Friday, July 27, 2007

These people are psychotic

The Heritage Foundation just produced a scenario for what will happen if we start bombing Iran -- what they call "a focused but restrained use of mili­tary power."

Short answer: No worries! Good times for all!

Not only will be economic consequences be much less than the doomsayers predict, but the new war will actually have the collateral advantage of providing a policy opening for measures that the pinks and liberals have for so long stymied, such as permitting oil drilling in ANWR and the Gulf waters, and rolling back of energy conservation measures (higher CAFE standards) and environmental regulations (the Clean Air Act). Actually, the thing I found most surprising about the scenario was that these guys didn't seem to realize that another obvious consequence of bombing Iraq is that it will require an abolition of the capital gains tax to tide us through the emergency.

Hat tip: TC.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Climate-change induced conflict

An additional source of conflict that climate change may induce is to open up competition over jurisdictionally ambiguous spaces that previously were so inaccessible as to not really be worth disputing. The Russians are aggressively asserting their claims to vast stretches of the Arctic, not for strategic reasons (as during the Cold War), but because global warming has thinned the ice in the Artic to the point where exploiting hydrocarbons (control over which is the linchpin of contemporary Russian geostrategy) is now or likely soon will be possible. Next up: tearing up the 1959 Antarctica Treaty declaring that continent the sole province of science, so as to exploit the likely stupendous mineral resources of the continent.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Hannah Arendt's view of Evil

I've always been compelled by Arendt's view of evil as depiected in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Here's Amos Alon's excellent gloss on Arendt's view of evil:
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she still held on to a Kantian notion of radical evil, the evil that, under the Nazis, corrupted the basis of moral law, exploded legal categories, and defied human judgment. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, and in the bitter controversies about it that followed, she insisted that only good had any depth. Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension, yet--and this is the horror!--it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought, for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.
I agree entirely: evil comes from a failure to think.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Trendhunter: Moustachio vendettas

A truly bizarre story about the "Moustache War of Upper Egypt," but perhaps a leading indicator for something profound, namely the ever-increasing importance of cultural symbolism:
Moustache war shakes southern Egypt

When an elder was kidnapped in a clan dispute in conservative southern Egypt, the al-Arab family's worst fears were soon realised -- they received a package containing his moustache, local media reported on Sunday.

The man himself was returned uninjured, but the use of the new shaving tactic sent shockwaves through the town of Mahrusa, near Luxor, 650km south of Cairo, where a man's honour is measured by the size of his moustache, the al-Gomhuria daily said.

The conflict that started with a coffee-shop brawl swiftly spiralled out of control, with the al-Arab carrying out a humiliating reprisal shave on a leading member of the Fallaheen family, followed by all-out battles with sticks and clubs.

Police and community leaders then intervened, restoring a relative calm to the town, the paper said, with those worst hit by the conflict set to remain indoors for the coming weeks pending the regrowth of their manliness.

I suspect this story awaits its Robert Darnton.

Climate change sparked historical wars in China

I'm not usually convinced by arguments that rely on data-mining historical patterns, since much of historical is contingent and dependent on human agency, but this argument about climate change triggering regional wars in China is striking nonetheless:

Cool periods in China, and the resulting scarcity of resources, are closely linked with a higher frequency of wars over the past 1000 years, according to Chinese researchers.

The research, which compared variations in climate with data from 899 wars in eastern China between 1000 and 1911, was published earlier this month (9 July) in the journal Human Ecology.

The finding that resource scarcity and shrinking agricultural output caused by changes in temperature is a major driver for war also applies to current society, says David Zhang, lead author from the Department of Geography at the University of Hong Kong.

Although Zhang did not analyse any warming periods, he believes extreme climate events ― both cold and hot ― could have a disastrous effect on the earth's ecosystem.

"It is more apparent that colder temperature would cause less crop production. However the ecosystem and agricultural production, once adapted to lower temperature, would surely be disturbed in a higher temperature today," he said.

Zhang believes that changes in ecosystems could lead to social, economic and political change, and could spark off wars. Historically, warfare has been a way of redistributing resources in response to climate change.

Wang Shaowu, from Peking University's Department of Atmospheric Physics, agreed that climate changes played an important role in the switch of dynasties and social revolutions in Chinese history.

He noted that drought and less precipitation, which do not always coincide with cold periods, were also significant factors affecting the agricultural production in countries like China.

According to Zhang, the finding also applies to ancient agricultural societies in other countries. For example, when the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) collapsed, other populated areas like Europe, Japan, Korea and the Ottoman Empire were also experiencing the most turbulent time in their history.

But according to An Chengbang, a research fellow with the Institute of Geography of Lanzhou University, both warming and cooling are long-term trends and the meteorological data collected during the past decades are not enough to accurately predict how global warming might influence agriculture.

Hat tip: MO.

Monday, July 23, 2007

What the impact of global warming looks like

No single storm or flood can be attributed directly to global warming. However, we can predict macro-level weather effects of global warming with great certainty -- hotter weather, more "extreme weather events," and so on. We can also known with a great deal of certainty which regions are generally unprepared to cope with such weather when it arrives. Densely populated, impoverished, badly governed, environmentally-degraded regions will suffer terrible human tolls. What will this look like concretely? Well, we're seeing the signs in Asia right now:

In China, floods have affected more than 8 million people in 43 cities across the southwest province of Sichuan.

Elsewhere in China, more than 200 people have died and 200,000 houses been destroyed.

Seven million people are short of clean drinking water, according to authorities.

In the Indian State of West Bengal, floods caused by monsoon rains have forced 700,000 people to be evacuated.

Thousands more have been marooned by rising water.

Again, we don't know whether these particular rains are being caused by global warming. But we can say with a high degree of confidence that as the impact of global warming accelerates, we're going to be seeing many more headlines like this, and worse.

Update: Britain also hit by worst flooding in sixty years.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

San Francisco, 1971

An amazing composite view of San Francisco, composed out of slides taken from the top of the Bay Bridge in 1971:

Click here on the image to see it in full size.

What an abomination that Embarcadero freeway was.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The very model of a modern libertarian

A brilliant reinterpratation of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance":
I Am the Very Model of a Modern Libertarian
by Kim Plofker

I am the very model of a modern Libertarian:
I teem with glowing notions for proposals millenarian,
I've nothing but contempt for ideologies collectivist
(My own ideas of social good tend more toward the Objectivist).
You see, I've just discovered, by my intellectual bravery,
That civic obligations are all tantamount to slavery;
And thus that ancient pastime, viz., complaining of taxation,
Assumes the glorious aspect of a war for liberation!

You really must admit it's a delightful revelation:
To bitch about your taxes is to fight for liberation!

I bolster up my claims with lucubrations rather risible
About the Founding Fathers and the market's hand invisible;
In fact, my slight acquaintance with the fountainhead Pierian
Makes me the very model of a modern Libertarian!

His very slight acquaintance with the fountainhead Pierian
Makes him the very model of a modern Libertarian!

All "public wealth" is robbery, we never will accede to it;
You have no rights in anything if you can't show your deed to it.
(But don't fear repossession by our Amerind minority:
Those treaties aren't valid---Uncle Sam had no authority!)
We realize whales and wolves and moose find wilderness quite vital,
And we'll give back their habitats---if they can prove their title.
But people like unspoiled lands (we too will say "hooray" for them),
So we have faith that someone else will freely choose to pay for them.

Yes, when the parks are auctioned it will be a lucky day for them---
We're confident that someone else will freely choose to pay for them!

We'll guard the health of nature by self-interest most astute:
Since pollution is destructive, no one ever will pollute.
Thus factories will safeguard our communities riparian---
I am the very model of a modern Libertarian!

Yes, factories will safeguard our communities riparian,
He is the very model of a modern Libertarian!

In short, when I can tell why individual consumers
Know best who should approve their drugs and who should treat their tumors;
Why civilized existence in its intricate confusion
Will be simple and straightforward, absent government intrusion;
Why markets cannot err within the system I've described,
Why poor folk won't be bullied and why rich folk won't be bribed,
And why all vast inequities of power and position
Will vanish when I wave my wand and utter "COMPETITION!"---

He's so much more exciting than a common politician,
Inequities will vanish when he hollers "Competition!"

---And why my lofty rhetoric and arguments meticulous
Inspire shouts of laughter and the hearty cry, "Ridiculous!",
And why my social theories all seem so pre-Sumerian---
I'll be the very model of a modern Libertarian!

His novel social theories all seem so pre-Sumerian---
He is the very model of a modern Libertarian!
Hat tip: NF.

The consequences of Iraq

Timothy Garton Ash summarizes the current conventional wisdom on the consequences of Bush's misadventure in Mesopotamia:
Besides the effective destruction of the Iraqi state, these include the revitalizing of militant Islamism and enhancement of the international appeal of the Al Qaeda brand; the eruption, for the first time in modern history, of internecine war between Sunni and Shiite, "a trend that reverberates in other states of mixed confessional composition"; the alienation of most sectors of Turkish politics from the West and the stimulation of authoritarian nationalism there; the strengthening of a nuclear-hungry Iran; and a new regional rivalry pitting the Islamic Republic of Iran and its allies, including Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
As we like to say around here: Mission Accomplished!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Pessimism about the prospects for GHG abatement

Perhaps, as Bill Barnes suggested yesterday, I am too pessimistic about the prospects for the collective action necessary to mitigate climate risk. When I try to find reasons for optimism, however, I usually can only come up with one, and that is that we actually don't need to get that many global actors to agree on a framework for abatement. In fact, just three actors--the U.S., the E.U., and China-- account for about half of all global emissions. You add in Russia, India and Japan, and you have almost two thirds of global emissions. In other words, you only need to get three to six actors to agree to a framework.

Of course, the barriers to such an agreement are vast. China and India are fervent about achieving economic growth at almost any cost, and seem insistent that any abatement framework take into account historical emissions, not just current ones. Why should they be forced to abate emissions just as they are embarking on the road to wealth, when the U.S. and the EU were allowed to pollute their way to greatness? The Russians, on the other hand, seem to hold the daft notion that climate change (which they seem to think equals some nice linear "warming") will actually be good for them.

But the biggest problem is probably here in the United States. Our people are so greedily materialistic, and our leaders so fecklessly beholden to the pettily venal interests of consumerism (both supply- and demand-side), that it seems hard to imagine how the U.S. will embrace any serious abatement program. Which politician is going to have the temerity to tell the American people they must live in smaller homes, drive smaller cars, live in more compact cities, and pay much higher prices for electricity? Can you imagine anyone getting elected on that basis? Just remember back a few years ago to this famous moment:
Not long ago, the Democratic-led Senate took up the issue of stricter fuel-efficiency standards, only to reject the idea. At one moment during the debate, the Senate Minority Leader, Trent Lott, exhibited a picture of a Smart car as if he were a lawyer prosecuting a multiple homicide. Pointing to the ultra-efficient and—necessarily—small automobile, which is popular in cities like Paris and Rome, he suggested that it would be an offense for anyone in the United States to consider driving one. "This is still America," he declared.
It is only with peril that one can dismiss such incidents as mere buffoonery.

Ken Arrow on climate change

1972 Nobel Economist Ken Arrow, whom I met recently at a talk by Tad Homer-Dixon at Stanford, explains why climate change is the quintessential global public good (bad):
Two factors deserve emphasis, factors that differentiate global climate change from other environmental problems. First, emissions of CO2 and other trace gases are almost irreversible; more precisely, their residence time in the atmosphere is measured in centuries. Most environmental insults are mitigated promptly or in fairly short order when the source is cleaned up, as with water pollution, acid rain, or sulfur dioxide emissions. Here, reducing emissions today is very valuable to humanity in the distant future. Second, the scale of the externality is truly global; greenhouse gases travel around the world in a few days. This means that the nation-state and its subsidiaries, the typical loci for internalization of externalities, are limited in their remedial ability. (To be sure, there are other transboundary environmental externalities, as with water pollution in the Rhine Valley or acid rain, but none nearly so far-flung as climate change.) However, since the United States contributes about 25% of the world’s CO2 emissions, its own policy could make a large difference.
In sum: the U.S. can and should act unilaterally on abating GHGs, but global collective action is also necessary.

Schelling on climate uncertainty

Thomas Schelling, the 1995 Nobel Economist, puts a fine point on the argument that the inarguably vast uncertainties with regard to climate change are a justification for inaction in terms of GHG abatement or adaptation and preparedness measures:
In some public discourse, and in sentiments emanating from the Bush Administration, it appears to be accepted that uncertainty regarding global warming is a legitimate basis for postponement of any action until more is known. The action to be postponed is usually identified as “costly.” (Little attention is paid to actions that have been identified as of little or no serious cost.) It is interesting that this idea that costly actions are unwarranted if the dangers are uncertain is almost unique to climate. In other areas of policy, such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, inflation, or vaccination, some “insurance” principle seems to prevail: if there is a sufficient likelihood of sufficient damage we take some measured anticipatory action.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Sisley advert

Annals of "you can't make this shit up": check out this new ad for Sisley that a Shanghai advertising agency just put out:

I particularly like three details in this ad. First, look at the eyes of the model on the right: she appears seriously wasted -- like it's about 6:30 am after a long, long night. Good times. Second, look at the credit card near the bottom of the image: what's neat is that it seems to have some kind of real powder on it ("china white"?) -- an excellent application of co-branding that I am sure the Chase execs in New York will really appreciate. Third, look at the text, which describes these models as "fashioin junkies." At first I thought this was a mispelling, but I think it's actually a pun, a play on the spelling of "heroin," but also a tongue-in-cheek nod to the way Chinese translations of English magazine ad copy typically mangle spelling and grammar.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Impact of climate change: a scenario

James Galbraith:
The climate collapse—which may bring the flooding of New York, Boston, London, Calcutta, and Shanghai—will be a calamity next to which the end of the Soviet Union will seem very small. Long industrial chains, for jet aircraft, automobiles, telecommunications, electricity, and much else, will crumble, as they did in the USSR and Yugoslavia, particularly if new interior boundaries form and countries break up. And interior boundaries will form, as those on the high ground seek to defend it. The demographic effects will be similarly dire: Older, urban males (like me) with no survival skills will die. Rural New England will turn into a deforested exurban slum.

This brings us back to... public policy. The function of the government, in principle, is to foresee these dangers, and avert them. The powers of the government exist to permit the mobilization of resources required. And only government can hope to do the job.

This is bleak news not only in the present climate of thought, but also given the decay of the public sphere since at least 1981. Whatever government might have been (or seemed) capable of in the 1940s or the 1960s, it plainly is not capable of today. A government that cannot establish a functioning Homeland Security Department in half a decade, a government that is capable of creating the Coalition Provisional Authority or Bush’s FEMA, is no one’s idea of an effective instrument for climate planning. Plainly the destruction of government—the turning over of regulation to predators, military functions to mercenaries, the Justice Department to a vote-suppression racket, and the Supreme Court to fanatics—has been the price of tolerating the Bush coup of November 2000. Soon we will face the aftermath of all this, with the fate of the earth in the balance.

Therefore: government will have to be rebuilt. The competencies necessary will have to be learned. The necessary powers will have to be legislated. Safeguards—against corruption, against abuse, against predation, against regulatory capture—will have to be designed. The corporate consumer culture will have to be brought to heel, and the long food production chains [will] have to be shortened. At the same time, a new project of physical, technological, and urban social engineering will have to get under way.

The reason why the ideological right is absolutely terrified of the climate change issue is that it inevitably raises the necessity of radical government activism and intervention (and redistribution). The causes of global warming are so deeply systemic that only a radical governmentality can possibly hope to abate it. The other prospect is civilizational collapse, somewhere probably long about the middle of the next century.

Personally, I find the latter scenario most likely, that is, civilizational collapse. I believe that the global middle classes stand ready to make literal Louis XIV's famous dictum, après moi le déluge, rather than give up their blighted eidolon of endless growth. Only a global benevolent dictatorship of some sort could derail the ambitions of that global middle class and its political enablers. But the Catch-22 is that any global dictatorship is highly unlikely to be benevolent.

In short, we're fucked.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Where does wealthy come from

Very interesting New York Times article about the new class of super-wealthy, and the debate over whether they really "deserve" all that money. This is how one of those guys justifies his huge wealth accrual:

Other very wealthy men in the new Gilded Age talk of themselves as having a flair for business not unlike Derek Jeter's "unique talent" for baseball, as Leo J. Hindery Jr. put it. "I think there are people, including myself at certain times in my career," Mr. Hindery said, "who because of their uniqueness warrant whatever the market will bear."

He counts himself as a talented entrepreneur, having assembled from scratch a cable television sports network, the YES Network, that he sold in 1999 for $200 million. "Jeter makes an unbelievable amount of money," said Mr. Hindery, who now manages a private equity fund, "but you look at him and you say, 'Wow, I cannot find another ballplayer with that same set of skills.'"

At an intellectual level, what I find most outrageous about the superwealthy is not that they think they "deserve" to earn insane multiples more than mere mortals, or even that they think of themselves as a force for good in the world (which some of them may be). No, what's most appalling is the way they think their wealth is entirely due to their own talent, and that it has nothing to do with the public providing a structuring environment in which such wealth is achievable. They have no awareness, in other words, that "the market" is a construct that depends, hugely, on norms and services that are collective -- and that arguably should be paid for by those who benefit most from them.

The Derek Jeter parallel is astounding mainly not because some tycoon has the temerity to compare himself to Jeter -- who, incidentally, gets his $20m+ a year despite being the second-worst fielding shortstop in the bigs. What's most amazing is that Hindery seems to have no inkling that Derek Jeter's getting paid millions for hitting a leather ball with a stick is not simply a result of "innate talent," bur rather has something to do with the structure of the sports market. If anything, such sports metaphors ought to give these latter-day robber barons pause. Consider this simple mental test: is the reason why the top baseball players today get paid 30x what they did in the 1950s or 1920s because they are 30x more talented than their predecessors? Or might it have something more to do with the way the market for major league sports has changed over the intervening years? And who shapes that market?

Sometimes I wonder whether assholes like Hindery say stuff like this to the New York Times as of some Grover Norquist-orchestrated PR effort to keep the top marginal tax rates down. (Can these people really believe in the hearts believe that markets are "natural" and not man-made? Have they really no appreciation for the enormous element of luck that plays into business success -- much, much more so than success in professional sports?) But then I remind myself what people I've met like this are like, and I realize that they really are that arrogant and that ignorant.

And let's not even get into the way in which the existence of a class of superwealthy people fundamentally undermines the operation of a democracy that has evolved a de facto pay-to-play model of representation.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Facebook Platform

I don't usually write about tech stuff on this blog, but a friend's inquiry prompted me to write something about the new developer program over at Facebook. Facebook Platform is definitely an interesting innovation -- the exact opposite of the dithering that goes on at MySpace (which, incidentally, again reflects the social division between the two platforms that Boyd noted last month). And it's definitely being well-marketed: I note in particular that Bay Partners has started a whole fund just dedicated to funding Facebook apps. A funding vehicle solely dedicated to the ecosystem of what is itself only a startup? That's a marketing coup, for sure. It's also probably a waste of money (see last paragraph).

By far the most interesting part of the platform is the viral component - when a friend adds an app, their news stream notes it in their profile. Clicking on the item brings you to the app, where you can play with it yourself and/or add it. This is an extension of the general social networking aspect of the site. In Zuckerman's keynote launching the Platform, he brings up a political example: someone starts a group dedicated to a political point, and then he invites his friends; when they join, their friends are notified, and can then join themselves -- and the result is very useful especially for organizing flash mobs political rallies.

Now, this viral sharing of information obviously makes a lot of sense for organizing groups of people to do stuff. But the question is what kinds of applications do you want to share in this viral fashion. In other words, what kinds of apps will you want to add, just because you see your friends adding them? The obvious example that springs to my mind is games. If my friends think a game is cool, I'll probably try it. News alerts? Maybe (I might go, say, for an app that found the nastiest daily YouTube video). Personal finance stuff? Doubt it -- just because my brother adds a finance app doesn't make it seem that much more compelling to me.

But that's still thinking of apps in terms of single-user functions. The real killer apps in this space will surely be social apps, probably of sorts that we haven't necessarily thought of yet. The trivial example is a calendaring/invitation app -- if my friends start to migrate to a new calendaring app, I'll almost certainly go with them. The smart money is in thinking about what kinds of social apps might come next. Apps for doing stuff together. So what are quintessentially social activities that are currently underserved in the apps space? My initial thoughts (perhaps for obvious reasons, given why I am blogging at 5:00 a.m.): domestic matters. Apps related to babying and mommying? Cooking apps? (Anarchist cooking??) There could well be some very cool new ideas there.

Looking at the more macro story, this is an effort by Facebook to make the "Windows 95" play to developers. What I mean by that is that this is an entirely inward-looking application platform -- the stuff you build for Facebook will only work for Facebook users, and as a developer, you are at the mercy of Facebook at both a technical and a business level. How many crack developers will want to develop stuff for someone else's platform? It's only really worth it if the platform is/becomes the de facto standard for all users (e.g. Windows 95). Absent Facebook as a de facto standard destination for the majority of web users, however, there will always be bigger opportunities for developers in if they build apps outside Facebook. Which means that, unless they've thought of an app which is really tailored exclusively and exactly for Facebook users--e.g. extensions of Facebook's own core competencies--the best developers are likely to continue to develop stuff for the general Web, not for Facebook's proprietary platform.

It's all about the developers. As Steve Ballmer famously observed, "Developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers.... YES!"

Monday, July 09, 2007

QUOTE: Mike Davis on urbanization

Mike Davis:

This is not a war of civilizations but an oblique clash between the American imperium and the labor-power it has expelled from the formal world economy. The future contours of this new "twilight struggle" are difficult to foresee. Trends may persist or wholly original features, including unexpected ideological hybrids, may emerge.

Who, for example, would have predicted in 1900 the convergence just twenty-five years later between urban Marxism and rural rebellion in East Asia? The current vogue of Pentecostalism and Sayd Qutb in the new slums of Latin America, Africa, and Asia may be permanent hegemonies or, then again, the urban poor's version of the peasant millenarian movements and anticolonial Ghost Dances of the 1890s.

What is clear is that the contemporary megaslum poses unique problems of imperial order and social control that conventional geopolitics has barely begun to register. If the point of the war against terrorism is to pursue the enemy into his sociological and cultural labyrinth, then the poor peripheries of developing cities will be the permanent battlefields of the twenty-first century.

– "The Urbanization of Empire: Megacities and the Laws of Chaos," Social Text 81 (2004): 14-15.

Who will take the blame for Iraq?

Reading the New York Times's day-late-dollar-short editorial calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq brings to mind what I think is in fact the key question that is stalling all progress on the American Iraq policy: who is going to take the blame for the catastrophe? There strike me as being at least four different camps on this question, each of which has radically different political goals, and none of which are either willing to partner with another group or can form a majority on their own.

At one extreme are the die-hards. These guys still believe that the war was a great idea in the first place, and that it is capable of being brought to a successful conclusion. I'm thinking here of folks like the delightful Podhoretz family. These guys want to make sure that "if the venture fails" then the blame will go to anyone who at any time has expressed any qualms about motivations underlying the war--in other words, virtually all Democrats and a sizable number of Republicans.

These are the prime promulgators of the incipient Dolchstosslegende, blaming liberals and the media for the catastrophe, even as they deny that there is a catastrophe. These guys are trying a straight replay of the Vietnam blame game, trying to create the public impression that the reason we lost that war was because of media quislings and liberal pansies.

In this effort to blame the failure in Iraq on liberalism, however, these guys face two formidable challenges. First, unlike in Vietnam, it's awfully hard to rope the liberals into any responsibility for the way the war has been waged -- there's no LBJ or JFK to blame for starting the war. Second, the anti-war movement, such as it's been, has been far more polite (read: passive & ineffective) than its 1960s-70s antecedent. This time around, there just won't be rioting long-hairs for this wingnut fringe to pin the blame on. Cindy Sheehan's candlelight vigils just don't measure up to Chicago 1968.

With that said, these guys are definitely laying the groundwork for blaming the withdrawal on the next (almost inevitable Democratic) president. They're being assisted in this by Bush, who is doing everything he can to push off the withdrawal to the next administration, so that he can maintain for historical posterity that if only his course had been stayed, it would all have worked out great. And indeed, to some extent the political strategy is working: the threat of being blamed for the failure in Iraq is certainly part of what has the current Democratic leadership incapable of pushing hard for a withdrawal. You might say that they are scared of their party's historical shadow.

Second, at the other extreme, are those who want to blame the failure for the war in Iraq on anyone who supported the war in any way. This group blames a culture of imperialism, and wants to try to make anyone who supported the war look like an idiot, complicit in the catastrophe. The strategic goal for this group is to try to forge a historical sensibility that will hamstring this country's ability to commit similar crimes in the future. The maximal hope is to pin the blame for the war's failure on the political culture of imperialism--and thereby destroy that political culture. This prospect seems like a long-shot as well (cultures of imperialism do disappear, but it takes a greater trauma than the one we have thus far suffered in Iraq) but it explains the antics of folks like Cindy Sheehan.

What's interesting about this group is that while they call for immediate withdrawal, their efforts to affix the blame for the disaster on all who supported the war actually makes it politically more difficult to build a consensus to withdraw. In short , this group is willing to let the war go on longer rather than let those they deem co-responsible for the war get off scot free. They want the country to learn a lesson, not just make some hasty political compromises to get out of Iraq. Now, whatever you may think of the ethics of this position, it is clear that political decisions are never reached this way in this country. And I mean never: the whole political history of the country is a series of half-measures and compromises, and the idea that this is a turning point in that part of our political culture is foolish. Be that as it may, the fervently antiwar crowd, nonpragmatists to a man and woman, are trying to turn Iraq into the tombstone of American imperialism. Which is why committed American imperialists view these people as treasonous -- they intend to undermine what the imperialists consider to be the core values and ambitions of the country.

Third, you have the flip-floppers formerly known as liberal hawks (or, more accurately: the liberal imperialists) -- Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, pundits named Berman, etc. These guys supported the war, and believe in the empire, but realize that the Iraq war is lost and the time has come to leave, because staying only weakens the empire. This group mainly focuses its blame-gaming on the Bush administration, specifically on his execution of the war. In other words, these guys argue that the war was a good idea in the first place (which is why they voted for it), but that the implementation has been a hash. (In other words, if only a President Gore had been running the war, it would all have worked out great.) The main problem these guys face is that the argument is so out of kilter with the facts that it is hard to sell this story. Specifically, it's clear that there is an institutional, systemic problem that led us into this four year catastrophe, not just one man's poor leadership. However, this critique is all but impossible for them to make, because they suffer from the original sin of having voted for the Iraq War resolution in 2002. That original vote, supported by a little over half of the Democrats in Congress, is what makes it very difficult to blame the war on conservatism. The result is the ongoing flaccid finger-pointing at Bush, and little ability to get GOPers to support withdrawal. In sum, these people lack any political leverage on the issue, because they have so little credibility.

The last group, and really the key to all this, is the core of the GOP. Not the rightest half of the party that runs in uncontested GOP strongholds (they're in the first group), but rather the majority of the GOP politicians who face big political consequences if the voters decide to blame the GOP for the war. These guys have loyally supported Bush on the Ben Franklin principle that if they don't hang together, they shall most assuredly hang separately. But the Dems have also let these folks off easy so far, by not trying to pin the blame for the catastrophe on the GOP. The Dems have done this in large part, of course, because any attempt to blame the rank and file of the GOP for their support of the war runs into the tricky problem that many Democrats also supported the war, at least at first. These GOPers don't know who to blame for the war exactly, and most of them are politically terrified that no matter what happens, they are going to get blamed. On the one hand, since Bush will certainly get stuck with a huge chunk of the blame (unless some miracle lets him pull a chestnut of victory from the fires of Baghdad), sticking with Bush is presents a horrible political risk. On the other hand, breaking with Bush to go with the liberal hawks presents the same problems for this group as it does with the liberal hawks: how can you blame Bush alone for something that you supported so vociferously for so long? None of these people want to be the first to break with Bush, but none of them want to be left behind with the wingnut fringe, if they're in a swing district and a lot of the party has already moved.

In sum, it's a classic political impasse. But here's the key point: this impasse is a disaster for the troops on the ground. While Washington plays a four-way game of political chicken over the political responsibility for the policy failure, its the military that continue to ooze blood into the sands of Mesopotamia. Rather, what the troops want (need!) is a reasonable, realistic discussion of what comes next. The original mission--to create a stable, democratic, prosperous Iraq that would be a beacon of hope and change for the Middle East--clearly has failed. Dead as a doorknob, and everyone knows it. So, given that Iraq is in a civil war, the question is: what next? Specifically: what do we want our force posture in the Middle East to be in five years, and how do we get there from here in an orderly fashion?

That's the debate the military wants us to have, but in the meanwhile, Washington is trying to sort out who is going to take the fall for getting us into the mess. And whatever the rhetoric on all sides, that's hardly supportive of the troops.