August 31, 2005


I've had my head in the sand these past two days, and barely know what's going on down in New Orleans and Mississippi beyond the bare details, but... on the slight off-chance you haven't seen this elsewhere, Glenn Reynolds has a master list of charities and relief agencies that are helping the victims of Katrina, if you'd like to donate.

As a side note, I've been told before that, when giving to an organization like the American Red Cross, it's usually better to make the donation out to, say, their general "National Disaster Relief Fund" rather than the "Hurricane 2005 Relief," simply because ARC is required to spend the latter money entirely on hurricanes, and if they get an overflow of donations for Katrina—as seems possible—they can't go and use the surplus for other, lesser-noticed disasters. Usually these organizations know best where and how to spend their funds, so I prefer to give them the flexibility, although it's a minor point: obviously any sort of donation helps a great deal.
-- Brad Plumer 10:04 PM || ||

August 30, 2005

Smooth Operators

I'm sure I haven't been the only one annoyed by the media's coverage of the Northwest Airlines strike, regardless of what one thinks about the strike itself (and I have no special love for the AMFA). Just about every major story I've seen opens with a few cloying paragraphs on how the airline is still running "smoothly" despite those uppity workers causing a big ruckus, then segues into a full swoon over Northwest's ability to keep its stock prices flying as high as its planes, and finally, closes on a note of admiration for the company's oh-so-bold strategy of using scabs—ahem, "replacement workers"—to weather these tough times. And that's just the liberal press.

Fine, so it's what we've come to expect from our corporate media. A few months ago, I noted something just as appalling going on with the barely-averted BART strike here in San Francisco: In the press, the entire ordeal was cast as a battle between commuters and workers—in which the soon-to-be-inconvenienced BART riders heaped aspersions on the "unreasonable" demands of the unions—while business managed to write itself out of this little drama entirely. Is labor reporting always so awful? It sure seems so. While searching around I came across this valuable review of Christopher R. Martin's recent book, Framed! Labor and the Corporate Media, which looks like a must read, judging from the brief synopsis:
Martin argues that the "framing" of U.S. labor coverage occurs through five means: 1. The consumer is king; 2. The process of production is none of the public’s business; 3. The economy is driven by great business leaders and entrepreneurs; 4. The workplace is a meritocracy; and 5. Collection economic action is bad. He also notes that corporate ownership of most media has led to a hostile relationship between unions and media outlets. None of those frames has anything to do with the plight of the worker, he added.
Seems spot on. Martin takes a close look at how the three major television networks, USA Today, and the New York Times covered five major labor issues in the 1990s, and concludes in each case that "media coverage predominantly focused on the effects on consumers and ignored the working conditions of employees." But this wasn't just some perverse side-effect of the '90s "New Economy" mania. FAIR issued a report back in 1989 delivering nearly the same indictment. Few major media outlets, the report found, carried a dedicated labor reporter any longer—the labor beat has been replaced by the always-amusing "workplace beat"—while editors have shown scant interest in labor stories, unless something important happens, like, you know, a company unveiling some bold new strike-busting tactic. (There are exceptions: Steven Greenhouse of the Times, for instance, is a fantastic labor reporter, although I notice he didn't get invited to cover the NWA strike.)

Cable outlets, for their part, lavish attention on their corporate- and finance-oriented shows, despite the fact that most of them have earned piddling ratings since the crash, but not even PBS has a labor version of Kudlow and Cramer. Presumably the market has spoken, and there's just no demand for that sort of thing, but union density still hovers at around 12.9 percent, and it seems hard to believe that the potential audience just doesn't exist.

But forget the mass media; it's as useless as ever. If anything's worth doing you need to do it yourself. Yet the rapid decline in union density over the past three decades has forced hundreds of labor publications to shutter up, including the 2002 closing of the Racine Labor, a Wisconsin-based newsletter that had survived for over 60 years and had often been held up as a model for other aspiring labor papers to emulate. So much for that. We're a far, far cry from the turn of the 20th century, when the Appeal to Reason, a socialist rag, boasted 760,000 subscribers at its peak. Perhaps the internet will someday revive that tradition; one can always hope. In the meantime, though, the cycle will likely continue: the liberal media will avert its innocent eyes as business slowly but surely dismantles organized labor, which will put even more worker publications in dire straits, which will in turn convince the Times and the networks that "the people," apparently, demand more stories about workplace gossip and less about the means of production. And on it goes.
-- Brad Plumer 3:37 AM || ||

August 29, 2005

The Joys of Pravda

Here's an interesting find: stuffed in one of the essays from Hendrik Hertzberg's Politics, we come across a National Review editorial, circa 1984, on the theory that a free media puts nations at a distinct disadvantage come wartime:
"Five years ago, liberal opinion predicted that Afghanistan would be the 'Soviets' Vietnam.' How could that be, without a free press and the freedom of opposition that liberalism also prescribes? … A society that has only Pravda may be less blessed than a society that has the New York Times, but it enjoys a strategic advantage.
Except that this was proved exactly wrong. Pravda put on a happy face, but eventually people in Russia did find out the truth about Afghanistan—as wounded veterans slowly returned to the country, wending their way through cities and towns, telling everyone about the horrors that transpired on the battlefield. And eventually the war—and the opposition to it, which was that much more vigorous when it finally burst through the dam of secrecy—helped bring down the Soviet Union. (Well, that and depressed oil prices, of course.) In fact, a freer press might have caught onto the fact that the Soviets were in a losing struggle against a determined population much, much earlier, and caused the country to withdraw rather than stay mired in a quagmire from which it had everything to lose and very little to gain. Not that this settles the broader debate here, but the idea that the Pravda conferred a "strategic advantage" doesn't hold up very well in retrospect.
-- Brad Plumer 8:44 PM || ||

The Washington Post chastises the Bush administration for not drawing up stricter automotive efficiency standards. I hate to break from the environmental happy-talk here, but what's the point of these standards again? Say you have two families, the Smiths and the Browns. The Browns own a big honking SUV, but drive it rarely, and usually bike to work or take the public transit. The Smiths drive a little wiener of a car, but take it everywhere—the supermarket, the neighbors, down the driveway to the mailbox. Obviously you want to penalize the Smiths' behavior, not the Browns. Stricter CAFE standards for big vehicles wouldn't do that. We want to decrease total oil consumption, right? So just tax that. Yeah it would be regressive, but means-tested rebates could ease the pain. And gas taxes wouldn't be as prone to lobbyist-poked loopholes as fuel-efficiency standards quite obviously are. Meanwhile, I worry that more efficient cars would just convince people to drive around more, negating the benefits.

Maybe there's more to it than that, and I'm not saying fuel-efficiency standards are a bad thing—quite the opposite; no reason not to raise them—but they still seem like a very roundabout way of achieving a given goal. Perhaps that's the point—they allow Congress to raise gas taxes without actually raising gas taxes. On the other hand, gas taxes would in theory change behavior right now, if they changed behavior at all, whereas fuel-efficiency standards would take years and years for the effects to be felt (since people won't all buy new cars right away). On the other hand, color me skeptical that a gas tax would change people's driving habits much in the short term, so this might just end up inflicting a lot of unnecessary pain...

UPDATE: Ah, I see this is Andrew Samwick territory. His post here, in particular, is instructive: neither CAFE standards nor a gas tax would have a significant impact on the nation's oil consumption, and any gas tax would have to be pretty steep to have any effect at all (around $1 a gallon, which would cause a lot of pain indeed.

DOUBLE UPDATE: Ezra Klein makes the case that gas taxes would just inflict unnecessary pain on the poor, and that better fuel-efficiency standards are still the way to go. His points look pretty convincing, even if they're not quite as elegant from an economic standpoint. Plus, there are probably no decent ways to design those gas tax rebates.
-- Brad Plumer 4:30 PM || ||
But We Were So Close!

In the Lebanon Daily Star, Joseph Nye compares 'democratization' in Iraq with that in Japan and Germany fifty years ago:
Nevertheless, we can still conclude from the Iraqi experience that while the development of democracy can be aided from outside, it cannot easily be imposed by force. While it is true that Germany and Japan became democratic after American occupation, it required their total defeat in a devastating war, and a seven-year occupation. Moreover, Germany and Japan were relatively homogeneous societies with some prior experience of democracy. It is hard to see such conditions repeated in today's world.
Hard to argue with that, although I would point out that some of the mistakes in Iraq were expressly avoided in the post-WWII occupations. In Japan, the old state structure largely remained untouched—the parallel, I guess, would be keeping most of the Baathists in place in Iraq—and the new Imperial Diet formed under the auspices of the old Meiji Constitution. That Diet approved the new constitution, and while the Americans lurked behind the scenes manipulating the whole thing, they managed to keep that fact concealed. Perhaps that sort of concealment would be impossible to do in today's world, I don't know, but it makes a difference—very few Iraqis were fooled by the fact that Paul Bremer and the CPA were calling the shots while the TAL got cobbled together, and it pissed a lot of people off.

In Germany, meanwhile, local elections were organized very quickly, and the occupation powers built the new government from the ground up, and that new government created its own constitution, rather than having one imposed. Again, something that might have worked in Iraq, but was rejected. On the other hand, there are some pretty fundamental differences between now and post-WWII: it was clear, for instance, that pro-American governments would come to power in Japan and Germany when we held free and open elections; that was obviously less clear in Iraq. Plus the Kurds—not to mention oil wealth—were always bound to muck up this democratization process. (And fair enough.) Plus everything else Nye mentions.

So I'm pretty skeptical of these "If only we had done it like this" arguments about Iraq, and much more sympathetic to Nye's argument that this stuff is just plain difficult, and Japan and Germany are exceptions rather than universal precedents. No one knows whether Iraq would be better off if only the CPA had avoided some of its big mistakes. Perhaps keeping the Baathist Army intact would have sparked a Shiite or Kurdish insurgency. Perhaps some nasty characters would have come to power if the CPA had held local elections quickly. Perhaps handing the whole thing over to Ahmed Chalabi, as the Pentagon originally wanted to do, would have led to any number of problems down the road—his capacity for mischief looks pretty unlimited. It would be pretty tragic to come away from this whole thing thinking that democratization at the barrel of a gun can just work with a bit more competence involved, only to watch the next starry-eyed administration go off, try it a different way, and fail yet again.
-- Brad Plumer 2:55 PM || ||
Eichmann and Lolita

Here's an anecdote about Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita that I have never heard before (that is, I don't remember reading it in Eichmann in Jerusalem):
As Kubrick was beginning to film, an Israeli guard in a Jerusalem prison gave a copy of "Lolita" to Adolf Eichmann, who was awaiting trial. An indignant Eichmann returned the book two days later, calling it ''a very unwholesome book." The sulphurous halo of Nabokov's novel was still burning brightly in the popular consciousness of 1960 and it seems that Eichmann's guard gave the book to him as an experiment--a sort of litmus test for radical evil: to see whether the real-life villain, he who impassively organized the transport towards certain death of countless innocents, would coldly, or even gleefully, approve the various and vile machinations of Nabokov's creation.
Heh. I'd laugh harder, but this sort of thing persists to this day, depressingly. Yes, it's now "acceptable" for people to enjoy and endorse Lolita without also approving of Humbert Humbert, but that's only because the book has been designated a "classic," and only the most extreme moralists would be unashamed to denounce it. Good for people. But the confusion between the quality of a work of art and its moral character certainly lives on. If film reviews over the past year or so are any indication, apparently no one can enjoy Fahrenheit 9/11 without also endorsing its political views wholesale, and a denunciation of Che Guevara the human being suffices for an appraisal of The Motorcycle Diaries. But that's obviously wrong. Good books can be written about pedophiles. Good movies can be made that contain repugnant views on things. So it goes. Someday we'll get over this, but not, apparently, anytime soon.
-- Brad Plumer 1:53 PM || ||
Freedom on the Defensive Crouch

Anders Aslund looks at Russia's remarkably rapid slide from pseudo-democracy to authoritarian state over the past few years. This, it seems, is pretty bad. Not because Russia's planning to become a nuclear-tipped foe of the United States once again, or about to embark on imperalistic adventures around Central Asia and the Caucasus regions—Putin's become too inept at foreign policy and diplomacy for that sort of thing—but mostly because, on Aslund's account, things didn't have to turn out this way. I don't think you can fairly blame the United States for Russia's despotism of late. That would, of course, be rude. Still, Bush has given Putin a free pass on domestic issues since 2001, in exchange for mostly ephemeral "war on terror" support.

Also of note: Aslund claims that Putin sits low on the totem pole among his little circle of ex-KGB officers running the Kremlin. At some point his friends and associates might just decide to give him the old heave-ho, especially if he keeps sliding in the polls. "Sorry Vlad, it's strictly business," that sort of thing. Okay... Or, as Aslund suggests, Russia's turn at the helm of the G8 this year might just shame Putin into opening the country back up. But that seems unlikely without some sort of push from the outside. Meanwhile, what's happening with Russia's loose nukes? Anyone? No? Okay, then.

UPDATE: Via Nadezhda in comments, Peter Lavelle says Aslund's all wrong about, well, most everything. Lavelle's commentary seems a bit over the top in places (Aslund's not condemning the terrorists strongly enough! or You can learn important political lessons from dismantling the pension system!) but it's mostly quite incisive. Lavelle's note that centralization of power isn't inherently un-democratic, and that Yeltsin's "decentralization" approach was a disaster, all seems persuasive, although historically these "desperate times call for desperate measures" rationales don't usually end well, so Aslund doesn't seem so off-base to be a bit nervous. Still, Lavelle seems to have the better argument.
-- Brad Plumer 2:11 AM || ||

August 28, 2005

Purely Hypothetical

David Brooks alerts us to a new Foreign Affairs essay by Andrew Krepinevich, which argues that the United States should switch to a traditional counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq—a strategy which has historically "worked"—rather than the whack-a-mole approach the Army's taking in the Sunni provinces right now, a battle in which the insurgents seem to have fought the US military to a draw. Obviously this is too sensible ever to happen (how many times has the "hearts and minds" suggestion been hauled out, to no avail?), though it's interesting to discuss.

Krepinevich's suggestion: The US would concentrate instead on securing key enclaves—Baghdad, Kurdistan, southern Iraq—and withdraw completely from the Sunni countryside. No more fighting insurgents head-on. In the "secure" areas, the military would focus on aid and reconstruction, stamping out crime and violence (those first two are crucial), training the local police and military forces, and mingling with the locals, garnering intelligence. Hopefully this leads to fewer clumsy raids on houses, fewer innocent Iraqis detained, and newfound support from the local population. Hearts and minds. Hopefully, pacifying these areas would make it easier for the US to disarm the Shiite and Kurdish militias. (Although in Krepinevich's essay he wants to rely heavily on those militias—which seems like a pretty serious mistake, given stories like this.) Over time, as the Iraqi government's security forces come online in the "held" territories, the home team would slowly spread out to the countryside, like an ink stain or oil spot, and pacify the remaining areas. That's the theory anyway.

One weird part, though, is that in his essay Krepinevich thinks we can do this with 120,000 troops in Iraq, and significant reductions thereafter. How does he figure? The British had about 20 security personnel for every 1,000 persons in Malaysia, which he cites as a model of counterinsurgency. Baghdad alone has 6,000,000 people, so that would take 120,000 troops right there. Does the US really want to rely on the increasingly out-of-control militias in Iraq? Wouldn't that create as many problems as it solved? (Iraq would resemble El Salvador in the 1980s, which was not successful at all.) Also, presumably the US would need different types of soldiers: fewer heavy vehicles, more police types, more translators, a different type of force structure. Is that feasible?

More crucially, though, consider the political problems with this approach here at home. First, Bush would have to admit that the occupation is going poorly, to say the least, and that the military will now have to completely readjust its strategy and stay in Iraq for, oh, another decade. Second, a counterinsurgency strategy, presumably, works best when the contractors responsible for aid and reconstruction aren't looting and pillaging the country. Just saying... Third, in the short term, many more soldiers are likely to get killed if the US switches to a "traditional" counterinsurgency strategy. It's just the nature of the thing—the troops have to mingle with the locals, walk around in small units, integrate with trained Iraqi units, rely on translators of dubious loyalty. No more zooming by in armored Humvees. This may prove more effective in the long run, but in the short run, people are getting blown up. See how this strategy hold up after a few nights of that on the evening news.

The politics from Iraq's perspective are no less tricky, a point which Krepinevich is well aware of. How much more patience do the Iraqis really have for a long-term American presence? Granted, if the US secured Baghdad and the Shiite south, and finally got reconstruction and job-creation and crime-fighting right, the Shiites and other urban Iraqis might start to warm up to us. But I doubt it. Muqtada al-Sadr has gained a lot of popularity over the years by revving up his hit single: "U.S. out NOW!", and while much of his support comes from the fact that he can provide poor Iraqis with the necessities Americans can't (a model pioneered by Hezbollah and HAMAS), he also seems to have struck a nationalistic chord among many Shiites who don't have the patience for ten more years of occupation. Oh, and switching to counterinsurgency would mean jettisoning the political process now underway—so much for the constitution; how are they supposed to hold a referendum if the US withdraws from the Sunni regions?—which is a tricky proposition by any means.

Will Krepinevich's plan work? I don't know, maybe. He's obviously a smart guy and knows far more about this stuff than I can ever hope to learn. It would almost certainly be better than what the U.S. is doing now. But this is all sort of moot, really: Bush isn't going to change course, Rumsfeld isn't going to retool the Army to deal with counterinsurgency (not enough expensive weapons systems involved; also, see Jason Vest for why the Army hasn't adapted these techniques). At this point the only thing worth doing is to figure out the politics of this whole mess so that the people in Washington who green-lighted and carried out the trashing of Iraq never get near the levers of power again.
-- Brad Plumer 2:57 PM || ||

August 25, 2005

Night Draws Near

Spencer Ackerman's review of Anthony Shadid's Night Draws Near draws out a few of the books more important points, and is worth reading. For one, Shadid gives the sense that Ayatollah Sistani no longer sits at the center of the Shiite community—he may garner respect, but Muqtada al-Sadr's political antics over the past year have launched the young cleric to prominence. Especially since Muqtada wants the US out now while Sistani, from all appearances, doesn't. Now I don't know what to make of the recent clashes between rival Shiite militias, but it seems very likely that the two groups in quest—SCIRI and the Sadrists, both Iranian-style extremists—will become Iraq's dominant Shiite groups long into the future. Eventually, Sistani will die, and with him, possibly, the dream that the an-Najaf religious community will become some sort "moderating" influence on the Shiite world.

Ackerman/Shadid also make the case for why the Iraq war, unlike (some) other wars, had such a small margin for error:
Night Draws Near will not resolve the debate over whether the Iraq War was destined to fail. At times, Shadid suggests potential mitigating factors: if only U.S. troops had immediately provided public security, if only a massive aid package had arrived, etc. But, as Iraqis tell him, Arabs are taught from birth that the suffering of the Palestinians is the ultimate responsibility of the United States, Israel’s patron, meaning that the United States has had very little margin for the errors that are inevitable in occupations.
Would have been nice to know beforehand, eh? But "Arab perceptions of the United States" probably didn't make it into the prewar briefing room—certainly not the ones where the hawks predicted flowers and candy. Ignorance like this is exactly why we never should have gone in. On the other hand, let's not pretend these sort of "misunderstandings" are just a Bush administration problem, limited to people named Feith or Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz. For a fun exercise sometime, read the 1995 Dayton Accords, negotiated in part by Richard Holbrooke and Gen. Wesley Clark. It's hard to decide which administration was more misguided about the region it was dealing with, Clinton's or Bush's. Okay, fine, Bush's by quite a bit, but still. As it happened, the fallout from the mess in the Balkans turned out to be less severe than that in Iraq, but chalking the difference up to competence seems like a dangerous mistake. Assume that all American governments will intervene abroad with breathtaking ignorance in tow.

Meanwhile, Ackerman argues that a prolonged US occupation will increase the chance of civil war: "[Shadid's book makes] clear that the longer the United States occupies Iraq, the greater is the chance that the Sunnis will transfer their hatred to the occupation’s perceived Shia and Kurdish beneficiaries, leading to even greater bloodshed." That's the sense I get, too, from reading Shadid's book, and it's a strong case for pulling out as quickly as possible, or at least to announce right now that we're leaving ASAP and plopping the Shiites and Kurds down on their own feet. (That seems to be what the military wants, at any rate.) Doing so might—might—avert some of that "greater bloodshed." Or perhaps inter-sectarian hatred's at its peak and anything we do won't make a shred of difference.
-- Brad Plumer 10:04 AM || ||

August 24, 2005

Civil War In Three Easy Steps

Having never grown up in a civil-war environment, I don't really understand the actual dynamics involved, how things progress from peaceful co-existence to neighbors gunning down neighbors in the street. Take Iraq. For years Sunnis and Shiites lived together peacefully—in urban areas especially, the two groups often intermarried, and sectarian identities often played little role in everyday life. There may be differences between the two groups, but there aren't vast reservoirs of inter-group hatred waiting to be unleashed. And even nowadays, as Zarqawi and his crew try to foment civil war with targeted killings, Shiite leaders—especially Ayatollah Sistani—are insisting again and again that Shiites must resist the impulse to retaliate against Sunnis. So a lot of very concrete obstacles lie between Iraq's current state and all out, inter-sectarian civil war.

And yet these things happen all the time—Rwanda, Yugoslavia, the list goes on. How does it happen, exactly? I imagine there are entire books written on the subject, but in the meantime, check out this recent Time article, which lays out the growing animosity between Sunnis and Shiites unfolding in Baghdad, bit by bit. It's a chilling story:
A murder spree has erupted in Washash, as in countless neighborhoods across Baghdad. Death squads, which tend to move in Opel sedans, are entering what once were tight-knit communities and killing ordinary citizens, apparently to stir up sectarian hatred. The goal: to incite a civil war that each side hopes will give its sect dominance over the other…. [T]he killings in Washash are a grim portent of the kind of chaos that may lie in Iraq's future, whether or not U.S. soldiers stay on in force. "If the U.S. troops leave, we will have a civil war," says a Sunni ex-army officer who prefers not to reveal his name. "It will go on until one sect wipes out the other." ....

Despite the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime, Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq tended to live in relative harmony. Although the sectarian split occurred early in Islamic history and concerns a critical disagreement over who was the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad, members of the two groups often trace their roots to the same Arab tribes and frequently intermarry.... Sunnis and Shi'ites played on the same sports teams and shared hubble-bubble pipes over domino games in cafes. "These two words--Sunni and Shi'ite--didn't exist for us," says Walid Ahmad al-Anei, a Sunni. "We were all Muslims."

But these days, as Walid learned to his horror, the division is all too real. ... As more Sunni extremists poured in from abroad to join the insurgency, they tapped into latent anti-Shi'ite feelings among Iraq's Sunnis, prompting some to resort to violence. Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist who heads al-Qaeda's operations in Iraq, fanned the flames, denouncing Shi'ites as worse infidels than the Christian "crusaders," as he refers to the U.S. troops. Shi'ite groups like the Badr Corps, whose militias are apparently armed by Shi'ites in Iran, have responded with equal savagery against the Sunnis. ....

These days Sunni and Shi'ite friends still sometimes sit together in the cafes, but the carefree ways of the past are gone. "Beneath our smiles, our hearts have closed," says a former army officer, a Sunni. "We no longer trust them, nor do they trust us." Residents believe the killers come from outside Washash, but they know there are informers within. Armed Shi'ite vigilantes patrol the streets, questioning strangers.
The whole story gives a more detailed account, so take a look.
-- Brad Plumer 9:22 PM || ||
The Wisdom of Grover

I don't know all that much about Grover Norquist, so the long profile of the guy in the New Yorker awhile back, which I finally got around to reading yesterday, was all pretty new to me. Can't say the guy lacks for interesting political insights. For instance, here's Grover on the importance of incremental progress:
As long as George W. Bush was in the White House and the Republicans controlled Congress, he assured me, every year would bring a new tax cut and further conservative legislation. "That is how the Democrats built the New Deal and the Great Society," Norquist said. "Every year more spending, every year more programs."
Grover on how to form a political coalition in three easy steps:
On the way back to Washington, he talked about how to build a broad coalition. "If you want the votes of people who are good on guns, good on taxes, and good on faith issues, that is a very small intersection of voters," he said. "But if you say, Give me the votes of anybody who agrees with you on any of these issues, that's a much bigger section of the population." To illustrate what he meant, Norquist drew three intersecting circles on a piece of paper. In the first one he wrote "guns," in the second he wrote "taxes," in the third he wrote "faith." There was a small area where the three circles intersected. "With that group, you can take over the country, if you start with the airports and the radio stations," he said. "But with all of the three circles that's sixty per cent of the population, and you can win politically. And if you add more things, like property rights and home-schooling, you can do even better."
Grover on how the Gingrich revolution actually succeeded:
The standard history of the subsequent two years [after the Republican takeover in 1994] is that Gingrich over-reached and ended up setting back the conservative cause. Norquist has a different interpretation. Although Gingrich was ultimately forced to resign as Speaker, in 1998, his reforms achieved a great deal, Norquist insists, especially the introduction of six-year term limits for committee chairs in the House. "It was the equivalent of what Louis XVI did to the barons," Norquist said. "It neutered people who used to have power. You can't run a coherent and unified movement with thirteen independent power bases." Once term limits were introduced, right-wing Republicans were able to banish the remaining moderates and take over. "The national power base for a governing conservative coalition in this country is the House," Norquist said. "You can govern from the House."
Grover on sending a message to Republicans who get out of line:
Norquist said that the biggest challenge was Virginia, where nineteen Republican legislators who supported a tax increase are up for reelection this fall, and where he is trying to defeat some of them in the Republican primary. "We only need to win one or two races to send a message," he said. "People say we need to win all of them, but that's not right."
Grover on running a good right-wing conspiracy:
Norquist paused and lowered his voice. "Mind you," he went on, "in all good conspiracies there is not necessarily any overt communication. A properly run movement operates the way the U.S. Navy communicates with its submarines. It bangs the rock core of the earth. The vibrations go all around, but only the guys in our subs know what they mean."
Grover on why Tom DeLay's scandals may not take hold:
"I say to reporters, 'Can you give me the one-sentence description of what DeLay did wrong?' Jim Wright took cash from the Teamsters with phony book sales. Rostenkowski"-the Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in the nineteen-eighties and early nineties-"took cash in return for phony stamp sales. These things are wrong. They are clear. What is it that DeLay did? They can stick DeLay and my old friend Jack Abramoff in the same sentence, or the same paragraph, but what is the point? O.K., DeLay goes on a lot of trips. But it is not criminal or dishonest."
Grover on keeping the big tent happy:
"When you are the governing coalition, you are going to have conflicts-it's inevitable," he said when I asked him about fissures within the Republican coalition. "These guys don't have to sleep together. They don't have to have dinner together. They don't even have to live in the same neighborhoods. They just have to show up on the same day and vote for the same party."
Obviously I don't endorse everything he says, but he certainly knows a fair bit about running Washington...
-- Brad Plumer 2:04 PM || ||

August 23, 2005

Sarcastic Bastards

Sarcasm—what is it good for? Nothing, I say. Okay, not really, but still. These days everyone takes pride in being "sarcastic". Or having a "dry wit". Or even more hilariously, being "cynical". It's a badge of honor, or in some circles, a sign of intelligence. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the barn's getting crowded here. Sarcasm's only funny when it's done well, and as it becomes more and more common, it's less and less likely to be done well. Not only that, but high-quality sarcasm depends on shock and awe for good effect. If everyone's doing it, there's no shock and awe; it just degenerates into an annoying verbal tic.

This can't go on. Irony's okay; I like irony, it can stay and party. My beef's with sarcasm and sarcasm alone. Young people of the world are just going to have to stand up, unite, and figure out some new way to express their bitterness. Seriously.
-- Brad Plumer 11:31 PM || ||
Not Quite the Federalist Papers...

I suppose we'll just have to see what happens with the new Iraqi constitution over the next few days, as the legislature bickers over crossing t's and dotting i's, and getting the darn thing translated from English to Arabic. At this point, though, most commentary will be very tentative, since in the past most political negotiations in Baghdad have followed the same pattern—everyone maximalizing their demands, everything looking hopelessly gridlocked, and then at the last moment they all pull back for a big compromise and group photo op. Maybe that will happen again; maybe not. Right now, it seems that "federalism" still seems to be the big constitutional sticking point. Nathan Brown explains what this oft-bandied word actually means:

The disputed questions would probably even strike a veteran Israeli-Palestinian negotiator as complicated and difficult. How will Iraq be divided into regions and provinces? What will the authority of the various units be? Is the union a voluntary matter or one that is incontestable? What will be the role of regional security forces? Will the units have authority to reach agreements with foreign states and other actors, and, if so, in what areas? How will revenue be divided? What will be the relationship between federal and regional law? How will disputes be settled? Will other areas of the country be able to form units that are as autonomous as the Kurdish region?

I'm not a constitutional lawyer, so I can't make heads or tails of exactly how these issues were specifically resolved in the draft constitution (the text of which isn't even a "proper draft," as Washington Post's Ellen Knickmeyer tells us, but someone's scribbled notes), but apparently the Sunnis on the committee, "who had been shut out of the negotiations for much of the past week," don't like the end result. Meanwhile, the Kurds are thrilled. Spencer Ackerman gets at some of the dynamics involved here: If the Sunnis get locked out of the final draft, they may try to shoot the constitution down in referendum this fall, although Juan Cole and others have noted that they probably don't have the numbers to do it. (Maybe they can link up with Muqtada al-Sadr and other assorted rejectionists and disgruntleds.) What seems clear is that, regardless of what Condoleeza Rice is telling her boss, any constitution that truly angers the Sunnis will lead to a lot of bloodshed down the road: in addition to the diehard rejectionists and Sunni Islamists, even moderate Sunnis may now start aiding and abetting the insurgency.

Perhaps the Shiites aren't worried about all this, because they think that either the United States will stick around to defend them, or that their own militias will protect them against a Sunni onslaught. Ezra Klein says the Sunnis would be stupid to take on the Shiites in Iraq; they'd get trounced. Well, maybe. Then again, maybe not. The insurgency's pretty large and pretty sophisticated, it has plenty of officers experienced in war, and with enough money pouring in from Saudi charities, Sunni warlords could probably purchase a few tanks and other goodies on the open market. Or maybe they can hire out the services of those privatized military firms that are so hot these days. Either way, I wouldn't count the Sunnis out. Plus, whether they can survive an all-out butcher-fest or not seem pretty irrelevant; what matters is whether they're crazy enough to try—and in this case, the answer seems like "yes, they are".

So it's all fucked up. Withdrawal advocates have noted before that if the United States threatened to pull-out, say, right this very second, it might terrify the Shiite leadership into softening some of its constitutional demands, so as not to anger too many Sunnis. Up until now, I haven't been convinced that this was necessary—Ayatollah Sistani's men, at least, have always seemed liked they wanted to bargain. Now, it might be time for brinksmanship. As callous as it seems, at this point the U.S. owes the Shiites absolutely nothing. They owe the people of Iraq a stable state, if one can be produced, and if the Shiite leadership is intent on leading Iraq "into the abyss," as Ackerman puts it, then it's time to stop coddling and protecting them.

Meanwhile, on the question of women's rights, yes, the current constitution—at least what we can decipher of it from the early notepad doodlings—fails miserably. (Except, happily, in Kurdistan, where women's rights will be secure.) Echidne unleashes outrage and fury over this state of affairs far more eloquently than I ever could. Honestly, though, I don't know why people are getting so surprised now. Iraqi women were condemned to second-class status the day Sistani's fundamentalist party took power in January. Not to downplay how bad this all is, but I can't envision any scenario in which the Bush administration actually forced the Shiites to accept a non-Islamist constitution. Hopefully 20 years from now, mainstream Shiite jurisprudence will have evolved to the point where women get treated as equals. Or, since the constitution sets aside 25 percent of its seats for women, perhaps future elections will bring in a majority coalition of urban and secular Iraqis, including women, who have 20th century ideas about gender. Until then, we have what we expected: a fundamentalist American government sanctioned a fundamentalist Iraqi constitution. What a surprise.

So what else can be done, besides threatening to withdraw and hope the Shiites try to appease the Sunnis out of fear? Some observers have pointed out that Iraq might be best served if the parliament dissolved itself and held new elections—Juan Cole finds an az-Zaman report noting that Allawi's more urbane list, along with some Kurds, might try to band with the Sunnis to pursue this option. That seems like an awful idea. It would prolong the occupation even further, and whether or not one thinks that a "stay the course" approach could just barely dodge the "manpower meltdown" bullet that's approaching 36 months from now, it seems wholly unlikely that the US could stay through yet another round of parliamentary elections. Also, it might not change anything. The Shiite and Kurdish militias have an increasingly iron grip on their respective regions, while violence in the Sunni provinces has only worsened since January. My guess: hold another election, and thugs from SCIRI, the Mehdi Army, and the peshmerga would, um, "persuade" people to vote their way, insurgents would intimidate Sunnis from voting, and you'd get essentially the same cast of characters back in power. Perhaps not, but that's my guess. All in all, a real mess.

-- Brad Plumer 11:06 PM || ||
The Saudis Are Still Mysterious

In Al-Ahram, Amr Hamzawy nicely sums up the debate over the future of Saudi Arabia: "The arguments bounce back and forth. Democratic transformation is inevitable given the rise of an educated urban middle class that is increasingly open.... But that same middle class, say detractors, has repeatedly shown how conservative it remains in its thinking. Resistance to demands for political and civil rights cannot withstand the relentlessness of outside pressure. But in the light of successive rises in oil prices, the West has few cards it can play against the Saudi royal family. And on it goes." As he notes, few people over here understand Saudi Arabia—certainly not enough to make any more than the wildest of guesses as to whether, for instance, the ruling elite actually wants to liberalize the country or not—and we could do with better analyses. Hamzawy's is nice start.
-- Brad Plumer 2:09 PM || ||

Literary hoaxes—scorn 'em or love 'em? That's the debate that seems to be making the rounds among an infinitesimally small subset of the already-quite-meager group of people who actually care about this stuff:
In recent years, scholars have begun pursuing a more nuanced approach to discussing literary hoaxes than the knee-jerk disgruntlement of a reader scorned. Instead, literary scholars like Ohio State University professor Brian McHale and the Australian critic K.K. Ruthven are concentrating on the productive and beautifully unpredictable effects of hoaxing. Are all hoaxes the same? Should they all be judged by the same ethical standards? Do some hoaxes rise above being trifling pranks or bogus facsimiles to become serious acts of cultural criticism? What of an author's intentions?
Fair questions! But it seems clear to me that literary hoaxes serve a very wonderful purpose, by offering a reading experience that usually can't be replicated in any other way? If people would enjoy X hypothetical piece of "authentic" literature—thanks, of course, to our irrational preference for authenticity—then it would impoverish the world not to have some hoax artist dream something like X up.

In the 18th century, James Macpherson wrote a series of strange verses and passed them off as epic tales by the third-century poet "Ossian." The poems are more exciting to read if you really believe that a third-century bard wrote them. On their own, they're pretty dull. But in their hoax form, they managed to inspire people as diverse as Napoleon and Goethe—precisely because where else can you get the experience that reading a third-century epic is likely to instill? Nowhere else; that's where. Reality shouldn't set some bounds on aesthetic enjoyment,. Borges' short works would not be half as enjoyable, I think, if we could clearly tell what was fictionalized and what wasn't. On the other hand, if everyone started creating literary hoaxes, the world might go to hell; but then again, we'd probably adjust. How we react to hoaxes probably tells us more about us, about our mores and follies and fascinations, then it does about the hoaxes themselves.
-- Brad Plumer 11:53 AM || ||

As most Iraq-watchers know, Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post consistently puts out some of the best Iraq stories around—including this one the other day about Kurdish and Shiite militias controlling the country. No surprise, then, that his new book, Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War, is truly outstanding. In particular, this bit of historical context seems important for understanding Sunni dynamics:
[M]ore often than not, the Sunni clergy, or ulema, have served as an instrument of government power, legitimizing the status quo even in times of despotism, and currying favor with rulers for financial gain or otherwise. Their subservience has diminished their credibility. In contemporary Egypt, from Gamal Abdel Nasser to the present, the Sunni ulema are notorious for their creative ability to bestow blessings on policies dear to the government: peace with Israel, for instance, or the paying of interest on loans, which was thought expressly forbidden by Islam. They did the same in Iraq under Saddam, lionizing a man who never treated religion as more than a vehicle for his own self-enshrinement or as a path to secure elusive legitimacy. That relationship hurt the reputation of the Sunni clerics: at worst, they were regarded by their people as lackeys; at best, they were seen as impotent functionaries in times to dire for weakness.

Among the most reverent in much of the modern Arab world, this invited a backlash against the Sunni clergy. In response, in recent decades, new generations of devout Sunni Muslims had risen to interpret the Quran for themselves. Although the older clergy was still respected by some, a younger, far more militant, activist contingent was gaining force, with its own reading of religion. And whereas Shiite Islam had a rigid hierarchy and preordained protocol for advancement, Sunni Islam did not; so the new contingent could emerge more assertively and did so brazenly in the 1960s and 1970s. Joining these new militants were laymen—youths who resembled Fahdawi [i.e., an insurgent radicalized by the occupation and killed by American forces] and his colleagues in their ardor—who had taken it upon themselves to define Islam, its message, and its meaning within their own context. They had already made their mark in places like Egypt, where in 1981 Mohammed Abdel-Salam al-Farag, an Egyptian electrician of humble origins, wrote a pamphlet that laid the philosophical justification for the assassination of Anwar Sadat. His argument: Islam, as a religion of revolution, impels its followers to sedition against illegitimate and unfaithful rulers... Now Fahdawi and his men, inspired by the American occupation, were also linking their struggle with the militant aspirations of the larger Arab world.

Like many religious movements in Muslim countries, political Islam was elastic in Iraq, in Khaldiya, and in the homes of Fahdawi and his men. They adopted it to local circumstances, molded it to their own context, but drew from it the symbolism and meaning they desired. For Fahdawi and his colleagues, faith was tailored for resistance against foreign occupation and, through religion, they justified their deaths.
It seems that every two months in Iraq, various members of the clergy offer a plan for entering politics and coming to terms with the rest of the country, and it never seems to go anywhere. I don't expect any different with the latest offer. Shadid's point, if I understand it correctly, explains a lot of this: Clerical groups like the Association of Muslim Scholars may be influential among some older section of the Sunni population, but among many of the younger and more radical Islamists, they may well garner very little respect. And they will likely lose even more of that respect if the olive branch towards the Americans gets extended too far. (Also, as with many other Muslim countries, there is probably the equivalent of a salafiyya movement in Iraq—a group of fundamentalists trying to reform the clergy who nevertheless aren't actually militants.) At times, the oft-chanted mantra that the Sunnis "need to be drawn into the political process" seems almost futile—there may be very few, if any, Sunni leaders, even religious leaders, who can command the allegiance of a somewhat significant part of the population.

Shadid also makes an underappreciated point about the insurgency: the various strands aren't just linked by nationalism and resistance to the occupation, but very crucially by Islam as well: "In the Sunni arc of Iraq, in the vacuum left by Saddam's fall, Islam served to unify and motivate a disparate variety of factions and currents. The result was a hybrid of religion and nationalism. We were witnessing a fusion of two distinct but mutually reinforcing ideologies, sometimes as critical of Saddam as they were of the Americans."

What this all portends, I don't know. Many Sunnis became increasingly radicalized during the latter half of the 1990s, when Saddam Hussein launched his "Enhancement of Islamic Faith" campaign in the region. That process seems to have accelerated during the US occupation, and this younger generation seems to include the folks giving Zarqawi so much native support. There are also a good number of somewhat secular insurgents out there, especially Saddam's former military officers who seem to be causing a great deal of trouble—teaching the rest new military tactics and directing the sabotage—which is why setting up an amnesty for those folks sounds like a good idea.

But even after that's over and done with, there will still remain a broad swath of extremist Sunnis, who are fiercely anti-occupation, sure, but also don't seem too keen on being ruled by Shiites and Kurds and a pliant and aging Sunni clergy. Some Iraqi scholars think that parts of the Sunni region may be just as separatist as the Kurds—despite the fact that they have no oil wealth. These folks probably aren't very well represented by the constitution-writers in Baghdad right now. So I wonder how effective this much-heralded "political solution" can be (which, at any rate, isn't going very well), just as I wonder how much the insurgency will really be "demotivated" by a US withdrawal—perhaps this particular genie can't be stuffed back in the bottle. (That's not an argument against withdrawal, just trying to figure it out...)
-- Brad Plumer 11:50 AM || ||
We're Just the Media!

The New York Times' big series about evolution and creationist design is by turns horrifying and hilarious—hilarious in the sense of "Oh my god they really did run a 'Views on Shape of Earth Differ' article"—but I don't know which word to use to classify this little paragraph:
Together, [the intelligent design hucksters] have mounted a politically savvy challenge to evolution as the bedrock of modern biology, propelling a fringe academic movement onto the front pages and putting Darwin's defenders firmly on the defensive.
Yes, those creationists must have just magically appeared on the front pages, all by themselves!
-- Brad Plumer 11:02 AM || ||

August 22, 2005

Thinking About Doomsday

A few more points about the "withdrawing from Iraq" debate. The post down below went through my various reasons for getting skittish about timetables and the like, but no, none of those points sounded 100 percent convincing, even to me. (Although I do think the idea that pulling out would "embolden terrorists" is profoundly stupid, beyond all measure of space and time.) To be honest, I still go back and forth, and my gut feeling on all of this pretty much echoes hilzoy's apt comment here. Nonetheless, Andrew Bacevich makes a point worth thinking about. How bad, in the cosmic scheme of things, would it be if we left and Iraq ripped itself apart? Bacevich shrugs and says we could survive:
Will a U.S. withdrawal guarantee a happy outcome for the people of Iraq? Of course not. In sowing the seeds of chaos through his ill-advised invasion, Bush made any such guarantee impossible. If one or more of the Iraqi factions chooses civil war, they will have it. Should the Kurds opt for independence, then modern Iraq will cease to exist. No outside power can prevent such an outcome from occurring anymore than an outside power could have denied Americans their own civil war in 1861.

Dismemberment is by no means to be desired and would surely visit even more suffering on the much-abused people of Iraq. But in the long run, the world would likely find ways to adjust to this seemingly unthinkable prospect just as it learned to accommodate the collapse of the Soviet Union, the division of Czechoslovakia and the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

What will pulling out of Iraq mean for the United States? It will certainly not mean losing access to Iraqi oil, which will inevitably find its way to the market. To be sure, bringing the troops home will preclude the Pentagon from establishing permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq -- but the Bush administration has said all along that we don't covet such bases anyway. In addition, withdrawal will put an end to extravagant expectations of using Iraq as a springboard for democratizing the Islamic world -- but that notion never qualified as more than a pipe dream anyway.
So Iraq would see a lot of spilled blood that might get spilled no matter what we do, but other than that, no big deal. Is he right? To me, the doomsday scenario looks something like this: Lebanon-style civil war in Iraq, street-fighting and ethnic cleansing in Kirkuk, pipelines and refineries blown up left and right, Iran and maybe Turkey leaping into the mix, chaos spreading to Saudi Arabia, oil prices up to astronomical levels, global recession, and the groundwork for future regional wars to come. Oh, plus a safe haven and Afghanistan-style bases for a new generation of jihadists planning to strike at America who may or may not have Saddam's old nuclear scientists in their clutches.

Even if it's true that Iraqis are going to butcher Iraqis no matter what we do, the rest of this sounds very bad. Maybe "staying the course" would only accelerate these trends, and that's something to consider. But how do withdrawal folks plan to deal with all of this? Do we beat the straightest, quickest path out of Iraq and just hope that somehow the worst-case scenario never materializes? Another variant on Tom Friedman's "shake the chessboard and see where the pieces fall"? Or is it simply that things are about to get truly awful and there's absolutely nothing the United States can do about it?

UPDATE: Ah, I see Juan Cole's plan for withdrawal thinks about some of these things. Good post on his part.
-- Brad Plumer 1:00 PM || ||

August 19, 2005

The Case Against Withdrawal

Matt Yglesias makes the case for a more-or-less timetable-based withdrawal from Iraq. Now before getting too deep into this discussion, let me say, I do think the U.S. should make it clear that eventually, we plan to leave if and when the Iraqi government wants us to leave, and we won't maintain permanent bases in Iraq. Whether Bush is serious about this or not is a good question. As naive as this sounds, I think he could be convinced, although that's a massive leap of faith. Anyway, here's what we know: Since the spring of 2004, the administration has waged a somewhat more "competent" war in Iraq; nonetheless, the fallout created by mistakes previous has multiplied nearly beyond control. It's a catastrophe. The question now is, stay or go?, and here's the best case I can make against withdrawal, speaking as someone who has never supported Bush or his little war. Here's Yglesias:

Part of the reason I think it would be good to announce a timetable approximately now is precisely that it could be pegged not to arbitrary dates, but to scheduled elements of the political process, namely a constitution and the election of a permanent government.

This part seems wrong on the merits. True, it's almost a cliché by now, but defeating the Iraqi insurgency requires a political, not a military, solution. Everyone knows that. But let's not delude ourselves: some sort of military solution is also needed. As Anthony Cordesman has outlined in pretty painstaking detail, the insurgency has two components, but they aren't the two components people tend to think—i.e., a bunch of foreign extremists and a homegrown and mostly nationalistic insurgency. No, the homegrown wing has both nationalist and extremist parts, and the extremists continue to multiply, and almost certainly won't stop fighting until they are largely defeated. See Kris Alexander for what "defeated" would mean. This can only be done, I think, by bringing the native Iraqi military and police online, and doing it right, which will take time and patience. (Will Saletan's suggestion that the Iraqi security forces will get motivated real quick if the U.S. starts withdrawing and shoves them into action is, sadly, nonsense, and doesn't merit further discussion.)

In the past—again, up until about the spring of 2004—the training process simply wasn't working, and the Iraqi security forces often ran away from conflicts. All in all, a disaster. But since then, under Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. actually seems to have restructured its training efforts pretty successfully. Iraqi police have now pacified Haifa Street, and have at least maintained a presence in Mosul—no small feat, either of them. American troops can withdraw, or at least become less visible, as this process continues, but not before then. Rushing the training component, or doing it poorly—for instance, by stocking the Army only with Shiite militiamen and Kurdish peshmerga fighters—would be a serious mistake. Without competent security, at this point in time Sunni extremists could very easily a) stage a coup in the parts of the military and police force that they have infilitrated, b) assassinate Iraq's leaders, including Ayatollah Sistani, and c) foment civil war by bombing Shiite shrines and the like. Easy. That's not the only way civil war could come about, granted, but I think it's the most likely, and a U.S. presence is necessary to avert this most-likely scenario until Iraqis can handle it themselves. If that point comes next year, fantastic. If not, then not. (And bear in mind, the Iraqi military, even as it gets up and running, will need U.S. logistical support for a good long while.)

As for the political process, Matt makes an important point: If Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds want to fight amongst themselves once the U.S. leaves, nothing in the world can stop them. The U.S. should prepare for this very real possibility. On the other hand, it's not like all sides are so impossibly recalcitrant right now, putting the lie to Yglesias' statement that "[a] s long as we provide them with that safety net, they have no reason to compromise." Some elements of the Shiite coalition, at least, have been willing to make limited concessions to the Sunnis on their own accord. President Jalai Talabani has floated a wide-ranging amnesty for ex-Baathists, and the U.S. should overrule people like anti-amnesty folks like Ahmed Chalabi and encourage Talabani to do so.

As for the constitution: Granted, SCIRI-based Shiites like Abdul-aziz al-Hakim want to break up Iraq and form a Shiite super-province in the south, but in conversation, Andrew Arato has made the case that both Sunni groups and many nationalist and secular Shiites—including, it seems, Ayatollah Sistani—want a unified Iraq. The Kurds, meanwhile, want independence, and it's going to be hard to pressure them to accept anything short of autonomy. All in all, it doesn't look good—some near-intractable problems are at stake here. But unlike Yglesias, I don't entirely see how U.S. troops are "counterproductive to producing a political compromise," which is to say, I don't see all sides somehow becoming more willing to compromise if the U.S. starts drawing down. Again, setting a timetable is different from announcing, repeatedly and forcefully, that we will maintain no long-term presence there—the latter may convince more Sunnis to join the political process. Hopefully. I just don't see how the former will convince Shiites and Kurds to compromise more readily. Deep conflicts don't get resolved simply because the parties involved fear that they might have to go to war. History says otherwise.

More to the point, let's not kid ourselves. If Iraq erupted in full-blown civil war, the U.S. would have to intervene. Our oil addiction demands it. Pretending that we can just leave and wash our hands of the whole mess smacks of naivety. Iraq isn't some insignificant little foothold in the Balkans. I understand that civil war may happen whether the U.S. stays or not. On the other hand, the U.S. will have to micromanage the regional situation whether we start drawing down in 2006 or not. It's a real mess, but it's still real. We don't have much choice. Leaving now, only to be forced to re-invade three or four years down, would be the height of near-sightedness.

So what would I suggest? I'm very much open to persuasion, and much of this involves putting trust in a thoroughly incompetent administration, but my instinct is to go with Cordesman's bevy of small-bore recommendations, including: "Keep reiterating that the US will set no deadlines for withdrawal—or fixed limits on its military effort—and will support Iraq until it is ready to take over the mission and the insurgents are largely defeated." Keep pressure on the government to develop both the proper police forces and governing institutions, which won't likely develop on their own accord. Fix the aid and reconstruction process, which is a nightmare and the one prong of our strategy that continues to founder very badly. Sealing the borders may help, though al-Qaeda seems to be planning to take the fight to Syria next, so sealing the borders up could just accelerate that process. I don't know. Oh, and no more troops will be forthcoming, of course. The U.S. can still "surge" troops for specific needs, by fiddling with the rotation rates or reserves, but a major long-term increase in troops won't happen.

That seems like the rough outline of a realistic "plan," although I obviously can't guarantee it will work, and with this administration, it might be a go-ahead for "more of the same." But, I think, it's more likely to produce stability than pulling out prematurely. Feel free to convince me I'm wrong, because I'd like to be. Though I should also note that, in the event Cordesman's proposal simply can't work, then a withdrawal plus "hoping for the best" actually wouldn't be my second choice; rather, Daniel Byman's bloody-minded "Afghanization" plan for a draw-down seems, horrifically, like the most realistic and "stable" option. Meanwhile, the most important task here at home is to make sure that the crooks and liars who got us into this mess are removed from power as forcefully and quickly as possible. Iraq has been a colossal mistake, the sort the United States must never make again. That part, at least, needs no debate.

UPDATE: For a view along similar lines, see Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey's assessment. Bear in mind, the generals very often get it wrong, but often too, they know what they're talking about, and at the very least, no one can accuse McCaffrey of cheerleadering for this administration.

-- Brad Plumer 3:21 PM || ||

Man oh man, fiery explosion right by the ol' downtown office. Don't think it was a bomb, though, and really, no one down there seems to know what's going on. Oh well. I don't think it would do much good for terrorists to blow up downtown San Francisco, since most of the people around the area seemed to be laughing and having a good time. Not in a "Ha ha, fiery explosions are funny" sort of way, but in a "Eh, what can you do?" sort of way. Deliverymen were kind of pissed off, though.
-- Brad Plumer 2:37 PM || ||

August 17, 2005

Greedy Terrorists

Moviegoers know that the bad guys never run an efficient operation. There's always some double-cross, or embezzlement, or various hijinks that throw a wrench in the gears. They're the bad guys after all, and that's what bad guys do. So much the worse for them. Anyway, in the January issue of Strategic Insights, Jacob Shapiro wrote an interesting paper called "The Greedy Terrorist," which argues that some of the same sort of inefficiencies plague terrorist networks too. (Although, certainly, they're still pretty damn efficient.)

Shapiro points out that, for a given terrorist operation, those most devoted to the cause are more likely to be slotted in the riskiest positions, such as carrying out operations (on the theory that labor is limited, so networks have to place everyone in the riskiest possible positions they'll accept). That means those in "middleman" and logistical positions are often less devoted to the cause, and hence, their own interests may not be entirely aligned with the leaders of the terrorist network. Since terrorist networks, by their nature, operate with fewer checks and balances—for security reasons—the opportunities for graft and embezzlement are ripe. A leader doling out money to some middleman or financier for an operation won't know if all of the money is being used "well" because he can't just get on his cell-phone and check up on everybody every day. (And if the operation fails because the financier was skimming off some money—who will know?) Nor can the leader always punish fraud, because then he runs the risk that shirkers who are punished might go expose the whole network. So there's a huge tradeoff between efficiency and security.

And in fact, embezzlement seems to occur quite often: Hezbollah's fundraiser folks here in the United States, for instance, all drive fancy cars and live in swanky neighborhoods. Not terribly efficient. But why should governments care? Well, Shapiro makes an interesting suggestion: Perhaps counterterrorism agencies shouldn't publicize the freezing of terror funds, since then those financiers and middlemen have to explain the loss of that money to their superiors, which breeds distrust and possibly forces networks to take costly monitoring measures. Alternatively, given that governments tend to punish "middlemen" less than they punish, say, higher-ups or even the people carrying out the bombings (or whatever), that lowers the cost of being a middleman, which means that these spots are more likely to be filled be uncommitted shlubs just looking for a quick buck, who are in turn more likely to skim, graft, and double-cross. I don't know if that's a good policy to pursue actively, but it does create some nice inefficiency!
-- Brad Plumer 5:17 PM || ||
We're All Cave-People Now

Aha, Amanda Schaffer gets in the cage with evolutionary psychology. I don't know enough about the subject to referee this debate, but these all seem like palpable hits:
To begin with, we know very little about the specific adaptive problems faced by our distant forebears. As Buller points out, "We don't even know the number of species in the genus Homo"—our direct ancestors—"let alone details about the lifestyles led by those species." This makes it hard to generate good hypotheses. Some EP-ers have suggested looking to modern-day hunter-gatherers as proxies, studying them for clues about our ancestors. But this doesn't get them far. For instance, in some contemporary African groups, men gather the bulk of the food; in other groups, women do. Which groups are representative of our ancestors? Surely there's a whole lot of guesswork involved when evolutionary psychologists hypothesize about the human brain's supposedly formative years.

In addition, we are probably not psychological fossils. New research suggests that evolutionary change can occur much faster than was previously believed. Natural selection is thought to effect rapid change especially when a species' environment is in flux—precisely the situation in the last 10,000 years as humans learned to farm, domesticate animals, and live in larger communal groups. Crucially, Buller notes, in order for significant change to have occurred in the human mind in the last 10 millennia, evolution need not have built complex brain structures from scratch but simply modified existing ones.

Finally, the central, underlying assumption of EP—that humans have hundreds or thousands of mental problem-solving organs produced by natural selection—is questionable. Many cognitive scientists believe that such modules exist for processing sensory information and for acquiring language. It does not follow, however, that there are a plethora of other ones specifically designed for tasks like detecting cheaters. In fact, considering how much dramatic change our forebears faced, it makes more sense that their problem-solving faculties would have evolved to be flexible in response to their immediate surroundings. (A well-argued book from philosopher Kim Sterelny fleshes out this claim.) Indeed, our mental flexibility, or cortical plasticity, may be evolution's greatest gift.
Very clever! Are they right? No idea. Though I think Schaffer's question about why evolutionary psychology remains so popular among pundits seems a bit naïve. Maybe becuase it offers a splendid little excuse to wave away social problems such as, say, gender inequality in the workplace. Don't bother doing anything about the problem, just note: "But since the dawn of bipedalism, men have always been more competitive!" And then shrug. Now it might be true that men actually evolved to be more competitive and this is some fixed and immutable fact of existence—damned if I know—but it's of course impossible to say how true this really is, and how much it accounts for, say, fewer female executives, and how much owes to real discrimination. Evolutionary appeals in this situation often just amount to a bunch of hand-waving, to avoid having to tackle or think about sexism. But, for reasons that become clear when we consider the behavior of hunter-gatherers on the veldt, humans are naturally prone to hand-waving, and so this technique becomes very popular.
-- Brad Plumer 3:27 PM || ||
Time for a Wall?

Immigration's becoming a hot topic once again. John Derbyshire argues we could completely seal off the border for less than $18 billion, by building an Israeli-style barrier. Well, even assuming illegal immigration is a problem that requires a brick-and-mortar response, would this actually stop people from trying to get in? Wouldn't new smuggling markets simply arise: packing migrants in crates, say, and shipping them from Mexico to the United States? So long as the benefits outweigh the costs—and the benefits of immigrating are very high—I have a hard time thinking you can put more than a finger or two in this particular dike. Maybe, though.

Meanwhile, David Card's study—"Is the New Immigration Really All That Bad?"—answers, "Not really." He does find that the influx of low-skilled immigrants since 1965 have increased the supply of "high-school dropout" labor in various cities. (It's not obvious that this should always be the case: Say a bunch of low-skilled immigrants move to a city, but more and more natives graduate from high school; then the supply of low-skill labor could stay constant or even decline.) On the other hand, he does find that wages for native low-skill workers doesn't really correlate with the supply of workers. So even in those cities where immigrants are flooding the low-skill market, the natives aren't always worse off, for whatever reasons. (One theory: firms in cities with an influx of low-skill immigrants "innovate" to take advantage of the new supply of labor, even in the absence of wage changes.) This pattern has held for awhile now—the gap between dropouts and high-school graduates is roughly the same as it was in 1980.

So that's good news, although I'm not sure whether Card factored the effects of illegal immigration into his calculations (it's difficult to figure out), which may or may not matter. Oh, wait; that's the good news, here's the better news: Immigrants seem to assimilate just fine. Most of the studies on this have tried to measure whether immigrants can come here and then close the wage gap with natives. Card says, no, they don't and usually can't, but that's the wrong question to ask. Look at second-generation sons and daughters of immigrants to measure assimilation—and those kids have, on average, higher education levels and wages than children of natives. Even children of the least-educated origin groups manage to narrow the gap considerably. Granted, it's all well and good for a college graduate living in San Francisco—and working in a field with considerable "protectionist" barriers, no less—to shrug his shoulders at immigration, but Card's study makes things seem less dire than thought, even if this is hardly the last word on the matter (he doesn't touch on, for instance, the cost of public services).
-- Brad Plumer 1:55 PM || ||

August 16, 2005

Blog Has Questions

Okay, here's something I'm experimenting with over at the Mojo blog. Since I get tired of blathering on about topics I don't know a thing about, I may start running a series of daily, or semi-daily Q&As with various experts on various topics in the news. As time permits at work, of course. The first one's up now, with Andrew Arato of the New School, talking Iraq's constitution, and it's pretty interesting, even if it probably needed more pruning (they'll be shorter from now on). He definitely brings up a couple angles I had never really considered before—like the fact that it may be in the best interest of the Sunnis to vote for the new constitution, no matter what it looks like, rather than revert back to the TAL. Anyway, enjoy.
-- Brad Plumer 11:29 PM || ||
War For Sale

In the New York Times Magazine this past weekend, Daniel Bergner had a cover story on the various privatized military firms operating in Iraq these days. Great topic, great article. Unfortunately, he never really delves into one topic I’ve been curious about; namely, how military personnel on the ground feel about these mercenary groups roving around Iraq—we get that old Washington Post story about a group of contractors who were detained by the military, abused, and taunted, but not much else. So who knows? But minor quibble. One of Bergner’s concluding paragraphs hurls down the two-ton question:
[W]hat will happen when the private work in Iraq finally winds down is a more concrete concern. What will happen to these companies, these men, without these thousands of jobs? Some will get contracts protecting U.S. departments and agencies around the world. Some will do the same for other governments. Doug Brooks, whose Washington industry organization, the International Peace Operations Association, represents several of the largest firms, says he believes the United Nations will soon hire the companies to guard refugee camps in war zones.

But some of the firms and some of the men will no doubt be offered work by dictators or terrible insurgencies -- or by the kind of oil speculators who reportedly backed a recent mercenary-led coup plot in Equatorial Guinea (a plot involving former members of Executive Outcomes), in an attempt to install a ruler to facilitate their enterprise. And with so many newly created private soldiers unemployed when the market of Iraq finally crashes, aren't some of them likely to accept such jobs -- the work of mercenaries in the chaotic territories of the earth?
Chaotic indeed. And since the pool of privatized security firms—mercenaries—will only grow and expand as more and more soldiers retire from the military (or shun their relatively meager re-enlistment bonuses in favor of plum contracting jobs), it’s worth thinking about the actual geo-political shifts we may start to see as a result. In the future, for instance, many smaller and weaker nations might no longer be quite so dependent on military aid from the United States. Why get on your knees and grovel for a few Pentagon fighter jets, with all the strings that inevitably come attached, when you can just spend a bit and contract out a MIG-29 fighter unit of your very own—precisely what both Ethiopia and Eritrea did towards the end of their 20-year war. Or imagine that you’re a friendly neighborhood autocrat, you need a strong military, perhaps to put down pesky insurrections or the like, but you don’t want to invite the U.S. or NATO in to train the local army. Just hire some private bodyguards, or a counterinsurgency-training squad (Iraq should breed plenty of those), and you’re good to go.

On the international stage, things get even more complex. Private security firms might end up overturning all those classic 'balance of power' analyses we've all come to depend on for assessing wars. If a given country, with enough money in its piggy-bank, can simply employ these military firms at a moments’ notice, that will make it awfully difficult for other states to figure out just how strong their opponent is. No one could have foreseen Croatia’s stunning victory over Serbia in 1994, for instance, because conventional military analyses would have all overlooked the possibility that Croatia would sign a consulting contract with MPRI, which in turn gave its beleaguered military a much-needed edge. Meanwhile, who's to say that the hired help won't suddenly switch sides at a moment's notice, or be a little less than enthusiastic about dying in battle? Suddenly, war becomes a tad trickier.

But why stop there? It’s also possible that, in the future, state militaries will no longer remain the ultimate locus of power. If, let’s say, a terrorist network or an insurgent group can rustle up enough money, it might be able to contract and employ one of these private security firms—something along the lines of the Executive Outcomes private commando unit used by the Angolan government to beat back the UNITA rebels in 1994—and actually overwhelm weaker states. That EO unit could probably topple most African governments, I’m guessing. A bit of cash and the right contacts, and now you too can conquer your own country, and set up your terrorist camps or whatever it is you like to do. Now I’m just speculating here; I have no idea if private military firms could actually cause this much chaos, but it’s worth mulling over. And oh we haven't even begun discussing the ways in which the White House and Pentagon can employ private military firms to fight minor wars and skirmishes without Congress shoving its nose in where it's not wanted (as the Clinton administration discovered, to its infinite delight, in Colombia). Let the good times roll...
-- Brad Plumer 9:40 AM || ||

August 15, 2005

Why Study Math?

Because it is a truth universally acknowledged that abstract algebra comes in handy when it's time to do your spring cleaning... Well, okay, clearly it's not universally acknowledged. But it should be!
-- Brad Plumer 6:25 PM || ||
Sneaky, Sneaky

Fun with stamps: "Before 1840, when postage stamps were first used in England, the recipient of a letter paid for its postage. And since the cost was often prohibitively expensive, people began placing small marks and symbols on the front of mail. These codes allowed senders to convey a message to the recipient without obliging the recipient to pay for the formal acceptance of the letter. The loss of revenue from the use of these codes was one of the reasons that the British government adopted the system of prepaid stamps that is used almost everywhere now."
-- Brad Plumer 6:09 PM || ||
Arab Street

While researching some stuff this morning, I came across a public opinion poll of the "Arab street" from February, by the Center for Strategic Studies in Jordan, that had more than a few surprising conclusions in it (and some not-so-surprising). I'm not sure if this was plastered all over blog-world way back when—sometimes I miss these things—but a few of the points seem worth dredging back up. Bear in mind the survey was conducted in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Palestinian Territories.

1) Arabs in the survey based their views of the West on fairly flimsy knowledge—fewer than half of respondents believe they have a "good understanding" of culture and society in France, the US, and UK. Most believed that the West professed many positive values, but disapproved of the fact that Western actions don't tend to live up to those values.

2) Cultural disparities between the West and the Arab world aren't seen to be at the core of current tensions. However, Arabs believe that their own societal values contrast with the West. Western societies are associated with individual liberty, democracy, and technological progress, but increased levels of societal problems. The respondents believed their own societies have stronger values of tradition and family. On the other hand, they believe that financial and administrative corruption are more prevalent in Arab societies than in the West.

3) France is viewed far more positively than the US or UK in most of the regions polled (with the exception of Lebanon). Not only that, but respondents tended to characterize France as "promoting democracy and human rights," whereas the US and UK were seen as "promot[ing] their own interests, impos[ing] their wills on other countries" and violating human rights.

4) Al-Jazeerah seems to have no effect on attitudes towards the West: "There was no clear-cut statistical evidence found to support the contention that high levels of viewership of Arab satellite TV broadcasts bears any relation to negative perceptions of foreign policy."

5) The majority of Arabs believe US foreign policy is "unduly influenced by the 'Zionist Lobby'." (And, of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is seen as a fundamental basis for many problems between the Arab world and the US.)

6) There was no particular correlation between firm Islamic beliefs and anti-Western attitudes. "[S]trong adherence to the precepts of Islam was not found to necessarily equate with hostility or negativity toward the West."

7) The survey found considerable support for a more flexible interpretation of Islam.

8) Young people are about "half as likely" to view the US and UK positively as are older generations. Attitudes toward the West improve somewhat with education, but it's still by and large hostile.

9) Respondents seem to understand terrorism differently than, say, the State Department. In particular, "Arabs are inclined to define terrorism more according to the motivations of the combatants rather than by the nature of the act." Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a correlation between the levels of disaffection with the West and this variant definition of terrorism.

#6 seems especially important, I think. Generally speaking, Americans—including both the government and commentators—have a tendency to equate "moderate" Arabs with "pro-Western" Arabs. The Iraqi Shiites should have disabused us of that notion, obviously, but they haven't, necessarily.
-- Brad Plumer 11:56 AM || ||

August 13, 2005

What's Anthony Kennedy Up To?

In the Nation today, Kate Michelman reminds everyone that John G. Roberts, if confirmed, would help the Supreme Court put severe—possibly fatal—curbs on abortion rights, even if his vote alone wouldn't, technically, be enough to overturn Roe v. Wade. In fact, the fate of Roe itself almost becomes moot at this point, especially if Roberts can deliver a crucial conservative swing vote in Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, which will come before the court this fall. I'm not sure Michelman fully explained what's at stake in this case, so the microphone goes to Jack Balkin, who discussed this a few weeks back:
The case is nominally about whether New Hampshire must include a health exception to its parental notification law, but it also involves a technical question of procedure: When challenging a newly passed abortion restriction, is it enough for plaintiffs to show that it imposes an undue burden on some class of women, or must plaintiffs show that the language of the law on its face has virtually no constitutional applications? If the latter rule applies, then almost no new abortion regulations can be halted before they take effect; instead, plaintiffs must make a series of individual challenges to specific aspects of the law that affect them personally. These as-applied challenges will take months or even years before they are finally resolved, and the remainder of the new abortion regulations will be enforceable in the interim.

That means that states could pass very stringent restrictions on abortion and as long as they had some constitutional applications, they would remain on the books for years until a series of successful as-applied challenges eventually knocked away their most blatantly unconstitutional features. That is not the same thing as overturning Roe v. Wade in these states, but its practical effect is very similar.
Roe would be as good as null and void in those states that wanted to pass further restrictions on abortion. And just to be clear: Any Democrat (or Rhode Island Republican) that votes for Roberts has pretty clearly had a hand in this.

Of course, and this is something I've wondered for awhile now, Anthony Kennedy could always surprise everyone and swing to the left in Ayotte, as well as in other, similar cases, which would preserve the Court's 5-4 majority against restrictions on abortion rights. (He's previously favored such restrictions, though he also supports Roe.) Perhaps, after all, Kennedy's getting a wee bit exasperated at all the right-wingers hurling Stalinist death threats his way—"No man, no problem"—at their annual pep rallies. Or perhaps he just wants to be the guy who saved abortion rights, even if he does have to flip-flop to do it. A while back, a Vanity Fair article on Bush v. Gore and the 2000 election, which made fabulous use of interviews with law clerks, noted that Kennedy was "known to relish the pomp and circumstance of the Supreme Court and his own, often crucial role in close cases." Well, now, a Kennedy reversal on abortion-restrictions—a reversal that boldly tumbled aside the Court's frantic charge to stampede Roe— could be just the sort of thing to get Kennedy's blood rushing, no? "Crucial role" indeed. So I wonder. On the other hand, the same Vanity Fair article had this cryptic and ominous paragraph:
[Conservatives] had never forgiven [Kennedy] for his votes to uphold abortion and gay rights, and doubted both his intelligence and his commitment to the cause. Convinced he'd strayed on abortion under the pernicious influence of a liberal law clerk—a former student of the notoriously liberal Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School, who was representing Gore in this case—they took steps to prevent any re-occurrences. Applicants for Kennedy clerkships were now screened by a panel of right-wing stalwarts. 'The premise is that he can't think by himself, and that he can be manipulated by someone in his second year of law school," one liberal clerk explains. In 2000, as in most years, that system surrounded Kennedy with true believers, all belonging to the Federalist Society, the farm team of the legal right. "He had four very conservative, Federalist Society white guys, and if you look at the portraits of law clerks on his wall, that's true 9 times out of 10," another liberal law clerk recalls. "They were by far the least diverse group of clerks."
So maybe Kennedy's not the great white hope after all, and Roe is effectively finished. (By the way: what the fuck? What "panel of right-wing stalwarts" is "screen[ing]" applicants for Kennedy clerkships? Could this be true? So much for the independent Supreme Court...?) But then again, those white-wingers clerking for Kennedy obviously steered him into his man-on-dog vote in Lawrence vs. Texas two years back, so one can never really tell when the man's going to pop off and lurch leftwards. Or maybe he's just not as dependent on his clerks as people think. Ay, most of this is wishful thinking, no doubt, but worth considering...
-- Brad Plumer 12:00 AM || ||

August 12, 2005

Scientific Illiteracy

More naïve, boyhood-era delusions lanced by scientific reality. Hopefully this doesn't become a recurring feature around these parts! From Dawkins' Ancestor's Tale: "It bears repeating that the DNA molecules of long dead animal are not themselves preserved... The plot of Jurassic Park, though not silly, falls foul of practical facts. Conceivably, for a short while after becoming embalmed in amber, a bloodsucking insect could have contained the instructions needed to reconstruct a dinosaur. But unfortunately, after an organism is dead, the DNA in its body, and in the blood it has sucked, doesn't survive longer than a few years." Well, no sense prentending otherwise: I, sadly enough, had genuinely believed we'd see the revival of dinosaurs someday... But oy, what's with this 'though not silly, falls foul of practical facts' bit? Are we now raising the threshold for 'silly'?
-- Brad Plumer 11:00 PM || ||