Saturday, April 30, 2005

President Bush: A Man In Tights?

I must confess that a wry smile broke across my countenance when I heard President Bush's defiant claim during his press conference the other night that he doesn't look at polls. Soon afterward, Bush unveiled a vague framework for revamping Social Security that had all the hallmarks of a pre-polled, market-tested, packaged product (more on this below). The question nagging to be asked, though, is if Bush is so disdainful of polls, and sticks to his guns regardless of public sentiment, why not just reiterate his privatization scheme rather than trot out this shiny new distraction? The answer is, the earlier version of his Social Security proposal was getting the polls.

Enter Luntz-speak. People like
David Brooks tell the Democrats that paying attention to language and framing is a waste of time - and that although the Republicans have been spending billions of dollars, and dedicating countless hours over three-plus decades to corner the market on both, it really doesn't yield any dividends. Nothing to see here Dems, move along. Joshua Green, perhaps under the illusion that people like Brooks are offering well-meaning advice, chides Democrats for their attention to language and framing, describing it as a misguided quest for a conscience salving excuse for recent electoral failings. Both are wrong of course, even if some Democrats might take Lakoffian principles on faith, without enlisting a broader array of voices in the process, or fail to recognize that it is but one facet in a grand mosaic of tactics and institutions.

In the meantime, as Democrats fight amongst themselves about the importance of language and the wisdom of Lakoff (presumably, under the Brooks theory, getting stronger in the process - look out GOP, we sure are at each other's throats now), President Bush and his wordsmiths are busy sneaking up behind us with a legislative dagger cloaked in the linguistic sheath of a New Deal crusader - or better yet, as New York Times columnist
John Tierney put it today - Robin Hood, a president in tights.

Democrats like to portray Mr. Bush as King George or Marie Antoinette. But on Thursday night, when he promised to improve benefits for the poor while limiting them for everyone else, he sounded more like Robin Hood, especially when he rhapsodized about poor people getting a chance to build up assets that they could pass along to their children.
In reality, the President's plan did not call for improving benefits for the poor, it just maintained what they would be getting if Social Security were left untouched. In the parlance of the day, somehow, that is transformed into an improvement. Under that rationale, I guess I get a raise every time I get a paycheck. Who knew?

And the show continues. Tierney was duplicitously lauding a plan that has been described by some, especially Bush himself, as affecting social security benefits thusly:

A slight benefit reduction for middle income and upper income earners, but with the lowest income earners benefits' left untouched - or "improved" if you will.

In doing so, Bush was trying to portray himself as a compassionate conservative, and someone who cares for the poorest Americans - a dubious contention that could be shredded with even the most cursory examination of the changes to the tax code that have occurred over the past four years. But it will likely have its desired effect - at least in the hopelessly sycophantic corporate media.

Speaking of which, we didn't have to wait long for stories like Tierney's to emerge which claim that Bush has turned the tables on Democrats by defending the poor at the expense of the mega-wealthy - even called it a "populist face on his Social Security plan." Now tell me again why language doesn't matter?

A closer look at the numbers behind Bush's plan, however, reveal the subterfuge (note to media: if bloggers can do this, so can you). Then again, who has the time or the interest to take "a closer look" - or so the GOP language masters believe - rightly so. Nevertheless,
Kevin Drum is all over it (as is the tireless Josh Marshall who I recommend as a valuable resource on all things Social Security - not that I'm telling many of you anything new in that) . Upon further review, this Robin Hood is a Scrooge.

So it turns out that the Social Security plan George Bush talked about last night was based on a proposal called the "Pozen Plan," named after Bob Pozen, who first suggested it. CBPP has a detailed breakdown of the plan, but for those of you with short attention spans I've cut it down to a single chart.

Basically, low income earners ($16K/year) currently get about 49% of their income replaced by Social Security. Under the Pozen plan, this would stay the same. Medium income workers ($36K/year), however, would see their replacement rate fall from 36% to 23% by the year 2100. The replacement rate for higher income workers ($58K/year) would fall to 14% and for maximum income workers ($90K/year) to 9%.
As mentioned, Kevin was even kind enough to include an easy to read chart for those who prefer graphic depictions (not that I would require such aids - honest). So let me sum it up: There will be steep cuts in benefits for everyone, except for people the President describes as "better off." The kicker is, as Kevin and Josh point out, anyone making over $20,000 a year is included in the "better off" category. $20,000 a year. Better off. Let that sink in for a moment. Steep cuts in benefits for anyone making over $20,000. This is "Robin Hood." Tell me again why framing is a waste of time?

Oh yeah, and as an aftertought, outshone by the halo of Christian beneficence beaming from just above Bush's head, was that nasty little detail that private accounts will still be implemented as the multi-trillion dollar poison pill to undo Social Security in the near future regardless.

The real way to shore up Social Security has always been to ensure fiscal discipline which provides substance to the backing for the "trust fund." Without budgetary flexibility, Social Security is in jeopardy, but just as every other federally funded program is. Unfortunately, "Robin Hood's" massive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans (and by wealthiest, I mean earning about a hundred times more than $20,000 a year) has crippled the federal government's ability to fund a whole host of obligations - hence the record setting deficits and explosion of debt. To the extent that Social Security in particular needs additional tinkering, there are measures to take that would not result in large benefit cuts for the middle class. Perhaps, raising the limit on the payroll tax (currently only the first $87 thousand is taxed, which is regressive since those making millions pay taxes on a much smaller share of their income). How about scaling back benefits for the actual wealthiest Americans (millionaires, not $20,000-aires), or at the very least, not cutting taxes on the benefits they receive. Ironically, that is exactly what the latest Bush budget includes: tax cuts on the benefits that the real wealthiest Americans pay on Social Security benefits. How can an administration that continues to shift the tax burden from working class and middle class Americans to the incredibly wealthy be characterized as "populist," "generous" or "compassionate to the little guy"? Only in Kansas America.

This blatant contradiction can be seen in the faux concern that Bush supporters like Tierney show for the plight of the people that these programs were established to help - in addition to many in the middle class who get stiffed big time by the pseudo-compassionate commander in chief:

[The Democrats] know that Social Security doesn't even have the money to sustain a program that leaves millions of elderly people in poverty...

Social Security has an image as a progressive program because low-income workers get back bigger monthly checks, relative to their salaries, than high-income workers do. They're also more likely to get disability benefits.

But they lose out in other ways. They tend to start working and paying taxes at a relatively young age because they don't go to college, but then end up collecting benefits for fewer years because their life expectancy is shorter. They're more likely to be unmarried, making them ineligible for benefits earned by a spouse.
So let me get this straight, according to Tierney, Social Security doesn't provide enough money, as is, to keep millions of elderly out of poverty, and is disproportionately burdensome on working class Americans. The solution: cut benefits further, weaken a system to the brink of death altogether, and in the meantime preserve all the regressive tax cuts that Bush has ushered in which only exacerbate the destitute conditions these Americans must endure, and weaken the federal government's ability to offer relief in any form. If this is Robin Hood, I'll take my chances with the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Meet The New Boss

I'm not sure to what extent the inability to form a government in the time spanning from the elections in late January to just yesterday was aiding the insurgencies in Iraq, but I do think that the formation of a cabinet and the transfer of power from Allawi's interim group to Jaafari should at least provide a spark of hope for a populace that was growing disenchanted and frustrated with the stalemated process. But this renewed optimism triggered by the long awaited establishment of an elected Iraqi government brings with it expectations, and with those expectations, the possibility for more frustration and let down. The questions remain: can the new government get results in terms of repairing Iraq's still dilapidated infrastructure, improve the delivery and availability of vital services, and clamp down on what are a variety of tenaciously resolute insurgencies plaguing the nation.

Those issues will need to be addressed with concrete measures, and until there is progress in those areas, I don't expect the formation of a government to, by virtue of symbolic importance alone, alter the situation on the ground. There is no incentive for the various insurgencies, especially those comprised of Sunnis, to give up the fighting just because elected Shiite and Kurdish representatives control the government. Quite the opposite, these new realities might push some to fight harder with a greater sense of desperation.

Further, if the new cabinet was meant to usher in an era of Sunni cooperation, it has failed in achieving that goal pretty decisively - at least so far. To the extent that the multi-ethnic makeup of the government was supposed to reconcile moderate Sunnis to the cause of the new Iraq, and thus tone down support for the Sunni revanchist insurgency, little has been changed by a cabinet that represents the victorious Shiite and Kurdish factions overwhelmingly. Prime Minister Jaafari's commendable attempt at outreach to the Sunni community, by appointing a prominent Sunni to the post of Minister of Defense, went down in flames when fellow Shiites in his own ruling party objected to the candidate's Baathist roots.

The movement to purge former Baathists from positions of power, and to prevent any from within their ranks from acquiring any role in the new Iraq, was aided by the ascension of Ahmad Chalabi to the office of deputy prime minister. The
New York Times reports that Chalabi will be getting help in these endeavors:

[Chalabi's] new position could help him to carry out that agenda, particularly with an ally getting the important Interior Ministry portfolio. Baqer Solagh, who is also known as Bayan Solagh, is a Shiite who shares Mr. Chalabi's anti-Baathist program. Many of Iraq's antiterrorist battalions are under the authority of the Interior Ministry, and members of Mr. Solagh's party, the Supreme Committee for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, have sworn to purge the former Baathists who are among the top commanders there.

...Ali Abdul Ameer Allawi, a nephew of Mr. Chalabi's, holds the powerful post of finance minister.
This lack of progress in terms of reconciliation has prompted stern rebukes from Sunni quarters.

A Sunni assembly member later stood up to accuse the Shiites of dividing the country, and even said one member had threatened to gather evidence that would send him to the gallows....

"This is not a national government, it is a government of the winners," said the Sunni member, Meshaan al-Juburi. "I am here to say that the Sunni Arab members have been marginalized, and the Sunni Arab political forces should be aware of that."
For jihadists like Zarqawi, the inclusion of Sunni voices would do little to change the desire to keep fighting. But since, as Nadezhda pointed out, there are really insurgencies plural, not only one, getting fence-sitting Sunnis and those fighting for a restoration of their former glory back into the fold could shut down certain strains of the meta-insurgency. By allowing hard-liners like Chalabi, who insist on absolute purges, to exert their will on the process, this potential breakthrough remains elusive. I don't think that any and every former Baathist should be welcomed with open arms into the governing body, but exceptions need to be made and compromises struck. The alternative would mean the alienation of an entire segment of society that just so happens to be, by virtue of their former roles in the Hussein regime, well-trained in military tactics and the inner workings of the mukhabarat. That is a recipe for endless violence.

In the meantime, and despite the progress on the political front in forming a cabinet, the
violence raged in Iraq at the hands of what seems an undiminished enemy employing fairly sophisticated techniques:

Insurgents unleashed a series of car bombings and other attacks across Iraq on Friday, killing at least 41 people, including three U.S. soldiers, and wounding dozens of people a day after the country's first democratically elected government was approved....

At least 11 car bombs exploded in and around Baghdad on Friday, including four suicide attacks in quick succession in the Azamiyah section of central Baghdad....

Insurgents also hit Iraqi forces with a coordinated assault in the southeastern town of Madain, less than two weeks after Iraqi forces raided the region to clear it of insurgents in an operation praised by the U.S. military as evidence of the progress made by Iraq in assuring its own security.

A roadside bomb was detonated, then two suicide car bombers drove from different directions into police special forces as they arrived to investigate, said police Lt. Jassim al-Maliky. A third car bomb targeted another police patrol and a fourth detonated near the city hospital, according to Iraqi police, who said the attacks killed 13 people and injured 20.
I find myself repeating a phrase I have uttered during the culmination of every event that was supposed to signify a turning point in this conflict: And now, the hard part.

(cross posted at
Liberals Against Terrorism)

Thursday, April 28, 2005

A Mild Exchange

Me and Dan Darling recently went a few rounds of minor sparring. There was really more agreement than disagreement at the end of the day, but it is a topic worth revisiting because it is crucial to the legacy of the Iraq war that these issues get their full hearing in the court of public opinion. As such, I will reprint the initial post that sparked the minor controversy, as well as Darling's response, my counterpunch, and Darling's subsequent rebuttal. Here is the first volley:

As praktike noted earlier this morning, the final report from Charles Duelfer, the head of the former Iraq Survey Group, was released last night. In addition to the findings on Syria that praktike highlighted, there were some other conclusions of interest. These paragraphs caught my eye:
In the addendum, posted last night on the C.I.A.'s Web site ( and reported by The Washington Post, [Duelfer] also comes to largely the same conclusion that international weapons inspectors and some European nations argued before the war: that Mr. Hussein's weapons ambitions were defeated by inspections.

"U.N. sanctions and intrusive Unscom inspections dampened the regime's ability to retain its W.M.D. expertise," he wrote. "During the course of the 1990's, staffs were directed to civilian enterprises. Concomitantly, attrition through emigration, retirement and natural processes occurred."
That's right. Overzealous proponents of the policy of regime change in Iraq have gone to such great lengths to malign, belittle and dismiss the sanctions/inspections regime, as well as the officials in charge of the process, that what gets lost in the shuffle is the fact that they worked. Remarkably so. This article, which appeared in Foreign Affairs last year (now on the CFR website, no subscription required), offers a closer look at the majorly underappreciated inspections/sanctions tandem. Some key paragraphs:

Public debate has focused on the question of what went wrong with U.S. intelligence. Given the deteriorated state of Iraq's unconventional weapons programs and conventional military capabilities, this is only appropriate. But missing from the discussion is an equally important question: What went right with U.S. policy toward Iraq between 1990 and 2003? On the way to their misjudgments, it now appears, intelligence agencies and policymakers disregarded considerable evidence of the destruction and deterioration of Iraq's weapons programs, the result of a successful strategy of containment in place for a dozen years. They consistently ignored volumes of data about the impact of sanctions and inspections on Iraq's military strength.

The United Nations sanctions that began in August 1990 were the longest running, most comprehensive, and most controversial in the history of the world body. Most analysts argued prior to the Iraq war -- and, in many cases, continue to argue -- that sanctions were a failure. In reality, however, the system of containment that sanctions cemented did much to erode Iraqi military capabilities. Sanctions compelled Iraq to accept inspections and monitoring and won concessions from Baghdad on political issues such as the border dispute with Kuwait. They also drastically reduced the revenue available to Saddam, prevented the rebuilding of Iraqi defenses after the Persian Gulf War, and blocked the import of vital materials and technologies for producing WMD.

The unique synergy of sanctions and inspections thus eroded Iraq's weapons programs and constrained its military capabilities. The renewed UN resolve demonstrated by the Security Council's approval of a "smart" sanctions package in May 2002 showed that the system could continue to contain and deter Saddam. Unfortunately, only when U.S. troops invaded in March 2003 did these successes become clear: the Iraqi military that confronted them had, in the previous twelve years, been decimated by the strategy of containment that the Bush administration had called a failure in order to justify war in the first place.
Yeah, sure, but Hans Blix has a funny accent. And he hates America.

responded here. I issued my rebuttal to Darling here, and I would highly recommend perusing the well-informed comments to that post which helped to clarify my position, as well as Darling's. Darling responded to my rebuttal here, but I think I will let it end with that. In his defense, I think some of the back and forth was due to misunderstanding (especially the "editorializing" comment), and he was gracious and courteous throughout. I don't mean to suggest otherwise in any way.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


Mick Arran (the prodigious author of many blogs and the founder of Blog Tower e-zine for bloggers) has reached across the ether to tag me in the latest blog version of the open source chain letter. In this little experiment, we are asked to pick any five persons, living or dead, that we would like to blog with. Unfortunately for me, Mick already took Mark Twain and Nelson Mandela, so I have to really find seven - with those two being a given. So here goes:

David Sedaris: I thought my first choice should reflect a step in a different direction so I went with comedy. Enough politics already anyway. Lord knows we could all use a laugh these days, and Sedaris' brief vignettes would be perfect for the blog format. Don't get me wrong, I love Fafblog, Norbizness, and Jesus' General, but there's room for non-political humor as well. The upside is that his sister Amy could step in when he needs a breather. As an extra perk, the fact that he is openly gay would be sure to enrage the Dobson set - especially when he generates attention grabbing traffic.

Albert Einstein: How could I resist the urge to enlist such a brilliant and visionary scientific mind to aid us here in the 'Sphere. I dabbled in a couple of theoretical physics courses in college, and was most appreciative of the book The Evolution of Physics by Einstein and Leopold Infeld. Albert goes out of his way to explain esoteric concepts to the near-layman, and through this he lets the reader in on an entire branch of cutting edge science. His insights on posthumous developments like string theory alone would be worth the daily read. That is, assuming he stays at the level of Evolution and doesn't get all super-genius on us, but even when he does people like Coturnix would still get a kick out of it.

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Perhaps an obvious choice, but so what. If you've ever heard him speak, or read his work, you will appreciate the man's eloquence and intelligence. Imagine such beauty in a daily blog. As a rhetorician, he has a knack for cutting to the heart of the matter, and framing issues in a way that creates broad consensus. His religious bona fides would bring a built in response to the attempted monopolization of God by the GOP. Further, it would be riveting to watch the fulfillment of his evolution in thought, a process that was occurring around the time he was assassinated. At that period, King began to talk of getting past mere racism to begin discussing classism and the commonality of struggles for the working poor regardless of color. That, and he began speaking out against the Vietnam war. What would he say today?

William Shakespeare: I'm not sure how he would take to the short-form blog style, but my guess is he would adapt just fine. In the alternative, he would make me feel a lot better about my verbosity. Imagine the pleasure of getting a daily dose of new Shakespeare. How could I deprive my fellow bloggers of this joy? The writer from whence all others flow, the one who basically said it all, leaving it to those who came after to work tirelessly at coming up with new ways to write his words. And now, the undisputed blogger paragon. On second thought....

Nikos Kazantzakis: The author of Zorba The Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ, amongst others, Kazantzakis is a scholar after my own heart. His life work centered around an exploration of the work of Friedrich Nietzsche as well as the Buddhist religion - against the backdrop of his attempt to come to terms with his Christian faith. In addition to that intellectual pedigree, he is a brilliant writer capable of conjuring sensuality out of thin air. His unique perspective would allow me to scratch a philosophical/theological itch that nags me from time to time, and he would be a valuable resource to have in the midst of the religious revival occurring in the United States at this time. Beware false prophets.

*honorable mentions: Jesus Christ - but I figured everything he blogged would become scripture, and that his blog could end up dominating...well, the world (or at least the Western world). Still, I think it would be great to have him around to issue smack downs to all the so-called Christians sowing hate, violence, and death in his name. Besides, what's so funny bout peace, love and understanding? Also, Thoreau and Gandhi for obvious reasons.

My turn to do some tagging, and I have to pick three: First I'll tag the blogger that makes be occasionally burn with envy at her erudition, Nadezhda (okay, more than occasionally). Besides, I expect her to tag Praktike so I can kill two bloggers with one link. Next, Publius at Legal Fiction mostly because he's one of my favorites, but also because I already took Shakespeare, so he'll have to come up with six. Finally, and not in any way the least, Tim Dunlop at The Road To Surfdom for the view from Oz. You're all it.

(PS: I also want to tag Jonny if he has the time, but I know he's been under the gun and not able to blog regularly, so I didn't want to add more to his full docket.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

When Pundits Attack

Is there trouble in Bobo's Paradise? Apparently. There is something of a feud brewing between Right wing pundits, pitting Fox News stalwarts Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly against the bile-spewing, hate-mongering Michael Savage. Savage is so bad, that he actually makes you want to side with O'Reilly and Hannity - a sympathy I never thought I would feel.

The controversial conservative [Savage] — who was fired by MSNBC in 2003 after referring to a caller to his show as "a sodomite" who should "get AIDS and die" — recently burned more bridges by calling O'Reilly a "Leper-Con who poses as a conservative" and Hannity "another Republican bootlicker who began as a Rush [Limbaugh] understudy" on his "Savage Nation" radio show.
In response, Fox News has canceled a string of appearances slated for Savage in the weeks ahead. Savage took to whining about the treatment:

"These two are now acting the way the mainstream media has been acting for decades, thinking they are the gatekeepers of who shall be heard in the conservative world," Savage sputtered in a statement.

"Both are jealous of my audience and are trying to silence me because they do not want the competition."
Ironic that the movement of personal responsibility spawns pundits that can't seem to grasp the fact that they will be held accountable for their vitriol. Memo to Savage: if you utter gratuitously insulting personal attacks on people, they might not invite you on their shows. This may or may not be unfair, but it's the way the world works.
Poor Bill O'Reilly is feeling the heat from other fellow conservatives as well. First the loofah, now this. Bill needs a hug.
The gay-bashing broadcaster isn't the only publicity hound taking aim at O'Reilly, the undisputed king of cable news.

Catholic League president Bill Donohue, famed for firing off several press releases a day to media outlets, is ticked that O'Reilly once described him as a "witch-hunter" and Pope John Paul II as an "autocrat."

"My members are a little bit fed up with him," Donohue claims. "I guess he feels like if he is to the left of me, he'll appear more fair and balanced. We're on the same side philosophically on most issues. But I feel like, when someone crosses the line from criticism to disparagement, I'm gonna call them on it."

A Fox News Channel spokesperson responds: "One is a well-known hater, and the other is a notorious publicity hound. We congratulate them on their successful attention-grabbing efforts."
Now, now boys can't you all play nice. Where's Ann Coulter with that ruler to instill a little discipline. Or, rather, is this the infighting that David Brooks claims makes the conservative movement stronger? Ingenious.

[Note: these stories were reported in the New York Post which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. which also owns Fox News, so the reporting might be biased in favor of Fox's employees]

Monday, April 25, 2005

The Other Tipping Point

The talk of the various indicia of "tipping points" has been part and parcel of the coverage in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003. There was the famous "Mission Accomplished" gaffe by the Bush administration, which eagerly jumped ahead of history in leaps and bounds to declare game over way back in May 2003. Then there was talk of Saddam's capture being the turning point...or was it the handover of limited sovereignty to the interim government? The most recent events to trigger the repeated utterance of the "tipping point" refrain were the elections held in late January. According to the more sanguine voices in the choir, the elections built up momentum for change amongst Iraqis who now felt a sense of purpose and an invigorated resolve to stamp out the insurgency and forge ahead toward their bright future replete with the trappings of democracy and freedom.

I've always been slightly dubious about some of the more pollyannaish lauding of the elections because unless the Sunnis are to be brought into the government in a meaningful way, it is unlikely that the insurgency will lose steam simply because there are Shiites and Kurds in the government offices. Even upon the involvement of Sunni voices, there are foreign jihadists and revanchist Sunnis that will carry on regardless of the political configuration in country. The counter-hope is that an inclusive Iraqi government could better isolate and roll up the more intransigent insurgents - which is not beyond the pale of reason. But a funny thing happened on the way to peace, stability and inclusion.

It is now five days shy of three months after the election, and the jockeying for ministries, cabinet posts and the overarching governing principles (regional autonomy, the influence of Islam, etc) have forestalled the formation of a government (although there are
rumblings that this could change soon - hat tip Nadezhda). Still, the Sunnis appear no closer to joining the new government than they did on election day. Much of the positive feeling Iraqis took away from their experience in the voting booth has ceded ground to frustration and disenchantment at the lack of progress in the political realm.

But what is really fueling this renewed cynicism is the fact that contrary to expectations, little has changed on the ground post-election. Further, because many of these problems are so complex and difficult to solve, it is not clear to what extent progress will be apparent in the near -term aftermath of the formation of a new government regardless. Critical services such as electricity, sewage treatment and drinking water are still below pre-invasion standards for many regions. Law enforcement is spotty at best, and the security situation is experiencing major setbacks, with the resignations and abandonment by new police recruits undermining the effort to instill order (not to mention the killing of large numbers of these personnel by insurgents). This in turn is giving rise to the newest cottage industry in Iraq: kidnapping. On top of that, oil production has been hampered by insurgent attacks, and the crumbling oil infrastructure has been largely unaddressed while corruption and poor management have plagued the process - thus choking off a needed source of revenue for the nascent democratic Iraq.

Against this backdrop of stagnation and decay in vital sectors of Iraqi society, the violence by insurgents has continued apace and the tactics employed tell of an insurgency capable of adapting and adjusting: from the brash newly executed large-scale attacks on
US military facilities, to innovations in suicide bombing techniques such as the delayed second bomb that targets response teams which was on display in two locations this weekend. As retired General John Keane put it upon returning from a fact finding mission undertaken at the request of active military personnel:
"The insurgency is viable and resilient and has the capacity to achieve significant surprise," Gen. John Keane told The Hill this week. "We can expect more attacks. They have the capacity to plan a coherent operation for large-scale effect."
With this in mind, I wonder if we are not ignoring the significance of another potential tipping point in Iraq: When will the Shiites lose their heretofore remarkable patience and begin launching reprisal attacks against Sunni targets? The amount of forbearance shown by the Shiite population, and its leaders like Sistani, has really been beyond praiseworthy up to this date. Insurgents have deliberately targeted Shiite mosques and neighborhoods, with great success, in a concerted effort to spark sectarian violence but somehow the Shiites have managed to resist the urge to seek vengeance. Perhaps they are trained in the art of endurance because of the decades of cruelty suffered under Saddam's reign, but there must be limits to even this kind of learned discipline. When those limits are traversed, the outcome could take a drastic turn for the worse.

There are signs that the restraint is beginning to fray around the edges, as
Juan Cole posts:

Al-Hayat reports that Shiite-Sunni tensions in Iraq are boiling over. The new governor of Najaf, Asad Abu Kalal, threatened the Sunni Arabs with reprisals, during the funeral Saturday for victims of an attack on congregants at a Shiite mosque in Baghdad on Friday. He demanded that the Association for Muslim Scholars (a hardline Sunni group that often functions as the political wing of the guerrilla movement) "dissociate itself from the criminals." The governor of Najaf is from the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite, fairly hardline group long in exile in Iran.

Abu Kalal said, "We hold responsible the members of the Sunni branch . . . and demand that they issue statements and halt these criminal actions, so that we are not constrained to react . . ."
This is really a race against time. As more and more Shiites fall victim to attacks, the underlying pressure inches closer to critical mass. Eventually, the Shiites will be dragged into a violent cycle of revenge and counterstrikes unless these attacks on their citizens and holy sites can be prevented or at the very least, made less frequent. The truth is, in Iraq there are countervailing tipping points. We have to work toward achieving the one that results in a quelling of the insurgency before its continued existence causes the other to fall. The latter option would be nothing short of tragic. I wonder where that invisible boundary lies? (hat tip to Juan Cole for many of the above links)

(cross-posted at LAT)

Progress, Erosion and Confusion


Spain has just taken
a bold step forward in the effort to promote human rights and a more tolerant society. The lower house of parliament, by a count of 183-136, passed a law that would recognize, as valid and legal, same-sex marriages. The bill is still awaiting approval in the upper house, but due to an interesting characteristic of Spain's parliamentary law, the lower house can override the vote of the upper house so it looks as if this effort will succeed. Most expect the Catholic church to weigh in on the subject with a stern condemnation.

The vote is likely to strain relations between Spain's Socialist-led government and the Vatican. Last fall, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who this week was elected pope, told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that the Spanish government's position on same-sex marriage was "profoundly negative" and "destructive of family and society." [emphasis added]
This narrow-minded view is, in my opinion, "profoundly negative" so it is encouraging to see the Spanish people rise above such misguided religious dogma. In an ironic twist, other activity in Spain's legislative body on Thursday:

...the lower house of Spain's Parliament also voted to ease restrictions on getting a divorce.

Under the bill, which was passed by 195 to 5, with 127 abstentions, couples would no longer have to explain their reasons for seeking a divorce, nor would they have to be separated before ending the marriage.
I wonder if the new Pope will be as alarmed at this legislative act, which has more potential to destroy marriages than the recognition of same-sex matrimony. I mean, are we really supposed to believe that the fact that two men or two women can now get married is somehow going to lead to a wave of divorces, or fewer marriages in the future? More so than a relaxation of divorce laws? Priorities I guess.


Unfortunately, as Spain pushes ahead, Microsoft takes
a giant step back.

The Microsoft Corporation, at the forefront of corporate gay rights for decades, is coming under fire from gay rights groups, politicians and its own employees for withdrawing its support for a state bill that would have barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
This is a bill (with slight variations) that has come up for a vote repeatedly over the prior three decades. Microsoft had supported the effort for several years, but this year buckled under the pressure of a local minister, Ken Hutcherson, who heads a regional megachurch. Hutcherson openly boasted of his influence on Microsoft's decision.

Dr. Hutcherson, pastor of the Antioch Bible Church, who has organized several rallies opposing same-sex marriage here and in Washington, D.C., said he threatened in those meetings to organize a national boycott of Microsoft products.

After that, "they backed off," the pastor said Thursday in a telephone interview. "I told them I was going to give them something to be afraid of Christians about," he said.
John Aravosis has some more details about this incident, including a look at the particulars of the bill that so incensed Hutcherson and his co-religionists.

House Bill 1515 would protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in employment, housing, banking, insurance, and other matters by adding sexual orientation to a state law which already bars discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, gender, marital status, and mental or physical handicap. More than a dozen states currently have similar laws on the books....
Sounds pretty awful to me. So much for "hate the sin, love the sinner." Instead, these so-called Christians are fighting efforts to prevent punitive discrimination against people solely based on their sexual orientation. How very Christ-like. I was also a little surprised to see this list, which highlights just how craven Microsoft is:

The list of high-profile companies that endorsed the bill this year reads like a who's who of the Pacific Northwest corporate world. It includes the Boeing Company, Nike, Coors Brewing, Qwest Communications, Washington Mutual, Hewlett-Packard, Corbis, Battelle Memorial Institute, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen's Vulcan Inc., and others. And as late as February 1, Microsoft, which issued a letter in support of the bill last year, appeared poised to do so again....
Coors? Coors? The notoriously conservative Coors Brewing supports the bill, but not Microsoft? Cowards. Aravosis also takes note of the larger significance of Microsoft's retreat from principle:

That one of the world's best-known corporations, synonymous with cutting-edge workplace innovation, would reverse its stance on such a basic piece of legislation because of threats from one minister seems to be yet another sign of the ongoing reverberations of last November's presidential election, when "moral values" voters were widely - if probably erroneously - perceived to have played the role of kingmaker in ensuring the reelection of President Bush.

"The pastor of a megachurch gets a meeting in two weeks with one of the top executives at one of the world's most powerful corporations. He makes these idle threats and he gets everything he wants," the GLEAM member who reported Smith's comments says. "Microsoft just got taken to the cleaners on this issue."
Apparently, Hutcherson played up the values-voting angle as well in his pitch to Microsoft brass:

Dr. Hutcherson, who has become a leading national critic of same-sex marriage, said he believed he could have organized a widespread boycott of Microsoft. He said he told the Microsoft executives, "If you don't think the moral issue is not a big issue, just count the amount of votes that were cast on moral issues in the last election."
Deeply disappointing. This cult of values has run amok, and it is taking on a life of its own. This country needs a stern reality check.


Pope Benedict XVI, a noted theological conservative, will be faced with dilemma because of an increasingly popular movement amongst Catholics, both within the Vatican and outside, to explore certain exceptions to the prior Pope's prohibition on condoms as a means of preventing the spread of HIV in certain regions of the world particularly hard hit by the disease.

In much of the developing world, Catholic charities and local churches provide much of the medical treatment and care, so the Vatican's views have enormous impact. Official church policy is that the spread of AIDS should be fought with sexual abstinence and fidelity in marriage.
The problem is, in impoverished regions of the globe, prostitution is rampant for women who have few or no other option for supporting themselves and their children. The rates of infection for these women, and their children, are astronomically high. Further, the men that visit these prostitutes often return home and infect their own wives - who then pass the disease to future offspring. So, by maintaining a rigid doctrinal opposition to condom use, the Catholic church is in effect punishing women who may be chaste in their marriage, but who are the victims of their husbands' extra-marital transgressions. Sadly, the HIV virus makes no moral judgments. And for the women forced into prostitution as a result of their destitute circumstances, this seems an awfully cruel stand to take. The bottom line is, where there is dire poverty, AIDS will spread in such a manner because people cannot afford the luxury of noble moral stands. Telling these people to abstain from sex is just not going to work. Thankfully, some high level Catholic officials are able to grasp this reality.

Several cardinals have also implicitly - if not explicitly - challenged Vatican policy in supporting the limited use of condoms to combat AIDS in recent months. Theologically, they contend that in such situations, condoms are lifesaving medical devices rather than a form of contraception....

In an interview with an Italian news agency in February, Cardinal Georges Cottier of Switzerland said that "the use of condoms in some situations can be considered morally legitimate," particularly to stem the spread of H.I.V. and AIDS in Africa.

Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, the Vatican's top health official, has said twice in recent interviews that it would be allowable for a woman married to a man with H.I.V. to use condoms "in self-defense" just as the church found it acceptable to use deadly force to fend off an attack.
Which is not to say that the Catholic church needs drop their message of abstinence and fidelity altogether. There is nothing wrong with a practical approach with a principled backbone.

In Rustenburg, South Africa, Bishop Dowling has made the policy decision that the diocese's huge network of H.I.V. clinics would include in its counseling both a talk about the virtues of abstinence and faithfulness, and instruction in how and when to use condoms.
This is the best approach to take in my opinion. It will be interesting to see how this new Pope handles the confrontation between the culture of life on the one hand, and the hyperfocus on sexual activity on the other. Shouldn't it be that life wins out over a doctrinaire commitment to prohibitions on certain sexual activity when so much needless suffering is at stake?

"I believe condoms need to be debated, and I believe theologically their use can be justified, to prevent the transmission of a death-dealing virus," said Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, South Africa, an impoverished diocese of miners and poor women who sell their bodies to feed their children, where H.I.V. rates in prenatal clinics approach 50 percent.

"I see these young women and their babies, and the desperation and the suffering, and I think, 'What would Jesus want?' " he said in an interview. "There's no way he could condemn someone like this."

Friday, April 22, 2005

Fasten Your Seatbelts

Most scientists believe that [global] warming is caused largely by manmade pollutants that require strict regulation. Mr. Luntz [a Republican strategist] seems to acknowledge as much when he says that "the scientific debate is closing against us." His advice, however, is to emphasize that the evidence is not complete.

"Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled," he writes, "their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue." [emphasis added]
- As reported in the New York Times March 15, 2003

The President's
proactive approach, which is yielding the desired results:

Mr. Bush began reorganizing climate research in 2001, focusing on the uncertainties about the relationship between rising global temperatures and rising concentrations of heat-trapping emissions. His critics, including some scientists and former senior officials in the climate program, say the shift in focus was meant to distract attention from the broad scientific consensus that humans have caused most of the new global warming.

Rick S. Piltz, who resigned last month after 10 years in the Global Change Research Program, which coordinates climate work, said that Dr. Mahoney had good intentions, but that the program had been changed so that worrisome findings did not emerge that could increase pressure to curb emissions. [emphasis added]
If science is against you, blind it:

The Bush administration's program to study climate change lacks a major component required by law, according to Congressional investigators. The program fails to include periodic assessments of how rising temperatures may affect people and the environment....

Without such an assessment, the [GAO] said, "it may be difficult for the Congress and others to use this information effectively as the basis for making decisions on climate policy."
With the scientific data thus manipulated, it becomes easier to oppose needed legislative measures that are less favored by important donors and constituents:

Mr. Bush opposes mandatory restrictions on smokestack and tailpipe gases, which many climate scientists link to global warming, saying the science pointing to the risks remains uncertain.

Other Republicans have broken ranks with Mr. Bush on the climate since his re-election. In remarks at the Brookings Institution in February, Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, said although the administration had been right to reject the Kyoto Protocol, the climate treaty embraced by almost all other industrial powers, it had never offered a coherent alternative.

"We have been out of the game for four years," Mr. Hagel said. "That's dangerous. It's irresponsible."
Adding insult to injury, at a time when right wing pundits talk, with feigned concern, of "tough choices" on Social Security benefits required by out of control deficits, they vote to funnel billions more to those already appeased backers (who happen to be doing quite well at the moment as the price of oil continues its record-breaking ascent):

The House approved broad energy legislation on Thursday....Many Democrats and some Republicans said the measure, which provides $8 billion in tax breaks to energy producers and billions of dollars more in direct federal aid, was too friendly to industry and gave short shrift to energy efficiency and renewable fuels.[emphasis added]
But hey, who needs a planet when the rapture index is telling us to "fasten our seatbelts" because Armageddon is just around the corner. Just to clarify, that's fasten the seatbelt in your SUV.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Hack Attack

My old friend Alan Greenspan was at it again today, warning Congress about the record high deficits that are endangering our economic well-being and, in a related sense, our national security interests. For example, the war on terrorism will be hard to fight in an economic downturn or with limited budgetary resources, especially if borrowing abroad is made more expensive by the loss of reserve currency status or a general loss of appetite for our debt instruments. But I digress.

While I was champing at the bit to get my Greenspan take-down into the 'sphere,
Kevin Drum slyly took advantage of yet another Blogger shutdown to edge me out at the line. Kevin covers most of the salient points: the fact that Greenspan is clamoring for a reduction in spending (read: reduction in Social Security benefits) and a restoration of fiscal sanity, and that his big scare tactic centers around the dreaded baby boomer retirement that seems to have snuck up out of the blue on the unsuspecting Greenspan. Why just four years ago, Greenspan was justifying Bush's $1.3 trillion dollar tax cut (that was the one in 2001, there have been many more since) by claiming that the surpluses were too high, and that we ran the risk of paying down the debt too quickly. Heh. Now, with that $1.3 trillion number in mind, look at the numbers that have Greenspan so concerned:

Last year, the government produced a budget deficit of $412 billion, a record in dollar terms. The deficit this year is projected to shatter that record, coming in at an estimated $427 billion.
I'm no mathematician, nor an economist, but according to those numbers, it seems to the layman that the two prior deficits could have fit under the umbrella of the 2001 tax cuts alone - with room to spare. But of course, Bush's tax cuts didn't stop at $1.3 trillion. There have been sizable additions each and every year, with each successive budget passed by the Republican controlled Congress - including the most recent repeal of the Estate Tax for multimillionaires. For Greenspan though, what a difference four years makes. Now he repeats the doomsday mantra about Social Security and Medicare, while admonishing the government's profligate ways. Guess he forgot about the boomer generation way back in 2001, caught up in the drunken frenzy of tax cut euphoria. But now, we get the sober Greenspan. This tale of two Greenspan's was not lost on some observers, and the criticism seems to be getting to poor beleaguered Alan.

Greenspan's call for fiscal prudence touched a nerve with Democrats who still sting from Greenspan's endorsement of President Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cut in 2001. It was proposed at a time when the government was expecting a decade of budget surpluses, which didn't materialize.

"I was wrong like everybody else on the issue of surpluses," Greenspan said.

In 2001, Greenspan said the tax cut should be accompanied by a trigger mechanism that would rescind the tax cut in later years if economic forecasts changed. The Fed chief said it was "frankly unfair" for people not to remember that point. [emphasis added]
Here's the problem with Greenspan's faux defense, and why it's not so unfair to hold him accountable: he has consistently counseled against repealing those same tax cuts as a means of putting the nation's fiscal house in order. So, according to him, he should be given a free pass on all of his sage advice concerning the preservation of those tax cuts because once, four years ago, he said they should have a sunset provision built in - even though now he opposes efforts to pass an ex post facto repeal. Not very convincing Mr. Greenspan. If you think those tax cuts should have been passed with provisions for their eventual rescission, why not advocate for their repeal now - which would accomplish the same goal. Otherwise, live with your hackularity.

What also caught my eye, at least in the
New York Times' coverage (note: the reference to private accounts is not included in the most updated online version of the story), was the fact that Greenspan cautioned that the time was not right for private accounts, and that the trillions that would need to be borrowed to fund the transition from the current system to partial privatization would further spike the deficits and would likely cause a sharp increase in interest rates. When one of the biggest GOP political hacks in Washington comes out against privatization, the President's plan might be DOA. If so, RIP.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Dangerous Game

The all-seeing eye, praktike (not Sauron) has alerted me to an article in US News that discusses some of the "renewed" efforts by the Bush administration in the realm of public diplomacy. I have minor issues with some of the reporting in the article, such as the singling out of the appointment of Karen Hughes as a signal of the new seriousness of the Bush administration. She is a trusted advisor to Bush, which is significant, but as the Washington Post reported:

Karen Hughes, who was appointed a month ago to craft a bold new approach for U.S. public diplomacy, is not expected to take the job until as late as the fall, according to administration and congressional sources. The delay is already undermining U.S. credibility, with a well-placed U.S. official warning about "the gap between rhetoric and reality."
Waiting until the fall? That's something like a half-year hiatus before the job even begins - and it's not exactly as if the rest of the world is on vacation too. In addition, the US News article applies an overly optimistic appraisal of the "successes" and acceptance of the Al Hurra television network and Radio Sawa, both of which are too propagandistic to gain credence among a wide swathe of the target audience. Perhaps the authors of the article were relying on the dubious poll numbers that Ed Djerejian called "skewed" - a charge that was backed up by research conducted by the Brookings Institute (as reported in my prior post).

But what struck me in the US News article was the newest prong in the diplomatic strategy: that of actually trying to influence the religion of Islam itself:

The White House has approved a classified new strategy, dubbed Muslim World Outreach, that for the first time states that the United States has a national security interest in influencing what happens within Islam. Because America is, as one official put it, "radioactive" in the Islamic world, the plan calls for working through third parties--moderate Muslim nations, foundations, and reform groups--to promote shared values of democracy, women's rights, and tolerance.

In at least two dozen countries, Washington has quietly funded Islamic radio and TV shows, coursework in Muslim schools, Muslim think tanks, political workshops, or other programs that promote moderate Islam. Federal aid is going to restore mosques, save ancient Korans, even build Islamic schools. This broad engagement with Islam has raised questions about whether the funding is legal, given the constitutional line between church and state.
This is a dangerous game to be playing, and one that must be orchestrated with the adroitness of a surgeon. Exposure of too heavy a hand in internal disputes within the faith of Islam could trigger a nasty backlash, and a further marginalizing of reformist movements and moderate voices. Even an association with American ideas in a political context is enough to evoke suspicion and distrust, but an attempt to promote certain religious currents by the US would arouse a harsher response. The article provides a closer look at some of the tactics and beneficiaries of this new engagement with Islam itself:

But the breakthrough finally came last summer, sources say, when the NSC began reworking the White House's National Strategy for Combating Terrorism....Aimed at strengthening the hand of moderates, the plan acknowledges that America has done poorly in reaching out to them. But it goes one big step further, stating that the United States and its allies have a national security interest not only in what happens in the Islamic world but within Islam itself, according to three sources who have seen the document. It further states that because America is limited to what it can do in a religious struggle, the nation must rely on partners who share values like democracy, women's rights, and tolerance. Among those partners: allied Muslim states, private foundations, and nonprofit groups.

Another strategy being pursued is to make peace with radical Muslim figures who eschew violence. At the top of the list: the Muslim Brotherhood, the pre-eminent Islamist society, founded in 1928 and now with tens of thousands of followers worldwide. Many brotherhood members, particularly in Egypt and Jordan, are at serious odds with al Qaeda. "I can guarantee that if you go to some of the unlikely points of contact in the Islamic world, you will find greater reception than you thought," says Milt Bearden, whose 30-year CIA career included long service in Muslim societies. "The Muslim Brotherhood is probably more a part of the solution than it is a part of the problem." Indeed, sources say U.S. intelligence officers have been meeting not only with the Muslim Brotherhood but also with members of the Deobandi sect in Pakistan, whose fundamentalism schooled the Taliban and inspired an army of al Qaeda followers. Cooperative clerics have helped tamp down fatwas calling for anti-American jihad and persuaded jailed militants to renounce violence. These sensitive ties have led to at least one breakthrough--the July arrest in Pakistan of al Qaeda's Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, whose computer held surveillance files of the New York Stock Exchange, the World Bank, and other financial targets. Khan's capture led to a dozen arrests in London. "Engagement," says one official, "is absolutely key."
The article also recounts two of the main reasons that I opposed the Iraq invasion, and why I believe it was a setback in the diplomatic effort to win Muslim hearts and minds. On the one hand, it leant credence to the radical propaganda that the US is an imperial force in the Middle East and in the Muslim world in general, while at the same time, it drained the resources, brainpower, and assets needed to combat these virulent misconceptions, most of which predated the Iraq invasion itself.

First, a recounting of how much harder the invasion of Iraq has made our already daunting task of rehabilitating our image in the Muslim world:

To millions of Muslims, Washington's toppling of Saddam seemed to confirm the imperialist caricature painted by its worst enemies: an America that invades and occupies an oil-rich Arab nation, thumbs its nose at the world, supports Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, calls for democracy but relies on strongmen from Egypt to Pakistan. "The U.S. could have the prophet Muhammad doing public relations, and it wouldn't help," argued Osama Siblani, publisher of the weekly Arab American News in Dearborn, Mich. "I don't believe that people hate movie stars and Burger King. They hate what the U.S. is doing to their lives"....

Even as the insurgency in Iraq shows signs of losing steam, anti-Americanism now reaches across every strata of the Muslim world. Rumors that U.S. soldiers harvest organs from dying Iraqis or that Washington caused the tsunami to kill Muslims appear in major Arab media. Slick jihadist music videos and recruiting CD s sell briskly on the streets of Arab capitals. Many of the region's leaders believe America is at war with the Arab world, or with Islam itself, according to a March report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "U.S.-Arab relations," the report concludes, "are at their lowest point in generations"....

A December report by the CIA-based National Intelligence Council predicts that masses of unemployed, alienated youth in the Arab world "will swell the ranks of those vulnerable to terrorist recruitment."
Then, with these problems at the level of a crisis, the drain of money, resources, and attention to address them:

Despite the surge of activity, Washington's efforts to win hearts and minds remain chaotic. Staffers on the White House National Security Council have drafted over a hundred papers proposing action against Islamist propaganda and political activity, sources say, yet almost none have been acted upon. To help remedy the situation, the White House is creating a new position, a deputy national security adviser for strategic communication and global outreach....

Why the lack of priority? Fighting bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq took the lion's share of attention, to be sure. Yet in public, top administration officials seemed emphatic. "This is a battle of ideas and a battle for minds," declared the Pentagon's No. 2 man, Paul Wolfowitz, in 2002. "To win the war on terror, we must win a war of ideas," agreed Condoleezza Rice a year later. But those working below them saw a decided lack of interest. "The principals have not indicated this is a priority," bemoaned one key staffer, speaking of cabinet-level officials. "They just didn't get it."
The article closes with what I took as an admonition to the champions of unipolarity, those who are most seduced by notions that America's dominance is limitless and will persist independent of our actions and other developments around the world. Maintaining a positive image depends upon our continued effort to engage the world, cooperate with allies, embrace differences, and accommodate varying viewpoints. We rely on the village.

Veterans of information warfare say the amounts being spent today are still inadequate, while a new Government Accountability Office study highlights an array of problems with U.S. public diplomacy strategy. Hughes's predecessor at State, acting Assistant Secretary Patricia Harrison, told U.S. News that she felt at times like Sisyphus, the Greek king banished to forever push a boulder up a steep hill, only to have it roll down again. The lesson Washington needs to learn, Harrison says, goes back to the Cold War--that the world matters and America needs to stay engaged. "You never declare victory," she warns. "You do not declare that it's the end of history and go home. The job is to continue pushing the boulder up and up, to keep investing, keep connecting."
True enough.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Losing Our Voice

Soft On Soft Power

There was an interesting internecine nit-pick between left-leaning bloggers recently over the issue of public diplomacy and its efficacy. First, Brad Plumer was slightly underwhelmed by the news, reported by the
Washington Post, that our diplomatic efforts in the Middle East have been lagging behind schedule, generally unfocused, and lacking in results. As the Post put it:

The delay comes as a Government Accountability Office report released this month criticized the administration for failing to develop a strategy to improve the image of the United States as "recent polling data show that anti-Americanism is spreading and deepening around the world."

"Such anti-American sentiments can increase foreign public support for terrorism directed at Americans, impact the cost and effectiveness of military operations, weaken the United States' ability to align with other nations in pursuit of common policy objectives, and dampen foreign publics' enthusiasm for U.S. business services and products," the report warned.

Plumer chimes in:

Well, okay. Frankly, I don't much care, because I'm deeply skeptical of this whole "we need better public diplomacy" approach. Certainly, there's room to improve around the margins - for instance, it would be great if more State Department officials could get on Al-Jazeerah and debate and defend (in Arabic) U.S. policies. But that's hard to do so long as many U.S. policies are all but indefensible in the Muslim world. American support for Israel, for instance, is going to piss people in the Middle East off, and there's no way to sugarcoat this. Likewise, if the U.S. really is building long-term bases in Iraq, then it's going to be awfully hard to get State Department folks on TV and convince everyone that no, no, we have no long-term designs on Iraq. And no one's going to believe that the U.S. is sincere about democracy-promotion unless the Bush administration actually does stuff, like speaking out about King Abdullah's crackdowns in Jordan.
Matthew Yglesias responded to Plumer's more unequivocal skepticism:

There seems to me to be a major underappreciate [sic] of the fact that American policy often looks hypocritical, incoherent, and ill-conceived simply because it is hypocritical, incoherent, and at times ill-conceived. What it isn't -- and what I think good public diplomacy would help make it clear that it isn't -- is a vast, masterfully orchestrated conspiracy with some master planner sitting in the AIPAC basement chuckling "heh, heh, heh" à la Mr. Burns. I think that's a reasonable hope for public diplomacy. It could cordon off disputes so that even if Arabs and Americans don't see eye-to-eye about the West Bank or Falluja these disagreements don't need to be the be-all and end-all of US-Arab relations.
I tend to come down on the side of Yglesias in this disagreement - to the extent that there is one. I think Plumer's general thesis is correct, that the policies almost always trump the message or marketing of those positions, and that the policies represent the true source of our image problem in the Middle East and elsewhere. But I lean toward Yglesias in believing that there is some merit to at least presenting our ideas as the product of a debate and not as some malicious conspiracy. Still, pace Plumer, even the most successful execution of this strategy would not translate into a magic bullet to cure our woes in this area (maybe not even a magic spitball), but presenting more reasonable rhetoric and image to the world is so easy that it would be foolish to go out of our way to concede points that should be a given.

It's also important to remember that we are not merely trying to repair our image in the Muslim world. After four years of the Bush administration, there is a greater urgency to address our plummeting approval ratings in every corner of the globe. In many of these regions, such as Europe, disputes over actual policies are not as pronounced or intractable as they are in the Middle East. In these settings, an improvement in tone and tenor could actually make up some ground, or at least halt the freefall.

The problem is that at a time when the Bush administration is attempting such a bold, transformative foreign policy, the rhetoric being employed by administration officials and their ideological brethren is one that shows disdain, contempt, and outright hostility for other nations and international organizations - even traditional allies (occasionally even the targets of our "humanitarian" spread of democracy). This rhetoric is born out of a philosophical skepticism of alliances and international organizations - which are viewed as vehicles to constrain our power - and favors ad hoc coalitions of the willing. Unfortunately, this abrasive posture, and disregard for notions of legitimacy and consensus, have hampered our
political interests, economic interests, and cultural hegemony. At this time, as in the era of the Cold War, cooperation and goodwill are at a premium. That said, the Bush administration has, often gratuitously, trampled on that spirit.

Even staunch Bush supporter
John Lewis Gaddis admonished the administration for its excessive hubris.

It is always a bad idea to confuse power with wisdom: muscles are not brains. It is never a good idea to insult potential allies, however outrageous their behavior may have been. Nor is it wise to regard consultation as the endorsement of a course already set. The Bush administration was hardly the first to commit these errors. It was the first, however, to commit so many so often in a situation in which help from friends could have been so useful.

Another lesson relates to language. The president and his advisers preferred flaunting U.S. power to explaining its purpose. To boast that one possesses and plans to maintain "strengths beyond challenge" may well be accurate, but it mixes arrogance with vagueness, an unsettling combination. Strengths for what purpose? Challenges from what source? Cold War presidents were careful to answer such questions. Bush, during his first term, too often left it to others to guess the answers. In his second, he will have to provide them.
In terms of diplomacy, at the very least the Bush team should rein in its brashest voices (not appoint them as ambassadors to the UN) and employ a set of policies that shows regard for the input of others. Concrete measures on issues like global warming and the International Criminal Court would perhaps do more to right the ship, but those move require real compromises whereas the shift in rhetoric and a willingness to consult allies is just about as easy said as done.

The Truth Shall Set Us Free

The current approach (or lack thereof) to repairing the damage done to our image has also been flawed - marked by an underlying attitude to the manipulation of information that undermines these efforts. The Bush team has become so addicted to rigid discipline and staying on message, that this unyielding group-think is interfering with the mission of improved diplomacy. Further, the belief that a better image can be imposed by us on others (as if in a hierarchy of nations with us at the top), rather than working with others to mend relations, has hindered efficacy.

This strategy is exemplified by the selection of Madison Avenue advertising executives like Charlotte Beers to "sell" America to the Muslim world, at the same time that the State Department has no Muslims currently in its employ to build bridges. From the Post article:

Despite the administration's repeated pledges of outreach, the State Department's main program directed at the Islamic world has no Muslim staff, U.S. officials say. "There's a dearth of Muslims in the State Department generally," a senior State Department official said....

But analysts say media exposure is not enough. "There's deep confusion within the administration about what public diplomacy means. For some, it's simply selling America's image in the world," Carothers said. "For others, it's something deeper that has to do with creating a partnership between America and Muslim countries to replace the current antagonism."
This wrongheaded approach can also be seen in recent changes to the Voice Of America (VOA) radio program which has been a trusted weapon in the arsenal of US diplomacy for the past sixty-plus years. In an article in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, the program's former director, Sanford Ungar, tells of this unique platform's history and utility - as well as its recent fall from favor. Over the past several decades, VOA radio programs have been dispatched to even the most remote areas of the globe, on the front lines of conflict and obscurity, from the Cold War to African independence movements. These radio wave based ambassadors of goodwill offer foreigners a glimpse into the real America, as well as some usefull English lessons. The programs have also been immensely popular, and the secret to their success has been a commitment to truth and accuracy in reporting, no matter what the political impact of such information.

As a government agency with a journalistic mission, the VOA has always been a somewhat peculiar institution. Launched in New York soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it was created to counter propaganda from the Axis powers. Still, its first words, broadcast in German on February 25, 1942, made a grand commitment to honesty: "Daily, at this time, we shall speak to you about America and the war. The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth"....

In response to the threat of political influence and partisan manipulation, in 1976 an unlikely bipartisan measure outlining an official charter for the network was tacked onto an appropriations bill. The charter declared, among other things, that the "VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news"; that "VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive"; and that the network will "present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions." Once the charter took effect, efforts by U.S. embassies to interfere with VOA broadcasts declined, and the network's credibility and audience grew dramatically....

President John F. Kennedy famously said on its 20th anniversary, "The Voice of America ... carries a heavy responsibility. ... It must explain to a curious and suspicious world what we are. It must tell them of our basic beliefs." Edward R. Murrow, then the director of the USIA, declared, "To be persuasive, we must be believable. To be believable, we must be truthful." [emphasis added]
Those words from Edward Murrow, as well as the VOA's charter, represent a lesson that the Bush administration has been slow to learn. With projects such as these, it is better to remove partisan interests from the process, and better to be seen as an honest broker. The opposite approach was taken with efforts like Al Hurra (the ill-conceived television station set up by the US government to counter Al Jazeera). As opposed to an unbiased recounting of news and events as put forth by VOA, vehicles like Al Hurra are heavily steeped in administration talking points and thus, predictably, are dismissed as propaganda by the very target audience.

In the meantime, the same people pushing for more slanted coverage in these media outlets are diverting funds from successful models like VOA toward dubious private ventures. They have been aided in this cause by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a new agency which has taken control of VOA.

Some members of Congress have suggested that the VOA's job might best be left to the free market and cable services such as Fox and CNN, which have extensive networks of correspondents....

With funds originally intended for the VOA, Pattiz launched Radio Sawa (sawa is Arabic for "coming together"), a 24-hour-a-day channel that features popular Western and Arabic music with just a few minutes of news every hour and is broadcast primarily to Arab countries with pro-Western governments. In 2004, the BBG spent another $62 million of its federal appropriations to create an Arabic-language television network called al Hurra ("the free one") as an alternative to the popular al Jazeera satellite network based in Qatar. Al Hurra, which principally targets audiences in Iraq and Kuwait, focuses heavily on events related to the transformation of Iraq under U.S. occupation. Similarly, to broadcast in Iran the BBG has established Radio Farda, which uses the commercial-style approach of Radio Sawa to compete with the Farsi service of the VOA. The latter is not expected to survive.
As Ungar reports, there is evidence of the lack of results from these new efforts:

These initiatives, none of which is carried out under the VOA name or staffed with government employees, have been the subject of fierce debate. Although Pattiz claims great success for al Hurra, a survey by Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has found that it has a minimal audience and enjoys little credibility. Edward Djerejian, a retired diplomat who led a well-publicized study of U.S. public diplomacy needs in 2003, argues that the $62 million spent on al Hurra would have been better used purchasing "quality American content" for indigenous Arab satellite networks. (Djerejian also suggests that the BBG is skewing surveys to make Radio Sawa look more successful than it really is.) Rami Khouri, the executive editor of The Daily Star in Beirut, has accused the U.S. government of "a fatal combination of political blindness and cultural misperception," calling the creation of al Hurra and Radio Sawa "an entertaining, expensive, and irrelevant hoax." Undaunted, the BBG has now announced the launch of a separate Arabic-language television channel for Europe, one more part of its strategy to support the war on terrorism in the post-September 11 world.
Unfortunately, the funding of alternatives to an unbiased reporting of the news is not where the story ends. The Bush administration has also trespassed on the non-partisan character of the VOA - inserting a propagandistic approach to the news where none previously existed. Apparently, the compulsion to disseminate propaganda is not limited to the domestic market.

Meanwhile, employees in the VOA's battered newsroom have tried to fend off directives from VOA director David Jackson and other political appointees, who have suggested that the network report more favorably on the actions of the Bush administration in Iraq and the Middle East and more deliberately try to enhance the United States' reputation around the world. Editors have repeatedly been asked to develop "positive stories" emphasizing U.S. successes in Iraq, rather than report car bombings and terrorist attacks, and they were instructed to remove from the VOA Web site photographs of abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, even though they were already widely available elsewhere. On several occasions since 2002, VOA management has objected to stories quoting Democratic politicians or newspaper editorials critical of the Bush administration's foreign policy. In July 2004, Jackson demoted and reassigned the VOA's news director, Andre de Nesnera, a veteran correspondent, purportedly as part of a move to bolster the role of a television production unit recently incorporated into the VOA. Colleagues insisted, however, that de Nesnera was being punished for refusing to make the daily news report more overtly sympathetic to President George W. Bush. Yet when nearly half of the VOA's staff of 1,000 signed a petition protesting this and other changes -- a gesture that received much attention in the outside media -- the relevant committees in Congress asked only the BBG about the legitimacy of the complaints. The employee rebellion, dismissed as a mere nuisance organized by pesky, spoiled bureaucrats, was quickly squelched, dashing any residual hope that the BBG could in fact serve as a firewall against political interference.
This devotion to propaganda and manipulation of the media is counterproductive and futile. By pushing too pro-Bush an agenda, the credibility of these voices are tarnished beyond repair, and without credibility, they are nothing but shouting into a void. The irony is, though, that even presenting an unbiased accounting of the news warts and all in many parts of the world, such as the Middle East, would be, and has been, a big time net positive for the US. These regions are generally beset by media interests that are highly biased against the US and infused with locally themed propaganda. As such, if we can merely discuss the issues in an open way, we can establish a credibility and show the process and rationale for our policies and actions. In many ways we can sell ourselves in such a manner, more organically, without hitting the listener over the head with a litany of pro-US slogans that illicit resistance where rapport is sought. This would, at the very least, go a certain distance toward convincing people that our policies are not the product of a "vast, masterfully orchestrated conspiracy with some master planner sitting in the AIPAC basement." But to do this, we must be believed and to be believed, we must be honest. It's not the end game, but it is a start.

Liberally Blogging At Liberals Against Terrorism

I've been a bit inundated at work and haven't had the time for longer posts, but I do have a handful of quick-hitting pieces at Liberals Against Terrorism that by TIA standards should be a breeze.

The first is an update on the back and forth negotiations over how many, and which, ministries the Shiites and Kurds will leave to the Sunnis. If the Sunnis are shut out too dramatically, this could reinvigorate the insurgency.

The second is a slight disagreement with the unyielding pessimism of Juan Cole, even when presented with news that could possibly lead to improved conditions (note: that is only a possibility).

Next up is a showing of proper respect for Marla Ruzicka, the 28 year old aid worker killed in Iraq over the weekend. A truly remarkable woman who will be dearly missed by many.

Finally, a reminder of the Catch-22-esque dynamic surrounding the insurgency in terms of unleashing Kurdish and Shiite militias to put it down vs. waiting for Iraqi government forces to be up to the task. No easy answers.

More TIA blogging to come.....

Friday, April 15, 2005

Tolerable Friedman

This is priceless. Lamenting the turn-back-the-clock to circa 1890 assault on the New Deal, the deliberate inattention to and neglect of science, and the fact that our Asian competitors are leaving us in the dust in the realm of high speed broadband and wireless technology, Friedman offers this pearl:

It's as if we have an industrial-age presidency, catering to a pre-industrial ideological base, in a post-industrial era.
Wake up Republicans. There's a world that's moving forward and trying to claw backward to some never-was golden age is simply not an option.

We have a Treasury secretary from the railroad industry. We have an administration that won't lift a finger to prevent the expensing of stock options, which is going to inhibit the ability of U.S. high-tech firms to attract talent - at a time when China encourages its start-ups to grant stock options to young innovators. And we have movie theaters in certain U.S. towns afraid to show science films because they are based on evolution and not creationism.
The science of non-science has got to go. Enough already.

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