May 31, 2004

Woodward's "Plan of Attack"

Yes, others have read and discussed this. I get to do it too. Short version: Bush looks decisive, Rumsfeld looks autocratic, Feith looks like an idiot, Cheney and Wolfowitz look fanatical, Rice looks ineffectual and Powell comes off looking like the right man in the wrong job (hint, he should be one step higher). Woodward has good access, but fails to ask penetrating or even interesting questions at obvious points.

Rent it, don't buy it.

Click for the longer version.

I have chosen to just highlight a few selected quotes. Everybody knows what the story is, and all Woodward does is add detail to specific moments. This is good context, but I really didn't find any "smoking gun" in the book. If you didn't like Bush before, you won't like him any better now.

The first quote comes from a National Security Presidential Directive discussed by the principals (national security cabinet officials) and meant to represent the view of the President (and hence the government). It was discussed by all the principals at a meeting on August 14th, 2002. This is just bookeeping, just so we can finish, once and for all, the reasons we invaded Iraq:

"U.S. Goal: Free Iraq in order to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, their means of delivery and associated programs, to prevent Iraq from breaking out of containment and becoming a more dangerous threat to the region and beyond. End Iraqi threats to its neighbors, to stop the Iraqi government's tyrannizing of its own population, to cut Iraqi links to and sponsorship of international terrorism, to maintain Iraq's unity and territorial integrity. And liberate the Iraqi people from tyranny and assist them in creating a society based on moderation, pluralism and democracy" (Woodward, Plan of Attack, pg. 155 - 156).

The fundamental objective of the US government involved weapons of mass destruction. Secondarily, delivery systems and programs to create both delivery systems and weapons are singled out. Third on the list is prevent Iraq from annoying anyone else in the region, specifically (fourth) Iraq's neighbors. Fifth, prevent more tyranny/brutality for the Iraqi people. Sixth, stop (mythical) links to international terrorism. Seventh, keep Iraq from breaking up (which would cause regional instability). Eighth on the list, and last, is to not only liberate the people, but bring them democracy. What this means is that everyone who is now claiming that the wonderful end to tyranny, the "freeing of 25 million people", is the beautiful end result of thirteen months of mess is just plain wrong. That goal is the eighth and final goal (stopping the tyranny, but not bringing democracy, barely got fifth). Repeat after me: we did not invade Iraq to free people. We invaded because of their WMD. If we don't find any WMD, then our primary reason for invasion was wrong. We should reflect on this. The source for this is a meeting where Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, Powell and a whole host of other high level officials all sat down and talked about this. Don't tell me they didn't know, or had other reasons later.

In a related note, let's note the quote from a few pages later:

"But General Franks had something important to add. 'Mr. President,' he said, 'we've been looking for Scud missiles and other weapons of mass destruction for ten years and haven't found any yet, so I can't tell you that I know that there are any specific weapons anywhere. I haven't seen Scud one.' Some at the NSC meeting thought this was Franks's way of saying he didn't have adequate targeting information...But it could, and should, have been a warning that if the intelligence was not good enough to make bombing decisions, it probably was not good enough to make the broad assertion, in public or in formal intelligence documents, that there was 'no doubt' Saddam had WMD. If there was no doubt, then precisely where were they?" (Woodward, Plan of Attack, pg. 173)

I hadn't considered this obvious point before. Beyond the CIA, the military itself has an intelligence component. The US had been flying anti-air and other punishment missions in the no-fly-zones for years, and a good portion of that must have been intelligence and recon flights. The military hadn't seen "Scud one" in ten years. We know now that this was because there weren't any, but shouldn't someone, somewhere have twigged on this? I have believed for a while that the intelligence failure evident in the failure to find WMD is unbelievably crucial and generally ignored. If we can't find WMD and regional missiles in a country that lived under UN sanctions and was (legally) penetrated by UN inspectors for six or so years, how in the hell do we expect to be able to find out anything about Iran? Pakistan? India? Al Queda? It's a failure of monumental proportions, far outside Pearl Harbor (where we did have belated warning, which we just misinterpreted).

I don't want to give Congress a free ride on this, but Congress is not realistically equipped to take on the job of actually analyzing intelligence. It's a watchdog - when something goes wrong, they jump in and fix it. Bush, and his re-election campaign, are making a whole lotta hay out of the fact that they had approval from Congress to do what they did, and are trying to shift part of the blame for the intelligence failure and planning failure over in that direction. Nope. Homey don't play that.

"Bush had 18 more House [of Representatives] members to the Cabinet Room on Thursday, September 26 [2002]. He opened by saying the last thing he wanted was to put troops in harm's way. 'Believe me, I don't like hugging the widows.'...He said that nothing could be worse than the present situation. Saddam had two of his own security guards killed to send a message to his inner circle, he [Bush] maintained. Then, putting the most dire spin on the intelligence, he stated, 'It is clear he has weapons of mass destruction - anthrax, VX; he still needs plutonium and he has not been shy about trying to find it. Time frame would be six months' to Iraq having a nuke if Iraq was able to obtain sufficient plutonium or enriched uranium - one of the most difficult tasks." (Woodward, Plan of Attack, pg. 189)

Congress should not have given Bush the open-ended authorization they did, but when Bush tells Members of Congress these "facts" (all of which have proven to be untrue, after the fact), what other outcome do we expect? People operate through information, and if they have bad information, they make bad decisions. That's what Congress did, and the responsibility for good information rests squarely in the Executive branch. As a snarky aside, the quote early in the cited passage about Bush hugging the widows is wrong too. He hasn't participated in any funeral for any soldier lost in Iraq.

Cheney comes off looking pretty bad in the book, mostly because he is so zealous in pursuit of invasion. Had everything worked out (found WMD, found Bin Laden or someone, peaceful change, democracy) he would come out of this looking like roses. It hasn't, so he looks bad. But there is an additional issue. Cheney, and perhaps the entire government, seems to have shifted dramatically the definition of a terrorist state:

"[Senator Bob] Graham asserted that the Bush administration, or at least Cheney, had changed the definition of the war on terrorism. 'Now, we're defining a terrorist state as those states which might have the ability to provide weapons of mass destruction, even if they themselves are not engaged in terrorist activities or providing sanctuary." (Woodward, Plan of Attack, pg. 194).

Think about that. A terrorist state is one that allows terrorists, provides sanctuary for them, bases for them, and (in addition) might (repeat, might) have the ability to provide weapons of mass destruction. Who isn't on this list? Sure - Iran, North Korea, (at the time) Iraq. But read the line again. "might have the ability to provide". That's an incredibly low bar. Heck, I can make some form of chemical weapons in a bathtub given a copy of the Anarchist's Cookbook and a few weeks (might blow up the house, but who's counting). What state can't produce this stuff? Who wouldn't be on this list? Heck, our strongest ally, Britain, meets the qualifications. All of NATO does, Japan, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Russia. The list is long, and the mind boggles. Is Cheney (according to Sen. Graham) so paranoid and worked up about this that we'll aggressively go after everyone? Who else believes this? It's just not a workable policy. You can't make foreign policy with that low a threshold for action. It's insane.

The next quote goes back to the whole issue of intelligence failure and responsibility. Bush had to know (or, someone beneath him should have informed him) that the intelligence he was using was a judgement - a reasoned guess. But he went charging along, telling people that he knew Iraq had WMD. I can sort of understand why you might be more positive in public - politics is a blood sport, and you can't show weakness. I don't agree, but I can understand it. But lying to the leader of an allied state? Sheer insanity:

"Bush [speaking to Spanish President Aznar in a private meeting at the White House] added, 'War is my last choice. Saddam is using his money to train and equip al Qaeda with chemicals, he's harboring terrorists." (Woodward, Plan of Attack, pg. 240 - 241).

Nowhere in any intelligence document in Woodward's book, or in any other source of news anywhere on the planet, have I seen even a hint that this might be true. Certainly, post war, there has been no evidence that their are any ties between Saddam and Bin Laden, much less evidence that Iraq trained and equipped al Qaeda terrorists with chemical WMD. Bush isn't saying this in public (which would be insane, in and of itself), but is telling this to the elected leader of an allied state in private session. He lies to the public, we can vote him out. He lies to other states, we can get seriously, seriously screwed. This is insane.

One more on the insanity front. He's meeting with three Iraqi exiled dissidents in January of 2003. There really isn't much these folks can do to help, but it seems to make Bush feel better to meet with people who have been actively harmed by Saddam. OK, fine. Useless, but fine. He starts asking them questions about what life is like in Iraq. Now, presumably, there are people in our own government who might be better equipped to answer this question than three dissidents who likely haven't stepped foot in the country in decades. And who have a biased view of life (they are getting all their information from fellow dissidents, in and out of the country, which isn't unbiased information), but we'll let that go. At the end of the discussion, Bush asks a question:

"'How do people in Iraq hear things?' Bush asked. 'Is it email?'" (Woodward, Plan of Attack, pg. 260).

Email? Email? This is a country run by a ruthless, paranoid dictator. Saddam keeps tight control over everything he can. He has separate security organizations that spy on each other in order to find any spys or traitors. No one has any privacy, and certainly any sort of statewide email system would make it much more difficult for Saddam to track down traitors. In addition: ITS A POOR COUNTRY THAT HAS BEEN UNDER SANCTION FOR A DECADE AND A HALF. MOST DON'T HAVE MUCH FOOD, MUCH LESS A COMPUTER OR A PHONE. And Bush seems to think it's normal, under those conditions, to spend time surfing the web to catch up on the news. Insane. He can't be that out of touch with what life is like, can he?

Overall, I can see why pro-Bush supporters find reason to like this book. Bush comes across as decisive and driven towards a goal. He doesn't let details slow him down, and seems ready move forward alone if necessary. Congress is something to be overcome. A big chunk of the book describes Powell having to convince him that going to the UN was appropriate (Bush really didn't want to, and others in the administration never wanted to). The UN then becomes, once it is brought in, another obstacle to be removed or overcome. Bush is fairly hands-off with the military - he told Rumsfeld in November of 2001 to work over plans on this (that quote has made waves already), and then just let the military hum along at their own pace to create better and better plans and implementation. For those pre-disposed to like Bush, there is plenty to like here. For those who don't, there is also plenty of ammunition (see above).

The fundamental flaw is that of Woodward's style. He clearly has plenty of access, but there is little to no analysis and reflection. Woodward's strength is that he is able (though the interviews) to reconstruct what is happening in private and compare that with what is happening in public statements and actions. The disparity between the two, especially with respect to where the military plan was while Bush claimed he hadn't decided for war, is often startling. But that is the sole strength. The public/private glimpse is interesting, but there are clearly points that beg to be analyzed - to find some form of informed commentary on the events Woodward is describing. There is no balance - all the statements and actions come from the administration. Sure, we can see they were saying one thing and doing another, but the same people are doing both, and in the end all we get is their view. Presumably, over time, other people will provide this (both from the pro and con side), and those will hopefully make better reading. Woodward's great strength is his access (direct quotes from the people who really made the decisions) and speed (he's the first to offer anything resembling a coherent account of this war). It also seems that he stops just when it gets interesting, as the post-war reconstruction has been significantly more difficult than the war itself, but you can't blame Woodward for that. Get this from the Library, or wait for the paperback (though by that time, a better account, with analysis might be around).

Posted by baltar at 03:01 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

The Criminals Who Lose Political Rights, and the Criminals Who Don't

As long as I'm pointing out problems I have with the justice system, let me refer you to this 2002 article by Stephen Fortunato. To me, it's one of the best things I've ever read on the inequities of our political system because it points out about as glaring an example as you can find of how different segments of American society have different rights, right down to that most basic right in a democracy -- the right to vote. There are a host of problems tied to the issues brought up in this article, particularly to the broader implications of the war on drugs, and racial inequalities that persist (and could worsen) in the American melting pot. But just the basic focus of the story -- the different rights accorded to coporate criminals versus, say, those accorded to drug criminals -- is on its own a very sobering account of how our political and legal system functions.

Posted by armand at 11:48 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Myths of Finger Prints

This story in the New York Times and this one in the Washington Post show that there are some deeply troubling holes in our justice system, holes than can lead to horrifying results for those who are wrongly accused. If there's one thing people throughout the American justice system (from police to juries) seem to rely on without a great deal of critical thought it is finger printing. Mistakes of this magnitude being exposed should lead to changes that will help protect the innocent, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

Though here's an idea, maybe prosecutors should check the height of the people they're holding more carefully. If the person you've got is half a foot taller than who you're looking for, you might want to consider the possiblity that you've got the wrong guy.

Posted by armand at 10:58 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 30, 2004

Grading Bush-onomics: Not Even a Gentleman's C

In the May 15, 2004 issue of the National Journal the publication asked 12 economists to grade the Bush administration in 5 areas of economic policy: short-term fiscal policy, long-term fiscal policy, international economics, regulation and leadership. In some areas (notably short-term fiscal policy on which he received a B+) these economists liked the president. But on long-term fiscal policy the group rates Bush "somewhere between a catastrophe and a calamity". So while at the moment the economy appears to be picking up a bit, in a second Bush term we can look forward to ... well, I don't think I can do better than that "catastrophe and a calamity" line.

Posted by armand at 04:49 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Baer's Sleeping With the Devil

If you are not yet appalled by the Saudi government, and by how the American political system deals with it, you might want to read (or skim) Robert Baer’s Sleeping With the Devil. Because you really should be appalled by these things. Baer's book is an arresting read. And it’s filled with all sorts of terrifying anecdotes that show the royal state to basically be a totalitarian kleptocracy run by sex fiends who are determined to maintain their rule at any cost (c'mon, doesn't THAT sound like beach reading?). For many years the costs have included serving as the bank and breeding ground for a host of radical Islamic clerics and terrorist groups. As if that’s not frightening enough, Baer’s other target of ridicule is how the complicit the United States is in allowing all this to happen. The level to which the Saudis are plugged into the political classes in DC, and of course into the American economy generally, is gut-wrenching. Of course the saddest part of the whole situation is that there is no obvious way to fix this menacing situation.

Posted by armand at 04:21 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 29, 2004

Cardinal Law's Punishment (or Promotion)

So Cardinal Law more or less gets run out of Boston for the actions (or lack thereof) that he took to combat the sexual abuse scandal that has severely shaken that archdiocese. What does the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church do to him? Well, according to John Allen in the National Catholic Reporter he's gotten what sounds like a plum new gig. He's been named Archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary the Major in Rome. As Allen puts it: "Each of the four major partriarchal basilicas in Rome has a cardinal-archpriest who is the administrator of the facility. Typically it is a quasi-honorary post given at the end of someone's career. In Law's case, the dynamics were different." I'm going to propose we remember this line in December when we try to think of things that qualify for "understatement of the year". I've got to think that there must be many Bostonians who are just thrilled to see that this is what the Church thinks should happen to those who let the scandal fester.

Posted by armand at 12:16 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 28, 2004

Where have all the Goths gone?

This is just hysterical. A Republican Congressman from Missouri gets over a quarter million dollars of "your money" (as these folks say) to combat "Goths" in Blue Springs, MO and almost half of it gets returned to the federal treasury because it turns out that, on further review, there weren't Goths there. It turns out, if you can believe it, that this wasn't an other-wordly menace, just a teen fad. And it seems that it didn't take hundreds of thousands of dollars to stop it. It just died out as such fads do. Of course the government still spent about $150,000 on it anyway (in the course of getting the program to fight this non-existent threat going).

Posted by armand at 11:35 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 27, 2004

Historians Who Know Little About IR

Why, oh why, must semi-professional pundits talk about things they don't know much about? This hour's irksome example is the following from Douglas Brinkley in a Christian Science Monitor story on differences between Bush and Kerry's approaches to foreign policy.

"Bush is part of the realist, realpolitik school of foreign policy, that first and foremost showcases America's force," says historian Douglas Brinkley. "Kerry is part of what they used to call the moralist or multilateral school of foreign affairs."
Brinkley is a fine historian, but perhaps he needs to sit in on some undergraduate international relations classes before he starts pontificating on IR theories. Bush is most definitely not a Realist of the Realpolitik variety (he might be an Offensive Realist, but they are not the same thing). One of the main reasons he is not is his incessant moralizing (which has little to do with a tendency toward unliateralism or mulitlateralism; you can fight some righteous cause either way). Most of the country's best-known Realist scholars have been opposed to Bush's foreign policies.
Posted by armand at 02:47 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

A Different Sort of Intriguing Photo

Phil Carter brings us this and raises some excellent questions about what exactly was going on at Abu Ghraib in 2003.

Posted by armand at 02:33 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Nigerian Politics

I'm not even sure how to respond to this and this. I guess I'll just note that when thinking about international relations, foreign affairs and the daily lives of billions of people most American are really out of touch. That this kind of behavior goes on in one of the world's larger countries is something that I think few of us can fully process. Most of us have a set of assumptions about basic levels of respect for the law, state power, and religious freedom that ... well, they really are not accurate views of the nature of political and religious life across much of the globe.

Posted by armand at 12:33 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

The 2006 Bush Budget

OK, so after pointing us on the road to economic oblivion through his "let's slash taxes and spend, spend, spend" approach to economics, it looks like the president is planning to put his foot ever so slightly on the brakes and cut spending if he gets reelected. A May 19th White House budget memorandum proposes the following for the 2006 budget:

The Women, Infants and Children nutrition program was funded at $4.7 billion for the fiscal year beginning in October, enough to serve the 7.9 million people expected to be eligible. But in 2006, the program would be cut by $122 million. Head Start, the early-childhood education program for the poor, would lose $177 million, or 2.5 percent of its budget, in fiscal 2006.
The $78 million funding increase that Bush has touted for a homeownership program in 2005 would be nearly reversed in 2006 with a $53 million cut. National Institutes of Health spending would be cut 2.1 percent in 2006, to $28 billion, after a $764 million increase for 2005 that brought the NIH budget to $28.6 billion.
Even homeland security -- a centerpiece of the Bush reelection campaign -- would be affected. Funding would slip in 2006 by $1 billion, to $29.6 billion, although that would still be considerably higher than the $26.6 billion devoted to that field in 2004, according to an analysis of the computer printout by House Budget Committee Democrats.

Now I'm not going to pretend that I have a Ph.D. in economics or anything, but if the country is going broke (or is long past that) is the best way to deal with that to slash funding for poor children (tomorrow's workers or prisoners) or to cut hundreds of millions from domestic security? Somehow I don't think that's going to make up for a problem that's in the trillions, but it could make life much much worse for many Americans. If it's not going to really fix the overall problem I why not just side with altruism and help feed and educate the malnourished? If he's not go to be serious and propose a fix that's appropriate to the scale of the budget problem, why look like Scrooge? I don't see much sense in that -- either politically or as a policy matter.

Posted by armand at 10:53 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Torture Poll

This is sickening. Large numbers of Americans support the use of extremely coercive methods (electric shocks, threatening relatives) against terrorist "suspects". I'm going to just pray they weren't paying close attention to the wording of the question. Given how little it might take to be labeled a "suspect" (have a particular name, driving down a certain street at a particular time), well if these numbers are accurate lots of Americans would appear to be perfectly willing to live in an abusive police state.

Posted by armand at 10:16 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 26, 2004

Teen Drinking

From Ricky Prado we have news that a bill that would make it illegal for restaurants to sell alcohol to minors who have their parents’ permission to drink is making its way through the state legislature in Louisiana. It’s a sad day when even a state as easy-going and supposedly family-centered as Louisiana is on the verge of passing this kind of law. Mothers Against Drunk Driving and related organizations that have been pushing to limit teenagers’ access to alcohol might have their hearts in the right place, but these kinds of laws are extremely dangerous.

Of course they are dangerous on very basic levels. They weaken what little demand for personal responsibility remains in our society. They put the onus of responsibility for one’s actions on businesses and the government instead of on individuals, groups and families. In addition, they continue the extremely troubling trend of making activities that millions of people are involved in illegal. When passing laws that no one will abide by becomes the norm our political and legal systems are in a heap of trouble.

But getting beyond more theoretical concerns and to this particular issue, this is an example of especially abysmal law making. In the first place, it continues the trend that’s been created, must notably through the establishment of the 21 drinking age, that drives teen drinking underground. No one really thinks teen drinking is going to disappear, so what would we rather have – teen drinking or unsupervised teen drinking? How about further intensifying the environment in which drinking is labeled as cool? How about making those pressures most intense in the years in which many young people are engaging in keggers and initiations? If states feel the need to get into the regulation of the drinking habits of teenagers it would probably make more sense to require families to buy drinks for their 17 year olds in restaurants. That way at least some of them would hopefully pick up a few lessons about how to drink responsibly.

Finally, I know it’s an old complaint, but remind me – why is it that young men and women can vote for president, or die for their country, but they can’t order a glass of syrah with dinner? I know that people have been asking that question for years now, but I have yet to hear a reasonable answer.

Posted by armand at 05:59 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 25, 2004

McConnell and the American Revolution

Why does Mitch McConnell hate America? Seriously though, does he think anybody is going to buy that comparison? I mean the revolution is one of those few sections of American history that people actually get through in grade school. And I don't know about you, but I don't remember suicide bombings, soaring murder rates and warring religious sects being much discussed in my readings on Valley Forge or the Continental Congress. Maybe I need to go rent 1776 again and see if I missed something important.

Posted by armand at 10:01 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Ignorance, Incompetence, and Group Insulation

Publius (one of my favorite bloggers) has another good post up at Legal Fiction. This one is on the Chalabi affair and what he sees as the underlying problem with the Bush administration – their willful ignorance and incompetence. I think there is quite a lot to this. That some of the leaders of our government still hold high office after purposely leading us into a war-footing built upon preposterously rosy projections is some combination of ridiculous and horrifying. The degree to which many of these individuals were out of touch, whether purposefully or out of a lack of curiosity, is nothing short of scary. That, as Publius writes, “our entire Iraq policy was based on ignorance”, is a bone-chilling realization.

But I still think that this is only part of the larger story that is at the root of the basic failure of this administration to effectively and prudently pursue the national interest. It is not like Paul Wolfowitz (to take one example, and a more plausible example than the Vice President or Douglas Feith who seems to be a complete dolt) is a stupid or incurious man. As I wrote over the weekend, it strikes me that the central flaw in the decision-making style of this administration is the extreme level to which the ruling cadre in the government is insulated from other actors. By often taking the Congress, the intelligence agencies, the State Department, and traditional foreign allies out of the decision making environment (to list just 4 large examples from a much longer list) the decision-making team became an ever-more homogenous body. This likely created a decision-making echo chamber that featured ever-increasing levels of allegiance to the in-group, a belief in its righteousness and ability, and variety of other behaviors associated with groupthink. This type of situation allowed for important questions to go unasked, contingency plans to be ignored, the suppression of anything approaching dissent, and the adoption of scenarios more rosy than the sunniest New Year's Day in Pasadena. In other words, the decision-making process played to the worst flaws in this set of decision makers. It encouraged their hopes and dreams, and discouraged critical thinking. Fundamentally, the people who made these decisions and created these processes are at fault. But the group decision-making structures and norms they established early in the administration laid the groundwork for mistakes of this magnitude to be made.

As a related aside, I think one of the great stories that remains to be written about this administration is how granting the Office of the Vice President unprecedented power threw decision-making processes askew, and exacerbated this policy-making maelstrom.

Posted by armand at 09:18 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 24, 2004

A Chalabi Quiz

Here's a fun quiz from Mark Kleiman on the escalating Chalabi scandal. By "fun" I mean fun in the darkest and most unsettling ways possible.

Posted by armand at 12:01 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Bremer's Boss

Can someone remind me whom Paul Bremer works for? I'd swear that last fall the White House took over direct responsibility for Iraq policymaking from Rumsfeld and the Pentagon suits. I mean the White House said it ... so it must be true, right? (ok, I kid) Yet this Newsweek article on the recent fall of Chalabi contains the following line: "Though Bremer was picked for his Baghdad job by Rumsfeld, he has fallen out with the Pentagon and now speaks more regularly to Rice and her staff at the White House". Ummm, well, if Rice now has responsibility for overseeing Iraq policy, is that really such a revelation? Am I missing something here?

Posted by armand at 11:25 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 23, 2004

Peter Pan

OK, so while I'm going to try and recommend a book every Sunday this Sunday I'm going to do something different and recommend a movie based on a literary work. If you think it's the kind of thing you might enjoy, I recommend last year's film version of Peter Pan (starring Jason Isaacs as Captain Hook). This is a story I've never enjoyed seeing adaptations of. Most are blindly sentimental and take out a lot of the real tensions that are at the heart of the tale. This film version though is different. It really captures the tone of the story beautifully -- the adventure and the magic of course, but also the tensions, loss and longing (while retaing a somewhat carefree spirit that befits the film's humor). The sets and design are beautiful and rich and extravagant. The acting is quite good. And I quite enjoyed the way they constructed the character of Captain Hook in this retelling. If you're in the mood for a family film, this one's worth checking out.

Oh, if you do rent this I urge you to skip the deleted scenes, especially the alternate ending. The other ending they shot for it -- well, awful is such a strong word, but it seems fitting. Don't mess with the magic of this version by seeing what they fortunately chose not to put in its place.

Posted by armand at 02:38 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Fundamental Failure of Condi Rice

The previous post on this administration's decision-making style gets at why out of this administration's top-level foreign policy decision makers I have a particularly high level of disdain for Dr. Rice. Quite apart from her seemingly endless talent for mendacity (listing her lies would take reams of pages, so I'll just reference 3 whoppers that should make the press never pay the least bit of attention to her: her testimony about the "Bin Laden determined to strike in US" presidential daily brief; the Niger yellowcake affair; and that mind-blowing assertion that no one could have ever imagined flying planes into buildings), she is in my mind centrally at fault for failing to establish a decision-making system that works effectively. I mean what exactly is her job supposed to be, if not that. We know that it also involves talking the president into talking to the German Chancellor even though he doesn't like him (and what was that about? is the president a 6 year old or what? the Chancellor makes him mad so he throws a tantrum at the thought of a phone conversation with the head of one of the most powerful countries on Earth?). But at a more basic level, the head of the NSC is supposed to serve as a coordinator and a facilitator. The level to which the decision-making process has come unhinged in this administration is unprecedented (I mean when administration officials say it's much worse than in Reagan's first term ... wow, I mean that's hard to process ... the mind reels). This is, at a basic level, the fault of the president. He should have stepped in tried to fix this long ago. And perhaps he's been unwilling to give her the authority to do so on his behalf. But if she had even a shred of a belief in personal responsibility she would have moved back to California long ago.

Posted by armand at 01:41 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Group Insulation -- The Bush Team's Greatest Weakness?

“Secrecy and wishful thinking, the Pentagon official said, are defining characteristics of Rumsfeld’s Pentagon.” This line from Seymour Hersh’s article in the May 17, 2004 issue of The New Yorker speaks to a much larger problem. The above line is true, not solely of the Pentagon, but of the Bush administration generally. Just a cursory list of attributes of the decision making system in this administration (heretofore unknown levels of secrecy in government, insulation from any views not espoused by the dominant figures in the in-group, firing/defaming/endangering anyone who speaks against the in-group, no personal accountability, dispensing with safeguards that are supposed to curtail abuses by the government) show it to be an administration that is very poorly equipped to deal with sudden challenges or the emergence of new events and actors. And that’s before we even get to the question about whether such an administration can win the support of masses around the world to the type of politics it purportedly favors.

As to the latter issue, is a leader who works in this style and purports to “lead by example” capable of winning a war in which victory entails not battlefield success, but instead winning over the hearts and minds of tens of millions? If our government moves itself markedly away from traditions of openness and transparency, if it is not willing to tolerate dissent within its ranks much less work with those who have opposing world views, if its officials are not held responsible for the failures that they oversee, should we really encourage others to adopt our system of government? Is it a surprise that millions beyond our borders (or for that matter inside our borders) do not see its illiberal tendencies as something to admire?

The Bush administration seems particularly ill-equipped to win a war on terrorism. This is true as much because of what it does as whom it contains. All too often we do not practice what we preach. And it is not simply a matter of carrying out policies that are likely to make the masses doubt our sincerity in pursuing our supposed cause. If other governments see important segments of our own nation and government excluded from decision making, why should they believe that we will have any real commitment to protecting their interests, foreign interests, in combating this war? If other countries see that the White House is openly hostile to its own foreign ministry and intelligence services, is that establishing the type of environment in which other governments are likely to view the Bush administration as a trustworthy they can work with? Of course the arrogance of the Bush team and their disregard for the opinions and interests of other international actors is well known (see this excellent Fareed Zakaria piece on the subject). Wolfowitz even went so far as to suggest we wouldn’t oppose a military coup against the elected government of a NATO ally if it would get what we wanted. But this self-righteousness and disregard of others seems less a form of America-firstism, than a deeply held view by a small cadre of individuals working around the president that they alone know what is right. And they are determined to maximize their role and power and run the country into the ground if that’s what’s needed to keep it on the path they so zealously believe in.

This is the broader problem. Insulation, secrecy and governmental decision-making structures that don’t simply allow for, but in fact demand, extreme levels of groupthink are doomed to commit failures as a result of both of spirited excess and of willful ignorance. It’s not simply something seen in foreign policy. You’ve seen it in how a variety of national policies have been created by this administration (energy, education, economics). A few individuals tied to the central players in the administration have designed decision-making processes that exclude any dissenting views (even by the people who ostensibly should be running policy making in certain areas, for example, the Secretary of State, or the Secretary of the Treasury). In many cases they’ve showed little interest in talking to policy experts. In many cases they’ve shown an astounding lack of interest in long-term planning, or in planning alternatives in case a policy hits a dead end, basically in anything remotely resembling intellectual curiosity, much less prudence. Teamwork isn’t valued. Information searches and information processing are heavily skewed by the need to only have information that fits with one’s pre-existing biases.

In such a hyper-insulated decision making environment, it is not at all surprising that policy mistakes, even disasters, would occur. There is a body of literature in political science (see Mark Schafer and Scott Crichlow’s 2002 article in International Studies Quarterly or the work of Paul ‘t Hart) that has found empirical evidence for the proposition that having such a poorly structured decision-making system (an insulated group that fosters biased leadership, eschews methodical procedures, limits the exchange of opinions, promotes an illusion of invulnerability, belittles teamwork, and excludes experts) is likely to produce foreign policy outputs that fail to maximize the national interest. And of course in terms of foreign policy, such a group that believes strongly in its own self righteousness, stereotypes others, fails to fully survey alternatives and strategies, and skews its information processing role in a way that reinforces its preexisting views is unusually likely to choose to pursue its aims through conflict (also often not a value maximizing choice).

One of the things that makes this administration unique is that they appear more insulated and more effective at suppressing dissenters (even those who serve in policy-making roles) than any other administration in memory. Another thing that makes them unique is that there are many examples of administrations behaving in an insulated manner, but trying to rectify that (to a degree) after some policy-making catastrophe. As of yet, this administration has not done that. At least in the realm of foreign policy and national security, it has shown no interest in enlarging the circle of decision makers, or in punishing any of the true-believers who have made egregious errors of judgement. There is every reason to think that as long as George Bush stays in office that this type of closed-minded decision making will continue to prevail. And given history and systematic research on decision-making styles there is every reason to think that this “Damn-the-torpedoes” approach to governance will result in more policy disasters. While the week to week parade of horribles that have dominated the news of late is bad enough, the greater tragedy is that the Bush White House is fostering and formalizing a style of decision making that makes future fiascoes more likely, not less.

Posted by armand at 01:21 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 22, 2004

VP Bill Nelson?

Two senators included in the game referenced below are the distinguished gentlemen from Florida, Bob Graham and Bill Nelson. One thing that I've found rather peculiar is how both of these men have been proposed as running mates for John Kerry. I don't mean to be disrespectful since he seems to be off to a good start in the Senate, but what's so special about Bill Nelson? Graham's inclusion in such discussions is perfectly understandable. He's been on those lists for over a decade. He's an electoral titan in the state (sort of what Ted Stevens is to Alaska or John Breaux to Louisiana). He's eminently well-qualified and is steeped in a detailed knowledge of public policies ranging from welfare to military intelligence. He has the detailed knowledge, and clearly the desire, necessary to tear Dick Cheney apart in a debate. Yes, his presidential campaign last year was a shambles, and he seems to lack an ability to connect with many voters outside of Florida. But it strikes me that if you're going to choose a Floridian, it's going to look a little strange not to opt for the established, widely-beloved statesman and instead choose the first-term Senator/astronaut. But if I'm missing some deep appeal that Bill Nelson has, please enlighten me.

Posted by armand at 03:27 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Senator Match Game

So if you're interested in finding out what senators agree (or disagree) with you on major issues of the day you might find this interesting. It compares your preferences to those of 25 Democratic members of the U.S. Senate. According to this calculator, if I was a senator I'd vote like Dan Inouye and Jon Corzine. I would be least like Blanche Lincoln, John Breaux and Zell Miller (actually I'd be pretty much the antithesis of Zell Miller).

Posted by armand at 03:17 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

CENTCOM Commanders on Team Bush

Now remind me why 45%+ of Americans think Bush's national security policies are just swell and dandy when the people who have to carry them out think they're both dangerous and stupid?
Posted by armand at 11:26 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Clark's "Broken Engagement"

You should go read this. In makes a lot of good points about how the Bush team learned the wrong lessons from the end of the Cold War, and that those misperceptions have led to a foreign policy that's doomed to fail (and has assisted the rise of terrorist organizations and astonishingly negative views of the United States across large sections of the globe). There are a number of important points in this, so read the whole thing.

Too lazy? OK, well, among the key points (and there are more, so read it!) are that 1) the political and social history of the former Soviet Empire is fundamentally different from the Middle East and 2) we didn't win over those who were oppressed by the Soviets in Europe and Asia by invading their countries. While you'd think those points are obvious, it appears they weren't obvious to team Bush, and now we're paying the price. Clark discusses this, and the basic steps we need to take to try to save the situation. His view is that if we hope to spread Western political beliefs and our brand of freedom across the globe, we can best do so by spreading ideas and norms and engaging allies, not by installing "democracy" at the point of a gun upon. Now I know that kind of thinking is likely to lead to treaties and multilateralism, and we all know what the president thinks of those. But maybe, just maybe, the president doesn't have the first clue about how to run an effective foreign policy.

Posted by armand at 10:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 21, 2004

Making the Music Better, One Critic at a Time

So, Nick Hornby thinks modern rock is either chasing the "Britney dollar" (read, "commercially successful and brainless") or choosing "the high-minded cult-rock route that leads to great reviews and commercial oblivion" that doesn't "want to engage with the mainstream, or no longer thinks that it's possible to do so, and as a consequence cult status is preordained rather than accidental." (read, "really well done, but only sells a few hundred copies mostly to trendy music-mag editors"). And he's pontificating on this in the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times.


After I finished saying Fuck You Very Much to Mr. Hornby, I thought it would be worthwhile to consider he might be right. His basic point is that rock music today, if critically acclaimed, is not heard by many, and that the music that is heard by many basically, well, sucks. He longs for the days when musicians were both popular and good (Springsteen is lauded, again), and music had "roots" (defined by Mr. Hornby as music that has "recognizable influences — influences that are not only embedded in pop history, but that have been properly digested." Oh, silly me, did I forget to mention that Mr. Hornby turned 47 recently?). At one point he calls for the Ford or Dickens of music to step forward and write songs that are both commerically successful and critically engaging.

(This brought me visions of some band in a garage somewhere, with a copy of the New York Times, all standing around smacking themselves in the heads, saying, "Oh, THAT'S what we forgot, people are supposed to LIKE our music. Luke, put away the chainsaw and the goat and tune up yer guitar." Hey, I have visions sometime. Sue me).

Let's ignore the obvious rejoinder to Mr. Hornby (that commercially successful music doesn't suck to the millions who buy/steal it, or that most people are morons who don't see the value in "quality" music). Let's also ignore the whole freedom thing (it's a marketplace - maybe people don't buy Hornby's "Dickens" music because they don't like it, not because it doesn't exist). Let's actually look at what is being sold, and be music critics and decide if it sucks or not. I found Soundscan's 2002 and 2003 list of best selling albums. 2004 is not (of course) available yet, and I couldn't find 2001 or 2000.

There is a whole lotta crap in the charts. The number one album of 2002 is Eminem (not wholly reviled by critics, but not rejected either). Number 4 is a Dixie Chicks album (again, not the greatest music ever, but not awful either - is this Hornby's "Dickens" thing?). Number 10 is music from O Brother, Where Art Though, which has to count as critically acclaimed, and generally good. 2003 manages to be much better. Outkast at number 5 and Coldplay at number 10, both very critically acclaimed and clearly well liked (and bought). Nora Jones (at number 2) isn't exactly rock, but neither were some of the folk acts in the sixties that charted well. So, four and half of the best selling twenty albums of the past two full years are somewhat respectable (in a rock critic sense). Other than that, a bunch of shit. (Or, at least, Hornby and I agree that it is a bunch of shit. Others may differ.) That doesn't seem too bad a ratio. And I'll bet that if I could find 2001 or 2000 I'd get Radiohead on there, and maybe a White Stripes album, along with a bunch more shit. But is the "shit percentage" more or less than it used to be? I'll bet that if we check whatever charts exist for whatever time period Mr. Hornby wants, we'd also find a bunch of shit on the charts. Disco? 80s big hair pop? Duran Duran? N'Synch? Dramarama? Every era has shit, and I don't think now is any worse than 10 years ago, 20, or 30. (And it may even be better)

What the hell does Hornby want? I'll bet I know. He wants what every two-bit, aging, intellectual critic wants. He wants the world to acknowledge that his tastes are the people's tastes, and it is good taste. How does the world acknowledge Mr. Hornby's exquisitely good musical choices? They buy a lot of them. How do we know the world isn't acknowledging these munificent pearls of wisdom from on high? They are not, presently, buying them. Hornby is distressed. Hornby writes the New York Times, and inflicts his distress on us. As I mentioned earlier, Fuck You Very Much, Mr. Hornby.

Look, good literature doesn't sell well (Hey, "South Beach Diet" beat out Dickens - tell Hornby!), good art doesn't until the artist is insane, dead, or both, poetry never sells well, Better Homes and Gardens outsells Time about two to one (and TV Guide is also two to one, while Readers Digest is about three to one) in a democracy. Why should music be any different? Shit, Hornby's best seller on Amazon (High Fidelity) only has a sales rank of 2,760. And it was good. But didn't sell well. Just like good music. Hey, Hornby: Go listen to the music you like, and thank some benign higher being that at least it got made and you could listen to it. That's worthwhile, not your criticism.

Posted by baltar at 03:25 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Washington Times

OK, so I'm honestly asking. Are there terms other than "gay 'marriage'" that DC's 2nd paper always uses quotation marks around? Or is that a concept that they find so uniquely jarring that it's the one thing in the known universe they refuse to even consider could possibly exist?
Posted by armand at 01:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

EPA Chief ... Spitzer?

Am I the only person who is puzzled that the White House is letting this happen? I know that making nice with environmentalists and protecting people from pollution rate relatively low on its list of priorites. But they at least used to be pretty good at avoiding obvious political blunders. Creating an opening for Democratic media-darling (uh, I mean State Attorney General) Eliot Spitzer to ride in and look like he's saving the common people from being poisoned by Republicans who are in league with big energy corporations .... it looks like Karl Rove is losing his touch.
Posted by armand at 01:25 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Making the world safe for, uh, hmmm...

The New York City Transit authority proposed new rules about photography, namely "a ban on unauthorized photography, filming and videotaping on city subways, buses and Staten Island Railway trains." Such unauthorized behaviour would join "prohibitions against graffiti, littering, spitting, smoking, panhandling, loud radio playing, drinking alcoholic beverages and going onto subway tracks or into tunnels or other unauthorized areas." Anyone who is not a member of the press wishing to take photos would require written permission. Read more of the New York Times story here.
Posted by binky at 10:04 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 20, 2004

And while the rest of the world disintegrates...

...the blog planet gives us this. Who would have thought there would be a good reason to have nostalgia for 1984? But there is. Alas, too good to be true.
Posted by binky at 10:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

More Abu Ghraib Stories

OK, so by now you've probably already seen the pictures, and heard what we did to the prisoners (torture, various forms of abuse, and we seem to have killed at least five of them in actions related to their "interrogations"). And of course most of the people in the prison weren't guilty of anything. And it's pretty clear that people high in the chain of command (including the president, if you believe Colin Powell) have known about the abuses for months. And it's pretty clear that this is making us less welcome in Iraq than Nazis at an AIPAC conference. These actions have greatly endangered American interests and American lives, at home and abroad. But just in case you are still in the camp that cuts the president some slack, and thinks that this is just what we have to do to make the world safer, I give you this:

A military intelligence analyst who recently completed duty at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq said Wednesday that the 16-year-old son of a detainee there was abused by U.S. soldiers to break his father's resistance to interrogators. The analyst said the teenager was stripped naked, thrown in the back of an open truck, driven around in the cold night air, splattered with mud and then presented to his father at Abu Ghraib, the prison at the center of the scandal over abuse of Iraqi detainees. Upon seeing his frail and frightened son, the prisoner broke down and cried and told interrogators he would tell them whatever they wanted, the analyst said.

Yes, that's right, according to the president "they" hate us because they hate freedom. Yeah. Right. It has nothing to do with the fact that Bush and Rumsfeld are systematically using the American military to carry out jobs typically carried out by mafia enforcers.

Posted by armand at 02:03 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 19, 2004

Tony Knowles

And hey, as long as I'm praising Democrats ...

If like me you're looking to support candidates who can really make a difference in this country's political landscape and Barack Obama and Jeff Smith aren't quite who you are looking for, may I point you in the direction of Tony Knowles. Knowles has twice been elected governor of (strongly Republican) Alaska, and has now set his sights on the U.S. Senate and Senator Lisa Murkowski this fall. Now what's special about Knowles? Well, for one thing he's shown he can win in Alaska. That's no small feat for a Democrat. And this is probably the best shot that a Democrat will have to pick up a Senate seat there this generation. This really is a truly unusual opportunity. For one thing Knowles is very strong. For another, Murkowski is very weak. She was appointed to the seat by her father (the current governor), and if that bit of perceived nepotism didn't hurt her, her father's growing unpopularity certainly has. Her appointment was so disliked that there's even a reasonably strong primary challenge to her candidacy for a full-term (supported most recently by Alaska's Lt. Governor, though it's still likely she will win the Republican nomination). So the electoral stars are really in a very rare alignment. But beyond that, Knowles appears to be great. Now true, he's going to be more pro-development than some of my environmentalist friends will like, but aside from that he's got a strongly progressive record and is the sort of person who is extremely effective in explaining why that type of politics is good for America (and even Alaska!). Now this being Alaska this is still no better than a toss-up race. But this is the first toss-up race in Alaska in decades. So if you've got in it in you, consider sending a few dollars to Tony Knowles.

Posted by armand at 02:44 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

The Dean Machine

Howard Dean recently announced the Dean Dozen, twelve candidates for office that he urged people to support in this year’s elections. In looking at this list it’s clear he has no intention of departing the national scene in the near future. Why? Well, almost all of these people are running in safe Democratic districts. Therefore he seems particularly interested at this point in securing the election of intra-party allies who will shape the party in ways that match his interests. Now this approach will probably result in some criticism from those who think that Democrats should be aiming their fire on Republicans. But that criticism is somewhat short-sighted. In today’s gerrymandered-political world, there are few districts or states that are really competitive, and it’s primary elections that have real, substantive consequences (ok, maybe I’m exaggerating the point, but I think it’s generally valid).

Beyond that I’m thrilled with the two candidates for federal office he’s thrown his support behind (most of the candidates are running for state or local office) – Jeff Smith for Gephardt’s House seat and Barack Obama for the U.S. Senate. These are two of the most appealing candidates to run for Congress in the last several years. Obama should soon be presidential timber if he wins, and Smith seems to be smart, appealing and a hard worker. Plus, it would be nice to see a vigorous, progressive beat the old-school, pro-life state senator who is currently leading in that race in Missouri.

Posted by armand at 02:25 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Leon Holmes

As part of a deal that was announced yesterday aimed at discouraging President Bush from making further recess appointments to the federal courts, the Senate has announced that it will soon hold votes on 25 of the president's "noncontroversial" nominees to the federal bench. One of these "noncontroversial" nominees is Leon Holmes. We must truly have entered a new and unfortuante era in American politics when Holmes is not controversial. Holmes, who is nominated to the federal district court in Arkansas and has the support of that state's two Democratic senators, has said and written many things that should block his confirmation. Examples? How about "the wife is to be subordinate to her husband" or "concern for rape victims is a red herring because conceptions from rape occur approximately with the same frequency as snowfall in Miami". He has spent much of his legal career trying to undermine abortion rights, and has on many occasions expressed his disgust for Roe v. Wade. If you care at all about this issue you should call your senators and tell them to vote against Leon Holmes. Several Republicans have expressed reservations about his candidacy so it might yet be possible to block his lifetime appointment. And of course you should remember who nominated this guy on November 2.

Posted by armand at 01:11 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 18, 2004

The Kerry-XXXXX ticket

If the reports in the press this month that Kerry has narrowed his vice presidential nominee choices down to 5 (Graham, Gephardt, Edwards, Clark and Vilsack) are accurate, then I don’t think there is a clear front-runner for the vice presidential selection. I will however throw in my two cents and say that out of these five I think Vilsack would be the strongest selection (in terms strengthening the campaign politically). I think the governor of Iowa would be superior to the others in talking about domestic issues. It’s important to remember that those are the issues that typically draw voters to the Democratic party. Yes, foreign policy and national security will be highly salient issues for many voters this year, but millions of others are going to vote on things like education or farm policy. In terms of appealing to voters on those topics I think Vilsack adds the most substance to the ticket. He’s also from a swing region (the Midwest), and he should be very media friendly. You just know that the Barbara Walters clones that make up most of television news will be lining up to do fawning interviews detailing his up-from-the-bootstraps story. And in terms of intangibles I think that in this campaign between millionaires having someone with more of a common-man touch on the ticket to soften certain sides of Kerry’s image could prove crucial. There are a lot of voters out there (including in swing states like OH, WV and AR) who aren’t happy with Bush, but who doubt someone like Kerry can relate to their concerns. I think having a Kerry-Vilsack ticket would be a great help in getting around that problem.

According to press accounts the most likely selection is Gephardt. I would like to go on the record as considering Gephardt to be a horrible choice. There is the matter of his politics being quite malleable over the years. There is the matter of those unfortunate principles he has stuck to (like his string of poor economic policy proposals). There is the fact that he was one of the biggest cheerleaders of the war in Iraq. There is the matter of his tin-ear when it comes to the national political mood (there are many critics of his tenure as Minority Leader). He even failed to mobilize his base in what was practically a race at home in Iowa this spring (stop and think about it and you’ll notice that the scale of his defeat in the caucuses was breathtaking). And in terms of establishing a campaign identity Kerry-Gephardt might as well be Mondale-Ferraro in terms of how easily it could be portrayed as a bunch of liberal, out-of-touch, DC insiders.

I could live with Graham, though I imagine the press wouldn’t react well (I assume they’d call it a craven political move) and he didn’t prove to be a strong campaigner last winter. I could live with Edwards, though I am concerned that Kerry-Edwards could be portrayed as a couple of smug rich white guys. I like Clark a lot. If this selection was made solely on the basis of personal qualities and experience Clark would probably be my favorite of these five. And if Kerry wants to center his campaign on national security, he should pick Clark. Absolutely. But I still think a campaign that stress domestic issues is the way to go. And with that in mind, I think Vilsack would add the most to the ticket (maybe Clark would be willing to serve as Ambassador to Iraq or to the United Nations?).

Posted by armand at 06:07 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 16, 2004

Frederick Busch

I believe that finding a writer who has a talent for saying ordinary things in extraordinary ways is one of the greatest little pleasures of life. With that in mind, I suggest the fiction of Frederick Busch as this week’s recommended reading.

Busch, a professor at Colgate, has authored many works and won major prizes, but I have only recently started to read him. In fact I’m still in the first collection of his stories that I’ve picked up, The Children in the Woods. Nonetheless, I can already see why he’s described as one of the country’s top writers on subjects of domestic life and social relationships. He’s excellent at providing incisive descriptions of personal motivations. And his work is riddled with the sort of aphorisms and brand and design-focused illuminations of scenes of daily life that are hallmarks of this type of literature.

He paints a canvas of the mundane with beautiful and delicate detail. He clearly conveys the ideas and thoughts and longings of his subjects. We understand their flaws, feel their search for meaning, and can comprehend the conclusions they draw, even if they are not otherwise obviously satisfactory choices.

Posted by armand at 05:53 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 15, 2004

Bush Fiddles: The Zarqawi Chapter

This story has been around for several weeks, but since Zarqawi is in the news again maybe more people will finally notice. Fred Kaplan raises some key points in this, but one basic question is so unsettling that it's almost as unpleasant as "Sophie's Choice". Which is worse: That President Bush has the ability to kill a vicious international terrorist who is intent on making WMD, but refuses to do so because it would end the most compelling evidence he has that Iraq is a threat to American interests (even though said terrorist was operating in a Kurdish area in which it could certainly be argued that the U.S. military had more power than the Iraqi military). Or that the president is so disconnected, inept and uncurious that he leaves matters of war and peace to unelected aides who in their ideological zeal have made a host of obvious and costly mistakes.

I also wonder if Nick Berg's friends and family are aware of this, and how long it will be before Katie Couric or Brian Williams asks them to express their opinion on it.

Posted by armand at 01:29 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 14, 2004

Bush Fiddles, Kim Builds Nuclear Weapons

You should really go read Fred Kaplan's latest piece on President Bush's response (or lack thereof) to the fact that North Korea is quite possibly building another nuclear weapon as you read these lines. It's a policy failure of epic proportions, presents a harrowing threat to our security, and the fact that it hasn't gotten more attention is yet another embarrassing failure on the part of the American media.

Posted by armand at 03:40 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Our Own Town Goes National

I guess we've made the big time. Prompted by a tacitus post which links to an op-ed in the New York Times I sent an email to the Dominion Post (local newspaper) to see if they had further information. An op-ed is not usually the best source of facts from which to make comments (though that didn't stop Bird Dog over at tacitus from doing just that). The local paper replied that they had covered this story (here) as long as four months ago. The article makes interesting reading (full disclosure: the author of the article is likely a friend and neighbor, unless there are other Jon Gevers in town who are journalists).

The article seems to imply several things different from Ms. Nomani's point of view. While it is clear that there are different points of view regarding the interpretation of Islam at the local mosque, the Ms. Nomani in the op-ed writes that the "moderates" are more numerous,

Even though a majority of the mosque's membership, which is largely made up of West Virginia University students and staff members, is moderate, passivity by it and the board has allowed extremism to take hold.

while the Dominion Post article implies a different ratio,

Since last November, Nomani, accompanied on occasion by other female relatives, has been defying a mosque policy that women must pray in an upstairs balcony room. (highlights added)

that seems at odds with Ms. Nomani's characterization. The article implies that Ms. Nomani has often been a force of one in her attempts to change local mosque policy.

Additionally, at least in the article, Ms. Nomani's suggested changes seem at odds not only with local Islamic custom, but even world-wide custom:

Asra Nomani -- a former The Wall Street Journal reporter who has traveled throughout India, Pakistan and the Middle East and has written for The Dominion Post -- conceded that separate rooms are common in the United States and throughout the Muslim world. But some mosques in the United States (including Pittsburgh) and elsewhere allow women to pray in the same space as men, separated either by a curtain or simply by distance.

Nomani admits that what she requests (which seems reasonable to these ears) is not the norm in this country, or anywhere in the world.

Moreover, Morgantown being a college town that draws it's student population from all over the world, there is an argument to be made (rightly or wrongly) that given the geographic and cultural disparity of the local mosque members, a least-common-denominator approach with respect to customs would draw in more of the local Islamic population:

"When you have people from 40 or 50 countries," he said, "the question really is to find a common denominator. ... Some people will be happy and some will be unhappy, but we (should) have a majority that say this is a reasonable arrangement." [quote from Mohammed Choudhry, a mosque board-of-trustee's member]

Lastly, Ms. Nomani decries the lack of reaction by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR):

Christian and Jewish leaders offered to meet with the takeover leaders to discuss promoting tolerance in Morgantown, a city where people from more than 100 countries coexist peacefully. Their offer stands in contrast to the reactions by the Islamic Society of North America and the Council on American-Islamic Relations to complaints I filed. The society said it was available to mediate but would prefer disputes like this be resolved locally. The council, which recently started a "Hate Hurts America" campaign to counter anti-Muslim rhetoric, initially said it did not want to get involved in an "inter-community" issue, but now says it will investigate.

But is CAIR the right organization to undertake this role? From the Dominion Post article:

CAIR normally focuses on protecting Muslims from discrimination by non-Muslims, not on what might be considered doctrinal disputes among Muslims.

From CAIR's own website, their mission statement:

CAIR is dedicated to presenting an Islamic perspective on issues of importance to the American public. In Offering that perspective, we seek to empower the Muslim community in America through political and social activism.

Nothing in the CAIR on-line documentation argues that CAIR works to solve inter-islamic disputes. CAIR's mission is to introduce and defend Islam in America through explaining Islam to America. One could argue that turning to CAIR for redress of local differences is like turning to a lobbyist to mediate between two members of an interest group - it's not their job. A square peg in a round hole.

(Though it is worth noting, not to let CAIR completely off the hook, that in searching their website, there are no results for either "nomani" or "morgantown". If CAIR is in fact getting involved in this issue, as Ms. Nomani argues, they are being awfully quiet about it.)

This is a difficult subject, or at least not a simple situation. What Ms. Nomani requests seems reasonable to Western norms - neither Judiaism or Christianity has separate rooms or makes any gendered discrimination until you start talking about who is eligible for the priestly function. The op-ed piece by Ms. Nomani argues that the "moderates" are a majority and seek only reasonable and rational actions. The local article calls into question just how large a "majority" Ms. Nomani represents, and asks how "rational" those requests are in the context of her religion and the norms that the rest of the congregation brings to Morgantown, and the appropriatness of the organization she has turned to in order to fix the issue.

I share some of Ms. Nomani's general complaints (I can't speak to specific situation in Morgantown at the mosque). It is clear that fundamentalism is on the rise in many places (as is noted at tacitus in the comments section), and Islam is not immune. Ms. Nomani wishes organization (like CAIR) to involve themselves in defining that which they represent (always a difficult role). She has good intentions, and Islam has failed in a general sense to disavow the acts of fundamentalists like Bin Laden and his followers, but a few hours examination on the web of the issues surrounding this mosque in Morgantown finds that this situation is not a perfect match for the "Islam can't control it's fundamentalists" rants that break out from time to time. While there are stories and examples that fit that mold, this is not one. I suppose I shouldn't pick on Tacitus, but it's generally a good site for discussion and rational debate. Not this time.

As for Ms. Nomani, this story seems to be both more simple and more complex than she makes it out to be. Yes, the mosque has some fundamentalists who push their version of Islam. Yes, the mosque has some members who note the rigidity and lack of progess in Islam (can we call them "reformers" or somesuch?) like Ms. Nomani. Clearly there is conflict in this mosque over these issues. But it seems that both the fundamentalists and the "reformers" are in the minority in this case - and the general congregation is in the middle. It is their voice that we have not heard. And in the end, religion is not open to "fairness" debates: religion is about dogma and faith. The tenets of most religions are provided by "God" (in whatever form), and different interpretations of those tenets lead to different sects. From a political or societal standpoint, one always hopes that the more moderate views prevail - they make living in a civil society much easier - but politics is not supposed to intrude into religion in our society. This is a long path to saying that we can hope Islam rejects the fundamentalist-Wahabist doctrines and adopts a view that reflects the views of Ms. Nomani, but all we can do is hope. It can't be forced.

Ms. Nomani seems to represent just as radical a viewpoint (on the other side of the spectrum) as some of the fundamentalist Islamic positions. While it is a position that resonates more easily to us in the mainstream (read: Judeo-Christian perspective), in the end if Islam is to move in that direction, it must choose to do so itself. It is the unheard voices in this story - the bulk of the Morgantown mosque congregation - that is the truly important actor here. National councils, international conferences, invasions, terrorism - none really matter in the long run. Islam (like Protestantism, but unlike Catholicism) is not a top-down religion, but is bottom up. As local muslims move towards either Ms. Nomani or the fundamentalists, their chapters move that way, and the national and international groups follow. But it is the congregations that choose the path.

What do we draw from all this? I wish Ms. Nomani had choosen to present her position in a more realistic light. She seems to be trying to force reformist change in her mosque far beyond just rectifying the actions of fundamentalists. When she is opposed, she blames her difficulties on the fundamentalists, without recognizing that the extent of her changes may discomfort a good percentage of the entire mosque. Hence, the resistance she faces may not be a facet of the extremism that Bin Laden represents, but instead just plain old normal conservative American "don't mess with it if it isn't broken" status-quoism. If Ms. Nomani is really trying just to right a sinking ship, and return it to the moderate state it was in, in the face of a radicalism that has links to the violence that engulfs the world, then this story is worth of an op-ed in the New York Times and more: headlines, discussion, a national dialog and, least, I would owe her an apology for this post. If instead this is just a story of local religious disagreement between two opposing camps that can both be seen as radical (and an as-yet-unheard middle), this is not a story of national or international importance, and is a story similar to that of hundreds or thousands of churches and mosques and temples over the last hundred years: religion is a touchy subject, and people don't like it when it changes in any direction. When I was a young lad, the minister in our church retired. We had to search for a new one. This was significant trauma for our church. There was not open warfare, or blood in the hallways, but there were some bad feelings and short tempers. When the new minister arrived (with hardly any change in overall attitude, and certainly no shift in religious tone - not a change to fundamentalism), some of the congregation left. They didn't like the changes, minor though they were.

Which version has happened in Morgantown? I don't know, but my suspicious mind notes that Ms. Nomani's voice is the only one heard, and no other members of the mosque have made statements in support (or against) her or the "fundamentalists". There does not seems to be any big stink, hence leading me to think that this is much more local than national. I support Ms. Nomani's position, but I do not think that this is a case of Bin Laden reaching into middle America to foment rebellion and dischord. Fundamentalism, as I noted, is on the rise everywhere, in most major religions. Should be be suprised it is here, in Morgantown? No. Should we be worried? Not until the voice of the congregation is heard. If they choose to move towards fundamentalism, then that is worrying. It is their choice, and it matters more (in both a local and a national sense) than Ms. Nomani's vote.

Posted by baltar at 10:14 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

May 13, 2004

Obsessive? No!

Gents, I must intervene. I have edited your posts. Love and kisses, Binky the Grammar and Spelling Lady
Posted by binky at 12:33 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sex Crimes in Prison

Now I know I'm probably being far too hopeful here, but is it really too much to hope that this new concern with the dark and cruel things that have been allowed to go on in prisons in Iraq might lead some people to be more concerned about stopping rape in prisons in the United States? I am continually mystified by the fact that millions of Americans think it's perfectly ok that this goes on, and that they even think it's a laughing matter. I know that my dream of the government doing more to combat this is probably going to go unfulfilled. I mean even with all the evidence in this case the media seems to prefer the less jarring term "sexual abuse" to the R word. But it would be nice if some good was able to come out of these scandals. But since in this country it's common practice for even the guards to beat prisoners or make male prisoners wear women's underwear I'm not going to get my hopes up.
Posted by armand at 12:15 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Good News (for a change)

Hard to believe, but there is good news. India has rejected the nationalist govenment of Vajpayee and it looks as if the Congress Party will step back into power (though who will lead is still up in the air). This means that, while there are no guarantees, the nationalist-driven agenda of the BJP that has helped create a pair of nuclear armed states who hate each other will likely go away, and there is the chance for a fresh start and a nuclear de-escalation. The usual disclaimer: we'll have to wait and see. Still, I think this is all good and no bad news.

Posted by baltar at 11:39 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 12, 2004

Jim Inhofe

Normally I wouldn't bother berating Jim Inhofe. The man has been an embarrassment for years. But what he said yesterday is positively beyond the pale. He announced that he was outraged that others were outraged by American soldiers torturing Iraqis.

It would be bad enough if he was simply pro-torture (and it should be added pro-torture of the innocent; apparently the man can't be bothered to read military reports that say that the majority of people in these prisons are picked up by mistake). That would merely make him vicious, cruel and arguably demented, in favor of rape and in favor of using attack dogs. What's really shocking is that you have a man who holds an important position in the American government (he's chairman of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee) encourgaing the inhumane treatment of people that we are desperately trying to make like us, accept our presence in Iraq, and accept our values and form of government. It is this kind of thing that is going to make the Iraqis who did welcome the overthrow of Saddam Hussein turn against us, and possibly take up arms with the "insurgents" who are currently fighting our personnel. That makes him not only a grotesque person, but someone who is quite obviously endangering the American mission in Iraq and American lives, at home and abroad.

It's bad enough that this sort of sickening display is regularly heard in the media, this is the sort of thing that the enemies of the American government can point to as showing the "real" motives, behavior and feelings of Americans. It's this kind of thing that's enabled extremists to win the support of moderates throughout history. And it's very sad to see it going on today, especially on the same day that the Nick Berg video was released. People define others by what they do. Between the actions of people like Inhofe, the infamous guards at Abu Gharib, and the "superb" Secretary of Defense we seem to be doing very little to win hearts and minds of late, but quite a lot to incite fury.

Posted by armand at 11:04 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 10, 2004

Louisiana Democrats Love Cockfights

I should note by the way, given the post below on the the Senate race in Louisiana, that Chris John is hardly the only Louisiana Democrat to favor keeping cockfights legal in the Bayou State. An effort to make Louisiana the 49th state to ban the practice died in the state House Agriculture Committee recently on a 9-5 vote. It might be worth pointing out that all 9 members who voted to keep cockfights legal were Democrats.
Posted by armand at 12:33 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

After the White Smoke It Is … Chris John on the Balcony!

Referring again to the theme of the mindless repetition of “conventional wisdom” that pervades American political reporting, I feel the need to knock most of the reports that have introduced the blogsphere to the U.S. Senate race in Louisiana. This is hardly the only race that is being reported in this way, but it is emblematic of the problem. In most reports on this race Rep. Chris John is referred to as the strongest of the Democrats running for the seat (he is being opposed by State Treasurer John Kennedy and a state representative). Now if that’s what these people actually think – fine. But what is exasperating is that most reports on this race give no reason whatsoever for that assessment. When they do find time to write an extra sentence or two for their story they appear to mostly base their opinions on the fact that he resembles (and has the support of) John Breaux.

Now while John Breaux is a political leviathan in Louisiana there are two problems with this type of analysis. First, Louisiana has elected three new senators since the 1940’s. That’s right – three. This is a rather small sample from which to draw any definitive conclusions about what it takes to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. Secondly, it totally sidelines the question of which Democrat would actually be the most effective senator.

Chris John is best known recently for strenuously opposing a proposed ban on cockfighting in Louisiana (all of you who have belittled Senator Frist for his history of cruelty to animals should keep that in mind). Generally, he is seen as a good ole’ boy Breaux clone. And for you good government types out there let me remind you of Breaux’s “my vote can’t be bought but it can be rented” line.

I hope the Democrats in Louisiana rally to State Treasurer John Kennedy instead. He is a politically-savy reformer best known for spear-heading a drive to return money to the people that the state had been holding in various accounts. He has a history of working successfully with a wide variety of constituency groups (he has some strong support in the African-American community and he also served as counsel to former Governor Buddy Roemer, a Republican). Will he run as well as John in Cajun country? Probably not, no. But he’d probably run better in a lot of middle class areas outside the Southwestern corner of the state, and he might run as well or better than John in urban areas.

Just because one electoral coalition worked for one man in the past doesn’t mean that’s the only strategy for a party to win statewide. That's particularly true in a state with powerful influences on voting preferences other than partiy membership. And it would be nice if a candidate’s ideas and achievements actually had something to do with whether they deserved the support of their party.

Posted by armand at 11:50 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 09, 2004

Hotel World

If I'm recommending a movie today, I should recommend a book too, especially since it's almost beach season. So let me point your attention to Hotel World by Ali Smith.

Is it really beach reading? Sure. It is a slender volume that should fit easily into a beach bag, and it is the sort of book that takes you into exotic lives (both the denizes of hotels and that of a bag lady outside the hotel) and even beyond life. But what makes it a truly remarkable novel that merits being read in any locale is the author's impressive ability to create five distinct voices. The lives of the five women in the book overlap. They are deeply affected by one another. Yet we learn to know each of them as individuals. Smith chooses to use almost an almost entirely different language for each one. Her skill with words and images is striking. She is a writer and storyteller you want to see more from.

Posted by armand at 01:20 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Pushing Rummy Overboard?

I agree with Baltar's post below that the prison abuse scandal is hardly the top reason to fire Rumsfeld. While some of his military transformation inclinations seem to be on target, he's made a string of disasterous decisions and in a perfect world he should have been pushed out of office long ago. However, I don't see it happening. It seems the only thing that can get you fired in this administration is being off message, and I think firing Rumsfeld might be too public an admission of the failures of this administration's policies. Which isn't to say that it's impossible that it will happen. If Karl Rove decides it's helpful politically to get rid of him I expect that we would quickly see Sean O'Keefe installed in the DOD. However, until that happens I think President Bush will keep yet another dangerously inept lightning rod in office in order to deflect criticsm from himself -- at least until November.

Posted by armand at 12:50 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Daschle and Negroponte, Sitting in a Tree ...

Last week offered Democrats a myriad of opportunities to call into question fundamental assumptions that the Bush team have used to buttress their claims about the outcomes that will be produced from pursuing regional transformation through unilateral military action. However, surprisingly few of them have taken the opportunity to further distance themselves from the policies of the president. In testimony before the Senate Armed Service Committee this week it is notable that the the leadership of the Pentagon faced its toughest questioning from a conservative Republican (Sen. Graham of South Carolina). And in arguably the biggest foreign policy vote of the week only three senators (Dayton, Durbin and Harkin) voted against the president's controversial choice to become out new ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte. At a time when it appears the American populace is cooling in its support for American operations in Iraq, and in the face of considerable criticism from many foreign policy experts, it is interesting that Negroponte's nomination was approved overwhelmingly.

Posted by armand at 11:23 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The New and Improved David Brooks

"We've got to come up with a global alliance of democracies to embody democratic ideals, harness U.S. military power and house a permanent nation-building apparatus, filled with people who actually possess expertise on how to do this job."

Who said that? Well, while you might think it was John Kerry, it was actually David Brooks in the May 8th issue of the New York Times. Does this mean he will now oppose the reelection of an administration that has continually ignored (or fired) area experts, belittled nation-building, and done great harm to the alliances that were viewed as essential for national security prior to 2001? I suppose the crew at the Weekly Standard can't come out and explicitly say that the Bush approach to foreign policy is a dangerous, miserable failure, but this is coming pretty close.

Posted by armand at 10:34 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Van Sant's Elephant

After having somehow managed to sit through the interminable Gerry, I had feared than Gus Van Sant had completely lost his touch. Not so. I watched Elephant over the weekend, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is beautifully constructed -- truly one of the best movies of the last few years. Yes, is unnerving. The high school takes on the feel of the hotel in The Shining – a claustrophobic, high-walled maze with long, menacing corridors that defy escape. It is populated by a number of cruel spirits. When my favorite character walked into a large room with the work ‘Library’ over the door I couldn’t help but cringe. But it is a very intriguing piece of film making that’s worth checking out.
Posted by armand at 09:58 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 07, 2004

Responsibility and Rumsfeld

I would like, nay love, someone in this administration to take responsibility for just about anything they have had a hand in. No one has found any WMD, there is a net loss of jobs, a general decline in civil rights, a legal and moral quagmire for anyone detained by the US Military (possibly 10,000 people), 9/11, this decision that further politicizes the health functions of the FDA. Lots of bad things have occured that no one in the administration seems to feel any need to admit they may have been a teensy little bit off on. But Rumsfeld should not resign over the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

Of course, Rumsfeld should resign. He may be good at planning a war (he did beat Iraq in less than three weeks), but he is awful at running post-war reconstruction or any other form of Operations-Other-Than-War for the US Military. There are lots of things that he is directly responsible for screwing up, but the prison he was not directly responsible for.

Forcing Rumsfeld to resign over the prison scandal is just wrong. He may be indirectly responsible, and if he feels sufficiently strongly that he is then he can table his resignation, but he is not directly responsible. He didn't torture anybody. He didn't stand by while someone else did it. It was not his responsibility to keep tabs on everything. People under him screwed up, and they should resign and be charged, but he did not do this.

Hold Rumsfeld accountable for the things he screwed up. Drag him before Congress. Have real Joint hearing on this war. Rake him over the coals. Don't go after him for this.

Posted by baltar at 06:44 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 06, 2004

Pot calls kettle black (edition 47, 811,903)

I’m not going to bother to blog every time the government does something hypocritical. I mean really, who has that much time? And as a member of the human race I will go on the record saying that it is nice to see the American government express its disgust over Sudan getting a seat on the UN Human Rights Commission. But c’mon, how much righteous anger is it appropriate to express on this matter when we are closely allied with such noted friends of freedom as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan? An argument can certainly be made that the Sudanese government is more cruel and inhumane than those regimes and other vicious friends of ours. But at some point the line gets pretty thin.
Posted by armand at 10:30 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 05, 2004

Look Ma, I'm a Hipster!

...and I didn't even know it! This past weekend Bloodless Coup traveled to the Coachella festival to cover the event for the Summer issue of the zine. There were spectacles such as the reconstituted and extremely tight-sounding Pixies, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips arriving from outerspace in a giant plastic bubble, and Cure fans out in the daylight. The magical transformation to hipster was just a bonus. More soon...
Posted by binky at 11:34 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Fat Lady Singing?

I've never claimed to be a perfect prognoticator of American politics. I can't tell you who will win the election in November. But this is certainly not good news if you are Bush and have any intention of getting re-elected. There have been rumblings from conservatives before that Bush is not doing the right things in Iraq or on the budget.

But when George Will cranks it out:

This administration cannot be trusted to govern if it cannot be counted on to think and, having thought, to have second thoughts. Thinking is not the reiteration of bromides about how "all people yearn to live in freedom" (McClellan). And about how it is "cultural condescension" to doubt that some cultures have the requisite aptitudes for democracy (Bush). And about how it is a "myth" that "our attachment to freedom is a product of our culture" because "ours are not Western values; they are the universal values of the human spirit" (Tony Blair).
That is one way to respond to questions about the wisdom of thinking America can transform the entire Middle East by constructing a liberal democracy in Iraq. But if any Americans want to be governed by politicians who short-circuit complex discussions by recklessly imputing racism to those who differ with them, such Americans do not usually turn to the Republican choice in our two-party system.

As I noted, I don't know who will win. But when George Will starts cranking out language like that, I begin to wonder if I hear warm up arias in the background..."

Posted by baltar at 10:29 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 04, 2004

Gen. Myers and the Taguba report

Does it strike anyone else as strange that Gen. Myers has not read the Taguba report? I mean he cares enough about this issue to call CBS over a week before 60 Minutes II is first supposed to air the prisoner abuse story and gets them to delay their story for two weeks. But when he was on This Week on the morning of May 2nd he said he hadn't read the report. So he's been directly involved in this issue for apparently at least a month, yet he seemingly doesn't read any section of one of the key documents detailing the scandal? What's up with that?
Posted by armand at 01:53 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Take one for the team Butters (uh, Blair)

Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s cover story on Tony Blair in the June 2004 issue of The Atlantic doesn’t cover a lot of new ground. But it does stress a point with interesting implications for international relations theory. George Bush leading the United States to war against Iraq can be explained by a number of familiar explanations. At one level it can be seen as a leading status quo power fighting a preventive war against a revisionist state. At another level it was a war based on the images, perceptions, beliefs and perhaps even the personality traits of the decision-making team in power in Washington. Other explanations deal with the status quo power wanting to maintain its strength in a region that is seen as being of vital interest, or in the maintenance of access to a vital resource. But what of Tony Blair’s decision to go to war? Why did he choose to take the United Kingdom into the war?

According to Wheatcroft Blair decided to do this in early 2002 because he felt that the United States fighting a unilateral war would be more damaging to international security than leaving Saddam Hussein in power. This has some interesting implications. First, it would seem to suggest that at least in the short term the recent writings encouraging the United States to be more cautious in its foreign policy lest it create a rival in Europe may be excessively dire. Blair’s support is indicative of the fact that at least in the U.K. there are likely to be leaders who will do what they can to prevent a fissure between the Americans and their current allies. But it is also abundantly clear that not everyone in the upper echelons of the political establishment in the U.K. feels that way, and a change in who resides on Downing St. could have greater implications than most Americans realize on the way that the world perceives American foreign policy.

Secondly, it raises the point of just how important legitimacy and trust are in international relations, and their key roles in establishing the possibility international cooperation. Among the few things that have (marginally) protected the Bush administration from its zealous efforts to run itself into the ground through unilateralist policies are actions pushed by Blair: the formation of the “coalition of the willing”, Blair’s frequent, moving comments about human rights abuses under Saddam Hussein, and the fact that Blair appears to have forced the Bush team to go to the United Nations. In and of themselves these might not seem like much – speeches, buying off some poor countries, spectacularly revealing the lack of political muscle that the world’s superpower has diplomatically under President Bush’s policies – but they gave something for supporters of the United States to latch on to. They showed that the United States wasn’t entirely throwing aside the world order it had largely built up over the last several decades, and provided political cover for those who felt like Blair but feared supporting an intensely unpopular United States. These were steps that the inept Keystone Cops in DC could build upon when a few key players who thought they were in charge finally realized that they could not remake Iraq in their image on their own by mid-2004. Going to the United Nations in 2002 and 2003 might have seemed a political mistake in the eyes of some, but it was likely very important in creating the possibility for the support of the United Nations that we are currently seeking.

Of course that Blair’s support was unusual among the leadership of the world’s leading states shows that many others do not feel the same need he does to foster American hegemony, and reinforces just how isolated the United States has become. It could be argued that in such an environment (an environment that seems here to stay while George Bush is in the White House) Blair is even more important. This suggests that while much IR scholarship focuses on state interests, we should always remember that state interests are perceived through human minds, and that the beliefs and perceptions of the individuals who run states have profound policy implications. It also provides another example of states choosing to go to war not so much because of a perceived threat as because of a strong desire to maintain the status quo and the alliances and norms associated with it. That Blair was willing to risk his own leadership on behalf of maintaining an international political structure that George Bush seems to be at best ambivalent to, and at worst hostile to, is a striking contrast.

Posted by armand at 10:57 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Clinton/Gore = Kerry/?

Returning to the coverage of the vice presidential selection process, one much discussed guiding principle that I think is basically on target is that in the current political and media environment it is perhaps best politically to pick a running mate who plays to your particular strengths and helps you overcome perceived weaknesses. That is, picking a running mate who reinforces the national image that you are trying to promote. There were times in the past when picking a “balance” candidate made a lot of sense, but with regionalism declining, the parties less divided internally, and the constant TV campaign I think playing up your confidence in your own strengths and stands makes a great deal of sense. Establishing a clear, appealing brand image should help you win votes in several swing states, not just in one state or region.

If this is accurate though, who does Kerry pick? The classic example of this strategy was Bill Clinton’s selection of Al Gore in 1992. Two prominent DLCers from the South, they held similar views, were from adjoining states and were about the same age.

Who could be Gore to Kerry’s Clinton? It strikes me that if Sen. Kerry wants his running mate who is a mirror image of himself (ok, it’ll have to be a funhouse mirror that shortens him considerably) Sen. Reed of Rhode Island would appear to be ideal, at least on paper. Honestly I don’t know much about him, and I’ve only seen him interviewed once or twice (he seemed quite capable). But they are both New England senators interested in global affairs with distinguished military records. Jack Reed is in his second term in the Senate. He serves on the Armed Services Committee. He’s a former Army Ranger and a graduate of West Point. And politically they seem to have a shared vision. Reed and Kerry appear to have voted the same way on most issues in Congress.

Now I’m not really suggesting that Kerry would choose him. Actually, I’d be stunned. I imagine such a choice would provoke an anti-New England outcry. For better or for worse, being from New England is going to be something that hurts him with a lot of people between the coasts. But all that’s really somewhat beside the point. What made Clinton-Gore appealing as a team wasn’t the fact that it was two relatively young Southerner WASPs. It was the fact that the pick reinforced a certain appealing stands and clarified his national image in a way that struck many Americans in a positive way.

But if the key idea that made the Clinton-Gore team so appealing was a deeply-held shared, dynamic vision of where they wanted to take the country, who is really like Kerry? Or perhaps more importantly, who does Kerry want people to believe is like him? It strikes me finding someone who can best accentuate Kerry’s political strengths, perhaps serve to alleviate some of his weaknesses, and convey a unity of purpose to improve America is likely to produce the best possible coverage at this stage of the campaign. Campaign coverage like that could be worth many more votes across the country (including in swing states) than the 2-3% if the vote he might win in a particular state by picking Gov. X or Sen. Y.

So who could best accomplish that? I’ll get to that shortly.

Posted by armand at 10:31 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 03, 2004

Well if Cokie said it it must be true!

We are launching this blog in the midst of a raging political campaign. Since there are few things that irritate me more than supposed experts saying really stupid things (and hence, one might think, further embedding their inane ideas in the national psyche) this means I’ll likely have quite a lot to comment on in the weeks and months to come. But don’t worry, if campaigns aren’t to your taste I’ll write about other things too (Death Cab for Cutie, the Preakness, and Buffy for example).

The first topic I want to skewer is the reluctance on the part of many media talking heads to acknowledge the fact that decisions come from more than one influence. I understand the appeal of bright-line explanations. They are easily understood and easily conveyed. Being snappy they are likely to get you air time, maybe even speaking fees. But it all just contributes to the one-liner and/or histrionic tone of much political “debate” today, without actually conveying the multiplicity of factors that shape any noteworthy political decision. If you really want to say anything meaningful about why politics works the way that it does snappy ad copy will rarely suffice.

In American politics there are many examples of this. Hey, there are even whole careers built on it (yeah, I’m looking at you Bill Schneider). But few events bring out this unfortunate tendency more than the selection of the vice presidential nominees. The blather that that produces is deafening. Supposedly Kerry must pick a Southerner. Or he must pick someone who’ll win him a swing state. Would it kill the people who say this to actually make an argument for these statements? Yeah, I know they’ve heard these things from Bill, Cokie, etc. but when was the last time they read new studies on these matters? There is research on this question - is it too hard to crack a book?

If they could get beyond their deafening, insulated world that all too often just repeats what they read in an undergrad text in 1972 they might learn something. For example, the political science literature on the vice presidential selection process is pretty clear. In the first place, presidential candidates almost never win votes through their selection. The simple fact of the matter is that almost no one votes on this. They vote for president, not vice president. Nominees can be marginally helpful in winning their own state, but usually that’s due to them having preexisting political machinery that they put into overdrive, people aren’t voting out of fealty to someone who lives nearby. This is important in that governors and some senators are the people who have these kinds of statewide operations, so if you want to win a state through your selection it makes much more sense to pick one of them than a mayor or member of Congress. But it is also important in that it conveys that who is chosen is not likely to win you a lot of votes from any one state, no matter how popular the vice presidential nominee is at home. This really opens up the selection process, and it’s perhaps worth noting that it is pretty clear that in the last few decades most candidates have not selected their nominee on the basis of that person’s ability to carry a state. While it is repeatedly discussed, it has rarely been seen in practice.

This is not to say that electoral considerations in a swing state will not guide Kerry’s choice. But the actual evidence for that having mattered in the past is pretty slim, no matter how much cocktail-party chatter there is about the idea.

Posted by armand at 03:35 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 01, 2004

Playing with Styles

Still in the building/rebuilding phase of this. I'm playing with downloading various style sheets, and putting them in. The next step (after finding one that seems to look reasonably "bloodless") is to modify it (change color, font, ect.). These style-sheets are all coming from a pretty cool site that offers a bunch of different free style sheets. All they ask for is attribution, and here it is.

Posted by trilateral at 12:53 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack