Thursday, January 17, 2008

Colin Kahl, a Professor of "Security Studies" at Georgetown, explains why the Air Force is once again bombing the crap out of neighborhoods full of Iraqis who we'd like to make our friends:

Part of this is announcing our presence to the adversary.
That's odd. We've been there a while. I'd have thought, by now, they'd have noticed.

via Yglesias.

I've lately been reading a bit about politics in France, a weird, topsy-turvy land where right-wing President Sarkozy is proposing new taxes to pay for commercial-free state TV, and inviting the heads of powerful labor unions to join him at the old Versailles hunting lodge that he's made his personal Camp David, while high officials of his own party complain they can't beg an invite. And where the left is maybe, just maybe a little too left-wing for my taste.

But there's one thing that Sarko's doing that strikes me as really questionable. Nothing to do with his personal style. I'm long past caring about that in politicians. (Though, by the by, it's a bit unfair for Ségolène Royal to complain that he's "an exhibitionist who lives like a billionaire". Unfair to billionaires, that is --- the problem with Sarko is that he lives like Donald Trump). Nor even the odd prattling on about the religious roots of civilization that has him frantically trying to explain that he's not trying to go back on separation of church and state.

No, what has me worried is that he's hired some American management consultants to evaluate his ministers, by establishing numeric targets for them to meet. For everything. Not just, say, the border guards, who have a quota of sans-papiers to turn away. But the culture minister, who's been tasked to get more people walking through free museums.

Well, there's an old story in computer circles about this sort of thing --- a story that never goes out of style, because each new generation of green, know-it-all managers keeps making the same damn mistake. They establish solid numeric targets for their programmers, in lines of code written, and in defects fixed. Thus rewarding the behavior that they want to encourage. What could possibly go wrong?

What goes wrong first is that programmers can maximize the first metric by quickly writing a lot of sloppy, buggy code. But, of course, that code is full of defects and barely works at all. Is this a problem? Not at all! They then get to waste time and earn money maximizing the second metric by fixing all the bugs that, with a little more care, they would never have introduced in the first place.

Government, of course, is a more complex business than the common run of programming. So, experience in the one field isn't necessarily a great guide to the other. But if a lot of French museums are suddenly doing shows of Tintin originals and the art of the soccer stadium, you'll know why.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The shell game's easier when you can hear the pea rattling around. But a lot less fun.

Mike Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York, is not running for President. He'll tell you that himself, as he did just a couple of days ago:

"No matter how many times you ask the question, I'm not a candidate," Mr. Bloomberg said this morning during a press conference at a school in Harlem, when asked if he is paying for national polling right now. "That's the answer. I can't go into nit picking. This is ridiculous."
So, why, you may be wondering, do people keep asking? It's because he's unusually serious about not running for President.

Now, personally, I'm not running for President, and it hasn't cost me a dime. But that's because I'm not as serious about not running for President as Bloomberg has been. He's run ads before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries, to say a few things about illegal guns, and, no doubt, to reassure the voters that he is not running for President. He's spending millions of dollars on polls, no doubt to determine how lousy an idea it would be for him to run. And he just formally went through the rigamarole of placing all of his assets in a blind trust, so people can be sure that his decision not to run for President was untainted by any conflict of interest.

But to date, at least, the centerpiece of his campaign to convince people that he isn't running for President has been his appearance at the Unity08 confab --- a rather strange event which was organized by the eminences grises of the 1976 Presidential campaign (Jimmy Carter's guru, Gerald Rafshoon, and Gerry Ford's, Douglas Bailey). It featured a number of ex-Senators and the like, from both parties (and even more impressively, actor Sam Waterston, who plays a hard-ass prosecutor on TV) decrying the tone of partisan bickering which, they say, has paralysed Washington. But the only truly newsworthy thing that seems to have happened was an appearance by Bloomberg at which he, once again, denied that he's running for President:

"I'm not a candidate, number one. I am a former businessman and a mayor," he said in a panel discussion and news conference at the University of Oklahoma.
And he even got the host of the meeting, ex-Senator David Boren, to back him up:
"I don't think he has the ambition to run for president and I think he's like the rest of us, hoping against hope that the two parties rise to the occasion," Boren said.

And yet, some people just don't get the message. The latest on this front is that Rafshoon and Bailey have decamped from Unity08 to form a "Draft Bloomberg" committee, with a slick interactive website letting you add your name to a petition. Click on the "Why Mike Bloomberg" link, and the page opens up to reveal links to a number of puff pieces which, no doubt, prefigure the sort of campaign they'd want to run in case they got the opportunity: the featured story by Newsweek is a pure personality piece (in the spirit of the American Revolution, he liked the book Johnny Tremain!), which doesn't even talk about the problems of actually governing New York City, let alone the country as a whole. Which may be the beginnings of a new Rafshoon/Bailey strategy for transcending partisan bickering in politics, by endorsing politicians who strive to take no position at all on any substantive political issue.

Too bad they'll never get the chance, since Bloomberg is so serious about not running.

(As for Unity08, by some sad coincidence, their funds have suddenly dried up, to the point that they can no longer afford an interactive web site at all. The sole page on their web site, as of right now, blames the FEC, in the spirit of "transparency". They had this ballot access thing going that a number of their staffers must have really believed in. I wonder if any of them feel they got used?)

More: Well, one of them seems happy enough. In comments on another thread on the subject, erstwhile Unity08 Marketing Director Bob Ross popped in to deny these annoyingly persistent rumors that Unity08 has simply transformed itself into the "Draft Bloomberg" movement:

... the truth of the matter, if you are interested, is that the closure of Unity08 was not a process of tranfering, redirecting, re-allocating, re-structuring, re-constituting, or re-organizing into a pro-Bloomberg effort. No member information or money was moved from one organization to the other. They are completely separate organizations.
Which prompted the obvious question on what he's going to be doing next. His response, in a subsequent comment:
I’ve decided to retire to my home state to spend some time with family while also helping out some friends get a few different projects off the ground. As I am sure you might find if you read several political blogs, one of those projects happens to be the movement.
Which is, once again, a completely separate organization which just happens, by some totally strange coincidence, to have the same leadership and staff.

The pea is under the shell on the left. Honest!

Campaigning in 2000, Dubya complained that Clinton's peacekeeping missions in Kosovo had left the army just about worn out:

''If called on by the commander in chief today, two entire divisions of the Army would have to report, 'Not ready for duty, sir,' '' Mr. Bush said.
He himself has achieved better results:

“We are consumed with meeting the demands of the current fight and unable to provide ready forces as rapidly as necessary for other contingencies,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Nov. 15.

The Congressional Budget Office reported in 2006 that Army readiness rates had declined to the lowest levels since the end of the Vietnam War, with roughly half of all Army units, active and reserve, at the lowest readiness ratings for currently available units. Casey told the Senate committee that training and readiness levels for nondeployed units have “actually stayed about the same since last summer — and it’s not good.”

Unlike that liberal wimp Clinton, Dubya has worn out the whole damn army!

via Jim Henley.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A few days ago, the story out of Washington was that the "surge" had finally started to yield the political gains that justified it in the first place, with a new law which allowed Sunni functionaries from the former regime back into the Shiite-dominated government. Well, whenever you hear a story like that, wait a few days, and then read Spencer Ackerman, who reports that the law actually kicks out as many ex-Baathists as it lets in:

...the Shiite/Kurdish government finally passes a de-Baathification law, only the law is phony. The Sunnis are outraged: one Sunni parliamentarian calls the law "a sword on the neck of the people."
Or maybe Le Monde, which reports on the one thing on which the Shiites and Sunnis have lined up together: keeping the Kurds from taking control of Kirkuk (which was supposed to be the subject of a long-delayed referendum), an issue on which the "Shiite/Kurdish" coalition may itself be breaking up.

Gotta be careful with those French, though. They're covering the American presidential campaign as if it was about the issues; Le Monde's two American election stories today are about the Clinton and Obama stimulus plans, and trying to find some real policy import, possibly protectionist, in the bloviation of McCain and Romney about bringing jobs back to Michigan. Whereas here in America, listening to our own media, I know that what it's really about is whether the candidates can find a way to talk nice about each other. I'm listening to a radio hour on this theme on my local public radio station right now...

Sunday, January 13, 2008

In a Times Op-Ed, John Farmer, erstwhile counsel to the 9/11 commission, reports on, among other things, a seriously messed up prosecution:

In United States v. Lakhani, the defendant, Hemant Lakhani, bragged to an F.B.I. informant of his ability to procure everything from shoulder-held missiles to submarines. There was only one problem: it became clear over a 22-month period that Mr. Lakhani couldn’t deliver. He was unable to find anyone to sell him the weapons.

So, in exasperation, the government stepped in. A government agent arranged to be the supplier for Mr. Lakhani. The government thus not only induced the defendant to commit the crime, but enabled him to commit it. No matter. Mr. Lakhani was convicted, and sentenced to 47 years in prison by a federal district court in New Jersey.

The people responsible get to carve another notch on their desks, or whatever, but it's clear from a larger point of view that Lakhani was no threat, and the deployment of a federal task force to pursue him was a complete waste of time.

From this case, and that of Jose Padilla, another guy who more famously got a long jail sentence for minor charges advanced after the original "dirty bomb" publicity failed to pan out, he observes that things are seriously wrong. And proposes a remedy:

It is time to stop pretending that the criminal justice system is a viable primary option for preventing terrorism. The Bush administration should propose and Congress should pass legislation allowing for preventive detention in future terrorism cases like that of Mr. Padilla. It is the best way to ensure both the integrity of our criminal law and the safety of our nation.
Well, that'll certainly deal with the problem --- the problem, that is, of the government's mistakes leaving them embarrassed.

It's just a shame that we have to destroy the integrity of our criminal justice system --- based on habeas corpus, and the presumption of innocence --- in order to save it.