Monday, February 28, 2005

Real Time Revisionism, Part II

Do All Inroads Lead To Baghdad?

In the second part of
this examination of some recent statements by Robert Blackwill, an advisor to President Bush, I wanted to parse another area where Blackwill stretches the current facts to the benefit of his patron. During the course of the interview in question, Blackwill was asked to respond to critics of the President's expansive rhetoric on the mission of spreading democracy.

I must say, that those who mock haven't been paying attention to the empirical data that's been piling up. First, we had the Afghan election last fall with this extraordinary turnout. Then we had the Palestinian election. Then we had the Iraqi election. We're going to have a parliamentary election in Afghanistan in the spring. So this isn't a theory anymore, this is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East and it is absolutely revolutionary, these free and fair elections.
Just as in the quote cited in Part I of this series, Blackwill is once again painting critics of the Bush administration's approach with broad strokes, and is probably overly triumphalistic in his own right. Most critics who took issue with Bush's rhetoric were not ignoring the positive trends in Afghanistan and Iraq, just noting that these changes stand side by side with other policies that show decidedly less commitment to freedom and democracy - such as the spirited support for autocrats and despots who take a posture more amenable to US interests. In addition, critics pointed out that such celebratory statements were a bit premature considering the history and complexity of democratic change. Here (via Laura Rozen), a former Bush administration official cautions about the tenuous nature of democracy when seen through the event of an election (an issue I will examine in greater detail below):

[Dov] Zakheim, who served as under secretary of defense during much of President Bush's first term, said: "I support the idea of democracy, but we have to be cautious about it. This is not the first time Iraq has had an election. We shouldn't view the future with rose-colored glasses."
I would also note that Blackwill engages in a bit of chronological sleight of hand by inserting the Palestinian elections in between the Afghan and Iraqi examples. Unless the Bush administration wants to take credit for the death of Yasir Arafat, we should acknowledge that the Palestinian elections were not the prerogative of our government the same way that events in Iraq and Afghanistan have been guided from Washington. The Palestinian people decided to conduct this electoral exercise, and would likely have done so with or without our blessing. It had more to do with the opportunity presented by the absence of Arafat than any other event like the invasion of Iraq.

Therein lies one of the potential targets of preemptive revisionism: democratic change. I expect to see the Bush administration, and its supporters, take credit for most positive trends toward democratization that occur in the Muslim world and abroad, and then chalk it up to the impetus provided by the invasion of Iraq - the fulfillment of the prophesy of the domino theory.

But isn't it very plausible that the Palestinians would have held an election even if we never invaded Iraq? How are the two causally linked? Should we assume that if we never invaded Iraq, or if President Bush did not publicly extol the virtues of freedom and democracy, the Palestinians would have eschewed their electoral model first given life some years earlier?

According to many theories about the historical imperative of democratic change, such as Fukuyama's in The End of History And The Last Man, it would seem that democratization is in many ways inevitable, even if it can be aided by certain external forces or slowed by specific societal impediments. But are we going to say that every single democratic iteration or movement that experiences any kind of breakthrough after March 2003 is a causal result of the invasion of Iraq? For example, why was the Afghan democratic revival not enough to spur change?

Further, I think that it is too myopic to ignore the significance of 9/11 itself as a catalyst for introspection and reform in the Muslim world. It was an event that caused ripples in thought, belief, and orientation from Morocco to Indonesia and all points in between. As an adjunct to the regime change in Afghanistan, those tragic events provided the US with an increased leverage from which to make the prodding nudges toward democratic reform that have been pursued to some extent over the past four years. On the other hand, I think there is also evidence that the invasion of Iraq actually spurred some type of backlash or strengthening of anti-Democratic forces as per Gilles Kepel's
most recent book. At the very least, there has been a tarnishing of our image which has caused reformers to seek distance rather than court our assistance and imprimatur.

This is not to say that the Bush administration does not deserve some credit, because they do. At the very least, they have brought the rhetoric and mission of democratic change to the fore in the post-9/11 world. I think they have been somewhat hamstrung by the Iraq invasion in terms of what methods and vehicles they can back though, so the result has been a slightly out of balance model that leans too heavily on regime change with little in the way of grassroots encouragement and institution building. Yet it is hard to deny that the Iraq invasion has not at least created positive momentum in Iraq itself, and may even cross pollinate movements in neighboring states. But it is a self-serving reach to claim that all democratic inroads lead to Baghdad.

Fits And Starts

There is a plausible argument regarding the chronology of democratic evolution that questions the wisdom of putting the elections before the foundation - a base of civil institutions such as free markets, an independent judiciary, free and unfettered press, etc, or at the very least opposition parties capable of mounting campaigns. As I have
argued before, there is far too much conflation between elections and democracy. The former is not enough to establish the latter. It is along these lines that I would make my second critique of Mr. Blackwill's claims that there is "empirical data" lining up in favor of democracy's expansion. Such views create a pernicious expectation regarding the ease of the task at hand, and the readiness to declare mission accomplished and head home. Middle East scholar Ronald Bruce St John provides a nice summary of the pertinent issues in a brief piece on the Foreign Policy In Focus which examines the Cambodian and Afghan experiments in contrast to Iraq.

That said, a single election, no matter how successful, does not a democracy make, in Iraq or anywhere else. A functioning democracy necessitates the development of a supportive political culture, that unique pattern of political action in which every political system is embedded.

Central elements of this political culture include a growing number of contributing citizens, an associated spread of mass participation and a heightened sensitivity to principles of equality. It also entails an increased capacity on the part of the political system to manage public affairs, control controversy and respond to popular demands. Finally, Iraqis must embrace the concept of a loyal opposition and the rule of law, including a separation of powers between the executive branch, legislature, and judiciary with the government subject to the law as interpreted by the courts.

Little of this exists today in Iraq. This is not to say it can’t be developed. But it will take time—and sustained international support. You climb a mountain one step at a time. The Iraqi people have taken an important first step. But they must be encouraged and assisted in taking the requisite next steps.

Twice in recent times, the international community has tried to introduce Western-style democracy, with a supporting rule of law, to alien political cultures. In both Afghanistan and Cambodia, political development has been painfully slow.
From the point of view of historical democratic movements, I would caution Blackwill and other Bush supporters to pay heed to the ebb and flow of the process. Roughly a decade ago, Russia was hailed as a burgeoning democracy, yet today under the enigmatic Vladimir Putin that country is lurching toward autocracy with a dash of despotism. Not an encouraging trend. Elections are positive signs, encouraging first steps, but they can prove to be chimeric if the requisite follow through is not executed deftly. Sometimes all the good intentions in the world are not enough to maintain forward motion and stave off regression.

Then there are issues with what democracy might yield in terms of risks and rewards, and costs and benefits vis a vis terrorism and broader foreign policy aims which I
examined here. As recent issues have arisen concerning the potential character and makeup of the prevailing Iraqi regime and the tone and tenor of the constitution to be drafted in the coming months, it is crucial to recognize that democracy can proceed in fits and spurts, with results that might not conform to our designs. Dov Zakheim noted:

In his January 28 speech, Zakheim argued that the "neo-Wilsonian notion that somehow America is the best vehicle for spreading democracy, or even that it is in America's interests that the Middle East be politically 'transformed' in the near term, may be as fanciful, and indeed, as counterproductive, as was Woodrow Wilson's own vision nearly a century ago." In its policies abroad, Zakheim stated, the United States "must consider whether democracy is always superior to other forms of government" because "it is not merely democracies that we seek to support, but, far more important, friendly democracies" and "the choice between unfriendly, or even hostile, democracies, and friendly, or even supportive, authoritarian regimes is not a foregone conclusion in favor of the former."
Juan Cole, penning an editorial for the LA Times, chimes in:

Pakistan and Iraq are not the only countries where elections have had mixed results. Although the Palestinian elections in January were widely viewed as a success — producing a pragmatic prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas — remember that the radical fundamentalist party, Hamas, boycotted those elections. Then, less than three weeks later, local elections were held — and Hamas won decisively in the Gaza Strip, leaving it more influential than before and poised for even bigger wins in next July's legislative elections.

And in recent years, democratization has also put Hezbollah in the Lebanese parliament. Serbian nationalists have won seats in Belgrade.
I don't mean to say that I am opposed to democratization as a goal, but it is one that must be pursued with a realist's eye toward what is possible to achieve in a given situation. Further, we should avoid premature self congratulation and the leap of faith from the occurence of elections to the perception of full blown democracies. Due to the messy nature of these efforts, a little more circumspection is required. Beyond this, it would be healthier for our mission, if it is indeed to foster the creation of democratic regimes, to make an honest assessment of the utility and impact of military means as opposed to other less bellicose methods. Rushing to make the invasion of Iraq the event from which all change flows, even retroactively, is more about partisanship than empiricism.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Real Time Revisionism, Part I

Greg Djerejian is back from a work-induced hiatus that TIA can empathize with. Unfortunately, his first post out of the gate is a recapitulation of some overly triumphaslistic claims from Bush administration advisor Robert Blackwill. Below is one of the paragraphs Djerejian excerpts:

So, it was not at all surprising to me that you had this extraordinary turnout in a situation in which, of course, there was scattered violence. Wherever you were voting, especially in Baghdad and areas around Baghdad, you had to wonder whether you were going to be attacked by the terrorists. So, I think it was an extraordinary outcome. As you say, nearly 60 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. And when you take into account that the Sunni turnout was quite low, you really do get in many areas of Shiite Iraq an 80 percent turnout, and in some areas of Kurdish Iraq, you get a 90 percent turnout. So, it was really quite extraordinary. And it just shows, again, what the president has been emphasizing, which is that, if given the opportunity, people, whatever their ethnicity and from whatever part of the globe they come, will choose freedom of choice, including elections and going to the polls.
I don't really have too much to criticize in this paragraph other than to point out that Blackwill is cherry picking the regions with the highest turnout to present a slightly rosier picture than what reality would dictate. Some Shiite areas did hit 80% turnout, but the average was about 70%. For the Kurds, certain regions boasted an impressive 90% turnout, but the average was an equally commendable, but slightly lower, 85%. Still, Blackwill's main thesis is correct that turnout for Shiites and Kurds was truly remarkable (though Sunnis largely abstained).

His assertion that there was "scattered violence" on election day was certainly the prevailing message in the media's coverage of the election, but that might be an example of managed expectations. Because so many thought there would be widespread devastating attacks, this fact, recently acknowledged in
senate testimony by Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, seemed to go unreported:

Attacks on Iraq's election day last month reached 300, he said, double the previous one-day high of 150, even though transportation was virtually locked down.
Despite the unprecedented level of attacks (twice the previous one day high), the elections were still peaceful, at least relative to some of the dire warnings. But in the next paragraph, Blackwill begins to engage in a tactic that I have previously described as "revisionism in real time" with a hint of another TIA original: "pre-emptive revisionism."

So, it was an extraordinary outcome and one that didn't surprise me. And I must say also, just one last point, that this was also a shining endorsement of the president's strategy towards Iraq, where the critics have been pessimistic and wrong for well over a year with regard to the evolution of the Iraqi political process. And they've been wrong on every single important pivotal event. They were wrong on the elections. And they will probably go on being pessimistic and go on being wrong. [emphasis added]
Blackwill's claim that the critics of the Bush administration have "been wrong on every single important pivotal event" is disingenuous and poorly reasoned at best, and doesn't hold up to even the slightest bit of scrutiny. It's hard to know where to begin, and I'm sure that even after I examine the holes in this statement I will have left out several pertinent examples of its error.

Would it be wrong to start before the invasion? Perhaps, since Blackwill seems to limit his universe to "pivotal events" and the past year or so. Thus, I will table all the famously wrong predictions by Bush administration officials, from the expectation of flowers and candy, to prognostications of cost (well under $90 billion, and after a while self-financing out of oil proceeds), looting, the possibility of an insurgency, the necessary troop strength (50,000-100,000), the duration of US troop deployments (that we would be down to 30,000 troops by Autumn of 2003), etc.

But the toppling of the Hussein government is certainly within the purview of "pivotal events" in the political process. So, were the critics wrong when they claimed that administration darling Ahmad Chalabi didn't have a mandate to lead the Iraqi people in the aftermath of the Baath's fall? Because up until last week, Bush's supporters like
David Frum were still breathless in their praise for Chalabi, wistful in their musings on what could have been had Chalabi been implanted, and some were even confident in their predictions that Chalabi would emerge as the prime minister beating out Ibrahim Jaafari for the UIA's endorsement. In reality, Jaafari is going to be the prime minister. So, were Bush's critics wrong or right about Chalabi's ascent to the prime minister's office? I would have to say right.

Many critics, including TIA, warned of Sunni recalcitrance and an eventual widespread boycott on January 30th, in the weeks and months before the election. TIA even put forward a series of options that could be implemented to make up for the fact that the Sunnis would be underrepresented in the new Iraqi government, and even more importantly, in the constitution drafting committee. Bush supporters, including Greg Djerejian, downplayed these warnings, going on the record several times with predictions that the Sunnis would turn out in large numbers despite the "pessimism" of Bush's critics. This, they claimed, would solve the problems of Sunni exclusion in the nascent legislature. Djerejian even made the
bold prediction that turnout would be in the neighborhood of "30% for Sunnis." Actual Sunni turnout was negligible, hovering in the low single digits - if that. Thus Bush's critics were right and the problems of Sunni exclusion loom very large, and could prove an obstacle for a peaceful Iraq going forward.

Bush's critics warned that the handover of limited sovereignty to the Interim Governing Council would not take the steam out of the insurgency, that it would continue on its then present course. Predictably, they were called pessimists. They were in fact optimists. Not only has the insurgency continued, but the rate of attacks and casualties has increased. Again returning to Vice Adm. Jacoby:

...the Iraq insurgency has grown "in size and complexity over the past year" and is now mounting an average of 60 attacks per day, up from 25 last year.
If the critics were wrong about this pivotal event, it was only to the extent that they thought the insurgency would continue apace and not increase.

The same can be said about the pivotal event represented by the capture of Saddam Hussein. Another event that didn't really pivot anything. Many Bush supporters claimed that the insurgency would lose heart once they realized that Saddam was imprisoned and would not be returned to power. Critics warned that the insurgency was more resilient than this. The past year has seen an escalation of attacks and an increase in casualties, which undermines the Bush supporters' erstwhile sanguinity. The critics were right, the Bush supporters were wrong.

And were critics wrong that the Bush administration would not be able to implement their version of the political process? Yes and no. Remember, for better or for worse, the Bush team wanted to postpone elections for many months, if not years, beyond January 2005. Sistani resisted this postponement, and so January was agreed upon as a concession (although Sistani wanted a date even earlier than January, and he had to compromise as well). Then, the plan was to first hold elections through regional caucuses, but Sistani objected and Sistani imposed his will again. Sistani also prevailed on his opposition to the Bush team's plan to use of the interim constitution as the permanent one. So, were Bush's critics wrong to suggest that Sistani would be directing the process through the potency of his influential role as religious leader of the Shiite population? It seems that they were right for the most part.

In the weeks leading up to the election, there were several articles and op-ed pieces circulating which predicted that Iyad Allawi's party would have a strong showing, based on the fact that there was a silent majority of secular Shiites, and religious Shiites disenchanted with clerical influence, who were going to insure a big turnout for Allawi. Bush's critics suggested that this was wrong, and that the Sistani blessed ticket, the UIA, would win a majority of seats. The religious-minded UIA dominated on the national level, winning 140 out of 275 seats in the parliament, and on the local level religious parties like Dawa were even more successful. Religious Shiite parties took 13 out of 18 districts in local elections. Once again, the critics were right, and the Bush team and its supporters were wrong.

Thus we see can see the folly of Blackwill's spurious attempt to revise history in real time, while events are still fresh in the collective memory. But he takes it one step further, aiming at some "pre-emptive revisionism." He said, "And [Bush's critics] will probably go on being pessimistic and go on being wrong."

Maybe, maybe not, but judging by their respective track records, Bush's critics deserve the benefit of the doubt, or at the very least a fair hearing. Many issues and obstacles remain in the mission to help Iraq transition to a stable, peaceful, democracy, and it is not clear to what extent they will proceed according to either side's script. Let's see to what extent the new Iraqi government relies on the interim constitution, and to what extent they bring religious influence into the process. I don't foresee the adoption of an Iranian-style government, but I think it is clear that there will be more of a religious influence than the Bush team had hoped for or predicted. Further, I think it is becoming increasingly unlikely that the new Shiite dominated government will adopt an Israel-friendly posture, barring some breakthrough in the peace process. As for the plan to remake Iraq into the
free-market Mecca that was planned on, I think that Ibrahim Jaafari has a slightly different vision for post-war Iraq. I remain hopeful that the new constitution will reflect an enlightened approach to individual rights, but the influence of Shiite doctrine could seriously curtail the rights of women, even to a degree not existing under Saddam's Iraq. In addition, issues relating to Kurdish autonomy, the disposition of Kirkuk, and other ethnic bugaboos such as Sunni inclusion are largely unresolved.

In other words, the jury is still out, but I think it would be foolish to claim that the critics of the Bush administration's handling of the invasion of Iraq are hopelessly pessimistic, always wrong, and will be so in the future. In many ways, I hope they are, but they have a nasty little habit of being right.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Stupid As A Fox

Less Bombshell, More Firecracker

When I first heard mention on the Sunday talk shows of the
secret tapes of President Bush, put together by today's version of Linda Tripp, Doug Wead, I admit that my pulse quickened for an instant. I grabbed my Sunday Times and quickly went through the cover story looking for the many revelations. Alas, it was an anticlimax. Yes, there was Bush's admission that he smoked marijuana (he might have even...inhaled! Gasp!), and he seemed to suggest that he had also used cocaine (or at least he was adamant about his lack of denial), but beyond that it was less epiphany and more mundane political playbook. The drug use corroboration might tone down the vitriol-infused reefer madness emanating from some moralistic circles on the Right, but I don't think consistency has ever been a major concern for extreme political movements of any stripe so I wouldn't hold my breath. In fact, the tapes cast Bush in such a favorable light that some on the Right, like William Kristol, wondered slyly if this wasn't a Karl Rove trick to make the President look better (ie sincere in his religious beliefs, more tolerant of homosexuality than his public policies, etc.). It certainly showed that he has more political savvy than one might expect. Above all, what I came away with is a sense that the Left has been underestimating this guy for far too long.

It is cheap and easy to make hay of the President's lack of intellectual curiosity, his ignorance of certain policy minutiae, and his famous mangling of the English language - all true to some degree or another. These shortcomings are treated as a victory to some on the Left, secure in their ability to assure themselves that no matter what this man is of limited intelligence so we can maintain the belief in our superiority. But to his supporters, these traits are endearing and comforting. Meanwhile, he proceeds to "ignorantly" win reelection, improving his Party's margin in both houses. Perhaps the moment is beyond overdue that we give the man some credit: like him or not, he is a shrewd politician, and while he may not be detail oriented, he has a pretty good grasp of strategery and what he intends to accomplish. At the very least, he is committed to a vision, which can easily trump wonkery when playing the political game. John Kerry didn't stand a chance.

It is in that light that we should analyze the highly irregular fiscal policy pursued by his administration and its allies in Congress. The new "cut and spend" paradigm has caught the opposition flat footed and uncertain. For example, how does the Democratic Party assail a Medicare drug benefit bill for its wasteful spending? That is an unfamiliar role reversal for the party dedicated to governmental largesse and social safety nets - a curveball that has led to hesitation. In that time of confusion and uncertainty, the Bush team has been able to accomplish much, although in the past few months they may have glimpsed the ceiling in the form of the recent push back on their duplicitous plan to dismantle Social Security.

Runaway Train

Kevin Drum mused on the new "third way" espoused by the Bush political machine:

In the past, Democrats were (roughly) the party of big government programs. People liked the programs but didn't like the high taxes that went along with them, so periodically they would revolt and elect a Republican.

Conversely, Republicans were (roughly) the party of fiscal responsibility and low taxes. People liked the low taxes but didn't like the stingy attitude toward government programs that went along with them, so periodically they would revolt and elect a Democrat.

George Bush and Karl Rove think they've found a better way: favor low taxes and big government programs. That way, everyone likes you and Republicans can rule forever.
Kevin might be right, that this is just a rank political strategy aimed at trying to please everyone, but I think that he is selling the President, and his political Rasputin, a bit short. Another misunderestimation. What cannot be denied is that this administration has turned budget surpluses into record deficits. Further, the plan to make the massive tax cuts permanent will insure ever increasing deficits as far as the eye can see. In typical misleading fashion, the administration's own plan to cut the deficit is based on fiscal numbers that assume that the tax cuts will not be made permanent. In other words, for Bush to have any success in reducing the deficits, he will have to lose on his tax cuts. Considering the makeup of both Houses: highly unlikely.

Further, these record deficits are impacting the value of
the dollar. If the dollar continues to decline, it could lose its status as the world's preferred reserve currency, which could set off a death spiral of increasing interest rates and less favorable terms for Treasury's to borrow abroad to finance the debt which could culminate in the Argentina-ization the American economy. As Praktike notes today, foreign banks are already beginning to set off ripples with their recent moves away from the dollar.

Eventually, though, these policies of deficit spending and devaluation of the dollar will force a reckoning. According to Drum, these will be the options:

-They start cutting back on programs.
-They start raising taxes.
-The economy eventually goes kablooey due to persistent and increasing deficits.

Unless the laws of arithmetic and/or economics change dramatically in the near future, I don't think there's a fourth choice. Do Bush and Rove understand this? Maybe. Maybe they vaguely realize they've gotten themselves in a jam but don't see a way out. Or maybe they just don't care because the piper won't have to be paid until Bush is out of office. I don't know.

Regardless, though, those are your three choices and all the loony talk in the world won't change the essential reality. So which one does the Republican party really prefer? Stay tuned.
I think Drum is correct that the choices will be limited to the ones he listed, but there is a good chance that he is falling into the same trap when describing the administration's role in these matters. He posits three alternatives: that the Bush team doesn't grasp the nature of the problem (not a chance), that they are stuck in an unexpected "jam" by their please-all-constituencies approach, or that they intend to pass the buck along to the next administration. Of the three, the third option is the most plausible, but I think that there is a fourth that Drum is ignoring: what if inciting an economic crisis, or the perception thereof, was no accident but the plan all along? What if Bush is smarter than we think.

It's The Deficits Stupid

Nadezhda doesn't like to jump into the Social Security fray too often, and it's a shame because she has much in the way of explanation to offer us less knowledgeable types. Luckily, like Michael Corleone, just when she thought she was out, they pulled her back in (ed note: that is probably the one and only time I will compare Nadezhda to an Italian gangster, fictional or otherwise). Her
latest effort is in keeping with her tradition. Although bordering on wonkish, the shorter version is: deficits matter more than other fictions and shortcuts. On the Trust Fund:

The Trust Fund is essentially a useful heuristic device. Yes, the federal government has an obligation to provide the trust fund with cash when the trust fund is called upon to pay out benefits, and failure to meet that cash call would be a default on government obligations. But since Congress can change the benefits and thereby change the calls on the trust fund, everybody's "property interest" in the trust fund can be eliminated with one set of votes and a stroke of the pen.
So despite the attempt to position Social Security as a separate entity, it is essentially a product of the overall fiscal picture, and dependent on budgetary flexibility to survive. Piercing the illusion, however, is risky business:

When you look at Social Security as part of the broader fiscal system, President Bush is indeed right -- there is, in fact, a crisis on the horizon, and a horizon that's far closer than 2042, or even 2018. Yet the Democrats haven't made hay with this logical response to the Social Security proposals, apart from occasionally remarking that the real crisis is in health care not Social Security. Why? Putting Social Security into the broader debate about fiscal policy puts Social Security on the same playing field as discretionary spending. And given the radical nature of the first Bush Administration when it comes to fiscal policy -- and a GOP-controlled Capitol Hill -- the Democrats quite understandably haven't been willing to risk that.
Ironically, or maybe not as per the above discussion, President Bush has been in some ways the most accurate in his appraisal of the current system:

The interesting thing is, on the GOP side, President Bush seems to have come closest to acknowledging my three-part mantra: he's backing away from "crisis," he maintains that the Trust Fund is notional, and he's started to recognize that taxes might have to be increased and benefits reduced. That, of course, hasn't stopped him from peddling the ideological goal of privatization, even though it's increasingly been proved by the Democrats to be a total nonsequiteur to the "problem" as posed by Bush. [emphasis added]
So from Nadezhda's insightful analysis, we can get a better picture of Social Security's problems, and the fact that its continued existence is inextricably linked the overall fiscal health of our Federal government. As noted, the Bush administration's fiscal policy has taken us to the brink of fiscal crisis, and thus threatened the continuation of cherished entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security - but the whole time people are delving into esoterica about trust funds and wage indexing and facts and figures that cause eyes to glaze over even for dedicated policy watchers.

Sleight Of Hand

Therein lies the brilliance. Conservatives have learned, sometimes the hard way, that they can't just come out and say to the voters that, philosophically, they are opposed to Social Security and Medicare and they would like to do away with them, yet that is an accurate description of the conservative ethos. There is a reason Social Security has been called the electoral third rail. So their only recourse is to create conditions that themselves dictate the desired outcome, to which they can appear as innocent bystanders and reluctant practitioners. If you doubt the intention, or the motive, consider the
internal memo leaked last month:

For the first time in six decades, the Social Security battle is one we can win -- and in doing so, we can help transform the political and philosophical landscape of the country...[this is] one of the most important conservative undertakings of modern times.
The first move in the chess match was to spike the deficits to unwieldy levels, while allowing for a devaluation of the dollar. Then, roll out the Trojan horses, secret weapons designed to appeal to Democrat's ideological leanings, beginning with Medicare. When the Medicare bill was introduced by the White House, they prevaricated about the costs. $400 billion they said, over a decade, and when the Medicare actuary (Richard Foster) was going to disclose what he believed to be the actual costs to Congress ($500-600 billion), his job was threatened with termination and he was silenced. Well, now it turns out Foster was an optimist. The actual costs of the Medicare bill are now believed to be approximately $750 billion, but hey, who's counting? As I said above, this was brilliant political maneuvering because the Democrats were boxed into a corner by their own ideology so that they felt they had to go along with this proposition. But consider this: the Bush administration took a system, Medicare, that was in dire financial straits and proceeded to saddle it with an enormous new liability that will only hasten the day when it is considered too cumbersome to continue. And in the process, they further ballooned the deficits inching nearer to d-day. Beware of Republicans bearing gifts.

This explains why, despite Nadezhda's observation that Bush is accurately describing the Social Security dynamic, he continues "peddling the ideological goal of privatization, even though it's increasingly been proved by the Democrats to be a total nonsequiteur to the 'problem' as posed by Bush." Privatization is another Trojan horse, made attractive by the hyping of a crisis. In order to fund the transition costs for Bush's scheme, the government will have to borrow in the neighborhood of $4 trillion. That's trillion with a "t". We can debate the merits of a partial privatization of Social Security, but can anyone with a straight face tell me that the federal government can afford to borrow $4 trillion dollars at this point in time? Especially when it does nothing to address the fact that we might need to shore up funding in the future regardless. Just another globe to place on Atlas's shoulders in the expectation that he will eventually shrug. Beware of Republicans bearing gifts.

We could chalk it up to Bush being stupid about economic matters. We could say that he is trying to please all constituencies and is a victim of circumstance, or that he is running up a big bill that he plans on passing to the next administration. But maybe he's outsmarting us all. Maybe he is playing a deliberate game of chicken with the oncoming runaway train of fiscal reckoning. The wealthiest Americans have certainly been building up a good amount of padding to cushion any fall. And there is brilliance in the subterfuge: Social Security and Medicare will be dismantled by a government whose hands are tied by a paltry stream of revenues and an overwhelming mountain of liabilities - themselves created, in part, by programs that the liberals signed off on under the assumption that they were sound. Oh yeah, and a crisis in the value of the dollar wouldn't hurt either. In the throes of such a financial collapse, or on the brink of one, the Democrats' ability to mount a compelling defense of these entitlement programs will be severely weakened - or so the theory goes.

In the meantime, the GOP will do their best to make sure the revenue draining tax cuts are made permanent, off the table so to speak when addressing the budgetary shortfalls. The whole time aided by the
double-talking, yet respectable seeming, Alan Greenspan and a legion of self serving economists who preach the gospel of entitlement reduction, but tax cut sanctity. If you think they'll play fair on this, can I direct you to the insidious campaign about the "real agenda" of the nefarious AARP.

That is how Grover Norquist and the leaders of the conservative movement will finally be able to starve the beast. Not by a frontal assault, but through the back door. And who better to pull off such a maneuver than the seemingly guileless George W. Bush. Who would see it coming?

Monday, February 21, 2005

Where Are We Now?

Recent events, especially the elections in Iraq and the nascent signs of hope for a possible resolution of the conflicts plaguing that country they have provided, have forced some interesting questions to the fore as well as provided for a distillation of the issues attendant to a discussion of the merits of the invasion. Now, the bottom line is, since the possibility seems to be at least credible: If Iraq emerges as a stable, functioning democracy, was it worth it?

Under that hypothetical reality, there are still many pertinent arguments against the campaign, but it would be difficult to mount one based on human rights. How could one say that the Iraqi people would not be better off in a new democratic Iraq than under the truly vile Hussein regime. Of course, if Iraq descends into a protracted bloody civil war, or sets off a broader regional conflict, those human rights arguments would be resuscitated, but let's table them for now and consider the issues under a best case scenario rubric (perhaps a dangerous game to play considering the current administration's penchant for doing only this). I will also not be considering the WMD arguments and the al-Qaeda connections since both have proven to be illusory, and for the most part, were dubious and exaggerated prior to the invasion as well (especially the links to al-Qaeda argument and the suggestion of an
Iraqi nuclear program - the existence of which the US State Department, the UN, and most foreign intelligence agencies doubted strongly).

So, under the theoretical "New Iraq" the Iraqi people, particularly the Shiites and Kurds (and those Sunni who were outside the favor of the Hussein regime), will see their lives improve significantly. That, as I said, is difficult to dispute. But would this be worth it to the United States? If this is where the story ends, I think it would be hard to justify purely in its own right, as callous as that may sound. At a time when the federal government is cash strapped, at a moment in history when we need to be dedicating enormous amounts of suddenly scarce resources to defensive and offensive measures against al-Qaeda and other trans-national terrorist organizations, we are out approximately $300 billion and counting due to the campaign in Iraq, as well as the loss of valuable intelligence and other human and organizational assets diverted to Iraq (exact numbers are hard to come by, but the final bill for the entire process will likely eclipse that amount, especially if we factor in many years of occupation and support). The borrowing necessary to fuel this war, as well as the other fiscal policies such as the unprecedented massive war time tax cuts primarily accruing to the benefit of the wealthiest Americans, have created a crisis for the US economy, which might have very serious consequences for national security as well if a serious devaluation of the dollar ensues.

In addition, the armed services are stretched thin and facing
recruitment shortages (the first time ever the Marines have fallen short of their recruiting target), which has left us less flexible to deal with other exigencies such as Iran, Syria, North Korea, or any other problem area that might flare up. Remember, capacity is important beyond the actual use of the military in combat. By maintaining a credible threat, we can accomplish many of our goals simply through the deterrent effect of appearing capable of invasion, whereas now, our compromised posture is having the opposite effect - emboldening our adversaries and potential enemies by their lack of fear for repercussions. The above concerns say nothing of the approximately 1,500 US soldiers, 172 coalition soldiers, and 200-300 contractors who have sacrificed their lives to see this mission through (so far), or the thousands of Iraqi's killed in the conflict.

Into that pot, we can throw our frayed alliances and plummeting public approval ratings worldwide. All told, that is a very large price tag for toppling a tyrant. As I said, I don't want to appear cruel in examining the costs and benefits, but it is what we must do as a nation constantly.
Parade Magazine, an insert in the Sunday edition of Rupert Murdoch's New York Post, recently compiled a list of the world's ten worst dictators (using input from groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International). It is a dastardly hall of shame for brutal despots and murderous regimes, but it was by no means an exhaustive list. Consider the fact that Fidel Castro didn't even make the cut, and neither did quasi-democratic leaders like Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, or the oft offending regimes in Iran, Syria, or Egypt. So, with all these regimes worthy of toppling, and with dire human rights calamities currently underway (such as the Darfur massacres), what is a unipolar superpower to do?

We can't invade each one, that is simply impractical. We must decide what we are capable of accomplishing, and whether it is worth the blood and treasure and the risks of destabilizing regions and creating a wider zones of conflict. These are case by case analyses, and so we must in many scenarios be willing to say that a certain level of human suffering might be tolerable because we cannot right every wrong when the costs are factored in.

With that backdrop in place, I would like to turn to some
recent statements made by the nation's intelligence leaders in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. These assessments serve to up the ante in terms of costs.

"Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists," CIA Director Porter J. Goss told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

"These jihadists who survive will leave Iraq experienced and focused on acts of urban terrorism," he said. "They represent a potential pool of contacts to build transnational terrorist cells, groups and networks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries."
It is with a tinge of wry bemusement that I read Goss's statements because I am reminded of the prevailing meme propagated by the right-wing punditry in the run-up to the presidential election: that the CIA was a rogue organization actively planning to undermine Bush's reelection bid. Every time a CIA report was released, or leaked, which claimed that the situation in Iraq was not proceeding according to the administration's public sanguinity, the report was pooh-poohed by the punditry who claimed that the underlying material was not factual in nature, but infused with bias that distorted the findings. David Brooks even went as far as to call the CIA "enemies" of President Bush - even more committed in their desire to usurp Bush than Democrats who, according to Brooks, were merely his "opponents." Brooks was speaking in the context of defending the appointment of Porter Goss, and endorsing Goss's subsequent purges of the "disloyal factions" within the Agency. So, what's the story now? Is Porter Goss an "enemy"? Is Goss a closet Clintonite? Is he selling a book? What does his wife do for a living? Is it safe to take his appraisals without a shaker's worth of salt?

But I digress. A closer look at Goss's statements reveals a theory about the incubator/training camp aspect of Iraq, coupled with the likely post war diaspora of trained terrorists, that Matthew Yglesias discussed
here. This is a passage that I have excerpted before, but since Goss has reinjected these subjects into the political discourse, and from a vantage point of a Bush administration ally, I think Yglesias's analysis is worth revisiting:

...denying al-Qaeda its Afghan sanctuary has done more than many appreciate to screw up its operations. Even with many leading personnel still at large, without even a vague address to report to, would-be jihadis couldn't really sign up. Thus, despite rising anti-Americanism and the continuing appeal of the Salafi jihad in principle, it was hard for the network to gain new nodes and grow new cells.

But now we need to add the growth of the Iraqi insurgency into the equation. Once again, as during al-Qaeda's Afghan period, a would-be jihadi knows where he needs to go. He knows -- as I know and as you, the gentle reader knows -- that you can fight Americans in Iraq. He knows that the jihad takes place primarily in the "Sunni triangle" and the "triangle of death" both in the vicinity of Baghdad. He knows that the Syrian border is said to be the source of most of the insurgency's external inputs of manpower, money, and materiel. In other words, once again if you want to join the jihad, you know what to do. But of course once you get to Iraq, if you do make contact with someone, he'll want you to fight in Iraq not in the USA. Thus, having created a new global locus for the jihad as part of the strategic error that was the Iraq War, we also get the side benefit of "flypaper." Basically, US civilian casualties are displaced onto US military personnel and Iraqis of various stripes.

So far, so good (or so bad). The real question, however, is what happens if the jihad in Iraq ends? It would be remarkably odd if we wind up killing every single jihadi before going home. Either we'll need to start pulling troops out with many jihadis still in the field, or else we'll start gaining the upper hand and many jihadis will make themselves scarce. Either way, a new generation of recruits will have signed up, new networks will have been formed, and when people depart Iraq (either because we've won, or else because we've lost) they'll go somewhere else and start waging jihad there. Most of the native-born Iraqis who've joined up for the fight against America will probably stay put in Iraq, but not all of them will. You still won't be talking about a huge number of people, but the flipside of the insight that al-Qaeda was never a particularly large organization is that al-Qaeda never needed to be a particularly large institution to mount attacks on the scale of WTC, Bali, Madrid, etc.
As Yglesias and Goss point out, the campaign in Iraq has had additional costs in terms of providing our jihadist enemies a training ground, a central hub of operations, a recruitment center, and a pool of talent. Unfortunately, some of these veterans of Iraqi jihad will emigrate to other locales bringing with them the know-how and radicalized ideology that they have picked up along the way. The more pollyannic proponents of the flypaper theory elide the fact that the proverbial flypaper does not ensnare all jihadists. Furthermore, flypaper is less effective if you are simultaneously creating conditions conducive to the breeding of more flies. More from the intelligence hearings:

"Our policies in the Middle East fuel Islamic resentment," Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate panel. "Overwhelming majorities in Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia believe the U.S. has a negative policy toward the Arab world."

Jacoby said the Iraq insurgency has grown "in size and complexity over the past year" and is now mounting an average of 60 attacks per day, up from 25 last year. Attacks on Iraq's election day last month reached 300, he said, double the previous one-day high of 150, even though transportation was virtually locked down.
This observation, coupled with the Goss/Yglesias argument, formed the basis for my own objections to the invasion of Iraq. I harbored no love for Saddam, and derive great pleasure from the fact that he will soon be on the receiving end of the justice meted out by the legal process underway in Iraq. That is an unmitigated good. I never believed the low balled cost estimates, but even the ballpark figures bandied about prior to the invasion were potentially acceptable (though not in conjunction with Bush's reckless fiscal policies). While I feared some of the dire humanitarian warnings (refugees, starvation, etc), the real crux of my misgivings stemmed from the fact that our image in the Muslim world needed repair, and could not withstand the invasion of a second Muslim country in a matter of months. Bin Laden, the quintessential propagandist, would use this unexpected "Christmas gift" to his advantage.

Whatever Osama Bin Laden's ultimate goals are, be they religious, political, meglomaniacal, etc., he is quite adept at using our unpopular policies to rally his co-religionists to the cause. For example, whether or not he truly cares about the Palestinian people, it matters little since he can so easily exploit the anger over this conflict to suit his purposes (aided by the fact that the violence of the second intifada begun in 2000 was beamed into Arab homes via satellite television which was simultaneously spreading throughout the region - with an emphasis on the crimes against the Palestinian people, and with a glossing over of Israel's suffering). There is a reason that, less than one month after 9/11 (taken from Gilles Kepel's book, The War For Muslim Minds):

In a videotape broadcast on October 7, Bin Laden sat with Zawahiri in front of an Afghan cave and swore to his television viewers that, "by Allah who raised the heavens without pillars, America [will] never know peace" as long as the Palestinian people continue to suffer.
That Iraq has aided Bin Laden's cause in terms of rallying support, aiding recruitment, and providing a new base of operations has been observed by various non-partisan think tanks, analysts, and policy centers such as the International Institute of Strategic Studies. These conclusions are not a stretch though. If the region in question is predisposed to be suspicious of American motives, and Bin Laden and the jihadists are issuing a drum beat of warnings about American imperialism an anti-Muslim crusades, invading two Muslim nations within a roughly year of each other lends credence to Bin Laden's far-fetched ravings. This factor must also be considered in any decision regarding Syria or Iran as well. One more invasion in such a short span of time could make Bin Laden seem prophetic. In addition to the fact of invasion, the atrocities and civilian casualties that inevitably accompany war (Abu Ghraib) have not served our cause at all. Bin Laden, on the other hand, has received a windfall.

This last point also ties into the manner in which we invaded Iraq. If we proceeded more cautiously, and perhaps put off the operation for several months, or years, it would have undercut the ability of Bin Laden to make as credible a claim of "crusade." Instead, we appeared rather impatient to commence actions, flouting the warnings and protestations of even our most trusted allies.

Unfortunately, the Muslims that were most in favor of our invasion (the Kurds and the Shiites in Iraq), were not a population that we needed to target in order to turn the tide of jihadism. Neither of these groups were in any way connected to transnational terrorist activities. Even Iraq's Sunnis were not known to be particularly friendly to the Wahhabist school of extremism (at least before the invasion). No Iraqi was among the 19 hijackers on 9/11, no senior leader of al-Qaeda was or is Iraqi, and Iraqis were not known to populate the ranks of jihadists battling in places like Bosnia, Chechnya, or Afghanistan. Of course, that could all change now that Iraq has become an incubator of sorts.

So again, the question will be asked: Was it worth it? The ultimate disposition will probably only be possible with the vantage point of retrospect many years down the line. It comes down to the real world potency of the erstwhile theoretical domino theory. If Iraq somehow sparks a wave of democratic change in the Middle East, that will certainly be placed on the side of the ledger listing the "pros." The evidence is not pointing in one direction or the other at this point, as it is still early in the game. However, even if Iraq does lead to democratic paradigm shift in the Middle East, the question must be asked whether this democratization will really undermine terrorism (
discussed here), and whether the long term benefits outweigh the short term costs we have incurred: financially, strategically, diplomatically, and in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. And it should also be asked whether invading Iraq was the only way to incite such change. What if the dominos could have been tipped through other less costly means?

If invading Iraq does not lead to a domino of democratization, and if that democratization does not undermine terrorism but instead in the process creates a new generation of committed and trained jihadists, then it will be hard to say it was worth the costs. We have risked much on what Francis Fukuyama called a "throw of the dice." Let's hope the Bush team doesn't crap out.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Oh, Canada!

Don't get me wrong, I love Canada. I've been a frequent traveler to Montreal, and I think it is one of the most underrated cities in the world. I've also been to Quebec and was amazed to see the beauty of such old world European architecture in the Western Hemisphere (old by comparison to what is found in the US). Some of my favorite musicians, actors, and comedians hail from Canada - from old troupes like the Kids In The Hall, to new acts like the Arcade Fire, who for my money put out one of the best records of 2004.

So, to any Canadians visiting this site, don't be offended when I say that I love America more. But I am tired of playing second fiddle to our little neighbor to the north. Why is it that Canada has to lead by example, shaming us - the United States of America - as we are left to sulk ignominiously in our backwards thinking? That's not good enough for me. I want to be the ones out in front, setting the standard for the world - yes, Canada included. It's the competitive part of me that chants U-S-A, U-S-A when team America is competing on the world stage, the urge to extend my index finger and rush the camera, shouting hysterically, "We're #1" with my face painted red, white, and blue.

But in some ways, we're not #1. Canada is, though, and I'm not only talking about hockey. If you want to catch a glimpse of what cutting edge progressivism looks like, a real dedication to civil rights, read this
enlightened speech by Canada's Prime Minister Paul Martin (via Steve Clemons). It is Martin's eloquent defense of Canada's Civil Marriage Act, which recognizes the right of same-sex couples to marry. His words lit in me a fire of inspiration, but I was burning with envy at the same time. It is a lesson from the student to the teacher.

Martin addresses how "faith" should interact with public service and citizenship in a nation of rights and laws:

Religious leaders have strong views both for and against this legislation. They should express them. Certainly, many of us in this House, myself included, have a strong faith, and we value that faith and its influence on the decisions we make. But all of us have been elected to serve here as Parliamentarians. And as public legislators, we are responsible for serving all Canadians and protecting the rights of all Canadians.

We will be influenced by our faith but we also have an obligation to take the widest perspective -- to recognize that one of the great strengths of Canada is its respect for the rights of each and every individual, to understand that we must not shrink from the need to reaffirm the rights and responsibilities of Canadians in an evolving society.
Mr. President, what would Jesus do? And is that even a valid question (despite the fact that you somehow seem to get the answer confused in so many respects)? Martin discusses why guarantees of rights must supersede the will of the majority:

The second argument ventured by opponents of the bill is that government ought to hold a national referendum on this issue. I reject this - not out of a disregard for the view of the people, but because it offends the very purpose of the Charter.

The Charter was enshrined to ensure that the rights of minorities are not subjected, are never subjected, to the will of the majority. The rights of Canadians who belong to a minority group must always be protected by virtue of their status as citizens, regardless of their numbers. These rights must never be left vulnerable to the impulses of the majority.
Karl Rove: stop playing electoral games with human rights and dignity. That is a dangerous game to be playing, and one that is morally bankrupt. Martin, again, on the inadequacy of "civil unions":
...some have counseled the government to extend to gays and lesbians the right to "civil union." This would give same-sex couples many of the rights of a wedded couple, but their relationships would not legally be considered marriage. In other words, they would be equal, but not quite as equal as the rest of Canadians.

Mr. Speaker, the courts have clearly and consistently ruled that this option would offend the equality provisions of the Charter. For instance, the British Columbia Court of Appeal stated that, and I quote: "Marriage is the only road to true equality for same-sex couples. Any other form of recognition of same-sex relationships ...falls short of true equality."

Put simply, we must always remember that "separate but equal" is not equal.
An argument why we should never enshrine bigotry in the very documents designed to protect our rights:

For a prime minister to use the powers of his office to explicitly deny rather than affirm a right enshrined under the Charter would serve as a signal to all minorities that no longer can they look to the nation's leader and to the nation's Constitution for protection, for security, for the guarantee of their freedoms. We would risk becoming a country in which the defence of rights is weighed, calculated and debated based on electoral or other considerations.

The Charter is a living document, the heartbeat of our Constitution. It is also a proclamation. It declares that as Canadians, we live under a progressive and inclusive set of fundamental beliefs about the value of the individual. It declares that we all are lessened when any one of us is denied a fundamental right.

We cannot exalt the Charter as a fundamental aspect of our national character and then use the notwithstanding clause to reject the protections that it would extend. Our rights must be eternal, not subject to political whim.
Mr. President, please leave our Constitution alone, and stop tossing it about like a political football. Even introducing the concept of a Constitutional amendment to establish discrimination is a bad precedent to set.

Martin on the nature of rights, the slippery slope, and how these ideals impact society as a whole, and the ability to be perceived as the "city on the hill":
To those who value the Charter yet oppose the protection of rights for same-sex couples, I ask you: If a prime minister and a national government are willing to take away the rights of one group, what is to say they will stop at that? If the Charter is not there today to protect the rights of one minority, then how can we as a nation of minorities ever hope, ever believe, ever trust that it will be there to protect us tomorrow?

My responsibility as Prime Minister, my duty to Canada and to Canadians, is to defend the Charter in its entirety. Not to pick and choose the rights that our laws shall protect and those that are to be ignored. Not to decree those who shall be equal and those who shall not. My duty is to protect the Charter, as some in this House will not.

Let us never forget that one of the reasons that Canada is such a vibrant nation, so diverse, so rich in the many cultures and races of the world, is that immigrants who come here - as was the case with the ancestors of many of us in this chamber - feel free and are free to practice their religion, follow their faith, live as they want to live. No homogenous system of beliefs is imposed on them.

When we as a nation protect minority rights, we are protecting our multicultural nature. We are reinforcing the Canada we value. We are saying, proudly and unflinchingly, that defending rights - not just those that happen to apply to us, not just that everyone approves of, but all fundamental rights - is at the very soul of what it means to be a Canadian.
Martin addresses the praiseworthy ability of democracies, dedicated to the embrace of civil rights, to evolve in order to fully actualize their ideals. What Langston Hughes rhapsodized about when exhorting America to be, in practice, the place that it aspires to be in theory. "Let America Be America Again," said Hughes.
Why is the Charter so important, Mr. Speaker? We have only to look at our own history. Unfortunately, Canada's story is one in which not everyone's rights were protected under the law. We have not been free from discrimination, bias, unfairness. There have been blatant inequalities.

Remember that it was once thought perfectly acceptable to deny women "personhood" and the right to vote. There was a time, not that long ago, that if you wore a turban, you couldn't serve in the RCMP. The examples are many, but what's important now is that they are part of our past, not our present.

Over time, perspectives changed. We evolved, we grew, and our laws evolved and grew with us. That is as it should be. Our laws must reflect equality not as we understood it a century or even a decade ago, but as we understand it today.

For gays and lesbians, evolving social attitudes have, over the years, prompted a number of important changes in the law. Recall that, until the late 1960s, the state believed it had the right to peek into our bedrooms. Until 1977, homosexuality was still sufficient grounds for deportation. Until 1992, gay people were prohibited from serving in the military. In many parts of the country, gays and lesbians could not designate their partners as beneficiaries under employee medical and dental benefits, insurance policies or private pensions. Until very recently, people were being fired merely for being gay.

Today, we rightly see discrimination based on sexual orientation as arbitrary, inappropriate and unfair. Looking back, we can hardly believe that such rights were ever a matter for debate. It is my hope that we will ultimately see the current debate in a similar light; realizing that nothing has been lost or sacrificed by the majority in extending full rights to the minority.
So Canada gets this speech, this exalted language and imagery, this poignant homage to liberal democracy and the belief in fundamental human dignity, and what does America get? This. Profoundly, profoundly disappointing.

There is no doubt in my mind that the force of history is pushing for the recognition of the basic humanity of all sexual orientations. Trust me, state sponsored discrimination against homosexuals will not last forever. It is one of the last great frontiers of civil rights, at least in America (and Canada). One day, this nation will look back on this period of divisiveness with guilt and shame. It will be placed on the same side of the ledger as the other examples of crimes, misdemeanors, and setbacks in the continuing learning process of what it means to be America. My Republican friends often assure me that the religious-right has little power in the Republican Party. They tell me that they are marginal voices. Fine. Prove it. Rein in the leader of your Party and his cronies on Capitol Hill who so openly tout such mean spiritedness.

To the Democrats, I say the time is now. No more half stepping about civil unions, let's be forthright about this one. Hemming and hawing around the margins of issues doesn't work. Sure, in certain contexts compromise and incremental change is needed, but sometimes you have to be bold. At the very least, we must be willing to infuse this debate with a rhetorical backbone. Will we lose votes in the South? Probably,'s sort of happening anyway. Let's give the people something to be inspired about, let's show them the strength of our convictions. Let's seek to change some attitudes, to educate, to bring some opponents of human rights for homosexuals over to our perspective - the same way we have succeeded with minority rights, women's rights, and other human rights in general. It's hard work, and risky too, but that is what we as Democrats are all about.

At the very least, when the slow wheel of history turns in our favor on this issue (and it is turning), then we will be able to proudly say: We were at the forefront of this movement. We were the civil rights pioneers. The American people will know what the Democratic Party stands for. We will be known as the Party that fights for civil rights. A tepid endorsement of civil unions will deprive us of our just rewards when the voting public matures. Above simple electoral concerns, though, it is just the right thing to do. If we truly want to spread democracy abroad, let's strengthen it at home. North America's other champion of democracy:
To those who would oppose this bill, I urge you to consider that the core of the issue before us today is whether the rights of all Canadians are to be respected. I believe they must be. Justice demands it. Fairness demands it. The Canada we love demands it...

We embrace freedom and equality in theory, Mr. Speaker. We must also embrace them in fact. [emphasis added]
Those are fighting words.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Some Results

All of the following comes via Liberals Against Terrorism:

election results in Iraq have been certified. The breakdown of seats in the nascent legislature are as follows (for the biggest three parties)

-140 seats went to the United Iraqi Alliance coalition of mostly Shiite candidates under the blessing of Sistani. This slate garnered roughly 48% of the popular vote.

-75 seats went to the unified Kurdish ticket, which received 26% of the overall vote.

-40 seats went to the secular Shiite list of interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, reflecting 14% of the popular vote

other news, it appears that Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani will be given the presidency, with the prime minister's office still up for grabs (with the main competitors being Chalabi and Jaafari - also discussed at Liberals Against Terrorism). My money is on Jaafari.

Foreign Service?

Well, not really. But I am taking part in my every other Thursday exercise over at Legal Fiction. I have a post up today, preempted by a brief introduction (brief by my standards of course). The post may not be new to many TIA readers because it is actually a rerun of one of TIA's greatest hits from a couple of months ago - the subject of which is the enigmatic Henry Kissinger.

New material will follow later in the day, but for those who haven't read this piece yet, you might find it interesting.

[Update: A new post (not recycled I swear) is up at Legal Fiction.]

[Update II: Part II to my Legal Fiction post is up and, again, it is all original]

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Mr. Roboto PFC?

This article appearing in today's New York Times sort of gives a whole new meaning to the term "transformation" in the armed forces. Maybe this is why Rumsfeld has been so reluctant to increase the size of the military:

The robot soldier is coming.

The Pentagon predicts that robots will be a major fighting force in the American military in less than a decade, hunting and killing enemies in combat. Robots are a crucial part of the Army's effort to rebuild itself as a 21st-century fighting force, and a $127 billion project called Future Combat Systems is the biggest military contract in American history....

"They don't get hungry," said Gordon Johnson of the Joint Forces Command at the Pentagon. "They're not afraid. They don't forget their orders. They don't care if the guy next to them has just been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes."
Leaving aside the highly controversial claim that these robots will do a better job than humans (in what capacity exactly?), it is worth noting that there are already robots performing certain military functions: "digging up roadside bombs in Iraq, scouring caves in Afghanistan and serving as armed sentries at weapons depots." Although they are not humanoid in structure, more like little remote controlled trucks, that could soon change. The plans are to increase their functionality and design beyond the rudimentary prototypes currently in action.

Robots in battle, as envisioned by their builders, may look and move like humans or hummingbirds, tractors or tanks, cockroaches or crickets. With the development of nanotechnology - the science of very small structures - they may become swarms of "smart dust." The Pentagon intends for robots to haul munitions, gather intelligence, search buildings or blow them up....

"It's more than just a dream now," Mr. Johnson said. "Today we have an infantry soldier" as the prototype of a military robot, he added. "We give him a set of instructions: if you find the enemy, this is what you do. We give the infantry soldier enough information to recognize the enemy when he's fired upon. He is autonomous, but he has to operate under certain controls. It's supervised autonomy. By 2015, we think we can do many infantry missions.
Bart Everett, technical director for robotics at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego, says his company's mission is to produce "an android-like robot that can go out with a solider to do a lot of human-like tasks that soldiers are doing now."

This most recent foray into the technological "undiscovered country" raises a whole slew of ethical and practical questions that had previously been the sole domain of science fiction writers and theoretical philosophers. On the one hand, there are reasons to think that robot reinforced units could have beneficial effects for our soldiers in combat, saving lives and freeing up assets.

Pentagon officials and military contractors say the ultimate ideal of unmanned warfare is combat without casualties. Failing that, their goal is to give as many difficult, dull or dangerous missions as possible to the robots, conserving American minds and protecting American bodies in battle.
And then there are the other advantages for the policy makers and senior leadership who have to contend with logistical constraints beyond the limiting effects of mounting casualties, such as money.

Money, in fact, may matter more than morals. The Pentagon today owes its soldiers $653 billion in future retirement benefits that it cannot presently pay. Robots, unlike old soldiers, do not fade away. The median lifetime cost of a soldier is about $4 million today and growing, according to a Pentagon study. Robot soldiers could cost a tenth of that or less.
The thought springs to mind of a distant future in which nations wage war almost entirely through proxy robot armies, or at least one nation with a technological advantage doing so. But if war is made so easy in terms of the price we pay in blood and treasure, could that make war more acceptable to the American people? Is that necessarily a good thing?

Mr. Finkelstein of Robotic Technology, who has been in the military robotics field for 28 years. "If you could invade other countries bloodlessly, would this lead to a greater temptation to invade?"
These are important issues to be considering, but as usual, the technology is out ahead of the ethical debate. Then there are the practical concerns, such as robotic malfunctions and defects. I mean, haven't these guys seen the Terminator movies, The Matrix trilogy, I, Robot, Blade Runner, or any other of the host of Hollywood products that preach of the perils of empowering robots with such lethal capacity? Those stories don't end well, at least not until there is much death and destruction before the human hero saves the day.

What about other, potentially more pernicious technological blowback, like the "
gray goo" effect of out of control nanotechnological replicators? I mean, am I the only one that finds the thought of a "swarm of 'smart dust'" to be a little disconcerting? What if this dust spun out of the control of the manipulators and became a menace to civilians removed from the battle field? Maybe I'm being old fashioned here, but I think we might want to look before we jump. They're probably not listening to me, though. According to Mr. Johnson:

"The American military will have these kinds of robots. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when." [emphasis added]

Tuesday, February 15, 2005


I have a post up at Liberals Against Terrorism that discusses some elements of post-election Iraq, and one controversial article from Asia Times. The Asia Times article contains some disturbing allegations about an attempt by the Bush administration to counterbalance certain Shiite religious movements in the south of Iraq through the use of ex-Baathist elements. As Praktike pointed out, the Asia Times article should be taken with appropriate caveats and a big grain of salt, and I don't mean to endorse it as accurate. I'm not in a position to say, and there are good reasons to challenge the veracity. But the underlying subject matter is indeed troubling, and is worthy of a second look. If true, this is a decision that could have serious repercussions.

Elsewhere, Tim from
Why Are All The Good Names Gone...? provides a detailed and well-argued rebuttal "of sorts" to my post on the power of idealism and the players guiding the election process in Iraq. He might be right that Tim Dunlop and I were a bit heavy-handed in some regards (ie too negative about the US authored constitution, caucus system, imposition of a "strong man," issues of solidarity with Iraqis, etc.). I think he is a bit too dismissive of the planned role for Chalabi, at least early on in the process, and I think he mis-read my take on Sistani's ties to Iran (which he acknowledged was possible). I'm not as familiar with the planned caucus structure to say that it's purpose was, but Sistani certainly had issues with it. Still, his arguments are worth considering for balance sake (but he should really address the font size on his block quotes - or I'm going to need glasses soon).

The Final Countdown

Much to my surprise, and due to the remarkable generosity of TIA readers, this website has made it into the final round of the Koufax Awards in the category of Best New Blog. The downside is I have to ask you once again to make the trip to Wampum and give TIA a shout out in the comments section. Or, if you prefer anonymity, you can email Dwight and tell him of your choice (his email address is in the upper right corner of Wampum's home page). The upside is, this is the last time I will solicit votes.

But hey, even Feddie from
Southern Appeal cast his vote in TIA's column - a testament to our crossover appeal - so you really don't have any excuses.

Thanks again, I really appreciate the vote of confidence.

(And for the record,
publius was robbed)

Monday, February 14, 2005

Million Dollar Commie?

No sooner did I spend last Thursday bemoaning the team mentality of zero sum game politics, a mind set that drives participants on both sides of the divide to defend inconsistent positions and view the world through a black and white prism that allows for no nuance, credit given the opposition, or admission of culpability no matter how minor, than Frank Rich brought the most recent example of the up-is-down state of American politics to my attention.

Rich notes, sardonically, that the wind has been taken out of the sails of right-wing culture crusaders by the somewhat unexpected snubbing of Fahrenheit 9/11 at this year's Oscar awards. Not only did Moore's polemic get passed over but, despite the frothy
hate-filled rants of the likes of William Donohue president of the Catholic League, Mel Gibson's The Passion received three nominations. This was Donohue a couple of months ago on a Pat Buchanan hosted episode of Scarborough Country, pre-emptively blaming the Jewish elite for The Passion's predicted rough treatment:

"Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular," William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, explained in a colloquy on the subject recently convened by Pat Buchanan on MSNBC. "It's not a secret, O.K.?" Mr. Donohue continued. "And I'm not afraid to say it. That's why they hate this movie. It's about Jesus Christ, and it's about truth."
Donohue's anti-Semitic charged bluster was apparently much ado about nothing since The Passion was thrice recognized. So the culture hawks were left scrambling for a new bogeyman, and you'll never guess who they came up with:

So what do you do? Imagine SpongeBob tendencies in the carefully sanitized J. M. Barrie of "Finding Neverland"? Attack a recently deceased American legend, Ray Charles, for demanding that his mistress get an abortion in "Ray"? No, only a counterintuitive route could work. Hence, the campaign against Clint Eastwood, a former Republican officeholder (Mayor of Carmel, Calif., in the late 1980's), Nixon appointee to the National Council of the Arts and action hero whose breakthrough role in the Vietnam era was as a vigilante cop, Dirty Harry, whom Pauline Kael famously called "fascist." There hasn't been a Hollywood subversive this preposterous since the then 10-year-old Shirley Temple's name surfaced at a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing in 1938. [emphasis added]
That's right folks. In today's America, Clint Eastwood is a raving liberal. Clint Eastwood. Really. If Clint Eastwood is a liberal, what the heck am I, Uncle Joe? Rich is right to analogize this outlandish cultural policing to McCarthyism. It shares all the logic, or lack thereof, though thankfully less of the potency - at least for now. A closer look at "Dirty Harry the Commie":

His own politics defy neat categorization. He's supported Democrats (including Gray Davis in the pre-Schwarzenegger era) as well as Republicans, professes the libertarian creed of "less government" and "was never a big enthusiast for going to Iraq but never spoke against it once the troops were there." In other words, he's in the same middle as most Americans. "I vote for what I like," he says. "I'm not a loyalist to any party. I'm only a loyalist to the country." That's no longer good enough, apparently, for those who feel an election victory has empowered them to enforce a strict doctrine of political and spiritual correctness.
Nevertheless, the pundit parade is out hunting witches, and even members of their own congregation are not safe from the finger of accusation:

Rush Limbaugh used his radio megaphone to inveigh against the "liberal propaganda" of "Million Dollar Baby," in which Mr. Eastwood plays a crusty old fight trainer who takes on a fledgling "girl" boxer (Hilary Swank) desperate to be a champ. Mr. Limbaugh charged that the film was a subversively encoded endorsement of euthanasia, and the usual gang of ayotallahs chimed in. Michael Medved, the conservative radio host, has said that "hate is not too strong a word" to characterize his opinion of "Million Dollar Baby." Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a longtime ally of the Christian right, went on MSNBC to accuse Mr. Eastwood of a cultural crime comparable to Bill Clinton having "brought the term 'oral sex' to America's dinner tables."
Just what, you might be wondering, is so subversive about Million Dollar Baby? Prepare yourself for this radical neo-Trotskyite manifesto (warning: the following description may reveal parts of the movie not portrayed in advertisements or trailers):

Here is what so scandalously intrudes in the final third of Mr. Eastwood's movie: real life. A character we love - and we love all three principals, including the narrator, an old boxing hand played by Morgan Freeman - ends up in the hospital with a spinal-cord injury and wants to die. Whether that wish will be granted, and if so, how, is the question that confronts not just the leading characters but also a young and orthodox Roman Catholic priest (Brian F. O'Byrne). The script, adapted by Paul Haggis from stories by F. X. Toole, has a resolution, as it must. But the movie has a powerful afterlife precisely because it is not an endorsement of any position on assisted suicide - or, for that matter, of any position on the disabled, as some disability-rights advocates have charged in a separate protest. The characters of "Million Dollar Baby" are complex and fictional, not monochromatic position papers outfitted in costumes, and the film no more endorses their fallible behavior and attitudes than "Ray" approves of its similarly sympathetic real-life hero's heroin addiction and compulsive womanizing.
When you consider the reaction, and then the subject matter, it is hard to conclude anything other than the fact that the outrage itself is more important than the underlying incident, which is increasingly a secondary player in these melodramatic morality plays. And frankly, I am outraged at the outrage. Clint too.

"What do you have to give these people to make them happy?" Mr. Eastwood asked when I phoned to get his reaction to his new status as a radical leftist. He is baffled that those "who expound from the right on American values" could reject a movie about a heroine who is "willing to pull herself up by the bootstraps, to work hard and persevere no matter what" to realize her dream. "That all sounds like Americana to me, like something out of Wendell Willkie," he says. "And the villains in the movie include people who are participating in welfare fraud"....

"I never thought about the political side of this when making the film," Mr. Eastwood says. He is both bemused and concerned that a movie with no political agenda should be construed by some as a polemic and arouse such partisan rage. "Maybe I'm getting to the age when I'm starting to be senile or nostalgic or both, but people are so angry now," he adds. "You used to be able to disagree with people and still be friends. Now you hear these talk shows, and everyone who believes differently from you is a moron and an idiot - both on the right and the left."
Eastwood might be too generous. It's not even people that believe differently, it's people that have the same basic beliefs, but differ in any minor regard. The standard requires ever more discipline and loyalty. Stray from the reservation even for an instant, and you're fair game. Clint Eastwood is more a Republican than a Democrat. He actually held office as a Republican, and his political beliefs are still consistent with the libertarian/traditional conservative point of view. I guess that's not good enough anymore. In the new America, Mr. Eastwood, you're a liberal. Frank Rich scratches the surface and discovers that there is something else that the neo-Right and the morality police find so troubling:

But the most unintentionally revealing attacks on "Million Dollar Baby" have less to do with the "right to die" anyway than with the film's advertising campaign. It's "the 'million-dollar' lie," wrote one conservative commentator, Debbie Schlussel, saying that the film's promotion promises "'Rocky' in a sports bra" while delivering a "left-wing diatribe" indistinguishable from the message sent by the Nazis when they "murdered the handicapped and infirm." Mr. Medved concurs. "They can't sell this thing honestly," he has said, so "it's being marketed as a movie all about the triumph of a plucky female boxer." The only problem with this charge is that it, too, is false. As Mr. Eastwood notes, the film's dark, even grim poster is "somewhat noiresque" and there's "nobody laughing and smiling and being real plucky" in a trailer that shows "triumph and struggles" alike....

What really makes these critics hate "Million Dollar Baby" is not its supposedly radical politics - which are nonexistent - but its lack of sentimentality. It is, indeed, no "Rocky," and in our America that departure from the norm is itself a form of cultural radicalism....

Mr. Eastwood's film, while also boasting great acting, is the only one that challenges America's current triumphalist daydream. It does so not because it has any politics or takes a stand on assisted suicide but because it has the temerity to suggest that fights can have consequences, that some crises do not have black-and-white solutions and that even the pure of heart are not guaranteed a Hollywood ending. What makes some feel betrayed and angry after seeing "Million Dollar Baby" is exactly what makes many more stop and think: one of Hollywood's most durable cowboys is saying that it's not always morning in America, and that it may take more than faith to get us through the night.
And for that, he is Unforgiven. President Bush's defiant proclamation that he doesn't "do nuance" has become a cultural rallying cry, and the undertones are frighteningly fascistic. At the very least, such narrow-mindedness is un-American. Now if the Left could silence their own sanctimonious, holier than thou types, we might just be able to add another wing to our tent to welcome all the middle of the road, right leaning Clint Eastwood types who don't espouse such a simplistic black and white view of the world (somehow, I never thought I would be saying that). The opportunity is ripe: while they're clinging to a Fist Full of Hubris, we can make gains in a new coalition of the willing. Now let's go for the knockout.

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