Friday, September 20, 2002

A few weeks ago, Instapundit crowed about a sign that the diplomatic strategy of Dubya's administration was "bearing fruit": after months of saber-rattling towards Iraq, they had finally managed to intimidate France.

If he really cares about the impression that they're creating in Europe, I wonder what he thinks of the fuss that the German justice minister has stirred up by comparing Dubya's tactics to Hitler's...

Boston isn't the only place where baseball fans get really involved in the game. During the ninth inning of a game in Chicago yesterday, a fan attacked the Royal's first base coach. The visiting Royals were winning at the time (and went on to win), but the report does not indicate whether the fan, and his son (who joined in the attack), had money on the game.

Fortunately, the image of the cheerful Cubs fan, comfortably numb to the pain of loss, remains untarnished. This was a White Sox game.

Thursday, September 19, 2002

Steven den Beste has an essay up which the normally sharp Hesiod and Atrios are lambasting as "The Protocols of the Elders of Islam", to compare with the notorious antisemitic forgery, "the Protocols of the Elders of Zion". Which is just wrong (though den Beste's argument has problems of its own, which I'll get to in a bit):
  • "Zion" purports to be the records of a single, overarching conspiracy. Den Beste isn't speaking so much of a unified conspiracy, as a culture that needs --- he says --- to be defeated: "in this war there is no single government or small group of them, no man, no organization. Our enemy is a culture which is deeply diseased."
  • People who bruit about the "Elders of Zion" fear that alleged conspiracy because of its supposed success. Den Beste portrays the culture he describes as a failure, and describes the armed eruptions that trouble us now as effects of that culture's inability to cope.
  • The "Elders of Zion" are supposedly trying to control Gentile culture in secret. Islamists, for lack of a better term, would like nothing better to take it over and control it overtly, though their immediate goals are a return to glory in historically Muslim lands, featuring regimes which they regard as weak, degraded and corrupt, a point I'll return to.

(Besides, even though den Beste is talking about a culture and not any single group, it's useful to remember that there is an Islamist conspiracy which is in fact trying to destroy America, drawing its strength from the culture Den Beste describes, which makes no secret of its existence or its aims. It's called al-Qaeda. You may have heard of it.)

What den Beste's essay does represent, which I think is important, and worrisome, is the return of the White Man's Burden. Historically, that was all too often just an excuse for commercial exploitation of the weak. And there are certainly people playing that tune on Dubya's war drums, what with his economic advisor, Larry Lindsey, suggesting that the war would be so cheap that it would effectively pay for itself in reduced petroleum prices --- implying that he expects a replacement regime in Iraq which is so thoroughly a U.S. puppet that it will pursue American interests in preference to its own. But that's not den Beste's argument, so let's put that aside and return to den Beste.

The striking thing to me about den Beste's essay is the lack of connection between the ends, elimination of the terrorist threat from Islamist radicals, and the means, a military attack on, and defeat of, the secular Baathist regime in Iraq --- a regime which the Wahhabi-inspired religious fanatics who drive al-Qaeda view as an ally of convenience at best. (If at all; Dubya's crowd is soft-pedaling the argument that Hussein has something to do with al-Qaeda, because they haven't been able to show convincing evidence).

So, suppose we fight what den Beste views as the battle of Iraq in the War on Islamia, or something like that, and suppose we win. Will that, in fact, refute any of the arguments of the Islamists? No. It will play into their hands. We will show them an Arab country which has adopted a secular regime, with no religious trappings, getting the pants beat off of it in a conflict with the actual West, which will only reinforce their argument that religious revival is a road to glory. And, as Demosthenes points out, it will play into their own "clash of civilizations" rhetoric. The mere fact of a military defeat, particularly of a secular regime, won't dampen their movement --- in fact, by den Beste's own argument, it is a sustained record of military defeats at the hands of the West, over hundreds of years, which has given rise to it.

Clausewitz says that war is the continuation of politics by other means. And, even if you take the Huntington-inspired "clash of civilizations" line at face value, it is not obvious at all that we've tried other means short of war. Consider trade: we could, for instance, just stop pumping oil from Saudi Arabia, and paying for it, until they, for instance, started seriously cooperating with American attempts to track down terrorists and their donors, and stopped broadcasting anti-American and anti-Semitic rants in their government press. That strategy would require a willingness to endure a price spike, but Dubya's folks do keep talking about sacrifice. It would also require a trade coalition to make sure other Western powers did the same, but that is that really all that much harder than asking coalition partners' soldiers to die for us?

Is it the right idea? I don't know. I don't know nearly enough about Arab culture to say. But at least it would go after expressions of den Beste's "diseased culture" directly, rather than arguing, in effect, that an attack on one bunch of Arabs is pretty much the same as an attack on another.

It won't happen of course. One thing that is clear about Dubya's administration is that the Saudi regime --- the rulers of Mecca and Medina, the sponsors of Wahhabism, and as such another key element of den Beste's "diseased culture" --- have Dubya and his administration wrapped around their little fingers.

By the way, if the idea is to establish a "beacon of democracy" in the larger Muslim community --- well, there are other places we could try that. Indonesia, where we... umm... sponsored a coup. Iran where... umm... we put the Shah in power, displacing an elected prime minister who didn't like the way the West was running his oil industry. (That worked out great, huh?) Pakistan, where our current "bastard in the region" --- who's taking over that role from ummm... Saddam Hussein --- is rapidly converting himself into a military strongman. (By the by, he's also a former sponsor of Kashmiri terrorists whose disavowals of support for their current operations are less than completely convincing. And he certainly has WMD. I have a sick feeling we may be hearing more about that in the years to come). And of course, Afghanistan, where we have in the past supported, ummm... Islamic fanatics against the Soviets, and where the regime we installed just this year is hanging on by its fingernails...

(Incidentally, I've reworked the first paragraph slightly to make it clear up front that I don't mean to defend den Beste... which was obvious anyway to people who read all the way through, but might have been missed on a brief skim)

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

And now, a brief study in avoiding the obvious.

The California Public Utilities Commission has published a report on what power generation companies were doing during the power crisis which briefly led to rotating blackouts last year. Their claim, at the time, was that they couldn't meet even off-peak winter and spring demand due to lack of capacity. This claim was a little mysterious, as winter demand is substantially much lower than summer demand, and there had not been blackouts in previous summers --- but they fudged this by saying that plants were off-line for maintenance.

But it turns out that even the plants off-line for "maintenance" can't account for the shortfall:

For example, on May 8, 2001, there were two-hour blackouts caused by a shortage of 400 megawatts of power in Northern and Southern California. But Duke Energy had about 1,000 megawatts of available capacity that was not used that day, the commission report said. "Thus, Duke alone had more available and unused power than the total amount of power that was needed to avoid the blackout that day," it said.

So, why were operable plants being kept idle in the midst of a power crisis? Could it be... that they were running up the price?

Now, now, says the commission, let's not jump to conclusions:

The commission did not directly accuse the companies of deliberately trying to drive prices up. Officials said investigations were continuing into possible price manipulation and collusion among the companies.

And what do you know, we have a real-life case of just plain bad reporting in the Times. It satisfies the American journalists' fetish for "balance" by uncritically repeating spin from utility spokesmen that some of the plants in question were off-line for, among other things, the installation of pollution control equipment, trying to shift blame to eeevil regulators. But the actual report says up front that it counts as "available power" only power that was reported by the generators themselves as available on a particular day, "accepting generator claims of plant outages and mechanical problems at face value".

In short, the utility line was just false, and the Times failed to say so. Gee, I wonder whether the Times-obsessives in the blogsphere will be complaining about this particular piece of sloppy journalism?

Also in the Times today, a brief summary of a Tyco report on misuse of corporate funds by ex-CEO Dennis Kozlowski and his cronies --- the company bought houses and apartments for them at its own expense, paid for decoration and entertaining expenses, forgave loans, and paid for all sorts of knickknacks for Kozlowski and famille, ranging from old master paintings to a $15,000 dog umbrella stand. On at least one occasion, Kozlowski wrote a memo falsely stating that the company had been authorized by the board to forgive certain loans --- but the recipient of the memo wasn't too motivated to question it, since she had received one of those loans herself, for more than $700,000.

This report raises many questions. How has American corporate governance gotten to a state that a company can buy its CEO's old New Hampshire house from him for triple its market value? Why didn't the board notice, or did it just not care, that the company was paying for its CEO's residences and furnishings in Manhattan and Boca Raton without their authorization? Why did the Times deem all the juicy details about Kozlowski's wife's birthday party (half paid for by Tyco) unfit to print? Did board members know about the party? Were none of them invited? And how is it possible to pay $6,000 for a shower curtain?

But most of all --- what the hell is a dog umbrella stand?

(Note added: It's important to disginguish Kozlowski's arrangements from the retirement package awarded to GE's "Neutron Jack" Welch, formerly a rock-star CEO noted for his efforts at minimizing costs. That package, which included all expenses associated with Welch's residences, free use of GE's corporate jet, floor-level seats at Knicks games, and an itemized list of miscellaneous expenses ranging from satellite TV to toiletries, apparently was approved by GE's board...)

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

More news from Boston:

The Republican primary race here is interesting. Not for governor --- Mitt Romney is the only person running. But for lieutenant governor.

As I've mentioned before, a local Republican party activist named Jim Rappaport is trying to force his way onto the Republican ticket as lieutenant governor, displacing Romney's chosen running mate, a policy wonk named Kerry Healey. And, like all candidates with large war chests and low polling numbers, he's put on a last minute media blitz.

Which has prompted Romney to do a TV spot, in heavy rotation over the last few days, saying "Jim Rappaport has gone too far", and saying the ad blitz is "the kind of negative mudslinging that we don't need in the Republican party".

Meanwhile, Romney's own attack ads, aimed at Democratic front runner Shannon O'Brien, have mysteriously vanished from the airwaves.

Democracy. Ain't it grand?