super hanc petram

Thursday, February 26

You're No Caravaggio  

I will wade into the discussion of Mel Gibson's celebration of violence only so far as to say that he shall not besmirch the name of Caravaggio, in my opinion the greatest pure painter in history, by claiming to have been inspired by him when Gibson set out to make his gore-fest. To wit, this bears no resemblance to this.


Wednesday, February 25


Perhaps Greenspan was sleeping for the entire 2000 Presidential campaign when Al Gore was derided by the media for his pledge that the surplusses be put in a lockbox to ensure the solvency of Social Security & Medicare.
There's something else at stake in this election that's even more important than economic progress. Simply put, it's our values. It's our responsibility to our loved ones, to our families. And to me, family values means honoring our fathers and mothers, teaching our children well, caring for the sick, respecting one another, giving people the power to achieve what they want for their families, putting both Social Security and Medicare in an iron-clad lockbox where the politicians can't touch them. To me, that kind of common sense is a family value. Hands off Medicare and Social Security trust fund money. I'll veto anything that spends it for anything other than Social Security and Medicare.
Why would Greenspan tell such a bold-faced lie as he did today?


Just in Case You Missed It  

I don't know if Uncle Alan was actually in attendance on 27 January 1998, when President Clinton first announced that the budget would swing into surplus (thus beginning the debate about what to do with the surplus), but in case he, or anyone else, is confused about what the debate was about, here's what Clinton said:
Now, if we balance the budget for next year, it is projected that we'll then have a sizeable surplus in the years that immediately follow. What should we do with this projected surplus? I have a simple four-word answer: Save Social Security first. Tonight, I propose that we reserve 100 percent of the surplus -- that's every penny of any surplus -- until we have taken all the necessary measures to strengthen the Social Security system for the 21st century. Let us say -- let us say to all Americans watching tonight, whether you're 70 or 50, or whether you just started paying into the system, Social Security will be there when you need it. Let us make this commitment: Social Security first. Let's do that -- together.
Greenspan was chairman of the Fed then and was surely aware of Clinton's comments. Indeed in his testimony of 4 March 1998, Greenspan endorsed saving Social Security first.
However, we can be more certain that, absent action, the budgetary position will erode after the next decade as the baby boom generation moves into retirement, putting massive strains on the social security and medicare programs. Without question, the task of stemming that erosion will become increasingly difficult the longer it is postponed. Indeed, especially in light of these inexorable demographic trends, I have always emphasized that we should be aiming for budgetary surpluses and using the proceeds to retire outstanding federal debt. In that regard, one measure of how much progress has been made in dealing with the nation's fiscal affairs is that serious discussion of such paydowns has begun to surface. Working down the stock of the federal debt would put further downward pressure on long-term interest rates, which would enhance private capital investment, labor productivity, and economic growth, preparing us better to confront the looming changes in retirement demographics.
And yet for some reason in 2001, Greenspan felt that we needed first and foremost to slash government receipts in order to stem the tide of paying off the federal debt too quickly. What happened to Greenspan between 1998 & 2001? And what has happened since then that he is now advising gutting one of the cornerstones of American life?


Screw the Boomers  

That's Alan Greenspan's message to Congress. The best way to deal with the looming financial issues in the Social Security system? Screw the retirees. Oh and boost the retirement age. This is, in Alan's opinion, far preferrable to raising taxes to cover the financial gap that will open in the system when the boomers begin to retire. I went on a tirade a while back over Greenspan's 25 January 2001 testimony in which he told the Congress that the financial future of the country was dependent on them slashing taxes.
I believe, as I have noted in the past, that the federal government should eschew private asset accumulation because it would be exceptionally difficult to insulate the government's investment decisions from political pressures. Thus, over time, having the federal government hold significant amounts of private assets would risk sub-optimal performance by our capital markets, diminished economic efficiency, and lower overall standards of living than would be achieved otherwise.
Having been given cover by the wise old man, Congress slashed taxes 3 years in a row. Now the budget picture is a mess. But now, 36 months later, the wise old man says that the tax rates from 2000 cannot be enacted again because it would destroy the economy. A brief aside. Greenspan floats this stink bomb in his testimony, "[i]n recent years, budget debates have turned to choices offered by those advocating tax cuts and those advocating increased spending." This is a lie. Perhaps in Greenspan's world these were the decisions, but the actual question in the debates of 1999-2001 was tax cuts vs. saving Social Security. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding, indeed anyone that read the newspaper even on a monthly basis during those years understands this. The current outlook is such that we have a total reversal of the budget picture from 2001 which is now also holding the nation's future hostage.
These scenarios suggest that, under a range of reasonably plausible assumptions about spending and taxes, we could be in a situation in the decades ahead in which rapid increases in the unified budget deficit set in motion a dynamic in which large deficits result in ever-growing interest payments that augment deficits in future years. The resulting rise in the federal debt could drain funds away from private capital formation and thus over time slow the growth of living standards.
As Kevin Drum discussed here and as the Economist discussed here there is a very wide range of budget outlooks. The Economist even provides this handy graphic: The CBO baseline estimates factor in a recovering economy from now until 2013. Indeed, they expect a sharp turnaround in the deficits to begin soon as a result of economic growth. However, after 2006, a yawning light blue section emerges under the baseline. This is the cost of allowing Bush's tax cuts to become permanent. Roughly $400b a year by 2013. The only other section of the graphic that is as large is the one that accounts for increases in discretionary spending (of which Social Security & Medicare are not a part) as a result of the growth of GDP. Greenspan's proposal to deal with this (and future assumingly larger) deficits in the budget picture is to slash spending on Medicare & Social Security as well as halt all increases in discretionary spending (yes that would include defense). But if we are to believe the CBO (and Alan certainly seems to) that would still leave us with a $200+b deficits (and no hope of closing it) solely as a result of the tax cuts. As I remember it, the country was doing pretty well under Clinton's tax rates. Indeed we only barely made it to a surplus then (with the help of a speculative bubble, no less). Rather than screwing old people out of their retirement benefits and health care (for which they have worked to make this country what it is today since the late 60's), shouldn't we first look to restore some sanity to the tax code? Why is it that the marginal income tax rates of people making over $200,000/year are untouchable until we have destroyed the retirement system of this country? Why is the chairman of the Fed's worldview so distorted?


Tuesday, February 24

Atta Boy!  

Just when I thought he was headed off the cliff, David Brooks yanks up the e-brake and turns in truly lucid and insightful column.
You'll find that Huntington marshals a body of evidence to support his claims. But the most persuasive evidence is against him. Mexican-American assimilation is a complicated topic because Mexican-Americans are such a diverse group. The educated assimilate readily; those who come from peasant villages take longer. But they are assimilating. It's easy to find evidence that suggests this is so. In their book, 'Remaking the American Mainstream,' Richard Alba of SUNY-Albany and Victor Nee of Cornell point out that though there are some border neighborhoods where immigrants are slow to learn English, Mexicans nationwide know they must learn it to get ahead. By the third generation, 60 percent of Mexican-American children speak only English at home. Nor is it true that Mexican immigrants are scuttling along the bottom of the economic ladder. An analysis of 2000 census data by the USC urban planner Dowell Myers suggests that Latinos are quite adept at climbing out of poverty. Sixty-eight percent of those who have been in this country 30 years own their own homes. Mexican immigrants are in fact dispersing around the nation. When they have children, they tend to lose touch with their Mexican villages and sink roots here. If you look at consumer data, you find that while they may spend more money on children's clothes and less on electronics than native-born Americans, there are no significant differences between Mexican-American lifestyles and other American lifestyles. They serve in the military — and die for this nation — at comparable rates. Frankly, something's a little off in Huntington's use of the term "Anglo-Protestant" to describe American culture. There is no question that we have all been shaped by the legacies of Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin. But the mentality that binds us is not well described by the words "Anglo" or "Protestant." We are bound together because we Americans share a common conception of the future. History is not cyclical for us. Progress does not come incrementally, but can be achieved in daring leaps. That mentality burbles out of Hispanic neighborhoods, as any visitor can see. Huntington is right that Mexican-Americans lag at school. But that's in part because we've failed them. Our integration machinery is broken. But if we close our borders to new immigration, you can kiss goodbye the new energy, new tastes and new strivers who want to lunge into the future.


Was There Any Doubt?  

More on the rest of W's much anticipated stump speech last night later, but for the moment I'd like to highlight what is the core (indeed perhaps the total) of his re-election message to voters. An attempt to drape himself in the crushed bones and smoldering ash of the people killed on 9/11:
'None of us will ever forget that week when one era ended and another began. On September 14, 2001, I stood in the ruins of the Twin Towers. I remember a lot that day. Workers in hardhats were shouting, "Whatever it takes." One man pointed at me and said, "Don't let me down." As we all did that day, these men and women searching through the rubble took it personally. I took it personally. I've a responsibility that goes on. I will never relent in bringing justice to our enemies. I will defend America, whatever it takes.'
The full remarks are here (for some reason they're not on the White House site yet).


Monday, February 23

Unserious Hacks  

The Bush administration is staffed almost entirely with deeply unserious political hacks. By unserious I mean that they are committed only to scoring political points against their self-chosen enemies and care not a whit for actual policy. While constantly spouting rhetoric about how the world changed on 9/11, administration insiders don't hesitate to tar any political opponent with what has become one of the most odious epithets in modern American discourse. It is not an accident.
Education Secretary Rod Paige called the nation's largest teachers union a 'terrorist organization' during a private White House meeting with governors on Monday. Democratic and Republican governors confirmed Paige's remarks about the 2.7-million-member National Education Association. 'These were the words, 'The NEA is a terrorist organization,'' said Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin. 'He was making a joke, probably not a very good one,' said Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania. 'Of course he immediately divorced the NEA from ordinary teachers, who he said he supports.'
Bad taste doesn't begin to describe a joke that likens teachers to the men who flew planes into the WTC. It would be one thing if this was an off-hand comment by a low-level staffer to some other low-level staffers voicing frustration after extremely difficult negotiations; but this was the Sec. of Education (a career school bureaucrat in Texas) talking to governors (who are responsible for state education budgets as well as conforming to the NCLBA) about the country's largest teacher's union, an organization with which Paige & the governors would be intimately familiar. There is simply no way to justify such a comment; especially coming from a member of an administration that stokes the nation's fears over terrorism at every possible turn. It seems we should assume that even the Sec. of Education sees himself as being in a holy war against evil doers as he promotes the No Child Left Behind Act.


No Enthusiasm  

Following up on this post, we are now sending 50 Marines to protect the US Embassy in Haiti. Adding today's entry to the list from last week we have this chronology: 17 February 2004 3:28PM: "There is frankly no enthusiasm right now for sending in military or police forces to put down the violence that we are seeing," Powell told reporters. 19 February 2004 2:15PM: The Bush administration said Thursday it would send a military team to Haiti to assess the security of the U.S. Embassy there, but stressed that it is still looking for a political solution to the bloody uprising against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. 23 February 2004 2:30PM: Fifty Marines headed Monday to protect the U.S. Embassy and its staff after rebels overran Haiti's second-largest city and threatened to attack the capital, Port-au-Prince. Residents of Cap-Haitien went on a rampage of reprisal and looting for a second day as supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide armed themselves and set up burning barricades outside Port-au-Prince. There were ominous but unconfirmed reports of rebels executing Aristide backers. The Marines were dispatched to the capital to secure the embassy, according to Western diplomats and a Defense Department official. Still no peacekeepers, but can those really be that far behind? As Fred Kaplan discussed last week, Colin Powell is all but irrelevant in forming US foreign policy and has been for a long time.


Honeymoon Over  

It didn't take long for Arnold to run afoul of his fellow state officials. I'll try to find the polling data, but right now a similar fate awaits his bond measure at the polls on March 2:
The Republican governor ordered the state's Democratic attorney general, Bill Lockyer, 'to take immediate steps' to stop the marriages. Lockyer declined. 'The governor can direct the Highway Patrol. He can direct the next Terminator 4 movie if he chooses. But he can't direct the attorney general in the way he's attempted to do,' Lockyer told the San Francisco Chronicle. Lockyer, a likely challenger to a Schwarzenegger re-election bid in 2006, says he'll defend state law that restricts marriage to a man and a woman, but neither he nor the governor has the power to force the city to comply.
Did Arnold's legal people advise him that he could order the State AG around or did he just go off half-cocked? His attempt to order Lockyer came in the form of a letter, though I can't find it on his site.


Cash Cow  

I realize that I'm supposed to have my socks knocked off by the Bush re-election fundraising prowess, and that all Dems should cower in fear before the terrible prospect of the re-election campaign actually starting (apparently the stunt at Daytona was not, in fact, a re-election effort). That being said, how does a campaign that hasn't even started yet burn through $50m? W's campaign will probably pull in at least another $50-60m if not a cool $100m before November. But the ability to raise money does not also indicate the ability to spend it wisely. This campaign has burned $50m even though W has all the trappings of the presidency to reduce his spending. For absolutely no charge to the campaign, Air Force One did a low altitude fly-by at the Daytona 500. For no charge W and his massive entourage did a lap around the track in a fleet of SUVs. W can make speech after speech after speech and his campaign isn't charged a dime. One is left to assume, then, that the $50m was burned almost entirely on overhead and fundraising efforts. Obviously the re-election campaign has been in full swing for a long time (public pronouncements not withstanding), and we know that Bush himself has felt that his re-election campaign should be the biggest political story in the country since last August.
Q Are you going to do anything for Arnold? You say he'll be a good governor. You're spending two days in California. THE PRESIDENT: I'm going to campaign for George W., as you know. Q Will he get a plug in the speech, a mention? THE PRESIDENT: I think I've answered the question, and yes, he would be a good governor, as would others running for governor of California. Like you, I'm most interested in seeing how the process evolves. It's a fascinating bit of political drama evolving in the state -- in the country's largest state. Q It's also the biggest political story in the country. Is it hard to go in there and say nothing about it? THE PRESIDENT: It is the biggest political story in the country? That's interesting. That says a lot. That speaks volumes. Q You don't agree? THE PRESIDENT: It's up to -- I don't get to decide the biggest political story. You decide the biggest political story. But I find it interesting that that is the biggest political story in the country, as you just said. Q You don't think it should be? THE PRESIDENT: Oh, I think there's maybe other political stories. Isn't there, like, a presidential race coming up? (Laughter.) Maybe that says something. It speaks volumes, if you know what I mean. But, yes, it's an interesting story, it really is. And I'm looking forward, like you are, to seeing the outcome of the interesting story. But, no, I'm going to go, I'm going to talk about -- now that you've asked, are you going on the trip?
The point is this, a campaign that has spent 33% of its funds before it competes in a primary or rolls out a national ad campaign is one that is not spending wisely. While they may break all fundraising records, they will spend far more than they raise, and right now the campaign looks undisciplined as it spends like a drunken sailor.


Saturday, February 21

Two Men, Same Feelings  

In my humble opinion, both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ralph Nader can go fuck themselves. Nothing really deeper than that. Just fuck off.


Friday, February 20

Recess Appointment  

Pulling on several different threads here, but I wonder if this most recent recess appointment has anything to do with quelling the conservative uproar that Josh Marshall talks about here. Hard liners are apparently up in arms over the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee not making waves over the content of stolen Democratic strategy memoes.
The 90-minute session grew heated at times, as the visiting conservative leaders repeatedly interrupted the senators and questioned their handling of the memo controversy. But the senators, who received last week a closed-door briefing on the investigation from Senate Sergeant at Arms Bill Pickle, warned conservatives they might come to regret their position when the results of the probe are fully known. Pickle is expected to finish his investigation by March 5. The senators also asked them to suspend their strong statements in favor of Manuel Miranda, the GOP leadership aide who has admitted to reading the leaked files.
Using a recess appointment on Pryor is a nice sop to the hard liners to let them know that Bush & Co. still care about their agenda. However, it is not often that legislators tell their supporters to shut the hell up. It's especially rare for Republicans on the Judiciary to do it since one must be pretty hard line (or very senior) to get on the committee in the first place. Clearly the Republicans (who were briefed last week about the investigation) expect some pretty bad information to be coming forward on March 5. Info that may (this is pure conjecture) hamper the ability of Republicans to get any nominee out of committee for the rest of the term. Thus, in a last minute pander, Pryor is appointed and the base is told to knock it off until the storm passes. I do wonder what Sgt. at Arms Bill Pickle is preparing in that report of his. Some people are predicting a Special Council on this one. With this and the Plame investigation, it could be long spring on the Hill.


Behind the Green Zone  

Interesting article in Salon today from a reporter living in Baghdad. The reporter doesn't live in the US Green Zone but paints a decidedly bleak picture of the US presence in Baghdad. At the moment I'm trying to work out all the angles of the drop-dead handover date of July 1, and the surety of the US military that our troops will remain in Iraq for a long time after that. For now, here are some clips from the story:
Staff turnover within the CPA is ongoing and enormous, a virtual tsunami of outgoing and incoming personnel. Most CPA employees sign up for the minimum three-month stint and don't renew their contract. ~clip~ But the clock is ticking for this mission. American proconsul Paul Bremer has declared that, come hell or high water, the transfer of power will take place on July 1. There's a sense of both resignation and a mad scramble at the CPA. There's no way that everything can get done on time, but Bush is up for reelection four months after that, and they have to get it done. One CPA staffer told me that Bremer had sent around a memo saying something along the lines of, "I know I told you that the sprint would eventually become a marathon. But we're back to sprinting again." A different anonymous staffer told me, "It's like a ticking bomb. If the ministries don't get their shit together, things could go really bad." ~clip~ In the early days of the Green Zone, before suicide bombers and roadside explosives became the daily diet of risk in Baghdad, Karen used to leave the Zone and get out on the streets of the city. But for a long time now, soldiers, Coalition Provisional Authority employees and contractors have had to adhere to strict orders with regard to their movements. Soldiers leave on planned, heavily armed patrols. CPA employees and contractors occasionally make daylight visits to ministries or power plants. When they go, they travel in small convoys of humvees and military escorts. They are forbidden to go shopping on the streets of Baghdad or eat in a restaurant or visit the homes of their Iraqi co-workers. Some occasionally break the rules and sneak out. My roommates and I have occasionally sent cars to pick up furtive Green Zone escapees and bring them to our house for dinner. I'm sure others find ways to get out as well. But most don't risk it for fear of getting hijacked or bombed or just getting caught. Recently, a contractor I met who lives and works in the Green Zone described standing on the inside of that last line of razor wire and looking out at the city beyond. It was an incredibly sad feeling, he told me. Here he was living in the middle of a city that may as well have been on the other side of the world. The isolated nature of the U.S. occupation has always been an issue. Back in May I met a man working at what was then ORHA. He raved about the stupidity of holing up in the palaces, of not being out on the streets, available to the Iraqi people. Now, with the increasing attacks, it's too late to do anything about it. The Iraqi hearts and minds that the Bush administration talked about winning are focused resolutely on American decampment. Despite the well-intentioned work being done behind closed doors, Americans are, first and foremost, inaccessible occupiers. ~clip~ The July 1 transfer of sovereignty will change that. But it's not going to be easy. No one really knows at this point how it will even work. If the United States leaves outright, the subsequent struggles for power could lead to civil war. If the United States stays in an overbearing regent sort of role, it's bound to perpetuate the violence against those seen as U.S. collaborators. These days, Iraqis seem to feel that the American presence is responsible for pretty much all the ills of the country: the violence, lack of power, lack of jobs. With the U.S. election approaching, the Bush administration has a strong impetus to stick to the deadline and just get away from this debacle.


Thursday, February 19

Great Military Blunders  

After beating John Kerry about the head for 6 straight paragraphs (regarding his actions as a part of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War) with comments, "filled with hyperbolic exaggerations," to use the author's own term, James Webb lets loose on matters relevant to today's fight against terrorism. Many Democrats have criticized Bush in the same manner as Webb, but none has the distinction of having been Sec. of the Navy under Reagan.
Bush arguably has committed the greatest strategic blunder in modern memory. To put it bluntly, he attacked the wrong target. While he boasts of removing Saddam Hussein from power, he did far more than that. He decapitated the government of a country that was not directly threatening the United States and, in so doing, bogged down a huge percentage of our military in a region that never has known peace. Our military is being forced to trade away its maneuverability in the wider war against terrorism while being placed on the defensive in a single country that never will fully accept its presence. There is no historical precedent for taking such action when our country was not being directly threatened. The reckless course that Bush and his advisers have set will affect the economic and military energy of our nation for decades. It is only the tactical competence of our military that, to this point, has protected him from the harsh judgment that he deserves. At the same time, those around Bush, many of whom came of age during Vietnam and almost none of whom served, have attempted to assassinate the character and insult the patriotism of anyone who disagrees with them. Some have impugned the culture, history and integrity of entire nations, particularly in Europe, that have been our country's great friends for generations and, in some cases, for centuries. Bush has yet to fire a single person responsible for this strategy. Nor has he reined in those who have made irresponsible comments while claiming to represent his administration. One only can conclude that he agrees with both their methods and their message. Most seriously, Bush has yet to explain the exact circumstances under which American military forces will be withdrawn from Iraq.
But how do you really feel? As for Webb's venom towards Kerry, more specifically towards this testimony that Kerry gave. Webb describes it this way:
Kerry's own comments were filled with hyperbolic exaggerations that sought to make egregious acts seem commonplace. During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in 1971, he testified that fellow veterans had routinely "raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan." With those words, he defamed a generation of honorable men. No matter how he spins it today, at a minimum, he owes them a full and complete apology.
There is no need to spin Kerry's comments since what Kerry testified was that his fellow veterans had themselves confessed to committing such horrible acts.
I would like to talk on behalf of all those veterans and say that several months ago in Detroit we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged, and many very highly decorated, veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia. These were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit - the emotions in the room and the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do. They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Ghengis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.
Webb can spin Kerry's comments however he likes, but as this series in the Toledo Blade painstakingly details, US soldiers did unspeakable things to the Vietnamese during that war.
The other witness, Mr. Causey, 56, who served as a medic with Tiger Force in 1967, said he’s prepared to talk about the platoon’s attacks on villagers. "What I can clearly say is that we went into that valley and we killed every male over 16 years old - without question," he said. "I only saw one [enemy] gun the whole time. It wasn’t about killing enemy soldiers. This was about killing villagers. It went on and on. By the end, I had just had it. I was just sick of it."
Kerry's testimony has been disparaged since it was delivered by people that want to sweep the uncomfortable truths about Vietnam under the rug and it will become a larger issue as the campaign heats up over the summer and into the fall.


Colin Trouble  

I'm not the only one bashing Colin Powell today. Fred Kaplan has a fantastic rundown of Powell's difficult tenure as Secretary of State. Via Pandagon.


The Empire Strikes Back  

I doubt no one on our end had thought of this during either Reagan or Bush's grandstanding about missile defense, but it tends to make the entire concept of a missile shield (at least one using current technology) pointless. I know Rumsfeld and some others have dreams at night about orbiting laser guns that shoot missiles launched at the US right out of the sky, but we're not there yet. For the moment we're stuck with trying to hit one bullett with another bullett. Now the Ruskies have developed a bullett that will evade our bullett. Does it work? Probably not that well right now, but with some development I'd bet this thing would be more successful at evasion than our defense would be at collision.
In Washington, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked by reporters about the Putin statement. "If you're in that business — intercontinental ballistic missiles and warheads — you want them to be survivable, and maneuverability is one way to increase their survivability against any potential defenses," he said. Putin said that Russia had no intention of immediately deploying new weapons based on the experimental vehicle. Baluyevsky concurred. "We have demonstrated our capability, but we have no intention of building this craft tomorrow," he said, adding that Russia had told the United States about its plans to conduct the experiment.
Comically the Baluyevsky also noted that the test craft had "ceased to exist." It's important that the US guard itself against rogue nations and asymmetric threats, but as we do so, we need to outthink our adversaries not pump money into 20-year-old pipe dreams that will be obsolete the moment they're activated.



I'm used to the administration making stupid claims and then backing down from them a while later after the total nonsense of the earlier position became clear, but the most recent reversal is something to behold. 17 February 2004 3:28PM: "There is frankly no enthusiasm right now for sending in military or police forces to put down the violence that we are seeing," Powell told reporters. 19 February 2004 2:15PM: The Bush administration said Thursday it would send a military team to Haiti to assess the security of the U.S. Embassy there, but stressed that it is still looking for a political solution to the bloody uprising against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Not even 48 hours. HOO-AHH! This initial team is small, but the very fact that it's going indicates that there is enthusiasm for sending troops to Haiti to put down the violence. A political solution is absolutely preferrable to any foreign military involvement, but we've been down this road before in Haiti so can we please refrain from making blanket statements for the next few weeks?


Skilling Indicted  

One more Enron crony indicted. The second biggest fish of them all, though probably the one that was most responsible for the company's shady accounting, has been bagged. CFO Fastow has already pleaded guilty, but he was simply the moon to the corrupt Skilling's sun. Only Ken Lay remains free thus far and it is questionable if he will ever see the inside of a jail cell. Taking my information from the book Pipe Dreams, old Kenny Boy seems to have been the rotten, though largely clueless head of the fish. Lay is not without blame by any stretch of the imagination, and it was his leadership that allowed Enron to become one of the largest sham companies in corporate history. Such fecklessness is not a crime in this country even if it does bilk thousands of people out of millions of dollars. I can only hope that Skilling's trial is a pitiless sojourn through his arrogant, crooked time at Enron that lays bare the utter lack of regard for laws or ethics with which Lay and Skilling blanketed the company. One post-script to the Enron story bears attention. In 1997, Skilling took over as President of Enron after Lay forced out Rich Kinder. Kinder had led Enron from 1990-96 as an executive focused on cash-flow and assets that yield steady (though perhaps not sexy) returns. Until 1997 Enron had been primarily a pipeline company. As Robert Bryce continually notes in Pipe Dreams, pipelines don't produce blockbuster earnings. What they do produce is hard cash. After leaving Enron, Rich Kinder started the pipeline company Kinder Morgan, and actually bought some of Enron's pipelines before and after the implosion. As one can tell from looking at their asset map, Kinder Morgan has become a very successful energy company.


Wednesday, February 18

Saber Rattling  

As they did prior to the Loya Jirga last year, the Taliban are threatening to disrupt the upcoming elections in Afghanistan. Specifically, "[a] notorious Taliban commander warned Wednesday that Afghans who take part in elections this year will face attack." As the article notes the Taliban were unable to disrupt the Loya Jirga which was held under tight security and had its own internal problems once convened. The Taliban continue to kill Afghans and foreigners that are attempting to help transform Afghanistan from the wretched hovel of a country it has become. While they've made significant inroads in reclaiming territory in their traditional strongholds around Kandahar, I doubt their current muscle extends much beyond that. Certainly, though, they might be able to bribe some northern warlords into making trouble at the elections. One wonders if any of this would be happening had the administration not had a hardon for Saddam and not restricted any NATO presence outside of Kabul and not refused to allow a force big enough to keep peace and ... well it just keeps going.


Replacing Bernard Lewis  

For several years I have depended largely on Bernard Lewis (with important sniping at times from Edward Said) for my information about the general makeup of the extraordinary variety of people in the Middle East and Southern Mediterranean regions. Lewis has been an imperfect source to be sure, but his writing is both cogent and concise. Over the past months, however, Lewis has been eclipsed in my mind by Prof. Juan Cole of U. Mich. Cole's particular superiorities to Lewis become apparent fairly quickly, but the best way to characterize them is that I feel Cole has a deeper understanding of the acutal peoples of the region while Lewis's understanding concerns more the governments of the region. Prior to 9/11 and Mr. Bush's War this was sufficient for my amateur needs, but since those events, I think a greater focus on the so-called Arab Street is important. Jack Schafer's recent article in Slate has been making the blog rounds of late. While amusing and certainly informative of just how inadequate the current Western vernacular is for describing the intricacies of the Middle East and Asia, Schafer's article was not meant to provide answers on the issues it raises. Prof. Cole here goes a long way toward providing the answers that Schafer's article does not. Cole's post is long, but to give a sense as to why I think he's so valuable as a resource, I'll clip just the first part of each paragraph:
  • "Arab" is actually a linguistic category, like "Romance" or "Latin".
  • But the region is linguistically diverse despite the dominance of Arabic.
  • "Arab" is not a racial category. There are anyway no such things as races in the way they are popularly imagined.
  • In Iraq itself, many Chaldean Christians speak Aramaic (a Semitic language) as their mother tongue, and of course the Kurds speak an Indo-European language related to Persian and distantly to English.
  • So, the Arab world has a good deal of linguistic diversity within it. But then when you move north and east of Iraq, the situation becomes really complicated.
  • Then you have Muslim South Asia. There are four major regional languages in Pakistan: Sindhi, Punjabi, Baluchi and Pushtu. All four are Indo-European.
  • So when the New York Times included "Pakistanis" among the Arab-Americans, this would be like including Arnold Schwarzenegger in the "Latin Wave" of popular culture.
  • There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, and by the time the global population stabilizes around 2050, theirs will be the world's largest religion. Americans had better become more familiar with it.


Tuesday, February 17

Quack Quack  

Justice Scalia still refuses to recuse himself from a case in which he now has a recent and blatant conflict of interest. Sure this is an outrage and a piece of judicial arrogance that is hard to match, but Scalia's rhetoric in squirming for an out is amusing:
"It did not involve a lawsuit against Dick Cheney as a private individual," Scalia said in response to a question from the audience of about 600 people. "This was a government issue. It's acceptable practice to socialize with executive branch officials when there are not personal claims against them. That's all I'm going to say for now. Quack, quack."
This is Clintonian language of the first order. See, Cheney was sued, but sued in his person as Vice President, not as Citizen Cheney. Scalia wants you to feel that there is some distinction between the two, and that such a distinction removes the stench of corruption from a hunting trip paid for by the very participants in the energy meetings upon which the case seeks to shed light.
Michael Ramsey, a former Scalia law clerk, said the justice may be concerned about setting a precedent that would "lead to a flood of recusal requests that will likely have the effect of preventing the justices from having social interaction with other branches." "Once we start down that road, where do we stop?" asked Ramsey, who teaches law at the University of San Diego.
Perhaps we'll stop at judicial impartiality. And what would be wrong with a flood of recusal requests? The public should be much, much more aware of the actions of the judiciary since they serve only on the basis of good behavior. How can we evalutate their behavior if no one ever asks the question? Justices are appointed to a life term to insulate them from, among other things, the changing political winds, but if they abuse that insulation (and behave as if they are above public scrutiny) they must be removed.


Gloryboy AG  

It appears that in the eyes of his subordinates John Ashcroft and his Washington cronies are nothing more than counter-productive, vindictive gloryboys.
The lawsuit states [Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard] Convertino first complained to his superiors more than a year ago about Justice's interference in the Detroit terrorism trial, saying Washington supervisors "had continuously placed perception over reality to the serious detriment of the war on terror." The lawsuit includes excerpts of an e-mail from another prosecutor in the case that Convertino says "identified some of the gross mismanagement which was negatively impacting the ability of the United States to obtain convictions in a major terrorist case." The e-mail from the other prosecutor shows he complained at the time that efforts by Justice's terrorism unit in Washington to "insinuate themselves into this trial are, nothing more than a self-serving effort to justify the existence" of the unit. "They have rendered no assistance and, are in my judgment, adversely impacting on both trial prep and trial strategy," the e-mail cited in the lawsuit states.
Isn't that special? For more on the utter horror show that is Ashcroft's tenure as AG see last month's Vanity Fair article. He comes off only slightly better than Bush does in The Price of Loyalty. Why is it that the leaders of the free world complain when they have to read briefing material that is more than a few paragraphs long? Both Bush and Ashcroft bring a messianic fervor to their jobs, but are unclear and uninterested as to what exactly those jobs are. It has been apparent for a long time that Ashcroft is far more interested in headlines about fighting terrorism than actually fighting it. Ashcroft's crowning moment was when he issued a statement from Moscow about the three-month detention of Jose Padilla, who was then being reclassified as an enemy combatant so that no charges needed to be filed. So over the top was Ashcroft's announcement of what was an illegal detention of a US citizen that the White House essentially yanked his speaking privileges. If Convertino proves truthful, it will show that Ashcroft's headline hunting has infected other members of the Justice Department to the detriment of the war on terror.


Memory Hole  

Here's a quick experiment. Click here and when the page comes up, do a Ctrl-F. Then type (not case-sensitive) "Nixon". Your browser (I'm using IE here) will return something to the effect of "Finished searching the document." I'm rather enjoying David Brooks's descent into incoherence on the NYT Op-ed page and this latest missive struggles mightily to grab and hold on to reality. Alas it fails, if not spectacularly, then well and truly. "Let's talk about the meaning of the Vietnam War, and what lessons each party has drawn from that disaster." Now certainly our country's involvement in Indo-China and the lessons each major political party drew from it is a topic far, far too vast for a 700-word column, but David is a hearty writer and does not shrink from any writing task, no matter how Herculean. Unfortunately, while David does not shrink from his task, it totally overwhelms him. While many people forget that Vietnam was much more LBJ's war than Nixon's, one cannot simply gloss over Nixon's prosecuting of the war and the effect such things as the Cambodia bombings had on both Democratic and Republican understanding of the lessons of Vietnam. Reading Brooks, it is not at all clear that the Republican party ever held office in the 1970's, that Ronald Reagan was a stout Republican during the 1960's never mind when he decided to run for President in 1979, that Dr. Stangelove was put out in 1964 rather than in the 70's, and that "[m]ost Americans decided that Reagan was right about the world, and that the Democrats were naive." This is surely Brooks's second weirdest statement in a weird column. From where does Brooks divine such a sure understanding of the common American mind circa 1986? Did they agree with the ideas of Iran-Contra? Brooks's weirdest statement is this one: "in the midst of the war against Islamic totalitarianism." Is that what'soccurringg now? If so, Brooks should commit his future columns to explaining why the US just toppled a secular Arab dictatorship rather than its neighboring Islamic totalitarian regime. Indeed one of the prime complaints from Democrats these days is that Bush simply doesn't understand the war against Islamism. That the enemy is al Qaida primarily and the governments that foster fundamentalist Islam secondarily. For all Brooks's wishing it to be so, Saddam was not in league with al Qaida, nor did he support Islamic fundamentalists. Indeed, the basis for Reagan's shameful support of Saddam in the 80's was based on those facts. Saddam, while unsavory, was seen as an effective secular counterweight to the mullahs in Iran. Brooks asserts that John Kerry is confused about foreign policy. That he's not sure to what use the US should put its awesome military power in the world. Kerry's nuanced position on the Iraq fiasco is supposedly evidence of this. Sad for Brooks that most Americans genuinely seem to agree with Kerry's record on Iraq. That Bush should have been given the authority to deal with Saddam, but that he has failed to effectively use that authority and as a result our troops are being killed and maimed in a country that is devolving into a civil war. A civil war that would have been prevented had a more competent C in C been given the authority Bush was given by the Congress. I didn't trust Bush from the beginning and felt that his hands should have been tied to whatever multi-lateral support he could muster from the UN or, at the very least, NATO; but most Americans, like Kerry, felt Bush should have a freer hand. While Brooks sees Kerry, "floating toward whatever is expedient at the moment," non-deluded Americans see him assessing the situation based on the facts on the ground; something they wished Bush would do.


Friday, February 13

Design Flaw  

"It's their country, it's their future," [Gen. John Abizaid] said in the interview at his headquarters in Qatar. "Our job is to help them help themselves." As expected the total disconnect between US stated policy and US action in Iraq continues. I've come to expect the bare minimum of both effort and results from the various foreign and domestic boondoggles in which this administration engages, but Robert Burns's reporting of Gen. Abizaid's comments has me once again banging my head against the wall.
He added that the intention is to maintain a steady momentum toward a normalized country, not to rush the transition from occupation to sovereignty in order to ease the burden on the American military.
When the general says that the US has an intention, does he mean that we intend first to reverse the current momentum, because the current momentum is toward a civil war, not toward a normalized country? If the result of whatever design the general mentions twice were not the continued killing and maiming of US soldiers, his comments would be amusingly foolish. Try to piece together exactly what it is the general is telling us about what the goal of the US is in Iraq over the next 6 months:
  • "We have to take risk to a certain extent, by taking our hands off the controls," Gen. John Abizaid said one day after he escaped injury in a gun battle at an Iraqi security command post in the city of Fallujah.
  • "It's not designed to rush, to push them out front so we can go away," he said. "It's designed to allow Iraq to emerge as a moderate state where people have respect for law and order."
  • "Any security service is going to be infiltrated. The question is, is it going to be infiltrated to the point where it undermines the effectiveness of the security institution, and I think the answer is no."
  • Abizaid said it was not yet clear whether it would result in a "hard landing" — a rise in tension and violence that requires the U.S. military to maintain the large force of more than 100,000 troops that it has there now.
  • Abizaid said he thought it more likely there will be a "soft landing," possibly allowing the American military to gradually reduce its presence. "A soft landing does not mean, however, that there won't be violence," he added. "I actually believe that violence will probably increase as we move toward a sovereign Iraqi entity because the people that are intent upon making this fail will work very hard to undermine the legitimacy of any government and tend to sow chaos."
  • "The police are the key to getting the local situation calmed down, criminal behavior under control, and restoring people's confidence that they can go to work (and) do what they need to do with some reasonable degree of protection."
  • He added, however, that the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps unit in Fallujah is not yet prepared to handle that kind of hostile situation. He said they had been in training for two or three weeks.
At what point does the general unzip his face mask and reveal himself to be this man? As near as I can tell, the general is telling us that the situation in Iraq continues to spiral out of control. The US will stay in Iraq until next year at least, but will pull itself back into certained secured areas in order to reduce the number of US casualties (read: bad headlines). Simultaneously, the US will push out in front of itself a human shield of freshly trained Iraqi cadets to police the country. The spin on said actions will be that the US is handing over sovereignty to the Iraqi people, ergo any continued violence is their own damn fault. Eventually the Iraqi people will realize that they don't want violence and viola stable democracy. Oh, and one more thing, once US troops are in their protected green zones, and 'sovereignty' is handed over to the Iraqis, the whole mess becomes the problem of the US Dept. of State who will then be blamed for everything that has gone wrong with this fiasco since late 2002.


The Culture Front  

Last April I wrote:
We cannot count solely on our capitalist institutions to win this war. Egypt is an avid consumer of McDonald's and Coca-Cola, but its people are influenced in their churches, bookstores and schools by extremist Wahabbi ideas and literature. Indeed, many of our largest corporations are seen in the world as instruments of oppression rather than freedom. Osama bin Laden denounces the West all the while wearing a Timex Ironman. The Islamic world has absorbed our commerce but not our culture. Opening Iraq to the free markets of the world will be a significant step, but we must not think for a minute that there is a free market in thought in the Middle East. That market is dominated, almost to the point of monopoly, by the Saudi royal family. The fall of Saddam Hussein has created an emerging market in ideas for the citizens of Iraq, and with the world watching, the time is now to flood them with the writings of the same enlightenment philosophers that shaped the free and thriving Western world.
Over the past few days Juan Cole has taken several steps forward in this regard. He feels that it is important to start with American philosophers and thereby introduce not only the central tenents of Western liberty, but how we as a country have come to understand and interpret those tenents. To many people the idea of exporting Western thought in this manner is another form of imperialism. To be sure, it is a tricky line to walk because one wants to promote, not enforce, the ideas of the Enlightenment. Each Western government has taken the writings of a few philosophers and come out with significantly different structures of government and concepts of liberty. The same will be true in the Middle East. The most difficult aspect of creating a truly free Iraq is that its citizens will quickly bump up against many of the same issues we grapple with in America. What role does capitalism play in the country? How regulated shall the country's trade be? What responsibilities do corporations operating and trading in Iraq have to its citizens and government? How loud and strong will the voice of labor be? Prof. Cole's project is important because it will give the citizens of the region a blueprint for thinking about these issues. Just as in America, there is no one answer to these questions, and that may be the most important kernel of thought to plant in the Middle East. In the last century alone Western societies lurched and fought through a seemingly endless stream of political ideas. It is vitally important that we engage on this cultural front quickly because countries in political or economic crisis (or both!) tend to embrace an extremist solution for a period of time and that can be dangerous to their neighbors.



Via Hesiod I see that the puke-funnel is back in action. For those that don't know or don't remember, the puke-funnel starts inside the RNC or similar machine operation. From there, an item is leaked to Drudge. The initial item contains nothing substantive, no names or dates. As reporters from actual news outlets start to make calls (to the RNC or other leaking entity), more details are leaked which give the impression that there's actually a story to be told. The story is then picked up by the British press which gives it a kind of authenticity. Drudge's item sometimes contains digs at American media outlets claiming that they're either frantically working on, or are sitting on, a major scandal story. The most famous of these digs was at Newsweek for sitting on one of Michael Isikoff's shoddy pieces of yellow journalism. Once the Brits pick up the story, some American outlets pick up the story. These dispatches are always blindly (and usually singlely) sourced. All of this is made more efficient by the fact that major American and British papers are owned by international conglomerates which are themselves owned by staunch rightists who put conservative columnists on the board of directors. This is part of what Hillary Clinton meant when she announced that there was a vast right-wing conspiracy against President Clinton. I tend to disagree with her in that a conspiracy implies secrecy, while these machinations are out in the open, though not covered by the media. Unlike in 1992, when James Carville first described the puke-funnel, we now have the internet which makes tracking these stories and their seedy origins far easier.


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