourages the West to redouble its efforts at bringing stability to Iraq, vs. pulling out and dividing -- seems sensible enough.

I agree it's no good calling Spanish voters "appeasers" for rejecting the party that brought them into the Iraq war, and voting for the party that has on its agenda fighting the war on terror, and pulling Spanish troops out of Iraq. But the point cannot be lost that if Al Qaeda's terror attacks are shown to be effective at getting the countries targeted by their attacks to do what Al Qaeda and its affiliates want, is a dangerous precedent. Isn't it? Why is this a left-right thing?

The Serb war criminal Ratko Mladic used to take UN peacekeepers hostage and handcuff them on airport tarmacs, to prevent NATO from conducting air strikes to try to stop mass slaughter of Bosnian Muslims. And you know what the only thing Mladic understood was? Beating the crap out of the Serb forces. Because we were bloodthirsty "warmongers" as Drum calls us? No, because we learned over four years of witnessing mass slaughter and abuse that justice and basic human decency demand that those with the power to do so stop these atrocities however we must.

Why can't people understand that real thugs like Mladic and Al Qaeda terrorists have to be countered with unblinking force? That submitting to their demands does not mean that they think better of slaughtering 7,000 people in a few days work, or blowing up our buildings, trains and airplanes, but that they are emboldened? This is something I think prominent Democrats came to understand, among them Bill Clinton, Wes Clark, Madeleine Albright, and Richard Holbrooke. This is something Tony Blair came to understand as well.

What I think is at issue here is that the Spanish electorate does not think being in the Iraq war was the right thing to do in the first place. So, now what? Now that they have been attacked, do they stick with a policy the majority wasn't crazy about it the first place? Or change their behavior, even at the risk of seeming to comply with their attackers demands? I don't know the answer.

But I think it's extremely important to note that France was this week threatened by an Islamist group with a terror attack because of its decision to ban headscarves at public schools, and France has rejected any role at all in the Iraq campaign. I really believe these attacks should not be only understood as payback for sending troops to Iraq.

And Friedman surely has more insights into the Arab world than many of us. And I think his last point is powerful.

"The notion that Spain can separate itself from Al Qaeda's onslaught on Western civilization by pulling its troops from Iraq is a fantasy. Bin Laden has said that Spain was once Muslim and he wants it restored that way. As a friend in Cairo e-mailed me, a Spanish pullout from Iraq would only bring to mind Churchill's remark after Chamberlain returned from signing the Munich pact with Hitler: 'You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.'"
My take: I certainly lean towards Rozen on this, though I'm probably more sceptical about the wisdom of Clinton, Blair and co.

One quibble, though. Rozen writes, "So, now what? Now that they have been attacked, do they stick with a policy the majority wasn't crazy about it the first place? Or change their behavior, even at the risk of seeming to comply with their attackers demands? I don't know the answer." Well, I don't want Spanish troops out of Iraq for the same reason I don't want American troops out. But I don't think we gain anything from worrying about whether something looks like appeasement. These people are nuts. They interpret all kinds of behaviour in ways that are pointless to try to adjust to. So although I hope that Spain stays in Iraq for the time being, I don't think that has anything to do with concern about the appearance that it is complying with attackers' demands.

If Kevin Drum's response is disproportionate considering the actual content of this Freidman column, it's possible that his vitriol makes more sense if you assume he's had something building against Friedman for a long time. And indeed, many of us have. The one thing I completely disagree with in Rozen's post is the claim that Friedman has some special insight into the Arab world. I think that Friedman is certainly a well-meaning guy. He is obvious trying to be a good foot-soldier on the side of the forces of goodness. But he shoots himself in the foot so often it's a mirace he can get around unassisted.
Even when Friedman says something true in his columns it's always either trivial or obvious. In fact, I don't think I have ever read something both true and not immediately obvious in one of his columns. It's mostly pap, and very badly written pap at that. The more I read really excellent commentary on the internet, the more I come to resent Friedman's position which guarantees him such a wide audience.

Just to get something off my chest, I'll always hold it against Friedman that he wrote this in Slate not long ago:
The real reason for this war—which was never stated—was to burst what I would call the "terrorism bubble," which had built up during the 1990s.
This bubble was a dangerous fantasy, believed by way too many people in the Middle East. This bubble said that it was OK to plow airplanes into the World Trade Center, commit suicide in Israeli pizza parlors, praise people who do these things as "martyrs," and donate money to them through religious charities. This bubble had to be burst, and the only way to do it was to go right into the heart of the Arab world and smash something—to let everyone know that we, too, are ready to fight and die to preserve our open society. Yes, I know, it's not very diplomatic—it's not in the rule book—but everyone in the neighborhood got the message: Henceforth, you will be held accountable. Why Iraq, not Saudi Arabia or Pakistan? Because we could—period. Sorry to be so blunt, but, as I also wrote before the war: Some things are true even if George Bush believes them.
I accept the use of force to deal with threats. I'm certainly willing to fight and die to preserve an open society. But in this quotation you have, in compressed form, some of the most confused thinking about the war. Friedman conflates the good things - willingness to respond to terror - with a war which (whatever you thought of the humanitarian case for it) was as strategically inept as any in modern history. Friedman's point here is just grotesquely stupid. And when I read enough of this sort of garbage, I get on edge. Perhaps Drum was too.
Get your Kosovo updates here.
Hot damn! I wish someone could be considerate enough to sue me. In case you missed it, some obscure blogger pissed off the NYT. They threatened to sue, he played the perfect victim (which he was; the NYT people were being idiots)- and is now appearing on a bunch of T.V. and radio shows. Read, in his own words, how much fun he's having. Jerk.
Garner to Bush: Fall Guy, Schmall Guy.
Today's papers also writes:
Most of the papers front Vice President Cheney's big entrance into the campaign. In a speech, he ripped into Sen. Kerry, charging that he's a waffler and weak on defense. Pointing out that Kerry ultimately voted against $87 billion bill for Iraq—Kerry had supported an alternative that would have funded the operation through scaling back Bush tax cuts—Cheney said, "The senator from Massachusetts has given us ample doubts about his judgment and the attitude he brings to bear on vital issues of national security." One unnamed Bush campaign adviser told the Post, "This is the beginning of the process of trying to detoxify [Cheney] and make him back into the political asset that he should be."
I imagine his aides hold their heads with anxiety every time Cheney ventures into the public sphere. They're better off just hiding him away, as they did earlier on in the term when they discovered that he was turning into a lightening rod. The press hates Cheney, and he regularly says things that makes them hate him even more. Since no strategist would voluntarily take this kind of risk, I think it's possible that Cheney is insisting on this "detoxification" effort over the advice of people around him. Or not. Who knows?

Theme of the day: Trying to understand political strategy from the Bush admin's point of view. It's a potentially soul-destroying exercise, but a useful one. Perhaps if I keep going I'll feel like C.S. Lewis after he finished the Screwtape letters.
Regarding yesterday's bombing in Baghdad, today's Today's Papers writes:
The papers note that officials said they suspect Islamic militants, specifically Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. But the NYT notes, "No specific evidence was offered implicating Mr. Zarqawi." And in a little noticed story a few weeks ago, the LAT questioned the focus on Zarqawi. As the subhead put it, "Critics say an accused terrorist's role in Iraq attacks is exaggerated, noting weak evidence."
I was scratching my head remembering the LA Times story myself. Here's the funny thing: If I were in charge of the admin's press strategy here, I would be trying to downplay any possible connection between Zarqawi and pretty much anything out there. Doing so just reminds people that the admin apparently had the chance to take him out before the war but refused. What's going on here? Did someone not get a memo or something?
Josh Marshall writes:
One of the things we hear again and again from the administration is that Saddam Hussein still had both the intention and the capability to build and possess weapons of mass destruction.

Isn't this a logical fallacy?

I mean, if you have the intention to build WMDs and the ability to build them, then you have WMDs. It's about as close to 2 + 2 = 4 as you get in human affairs.

Not that this is the biggest bit of ridiculousness coming out 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days. But it's worth noting.

We can infer from the fact that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction that he lacked either the intention or the ability to have them. Something is missing from the equation. Maybe he had the intention to build them later. Maybe he was working to get back the ability. But he really couldn't have had both.

It's just 'p's and 'q's.
It's only a logical fallacy as Marshall states it. But there's a perfectly sensible way to restore logical consistency, and that's to be clear that you're refering to future capabilities. And it's really not crazy to think that if Saddam Hussein had been able to get the sanctions lifted, his capabilities would have expanded considerably.

Not at all a convincing case for war, for reasons I've gone into a hundred times. But all the same it's not a logical fallacy when stated clearly and properly.
From yesterday's Today's Papers:
The Washington Post's top non-local story says that with various GOP-centered ethics scandals percolating in Congress, good-government types are bemoaning and some Democrats are seriously regretting the deal they made with Republicans back in the 1990s not to launch ethics probes against each other. The House ethics committee has been essentially mothballed by the informal agreement. "The ethics oversight process in the House is completely paralyzed,"said one Republican who now heads a non-partisan watchdog group. The Democratic House leadership has opposed re-invigorating the ethics committee.
I fall firmly in the people-shoulda-voted-for-Gore camp. But sheesh! No wonder people feel that with the Democrats and the Republics the way they are, the establishment is playing some clever good cop/bad cop routine that screws them over no matter what. Yeah, go vote Democrat. But you don't have to like it for one damn minute. What a bunch of corrupt little weasels.

Also, from the same source:
A Page One piece in the NYT details the U.S. military's practice of paying civilians and their families who've been wounded or killed by American forces in Iraq. And how many civilians have been killed or wounded? "We don't keep a list," said a Pentagon spokeswoman. "It's just not policy."
As many people have pointed out, this certainly appears to violate the Fourth Geneva Convention. That's because you have to take reasonable precautions to minimize harm to civilians - and as I understand it, part of taking reasonable precautions is bothering to collect statistics that allow you to chart and track the problems that do occur. Looks like a classic case of negligence to me, at the very least.
He said, He said

Certain things are true. But wacky journalistic conventions often prevent reporters from just coming out and saying them. This piece in the times is a great example of that. The piece contrasts two speeches, one by Kerry and one by Cheney. The piece makes some kind of attempt at balance, but ends up falling flat on its face. Thus, after reporting a series of outrageous lies from Cheney, more than half-way through the piece, the reporter finally gets around to telling us what's wrong with them:
After Mr. Cheney's speech, the Kerry campaign issued a rebuttal, calling Mr. Cheney "the wrong man to challenge John Kerry on defense." Aides to Mr. Kerry found quotations that showed Mr. Cheney expressing varying views over the years, including advocating cutting some of the same weapons systems that Mr. Cheney was faulting Mr. Kerry for wanting to cut.

Moreover, the Kerry aides said, the Bush administration did send troops to Iraq without proper equipment. And they noted that the Pentagon in the summer of 2003 sought to hold down growth in pay and benefits, saying the budget could not sustain higher salaries for the military.
OK, so Kerry aides said this. Is it true? If it's true and independently verifiable (it is both), then why did the reporters let this go until the story was more than halfway gone? Why do the reporters distance themselves from the facts by reporting them as if they are merely one side of a dispute in which - who knows? - either side might turn out to be correct?

A real reporter like Dana Milbank of the WaPo would have handled this differently. After each one of Cheney's lies, he would have reported the facts as we know them. And he wouldn't have hidden behind the "he said, he said" format, as the authors of the Times piece did.

(I haven't gone trolling through the blogosphere yet today. But I imagine a lot of people are saying the same thing. My apologies for what is almost certainly not an original post.)
Yesterday Cheney gave the best possible retort to Kerry's point that the whole world is rooting for Bush to lose the election:
He derided Mr. Kerry for suggesting last week that certain foreign leaders, whom he later would not name, wanted Mr. Kerry to win the election. "American voters are the ones charged with determining the outcome of this election — not unnamed foreign leaders," Mr. Cheney said.
As a tactical matter, that is a much smarter move than trying to deny that it's true. The first wave response from the admin's supporters all took that tack, with the disasterous result that it merely focused attention on the issue. This response plays on American pride. It may be enough to distract people from noticing that while the U.S. presidency is not a global popularity contest, the U.S. does incur significant costs when it is represented so badly abroad, and by such a complete moron.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Forget about what Rumsfeld is saying in this video. The real scandal here is that Rumsfeld dyes his hair.

In the Bush Whitehouse, that's a big no-no.

Sorry . . . I'm in a very Wonkette sort of mood today.
Josh Marshall sounds like a demanding boss. Evidently he's a stickler with the "No Crapping on Someone's Desk" rule that most people are willing to just let pass once in a while.

What's next? No spitting in people's faces? No hilarious karate-workout-ambushes? If people lose their sense of humour this way, what's the point of going to work at all?
I gather they will live to rue the day they tried to fuck with Brian Leiter.
Recently on a long bus ride, I sat next to a young woman wearing a hijab. So I sat down and wrote me this little Thomas Friedman article:
The other day on a long bus trip I happened to sit next to a young woman wearing a hijab . . . and a pair of jeans. That's just the clash of modernity and tradition that has the Bush administration reeling and on the run.

But the young these days are resolving this conflict themselves. My seatmate chattered on her cell phone with a friend who turned out to be, gasp, a boy. And yet, far away from the eyes of her parents, she nevertheless dutifully continued to wear her hijab.

It's thoughtful meditation on chance encounters like this one that leads me to think that I've almost solved the mystery of how so many people in the world can use cell phones and the internet, and yet still reject our wars of conquest.

As I said to Bill Clinton and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia over dinner last week, the world really is getting smaller. And as it gets smaller, we're all packed in closer together.

I asked my seatmate where she was headed. She told me that she was returning to school, after a weekend in New York City. She studies biochemical engineering, but has no interest in pursuing a job in the field after school. Instead, she hopes that her degree will make her a superb addition to any number of call centers around the world.

That is so true.

Anyway, as modernity advances, we have to do more to make sure that more young people get off the bus of despair before it explodes.
Of course, if this had been a Maureen Dowd column, it would have contained the line: "But while France struggles to keep the abaya's in abeyance, the Bush administration's secrecy has cast a veil over the rationale for its feminism-busting invasion of Iraq."

UPDATE: Just to be clear, the target of the post is Friedman and his trite little anecdotes that are supposed to illustrate either false or utterly uncontroversial points. I've got nothing against the hijab, the French are out of their gourds for trying to ban the hijab in schools, etc. etc. etc.