Monday, March 31, 2008

Democracy, a sometimes bitch

A few days back Ewan wrote a piece about how he was sick of the Clintons. Heres a brief rebuttal. While I'm no big fan of the Clintons myself, I think Bill's presidency is more than a little overrated, the Democratic party, even the left wing of it where Ewan calls home, owes the too much to this dynamic duo to now just call them sore losers and demand that Hillary get out of the race.  I'll get to why we democrats owe bill and hill so much in a second but to begin with Hillary should not be compelled to bow out because she hasn't lost.  There are still ten contests left plus the disputed results of the Michigan and Florida contests.  Now if Hillary does well in these coming primaries as she is expected to do she most surely will not pass or even catch Obama among total delegates. But she will likely cut his popular vote lead down significantly, and if the party does the right thing, which it looks less and less likely to do and holds re do primaries in Michigan and Florida Hillary could very possibly pass Obama.  By the way someone give me a credible explanation about why these florida and michigan delegates shouldn't be seated according to their original results.  I mean they, held contests and it happened to be that Obama's name was  not on the ballot.   That's not Hillary's fault.  Moreover, she didn't do anything wrong by having her name on the ballot.  she abided by the ridiculous DNC rules against campaigning in these two massively important swing states and yet millions of people still came out to vote for her.  His name not being on the ballot in these states in no way amounts to voter disenfranchisement, but if his campaign succeeds in keeping FL and MI's delegates from being seated at the convention that will be.  Now to the real crux of my argument, democrats owe the Clintons.  Third Way, triangulation, New Democrat for all the bitching and moaning you hear from the far left about these Clintonite concepts, before Clinton brought these to the democratic platform all the People's Party had was the leftover broken policies of the Great Society and twelve years of losing with incompetent candidates like Dukakis and Mondale. Clinton helped revive the spirit in this party that we are the party of the everyday working people whether they be black, white or otherwise.  He helped end the ridiculous compulsion within our party to constantly want to look around and blame some else for America's problems but never actually stand up and take responsibility, ala affirmative action, welfare, ect.  For her part Hillary, despite the propaganda spread by the Obama people that she played the usual role of hostess with the mostess during her White House years, was a unprecedented first lady. Her trip to Beijing in 1995 where she spoke out for human rights and challenged the chinese government over the issue was an incredible event.  The speech was powerful and I would submit far more important than any Obama has given to date. The speech also demonstrates that she has a sense of moral rectitude and clarity that her husband's foreign policy often seemed to lack.   Finally the Clinton's showed the democrats how to win again.  They rebuilt the New Deal coalition of African Americans and working class white males also known as Reagan democrats also known as the people Barack Obama can not win.  And they did it while battling back the most vicious hate machine American politics has ever seen.  And why? not because they're power hungry masochists. No they did it because they believe in America and are trying to change it for the better. For all their faults, and the Clintons have plenty, they are as they advertise, ready and tested.  Obama offers neither of these qualities. What he does offer is the abstract promise of change, which in fact all the major candidates offer even John McCain. I could be wrong.  Obama could turn out to be a great president, if elected, but I'm not, at least for now, going to vote for someone based solely on the fact that they can give a good speech.  And I know there are many, many democrats out their that feel the same way. So Hillary has a very good reason to stay in the race.  Finally to all those who fret that this prolonged democratic contest will hurt the eventual nominee all I can say is you may be right, but lets not forget that this is a democracy and sometimes its a bitch but we don't call ourselves democrats for nothing.  If the Obama people want this nomination decided by the people as they claim then lets let that happen.  The people in these next ten contests deserve to have their say, and we ought not bemoan that we ought to applaud it.  This is not the time for the super delegates to step in, be it Gore, Edwards and certainly not that total failure Pelosi, its time for the utterly biased news media and pundits to shut up and let the people choose the nominee. 

The Deal

Juan Cole has the details to the compromise I alluded to yesterday.
McClatchy provides a lot of important detail about Sunday's surprising developments regarding the fight between the Iraqi government and the Mahdi Army. A parliamentary delegation from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's own coalition (mainly now the Da`wa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq) defied him by going off to the holy seminary city of Qom in Iran and negotiating directly with Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr and with the leader of the Quds Brigades of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Brig. Gen. Qasim Sulaymani.

As a result of those parleys, Muqtada al-Sadr called on his followers to stand down, though I read his statement as permitting continued armed self-defense, as at Basra where the Iraqi Army is attacking them and the US is bombing them. Significantly, he calls on the Mahdi Army to stop attacking the HQs of rival political parties. That language suggests that the parties are suffering from such attacks and are worried that party infrasture is being degraded ahead of the October 1 provincial elections. The southern parties have essentially defied al-Maliki and Bush to make a separate peace.

The entire episode underlines how powerful Iran has become in Iraq. The Iranian government had called on Saturday for the fighting to stop. And by Sunday evening it had negotiated at least a similar call from Sadr (whether the fighting actually stops remains to be seen and depends on local commanders and on whether al-Maliki meets Sadr's conditions).

From that, it sounds like this didn't have Maliki's backing at all. I'd say this is a major loss for the Iraqi PM, and if he plays it right, a win for Sadr.
More on the possible resolution to Shi'ite violence. From TPM.
Consider: with Maliki's campaign stalled, a parliamentary delegation from Maliki's own coalition went off to Iran to broker a deal with Sadr. And the terms of that deal, which involves the release of hundreds of detained Sadr followers and the return of his followers displaced by raids and violence, will surely strengthen Sadr's political position. That's assuming, of course, that the deal holds and the fighting actually stops. All of the papers report that fighting has not stopped in Baghdad and Basra. And while it's unclear whether the deal will actually last, it's crystal clear what the deal means for Maliki.

To summarize: a play by Maliki that was supposed to weaken the Sadrist's hand in the coming elections blew-up in his face and instead strengthened them. Meanwhile, the United States is spending inordinate amounts of money to a) fight for Iranian proxies and b) shore up a country where Iran is more influential than we are.
In short, we have over a hundred thousand troops there, but Iran is calling the shots.
(posted by: Ewan)

Another One Bites the Dust

Another corrupt official in the Bush administration is resigning. It's the head of Housing and Urban Development, Alphonso Jackson.
While it's good news that another corrupt Bushie has been pushed out, if you hadn't noticed, there's rather a crisis right now that would fal directly under his department, and the fact that he has just resigned makes things all the more difficult. Hilzoy draws the obvious conclusion.
Take-home lesson: don't appoint dreadful people in the first place. Then they won't have to resign at the worst possible moment.

I think this lesson collides with the Bush principles of governance.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Resolution?

I've been post a lot about the fracas between Maliki (with some assistance from the Badr Corp and the US) and Sadr. However, it appears this may be coming to an end. Two questions: who won? And, is the end of fighting good news (assuming fighting actually ends)?
The answer appears to be Iran and Sadr, and yes and no. Iran won because it was the "honest broker" and the only country that had enough credibility with both sides to get them to make a deal. Sadr appears to not have lost ground, and it appears that Maliki probably went to Sadr rather than vice versa.
This is good insofar as it halts violence. On the other hand Moqtada Sadr is in an increasingly good position. I wonder if he could eventually rule that country.

Sadr Orders Stop


It appears the Moqtada Sadr has told his militia to stop fighting. My reading: he's giving the government a chance to save face. Maliki can declare victory and leave. Sadr knows that he is probably going to win the coming elections, so he has a cleaner path to power. It was this prospect that likely prompted this offensive from the Iraqi government. It also appears that the attack hasn't gone so well. Juan Cole has the story.
Al-Zaman says that the police force in Basra suffered numerous mutinies and instances of insubordination, with policemen refusing to fire on the Mahdi Army. The government response was to undertake a widespread purge of disloyal elements.
...
The tableau above is tragicomic. The Iraqi security forces haven't even begun to take key Mahdi Army territory in Basra, and in fact have been rebuffed. The Mahdi Army claims to have captured heavy arms and even Iraqi soldiers from the government. The minister of defense admits that Baghdad was surprised at the level of resistance to the campaign. (After the spring of 2004? Why?) The British contingent of 4,000 troops out at the airport is not getting involved, raising questions as to what they are doing there.

Mean while, Iran also called for the fighting to end.
The Iranian foreign ministry called Saturday for an end to the fighting, saying that it strengthens the US hand in Iraq and may have the consequence of prolonging the US presence. Iran tends to back the Da'wa Party of Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, so it is significant that Tehran is criticizing this push by those two to destroy the Sadr Movement. I take them at their word. They are genuinely afraid that al-Maliki's poorly conceived campaign will backfire and that Bush will use it to insist on keeping troops in Iraq.

Personalizing Pakistan

I have noted before that our present administrations policy of sticking by Musharraf has cost us as far our position in Pakistan. The United States back since he sided with us in the war on terror (Musharraf says that then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage threatened to bomb Pakistan back to the stone-age). When Musharraf's position seemed untenable, the White House still didn't back for real democracy, but instead pushed a political shotgun wedding between Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf.

All along, I thought this was simply because Musharraf was regarded as tough on terror. While I disagreed with this assessment, indeed, I felt that the Pakistani military would incubate the problem to keep the aid flowing, and only address it when it gets out of hand (see the Red Mosque incident), this at least made sense to me. However, it turns out the actual reason may be even more frustrating. An article from the New Republic makes the case.
Yet, facing a potential implosion in a nuclear-armed nation rife with jihadists, the White House remained unperturbed. In the midst of the general's crackdown, Bush called Musharraf a "loyal ally" and, improbably, "truly ... somebody who believes in democracy." Behind the scenes, the administration maneuvered to keep Musharraf in power, urging former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, recently returned to Pakistan from years of exile, to sign a power- sharing agreement that would have left Musharraf in charge of the country's security forces. Long after the United States would have abandoned most foreign leaders who abused their populations at great risk to American security, Bush not only stuck with Musharraf, but increased his support for him.

To some White House insiders, however, Bush's stubborn fealty toward Pakistan was no surprise. Over the past seven years, many foreign policy analysts have explained the Bush administration's controversial decisions as a function of ideology (namely neoconservatism) or the predilections of specific policymakers (such as Paul Wolfowitz or Donald Rumsfeld). But, in truth, one of the chief drivers of Bush's foreign policy has been the president's own tendency to personalize diplomacy. All good presidents develop relationships with their counterparts, but the former frat boy in Bush likes to quickly size up a foreign leader and then set policy based on his unreliable first impression. Unfortunately, this "great man" diplomacy has caused one policy disaster after the next. Bush's White House often puts so much trust in an ally that it ignores a leader's weakness or even perfidy, as with Iraq's Nouri Al Maliki or Russia's Vladimir Putin. Nowhere has this proclivity been more problematic than in Pakistan.

This is frustrating. According to this theory, the United States has remained close to Pakistan not for any geo-strategic reasons, but because Bush likes Musharraf that darn much.
Do I need to lay out how this is a bad way to conduct foreign-policy.
In Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney's New World Order, Mark Crispin Miller argues (among other things) that Bush identifies with these rulers. He sees them as Bush-like people, talking about Putin as a fitness person etc. Our president sympathizes with foreign strong-men.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Warmonger

McCain is commonly painted as a moderate by a fawning media, and this may or may not be true, McCain is after all highly inconsistent on domestic issues despite his reputation as a straight-talker. In matters of foreign policy, however, it is clearly not true.
I believe the questions should be asked: how dangerous is John McCain?
Ezra Klein answers the question. Very dangerous.
Between 1995 and 2008, McCain has advocated full-scale war in Kosovo, North Korea, Iraq, and Iran. He has repeatedly sought to ratchet up tensions with Russia and China, and has advisers who've called for air strikes on Syria.

Does this necessarily tell us how McCain will behave in office? No, but I think it should be a warning.

More On Intra-Shi'ite Violence

Juan Cole has weighs in on the the factors at play in the Shi'ite vs Shi'ite violence. Where others see the hidden hand of Iran, he sees the hand of Dick Cheney.
People are asking me the significance of the fighting going on in Basra and elsewhere. My reading is that the US faced a dilemma in Iraq. It needed to have new provincial elections in an attempt to mollify the Sunni Arabs, especially in Sunni-majority provinces like Diyala, which has nevertheless been ruled by the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. But if they have provincial elections, their chief ally, the Islamic Supreme Council, might well lose southern provinces to the Sadr Movement. In turn, the Sadrists are demanding a timetable for US withdrawal, whereas ISCI wants US troops to remain. So the setting of October, 2008, as the date for provincial elections provoked this crisis. I think Cheney probably told ISCI and Prime Minister al-Maliki that the way to fix this problem and forestall the Sadrists coming to power in Iraq, was to destroy the Mahdi Army, the Sadrists' paramilitary. Without that coercive power, the Sadrists might not remain so important, is probably their thinking. I believe them to be wrong, and suspect that if the elections are fair, the Sadrists will sweep to power and may even get a sympathy vote. It is admittedly a big 'if.'

Perhaps this is what Cheney was hashing out when he visited Iraq recently. On the other hand, there has been some dissent from this theory, and I think it is possible that this was Maliki's idea, not the Rasputin of the White House. Nevertheless, think idea that this violence is supposed to help ISCI and Da'wa in the coming elections is most likely true.
Abu Muqawama is an veteran of this war, and has this to say.
If Abu Muqawama was leading one of those U.S. units into Sadr City past a bunch of Iraqi Army soldiers hanging out on the outskirts, he would not be happy. He would be asking himself a) why is he the one establishing the authority of the Iraqi state and not the Iraqi Army and b) why is he duking it out with a militia with broad popular support so that another Iran-backed political party can win a bigger share of the vote in the fall?

This seems to get to the heart of it. When the idea of pull-out from Iraq is raised, hawks insist that such a thing would lead to civil war (probably true). Yet, civil war is already unfolding in Iraq and the US is fighting proxy for Iranian puppets. From Econospeak:
Of course the part of this that is a big lie has been the claim that the Sadrists are allies of Iran rather than al-Maliki and his ally, al-Hakim. In fact, it is al-Hakim, leader of Iraq's largest party, whose Badr Corps militia has reputedly been the largest recipient of Iranian military aid, and who spent most of the Saddam years in Tehran, whereas al-Sadr, the nationalist, never was in Tehran ever. But, he opposes US troops being in Iraq. So, the US must have lots of troops in Iraq so that we can help defeat those who do not want us to have troops in Iraq, and so that the truly close allies of Iran can remain in control, especially of all the oil revenues from the exports out of Basra.

It can hardly be comprehended how crazy our Iraq strategy is.

Friday, March 28, 2008

national anthem

It came to my understanding earlier in this campaign cycle that Barack Obama was somehow un-American, unpatriotic even, because at at Democratic rally he did not put his hand over his heart during the national anthem. I just got back from Joe Louis Arena and a near-win for the Redwings (4-3, not the best game they ever played for sure), and the number of people with their hands over their hearts counted in the low tens. Actually, it was about 4 that I could see from the camera that swept through the stands. I actually took my hand off my heart because no one else was doing it and I felt unsure. Are all of these die-hard Detroit fans un-American? Or is it that nit-picking stupid "patriotic" gestures makes for good TV ratings in red states and the dragging down of the best Democratic presidential candidate we've had in a while?
-Matt

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Spinning Civil Conflict

The Whitehouse claims to regards the Shia violence in Iraq as a good thing.
As fighting rages in Basra, the White House is unleashing a forceful spin campaign to frame the Iraqi government's offensive there as a positive outcome of the U.S. troop surge and a symbol of better days to come.

Speaking to an invitation-only audience at an Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, this morning, President Bush argued that the Basra incursion "shows the progress the Iraqi security forces have made during the surge" and "demonstrates to the Iraqi people that their government is committed to protecting them. . . .

"The enemy, you know, will try to fill the TV screens with violence," he scoffed. "But the ultimate result will be this: Terrorists and extremists in Iraq will know they have no place in a free and democratic society."

Violence going down means the surge is succeeding, but violence increasing means the same thing, you see. You'd think they didn't realize that the military is merely attempting to clean out one militia to make Basra open for another.
Whitehouse's assertion is bizarre. This fighting looks pretty clearly like a fight between rival faction for power perhaps prompted by the hidden hand of Iran or the coming elections as theories suggest. The Whitehouse's version of event is cynical spin, and like all spin from this administration only serves to gloss over what is really happening. We are stuck fighting as a proxy for with an Iran-backed militia against a nationalist militia. Our government seems to understand neither of these groups.
From Juan Cole's website.

Al-Zaman says reports are circulating that the Iraqi army has committed atrocities throughout the south, conducting mass executions in many places, including Basra and Kut.

It also says that there is a humanitarian crisis developing in the neighborhoods that the Iraqi army is besieging in Basra, with women, children and old folks trapped and food and potable water running low.

This is the determination the Iraqi government has to protect it's citizens.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Shi'ite Civil War

Juan Cole has a post on the subject.
It appears the two largest and most powerful Shi'ite factions (and their respective para-militaries) a squaring of for control of Basra, Iraq's third largest city. This dispute should not be confused either for the insurgency (which appears to have gone into remission) or the Sunni vs. Shi'ite fighting. This is Shi'ite against Shi'ite. On one side is the Da'wa Party (the party of PM Nuri al-Maliki), the ISCI (Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, formerly SCIRI, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq), and ISCI's paramilitary, the Badr Corp. On the other side is the Sadrists and their paramilitary, the Mahdi Army.
From American Footprints.
As predicted on this site repeatedly over the past couple of months, the aggressive anti-Sadrist actions of the ISCI/Dawa factions - in tandem with the US military - has led to the scuttling of the cease fire by Sadr. The US military, and its Iraqi allies (who are also Iran's primary allies) are playing a dangerous game, however, as a resumption of violence by the Sadrists could have widespread reverberations.

The purposes behind the continued targeting of the Sadrists are manifold. First, there has been an ongoing competition between the Sadrist current and the ISCI/Dawa factions for wealth, power and control of the Shiite political sphere. Against that backdrop, the looming October 1 regional elections have provided ISCI with an added sense of urgency: the Sadrist current is considerably more popular and stands to make a serious dent in ISCI's local political clout (ISCI is somewhat overrepresented locally due to the fact that the Sadrists boycotted the last round of regional elections in 2005).

That is why ISCI vetoed the most recent iteration of the regional elections law. It is likely that Cheney, on his most recent visit, promised US support for anti-Sadrist activities in return for ISCI's withdrawal of its objections. Along these lines, it is no accident that the strategically vital southern city of Basra is currently the site of the most concerted effort to purge the Sadrists. If ISCI can push the Sadrists out of Basra (the main port city, and transit hub of oil and other goods), losing ground in other Shiite localities would be less painful.

For the Bush administration, backing ISCI/Dawa is appealing for a few reasons. First, ISCI/Dawa are amenable to the US presence, whereas the Sadrist current is strongly opposed. So ensuring that ISCI maintains its political power is essential to the goals of maintaining permanent military bases and gaining preferential access to oil residing in the Shiite-dominated south. Ensuring the legitimacy of the democratic process is, apparently, not quite as important.

Second, the US could be attempting to drive a wedge between Iran and its strongest allies in Iraq (ISCI/Dawa) by providing robust support against those factions' main rival (the Sadrists). I remain highly dubious as to the prospects of such a gambit, however, and find it quite plausible that ISCI/Dawa would view us as friends of convenience - useful on a limited, contingent basis - without completely abandoning their Iranian allies. For the Bush administration, even preserving the chance to secure permanent bases and access to oil might take the sting out of failing to cut Iran out of the picture completely, though.

Fighting has died down, but there is little reason to think that this represents a long-term trend. Indeed, it's a good bet that fighting will resume quickly considering Maliki's deadline to the Sadrists.
One of the most ironic features of this conflict is that the US is fighting for the ISCI, which is closely allied with Iraq. For the life of me, I don't understand why back that group.
Because we couldn't justify fighting on behalf of Iranian stooges, the media almost never mentions these connections, but instead reminds us of Sadr's (considerably weaker) connections with Iran. The fact is that the Sadrists are more nationalistic than anything else, and the actions of the US in favor of their rivals mainly serves the interests of Iran. I cannot figure out why we would want to serve Iran's interests, since confronting Iran is supposed to be the center of Bush's foreign policy. Matt Yglesias makes a similar point while illustrating the picture in this issue, and what it means for the American war effort. To summarize: imperialism just doesn't pay.
The would-be imperial power has to back the "less popular local elements." The key thing is to find groups that are strong enough to hold on to power with external support, but too weak to come to be in a position to kick the ladder of external support away.

Yes, it seems stupid for American soldiers to be risking their lives for the sake of Iranian-backed Islamist parties' struggle against a nationalist Islamist party, but that's the perverse logic of the situation. If ISCI had more popularity and legitimacy, they wouldn't need us. And if they didn't need us, we wouldn't want them, just as we don't really want anything to do with the self-confident Sadrists. The only problem is ginning up domestic political support in the United States for the gambit. Hence we hear a lot about Iranian support for Sadrist elements or even al-Qaeda, and very little about Iranian support for their primary allies in Iraq -- allies who just happen to be our allies too.

The Future of News


Eric Alterman has rather an interesting piece in the New York about newspapers and the path of news in general. One of the most interesting parts (you will permit me a rather long excerpt).
Between 1920 and 1925, the young Walter Lippmann published three books investigating the theoretical relationship between democracy and the press, including “Public Opinion” (1922), which is credited with inspiring both the public-relations profession and the academic field of media studies. Lippmann identified a fundamental gap between what we naturally expect from democracy and what we know to be true about people. Democratic theory demands that citizens be knowledgeable about issues and familiar with the individuals put forward to lead them. And, while these assumptions may have been reasonable for the white, male, property-owning classes of James Franklin’s Colonial Boston, contemporary capitalist society had, in Lippmann’s view, grown too big and complex for crucial events to be mastered by the average citizen.

Journalism works well, Lippmann wrote, when “it can report the score of a game or a transatlantic flight, or the death of a monarch.” But where the situation is more complicated, “as for example, in the matter of the success of a policy, or the social conditions among a foreign people—that is to say, where the real answer is neither yes or no, but subtle, and a matter of balanced evidence,” journalism “causes no end of derangement, misunderstanding, and even misrepresentation.”

Lippmann likened the average American—or “outsider,” as he tellingly named him—to a “deaf spectator in the back row” at a sporting event: “He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen,” and “he lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.” In a description that may strike a familiar chord with anyone who watches cable news or listens to talk radio today, Lippmann assumed a public that “is slow to be aroused and quickly diverted . . . and is interested only when events have been melodramatized as a conflict.” A committed élitist, Lippmann did not see why anyone should find these conclusions shocking. Average citizens are hardly expected to master particle physics or post-structuralism. Why should we expect them to understand the politics of Congress, much less that of the Middle East?
Lippmann’s preferred solution was, in essence, to junk democracy entirely. He justified this by arguing that the results were what mattered. Even “if there were a prospect” that people could become sufficiently well-informed to govern themselves wisely, he wrote, “it is extremely doubtful whether many of us would wish to be bothered.” In his first attempt to consider the issue, in “Liberty and the News” (1920), Lippmann suggested addressing the problem by raising the status of journalism to that of more respected professions. Two years later, in “Public Opinion,” he concluded that journalism could never solve the problem merely by “acting upon everybody for thirty minutes in twenty-four hours.” Instead, in one of the oddest formulations of his long career, Lippmann proposed the creation of “intelligence bureaus,” which would be given access to all the information they needed to judge the government’s actions without concerning themselves much with democratic preferences or public debate. Just what, if any, role the public would play in this process Lippmann never explained.

John Dewey termed “Public Opinion” “perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned,” and he spent much of the next five years countering it. The result, published in 1927, was an extremely tendentious, dense, yet important book, titled “The Public and Its Problems.” Dewey did not dispute Lippmann’s contention regarding journalism’s flaws or the public’s vulnerability to manipulation. But Dewey thought that Lippmann’s cure was worse than the disease. While Lippmann viewed public opinion as little more than the sum of the views of each individual, much like a poll, Dewey saw it more like a focus group. The foundation of democracy to Dewey was less information than conversation. Members of a democratic society needed to cultivate what the journalism scholar James W. Carey, in describing the debate, called “certain vital habits” of democracy—the ability to discuss, deliberate on, and debate various perspectives in a manner that would move it toward consensus.

Dewey also criticized Lippmann’s trust in knowledge-based élites. “A class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge,” he argued. “The man who wears the shoe knows best that it pinches and where it pinches, even if the expert shoemaker is the best judge of how the trouble is to be remedied.”

Lippmann and Dewey devoted much of the rest of their lives to addressing the problems they had diagnosed, Lippmann as the archetypal insider pundit and Dewey as the prophet of democratic education. To the degree that posterity can be said to have declared a winner in this argument, the future turned out much closer to Lippmann’s ideal. Dewey’s confidence in democracy rested in significant measure on his “faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and action if proper conditions are furnished.” But nothing in his voluminous writings gives the impression that he believed these conditions—which he defined expansively to include democratic schools, factories, voluntary associations, and, particularly, newspapers—were ever met in his lifetime. (Dewey died in 1952, at the age of ninety-two.)
The history of the American press demonstrates a tendency toward exactly the kind of professionalization for which Lippmann initially argued. When Lippmann was writing, many newspapers remained committed to the partisan model of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American press, in which editors and publishers viewed themselves as appendages of one or another political power or patronage machine and slanted their news offerings accordingly. (Think of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton battling each other through their competing newspapers while serving in George Washington’s Cabinet.) The twentieth-century model, in which newspapers strive for political independence and attempt to act as referees between competing parties on behalf of what they perceive to be the public interest, was, in Lippmann’s time, in its infancy.

The current divide between blogs and the professional pundits is in many ways predicted by this divide. However, I can't help but think that Dewey got it right (Alterman seems to lean toward this view as well). I have been increasingly unimpressed by the journalistic elites. As insiders, they are two often co-opted by the other elites they are supposed to be covering. The Whitehouse correspondents dinner reminds us of this every year. Most Americans, left, right and center seem to be unhappy with the current state of the press. Perhaps what is needed is a more small outlets, more partisanship and more "people journalism" of which blogs are one facet.
One problem that the article points to is that newspaper is a dying medium. The newspapers of old days are increasingly looking like dinosaurs next to the digital media. This is a problem because even thought these sources lose money, they generate most news content.
Considering Alterman's left-wing ideas, it surprises me that Alterman does not discuss one of the biggest problems of modern journalism: corporatization. I believe corporatization has caused more homogenizing of news and moronizing of the chattering classes than any other factor.
Perhaps the problem is that running a quality newspaper is never a winning proposition in a free-market and we need the government to subsidize these organizations (we do it for lots f other companies, after all). We already have public broadcasting, it does seem that bizarre to the government subsidize other news organizations.

I'm Sick of Clintonites

I'm listening to a woman on Talk of the Nation claim that the idea Clinton should step aside is ascribable to guess what, misogynistic bias.
This case seems extremely sketchy. Their are always calls for the second-runner to drop out. Just because this time the second-place candidate is a woman doesn't mean that these calls are sexist.
I wouldn't be so eager to see Hillary drop out were she running an upstanding campaign. Instead, she seems to feel she is entitled to get the presidency, and knee-cap any Democrat that gets in her way.
Hillary supporters have floated the idea that super-delegates should ignore Obama's lead in both delegates and in the popular vote because she leads by the electoral-college standard. From Ezra Klein.
I think it's impressively cynical for Clinton surrogate Even Bayh, who once said we should abolish the electoral college, to now suggest we ignore the delegate process by which the Democrats choose their nominee and randomly apply an electoral college test instead. And I think it's also impressively cynical that Hillary Clinton, who co-sponsored legislation abolishing of the electoral college, has instructed her campaign to react favorably to the idea.

This has been frustrating: the constant whining about the process, and the transparently opportunistic changes in which contests should be regarded as legitimate (witness her flip-flop on Michigan).
The Clintons are now working with the same "vast right-wing conspiracy" that worked so hard to bring down Bill Clinton. Both of them are fully committed to the objective of bringing down Barack Obama, and as Mao Zedong observed "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". From the New Republic blog.
1) Matt Drudge hyped a photo of Obama in Somali garb that he claimed (and the Clinton campaign declined to deny) Clinton staffers had been circulating.

2) Bill Clinton went on the Rush Limbaugh show on the day of the Texas primary--after Limbaugh had spent days urging GOP voters in the state to cross over and vote for Clinton in order "rig" the election and ensure that Democrats nominated the weaker of their two candidates.

3) The Clinton campaign has been circulating an article in The American Spectator alleging that an Obama adviser, former Air Force chief Merrill McPeak, is an anti-semite and a drunk.

4) When Clinton attacked Obama on Jeremiah Wright yesterday, she did it at an editorial meeting of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the vanity publication of Richard Mellon Scaife, while sitting next to Scaife himself.

From TAPPED.
When this primary (finally) ends, whether Clinton loses or manufactures some amazing comeback, there will be two interesting storylines regarding her campaign. The first will be how she was unprepared for the nomination contest to go beyond the February 5 “Super Tuesday” round of primaries and caucuses--how her "inevitability" campaign led her inevitably to being caught flat-footed. The second will be how, after that point, she was prepared to do just about anything to recover footing and/or knock Barack Obama off his, of which the Scaife meeting is only the latest episode.

That's it, I'm sick of the Clintons and their mainstream Machiavellianism. I wasn't unfavorably disposed to them in the beginning, but as the time has gone on, they've looked worse and worse. Time to rap this thing up. The Democratic establishment needs to intervene. Gore, Pelosi, Edwards time for an intervention.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

McCain's Free-Ride

One thing that Democrats will need to make a big deal of is the way that the media has given McCain a free-ride.
Right now, McCain has fairly high favorability and low unfavorability ratings. Most voters probably haven't heard his positions criticized very harshly by anyone other than far-right commentators. A progressive critique of McCain will be much more effective than the far-right attacks on him have been.
Right now, McCain is "solidifying his base", but the base is a relatively minor worry. However much the conservatives drag their feet, they will vote for him. The idea Republican lose because their base deserts them is a myth invented by the right to keep politicians loyal. McCain will have to worry about the center, who will peel-off in droves when they figure out what he really stands for.

Frontline: Bush's War

I just watched the second part of two-part Frontline documentary called "Bush's War". The documentary manages to show the actual process of decision-making that led to such catastrophic policy disaster. Frontline is alone on TV in that it deeply examines the issues of the world today.
There are a lot of things one could learn from this. I suspect that many people will be surprised, for example, that Donald Rumsfeld advocated of withdrawal from Iraq since the very beginning. It also illuminates the mis-rule of Paul Bremer, the de facto US pro-counsel in Iraq. For those who do don't remember, Jay Garner was the original US man in Iraq, however, the administration lost faith in him. Bremer came in with a mandate to dismiss all Ba'athists. He formulated his own plan to dismiss the army. Both of these choices would have dire consequences.
The ultimate lesson is that many of the problems we face are of are own making. Dismissing the army created an angry, unemployed armed group. Our failures in Fallujah created our own Gaza, and then are attack led the Sunnis to boycott, creating an sectarian government without Sunni representation.
Both parts of the series (the first of which I have yet to watch) can be viewed here.
Of course, while the documentary illuminates many of the tactical blunders, we should not forget that the war was itself a strategic mistake. The idea was that this would be an easy victory, and in a strategic sense would scare rogue-states. Even from the beginning, it should have been obvious this result could not be achieved. The administration completely failed to understand that the number of troops needed to pacify this country would be greater than the military could muster (General Shinseki was dismissed by then administration after he estimated, based on standard military doctrine that, that the occupation would take hundred of thousands of troops). While the documentary misses the wider strategic failure, I still very much recommend it to anyone who wishes to have a deeper understanding of our failure on Iraq.

China and the Olympics

Aside from the presidential election, this year's other big discussion might be about Tibetan independence and China's lingering authoritarianism in light of the Beijing Olympics.
I will confess that my study of China and its culture has been limited, but as an outsider I cannot help but wonder what kind of people are allowed to run a country that large and not face more critical inspection by foreign leaders and journalists. Perhaps it's their tight grip on journalism and information there, but are we that profit- and fluff news- oriented that we won't stand up to such a regime?
Many leaders are hoping that increased international scrutiny provided by the Olympics will bring about change in China, towards a freer Tibet or a more transparent and democratic society. NBC is even banking on it.
However, the recent protests in Tibet and elsewhere are showing that even though China's information flow is improving somewhat, it's still not ready to play nice for the camera:

Worldwide protests have erupted over this issue, and I would expect them to last at least until the last Olympic contest is over and everyone goes home. The Chinese can only hope that more people will begin to look at Tibet issue through their eyes and see that Tibet is just a bright and shining little brother of a province that is totally multi ethnic and full of happy Chinese people save for those whiny Tibetans. If this were truly the case, and the Dalai Lama is just some tool for the CIA, I could understand China's point of view. However, blocking media access and harassing foreign critics isn't the trademark of an innocent party.
Additionally, a Rolling Stone article provides more insights into the ways that China is treating Tibetans, as well as ways that they are hoping to co-opt Tibet without the bad press photos and protester-murdering:

As the women chanted "Free Tibet," Chinese police moved quickly, knocking them to the ground and dragging them to jail before their protest could attract attention. Inside the prison, Chinese authorities subjected the nuns to a brutal routine. "Police stuck electric prods into my vagina and then hung me from the ceiling," Zangmo says softly. Her voice doesn't waver, but she looks away. Some of her friends lost consciousness as soon as guards pushed the cattle prods inside them, but Zangmo remained alert throughout the torture. "I was totally, totally frightened," she says.

Police eventually transferred the women to Drapchi, the most feared prison in Lhasa. According to human rights organizations, there are hundreds of political prisoners in Tibet, the majority of them Buddhist clergy. Scores have died from torture at the hands of Chinese authorities: electric shock, hanging, forced blood extraction. "They tried to pull my arms out of my sockets, and beat my legs and arms with metal bars and shocked me," recalls Phuntsog Nyidron, another nun who was imprisoned at Drapchi. "I was worried they could easily kill me."
________________
But Tibet's time may be running out. In the past decade, China has waged a quiet but ruthless war on Tibetan society -- part of a deliberate and sophisticated campaign to strip "the Roof of the World" of any vestige of spirituality or political autonomy. Beijing has systematically replaced Tibet's holiest monks -- the center of Tibetan power -- with its own puppet leaders, torturing and killing those who refuse to submit to Chinese authority. It has flooded Tibet with thousands of Chinese immigrants, who have seized control of local businesses, driving many Tibetans into poverty and prostitution.
_________________
As Lhasa is rebuilt from the ground up, Tibetans are being pushed to the margins -- in the newer section of the city, I cannot find a single Tibetan-owned shop. And the pace of change is only likely to increase: Last summer, China opened the first rail line to Tibet, a move expected to flood the territory with as many as 800,000 migrants and tourists each year.

The sweeping changes in Lhasa are no accident. "The government has a long-term strategy to encourage more Chinese businesspeople to come to Tibet, so it'll be easier to control the Tibetan people," admits one former Chinese official. (Although the Chinese embassy declined to comment, many government officials spoke to me on the condition of anonymity.) Beijing has made it easier for migrants to gain residence in Tibet, and the region receives more government subsidies than other provinces in China. The cash has sparked growth and created prosperity -- but it often primarily benefits Chinese migrants. According to one former official, government bureaucrats convince rural Tibetans to give up their land, promising them that they will be given property in the city. "But then they never give the Tibetans any compensation," the official explains. Instead, the bureaucrats give the land to Chinese entrepreneurs, throwing in loans to help them start their own companies.
Is it possible for good change to happen in Tibet? I'm not sure, but I hope that the increased scrutiny stemming from the Olympics will at least ease the Tibetan's plight a bit.
-Matt

The Media and the Backlash

Matt at the Suffolk Progressive is frustrated by the way the media has been handling race and Obama. He writes:
When writers say things like (from Politico):

A failure [to address the Wright problem] could leave many of the white independent voters — a key group behind Obama’s swift rise in national politics — doubting whether he is really the bridge-builder and healer he has portrayed himself to be.

...I can't help but feel as if they are helping to make it so. Now, one would argue they have historical bases for their statements, and they do. But the simple fact is that Barack Obama is not every other black guy, and this is not 1988. Media commentators have wondered if he would be "branded" as the Jesse Jackson kind of black politician, and thus far, he hasn't been. But when such moral deference is given to the white backlash voter--essentially, that it's understandable and even defensible if he strays from Obama over his former pastor's comments--it contributes to the racial problem in our politics. This is more than mere analysis. It is a sort of moral "thumbs up" to white voters. It's OK if you get freaked out by the pastor and black guys generally... your fathers did! Why not you?

I think he's pretty clearly right about this. When the media keeps asking "is this a problem for candidate X?" that tends to have the effect of making it a problem. Nothing like this can get off of the ground without extended media chatter.
I also think that "moral deference" is often shown to your average blue-collar voter by somewhat self-loathing or media elite. The idea is that these are the true Americans (what does that make the rest of us, chopped liver?). The fact that the media is so ready to portray these voters as racist shows just how condescending this "moral deference" is.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Expelled!!!


If you haven't seen the anything about this movie, I will explain. A number of scientists were tricked into being in the movie by being told they would be in a serious documentary on the subject. I can't help but think of the Da Ali G show: gaining access to experts so as to ask them dumb questions.
At any rate, Dawkins was featured in the documentary, as was Professor PZ Meyers. Both attended the film's premier, however Meyer's was expelled from the premises by Mark Mathis, the film's producer, a move that instantly made the movie a laughingstock (well, more of a laughing-stock).
Dawkins has a review of the movie, which also comments on the Myers flap. He has some harsh words: the film is "a shoddy, second-rate piece of work" with a "whiny, paranoid" tone. One is tempted to say that Dawkins may be biased, however, one should watch the trailer before concluding this. My conclusion upon viewing the trailer: it's obvious Dawkins is on the mark.

Sorrow and Pity

The 4,000th soldier has been killed in Iraq.
We lost more soldiers bringing the war to those Iraqis than we lost on 9/11. And for what?
This number doesn't count those wounded, and those traumatized. It goes without saying that it doesn't count the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed. All of them are victims of this illegal and criminal war.
We should keep this in mind when we hear about the "progress" that is being made in Iraq.
Most of this progress is merely because the country has been ethnically cleansed. As David Bromwich put it on an essay that I very mch recommend in the New York Review of Books dealing mainly with euphemism in current American politics.
"Baghdad is calmer now; the surge is working." The temporary partial peace is an effect of accomplished desolation, a state of things in which the Shiite "cleansing" of the city has achieved the dignity of the status quo, and been ratified by the walls and checkpoints of General Petraeus. "The surge is working" is a fiction that blends several facts indistinguishably. For example: that Iraq is a land of militias and (as Nir Rosen has put it) the US Army is the largest militia; that in 2007 we paid 80,000 "Sunni extremists" to switch sides and then call themselves The Awakening. Americans have suggested that the members of this militia make up neighborhood watch groups, and have assigned them euphemistic cover-names such as Concerned Local Citizens and Critical Infrastructure Security. In fact, many of them are "increasingly frustrated with the American military," according to Sudarsan Raghavan and Amit R. Paley in a Washington Post story that ran on February 28.

The Washington Post has a good article on what the Sunni awakening is really like. Its a little different from the picture you get from the administration. The article profiles Fallujah's new police chief.
FALLUJAH, Iraq -- The city's police chief, Col. Faisal Ismail al-Zobaie, a husky man with a leathered face and a firm voice that resonates with authority, ordered an aide to shut his office door. He turned to his computer. Across the screen flashed a video, purportedly made by the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

In the video, branches are thrown into a pit the size of a coffin, then doused with kerosene and ignited. The camera pans to three blindfolded men, kneeling, mouths sealed with tape. Six armed men in black masks stand behind them. One declares: "These three men fought and killed al-Qaeda. We will punish them according to Islam." The masked men then kick the three into the burning grave.

Zobaie angrily turned off the video. "How can we show mercy to those people?" he asked. "Do you want me to show mercy to them if I capture them?"

Zobaie, 51, knows the nature of the men in black masks. He is a former insurgent. Now, as the police chief, he has turned against the insurgency, especially al-Qaeda in Iraq. The U.S. military showcases Fallujah as a model city where U.S. policies are finally paying off and is spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the region to promote the rule of law and a variety of nation-building efforts.

But the security that has been achieved here is fragile, the result of harsh tactics recalling the rule of Saddam Hussein, who was overthrown five years ago. Even as they work alongside U.S. forces, Zobaie's men admit they have beaten and tortured suspects to force confessions and exact revenge.

In the city's overcrowded, Iraqi-run jail, located inside a compound that also houses a U.S. military base and U.S. police advisers, detainees were beaten with iron rods, according to the current warden. Many were held for months with no clear evidence or due process. They were deprived of food, medical care and electricity and lived in utter squalor, said detainees, Iraqi police and U.S. military officers, who began to address the problems three weeks ago. Last summer, the warden said, several detainees died of heatstroke.

In Zobaie's world, to show mercy is to show weakness. In a land where men burn other men alive, harsh tactics are a small price to pay for imposing order, he said.

"We never tortured anybody," he said. "Sometimes we beat them during the first hours of capture."

His men, he added, abuse suspects because "they don't surrender easily. They don't confess. They say: 'I am innocent. I haven't done anything.' They start to defend themselves."

The story of Zobaie and his police force opens a window onto the Iraq that is emerging after five years of war. American ideals that were among the justifications for the 2003 invasion, such as promoting democracy and human rights, are giving way to values drawn from Iraq's traditions and tribal culture, such as respect, fear and brutality.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Zombie Jesus Day

The Easter Story:

What the Christians are celebrating is the resurrection of Jesus. Here is that story.

Either at dawn or at the rising of the sun or when it was still dark, either the two Marys or the two Marys plus James's mother Salome or Mary Magdalene and Joanna and James's mother Mary and some other women or just Mary Magdalene, went to see the tomb or they brought spices to help stop the stink of the rotting corpse or I guess the body was already preserved by Nicodemus beforehand, but when they got there the tomb was already open or it wasn't, and there was an angel or a young man or two men or two angels waiting there, and the angel was sitting on the stone or the young man was in the tomb or both men were in the tomb. Also there was an earthquake, or not in the other versions.

And then one of the people there either said not to be afraid and that Jesus was risen or he admonished them not to look for the living among the dead or he or they asked the women why they were crying.

Afterwards, the women told everybody else what happened or they didn't.

Then Jesus appeared in Galilee or in Emmaus or in a room in Jerusalem, and when he appeared he appeared to eleven disciples or two disciples in the country or to ten disciples or to Peter and then to the twelve, even though Judas was already dead (to fulfill a nonexistent prophecy either by hanging himself or by exploding) so there's no way to know who the 12th disciple was. When he appeared to them, Jesus either could be touched or he couldn't. The disciples either believed the messenger(s), or they didn't.

When he appeared, some worshipped and some doubted, or not, or they were just real happy and Jesus gave them a blessing. After that, Jesus stayed on the Earth for the rest of the day or for at least eight days or for forty days. Then he ascended from Jerusalem or from Bethany or from the Mount of Olives, or he didn't.

And that is the Easter story. I think. Maybe you should ask your Christian friends to clarify it for you and to make sure that they know the story.

It's not just the inconsistencies that worry me. How many cases of a person rising from the dead have you witnessed? Does this not violate everything we know about life?

On the Housing Bust

A recent Bloomberg financial article pointed out an extremely interesting fact:
The U.S. housing recession has arrived literally on the doorstep of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke.

Bernanke lives in Washington's Capitol Hill area in a four- bedroom, 2,600-square-foot house he bought new in May 2004 for $839,000. Almost four years later, it may not be worth any more, according to real estate records and local agents.

Bernanke's timing wasn't the best -- values in the area peaked a year later -- and he is hardly alone among Americans living in an investment that's turned cold. His situation shows that the slump that began with distress in the subprime market is now engulfing wealthier neighborhoods, including some in the nation's capital.

Now, I'm a little surprised that even the Fed can't avoid economic problems, but I think this should serve as a wake up call to anyone who thinks the economy is still peachy. I've read another article that one nonpartisan economic think tank has called our current economic situation a "recession of choice." Add to that a little financial illiteracy and I start to worry that we'll need a little more than a new economic policy and a new president to get through this. Especially since democracy seems so contingent on a strong middle class.
-Matt

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Democracy Comes in the Backdoor

Considering the fact that the prospect of legitimate democratization was so greatly hyped in Iraq, it is ironic that the real thing showed up in Pakistan. The kicker is, the US not only did not facilitate it, but actively aided the military, the very group which was so dedicated to strangling democracy. This should be a lesson in humility: democracy is not the gift of the United States to the rest of the world.
The recent election in Pakistan saw the collapse of the PML-Q (the pro-Musharraf party) i, as well as the defeat of the radical Islamic parties by the Awami National Party (a secular party dedicated to democracy) in the North Western Frontier Province. In an interview (the whole of which is worth reading) in Harper's with Ahmad Rashid explains why the elections were not utterly rigged by the ISI as expected.
I think two things happened to stop rigging on election day. The first was that the PLM-Q was over-confident that the pre-poll rigging they had done was enough to swing the vote in their favor. They didn’t need to make a spectacle of rigging on the voting day because of all the advantages that they held beforehand and had created for themselves. They were over confident. However the second factor was that 48 hours before the elections the new army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, signaled to all army and ISI officers in the field to tell all senior bureaucrats and police officers in the districts not to interfere with the vote but just maintain order. In this way the army pre-empted any rigging by the candidates or the bureaucracy on the day. The third factor was international pressure. With the focus on the elections, and the presence of some 500 monitors from largely Europe but some from the US, nobody wanted to take the risk of rigging on polling day.

Recently, Pakistan has been labeled the world most dangerous country by many respectable news sources. The nation has been painted over and over again as the paradigmatic case of a state succumbing to the terrorism. The Economist, for example ran an issue with a cover adorned by a pulled grenade labeled "Pakistan". This breathless news coverage is not totally without merit, when one considers the Red Mosque siege last year and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
When compared to the much-vaunted "progress" in Iraq, Pakistans progress looks even better. In Iraq, violence is down because much of the country has been ethnically cleansed, and is now under control of militias and formers insurgents being paid of by the United States. In Pakistan, on the other hand, a genuine democratic movement has defeated both the radicals and the authoritarian establishment (for now) using the ballot-box.
Musharraff and the PML-Q were very confident, which is why the election were relatively fair. What they missed is the changes that have taken place in Pakistan under dictatorship. To quote William Dalymple's penetrating essay on the subject in the New York Review of Books.
As you travel around Pakistan today you can see the effects of the boom everywhere: in vast new shopping malls and smart roadside filling stations, in the cranes of the building sites and the smokestacks of factories, in the expensive new cars jamming the roads and in the ubiquitous cell-phone stores. In 2003 the country had fewer than three million cell phones; today apparently there are 50 million, while car ownership has been increasing at roughly 40 percent a year since 2001. At the same time foreign direct investment has risen from $322 million in 2002 to $3.5 billion in 2006.
...

It was this newly enriched and empowered urban middle class that showed its political muscle for the first time with the organization of a lawyers' movement, whose protests against the dismissal of the chief justice soon swelled into a full-scale pro-democracy campaign, despite Musharraf's harassment and arrest of many lawyers. The movement represented a huge shift in Pakistani civil society's participation in politics. The middle class were at last moving from their living rooms onto the streets, from dinner parties into political parties.

February's elections dramatically confirmed this shift. The biggest electoral surprise of all was the success of Nawaz Sharif's conservative faction of the Muslim League, the PML-N. This is a solidly urban party, popular among exactly the sort of middle-class voters in the Punjab who have benefited most from the economic success of the last decade, and who have since found that status threatened by the recent economic slowdown and the sudden steep rises in the prices of food, fuel, and electricity.

One of my professors at the University of Michigan, Ronald Inglehart, has rather a famous theory of how economic security leads to values conducive to democracy, which then leads to political change. For this reason, economic growth under a dictatorship often undercuts the authoritarians, while economic or security decline undercuts democrats (see Weimar Germany and post-Soviet Russia). Recent developments in Pakistan seem to show the former. While I have no faith in the crooks leading Pakistan's moderate party, I have hope that Pakistan's newly emboldened middle-class will be able to resist the forces of tyranny and extremism in that country.

Listening to the Winter Soldiers

Hearing the testimony of the Winter Soldiers (successors to Vietnam era Winter Soldiers) should be disturbing to the American public.
Out of context, the picture seemed ordinary, open to interpretation. It showed the butt end of five or six rifles, sloppily stacked in a pile inside an armored vehicle. In context, it documented a cover-up of accidental -- or even intentional -- shootings of Iraqi noncombatants by U.S. Marines in Iraq's Anbar Province in 2005 and 2006.


At least three Marines who served in Anbar during that period said that their platoons carried "drop weapons" or tools that Iraqis were not permitted to possess to plant on the bodies of Iraqi noncombatant corpses in case of a wrongful killing.


They did so with the approval of their chain of command. "It was encouraged, almost with a wink and a nudge, to carry drop weapons and shovels with us," said Jason Washborn, a Marine corporal who served three tours in Iraq between 2003 and 2006. "In case we accidentally did shoot a civilian, so we could toss weapon on the body to make [him] look like an insurgent. I was told... that if [the Iraqis] carried a shovel, or if they dig anywhere, especially near roads], then we could shoot them [on suspicion of planting roadside bombs]. So we actually carried tools in our vehicles."
...
But over the last few days, the soldiers and Marines did testify to a gradual degradation of the rules of engagement. Many had served multiple tours in Iraq and said that during the early days of their deployments, there was an effort to restrict the use of force to clearly necessary cases. "As time went on and casualties grew higher and higher, the rules got a bit lenient," testified Sergio Kochergin, a Marine who served on the Iraq-Syrian border. Initially, when confronting a perceived threat, a Marine needed to call into the command post to await instruction in ambiguous cases. "We didn't question it. We were angry," he said. "It went down to, if there's a person who [had] a weapon, not calling the command post, or if [someone was] doing suspicious activity we were allowed to take them out. We'd call in, say, 'We have suspicious activity,' and we were allowed to take them out."


...by the end of his deployment, it was essentially authorized that any Iraqi who was seen having a "heavy bag or a shovel" -- to potentially dig trenches for improvised explosive devices -- could be killed. Kochergin said that by the end of his deployment, it was essentially authorized that any Iraqi who was seen having a "heavy bag or a shovel" -- to potentially dig trenches for improvised explosive devices -- could be killed. "We just basically changed [the rules] ourselves," agreed Garret Reppenhagen, an Army corporal who served in Baquba in 2004 and 2005. "You're not concerned with the rules of engagement and the Geneva Conventions. Your primary concern is getting yourself and your buddies home alive." The attitude in his company, he said, was, "We didn't get in trouble for that? Oh, let's try this."


One Marine sergeant named Jason Lemieux, who served three tours in Iraq, said, "The rules of engagement were broadly defined and loosely enforced. ... Anyone who tells you differently is a liar or a fool. They were gradually reduced to a case of non-existence."

Occupation is brutalizing, both to the occupiers and the occupied. This is yet one more lesson of Vietnam we have forgotten. I expect it doesn't help that the enemy here is so readily associated with the attacks of September 11th. For this reason, one can imagine the war in Iraq having an even more monstrous effect on the souls of those sent to fight there.

There is no way of telling how wide-spread these practices are. Hopefully, they are relegated the a narrow number of soldiers. I somehow doubt it, though. On can only glance at headlines saying "X insurgents have been killed" and wonder whether this hides a Haditha.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Zombie Campaign

I must give blogger Mark Kleiman credit gor the title, used to describe the Hillary campaign. Though campaign walk, it is undead, without any chance of pulling a victory. A new article in the Politico highlights this fact.
One big fact has largely been lost in the recent coverage of the Democratic presidential race: Hillary Rodham Clinton has virtually no chance of winning.

Her own campaign acknowledges there is no way that she will finish ahead in pledged delegates. That means the only way she wins is if Democratic superdelegates are ready to risk a backlash of historic proportions from the party’s most reliable constituency.

Unless Clinton is able to at least win the primary popular vote — which also would take nothing less than an electoral miracle — and use that achievement to pressure superdelegates, she has only one scenario for victory. An African-American opponent and his backers would be told that, even though he won the contest with voters, the prize is going to someone else.

People who think that scenario is even remotely likely are living on another planet.

As it happens, many people inside Clinton’s campaign live right here on Earth. One important Clinton adviser estimated to Politico privately that she has no more than a 10 percent chance of winning her race against Barack Obama, an appraisal that was echoed by other operatives.
If the Hillary team shares the view that they can't win, why then are they not throwing in the towel, so as too exit the arena with some grace, especially considering the campaign is running out of money?
I can only speculate what the answer to this is. Perhaps Hillary, who was after all considered a shoo-in, has not come to grips with the fact that she lost.
Then, perhaps it is worse than that. The Clintons have run the Democratic party for for roughly 16 years now. No elite gives up power without a fight, and the Clintons are nothing if not political fighters. Is it too much to believe they'd rather see Obama lose in the general election, if it meant they could keep control of the party?
Either way, all Hillary can do now is damage the Obama's chance of being elected. It is in every Democrat's interests (except perhaps the Clintons') for that to be recognized. Party elders (Gore, Pelosi) should make it know to the Clinton that they had a good run, but it's time for someone else to lead the party.

RIP Revote

It appears that we're not getting that re-vote I wanted, either here or in Florida. Jack Lessenberry has a radio essay on the subject today
So far, the Michigan Democratic party has bobbled two chances to do this right. First, by holding an illegal primary in January, in which none of the candidates campaigned and Obama’s name wasn’t on the ballot. Then, this week, they failed to get the legislature to authorize a privately funded do-over election, The Clinton forces won the PR battle this time, proclaiming that they wanted to let Michigan vote and the Obama people were afraid to.

That wasn’t the full story. Yes. Senator Barack Obama should have joined Hillary Clinton in calling for a free, fair and completely open do-over primary election in Michigan.

But that wasn’t what the Clinton forces wanted here. They wanted a primary that would disenfranchise anybody who voted in the January 15 Republican primary, And many Obama supporters did just that.

That’s because they were told repeatedly and emphatically, as all of us were, that the Democratic primary wouldn’t count. One of the people saying that then was Hillary Clinton. On top of that, voters were not even allowed to write in Obama’s name.

Small wonder that many people voted in the Republican primary, where they could make a difference.

The last chance of having Michigan be represented died yesterday. This is a failure, both of a the state and national Democratic party. What a mess.

Shorthanding

Read this:
President Bush said Thursday that Iran has declared that it wants to be a nuclear power with a weapon to "destroy people," including others in the Middle East, contradicting the judgments of a recent U.S. intelligence estimate.

Apologists claimed the that Bush had "shorthanded", I suppose because the it is a composite of two statements, one a lie and one a misinterpretation. The lie is that Iran has declared that it wishes to develop nuclear weapons. In fact, the Iranians have over and over said the opposite (our intelligence services happen to be of the opinion that they are telling the truth). The misinterpretation is of the comment that Ahmadinejad declared he the desire to wipe Israel "off the map".
Here's more from the article.
But most striking was Bush's accusation that Iran has openly declared its nuclear weapons intentions, even though a National Intelligence Estimate concluded in December that Iran had stopped its weapons program in 2003, a major reversal in the long-standing U.S. assessment.
...
Experts on Iran and nuclear proliferation said the president's statement was wrong. "That's as uninformed as [Sen. John] McCain's statement that Iran is training al-Qaeda. Iran has never said it wanted a nuclear weapon for any reason. It's just not true. It's a little troubling that the president and the leading Republican candidate are both so wrong about Iran," said Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.

Others said it is unclear whether the president believes what he said or was deliberately distorting Iran's position.

"The Iranian government is on the record across the board as saying it does not want a nuclear weapon. There's plenty of room for skepticism about these assertions. But it's troubling for the administration to indicate that Iran is explicitly embracing the program as a means of destroying another country," said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the State Department until last year and now at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center.

Juan Cole has more on this here.
This is very much akin to McCain saying that Iran is training Al-Qaeda. Both involve deliberate distortions designed to demonize Iran, and ratchet-up tensions.
Few experts sill believe that there will be an attack on Iran (at least, not until McCain is president). What then is the meaning of this? Election year fear-mongering.

Richard Endorses Obama

I haven't had time to really let this sink in thoroughly, but for those who want to know the reasons why he chose to endorse now, you can probably find the answer here.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Guest Post: Matt S.

While McCain is going to start getting hammered after this coming Sunday's revelation about his relationship with Hagee, there is another potential front that is going to start opening up a bit more in the coming weeks: his Bush-like gaffes concerning basic facts of the Iraq War.

About 3 or 4 times in the past week, John McCain has made false claims about the supposed link between Iran and al Qaeda. It started at a press conference when he said Iranian operatives are "taking al-Qaeda into Iran, training them, and sending them back." This isn't true. Iran may be training extremists, but they are far more likely to be Shiites than Sunnis, which is the denomination of al Qaeda. Fortunately for McCain, Senator Lieberman stepped in and whispered to him the correct enemy - the extremists.
McCain is trying to paint himself as the military experience man, but with this latest episode, I'm starting to think that my disagreements with his policy might go a little deeper than me being a pacifist and him being a war hawk. If Lieberman, who's quoted as saying that McCain is "almost always right on the big issues in foreign policy," has to correct McCain on a relatively simple (ie. I can find the facts in any newspaper) issue like whether it's extremists or al Qaeda being trained by Iran, perhaps the Democrats will just have to make a few old people jokes during our cakewalk to the White House. I don't think the American people will want another Alzheimer's president, and I don't think we can afford another uncurious one either.

In other news, the President is still ratcheting up his rhetoric on Iran, no matter how wrong he is.

Hagee: "McCain Sought My Endorsement"

McCain sought Hagee's endorsement.
In an interview that will appear in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine, controversial televangelist Rev. John Hagee declares, "It's true that [John] McCain's campaign sought my endorsement."

Huckabee does Good

As a presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee scared a lot of liberals, and would have scared me, to, if I had thought there was any chance of him being the president. Whatever Huckabee's more far out views and he certainly has some), I think this is somewhat praiseworthy.
From Daily Kos.
And one other thing I think we've gotta remember. As easy as it is for those of us who are white, to look back and say "That's a terrible statement!"...I grew up in a very segregated south. And I think that you have to cut some slack -- and I'm gonna be probably the only Conservative in America who's gonna say something like this, but I'm just tellin' you -- we've gotta cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told "you have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant. And you can't sit out there with everyone else. There's a separate waiting room in the doctor's office. Here's where you sit on the bus..." And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me.

Big Brother


The Bush administration, having run its sordid course, is almost done, but that doesn't mean its crimes and wrongdoings should go unchronicled. The administration is the same callous monster its allows been, and though the beast is wounded, it is not yet dead.
> From the Intelligence Daily (via a friend): the White House simultaneously criticizes torture and vetoes an anti-torture bill.
The US State Department's new annual human rights report accuses China of "extrajudicial killings, torture and coerced confessions of prisoners and the use of forced labor." Russia and Sudan were also especially criticized. Ten countries were named as under "unaccountable rulers [who] remained the world's most systematic human rights violators": North Korea, Burma, Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Eritrea and Sudan. It noted improvements in Mauritania, Ghana, Morocco and Haiti, but little or no progress in Nepal, Russia, Georgia Kyrghyzstan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan or Iraq. (AlJazeera, March 11)

Congressional Republicans March 11 upheld President Bush's veto of a bill to bar the CIA from using "waterboarding" and other such "interrogation methods" against "enemy combatants." John McCain opposed the bill, saying: "I think that waterboarding is torture and illegal, but I will not restrict the CIA to only the Army Field Manual." Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both backed the bill and denounced Bush's veto. (Reuters, March 11)

Note that John McCain opposes the bill. It appears he only opposes torture carried out by the military (this exposing our troops to reciprocal torture. Also note that some of the of the countries we condemned for torture we send people to for the so that they can be tortured. Disgusting.

> The White House finally gets a bloody nose. See this post.
The administration threw everything it had at the Democrats. Statement after statement after statement on the White House lawn. TV ads, web ads. Letters from the attorney general and director of national intelligence raising the alarm about the danger the country is in. Even a TV appearance by the DNI himself to highlight the "increased danger."

And what did it get them? At the end of last week, nearly a month after the Protect America Act lapsed, the House passed a bill that does not contain retroactive immunity -- the bill even contains a provision that dispenses with the administration's main legal argument for blocking the lawsuits, the state secrets privilege.

So what now? No one on the Democratic side of the aisle seems to have bought the administration's line that the lapse of the Protect America Act is cause for concern. Wiretaps authorized by that law can go until August of this year. Wiretaps of new targets would have to be authorized under the old FISA law. But the authorities granted by the PAA are so broad (it authorizes wiretaps of entire terrorist groups) that as of two weeks after the law's lapse, no warrants of wiretaps for new targets had yet been required. That makes the administration's claim that such warrant requests will create a mountain of paperwork look pretty silly.

Obama!!

























(from Bird Brains)
For those who haven't seen Obama's speech, it can be found here.
This man should be the president.
Pretty good reflections on the speech can be found here, here and here.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Reverend Wright: the Winning Smear

There's been a sizable flap over the discovery of Barack Obama's paster, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. To get the full effect of what the conservatives are running scared about, look here.
To me, the church seems a little kooky ad crazy, but then, I feel the same way about main-stream christianity. This is not particularly disturbing. He breaks taboos, but they're mostly stupid American taboos (comparing 9/11 to actions of the American government etc). Honestly, it doesn't really offend me that the church teaches "commitment to the black community" and "commitment to the black values system". Had Wright denied the Holocaust from the pulpit, I might wonder about Obama's judgement going to such a church, but this really doesn't bother me.
Doubtless as the campaign continues we will hear about the details of Barack Obama's church until we're sick of them. The thing to keep in mind is this is an overblown issue. Wright doesn't speak for Obama, and the people pushing this story know that. Its simply a smear designed to hurt Obama.
Jeremiah Wright on Hannity and Colmes.
Fox News Sunday is pounding and pounding this issue.
From TPM
What drives me crazy is how this could have been avoided so easily if Wright was the slightest bit media-savvy. Had he merely controlled his tongue and limited himself to advocating an attack on Iran to encourage massive worldwide Muslim attacks leading to a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of end-times and bringing about Armageddon and the summary slaughter of every Jew, Muslim, Catholic, and non-believer on the planet while rapturing him and his flock up to heaven, then followed it up by denouncing Catholics as cult members and blaming Hurricane Katrina on gay people, this story wouldn't be metastasizing like this. One five minute milquetoast repudiation by Obama and it would all be behind him.

But what does Wright do instead? He spews this vile "God damn America" bile. What a psycho.

Jonathan Raban Writes about the Obama Campaign


This article comes from the London Review of Books.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Bush and the Commanders

Previously, my friend wondered whether I have liberal suspicion of our armed forces. In response, I said that while the military is socially conservative, it is also very dovish (indeed, in places like the former Yugoslavia, the military was much more dovish than I would have liked).
Another piece of evidence for this position appears to be the departure of Admiral Fallon. Fallon was the head of CENTCOM, the US unified military command in charge of the middle east. He was brought in at the same time as Robert Gates and David Petaeus, and was considered part of the injection of competence into the administration. Initially, it looked as if Fallon had left over the issue of Iran, but it has become clear that he actually was disaffected over the Administration's policy toward Iraq.
Kevin Drum thinks this is a case of a regional commander exceeding his prerogative and making policy. I heard Zbigniew Brzezinski making much the same case on On Point. This is more-or-less correct, as far as it goes, which is not very far. In principle, it's not illegitimate for Bush to remove his CENTCOM commander, but it is a sign of this administration strategic failure.

Bush claims that he generally does what his commanders tell him. This is a specious claim, in fact his policy had been the same toward the Pentagon as it has been toward every other existing bureaucracy the administration has encountered: to bully it and beat it into submission.
The resignation of a CINC is a big deal, under almost any circumstance. But considering the Bush Administration's seven-year effort to put the Pentagon under its thumb, the resignation of a commander like Fallon, who by most accounts was willing to exercise his independent military judgment, is another setback for the professional officer corps as an institution.

Make no mistake. None of the Bush Administration's efforts in this regard has been about re-asserting civilian control over the military in some constitutional sense. The effort has been focused on degrading the autonomy, independence, and institutional authority of the Pentagon in order to further the narrow ideological and partisan aims of this particular White House.

The commanders have largely rolled over to Bush. This is in stark contrast to the nineties, where, as Matt Yglesias pointed out, Colin Powell became a media star by constantly battling civilian leadership. With the current administration, the military has mainly enabled rather than obstructed.
Bush is willing to hide behind military commanders, but his claim that he does what his commanders tell him simply isn't true. He does what Petraeus tells him because keeping the war going happens to be what he wants to do anyway. I suspect John McCain will be the same way.
As the commander of CENTCOM, Fallon has a greater perspective than Petraeus (and evidently, our president). While Petraeus has seen some improvement in the smaller picture, Fallon sees what a disaster the effort is and will continue to be.

Should Prostitution be Legalized?

This will be my last Eliot Spitzer inspired post.
It is very difficult to defend the current status quo that criminalizes prostitutes, even to a greater degree than johns. Aside from being morally dubious, this has adverse consequences, worst of all that it allows police-men to routinely rape prostitutes.
If the current system is broken, what might it be changed to? There are different models: you could decriminalize and regulate (as in Nevada and the Netherlands) or you could decriminalize selling sex, but criminalize soliciting sex from a prostitute (Sweden adopted this method). Though the first solution is better know, it is the latter solution I will deal with first.
Nicholas Kristof made the case for the Sweden model in a recent New York Times Op-Ed.
Prostitution is inevitable, so we might as well legalize and regulate it. That’s a pragmatic argument that I used to find persuasive. If brothels were legalized and inspected, I believed, then we could uproot child prostitution and reduce AIDS and sexually transmitted infections.

I changed my mind after looking at the experiences of other countries. The Netherlands formally adopted the legalization model in 2000, and there were modest public health benefits for the licensed prostitutes. But legalization nurtured a large sex industry and criminal gangs that trafficked underage girls, and so trafficking, violence and child prostitution flourished rather than dying out.

As a result, the Netherlands is now backtracking on its legalization model by closing some brothels, and other countries, like Bulgaria, are backing away from that approach.

In contrast, Sweden experimented in 1999 with a radically different approach that many now regard as much more successful: it decriminalized the sale of sex but made it a crime to buy sex. In effect, the policy was to arrest customers, but not the prostitutes.

Some Swedish prostitutes have complained that the policy reduced demand and thus lowered prices, while forcing sex work underground. But the evidence is strong that the new approach reduced trafficking in Sweden, and opinion polls show that Swedes regard the experiment as a considerable success. And the bottom line is that if you want to rape a 13-year-old girl imported from Eastern Europe, you’ll have a much easier time in Amsterdam than in Stockholm.

A growing number of other countries are pursuing the Swedish model. South Korea had a vast trafficking industry in the 1990s, but a crackdown has led Korean gangs to traffic girls to California instead — because pimping teenagers there is seen as safer and more profitable than at home.

No approach is going to work perfectly. But the Swedish model seems to have worked better than any other. The New York law that Governor Spitzer pushed was inspired partly by the Swedish experience, and New York should enforce that law firmly, by cracking down on pimps and customers.

This seems convincing enough, even though what Kristof says is a crackdown on regulated prostitution is in fact a crackdown on unregulated and criminal-connected sex-work (he may also be referring to gentrification encroaching on the red-light district).
Brad Plumer makes the case that all solutions have sizable drawbacks, but "legalize-and-regulate" is probably the least bad option. I'd agree.
So there's that. But I'm also not totally convinced that we should do what many sex-worker advocates in Nevada are calling for and decriminalize the business entirely. Now, these advocates talk and listen to actual sex workers and know infinitely more than I do about this, but there's at least some basis for hesitation. In 2003, the Scottish government, looking to revamp its own prostitution laws, did a massive report on different policies around the world, and discovered that legalization-plus-regulation comes with its own set of problems.

The study found that, as you'd expect, legalization often led to a dramatic expansion of the sex industry: In Australia, brothels proliferated to the point where they overwhelmed the state's ability to regulate them, and became mired in organized crime and corruption. In many countries, child prostitution and the trafficking of foreign women also increased dramatically. More importantly, surveys found that many sex workers still felt coerced and unsafe even after decriminalization. In the Netherlands—often held up as a model—a survey done in 2000 found that 79 percent of prostitutes were in the sex business "due to some degree of force." Back home, I'm not sure how well Nevada's legalization scheme has worked. Here's a study showing that women in regulated brothels face significantly lower levels of violence, although here's evidence that conditions are still frequently horrific.

I used to think the most promising approach was Sweden's. There, prostitution is considered "an aspect of male violence against women and children" and treated as such. Legislation, passed in 1999 as part of a broader "violence against women" bill, partly decriminalized the selling of sex while making the buying of sex illegal (pimping was already outlawed). On the other hand, prostitutes are still punished in various ways—known sex workers can lose custody of their kids, for one. And although the bill provides funds to help prostitutes who want to get out of the business, many sex workers say the aid is inadequate. Worse, because prostitution is not supposed to exist, there are now fewer drop-in health centers available for sex workers.

The actual effects of the law are still murky. Prosecutions of male buyers and johns went up dramatically, and street prostitution in Stockholm has dropped by two-thirds since 1999. But it's unclear whether the sex trade was simply pushed underground, as was originally feared. Official statistics give conflicting answers. Some studies estimate that the total amount of prostitution has remained unchanged, although one Stockholm non-profit estimated that about 60 percent of prostitutes took advantage of the social service funds and succeeded in getting out of the business. My sense is that there's just not a lot of reliable data here.

For an anecdotal take, Petra Östergren interviewed a number of Swedish sex workers who agreed that prostitution had been forced underground. Many now have to work indoors, alone, and are ripe for exploitation, especially by "rent pimps." A 2004 report by the Norwegian Ministry of Justice, comparing the Swedish and Dutch approaches, argued that many Swedish sex workers are now "more difficult to reach by the support system," and their reliance on pimps—who can help them avoid police detection—"has probably increased." The Norway report seems bullish on legalization, but notes that even in Netherlands, a "gray market" has emerged, beyond the eye of the state, where trafficking and coercion remain prevalent.

So, yes, our currently policies are grotesque, but honestly, I don't know what the ideal alternative is. I'd lean toward legalize-and-regulate as the least-bad option, although the idea of providing generous support for women who want to get out of the sex trade sounds like the best idea on offer.

Though both plans of reform have drawbacks, I think that either would be superior, morally to our monstrous system in place today.