Friday, August 13, 2004

New news today on the remarkable global reach of international terrorism. The FDA has announced the real reason why they want to ban import of drugs from Canada: terrorists might taint the drug supply. And in the New York Times, Bob Herbert notes that Ashcroft has personally intervened to keep a Haitian refugee in detention from being freed on bond, to foil al-Qaeda's dastardly plan to smuggle agents into the United States by teaching them Haitian Creole, and putting them on unseaworthy boats to brave a cordon from the Coast Guard.

So we see the reach of global terrorism: terrorists have managed to involve themselves in everything that Dubya's crew dislikes. Oh, the bastards.

The terrorists, I mean.

(drugs link via Kevin Drum).

A few brief notes:

If you have to deal with conserveratives who are obsessed with the "Kerry in Cambodia" story, there are two ways you can deal with it. One of which is to try to recite the pages of relevant facts in this post by Brian Balta. The other is to just steal the line I found in comments, well, err... someplace that whatever else we might suspect, we can be sure he was not in Alabama.

Also, Regarding U.S. fears of the Chavez threat from Venezuela: Well, OK, maybe he isn't working on the creation of a Latin American Socialist Superstate. But he acknowledges working on something potentially even nastier: a combined, regional oil company. The horror...

Lastly, The Poor Man and Diana Moon are off brief travel hiatus and posting good stuff.

More: Another piece of research on the Cambodia business...

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Guesting on the Times Op-Ed page, Dahlia Lithwick worries about how Dubya's crew is equating dissent and terrorism -- and using anti-terror laws to publish dissent.

Which, in away, is unfair to Dubya's crew. It isn't just a political thing with them; they don't just want to clamp down on speech that opposes them politically. As Howard Stern would remind you, they'd like to clamp down on all speech they find unpleasant. As a preview, I offer this charming tale: A devotee of role-playing games tried to ride a ferry to New York -- to find that, in preparation for the RNC, it is now infested with high school hall monitors who are searching bags not only for weapons, their official remit, but are apparently also trying to confiscate books they deem "inappropriate."

(Ferry service management, by the way, is quick to say that this is not official policy... however much some folks would like it to be).

The folks at Wampum can always be counted on for interesting takes on economic data. Mary-Beth, for instance, offers a graph of hourly wage rates during the recent "pickup" in the job market... which show a trend which Dubya's supporters might not expect. And at Crooked Timber, Daniel Davies would like you to know that the longer-term trend for the folks at the bottom in the U.S. isn't that great either.

Wampum is also the current posting home of Dwight Meredith, who'd like to remind you that he was graphing economic performance under Democratic vs. Republican presidents almost two years before Michael Kinsley. Rounding out the Wampum roster, Eric finds that when it comes to Dubya's crew, Hanlon's razor is getting a little dull...

More: on income-related trends from Jacob Hacker, with commentary from Kevin Drum.

Before the invasion of Iraq, I observed that'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...

Fast forward to today. As Venezuela prepares to vote on the future of its President, Hugo Chavez, rumors are swirling. And oddly enough, the most extreme have the U.S. planning covert action, based on a transplant of the Vietnam-era domino theory, with Chavez and Castro in the unlikely roles of Ho and Mao (or whoever was supposed to be backing the Viet Cong... was it Brezhnev? I forget), preparing to topple the governments of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru to create a "Latin American socialist superstate."

But fear not! Fortunately, on examination by cooler heads, these prove to be mere contingency plans "based on rumors circulating in the anti-Chavez camp" -- who are of course completely independent of the U.S. government and would not be toeing a U.S. line. Fortunately for the oil industry at any rate, because for the moment at least, ironically enough, they'd rather keep Chavez:

"Winning the referendum would be more constructive to stability in the oil markets in the short term because the markets know what they have," said Lawrence Goldstein, president of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation, a New York-based research group. "There would be a continuity in policy. It's better than uncertainty." ...

"Chavez has become more and more open about his animosity toward the United States," said Antonio Szabo, a former executive at the state oil company here, Petroleos de Venezuela, and now chief executive of Stone Bond Technologies, a Houston software and energy consulting firm. "But he has shown no animosity toward the companies."

More: A fuller translation of the El Mundo article from Spain which started this all off is here (via Kevin Drum).

A bit of news from Najaf: it seems the U.S. rather suddenly called off, or at least postponed, its attack on what might as well be the Shiite Vatican in Najaf -- by some reports, quite literally calling back an armored column that was leaving its base. But that's after a week or so of talking about a final confrontation and killing off martyring all the Sadrists.

Well, the attack was ill-conceived and dangerous. But so is the talk. Napoleon's line was, "if you say you're going to take Vienna, take Vienna." And the contrapositive applies: if you're not sure you will, or can, take Vienna, then don't brag about it. The upshot is that as at Falluja (another case where backing out was a bad option, but going in would have been worse) the credibility of our tough talk has taken another hit...

Update: Well, this one aged quickly. It seems that the U.S. military may have gotten tired of choosing the lesser of two evils. For the moment, reports are that they're trying to isolate the old city, and not to fight within it, but that sounds like a recipe for stalemate.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

It's no secret that our immigration system has problems figuring out the status of people. As Slacktivist reports on one particular bit of nonsense:

Before 9/11, for example, most Americans probably didn't worry too much about Finnish theologians infiltrating America's nondenominational seminaries and infecting our unsuspecting, red-blooded American theology students with their Scandinavian theories of pneumatology.

We were such innocents then.

Fortunately, your Department of Homeland Security is on the case. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, a systematic theology professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., has been deported to his native Finland.

The issue seems to be whether Fuller, with no ties to any particular denomination, is really a seminary. But it could be worse -- there are people who spend more than a year waiting in detention for rulings no more sensible than this.

So, it seems Dubya's crew has carefully pondered the problem of the long backlogs faced by people in immigration detention waiting for a hearing, and the bad conditions many of them face. And they have found the answer: eliminate the hearings:

Citing concerns about terrorists crossing the nation's borders, the Department of Homeland Security said on Tuesday that it planned to give border patrol agents sweeping new powers to deport illegal aliens from the frontiers with Mexico and Canada without providing them the opportunity to make their case before an immigration judge. ...

Domestic security officials described the deportation process in immigration courts - which hear asylum claims and other appeals to remain in the country - as sluggish and cumbersome, saying illegal immigrants often wait for more than a year before being deported while straining the capacity of detention centers and draining critical resources. Under the new system, immigrants will typically be deported within eight days of their apprehension, officials said.

Indeed, why go to all that trouble of having hearings to determine a person's status when a border guard -- a properly trained border guard, to be sure, as anyone questioning the new policy is assured -- can simply look at them and tell whether they ought to be in the country or not?

A brilliant policy. What could possibly go wrong?

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

A little news from Iraq:

Juan Cole reviews reports of the fighting in Najaf, creeping ever closer to the shrine of Imam Ali (it's already well into the adjoining cemetery), and worries that

Al-Zurufi and PM Iyad Allawi appear to have given the US Marines permission to fight in the shrine of Imam Ali if it became necessary in order to flush out the Mahdi Army militiamen holed up there. The outrage among Iraqi Shiites and Shiites throughout the world should the Marines pursue such a plan would likely cost the US the war, even if it won the battle.

("Al-Zurufi" is the appointed governor in Najaf, Ali Al-Zurufi, the man chosen because he's got his finger on the pulse of this trickiest of situations in Iraq, with up-to-date personal knowledge of the game and the players. Where are such paragons to be found? Before this gig, Mr. Al-Zurufi was apparently unemployed in Dearborn, Michigan).

Of course, if there is damage to the shrines, no matter who pulled the trigger, we will be blamed. And of course, our enemies are very well aware of that...

More: From Baghdad, Riverbend comments.

Monday, August 09, 2004

A few months ago, I vented my annoyance with the work of the Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, who seems to be moving into my neck of the woods -- and in particular to his book "Colossus", which says that Americans should run an empire, and in particular, seize control of the economic policies of client states -- in seeming ignorance of the myriad ways in which we have been doing exactly that for decades.

But there's so much more in that book that's annoying. A particular sore point, to me, which he seems to be flogging in newspaper columns lately, is his treatment of the relative working hours of Americans and Europeans. Ferguson says that the European "leisure preference" marks modern Europeans as poor imperial overlords. (That's supposed to be a bad thing). Thus, for example, from page 243 of the book:

In June 2003 a German politician took his career in his hands by daring to suggest that if Germans made do with fewer holidays, their economy might grow faster. Such views are no longer taboo in France, either. But a century of European social democracy has created habits of mind that are extremely hard to break. From almost its very inception in the late nineteenth century, the German Social Democratic Party campaigned for shorter working hours and, more recently, shorter working lives. For their French counterparts, securing a maximum working week of thirty-five hours was one of the great achievements of the recent past. This tradition dies hard.

And yet strangely, I recall being taught as an American child, not too long ago, that the forty-hour work week was a major achievement of American society.

Ferguson says that Americans work in greater numbers (more two-worker families, longer hours, less vacations) because, well, we just like working. Isn't that neat? Isn't that kind of ignorant of nearly a century of labor strife during which Americans quite literally fought pitched battles in the streets for the privilege of working less? And since when is having more vacation time supposed to be a bad thing, anyway?

There are, to be sure, quite a few Americans working hard at jobs they love. But for every one of those, there are (quite conservatively) two people slaving away at multiple dead-end jobs to keep the rent check paid and the wolf from the door. That's desperation, not a lifestyle choice.

Ferguson says that German workers should give up their hard won leisure so that their economy should grow faster. But the economy exists for the workers, not the other way 'round. An expert in international economics ought to understand that.

And now for another episode of "Dodgson at the movies".

I saw the new version of The Manchurian Candidate the other day. Some of you may be aware that there's a bit of a controversy over the character played by Meryl Streep -- there are right-wingers saying that she's modeled on Hillary Clinton, even though the actress herself says the performance was inspired, if that's the word, more by Peggy Noonan and Dick Cheney.

Walking in knowing this, the most interesting thing to me was how little there is in the movie to refute either interpretation. There are, at best, brief allusions to her political positions. She apparently favors a strong America that's willing to defend itself. Just like George W. Bush... and John Kerry. And her son, with whom she apparently disagrees on some matters, is worried about unnecessarily clamping down on civil liberties. A partisan Democrat might say that... but so might John Ashcroft (who would quickly go on to explain that he has done no such thing). There is certainly conspiracy mongering in the film, but you can find that on both sides of the political divide.

In short, while you can divine the filmmakers' own intentions in the (easily ignored) lyrics of the "Fortunate Son" cover that plays over the credits, the film itself is a Rohrschach blot. You see in it the faces of whoever in politics you hate.

What's interesting is how some politically active folks seem to be giving the same treatment even to pictures which, you'd think, would be a little more clear. As in the candidates' service during the Vietnam war. It is at this point, firmly established that George W. Bush missed a mandatory flight physical and five months of mandatory drills that were scheduled after that -- the remaining controversy is over whether he ever made up the drills he missed. And there are some folks around who dismiss complaints about this as carping cavils because, well, he did show up for... at least however long he did. And maybe you could buy that... if the same folks weren't casting aspersions on the valor of Dubya's opponent, whose multiple medals prove, at the very least, that he was in fact in Vietnam. There are no Rohrschach blots here -- both pictures are clear, at least until someone tries to bury them in ink.

And the same is true of more current events. I've met people who will positively beam at you about the great things that are happening in Iraq, and will start showing up in the news, well... any day now. And meanwhile, the news itself just keeps getting worse -- open rebellion in the Shiite areas, the decampment of the moderate Ayatollah Sistani for reasons that are still somewhat mysterious but can't really be good.

Likewise, Dubya is seen as being the one who's "serious" about the "war on terror", even though his administration outed a Pakistani double agent last week; the latest report on that is that the mere mention of the guy's name in the papers apparently sent his former colleagures running. So they've saved us from the scourge of al-Qaeda terrorists in custody; they're so much better on the loose.

But that's what I see. Maybe the reporters and the people who have spent years studying the people and the culture are all just making things up.