Friday, August 27, 2004

And here I was thinking that it would take divine intervention to stave off a disaster in Najaf. All it took was the intervention of a divine:

Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, made a dramatic return to Najaf on Thursday and swiftly won agreement from a rebel cleric and the government to end three weeks of fighting between his militia and U.S.-Iraqi forces. ...

The five-point plan calls for Najaf and Kufa to be declared weapons-free cities, for all foreign forces to withdraw from Najaf, for police to be in charge of security, for the government to compensate those harmed by the fighting, and for a census to be taken to prepare for elections expected in the country by January.

Still, conspicuously absent from, at least, this reported summary is the disarmament of Muqtada al-Sadr's militias outside of Najaf -- elsewhere in the Shiite south, for instance, or in the Baghdad slums of Sadr City. If it comes out looking like al-Sadr got what he wanted (withdrawal of U.S. forces), won reparations, and gets to fight on elsewhere... well, that's the kind of truce that looks like a defeat. At any rate, according to this AFP dispatch (via Mark Kleiman), that's how it looks to Iraqis on the ground:

Akir Hassan, 63, woke up at 6:00 am (0200 GMT) to heed a call by his spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to leave his village south of Kut to converge on the revered mausoleum.

Tears ran down his wrinkled face and his feet barely touched the ground as the elated crowd squeezed through the gates and into the shrine`s courtyard.

He and the others were greeted like heroes by the 300 besieged Sadr militiamen inside.

"God is great. This is democracy, this is the new Iraq, this is the greatest defeat we could have inflicted on the Americans. It`s the most beautiful day in my life," he shouted, hurrying inside the main mausoleum to pray.

Which almost certainly does us less damage than the centuries of hatred we would have earned with a "victorious" attack on the Shrine of Ali, but it's still not good.

See Juan Cole, as ever, for comment from someone who actually knows what he's talking about. He has the big losers in this affair as us (looking more brutal and clueless than ever) and Allawi (who comes out looking like our errand boy); he has it as a wash for Muqtada (hmmm... yes, he does have to disarm within Najaf, but he gets no credit from potential recruits for appearing to have fought us off?), and a big win for Sistani.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Shorter James Schlesinger: failures all the way up the chain of command contributed to the criminal mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib -- but if Donald Rumsfeld has to resign over that, then the terrorists have won.
On the right wing of the blogsphere, the "consistently thought-provking and insightful" Dean Esmay inquires of his esteemed readers:

So here's a question for my white (and other) readers: Have you ever noticed how annoying black people can be?

I mean, seriously. Just admit it: sometimes black folks, they get on your nerves. You want to be all "color doesn't matter" and you want to be all "that nasty crap is in the past" and so on and so forth. You also want to sit there saying, "well I don't discriminate!" and "I don't care about color!" and all that. But come on, you big fat liars. Tell the truth.

Black people: don't they annoy you sometimes?

It looks like it took some mild encouragement for his commenters to treat this query with a proper earnestness:

* Update * My God. Have you ever noticed what total wussies most white people are? I asked this question two hours ago and all I get is "hahahaha you're so funny Dean!" and "are you sure you want to ask this?" responses.

* Update 2 * My wife just walked in on me and said, "Are you sure you want to ask this question? Are you crazy?" To which my answer is: YES! Come on, you fishbelly-white, narrow-nosed, thin-lipped jerkoffs. What are you afraid of? What, will God smite you for speaking your mind? Do you really think race relations can get better in America if you don't honestly say what you think?

Oh, all right. I'll 'fess up. Clarence Thomas annoys the hell out of me.

via Prometheus 6.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Dubya's security initiatives continue to protect Americans from threats from all quarters. Like, for instance, the threat that the text of standing Supreme Court rulings might lead them to distrust the government:

In one of the cases [brought by the ACLU], the government also censored more than a dozen seemingly innocuous passages from court filings on national security grounds, only to be overruled by the judge, according to ACLU documents.

Among the phrases originally redacted by the government was a quotation from a 1972 Supreme Court ruling: "The danger to political dissent is acute where the Government attempts to act under so vague a concept as the power to protect 'domestic security.' Given the difficulty of defining the domestic security interest, the danger of abuse in acting to protect that interest becomes apparent."

In fact, some of the material that they have submitted to the court is so sensitive, that even the plaintiffs in the case must be protected from it.

And their protection goes further:

Justice officials also excised language describing one of the plaintiffs: "provides clients with email accounts" and "provides clients with the ability to access the Internet." The identity of the company in question remains secret to the public.

Lest anyone conclude, wrongly, that if their ISP isn't the one that's suing, then their mail isn't being read by the spooks.

via... lost the pointer. Drattit. I hate when that happens.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

The wingnuts want you to know that the evil done by John Kerry's antiwar activism cannot be overestimated:

It is John Kerry and his ilk who are the baby killers; they have the blood on their hands of the millions massacred by the Khmer Rouge.

An interesting claim. Particularly when you consider that without destablization of Cambodia that came from America's secret missions into that country, Nixon's notorious Christmas bombing, the CIA-sponsored coup by Lon Nol, and the intervention of his government on the South Vietnamese (losing) side, the Khmer Rouge would probably not have come to power. (And the other domino that fell, Laos, was likewise rife with CIA activity which probably did as much to attract trouble as to ward it off).

But Americans have a history of confusion on this particular issue. Even after the Vietnamese had kicked the Khmer Rouge back out of Cambodia, the United States under both Carter and Reagan insisted that the genocidal freaks keep Cambodia's seat in the UN.

But Republicans are clear on some other things... like, for instance, their insistence that there is no visible connection between the "Swift Boat Veterans" who are putting attack ads on the air, and Dubya's presidential campaign. And, indeed, they have a point. When "Swift Boat Veterans" sugar daddy Bob Perry was announced as cohost of a Bush fundraiser, his spokesman quickly denied everything, and if you show up, I'm sure you won't see him there. Likewise, when a member of the campaign's "veterans steering committee" turned up in the ad itself, his name instantly vanished from the official campaign web page -- again, leaving no visible connection. Well, not unless you looked in a google cache. So, to reiterate, there is no visible connection between the Swift vote vets and any official Republican party organization. Well, not on the national level, anyway. No visible connection at all.

Note: I've corrected this post; see comments...

Monday, August 23, 2004

A couple of weeks ago, discussing the fighting in Najaf, I wrote

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...

As I write, the New York Times reports:

By early Tuesday morning the shrine was shrouded in smoke from a large fire on the northern edge of the Old City.

The attack did not appear to have damaged the dome of the mosque. But an attack on Sunday night punched a deep hole in the west wall of the shrine and scattered shrapnel and twisted pieces of metal across the area.

Now, some people say that Muqtada al-Sadr's forces desecrated the shrine first, by turning it into an armed camp. They say that Muslims everywhere should be pleased we're chasing Sadr's guys out. These people are idiots. As Prof. Cole explains, the Muslim world at large sees this as, at best, a pitched battle between Muslim thugs and Christian thugs -- and when they see that kind of fight, they'll back the Muslims every time.

Ah, how economic theory clouds the minds of men. In the wake of Hurricane Charlie, Mark Kleiman explores a mystery:

Why is "price gouging" the name of a problem?

Florida authorities report a wave of price gouging in the wake of Hurricane Charley, and promise to enforce Florida's anti-gouging laws.

Some of this is fairly straightfoward enforcement against bait-and-switch and false advertising, and raises no conceptual problems.

But from the viewpoint of orthodox economic analysis it's hard to explain exactly why it's wrong, in the wake of a disaster, for someone who has a limited amount of ice or gasoline or tarpaper to sell, and a large number of customers for it, to charge whatever the market will bear.

The textbook analysis has a lot to be said for it: not only does the higher price encourage people to use as little as they can of the temporarily scarce good and encourage potential suppiers to spend what they need to spend in order to rush new supplies to the market, the prospect of higher prices encourages stockpiling in advance of potential disasters by merchants and consumers alike. (Since no one can cause a hurricane, there's no reason to fear perverse incentives.)

But the textbook analysis ignores something that people on the ground find it impossible to ignore: the market, operating freely in this kind of atmosphere, allocates scarce goods not by need, but rather by ability pay. The two generally have nothing to do with each other.

Like a lot of folks, I'm used to thinking of the economic disaster in Iraq as being the result of the security mess. So it's interesting to read in Naomi Klein's article in the September Harper's (not on line), how much unemployment there has to do with simple mismanagement:

"The looters were good-hearted", one of [a factory's] painters told me, explaining that they left the tools and machines behind, "so we could work again." Because the machines are still there, many factory managers in Iraq say that it would take little for them to return to full production. They need emergency generators to cope with daily blackouts, and they need capital for parts and raw materials. If that happened, it would have tremendous implications for Iraq's stalled reconstruction, because it would mean that many of the key materials needed to rebuild -- cement and steel, bricks and furniture -- could be produced inside the country.

But it hasn't happened. Immediately after the nominal end of the war, Congress appropriated $2.5 billion for the reconstruction of Iraq, followed by an additional $18.4 billion in October. Yet as of July, 2004, Iraq's state-owned factories had been pointedly excluded from the reconstruction contracts. Instead, the billions have all gone to Western companies, with most of the materials for the reconstruction imported at great expense from abroad.

In fact, to a considerable extent, it's the economic disaster that's fueling the security mess:

With unemployment as high as 67 percent, the imported products and foreign workers flooding across the borders have become a source of tremendous resentment in Iraq and yet another open tap fueling the insurgency.

In this context, it's a particular insult that the ubiquitous concrete blast walls separating "coalition" personnel from the populace at large are imported, while Iraq's own cement factories lie idle. And there's more:

It turns out that many of the businessmen who are threatened by Bremer's investment laws have decided to make investments of their own -- in the resistance. It is partly their money that keeps fighters in Kalashnikovs and RPGs.

At this point, American readers may be asking, "Say what? Businessesmen imposed to investment laws?" Well, yeah. Bremer came in with a notion of privatization as the way to do things, and proceeded to try to privatize -- a plan which ran into a slight snag when too many potential foreign buyers of state-owned firms noticed that under international law, an occupying power was forbidden to sell them. But that idea, and foreign competition generally, was still seen as a significant threat by anyone associated with the businesses that were to be sold -- including, I presume, their private suppliers.

In the meantime, Bremer obviously failed to sell the policy to the Iraqi population at large. (Klein quotes workers in one factory as saying that they will blow it up rather than see it under foreign ownership). And he tried to proceed anyway. Which tells you something about his notion of promoting democracy. Bremer believed that his policy was the right thing to do. But rather than promote it to the people at large, and wait for some kind of consensus, he just went ahead and did it -- the will of the people be damned. And we're stuck with the result.

So, one of the noises coming out of Dubya's campaign these days (them themselves, not surrogates) is that Kerry's campaign is "coming unhinged" and that Kerry himself looks "wild-eyed". Which is kind of interesting, considering that their guy is the one who reacted to questions about the indictment of Ken Lay by refusing to answer and storming off the dais. But Republicans feel they need to exercise care in drawing only the proper conclusions from the facts in evidence. Witness, for instance, the studied reluctance of David Adensik to go from "the SBVT say these things" and "these things contradict records and their own prior statements" to "the SBVT are lying their asses off." Because that would be an improper conclusion.

Concerning proper conclusions, they have a somewhat lower standard of proof. The latest "Swift Boat Veterans" ad, for instance, tries to paint Kerry's testimony about American atrocities in Vietnam as dishonorable (and right-wingers, of course, gleefully throwing around words like "treason"). Why? Because he said the war was a mistake? Because -- says the Swift Boat ad -- the Viet Cong supposedly read Kerry's testimony to POWs to demoralize them? As opposed to, say, the far more graphic, and undeniably correct, testimony at the trial of Lieutenant Calley, which had already occured; Kerry can't have "given" the Viet Cong anything they didn't have anyway. But hey, maybe the prosecutors who had the effrontery to put Calley on trial for the rape and murder of a few hundred gooks, slicing up defenseless old men with bayonets and machine gunning the occasional baby, were treasonous too. Heaven forfend our enemies get valuable talking points.

In a democracy, when things are going badly wrong, the way they are supposed to get fixed is by people talking about them, in plain English -- and it is never "treason" to suggest the government might have goofed. If Kerry's critics think telling the godawful truth to Congress is dishonorable, then their idea of honor is very different from mine. And I don't think I need to know much more about it than that.

But if you do, Jeanne D'arc has an excellent piece up which considers Kerry's testimony, and some veterans' reaction to it, both in its own right and as a harbinger of unfortunate current events...