Friday, November 21, 2003

Am I the only person mourning the days of lost innocence, when we could all still think of Paris Hilton as a hotel?

(Seriously, a lot of the current furor surrounding her is a bit of a mystery to me. She's a young woman with a private life and a right to it -- about whom the worst I can really say is that despite all the things she was born to, I'm not yet aware of anything she's done that the rest of us have any reason to care about...)

An Australian journalist recently tried to fly into the US for an interview with Olivia Newton-John about breast cancer. She came away with a much better story, her own first-hand experience with how Dubya's crew is defending freedom in the grand old U.S. of A:

"Their justification for refusing me was that under American law ... [they] have the right to refuse a foreign journalist entry," she said.

"They said to me you don't understand, you have no choice, no rights here under American law."

A frequent business traveller to the US, Ms Smethurst said she still did not know why she was detained although she asked repeatedly what the issue was.

"Their words to me were: we will tell you when we have a problem and your silence is appreciated."

During the ordeal, "innocuous items" like lipliners and make-up - deemed "a national security threat" - were taken from her, she said.

At the end of this -- which included a full-body search, according to other reports, she was deported, with no reason given.

Remember, they're defending freedom. It's their opponents (of all stripes) who are the enemies of freedom. That makes it all a little easier to take.

via Marine's Girl...

More: I'm blogging tired this morning, which is why it didn't occur to me immediately to mention Maher Arar, who has rather more of a complaing, having been deported from an American airport to Syria for eight months of torture despite having not actually attempted to enter this country. That's via Jeanne D'Arc, who elsewhere discusses American claims that Syria had promised not to torture Arar; she's too polite to say that, particularly in the light of the Dubya crew's record, they're obvious lies...

Thursday, November 20, 2003

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Istanbul today, Tony Blair explained in a press conference the importance of Iraq in the struggle against terrorism:

... here is why Iraq is important in this: because in the end [the terrorists'] case ... is that we are in Iraq to suppress Muslims, steal their oil, to spoil the country. Now we know, you know, that all those things are lies. They know therefore that if we manage to get Iraq on its feet as a stable, prosperous, democratic country, the blow we strike is not just one for the Iraqi people, it is the end of that propaganda and that is why they are fighting us.

True enough, as far as it goes, though the terrorists wouldn't be able to make that case if we hadn't invaded Iraq in the first place (which is one of the reasons that I, among others, argued that the attack might be a bad idea).

But while you can't disagree that we should "get Iraq on its feet as a stable, prosperous, democratic country" if it's at all possible, it's a different question whether anything our troops are doing now actually contributes to that end. As I noted last week, it's not obvious to me that they are actually helping. The feel-good press releases from Centcom about painting schoolhouses don't amount to much; the Iraqis could paint their own schoolhouses perfectly well if our troops weren't in the way. Our assistance in business has been inept at best, as in the case of an Iraqi cement plant, fixed up by the Iraqis themselves for half a million dollars because they couldn't wait for the $23 million boondoggle proposed by US Army engineers.

And the troops are unable to guard agencies like the Red Cross, which have been chased out by the "insurgents". Increasingly, they're being pushed back onto their own bases, from which they emerge only on heavily armored raids that do nothing to win over the Iraqis. Kevin Sites, embedded in Tikrit, paints a frightening picture of the isolation of US commanders:

The Army, which has turned acronyms into the opposite of their intended use of making things easier to remember, calls its battlefield information headquarters a TOC, short for Tactical Operations Center. There the commander sits flanked by his XO, executive officer, battle captains, S2 (intelligence officer) and S3 (operations officer) sucking in the information flow and knitting together daily missions that help them to accomplish their overall mission.

In the TOC in Tikrit, 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry commander Colonel James Hickey, tells me the mission here is to, "defeat the enemy and stabilize the region." The enemy as he defines it is FRL's (former regime loyalists) like Baathists and the Fedayeen. ... Unlike some soldiers, he is not confused about his mission. It is not for hearts and minds, but to defeat the enemy. ... He has a reputation for being one of the most aggressive commanders in the theatre -- and if things goes well here, he likely get his first general's star.

"I have a military problem here and I'm applying a military solution," he says with complete confidence. "Our adversaries are not militarily effective. They are mercenaries, terrorists and pirates and they will be defeated."

... in this room, where every piece of information is broken down quantitatively--number of patrols, number of raids, number of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), number of detainees, number of weapons -- and put back together in the form of a task completed or a mission to be accomplished, Operation Thunder Road, Operation Ivy Cyclone, the problems and solutions seem remarkably clear an seductively simple.

Blips show up in the map on the TOC, are identified as targets, and are disabled, by the application of whatever force is required -- lately, around Tikrit as all over Iraq, including aircraft and missile strikes. And here's what it looks like to Iraqis on the ground:

...residents expressed bewilderment at the offensive and the choice of targets in territory fully controlled by coalition forces, and said there was no sign of any guerrilla activity in the area before the strikes.

"They (the Americans) called on us from the tanks to stay at home because they were going to hit targets and they also said: 'If you want to watch our show you can go to the rooftops,'" Hamziya Ali, a housewife living near the plant, said Wednesday.

"But me and my children spent the night shaking. We do not want to be their targets. Yesterday, they hit the factory and open fields which have not been used by any resistance members."

The Iraqis are wondering: why hit an open field? They don't understand: it's a target on a map. And it has been disabled. And so that patch of grass will never threaten Americans again. But the people who got bombed -- now they have a reason, as Riverbend, writing from Baghdad, explains in her outraged response to Col. Hickey's attacks on Tikrit:

How can that ass of a president say things are getting better in Iraq when his troops have stooped to destroying homes?! Is that a sign that things are getting better? When you destroy someone's home and detain their family, why would they want to go on with life? Why wouldn't they want to lob a bomb at some 19-year-old soldier from Missouri?!

The troops were pushing women and children shivering with fear out the door in the middle of the night. What do you think these children think to themselves- being dragged out of their homes, having their possessions and houses damaged and burned?! Who do you think is creating the 'terrorists'?!! Do you think these kids think to themselves, "Oh well- we learned our lesson. That's that. Yay troops!" It's like a vicious, moronic circle and people are outraged…

But how can she understand the military details of the situation? She may speak the language, while most of our officers don't, but they've got a TOC, an XO, and a really slick map.

(A note to trolls: why no, I'm not blaming the troops for this mess. I'm blaming the officers, and their superiors in Washington. If your notion of "supporting the troops" is supporting a policy that gets them killed and maimed in large numbers to no useful purpose, you certainly have a right to it).

So what are we achieving -- what can we achieve by staying in? Hesiod has a more limited view than Blair; he just wants us to keep the country from descending into chaos, with armed factions competing against each other. But that is starting to happen around us: someone just attacked a Kurdish political party in Kirkkuk.

Perhaps the best we could achieve along these lines is to hand political power to a faction which seems best able to keep it -- say, one of the main Shiite factions (since they're the majority), with sufficient guarantees for everyone else that they won't immediately start blowing things up. This would, in effect, make us the handmaiden to a Shiite theocracy -- certainly not what the "beacon of democracy" crowd had in mind when we started this mess. But it may be the best achievable outcome.

Does that sound defeatist? Unpatriotic? Tell it to the "administration officials" who more or less floated the idea in today's New York Times. Why, oh why, do these people hate America?

Speaking of the "beacon of democracy" crowd, by the way, Daniel Pipes, who was a member of that crowd before the war, is saying something rather different now:

"We have no, no moral responsibility to the Iraqi people," he said. "Our moral responsibility is to ourselves. I very much disagree with the name 'Operation Iraqi Freedom.' It should have been 'Operation American Security.'" This met with applause. "Our goal is not a free Iraq," Pipes continued. "Our goal is an Iraq that does not endanger us." What we need, he says, is a "democratic-minded strongman."

The contrast with Blair's remarks this morning couldn't be more stark. And anyone who speaks of "a democratic-minded strongman" is lost in a wilderness of the mind where words have no meaning. But let's try to take his words at face value anyway. There's no reason to believe Iraq was endangering us when we started this. There were no weapons of mass destruction. And, no matter how much Douglas Feith keeps shopping around the same cherry-picked hints and rumors of some sort of connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, they still don't amount to much. As Pipes' motives shift and mutate, I'm reminded somewhat of Col. Kurtz's report in Heart of Darkness:

... it was a beautiful piece of writing. The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me now as ominous. He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, 'must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings -- we approach them with the might as of a deity,' and so on, and so on. 'By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,' etc., etc. From that point he soared and took me with him. The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you know. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power of eloquence -- of words -- of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: 'Exterminate all the brutes!'

You'd rather it were about the oil...

Edit note: Riverbend quote added late...

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

The Democratic establishment is atwitter with the notion that Howard Dean would be "the next McGovern". Their logic seems to roughly follow this syllogism:
  1. McGovern had energetic support from the party's base
  2. McGovern lost the general election
  3. Energetic support from the party's base is a bad thing, because candidates (like Dean) with energetic support from their base don't win.

Which is such obvious nonsense that Kos thinks there's something else going on:

...the hatred the establishment feels against Dean has nothing to do with ideology. Dean hasn't paid his dues with the establishment. Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi has made his name working the campaigns of insurgent (hence anti-establishment) candidates like Jerry Brown. He is not part of the chummy inside-DC club of Democratic Party consultants.

If Dean wins the nominantion, he becomes the head of the Democratic Party. He gets to replace McAuliffe and fill the top ranks at the DNC. Suddenly, a "DNC Chairman Joe Trippi" is a real possibility, and for an establishment that has spent the better half of the last decade laughing at Trippi's antics and dismissing him as a kook are suddenly standing on shaky ground.

And he quotes just about all of a Ryan Lizza TNR article in support of the proposition.

If so, then it would appear that the Democratic leadership has become a chummy insider group that is more concerned with preserving its own position and hobnobbing with other members of a self-defined "in crowd" than actually hitting the hustings. A proposition borne out by other things that Kos and Lizza don't discuss in detail -- they mention the importance of Dean's endorsement by the SEIU, a large and rising union, but don't say why he won it, which turns out to be apropos:

The SEIU offered all the candidates the same resources: a list of their local leadership and a warning that the route to the endorsement began not in Stern's fifth-floor office on L Street NW but through the rank and file. "Everybody got the same advice," an SEIU official said. "Howard Dean took it to heart." No other candidate came close to Dean's outreach. "Shockingly" not close, Stern said.

Dean did outreach and mobilized the base. The favored candidates of the insiders just tried to get chummy with the leadership, sure that that would be enough. And that is why they failed.

And the chummy insider-ness is a style of politics that translates into a style of governing -- as with the Clinton healthcare debacle, where a policy decided on by horsetrading in a famously closed room could not be passed because the opponents did a good job of selling the opposition, in part with a "folks like us" ad campaign (Harry and Louise) which the Democrats -- then in control of the White House and Senate -- simply couldn't match.

Looking in from the outside, it's difficult to avoid the impression that whatever you think of Republicans' policies, some of their complaints about "liberal elitist" attitudes are correct -- that the Democratic party apparatus just doesn't like dealing with and mobilizing large numbers of grubby, ordinary folks. And so they wind up trying to take the politics out of politics. And that is why they fail.

(SEIU link via Nathan Newman)

Kos puts most of this attitude on the "Clinton crowd", by the way, which is a bit of a paradox -- Clinton did win, after all. But the exception probes the rule -- he won his first national election guided by a maverick outsider, Carville, who was looking from the outside in after that.

Late note: As Nathan Newman has been pointing out for a while now, the liberal prediliction for trying to win political victories through the courts can be seen as another symptom of the same disease...

So, it's not just that we're knocking down houses of people merely suspected of hosting guerillas in Iraq -- punishing not just them, but their families, in apparent violation of the Geneva conventions. We now find, buried in this article on how it really is Iraqis doing all this, and not mysterious foreign infiltrators, little nuggets like so:

But the strike illustrated what military officials said was a new twist to their counterinsurgency campaign: attack bomb-making factories, weapons warehouses, guerrilla meeting places and insurgents' homes with no warning, using high-altitude bombing or long-range missile strikes. Officials indicated that it was clear the general's house was being used as a meeting place.

"This approach gives us more tactical surprise," a military official said. "They're still using houses and neighborhoods, but we've been removing sanctuaries and keeping them off balance."

Gosh, I hope we're as sure about these "bomb-making factories" as we were earlier about the highly specialized chemical weapons trucks on Powell's satellite imagery.

We can be sure, of course, that we've knocked down a house. And we also know how much trouble we're causing the guerillas by doing that. They have to meet in somebody else's house. And they also have to deal with the costs of training and assimilating a few new recruits.

But this campaign clearly begins to address one need spelled out by Rumsfeld in that memo from last month -- this campaign clearly lends itself to a "metric", and a kinder, gentler one than the one made famous in that last war. How long till we start hearing about the building count?

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Paul Krugman today is shrill on the subject of the mutual fund scandals, lucidly explaining them in his usual lucid, cogent shriek. But the SEC is on the case. They're dealing with the problem. Consider what they've already achieved in their settlement with the Putnam mutual funds company:

The settlement with the S.E.C. did not outline what penalties or fines would be paid by Putnam. Restitution will be determined later. As is customary, Putnam neither admitted nor denied the accusations.

So what did the commission extract from Putnam in the quickie deal? An independent board of directors, something the company previously claimed to have; compliance controls, which the company was already supposed to have; and employee trading restrictions, which Putnam should have had all along.

They sure are tough negotiators down there at the S.E.C. Fund companies that have turned up abusive trading practices in their own shops will surely cheer this settlement and line up to receive their own version.

Which, of course, helps to deal with the problem, by giving the fund companies something that they can point to in assuring their marks investors that the problem has been dealt with.

So what do you think the problem was?

Monday, November 17, 2003

The latest from marketers unclear on the concept: "The Cat in the Hat Movie Storybook". This features stills from the new Mike Myers movie, which are, I guess, supposed to be an improvement on the original drawings by Doctor Seuss.

Speaking of which, Myers in his hatted cat-suit is all over the post office. I just hope the producers are paying the post office for this pathetic promotional palaver, and not the reverse...

It's pretty clear at this point that the California energy crisis of a few years' back was, at the very least, severely aggravated by power traders who were gouging customers of the utilities -- which is to say, just about everyone in the state. Advocates of energy deregulation say that the problem isn't with deregulation per se, but that deregulation as implemented in California was flawed and open to exploitation by the power companies. How, then do we structure power grid deregulation so as to prevent this?

The Republican draft of the energy bill released on Saturday would, for the first time, let the electric industry set mandatory rules for using its transmission grid, subject to government approval.

So, if we set the foxes to guarding the henhouse, they'll be way too busy to go for the meat. This is, of course, one of several brilliant schemes in this energy bill -- all, of course, entirely for the public benefit.

Meanwhile, back in the burbs, the hollowing out of the middle class continues:

... 43 million people in the United States ... lack health insurance, and their numbers are rapidly increasing because of ever soaring cost and job losses. Many states, including Texas, are also cutting back on subsidies for health care, further increasing the number of people with no coverage.

The majority of the uninsured are neither poor by official standards nor unemployed. They are accountants like Mr. Thornton, employees of small businesses, civil servants, single working mothers and those working part time or on contract.

"Now it's hitting people who look like you and me, dress like you and me, drive nice cars and live in nice houses but can't afford $1,000 a month for health insurance for their families," said R. King Hillier, director of legislative relations for Harris County, which includes Houston.

Which is absolutely fine for people -- until they start having trouble swallowing, or get a strange rash or a few odd aches, at which point they more or less have to let it slide until it becomes an emergency -- and a far more expensive thing to treat than it would have been earlier.

There are a bunch of aggravating factors here -- aside from the soaring cost of insurance, per se -- which this particular article doesn't discuss. For instance, uninsured patients can wind up getting caught in the crossfire between hospitals and insurance companies. It's now standard practice for hospitals to set outrageously high "base rates" for treatment, so they can negotiate deep "discounts" with insurers and still make a profit. But the uninsured don't have anyone to negotiate "discounts" on their behalf, so they wind up getting billed the outrageous "full rate", in extreme cases, more than eight times as much as an insurance company.

The upshot to all of this is personal bankruptcy... oh, what was that about bankruptcy reform?