Thursday, May 27, 2004

The army is hard enough up for troops in Iraq that they are reportedly planning to send over OPFOR, the units that serve as opposition for American troops in traning exercises -- units which have not seen sustained combat deployment since World War II.

Does anybody feel a draft?

Meanwhile, in unexpected good news, American forces in Najaf have reportedly accepted a Fallujah-style deal strikingly similar to what Muqtada al-Sadr was offering a week and a half ago, which doesn't undo the damage from the action since, but at least cuts our losses...

Looking over Dubya's plan for Iraq on Monday, Tom Friedman, like other observers, felt the lack of an actual plan. But never fear. He has a five-point plan of his own to "do things right in confronting terrorists". In brief:
  • Embassy libraries and scholarships
  • A gas tax within America (or parking subsidies for high-milage cars)
  • Reducing farm subsidies, to help "Pakistani, Egyptian, and other poor farmers"
  • Make a "serious effort" to deal with the Palestinian issue, including NATO intervention
  • Alliances are good

Most of these are measures designed in one way or another to improve our general public image in the Arab world. It was just a year and a half ago that Friedman had another proposal for how we could do that -- he said we should invade Iraq. Now that that invasion has gone horribly wrong, he suggests, in effect, that Dubya try to change the subject. But that won't wash.

Imagine an Arab kid who goes to his newly funded embassy library and reads these items, from the Declaration of Independence:

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For depriving us, in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

and then thinks about the photos coming out of Abu Ghraib, the prisoners locked up there and subject to torture without due process, and our attempts to insure that the "sovereign" Iraqi government not alter any laws that we have dictated to it, nor, according to many reports in the British press, be able to try American soldiers for crimes commited within its jurisdiction -- well, what's that kid supposed to conclude?

But perhaps I'm just too dull to grasp the subtleties of Friedman's thinking. Take the gas tax, for instance. I understand when he suggests would reduce our dependence on Arabian petroleum, which is all to the good. But it would also hurt the economies of Arab oil-exporting states. To Friedman, that's all good as well:

There is simply no way to stimulate a process of economic and political reform in the Arab-Muslim world without radically reducing their revenues from oil, thereby forcing these governments to reform their economies, and societies, to produce real jobs for their people

Now, hearing this prospect, I'd worry instead that reducing these countries' revenue might just result in economic stagnation, privation, and radicalization of the populace, which is exactly what we're trying to avoid. Particularly since "these governments" have precious little experience building viable export industries -- but plenty raising the rabble. But Friedman sees that "these governments" could simply choose, at any time, "to produce real jobs for their people", and that the only reason they haven't is that they're too busy spending the oil money. That's why he's a highly regarded expert commentator on the Arab world, and I'm not.

Besides, another of Friedman's points, reducing agricultural subsidies, is aimed directly at developing non-oil eindustries there. Now, when thinking about this, my first concern would be that Arab countries aren't exactly situated to have major agricultural sectors under any circumstances -- they don't overflow with arable land. And an agricultural economy isn't exactly what we're trying to develop anyway.

I might also have noted that the major non-oil exports of Pakistan and Egypt are textile goods -- some of which are actually subject to American import quotas. (Even before World War II, Egypt's main farm export was cotton, not, say, wheat). We actually promised Pakistan better trade treatment with regard to those as a reward for cooperation in the Afghan war, then reneged. But nevertheless, the best trade measure we could take in the region has nothing to do with textiles -- it's agricultural price supports. Friedman says so. And he's the expert.

So when he suggests, say, NATO intervention in the Arab-Israeli conflict, we should just bow to his wisdom. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

On the agricultural subsidies -- Egypt, at least, actually imports a lot of American grain, and reducing the subsidies might help farmers there by reducing that, if we want there to be a viable agricultural sector there. But maintaining largely agrarian economies in these countries seems a strange thing for Friedman to want...

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

It's one of the stock science-fiction nightmares, from dystopian futures where massive populations are ground under the heel of an unfeeling bureaucracy, stamped, filed, numbered, and cut down if they get out of line: people getting chips implanted, broadcasting their identities to hidden equipment that they might not even be aware of.

Kids in Spain are getting them implanted to pay for drinks.

via slashdot, which also has their usual semi-reliable debate about technical attacks on the system

In the New York Times today, David Brooks outlines what he sees as Dubya's plan -- through the wondrous workings of democracy, "the solution to chaos is liberty". Including, it appears, the right to bear arms in militias, which according to a separate hard news report, we are now encouraging in Iraq, having ceased even trying to disarm them.

That starts to sound at least vaguely like the exit strategy we pursued in Afghanistan, in somewhat different forms, both times we intervened: leave the militias in place, and hope they can work something out -- possibly with a "national government" in place whose sole practical power is to mediate between the factions (as in the more recent instance), but in any case, with a lasting peace ultimately dependant on the good will of all the parties. The first time around, we got the Taliban. It remains to be seen what will ultimately come of the second.

And, having griped about it, I must add again that something like this might be our least worst option -- given how badly our screwups have destroyed our credibility and even ability to achieve anything better. Let's hope for credible mediators; at this point, they're our last, best hope.

On which point, by the way, see Laura Rozen's speculation that interference with UN diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi's work trying to form a credible governing coalition may have been the hammer stroke by which Chalabi put the last nail in his own coffin -- her blog has been Chalabi central since the raid, if you have an interest in the story generally. And dealing with another, vaguely related mystery, the Times has a news story and an op-ed which offer different sets of clues to a different mystery -- why have the Saudis' concerted efforts to lower oil prices been such a failure?

Monday, May 24, 2004

That was mykeru's response to hearing that after we shot up a wedding party in Northern Iraq, our generals went blustering for days about the number of "military-age males" that were dead amid all the wounded and dying children. (There was more to say in an accompanying essay. There is very little reasonable doubt that the incident took place as described; for unreasonable doubt, see "Wretchard" here -- Update: to give him credit, he's backtracked a bit).

via Riverbend.

Note: edited late to be mindful of the legitimate point made by Atrios here, where he also links to photos of the dead kids who, our military claims, do not exist...

Every once in a while, somebody proposes an American national ID card -- generally to have the idea shot down. So we don't (yet) have any statutory requirement for people to carry IDs. Which makes it a little strange that our local Boston subway cops are about to start checking them anyway. Boiled frog, anybody?

In unrelated news, the New York police are considering banning photographs in the subways -- a policy that has already been reportedly in place here for a while now...

Stanley Fish argues here, in a New York Times op-ed that people from the academy should stay out of politics:

Marx famously said that our job is not to interpret the world, but to change it. In the academy, however, it is exactly the reverse: our job is not to change the world, but to interpret it. While academic labors might in some instances play a role in real-world politics -- if, say, the Supreme Court cites your book on the way to a decision -- it should not be the design or aim of academics to play that role. ...

My point is not that academics should refrain from being political in an absolute sense -- that is impossible -- but that they should engage in politics appropriate to the enterprise they signed onto. And that means arguing about (and voting on) things like curriculum, department leadership, the direction of research, the content and manner of teaching, establishing standards ? everything that is relevant to the responsibilities we take on when we accept a paycheck. These responsibilities include meeting classes, keeping up in the discipline, assigning and correcting papers, opening up new areas of scholarship, and so on.

For example:

Analyzing welfare reform in an academic context is a political action in the sense that any conclusion a scholar might reach will be one another scholar might dispute. (That, after all, is what political means: subject to dispute.) But such a dispute between scholars will not be political in the everyday sense of the word, because each side will represent different academic approaches, not different partisan agendas.

But analyzing welfare reform, if done properly, involves analyzing the consequences -- it will lead to the conclusion that some approaches work well, and others don't. Else, why do it at all? And those conclusions will necessarily feed directly into political debates -- at least if the political debates themselves have any integrity (which, these days, is open to doubt).

Now, there is still a difference between academic studies of an issue, and pure policy advocacy -- between studies that test whether something works, and polemics that start from the premise that it does, and proceed from there. But Fish goes farther than pointing out that difference; he advocates complete disengagement from the political process. It should not be the "design or aim", he says, of academics to "play a role in real-world politics" -- any role, not even the role of keeping politicians honest.

Even the task of educating kids to be good citizens is too political for Fish:

The idea that universities should be in the business of forming character and fashioning citizens is often supported by the claim that academic work should not be hermetically sealed or kept separate from the realm of values. But the search for truth is its own value, and fidelity to it mandates the accompanying values of responsibility in pedagogy and scholarship.

This, then, is Fish's view on "why we built the Ivory Tower": as a place to search for pure truth. And, as a place where truths can be kept in splendid isolation, lest someone in the grubby real world actually benefit.

And this is a particularly odd thing to read coming from a Dean of the University of Chicago -- a school whose faculty, particularly the Straussians, are hardly shy about dabbling in politics. Though they certainly do make a practice of holding their particular ideas about truth very close to the vest... Oops! Got my Chicago schools confused -- Fish was a dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which is a different school. Darn. I hate when that happens; thanks to my email correspondant for the correction.