Friday, August 20, 2004

An index of where we are in civil liberties in America: I was listening to a talk show on the radio yesterday which featured, among others, the executive director of the ACLU, a former Justice Department attorney, Nathan Sales, and Sarah Bardwell, an intern with those notorious terrorists, the American Friends Service Committee, who had had FBI agents snooping around her house for hours. In the interviews, it became clear that they were trying to investigate possible terrorist activity at the RNC -- but these folks had no plans to be there.

Sales tried to defend this by saying that hey, the FBI has to follow up all credible tips. But this was a tip about future violent activities in New York by someone who wasn't even going there. When asked how this could pass the laugh test, he said

I'm not sure that the tip is false... We don't know if the tip was "Sarah and her friends were planning on committing criminal activity", which is obviously not the case -- especially since they weren't even planning on being at the convention -- or on the other hand whether the tip was that Sarah and her friends may know about criminal activity that other people who are planning on going to the convention may be planning to commit...

And he said this after hearing from Bardwell herself that the FBI spent less time talking to them than taking down license place numbers and physical descriptions of bicycles and the like -- all of which had absolutely no relevance once it became clear that they weren't going.

But hey, the laugh test may be a discarded relic of pre-9/11 days. Witness Michael Froomkin's summary of the case of Abdullah al Kidd, a U.S. citizen who had his life utterly destroyed -- marriage broken, foreign study fellowship lost, left unemployable -- by a sixteen-month material witness detention because, the government argued, they needed his testimony to demonstrate that someone else had overstayed his visa. Again, that wouldn't pass the laugh test -- which obviously hadn't been applied by the judge who signed off on this. But hey, he was never put on trial himself, so no due process rights can have been violated. Neat, huh?

But you can understand the government's concern. There are terrorists everywhere. Even in the Senate -- Teddy Kennedy recently found himself on the terrorist suspect "no fly list", and it took three weeks and multiple phone calls straight to Tom Ridge to get him off.

Just remember -- a terrorist is anyone they don't like. And all terrorists are immediate, deadly threats. Then it all makes sense...

Thursday, August 19, 2004

The usual argument from advocates of our private healthcare system is that private actors in the economy have an incentive to contain costs. The interesting question is, which private actors. It's not obvious that patients do -- even the most hard-core theorist would have trouble naming the exact figure beyond which his daughter's life would not be worth the next marginal dollar. And it's not obvious that the health-care industry itself does -- everybody else's costs are their profits.

But the way our health care system has evolved, the real customers of the health care industry aren't so much the patients as the businesses that pay their insurance premiums. And we can say that they do have a direct, immediate, bottom-line incentive to reduce the amount of healthcare premiums they pay. Which it seems they're now doing, in the most direct and immediate way possible -- by not hiring people.

Thus do market incentives improve the economy.

And for more on market incentives, see a recent kerfuffle among multiple blogs about whether they can replace housing regulations, on which the most sensible statement I've seen yet is here, from Atrios...

An exercise in reading the news: yesterday, just after I posted a blog entry which said that our current options in Najaf are "a truce that will be taken as a defeat, or an utterly Pyrrhic victory"). And then marveled as the mediating delegation from the Iraqi National Congress was widely reported, in Western media, to have found a third option, in which Muqtada would disband his militia and abandon the shrines.

Well, I don't mind seeing good news from Iraq. Really, I don't. I'd have been thrilled. But I've learned over the past few months that what with the fog of war, you have to wait a bit before reacting to any news from that part of the world. At least long enough, that is, for Juan Cole to scan the Arab media for those little details that Western reports may miss:

Although Muqtada agreed Wednesday to disarm his militia and leave the shrine if US troops would withdraw from the city first, few expect this siege to end well or easily. The [American] wire services do not appear to have caught on that Muqtada is demanding the withdrawal of US troops as a necessary precondition, but that is what is being reported by al-Jazeerah.

This is, at best, a truce that would be taken as a defeat.

Meanwhile, the latest headlines at Western news sites, as I write, are back to the threats from Allawi's interior ministry of military strikes within hours.

Cole actually spends most of that blog entry reporting on what Muqtada wants, which seems to be a deep mystery to the Western press even though he's explained it repeatedly... and goes on in the blog entry afterwards to report a few details of the Iraqi National Congress meeting which may not get a whole lot of attention from the Western press.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

I'm rushed today, so a few links:
  • Ben Stein proposes a new way of arranging for government activities to be funded by rich citizens: sell titles of nobility. Sure, we'd need to change the constitution, which would be difficult and problematic. But the alternative -- taxing them -- is clearly just unthinkable.
  • Juan Cole reports developments in the case of outed al-Qaeda mole Naeem Noor Khan; briefly, the U.S. and Pakistani governments are now blaming each other for the leak, and it's not clear who's lying. He also notes reports that the current fighting in Najaf (where our present options are a truce that will be taken as a defeat, or an utterly Pyrrhic victory) was initiated by Marines on their own, without talking to anyone in Washington.
  • And Digby (via Jeanne D'arc) let's us know how Americans these days respect the human rights of Iraqis: the soldiers who committed the Abu Ghraib abuses (many of whom had no business being near prisoners at all -- Lynndie England was a file clerk) are being celebrated by their friends and neighbors at home, while Joseph Darby, who reported their abuses, and his family are languishing in protective custody, having heard a few too many casual death threats.

A Norweigian righty blogger recently posted an entry (via Belle at Crooked Timber) suggesting that calls for the complete elimination of the Muslim faith might be just a little bit extreme. He got pilloried in comments. And why not? That stuff doesn't look all that much less sensible than the rest of the news...

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

It can be valuable to seek out alternate perspectives on the news. Many right-wing bloggers cite the Belmont Club as a source for analysis of the situation in Iraq, and "Wretchard" who posts there certainly does have a perspective I would not expect to see elsewhere. Here, for example, he explains why the cadres of the Mahdi army are willing to defy what might seem to be long odds taking up arms against the U.S. Marines -- it seems they're getting news about the U.S. armed forces from Newsweek magazine, which has badly deceived them into believing that the Marines are pushovers.

I await with interest his analysis of the motives of the thousands of people who are flocking to the Shrine of Ali to oppose the U.S. Marines with no weapons at all, intending to act as human shields...

(Human shields news via Juan Cole).

Monday, August 16, 2004

The restaurant chain formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken is now calling itself KFC. Due to trends in healthy eating, they rather badly want people not to see the word hiding behind that "F". [Update: or maybe the one behind the "K" -- see below.] For similar reasons, I was interested to observe recently in Harvard Square, posters for pro-revolutionary speeches by Bob Avakian now praise him as the leader, not of any organization named by full English words, but of the "RCP".

I guess they're not above picking up a few marketing tricks from the capitalists...

Update: As noted by a couple of commenters, Snopes has a page describing this as a myth -- but one with a very peculiar origin: it was orignally spread by the company itself:

Back to our story: In 1991, Kentucky Fried chicken announced that it was officially changing its name to "KFC" (as well as updating its packaging and logo with a more modern, sleeker look). The public relations reason given for the name change was that health-conscious consumers associated the word "fried" with "unhealthy" and "high cholesterol," causing some of them to completely shun the wide variety of "healthy" menu items being introduced at Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. The new title and image were designed to lure back customers to a restaurant now offering foods branded as "better for you," we were told.

It sounded good, but the real reason behind the shift to KFC had nothing to do with healthy food or finicky consumers...

... but rather, that the Commonwealth of Kentucky, being very nearly broke, was using legal gimmickry to extort cash from businesses using "Kentucky" in their trade names. So, according to Snopes, rather than embarass the bureaucrats who were contriving to extort cash from them, KFC management instead concocted a remarkable scheme which involved calling their own food unhealthy to conceal the very existence of the dispute.

Maybe so -- there were other name changes associated with the extortion racket. But there were also a lot of complaints at the time about fried food, which Snopes itself cites as the reason for the change on a different page, more recently updated, which doesn't even mention the licensing story. I report, you decide.

Fortunately, the case of Mr. Avakian's group presents no such ambiguity -- the words "Revolutionary" and "Party" were both on the poster, so it's kind of obvious what they'd just rather not tell you about the RCP...

The news from Iraq has always been a muddle, but the problems are getting more obvious -- as Juan Cole notes, every reporter at the Iraqi National Congress seems to describe a different meeting, with the New York Times and the Washington Post disagreeing most of all.

As you can imagine, the closer the story gets to the fighting in Najaf, the greater the confusion. AFP, for instance reports in a single dispatch that the National Congress will be sending in a delegation to mediate between sides in Najaf, and that Allawi's interior ministry is promising a quick and decisive assault. The Times' man in Baghdad reports meanwhile that

American commanders spoke of tightening the cordon they threw around the Old City last week, but of leaving any attempt to move into the immediate vicinity of the shrine to the Iraqi forces that Prime Minister Allawi said Saturday would now carry the brunt of the Najaf fighting.

By using Iraqi troops, Dr. Allawi and the American officials who are his partners in Baghdad hope to avoid the eruption of fury among Iraq's majority Shiites - and across the wider Shiite world, particularly in Iran - if American troops were seen to have damaged or desecrated the mosque, which is revered as the burial place of Imam Ali, Shiism's founding saint.

Which may not work so well if you believe this Knight-Ridder report (via Kevin Drum) that entire battalions of Iraqi troops, ordered into Najaf, are simply refusing to fire on their fellow Iraqis. (Nor is it clear, to me at least, that Allawi and his American bosses partners are right to believe that Iraqi troops would be less provocative -- if they're perceived as tools of the Americans, then the whole thing still comes off as an American operation, and Allawi and his troops will have merely tarnished themselves by the association).

And the situation immediately around the flashpoint Shrine of Ali, the holiest site to Shiites save only Mecca itself, is particularly muddled, with a late report from the Times which (as I write) relays claims from a Sadrist spokesman that the shrine's outer walls have been damaged. But CNN was earlier reporting that "Twenty-five heavily armed foreigners holed up inside the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf have rigged it with explosives and are threatening to blow up the building if attacked"... a claim reflexively dismissed by Cole, who is apparently sick nigh unto death of American attempts to attribute every single problem in Iraq to unspecified foreigners.

Don't expect things to clear up anytime soon. Allawi's government is attempting to get all the reporters out of Najaf. Government spokesmen say that's just friendly advice, but the London Times' man on the scene says he was evicted at gunpoint. (via Crooked Timber).

But, if we can't be sure of the details of the fighting, that just creates a situation where anyone so inclined can legitimately believe the worst. And we can know what senior Shiite clerics are telling their followers about it. And even our former allies there have nothing good to say about it. Distinguished cleric and former IGC president(!) Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum tells al-Jazeera

"The Americans have turned the holy city into a ghost town. They are now seen as full of hatred against Najaf and the Shia. Nothing I know of will change this," the former president of the now defunct council said on Friday.

"I do not understand why America craves crisis. A peaceful solution to the confrontation with Muqtada could have been reached. We were hoping that Prime Minister Iyad Allawi would lead the way, but he sided with oppression."

From outside Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah (from Najaf, now residing in Beirut) is on al-Jazeera calling for Iraqis to use "all available means" to evict the Americans. And from Qom, Grand Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri has reportedly issued a fatwa forbidding Muslims from fighting other Muslims on behalf of Allawi's government. Al-Haeri, as you might guess from his current abode, is an ideological ally of the Iranian theocrats -- and yet Juan Cole worries that with all these developments (including mass demonstrations in Iraq and elsewhere -- read his blog for details)

It is not impossible that, given this level of disaffection, al-Haeri will pick up support from Sistani. (Shiite religious authority is in some ways a continual popularity contest, and the laity can switch their allegiance over time.) Al-Haeri is close ideologically to the Khomeinists in Iran and highly anti-American.

When we started this little adventure, Tom Friedman was promoting it as a way to propagandize for Western-style democracy, by installing one and showing how beautifully it works. We have now reached a point that ongoing armed operations are directly supplying propaganda to the most determined opponents of Western-style democracy in the region.

In short, a policy of hard-line assault has left us in the hole. Is it just nuts to suggest that we ought to stop digging?

Tom Friedman has -- he's off the Times op-ed page. Writing a book. With nothing, nothing at all, to do with Iraq...

And speaking of what we can and can't know, and what does and does not matter, Jeanne D'arc offers some very useful perspective on corruption in the Iraqi oil-for-food program, the available evidence appertaining thereunto, and the rightwing blogsphere's disquisitions thereupon...

Update: Just heard an NPR report of American tanks 500 yards from the shrine. Oy.

Yet more: Prof. Cole did a chat on the Washington Post web site, which, among other things, explains some of his more cryptic comments on the blog. It turns out, for example, that the Arab press reported the mining of the shrine of Ali days before CNN -- and without the "foreign fighters"...