Saturday, April 06, 2002

New York City>

EVERY TIME I COME BACK to NYC (my hometown!) I'm struck with how appropriate a target it was for the evil of al-Qaida. The city is diverse, lively, dynamic, fast-paced and fun as shit. No contrast with the static deadness of fundamentalist fantasies could be starker than Greenwich Village on a late weekend night. It's just an incredible place (despite a serious lack of doe-eyed virgins) and it'll be here still, never sleeping, 'till long after Osama's rotting in hell.

New York City>

JOSH MARSHALL'S LATEST POST on a complicated and sordid deal involving foreign campaign contributions is both interesting in its own right and also solid proof that the blog medium doesn't preclude serious "hard" reporting.

New York City>

IT OCCURED TO ME TODAY TO ASK "where are the Arab opposition groups?" Why is it that in almost every Arab country you look at -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Palestine -- the only opposition to the ruling monarchical kleptocracy in the area is an Islamic extremist group that seems even less palatable than the folks currently in charge.

Elsewhere in the world -- Iran, China, Burma, Zimbabwe -- wherever one finds repression one also finds some significant group of people fighting to build a free, democratic, secular, market-oriented society -- why not the Arab world? It's not something about the Arabs per se because the Iraqi National Congress (INC) is an opposition group of the sort I'm looking for.

I can think of a few possible reasons why I don't know of any decent oppositionists elsewhere in the Arab world. First off, there might be some, but I just don't know much about them. It's my feeling that if this is the case, then I'm hardly alone in my ignorance, so if you know of any, please let me know and help spread the world.

The second possibility (and the one that I fear is correct) is that the influence of oil companies on American policy lo these past fifty years has made America so reluctant to support even democratic opposition to the regimes of the Middle East that any young US-admirers in the region quickly became dissilusioned, leaving the field to fanatics. Iraq would be an exception on this point for the obvious reason that that's the only country in which we give any measure of support (even rhetorical support) for democratic change.

A third possibility is that Arabs really are culturally or temperamentally undemocratic and that it's only the beneficent influence of the Kurds that have created the Iraqi opposition we know and love (as a sidelight here it occurs to me to mention that the Iraqi opposition, while infinitely preferable to Saddam and all the other groups in the region isn't really all that it's sometimes cracked up to be by it's supporters).

What does all this mean? I don't really know. Going around and sponsoring the overthrow of all kinds of countries in the area doesn't sound very practical to me. As a start, though, I think it would be nice for the President to just speak out and say that he thinks the people of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, Bahrain, etc. should get a chance to elect their leaders and that Islamic law should not be the law of the state even in a state most of whose inhabitants are Islamic. The we could just wait and see what the reaction would be.

It seems to me that America's weird disregard for the quality of the lives of the people in all the Arab states that do exist probably underlies at least as much anti-Americanism as our lack of support for Arafat. Maybe I'm wrong -- maybe no good would come of it -- but clearly whatever we've been doing for the past four or five decades hasn't worked very well.

Friday, April 05, 2002

Cambridge, MA>

BY POPULAR DEMAND THIS site will now feature larger fonts for your reading pleasure!

Cambridge, MA>

JOHN COLE IS FUMING ABOUT the Consumer Broadband and Digitial Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA) and advertising this link that will let you e-submit your thoughts on the subject to Congress.

I know it's the 21st century and people (especially the tech-savvy people who care about CBDTPA) like to use e-mail, but speaking from experience working in a Senate office, e-mail is absolutely the worst way to influence your Senator's opinion. If you want to change someone's vote call. And write a snail mail letter. Write one of your own -- don't just print out and sign a form letter. It would help if you hand wrote the letter -- neatly.

The main thing the Senator's staff will be trying to figure out is how much you care about the issue. The easiest way to show that you care a lot is to do something that requires a lot of effort. Clicking a link is easy, ergo it impresses no one.

Cambridge, MA>

SO YOU KNOW HOW THE THING you're supposed to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that there "no military solution" to the terrorism problem? Well, it occurs to me that though Israel's recent actions may well have "inflamed tensions" and "deepened Arab rage" or whatever, they've also halted the wave of suicide bombings that was making life in Israel intolerable.

Thursday, April 04, 2002

Cambridge, MA>

THERE'S SOME CONTROVERSY OUT THERE as to whether Bush is or is not going wobbly on Arafat and, by extension, the entire war on terror.

I would argue that the answer is neither because in a very deep sense there simply is no George W. Bush in the White House. During the campaign, conservatives tended to downplay Bush's legendary intellectual laziness and ignorance of things that relate neither to baseball nor to Texas. In many ways, I think they were right to do so -- the policy differences between Bush and Gore, between the Democratic and Republican parties, were sufficiently sharp that there was no real reason to base your vote on the personal characteristics of the candidates. If you wanted a big tax cut, Bush was clearly your man, dumb or not.

The result, however, of Bush's "laid back" management style has been that a great deal of responsibility has been devolved to his subordinates. This is fine most of the time. In fact, pre-September 11 when the administration was pushing a number of more-or-less discrete policy initiatives (tax cuts, an education bill, some regulatory reforms, a missile defense shield) as it gave greater discipline to the way in which each individual initiative was pursued.

It continued to work well during the first stage of the Afghan War because there was a remarkable consensus across the American political spectrum -- reaching well into the Feingold-Wellstone wing of the Democratic Party -- about the desirability of using judicious quantities of military force combined with Northern Alliance forces to eliminate the Taliban.

Since that time, however, things have become more murky and the administration has started to sound incoherent because no one inside the administration has the necessary knowledge, confidence, and authority to impose a single view. In this, Bush's personal qualities are exacerbated by the fact that his administration lacks a strong Chief of Staff of the sort that one can see in The West Wing or the Nixon-Ford-Carter administrations (of course, given the catastrophic nature of American governance between 1969-1981, the passing of the strong Chief of Staff is hardly to be regretted).

To get a sense of how much this administration lacks a strong center, consider the fact that you probably recognize the name of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Do you have any idea who Clinton's Deputy Defense Secretary was? Of course not. Can you even name all three of Clinton's Defense Secretaries? How much can you tell me about the disagreements between Madelein Albright and Bill Cohen? Warren Christopher and Les Aspin? Nothing, right? Because when Clinton did some, for better or for worse, Clinton did it. Even a casual watcher of the Bush administration can detect which moves bare the stamp of Rove (steel tarrifs), Hughes (axis of evil), Powell ("consulting" with allies), or Rumsfeld (letting the daisy cutters do the talking).

The result of all this is that when Bush makes a statement that's primarily a job for Hughes and the speachwriting team we get lots of tough talk both because she probably believes in it and also because mealy-mouthed appeasement makes for shitty oratory, but when day-to-day management of the situation passes to the State Department everything changes. The Rumsfeld shows up and starts talking and it's not clear whether what he says is authoritative or not because it's not a DoD issue per se and if you ask Ari Fleischer he'll just deny that the administration's been contradicting itself all over town.

This isn't to say that the other guy would've done a better job (I think he would've done better in some ways and worse than others, but that's a whole other long story), but I think it's important for people to be clear on why so little about what this White House is thinking seems clear.

UPDATE: Lawrence Kaplan explains in The New Republic why incoherence is a danger in and of itself and breaks down the intra-administration splits with a finer comb than I've got.

UPDATE DEUX Howard Fineman's MSNBC column from yesterday gives some good details on ways the Bushies' inexperience has created problems in their Israel policy. Via Get Donkey.

Wednesday, April 03, 2002

Cambridge, MA>

ONE HEAR'S QUITE FREQUENTLY that US policy toward Israel is driven by the power of the Jewish lobby, but the clear subtext of this Arab News article (which oddly insists on misspelling Representative Dingell's name) is that we've got an Arab lobby here in the US, too. Arab-Americans aren't that numerous but they're heavily concentrated in the crucial swing state of Michigan (where Dingell is from) and I wouldn't put it past the administration to be moderating their tone on Arafat in an effort to push it into the GOP column.

Cambridge, MA>

I THOUGHT I WOULD RECOMMEND to anyone out there who may feel like Yasser Arafat isn't quite the statesman the world once took him for.

Cambridge, MA>

TODAY'S HARVARD CRIMSON HAS AN ARTICLE on blogging today that's pretty good except for the fact that it fails to mention must-read Harvard bloggers such as, well, me and Glenn Kinen. Oh well....

Tuesday, April 02, 2002

Cambridge, MA>

TED BARLOW RAISES THE EXCELLENT point (a point that's gone strangely undiscussed) that if we go to war with Saddam, he may unleash his chemical weapons on us. He was restrained from doing this during the Gulf War by the knowledge that we'd nuke him in response, but now that his death has more or less become the explicit aim of American policy, what is there to hold him back. Even under the best case scenario (he hasn't smuggled any weapons into the US and won't be able to) that sounds like a bad week to be in Tel Aviv.

Cambridge, MA>

SOME CORRESPONDENCE WITH READER David Margolies is making me sensitive to an issue that I'd been underplaying in my earlier anti-Arab bluster, namely that to just turn around out of the blue and start dumping longstanding allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia would raise all sorts of questions about America's trustworthiness as a partner in all kinds of international endeavors. Some on the unilateralist right would doubtless welcome an outcome like this, I think it's important to steer between the Scylla of coalition-fetishizing and the Charibdis (I think that's how you spell it -- no more classical allusions for me) of US against the rest.

At the same time, the behavior of allegedly moderate Arabs is becoming intolerable. It is simply not acceptable to on the one hand claim to be opposed to terror, but at the same time to seek to use the existence of terrorism to strengthen your own bargaining position. This, in essence, is what our Arab "friends" have been doing for the past ten years: "well, of course these suicide bombings are terrible, but if you really want them to end...."

That's not only an immoral position -- it's a foolish one. Russian liberals tried the same thing before the Revolution but just wound up swept overboard by the wave of violence they (officially) disowned but in practice tried to use to wring concessions out of the Romanovs.

Cambridge, MA>

ELLEN MILLER ARGUES IN THE AMERICAN PROSPECT that Mitch McConnell's free speach arguments against McCain-Feingold are hypocritical. But so what? The hypocrisy charge -- though much beloved by the lazy media since it lets them criticize without making any actual value judgments -- is the weakest arrow in the book. So McConnell is taking a position on McCain-Feingold that is (arguably) inconsistent with his stance on internet porn -- so what?

At best all this goes to show is that McConnell can't be right about both things (but it doesn't even do that since the nature of the causes in whose name expression is being limited are so different) but that doesn't say anything about which one. Plus, by the Prospect's logic, they, too, are being hypocritical for opposing the Communications Decency Act but supporting McCain-Feingold.

Now I personally think that the argument that McCain-Feingold (the soft money ban part at least) is unacceptable for free speech reasons is pretty silly -- the bill is clearly just one of many, many, many, many laws on the books regulating various sorts of financial transactions -- but if that's what you think, you should actually argue for the position.

For the record, I also think that McCain-Feingold like many of our many, many, many laws regulating various financial transactions is a pretty bad idea, but that's another story....

Cambridge, MA>

SO BINYAMIN NETANYAHU'S WEBSITE is pretty damn incoherent, and so, near as I can tell, are his policy proposals, but I would suggest that any Palestinians interested in not having a really bad decade or so consider taking a look.

Because of his involvement in Lebanon, Ariel Sharon has the reputation in the Arab world of being some kind of ur-hardliner worse than any possible alternative, but anyone who thinks that is really, really, really wrong. Netanyahu is, for better or for worse (which is to say, for worse), the only alternative to Sharon and Arafat needs to realize that the Israeli street will bring Bibi in if they don't think showing restraint is reaping them any rewards.

JACK SHAFER HAS A BRILLIANT collection of old newspaper headlines showing just how many times in recent years the drug warriors and their major media running dogs have expressed fear about drugs coming out of Afghanistan. It turned out, of course, that they should have been worrying about bigger problems....

Monday, April 01, 2002

ANYONE REMOTELY CONSIDERING TAKING the Saudis seriously should know that Arab News has a story up with the headline Siege of Arafat greatest crime in history: Sultan refering to Prince Sultan, the Saudi Defense Minister.

The greatest crime in history? Really? Really? If that's the worst they can think of, then maybe someone ought to show them something actually harsh like, say, a ritual beheading.

DEROY MURDOCH MAKES THE ANTI-SAUDI case yet again. It's a really good case. The hard truth that I think the West is going to have to accept one day is that there is an axis of evil out there in the world and that Riyadh, not Baghdad is at its center. This is not to say that Iraq isn't the more immanent threat, but only that Saddam -- like Mullah Omar and even Yasser Arafat -- is only a tip of the iceberg of demented ideology in the Muslim world. The Saudi/Wahhabi/oil industry alliance in the middle of the Arabian desert is the heart of the problem.
GLENN KINEN RIGHTLY CONDEMNS THE LATEST NONSENSE from the Guardian as the great and good of Britain plead military necessity as a defense against the massive crimes of suicide bombing.

In addition to seeping with foolish moral equivalence, this line of argument fails to realize that the path of terror is in no way necessary. Many, many, many times over the years -- from British India to the American South to Eastern Europe to South Africa to the Soviet Union -- disciplined and organized civilians have defeated military behemoths through nonviolent protests.

Obviously, a strategy like this won't work against a foe (like, say, al-Qaeda) that has no respect for human life, but Israel isn't like that at all. Indeed, the violence has been counterproductive. There are some real disagreements between Israelis and Palestinians, but there is basic agreement on the need for the occupation to end. Israel, however, quite rightly fears being seen as giving in to terrorism.

This is the secret genius of the nonviolent approach -- it lets the other side give in.

I THOUGHT I MIGHT QUOTE these wise words written by Michael Walzer many years ago in his Just and Unjust Wars -- I think they're extremely appropriate in the wake of the latest Palestinian outrages:
In its modern manifestations, terror is the totalitarian form of war and politics. It shatters the war convention and the political code. It breaks across moral limits beyond which no further limitation seems possible, for within the categories of civilian and citizen, there isn't any smaller group for which immunity might be claimed...terrorists anyway make no such claim; they kill anybody.
The suicide bomber is the purest form of this will to genocide and the revelation that the latest attacks had many Israeli Arabs among their victims only makes it clearly that the current campaign isn't about ending economic despair or gaining national sovereignty or anything else that the Palestinian people may legitimately want. This is about killing Jews, plain and simple.
AFTER THE LATEST DEPRESSING news from the Middle East I think we have to start asking just how inhumane it would be for Israel to just expel the Palestinians from the occupied terroritories. The result would probably be out-and-out war with the neighboring Arab states, but Israel could win that.

All forced population transfers are humanitarian disasters, of course, but so is the current situation. It's not like there's not any room in the whole Arab world for all these Palestinian Arabs to go live in, it's just that the other Arab leaders don't want to cooperate.

AMIDST SOME UGLY AND ill-considered Catholic bashing, Julie Burchill makes a good meta-point in The Guardian that I think is very relevant to the current war. She writes
I don't have to respect anyone's religion on principle any more than I have to respect people's politics if I find them bigoted.
She's talking, as a leftist would be nowadays, about why she doesn't need to respect Catholicism, but the same could just as easily be said about Islam. During the course of the second half of the 20th century, racist views finally became unacceptable to air in public. At the same time, anti-semitism was seen as crucially related to anti-black and anti-asian racisms. All this was for the best, as was the general movement to be more tolerant of alternate ways of life and systems of belief.

Nevertheless, it got forgotten somewhere along the way -- particularly by people on the left -- that a religion (especially a religion that's not judaism) is, fundamentally, a system of beliefs and beliefs that, as much as any other beliefs, can be criticized as false, harmful, or whatever. It is very important to let people live their lives as they see fit (provided, of course, that they don't harm anyone) but it's not necessary at all to refrain from criticizing other people's beliefs.

I think that if more people on the left appreciated Burchill's point and saw that it applies not only to Catholicism but to other religions as well, that far more would agree with me that the current war against terrorist fanatics is a cause that should be embraced enthusiastically by liberals everywhere.

Sunday, March 31, 2002

SO IMAGINE THAT YOU HAD a very poor country and that it was very much in the United State's interest to see that country become less poor. So much so, that we're prepared to just give away millions of dollars to the country in question. Fortunately, that country is an excellent source of a product that many Americans enjoy purchasing in exchange for money, thus providing a fairly obvious method for America to contribute to the country's economic development.

A match made in heaven?

Not if the country is Afghanistan and the product is opium, then we'd be continuing a strategy of wasting tens of millions of dollars on imprisoning non-violent Americans and wrecking the economic prospects of not only Afghanistan, but also America's should-be hemispheric partners like Colombia and Peru.

Love that drug war.

LOOKING AT THE SITUATION IN the Middle East, I think the administration has things exactly wrong in trying to solve the Israel situation as a precursor to moving on Iraq. The only way a negotiated settlement will be possible there is if Arafat feels that his position is weakening. The only way for that to happen is for the other Arab leaders to start becoming less supportive of him. The only way for that to happen is for our Arab "allies" to recognize that US-Saudi, US-Egyptian, US-Qatari, etc. relations are two way streets, not just an endless dialogue about what we need to do to prop up their regimes.

What better way to show that than to go do something they really, really don't want us to do like, say, invade Iraq?

Plus, if we invade Iraq, we can create at least one reasonable regime in the area. If some "moderate" government get toppled (or just become outright hostile) as the worriers always worry, then we can just topple them again and set up some more supportive regimes.

I'M BACK! FROM AN EXCELLENT weekend of vacation in Paris (I know, I know, the Europeans are the sworn enemies of all warbloggers, but what's a more romantic place to spend spring break with your girlfriend) and it appears that while I haven't been paying attention, the world's gone to hell in a handbasket...will blog more when I've gathered more details. The airplane did give me a chance to read this horrifying/fascinating New Yorker article on Saddam, but I'm sure that it's been blogged about ad nauseum allready.