Thursday, March 31, 2005

Bush regimes bows to ICC

The Bush regime has apparently decided that its hatred of the idea of a transnational legal order shouldn't hold up refering Darfur crimes to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Several readers have complained that I never acknowledge the Bushies for doing anything good. Well, here's an exception: this was a good move, I hope it won't appear as gloating if I observe that late is certainly better than never.

Schiavo Symbolism

Don't miss Dana Milbank's take on the longer-term political implications of the Schiavo ordeal.

And the beat goes on in Iraq

While there definitely seems to be improvement in Iraq, there have still been 44 U.S. casualties this month, more than in eight of the first eleven months since Bush declared "Mission Accomplished." And while U.S. deaths appear to be scaling back for the moment, the war itself continues to be as deadly as ever for the Iraqis themselves, with 2 more suicide car bombers this morning in Samarra and near Kirkuk. In the meanwhile, the much-vaunted freely elected Iraqi parliament has been unable to form a government and instead has been reduced to a shouting forum.

No doubt pro-war folks will respond to the above by, more or less, dittoing Paul Wolfowitz: "I have to infer from that (statement) that you would be happier if Saddam Hussein were still in power." To which a great post over on Night Light seems to me to say it all:

Let's deal with this question once and for all, OK? It's the classic retort given by neocons and other war supporters whenever anyone questions the wisdom of the Iraq War. In this case, it was Wolfowitz's response to a student who had just said the following: "We are tired, Secretary Wolfowitz, of being feared and hated by the world. We are tired of watching Americans and Iraqis die, and international institutions cry out in anger against us."

Let's say I get disturbed by a spider crawling up the garage wall. I slam the car into it at 50 miles an hour, destroying the car and causing a few thousand dollars in damage to the garage. When my wife objects, I say: "I have to infer from that statement that you would be happier if that spider were still crawling up the wall."

No, schmuck, she says, I'd be happier if we still had a car and didn't have to fork out ten thousand dollars to fix the garage.

And can anyone credibly claim that a non-WMD-armed Saddam was really anything other than a loathesome spider?

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

SOTU as bullshit

As everyone knows, the neocon right was overcome by paroxyms of rapture at Bush's celebration of democratization in his State of the Union address last month. He went on and on with purple passages of this sort:
The only force powerful enough to stop the rise of tyranny and terror, and replace hatred with hope, is the force of human freedom.... We've declared our own intention: America will stand with the allies of freedom to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world... We are witnessing landmark events in the history of liberty. And in the coming years, we will add to that story.
Now consider this trenchant passage from Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit" (which, incidentally, is available in complete form on line here):

Consider a Fourth of July orator, who goes on bombastically about "our great and blessed country, whose Founding-Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind."

The orator is not lying. He would be lying only if it were his intention to bring about in his audience beliefs which he himself regards as false, concerning such matters as whether our country is great, whether it is blessed, whether the Founders had divine guidance, and whether what they did was in fact to create a new beginning for mankind. But the orator does not really care what his audience thinks about the Founding Fathers, or about the role of the deity in our country's history, or the like. At least, it is not an interest in what anyone thinks about these matters that motivates his speech. It is clear that what makes Fourth of July oration humbug is not fundamentally that the speaker regards his statements as false.

Rather... the orator intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself. He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him. He wants them to think of him as a patriot, as someone who has deep thoughts and feelings about the origins and the mission of our country, who appreciates the importance of religion, who is sensitive to the greatness of our history, whose pride in that history is combined with humility before God, and so on.

I think this is just right as an account of humbug and bullshit, and it bears directly on the similarly pretentious (excuse me, "visionary"!) rhetoric of democracy that Bush proffered the nation last month.

It's not that Bush or his speechwriters don't believe in the words they are saying and writing about democracy, progress and the world-historical mission of the United States. But that's not what is motivating them to say or write these things. Rather, what the SOTU speechwriters and Bush are aiming for is to convey a certain impression of who Bush is: that he is a glorious, strong leader whose values and instincts are sound and whom therefore you, the passive listener-citizen, should uncritically trust to make decisions on your behalf--especially on topics such as eviscerating Social Security and extending tax cuts for the rich. The goal is not as extreme as to create a totalitarian cult of personality, but it does share with such efforts a desire to neutralize critical political reasoning.

"And that's a good thing!": Habermas, Bobbio and Rawls as apologists for American empire

Perry Anderson makes a case that John Rawls, Noberto Bobbio and Jurgen Habermas--three of the leading intellectual lights of the postwar North Atlantic left-liberal intelligentsia--have at best been played for fools by the course of American foreign policy, and at worst given license to "American empire as a placeholder for human progress." Anderson provides a detailed account of how each of these intellectuals in his own way came to support American military interventions in the post-Cold War period, thus acting as de facto apologists for American imperialism.

Anderson is hardest on Habermas. Until the most recent intervention in Iraq, Habermas chose consistently to side with Washington in its use of force. Although Habermas (and the others) sometimes expressed dismay at the way the U.S. actually executed its military function, Anderson argues that these intellectuals spun the American use of force in Iraq in 1991 and in the Balkans as a positive step forward in the construction of a viable enforcement mechanism for a transnational legal order that Habermas has long advocated.

It was only with the American unilateralist intervention in Iraq in 2003 that Habermas declared that he was shocked, shocked!, to discover that the United States actually had no interest in building a transnational cosmoplitan legal order. For Anderson, Habermas's change of heart represents a sad mix of credulousness and bad faith:

Since, in Habermas's own words, there can be no greater good than liberating a people from a brutal tyranny, why should prevention of ethnic cleansing or provision of aid—presumably lesser objectives—supply General Clark with philosophical credentials denied to General Franks? It is plain that the crucial distinguo lies elsewhere: in European responses to American initiatives. So long as both sides of the Atlantic concur, the 'international community' remains whole, and the UN can be ignored. But if Europe demurs, the UN is sacrosanct. So naively self-serving an assumption invites, in one sense, only a smile.

What it points to, however, is the disintegration of a larger one. The West upheld in Habermas's credo was always an ideological figure, an unexamined topos of the Cold War, whose assumption was that America and Europe could for all practical purposes be treated as a single democratic ecumene, under benevolent US leadership. The unwillingness of Berlin and Paris to rally behind Washington in the attack on Iraq undid that long-held construction, rendering an unconditional orientation to the West meaningless.

In this emergency, Habermas fell back on European values, now distinct from somewhat less commendable American ones, as a substitute lode-star in international affairs. But, setting aside the work of lustration required to yield an uplifting common ethos out of Europe's bloody past, or even its self-satisfied present, the new construct is as incoherent as the old. Not only does Europe, as currently understood by Habermas, have to exclude Britain, for undue similarity of outlook to the United States, but it cannot even encompass the continental states of the EU itself, a majority of whose members supported rather than opposed the liberties taken by the us with the UN Charter. So in a further geopolitical contraction, Habermas has been driven to advocate a Franco-German 'core' as the final refuge out of which a future and better EU, more conscious of its social and international responsibilities, may one day emerge, harbinger of a wider cosmopolitan order.

As a supporter of the project of building a transnational cosmopolitan legal order, I sympathize with Anderson's evisceration of Habermas. I too felt that Habermas betrayed his own ideals in supporting the U.S. intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s. More recently, I also regarded Habermas's expressed feelings of betrayal in the pages of The Nation as an unforgiveably belated realization that the United States is an imperial power.

But if it is fair to blame Habermas for excessive optimism regarding the U.S. military excursions of the 1990s, Anderson goes too far in suggesting that there exists an unbroken, homogenous continuity of American imperial ambition. The neocons who ran the Bush regime's foreign policy between 9-11 and the 2004 elections (and are possibly still doing so now) represent something radically new.

One way to understand the significance of the neocons is to consider at how they have vindicated the (generally leftist) "revisionist" school of diplomatic history, which since the 1950s has been claiming that American foreign policy is best understood as a long story of imperial expansionism. For a long time people on the right and in the center regarded the revisionist take on American diplomatic history as a calumny and a slander on our great nation. But the neocons now admit forthrightly what formerly only leftists dared to say: that America is an empire without apology.

Indeed, it sometimes seems that the only thing that distinguishes the work of neocon historians like Niall Ferguson or Max Boot from that of the revisionists is that the latter append the phrase "And that's a good thing!" to the end of each of paragraph. In terms of how they consturct their narratives about of American foreign policy, the neocons and the revisionists have almost nothing to argue about. It is only in their moral judgments that the two schools part ways.

It goes without saying, however, that this moral judgment is of no small moment. The neocons' unvarnished embrace of imperialism is something sinisterly new under the American diplomatic sun. There are some on the left--and I suspect Anderson may be one of them--who may regard the neocons' candor regarding their imperial ambitions as a breath of fresh air after two centuries of American diplomatic and historical mendacity. But to me, this is a blood-thirstily naive position. Diplomatic niceties make a difference, and in this respect the neocons's imperial candor represents something radical and unprecedented. Lowering the bar of imperialist shame makes a big difference for the kind of outrage Washington can contemplate.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Pictures from Indonesia

Truly appalling.

Stuck between Unilateralism and Transformation

The Berkeley Electronic Press has just published my most recent piece, on Bush Doctrine's failure to reconcile its Transformationist military ambitions with its neoimperialist political ideals.

The bullshit presidency

I finally got my oversubscribed copy of Harry G. Frankfurt's delightful 1986 essay "On Bullshit." Although clearly he was inspired by a different era of bullshit (yes, that would the Reagan era of bullshit), one cannot help but be struck as one reads it by the prescience with which he captures the essence of the current Bush presidency.

The difference between bullshit and a mere lie, Frankfurt explains, is that the liar cares about truth; that is, he cares about the relationship between his statement and the reality to which his statement refers. Bullshitters, by contrast, don't care about the relationship between their statements and reality. Indeed, Frankfurt suggests that bullshitters are heirs to the radical epistemic skepticism generated by postmodern antifoundationalism. The motive for their discourse is thus not to describe reality (a task they consider largely irrelevant) but rather to present a picture of who they are. Here's Frankfurt:
One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.
Reading this can't help but make you reconsider the implications of Bush's eternal refrain, whenever anyone questions his grasp on facts, that, "You know where I stand." (Indeed, the whole anti-scientific attitude of the Republican Party is intimately related to their skepticism that such a thing as "facts" exist.) Thus Karl Rove explains why Bush makes the perfect Bullshit President:
I think a great deal of it is his personal characteristics. He is a person who is “"centered." This is a person who, as you know, went to Sam Houston Junior High – who grew up in Midland, Texas. He knows who he is and is comfortable with who he is. He doesn’t need validation from the editorial pages of the Washington Post or the New York Times.
We'll have more on Frankfurt and Bush later....

Another contradiction within rightwing coalition

Peter Drucker is always readable, and not even being radically wrong in the past can instilled in him any fear of making bold predictions. (For example, one wonders how he would reassess the prediction he made in 1977 that union pension funds would get together to enforce pro-union policies on the companies they invest in. Oops.) He's certainly been more right than wrong over the years, and I say that despite the fact that he's a staunch conservative and firmly pro-Bush man. In light of those facts, it's especially interest to read his take on the coming global economic crisis:

The next major economic crisis will most probably be a crisis of the U.S. dollar in the world economy. It will put to a severe test the oligopoly of the central banks of the developed countries that now rules over the world financial economy....

The persistent U.S. deficit creates a persistent deficit in the U.S. balance of payments, which make both the U.S. economy and the government increasingly dependent on massive injections of short-term and panic-prone money from abroad. The U.S. savings rate is barely high enough to finance the minimum capital needs of industry. It could, in all likelihood, be raised considerably by raising interest rates. But that is not only politically almost impossible; it would also require that a larger share of incomes go into savings rather than into consumption, with an inevitable collapse of an economy based on consumer spending and low interest rates, as for instance, the U.S. housing market.

The government deficit is therefore being financed almost in its entirety by foreign investments in the United States, mostly in government securities like short-term treasury notes and medium-term bonds. The Japanese are converting most, if not all, of their trade surplus with the United States into dollar-denominated U.S. government securities and have thus become the largest U.S. creditor.

It is often argued, especially in Washington, that the deficit is mostly an accounting mirage. Defense spending—the main cause of the deficit—enables other free countries to keep their own defense spending low, which then generates the surpluses these countries invest in U.S. government securities. But this is a political argument. The economic fact is that the United States increasingly borrows short term (U.S. securities can be sold overnight) to invest long term and with very limited liquidity. This, needless to say, is an unstable and volatile system. It would collapse if the foreign holders of U.S. government securities (above all, the Japanese) were for whatever reason (such as a crash in their own economy) to dump their holdings of U.S. government securities. It certainly cannot be extended indefinitely, which, among other serious drawbacks, calls into question the long-term viability of the Bush Doctrine's goal of defending and extending the "zone of freedom" around the world.

Running an empire requires fiscal prudence. The neocons know this. Does Bush?

Monday, March 28, 2005

Policy versus politics

The New York Times has a nifty graphic depicting the political and policy levers Karl Rove uses to wield influence. But the graphic is also fundamentally deceptive on a key point: it implies that Rove distinguishes between the policy side and the political side.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Do as I say, not as I...

Turns out that when his dad was horribly injured as a result of a faulty product, Tom Delay not only pulled the plug on his own dad, but also filed a tort case against the manufacturer of the defective product.

Friday, March 25, 2005

The limits of the democratization project

I was positively shocked to find the Wall Street Journal op-ed page publishing this piece decrying the international inaction in Sudan, and not just fairly apportioning blame for that inaction, but also pointing out how the Darfur case gives the lie to the Bush's regime's claim that the ultimate end of its foreign policy is to promote democracy: "The truth is that combating crimes against humanity is simply not considered a national security issue."

Apparently, the main sticking point in sanctioning a multilateral intervention in the Sudan is that France wants to insist that whatever crimes have been committed there get tried in the International Criminal Court, whereas the U.S. refuses to do anything that would provide that court with legitimacy. (The Bush regime would prefer to have no international institutions, and instead provide ad hoc international tribunals for particular cases of crimes against humanity.) Both the French and the the U.S. are holding the people of Sudan hostage to the diplomatic dispute. (The U.S. also claims that the Russians and Chinese would veto any use resolution to use force in Sudan, but this is unproven, at best.)

This is classic 1990s-style Great Power "consensual minimalism": i.e., do nothing until there is complete Great Power consensus. It certainly shows the Bush Doctrine -- which states that the U.S. should have the sole and exclusive right to dictate when and how force can be used in international relations -- has not been universalized. Meanwhile, the Sudanese people suffer.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The ghosting in the machine

While the nation turns its lonely eyes to Terry Schiavo, we learn on page A15 of the Washington Post that the Army and the CIA have been "disappearing" inmates in Abu Ghraib.

They really have that "culture of life" thing down in Abu Ghraib, huh?

Another nomination for Kasparov's best game

A couple people wrote to me disputing that the 1985 game with Karpov was Kasparov's greatest, instead offering this one from 1999 against Veselin Topalov. The Topalov game features one of the most stunning attacking combinations ever executed at this level of play. Just looking at the dates for these two games emphasizes what is most amazing about Kasparov, namely that he remained at the top of the game for 15+ years.

The great conservative crack-up

Don't miss Andrew Sullivan's piece on how absolute power is exposing the fissures in the Republican coalition.


Hard to believe, but I find myself unable to disagree with Qaddaffi on this one:

"The Israelis are idiots and the Palestinians as well," Kadhafi said in the speech at the closing session of the two-day summit in Algiers which is usually reserved for a reading of the final resolutions.

"The Jews are dying by the dozen because they are in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. If these regions are so important to them, why didn't they occupy them before" seizing other Arab land, Kadhafi said.

"The Palestinians, too, are idiots because they lost these territories in 1967. So we must admit that both are idiots," he added.

My sentiment about Israel/Palestine has for a long time been, more or less, "A pox on both their houses." The U.S. should stop funding either side of that dogfight.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Pro-life, but not if we have to raise taxes to pay for it

An article in the Washington Post points out that while the Republicans pass laws intended to mandate that poor Terry Schiavo must be kept alive if anyone in her family wants it, they at the same time cut the Medicaid funding required for poor (or even middle class) families to be able to exercise their right to "choose life."

The Schiavo case is more and more looking like a political disaster for the Republicans, mainly because it is exposing the faultlines in the coalition. It was a Republican, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who first brought up the issue of Schiavo's Medicaid support. True, King brought it up mainly as a way of decrying Medicaid fraud, but then there's this:
The cost of care in cases such as Schiavo's has vexed governments for years. In 1999, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush signed a law establishing procedures for hospitals and physicians to withhold life-sustaining care from patients with conditions deemed hopeless, even over relatives' protests. The legislation affords a family 10 days' notice to find another facility. Last week, Texas Children's Hospital in Houston invoked the law to remove a 6-month-old boy from his breathing tube against his mother's wishes.

I wonder if King would agree with the charge made by one of Tom DeLay's henchmen yesterday, who claimed that "tying a life issue to the budget process shows just how disconnected Democrats are to reality." I guess the DeLay logic is that while the government should apply a moral standard to many issues, it should never do so about anything concerning money. Certainly maintaining a Chinese Wall between money issues and moral issues is crucial to maintaining the governing coalition.

With all that said, the thing that seems most weird to me about the Schiavo case is this: why hasn't Michael just gotten a divorce from Terry and washed his hands of the whole matter? Here's a guy who (about seven years after his wife went into a coma) started a relationship and eventually a family with another woman.

As my mother pointed out to me last night, one cannot help but suspect that the real fight between Michael and the parents is over the $750,000 Michael received on behalf of Terry in a medical malpractice judgment in 1993. If he divorces her, he probably has to forfeit that money, which would then go to her parents. The article cites Michael's lawyers claiming that there is only $40-50K left from the malpractice, but presumably Terry's parents might also try to claim half of Michael's assets were he to divorce Terry.

In other words, what both the political and right and left have politicized as a battle between competing moral values--namely the right of parents to keep their daughter alive versus the right of a husband to enforce what (he claims) were his wife's wishes--may in fact be little more than a sordid battle over money.

Which only makes Terry's plight sadder, even as it makes the political circus that much more disgusting and disingenuous.

Poverty: a moral issue?

John Edwards apparently thinks it is. Money quote:

"We have millions of Americans who work full time and still live in poverty, and that is absolutely wrong," said Edwards, a Democrat....

In an interview Wednesday on NBC's "Today," Edwards called poverty "one of the great moral issues in America today." He said more people live in poverty now in the United States than 30 years ago.

Good political move for Edwards; good political move for the Democrats.

Hat tip: RWM

Monday, March 21, 2005

Iraq: still not worth it

I recently had a pro-war friend write me the following email:

I just got through reading a Charles Krauthammer article that has been making the rounds on the right side of the blowhardsphere. It's a good example of triumphal about current goings on in the ME. To those on the right, occurrences in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Egypt, Israel, Syria, etc etc. are all positive and are all a direct result of Iraq. Ridiculous. To those on the left, these occurrences are all meaningless and have absolutely nothing to do with Iraq even if they were important. Just as ridiculous.

There is only one intellectually honest position: The importance of current movements in the ME is currently unknown. More importantly, causation by the invasion of Iraq is unknown. Period.If you want to be only slightly intellectually dishonest, you can go out on a limb and say that Iraq had some salutary causative effect, but just how much is unknown. I think this is reasonable. It's hard to imagine the protests in Lebanon being quite so big as they were without the elections in Iraq, for instance, but there are also currents and undercurrents there that are totally separate. There is a continuum between full causation and no causation, and the only thing you can say is that the answer is somewhere in the grey area, in a range that we cannot know...

I am not interested in assigning "credit". I am interested in delineating the boundaries of truth. None of it is my credit nor my fault, so I have no stake in the outcome.... I guess you can say that the burden of proof is on the right to claim a causality on the Iraq war. But then again, so much more has happened in the politics of the ME since that war than in the long period of time before it that ascribing it all to chance is just as ridiculous. This, then is your epistemological position: "Sure all these things happened immediately after the Iraq war, but that's just a coincidence!" You must see that this, as well, is hardly convincing. All I am advocating is reserving judgment in view of a dearth of facts.

Even if my friend poses as being interested merely in establishing "truth" rather than assigning political credit, it is either naive or disingenuous not to realize that the question of causality and the question of political credit/blame are inextricably bound up with each other.

Consider first what has become the Right's Exhibit A in trying to show that the Bush Doctrine is achieving its alleged goal of spreading liberty and freedom: Lebanon. I'll happily concede that the way things are unfolding in Lebanon has been shaped by the elections in Iraq. People on the streets of Beirut say that the Iraqi elections were an inspiration, so presumably that's so -- even if everyone also agrees that those elections were but one variable among many informing the political mood in Beirut. In fact, most Lebanese seem to consider the Ukrainian example a more inspiring case than the Iraqi one. (And please, don't make me laugh by claiming that Iraq War II is responsible for what has happened in Ukraine.)

Second, even if one gives Iraq War II and subsequent Iraqi elections total and exclusive causal credit for what's happening in Lebanon (which, last I checked, was a horrific political murder, a bunch of street demonstrations, and Syrian withdrawal into the Bekaa highlands -- good news, to be sure, but let's not get overexcited), the political progress in Lebanon alone scarcely makes Iraq War II worth it. Yet it is precisely this that the partisan right is suggesting.

Third, I am unconvinced that the positive things couldn't have been achieved in ways that would have been far less costly to the U.S. and the Iraqis in terms of blood, treasure, and prestige. For example, since the late 1970s the U.S. has been giving the Egyptians billions in aid annually. Don't you think that (the threat of) withholding that aid might have convinced old Hosni to make the same (very minor, it must again be emphasized) movement toward holding real elections? (Such an approach might actually have saved the U.S. money, instead of costing us $250b and counting.) Might have been worthing giving a shot, no? Hell, it might still be worth giving a shot.

Fourth, whatever causal role Iraq War II may have had in whatever good news is emanating from the Middle East today, it's hard to argue that the sum of the political motion is unambiguously positive. Libya? No move toward democratization there, just a corrupt oil deal. Iran? By all reports the hardliners are in firmer control than before the Iraq War II, and sporting a more defiant military stance. Saudi? Give me a break. And how about Algeria, Yemen, UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Dubai, or Pakistan? In sum, it's not clear that we have much to celebrate: as you go down the list of countries in the region as a whole, instead of cherry-picking the good news stories du jour, the direction of movement is hardly clear.

Finally, what's happening in all these countries seems to me almost entirely beside the moral point. The first and overwhelming case on which you have to judge the morality of Iraq War II is on how things are going in Iraq itself. No one can reasonably dispute that. Though things in Iraq seem to be going a bit better of late, if you read Juan Cole's blog, which summarizes the daily reports on the mayhem still reigning there, it's difficult to make the case that things are better for the average Iraqi than they were under late-Saddam, and it's certainly impossible to say that the situation is actually good for the Iraqi people.

(Just to focus on the American experience in Iraq, do you realize that US Embassy employees are forbidden to travel by land the ten miles to Baghdad airport because it is so dangerous, and have to be helicoptered in and out of the capital? Mission Accomplished!)

In fact, as everyone knows, the ongoing security disaster in Iraq is the overwhelming story of Iraq War II aftermath. Which is precisely why the defenders of the war are trying to change the subject by focusing on what's happening elsewhere, outside Iraq. This is a somewhat desperate move, in my view, but it is being abetted by the fact that media are suffering from Iraq fatigue. Just how many times can you lead with a story about a police station in Baghdad getting blown up? By the fiftieth time this happens, it's not "news" any more.

It's just the daily reality we have wrought in Iraq.


Yet another product of modernization: boredom.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Opportunism alert: Schiavo

The Terry Schiavo case is really sad, in many different ways, but Ed Kilgore phrases it exactly right when he discusses the political opportunism and cynicism that is dictating the way Schiavo's case is being politicized by the Right:

The only unique thing about this case, of course, is the extended legal battle between Shiavo's husband and parents, and the media notoriety that has made it so ripe for political opportunism.

Do DeLay, his supporters in Congress, and those Men of God so conspicuously on display down in Florida really propose to picket every intensive care unit, nursing home, and hospice in America to ensure that no family facing Schiavo's situation is allowed to let their loved one die? Is Congress really going to legislatively ban natural death so long as some theoretical means is available to continue it? Oh no, says James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and DeLay's prime enabler in this weekend's grandstand play: the "emergency" legislation is "narrowly targeted" and not designed to set a precedent.

In other words, this is pure political exploitation of a private family conflict that's become a media sensation, even though it involves a very common, if, for the people involved, agonizing event.

As such, the GOP's Schiavo intervention is of a piece with other cynical efforts by Bush and his supporters to signal support for a "culture of life" without much regard for logic and consistency. It's a whole lot like the Bush position on human embryo research, as a matter of fact. Many thousands of human embryos are created each year in fertility clinics; it's only when it is proposed that these certain-to-be-discarded embryos be used for life-saving research that the Hammer comes down and Congress is asked to take a stand for life. Wouldn't want to inconvenience or embarass possible Republican voters utlilizing those fertility clinics, right?

The point is that this is pure symbolic politics--almost no one really wants to legislate policy on the basis of this case. Still, the Republicans, as Peggy Noonan points out, had better understand the importance of this symbolic battle.

Noonan is right about how this issue, like many others that will face the Republicans in the next four years, will uncover a fundamental faultline in the Republican base. The fundamentalists feel (not without justification) that they've delivered the goods to Bush twice now, and the time has come for Bush to start enacting the agenda. If he doesn't, there's going to be hell to pay. The wingers have waited long enough.

Once you paint yourself into an ideological corner, you ignore the pain on the floor at your own political peril.

Wolfie: the romantic angle

According to the London Times, Paul Wolfowitz's girlfriend also works for the World Bank; as an "Arab feminist" her title at the World Bank is "gender coordinator" (I wonder what James Dobson would make of that title).

More seriously, the Times suggests the Europeans may dig in their heels to oppose the man George Bush calls "Wolfie." Money:

The [question of Wolfowitz's girlfriend] may not arise if Europeans have their way. With 30% of votes on the World Bank’s board, they could try to scupper Wolfowitz’s nomination, even if America traditionally selects the president. It is the second time this month that Bush has risked a rift with allies over an important appointment, having named John Bolton, a prominent State Department toughie, as ambassador to the United Nations.

France digested Wolfowitz’s nomination like a bad oyster. Germany’s development minister said the “enthusiasm in old Europe is not exactly overwhelming."

I doubt the Old Europeans will actually try to block Wolfie's nomination. Why spend political capital on this subject? Unless they really believe in the Bank.

Please stop laughing.

Stiglitz rejects Wolfowitz nomination

As reported in the Daily Telegraph, a pillar of Britain's conservative establishment. Money:

"This is either an act of provocation by America, or an act so insensitive as to look like provocation," he says. "The World Bank will once again become a hate figure. This could bring street protests and violence across the developing world...."

"My worry," says Stiglitz, "is the World Bank will now become an explicit instrument of US foreign policy. It will presumably take a lead role in Iraqi reconstruction, for instance. That would seriously jeopardise its role as a multi-lateral development body."

This is Stiglitz's first public utterance since last week's nomination. His views matter. When he was the World Bank's chief economist - under the current president, James Wolfensohn, whose decade-long tenure ends in June - he rebuilt its reputation.

Stiglitz steered the organisation away from the discredited diet of fiscal austerity and rapid market liberalisation it had force-fed developing countries for years. He fears a reversal if Wolfowitz takes the helm, and imports his tough-minded Pentagon instincts.

"In recent years, more moderate policies and an anti-poverty focus have won the bank much more respect across the developing world," he says. "That progress would be badly undermined by an extreme turn to the right."

In the last ten years the Bank has reemerged as an institution worthy of respect, doing innovative influential work, as exemplified by its annual World Development Reports (though the last couple have been a bit boring). No doubt the Bushies would like to derail this progress, lest the Bank come to serve as an example of what multilateral institutions can accomplish.

Friday, March 18, 2005

The other GWOT continues

Bush's Global War on Transparency goosesteps on, perhaps with more success that the official GWOT. What is sinister is not that the Bush regime is classifying documents at an unprecedented rate (which may be justified if the overall amount of covert work is increasing, as presumably it should be in the post-9-11 era), but rather that the Bush regime is constraining access to unclassified information as well. Money:
Once freely available, a growing number of sources are now barred to the public as "sensitive but unclassified" or "for official use only." Less of a goal-directed policy than a bureaucratic reflex, the widespread clampdown on formerly public information reflects a largely inarticulate concern about "security." It also accords neatly with the Bush administration's preference for unchecked executive authority.
Among the unclassified but still restricted sources are the Department of Defense's telephone directory, the Los Alamos technical report library, many of the historical records at the National Archives, the launch dates for "orbital elements," the Energy Department's intelligence budget, aeronautical maps and data, as well as a wide variety of military information which used to be available on the Web. The basic point is that the Bush regime doesn't want you to know what the government is doing. And it's not because of security, because they're not classifying this information. It's because they just don't want to be scrutinized.

Hat tip: RWM

Goss all but admits the use of torture

From the NYT today, C.I.A. Chief Porter Goss follows the Mark McGuire no denial approach to congressional testimony on the C.I.A.'s use of torture:

"At this time, there are no 'techniques,' if I could say, that are being employed that are in any way against the law or would meet - would be considered torture or anything like that," Mr. Goss said in response to one question.

When he was asked several minutes later whether he could say the same about techniques employed by the agency since the campaign against Al Qaeda expanded in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks in the United States, he said, "I am not able to tell you that."

And then there was this word game that Goss played with John McCain, a man who knows a thing or two about the line between interrogation and torture:

In the session, Mr. Goss was challenged by Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who spent years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. When Mr. McCain asked Mr. Goss about the C.I.A.'s previously reported use of a technique known
as waterboarding, in which a prisoner is made to believe that he will drown, Mr. Goss replied only that the approach fell into "an area of what I will call professional interrogation techniques."

He vigorously defended "professional interrogation" as an important tool in efforts against terrorism, saying that it had resulted in "documented successes" in averting attacks and capturing important suspects. Mr. Goss said that Congress had been kept fully informed of the techniques used by the C.I.A., and that those currently being used did not constitute torture, which is prohibited by law.

"As I said publicly before, and I know for a fact, that torture is not - it's not productive," Mr. Goss said. "That's not professional interrogation. We don't do torture."

Thursday, March 17, 2005

"Objectionable, all the same"

The Financial Times, well known as a hotbed of pinko islamofascist sympathazing appeasers, judges the nomination of Paul Wolfowitz to run the World Bank to be "a poor choice." "The nomination does not lack merit," they concede. "Yet it is objectionable, all the same." As we go from Wolfensohn and Wolfowitz, it's hard not to begin to sympathize with those who charge the bank with being a lupine institution.

More seriously, I can't believe I missed the chance to draw out the irony of the fact that Wolfowitz, a key architect of the disaster in Iraq, will be acceding to the very same position as Robert McNamara, the chief architect of the Vietnam War. If it's true that good Americans, when they die, go to Paris, then it would appear that truly evil Americans, when they experience political death, go to run the World Bank....

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Another neocon kicked upstairs

With Bolten headed for the U.N., Paul Wolfowitz is now being sent to the World Bank. This nomination continues what is beginning to look like a pattern of Bush moving the architects and advocates of the disaster in Iraq into positions of marginal significance to military affairs and national security. It's not the same thing as holding these people accountable (but then, Bush doesn't do that), but it at least is preventing them from doing more harm. If I were a mullah in Iran, I'd be breathing a sigh of relief.

Bush's social vision: replacing the state with the church

I've blogged repeatedly on the relationship between the Right's religiosity and its attacks on the welfare state. While it is rare to see people openly articulate the the connection between religion and anti-statism, occasionally a piece appears that illuminates the linkages between rightwingers' desire to roll back the New Deal, and their vision of a society based on private (versus) social responsibility.

One such piece, however, is Jackie Calmes's recent WSJ opinion column, reprinted in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette. Calmes argues that Bush's "ownership society" would encourage individuals to take more risks. The whole piece is worth reading as a fair representation of the social vision underpinning Bush's Republican party (with the caveat that while the vision may be of smaller government, in practice Bush has led greatest the expansion of domestic government since the heyday of the Great Society).

Particularly illuminating is how Calmes connects the transformation in Bush's personal life to his political and social vision. "The president's policies," Calmes explains, "reflect his deeply held belief that 'ownership' has the power to transform people, just as he feels transformed by a midlife decision to quit drinking and embrace religion." Calmes goes on top provide the wider context for the emergence of Bush social vision:

The president's philosophy reflects a libertarian, free-market bent common to Texas and its small-town Petroleum Clubs, made up of local business leaders. As far back as the young oilman's losing bid for Congress in 1978, Mr. Bush proposed carving private accounts from Social Security.

After his defeat, Mr. Bush went back to the oil business, and then became part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. His own financial risks and business failures through the 1980s were cushioned by investors drawn from his family's circle.

Through the 1980s and early 1990s, up-and-coming Republican conservatives such as future House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Congressman Jack Kemp, who later became housing secretary in the first Bush administration, were popularizing "empowerment" initiatives and a "conservative opportunity society" to shrink "the welfare state." In Britain, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was overhauling state pensions and selling public housing to tenants. Their ideas -- shrinking government and cutting taxes so individuals would fend more for themselves -- were the basis of Mr. Bush's thinking, according to past and current advisers.

All of that, I think is historically accurate and politically fair, even though it obviously is sympathetic with Bush's program in a way I am not. (It's rare that you see defenders of Bush's "ownership society" point out that Bush's own "ownership" was the result of cronyism.) Even though Calmes doesn't quite draw out the point as much as I would, he does hint at the role that religious institutions play in providing the future alternative to the government-provided safety net, according to the Bushist vision.

Although it's rare that you see the bigtime press even hint at this connection, smaller newspapers are often more explicit. For example, the perception that social insurance programs (social security, medicare, medicaid, welfare, food stamps, maternity programs, etc etc.) have eroded the pull and appeal of religious institutions is made clear here, in the Magic City Morning Star (Maine):

Government dependence removes responsibility from the individual, and burdens the general populace. Some older folks will tell you that churches and charitable organizations give less to the poor and needy than before because they now expect the federal government to do more. Having worked as a coordinator for social justice in a former parish, I saw the same with my own eyes and could not believe the sanctimonious Pharisees that sat beside me at parish council meetings and called themselves "Christians." Family, friends, neighbors, and even individuals themselves all do less for themselves and others today because they expect the government to constantly play nursemaid to them and wipe their noses at every beckoned calling.
It's also suggested in this article in the Lahontan Valley News (Nevada):
The "Moral Hazards" created by governmental largess are manifold. The only way to avoid them is to return to what economists call "the welfare principle." The welfare principle is foundational to all charitable work carried on by churches and other private benevolent organizations.
As I say, you rarely find this point made explicitly, but it's the essential underpinning of what the Right wants to accomplish. Without appreciating this social vision, it is in my view impossible to understand what the Republicans are up to as anything other than simple wanton social destruction.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Creationists on the offensive

The Washington Post offers a helpful overview of the current battle over teaching evolution. As with the Social Security debate, the Republicans know that this is probably their golden moment, the apogee of their legislative influence, and the inclination is to reach for things that previously would have been deemed a step too far. (It's of course this view that leads to political overreach.)

The politics of this battle aside, the key issue in the debate is the effort on the part of the creationists to claim that there exists a "debate" among "scientists" about the status and legitimacy of evolutionary theory. They claim that all they want is for this debate to be taught.

However, there is no debate. On the one hand, you have scientists, who want to teach evolution and not creationism. On the other hand, you have creationists. And the twain simply never meet in credible discussions. When the creationists hear this argument, they howl about liberal bias, blah blah blah. But the truth is that a creationist can no more be a credible biologist than someone who thinks the earth was first formed in floods 6000 years ago can be a credible geologist. There is no scientific debate, and the only way they can pretend there is one, is to redefine what it means to be a "scientist."

As usual, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) makes the point brilliantly: "'Anyone who expresses anything other than the dominant worldview is shunned and booted from the academy,' Santorum said in an interview. 'My reading of the science is...'"-- WHOA, hold your horses...

Rick, we don't care what "your reading" of the science is.

You don't get to have an opinion.

You're a politician, not a scientist. So whatever follows your statement of "My reading of the science is..." is irrelevant.

The flat-earthers just don't seem to get this point. Science is not a popularity contest. The article quotes one Terry Fox, a Southern Baptist minister who argues that the "debate" about evolution should be taught in schools because "most people in Kansas don't think we came from monkeys." Again, I'm sorry, Terry, but what "most people in Kansas" happen to believe is totally irrelevant to whether or not evolutionary theory has scientific legitimacy. (In fact, if "most people in Kansas" believe that evolutionary theory states that "we come from monkeys," then that's exactly they need to be taught evolution!)

The real point about this article, however, is how aggressive our domestic mullahs are getting, and how they are being actively abetted by the Bush regime.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Slower, please

Back in December or so, one of my pro-Iraq-war friends asked me to stop and appreciate what was about to happen in Iraq, namely the political ascendancy of the Shiite majority for the first time in many centuries. That struck me as an important point, even if I was more inclined than him to wring my hands over what empowering a community of this sort would really mean for the Kurdish, Turkomen, and Sunni minorities within Iraq -- to say nothing of the wider Middle East.

Indeed he was right about the results of the vote: the (Shiite) United Iraqi Alliance coalition won a 53 percent majority. However, it turns out that winning a majority of the seats in the Iraqi parliament doesn't actually mean political ascendancy. It just means that the Shiites get to be the most frustrated party to the gridlock that has overtaken the Iraqi interim constitutional system (a gridlock created by design to keep Kurds on board).

The constitutional siutation in Iraq is complicated, to be sure, and I would hardly want to give the impression that I think the Kurds should be told, simply, to suck it up and deal. But with that said, all those Shiites who took the risk of going to the polls on January 30 have ample justification for being seriously frustrated, if not downright angry.

The truth is that the results of the war (even the positive results, leaving aside all the collateral negatives) have hardly been what pro-war sorts could have hoped for -- and yet we never hear these folks go back and say anything even as mild as, "maybe I misread the available options," much less any more profound reassessment. Instead, it's on to the next project (a process abetted by a press corps that quickly tires of reporting the same thing day in and day out, no matter how important that same thing may be). In short, what bums me out about the "faster, please" coalition is that it rarely slows down to reassess the retrospective results of its glorious campaigns. It is always moving on to the next topic, the next place, and assuming that all is going well in the places left behind.

It's all very well to have dreams and hopes and goals and ambitions. But at some point one must assess the actual impact of the policies put into place to implement these dreams and hopes and goals and ambitions. If there's one thing conservatives ought to understand, it's the law of unintended consequences. Or as Marx famously put it (in one of his depressive-conservative moments), "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living." It's a quote worth always keeping at the front of mine whenever one advocates a revolution.

Phase-out or bust, WSJ declares

The paymasters in the Republican Party showed their Social Security hand in today's Wall Street Journal, declaring they want no part of any political compromise that doesn't center on the phase-out of guaranteed benefits.

For the Journal to cut off Bush's political get-out-of-jail-free card, the Republicans must be really worried that their attempt at legislative maximalism is imploding so badly that Bush would consider saving political face by issuing yet another entitlement. This article is a sign of panic...

The CEO president

Back in the 2000 campaign, we heard a lot about George Bush being the first Presidential candidate with an MBA, and about how he planned to remodel the governance of the Executive Branch along the lines that had made corporate America great. A lot of this was said with an obviously invidious (and not unfair) nod at the Clinton White House's indiscipline and lack of strategic vision. It was also a sign of the times that comparing the President to a CEO went over well with Main Street.

For obvious reasons, Republicans have discarded the "CEO Presidency" line in recent years, not just because it soon became clear that Bush as a businessman had governed over only failures (except where his family connections handed him sweetheart deals) or because it soon became clear that Bush himself was incapable of doing the first thing a decent CEO needs to do, which is fire subordinates who fuck up, but more importantly because Ken Lay and the Boys took the shine off corporate America.

Nonetheless, as a narrative about this Presidency, the "CEO President" does have some merit, especially with regards to the way this President regards the function of the press. In a nutshell, the Bush regime rejects the notion that the democratic governments ought to be transparent in principle. It regards the news media's self-definition as a "Fourth Estate" to which the government should answer as at best sentimental nonsense and at worst self-dealing deception. Rather, like corporate communications executives, the Bushies regard the press merely as a communications channel that can and should be controlled and manipulated in any way one can get away with.

The Bush regime's "corporate" approach to PR is not just a matter of principles, it's also a matter of specific techniques, as this long New York Times article explains:
Under the Bush administration, the federal government has aggressively used a well-established tool of public relations: the prepackaged, ready-to-serve news report that major corporations have long distributed to TV stations to pitch everything from headache remedies to auto insurance. In all, at least 20 federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years, records and interviews show. Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government's role in their production.
The larger point about this is that the Bush regime fundamentally doesn't understand that "freedom of the press" is not just a matter of not censoring people, but about permitting enough transparency so that the press has access to facts that are open to multiple interpretations. Non-partisans, incidentally, agree:
In three separate opinions in the past year, the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress that studies the federal government and its expenditures, has held that government-made news segments may constitute improper "covert propaganda" even if their origin is made clear to the television stations. The point, the office said, is whether viewers know the origin. Last month, in its most recent finding, the G.A.O. said federal agencies may not produce prepackaged news reports "that conceal or do not clearly identify for the television viewing audience that the agency was the source of those materials."
This is not to say that the line is absolutely clear. No one says that government agencies shouldn't put out press releases, or try to present whatever they are doing in the best light. Moreover, there are all sorts of different levels at which the line between reporting and spin can be hard to define, and communications professionals have developed all sorts of terms to describe these hybrid categories: infomercials, advertorials, docudramas, soft news, and so on.

But two points need to be made. The first is rather simple: whatever the status of one's communication, it should be clear. Insofar as possible, opinions should be presented as such, as distinct from reportage. For example, if an article is written or produced by an industry or government insider, that person's identity should be clearly and prominently displayed.

The second point is more subtle: what is (quite rightly) acceptable in the private sector is often (quite rightly) not kosher in the political arena. Profit-seeking businesses owe it to (and indeed are often legally obligated to) their employees and shareholders to put forth whatever message best serves the interests of the company itself. Businesses don't owe their competitors, their industries, or even their customers anything other than what the contracts they have signed state. (With that said, it's usually in a company's best interest to be as transparent and honest as possible.) However, the moral obligation of the government to citizens goes beyond promoting the interests of the government, as liberals and conservatives can surely agree.

This is where the metaphor of the citizen as a customer of the government breaks down. Companies don't owe customers anything--the officers of a company can choose to enter and exit markets as they see fit. But the government does owe the people something. You don't have to sign up to some kind of Lockean social contract theory of government to agree that if the state doesn't maintain a bedrock of openness with the people, then democracy will quickly cease to have any functional substance. In this sense, it is not at all unfair to point out that a regime that attacks and undermines the notion of government transparency is, at bottom, conducting a covert war on one of the implicit substantive bases of functional democracy.

And these people want us to believe they stand for promoting liberal democracy?

Saturday, March 12, 2005

It's okay to shoot journalists... long as they're Communists. Or at any rate, it appears that rightwingers consider it a mitigating circumstance in a shooting, as evidenced by the fact that so many mention that Julia Sgrena is a not just a journalist, but "Communist journalist." (See Malkin, the WSJ, as well as here, here, here, here, here, here, and one could go on....)

And these people want us to believe they stand for promoting liberal democracy?

The non-equivalence of Nazism and Communism

We all know that many liberals (and their neocon successors) in the West have long posited an equivalence between Communism and Nazism (or, sometimes, fascism), often under the rubric "totalitarianism." The ideological utility of this claim aside, everyone knows the two are not equivalent, as Slavoj Zizek explains.

A personal anecdote may help illustrates the point. Five years ago, in the heyday of the dotcom era, I was invited to attend a sales kickoff for a software company, that happened to be taking place in Miami Beach. Like most of the parties of the tech fin de siecle, the event centered on debaunched and absurdly catered parties, with overpaid salespeople running around town from expensive meals to raunchy clubs. About the third night I was there (I remember the night well, it was April 14, 2000, the day the stock market crashed; for memories, click here), we all were invited to a restaurant called Moscow.

What was amazing about this place was neither the food nor the scene, but the decor, which featured all sorts of Communist kitsch: hammer and sickle mosaics on the floor; replicas of "socialist realist" posters on the walls; and of course the inevitable busts of Lenin and Stalin. And this isn't Berkeley or Paris; this is Miami Beach, which thanks to the Cuban emigres' hatred of Castro was and remains the epicenter ongoing post-Soviet anti-Communist fervor. Here I am, in Miami Beach, paying $12 a drink at a restaurant that unashamedly styles itself around an ironical appropriation Soviet Communist imagery.

Two thoughts occured to me at the time. The first was my marvel at Capitalism's ability to assimilate anything to promote its own ends, including even movements explicitly dedicated to its eradication. The second thought I had, which took a little longer for me to arrive at, was that the very fact that this restaurant could exist proved definitively that the wingjob claim of a moral equivalence between Communism and Nazism was simple nonsense, and nothing more. Why? Well, compare this restaurant's ability to pass without a blink in what was arguably the most anti-Communist place on the planet, to the likely survival of a Nazi-themed restaurant in, say, Manhattan or Tel Aviv. The latter is simply inconceivable.

There's a good and simple reason for this, of course. What Nazism stood for, its political ideal if you will, was and remains fundamentally abhorent. Who today would defend a political agenda whose central values are Aryan racial purity, militarism, and a queer hypermasculinity? By contrast, as Eric Hobsbawn points out, the ideals that underpinned Communism--equality, comradeship, material progress, and the banishment of superstition--remain not just defensible, but arguably better than the ideals of any current political project, be it the religious fundamentalism of American conservatives, the Islamism of Arab radicals, the EU's worship of bureaucracy, or the neoliberals' "devil may take the hindmost" celebrations of the market. In short, the values Communism invoked remain worthy of respect, even if no one on earth wishes for a return of the regimes which tried to implement these ideals by the most illiberal means imaginable.

Indeed, part of the reason why so many brilliant and courageous people (like Hobsbawm, for example) defended Communism, even in its Soviet guise, long after retrospect shows they should have given up, is that they continued to believe in the professed values of Communism. Their faith in the ideals of Communism blinded them to the atrocious reality of Communism, and even where they recognized that atrocious reality, that feared what it would mean for the world to turn its back on a system that professed such values -- would the values themselves come to be besmirched?

In the United States and in the Middle East (though not in Europe), the social democratic baby was indeed thrown out with the Communist bathwater. And the disastrous results are on ready display from Lawrence, Kansas, to Lahore, Pakistan. The discrediting of socialist ideals did not lead to a universal embrace of liberal democracy, as Fukuyama and others hoped. The result, rather, was the emergence of other opposition movements, at least as illiberal as Communism, and in many respects more distasteful than the Communist alternative.

Friday, March 11, 2005

R.I.P. merit-testing

The Economist couldn't be more right in its lament for the perversion of the ETS's Scholastic Aptitude Tests. (I think Lexington overplays his hand, however, when he claims that, "The old SATs were responsible for producing one of the great silent social revolutions in American history—the rise of the meritocracy." There was a little more to it than just the rise of standardized testing....)

Kasparov to take on Putin

The greatest ever, Gary Kasparov, is retiring from professional chess, and will devote himself to bringing down Vladimir Putin. Whatever may happen to him in his next phase of life (good luck!), he will always be remembered for his brilliance over the board, which was never on greater display (IMHO) than in this game against Karpov in 1985.

Domestic Wahhabism

Tom Engelhardt, who is a national treasure, has a couple of excellent new posts over at his blog, TomDispatch. Tom's blog has a cool format: he always has a guest essay, to which he writes a long introduction -- indeed, Tom's introduction is sometimes longer than the essay he is introducing. It's always politically acute, and passionately written

Tom's first piece introduces an essay by William Dowell, and concerns the systematic, intentional effort of the Republican Party to erode the line between church and state, most recently in the battle of the right of states . Tom points out that this domestic effort calls into question the notion, promoted by neocons and liberal hawks, that Bush's GWOT represents a war of democratic liberalism against fundamentalist terrorism. It also underscores the point that Bush was being all too candid when he at first described the GWOT as a "crusade," in other words, as a battle between competing fundamentalisms. Here's Engelhardt:

Whether the Ten Commandments, graven in stone, sit on a lawn by a government building or in a courthouse, isn't for me exactly a life-and-death issue -- and I think I'm not alone on this, which is why the Ten Commandments cases at the Supreme Court right now are so dangerous. The Bush administration and its various fundamentalist allies (religious and political) have proven especially skilled at finding wedge issues that, because they only seem to go so far, successfully challenge and blur previous distinctions, thereby opening yet more possibilities. The Supreme Court's decision in these particular cases holds great promise for further blurring the lines that once separated church and state in our country.

We're in a period, of course, when lines of every sort, involving civil rights, privacy, foreign and domestic spying, presidential power, Congressional rules, the checks-and-balances that once were such a proud part of our political system, and so many other matters are blurring radically. We also have a President who is in the process of casting off the constraints of any presidency, while placing religion with powerful emphasis at the very center of Washington's new political culture. He is now adored, if not essentially worshipped, by his followers as he travels the country dropping in at carefully vetted "town meetings"; and the adoration is often not just of him as a
political leader but as a religious one, as a manifestation of God's design for us. It's in this context that the modest Ten Commandments cases are being heard; in the context, that is, of the destruction of what's left of an authentic American republican (rather than Republican) culture.

And then there's Dowell, making the key point:
The current debate, of course, has little to do with genuine religion. What it is really about is an effort to assert a cultural point of view. It is part of a reaction against social change, an American counter-reformation of sorts against the way our society has been evolving, and ultimately against the negative fallout that is inevitable when change comes too rapidly. The people pushing to blur the boundaries between church and state are many of the same who so fervently back the National Rifle Association and want to crack down on immigration. They feel that they are the ones losing out, much as, in the Middle East, Islamic fundamentalists fear they are losing out -- and their reactions are remarkably similar. In the Arab Middle East and Iran, the response is an insistence on the establishment of Islamic Law as the basis for political life; while in Israel, an increasingly reactionary interpretation of Jewish law which, taken to orthodox extremes, rejects marriages by reform Jewish rabbis in America, has settled over public life.

War against the network

In a second important posting, Tom introduces an essay by Michael Schwartz explaining why the U.S. is not getting ahead of the ball in Iraq because we fundamentally misunderstand the organizational structure of the people we are fighting in Iraq.

Schwartz argues that the American military and Bush's political leadership believe, in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, that we are fighting an enemy that has a "Command and Control" structure, i.e. a centralized and hierarchical leadership that both organizes logistics and dictates military and political strategy. This conception of the enemy's organizational structure results in the U.S. thinking that the key to winning the war in Iraq is to eliminate the leadership of the insurgency. We see evidence that this belief is endemic to our strategy in Iraq whenever a major figure is captured or killed: the Bushies invariably declare that a "turning point" has been reached. (The most conspicuous case was the capture of Saddam, and we may expect that the eventual capture of Zarqawi will produce a similar prognosis.)

But somehow those "turning points" never seem to materialize. Schwartz argues that this may be because the insurgency in Iraq is in fact so decentralized that there is no central leadership, no command and control. It may simply be a number of completely disconnected insurgent cells, united by nothing expect a desire to drive the United States out of Iraq. If Mao was right that guerillas are fish that swim in a sea of popular support, then metaphorically speaking the U.S. is strategically focused on shooting the fish in the Iraqi barrel, when in fact it's the water in the barrel that is our real enemy. (And if that's the case, then democratization is hardly going to be of much help.)

We shouldn't push the Maoist analogy too far, however, since Mao, at the end of the day, did believe in command-and-control. Schwartz is arguing that the insurgent decentralization in Iraq is much more elemental than what Mao had in mind, with dire implications for the Iraqis themselves: if and when the Iraqi insurgents achieve their goal of driving the U.S. out, there will be no successor government or leadership. There's no Ho Chi Minh or Taliban to come in and reassert order. Rather, what will follow will be Somali-style chaos.

Which is exactly why, despite everything, the U.S. has a moral duty to stay in Iraq, even though we may be unable to win there: since we destroyed the stability of the place, we are now responsible for working to restore that stability, even if that task is Sisyphean. Eventually we may hope that a strong leader may emerge who can provide that stability, but it's more than likely that such a leader will not be very democratic, since he certainly will have to be ruthless in repressing what by now is being institutionalized as a political culture of militarized insolence.

If Schwartz is right, what we're fighting is not an organization, however structured, but rather a movement. Beating a movement requires winning the hearts and minds. And this is precisely what we're not doing, as Schwartz concludes:

So why does the U.S. military relentlessly build its anti-insurgency strategy around the idea of decapitating the leadership of the Iraqi resistance? The answer lies just beneath the surface of Donald Rumsfeld's now infamous statement, "You go to war with the Army you have."...

This army is the best equipped in the world for advanced conventional warfare -- with tanks, artillery, air power, missile power, battlefield surveillance power, and satellite imaging to support highly mobile, well equipped, and superbly trained soldiers. No supply route is safe from its firepower, and no conventional army would be likely to hold its ground long against an American assault. But the most intractable part of the resistance in Iraq is fighting a guerrilla war: they do not have long supply lines and they rarely try to hold their ground.

Guerrilla armies hide by melting into the local population. (Everyone knows this, including, of course, American military men.) To defeat them, an occupying force must have the intelligence to identify guerrillas who can disappear into the civilian world; and it must station troops throughout resistance strongholds in order to pounce upon guerrillas when they emerge from hiding to mount an attack. American military strategists know this, too. But these lessons -- painfully drawn from Vietnam -- can't be implemented by the army that Donald Rumsfeld sent to war.

The Americans, in fact, have neither of these resources. Anti-guerrilla intelligence, after all, requires the cooperation of the local population, which, at least in the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq, the U.S. has definitively alienated, largely through its use of blunt-edged conventional army attacks on communities that harbor guerrillas. And it cannot station enough troops in key locations because too small an occupation force is spread far too thinly over contested parts of the country. Estimates for the size of an army needed to pacify Iraq range upward from General Eric Shinseki's prewar call for "several hundred thousand" troops.

Reading Schwartz's piece got me thinking that a major problem, maybe the major problem, the United States has in thinking about the GWOT may be the notion that what we are faced with is a single battle (a "World War IV," as the neocons like to call it) against an enemy which is admittedly shadowy, but ultimately as unified as Hitler's Germany or the Soviet Union. This is why they believe that we can "decapitate" the leadership and simply put into place a leadership friendly to the United States (that was the original plan in Iraq, as some may recall: "decapitate" Saddam and Uday and Qusay, and put Chalabi on the throne).

But if Schwartz is right, then this vision of political transformation is a pipe dream. There is no single enemy that can be replaced. This is not like Germany or Japan in 1945, or Moscow in 1991, where by changing a few people at the top, we can install a friendlier system on top of what is already a functional society organized according to rational-legal norms largely similar to the ones operating in the West today. No such system exists for us to dismantle or reappropriate, pace the 'wingers. Indeed, the very name "Al Qeada" is in this sense pernicious, reifying an enemy which in fact does not exist except as an ideological force.

That ideological force must, of course, be defeated. Whether it can be defeated by fellow fundamentalists, albeit of the Christrian variety is an open question. What is almost certain, however, is that misconceiving of the organizational structure of the enemy is a dire political and military mistake.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

U.S. "not in control" in Iraq, U.S. Army says

Isaiah Wilson, the U.S. Army's official historian, has concluded that the U.S. "military was hampered by the failure to occupy and stabilize Iraq in 2003. As a result, the military lost its dominance by July 2003 and has yet to regain that position.

"In the two to three months of ambiguous transition, U.S. forces slowly lost the momentum and the initiative gained over an off-balanced enemy," the report said. "The United States, its Army and its coalition of the willing have been playing catch-up ever since."

Wilson said army planners failed to understand or accept the prospect that Iraqis would resist the U.S. forces after the fall of the Saddam regime. He deemed the military performance in Iraq mediocre and said the army could lose the war.

"U.S. war planners, practitioners and the civilian leadership conceived of the war far too narrowly," the report said. "This overly simplistic conception of the war led to a cascading undercutting of the war effort: too few troops, too little coordination with civilian and governmental/non-governmental agencies and too little allotted time to achieve success."


Senator Byron Dorgan offers a useful catalog of the prewar balderdash the Bush regime fed us about what the Iraq war would be like:
  • Cheney: "I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators."
  • Rumsfeld: "Think of the faces in Afghanistan when the people were liberated, when they moved out in the streets and they started singing and flying kites and women went to school and people were able to function and other countries were able to start interacting with them. That's what would happen in Iraq."
  • Wolfowitz: "I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators."
  • Powell: "I hope we would be seen as liberators. I think that might well be the case."
  • Fleischer: "The people who live right now under a brutal dictator will view America as liberators."

More complete quotes after the jump.

Useful commentary on Bolton

Matt Yglesias explains why John Bolton's appointment to the U.N. ambassador isn't just letting the fox watch the henhouse, it's more like nominating a pyromaniac to be a librarian.

Okay, the data sucks, but still: "faster, please"!

A commission investigating the Bush regime's intelligence failures (stop laughing) surrounding Saddam's non-existant WMDs has decided to do the public service of looking forward to see whether a similar pattern is emerging in places like Iran and North Korea. According to the New York Times, the panel "will describe American intelligence on Iran as inadequate to allow firm judgments about Iran's weapons programs." The Times continues:

The Bush administration has been issuing increasingly sharp warnings about what it says are Iran's efforts to build nuclear weapons. The warnings have been met with firm denials in Tehran, which says its nuclear program is intended purely for civilian purposes.

The most complete recent statement by American agencies about Iran and its weapons, in an unclassified report sent to Congress in November by Porter J. Goss, director of central intelligence, said Iran continued "to vigorously pursue indigenous programs to produce nuclear, chemical and biological weapons."

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been conducting inspections in Iran for two years, has said it has not found evidence of any weapons program. But the agency has also expressed skepticism about Iran's insistence that its nuclear activities are strictly civilian. The nine-member bipartisan presidential panel, led by Laurence Silberman, a retired federal judge, and Charles S. Robb, a former governor and senator from Virginia, had unrestricted access to the most senior people and the most sensitive documents of the intelligence agencies.

In its report, the panel is also expected to be sharply critical of American intelligence on North Korea. But in interviews, people who have been briefed on the commission's deliberations and conclusions said they regarded the record on Iran as particularly worrisome.

One person who described the panel's deliberations and conclusions characterized American intelligence on Iran as "scandalous," given the importance and relative openness of the country, compared with such an extreme case as North Korea. That person and others who have been briefed on the panel's work would not be more specific in describing the inadequacies. But former government officials who are experts on Iran say that while American intelligence agencies have devoted enormous resources to Iran since the Islamic revolution of 1979, they have had little success in the kinds of human spying necessary to understand Iranian decision-making....

In Congress, the Senate Intelligence Committee has recently begun its own review into the quality of intelligence on Iran, in what the Republican and Democratic leaders of the panel have described as an effort to pre-empt any repeat of the experience in Iraq, where prewar American assertions about illicit weapons proved to be mistaken. But Congressional officials say the language of some recent intelligence reports on Iran has included more caveats and qualifications than in the past, in what they described as the agencies' own response to the Iraq experience.

In testimony last month, intelligence officials from several agencies told Congress that they were convinced that Tehran wanted nuclear weapons, but also said the uncertainty played to Iran's advantage. "The Iranians don't necessarily have to have a successful nuclear program in order to have the deterrent value," said Carol A. Rodley, the State Department's second-ranking top intelligence official. "They merely have to convince us, others and their neighbors that they do."

Note carefully just how low a cognitive bar Rodley is setting for U.S. intelligence. And why you're taking note, don't forget that this is the bar that (presumably) determines whether or not the U.S. should "invoke the doctrine of preemption"--i.e. whether or not we should attack Iran.

Rodley is not requiring that the Irans actually have WMDs. Nor is she demanding that the United States actually know that the Iranians have or are acquiring WMDs. In fact, the cognitive threshhold for invoking the doctrine of preemption, as Rodley suggests here, has nothing to do with the Iranians at all. On the contrary, it has to do with whether or not "we," the United States, are "convinced" (i.e. that "we" have the belief) that the Irans have or are acquiring WMDs.

When people observe that current American foreign policy is driven not by reference to the external reality, but rather by our own psychological anxieties, this is what they're talking about.

Wingjobs still at it in Kansas

Creationists may be superstitious idiots, but they are also extremely persistent.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Torture and democracy

Sullivan makes a great point today. Forget about the criminality and hypocrisy of the Bush regime's claims to be against torture, even as it is shipping off untold numbers of detainees to other countries to be tortured. The more bewildering thing is that "even as this president publicly calls on these regimes to democratize, he privately asks them to 'take care of' prisoners of war."

And you wonder why poor Bashar Assad is confused. His thought process must be going something live this: "George, be reasonable! I've done everything you asked me. Every one of those guys you sent over here -- I made sure we tortured every one of them. I promise we did, every last one. Just ask your CIA guys: they were there! And now you want to throw me out of Lebanon, like yesterday's newspaper? What's going on?!"

And rightwing hacks wonder why we doesn't believe an iota of Bush's moralistic grandstanding.

What the credibility gap looks like in action

One of the Bush regime's staunchest supporters in the war on Iraq, the Berlusconi government, is rejecting the US version of the shooting of its agent Nicola Calipari. The Italian left's sudden celebration of a secret service agent (a type they have always been suspicious of, to say the least) as a national hero is of course hypocritical, merely a means to put pressure on the Berlusconi's rightwing government to withdraw from or at least reduce its commitment in Iraq. Even so, the effort is having marked success, not least because even the pope is getting in on the act.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Bolton to the U.N.

George Bush named John R. Bolton to be next American ambassador to the U.N. To get the right sense of the meaning of Bolton's assignment to the U.N. post, imagine if Harry Truman had appointed Father Coughlin to be ambassador to Israel.

Gabriel Espinoza Gonzales's nice piece on Bolton suggests that Bolton's assignment should be read as more evidence that the lunatics are running the asylum in Washington.

The emperor's new clothes: neoimperialism as modernization

Although I doubt (alas!) that Susanne Rudolph has read my book on the modernization theorists, her presidential address to the American Political Science Association in September mirrored the argument I make in Mandarins of the Future, and also draws the same conclusions about how modernization theory adumbrated the pro-imperial project of the neocons within the current Bush regime. Rudolph also points out that the failings of that earlier project should sound a warning to contemporary believers in the neo-imperial project. Money:
Niall Ferguson has proposed that America accept its destiny as a global hegemon, but learn how to be an imperial power from the history of the British Empire. Faced with a need to stay the course in foreign lands, America is handicapped, says Ferguson, by Attention Deficit Disorder. It must learn to serve in the spirit of duty and to recognize its civilizing mission. I am not very enthusiastic about Ferguson’s project, but if I were, I would share his despair about Americans fulfilling the role of the British hegemon. In so far as British hegemony worked, it did so because the British accepted and incorporated difference. Britain’s feudal past and the royal and aristocratic traces it left in the British mentality and structure of governance enabled the empire to skillfully fit British racism into local patterns of asymmetry, to reward native subalterns by successfully inserting them into the British system of rank and order. Such cultural suppleness is more difficult for Americans, whose Lockean tradition prevents them from gracefully using inequality to their advantage. Lawrence of Arabia, the double agent of British and Arabian culture, is the model of British imperial imagination; the "ugly American," loaded with liberal designs, is the model of the American incapacity to imagine the other.
Imperialism in the name of egalitarianism is in fact an oxymoron, no matter what the liberal hawks and sincere neocons may wish to believe.

Hat tip: WAB.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Smoking gun: Bush authorizing torture by proxy

Turns out that George Bush, "within days of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon," signed a directive permitting the "transfer [of] suspected terrorists to foreign countries for interrogation." We know what that means: it means transferring people to countries with, as the economists might say, comparative advantage in torture. The details here.

If you want details on what these "rendition" victims faced on the other side of their plane ride, read this New Yorker piece. I reported on this topic earlier, here and here.

Evangelicals in Washington

The scariest article I've read in months: on how the wingjobs in Washington are struggling to cope with what it means to have become the establishment. Money:
"This new generation has the same convictions but without the edge," says Michael Cromartie, an evangelical scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "They may believe all the same things, but they are not going to go on 'Larry King Live' and say all homosexuals should die. They've learned how to present themselves."

"How to present themselves...."

Scary, yes, but galvanizing, too.

(Note: the article centers on a woman with the unbelievable name of "Lyric Hassler"; that alone is worth clicking on the link for.)

Friday, March 04, 2005

Shoot first....

Oh, the irony.

Update: In all seriousness, what this incident reveals, more clearly to Western audiences than anything that's happened to date, is just how indiscriminate and massive the violence that U.S. soldiers are instructed to mete out. I have no doubt that these soldiers who shot this journalist were following the rules of engagement, and as such, it's clear that the people setting the rules are a problem. Let's just hope that the soldiers themselves are not scapegoated.

Background on Lebanon

Juan Cole provides a fantastic backgrounder on the situation in Lebanon.

Afghanistan's return as a narco-state

We all know how the Bushists love to celebrate how great everything is in Afghanistan now that we've liberated the Afghan people from the Taliban. Seems that that's especially true if you're a drug lord.

Privatizing v. Sharing Risk: What the Social Security Debate is REALLY about

Josh Marshall has done fantastic, impactful work on the Social Security debate over the last four months, acting as policy analyst, historian, and de facto whip for the Democratic Party on the issue. Today's pithy posting is especially close to the issues I have been blogging on myself for some time (for example, here and here). Josh makes two key points that reinforce what I have been trying to express myself.

First, Josh provides the historical precedents for what the Republicans are trying to accomplish, which is to roll back the social protections institutionalized during the twentieth century. In fact, as Josh notes, quoting Sid Blumenthal, the Republicans are merely trying to do what they have been trying to accomplish since the day Social Security was passed, which is to abolish the program:

The 1936 Republican platform: "Society has an obligation to promote the security of the people, by affording some measure of protection against involuntary unemployment and dependency in old age. The New Deal policies, while purporting to provide social security, have, in fact, endangered it ...the [trust] fund will contain nothing but the government's promise to pay ... [and is] unworkable."

Goldwater on Social Security from '64: "It promises more benefits to more people than the incomes collected will provide."

The second important point Josh makes is about how the fight over Social Security is really a fight over what kind of society we want to have. Money:

The terms of this debate are actually pretty straightforward. The president and his supporters want to get the government out of the Social Security business by ending guaranteed benefits. It's really as simple as that. Not complicated. They'll put in its place some system of private accounts where you can save money on your own. And if it works out, great. If it doesn't, it's your problem.

Social Security is about spreading out the risk and the security by having near-universal participation in one program. That's what it is. You pay in through the course of your working years and after you retire you receive your guaranteed benefit every month for the rest of your life. It is that issue of guarantee -- which, in its nature, only a program like Social Security can provide -- which the president and his supporters are trying to do away with, either all at once or in stages.

So take away all of your policy particulars and computations and flow-charts and analyses. And set them to one side. That is the issue at the core of all of this debate. It defines what kind of society we live in.

Or to put it another way, inasmuch as the term "society" implies a collective, universal sharing of risk and meaning, it's a fight about whether we want to have a society at all.

On one side we have the Reaganite-Thatcherite "society doesn't exist" position, which asserts (or assumes) that the only relevant, meaningful entities are utility-maximizing individuals and the associations they voluntarily enter (although, when pressed, the right usual coughs hard and adds, "and families"). When these guys hear the word "social" or "society," they feel like we're already at least three steps down the well-greased road to serfdom.

On the other side, we have those who believe that "society" is a meaningful concept that entails and describes the elemental bonds and commensurate obligations that exist between all members of a nation. These people believe that we all owe each other something (many things) by virtue of our collective sense of identity, and that these social obligations are, well, obligatory, that is, not voluntary. And since these obligations are not subject to choice, they must, like all other involuntary things, be enforced by the state.

In my own view, Americans who put themselves in the first group are, quite exactly, anti-American, in that they do not believe that there exists such a thing as an "American society" that entails obligations we all have to each other. They look at the country and they feel no obligation to their fellows--which is, to my mind, pretty much the same thing as saying that they hate our country.