Friday, October 18, 2002

In the middle of the California energy crisis, Dubya's administration consulted closely with industry leaders, including most prominently Ken Lay, chairman of Enron, and declared that the marketplace was functioning just fine, and there was no need for any remedial action.

An Enron senior trader has just plead guilty to manipulating the California market, and made it plain that higher-level Enron executives (so far unnamed) also had a hand in the fraud.

The administration assures the public that the energy industry has exerted no improper influence, and now that a judge has ordered the release of papers from Cheney's Energy Task Force saying who senior staff was actually talking to, the rest of us may get to see how little there was. But then again, maybe not. The administration is seeking suspension of the order, and may appeal, apparently making the somewhat debatable claim that these records are covered by executive privilege.

What's impressive here is how it shows this administration's willingness to take a PR hit for its position on important issues of high principle. Since their hands are spotlessly clean, they could of course just release all the documents and show it --- as Republicans kept demanding of the Clintons in their private business affairs. But no. The sanctity of executive privilege (or at least, the Republicans' interpretation of it) is apparently so fragile that if they waived it in even one instance, it would vanish forever. And so, even though there is nothing in the least bit embarrassing in these documents, the administration cannot allow itself to vindicate Cheney by showing them in public.

Pity them...

In the wake of the revelation of the North Korean nuclear program, the other day, it was a common observation that North Korea now fits the Bush doctrine criteria for a preemptive strike better than Iraq.

But that's not all. It now turns out that they got crucial technical assistance with their nukes by trading some of their own missile technology with Pakistan. Which means that Pakistan is no longer just a nuclear-armed power with a record of supporting fundamentalist Muslim fanatics in Afghanistan and Kashmir. It is now a nuclear-armed power with a record of supporting fundamentalist Muslim fanatics in Afghanistan and Kashmir, which has proliferated nuclear arms to madmen.

But never mind the Pakistanis. They're our ally. It's important to remember at all times that the real threat is from Iraq. And not just from Iraq --- from Saddam Hussein personally. After all, there have been persistent hints from American officials as high as Donald Rumsfeld that a coup from within the existing Iraqi leadership would end the crisis, even though the existing Iraqi leadership consists largely of Saddam's homeboys from Tikrit, who share his background, his outlook, his methods, and presumably his goals.

But again, never mind that --- Saddam personally is worse than any of his subordinates. He used chemical weapons against the Iranians and his own people. Or rather, his subordinates did --- but that must have been Saddam's baleful, personal influence, as they'd never do anything that mean on their own.

Besides, you may not want to worry yourself with that sort of detail anyway. American diplomacy in the region can get a little complicated --- as with the Reagan administration, which sent Donald Rumsfeld to normalize relations with Iraq and promoted international sanctions against Iran --- while at the same time cutting their own illegal covert arms deal with the Iranians. (George H.W. Bush pardoned a number of men involved in the latter scheme, and at least one, John Poindexter, is presently serving in the Pentagon. I wonder if he and Rumsfeld ever compare notes?) So if your mind is not equipped to deal with that level of complexity, you can just focus on one essential thing: Saddam's a bad, bad, bad, bad man. Ask Dubya, or Rummy, or Dick, and they'll tell you, it's all you really need to know...

Thursday, October 17, 2002

I'm not usually the demonstration-going type, but you run across a few every now and again if you're just in the habit of walking around Boston Common near the State House. And all too often, attached to demonstrations for some relatively sane leftish cause, you find people carrying signs comparing the United States unfavorably with the socialist paradise of North Korea. If you'd like a sample of what these nitwits are like, see my very first blog entry, which quotes a flyer they put out accusing Noam Chomsky of "censorship" because he won't let them give extended speeches at his own lectures. My half-joking response to these types is that they're a CIA front designed to discredit the left --- but don't snicker too hard; the spooks have done that sort of thing in the past.

Still, whatever you think of the friends of Fidel, it's a bit disturbing that they are the organizers of what looks like the major organized antiwar effort we've got to date. Which is one of the problems with the spinelessness of our current mainstream opposition party --- when it hasn't got the guts to actually oppose deeply flawed policies, fruit loops rush in to fill the vacuum...

Well, let it never be said that Dubya's administration is completely ignoring the Bill of Rights. They yield to no one in their defense of the Second Amendment. Even in the wake of the Maryland sniper shootings, they are fighting proposals for a fingerprinting database for firearms --- not because it would directly infringe anyone's right to bear arms, but because of what Ari Fleischer delicately describes as "privacy concerns". (Which evidently don't apply to, say, cars, which have VIN numbers stamped all over them --- but of course, guns are a more sensitive issue).

Of course, they've shown a bit less respect for purchases of items in the domain of the First Amendment. Like the PATRIOT act provisions which allow them to demand that booksellers and libraries tell them who's buying or borrowing any literature of interest to them in total secrecy, without any need to show due cause (and their refusal to disclose to Congress even the number of such subpoenas that are outstanding). They've also perhaps, been less than First Amendment absolutists with their vendetta against a reporter, imprisoned for months for refusing to disclose sources.

They've also shown less than total devotion to the Fourth Amendment, with other provisions of the PATRIOT act, which allow access to email headers without a search warrant (clearly less of a privacy concern than, say, gun ownership), and allow federal judges to issue warrants for wiretaps anywhere in the country, allowing them to shop for compliant judges. The indefinite imprisonment of American citizens like Jose Padilla bespeaks a less than perfect respect for either the Fifth Amendment (denial of liberty without due process) or the Sixth (speedy trial), depending on which aspect of the case annoys you most at the moment. But when it comes to defense of the Second Amendment, this administration yields to no one.

Cynics might say that there's political calculation at work here, but it really just reflects a proper balancing of the harms. Certain books could really be useful to a terrorist, and present a clear and present danger. So the need for the government to be able to monitor the purchases of dangerous literature is manifest. But monitoring purchases of firearms is something else entirely.

Contrariwise, guns provide the ultimate defense against a government which is exceeding the bounds of its otherwise permitted powers. We've got examples to prove it. Randy Weaver, for instance, was served by gung-ho law enforcement with questionable warrants --- but he was heavily armed, so things worked out just fine...

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

From a Wall Street Journal article on Pentagon procurement (page A3, today's print edition --- no free online access):

The Air Force also will see production scaled back for its new supersonic fighter jet, the F-22 Raptor, but the reduction is expected to be less drastic than expected.

Say what?

Microsoft has once again been hoist by its own petard. They briefly had up their own take on the Apple "I switched" ads for the Macintosh, which had someone who switched from a Mac to Windows XP bragging about how wonderful XP was, though strangely, she didn't describe anything in particular you could do with XP which you couldn't just as easily do with a Macintosh.

More strangely, unlike the Apple ads, the Microsoft version omitted the name of the person who switched. For reasons which became obvious once the Associated Press tracked her down --- she works for Microsoft's PR firm.

So how, you may wonder, did the AP uncover the "switcher's" identity, even though there was no hint of it in the text of the ad? By looking at the hidden identifiers which Microsoft's programs squirt all over every file they touch, like dogs marking out their territory.

Do you trust your secrets to Microsoft products?

Several bloggers are pointing to a rather scary column by Robert Novak, a man not ordinarily thought of as a left-wing softie, which describes Rumsfeld's war planning as based on a best-case scenario --- specifically, that native Iraqi Shiites will do most of the fighting, and that the Republican guard won't put up any stiff resistance. This, in turn, is based on advice from a small circle which includes the likes of Richard Perle and that noted problem solver at the level of civilizations, Newt Gingrich, but does not seem to include many, if any, of his own military's generals. When asked about the US contingency plan for a credible worst-case scenario --- hard fighting in urban areas, with loyal Iraqi troops deliberately using large civilian populations as human shields --- Novak's sources, both in the Senate and high in the Pentagon, say they're not sure it even exists.

Rumsfeld apparently expects the Iraqis to welcome Americans as liberators, as in Afghanistan. Of course, there are just a few differences from the Afghan scenario. Like the bombs we've been continually dropping on Iraq for, oh, the last ten years or so. And the domestic privation which Saddam Hussein's government is blaming, fairly or not, on the American-driven sanctions regime. And the nature of our putative Shiite allies, who are likely to remember in a pinch that their Iranian coreligionists have backed them consistently, while the United States left them in the lurch after the Gulf War. When Saul Landau reports

The last day in Baghdad . A woman with dyed blond hair and tight pants runs a shop. She tells me she has just returned from a vacation with her Algerian live-in boyfriend to Barbados and Martinique and "I could hardly wait to return home. I love it here."

I ask her how she will respond if war comes. She shrugs. "I am Christian," she declares, "and I love my president because he is strong and protects us. Without a strong president like him, we would be persecuted. All of Iraq would be chaos, disorder. I stand with him against Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Bin-Laden and George Bush." Her Algerian boyfriend grins in agreement.

...I'm not sure her views are representative --- it's hard to tell for many reasons, not the least of which is government minders on the trip --- but it's equally hard to be sure they aren't. (The line about bin Laden bears a little explanation --- Iraqis remember that in the Gulf War, Osama bin Laden offered to manage a Saudi campaign against Iraq, even if the Americans, who Saudi royalty called in instead, do not).

Meanwhile, back on the home front, the Novak column is just the latest in a fairly long series of hints that the American military is not working hard to figure out how bad a worst-case scenario could get, or preparing itself as well as it might. We've had the persistent reports from unnamed sources that intelligence analysts are under heavy pressure to suppress evidence that an invasion might be unexpectedly prolonged, or even unnecessary. We've had the rigged war game. And, prefiguring the Novak column, we've had the Newsweek article which wound up by describing Rumsfeld's battle planning:

In a scene that has repeated itself more than once, Rumsfeld, an impatient questioner, demands to see a plan of attack. The generals respond that they can't plan without knowing exactly what they are planning for and with what tools, i.e., what bases and what forces. Rumsfeld becomes vexed and insists on "out of the box" thinking. The generals look perplexed or exasperated and fall back on traditional notions of the American way of war, which is to overwhelm the enemy with superior firepower. Such a campaign takes a long wind-up and a massive attack, which prompts the basic questions --- from where? with what forces? --- all over again.

It's not the first time that the generals have come under that kind of pressure from the White House. William Burton points out that General Schwarzkopf came under pressure from the administration during the first Gulf War to attack without the chance to adequately prepare. He resisted the pressure and got his forces in place, with generally satisfactory results... offering no thanks at all to the administration officials who compared him to General McLellan in the Civil War. (He doesn't name the "high official" who made that comparison, but he makes a note, some twenty pages later, of an "inspirational" gift from Cheney --- tapes of Ken Burns' Civil War series).

But it's not as if Cheney and Rumsfeld are just Bush I retreads trying to redo the Gulf War. It's important to remember they're older than that. They are, in fact, Nixon administration retreads trying to redo Vietnam --- a war where technical superiority and early large set-piece victories (the lonesome cry of the cold war hawk: "The Tet offensive was a military defeat for the Viet Cong!") didn't exactly prefigure success...

Of course, you could try to write off the dissatisfied noises from the Pentagon as disinformation. Then again, the point of disinformation is to deceive the enemy about the nature of your preparations. Which means that if the Novak column, say, is disinformation, then the American military actually wants to fight an urban battle, and is trying to gull Saddam into fighting one by making him believe it is ill prepared for that. I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out why the Pentagon might want to be thrown into that particular briar patch...

Monday, October 14, 2002

Jeanne D'arc has a couple of pieces up on the results of the Pakistani elections, and in particular, the unprecedented gains by a coalition of Islamic fundamentalists. There are obvious reasons that presents a problem for us. But it's not clear that this result presents a problem for our new friend and ally, military strongman Pervez Musharraf. Not least because he's rewritten the Constitution to allow him to dismiss this parliament at will if it ever starts doing something he dislikes. But also because, despite the tone of some Western commentary, he is almost certainly pleased to have the Islamists in parliament.

The Pakistani military establishment, which spawned Musharraf, has a record of using Islamic fundamentalists as tools --- both in Afghanistan, where they were largely responsible for maneuvering the Taliban in to power, and in Kashmir, where they have supported the terrorist groups which have a long record of terrorist acts, and most recently, disrupted Kashmiri local elections. And in the Pakistani elections, Musharraf went out of his way to do favors for the Islamic parties, effectively exempting them from a requirement that candidates have a college eductation (by giving them full credit for certificates from madrassas), while at the same time trying hard to prevent the established secular parties of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif from fielding candidates. (To be fair, Musharraf would complain that both secular parties are deeply stained by corruption, and he's right. But he has done little or nothing to build up a credible secular alternative, while going out of his way to help the Islamists).

In short, the Islamists are in the Pakistani parliament because Musharraf wants them there, and because he prefers them to advocates of secular, modern governance. If that starts to give you the creeps about the guy, you might want to take a look at Ahmed Rashid's overview of the Pakistani scene just before the elections. That'll make you really scared.