Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Just Because You're Paranoid...

So most of the reason that Iran's president (and the clerics who actually run the country) are so insistent on defying the world and developing nukes is that they're paranoid and smugly convinced of their own righteousness. They tend to talk about America as the imperialist Great Satan for the same reason.

Even so, I can still sort of understand their concern. The Pres. & VP still intermittently saber-rattle about Iran, which can't help, but the current physical, military realities can't have escaped the Iranian leadership's attention. Specifically, the two countries that share Iran's most important borders--Iraq and Afghanistan--are under US-led occupation. Nearby Saudi Arabia is home to US military bases, and bordering Pakistan gets a lot of military support from the US. We have them surrounded.

Under those circumstances, I'd be pretty skeptical of America's intentions also. But then I know that we're not a bunch of gun-happy idiots bent on a disastrous occupation of a nation WAY BETTER equipped to fight our army and then, even if it were to lose, positioned to conduct a generations-long insurgency.

We're not, right?

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

War and (on?) the Constitution

I'm going to risk exile from bloggerdom by admitting that there are some important things I don't know. But I don't, and I'd like to know. So, here are some questions:

1) When the Congress passed legislation authorizing the Iraq invasion, it wasn't a formal declaration of war, was it? As I recollect, it was an authorization to use force but not yet a declaration of war.

2) How open-ended was that initial authorization--did it authorize an indefinite occupation of Iraq or just the removal of Hussein from power?

3) We all call it the Iraq "War," but, like the Vietnam "War," it's a war in fact but not in law--we're only constitutionally at war when the Congress declares that we are. Given that fact, is the President right when he says, "I'm the decision-maker"? That is, if the Congress hasn't actually declared war, does the President have the right to send troops where he wants when he wants? Isn't it still Congress's decision at this point?

This has been bothering me a lot lately. As anybody who slogs through Mike's and my posts on the war knows, we've long had our doubts about its wisdom. More so now than ever, I see it as a waste of lives, money, energy, and credibility. But beyond that, I'm really uncomfortable with the fact that it now seems accepted by the American people and their legislators that the President (whoever it may be) can send troops into conflict entirely at his or her discretion. The framers of the Constitution gave the Congress--and only the Congress--the right to declare war, and they did it for a reason.

The President, yes, is commander-in-chief, and that's excellent. Keeping the military under civilian control in that way makes it harder for generals to seize control of the government.

But the same philosophy of checks and balances that works against tyranny by giving ultimate military power to a civilian is also built into Congress's power to declare war. As I understand the Constitution, the President can tell the military how to conduct itself, but the President cannot single-handedly take the nation to war. He or she needs backing of the Congress (in theory, the people's representatives) to start a war. And that makes sense to me--if you can't get a majority of elected officials to decide that the country is under attack, then the country probably shouldn't be at war.

I'm not a Constitutional scholar, and I could very well be overlooking some legal precedent that makes the Iraq (Non)War a legal. But it doesn't make logical sense to me that the power to declare war is the same as the power to declare February 7, 2007 to be "Jane Doe Day" in commemoration of her heroic saving of Fluffy from that very tall tree. The declaration of war isn't ceremonial; it's quite literally a call to arms. It shouldn't be possible to devote our resources and lives to organized violence without a declaration. According to the Constitution, the decision that war is necessary should ultimately be the Congress's, just as the decision as to how to conduct a war once it's declared should ultimately be the President's. But that's not how it is now. And that's a problem, a huge one.

Now, obviously, if you're fighting international terrorism or even drug cartels, then sometimes the President will need to authorize small-scale attacks without waiting for a formal declaration of war. But the difference between inserting an eight-man SEAL team into an al-Qaeda training camp is of a vastly different magnitude than sending 150,000 soldiers and hundreds of billions of dollars to Iraq. The Iraqi conflict is exactly what the framers understood by war, and the fact that Congress has never declared that war unnerves me. It should unnerve you too.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

The surge is actually NOT a troop increase

I haven't fact-checked this, but a source who should know pointed this out to me about Bush's troop surge -- this actually just brings the US force level back up to the point (after some drawdowns over the years) that they were at when Iraq descended into chaos in the first place. So, he's not really sending more troops, but is rather, restoring troop levels to a number that was already inadequate to pacify Iraq.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Albuquerque, Jewel of the Caribbean Sea

Tonight at a Trader Joe's in Chicago, I overheard the following exchange between an intensely bearded young checkout clerk and the young woman he was trying to impress:

BEARD BOY: Global warming is totally disrupting the planet, you know. I mean, like, they tracked this storm from, you know, the South Pole all the way up to Albuquerque, and so there was this big snowstorm, like yesterday, in Albuquerque that totally covered the city in snow. And it's like 19 degrees there, you know? In Albuquerque.

CUSTOMER: How cold is it there usually this time of year?

BEARD BOY: Well... I mean they don't even have heaters in Albuquerque, you know, in the houses. They don't install them. They'll have like a fireplace sometimes, you know, but that's all.

It's weird because until I heard this conversation, I'd remembered everybody above (and most of those below) the poverty line in Albuquerque having central heat in their houses because it was a mile above sea level and got cold in the winter. But that must have just been the gentle, warming breezes drifting off the Caribbean.

(You're from New Mexico? Really? You speak such good English.)

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Monday, January 22, 2007

OMG, Iraq is threatening us!

ABC News says that Al-Qaeda in Iraq was planning to send terrorists to America by getting them student visas.

Funny, Iraq never used to threaten us before.

Also, there didn't used to be such a thing as "Al-Qaeda in Iraq."

But, at least Saddam Hussein is dead. That makes me feel safer.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Big Bill!

New Mexico governor Bill Richardson is running for President! As a guy raised in New Mexico, during the years when Bill was a congressman and then a Clinton-era appointment as Ambassador to the United Nations and as Secretary of Energy, I'm very interested in this.

My quite positive thoughts:

Bill knows foreign policy and energy policy. Where those two thingsn intersect defines what I'd call "The issue of the day."

He did a lot to raise New Mexico out of obscurity by courting Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Everytime I go back home I observe that the state is "growing up," and that's largely due to him.

My quick negative thoughts:

I've always been annoyed by how he opposed WIPP (a nuclear waste dump in southern New Mexico) when he was a congressman but then opened it as Secretary of Energy. When Richardson took his cabinet post he helped make New Mexico into a dump for the waste of eastern states that use nuclear power, and he did it over the opinions of most New Mexico residents.

Also, Wen Ho Lee. Yes, Janet Reno prosecuted the guy, but Richardson was the Secretary of Energy when this legal immmigrant from China was working at Los Alamos and was falsely accused of spying on behalf of the Chinese government.

My quick conclusion:

He's qualified. He has his blemishes, though. He probably can't raise enough money for a lasting national campaign. But... Vice president? A great choice. In that role, his positives will outweight his negatives and he can win. I kind of think he's really running for veep anyway.

McCain Must Not Be President

A big part of the 2008 election, unless John McCain craters and doesn't win the Republican primary, will be about bloggers taking special note of how McCain does not live up to his "straight talk" image and is instead just an example of a garden variety Republican liar.

Saw him on Meet the Press this morning and here are a few of his lies:

First, he said that Lieberman's victory in Connecticut is proof that the American people are not really against the Iraq war, despite what the polls say. This is ridiculous on its face. For one thing, Lieberman was in a local race, not a national one. For another, Lieberman campaigned by saying that nobody wanted to bring the troops home more than he did. These days, Lieberman supports an increase in troop levels. But back during the campaign, Lieberman said we'd be withdrawing troops by now.

Also, Lieberman ran a campaign that basically said "Okay, we disagree about Iraq, but I'm still a good senator and my opponent only has one issue." So, Lieberman asked his supporters to look past his Iraq stance. Yes, Lieberman won. But any rational observer would say that he won in spite of Iraq, not because of it.

McCain then said that any Democrats supporting bills that would prevent the troop increase are participating in a "vote of no confidence," in the American military. Nothing could be further from the truth. It would be a vote of no confidence in the President. But the Democratic argument is not that our military messed up Iraq, it's that out President sent the military into an unwinnable war. By framing the argument the way he did, McCain is basically stooping to the level of spin that he's respected for supposedly loathing. He doesn't loathe spin, though. He's really the worst of spinmeisters -- he's a man who will spin you while convincing you that he'd never even try to do so.

Also, he said quite bluntly, in case anyone wants to keep calling him a "centrist," that he is "A conservative Republican." Was the most honest thing he said this morning.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

White House Pansies Dinner

So after Stephen Colbert's ballsy and hilarious skewering of President Bush and the White House Press corps last year, who did the organizers of the White House Press Correspondents Dinner select to carry on the tradition of edgy and honest comedy?

Rich Little.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Death Counts-Iraq, America

The UN Assistance Mission to Iraq just released estimated casualty counts for 2006. It says that 34,452 Iraqis died violently in 2006 and slightly more than that were injured by violence.

The Iraqi government disputes the numbers and says that only 12,357 died.

I'm betting that the UN's number is a lot closer. The Iraqi government is apparently taking its figures from published news reports, while the UN is getting them from Iraqi hospitals and the Iraqi Ministry of Health. More bodies will make it into the hospital than into newspaper stories (Iraq Body count, which also operates on published news reports, says as much on its website).

In perspective: the US has just over 11 times as many inhabitants as Iraq, so the violence Iraqis endured last year was the equivalent of 138,398 to 385,862 Americans getting killed. The most recent FBI stats on the US murder rate say that 17,000 Americans were murdered in 2005. So, per capita, 8 to 23 times as many Iraqis died as Americans last year.

Of course, the good news is that you if add the Americans killed in Iraq to the US murder rate, that ratio goes down a little.

Just in case you're feeling good to be an American, make sure you check your race and gender. Unsurprisingly, it's good to be white. Perhaps surprisingly, it's good to be a woman. While the average American violent death rate is about 6 per 100,000, that average combines very different subtotals. Consider these selected murder rates per 100,000:
All men: 7.8
All women: 2.0
White women: 1.8
Black women: 6.0
All black: 19.8
All white: 3.2
White men: 7.8
Black men: 33.5
The Iraqi violent death rate is between 46 (UN) to 128 (Iraqi govt.) per 100,000. So white Americans in general are 14 to 40 times less likely to be killed than the average Iraqi. Black Americans in general are 2.3 to 6.5 times less likely. Black men are 1.3 to 3.8 times less likely. And given the strong correlation between low income and violent death, poor and working-class Americans of all races are at an even higher risk of violent death. So if the Iraqi government's figures are right (unlikely), poor black men in America are at least as likely to die violently as the average Iraqi.

(The bad news about the earlier good news about adding the death toll of American soldiers to the domestic murder rate is that, since black men make up a disproportionately high percentage of the armed services, doing so would also raise the murder rate of American black men.)

Of course, the nature of the violence in Iraq almost certainly means that significantly more Iraqi men are dying than Iraqi women, so the above comparisons aren't quite oranges to oranges. But even if it's apples to oranges, it's apples nobody can like. Imagine if instead of sending soldiers and reconstruction money to invade and occupy Iraq, we'd sent teachers and reconstruction money to stabilize and revive poor parts of America. Or, if you're easily depressed, don't.

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Unmarried America

The deep intake of breath you hear across America is the sound of millions of professional and amateur "family values" crusaders preparing to bellow about the doom of the American family and therefore of America.

That breathing in and bellowing forth is, of course, incessant in this country, but it's likely to get a little louder in the next few days because the US Census Bureau has just announced that for the first time in history, more American women are living without spouses than with them. In the 1950s, about 35% of American women were unmarried; today, it's 51%. Presumed causes for the shift include getting married later, living together without marriage, getting and remaining divorced, and living longer after being widowed.

Two deeply related points occur to me. One: why is the news story that more American women are living unmarried than married? Sure, if living after the death of one's spouse is one of the primary causes, then the fact that women live a few years longer than men might add a percentage point or two, but the fact that about half of American women are unmarried must also mean that about half of American men are unmarried, no? I mean, unless it turns out that only 35% of American men are unmarried because another 15% are marrying mail-order brides. Or other men. And surely either of those would be a bigger story. Seems to me that going with "more than half of American women are unmarried" as your story buys into and reinforces the assumption that women are supposed to be married (and popping out children sanctified by wedlock) and that it's problematic if they aren't. Whereas men, you know, they're just savanna-roaming hunters who were never meant to be tied down to just one dame.

Point number two: With the decrease in percentage of married couples (damn those cigarette-smoking, hair-bobbing, good-timing hussies and their jazzified music!), we're going to hear a lot about the "decline of an American institution" and the "decay of American culture," but I want to point out that the decline of an American institution often is part of an advance in American culture. Marriage in America and pretty much the entire world has been a fundamental and powerful mechanism of social order. But so were slavery, segregation, and male-only suffrage. The power of those institutions to order life in this country now seem remote (to many), but those institutions were once as crucial and "natural" to Americans as hetero marriage was fifty years ago and still is for many today.

Am I saying that marriage is as bad as slavery, segregation, or male supremacist voting policies? Depends what we mean by marriage. If we mean by marriage a holy sacrament in which people pledge their binding commitment to one another as part of their ongoing pledge of commitment to a god or gods, then it depends on what god or gods we're talking about. Some gods are assholes; some aren't. Marriage in the eyes of an asshole god probably is just as bad for the people involved as segregation. If, on the other hand, we mean by marriage a pledge of fidelity and mutual support based on love and a sense of one another as equals, then no, that's not a problem.

And if we mean marriage as an institution in which the man as head of the family is ultimately (supposed to be) in control of all important decisions and the woman is (supposed to be) lovely ivy clinging to his sturdy oak, then, yes, that's a friggin' nightmare as bad as slavery or segregation and--obviously--part and parcel of male supremacism. Like institutionalized racism in its various forms, male supremacist marriage (still the covert or overt model of so many family-valuing bellowers) sets a big chunk of the population up for a lifelong screwing because it will never permit those people full equality, respect, and autonomy. The ivy-oak marriage model also sets up men for a more subtle form of screwing--they have to spend a lifetime pretending to know more than they do, never being able to express doubt, and always having to be the one to support the family even if they hate their miserable, miserable jobs and would love nothing more than a month away from them to look for something less soul-crushing.

And marriage today has more ivy-oak built into it than we perhaps want to admit. Western religious models (the pre-governmental source of marriage) almost universally presume women's inferiority. And state-sanctioned marriage only makes sense if the whole point of marriage is to ensure that most women ultimately spend most of their life "cared for" rather than working outside the home. But if women can work paid jobs while married, they don't need the dubious protection of state-sanctioned marriage because the aren't dependent on their husbands for their economic survival. And as women begin to make a dollar for every dollar their equally qualified male counterparts do (they're up to seventy-five cents on the dollar), they'll be less and less incentive for them to marry for any reason but love and compatibility. That sounds good to me--especially because it means that hetero married men will be freer to choose careers that they value rather than those that pay well.

But marriage isn't for the married! (says the bellowing). It's for the children, who need food, shelter, and attention. Ah, the children. Yes, they do need all those things. But, as I've argued at length on this blog ("Polly Wants a Parent"), mommy and daddy don't have to be married for a kid to thrive. They don't even have to be mommy and daddy. As long as mommy and daddy or mommy and mommy or daddy, daddy, and mommy are involved and responsible, the children will turn out just fine. And soon enough those children will be grown-ups--for far longer than they were children--and they'll live in a world more likely to allow them equality and the pursuit of happiness.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Our Baby Nation

Our leaders need to stop pretending that America is an imperiled child, and we need to stop encouraging them to maintain the pretense.

Every time some moralist with his multilayered undies in a bunch takes a microphone in hand and speaks with an angry, worried tremor in his voice about "the children," he's usually trying to stop adults from doing something that adults have every legal or philosophical right to do. ("You can't get drunk and have anal sex in your apartments! Think of the children!" "You can't listen to naughty words on network TV--think about the children!")

Every time some politician with a gleam in her eye and an anthem in her heart tells us that she's going to fix things in painless ways that would never affect, much less fix, the problem, she's treating us like scared children--promising that mommy and daddy will never let anything bad happen to us. ("Senator Mommy will make labor costs more expensive in India by holding a prayer breakfast." "Senator Daddy will put an end to Ahmadinejad's desire to get nukes by quoting from the wartime speeches of Dwight Eisenhower.")

This has been going on for decades. I'm writing about it now in part because I've been thinking about Gerald Ford and in part because I've been listening to Bush & Co's justifications for his latest plans to squander American lives and health care funds in Iraq. I'm with Mike, who posted (in a much more timely fashion) his disagreement with Gerald Ford's decision "to heal the nation" by pardoning Richard Nixon. I actually think Ford was a good guy, an honest guy, and not a bad President. I understand why he pardoned Nixon. But I think he was infantilizing us by doing so.

To imagine that putting Nixon on trial for his acknowledged and indisputable crimes would have "torn the nation apart" was the height of paternalist condescension. For one thing, like most nations, the American nation is incredibly resilient. It has survived far worse. More importantly, the point isn't just survival. It's self-improvement. What realities, even what traumas, a nation allows itself to acknowledge and explicitly experience determine whether it improves or declines. If in 1781 (or 1860, for that matter), America could have experienced slavery not as an economic resource or as a noxious source of noxious black people but rather as a longstanding campaign of kidnapping, brutalization, exploitation, and murder, America today would be much better at--or at least much closer to--justice. Not just racial justice but also gender justice and economic justice. The same would have been true of an America that allowed itself to see Native Americans as human beings whose dignity deserved acknowledgement and whose lands demanded respect. Ford and his advisers deciding that America couldn't handle the trial of bringing to justice a criminal who had used Oval Office resources to coordinate burglary and extortion was acting like a fretting parent who decided to tell little Susie that Uncle Richard had moved to Canada rather than to the state pen.

Bush's plan to send a surge of troops to Iraq may or may not have military justification. Depends which general you ask, apparently. (And whether you ask then on or off the record.) But he's not really stressing that justification when he talks to us. He's stressing feelings. We have to feel resolved so that the Iranians won't feel emboldened so that we can feel safe. But geopolitics in general and war in particular don't run on feelings. It runs on resources, organization, and information. Bush wants our enemies to feel bad and for us to feel good. And that's lovely. But one of the qualifications for being a grown-up is that you at least try to have your feelings about the world in response to, well, the world. It's good to want to take pride in the beautiful condition of your new house; it's not so good to take pride in the beautiful condition of your new house if it doesn't have a roof and it's monsoon season.

To tell us that we should never feel bad about anything isn't just a way for the people in charge to escape feeling bad about how badly they've screwed up. It's also a way for us to never hold them accountable for their screw-ups. Worse, if we don't feel bad, we don't fix things that need fixing. And there is nothing worse for democracy than a permanently infantilized citizenry more concerned with feeling good than with fixing problems.

As an illustrative aside, if you've watched 24 this season or last [spoiler alert for last season], you may have noticed that the assumption that America is a big, fragile baby has been driving the show. "We can't let the full extent of this government conspiracy get out--it would destroy the nation." "We can't let these suicide bombings continue because they'll destroy the nation." I mean, c'mon, this in a nation where maybe 30% of the eligible populace votes in most elections because most Americans are too lazy, too jaded (read, too lazy), or too despairing to go to the polls. Finding out that the President was a huge frigging crook (in 24 or in real life) and watching him tried for his crimes wasn't likely to have torn the nation apart. And getting bombed on 9/11 didn't tear the country apart. If anything, it unified the country. Now, that unity turned out to be pathological because it allowed the government to turn our outrage and desire for vengeance into a pretext to invade Iraq for no good reason, a situation which now puts that same paternalist government in a position to worry about what happens to our fragile infant feelings if we admit that Iraq may be too big a mess for us to fix. But it was unity nonetheless. Don't get me wrong, 24 is still a lot of fun, but I don't think it's coincidental that over the past six years the show has gone from its pre-9/11 relatively adult, relatively logical attachment to physical and political realities to its current fantasyscape in which federal counter-terrorism agencies have as their primary jobs not so much saving American lives as protecting Americans' fragile little baby feelings.

It may that as a nation that we have fragile little baby feelings. But that's a problem that needs fixing, not a sacred trust that needs protecting.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Lose What, Exactly?

Watched the morning chat shows and there was a lot of talk, especially from Joe Lieberman (Connecticut for Lieberman - CT) about how our only choices in Iraq are victory or defeat and how losing this war is unthinkable.

So, I've been thinking about what it would mean if we just retreated. I don't mean what it would mean for Iraq bvecause I do think we'd leave a bloodbath behind, but what would it mean for the US and its place in the world?

Not much. We wouldn't have lost to Saddam Hussein, of course. He's dead. We won't have lost to Al-Qaeda because it's not a war against Al-Qaeda, we're caught in the crossfires of a sectarian civil war that has little to do with Al-Qaeda. The war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban is in Afghanistan. We did a good job on that one. Were we not distracted by Iraq, we could be doing an even better job (maybe we could have caught Osama by now).

I suppose that countries like North Korea and Iran might think we don't have staying power and they might continue to pursue their nuclear weapons programs in the face of American weakness. But, it seems just as easy to argue that the fact that we invaded Iraq caused both of those countries to accelerate their nuclear efforts as a deterrent.

I suppose some will worry about a repeat of the post Viet Nam effect where a war weary American public was generally unwilling to support grand foreign adventures. But, given all the meddling we did in Central and South America during and after Viet Nam and that we also pursued a pretty hard line stance against the Soviet Union, I don't get why that would be such a bad thing. The US was still able to pursue its international interests after Viet Nam. If leaving Iraq just means it's going to be two decades before we invade another country and get involved in a civil war, then that in itself seems like a great reason to leave Iraq.

What's really interesting is that the current polls seem to show that the American people are not overly concerned about whether or not we "lose" in Iraq. It would hardly be a stinging loss (we couldn't pacify the country once it erupted into civil war, but who could?) and it's not even a war that we had to fight in the first place.

What this is really all about are the legacies of Bush and his Senate allies like Joe Lieberman who got us into this war in the first place. But their legacies will be tarnished by this grand mistake no matter what they do. It's time for them to face that.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The National Review Proves Everyone Should Be Executed

Under the title "A Thought Experiment," ( Cliff May argues that Saddam had to be executed lest his supporters take over an elementary school and threaten to kill everyone inside unless the dictator is freed.

Well... okay... But we also need to execute everyone, then. I mean, what if terrorists take over an elementary school and demand that Celine Dion not get another recording deal?