Friday, May 21, 2004

Well, it seems the neocon love affair with Chalabi may have genuinely hit the rocks -- reports from official Washington about Chalabi getting cozy with Iranian intelligence can hardly be calculated to win him friends on the Iraqi street (which is full to bursting with veterans of the Iran-Iraq war). Although you wonder -- was it really the Iranian intelligence that ruined Chalabi with American officials? We on the left have been hearing rumors about that for months. Did his new political coalition with Hezbollah really mean nothing to these people? Ah, well.

At any rate, it was a long and fruitful relationship, having given rise to a splendid little war with much blood and diversion of funds. And there were happier days, when Chalabi and Dubya himself were the best of pals -- now all they have left, I guess, are the photographs. So it only seems appropriate to give find the right sentimental song to give it a proper send-off. Perhaps this (mp3, lyrics here). For old time's sake.

Just looked over at Instapundit, to see how he was handling the emotional situation. He must be all choked up. The only thing he's got so far is a post which suggests that Chalabi may have been linked to the scandal which has gripped him obsessively for the last week, as I'm sure it has you, casting an entirely new light on the entire situation before and after the war -- the reports of corruption in the U.N. oil-for-food program

(Links via Atrios, of course).

Maybe thirty years ago, looking for something to do on a dead night, Bob Zmuda found himself at a club that was showing a comedy act. The headliner was terrible. Absolutely dreadful. Some guy from... well, he couldn't place the accent, from maybe Romania, doing one horrid celebrity impression -- he seemed to call them "ementations" -- after another, to the point that the hapless audience was, despite themselves, all laughing at the guy, not with him.

"And now," he announced, "I will do de Elbis Presley". This one had a prop -- a guitar. And a spotlight. And the trademark stare, and the lip curl -- absolutely perfect. And just the right syrupy Southern Memphis accent on the "Thankyewverymuch." And an animated, spot-on rendition of -- well, perhaps it was "Hound Dog." And then in a flash, the guitar was gone, and back was the Eastern European nebbish -- a character sometimes known as "Foreign Man" -- stammering his way off the stage. "Tenk you veddy much."

The performer was Andy Kaufman. Zmuda was hooked, and wound up becoming Kaufman's constant collaborator. Not just on stage -- Kaufman would frequently think up some bit, set on, say, an airliner or in a convenience store, and then just walk into a real convenience store (or onto an airliner) and start doing it; the people around generally took him for just some jerk, having no idea that they were actually looking at a performance. I've heard tell that Kaufman's "Tony Clifton" character -- a talent-free lounge singer who taunted the audiences that spurned his butchery of songs that weren't that great in the first place -- actually premeired at some unsuspecting couple's wedding recpetion. Clifton grew to be a very big deal. Kaufman actually acted as if they were different people, but eventually, most people knew the score -- that a "Tony Clifton" performance was actually Kaufman. And so, Clifton was once booked in a week in Nevada, for crowds cheering "Kaufman" on -- not realizing the guy in the suit and the makeup, insisting on being called "Tony Clifton" on and off stage, eating as Clifton, sleeping as Clifton, making passes at female tourists as Clifton, having signed all of the contracts in the name "Tony Clifton", wasn't Kaufman at all, but Zmuda.

The guy even joked about faking his own death.

Kaufman is sometimes regarded as a talented performer with a taste for offstage pranks. It might be better to see him as a talented prankster who did good work -- though probably not his best -- on stage.

And so it was that when he was dying of cancer, going through a desperate search through faith healers and quacks of every description looking for a possible cure, rumors were flying around that he was faking it -- which, of course, continued on after Kaufman's death... was announced. For his part, Zmuda has consistently insisted that Kaufman was genuinely sick, and is genuinely dead. But he would say that. Wouldn't he?

And now, somebody is posting a blog in character as Kaufman, claiming to have been hiding out for twenty years, just to make it a nice, round number (the statute of limitations on associated crimes, he is quick to point out, runs out after only seven). He has even announced a new national tour -- of Starbucks and Wal-Mart locations. In entirely new characters, in performances that will, no doubt, be completely unannounced.

Is it true? Who demands such certainty? Might it not be better, instead, to say that like Tyrone Slothrop at the end of Gravity's Rainbow, Kaufman's characters have split up and dispersed, growing into consistent personae of their own? The next time someone at Starbucks is a little too public with that cell phone conversation about his girlfriend's collection of toilet seats, and the various problems associated therewith -- or, for that matter, just a little more inquisitive about what language "venti" is a word in than common courtesy might otherwise suggest -- treat it as Kaufman, putting on a show. Your life will be the richer for it.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

In 1966, as it was starting to become apparent that the whole Vietnam thing was something of a problem, Senator George Aiken proposed that the United States' best way out of the mess was to declare victory and, well... he talked about "de-escalation" and "gradual redeployment of forces", but it's usually glossed as "declare victory and withdraw."

I've suggested myself a couple of times now that we might want to consider that idea in our current fight -- but last week, the (conservative) David Brooks did me one better, arguing that it would be irresponsible of us to withdraw before we have arranged a political, if not a military, defeat:

Now, looking ahead, we face another irony. To earn their own freedom, the Iraqis need a victory. And since it is too late for the Iraqis to have a victory over Saddam, it is imperative that they have a victory over us. If the future textbooks of a free Iraq get written, the toppling of Saddam will be vaguely mentioned in one clause in one sentence. But the heroic Iraqi resistance against the American occupation will be lavishly described, page after page. For us to succeed in Iraq, we have to lose.

That means the good Iraqis, the ones who support democracy, have to have a forum in which they can defy us. If the insurgents are the only anti-Americans, then there will always be a soft spot for them in the hearts of Iraqi patriots.

Now fast-forward to today's news of police raids on the home of former neocon pet Ahmad Chalabi, and even some of Josh Marshall's well-connected sources are apparently wondering whether this isn't some kind of slick neocon plot to put the plan Brooks described into effect, setting up Chalabi to lead the resistance against us. (Brooks does have access to at least some of the thinking of the administration's neocon faction, through personal connections; I'd describe him as a neoconservative himself -- he's coauthored articles with William Kristol -- except that in another widely lampooned Times column, he tried to deny that neoconservatives exist).

Marshall's gut says that it's not a likely theory:

Something quite that orchestrated would, I suspect, be far too difficult to pull-off. And are we dealing here with smooth operators? Answers itself, doesn't it?

To which I might add that the neocon Project for a New American Century is about more than just conquering establishing a friendly regime in Iraq, though they were plotting that much in the late '90s -- it's about establishing America as the globe's unique hegemon, unchallenged and impregnable. It's about our reputation as much as anything we actually do. And so it's hard to imagine these guys actually choosing to deliberately drop trou and get our butts kicked -- even if that would leave the Iraqis better off.

And as to the factions in the administration other than the neocons, well, by all reliable accounts they hate Chalabi's guts.

In the end, I'm somewhat reminded of a time a couple of years ago (my, how time flies) when Dubya had kind of embarassed himself by first calling Ariel Sharon a "man of peace", enraging the Saudis, then took a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, emerging with praise for him and a few sharp words for the Israelis. As I noted at the time:

It would be easy to lampoon this as the Rodney King school of foreign policy --- "We're all men of peace here. We're all good folks. Can't we all just get along?"

But Bush's defenders on the net say this would be misleading. The true Bush diplomatic strategy, they claim, is deep and complex, and cannot be understood by simply taking the administration's public positions at face value. It is an elaborate series of bluffs, feints, and jabs, a kind of diplomatic blindfold chess, at once treacherous and Machiavellian in its methods, and nobly Jeffersonian in its outlook and aspirations --- which just happens to require, at this point in time, in service of its recondite tactics, that the President appear to be a dim-witted rube who agrees with whatever he most recently heard from anyone with a manly voice and a firm handshake.

It's still the same bunch.

You can learn a lot about an institution by what kicks up a fuss and what doesn't. Take, for instance, the administration's diversion of $700 million from Afghan aid in the summer of 2002 to prepare for the war in Iraq (at a time, you may recall, when Dubya's national security staff left a meeting in Crawford denying that Iraq had even been a subject of discussion).

In any prior administration, Congress and particularly the House would have made this a major scandal, regardless of party affiliation -- not just because it involves breaking a solemn promise we'd made to the Afghans, but because it undercuts one of the main bastions of Congressional power itself, the power of the purse. This is how the Federalist Papers describe the process of checks and balances -- one of the checks on an overreaching executive is supposed to be the Congress guarding its own institutional interests. Not nowadays, though; Congressional Republicans aren't bothered, saying that Congress was happy to allow the White House "unprecedented flexibility" in the post-Sept. 11 environment.

Which is not to say that the House leadership has failed completely to guard its institutional interests, as they perceive them. They're apparently very, very upset that Dubya's crew is allowing their is knocking some of their activities off newspaper front pages. They want limelight, dammit. And worse -- he's threatening to veto a pork-laden highlight bill. So "flexibility" still has its limits. Good to know.

And speaking of what gets coverage and what doesn't, a former commander of Centcom apparently testified to the Senate yesterday that "... we are absolutely on the brink of failure. We are looking into the abyss." He was backed up by Larry Diamond from the Hoover Institution, who spoke of a "perilous situation" and a "quagmire". That's all according to the Guardian; like Atrios, I can't find a thing about this in domestic media, using Google News. (The only other mention as I write in anything that approaches domestic media is a VOA story that quotes these guys on involving the UN, but leaves out the money quotes).

But then again, there's the stuff that does get coverage. I've been wanting to comment on this for a couple of days, but I'm honestly not able to force myself to read to the end of it...

More: Ted Barlow has a bit to say about Hastert's views on sacrifice and fiscal rectitude, as contrasted to John McCain's...

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Administrative note: permalinks should be fixed...
A while ago, I speculated on what a certain kind of Christian,

...the kind that expects the world to end soon, and doesn't much mind --- the buyers of books like "The Late Great Planet Earth", and more recently, the "Left Behind" series of novels by LaHaye and Jenkins, which can only be described as apocalypse porn

might favor in terms of policy, with the goal of doing what they see as G-d's work by bringing about the apocalypse. The answers had a disturbingly familiar look.

Now, it turns out that the Apocalypse Nerds have actually been getting detailed briefings from Dubya's crew:

The e-mailed meeting summary reveals NSC Near East and North African Affairs director Elliott Abrams sitting down with the Apostolic Congress and massaging their theological concerns. Claiming to be "the Christian Voice in the Nation's Capital," the members vociferously oppose the idea of a Palestinian state. They fear an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza might enable just that, and they object on the grounds that all of Old Testament Israel belongs to the Jews. Until Israel is intact and David's temple rebuilt, they believe, Christ won't come back to earth.

Abrams attempted to assuage their concerns by stating that "the Gaza Strip had no significant Biblical influence such as Joseph's tomb or Rachel's tomb and therefore is a piece of land that can be sacrificed for the cause of peace."

Why they'd take Abrams's word about the second coming is a bit of a poser -- last I checked, he was Jewish, and so wasn't much expecting it to happen in the first place. Or so one presumes.

But perhaps one shouldn't get too worked up over all this. Just because Dubya's crew is talking to these guys -- over and over and over -- doesn't necessarily mean they buy into their agenda. So look on the bright side. It may be just pandering.

More: Further commentary here and here, from the Slacktivist...

A capsule review of "Colossus, The Price of America's Empire" by Niall Ferguson:

This book is largely about the relations betweeen the United States and weaker states in what people now call the "developing world". Ferguson's particular claim to expertise is in addressing these questions largely from an economic perspective -- his current position is at NYU's business school. He strongly advocates interventionist policies. The twenty-page index has entries for "Washington, George" and "Washington Post", but none for "Washington consensus". Nor can I recall encountering the latter phrase anywhere in the text.

In slightly more detail:

Ferguson wants America to adopt explicitly imperialist policies toward the developing world -- but he does not suggest that we take direct control there. He's not for colonies. His introduction, defining the term "empire", takes pains to include exercise of soft power and indirect rule. So he advocates that we find indirect means of controlling the behavior of nominally independent states.

But we're already doing that. Conditions attached to World Bank loans and IMF financial assistance packages have a strong -- some would say controlling -- influence over the economic policies of governments throughout the developing world. And particularly over the past decade or two, they've come to look an awful lot alike, under the widely acknowledged influence of the U.S. Treasury department. So, acting through these institutions, we've been imposing a basket of policies called the "Washington consensus" all over the planet. Countries in Latin America, southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and so forth have all been pushed into trade liberalization, privatization, and extreme fiscal austerity measures. And while some of these policies have obvious benefits for their first-world trading partners, the benefits for citizens of these countries on the ground have been harder to see.

Ferguson does not acknowledge this. In fact, he barely acknowledges the existence of the IMF, mentioning it only four times: once to report that it was formed after World War II, once to suggest that it extend aid to "the new Iraq", and twice while citing data from its reports.

Instead, Ferguson advocates we start to intervene in the economic affairs of developing states as if we weren't already doing that. In support of which, he seems to suggest that these states have been choosing their policy entirely on their own, with results so bad that the notion that they should have any independence at all can be reasonably questioned:

... the experiment with political independence, expecially in Africa, has been a disaster for most poor countries. Life expectancy in Africa has been declining and now stands at just forty-seven years. This is despite aid, loans and programs of debt forgiveness. Only two sub-Saharan countries out of forty-six, Botswana and Mauritius, have bucked the trend of economic failure.

Some might think it relevant to note that Botswana and Mauritius are also two of the very rare third-world countries which have attracted attention for bucking "Washington consensus" policies -- Mauritius for its regulation of trade, and Botswana for rejecting IMF loans and the accompanying austerity package. Particularly when Gambia, Ferguson's poster child for the ineffectiveness of third world government, has been far more willing to mold its policies to the Washington consensus -- in so far as it can.

But Ferguson has his own explanation for the relative success of Botswana and Mauritius; he thinks they were particularly good at fostering institutions which create a business-friendly climate. Well, he's not the only one. But if all the countries who have taken World Bank and IMF aid, to worse results, have been unable to foster business-friendly institutions, then what does that say about the judgment of the Bank and the IMF?

But stay tuned for some alarming heterodoxy before you take my word on anything economic...

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

There's a new trend in sports medicine: medical practices paying the teams for the right to treat the players -- and to advertise themselves as "the medical staff of the Bashers", or whatever. And some player representatives are upset:

Mets pitcher Tom Glavine said he was satisfied with the care provided by the Mets' doctors but concerned about the principles of the new financial model. "Potentially, it's an issue that could be disturbing or warrant concern," he said. "You'd like to think the team is getting you the best possible care and you're not just treated by whoever gives the most money."

Troy Vincent, president of the N.F.L. Players Association and a cornerback for the Buffalo Bills, said players, coaches and physicians had each been put at a disadvantage.

"It destroys trust and credibility on all sides," he said. "It's bad for the sport and bad for the community it serves. With all the large sums of money a team spends on salaries and everything else, you have to ask yourself if an extra million dollars from a hospital deal is really worth it."

Many team executives insisted, however, that medical care had not been compromised by these arrangements.

"Do you really think that in the former arrangement, when sports team management like us was paying the doctors, that they were any more likely to put the player's health ahead of our bottom line?", they did not add. "How naive can you get?"

A more serious question for potential patients of these firms is what does it mean when you know your medical practice is spending big bucks on promotional arrangements with sports teams. But in the ads they get to buy, they're not obliged to talk about that...

Draka USA. They're here. They're established. They're operating publicly, entirely in the open. They are selling high quality wire and cable products for a wide variety of commercial and industrial applications. Someday, the entire country may be controlled by signals transmitted through Draka cable. Depending on your taste in science fiction, this may or may not be a concern.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Seymour Hersh has yet another installment in his Abu Ghraib chronicle, this one reporting that the abuse at Abu Ghraib was seeded by an off-the-books program authorized by Rumsfeld personally, which subsequently ran amok. The Department of Defense was quick with a statement which apparently denied Hersh's allegations -- and more than one sharp-eyed observer was just as quick to note that if you actually read the DOD statement closely, it didn't directly deny much of anything.

Then again, actual denials may be a bit of a problem for our military of late, after they denied having ever had Nick Berg in custody, and then rather quickly had to backtrack. And the general confusion about that story has fed a rash of speculation, as my readers are presumably aware. I hesitate to embrace the more extreme theories that are floating around, because even at this late date, having seen all that I have seen and things I could never have imagined, I still and all can't make myself accept that they could possibly be this fucking dumb. But there are more strange things about the Berg "beheading" video than Berg himself being dressed in an American orange prison jumpsuit; some of these look like reasonable questions to me.

And, having gone totally tinfoil-hat for a minute there, a brief note on current events, my analyses, and credibility thereof. I've been worrying about the possibility of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani declaring a general ban on U.S. troops in response to the fighting in Najaf. But Juan Cole says here that it looks to him like Sistani is actively colluding with the Americans to try to take down Muqtada al-Sadr, who has worn out his welcome with the rest of the Shiite establishment, particularly in Najaf. Which, if true, would certainly explain why Sistani's response to the fighting so far has been limited to fatwas urging all the belligerents to take the fight out of town -- a far more practical proposal for the Americans than for the Army of the Mahdi. (That's as opposed to the Iranian theocracy, whose condemnation of the fighting is quite one sided -- and rather worrisome). Adjust your opinion of my sources and analysis accordingly.

One last thing -- as you may notice, I'm playing with blogger comments. We'll see how this works out...

More: Billmon offers yet another dissection of the Pentagon's non-denial denial of Hersh...

Yet more: Colin Powell now says we'd be willing to swallow a theocracy in Iraq, apparently a reversal of our former stance. Lambert at Corrente thinks this, too, was part of Sistani's price for allowing us our frolic in Najaf. I'm not so sure -- Sistani personally is not nearly as inclined toward direct theocracy as the Iranian mullahs (or, for that matter, Muqtada al-Sadr). But it's certainly possible...

Another update: Finally a concrete denial on the Hersh story, but it took them a while, and was preceded by a new version of the original statement (which may, for all I know, change again by the time you read this), which said that there are false statements in the Hersh piece someplace, but was still not terribly specific about which of Hersh's particular claims are actually false...

links via Marshall and Froomkin.