November 30, 2004

Who Lost Ukraine?

Dan Drezner counter-castigates my castigating the Bush administration for not preparing for the current Ukraine mess. As he puts it, "From what I've read, this is a case where all the planning in the world wasn't going to change what happened."

That certainly makes sense (I don't know one way or the other). The point I was trying to drive at in my original post, though, had more to do with Putin and Russia's hegemonic ambitions in general, rather than the Ukraine specifically. It may be hindsight to say so, but over the past four years the White House never really stopped to wonder why Putin might fear the EU encroaching on his doorstep, or why he might try to exert such heavy-handed influence over its former Soviet Republics. When the two biggest forces in Europe are visibly wrestling for control over a series of central European states, doesn't it seem natural to try to resolve that, given, oh I don't know, everything that's happened on the continent over the past century? Shouldn't they have seen this coming?

Now maybe the EU-Russia rivalry is a conflict that can't be resolved easily or cleanly. Maybe Bush's pro-Putin agenda and democracy agenda were bound to collide eventually, and that's just because foreign policy is complex and that's that. Perhaps I'm being naïve to think these things are forseeable, let alone fixable.

The relevant point, though, is that any democracy-promotion agenda worth its salt will have to involve some negotiation of the larger geopolitics involved. You can't, of course, expect the "right kind" of Ukrainian democracy when the country next door is given ex ante license to interfere at will. Unfortunately we've seen this sort of obliviousness everywhere -- in Iraq, for example, where our lazy refusal to understand or deal with Turkey and Iran's regional interests has helped upset the dynamics of democracy within Iraq. And not, I think, in a good way.
-- Brad Plumer 11:41 PM || ||
Write What You Mean

Gregg Easterbrook says we ought to increase our defense spending. What he really means is that we ought to reorganize our defense spending. Sure, we probably need more money for bombers. Easterbrook's big on bombers. (And who isn't?) But if you look at, say, the FY2005 military procurement bill, there's already billions being spent on all sorts of stuff we don't need—more nuclear subs (why?) and stealth fighters (why?) and planes that can do air-to-air combat (against who?). So Easterbrook should write about how we should junk all that stuff in favor of stuff we do need. Except then he'd be writing a column about Rumsfeld's once-vaunted "revolution in military affairs," and whatever happened to that. I wonder too.

On a related note, I've been reading Thomas Hammes The Sling and the Stone lately, and he makes the good point that the Pentagon tends to ask "How can we make the best of technology to fight wars in the 21st century?" rather than the simpler and better question, "What's the best way to fight wars in the 21st century?" The reason, though, is simple: the military contractor industry is more than just a perennial Mother Jones cover story—it really exists, and it's the reason why the Pentagon hasn't downplayed its technology fetish in favor of preparing for the sort of "Fourth Generational Warfare" found in post-Saddam Iraq and elsewhere. Obviously a blind increase in spending isn't the solution here, but since Easterbrook didn't really mean what he wrote, I won't hold him responsible.
-- Brad Plumer 9:30 PM || ||
Spoken Like a True Lawyer

In an essay on something else altogether, Prof. William Stuntz writes:
Christians believe in a God-Man who called himself (among other things) "the Truth." Truth-seeking, testing beliefs with tough-minded questions and arguments, is a deeply Christian enterprise. Evangelical churches should be swimming in it. Too few are.
What's interesting about that Jesus of Nazareth fellow, though, isn't that he defended his doctrine in the face of tough questions; it's that he came up with wholly surprising answers that rarely related at all to prior doctrine. When asked, for instance, whether people should pay taxes to support a Sweden-style welfare state (or something like that, I can't remember), he responded with his witty little "Render unto Caesar" thesis, which spawned an entirely new line of thought on the separation of church and state. Nothing he had ever said before could have predicted this response. (He could have just as easily declared, "Render everything unto God!" without contradicting himself.) Now if today's fundamentalists showed that sort of dexterity, we'd have a lot more to talk about!
-- Brad Plumer 8:37 PM || ||
Terror Financing: Some Views

In the Los Angeles Times today, Dirk Laabs calls the al Qaeda threat "hugely overblown", judging from new research on their financial resources:
Al Qaeda never had a "macro-financing" structure, said Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, the dean of Europe's anti-terrorism investigators. In fact, analyzing the clusters of activists, he found that there were never large flows of external money financing any attack. In nearly a decade of searching, all Bruguiere was able to find was "micro-financing" activists raising the little money they needed to survive and commit their crimes through credit card or debit card fraud. They turned out to be petty thieves, not grand gangsters...

There is, according to [Northeastern Professor Nikos] Passas, no evidence that Al Qaeda ever invested in the gold market or in African diamonds. It never moved money around the world through the traditional and untraceable informal money transfer systems known as hawalas. It used Western Union.
That's one view. Douglas Farah, meanwhile, writes today about his lunch with Michael Scheuer and notes that Al Qaeda's financing system is still not very well understood. According to Schuerer, the halawa system is alive and well, and al Qaeda tends to rely on small businesses -- pomengranates, sunflower seeds -- to raise money. So, um, who's right?

Nosing around on Farah's site, it seems we should also be learning a good deal more about the Muslim Brotherhood, which appears to be the big financier of Islamic terrorism. (The Brotherhood's Egyptian branch, by the way, may or may not have ties to the Iraqi Islamic Party.) And if Mallory Factor's recent Senate testimony is any indication, the US government still has a lot of intelligence/enforcement hurdles to clear on this front. Oh what a tangled web, &tc.
-- Brad Plumer 7:08 PM || ||
Worse than Civil War?

So "cut and run" seems to be the latest solution to Iraq's woes. Perhaps the idea that the U.S. was the only thing keeping Iraq from slipping into chaos has become too conventional. Now we've got the new idea that the U.S. is fomenting instability. (Well, it's not new, it's been around on the left for some time.) Or the idea that Iraq is already in a civil war, so what difference does it make?

I mentioned this a few days ago, but it still strikes me as misleading to say Iraq is "already in a civil war." The Sunni insurgency, at present, is still only an insurgency -- causing a lot of death and mayhem, yes, but not fundamentally a global threat. Were the U.S. to withdraw, however, those same Sunni forces would likely regroup and set their sights on trying to take over the country, Taliban-style. (Barring, of course, a deus ex machina political compromise.) Could they succeed? Maybe. Right now the "insurgency" is already two to three times bigger than the entire Iraqi military (Army + Intervention Force + Special Forces). True, the Kurdish peshmurga could trounce the Sunni insurgents in a conventional war, but why would they bother? Why not just defend Kirkuk and Mosul, kill a few Arabs on the outskirts, and be done with it?

So that leaves a failed, Sunni-dominated state in the south, inevitably receiving funding from charities on the Arabian peninsula, oppressing the religious heretics, and waxing exceedingly angry at the United States. All that's missing are tall Buddhist statues to knock over. If a Taliban-style takeover were utterly implausible, that would be one thing, but it doesn't seem so implausible that it's worth ignoring. There are worse things than civil war. But then that still leaves the question of whether we really want to stay for a "decade or more", as one Iraqi Interior Minister estimated... and I don't know the answer any more than anyone else.
-- Brad Plumer 4:24 PM || ||

November 29, 2004

Posner/Becker on the Web

I'm sure everyone's seen it by now, but this should indeed be cool. On that note, to see why Richard Posner is bad for America, check out this paper squarely in the Posner tradition: "An Economic Analysis of Morality Laws." (Some other time, I can explain why ordinal ranking of sexual preferences is a wee bit unseemly.) To see why Richard Posner is good for America, though, check out his immortal takedown of Sherlock Holmes:
The observational acuity of which Holmes is so proud is epistemic nonsense. Invariably upon first meeting a prospective client, Holmes will recite to an amazed Watson after the person leaves all that he learned about the person from the scuff marks on his shoes, the calluses on his fingers, and so forth; and this is taken as a sign of Holmes's perspicacity.

The reductio ad absurdum is Holmes's wowing Watson by "deducing" that the window in Watson's bedroom is on the right side of the room from the fact that the left side of Watson's face is not shaven as smoothly as the right, implying that the sunlight was coming in from the right in the morning when he was shaving. But only if Watson was facing north--and no points of the compass are mentioned--would the window on his right be facing east and thus admitting the morning sunlight. And there's a deeper problem. The sun's position is irrelevant; the window just has to be to the right of the mirror as one faces it for the outside light to hit Watson's right cheek.
How Watson, on his modest salary, could afford to have a window in his bathroom is another story. The Victorian townhouses here look pretty cramped, and even some of the more spacious floor plans of the era had only windowless water closets. But that's all I could find after a brief bit of googling -- perhaps the right configuration existed somewhere in London. Who can tell?
-- Brad Plumer 8:39 PM || ||
Multilateralism or Sorority?

Over on Mojo Blog, I've got a few thoughts on what Ukraine says about our rather reactive foreign policy. I'm not sure if Condoleeza Rice can change this, though she does know a thing or two about Moscow.

As an addendum, the whole situation also speaks to the danger of constructing alliances based primarily on personal friendships with other leaders. Not only, as I've said before, is it an extremely volatile way of conducting business, but it means that conflicts of interests tend to get submerged right up until the point where they radically collide. So, for instance, we've done very little to ensure fair elections in the Ukraine before the fact, because it was a below-the-radar event and the White House didn't want to piss Putin off.

But now we're really at loggerheads and the Bush/Putin alliance could conceivably sour over Ukraine, depending on what happens. It's like a little sorority spat (I hate to be sexist, but it is...), and it's a good argument in favor of institutionalizing the sorts of norms and procedures that prevent these conflicts in the first place. This is something I'd like to work on in weeks to come, but in the meantime Ann-Marie Slaughter's A New World Order, which does some sharp thinking about this sort of multilateralism, is worth checking out.
-- Brad Plumer 5:34 PM || ||
The Kurds Are Alright

Like everyone else following Iraq who speaks poor Arabic, I rely on IWPR's Iraqi Press Monitor for all my Iraqi Press needs. Today's edition has an interesting item from Al-Adala, SCIRI's main newspaper:
Head of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq Abdul Aziz al-Hakim last Saturday met with Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zibari to discuss the issue of elections in detail. The minister, who is a leading figure in the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, emphasised that the Kurdish parties do not accept postponement of the elections as had been reported by different media, and that they would deny any such claim. Zibari added that the transitional administrative law gave no one the right to postpone the elections.
Now previously it was thought the Kurds wanted to postpone elections, which makes sense—if a January 30th date means that Sunnis may not participate, then the National Assembly will be dominated by Shiites, which would in turn weaken the Kurdish bargaining position. (If the Shia get over 75 percent of the vote they can modify the constitution at will -- it's like having two thirds majorities in the House and Senate.)

But now the Kurds are saying "bring it on!" Um, why? Maybe they have reason to think the Shiite leaders will prove amenable to their demands. That's encouraging. Or maybe they're just confident that, no matter what happens on January 30th, they still have the best-trained troops in Iraq and they can get their way regardless. That's... not so encouraging.
-- Brad Plumer 4:07 AM || ||
Falwell-Style Framing

Cynthia Burack has a scholarly analysis of the rhetorical frames used by the Christian Right. Lots of insights here, but the keenest is that Christian conservatives have had a great deal of success invoking variations on the harm principle in their "moral values" crusades. When Jerry Falwell declared that 9/11 was our national punishment for tolerating homosexuality, he obviously went too far, but he also had the right general idea:
[B]y hewing to a harm principle-like argument, the Christian Right avoids the identification of its cultural politics with mere outraged feelings. This is so because the framing of preventing harm to the nation does not immediately evoke the punitive motivations sometimes associated with the Christian Right. A second, related, point is that the Christian Right benefits from affirmatively identifying with concern for its own minority membership.

Finally, because the harm principle only justifies coercive intervention to prevent harm to innocent bystanders, many Americans might well identify it as a principle that supports basic respect for individual rights, if not value pluralism.
Ah yes, the old "framing value-intolerance as value-pluralism" trick. Astounding. George Lakoff is sort of out of his league here, no?
-- Brad Plumer 12:40 AM || ||
Justified Indeed

In the midst of redesigning this site, I was debating whether to make the text left-justified or full-justified. Turns out that the SEC has a strong opinion on this whole issue. They'll get no disputes from me.
-- Brad Plumer 12:38 AM || ||

November 28, 2004

Iranian Carrots, Iranian Sticks

Here are a few recent comments I've left elsewhere on the vast World Wide Web pertaining to Iran. They answer some common questions on Iran so I figure I'd expand on 'em a bit.

1) Does Iran want for Iraq what we want for Iraq? In the vague sense that neither of country wants widespread civil war, yes. Still, there are smaller, but crucial, differences. Tehran still remembers the Iraq-Iran war vividly, and its leadership would prefer not to have a strong Iraqi state next door. If I had to guess, I'd say that the present Iranian-backed disruptions in Iraq aim to keep the latter in a state of low-level instability. Nothing chaotic, mind you, but moderately unstable. An Iran analyst once put it to me nicely: the Iraqi Shi'i want a strong Iraq, Iran wants a weak Iraq, and the U.S. wants a pluralistic Iraq. Those are all very different things.

Keep in mind, too, that the mullahs in Tehran have very good reasons to worry about Ayatollah Ali Sistani's hawza in an-Najaf replacing that in Qum as the center of Shia scholarship and influence. The Najaf school is largely opposed to the Iranian idea of velayat i-faqih, or rule by clerics. And Sistani is definitely opposed.

It's worth remembering that Sistani is the undisputed leader of the Najaf hawza only because a car bomb killed the vastly more popular (though less learned) Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim last fall. Bakr al-Hakim was an avowed Khomeinist who might have taken the Najaf hawza in a more Iran-friendly direction. (Though even this is not assured—Bakr al-Hakim defied Tehran by backing the American invasion. Iranian politics tends to be one double-cross after another—it's why I hate following it.)

2) What sorts of incentives could the U.S. offer Iran? Obviously there are security guarantees and the like, but those often aren't worth all that much. Economic incentives may be the key here. Iran's in a world of shit economically -- facing a growing youth population, massive unemployment, etc. What will be interesting to see is whether the price of oil and natural gas rises enough to let Tehran ride out these bumps and quell discontent, or whether things get rough and the "pragmatic" wing of conservatives feel the need to start globalizing the economy.

By "pragmatic" conservatives I mean people like former president Akbar Hasemi Rasfanjani. No mistake: the man's a thug at home, advocates the destruction of Israel abroad, and is dead-set on acquiring nukes. But he also understands economic reality, and unlike the neoconservatives in the "Islamic Iran Developers" council, he's not averse to privatization, foreign investment, and all that.

Anyways, if Rasfanjani's sort ever won out -- though it's far from certain it could -- then the U.S. can certainly offer a whole bunch of incentives (WTO entry, for example) that Iran would be loath to break by retaliating. This sort of economic integration, I think, is the only way you get a stable denouement with the Islamic Republic. It's just not as easy as it sounds. Nor is it clear that Bush would ever take this route.

3) What happens if Iran goes nuclear? Dunno. I've written up a brief guess as to why it might not be such a bad thing below. But it's worth noting that while Pakistan's nuclear program helped to "stabilize" that situation, it also brought about AQ Khan and a whole new generation of proliferation nightmares. Same could go for Iran.
-- Brad Plumer 8:23 PM || ||
Sources of Republican Conduct

Prof. Henry Nau promises a look at "the conservative camps whose internecine squabbling threatened the president's victory." Funny, I always thought it was, you know, the colossal fuck-ups during the Iraq occupation that threatened the president's victory. Seriously, though, anytime you screw up that badly there's bound to be infighting. Bush could stuff his cabinet with the most loyal of ideologues—it won't make a difference. When real disaster strikes, some of those ideologues will have been right, some of them wrong, and the squabbling takes over from there.
-- Brad Plumer 4:30 PM || ||
Two things deserving attention

File Colombia under "Countries I wish I knew more about". Luckily, Randy Paul of Beautiful Horizons has a lot of coverage of the goings-on there. And since we're filing, put Beautiful Horizons under "Blogs I wish someone had told me about sooner."

Also, there are no doubt possible worlds where Joshua Bolten has ex ante credibility when he says he's keeping the budget under control. But I don't live in any of them.
-- Brad Plumer 4:11 PM || ||
Mastermind Once More

Thanks to the vagaries of polling, Karl "Boy Genius" Rove's reputation reached depressing new lows in early 2004. It was all very confusing. But famously, Bush won and Rove got to go back to his chair by the fireplace, face cloaked in shadows, stroking his cat, plotting world domination:
For now, Rove's goals are at once more immediate and more lofty: to design a legislative and philosophical agenda that will lead to further GOP gains, and beyond that to a political dominance that could last for decades, as FDR's New Deal did.
Pure evil. Though we're again left wondering why journalists think the New Deal just sort of sprang up out of nowhere.
-- Brad Plumer 2:49 PM || ||

Fascinating stuff in the NYT on how Lockheed Martin controls the world. Apparently, though, global domination doesn't make it any easier to conjure up new weapons quickly:
"Twenty years ago, the complaint was, it takes so long to build things," [Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim] said. Weapons designed in the depths of the cold war were built long after the Berlin Wall crumbled. That led some people, including George W. Bush while running for president in 1999, to suggest that the Pentagon skip a generation of weapons set to roll off the assembly line in this decade and concentrate instead on lighter, faster, smarter systems for the future.

That didn't happen. It still takes two decades to build a major weapons system, and the costs are still staggering.
Interesting asymmetry here. The U.S., as we know, is always embarking on some extravagant new weapons program that may turn out to be obsolete for the task at hand when it finally does arrive. Meanwhile, when other countries face a problem or challenge, they can deal with it immediately simply by buying the appropriate sorts of technology from... the United States. At some point you'd think this "efficiency gap" would help to close the actual technology gap, no? Though from what I gather, these sorts of convergence theories about Third World development haven't quite panned out.
-- Brad Plumer 2:40 PM || ||
Three Cheers for a Nuclear Iran?

A commentator at Matt Yglesias' site asks about those "serious foreign policy thinkers" who think a nuclear Iran could be a good thing. I don't know who's touting this line, or what they're thinking, but it sure is intriguing, and here's how I think this sort of argument could probably unfurl:

1) A nuclear Iran raises the stakes for Middle Eastern diplomacy and gives countries in the region more incentive to cooperate with each other, rather than going to war or fighting proxy battles through shadowy organizations. It also gives the U.S. and Europe more incentive to step in and mediate all these disputes peacefully. The obvious model here is Pakistan and India -- notice that those two crazy kids don't go to war with each other anymore. (Of course, if they did...)

2) Having nukes could cause Iran to act in a more stable and predictable manner, as it would no longer need worry about existential threats (from the U.S. especially) all the time. In particular, Tehran would probably stop running around linking up with terrorist groups and the like. Think about it: If you're Ayatollah Khameini, et al, and you're safe and sound with The Bomb under your arm, what possible incentive do you ever have to dole out aid and comfort to al Qaeda or Ansar al-Islam again -- especially when it may well come back to haunt you?

So those are the prongs. I don't think it's a flawless argument -- what happens, for instance, when it kicks off a regional arms race? -- but there you go. Being able to deal with a nuclear Iran on essentially realist, Cold War-esque terms might be an advantage for the U.S., given how difficult it is right now to figure out Tehran's often cryptic and complicated motives. Of course there are also the risks...
-- Brad Plumer 2:48 AM || ||

November 27, 2004

What's the Matter With Elitism?

Much of interest in Thomas Frank's long review of books on American culture wars. One quick point: I haven't actually read Frank's books, but it sounds like he reserves a special place behind the woodshed for those—like, ahem, me—who think economic elitism could actually be a winning message for the Dems:
Lebedoff reminds us that becoming the party of an economic and cultural elite isn't necessarily a winning move, since it only reinforces conservatives' efforts to position themselves as the populists in a redefined class war. ''A new class is growing,'' he writes, ''but the backlash against it is growing, too, and potentially involves a larger number of voters.''
Well it all depends on what you mean by "economic elitism". I for one have in mind some clever bit of reframing, like what Eliot Spitzer has proposed in The New Republic—tout market regulation as a means of making the market work more efficiently. Cool, huh? And frankly, it's hard to imagine a world in which cracking down on predatory lending leads to more class war.

Without getting too much into it right now (I'm about to head out the door), political gestures towards "economic populism" seem unlikely to succeed for two reasons: 1) It's too easy for the other party to "co-opt" your message—to most voters, even sweeping left-wing health care reforms can sound surprisingly similar to, say, health savings accounts; both vaguely aim to increase health coverage. Call this the "easily-duped median voter" theorem. Now 2) The doctrine of "economic self-sufficiency" is a big part of that right-wing culture Frank cites, making the usual liberal programs somewhat repugnant by their very nature. What economic populists seem to forget is that the New Deal wasn't popular just because it was populist. It was popular because there was a Great Depression going on, and that's obviously a special case.

Oh okay, I'll toss in reason number 3) Many of the best policies for the working class might not actually be popular among the working class. Deficit reduction and schemes to boost savings come to mind. And vice versa—many of the most popular policies may not, etc. Going protectionist, ala Gephardt, is an electoral strategy of dubious efficacy—it didn't seem to help Tennenbaum in South Carolina—but even if you do win an election this way, where does it end? Internecine trade disputes with Europe? Withdrawal from the WTO? A move back to the gold standard? The working class won't come out the big winner here. Worth worrying about.
-- Brad Plumer 11:35 PM || ||
A Game of Chicken

As James Fallows let the whole world know in the current Atlantic Monthly, the United States really has no good military options vis-à-vis Iran. (They war-gamed it and everything...) But in order for diplomacy to work at all, we certainly have to act like we have good military options, or that we might even be lunatic enough to risk a bad military action.

Presumably that's the rationale behind this bit of saber-rattling from Gen. John Abizaid, as reported by Dawn: "Why the Iranians would want to … cause us to use our air or naval power against them would be beyond me. We have an incredible amount of power." They say Nixon got shit done by convincing everyone he was crazy. Ditto Bush?
-- Brad Plumer 11:20 PM || ||
Achtung, Trader!

At the end of an otherwise humdrum paean to free trade, David Brooks gets a bit unfair on our favorite rock stars:
Just once, I'd like to see someone like Bono or Bruce Springsteen stand up at a concert and speak the truth to his fan base: that the world is complicated and there are no free lunches. But if you really want to reduce world poverty, you should be cheering on those guys in pinstripe suits at the free-trade negotiations and those investors jetting around the world.
The Boss I can't speak for, but my understanding was that Bono's public pronouncements on globalization have been restricted mainly to debt relief and asking the United States (quite rightly) to repeal its agricultural subsidies. True, he calls the latter "fair trade" but it's quite clearly "free". In general, however, "free traders" who focus on the hypocrisy of G-8 tariffs are missing the point—Third World countries still have a much, much higher average tariff rate than First World countries do. But so it goes.
-- Brad Plumer 7:19 PM || ||

Well that took far less time than I thought. But check it out! I've tried to make this place brighter and more colorful -- the old layout was not only drab beyond words, but the crunched text (I'm using the, uh, technical term) made it hard to read.

Admittedly, though, I know nothing about HTML or CSS or whatever it's called these days, and only managed to change the layout via time-honored scientific methods -- namely, fiddling with various things that looked like #FF9966 and hitting "Preview" every now and again. So if someone with actual expertise were to tell me that the whole thing clashes or whatever, I'll probably take their word for it.
-- Brad Plumer 6:58 PM || ||
Death Cab for Coalitions

"What do we need more of in Washington?," I asked myself today. "Blind partisanship!," I replied. Well lucky me, a few hours later Dennis Hastert announced that from now on he'll only put forth those House bills that are favored by a majority of Republicans. No more NAFTA-type bills that cross the aisle and reach out to the other party. It's a one-party state from here on out!

The downside, of course, is that this practice limits the range of bills the House can now pass. Working off this list, it seems there are ten main ways to form Congressional coalitions—one can, for instance, get a bunch of education-types (from both parties) together to pass a bill like No Child Left Behind; or maybe get a bunch of Midwesterners (from both parties) together to pass a farm bill. Ruling out these sorts of coalitions, however, rules out the viability of a whole swath of potential bills. But if, like the House GOP, you're not all that interested in making good policy, this isn't a terribly big concern.
-- Brad Plumer 2:53 AM || ||
"Porn don't corrupt people; People do!"

This New York Times story of how Phil Burress went from self-destructive little pervert to famed moral crusader really, truly touches my heart:
Mr. Burress was raised on a farm in Hamilton County outside Cincinnati. He attended a small Evangelical church two and sometimes three times a week, and married a fellow parishioner when he was 18.

At 14, he said, he found a pornographic magazine on the roadside and became obsessed with seeing more. Every chance he got, he said, he drove into Cincinnati to buy, and sometimes steal, magazines or videos.

Over the next two decades, he had four daughters from two marriages. But he says his obsession with the raunchy fantasy world of pornography ruined both marriages and drove him away from religion.

"I was living a double life," he said.
Oh to what depths we sink! But luckily, Phil reformed. And from then on, he decided, he would rid the earth of that scourge called PORNOGRAPHY. The End. Except for the part about how—and I don't want to name any names here—we all know plenty of other people who have looked at pornography. Or people who still look at pornography from time to time. Or better yet, people who look at pornography on a semi-daily basis. And guess what? They're all perfectly fine. There's too much else of interest in their lives, quite frankly, for porn to ever take over. At worst porn satisfies some idle curiosity, or gives a bit of visual texture to pre-existing sex drives and imaginings. That's all.

With young Phil, however, it seemed to be quite different. Here we had a mind, evidently, already brimming with visions of domination and repetition and loathing. Already there were a lot of things like porno in there, and there would be many more things like porno in the future. So contact with actual pornography for someone like Phil only shaded in these drives, gave them some concrete oomph. But if it hadn't been porn, it would've been something else. Stalking celebrities, maybe. Or... a manic crusade against strip clubs, which seems in itself to be a form of porno, in a way. But banning pornography doesn't really solve the problem—which, when it comes right down to it, is Phil Burress' brain and no one else's.

So honestly, leave it the fuck alone.
-- Brad Plumer 2:28 AM || ||
Damned Statistics!

Aha. Below I wondered whether all those weapons found in Fallujah were really significant or merely a drop in the bucket. Juan Cole puts up some hard numbers to argue for the "drop in the bucket" thesis. Indeed, if you look at this slide in particular from the 1MEF slideshow on Fallujah, you'll notice that they've recovered a mere16 pounds worth of C4, only 280 RPGs, only 10 surface-to-air missiles, etc. I'm honestly no expert, but that doesn't sound like a whole lot. Intuitively, too, you'd think that if the insurgents in Fallujah had all this time to prepare for a U.S. strike, they'd think of something a bit more crafty than simply slipping out and leaving the bulk of their armory behind.

Speaking of which, in that same post I suggested that, given enough weaponry, the Sunnis would have no trouble taking over Iraq again if the U.S. left. (I'm assuming that they would aim for central and south Iraq, and mostly leave the Kurds alone.) Well I just read Noah Feldman's excellent What We Owe Iraq, and he argues that the Sunnis could do no such thing—they held Iraq in the past only because Britain outfitted them with the right sort of state power apparatus to do so. Fair enough, but is it really so implausible that a well-armed (and well-funded) minority could take over a largely disorganized and fractured state? Isn't this the same situation the Taliban faced in the early 1990s?

Besides the U.S., the only thing that could stop Sunni domination, I think, would be either a fierce challenge from the Kurdish peshmurga, or intervention from Iran. Or—even more likely—the insurgency would fracture, between the tribal nationalists, Baathists, and Islamists. At any rate, my main point is that, given enough popular support, the Sunni "insurgency" could in theory wage a capable conventional war and do a lot of damage.
-- Brad Plumer 1:56 AM || ||

November 26, 2004

Semantics Are Nice; Reality Is Better

Via QandO, I see that Charles Krauthammer has a "clever" response for those (like me) worried about the Sunnis boycotting the January election:
In 1864, 11 of the 36 states did not participate in the presidential election. Was Lincoln's election therefore illegitimate?
But "legitimacy" isn't the main concern here! Violence and destruction and mayhem are. The trouble with leaving the Sunnis out isn't that it will offend some democratic ideals; it's that those marginalized Sunnis happen to have access to a very well-organized and lethal insurgency—one that, with enough manpower, would be stronger than anything a newly elected Iraqi government would have. The goal of the entire political process is to stop the violence in Iraq by drawing a good portion of those Sunnis in. Failing that, I don't see what the point is. Maybe to let the Shia develop a new strand of democratic Islamic politics. But that will be awfully hard to do if they're spending all their time in a death match with insurgents.

Krauthammer also tells us that Iraq is already fighting a "civil war". As a semantic quibble, this is marvelous. As analysis, this is worthless. It's worth noting that a true Iraqi civil war, without heavy U.S. involvement, would have a very different character than what's going on now. The Sunni insurgents would stop fighting their current asymmetric war—whose goal seems to be to cause enough mayhem that the U.S. either leaves or respond with overwhelming force, thereby alienating a large swath of Sunnis—and instead try to fight a more conventional war in order to retake the entire country. If, even after Fallujah, they still have the weapons and manpower to do so, they could well win this; the Sunni insurgency is far better organized and equipped than the Iraqi National Guard and the rather raggedy Shia militias. In this scenario, the Kurds would probably break their de facto alliance with the Shia, cease all incursions into the Sunni triangle, and fall back to protect their oil interests in Kirkuk and Mosul. That could in turn lead to ethnic cleansing and other pleasantries. Whether the Sunnis could fight a two-front war capably is anyone's guess. Odds are, Iran would probably intervene on the side of the Shiites, though I doubt that's really the outcome we want.

There's a vast gap between what Krauthammer thinks "ought" to happen in Iraq and what is actually happening. The latter explains why we want to a) draw the Sunnis into politics and b) avoid having the Kurds and Shia simply "fight their own war".
-- Brad Plumer 8:39 PM || ||
Bifurcate the Spooks?

Thomas Barnett, strategist extraordinaire, has some insights on intelligence reform, suggesting that we divide up the community into two main branches: A warfighting intelligence branch (including most of the Pentagon, NSA, and the CIA's covert action branch), and a "Sys-Admin" branch (including everyone else plus Army/Marine intel). Barnett suggests the latter can be capably centralized under an NID, but that the two branches should remain largely independent, using existing avenues for information sharing.

Barnett's the one briefing the CIA, and not me, but still, I don't see how this solution really brings into line our capabilities for tracking nuclear proliferation—which is the one place where state actors really intersect with transnational groups off all kinds, and where everyone from regional analysts and technical reconnaissance ought to work together.

On the other hand, his cryptic suggestion that we need to "dial down" classification requirements sounds good. A few months ago, a former NIC official told me that this was one of the most overlooked problems in the whole community—and it could be fixed rather simply; starting by, say, writing all reports in a "pyramid style" starting with the least classified stuff and moving to the most, so that they could be more easily shared. Other suggestions can be found here. Since Barnett agrees, we'll call it a trend!
-- Brad Plumer 6:44 PM || ||
When Demographic Trends Collide

Two demographic trends, side by side. Leonard Steinhorn has a Salon piece suggesting that the conservative "moral majority" is dwindling, with young voters more racially tolerant and more sexually liberal than the country as a whole. (Via Matthew Yglesias.) Bad for the Republicans, eh? Perhaps not: In the Economist, Adrian Woolridge observes that the number of voters favoring the "pro-growth" message of the Republican party are rapidly growing. So what happens when these two trends collide?

It's not enough, I think, to argue that the emergence of a culturally liberal set will automatically augur well for the future of the Democrats. Political parties are all about coalition-building, and those sexually liberated young'uns still have a lot of incentive to join up with the Republican coalition so long as that party has a monopoly on the "pro-growth" economic message.

This is a trickier problem than it looks. From where I stand, the Republicans have nothing at all to do with pro-growth policies—DeLay-style cronyism actually hinders economic growth, as does the refusal to invest publicly in research and development, the pseudo-injunction against stem-cell research, and the dominance of vested corporate interests against various paths to economic growth. (The 2004 corporate tax bill, for instance.) But that's merely the perspective of one partisan hack who follows these issues daily. On the wider electoral stage, once the Democrats start railing against corporate excess, it's very easy for them to get painted into an "anti-growth" corner. Resistance to private savings accounts and tax reform, however well-intentioned, will only make this situation worse.

That means that so long as sex and cultural liberalism does not appear too imperiled—so long as the Republicans aren't actually banning abortion outright (which they probably won't) or sending gay people off too prison (which they definitely won't)—the balance of considerations will throw these pro-growth young cultural liberals back into the Republican coalition. Furthermore, so long as the religious right is part of this coalition, they'll appear to be part of the mainstream, regardless of how much Steinhorn thinks they should be marginalized.

The way out, I think, involves actually understanding tensions within the GOP coalition. One of the less-noted facts about the religious right is that it has a fairly natural antipathy to the "pro-growth" vision of America. I'm not just talking about the poor in the religious right, but the whole nine yards. The idea of a tight-knit "Christian community" that you find across the Baptist South is very much at odds with the radical egalitarianism you find in, say, Silicon Valley. Now Tom Frank would say that the way to exploit this divide is to appeal to the former—via economic populism—in order to crack up the coalition. That seems dubious to me, though there's some evidence that it could work (namely, Stan Greenberg's contention that Bush won in 2004 because economic issues faded in the last few days of the campaign, allowing cultural issues came back to the fore). Personally, I'm more partial to figuring out a message of "economic dynamism" that appeals to Woolridge's rapidly-growing exurbs and pro-growth voters—and by extension, utterly marginalizes what we consider the far-right. The Naderite criticism here is that doing so only pushes the Democrats further into corporate arms. But I don't think it has to. More later...
-- Brad Plumer 6:06 PM || ||
Crouching China, Hidden Hegemon

China's learning that you're never truly a hegemon until you've spread pop music to all corners of the earth:
Chinese pop music blares from loudspeakers, mixing with the cries of Chinese traders at a busy local market. Welcome to China? No, in fact, we are in Kazakhstan's commercial capital, Almaty, at the Ya-Lian bazaar.

It is a scene repeated at hundreds of Chinese markets across Central Asia. Initially, the traders were locals bringing in scarce goods from just across the border to sell. But in recent years, they have been replaced by an influx of Chinese tradesmen who have set up more permanent shops and become a fixture of Central Asian urban life.

This street activity is just one sign of China's growing presence in the region. But at higher levels, Chinese officials and business leaders have been crisscrossing the region, signing cooperation agreements and contracts that aim to expand Beijing's foothold.
The trend's easy to spot--China's aiming at regional dominance. At the moment, that's nothing too alarming here, all countries do it when they can. What's really worrisome is that the global "spheres of influence" are now being drawn so as to make a rivalry between spheres—especially American and Chinese spheres—all the more likely. You have the U.S., for instance, insisting on the pursuit of regional trade agreements like NAFTA or CAFTA, rather than truly global trade areas, and these tend to spur China and other Asian countries to set up their own regional trade blocs. Meanwhile, "international" organizations like the UN, G7, IMF, and the World Bank have shown no signs of offering the major Asian nations (China, India, S. Korea) better representation. As a result, there's talk in the air of those countries setting up their own IMF, their own World Bank, etc. At that point you have two distinct power blocs, and global integration gives way to global growling.

Some analysts have suggested that the natural rivalry between Japan and China (or between India and China) would preclude any sort of pan-Asian power bloc. Maybe. But, note, there are plenty of natural rivalries extant in the U.S.-Europe bloc, and they were all nicely subdued in the face of the Soviet threat. Given a credible "American threat," Asia could easily come in for a massive realignment, with China at the center. Hints are already there. Since 2002, foreign ministers Japan, China, and South Korea have been meeting at ASEAN conferences, and the prospects of wider "ASEAN + 3" bloc are certainly decent. If you look at the trade figures, Japan has increased its imports from China while decreasing its imports from America. Taiwan and South Korea have increased exports to China while holding exports to the U.S. flat. In absolute terms, America still dominates trade in this region, but the trends are moving against us.
-- Brad Plumer 4:56 PM || ||
The Case of the Missing Weapons Dump

According to Reuters, the insurgents had a lot of weapons stashed away in Fallujah. How much is "a lot"? Enough "to take over the whole country," says Lt. Col. Dan Wilson. A lot! And that brings up a point worth repeating—that the bulk of these Sunni insurgents already have ruled a whole country before, and absent 300,000 U.S. troops, I can't imagine they'd have much trouble doing it again.

The question, then, is whether uncovering and destroying all these weapons dumps will preclude that possibility. If you look at the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force's slideshow on Fallujah, it's hard to imagine that this wasn't the nerve center of the insurgency, and that by uncovering all of these caches and whatnot we've actually "broken its back". On the other hand, no one knows exactly how many total weapons are in Iraq, or how many we have left to find. That's why we keep on getting reports of military commanders "surprised" at how many weapons they're finding. But why should this be surprising? Presumably Saddam Hussein's regime not only had enough weapons to "take over the whole country", but also enough to take over other large countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia as well. "A lot" may just barely scratch the surface.

Indeed, this story indicates that an AK-47 is a standard household item, and this story notes that the Green Zone is attacked by rockets and mortars "regularly". In the grand scheme of things AK-47s and RPGs are small potatoes, but it sure sounds like weapons are all over the place. Meanwhile, the military is almost daily finding buried weapons caches around Mosul and Babil, and there are thought to be a vast supply of munitions and explosives stored in the "triangle of death" around Latifiyah, Mahmoudiyah, and Yousefiyah—the last one home to everyone's favorite explosives dump, al Qaqaa. So I'm cautiously optimistic that the military is making inroads on this thing, but without better intelligence on how big the problem is (which, apparently, the military doesn't have) "making inroads" isn't any sort of metric for progress. Then there's the whole political component to counterinsurgency, but it sounds like that's simmering on the back-burner...
-- Brad Plumer 4:02 PM || ||

November 25, 2004


Thanksgiving, near as I can remember, has always been a day to commemorate that long, long ago time when a bunch of immigrants with nowhere else to go were treated generously and well by the inhabitants of America.

So... I suppose it's only natural that a bunch of us are celebrating by (what else?) refusing to return the favor. Oh well. Happy Thanksgiving anyways!
-- Brad Plumer 5:04 PM || ||

November 24, 2004

Where's Hop-a-Long?

Awesome. Iraqi National Guardsmen are hot on the trail of Abu Mousab "One Leg or Two?" Zarqawi. It would sure be a major morale boost if they caught him. And an awful big chafe once they realize it won't solve a goddamn thing.
-- Brad Plumer 4:14 AM || ||
Regime Change for All

Ah, now Nicholas Eberhardt has a real man's approach to North Korea. No weak knees here! I personally like the part about calling South Korea a "Taliban regime". So muscular it's scary.

Hey! Wait! Shouldn't there be an "on the other hand" right about now? Oh yes. On the other hand, there are bizarre rumors of late that Kim Jong Il's regime may be on the verge of collapse. Who knows? But if this is the case, and if it's also the case that Clinton-style engagement over the past four years would have only propped up a dying North Korean regime—something Eberhardt has argued elsewhere—then let's be honest, Bush will look like a genius for all his saber-rattling and gridlock. That assumes, of course, that the collapse of North Korea isn't accompanied by terrorists or secret agents or whatever making off with nuclear secrets and spreading them to the ends of the earth. If that turns out to be the case, there won't be a dunce cap big enough to fit all the Eberhardts and John Boltons of the world.
-- Brad Plumer 2:58 AM || ||
Outrage On Demand

Sure, I'll say it: The rape charges leveled against UN peacekeepers in the Congo are, if true, every bit the outrage that Abu Ghraib was. Investigate all the way to the top! If Kofi Annan or his laywers wrote any sort of, oh, I dunno, "legal opinions" justifying rape in any way shape or form, then string 'em up. And if it turns out that UN peacekeeping methods are conducive to this sort of thing, then let's find new ways of doing peacekeeping. There. That was easy.

Anyways. It seems that, despite the rather disingenuous carping from the right, this Congo story actually does seem to be getting plenty of "play" in the media. But it should be obvious why Abu Ghraib garnered far more attention—there was a greater chance that coverage would actually lead to changes being made, and justice pursued. Well, that and America being held to a higher standard than anyone else. But rightly so.
-- Brad Plumer 2:43 AM || ||
Clumsy Yet Necessary?

Via Power Line, the Wall Street Journal has a mindless little op-ed about intelligence reform. Here's my favorite paragraph:
More disturbing was the proposal to give the intelligence czar the ability to move personnel out of combat support units. Not only would that break into the military's chain of command; it's the kind of bureaucratic micromanagement that is likely to cause operations to fail and maybe get soldiers killed--a concern Mr. Hunter expressed to me. An example I heard kicked around while walking the halls of Congress last week was Operation Desert One--Jimmy Carter's failed covert mission to rescue Americans held hostages in Iran in which eight American servicemen were killed in a helicopter crash.
Kick around that example all you want—but do note that whatever happened during Operation Desert One (and I don't know all the details) happened under the current intelligence set-up. The concern that the 9/11 Commission's reforms could lead to fiascos that are already possible doesn't seem like much of a trump card.

(It's also worth noting that the military is not as helpless here as Miniter suggests. If they were really bleeding support personnel they'd just create entire new units away from the intelligence community's grasp. So simple.)

Anyways, I've made my feelings on the 9/11 Commission's proposals clear. Having a National Intelligence Director to facilitate intelligence sharing doesn't seem like a big deal—intelligence is flowing a lot more freely these days, and the infamous "wall" between the CIA and FBI has been dismantled. The much-lauded Congressional oversight reforms are also somewhat needless.

But the 10-Megaton elephant in the room is still our ability to keep track of weapons of mass destruction. Our intelligence record on nuclear proliferation especially speaks for itself—Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, the works. The Pentagon, alas, just isn't very good at coordinating its technical capabilities here—I really urge people to read Ashton Carter's testimony on the subject. By way of remedy, we're going to have to break down the wall between the reconnaissance agencies in the Pentagon and outside branches—especially our human intelligence and our regional analysts. Now creating an NID is one way to coordinate all this stuff. Alternatively, Congress could create a new intelligence branch within the Pentagon dedicated to tracking proliferation, though that would probably lead to more of the sorority-style "turf battles" with the CIA, etc., that lead to pillow fights and gridlock. Plus, as noted above, the Defense Department doesn't exactly have a great track record on this issue. So I'm leaning NID, grudgingly. Other suggestions are welcome, but it's poor form to defend the status quo.
-- Brad Plumer 1:57 AM || ||
Figuring out the Sunnis

I really don't know what's going on with all of these Sunni cleric assassinations, but I'm going to hope that we're not behind it. One theory: The killings are being carried out by either foreign insurgents or hardline Baathists trying to foment ethnic violence in Mosul—between Sunnis and Kurds, or more likely, Sunnis and Shiites. It's certainly a quick way to replenish the ranks of the Sunni insurgency with hordes of angry fundamentalists.

On another note, it's time to do a break-down of "the Sunnis," because it will help us understand what's going on in the coming months. Like every other commentator out there, I tend to portray Iraq as comprised of three basic groups—Shia, Kurds, Sunnis. Naturally this is facile. There is no single, unified "Sunni" group. To start with, there are some Sunnis who take a very active part in an insurgency. This movement is presumably led by foreign jihadists, native Salafi fundamentalists, "dead-enders" from Saddam's Mukhabarat, and a legion of disgruntled Baathists. The extra manpower from the insurgency comes largely from tribal groups—especially the Albuaisa and Jumaila tribes in Fallujah (which together comprise over a quarter of the city), but also the Janabi, Kargouli, and Dulaimi tribes in cities like Ramadi, Latifiyah, Tikrit and elsewhere. (I'm throwing out these names to sound smart, by the way.)

Right then. The tribes. Some—not all, but some—of these tribes actually cooperated with the United States in the early days of the war, but we either offended them or killed too many of then, and now they're fairly united in their opposition to us. I should note that the bulk of these tribal Sunnis do not participate in the violence, though many of them are rather sympathetic to the insurgents. As well, a good deal of these Sunnis are bound by "blood feud" codes, which makes razing a city like Fallujah rather problematic. As for hard numbers, I can't really say exactly what percentage of Sunnis are part of these tribal clans—the tribal system was weakened dramatically during Saddam Hussein's regime, especially in the cities, with only a few major exceptions (Fallujah, Latifiyah, Samarra, Tikrit, etc.).

Needless to say, fierce nationalism is a big motivating factor for many Sunnis, tribal or otherwise.

In addition to tribal networks, there are various forms of Islam at work that envelop both tribal Sunnis and other, more urban Sunnis. The degree to which radical Islam holds sway often varies from place to place—the majority of Sunni Arabs follow the Hanafi school (yes, as in Abu Hanifa), which is generally a pretty liberal strain of Islam, as strains of Islam go. Over the past decade, though, more radical Salafi schools have won huge followings, especially among younger Sunnis. Note that Salafism is a 19th century "reformist" school of Islam that has produced a few moderate movements, but generally produces very violent sects (think Protestantism in 17th century Europe).

It's also important to distinguish between the mainstream Sunni religious institutions—including the mosques, charities, and religious schools—and the fundamentalists who are advocating a Taliban-style Islamic state. The latter group is probably doing much of the fighting. But the former, much larger network, may be drawn into the fighting if, say, clerics start getting assassinated and the U.S. or Shiites or Kurds are accused of doing it. Some of the religious institutions are part of the insurgent network. But note that the majority of Sunni fundamentalists preaching at mosques and whatnot are not involved in the violence, although they're almost all opposed to the occupation, and could incite their followers to violence or civil war if need be.

Finally, note that though some Baathists are religious, the party is officially secular. Sunni fundamentalists who want an Islamic state would normally be bitterly opposed to Baathist ideology, though Baathists and religious Sunnis can put aside their differences to fight the U.S. (Also, if you really want to complicate things, there are a good number of Shiite Baathists as well—some of which may be in the insurgency, although this is a small number.)

Okay, so that's the disgruntled set. There are also a large number of secular, more urbane Sunnis who are by and large peaceful and willing to cooperate with the U.S. Interim President Ghazi al-Yawer falls into this category, but so do a good chunk of Sunnis in Baghdad, Mosul, and probably even towns like Fallujah (though less so the further out you get out into the provinces.) Some of these Sunnis have tribal connections (Yawer certainly does), some of them don't. Many of these Sunnis have intermarried with Shiites—the split here becomes less pronounced.

Anyways, I got excited today about rumors (reported by al-Mutamar) that Yawer was forming his own political party. Why? Well, for starters, he's going to bring a number of prominent secular Sunnis together. Many of these Sunnis would just as soon join some of the other secular parties—INC, INA, whatever. But Yawer is a popular figure across the country who could draw a good deal of support from moderate Sunnis and some of the less violent tribes. That could—and this is wildly optimistic—have a "snowball effect" on some of the disgruntled Sunnis elsewhere, maybe even a good portion of fundamentalists.

Of course, so long as groups like the Muslim Association of Scholars are boycotting the election, the majority of Sunnis will likely just sit out. And the truly disgruntled Sunni tribes—especially those in Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra, and elsewhere, have very little incentive ever to join a government that will permanently deprive them of power. Meanwhile, "hardcore" insurgents—including foreign groups like Monotheism and Jihad, radicals like Ansar al-Islam, and former Mukhabarat Baathists—are going to do everything they can to prevent Sunnis from believing that they'll get anything from democracy. That's a problem. A big problem. Still, Yawer's move is an encouraging start.
-- Brad Plumer 12:53 AM || ||

November 23, 2004

We're all Kerryites now

The Weekly Standard is brilliant:
Overhauling the structure of our international relations is almost as important as overhauling the structure of our overseas base network; indeed, the two are intrinsically linked. More than a temporary coalition of the willing, the Bush administration now needs to develop enduring alliances and organizations for the global war on terror that it can pass on to its successors, be they Democratic or Republican. In short, it needs a coalition of the committed.

This argument should not be confused with John Kerry's nostalgia for an international system that never existed--one in which power is somehow parceled out on an equal basis between Washington and select capitals of yesterday's great powers. There's no walking away from the fact of American hegemony. The question, rather, is how best to institutionalize, legitimize, and thus deepen it. What Harry Truman did for the Cold War, George W. Bush needs to do for the war on terror.
That's exactly right. We need to implement what John Kerry was actually proposing on the campaign trail—which should not be confused with an idiotic caricature of what John Kerry was proposing on the campaign trail.

Let's all play this game. I'll start: The government should act as a reinsurance market that can pool risk on a nationwide scale. It should offer to subsidize, for instance, all catastrophic costs over $75,000, thus allowing private insurance companies to engage in cost competition without adversely selecting the healthiest members of the population. In short, we need to fix health care. This argument, by the way, should not be confused with John Kerry's nostalgia for putting doctors and private insurers in a Soviet-style gulag.
-- Brad Plumer 7:47 PM || ||
Death of the West

According to Newsmax (famous last words I know), Hillary Clinton might try to run somewhere to the right of Pat Buchanan on immigration issues in, you know, her '08 campaign for world domination:
In a February 2003 interview that went unreported except by NewsMax, Clinton told WABC Radio's John Gambling, "I am, you know, adamantly against illegal immigrants."

"Clearly, we have to make some tough decisions as a country," the top Democrat warned. "And one of them ought to be coming up with a much better entry and exit system so that if we're going to let people in for the work that otherwise would not be done, let's have a system that keeps track of them."

Sen. Clinton said she would support "at least a visa ID, some kind of an entry and exit ID. And, you know, perhaps, although I'm not a big fan of it, we might have to move towards an ID system even for citizens."
I'm all in favor of Democrats becoming the party of guys flying Confederate flags on their pickup trucks. But does that really have to involve trotting out racist, short-sighted policies at every turn? I guess it beats ugly demagoguing against free trade. Barely. More substantively, though, how does anyone expect to see the Emerging Democratic Majority through without lots and lots of legal and illegal immigration?
-- Brad Plumer 1:22 AM || ||
A New Kind of Voting Monitor

The Shiites have some bright ideas on how to turn the Sunni region is a safe and secure voting environment:
Last week, at a meeting of Iraq's major political parties in the Kurdish region, several prominent politicians suggested that the deterioration in security could be halted by deploying militiamen from groups like the Iraqi National Congress, led by the former exile Ahmad Chalabi, and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a powerful Shiite party.
Shiites lording over Sunnis? Pish! Like we would ever consent to this. It would be like sending Kurdish fighters into battle in ethnically sensitive regions of Mosul and Tal Afar. Oh, right...
-- Brad Plumer 12:07 AM || ||
Where are my benefits!

More on Social Security. From the new New York Times/CBS poll:
On Social Security, 45 percent said a proposal to permit people to invest their Social Security withholding money in private accounts was a bad idea; 49 percent said it was a good idea. The poll also found little confidence among Americans that Mr. Bush would assure the future solvency of the program: 51 percent said that Mr. Bush was unlikely to "make sure Social Security benefits are there for people like me."
That last clause is a stunner—51 percent? Now the Democrats ought to harp on the fact that fixing Social Security will involve some tough choices, that there's no "free lunch" in privatization, and then we can start talking about better ways to fix the system.
-- Brad Plumer 12:01 AM || ||

November 22, 2004

Judge the Conservatives

Jeffrey Rosen on possible Supreme Court nominations: "[T[he … important distinction is between principled conservatives (who believe in deference to legislatures through judicial restraint) and conservative activists (who are determined to use the courts to strike at the heart of the regulatory state)." That seems right. Better to have another Antonin Scalia on the court, who at least reasons well and respects precedent, than another Clarence Thomas, who is an activist in every sense of the word. Moral principles will change with the times, but coherent doctrine is forever.

Okay, strike that. Not another Scalia—he may be brilliant, but he's awfully nutty these days. Based on Rosen's list, a "principled" conservative like J. Harvey Wilkinson III or Michael McConnell would be fine. (On the understanding that Bush is simply not going to nominate a liberal or moderate judge.) But in the end I imagine we'll get a bunch of stealth candidates with short paper trails and a secret desire to yank the ol' Constitution out of Exile.
-- Brad Plumer 11:26 PM || ||
Framing Social Security

According to this poll, the vast majority of voters support Social Security privatization—provided they can get it without increasing the deficit or cutting benefits. Of course, that's almost certainly what's going to happen. On the other hand, President Bush is going to sell whatever scheme he comes up with as a free lunch. The solution? Before they start putting forward proposals of their own, I advise the Democrats to start emphasizing every second of the day that Social Security reform is going to be a painful process that involves some sacrifices and difficult choices. Otherwise, Bush is going to kill them by proposing a scheme based on shady accounting and gimmicks. Unless the public knows that there's no free lunch, the Bush plan will work.

Is advocating sacrifice politically risky? Sure. But then again, maybe not. A March CBS/NYT poll found that 86 percent of voters understand that the deficit is at least a "somewhat serious issue." And in an AP/IPSOS post-election poll, voters preferred deficit reduction over further tax cuts by a two-to-one margin. Voters can handle the brutal truth, it seems. And getting it out there is the only way Democrats can have even a semi-honest Social Security debate.
-- Brad Plumer 6:30 PM || ||
Iran and Muqtada

Taking various data points and spinning a narrative is, in essence, what intelligence is all about. And Dan Darling of Winds of Change does it marvelously well. But the caveat should be that his narrative about Muqtada al-Sadr and Iran is just one of many possible narratives, and probably underdetermined by the available evidence. His key thesis seems to be that certain Iranian mullahs, including Sadr's former mentor Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, were using Sadr to foment violence against the U.S. and—more importantly—to intimidate the other Shiite leaders in Iran, thus paving the way for the creation of an Iranian puppet state.

As far as I'm concerned, Dan is always thought-provoking. But one thing to watch for is that he tends to overemphasize sinister political maneuvering in the Arab world, and underemphasize religious motives. Case in point: Why did Kazem al-Haeri break with Sadr in September of 2004? One theory is that Sadr was too chauvinistic, too anti-Iran, to serve as a useful pawn any longer. Another is that Sadr, who was causing havoc in Najaf, was actually hindering Iranian involvement by strengthening the hand of Ayatollah Ali Sistani—who has a different view of theocracy than do the Iranians. Another, though, as reported by the New York Times, is that Ayatollah Ali Sistani himself engineered the break-up, by letting clerics in Qom know what Sadr was doing to the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf:
Hojatoleslam Hadi Qabel, a cleric in Qum, said that after a bullet damaged the main dome of Imam Ali's shrine in Najaf, Ayatollah Sistani's office in Tehran told clerics in Qum that the bullet had come from a site where Mr. Sadr's forces were hiding. He said several high-ranking clerics in Najaf wrote a scolding letter to clerics in Qum for supporting Mr. Sadr.

"The news had such a negative impact in Qum that Ayatollah Haeri was forced to withdraw his support for Mr. Sadr," Mr. Qabel said.
Is this naïve? Would "minor" things like shrines and domes really matter that much to Haeri? I think so. But at the same time, politics have no doubt corrupted religion in the Islamic Republic—which is, incidentally, one of the best arguments for separating church and state. But to what extent? Are Haeri/Iran and Sistani really such bitter rivals, or do they have some significantly shared sense of religious duty? This is an important question to ask. What I'm driving at is that the mullahs in Tehran and Sistani may not be so far apart on governing issues that Iran would feel the need to kill off all moderate Shiites (via Sadr and others) and install its own puppet government. More on this later.
-- Brad Plumer 4:05 PM || ||

November 21, 2004

Abortion tactics

Julie Saltman makes the case that the new abortion provision may run afoul of the Constitution. But that seems to be the whole point, doesn't it? Slip in a minor anti-abortion provision into a big bill, watch it get struck down by the Supreme Court, and then wail on about goddamned activist judges? Envision the ads here: "Liberal judges are forcing doctors to give abortions!" If I were a pro-life conservative, this is exactly the strategy I would devise.
-- Brad Plumer 11:22 PM || ||
The Colorado Model

The Colorado approach sure sounds nice:
Colorado Democrats say their success carries a lesson for the national party. "We campaigned on pragmatism," state Democratic Chairman Christopher Gates said. "We set ourselves up as the problem solvers, while the Republicans were hung up on a bunch of fringe social issues like gay marriage and the Pledge of Allegiance.

"The notion that moral issues won the 2004 election was disproven in Colorado," Gates continued. "We offered solutions, not ideology, and won almost everything."
Two big things, it seems clear, worked to neutralize the traditional Democratic advantage on domestic policy in 2004. First, the Dems were ultimately the conservative party in this go around. Kerry's health care reinsurance scheme was radical and clever, but his plan also relied too much on Medicaid (which is, let's be honest, a dismal little program). His innovative "pay-for-performance" teacher plan never got much airtime. So that left a bunch of things Democrats were against. Against tax reform. Against slashing Social Security. Against NCLB in all its underfunded glory. That needs to change, and luckily the big-name pundits are already on it.

The second major problem—and Christopher Hayes' deserves credit for this discovery—is that most swing voters simply can't make the connection between their day-to-day problems and policy-oriented solutions. In Hayes words, voters acted "[n]ot in disbelief that [Kerry] had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December."

Now if the national Democrats wanted to follow their Colorado counterparts and frame themselves as problem solvers—and this seems like the way to go—they'd have to start by convincing voters that government can actually solve problems. Not just that "government is the answer," but even that government could conceivably be one in a range of solutions. On this score, Clay Risen's thoughts about using the deficit as a major issue are worth reading. The next step is to start cranking out clever fixes. Stygius claims that Andrew Romanoff in Colorado was a workhorse in this regard—though I'd like to hear more about exactly how Colorado Dems actually made their solutions attractive.

Lil' Update: I see that Digby, who is doing far more interesting writing on this subject, is somewhat against having the Dems merely offer "an argument and a program." His post is worth pondering, no question, but it's also entirely possible that the Democrats haven't been offering an "argument and a program", or not to the extent that the Colorado Dems did, and that's what's hurting them. I'm not convinced that the various voting blocs that comprise (or could comprise) the Democratic party can be wrapped up into a "tribe" as easily as the Republican blocs can--though a lack of imagination might be my problem here.
-- Brad Plumer 9:06 PM || ||
Intel flip-flip

Oops. So in a post below I shrugged and said the death of the intelligence bill was no big deal, mainly because even the Senate version wouldn't have given the National Intelligence Director that much authority over the Pentagon's reconnaissance agencies. I take that back: I was thinking of a much, much older Senate proposal. Reading through the actual Senate bill that just got nixed, S. 2845, would give the NID far more powers than even the 9/11 Commission had envisioned—including the ability to reprogram funds and transfer personnel. Per my concerns below, this bit of gimickry would have been a big, big boon to our dismal WMD-tracking capabilities, and the bill's failure is a Very Bad Thing Indeed.
-- Brad Plumer 8:28 PM || ||
High-Value Success!

Ah, for those of us who thought Perez Musharraf would be better off if he stopped using all that political capital to chase high-value al Qaeda targets—and paid more attention to a) nuclear proliferation and b) Kashmir—now have to face this sort of pronouncement:
Pakistan's military has been so effective in pressuring al-Qaida leaders hiding in the tribal region of western Pakistan that Osama bin Laden and his top deputies no longer are able to direct terrorist operations, a senior American commander said Thursday.

"They are living in the remotest areas of the world without any communications -- other than courier -- with the outside world or their people and unable to orchestrate or provide command and control over a terrorist network," said Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, deputy commander of Central Command.
Well, fair enough. Maybe the Bush plan is the best of all possible plans. At the same time, Lt. Gen. Lance Smith has been known to engage in premature exhilaration in the past, so who knows how effective Pakistan's Waziristan sting has been, really. The Pakistani army, too, has obvious incentives to claim success and prolong the hunt against al Qaeda. That's not to say anyone's lying, but reliable metrics are hard to find.
-- Brad Plumer 7:42 PM || ||
No Mercy

Alberto Gonzales' record in Texas, as legal counsel to then-Gov. George W. Bush, should give heart to those who believe our aim in the war on terror should be to try to cow our enemies into submission:
Consider the case of Terry Washington. Gonzales's three-page summary misleadingly suggests that there was doubt about the central issue in Washington's plea for life: the fact that he was brain-damaged and mentally retarded. But the state of Texas did not dispute the fact that Washington was retarded. Gonzales doesn't inform Bush that Washington's incompetent attorney never called a mental health expert to testify, never advised the jury that his client was retarded, or that he had an IQ between 58 and 69 and had been beaten with whips, water hoses, extension cords, fan belts and wire hangers as a child.
No emboldening enemies here. Competence, however, might be a bit of an issue:
In the case of David Wayne Stoker, there were enough red flags for a May Day parade, yet Gonzales spotted none of them. For starters, a federal appellate judge had concluded that the state's star witness was just as likely the murderer as Stoker. Gonzales's 18-sentence summary also failed to note that a key witness recanted after Stoker's conviction (explaining that he'd been pressured by the prosecution to present perjured testimony) and that the state's star witness received a financial reward for fingering Stoker, had felony drug and weapons charges dropped and therefore had an obvious motive for accusing Stoker. Gonzales also didn't tell Bush that this witness and two police witnesses lied under oath at trial, that the state's expert medical witness pleaded guilty to seven felonies involving falsified evidence and that the state's psychiatric witness, whose testimony was essential to securing a death sentence, never even interviewed Stoker. The psychiatrist had since been expelled from the American Psychiatric Association for repeatedly providing unethical testimony in murder cases.
It's hard to improve on Ashcroft's counterterrorism record—0 for 5,000 prosecution at last count—but Gonzales, bless his heart, just might have what it takes! On the other hand, if you really wanted to mount a defense of this sort of behavior in the context of terrorism, you could point out—as George Friedman of Stratfor did—that Ashcroft's erratic pattern of arrests and detentions had gone a long ways towards disrupting al Qaeda (in the United Stats, at least)—since al Qaeda would never be sure exactly who we were arresting or what we were finding out, especially given our apparent propensity for torture. The same goes for Abu Ghraib, I guess. That's one theory, and it would sure kink up the civil liberties debate, but no one has been able to show whether it's true or not.
-- Brad Plumer 7:15 PM || ||
Taming Tehran

Last week at Mother Jones, I (rather non-controversially) noted that the European deal on Iran did nothing to address why Iran wants nuclear weapons. Only a direct deal with the U.S., focusing on security concerns, would do that. Well, that and an invasion—though it should be noted that all but the "new wave" of student reformers want Iran to go nuclear, for reasons of either geopolitics or national glory. Some sort of security guarantee that mitigates (at least in part) Iran's motivations is necessary. Anyways, Matt Yglesias has something along these lines today:
[N]evertheless, in order to understand what's happening, one needs to understand how things look from their perspective. It's obvious now that the US national security establishment went badly awry by failing to understand how the world looked to Saddam Hussein. In retrospect, as we see, he had some perfectly good reasons for pretending to have more in the way of WMD than he really had.
The other part of this is that United States policy towards the Middle East does little to address the various strategic tensions at work—especially those tensions that have nothing to do with us. It's all well and good to say that democracy promotion will promote peace, but that's only part of the story. Pakistan was a democracy when it decided to push through with its nuclear program—both out of concern towards India and those nebulous "national glory" reasons. In a similar vein, even a democratic Iran would worry about the balance of power vis-à-vis Pakistan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, would almost certainly ramp up its programs if the Shiite center of the universe went nuclear and could control shipping lines in the Persian Gulf.

It's Europe, circa 1914, all over again. Our current haphazard policy of chucking about carrots and sticks addresses none of this. To my eye, signing treaties and setting up a multilateral security framework, as in Europe after 1945, is the only to achieve long-term stability—though the parallels to Europe are hardly exact.

Of course, there's more to life than settling the balance of power. Economic incentives could go a long way in Iran. Right now you have a new wave of Iranian protestors unhappy with their job prospects in a country with rampant unemployment and rapid population growth. They're trying to boycott next year's elections. The temptation is to look at this and think revolution is around the corner. But you could also note that two of the three leadership groups in Tehran have a great deal of incentive to push for increased economic opportunities—trade agreements, aid, entry into the WTO. This is the way to go. Integrating Iran into the global economic community, I think, should be a higher priority than imagining that a bunch of student protestors will topple the clerics in charge. As a general principle this won't always be true—sometimes democracy will need to precede economic integration—but in Iran's case it seems like the case.
-- Brad Plumer 4:05 PM || ||
Futility of Cultural Centrism

I'll have more on this later, but Lindsey Beyerstein's absolutely right. This whole idea of offending core constituencies all for the sake of building our centrist bonafides is abysmal. Simply abysmal. The notion of "pulling a Sister Souljah" is also, I think, drastically overblown. I've been trying to put together some data to show that Bill Clinton didn't win his 1992 election on the basis of cultural centrism (the bare outlines are over at Mother Jones). Executing a retarded man and "dissing" a black rapper (who was, if I recall, taken out of context) served as nice red meat for a rather bloodthirsty media pool, but not much else.

Digby, meanwhile, is on the right track. Democrats stand for many things—like making the privacy of the bedroom actually private—that probably enjoy a good deal of support among even the reddest of states. Though this too may be overblown: Many of these red state conservatives may love country songs about dating and screwing, but their stances on bedroom privacy could easily soften if it means that gay people get to do the same thing. But hey, what do I know?
-- Brad Plumer 1:18 AM || ||

November 20, 2004

Pitchfork the Vote!

I know, I know, anyone who calls the Democrats the party of "conspiracy theorists, isolationists, and rabid anarchists" probably isn't worth taking seriously, but Captain Ed makes a bad argument in favor of the Electoral College, and it needs to be whacked:
In other words, Kristof wants the President selected by New York, Massachussetts, Texas, California, and Florida. Kristof compares the Electoral College unfavorably to the election in Afghanistan, but the truth is that America is a much larger, more far-flung country than Afghanistan; the electorate here differs widely between rural, suburban, and urban settings, as well as regionally. Kristof's vision would lead to the diktat of urban centers over the rest of the United States, a result I'm certain Kristof desires. Gone would be private-property rights and a host of other issues crucial to farmers, ranchers, and others.
You can look at this any number of ways. In 2004, urban dwellers made up 30 percent of the voting population, while suburban voters were 46 percent, and rural voters 25 percent. So assuming all else holds equal, rural voters would have approximately as much sway as urban voters in a direct election.

The counterargument is that all else won't hold equal, and candidates will stop pandering to rural issues in a direct election. But how often do they do that now? Under the electoral college, candidates do not visit rural states like Wyoming, Idaho, Kansas, and Nebraska, because these states are utterly out of contention. Presumably, in a direct election, candidates might even have more incentive to thump on "rural issues" and get out the rural vote (25 percent of the electorate, after all, is a big deal).

Of course, this whole debate is kind of moot. "[I]ssues crucial to farmers, ranchers, and others" are primarily addressed through the Senate and House—the white-tailed prairie dog, as you'll recall, was a thigh-sized bone of contention for Daschle and Thune. Abolishing the Electoral College wouldn't change any of this.
-- Brad Plumer 8:16 PM || ||
No Weeping for Intel Reform

So it looks as if Pentagon interests prevailed, and intelligence reform is officially dead in the water. This is unfortunate, I think, but it doesn't necessarily put America in greater danger. The rationale behind a National Intelligence Director (and a unified Counterterrorism Center) was always to promote intelligence sharing. But note that the current structure doesn't necessarily hinder sharing. Prior to the thwarted Millennium Plot in 1999, "information about terrorism flowed widely and abundantly," according to the 9/11 Commission Report—primarily because everyone was nervous about Y2K. Presumably the same heightened awareness holds true today, after 9/11; we just have to worry about lapsing back into complacency.

Other proposed reforms were also a bit mixed. The Commission wanted to consolidate some of the oversight committees in Congress, and let their members serve for longer. The idea behind the first was that intelligence officials spend too much time testifying. But as a former committee staffer told me long ago, most of the testifying goes on before the two main committees anyways, and consolidation wouldn't change all that much. The second reform was, however, actually useful—right now, term limits on committee members prevent anyone from gaining any expertise on intelligence issues, which leads to bad oversight. Another idea which was never offered up would be to give committee members actual incentives to do their jobs. Doing the grunt work on oversight is, alas, dismally boring, and doesn't help you get re-elected. As a result, there's too much "focus on personal investigations, possible scandals, and issues designed to generate media attention," according to Sen. Dick Durbin's 9/11 Commission testimony. But all in all, these changes are largely trivial.

Now I want to note that there is one big reform that really ought to happen: Intelligence officials should have better access to the Pentagon's surveillance agencies. As Ashton Carter, an assistant secretary of defense under Clinton, told Congress earlier this year, the DoD is doing a miserable job of coordinating its technical capacities to track WMD developments. If we want to improve intelligence on the most important issue of the day—nuclear terrorism—then we want to create an NID who can properly direct military surveillance. Unfortunately, no one was proposing this sort of change—the Pentagon early on managed to drum up bullshit concerns about interference with the military chain of command. And the compromise about 'budget authority' didn't really go far enough. So really, the compromise bill that just got sunk was tainted from the start anyways.
-- Brad Plumer 7:38 PM || ||
Bernard Lewis, the Neocons, and Iraq

Michael Hirsh's Washington Monthly piece on Bernard Lewis would live up to all its hype and then some—if it was getting any hype. So let's give it some hype!

The basic thesis is that neoconservatives, as influenced by Bernard Lewis, believe that the Islamic world needs a Mustafa Kemal-type figure to root out and crush the rotting bits of Islam, and then forcibly plant in the Middle East a whole new brand of secular democratic principles. The alternative vision—as laid out by anti-Lewis "Arabists" in liberal academies and the State Department—is that those rotting bits of Islam, of the Qutb/Zawahiri/bin Laden variety, are actually a very marginal strain of thought that sprung up in reaction to neo-colonial despots, and Islam needs a political forum in which to flower and thence move to modernity. If Islam existed as a dominant political mode, rather than as a counter-culture response to secular tyranny, than radicals like Ayman Zawahiri would be relegated back to the margins were they belong.

You'll notice an obvious exception here—the Islamic Republic of Iran, where Islam is the official political culture, and the lunatics still have control. But the Arabists have an explanation for Iran too: "The forces of bottom-up secular democratic reform and top-down mullah control may be stalemated simply because there is no common ground whatsoever between their contending visions." That jibes with what I know/believe about Iran, and if true, has important consequences for U.S. policy: political-engagement engagement with those top-down mullahs would move them towards that "common ground."

Anyways, Hirsh puts a lot of stress on neoconservatives and their dreams of a Kemalist state in Iraq—this was the whole reasoning behind putting Chalabi in charge, and is why some elements in the Pentagon would prefer strengthening Allawi's hand. (No doubt you've noticed that talk of postponing elections only comes from the Defense Department.) One oft-overlooked point, though, is that George W. Bush has a very different view of freedom than the neo-conservatives.

Without delving into complexities, the president believes that freedom is a God-given gift, and will burst forth like a geyser if you simply take off the manhole of tyranny. Now this obviously betrays a rather stark ignorance of the sort of institutions necessary to build a democracy—and indeed, we've done a miserable job along that front. But it's the sort of view that's not entirely incompatible with promoting Islamic democracies. Bush has said that he would accept an Islamic government in Iraq—though my hunch is that this isn't the preferred view of Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, who would prefer secular elements (Kurds, Allawi) to retain maximal control. Hence Paul Bremer's TAL, which gave a ludicrously high amount of veto power to the Kurdish provinces. But whether Bush has a strong enough vision to overcome his vice-president and Pentagon on this issue is very much up in the air. I think Condoleeza Rice falls on Bush's side, but I'm also not sure this ideological fight is so pronounced that we'll see actual battle lines being drawn.
-- Brad Plumer 5:25 PM || ||

November 19, 2004

"But Reagan did it..."

So Greenspan's warning about the trade deficit. And the Weekly Standard is claiming that a declining dollar is no big deal—Reagan did it, after all, so it must be okay.

I don't have time to get into the full story now, but this is a big ol' simplification of what happened in the late '80s. True, Reagan devalued the dollar by 40 percent and the world did not end. But he was able to do so because Japan and Germany were (grudgingly) willing to bear most of the costs. It's not clear that a injured-but-recovering Japan and a limping Europe would be willing to bear the costs today. Also, the U.S. trade deficit declined in the late '80s because foreign countries were growing much faster, relatively, than the United States. Rapid growth in Asia, Europe, Latin America helped boost American exports and boost domestic demand abroad (thus limiting their exports). At the same time, the U.S. was growing rather slowly primarily because of high interest rates. It helped avoid catastrophe, but it had the unfortunate side effect of being quite painful—unemployment was up, consumption was down, blah, blah. The whole thing cost Bush I a second term, if I recall.

A declining dollar today might not have the same effect. Europe is growing extremely slowly. China is putting the brakes on growth. Who knows what Latin America is doing. Do our exporters really have so much room to grow that we can avoid the slower economic growth associated with higher interest rates? And can we weather a sharp decline in foreign investment—which will presumably push bond yields up and stock prices down? These, I think, are good questions to ask.

By the way, Greenspan's right: America (guv'mint and people) needs to save more. So why not ask why the Bush administration is promoting a tax reform plan that will in all likelihood reduce national savings?
-- Brad Plumer 4:36 PM || ||