30 September, 2009

W.T.F.-a taste of home

I was slightly amused but disappointed that the link to the blog of unfortunate corporate slogans isn't working anymore.

26 September, 2009

We are doomed, cont'd

According to the National Journal (h/t Greenwald), a group of "congressional and political insiders" asked to rank the writers or commentators that most shape their own worldview listed as their top three:

1. Tom Friedman
2. David Brooks
3. Charles Krauthammer

Jesus Christ. Just in case you've forgotten, here's a sample of what passes for insightful commentary in the fairy tale world of the above commentariat:

God save us all - you gotta give Cheney credit at least for not seriously contemplating "hitting Pakistan".

25 September, 2009

An Iran bombshell

In an announcement that is closely tied to the sanctions debate, this morning Western leaders called a hasty press conference to announce that they had indisputable intelligence of a secret Iranian nuclear site. Obama, Brown, Sarkozy all stood together, with Merkel offering her support and the Russians also condemning the revelation. This proof of deception, coupled with a strong show of unity by many of the major players, should further put Tehran on the defensive before the start of the presidential-level negotiations.

Marc Lynch's take at Foreign Policy is here: "The public disclosure puts Iran on the back foot ahead of those talks, and appears to have encouraged Russia to more seriously consider supporting such sanctions (that, plus the missile defense decision probably). This has to change Iranian calculations -- indeed, the perception that the sanctions are now more likely is precisely what may lead the Iranians to make more concessions to avoid them."

Iran expert Gary Sick thinks that this is a move that will make war less likely, and a negotiated settlement more.

But I think the best round up of how we got here comes from the Daily Dish:

And so you see the Obama mojo again. Look at the moves of the last month. He scraps the missile defense in Eastern Europe, pleasing Russia, and moves the focus of defense to the Mediterranean, pleasing Israel.

He pwns Ahmadinejad at the UN by being the first president of the US to preside over the resolution to enforce nuclear non-proliferation.

He corrals the rhetorical support of the developing world, isolating Tehran still further. He hangs back a little and allows Brown and Sarkozy to do the heavy hitting on NoKo and Iran this past week, again revealing that the desire to curtail Ahmadinejad's nukes is not only an American project.

And then, this morning ... kapow!

He busts Ahmadinejad in a air-tight case that focuses on active Iranian deception. All this, of course, may still not be enough. Putin's position remains opaque; and China is still not on the full wagon. But can anyone say that the isolation of Iran has weakened under Obama?

If you add to the mix the critical factor of the Green Revolution, then the West's position vis-a-vis Iran has improved immensely in the last eight months. And if you believe that Obama's Cairo speech was at least a positive factor in helping bring that about - then the promise of the Obama era in American foreign policy begins to take shape.

24 September, 2009


I was set off this evening by a prolonged discussion on US economic sanctions on Iran. Now my knowledge of the intricacies of a sanction policy is minimal. I have a broad idea of the intended effects and reasons for their being imposed in the first place.

I'm wondering what some of my learned colleagues have to say about the matter.

From what I can tell, they are not having the regime-changing effect they were intended to have. The economic sanctions are meant (in my mind), to influence the rulers of a country toward certain actions by holding out to them that it will harm their position if they don't comply. Their people, we are meant to see, will so vociferously assail their leaders to bend and accept change that they will have no choice. Or at least that's a possible scenario.

On the other hand, what seems to be happening in Iran is that Ahmadinejad and others are using the sanctions as an example of how the US is meddling and imposing its imperialistic will on them, while simultaneously the sanctions affect not the ruling class, but cause economic stress to those already most strapped within Iranian society.

Please, clarify for me if I'm drawing unfair or improper inferences.

23 September, 2009

We are doomed

If this isn't a sign of the apocalypse I don't know what is:

Smoot-Hawley it aint

James Fallows is a great source for all things China-related (and airplane-related, but mostly China), and I should link to him more. Here's his take on the recent spat over US tariffs on Chinese tires. Basically, chill out:

There is too much going on, on too many other fronts, involving affairs of incomparably greater consequence between China and America, for this to have been more than a contained, specific dispute -- contained in both duration and sweep. This was clear at the time and should have buffered the shock-horror tone of the stories. Why this matters: because of the boy-who-cried-wolf principle. There are issues between China and the outside world in which a small disagreement could spiral into a very dangerous confrontation. Many of these involve Taiwan, for reasons to be spelled out another time. But tire tariffs, agree with them or not, were never going to set off a global economic confrontation.

As usual, "The Economist" is the primary offender. (Fallows' old but tremendously entertaining takedown of "The Economist" is here.)

News from the 64th UN General Assembly

  • Obama delivered a 41 minute speech to the General Assembly, which, in stark contrast to his predecessor, drew repeated applause. The overarching theme was a cliche (though not unimportant) call for renewed multilateralism. More interesting were Obama's stated priorities for the US and the world: nuclear non-proliferation, resolution of Middle Eastern conflicts, a coordinated response to disasters such as Darfur, and concrete action on global climate change.
  • Obama met with Russian President Medvedev; the Russians are apparently signaling that they are willing to reverse their position on Iran sanctions.
  • Obama antes up on his administration's no-settlement push; the quoted response of Israel's Foreign Minister is strikingly sanguine. Is Netanyahu resigned to making the tough choice on settlements, or are they hoping to string Obama along for as long as possible but stop short of an actual change in policy? I'm going with the latter.
  • The crisis in Honduras hits the UN, with the Honduran coup government remaining internationally isolated after deposed president Zelaya surreptitiously returned to the country several days ago. He's currently holed up in the Brazilian embassy, and the coup leaders are in a tight spot. Violating Brazilian territorial integrity by storming the embassy would be a disaster; but with Zelaya there rallying supporters, the situation is growing more unstable by the minute. They will be forced to negotiate from a weakened position, exactly what they were trying to avoid by keeping Zelaya out of the country. I don't think its an exaggeration to say this is a seminal moment for Latin American democracy. Militaries and radical opposition groups around the continent will be watching to see how much the US, OAS, and UN let Michiletti get away with.

19 September, 2009

Right decision, wrong way?

In Fareed Zakaria's newest column, the self-styled realist par excellence agrees with me: "By canceling plans to station antiballistic-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Re-public, President Obama has traded fantasy for reality."

However, he also thinks that Obama botched the execution, and needlessly pissed off our Polish and Czech allies. I'm sympathetic to that charge, especially since the administration's execution has seemed a bit off on a number of occasions. (Think Clinton's "reset button" fiasco.) Zakaria cites the fact that the administration announced its decision on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, which is admittedly a bit of a douche in the face, in the technical jargon of foreign policy wonks.

But when Zakaria says that "the Obama administration did the right thing for the right reasons, in the wrong way. It needs to fix the fallout and move on" he's overstating the case. Yes, the administration should have put this announcement off to a less symbolic date. But even if it had, I don't see the Polish and Czech leadership being any less pissed off. The crux of the matter is that those leaders spent a lot of their political capital pushing this ill-advised missile defense on their citizenry, which was and remains very skeptical of the idea. An American president going back on Bush's unfortunate assurance was going to be deeply embarrassing to the Eastern European leadership no matter how soft the pitch.

Now, that's not to apologize too much for Obama's early tone-deafness. This could have been smoother, and I think the administration has to recognize that and will go out of its way to provide other kinds of assurances to the Eastern Europeans. But in general, this dissonance is an inevitable product of Bush having made an unsustainable promise that had to be walked back, and only in a very minor way the product of how Obama has handled it.

17 September, 2009

Ah sweet realism

Good news today regarding the Obama administration's desire to move to a more realist, interest-based foreign policy rather than one of faux-moralistic neoconservative sabre-rattling. Obama, backed by SecDef Gates and apparent unanimous approval of the Joint Chiefs, has decided to stop a long-range ballistic missile defense program whose ostensible purpose would have been to shield Europe from missiles from Iran.

However, given Iran's decreasing interest in long-range missiles, more likely focus on the Middle East rather than Europe, the lack of evidence that the shield would actually work, and the fact that it wouldn't be deployed until 2018, its been obvious for a while that the true purpose of the shield was quite different. Since the shield would have been based in Eastern Europe, those ex-Soviet satellite states saw it as a way of committing the US to their defense in the case of further Russian imposition into their internal affairs. It makes sense why Poland and others would want us to do that, but its much less clear why we would want to do that. We need to be able to work with Russia on some of the most important issues of the moment - two primary ones being a coordinated policy against Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs.

Neoconservatives have been very, very bad about making cost-benefit analyses in the realm of foreign affairs, and this is another example. Pissing Russia off to make a self-righteous statement about its interference in Eastern Europe is a large cost. And its benefit - maintaining our strong relationship with set of medium-important allies and providing deterrence against an Iranian offensive - can be gotten in other ways. In fact, the alternative missile shield being proposed will do the latter better, sooner, and cheaper, by focusing on the short- and medium- range missiles that Iran is actually producing and stationing the defense much closer to Iran itself, in Turkey and the Balkans.

Obama's decision is just the kind of sober, considered, responsible and delicately-calibered judgment that know-nothing Republicans love to demagogue to the detriment of our national security.

16 September, 2009

I couldn't have said it better myself

Max Baucus' stunning admission here.

14 September, 2009

One more point on torture

In Sullivan' essay mentioned below, he describes the torture-through-prolonged-sleep-deprivation of Mohammed al-Qahtani this way:

During Qahtani’s interrogations, his refusal to drink and many days of sleep deprivation brought his heartbeat down to dangerously low levels; but even after he was urgently hospitalized for a day for dehydration to prevent his death, sleep deprivation continued—and was continuously used even as he physically deteriorated. An early FBI review of the interrogation of Qahtani found that the cumulative treatment led him to exhibit “behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma (talking to non-existent people, reportedly hearing voices, crouching in a corner of the cell covered with a sheet for hours on end).” If you believe “extreme psychological trauma” is the same as “severe mental suffering,” then [Bush] ordered the prolonged and brutal torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani.

Now, there are several arguments to be made against torture, which I would think fall into three main categories: legal, moral, and practical. The first is pretty straightforward: does this kind of treatment of prisoners violate our domestic laws and international obligations? The answer is straightforward as well: yes, clearly.

The moral argument is less clear-cut, but anyone wanting to argue that treating a human being in the above fashion is ethically despicable probably has a pretty good case. One of the moral foundations of Western civilization is supposed to be respect for the integrity of human persons, no matter how guilty, and I can't think of an act that more thoroughly debases the very self of a person than does torture.

But what strikes me about the above passage is the practicality element. The argument that torture is not practical has two versions that I see: first, that torture produces a certain amount of quality intelligence that could not be attained through traditional means, but that benefit is outweighed by the deleterious effects of that torture on our credibility and soft power; second, that torture actually produces no intelligence that could not be otherwise obtained and in many cases actually produces lower quality intelligence through false confessions and general incoherence.

The passage above really does violence to the first version, the idea that torture does produce anything of value. By the end of the interrogation, al-Qahtani is talking to non-existent people, hearing voices, and otherwise hallucinating. What kind of intelligence does any one seriously expect a man in that state to provide? Who can read that and seriously think that any tiny needle of true and coherent information that might emerge from that mess would be worth the effort required to dig through the haystack of delerious ramblings of a man driven mad? No wonder the professionals are dismissive.

Not letting torture recede away

Several items worth a read on the torture issue. First, FBI interrogator Ali Soufan - the agent whose legal, traditional interrogation of Abu Zubaydah gave us everything worth knowing that we got from him, and who courageously fought the decision to transfer him to the CIA's torture-interrogation - took to the pages of the New York Times again last week:

PUBLIC bravado aside, the defenders of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques are fast running out of classified documents to hide behind. The three that were released recently by the C.I.A. — the 2004 report by the inspector general and two memos from 2004 and 2005 on intelligence gained from detainees — fail to show that the techniques stopped even a single imminent threat of terrorism...

They show that substantial intelligence was gained from pocket litter (materials found on detainees when they were captured), from playing detainees against one another and from detainees freely giving up information that they assumed their questioners already knew. A computer seized in March 2003 from a Qaeda operative for example, listed names of Qaeda members and money they were to receive.

Soufan ends by arguing that "the professionals in the field are relieved that an ineffective, unreliable, unnecessary and destructive program — one that may have given Al Qaeda a second wind and damaged our country’s reputation — is finished."

And second, over at the Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan is grinding his long-ground and thus extremely sharp axe with a new twist: an open letter to George W. Bush calling on him to publicly renounce his administration's approach to interrogation. His conceit is to vigrously affirm Bush's good faith and appeal to that side of him that may feel that he was misled or pressured by his lawyers, advisers, and vice-president. Will he read it, and if he does, will it move him? Certainly not - but Sullivan does the rest of us a great service by putting the long story of our descent into a torture state into a single, accesible narrative essay, and aggregating all of the publicly-available evidence - memos, testimony, etc - in one spot.

07 September, 2009

Political parties and democracy

Cassady's comments on my previous post opens a bit of a can of worms, so I wanted to explain a bit more in depth what I'm talking about. So sorry for the political sciencey-ness ahead of time. Parties are often maligned along much the same lines that Cassady expresses: that they put the interests of a national entity ahead of the local constituents, and that parties' attempts at internal discipline are draconian attempts to squash the local "will of the people".

We have to be careful when using phrases like "will of the people". The people don't have a single will; as he points out, they have a very fractured set of opinions that overlap in various and often contradictory ways. That is why representative democracy chooses surrogates, as it were, to do the governing in the name of the people. Most people don't follow, understand, or care about the broad swath of particular policy choices. They care very deeply about several, perhaps, and have vague opinions on the others that could be swayed by a charismatic pol or the success of a program they thought would fail.

That fundamental fact - the vagueness of the "will of the people" - is why no modern democracy functions without political parties to simplify or distill, as it were, the essence of a governing philosophy or approach. The exact ways that parties work depends mostly on two factors: the type of legislature (presidential v parliamentary) and the number of parties in the system (a two-party system or a more-than-two-party-system - leaving aside the decidely undemocratic one party systems.) Political scientists have all sorts of debates about why a polity (a jargon word for a political community) evolves a certain number of parties, but its enough to know how they work once established.

In a poly-party system, parties work a bit more along the lines that Cassady likes: they are smaller, more focused on a particular issue or set of issues, and thus more responsive to smaller changes in the will of the electorate, or in their particular slice of the electorate. Usually there are several major parties - like Labor (and now Kadima) and Likud on the left and right in Israel - that can't by themselves form a governing majority, and which must thus form coalitions with a constellation of smaller, usually more radical or single-issue parties. If this kind of arrangment happens in a parliamentary system, which it usually does, then there is a built-in incentive for party, as well as coalition discipline: if the ruling coalition loses a major vote in parliament, then the parliament must immediately call new elections to form a new coalition - the point being, that if a coalition can't pass major legislation, then they have no right being the ruling coalition. Since the least favorite thing for politicians is to risk losing their seat sooner rather than later, there is a strong incentive for the coalition to avoid becoming deadlocked, and for painful compromise to occur.

But in a presidential, two party system such as ours, things are much different. (There are other parties, but they don't hold actual seats in the legislature. "Independent" doesn't count because its not an actual party that can raise money, mobilize voters, develop a platform, etc.) In these systems, parties are almost always competing for the "middle", since they have the extremes of left and right more or less locked down. This is in contrast to multi-party coalitions, which actually end up responding more to the extremes, because the centrist parties need the support of minority parties to govern. To go back to Israel, in the recent elections the centrist Kadima party won the most total votes, but they were not able to form a governing coalition under would-be Prime Minister Tzipi Livni. The chance then passed to right-wing Likud, which was able to gain a majority largely by allying with the far, far right Yisrael Beiteinu party and making its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's Foreign Minister. Thus, to wield power, Likud has to pander to the most extreme elements in its coalition. In our two party system, the far left has no place to go, and so the real action happens at the "center": what will Max Baucus and Kent Conrad do? Can we lure Olympia Snowe to vote against her party again, as she did on the stimulus?

I make that point because Cassady mentioned that party discipline would lead to wild swings between left and right. But in a two party system, its very rare to see those swings because legislation is passed by bringing the centrists on board, and they aren't usually in the mood for wild swings.

Another point he made is that disciplining members that fail to get behind the party line is a betrayal of their local constituents. First of all, local constituents didn't just vote for a random person, they voted for a person who represented a political party and its platform - a person who was likely recruited, often trained, funded and supported with volunteers and campaign materials by a political party to advance its agenda. The local constituents also chose the party and the party invested in those constituents.

But I think its more illustrative to flip that complaint on its head. Instead of seeing it as an individual politician who is being coerced into abandoning his constituents wishes (if that is even what is going on), its just as valid to see it as a tiny minority of politicians betraying the agenda that was robustly chosen by a majority of the American people. Why does Cassady - and many others - consider it the "will of the people" for a man like Max Baucus, who represents less than a million people, to face no consequences for thumbing his nose at a suite of reforms that was heartily approved in November by almost 70 million people, and more than 10 million more people than voted for his ideological opponent?

In other words, discipline is so important because without it, the will of the majority of the people that voted for a particular party is held hostage to the whims of several politicians representing a tiny minority of the electorate. Because so many votes - especially very important votes representing the core elements of a party's platform - are decided in a narrow window of maybe five or ten votes (in the Senate), if a party doesn't have some sort of levers to reward or punish its ideological outliers, the agenda will be de facto decided by a handful of the least representative politicians.

This would be true even if you had a relatively rational way of organizing your legislature. The Senate, however, is set up to amplify this problem, with its wildly disproportionate representation and its labyrinthine committee system that allows all sorts of random Senators to veto important legislation for no reason whatsoever. Added to that is the filibuster, which we have decided requires a supermajority for the passage of important legislation. Added to that is a two-house legislature and all the replicated committees. And added to that is an imbalance of discipline - the Republicans are an extremely disciplined party with painful consequences for those who step out of line on important issues. Unless the Democrats make some changes to increase discipline - to the Senate rules, to their internal rules, or hopefully both - the "will of the people" will continue to be undermined by the ability of a tiny minority to dictate the course of policy.

A good first step would be the abolition of the Senate - or perhaps simply its relegation to a purely ceremonial status.

Fired up, ready to go

Where has this Obama been of late? This is some real campaign-style, rally the troops shit:

Fun with health care wonkery

In honor of the news that Max Baucus has finally released his plan for the Senate Finance Committee's version of a health reform bill, I present some interesting and edifying links to health care wonkery, via Frontline. (h/t TPM)

  • First, the Four Basic Models of health care delivery. Every country in the world has one of these, or a mixture of these. Fun Fact! Quintessential badass Otto von Bismarck invented the welfare state as a nation-building mechanism.
  • Next, a side-by-side comparison of the health care systems of five capitalist democracies: Germany, the UK, Japan, Taiwan, and Switzerland.
  • Finally, a series of graphs comparing health statistics of the US and other industrial democracies: health care as % of GDP, life expectancy, infant mortality, and prevalence of high-end technology. (Hint: Japan wins big on this one)
I also liked Frontline's description of the convoluted mishmash of health care delivery systems that is the United States:

These four models should be fairly easy for Americans to understand because we have elements of all of them in our fragmented national health care apparatus. When it comes to treating veterans, we're Britain or Cuba. For Americans over the age of 65 on Medicare, we're Canada. For working Americans who get insurance on the job, we're Germany.

For the 15 percent of the population who have no health insurance, the United States is Cambodia or Burkina Faso or rural India, with access to a doctor available if you can pay the bill out-of-pocket at the time of treatment or if you're sick enough to be admitted to the emergency ward at the public hospital.

The United States is unlike every other country because it maintains so many separate systems for separate classes of people. All the other countries have settled on one model for everybody. This is much simpler than the U.S. system; it's fairer and cheaper, too.

A whole new meaning for "American exceptionalism"...exceptionally cruel and inefficient.

03 September, 2009

Cameron Todd Willingham and the death penalty

There's a lot of talk (h/t Ta-Nehisi) about David Grann's new piece in the New Yorker. It's the story of Death Row convict Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of triple homicide and arson on the flimsiest of evidence and was put to death before the facts could be set straight. Its an intense and arresting piece of journalism, and anti-death penalty in both an immediate, emotional way and through a more systematic exposure of the flaws inherent in the process. I didn't know this, but apparently while it has often been suspected that innocent people have been killed, it has never been officially established that the state in fact executed a "legally and factually innocent person". Grann thinks this might be the first case in the history of the United States, which Sandra Day O'Connor has claimed would be a "constitutionally intolerable event." The implication being that Willingham's case, if definitively and legally proven to have been the execution of an innocent man, could essentially force the Supreme Court to accept the unconstitutionality of the death penalty.

Which would be a great thing. It seems clear that it makes little sense as policy (the article reveals that, due to increased appeals and other legal fees, executing a man costs the state three times as much as imprisoning him for life) and can only be justified by a sort of communal blood lust - an emotional need for harsh revenge that is, I think, not inappropriate to harbor but which should be tamped down, rather than indulged, by our justice system. Even Barack Obama, in the video Ta-Nehisi shows at the link above, does not try to justify the death penalty (which, to his discredit, he supports) through statistics about deterrence or the like. Instead, he appeals to a vague but powerful notion of upholding communal values - of drawing a sort of bloody line in the sand as a political community that certain acts of transgression will simply be met with death.

But that sort of language seems like its made for people who want to feel morally upright but don't want to look the implications of that righteous indignation in the face. I'm surprised that someone like Obama - who was so intimately exposed to the way that the justice system works against people who can't afford decent lawyers and thus can't master the maze of bureaucratic bullshit that the wealthy and the connected manipulate to their benefit - doesn't recognize the gross injustice that the death penalty represents even for the truly guilty. As Ta-Nehisi puts it so well:

I think there's this presumption that people who are anti-death penalty get there out of some sympathy for criminals, or some wide-eye naivete. Maybe some people get there that way. I came up in an era where young boys thought nothing of killing each other over cheap Starter jackets. I don't have any illusions about the criminal mind. I don't believe in the essential goodness of man--which is exactly why I oppose the death penalty.

Exactly. While I don't want to put words in his mouth, I take that last line to mean that the justice system, while set up to try to be fair, is populated by shockingly imperfect and often venal, lazy, and vicious people. Which is most of us. And we should be honest with ourselves and recognize that if we are to be okay with the death penalty, that means being okay with a system that regularly executes innocent people, and regularly executes people that wouldn't have been executed had they made more money, or had fewer tatoos, or not had death metal posters on their wall (seriously - this was used to sway Willingham's jury). But let's not kid ourselves that its justice.

02 September, 2009

I can't wait to erase MY past!

Came across this little tidbit and had a good laugh.

Then I got to thinking, since I am rapidly approaching the age where (apparently) my past actions and statements apply to me, ought I to start watching my butt a little closer? Heading off to grad school, I now plan to formulate my thesis around the most inflammatory body of critical literature I can find, enter politics, and then protest that my thinking when I wrote my thesis was purely an "academic excercise." Perhaps that's the key to glossing over any past mistake, play it off that you were simply playing devil's advocate for the sake of the argument!

In other news, I'm glad all those videos of me will no longer apply once I reach 25!