Wednesday, November 24, 2004

A few days before the election, Dean Esmay made the remarkable claim that the Iraq war was not only going well, but

by any rational measure, the Iraq war has gone better than any operation of its type and scale has ever gone in history.

In that particular post, there wasn't a whole lot backing up the claim. But more recently, for details, he has referred people to this round-up, by one Art Chrenkoff. Sez Dean:

Note something interesting about Chrenkoff's news roundup: It's huge, as usual. And by that I mean it's really long. Know why? Because there's so damned much good news. So, seriously, don't miss it.

Well, I'll take my good news anywhere I can get it, these days. Let's have a look.

The first piece of good news is that in those districts of Baghdad where American soldiers can still walk without a platoon of their buddies for backup, the traffic is really, really bad.

The second piece of good news is a blockquote which begins as follows:

Car bombs explode almost daily and insurgents still control parts of the Sunni Triangle, where they regularly attack U.S. troops.

Really, it does.

It goes on to explain that elsewhere in Iraq, politicians are forming coalitions for the elections. It does not explain that the largest and most prominent of these coalitions is made up of Shiite theocrats, some with ties to their fellow Shiite theocrats across the border in Iran. Nor does it mention that our "success" in Falluja, such as it has been, has failed to have the effect of improving the prospects for Sunni participation in the vote. Instead, it backfired, with influential Sunni groups like the Association of Muslim Scholars now calling for a boycott of the elections in part as a protest against the Falluja attack.

But let's cut our buddy Art a little slack here. He's trying to give us the good news. Accordingly, he quotes an official from Allawi's government who claims that "All the Iraqi people want the elections". Well, with some minor exceptions like the Sunni clergy. But hey.

Want more good news? Well, remember those billions of dollars for reconstruction that Dubya's crew had allocated but not spent? They're spending $871 million of it.

And so on, and so on, and so on. An amazing amount of this post, which is quite long, is stuffed with press releases from one group or another saying that they've set up meetings to discuss future business arrangements which, if all goes as planned, may start improving the lives of dozens of Iraqis each by, oh, 2006. And, oh yes, the inevitable parade of anecdotes about U.S. troops running Iraqi schools. (Like we can't find Iraqis who are better qualified to do that? They do speak the kids' language; we don't).

There are a few pieces of genuine news in there. We've finally made arrangments for debt forgiveness. (Gee, think that could have gone faster if half our government wasn't calling the creditor governments traitors and poltroons at every opportunity?) But the second "newsiest" item after that is:

In Baghdad, reconstruction has been largely completed on a vital piece of infrastructure:

"The Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) (formerly Saddam International Airport) has been refurbished and repaired as part of a contract from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to Bechtel and SkyLink to rebuild Iraqi airports in Baghdad, Basrah and Mosul.

Now, our buddy Art neglects to mention the $5,000 armed escort you still need to get safely from the newly refurbished airport to Baghdad itself -- but remember, he's trying to report the good news.

I could run on for a while longer placing more of Chrenkoff's nuggets of "good news" (like the excited enumerations of Iraqis we've recruited to the desertion-riddled Iraqi police and guards, however temporarily) in their proper context like this -- but that would be boring. So here's some context on the basic claim that this war is going "better than any operation of its type and scale in history." It's a story of a Knight-Rider reporter who had a very pleasant birthday party in Baghdad:

Stars glittered over the Baghdad hotel where I blew out the candles on a cake decorated by my four closest Iraqi friends. We stayed up until the dawn call to prayer rang from a nearby mosque, telling stories and debating the future of a country I'd grown to cherish.

A year later, only one of those friends is still alive. The poolside patio where they sang "Happy Birthday" in Arabic is empty most days, because foreign guests are afraid of snipers and mortars. The hotel has become a prison, and every foray outside its fortified gates is tinged with anxiety about returning in one piece.

And all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Some people say that a President doesn't have much influence over the economy. Morgan Stanley's chief economist, Stephen Roach, may not be one of those people. Or maybe he is. In which case he's have to believe that even coming out of the relatively prosperous '90s under Clinton with a budget surplus, there was already no avoiding the "economic armageddon" he sees as well-nigh inevitable now.

Then again, most Presidents wouldn't think of trying to reduce the budget deficit by pretending that the Treasury bonds in the Social Security Trust Fund don't count as debt. Both via Atrios.

Posting will probably be lighter for the rest of the week...

So how do we stand on the balance of interests between big business and the little guy? A couple of case studies.

Let's start with General Motors. A few months ago, they discovered that the suspension system of the 2004 Saturn Vue collapsed during rollover testing. They quickly promised to recall and fix all the affected cars. Which they will, if the owner knows enough to ask for the fix. If the owner's don't know, the policy is apparently that what they don't know won't hurt GM:

G.M. has continued to sell 2004 models of the Vue from its dealer lots -probably more than 10,000 in the last three months. Most of the S.U.V.'s were not fixed before they were sold. To date, G.M. has fixed only a few thousand of the quarter-million existing Vue models because it takes time to procure new suspension parts for so many vehicles. ...

The government has permitted G.M. to continue selling Vues before they are fixed because it has determined that the highly unusual failure during its new rollover test does not constitute a safety defect.

So it's not a defect, but GM is fixing it anyway. Gosh, the government wouldn't lie about something like this, would they?

From there, we move to China, where WalMart has apparently agreed to allow unions into its stores. This may come as a surprise to people who know of WalMart's strong anti-union record here at home. At long last, do the Chinese work harder at protecting their workers than we do in the U.S.?

Branches of the Chinese union are usually toothless management-controlled bodies that work mostly to prevent conflict.

Now that's the kind of union even Wal-Mart can love.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

A village in Iraq, where the residents are hostile to the government. Attack with banned chemical weapons. Bodies rotting in the streets. Mass graves.

Saddam Hussein. And now, us.

If you're curious, our chemical weapon of choice is White Phosphorus. Report corroborated here...

More: A commenter writes that white phosphorus is not a poison gas, and is a chemical weapon only to the extent that like anything else, it's made of chemicals. Fair enough. Incendiaries like White Phosphorus (and the new, improved napalm that we've also admitted to using) have been widely criticized as inhumane, and indiscriminately kill anyone even close to the impact point. As with poison gases, it's difficult to imagine using them without inflicting horrible death on innocent bystanders, particularly in an urban environment. Both incendiaries and poison gases are banned by international treaty. But the US has not signed on to the treaty that bans the incendiaries. So, to that extent, there certainly is a distinction...

(... BTW, the comment seems to be gone now. I'm not quite sure how that happened; it was not my intent...)

The New York Times notes that when the budget deficit is approaching the size of the entire non-defense discretionary federal budget, mere penny-pinching won't exactly cut it:

Clamping down on domestic spending won't tame the deficit, but it will harm exactly the kinds of government services Americans support and count on. A backlash will eventually come, either from dissatisfied citizens who care about responsive government or from financial markets that care about fiscal sanity. Or both.

Well, they're half right. The half about harming government services, that is. The rest requires that swing voters -- the ones who aren't already essentially committed to one party or another -- connect the government services that they support and count on with, well, the government. Unfortunately, this much blogged report on what it's like to talk to swing voters suggests that we can't take that for granted:

The worse things got in Iraq, the better things got for Bush. Liberal commentators, and even many conservative ones, assumed, not unreasonably, that the awful situation in Iraq would prove to be the president's undoing. But I found that the very severity and intractability of the Iraq disaster helped Bush because it induced a kind of fatalism about the possibility of progress. Time after time, undecided voters would agree vociferously with every single critique I offered of Bush's Iraq policy, but conclude that it really didn't matter who was elected, since neither candidate would have any chance of making things better. Yeah, but what's Kerry gonna do? voters would ask me, and when I told them Kerry would bring in allies they would wave their hands and smile with condescension, as if that answer was impossibly nave. C'mon, they'd say, you don't really think that's going to work, do you?

To be sure, maybe they simply thought Kerry's promise to bring in allies was a lame idea--after all, many well-informed observers did. But I became convinced that there was something else at play here, because undecided voters extended the same logic to other seemingly intractable problems, like the deficit or health care. On these issues, too, undecideds recognized the severity of the situation--but precisely because they understood the severity, they were inclined to be skeptical of Kerry's ability to fix things. Undecided voters, as everyone knows, have a deep skepticism about the ability of politicians to keep their promises and solve problems. So the staggering incompetence and irresponsibility of the Bush administration and the demonstrably poor state of world affairs seemed to serve not as indictments of Bush in particular, but rather of politicians in general. Kerry, by mere dint of being on the ballot, was somehow tainted by Bush's failures as badly as Bush was.

As a result, undecideds seemed oddly unwilling to hold the president accountable for his previous actions, focusing instead on the practical issue of who would have a better chance of success in the future. Because undecideds seemed uninterested in assessing responsibility for the past, Bush suffered no penalty for having made things so bad; and because undecideds were focused on, but cynical about, the future, the worse things appeared, the less inclined they were to believe that problems could be fixed--thereby nullifying the backbone of Kerry's case.

In fact, talk of political "issues" was a bit of a mystery to them:

More often than not, when I asked undecided voters what issues they would pay attention to as they made up their minds I was met with a blank stare, as if I'd just asked them to name their favorite prime number.

The upshot:

In this context, Bush's victory, particularly on the strength of those voters who listed "values" as their number one issue, makes perfect sense. Kerry ran a campaign that was about politics: He parsed the world into political categories and offered political solutions. Bush did this too, but it wasn't the main thrust of his campaign. Instead, the president ran on broad themes, like "character" and "morals." Everyone feels an immediate and intuitive expertise on morals and values--we all know what's right and wrong. But how can undecided voters evaluate a candidate on issues if they don't even grasp what issues are?

Faced with this darkness, Oliver Willis is lighting a candle. But it'll take a lot more of those to save an insular Democratic establishment which insists on rejecting outside advice...